What’s up with them?
I’m prompted to do this due to the repeatedly bad press that renewable gets in certain quarters, who tend to cling to various half-baked myths and flawed analysis. They’ve even got James Hansen and George Monbiot fooled. A good example of this is the graph below and its accompanying article produced by Bjorg Lomborg from the denier site watts-up-with-that.Now the sharper reader will notice how the renewable capacity reported by Bjorn is at odds with the values from the REN 2013 report, or indeed the figures presented by the IEA Energy Outlook 2012. This in part might be due to the fact that renewables break down into two flavours, the older traditional types (e.g. biomass, hydro, etc.) and the newer types such as solar, wind power, geothermal, etc. Bjorn seems to account for traditional renewables at the start of his graph but seemingly “forgets” about them in the middle. Again this is typical of the sort of sloppy analysis we see from deniers. As Peter Sinclair from Climatecrocks illustrates, they have a tendency to “cherry pick” and selectively edit graphs to suit whatever point they are trying to make…such as cherry picking trends as regards arctic ice sheets. Of course, Bjorn Lomborg seems to forget that if we apply his methodology to many other energy sources (this time without “loosing” half the amount in the middle!) the results aren’t exactly encouraging. Let us for example plot a graph of the amount of the world’s energy we can expect to get from fossil fuels over a time period of 5,000 years in the past and 5,000 years into the future. The results is of course Hubbert’s famous bell curve plot from the 1950’s. This shows that fossil fuels, even if we take the most optimistic view as regards when global peak oil will be reached, the fossil fuel age will be but a brief blip in the course of human history. A temporary fad our civilisation went through.
And nuclear power? Currently it supplies 2756 TWh’s worth of electricity (IEA, 2012), out of the worlds total final consumption of 8677 mtoe (IEA, 2012), or 101,231 TWh’s (so nuclear represents 3.3% of total final energy consumption). Plotting its growth over the decades (Bjorn Lomborg style!) we end up with the trend shown in figure 6. Projecting nuclear powers influence into the future we can project two scenarios, one with shows slight growth and another (business as usual scenario). I’ll explain later where these two graphs come from.State of play for renewables
But getting away from such silliness, how well have renewables actually been doing? Well as figure 1 & table 1 both show, remarkably well. Worldwide a total of 159 GW’s of newly install capacity (115 GW’s electrical and 43 GW’s heat) was added during the last reported year (between 2011 and 2012).Now critics will immediately jump up and down and start whinging about renewables and their low capacity factors. To resolve this issue, in table 2 below I’ve included a calculation for estimated TWh/yr generated by the relevant renewable source and the growth in TWh/yr capacity. And just to counter the possibly that 2012 was a one off fluke, I’ve gone back through IEA Key World Energy Statistics (KWES, 2011 & 2012) and REN reports (2010 – 2013) and put together a composite table of figures going back to 2009.
I would note that since I’ve drawn from multiple sources, I’d treat the figures above with a pinch of salt (its always risky to cross compare data from different data sets, so best to consider this just a crude estimate). Also some of the numbers (any which are right justified and in italics) are estimated. For example, if I’ve been unable to dig up a reliable TWh figure, I can estimate the TWh/yr, based on the average capacity factors for that energy source.
Inevitably the figures for biomass are probably the least reliable. As noted earlier, getting reliable figures for biomass is problematic. The energy output from Biofuels and ethanol is estimated based on average Calorific values. I was able to dig up TWh figures for power output for most years (again, REN 2010-2013 reports), but was unable to do this for TWh of heat, so this is estimated on the assumption of an average capacity factor of 57% (why? the length of the average winter heating season in Western countries is about 5,000 hours 5000/8736 = 0.57, which is also about break even time for CHP units).
Also note that the data in tables 1 and table 2 only includes “modern biomass” and not “traditional biomass”. Again in part this is due to question marks as to how “sustainable” traditional biomass is, along with the difficult in collating statistics (as most of this is people in villages in the developing world collecting firewood and the bean counters don’t exactly go around counting logs!). That said, I have a reliable figure of 34 EJ worth of biomass (World Energy Outlook, 2007) based heat energy consumption in 2008 (which works out at approximately 9,444 TWh’s) and some 46 EJ (World Energy Outlook, 2011) worth of it (equal to 12,877 TWh’s) in 2012, implying a growth rate of 26% over 4 years.So we can see from this that the 159 GW’s installed in 2012 amounts to 366 TWh/yr of newly installed renewables capacity. And if anything, 2012 was a particularly bad year. The 4 year average is actually higher at 466 TWh/yr. I would argue this might be due to a transition within renewables from traditional sources such as biomass, to more modern renewable sources, such as PV or wind power. Oddly enough hydroelectric is still showing growth. I’ve been hearing for years that hydroelectricity was “all used up” and yet it continues to grow, 3.1% last year and was 30% of all added capacity. I suspect this is probably down to the fact that developing countries are still adding hydroelectric capacity (both for flood protection and irrigation purposes as well as electricity). Also there’s still growth in Western countries, as we’re beginning to discover the benefits of micro-hydro. Inevitably yes, the day will dawn when growth from hydro ceases, but clearly the other renewable sources can take up the slack and will soon probably be outpacing hydroelectricity.
The solar industry is starting to show a clear trend, with PV winning out over CSP. While CSP is growing slightly faster, the installed capacity of PV is now much higher and with an installation rate now at 29 GW/yr (and growing) its not far off becoming a significant player. However it is solar thermal (e.g. roof top collectors for hot water) that is still the world’s largest source of solar energy, both by the installed capacity and TWh’s.
Wind power continues to grow and mature, slightly exceeding the installed TWh/yr capacity of hydroelectricity in 2012. This is hardly surprising given falling costs and increased productivity within the industry. Of course there’s only so much wind power than can be installed before a need for more energy storage will eventually become pressing, although as I previously discussed the Portuguese have done rather well out of a combination of wind and hydroelectric/pumped storage.
Report Card I: Doing well but most do better!
However, before we start pulling out the victory cigars and congratulating ourselves on a job well done, I suspect the report card for renewables would have to read “doing well, student clearly applying himself, but must do better!”
I recall estimating sometime ago that in order to offset peak oil or put the world on a path away from dangerous climate change we’d need to bring online between 1,500-1,000 TWh/yr, or about 2-4 times the current install rate of renewables. And that neglects issues such as cycle efficiencies and the “bunkering” of fuel. The bulk of the renewables capacity considered above (63% of it to be exact) outputs in the form of electricity, but electricity is (according to the IEA, 2012) only 17% of global final energy consumption. The rest is a combination of transport fuels and heat. Now while some of the renewables discussed do produce such energy, the rest, if they could be grown to a suitable capacity, would need to be transferred from one form to another. So in truth we’d probably need at least a 5-6 fold increase in the rate of renewables output.It is, I would argue, entirely speculative as to whether renewables can be produced at such a rate. Certainly renewable sources such as wind turbines and solar panels lend themselves very well towards mass production. Indeed this is one of the reasons why growth of both of these sources has taken off in recent years. But the sorts of numbers we’re talking about are a very tall order and the longer we dither the larger that number gets.
State of play for nuclear
It would be convenient perhaps to contrast and compare the performance of renewables with that for nuclear. Even the IEA (who tend to be pro-nuclear) and the IAEA reports have over the last few years been running out of positive things to say about nuclear energy, at least as far as things grounded in facts rather than wild speculation.As figure 10 shows nuclear energy has been stuck in the doldrums for sometime, with very little if any credible growth. According to the IAEA’s Prospects report (2012) while there was a brief jump of +4 GW/yr between 2009 and 2010, this was cancelled out by a -7 GW/yr drop the following year. The IAEA’s 2012 report speculates that nuclear energy capacity could grow from 370 GW to 501 GW’s by 2030.
We’ll pick apart the probability of this in a moment, but firstly it should be noted that this works out as an average growth rate of 6.65 GW/yr (about 6% the present install rate of renewables!). Assuming a capacity factor of 80.5% (according to IAEA statistics for 2010, note that should anyone accuse me of being mean the average nuclear plant capacity factor was 72.2% in 2012, so if anything I’m being kind) this works out at an install rate of about 40 TWh/yr….barely 11% of the current install rate for renewables, even when we evaluate it on a TWh basis. Indeed this IAEA project suggests than nuclear will be outpaced by both solar PV (estimated 53.5 TWh/yr) and wind power (103 TWh/yr, 2.5 times higher!).
And even this 6.65 GW/yr growth in nuclear generating capacity represents a pretty tall order. The average age of the world’s nuclear reactor fleet, again based on IAEA data, is 27.8 years. If we assume an average 50 year service life, this means that between now and 2030 118 GW’s (31% of current installed capacity) worth of nuclear reactors will be decommissioned, 210 GW’s (56% of current installed capacity) if we assume an average 45 year service life (currently no reactors older than 44 years are in commercial operation). Factor in this “turn over” and we now need to install reactors at a rate of between 15 GW/yr and 20 GW/yr to achieve this IAEA forecast.What are the chances of this? In reality, probably slim. As noted, the rate of nuclear roll out has been flat for sometime, as newly installed capacity is barely able to match the rate at which reactors are being retired. For example in 2011 seven reactors were installed, but thirteen were retired. Although the IAEA puts this down to Fukushima, they also admit that Fukushima has led to a further slow down in recent years in the number of reactor projects being started. And given the “baby boomer” problem for nuclear (the fact that nearly half of all reactors will retire within the next two decades), means this trend can only accelerate.
And aside from Fukushima the nuclear industry has been beset by a number of problems. While modern reactors are probably a good deal safer than the likes of the ageing Fukushima reactors, modern plants are proving to be much more expensive to build. Recent revelations in the UK, where the government essentially forced the industry to come clean about its expected costs, have revealed that the overnight costs of nuclear exceeds that of wind power. They are also taking a lot longer to install, as events in Finland show, again hardly a surprise given the increased complexity of the designs enforced by accidents at Chernobyl, TMI and Fukushima but also inevitably a consequence of the fact that there are a number of bottle necks in the nuclear supply chain, as I described in a prior post (here).
So all in all I would argue that this 6.65 GW/yr and replacement of existing capacity is just about within the limits of optimistic probability. But even this would require a significant level of commitment by industry, governments, corporations and the general public towards nuclear energy…and perhaps a certain element of luck….none of which is guaranteed! Furthermore, as noted, even in this scenario nuclear can deliver only 11% of the future growth to be expected from renewables and barely 3% of the capacity we need to offset dangerous climate change.
And least pro-nuclear people argue I’m being overly pessimistic here, the more probable scenario (current trends continue) is a long slide to obscurity where the install rate lags well behind the shutdown rate. The worst case scenario is that someone in a position of authority does there sums and realises that they can get more bangs for their bucks with renewables and government’s start turning off the life support.
Report card II: Quit making stuff up!
I used to be pro-nuclear. What drove me away from nuclear energy however was the industries habit of making wild outlandish promises which it has consistently failed to deliver on.
In the UK under Thatcher the nuclear industry promised at least a dozen new power stations, many of them multiple reactor units. In the end only one single reactor unit, Sizewell B was delivered. This was despite considerable skulduggery by the Tories to clear the path for their little darling (such as killing off wave energy research and the proposed Severn Barrage). Ironically, the NFFO (Non fossil fuel Obligation) the Tories slush fund for nuclear proved to be the kernel of the UK’s renewable revolution, largely due to the inability of the industry to deliver any serious growth in capacity, while the renewables industry stepped up to the plate.
More recently history repeated itself. The Tory/Lib dem government cancelled the proposed tidal energy project in the Severn, again blaming costs and environmental factors, ignoring the fact that technology has changed from a barrage in favour of tidal stream turbines and lagoons (indeed there is a proposal to build a large array of tidal stream turbines up in the Pentland Forth and a tidal lagoon in Swansea, demonstrating that such ideas are potentially viable). This was in part justified by the claim that nuclear was cheaper. Of course the nuclear industry has since let slip that this isn’t so.
Since then the Horizon deal has collapsed and EDF’s plans in Somerset hang in the balance. Of the 12 reactors promised, I would argue that its probable only 3-4 will actually be delivered at a substantially higher cost than originally pitched and probably much too late to close any “energy gap”….a gap caused by the failure of the nuclear industry to deliver along with their efforts to backstab rival industries.
And let’s not even begin to bring up the two whitest of white elephants in the nuclear industries closet, fast reactors and reprocessing. Both were originally sold as the panacea to all of the industry’s woes and that both would be commercially viable after a “small” cash injection from governments…..a couple of decades later, a radioactive spill or two (only a few tons of Plutonium!), many tens of billions of taxpayers cash and neither project has delivered a lot…other than lots of nuclear waste, the bill for disposing of which is being met by the taxpayer.
Consequently the report card for the nuclear industry would be to suggest that little darling Johnny needs to stop daydreaming in class and quit concocting outlandish fantasies, as he’s being disruptive to the other students. And the government need to stop the sort of helicopter parenting that the nuclear industry has enjoyed since its inception. After 40 years it’s kind of time for the nuclear industry to grow up and move out of the hotel of mum and dad.
Report Card III: Caught selling snake oil in class
Of course, we need to cut the nuclear industry some slack here. They’ve fallen in with a bad crowd. The gang who hang out and smoke behind the bike shed sorts, namely the fossil fuel industry. As I described in a prior post and as discussed by Jo Abbess, they’ve been engaging in a snake oil sales pitch of monumental proportions. They claim that there’s hundreds of year’s worth of shale gas under the US or the UK….actually its more like 10-22 year’s worth of reserves (courtesy of EIA estimates) in the US and 1.5 years (of present gas consumption) in the UK. Shale gas output in the US has already plateaued and while its difficult to be specific, the balance of probability is that both tight oil and shale gas output will peak sometime within the next decade within the US.While unconventional fossil fuel resources have succeeded in delaying the inevitable date of peak oil, they have probably only done so for a few years or a decade at most. Indeed many commentators would argue that the economic slow down has probably been the key factor that has driven down energy prices over recent years.
Worse still, unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands or shale oil has a much heavier carbon footprint than conventional fossil fuels and this has likely increased the carbon intensity of many industries at a time when the world can ill afford it. And the more carbon we pump into the atmosphere now, the more rapid will be the rate at which we need to switch to low carbon sources in the future.In many respects the fossil industry reminds me of this chancer I had for a student once, who never did any work, was always making up stuff (always had an excuse for being late with a coursework or missing a class), was very good at getting deferrals for stuff, etc. Once I caught him and one of his mates copying a lab report off another student….problem was the guy he copied off of didn’t have a clue. After award all three a mark of zero I left a comment at the bottom, suggesting that next time he thought of copying, try copying of someone who knows what he’s talking about!
Balancing it all – a failing class
Adding it all up, renewables are growing strongly, but not nearly by enough. Whether or not output can be raised sufficiently is difficult to say. Not least because, it’s not a simple matter of slapping up wind turbines and solar panels. Much of the world’s energy use is in the form of heat and transportation fuels, with significant seasonal variations in demand.
Thus there is a need to square the circle using energy storage, or by matching supply to demand (e.g. solar thermal is a useful match for hot water demand in many countries, solar PV tends to perform best when its sunny, exactly when air-con based demand peaks).
Unfortunately, anyone looking on the renewable industries short comings to argue the case for nuclear is barking up the wrong tree. Any form of growth in the nuclear industry in future is unlikely and even if some growth is possible, its barely a fraction of what level of growth renewables are already achieving, even when accessed on a TWh basis. In short, belief in the (don’t laugh) “nuclear renaissance” is starting to resemble belief in the tooth fairy…
….and belief in shale gas is taking on the dimensions of myth and legend! It is being sold as the snake oil cure to all ills, even though the evidence suggests otherwise. The danger is, that unconventional fossil fuels are allowing certain people (notably those who hang out at watt’s-up-with-that) to put their fingers in their ears and start going “nah, nah, nah, not listening!”. However, when the inevitable happens, and these sources peak, the resulting “cold turkey” period will be all the more severe. As the 2005 Hirsch report spells out any transition away from fossil fuels would take at least 20 years (which I regard as a somewhat optimistic estimate!).
Ultimately this will probably mean cutting energy consumption to close the gap. Now while ideally I’d prefer to see modest cuts that don’t involve any serious curbing of people’s lifestyles, achieved by for example making homes more energy efficient or improved fuel economy of vehicles. However, present policies raise the risks of setting us on a course to a future where, having backed the wrong horses (nuclear and unconventional fossil fuels), we’ll face a yawning gap between the energy that can be met from renewables and dwindling fossil fuels and what we need to sustain this project we call civilisation.