Our perceptions of energy trends are not what they actually
are - so when considering whether we need to return to nuclear power, a study of
actual trends from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2011 is a good
In 2010 the world’s primary energy consumption was 88
billion barrels of oil equivalent a year (Gb/a), or 504 exajoules (EJ). Oil
provided 33.6% of it, natural gas 23.8%, coal 30.5%, hydro 6.5%, nuclear 5.2%
and renewables 1.3%.
The BP review shows that since 2005 global “all-oils”
production has “plateaued” around 30 billion barrels a year (30 Gb/a) and
may well be on its peak. A global peak is the aggregate of the national peaks,
the most significant of which is that of Saudi Arabia, which was passed in 2005,
while the UK’s oil peak occurred in 1999.
The year 2005
was also significant for the UK. Since 2005 our crude oil consumption has fallen
by 12%, since 2004 our gas consumption has fallen by 3.7%, since 2006 our coal
consumption has fallen by an extraordinary 23.7% and in 2005 our electricity
generation was 397.3 TWh, while in 2010 it was 381.2 TWh, a fall of 4%.
Overall the UK’s primary energy consumption has fallen by 8.4% since 2005, from 1.67 Gb/a to 1.53 Gb/a oil equivalent in 2010. The common perception is that our energy needs are growing, while the reality is that our actual consumption is falling.
With the exception of part of rail motive power, the
mobility of people and goods depends on petrol, diesel and jet fuel derived from
oil and a negligible amount of biomass. These liquid fuels can be synthesised
from natural gas, but with a penalty of a 50% loss of its heating value. They
can also be synthesised from coal, but with a penalty of a 60% loss of its
Gas is indispensable for heat and generation as is coal for
ironmaking and generation, so their contribution to fuel for transport is
limited, specifically as the gas- and coal- to liquids processes (GTL and CTL)
are so inefficient. GTL processes are mainly deployed for stranded gas,
If global oil production has merely “plateaued” then
mobility will only increase by gains in efficiency. If a post-peak decline is
about to transpire, movement of people and goods will be severely curtailed.
The perception is that increasingly transport will be
driven by electricity. This may be viable for personal, local transport in small
battery-powered vehicles. But for goods transport by road the battery load would
catastrophically reduce the payload. For air transport electricity is
inappropriate, even though small nuclear plants or hydrogen have been
The overall efficiency of electricity for fuelling
transport is poor. If electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, or is
subsequently used to produce hydrogen by way of electrolysis and liquefaction,
the energy available for traction is only around 5% of the primary energy. It is
at best 30% for electrified rail, probably more like 20%.
There is a huge inventory of diesel driven trucks, so the
best use of electricity would be to complete the electrification of the
railways, freeing up the diesel used for rail traction for road use.
Road traffic has started to decline, a decline due to
accelerate as feeder transport to declining air traffic also declines. The
inter-city routes for rail will be provided by the emptying motorways and there
is no need for HS2.
Far from growing, the UK’s overall demand for electricity
will decline due to the loss of the demand from the reducing road and air
traffic, signalled by the marked reduction in crude oil consumption. Local
authorities are turning off unwarranted street lighting and there will be less
electricity needed for fuel refining and pumping, and for motor manufacturing.
Airports are massive users of electricity for 24-hour working and runway
illumination and reduction in air traffic will reduce demand.
Increased insulation and deployment of heat pumps and
tri-generation will reduce the demand for electricity for heating and air
conditioning. Also the progressive deployment of solar power on domestic,
industrial and agricultural buildings and land will reduce the market for
Local generation by wind and biomass also reduces the need
for more centralised power. With the reduced demand and more localised sources,
making use of existing networks, the need to strengthen the National Grid
reduces to that needed for off-shore wind.
There are two strands of policy in regard to nuclear power,
viz., provision of low carbon energy and security of supply.
Climate change is a global phenomenon (if it is a problem),
so as nuclear’s current contribution to the world’s primary energy is only
5%, and that this is reducing as fleets age, nuclear power offers little relief,
if relief is needed.
It offers little security of supply to the UK as its fuel
and technology is wholly imported.
Uranium mining in the West’s usual supplier countries of
Canada and Australia is in decline. Recourse to Niger and Kazakhstan is not
recommended and in any case China has secured some uranium supplies by forward
contracts and in mining project investment.
Only two types of reactor are being processed for generic
design assessment by ONR of which Westinghouse has “paused” its involvement,
possibly because its design in Imperial units is unacceptable to European
utilities. The Areva EPRs in Finland and France are overspent and will not be
connected until 2014 and 2016. Due to their teething problems it appears that
they, with the two under construction in China will be the last and the smaller
Areva/MHI ATMEA-1 will be substituted.
EdF purchased British Energy to gain access to coastal
sites, so if it fails to raise the ever growing investment needed, it will
request its re-nationalisation. This is a reasonable prospect as the state has
already taken over its nuclear liabilities.
If the state then wants to proceed with new build it will have to finish
the false starts itself.
So nuclear new build in the UK is unlikely, because the
post-Fukushima additions will add to its capital costs, while the shrinking
market will deter investment.
In any case - we can’t afford to lose Somerset.
If the engine of climate change is the burning of fossil
fuels and if the concern is the earth’s temperature at the end of the century,
then as by the end of the century there will be virtually no oil or gas and but
a modicum of coal, the situation is self correcting.
My solution for the UK would be to take advantage of
increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and warming by increasing irrigation with
a national water grid, also useful for flood control. Carbon dioxide
concentrations are increased in greenhouses to accelerate photo-synthesis for
plant growth. Rather than load the economy with carbon taxes and spending on
nuclear power, let’s take advantage of atmospheric carbon increase and climate
change to boost agriculture and reduce food imports.
We have to tailor our energy consumption to that provided
by renewables, which are unlikely to exceed 25% of our current use.
The lack of movement is somewhat compensated by the
Internet and the use of ever smaller personal computers and communication
devices reduces their electricity consumption.
It means localisation instead of globalisation, reverting
to local manufacture and food production.
Communities are already coming together in local
initiatives and currencies.
Families will be closer and parents will see more of their
children. It could all be better than now.
John Busby 10 November 2011