Aviation: the green stuff – coming soon to an airfield near you

Solar Impulse recently completed the first ever circumnavigation using a solar powered aircraft. So it might be an appropriate time to review the options as regards alternative fuelled aircraft.


Figure 1: Solar Impulse 2 completes its final landing

A long standing assumption of many has been that given the very high rates of energy consumption by aircraft and the heavy dependency of aviation on fossil fuels, once oil supplies peaked (or we were forced to curb consumption to fight climate change) this would mean the end of commercial aviation as we know it. No more cheap flights, no more holidays in the sun, the world would suddenly become a much larger place. However its possible that this may not be the case. The technology of Solar Impulse 2 hints at a range of possible solutions that are either in the works or already exist.

The eternal plane

Firstly the concept behind Solar Impulse is not new. Electric powered aircraft have been around since the 1970’s and as early as 1979 the first ever solar powered aircraft had taken flight, the Gossamer Penguin, developed by pioneering aerospace engineer Paul MacCready.


Figure 2: Gossamer Penguin

In the 1990’s NASA developed first the Pathfinder and later the Helios aircraft. These were large solar powered UAV’s designed to stay aloft more or less indefinitely, a so called “eternal plane”, which could loiter for extended periods (potentially days at a time), performing various tasks (such as reconnaissance communications or weather/earth observation), a sort of poor man’s satellite. Due to the limitations on battery technology at the time they used fuel cells and hydrogen tanks to store energy overnight. While the project was successful at a technical level (save one crash, not an unusual occurrence with any prototype aircraft), it became a victim of funding cuts being brought in by then President Bush (lets face it anything “solar” was pretty much doomed with him in charge).


Figure 3: NASA’s Helios UAV in flight [Source: NASA 2001]

Even so, the concepts developed by the Helios/Pathfinder program have found their way into other projects, Solar Impulse is merely one of them. Airbus and Qinteq for example are trying to develop a solar powered UAV similar to Helios, while Google are trying to develop their own “eternal aircraftin the form of a balloon. And much as various challenges and competitions within the automotive industry have driven onwards development of electric cars, so too is this true for alternatively powered aircraft.

Certainly as far as day to day aviation goes, a aircraft that crawls along at 60 knots and has a wing span larger than a football field, its not exactly a practical plane. However, there are proposals to take the technology behind these aircraft forward. For example, there are proposals for a whole series of electric aircraft that would be at least partially powered (or could be recharged while sitting on the apron) by solar energy.


Figure 4: Solar powered aircraft concept [Source: Jason Ruhr, Solar flight, 2015]

Electric aircraft

Any solar aircraft is of course an electric aircraft, the question is merely do we charge its batteries in the air off the sun or on the ground off the grid.

In some respects an electric powertrain offers several advantages over a fossil fuel based powertrain for aircraft, much as it does with vehicles. Electric motors are much more energy efficient, deliver high levels of torque and they generally don’t need a complex cooling system (certain battery or fuel cell systems can require cooling thought). They are also less prone to many of the technical issues that can be devil conventional aircraft, e.g. engines cutting out due to aircraft inversion, compressor stall, or high g manoeuvres. Also as an electric motor doesn’t need oxygen to operate, the service ceiling can be higher (of course there are many other factors that limit the service ceiling of an aircraft).

Noise issues can also potentially be reduced, an important factor, given how aircraft noise is a major issue at many airports. Another consideration is that by relocating the power plant of the aircraft (i.e. we are no longer limited to a set of big turbines or prop’s, we could have several sets of smaller motors instead), we can do things with our electric powertrain that you can’t do with a conventional aircraft. Things like VTOL can potentially become simpler to implement (that said, all VTOL aircraft pay a “premium” in that provisions for VTOL tend to come at the expense of increased fuel consumption in level flight).


Figure 5: The GL-10 prototype, an electric powered tiltrotor [Source: NASA/David C. Bowman, 2015]

The main disadvantage is of course where do we get the power from? And generally that means batteries (we’ll talk about fuel cells and hydrogen a bit later). As with electric cars, we face the dilemma that to give the aircraft a decent range, we need to add more and more batteries. But this makes the aircraft heavier and thus its energy consumption increases, meaning it needs yet more batteries. In other words, there might be range issues.

However, it should be noted that in much the same way that the bulk of car journey’s are relatively short and well within the range of electric cars, the same is true for aviation. The vast bulk of flights are either short haul or are the sort of trans-continental flights that could be broken down into short sections. So while it is probably true to argue that electric planes cannot offer a like for like replacement with aviation fuel, there’s still a large number of roles that they can perform.

Already a number of electric planes are entering the market. Most of these early entrants are short range light aircraft intended for use as trainers, or for general aviation use. For light aircraft the benefits of an electric power train offer a significant advantage, while the main downside (range) is less of an issue, as trainers rarely stray particularly far from their home airfield. There is something of a price premium to be paid, as they are slightly more expensive than a similar piston powered aircraft. But the fuel efficiency savings (the major cost of ownership of any plane tends to be fuel) would presumably reduce the burden of those costs.


And some companies see these light aircraft as a natural stepping stone towards larger aircraft flying perhaps commercial flights with fare paying passengers and cargo.

One concept for example, is the Ce-Liner. This will use ducted fan electric motors powered by Li-Ion batteries. Should you be wondering how long does it take to recharge all those batteries (and how many coffee’s does the pilot need to drink while he waits), well the batteries are mounted on standard cargo pallets, the same ones used to carry air-freight and luggage in. This means the amount of batteries the aircraft carries can be lowered as necessary (freeing up space for more cargo), improving fuel economy on shorter flights.


But, how long would it take to load all of those extra cargo pallets? Well a study conducted by Schmit et al (2016) showed that it would only take marginally longer (or around about the same time), to load up and service an electric plane like the Ce-liner compared to a conventional aircraft. However, crucially in this situation loading of passengers ceases to be part of the critical path. Nine times out of ten, a flight delay is due to a “technical issue” with “self loading cargo”. We’ve probably all had that experience, some guy starts queuing to board twenty minutes before the gate is called, then stands in the middle of the aisle with everyone behind him, forced too wait while he sorts through his luggage, takes off his coat, flosses his teeth, etc. while the stewardess starts to turn blue with rage.

I think most airlines would take an extra few minutes on the stand as a small price to pay for a lower fuel bill and a greater certainty of the aircraft leaving on time.

Hybrid aircraft

Others look to a slightly less radical approach of hybrid engines. Much like how hybrid cars operate, a hybrid plane would use a mix of electric motors (powering the aircraft along) with a fossil fuel powered APU and batteries powering everything. Alternatively, Boeing has proposed the Sugar Volt concept, which will use hybrid engines that will use fuel during take off and then switch to electrical power during cruise. While these planes will still be dependant on fossil fuels, the concept does offer significant fuel savings and the range issues mentioned earlier are resolved. And again recall that the one thing above all else airlines are usually trying to do is cut fuel costs.


Figure 8: Boeing’s Sugar volt concept hybrid aircraft

Also longer term, we could see these hybrid aircraft, switch from aviation fuels to either biofuels or hydrogen. And its worth noting that biofuelled planes are not a new thing. Virgin Atlantic has already flown commercial passenger flights using biofuels to power a conventional 747 (back in 2008). So the only real limiting factor her relates to fuel supplies, rather than any technical barrier within the plane.

Hydrogen powered aircraft

Hydrogen planes fall into two flavours, the first time use fuel cells in place of batteries, but are otherwise electric planes. The second replace jet fuel with hydrogen fuel, but run on “conventional” engines (anything from gas turbines to rocket motors, basically you burn stuff and it goes out the back of the plane very fast!).

As noted earlier, fuel cell aircraft have been developed and tested. Boeing’s Phantom Works for example has developed a small light aircraft (trainer type) powered by a fuel cell. This was used as a development step towards a much larger aircraft, the Phantom Eye, a long range hydrogen powered drone with the capability for several days endurance, intended for various covert and military applications.


Figure 9: Boeing’s Phantom Eye UAV drone [Source: Boeing Inc.]

Hydrogen as a combustion fuel in aircraft is nothing new. Back in the 50’s, Locheed’s Skunk works developed the CL-400 Suntan aircraft as a high speed, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. The Russians experimented with a hydrogen powered airliner, the TU-155, back in the late 1980’s. And the idea has not died a death, Reaction Engines, a group of researchers working on a variety of hydrogen powered aircraft (including an SSTO concept called Skylon) have proposed the LAPCAT A2, a Mach 5 airliner powered by hydrogen.


Figure 10: Reaction Engines Lapcat A2 proposal [Source: Reaction Engines]

Hydrogen offers several advantages over conventional aviation fuel, its got a much higher calorific value and delivers twice the specific impulse, allowing aircraft to fly higher and faster. So why don’t we use it? Well there’s the small matter of getting the hydrogen onto the plane. Up until now the focus has been on using cryogenically cooled liquid hydrogen, which comes with a series of problems and practicalities (boil off being a problem as well as tankage).

A number of solutions are proposed to solve this. Developments related to the automotive FCEV means that lightweight carbon fibre reinforced tanks, capable of operating pressures as high as 700 bar, are now available. The Wh/kg ratio for hydrogen at these pressures is higher that it is for gasoline, even when we account for the weight of the tank itself. That said, there’s still something of a weight premium to be paid (even when empty they still add weight), which would impact on range and cargo in the case of shorter flights. Given that such tanks would have to be mounted in the fuselage (rather than wing tanks), this would take away from the aircraft’s internal cargo volume.


Figure 11: Cella Energy’s “solid” hydrogen storage concept [Source: Cella energy, 2015]

Another concept is to use hydrogen stored in solid form. A company called Cella Energy is working on the idea of hydrogen stored in the form of solid oxide pellets that absorb hydrogen like a sponge. When heated, they release the hydrogen, with the pellets then returned for “recharging”. The system is being developed for use both in aviation and in vehicles, with energy densities three times better than Li-ion batteries being claimed. Test flights of small drones powered by hydrogen pellets are already underway and tests with a fuel cell powered car are to follow.

Many options available – but not much time

In summary, there are many ways by which the aviation industry’s fossil fuel addiction can be broken. Many of these could indeed radically transform aviation, allowing for aircraft that will be able to fly faster, with greater fuel economy (some drones capable of staying aloft almost indefinitely) and less noise. Climate change deniers often try to claim that going green means giving up what we have, retreating into the woods and becoming hippies, but this is simply not true. There are alternatives.

But as is so often the case with green technology, its unlikely we’ll be able to develop a like for like replacement for fossil fuels. We’ll likely end up with a range of different aircraft powered by various different technologies. Also, there’s the ticking clock. In short, will we develop the technology quickly enough to allow aviation to adopt a smooth transition away from fossil fuels? If not, then its possible some disruption to air travel becomes a risk. But it is those who stand in the way of change who would be the cause of this disruption, not a lack of ideas.

Posted in aviation, cars, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, flying car, future, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport | 3 Comments

Non Rio news


Brexit guarantee

Reacting to the wide scale dismay over possible funding, the UK government has committed about £6 billion a year to guarantee post-EU funding in areas such as farming and scientific research. But critics argue it doesn’t go far enough. Indeed, I would argue its very worrying as it suggests the government simply does not get the message.

figure-5 The UK receives billions in research funding from the EU

Take research funding. A clause in the government guarantee implies it only applies to research funding contracts signed before the autumn statement comes out. Given that many of those grants went in the bin on the 24th of June it is highly unlikely they could be resurrected between now and then. That’s not how academia works.

2254-14463807862079654283 For UK farmers subsidies are their main source of income

I’ve been quite busy the last week with resit exam marking, I’ve got viva resits…

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The future of work



Many from working class areas of Britain voted for Brexit because they fear their jobs are under threat from migrants. Similarly support for Trump has been growing in parts of the US rust belt. And there’s a major divide, both sides of the Atlantic, when it comes to education. If you have a college degree, you are very unlikely to be a Trump supporter and less likely to have voted leave.



Now it has to be said that the argument that migrants are taking jobs isn’t backed up by the facts. A strong leave vote was seen in the parts of the UK with the lowest number of migrants, while places like London with very high rates of migrant tended to vote for remain. Similarly, major US cities, where migrants tend to concentrated tend not to be the places where there is strong support…

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Hinkley C update – Chaos and TINA


Figure 1: Hinkley C and delays, like peas in a pod!

Well it would appear that Theresa May, for all her faults, is the sort of person who reads the small print of any document before signing it. The UK was on the verge of signing the deal with EDF to proceed with Hinkley C when at the last minute business secretary Clark announced a delay while they “evaluated” the contract (I have this vision of May reading the Hinkley C contract details over breakfast and spitting in her coffee when she realised what a crap sandwich the country was being expected to swallow).

And this decision to push ahead despite Brexit, by EDF (who brought forward the schedule) must have come from orders from the top. Likely Hollande himself, likely hours after he met Theresa May and with her letting slip she had reservations about the project. She had done this before, as a cabinet minster, notably about the Chinese dimension to the project, so some objections from her or her minions is not that surprising. But it naturally spurred the French into action to try and get things signed off before such reservations could be raised to a level that would stop the project.

Consider that for several months now the EDF board has been deadlocked on whether or not to approve Hinkley C. The approval for the project last week only came about due to an 10 to 7 vote by the board, which was only a majority because several executives have resigned over the last few months (in protest against the deal), and at least one more did so immediately afterwards. For those who don’t know, it is unheard of for a company board to approve a contract this critical, a deal that could literally make or break a firm, on the basis of a simple majority. Generally they will aim for a consensus decision with unanimous support from the board (or as near to that as they can get).

After all, if you are one of those 10 who voted for Hinkley C, its now on your head, your future career prospects hinges on this project. When the bad news inevitably starts filtering back of delays and cost overruns (just look at Flamanville, a project half the size of Hinkley), you will be the ones passed over for promotion or pushed forward for sacrifice when a head is called for to appease the critics. Meanwhile the ones who voted against the deal, or resigned, see their stock soar. They get to sit back with a smug “we told you so” grin. They will likely be promoted (or rehired) to fill the “vacancies” that emerge. I won’t be the least bit surprised if one of those who resigned from EDF in protest at Hinkley C is running the firm in a few years time.

So clearly for so many of the EDF board to more or less sacrifice their careers like this, you know the pressure must have been on them to sign quickly before the British pulled out and exposed EDF’s little ponzi scheme.

UK takeover of the project?



Figure 2: LCoE costs for Hinkley C compared to German Renewables [Source: energytransition.de (2015)]

The fact is that Hinkley C represents terrible value for money. The cost to the UK taxpayer for the project is now estimated at £37 billion, and this estimate was made prior to Brexit (so who knows how high it is now). By contrast the estimated construction cost (the cost to EDF) is estimated at £18-24 billion, although you can count on one hand the number of people who thing it will be built for that amount. The total costs of Hinkley C (e.g. construction, subsidy, security, insurance, running costs and decommissioning) may end up being much higher. I’ve seen estimates in excess of £100 billion in the past.


Figure 3: Even Wind power to gas costs on top of CCGT’s might now work out cheaper than the cost of subsidies to Hinkley C [Source: The Ecologist, 2016]

What you consider to be the true cost of Hinkley boils down to who you are, EDF, the taxpayer or the billpayer, noting that if your a UK resident your likely to be the latter two of these. So regardless of what the true figure is (i.e. where the subsidy ends and the bill payers contributions start), suffice to say you’re going to get royally screwed one way or the other. Nothing short of leaving the UK (another argument in favour of Scottish independence perhaps) will stop that.

However from the government’s point of view they are being asked to essentially pay +£37 billion for a +£18 billion plant, which is just crazy. The obvious solution, if the government really does want a nuclear plant at Hinkley, would be to throw the whole strike price contract out, tell the Chinese to beat it and build the plant as a national infrastructure project (subcontracting the French in to build it, with the government directly financing it), with the costs of its construction (whatever they turn out to be) added on to the country’s national debt.

As the government would then own the plant, they would have control over it and they could set the price of the electricity it generates. So they could lower the price (as the French do with their nuclear plants) to sell electricity cheap and undercut fossil fuel plants, meaning bills could be forced down at times of high demand. Or at times of slack demand, they could drive the price up and bring some level of order to the energy market. Alternatively, while the French plan to operate Hinkley to supply base load at a capacity factor as high as they can make it, a state owned plant could be operated at a lower capacity factor and used to provide load following electricity (as the French do) which would make it a more useful component on a future renewables heavy grid.

However, such a plan is unlikely because it would amount to the use of the “S word”. The whole point of this messy merchant of Venice type deal is so that the Tories can pay Chinese and French state owned companies to do the whole “socialism” thing for them, because its against the Tories religion of Thatcherism.

Also such an unprecedented level of state aid is almost certainly illegal and against EU competition rules. And no, Brexit doesn’t change a lot in this regard, not if the UK is still be part of the single market and a member of the WTO. Naturally the renewables industry, smarting from 12,000 job losses to pave the way for Hinkley will point out that for the same price they could install many times more renewables (offshore wind has recently been priced at a value as low as 73 euro’s /MWh v’s Hinkley’s subsidy adjusted price of £164-174/MWh) and have change left over to pay for a large block of energy storage too. Energy efficiency measures also work out much cheaper.


Figure 4: Estimated LOCE’s wind v’s nuclear v’s fossil fuels with CCS

In short, nationalising the project would eliminate much of the smoke and mirrors surrounding that project. But that ignores the fact that the smoke and mirrors are there to stop public or parliamentary scrutiny that would reveal what a crap sandwich the project is.

Alternative suppliers

It is strange when you learn that there are still people, who have been following the Hinkley C mess, yet who still think building more nuclear plants is a good idea. They favour switching to another supplier. However, this amounts to a case of grass is greener on the other side syndrome. We know all of the bad news about the EDF’s proposal already, the other ones only look better because they haven’t been subjected to the same level of scrutiny.


Figure 5: There are delays too to AP1000 construction in China

The US AP 1000 for example, no such reactors exist. Only a handful of these reactors are under construction, and that’s going on in China, so its difficult to point to much in the way of reliable information. And even then it would appear that all of them are behind schedule and probably well over budget. And likely they would be in an even worse position if it weren’t for much corner cutting by the Chinese in an effort to get things back on schedule (The first EPR build in Finland unravelled because the Finns stopped such corner cutting and insisted the plant be built as specified).


Figure 6: BWR’s v’s PWR’s [Source: Tepco, ND]

The Japanese Horizon deal proposes using boiling water reactors. However BWR’s are generally considered to be less safe than PWR’s. Recent designs do have a number of novel safety features which should resolve these concerns, but no new BWR’s have been built since Fukushima (which was a BWR), so its unclear what the costs of those reactors will be in future. Also the Horizon plan is to use an obsolete pre-Fukushima design called the ABWR (Advanced Boiling Water Reactor), specifically an untested upgrade to this design. However the ABWR’s has shown poor reliability with capacity factors ranging from 70% to as low as 46%.

In my opinion, I reckon some of these proposals might work out as somewhat cheaper than Hinkley C (simply because I don’t believe anyone could be as incompetent as EDF have shown themselves to be), but probably more expensive that renewable based alternatives. Also inevitably there will be a delay, were talking about installing untested designs here that have not been fully certified for use in the UK. Getting any of them built before the critical date of 2026 (when the UK will shut down all of its remaining coal plants and several of its nuclear plants hit their end of life date) is extremely unlikely. In essence, we can’t wait.

Fantasy options

Of course the real head cases in the nuclear cheerleaders club will invoke what I consider to be the equivalent of the lords prayer for nuclear supporters – small modular reactors (SMR’s) as an alternative to EPR’s at Hinkley. Its equivalent to me proposing to use invisible pink unicorns running on pixie dust as an alternative source of energy.


Figure 7: SMR’s – Small Modular Reactors

Despite all the talk over the last few decades about them, no commercial SMR’s exist today (save one small non-commercial prototype running in China). All of these designs only exist on paper (i.e. unproven and untested, your guess is as good as mine as to how much they’ll cost or how long they’d take to build), generally being pushed by paper companies (or subsidiaries) whose main product over the last few years has been powerpoint slides and photoshoped images. As I discussed before, if you think EDF are going to shaft you, you’d want to be pretty damn naïve to put any of these guys in charge instead.

Furthermore, SMR’s amount to sacrificing economies of scale. Instead of two reactors at Hinkley your talking of building perhaps 30 reactors scattered in batches all over the country, which is inevitability going to work out as more expensive and take longer to build. This is a view shared by the NNL, who have previously concluded that SMR’s will only ever fulfil niche energy roles. Indeed, my view is that they would be better deployed as a source of industrial heat generation, rather than electricity.

And mass producing them, running them off the production line like sausages (as some fantasise) isn’t as straightforward as is often suggested. It would require a very large run of reactors to be economically viable, likely you’d need an order for thousands if not tens of thousands of them. There is simply no market for that right now. The infrastructure costs would be colossal, far exceeding Hinkley C’s.

Consider that Elon Musk is currently building the world’s largest factory at the cost of several billion just to shave perhaps 30% off the cost of his batteries (i.e. an existing product). Nuclear energy supporters would need to cut the cost of nuclear by at least 50% or more and increase productivity 20 fold to make it a viable proposition. So the amount you’d need to invest in such an enterprise would be enormous, likely hundreds of billions of dollars.

And given how fault intolerant reactors are, very high engineering tolerances with 100% inspection and testing of finished parts would still be needed, as many components would be “reassuringly expensive” (like in the airline business). There would in short be a floor to how cheap you could build them, even with mass production. And my guess is that that floor price will still be higher than future renewable prices (or those batteries from Elon Musk’s giga-factory).

Pi$$ or get off the pot

In short, critical of Hinkley as I am, I’m forced to the conclusion that its a classic case of TINA (There Is No Alternative), at least if you are pro-nuclear. The options for the government are either press ahead, grease yourself up and prepared to spend the next forty years getting shafted by the French and Chinese governments.

Or alternatively not only abandon Hinkley C, but announce a moratorium on any future subsidy of nuclear energy contracts and reverse Osborne’s cuts on renewables. This is really the only way that the UK can meet its obligations under the Paris climate treaty

Of course one must note that there are many in the cabinet who favour abandoning action on climate change and going for a future mix of coal and fracking. My worry is, the longer this dithering Hinkley goes on, the more likely this becomes the likely outcome.

Posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, France, Fukushima, Global warming denial, Japan, nuclear, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable | 1 Comment

News roundup


The 2nd longest suicide note in history


The Republican national convention is currently kicking off and things aren’t off to a great start. The cops are calling for the state’s open carry law to be suspended (after recent police shootings they’ve come to realise that the solution to a bad guy with a gun is and making sure he’s not armed, and not hiding in a crowd of 100 other armed nutters). And with the cult of Trump in town and lots of angry anti-Trump protesters, trouble is all but guaranteed.

Many leading republicans are skipping the convention (and probably with all the guns are very glad to do so!) as they want to stay well away from the train wreck otherwise known as Trump. As a result the roster of speakers at the convention is a little thin, even Trump’s wife and daughter is having to speak, oh and the boss…

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Department of Energy & Climate Change axed


I’ve been warning for quite sometime that a Brexit vote would be a disaster for the environment. By and large there is a strong correlation with voting leave and climate change denial and other anti-scientific beliefs. Of course others, such as Monbiot, say its not so bad (then again he said the same thing about Hinkley C).

Well we now have proof of just why we had every reason to be concerned. The new UK PM Theresa May has axed the entire department of energy & climate change. I mean we are talking Trump level of political vandalism here.

Oh, and this was straight after appointing Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, a gaffe prone liar (according to the French minster) who has managed to insult both Hilary and Trump as well as President Obama and many other world leaders. As the Swedish PM concluded, this is clearly some sort of joke that posh public school boys get but the rest of don’t.

Now we are assured that the aims of the former DECC will instead be split between the department for environment and rural affairs (DEFRA) and a newly enlarged department of Business Energy and Industrial Collapse Strategy. However, this ignores the entire reason why the DECC was created in the first place.

The idea was that climate change is such an important issue that you needed one body to push it up the agenda and set out a strategy for how we would tackle it, as well as handle complex negotiations with other international partners on the matter. Splitting up responsibilities vastly complicates matters and will ultimately slows down the pace of change. Quite apart from the problem of having to separate sets of civil servants implementing essentially two separate plans. Departments such as DEFRA or trade and industry often had a perverse incentive to ignore the issue or not take it seriously, given tackling climate change was often contradictory to some of their other objectives.

Now I will admit, there’s some aspects of how the DECC works I’ve not liked. They seem to be beholden to armchair Oxbridge professors and other pipe smokers in the Royal Society who don’t live in the real world (hence why many of them are rabidly pro-nuclear!) and often tend to ignore simple off the shelf solutions.

For example I once sat through a DECC presentation which preposterously proposed that 70% of the UK’s final energy consumption would be in the form of electricity by 2030. Keep in mind the current figure is closer to 20%, so they were proposing a 3.5 fold increase in electricity production in 2 and a bit decades (well actually more like 4 fold when you account for growth in energy consumption). Think about that, 3-4 times more power stations, transmission lines, etc. And we’re ignoring the fact that the main use of energy in the UK is winter heating (about 36%) and transportation (30%), both of which would involve cycle efficiency losses if powered via electricity. Plus the demand for heat is highly seasonal and would require either massive redundancy or storage to meet the winter peak.


UK’s total final energy consumption broken down into the three critical pathways of heat, electricity and transportation fuels [Source: Sheffield University, 2015]

But all of that said, I’d rather have some sort of strategy than none. And the problem is that this announcement would be just plan bad by itself. But on top of it there’s the fact that in charge of the two departments replacing the DECC are Andrea “Fruitcake” Leadsom and Greg “Mr Fracking” Clark, both known to be pro-fracking. Andrea Loathsome Leadsom also happens to be a bit of a climate skeptic, as well as wanting to allow fox hunting and sell off the UK’s forests. I could say that this amounts to putting the fox in charge of the hen house, but they just shot all the foxes and the chickens too.

So it is now all but a certainty that the UK will miss its current climate change targets. And those targets were interim targets, i.e. nothing to do with the Paris climate change conference. Needless to say the changes of the UK meeting those targets is about the same probability that Boris could make it out of North Korea alive after his inevitable comments about the Kim Jung-un.

Which brings us back to Hinkley C. Now some will say, why is the UK building this thing? Well aside from all the vested interests as well as the Tories warped views on nuclear, it also now becomes the go to smoke screen behind which to hide inaction on climate change….while pressing full steam ahead with fracking. If anyone asks what the government’s doing about climate change, they mumble something about Hinkley C. Its a bit like someone being told by their doctor to lose weight. So they buy an exercise bike. But not only do they never use it, they don’t even bother to pick it up from the store. But if anyone asks, they can legitimately claim to have bought an exercise bike.

Of course arguably, the Tories have never really taken climate change seriously. Its just under Cameron they were a little better at pretending they actually gave a rats arse about it.

If the first day of the Tories post-Brexit Britain is anything to go by, we are in serious trouble. It will therefore probably be crucial that other nations bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on the Uk to bring them back in line. And obviously it serves as yet another argument in favour of Scottish independence. It was once put to me that you need a single energy plan for the whole Island. To which my reply is, not if one half of the Island doesn’t have a plan, other than handing control over to a pair of fox hunting, evangelical fracking fruitcake climate change denier.

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The beast that will not die


Figure 1: Is Hinkley C really Brexit proof?

Often a big news event is the time people try to bury bad news. Here’s a few you might have missed. However another story that some may have missed is that the DECC has raised its estimate for the cost of Hinkley C to be just short of £37 billion. This is more than double their previous estimate. Hinkley C is in fact now on course to become the most expensive object on earth.

It means that the installed kW cost of Hinkley C is now likely to exceed £11,000 per kW against £1,250 for solar. Yes Hinkley is now 9 times more expensive than a similar installed capacity of solar (and yes the capacity factor of solar is lower, but its not going to be 9 times lower!). Hinkley is now almost certainly going to be more expensive than the Severn Barrage, which was estimated would have cost between £10 – 34 billion….yet it would have provided a peak power output of 8-10 GW’s of electricity (i.e. Hinkley is between 8 to 2.5 times more expensive per installed kW). And the official reason for cancelling the Severn barrage was cost. And it is also more expensive than the three Gorges dam (which supplies about 20 GW’s!) and was generally seen as an example of the sort of wasteful government spending we often associate with communist regimes (yes the Chinese communist party is more careful with its money than the UK under the Tories!).


Figure 2: Hinkley C is now more expensive than both the Three Gorges dam and Severn Barrage

In terms of LCOE, its not clear what those costs will now be. Suffice to say, a lot more than the agreed strike price of £92.5/MWh (in 2011 money). Recall EDF were originally looking for closer to £140/MWh and the ICEPT report (Harris et al 2012) estimated a figure closer to £164-174/MWh. Certainly any power from Hinkley is going to be much more expensive than any the other alternatives. Assuming a 2025 start up the estimated costs are £110/MWh for solar, onshore wind at £88/MWh and offshore wind at £100/MWh.


Figure 3: LCoE costs for Hinkley C compared to German Renewables [Source: energytransition.de (2015)]

So clearly the government subsidy (beyond the strike price, which already represents a far more generous subsidy than offered to renewables) is going to have to go up (yes we are now paying a subsidy on top of a subsidy….which now also needs a further subsidy!). And the punch line is they are probably going to pinch the money for that from other renewable energy projects. At this rate they’ll probably be no money left for renewables. What’s the bet they start taxing wind farms (rather than fossil fuel plants) to fund Hinkley? Already the expectation is that the UK will now miss its renewable energy targets as a result of Brexit. I wonder what Monbiot, who originally backed Hinkley C, has to say for himself now?

Furthermore, as this latest cost estimate was released just after the Brexit vote, its not clear if they’ve fully accounted for the costs of Brexit in this latest estimate. The falling value of the pound is making everything more expensive, an important factor given how much of the hardware for Hinkley will have to be bought in from overseas. One could argue for delaying the project and re-issuing tenders (which could see some British firms get in on more of the action) but that would delay an already overly delaying project even more.

Such a large project, the like of which the UK has not seen since the channel tunnel (which was also largely a French led project), will mean bringing in expertise from overseas. So what do they plan on doing if the UK brings in all sorts of immigration restrictions and quotas? I’m guessing EDF could probably smuggle them over in the back of lorries (I’m doubtful any customs officer is going to feel the need to search a truck labelled “nuclear” to verify its contents). But jokes aside, this will delay the project and push up costs. So all in all, don’t be surprised if the cost of Hinkley rises again…..and again….and again! And as I mentioned in a prior post its only after the plant is build that the real fun and games will likely start (well if you define fun as sitting in the dark surrounded by candles eating cold canned food).

And speaking of power cuts there are warnings (yet again) that the UK could be vulnerable to power cuts this winter. Now yes, this is sort of an annual prediction. But it is based on the fact that the UK has a creeky, ageing and dilapidated energy infrastructure with a wafer thin margin of spare capacity. The UK is increasingly dependant on supplies of electricity from abroad, particular during winter. And most of that power comes the EU, whom the country gave a two fingered salute to the other month. And buying power off them just got a lot more expensive. And it becomes less likely that the 20 billion/year the UK needs to spend on new energy infrastructure will materialise. Already Siemens has pulled back from a flagship wind power manufacturing facility in the UK.

So Hinkley C is finished then, surely now it will be cancelled as a result of Brexit? .………………………….sorry I laughed so hard there I had to pick myself up off the floor. No, Hinkley C is not going to be cancelled. It is the beast that will not die. There’s too much political capital, too many vested interests riding on it. If EDF told Osborne that to finish Hinkley C they needed to sacrifice all of Britain’s first born babies to Beelzebub, without batting an eyelid, he’d pick up the phone and start making the arrangements.

Indeed the chances of Hinkley C being cancelled become less likely now due to Brexit. If such a large project, enjoying such an unprecedented level of political support, a project we were assured would go ahead, leave or remain, was to now be cancelled that would send out a very worrying message. Basically no other large infrastructure project could then be guaranteed not HS2, Heathrow expansion, that £20 billion/year in energy projects I mentioned earlier, all would be put under threat. It would be a Lehman Brothers moment for the post-Brexit UK economy, likely resulting in another round of market panic and capital flight.

So my guess is that they will proceed with this project regardless, until someone is elected to a position to stop it. And btw, the labour party is in favour of Hinkley, as are both the main parties in France. So while Hinkley is Brexit proof, it is for all of the wrong reasons. About the only thing I can suggest is putting the word “Hinkley” into the dictionary as being a term to describe an unstoppable train wreck of a project that proves to be so poisonous and soul destroying that it kills off the entire industry it was meant to save.

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