Wind power and nuclear

I read today’s Guardian piece by Adam Vaughan about the cost of offshore wind energy dipping below that of nuclear energy.  That sounds like good news, and news that I don’t think we all expected say 10-15 years ago when these issues were very live.  Those who argued for renewable energy were right to say that renewable energy would get cheaper and cheaper as it was rolled out, developed and improved.

What the Guardian piece doesn’t touch on, and nor has other coverage I’ve seen, is the longer term future. An environmentalist should always be a bit wary about using the economics as the main justification for a choice of action.  We are going to need a lot more electricity to power all those cars which will switch from fossil fuels and to heat our homes etc so how many cheap wind turbines will we need? I’m sure I could find this out somewhere but my thoughts go back to a very thought-provoking book by the late Prof David Mackay, Sustainable energy without the hot air.  I’ve got a copy somewhere and I mean to re-read it to see whether it stands the test of time (a time of nearly 9 years) but you can download a free copy from the website.  The message of the book is that we are going to need an awful lot of stuff to reduce our carbon emissions and that might well mean wind turbines on a very large scale as well as tidal energy as well as wave energy as well as solar and as well as nuclear.  There is, MacKay argued, no technological silver bullet.

It’s always good when a good thing gets cheaper, and it’s good when a good thing is cheaper than a bad thing because it makes it easy for us all to be good, and for industry and government to help individuals be good.  But is nuclear energy a bad thing?  My reading of MacKay’s book pushed me into the ‘we’ll need nuclear too’ camp.  This isn’t my area of expertise and I rely on others who understand the ins and outs far better than I. One of those people was Stephen Tindale who died earlier this year and so he was in my mind when I turned a few more pages of the Guardian and found an obituary of Stephen written by Prashant Vaze (it appeared online many weeks ago).  I wonder what Stephen would have thought?


9 Replies to “Wind power and nuclear”

  1. My main problem with nuclear power is with de-commisioning and waste. I worked in derelict land reclamation many years ago, mainly dealing with the results of the coal mining industry and the expense of returning that land to a reasonable condition. If that was sometimes dangerous and expensive, I shudder to think of what dealing with the after-effects of the nuclear industry will be for future generations and far into the future at that. Until there is the expertise/technology to make waste and old plants safe, quickly and cheaply, I think we should not expand nuclear power stations.
    Why are not all new buildings/ structures designed with renewable energy in mind? Whether solar, wind, geothermal etc. Also retrofitting existing structures? This is what central government should be focusing on.

  2. Another thing to keep an eye on is the efficiency of solar. At the moment a practical 20% is very good (the theoretical max is a full 100%.) But there’s lots of interesting research being done and maybe that 20% could be 40% within just a few years. I’ve reluctantly supported nuclear as part of the mix for many years but what with watching Hinckley unfold alongside the increasing pace of change in other technologies, including storage, I wonder what the scene will look like in another few years.

  3. Unfortunately, nuclear power means nuclear weapons proliferation. That’s how India got their bomb – Canada sold them a reactor “for peaceful purposes” and within a few years, we had the Indian Bomb. Pakistan felt obliged to follow suit. Iran began a nuclear power programme, prompting Israeli airstrikes….nuclear power inevitably makes the world a more dangerous place. Meanwhile, fossil fuel burning turns the Earth into a greenhouse.

    It’s a terrible dilemma, and to reach a more sustainable solution, we have to ask a fundamental question – what do we want all this energy *for*? Under an economic system that makes ever-increasing consumption obligatory, no matter what energy source we use, the end result will be catastrophic – we always end up running out of resources to consume. We have to change the system. Radically reducing energy consumption and switching to non-nuclear renewables is the only way that is compatible with long term survival.

  4. I’d suggest we all keep a very close eye on Tesla’s combined solar-battery storage systems. A key problem for solar has always been intermittency and grid demand/supply. Powerwall batteries deal with the 24hr cycle brilliantly. The costs of solar and storage are falling like a stone. If government were to require all new build to have integrated solar+storage, costs would decline even faster (increased demand would drive both innovations and scale production benefits). Solar is now capable of producing enough to meet demand even in winter, at least in the relatively sunny south. Nuclear and offshore wind are answers if one assumes the ongoing need for large-scale centralised production which is then distributed via a grid to dispersed users; if users are generating their own energy and storing it each home effectively becomes an autonomous power station. University research groups are developing solar power harvesting technologies that can be added to any conceivable surface – windows, roads, paths, walls…….The future is solar!

    1. “suggest we all keep a very close eye on Tesla”

      … and make sure it doesn’t exploit slave and child labour in DRC to provide the cobalt it needs when it finds that north America cannot meet its demands. Vicarious liability should apply to its shills.

      1. Quite right too Filbert. If you use the internet, a computer, mobile phone, electricity, oil, vehicle fuel (with its blended biofuel, aka palm oil) etc etc, you’ll be as guilty as the rest of us in exploiting folks half way across the world. Solutions?

        1. I’m almost alive in 2017 in the UK so of course I’m as guilty as everyone else – apart from the palm oil as I don’t run a stink-wheel vehicle and it’s more than my life is worth, which isn’t much, to bring home anything edible containing palm oil, which is a nuisance because I quite liked Nairn’s oatcakes and I suspect Tesco’s petrol has ethanol snuck into it and their Next Day Text Service is powered by ESP not by elecatricity or it might actually work. But there is no way I will sign up to use any technology that clearly has exploitation built into it from the get-go or which adds to the burden of toxic waste disposal otherwise there is no [insert expletive of choice]ing point. I try to limit my resource consumption as far as possible by not travelling much and never on a bank holiday, not wasting fossil fuels in hot-CO2 balloons and frightening livestock, not going to virtue-signalling conferences in exotic locations, never supporting mass sports events and I bag up the dog’s poop religiously in public places. Those are some of my personal solutions, small I know, but little by little. I wish I could grow more of our own food but the price of giving Nature a Home is having to buy most of it because the rest is eaten by furry, feathery or slimy creatures. I expect also, before I am forced by the loonies that govern us to use an elecatric Jamjar, to go on Eternity Leave.

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