As flagship nuclear projects run into long delays and huge cost overruns, solar and wind power are falling in price. Renewables already supply twice as much power as nuclear. It's just too bad the nuclear-fixated UK government hasn't noticed. Renewables are winning out just about everywhere. They now supply over 19 percent of global primary energy and 22 percent of global electricity. Nuclear is at 11 percent and falling.
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With many of the UK's old nuclear power plants off-line due to faults and prospects for their ultimate replacement looking decidedly shaky, it is good that the renewable energy alternatives are moving ahead rapidly. In 2013 nuclear supplied around 18 percent of UK electricity but in the third quarter of 2014, nuclear output fell 16.2 percent due to outages, while renewable output, which had reached 16.8 percent of electricity in the second quarter of 2014, was up 26 percent over the previous year. Indeed, there were periods in 2014 when wind alone met up to 15 percent of UK power demand, over-taking nuclear, and it even briefly achieved 24 percent.
What next? The financial woes of French developers Areva and EDF may mean that their £24 billion 3.4 gigawatt (GW) Hinkley nuclear project—despite being heavily subsidized by British taxpayers and consumers—will get delayed or even halted, unless China or the Saudis bail it out. Meanwhile, wind has reached 11 GW with 4 GW of it offshore, and solar is at 5 GW and rising with many new projects in the pipeline. By 2020 we may have 30 GW of wind generation capacity and perhaps up to 20 GW of solar.
Renewables get cheaper, nuclear gets more expensive
It's true that this will require subsidies, but the technology is getting cheaper and by the time Hinkley is built, if it ever is, the Contact for a Difference subsidy for on-land wind—and maybe even for solar—will be lower than that offered to the Hinkley developers (£92.5 per megawatt hour).
Indeed some say solar won't need any subsidies in the 2020s. While offshore wind projects could be going ahead with the Contact for a Difference contracts below £100 per megawatt hour, and without the £10 billion loan guarantee that Hinkley has been given.
The simple message is that renewables are getting cheaper and more competitive, while nuclear remains expensive, and its cost may well rise—requiring further subsidies.
The completion of the much delayed EPR nuclear project at Flamanville, similar to the Hinkley design, has been put back by yet another year to 2017—putting it even more over-budget.
Construction on the EPR being built in Finland started in 2005 and was originally scheduled to go live in 2009, but is now not likely to be completed until late 2018. It's now almost twice over budget.
It's hardly surprising then that most of the major power companies and utilities in the European Union (EU) have backed away from nuclear, including SSE, RWE, Siemens and most recently E.ON, in favor of renewables.
Country by country, renewables are taking over the world
Looking to the future, there are scenarios for India, Japan, South Korea, the U.S. and the EU using renewables to supply most of their electricity, with Germany and Denmark, of course, already acting on them—Germany is aiming to get at least 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050, Denmark 100 percent.
Another examples comes from a World Wildlife Fund report, which argues that China could get 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050, at far less cost than relying on coal, thus enabling China to cut its carbon emissions from power generation by 90 percent without compromising the reliability of the electric grid or slowing economic growth. And with no need for new nuclear.
Although renewables are not as developed as in China, India has been pushing them quite hard, with wind at nearly 20 GW, on top of 39 GW of existing large hydro. Photovoltaics (PV) is at 2.6 GW grid-linked so far, but Bridge to India is pushing for 100 GW by 2020.
Funding problems and policy changes have bedeviled the development of renewables in India, as have weak grids, with some saying that off-grid or mini-grid community projects ought to be the focus.
The new government in India certainly faces some challenges. But World Wildlife Fund and The Energy and Resources Institute have produced an ambitious ‘near 100 percent by 2050' renewables scenario, with over 1,000 GW each of wind and solar, plus major biomass use.
The U.S. now gets nearly 15 percent of its electricity from renewables, with wind power projects booming, and Obama's policy of cutting emissions from coal plants by 30 percent by 2030 should speed that up. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab has developed scenarios showing that the U.S. could potentially generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050.
In Japan renewables had been given a low priority, but following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan is now pushing ahead with some ambitious offshore wind projects—using floating wind turbines and a large PV program.
Overall, Japan has given the go-ahead to over 70 GW of renewable energy projects, most of which are solar. Longer term, the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies' renewables scenario of a ‘100 percent by 2050' estimates around 50 GW of wind—much of it offshore—and 140 GW of PV.
Rapid progress is being made in South America, although less so as yet in most of Africa. But the International Renewable Energy Agency says that Africa has the potential and the ability to utilize its renewable resources to fuel the majority of its future growth.
Yet the UK remains firmly stuck in a 1950s vision of the future
Back in the UK though, we have our large nuclear program with EDF as one of the main backers. It can't build any plants in France (which is cutting nuclear back by 25 percent), but the UK seems to be willing to host several—and pay heavily for them!
Similarly, Hitachi and Toshiba stand no chance of building new plants in Japan, but the UK is offering significant long-term subsidies and loan guarantees for their proposed UK projects. That is far more government support than renewable technologies receive.
Here the main focus seems to be on why we can't afford offshore wind, or accept on-land wind, or live with large solar farms.
We struggle—now generating more than 15 percent of UK electricity from renewables, but far behind most of the rest of the EU, and especially the leaders, with some already having achieved their 2020 targets, nearly all of which were set higher than that for the UK.
In fact, despite having probably the largest potential of any EU country, we are still only beating Luxembourg and Malta.
It's embarrassing ...
David Elliott is Emeritus Professor of Technology Policy at the Open University. His latest book is Renewables: A Review of Sustainable Energy Supply Options.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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