The Death of Coal Mining and the Nuclear Alternative

Boris Johnson has said that the Glasgow climate deal is a “game-changing agreement” which sounds “the death knell for coal power”. Let us hope so. My father worked down a pit in Nottinghamshire in his early life and was all for replacing coal power stations by nuclear power. Coal mining is not just a great creator of pollution but is also positively dangerous for the miners.

China is one of the largest consumers and producers of coal and in 2019 there were 316 deaths of coal miners in that country. That was an improvement on previous years but it is still a horrific number.

Nuclear power is considered to be dangerous by some people but in reality it is remarkably safe. For example the Fukushima event in Japan in 2018 only directly caused the death of one person. For a very good analysis of the safety of various energy sources go here: https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy

One problem with nuclear power is that it tends to be produced in plants that have very high capital costs and take many years to build. They are also vulnerable to faults when in operation. This often results in very expensive costs in comparison with coal or gas. But that might be solved by the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) where Rolls-Royce (RR.) has a potential technology lead from their experience in building nuclear reactors to power submarines.

They have recently obtained more funding from the Government and from partners to develop this business – see the Rolls-Royce press release here:  https://www.rolls-royce.com/media/press-releases/2021/08-11-2021-rr-announces-funding-secured-for-small-modular-reactors.aspx

Will that enable Rolls-Royce to recover from the dire impacts of the Covid epidemic on its aero engine business? Perhaps but not for some years in the future I would estimate. Developing new technology and new production methods is always vulnerable to hitches of various kinds which tends to mean that it takes longer than expected.

There are of course alternatives to nuclear power such as wind power, hydroelectricity and solar. But wind power is intermittent thus requiring investment in big batteries to smooth the load and in the last year there was less wind that normally expected in the UK. This has impacted the results of companies such as The Renewables Infrastructure Group (TRIG) and Greencoat UK Wind (UKW).

Which technology will be the winner in solving the clean energy problem is not at all clear but I would bet that coal is definitely on the way out for electricity production although it might survive for use in steel manufacturing. UK coal fired power stations are scheduled to be closed down by 2024 and already the UK can go for many weeks without them being in operation.

Whether you accept the Government is right to aim for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or not, we must surely all welcome the replacement of coal power generation by other sources.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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The Importance of Back-Up Power Supplies and the Net Zero Promise

The importance of having an alternative power supply came home to us last week when contractors laying a new electricity supply down our street cut through our gas supply pipe. But we were prepared for that kind of event as gas boilers frequently go wrong so we have a couple of electric fan heaters.

If they had cut through our electric supply or our internet/telephone connection we were prepared for that also. But this does demonstrate the folly of the Government wanting us to install electric heat pumps to replace gas boilers. With no electricity there would be no light nor heating. I would advise anyone who installs an electric heat pump boiler to ensure they have a traditional fireplace on which they can throw some logs in an emergency.

One of the big problems at present is that the Government has not taken reasonable steps to ensure that the country has alternative power supply sources whether it be coal, gas, nuclear, wind power, hydroelectric or from other sources. Clearly we have become over-reliant on natural gas from sources that have recently become very expensive. The potential for producing our own natural gas from fracking has also been missed due to political unwillingness to face up to the objectors.

The Government now seems committed to pushing ahead with a big new nuclear power station at Sizewell C and possibly other smaller nuclear reactors at other sites. See the recently published Government paper on its Net Zero Strategy (see reference 1 below).

That document is full of fine words but is the objective to totally decarbonise our economy really practical? Building nuclear power stations to generate electricity might enable the replacement of natural gas for heating and for the replacement of internal combustion engines in cars and vans, but will it actually be carbon free? It occurred to me that building a nuclear power station takes enormous amounts of concrete and steel, both of which currently require carbon-based energy sources to produce them.

A quick search of the internet produced a very good paper on this subject by the Ecologist (see reference 2 below). The author’s conclusion was that nuclear power is not low carbon if you take into account the “whole of life” emissions including those in the mining of uranium fuel and end of life remediation and storage.

In fact no alternative power sources are carbon free. Hydropower is one of the best but still generates 10 gCO2/kWh while solar PV and wind power might be considerably higher. There is no major power source that is carbon free so any objective to be “net zero” by 2050 is nonsense.

The projections also assume that future technology yet to be proven or even developed can produce steel and concrete with zero emissions and planes and HGVs can be powered by alternative sources.

Carbon emissions can be reduced to some extent no doubt by the use of selected generation systems with a focus on electrification and the planting of a lot more trees but nobody should be fooled that net zero is achievable by 2050. There is little discussion of the cost of rebuilding the economy in the way suggested and a lot of it will fall on the general public.

They have only just come to realise that the Government’s plans to stop the sale of gas boilers in new homes by 2025 and altogether by 2035 will mean massive costs to install electric pump boilers.

Of course 2050, or even 2035, are long in the future so promises and commitments can be made that are truly castles in the sky. But reality will sink in sooner or later.

As I have said before, the best and only truly effective way to cut carbon emissions is to reduce the number of people on this planet. At present the growth in world population and the industrialisation of lesser developed countries easily offsets the savings that might be made in carbon emissions by the UK or other western economies.

Reference 1: Government’s Net Zero Paper: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/net-zero-strategy

Reference 2: Ecologist paper on Nuclear Power: https://theecologist.org/2015/feb/05/false-solution-nuclear-power-not-low-carbon

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

You can “follow” this blog by clicking on the bottom right in most browsers or by using the Contact page to send us a message requesting. You will then receive an email alerting you to new posts as they are added.