It's a fuel's game

Energy, Society and Environment - Renewable Energy Strategies for Europe, Volume II - Energy and Environment
March 6, 1998

Energy production matters. It has always mattered because of costs and security of supplies. It matters because of fears about finite resources. It matters because of the damage to health and environment from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. The dominating point on the agenda today is that the way we produce and use energy matters because of the danger of global warming and its negative impacts. The earth receives a stream of energy from the sun. How is it that our technology cannot yet convert it safely and cheaply?

The oil price shock and environmentalists' concerns stimulated research into renewable energy use in the 1980s. But only about 4.5 per cent of energy (not electricity) production in Europe comes from renewable sources. This includes hydroelectric power, which leads in the renewables field. Wind power comes second and solar cells trail in third, producing 0.05 per cent of Europe's electricity supply despite having fallen in price by 70 per cent since 1980.

Why is more use not being made of these technologies? The question is pressingly urgent. The Kyoto summit reminded the world that energy production using fossil fuels is going to rise dramatically in the developing countries and the Far East, and that preventing this is impossible without turning to nuclear fuel. If the advanced economies cannot invest enough or pay back investments in renewables, how can the capital-starved economies of China and India?

Some reasons are tentatively offered in three new books. Of these, Michael Grubb and Roberto Vigotti's examination of the future of renewables and electricity production in Europe is more specialised, more intellectually heavyweight, and, if less readable, more up to date. David Elliott's university-level textbook aims to survey the arguments for and facts about sustainable energy production. Peter Hodgson's essay takes the unfashionable view that nuclear power is safer and cleaner than fossil-fuel production, and that the legacy of attacks on it by environmentalists and scare stories in the media has been a more polluted environment, more hazardous and accident-prone fossil-fuel production and more danger of global warming.

Grubb and Vigotti's survey of the prospective liberalisation of electricity generation in Europe and renewable energy argues that the market will be more environmentally efficient than the dirty dinosaurs of traditional state energy production. He shows that the recent EU directive on price liberalisation and developments of more open markets in electricity supply and consumption should lead to lower capital costs, more flexibility towards suppliers, freer entry and easier self-production, and more transparency on state subsidies.

Grubb and Vigotti examine the economics of renewable sources of energy in Europe, particularly under this directive called the Directive on Common Rules for the Internal Market in Electricity, and argue that renewables have a more promising future in a more competitive and liberalised system of electricity generation. Liberalisation should mean more flexibility of electricity distribution and transmission, and freer entry into the grid for small producers. Suppliers could aim at different markets. This would help renewables because often they have a niche market; for islands or windy areas, for example, while photovoltaics can be used for on-the-spot purposes, they are uneconomic to feed into a grid. Price and consumer differentiation would create markets for renewables and stimulate more production. Grubb and Vigotti believe that renewables could supply between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of Europe's energy needs by the middle of next century, while in the short term liberalisation will lead to a dash for gas - because natural gas is cheaper to produce and is less polluting than other fossil fuels. Photovoltaics have their greatest potential in north Africa, hydro-based electricity is already exported from Norway, while the technology exists to export power from hydro- and geothermal sources from Iceland. Renewables will come into their own when the gas runs dry.

The idea that market forces could do better in electricity generation might come as a shock after decades of expensive, dirty and dangerous state-controlled fuel production. Left to itself, what does the market do? It is flexible, encouraging a range of energy production from different sources for different purposes. It would let nuclear energy go under, if too expensive to produce, while allowing it to survive if it can meet safety fears for its waste (otherwise the safety record of nuclear power is extremely good, and very much better and safer than fossil fuel safety).

Although Grubb supports this idea, he, like Elliott, assumes that small-scale installations for renewable energy would be too capital intensive (though with low operating costs) to find funding from the private sector. Elliott also links the future of renewables with research budgets and state funding and subsidies.

Elliott's book, aimed at university students, is a highly readable survey with a focus on environmental ethics and sustainable energy concepts. However, it is short on up-to-date data and limited by its Anglocentric approach. His discussion on renewable energy sources worldwide concentrates on national research budgets and pilot projects, rather than giving concrete information on actual renewable energy production and prospects.

Although Elliott's figures say geothermal energy provides 6.5 GW of energy worldwide (and Iceland could supply most of northern Europe with geothermal and hydro-power), the book hardly examines geothermal energy at all, apparently because a British experiment in geothermal energy was a failure. By contrast, wind power receives considerable attention, based on British wind power studies. Elliott dismisses reliance on natural gas as a technical fix, because it will eventually run out, and points to political dangers in relying on a foreign source, such as Russia.

His chapter on nuclear energy reads unconvincingly. It is short on data and relies largely on hypothetical statements ("could be", "has been suggested", etc) and accounts of citizens' protests against nuclear power in Europe to build up a case for the dangers of nuclear production. It may be unfair to expect an environmentalists' textbook to engage in rigorous argument and go into detail about all technologies, but the approach of Elliott and, to some extent, the other two books suggests that cultural biases predominate in this discussion.

Hodgson's essay on energy and environment makes the case for nuclear energy, and on this topic it has plenty of data lacking in Elliott's survey. Hodgson wants to show that public anxiety about radiation hazards from nuclear power is unfounded, and that media scare stories are partly responsible, as is a failure to comprehend risk assessment. He argues that the only way to reduce the greenhouse effect is to start replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power now. Hydro-power is too dangerous and environmentally damaging for water basins; wind power is extraordinarily prodigal of land and will be increasingly unacceptable. Photovoltaics will never be economically viable.

Hodgson downplays the hazards of storing nuclear waste, which have always seemed that most unanswerable objection to nuclear power. Nonetheless, he presents startlingly high figures for serious accident and death rates for the different fuels to compare with very low figures for nuclear power, which should be more widely disseminated to the public. And as Hodgson says, nuclear waste is buried; fossil fuel waste goes directly into the air and soil. Although the book is for the general reader, it would have benefited from more detail on its sources.

So where do we stand on energy production and renewable sources? The data given shows that renewable energy production is still very low despite 15 years of intensive research and experimentation. While liberalisation of energy production could ease market entry for renewables, the high production cost of installations could make them uneconomic in market terms (though Elliott points out that the small wind turbine approach of Danish manufacturers has been much more economic than the big turbine approach of United States manufacturers). Nuclear power is still in the race, with France, Japan, Germany, the US and Russia producing the highest annual production. France and Japan are looking long term at fast breeder production of nuclear power. Natural gas and the higher thermal efficiency of combined cycle production (up to 50 per cent) is currently the market leader.

So the short-term future seems poor for renewables. The world awaits a technology breakthrough or some event that will make economies of scale possible. Will it be encouraged by sensible policies? What will those be? To penalise polluting emissions to air, to ensure safety in fuel extraction and burning, to enable market entry for the small producers and for renewables? Do we keep the massive subsidies for renewable production and fund its research? Yes, for the moment, it is the least governments can do, having subsidised killer coal for a couple of generations. But environmentalists should not shy away from the facts. It is unrealistic to expect that the developing countries and the tigers can develop their economies by energy conservation and renewables.

Anna Bramwell is the author of The Fading of the Greens.

Energy, Society and Environment: Technology for a Sustainable Future

Author - David Elliott
ISBN - 0 415 14507 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £10.00
Pages - 252

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