The Energy Conundrum

Gareth Wyn Jones says we need to move away from our dependency on fossil fuels.

Our society’s prosperity is built on cheap reliable, controllable energy. We have every reason to thank James Watts, Richard Trevithick and the other pioneers of stream power. For some 200 years our society has been powered by cheap hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil and gas) to push, pull and turn the engines of our lives. We haven’t needed maids or grooms or horses as we have our cars, wagons, washing machines and computers.

The estimates of our average annual energy consumption to keep, feed and entertain ourselves are staggering. Perhaps best appreciated in relation to a single-bar conventional electric fire ‘burning’ 24 kW hours of electricity in day. Using this as the unit, we on average, each and everyone of us, use about 6 to 7 electric fire units, day and night, throughout the every year!

But we know with an awful certainty that this cannot continue. The growing threat from global warming and climate change means that we must, in barely two decades, re-engineer our society away from its dependence on greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels. Already we know of far greater reserves of coal, oil and gas than we can possible burn without seriously damage to planetary life support systems. The evidence of global change grows relentlessly, month by month, crisis by crisis, death by death. From Karachi to California, from the Larsen Ice Shelves to the Laptev Sea, the prognosis is stark. Still of course some choose to bury their heads in the warming sands, although the strong likelihood is that, with a developing El Nino event, this year will trounce 2014 as the hottest year in the modern record. Worse every year we delay binds us into more and more change. The Pope has now added his voice and authority to this argument. The evidence denies the deniers.

What therefore are our re-engineering options here in Wales and world-wide?

Humanity is indeed in it together as the atmosphere is common good and the climate change impacts indiscriminate and partly unpredictable, but the solutions are probably to be found more locally.

There are no simple options. Every possible energy source has its problems as well as its virtues and, as your letters pages show, its supporters and fierce opponents. As a result Welsh and UK governments have vacillated and prevaricated.

Undoubtedly the first and best option is to use less energy, to be less profligate. Germany, Demark and other countries have clear targets, not just to divorce energy use from economic growth or less energy use per head, but to reduce total energy use. We should too. With less wanton waste, the adoption of modern technologies, better insulation, regulation and planning, most agree we can save over 35% of our total energy bill. Probably we would be fitter and happier as a result. In Wales this could reduce our internal consumption from ~100 TWh to below 65TWh.

But what then of supply?

Some advocate carbon capture and storage(CCS) within the existing fossil fuel economy, but to date this has proven fraught and uneconomic. Storing hundreds of billions of tonnes of a CO2-storage compound annually, and safely, would be an enormous, and probably impractical challenge.

Nuclear electricity is very expensive, slow to construct (remembering the re-engineering timeline is very tight), potentially dangerous e.g. think Fukushima and terrorism, produces a thousand-year problem of storing deadly radioactive waste.  Clearly it is inappropriate in much of our contested, violent world. What price a nuclear power station in hands of ISIS? However it is reliable and, to an extent, proven but would a Nuclear Power Station on the Thames estuary in say Tilbury be a goer?

Renewable sources are diverse and relatively plentiful in Wales but still contentious. Their development is not cheap, but costs are falling. Some are intermittent and unpredictable making matching supply and demand more difficult. On-shore wind and increasingly solar photo-voltaics are becoming economically competitive but have low load factors. But some see them as a blight our landscape, much the same is said of pylons carrying nuclear or other large point-source electricity to the large users.  Off-shore wind in less visually intrusive but more expensive. Small-scale hydro is resisted by the fishing lobby and some conservationists as it can impact on other environment interests, but has significant advantages’ especially in the Welsh hills. Aerobic digestion of human and other wastes is assumed to be smelly. Significant wood biomass would result in 20 to 30 years from an expansion of Wales’ woodland to ~400,00ha as is the WG formal policy. Electricity from tidal barrages and lagoons ponds, and even tidal flow, is currently expensive and the infrastructures have impacts on sediment distribution and maybe wildlife. But they have the great advantage of long-term predictability, and given the tidal flows around us, a source of continual power. Ground, air and water source heat pumps are non-contentious and effective in well-insulated spaces.

So despite the clear indications that Wales could be more than self sufficient in renewable energy, both electricity and heat, progress is painfully slow. Worst: the public debate is dominated by the shrill calls of special interests.

We define our priorities clearly.

  • We must cut our greenhouse gas emissions within about 20 years by about 80% and recognise that time is not on our side!

  • The logical place to start is with much improved energy use efficiency, which can have a short lead-time. This means insulating homes and buildings, promoting a rapid move to EVs, electrifying trains, much better special and local planning, encouraging walking, cycling and above all personal responsibility.

  • Target >35% decrease in energy demand by 2035 from current ~100TWh.
  • We must engage with all Welsh people so that they can appreciate both the global problem and the solutions, many of which lie in their hands. The greater the local involvement and energy production greater the chance of individuals and communities become energy conscious and responsible. Why not run competitions for Wales’ most energy efficient family and/or community?

  • WG must engage with the networks to make sure good renewable schemes are not undermined by connection charges.

  • We must avoid being side-tract by fracking which simply delays a coherent answer.

  • We must avoid subsidised nuclear electricity. The lead times are too long, the technology to cumbersome with too many long term risks and will result in a half century of outlay to benefit not the Welsh people but foreign capital.

  • The best answer must surely lie in saving and mix of renewable sources.

In my second article I will consider the potential and problems with each source of the renewable electricity and heat source and the vexed issue of balancing supply and demand on a second by second and seasonal basis.

Gareth Wyn Jones is Professor Emeritus of Bangor University.

9 thoughts on “The Energy Conundrum

  1. Thanks Gareth for enunciating some of the options. However, you note that “we must avoid being sidetracked by fracking which simply delays a coherent answer.” The opposite is surely the case. Fracking provides reliable, long term solutions and would elevate Wales into the realm of a major energy producer – anybody remember the days of coal? The people of Wales, and Welsh Government in particular, have to get real on a number of issues – shale gas extraction being one.

  2. A very good article which makes important points. I think GWJ displays some deep green versus green bias though. Is carbon capture really more difficult and costly than, say, tidal stream technology? It is hard to make predictions about future technological change and I suspect this judgement owes more to GWJ’s aversion to any use of fossil fuels than to evidence. Similarly nuclear in geologically and politically stable region can’t really be nixed by talk of Fukishima or ISIS. So long as it stops carbon emissions, use whatever works.

  3. Like Gareth I have been convinced about Global Warming for a very long time(I joined FOE in 1972) . The Science is clear, its the Politics and Economics that is difficult. Yes the atmosphere is a common resource and there in lies the tragic problem. If we in Wales and Europe use less fossil fuel its price drops which only makes it more attractive to others. When carbon intensive industries are dissuaded to locate here but can manufacture elsewhere and we then import their products; how does the earth gain?
    There is no world government and even if there were it would need dictatorial powers to prevent people seeking short term gains. The only possible answer ,short of a catastrophic solution, is that low cost renewable technologies will make harder to extract fossil fuels too expensive to burn.

  4. If today we stop digging up and burning the world’s carbon stores – which make the planet habitable – it is still probable that we have already set in chain long term climate change that will make life very difficult for future generations. The only reason why I have not put ‘impossible’ in lieu of ‘difficult’ in the above sentence is that mankind is unlikely to dig up all the carbonates (principally limestones) that form a major part of the world’s carbon storage systems. The current reality of our abuse of the planet is that we are 100% dependent on fluid fossil fuels for land transport, have no alternative in development, and such things as electric trains are irrelevant, even if they were more thermally efficient than diesel ones, which they are not.

    Whilst we could, and should, move quickly to low energy input renewable systems for industry and domestic use, and there are many technologies under active development that could deliver this quickly, we use getting on for 40% of our total energy supply (and 75% of fluid fossil fuels) on land transport. We might squeeze (in the UK overall) 40TWh out of the grid to fuel electric cars, but if we do, a) it will only address about 5% of the problem, b) if powered by fossil fuel power stations lead to an increase in overall emissions, and c) do nothing about any of the other problems the motor vehicle presents us with.

    Current UK government thinking, if it can be called that, it focused on increasing transport emissions – Heathrow, smart motorways (the ultimate oxymoron?), more motorways (Newport M4 duplication), HS2 (which will need a new nuclear power station all for itself), Crossrail 1 and 2 for Londoners only…

    Land transport is the key to cutting carbon emissions; it we don’t even try on this front (and currently we are not trying at all), then everything else we do is going to fail to achieve the objective of a low carbon future. We need new thinking in land transport, such as Second Generation Rail, where we cut emissions by 99%+, move to renewables as the prime mover, and can afford to give everyone access, not just a privelidged, subsidised affluent few.

    And in Wales? Well, the Assembly just passed on an opportunity to stop opencast coal mining, where total carbon emissions are many times the actual amount of coal extracted and last for centuries. Like Thursday’s Child, it seems we have far to go if our current set of politicians are in possession of the torch of progress. Taking it out of the bucket of water, drying it, applying a match, and holding it where we can see where we are going would be a start. Doing more of the same makes matters worse, not better.

  5. Jack, Gareth is right to state that fracking can’t be part of the answer. The evidence is in a report written specifically on the climate change impacts of shale gas by DECC Paragraphs 88-89 of that report make it very clear that shale gas can’t contribute to decarbonisation unless it’s accompanied by:
    – Carbon capture and storage (which despite R Tredwyn’s aspirations, has zero prospect of being available at scale and on a timescale which is useful for the massive decarbonisation we need)
    – ‘Negative emissions technologies’ such as “artificial trees”. Good luck with that.
    – Leaving other fossil fuels in the ground that would otherwise have been used.

  6. Hi all,

    Gareth has asked me to post his response to these comments, which you’ll be able to see below:

    My dismissal of fracking is based on hard numbers not sentiment. The best available evidence e.g Nicolas Stern,Kevin Anderson, indicates we need to reduce our global GHG emissions from about 7 tonnes CO2 equivalent per head [CO2e] currently to 1.5 to 2 tonnes per head CO2e by about 2040 to avoid very serious trouble. (The Welsh and UK per head emissions are well above 7 tonnes). Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show that the global food chain is the source of some 25% of our emissions i.e. about 1.75 tonnes per head. Even this is an underestimate as it omits many processes e.g industrial nitrogen fertilizer production, that are vital to our food supply. Feeding the growing human population is an international priority and any medium-term emissions strategy must take this into account. While significant cuts are possible [see our 2010 Report to WG on “Land use and Climate Change] the food chain will become, proportionally, an increasing contributor to emissions [N20, CH4 as well as CO2].

    Gas use is about twice as efficient as coal in terms of emissions, but it nevertheless is and would be a major source of atmospheric CO2. So the numbers suggest pretty unambiguously that gas, or worse oil (fracked or otherwise) will not provide a panacea and allow for emissions from our food chain and other essentials, if the required cuts in global emissions over the next 20 years or so are to be achieved.

    My point about the dangers of nuclear power station in many countries is indisputable. Nuclear is not a global answer to the challenge of global warming. Of course the situation in the relatively calm UK is different but the safe storage of radioactive waste is a multi-1000 year issue (compare with the time-lapse from Roman Britain). Since the future is unknowable, it seems prudent to avoid this option if possible. In the Welsh context, with a judicious mix of energy saving and renewables, I argue it is avoidable. Both nuclear and tidal lagoons may be very roughly equally expensive but the renewable technologies are evolving and may well lead to opportunities and export markets for local companies whereas the nuclear option will tie us into 50-year contact with foreign capital.

    There are no free painless options and we need a reasoned quantitative debate. It is likely that with the renewables option we will need to sacrifice other environmental interests (hardly deep green). But consider the consequences of destablizing the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and the chaos of a 5 to 10 meter increase in sea level to human and wild life.

  7. Jessica/Gareth thanks for the response which is all about the science(which I do not dispute) but is silent on the economics and the politics.

  8. We’re on the same side here but as a non- scientist there is something I don’t understand. Welsh coal is very gassy – hence all the disasters like Six Bells and Senghenydd when the methane caught fire. Coal bed methane must be plentiful in Welsh mines and it is lighter than air. If you burn it you produce CO2, which is heavier than air. So why is it so hard to let the methane out, burn it for power, catch the CO2 and stick it back into the worked out mines? That seems much more low tech than developing solar power. Both GWJ and Gareth Club assert there is “no chance” of making carbon capture economical. Really? How do we know? Is it really more expensive than the Swansea barrage which needs £165 a megawatt hour to break even? Distributed generation seems a good idea. if every ex-mining village had its own mini power station on the old pit head that would go a long way to meeting the objective. I suspect fashion accounts for a lot of technology choices because no-one can really predict in advance which technology will develop faster.

  9. The labour wag administration along with the very dubious project green have ensured that high and dangerous pollution is here to stay. They have ensured that 1. The funding and building of a toxic incinerator which burns mixed waste of all origins by the wag and pg adds massively to the already very high pollution rates of wales especially south wales. Which now has the worst pollution in the the whole uk. This unwanted incinerator which goes under the fancy name of energy from waste is basically a concrete and metal box with a huge bonfhire inside it, and some inadequate filters at the top to try to stop the worst bits of pollution, but it will fail, and the health of the people of wales will now suffer immensly, as this is a slow poisener of health. Anyone who remembers rechem will remember the dioxins, furens and pm2.5 poisens that came from it with devastating effect on the landscape, what goes up must come down. Worse still is the fact that most modern waste is a combination of many dangerous chemicals and long chain organic benzypyrene pollutants. Incinerators are toxic baby killers according to many studies, the best of which is that of Dr Michael Ryan which proved that still births and deformities in new born infants rise considerably around a 20 mile radius of incinerators. Now they want to burn nuclear waste in it. And thats without the plans for massive imports of highly dangerous other materials they plan to burn. Cardiff along with other authorities have also gone into wheelie bins in a big way whether the citizens want them or not. At the moment the weekly lifting of these bins in cardiff alone contribute around 100 tons of carbon pollution, and its set to increase. I spent 40 years in waste management and hazardous waste and have dealt with incinerators and visted them all over europe. I have the honour of closing down some 40 of them in wales when i was working. And thought i had seen the last of them. I have campaigned for 15 years now to the government about welsh pollution and the “Trickle effect” of the 500+ processes curtently pouring gases intomour atmosphere around south wales. Given the choice between incinerators and fracking, i’ll take fracking any day. The biggest threat to the environment and our health in wales is the labour welsh assembly and local authorities. Wake up wales and smell the pollution its your future health i am concerned about. In a week when president Obama made great strides in trying to tackle pollution, we need to stop the march of the incinerators, save the waste for reuse not destruction we will desperatly need it in the future. Worse still is the readily available technology that will recycle 100% of our waste without any pollution or wheelie bins. Wales desperately needs and environmental champion before its too late. In the first international climate change summit we learned that the human race was pumping out some 15 billion tons of pollution per annum, we have had numerous world summits since and we are now up to over 36 billion tons per annum. The planet and all organic lifeforms cannot afford anymore polluting incinerators. Its up to you now!

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