More heat than light on Question Time

For those not familiar with British television, Question Time is a weekly show on the BBC that allows members of a self-selected audience (i.e. you have to ask to be in it) to pose questions on current events to a 5-person panel of politicians and celebrities. Last Thursday’s panel included the verbally-incontinent former deputy Prime Minister (Lord) John Prescott, the (unusually angry-sounding) comedian Griff Rhys Jones, and the UK’s Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP. Therefore, given that the audience knows who the panelists are going to be in advance, I guess that a question about energy policy was almost inevitable. It came about two-thirds of the way through the hour-long programme. The programme is viewable in the UK on the BBC’s iPlayer but, it has been posted on You Tube in four parts. The very prejudicial question on energy policy (i.e. in effect it was: “Wind power has failed us but can nuclear do any better?”) is posed at 06:40 in Part 3 of 4 on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrBj64M4DGU&feature=relmfu David Willetts, government minister for Universities, was asked to respond first and – as did Prescott – emphasised the need for a good mix of energy sources. Lucas interrupted him to make a number of points including that nuclear is uneconomic and subsidised(?); that we still don’t have a solution for the waste, and suggested that we do not need nuclear power to solve our energy problems. A number of her more questionable assertions went unchallenged; as indeed did those of others (e.g. Lucas did not challenge the sensibility of carbon capture and storage [CCS]), but one that did get challenged – big time – was the assertion that we can do without nuclear. Lucas also made the fundamental point that we must reduce demand for energy by pursuing efficiency, but she failed to challenge the tired old argument that wind is unreliable (and it was left to someone in the audience to make the point that tidal power is always available). However, it was the contribution of Rhys-Jones that I found most astonishing (11:45 to 14:25 in the above video): Rhys-Jones’ anger vented in the direction of wind turbines was astonishing (especially given some other very sensible anger he vented in the direction of the selfish bankers who caused the financial meltdown of 2008 earlier in the programme). Amongst other things: — He insisted that he is not a climate change sceptic (just “a solution sceptic”). — He mocked the UK’s attempts to reduce its own emissions as futile tokenism. — He ridiculed the suggestion that we could meet our energy needs by renewables alone. — He lamented 20 years of non-decision making (as I do) because he is pro-nuclear (as I am). However, his most contentious remark was to claim that to replace the output of a single nuclear power station would require 300 square miles of wind turbines “standing shoulder to shoulder”. I was so sure this was nonsense but not sure where to start to rebut it, so I emailed a few friends to help me. Their responses were varied (some pro-wind, some pro-nuclear) but, despite being a pragmatist (i.e. in favour of both), I was determined to get to prove Rhys-Jones wrong; and believe I can now do so: There is a problem, however, which is Rhys-Jones’ use of the phrase “standing shoulder to shoulder”. This conjures up images of early wind farms in California where the turbines were placed in tightly-packed arrays. It was soon discovered that turbulence reduced the wind speed passing turbines sited in the wake of others. I could do the maths based on such flawed design but it would be pointless. It would be much better to do the maths on lower density arrays, as would be built today, and determine how much space is required to generate the output of a 1 GW nuclear power station… With the benefit of decades of experience and modelling using wind tunnels and computers, a typical array built today has a triangular matrix composed of rows of wind turbines with a spacing of 4D by 8D, where D is the turbine diameter (i.e. 4D = distance between rows; 8D = distance between turbines in a row). With a turbine diameter of 60m, 4D = 240m, and 8D = 480m, which yields a turbine density of 12 per square kilometer (or 31 per square mile). If 1 turbine has an output of 1MW, then 1 square mile could yield 32MW; 100 square miles could yield 3.2GW; and 300 square miles 9.6GW. Thus, even adopting a modern definition of “shoulder to shoulder” Rhys-Jones appears to be out by a factor of almost 10 (i.e. a 1GW nuclear power station is equivalent to just over 30 square miles of wind turbines). However, all of this is somewhat academic because I do not think anyone would want to see our countryside blanketed in wind farms; nor is anyone actually proposing that we should do so (this is just the nightmare scenario peddled by those who don’t like wind turbines). On the contrary, there is no need for us to do this. We have numerous other existing renewable technologies; what we need to do is invest in all of them simultaneously (believe me – I have tried it on the DECC Pathways 2050 tool). Such investment would include the following: — Investment in new solar farms that can generate electricity even when it is cloudy; and then store it and discharge it at night. — Investment in tidal stream systems that can generate electricity all the time. Beyond that, as Lucas pointed out, the solution lies in reducing demand; and/or getting as many people as possible off the power grid altogether. This is why the government should be promoting the installation of Solar PV systems on the roof of every single suitable property (especially public buildings); and legislating to ensure all new buildings are as energy and water efficient as possible (because treating water to make it drinkable takes a lot of energy). Going back to the Question Time programme, the biggest cheer came when a member of the audience raised the spectre of energy from waste (EfW) – a local waste incinerator was clearly a very contentious proposal. This suggests that most objections to alternative energy systems boil down to “Not In My Back Yard” protests (i.e. small-minded NIMBYism). For the record, I would much rather live next to a modern waste incinerator than an old unlined landfill. Compared to historic waste disposal, EfW is not only a sustainable solution – it is also cleaner. I therefore think that people will just have to get used to EfW because we must maximise recycling; and re-use whatever we can to generate energy. Burying waste in the ground must be the last resort for the residual waste that cannot be put to any other use. People do seriously need to get over NIMBYism; and start thinking about the quality of the environment they wish to bequeath to their children; and herein lies the problem: Most people do not realise the nature, scale, and urgency of our need to decarbonise our energy generation systems. I suspect that our governments do but, as last week’s draft Energy Bill demonstrates, they are either lying to us and themselves; or they are pinning all their hopes on CCS. In fact, as James Hansen suggests in Storms of my Grandchildren, they are doing both: Hansen says we should FART* (16 November 2011); and What’s wrong with clean coal? (21 November 2011). ————————– * FART = Fundamentally alter resource trajectories (i.e. my acronym not his).

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Carbon Capture and Storage, Climate Science, Economics, Energy Crisis, Environment, Politics, Renewable Energy, Storms of my Grandchildren, Sustainable development and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to More heat than light on Question Time

  1. Patrice Ayme says:

    For some reason about the frequencies, people complain lots about wind turbine noise, starting at 35 db… Denmark has a major coal use, largest, proportionally in Europe, because when winds die down, coal it is. The problem of base energy is here to stay, except if covers the world with huge dams. Only nuclear, of which there are 100 variants (only one is used to this day, and only partly so) fit the bill. PA

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  2. pendantry says:

    Lucas interrupted him to make a number of points including that nuclear is uneconomic and subsidised(?)” Why the question mark? Does this mean that you doubt that nuclear power is subsidised? Is there any doubt? For instance, who pays if there’s a major accident? I think we (taxpayers), no? “I would much rather live next to a modern waste incinerator than an old unlined landfill” Personally, I’d rather not live next to either (I’m pretty sure that even modern waste incinerators still pump toxins into the air); and that’s not just nimbyism on my part, it’s recognition that we must use our celebrated smarts to figure out how to recycle things completely, not in the half-hearted way we do now.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Colin, you and I will probably never see eye-to-eye on nuclear energy; although I think I am now on the same page as you with regard to the immediate environmental dangers of fracking (more later this week on that from me). However, I may have to concede that the government is effectively acting as ultimate guarantor for the nuclear industry when it comes to the potential cost of dealing with major “incidents”. This undoubtedly reduces the risks that investors must take account of before getting involved in building new generation power plants. I published my views on nuclear energy – and the history of non-decision making and official obfuscation of facts that has troubled it for decades – on this blog last November. Therefore, I would be delighted if it can be proven that we can live without nuclear in the long-term because, as things stand, the greatest single thing that makes the playing field uneven (a “subsidy” if you must) is that the taxpayer will pay the bill for the deep geological disposal of all the waste. This is a reality we must face because, even if we do build FBR’s to burn most of the waste that already exists and may yet be created, we will still need to dispose of some waste. Furthermore, even though FBR’s could eliminate the most long-lived and highly-radioactive waste, I doubt people would accept surface storage underwater in perpetuity. Therefore, the construction of a deep geological repository is an inevitable least-worst option and, while the industry will self-finance the baby-sitting of the waste at the surface, taxpayers will have to pay the tens of billions of pounds it will cost to build it. OK, I admit it, may be I should dispense with the question mark but, since Lucas did not explain what she meant, you and I are only guessing… 🙂

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      • pendantry says:

        Perhaps you’re right that we’ll never agree on nukeyouleer power — but I suspect we’ll each continue trying to persuade the other 🙂 There’s no need to guess about Caroline Lucas’s views on nuclear power. A quick search led me to this two-minute video where she reminds me that another way in which nuclear power does not pay its own way is by avoiding the — substantial! — decommissioning costs at the end of a nuclear power station’s life. As you concede that the government we taxpayers are left with a hefty chunk of the costs, I think the least you could do is remove your question mark 😛

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      • Rick Altman says:

        For the avoidance of any doubt, I should just say that I have a great deal of respect for Caroline Lucas and I am always impressed by the calm and measured tone she adopts in making her arguments. In the video she says that nuclear power is (1) unsafe; (2) uneconomic; and (3) unnecessary (but she does not present any evidence – only rhetoric). However, taking these in turn, my pragmatic (i.e. non-ideological and non-technological optimist) position is that: (1) We cannot un-invent the technology and we must find solutions to the waste legacy we already have; (2) I acknowledge that the taxpayer will have to pay for ultimate waste disposal (but not the decommissioning of plants – my understanding is that the operators will have to finance this); and (3) Given my pragmatism, I would genuinely be delighted if someone could demonstrate that in the longer-term (i.e. 10 billion people living above the poverty line) humanity can live on renewables alone. On this latter point, my own calculation is that 1 nuclear power station would have to be replaced with 30 square miles of wind turbines; and 1 coal-fired power station the size of Drax with 120 square miles of turbines… Given that none of us wants wind turbines everywhere we look, a renewables-only solution will require an awful lot of energy efficiency and/or self-sufficiency to be implemented. But, to repeat myself once again, no-one will be more delighted than me if humanity decides that such a solution is necessary and makes it become a reality.

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      • pendantry says:

        I suspected that you would raise the “where’s the evidence” objection. It’s difficult to provide evidence in two minutes. There’s plenty about, though much is hidden, as you say, in rhetoric, and slanted by ideology. I’d suggest starting at A is for atom.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        OK – I will watch it.

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    • Patrice Ayme says:

      Coal and oil are subsidized too, and first by our very health. Blank condemnations of nuclear energy will inevitably degenerate in condemning Earth herself, a nuclear reactor that provides us with churning of continents to bury carbon, and thus create life.

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  3. Martyn Apse says:

    Griff Rhys Jones most fatuous and incredibly ill-informed remarks were that Fukushima was no danger. Then why is there a massive exclusion zone around the still dangerous plant, and clean-up costs running into billions?

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for the comments Martyn. I would not want to take anything away from the heroism shown by workers stabilising the plant in the immediate aftermath of the original failure of generators that were unable to be kept going after the tsunami. However, can you tell me how many people have died as a direct result of the meltdowns at Fukushima? Also, if it is still so dangerous to go there, why did the government minister tour the wrecked reactor building in a paper suit?

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