[Blog post from zeroemissionproject.com]
While the world is still watching to understand the full-scale implications of the nuclear power plant disaster that happened last 11th March at the Fukushima's nuclear power plant in Japan, it is a good time to mull over the UK energy strategy for the long term future.
Nuclear power has been regarded as one of the best energy solutions to satisfy the rising British energy demand and, at the same time, to reduce carbon emissions and meet the government's targets.
As of 2010, the United Kingdom operates 19 nuclear reactors at 9 locations: Hunterstone and Torness in Scotland, Wylfa in Wales, Hartlepool, Heysham, Sizewell, Dungeness, Hinkley Point and Berkeley in England.
While the Scottish Parliament has decided that Scotland will have no new nuclear power plants and is aiming to a non-nuclear future investing heavily in renewable energy, in November 2009, the British Government identified ten nuclear sites which could accommodate new future reactors: Bradwell in Essex, Braystones, Kirksanton, Sellafield in Cumbria, Hartlepool, Heysham in Lancashire, Hinkley Point in Somerset, Oldbury in Gloucestershire, Sizewell in Suffolk, Dungeness in Kent and Wylfa in North Wales. In October 2010, the sites at Braystones, Kirksanton and Dungeness were ruled out by Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne with the list of eleven potential sites reduced to eight.
The diagram below (source Energy Information Administration - EIA) shows the UK nuclear power production by source.
As of 2006, the annual UK nuclear energy generation was about 70 TWh (19.26% of the total British energy mix) and it is declining. However, if the government's nuclear plan goes ahead, there will probably be a future rise in the total nuclear power production. We may estimate that, in a number of years, maybe by 2025, the annual nuclear energy production will reach 100 TWh - though it might be slightly less because of planned decommission of some of the oldest plants. That's still much less than the 300 TWh generated annually by thermal power plants (i.e. coal, oil and gas), but nonetheless a considerable amount of energy.
Going nuclear is indeed a solution to reduce carbon emissions, though the price to pay would be to add a big amount of nuclear waste - which means we do have to either pollute the air or the land.
However, something could probably be done to avoid at least part of this pollution and maybe reduce the public fear of a nuclear disaster like the one happened in Fukushima.
What about reducing the demand for that energy? Sometimes the easiest solutions are the most difficult to accept. It is undoubtedly true that big centralized power stations are still needed to generate enough power for big industrial sites, but if we managed to dramatically reduce the amount of energy that the entire British residential and small commercial building stock sucks every year out of the national energy grid, we may probably need less nuclear power plants.
According to a study of the University of Strathclyde, some examples of the varying levels of electricity consumption from household to household are as follows:
Let's assume the average annual electricity consumption for a British household is 3,880kWh (as a real-life example, my household is formed of a working couple and a young girl and the annual electricity consumption has been just 2,153kWh last year; the 3,880kWh estimate is well above). According to the Office for National Statistics, as of 2006 the number of households in the UK was 24.9 million, which means that a ballpark estimate for the total household electricity consumption is 96.6 TWh in a year. That's amazingly close to the estimated annual nuclear energy production.
This has huge implications. In theory, we could totally scrap all the nuclear power plants and power the entire British housing stock by using just on-site micro-generation.
In the south of England, a roof mounted 4kWp solar electricity system generates about 3,600kWh in a year; the same 4kWp system generates about 3,100 kWh in northern Scotland. Considering 3,350kWh as average value and scaling it up by the total number of British households, the result is 83.4 TWh per year.
This solution would leave some open issues to be addressed, such as the problem of renewable energy fluctuation and the problem of the decommission of solar panels after their 25 year's lifetime.
Dealing with a highly fluctuating and intermittent energy network can be addressed as Spanish, Germans and Danes do - and the UK has great pumped-hydro storage facilities to deal with energy lulls.
The problem of solar panel disposal has much less environmental consequences than the decommission of a nuclear power plant. Solar energy doesn’t generate nuclear waste and much of the materials used to produce PV solar panels can be recycled.
However, this amazing result can be achieved only if there is the necessary political and economic drivers to enable key decisions on how Britain will be powered in the future.
What needs to be done is to draw the economic interest of the major energy companies from managing big centralized power plants such as nuclear power stations to managing a big but distributed network of small on-site solar electricity systems.
The information and views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of RenewableEnergyWorld.com or the companies that advertise on this Web site and other publications. This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.