Specific Energy Production – Nuclear and Hydro

Here are some considerations on the specific energy production of nuclear and hydroelectric power plants (MWh produced per MW installed). The data are based on IEA publications comprising the top producers within each sector (2010 data).

Specific output of nuclear power plants

Fig.1 Specific output of nuclear power plants

The figures for nuclear vary between 6 and 8 GWh per MW installed capacity. Fig. 2 shows the situation for hydroelectric plants.

Fig. 2  Specific production hydro

Fig. 2 Specific output hydro

Again, the figures refer to the top producers in the world. The variations in specific output are much more pronounced for hydro than for nuclear. This variability may be due to varying water levels which tend to have a strong impact on production levels. In absolute numbers nuclear is the clear winner, outperforming even the top hydro producer Brazil.



Germany´s Energy Future – part 2

One year ago Germany decided to quit producing nuclear energy by 2022. Since nuclear power plants are a central pillar the German energy mix, contributing some 22.5% to the entire electricity output in 2010, this means that until 2022 the equivalent of 140.6 TWh (2010) has to be replaced by other sources. This is a minimum estimate ignoring increase in consumption.

Already at this moment Germany begins to face the consequences of last year’s decision. As nuclear plants are successively being phased out, more strain is put on other sources, in particular renewables. In addition, the power grid is experiencing severe tensions as more controllable sources of energy are being replaced by less controllable (and predictable) ones. Especially the latter is a constant, or rather growing source of trouble.

One the one hand, it’s a clear goal of German policy to increase the share of renewables substantially. On the other hand, it seems implausible to be able to replace the entire nuclear bloc by wind and solar capacities only. Thus, it appears inevitable to commission a number of conventional, i.e. thermal power plants which are supposed to act as a backup for the fluctuating input from e.g. wind farms.

In my view, it is pretty obvious that wind will be the main source of renewable energy in the future, considerably outnumbering all other renewable sources taken together.

In 2010 the total capacity of German wind farms amounted to some 27190 MW which produced some 36.5 TWh. Taking into account the average specific output of wind farms as calculated in one of our previous postings we may estimate the extra capacity needed in order to fill the gap. Then we could show that the average output of wind power installations amounts to some 1600 MWh annually per MW of installed capacity.

Having these figures at hand we may easily estimate how much extra wind capacity is needed in order to replace nuclear in its entirety. Thus if wind power is supposed to be the only substitute (which is certainly an oversimplified approach) it would mean that Germany needed almost 88000 MW of additional wind power by 2022, thus an extra three times as much as was installed up till 2010. This in turn would mean that the country needed more than 115000 MW in wind turbines by the time the last nuclear power station is decommissioned.

Between the year 2000 and 2010 an average of 2000 MW was commissioned annually, in total some 20000 MW of wind power. Extrapolating this trend to 2022 implies that some 24000 MW of new capacity could be added to the grid until D-day. However, what is needed is almost four times as much. Thus the annual growth rate should be close to 7800 MW. Even if we assume that wind will only replace half of the nuclear output, a growth rate of about 4000 MW annually would be necessary, i.e. twice as much as has been the case during the boom period 2000-2010.

The figure below shows two different scenarios for Germany´s wind power capacity. The business-as-usual scenario (BAU) is based on the assumption that wind capacity will grow at a rate of 1900 MW per year, which is equivalent to the increase in 2010. The Target scenario on the other hand assumes an annual growth of 7800 MW which would theoretically be sufficient to replace Germany´s entire nuclear production as seen in 2010.

Total installed wind power in Germany.

Given that there is considerable resistance among the population against onshore wind farms, it is indeed hard to see how this can be achieved. In addition, as  subsidies for renewable energies are becoming a serious burden for consumers, they are likely to be reduced in the future. This in turn may jeopardize further investment in wind power, and thus even the more conservative BAU scenario may, in fact, be too optimistic. As a consequence, other energy sources are desperately needed if Germany wants to maintain her standard of living. We will come back on this issue in another posting.

Nuclear power – a solution for a sustainable future?

I want to write about this subject because of a talk by a science professor that I heard a few weeks ago. He was talking about his vision for the future and how that future would look like concerning the CO2-problem and sustainability. According to him nuclear power should be used in order to be able to produce the electricity that will be demanded for in the future. Solar and wind options will not be able to succeed in producing enough energy for the future.

Solar based power and wind based power could never become a viable option to fulfill the world’s demand for energy. Their efficiency is limited, based on physical laws. I can partly agree with that. At the moment, the efficiency of commercial PV-panels is about 15%. At the other hand, the efficiency of PV-panels is increasing and a lot of research is done to improve the technology (see fig. 1).

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Fig. 1: Efficiency of PV-panels

The results of these tests have to be proven outside the laboratory, but the developments go fast. Another solar based option is to build large fields of PV-panels on empty fields, on empty land in industrial areas, on contaminated soil (examples of PV-fields in former coal-mining areas), floating on lakes or water reservoirs (e.g. at horticulture sites: http://www.valksolarsystems.nl/projecten). In this way, a sustainable option for electricity production is combined with other functions, a multi-functional approach; or contaminated areas can be of some use. We have to look for much more of those options to reach a sustainable future.

The efficiency of wind turbines nowadays is much higher than those 15-20 years ago. More is known also about the problems concerning turbines and possible methods to tackle many of those problems (noise pollution is almost decreased to zero). Next to the turbines on land, the option for turbines at sea came into the picture. That seems a good development.

A sustainable energy system has to be based on multiple technologies: wind and solar power, biomass, hydropower, etc. We all know that the wind and sun cannot produce energy constantly. Therefore, there is need for back-up power or storage capacity. A viable option seems the combination with hydrogen production. A gas that can be stored and used in a later phase to produce electricity. Another option: a large lake in two levels, so water can be pumped up when there is excess of electricity. In moments that wind or sun cannot produce electricity, the water can run down via a turbine and produce electricity via that technology.

Going back to the nuclear power option. I tried to indicate that I believe the efficiency of wind and sun can be improved further. One thing I know about nuclear power is that there is a huge problem with nuclear waste after electricity production. If it is stated that, according to physics, PV-panels can never reach high efficiencies, for sure the physical laws have also to be taken into account when proposing a nuclear solution. We have to keep in mind the physical aspect of ‘half-life’ (fig. 2). The use of nuclear power produces nuclear waste that has a considerable half-life and we do not have a proper way to deal with that waste. The best option we came up with, at the moment, is underground storage. Thereby, hoping that the caverns can store the waste without leakages or other disasters. But, we do not know what will happen in so many years: does the underground storage last forever, do people in centuries or millennia from now recognize  the symbols we have used, can they tackle leakage or misuse?

Isotope Percent in natural uranium Half-Life (in years)
Uranium-238 99.284 4.46 billion
Uranium-235 0.711 704 million
Uranium-234 0.0055 245,000
Plutonium-239 24,110
Plutonium-240 6560

Source: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, ‘Uranium, its uses and hazards’; Factsheets, posted on December, 2011; Last modified May, 2012 (http://ieer.org/resource/factsheets/uranium-its-uses-and-hazards/) + Wikipedia, ‘Radioactive waste’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste#Physics)

Fig. 2: Half-life of some uranium and plutonium isotopes

I would opt for a sustainable future in which I do not see a role for nuclear power. We have to focus on other sources and invest and research more in solar, wind, hydro, etc. I think our future will be a combination of centralized, sustainable solutions (wind turbine parks, hydro power plants, CSP/PV-fields, etc.) and decentralized sustainable solutions (local production with sun, wind, hydro, etc.). Sustainability deals with the here and now, but also with there and later. We have to keep in mind the generations that come after us.

A crisis in leadership in Japan’s nuclear industry.

By: Nicholas Newman

Failing to make the right decision is easy to do. Regrettably, despite years of technological progress and experience, governments and energy companies continue to make such mistakes. Nevertheless, due to the increasing scale of investment and environmental hazards that the industry faces, the world energy leadership needs to do better than it has in the past.

It is clear those events at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have as much to do with bad decision-making by the country’s energy leadership as it has to do with the massive sea quake that caused a tidal wave to hit the doomed nuclear power station. Examining the factors that contributed to the poor decision-making that led to disaster in Japan last year, one comes to the conclusion that the events transpired could have been substantially mitigated or even avoided by the country’s energy leadership.

Here are some of the reasons that contributed to Japan’s unpreparedness for such a nuclear crisis and surprising negligence of nuclear power plant safety standards. These factors that contributed to the Fukushima incident range from internee sign fighting between the country’s government agencies (Ministry of Environment and its two regulatory agencies the Nuclear Safety Commission and Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) as well as the plant’s owners Tokyo Electric Power Co. Nor did it help that the power plant’s operator had been found to have ignored safety advice on several occasion from both domestic and international nuclear professionals such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It is clear from government reports that the leaderships of various stakeholders in the industry, including Japan’s regulatory agencies and nuclear power station operator TEPCO made serious errors which would have been avoided if the organisational culture was more accountable and open to inspection to not only Japan’s voters, but also the international community at large.

For instance, there are several documented examples of the national regulatory agencies ignoring the advice of such world agencies such as the IAEA. Reports suggest that the regulatory system was suffering from turf wars and intra-agency rivalries between regulatory agencies and departments of government ministries.

Nor did it help that TEPCO falsified safety records and ignored the advice given to it by both the domestic regulators and the International energy agency revealed in a report by Japan’s Independent Investigation Commission. In this report, it was revealed that Japanese electric power companies had since 1980, been unwilling to cooperate with the IAEA ‘s operational safety review of the country’s power plants. This review known as the Operational Safety Review Team (OSART), is where a team of experts conduct an in-depth review of operational safety performance at a nuclear power plant by checking the factors affecting safety management and personal performance.

In 1992, this operational safety review of Fukushima made a number of recommendations which Tokyo Electric Power Co, subsequently dismissed. In 2002, it was revealed that TEPCO had falsified 29 cases of safety repair records regarding cracks found at several of its nuclear reactors, including those at Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1980s and 90s. Despite this, the power company declined the offer by the IAEA to institute a fact-finding process to improve safety at the plant concerned. It was announced by the Chief Executive at TEPCO, that the proposed regulations were unrealistically strict and not in accordance with actual operational requirements.

Nor did it help that the entire nuclear community of the country was suffering from isolationist and secrecy tendencies, which were not helped by delusions that the country’s nuclear power sector was the best regulated, most advanced and managed industry in the world. The perception amongst many Japanese nuclear professionals was there was no need for Japan to learn from the rest of the world. In a sense Japan’s nuclear community was suffering from classic Galapagos Island syndrome symptoms.

Much to the surprise of these professionals the events at Fukushima were a wake-up call; it became clear from various investigations that Japan’s nuclear power sector was rotten to the core. It became clear that the industry was totally unprepared for the crisis when it occurred and was not able to provide solutions to such a crisis. It did not help that many of those civil servants working in nuclear regulation and safety management, did not have the opportunity to develop long-term expertise in the subject, because of the practice of regularly rotating civil servants to other government ministries. In addition, it did not help that findings found that the regulators were not truly independent of the power companies they were supervising.

Unfortunately, breaking out of the Galapagos syndrome for Japan’s nuclear sector is going to prove a hard task. Japan will need the help of the international community to create a new decision making energy leadership culture so that it equips it with the tools to avoid such complacency and a repeat of such disastrous mistakes. There are plans to establish a new, powerful nuclear safety agency this summer that will replace the old agencies and ministerial departments. Unfortunately, many of the new staff for this new agency will come from the failed organisations that contributed to Japan’s nuclear disaster.

However, perhaps the best way to revolutionise Japan’s nuclear community is if it imports new leadership and experts from abroad, until Japan has trained up the necessary recruits in the standards of the world nuclear community. Unfortunately, foreign CEO’s leading Japanese companies are rare and tend only to stay a short time due to inherent organisational resistance to change. In addition, Japan, the country finds very difficult to change its organisational culture, given the extremely conservative, traditional nature of its society. This is despite its appearance as one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. This can be seen by its failure to implement the radical changes required to break the country out of economic stagnation in recent years.

Japan’s government wants to restart two nuclear plants to avert summer power shortages this summer, but public skepticism of nuclear safety and the industry remains high. Before March 2011, Japan depended for 30% of its power from nuclear power plants. Unless Japan can make the necessary changes it is unlikely there will be public support for the country’s nuclear power stations to start operating again. Instead the country’s energy leadership will have to continue to depend on expensive renewables and imports of gas from Australia to fuel its power sector in order to maintain energy security.

Reducing GHG Emissions – The Czech Miracle

All the world is struggling to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In general most countries find it quite hard to achieve their emission targets set up by the Kyoto Protocol. The Czech Republic has, however, succeeded in overachieving their goal. The baseline scenario was to reduce GHG emissions in 2012 by 8 %. By extending electricity generation from nuclear, the Czechs managed to cut their emissions by a whopping 32 % compared to 1990. Fig. 1 shows the dramatic decrease.

Fig. 1 Czech GHG emissions in Mt CO2 equivalent. Source: Eurostat.

So far the country has produced most of its electricity by burning coal, and this is still the dominant energy source. However, with nuclear on the rise, coal is gradually losing its overwhelming position as can be seen from Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 Czech electricity production in TWh. Source: Eurostat.

Simultaneously nuclear energy is gaining ground. The output from nuclear plants has more than doubled since 1990. Then it accounted for 12.6 TWh. In 2009 the respective figure was 27.2 TWh.

Other sources of electricity, in particular gas and renewables, have also increased dramatically during the past two decades. Nevertheless, their share of the whole electricity mix (10.1 %) is still relatively modest compared to coal (56.8 %) and nuclear (33.1 %).

Phasing Out Nuclear Energy – The Case of Belgium

Nuclear energy has been the main source of electricity generation in Belgium since the 1980s , accounting for 52% of total production in 2009. Nevertheless, the new government plans to abandon nuclear until 2025. Given the tremendous share of nuclear in the electricity sector, this represents a enormous challenge which, to a certain extent, outweighs even Germany´s daring decision to switch off its last nuclear plant in 2022.

In one of my previous posts I analyzed the situation in Germany and its potential to cope with the ambitious goal of phasing out nuclear by 2022. Then the conclusion was that there is indeed a realistic chance to meet the targets by enlarging the renewable sector. In Fig. 1 we see the distribution of the various contributions to the electricity grid in Germany in 2009.

Fig. 1 German electricity mix in 2009

Among the renewable part wind is the predominant source outweighing hydroelectricity more than twofold. Solar energy, though growing significantly during the past decade, is laging behind, its share corresponding to about 17% of the power production from windmills.

Fig.2 shows the equivalent for Belgium.

Fig. 2 Belgian electricity mix in 2009

The case of Belgium, however, differs in some aspects from the German case. First, its share of nuclear in the power grid is considerably larger than the German one. As mentioned above, this share corresponds to more than half of production output of Belgium´s power generators. In Germany, on the other hand, nuclear covered some 23% of electricity production in 2009. So, in relative terms, nuclear power has only half the weight in Germany than what is has in Belgium. Given the difference in size between the two countries, the absolute production figures are quite different with a total nuclear output of 134.9 TWh in the larger and 47.2 TWh in the smaller country. Thus, the task may look much less demanding for Belgium. However, the contribution of renewables to the electricity mix differs considerably between the two neighbours. In 2009 renewables accounted already for 16% of electricity output in Germany, whereas the corresponding value for Belgium was a mere 9%.

Supposing that the current nuclear production may entirely be replaced by renewables at the respective deadline, the two countries have to undergo respective growth rates which are significantly different from each other. In Germany, renewables may grow by an annual average of 9.3% in order to cope with the challenge, whereas in Belgium the growth rate must be some 14.6%. This gives us a solid indication about what lies ahead of the Belgian government.

What has been acheived so far? From 1998 to 2009 the primary energy production from renewable sources rose by 238% in Belgium. During the same period Germany faced an increase of 255% with both countries being by far the most dynamic in the renewable sector in Europe. Though these figures are indeed quite impressive we should not forget that during the twelve-year period from 1998 to 2009 Belgium has only five times managed to beat the growth rate it needs to keep during the next 14 years in order to switch completely from nuclear to renewables. Its German neighbour, on the other hand, could arrive at or even go beyond its expected growth rate seven times during the same period.

Thus it´s not only the fact that the smaller country needs to keep a higher annual increase than its German counterpart, but moreover Belgium is required to maintain this fast pace of growth over a longer time. Given this, the prospect of replacing all nuclear capacities with renewables does not look as optimistic as in the German case. Most likely, additional sources of electricity generation will have to be tapped. One potential candidate is gas the use of which increased by more than 270% since 1990.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what share of renewable energy Belgium will have in 2025 when its last nuclear facility is supposed to leave the power grid.