Some of you may have seen the latest episode of Fully Charged where I suggested that I want to broaden the scope of the series to cover the future energy sector. I’ve been diddling with this subject every now and then, the episode where I drove to Somerset to charge the Nissan Leaf from a water turbine, and I’m soon off to Shropshire to see a truly enormous solar PV installation that makes mine look like a napkin.
However, the more I think about this, the more important this subject obviously is.
I’ve been reading reports stating that BP has just named China as the world’s biggest energy consumer. They have just overtaken the USA in the last few months.
Somehow I find this chilling news.
Up to now, we smug, diesel-driving Europeans could shake our heads in disappointment at our colleagues in America when we saw global energy consumption figures. America, with a smaller population, was way out in the lead, consuming vastly more of our dwindling reserves per head than anyone one else on the planet.
I’m sure if you did the per head calculation now, the USA would still have a healthy lead. It’s just that China has a lot more heads and those heads want more energy.
I am now starting to believe than much faster than anyone thought things are going to get a bit sticky.
I admit I don’t take much notice when some slightly annoying cyclist tells me ‘oil is going to run out.’
Of course it is, but not for a couple of hundred years.
I am of course equally saddened when some arrogant climate-change-denying rich boy in his gas-guzzler tells me ‘it’s all nonsense, it’s a liberal conspiracy.’
But what we drive only accounts for a relatively small proportion of what we import and use.
The way we generate electricity is a much larger consumer of irreplaceable fuel stocks and although there are alternatives, there is enormous resistance to using them, developing them, pushing new technologies and finding innovative ways to overcome the problems.
The arguments touted around as to the cost and reliability of such a large change in our energy generation systems are at best rather tawdry. The nuclear option is very often seen as the answer. It was out of fashion for many years, more recently it’s become very fashionable again, more and more politicians and advocates are saying ‘it’s very safe now, we have developed far better systems, nuclear power is now very 21st century.’
Then the Japan Tsunami happened, a natural disaster of appalling scale, many people lost their lives, many lost their homes. The Fukushima power station went critical and yes, no one yet has died as a direct result of the calamity. The story has dropped from the news but it is still a massive problem. Within Japan the stories have started to emerge, a little like News international, what started as a drip, news of mismanagement, mild corruption, regulations being ignored, has turned into a torrent of accusation, of employing foreign (Chinese) workers to clear up the mess with little or no safety procedures. Send them back home as soon as they’re done and no records kept. A thoroughly dirty business.
But, we are told again and again from all sides of the political spectrum, nuclear power emits zero CO2 and it can produce truly massive amounts of electricity.
The hidden costs are so enormous we will never know what they truly are. According to good old Wikipedia “Sellafield decommissioning and waste disposal is expected to cost the taxpayer £1.5bn per year for many years.”
The British nuclear industry was intimately tied to our nuclear weapons program, it may not be any more, but it certainly was, and the legacy from those days is with us. For ever.
The main deep water storage facility at Windscale/Sellafield is so gargantuan it seems to defy description.
It is so enormous it actually has it’s own weather system. People lucky enough to visit this facility (I never have but I know people who’ve been) are given a pre-visit talk where they are strongly urged to visit the lavatory before they enter because people have urinated themselves with the visual shock.
There is no other building in the UK with such a vast interior space, and such a deep and clear tank of water beneath your feet. A 100 meter deep pool in which are thousands of tons of highly dangerous spent fuel, stored while it ‘cools off.’ It takes about 6 years until the material is cool enough to be treated, mashed, mixed with glass and then… well, stored somewhere for a few hundred thousand years.
And this, we are constantly told, is an efficient, economic system.
I have no argument from a moral standpoint or indeed a Luddite standpoint. I greatly admire the engineers who work at Sellafield, I have met many of them and they are amazing, ingenious and dedicated people who really don’t want nuclear waste to poison us and go to great lengths to avoid such an incident.
However they are dealing with a massive legacy, the crude and half baked early British nuclear weapons program, the vast amounts of unprocessed nuclear waste from the 1970’s that was chucked in ponds, I’m not saying this cynically, it truly was literally thrown into open ponds because there was nowhere else to keep it. It’s still there, they don’t quite know what’s in the ponds but they know there’s a lot of it.
The cost and efficiency of nuclear power I do have an argument with. The simple fact is, if we’d never had a nuclear weapons program we would not have developed nuclear power generation systems.
If we had spent the truly staggering sums thrown at our nuclear ambitions over the last 60 years on renewable energy generating systems, we would now be in a position where we had no toxic waste, Windscale would still be a dairy farm that did bed and breakfast and we would be a much wealthier country.
We wouldn’t need to import tanker loads of fossil fuels, we would be exporting electricity to France instead of the other way around and we would have a world leading renewable electricity generating industry.
But we didn’t, we’ve got to deal with the terrifying legacy of our fathers and look to the future.
This is why I am driven to try and illuminate the alternatives, the nuclear industry needs no help with PR, they have billions to throw at the problem, just like thje oil industry. But all over the country, indeed all over the world, some very, seriously clever and committed people are coming up with alternatives, big, industrial alternatives which require no fuel stocks, which harness the abundant and endless power from the sun, power from the tides, the wind, convection, geo thermal, systems that already work and could be made to work much better.
I look at the 665 kilowatt hours that my paltry solar panels have produced in less than 3 months and scratch my balding head.
Renewable energy on a national scale is hard, it’s going to be expensive, it will take time, but, I state without hesitation, it is not impossible.