Category Archives: Oil

Blackouts or Nuclear Power – UK’s stark choice

The map shows the commercial nuclear power pla...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s a good deal of talk about power today: oil prices retaining their high levels in spite of Saudi offering to make up any shortfall due to Libya, nuclear back-tracking following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and so on.

How, the media seem to be asking, is the UK going to be able to generate sufficient power for its needs in an affordable manner?

Consequently, attention is turning increasingly to sustainable power – particularly as today (27th June), when much of the South East of the country saw temperatures break the 30C mark, was a day marked by the switching-on of the UK’s largest solar power plant, one near Wallingford in Oxford that is expected to generate nearly 700 megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

The trouble is, it’s just not the answer. Nor is wind, tide or any of the other “new technologies” being spoken about.

At present, around 75% of the UK’s maximum power generating capacity is from fossil fuel sources (oil, coal and gas). But, as we know, these resources are being depleted rapidly all over the world (and that’s apart from the well-documented problems of global warming being brought on through the use of fossil fuels). However, for any country – including the UK – to continue to see economic growth, its power requirements grow. In fact, it is estimated that the UK’s power generating capacity will have to increase by at least 25% in the next 10 years – and this figure may be low if oil reserve issues accelerate the necessity to move to electric vehicles.

“Green Technologies” such as wind and solar suffer from a major drawback – a lack of reliability and predictability (and that’s before looking at cost issues which are significant – huge government subsidies benefit the builders but have to be reclaimed from the tax-payer). The fact is that while they will generate power during periods when the wind blows and there is sufficient daylight, this is far from constant, and power is needed on a 24-hour basis. It’s simply impractical from a cost, space, etc., perspective to store such power (assuming you’re generating excess) to any great extent. Yes, the UK has some level of stored-power reserves (mainly using pumped storage technology), but this is limited to around 3% of maximum capacity at present and is unlikely to be able to be increased to any great extent.  So, solar and wind generators need to be backed up by other technologies that can be switched on immediately the wind or light levels drop – effectively meaning a doubling of peak capacity.

Wave power and Tidal power technologies, although more constant, have not yet proven sufficiently scalable, nor reliable, to be of significant practical use either.

Hydro-electric power is well understood, but the UK geology does not really suit it – which is why only about 1% of current electrical power is from hydro-electric schemes here.

The only practical answer is nuclear.

I recognise that this is a highly emotive topic, particularly in the light of the recent events in Japan, but the facts are that today’s technology makes nuclear plants infinitely safer than just about any other form of power generation. Of course, care needs to be taken that they are not sited where natural disasters are likely to cause a breach of the all-important containment vessels, but the UK is fortunate in being extremely stable geologically, so this is not an issue.

Nuclear “waste” – the by-products – can now be safely processed to remove the contaminants and reuse the rods in existing plants, or to utilise other up-coming technologies such as fast-breeder and fusion which can utilise the waste products.  Incidentally, Scientific America published an article showing fly-ash from coal-fired power plants pumps 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than any nuclear facility today…

France today generates something like 85% of its electricity, China is looking at 132 plants by 2030, Korea is planning to obtain 50% of its power from nuclear sources by 2020, as is Japan (still).  The UK simply has no option but to embrace nuclear power – and to do so quickly – or face much higher utility bills and a “return to the dark age” as power shortages loom.

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A Failure of Leadership

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted many problems – problems with the technology for drilling at depths where the water pressure is around a ton per square inch; problems with BP not being transparent from the outset as to the extent of the spill; problems with oil companies putting short-term profits ahead of ensuring that these issues cannot happen; problems with the US Regulators who seemingly have been extremely lax in applying the regulations and have been granting waivers freely to the oil industry; problems with our ability to clean up oil spills even 21 years after Exxon Valdez (what’s happened to Kevin Costner’s centrifuge-based cleaner?)…

But for me, one of the most surprising things to emerge from this has been the failure of leadership. BP’s leadership issues are, to an extent, understandable – although not excusable – in that they have been focused on protecting shareholder value by trying to downplay the size, scope and likely cost of the problem. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour, as I’ve said, but one can understand it, so it’s not too surprising.

No, the leadership failure I’m referring to has been that of President Obama.

I realise that this statement might cause something of a firestorm from some readers of this blog, but bear with me on this for there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken – so it’s not (yet) too late.

We need to recognise that when running for office, then-Senator Barack Obama focused on the need for change – a need that the US population clearly believed in, given the fact that it propelled a largely-unknown junior Senator to the office of President. Central to this theme was his strong belief that things could best be accomplished by working together on the issues with all concerned parties – no matter on which side of the fence they stood.

This, of course, has not been a great success in the Congress and Senate as the divisions have, in many cases, simply been too deep to facilitate working together. The oil spill, though, is a different matter – for there is no question that everyone has a common goal: to stop the leak and clean up the mess as quickly as possible and with as little damage to the environment as is possible.

However, apart from being slow off the mark in terms of visiting the Gulf Coast, President Obama has spent most of his time publicly berating BP rather than being seen to work with them to address the issue in the most comprehensive way. Perhaps he was trying to cover up the shortcomings in his own administration – those regulatory bodies that were not doing their job properly – given the looming mid-term elections, or perhaps his anger simply clouded his judgement. Either way, instead of seeking to work shoulder-to-shoulder with BP and for them to jointly marshal the considerable forces that could be at their disposal if they, and other oil companies, worked together, the situation has become one of adversity. And an adversarial relationship never produces the best overall result.

It’s time for President Obama to put personal feelings and party politics aside on this problem; to work with all stakeholders – oil companies, state and local government (of all political persuasions), and anyone else that can play a positive role. He needs to remember his campaign promise to change the way things are done in Washington, and to work for the best result regardless of personal feelings, of politics and of attribution of blame. There’s plenty of time for all that after the mess is cleaned up.

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