As the 2020s start, in the January 2020 issue of New Power Report we set out a series of questions about how the industry would look at the start of the 2030s.
What’s your view? Have we asked the right questions? Are these key issues? And what are your predictions?
Answers in the comments or by email to the editor – and don’t miss our exploration of these questions in upcoming issues of New Power Report.
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To achieve net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2050, we need to convert the delivery of all our energy needs into zero carbon electricity by 2050 without burning anything, as burning any fuel oxidises the nitrogen in the air to NOx which is damaging to our health.
Unfortunately, public and expert discussion of what we need to do, is focussed on how to use it to power transport, our industrial processes, heat our buildings and save energy with better insulation and more efficient machines; this is very important, but almost nobody is talking about the huge task to convert our energy needs to zero carbon electricity by 2050.
According to the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in 2018 the UK total energy production was 2,225.98 TWh (191.4 million tons of oil equivalent or MTOE) of which electricity generation was just 13.5% of that, or 300 TWh and renewables were 33% of that or 100 Twh.
This country continues to improve the way that we use our energy, however the forecast growth in UK energy demand is up to 30% by 2030. If we assume that this growth will be balanced by energy savings in the way we use our energy over the next 10 years, we still need to increase our zero carbon electricity generation in 2018 from 100 TWh to 2,226 TWh by 2050.
We probably could increase our present renewables electricity by up to 5 times, by having 5 times as many wind farms, photovoltaic cells, hydro and other forms of renewables, although this will be limited by the acceptable amount of land and sea occupied, so even if we can increase renewables five times to say 500 TWh, we still have to find a new source of zero carbon electricity to increase the total to 2,226 TWh an increase of 1726 TWh which is a massive task.
While we might be able to import some clean electric power from other countries like Norway, and increase the amount that we buy from France which is largely zero carbon nuclear; however those countries will have their own challenges to meet zero carbon by 2050 and may have none to spare for us. Apart from more renewables, the only other viable source of clean electricity is nuclear fission power, with its attendant problem of the storage of its radioactive wastes for thousands of years. Unfortunately there is no other practical source of zero carbon electricity that will be available and could be up and running by 2050. Nuclear fusion power that has no long life radio-active waste, is under development, and may start to come on stream by 2040, but not in any quantity to make a significant impact before 2050.
To give you an idea of the scale of this challenge, consider the power of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station that is under construction on the Somerset coast.
Its two reactors have a combined rated maximum power output of 3.26 MW. When both are running at full power 24/7 for a year, they will generate a total of 28.56 TWh, so to add enough nuclear power stations to make all our electricity production zero carbon, we would need 60 (1,725/28.56) new nuclear reactors like Hinkley Point at a cost of £20.3 billion (National Audit Office) each or £1,218 billion over 30 years.
No power station can run flat out at maximum power every hour of the year, because of the rise and fall of demand over a 24 hour period, as well as maintenance downtime, so the actual running time unlikely to be more than about 60%. This can be mitigated by storing the excess electricity during off-peak demand in batteries or other technology such as pumped hydro and hydrogen production, although these all have significant energy losses; so we may actually need to have as many as 100 nuclear power stations of the Hinkley Point size, up and running by 2050. The Government committed in 2015 to build 8 nuclear power stations like Hinkley Point, but only this one has been started and it will take 10 years to be up and running.
100 new large nuclear power stations will be a major political problem as well as the huge cost, however both may be reduced with new nuclear technology, and by saving money by retrofitting existing gas fired power stations with small modular reactors (SMRs) to use the existing steam turbines, generators and electricity distribution equipment.
SMRs can be designed small enough to be mass produced in a factory and shipped to site on heavy transport. They could incorporate different nuclear technology, such as molten salt to cool them which does not need the high pressures needed for the present type of reactor, and they could use Thorium fissile material instead of uranium, which is 4 times more abundant on earth than uranium, and does not produce the large amounts of radio-active waste with half-lives of thousands of years.
When new fission nuclear power stations are built, it is hoped that the design foresees the possibility to replace the fission reactors with nuclear fusion reactors that do not produce nuclear wastes of long half-lives. Nuclear fusion is what powers our sun by the fusion of hydrogen at very high temperatures and pressures; development of this technology has been underway for more than 50 years, and advances now look very hopeful, with sustainable nuclear fusion on earth, likely to be achieved in a research environment within 20 years, although a further 10 years at least will be needed to start building commercial fusion power stations.
Zero carbon electricity for all our energy needs by 2050, is only one side of the equation; the other side is how we use it.
In a stationary situation where the electric equipment doesn’t move, such as in a factory or in our homes, it’s just a matter of the usual cables to deliver the power, but when it comes to moving users of electric power such as vehicles, ships and planes we have to package it for them to carry the energy that they need. Fossil fuels like petrol and diesel, are packaged energy, so to package electricity we can either charge a battery, or fill a tank with hydrogen that can feed a fuel cell, that converts it into electricity. Hydrogen is easy to produce by electrolysis of abundant water, and it has a very high energy density in weight terms, as well as being non-toxic. There are some other non-carbon alternatives such as ammonia which is zero carbon but toxic and much more difficult to handle.
The main disadvantage of battery storage of energy for a vehicle, is the relatively long time it takes to charge it, especially when the charging point that you want to use, is already occupied; whereas it takes the same time to refill a vehicle with hydrogen as it takes to refill with petrol or diesel. Batteries are a heavy load that the vehicle has to haul around, wasting energy. While high speed battery charging reduces the life of a battery, new technologies are emerging that may reduce this problem, but the diminishing availability of battery materials such as Lithium and
Cobalt will become a new challenge.
Battery only vehicles are a logical progression from fossil fuels to hydrogen powered vehicles, because the electric supply infrastructure is already in place, and it’s just a matter of installing the charging points. It will take time to install hydrogen filling pumps, although the UK has ten in the south-east and there several elsewhere, such as in Abergavenny, Aberdeen, Coventry, Rotherham and Sheffield. At present most hydrogen production in this country is by steam reforming of methane which produces CO2 so it is not zero carbon, however hydrogen for energy will be produced by the electrolysis of water using an electrolyser. ITM Power is constructing the largest electrolyser factory in the world in Sheffield a joint venture with Linde, to manufacture mainly 5 MW electrolysers to a total of 1 GW a year.
While the UK is setting an example to other nations by committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as we started the conversion of heat into mechanical energy that sparked the Industrial Revolution in the 17th century, we now need to help other nations decarbonise their economies with technical and financial assistance.