Love Is in the Air: Vladimir Putin, the World's Greenest Politician?

An unexpected actor has more positive impact on the world's climate than Mr. Obama and the EU combined: Vladimir Putin.

Cutting Emissions in India

A look at the construction sector

Why Coal is Worse than Nuclear

Many people would prefer coal power generation over nuclear. Is this preference justified?

Energy: Empowering the Consumer?

A talk by MP Laura Sandys

Dieter Helm: The Carbon Crunch

My review of Dr. Dieter Helm's latest book on climate change.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Coal is Worse Than Nuclear

The anti-nuclear lobby in some countries can be very strong: so strong, in fact, that merely the fear of it taking action can shape a country's domestic politics. Take Germany as an example: although the political attitude towards nuclear power in Germany had been shifting since the first Red-Green government took power in 1998, nuclear power accounted for 25% of Germany's electricity generation in 2011. With its very low carbon intensity, nuclear power was to help Germany achieve the strict de-carbonization targets it has set for itself.

Today, nuclear energy generates only 18% of Germany's electricity, and is set to be phased out completely by 2022. Why did this happen? The answer is that Germany made a sudden turn after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. Suddenly, all of Germany's political parties agreed that nuclear power generation has no place in the country.

To be able to withstand the phasing out of its nuclear power generation, Germany had to find a new source of energy. That source is coal, which now accounts for more than half of Germany's electricity generation, compared to 43% in 2011. The share of coal is set to increase even further as more nuclear power plants are turned off.

For opponents of nuclear in Germany, this is a major victory. The chances that any German citizen dies as a result of a nuclear accident will be wildly diminished. But is the victory really as big as German politicians say? Or, in fact, is it a victory at all?

Unfortunately for Germany, the phasing out of nuclear in favor of coal is not a victory but an outright loss. The pollution from burning coal and other solid fuels is responsible for 4 million worldwide deaths annually according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, compared with any other fossil fuel, and with nuclear, coal is by far the deadliest for its workers. Although there are no accurate figures, BBC estimates that about 12,000 people die every year from coal mining accidents.

Compared to coal, nuclear power is a much safer option. In the history of nuclear power, only about 1,000 people died as a result of nuclear power plant meltdowns, or approximately 2 deaths per year on average. Of those, 99% died in Chernobyl (note: in Fukushima, people died from Tsunami and not from the nuclear meltdown). Compare that to the four million and twelve thousand deaths caused by coal every year, and you see that every year coal kills about 2 million times more people than nuclear. From this perspective, every nuclear power plant that replaces a coal power plant saves livesA recent study by NASA quantified this relationship, calculating that nearly 80,000 deaths are prevented annually by nuclear power.

80,000 deaths every year are prevented by nuclear power. Source: NASA.

So why did German politicians decide to eliminate nuclear power generation, even though the decision in fact kills people? In my opinion, the underlying reason is psychological: people fear what they do not understand. It is like flying on a plane: while it is statistically much less likely to die in a plane crash than in a car accident, most people still fear flying more than driving a car or crossing a road. Nevertheless, when a plane crash occurs, the news is full of it, further instilling the irrational fear of flying in people who are already prone to dreading it.

The same problem is with nuclear. When a nuclear reactor melts down, like it did in Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (the only three nuclear accidents in history), the media cover the event for months at a time. Simultaneously, when a coal mining accident happens, many media overlook it. Take the example of the coal mining accident that occurred in Turkey yesterday night (13 May 2014). Over 200 miners are confirmed dead, and many more are still unaccounted for. Nevertheless, some of the most read newspapers, such as The New York Times, did not even mention the accident.

NYT did not report on Turkey mine blast (14/05/2014, 09:00)
Al-Jazeera did report on Turkey mine blast (14/05/2014, 09:00)

So what is the moral of the story? People are irrational creatures who fear the unknown. The media know it and jump at every opportunity to sell a sensational story. Politicians know it, too, and jump at every opportunity that could raise their approval ratings. Therefore we live in a world where newspapers are read that show a distorted picture of reality, politicians are reelected who do not deserve to be, and more people die than need to.

A savvy reader may ask me: why do you promote nuclear power over renewable energy? Would it not be better for Germany to scrap both nuclear and coal in favor of wind, solar, biomass and other renewable technologies? In an ideal world, it would. However, current renewables have one problem: they are intermittent. Wind does not blow all the time, and the sun only shines so many hours a day. But coal can burn and nuclei can fission at any time of the day. Thus, a second moral of the story: we need a renewable energy source that can follow demand. So, rather than waste your energy on shunning nuclear (or coal), go out there and invent one!

Disclaimer: this article is in no way meant to promote one media source over another. It merely serves to illustrate the choices that media make every day.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Energy: Empowering the Consumer? A talk by MP Laura Sandys

On May 1st the OUCE hosted a talk by MP Laura Sandys (Conservative, South Thanet) with an elaborately long title: "From the other end of the telescope: mixed energy generation, plug & play grid - empowered consumers".

Laura Sandys with me

In her talk, the MP argued that there is not enough innovation in the UK energy sector. The sector is privatized but behaves like a 1970s public enterprise, she said. There are three main problems with the sector according to her: the system design may not be appropriate for the circumstances, there is lots of systemic waste (with 25-35% average heat loss in UK electricity production), and people do not understand their energy bills, making it difficult for them to make smart decisions.

She then focused on the third point for the majority of her talk. Many consumers in the UK, she said, do not understand the basic units of energy measurement. Their bills come to them with kilowatts and they do not know what that means in terms of their consumption. How many dishwasher cycles does this represent? How many pizzas? How many hours on TV? In addition, she said, consumers often do not know that turning on their heating during January / February peak hours can cost them six times more per kilowatt than outside of the peak. This lack of information, she said, makes it difficult for consumers to make smart energy-saving decisions.

In turn, energy companies have a problem ensuring that lights do not go off during peak hours. To do so, they keep large amounts of expensive excess capacity that they only use during the peak. This is in part why peak electricity prices are so so much higher than off-peak prices. At the same time, low-income consumers who spend too much on their electricity bill cannot afford to go out and spend their money in the local economy.

Sandys offered a solution to this problem: add more marketing experts to energy companies who understand consumers and can communicate with them effectively. They could create solutions such as vouchers that allow them to take 50 pounds off of their energy bill if they go to Pizza Hut during peak hours. This would save money to energy companies money who would not need to run excess capacity and to consumers who would not pay for heating during peak hours. It would also boost the local economy. What is there not to like?

The reactions from the audience were mixed. Some asked why this has not yet happened it if is such a great idea? Others noted that similar strategies have unsuccessfully been tried in the past. Sandys replied saying that the problem is in the people who are in charge of marketing at big energy companies. New marketing experts should be hired, she said.

Perhaps Sandys is right and her idea should be tried. But, instead of attempting to change the practices of large energy behemoths, approaching some of the myriad of smaller energy companies, such as LoCO2 Energy, might be a better strategy. If these companies find it profitable to engage in such activities, the large ones will no doubt follow suit.

However, the issue of unschooled consumers that Sandys described seems to have deeper roots. That is, does the UK have an education problem if people do not understand kilowatts? I leave that up for discussion.