Tuesday 11 October 2016

I saw from the news a few weeks back that Rolls Royce is growing its team working on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in response to the government’s competition for SMRs. The government has committed to invest £250 million into SMRs.


The basic idea is to be able to put reactors with output of about 250MW “on the back of a truck” and distribute them widely across the grid. The government’s aspiration is to have SMRs available in the 2020s. I won’t go into the many competing designs (for that see an excellent piece by Andy Dawson on Euan Mearn’s website). I am not inherently against nuclear, just against using a form of the technology that was essentially optimized for military applications, is not inherently safe and rely on extremely long-term safeguards. It would appear that many of the 33 (!!) candidates for the SMR funding are proposing Light Water Reactors although there are some pebble bed and molten salt designs. There is clearly scope (and the need) to develop new types of inherently safe reactors as well as using the thorium cycle which has advantages over the uranium cycle – but these are R&D projects, not things that will deliver reliable power in the 2020s or even the 2030s. Adopting existing LWR designs used in submarines does not really seem much of a development. Even if a) SMRs work and b) they are remotely economic, think of the NIMBY protests – the anti-SMR brigade would make anti-frackers look like beginners.


Andy Dawson includes a great quote from Admiral Rickover, the father of U.S. Navy nuclear propulsion – a quote that should be hung on the wall of every energy Minister:


“An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.


On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.”


This quote could also be applied to all new energy technology concepts.


The SMR competition seems to be another symptom of the “magpie syndrome” that seems to affect politicians looking at energy – settle on a bright shiny thing and assume that it will solve all our problems. We have seen this with offshore wind power (and renewables in general), biomass, heat pumps, new nuclear, fracking and now SMRs. This particular bright shiny object was one of George Osborne’s ideas – he does seem to have had a particularly bad case of magpie syndrome.


Don’t get me wrong – I am not against R&D and developing new technology – far from it – we need to increase spending on R&D in lots of areas – but we have a whole set of technologies that we know work, which are economic and can deliver results in short order. These include: LED lighting, building insulation, Building Management Systems, integrated design tools, Combined Heat and Power, trigeneration, combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs), CCGTs combined with Rankine cycle turbines. Let’s focus on maximizing the application of the technologies that a) we know will work b) are economic c) improve energy efficiency and productivity d) reduce energy and technology imports and e) create jobs – rather than the latest shiny bright thing.

Friday 7 October 2016

The UK government’s decision to approve the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point after a short review has put energy policy firmly back in the news. When the review was announced I had a small hope that the government would show courage and cancel the project but I can only assume that fighting the French on the two fronts of Brexit and Hinkley (whilst simultaneously upsetting the Chinese), was a step too far even for Theresa May.

Not that anyone really needs reminding but here are the salient points about the Hinkley project:

  • The project uses unproven technology.
  • The other two projects using the same technology (in Finland and France) are massively over-budget and years late compared to the original programme.
  • The French version has been diagnosed with serious “anomalies” in its pressure vessel and the French nuclear safety agency won’t even make a decision on what to do about this until the end of the year.
  • It relies on a fixed electricity price far above the wholesale power price.
  • It will generate / maintain jobs – but mainly in the ailing French nuclear industry.
  • It puts major infrastructure under the potential control of China.
  • The UK government is providing a guarantee to French and Chinese investors.
  • The future Chinese reactors they have been promised use even less proven technology – effectively making us the guinea pigs for a Chinese nuclear technology.
  • At best it won’t be on-line until 2026 – (anyone for a sweepstake on the year it first generates power? answers on a tweet to @DrSteveFawkes or via the website).

Which of those factors make anyone think it is a sensible project?

If we want to produce 7% of the UK electricity from low emissions technology we could achieve the same result much quicker and at much lower cost through a combination of efficiency, flexible gas fired stations, renewables and storage – much faster and at lower cost.

On the much discussed security issue I believe that there really is an issue – handing over control of major energy infrastructure to a foreign power, one that quite frankly has a dubious track record in lots of ways, at best reduces the degrees of freedom we have in any future strategic dispute. I thought the Chinese Ambassador’s protests were a classic case of “he doth protest too much’.

Learning history is really worthwhile if we learn from it – and that applies to both international relations and energy. On Monday evening I attended an event at Chatham House to celebrate my friend Walt Patterson’s 25 years at Chatham House. For anyone not familiar with Walt’s 40 plus years of pioneering energy work go straight to his website (waltpatterson.org) and start reading. Walt reminded everyone of the then Central Electricity Generating Board’s plans in the 1970s to order 18 new reactors. (Walt was in the room when it was announced). After many years of delays and wasted public expenditure – including many other grandiose plans to massively expand nuclear power – we ended up with just one new reactor – Sizewell B. My guess is history will repeat itself and we will end up with another one-off white elephant paid for by the taxpayer at great expense.

Wednesday 31 August 2016

I was recently asked to do a podcast for the Alliance for an Energy Efficient Economy (AEEE) in India to talk about financing energy efficiency and the Investor Confidence Project. Here is the programme.

Monday 25 July 2016

Back in 2010 I was part of a small group asked by Greg Barker, then Minister of State at DECC to “give me five things I can do on energy efficiency”*. Well now that we have a new government and a new department it is time to refresh those five things for the new world we find ourselves in. Since 2010 we have learnt a lot about energy efficiency and how to accelerate investment into it although the reality has yet to catch up with the potential. So here are my five things for Greg Clark.

1. The incorporation of energy into DBEIS is a perfect opportunity to change the narrative around energy and energy efficiency to one of energy productivity. As I have argued in previous blogs energy productivity is a powerful organizing theme for energy policy. It is also really hard to argue against improving productivity, and energy productivity focuses attention on both retrofit and ensuring new infrastructure is as efficient as possible. We know there is a need to improve productivity generally and energy productivity should be one element of that. We need to join the growing list of countries that have set energy productivity targets and establish a clear energy productivity target.

2. Start an independent energy modelling unit that produces demand-side driven models rather than supply-side driven models. Amazingly the UK has never really had this capability in government.

3. Simplify the complex world of business energy tax and reporting in order to free up energy managers time to develop projects.

4. Promote the use of third party investment into energy efficiency by developing a large-scale programme within the government estate. This requires creating a framework approach that brings development capital, implementation capital, a totally standardized approach to developing efficiency projects (see the Investor Confidence Project), and standardized (and public) reporting of results.

5. Move all energy efficiency programmes towards a pay for performance model in which we pay for real measured results and not for stuff. This means using advanced measurement and verification technologies to measure savings against dynamic baselines. Doing this will move us away from the forty year old paradigm that energy efficiency has to be some top down mandated programme and towards a real market where energy efficiency is as reliable as energy supply and can be priced and financed properly.

If I can get away with three other key points; firstly start talking much more about the non-energy benefits of energy efficiency which are usually much more interesting and strategic than energy cost savings, make improving energy productivity a national infrastructure priority and finally pull the plug on Hinkley Point.

By the way I was surprised to hear that DECC officials moved immediately. If only everything in government ran as quickly as the removal/arrival of PMs from Number 10 and the movement of civil servants from one building to another.

* If you want to review the five recommendations see Energy World February 2013

Friday 15 July 2016

The unfolding events since the Referendum result have been hard to comprehend and of course the real implications will only be visible in years to come. I was contemplating writing a piece summarizing my views on the Brexit vote but like with other major, world changing events, it is taking longer to work out what I really want to say. I was also trying to avoid the “Brexit means this for energy/environmental policy” type of piece which we have all been deluged with in the last week. I have given up reading most of these as I think the bottom line is we don’t actually know what it means and most of them are “click bait”. However the splurge of items on the demise of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has pushed me into print.

Clearly, as with everything else, it is too early to tell what the implications are going to be but I actually think it could be a positive move because it may focus attention more on the energy demand side than the supply side. Let’s not forget, the real origin of DECC and in fact Departments of Energy in nearly all countries is the energy industry. In the UK and the USA more than 50% of the energy department’s budgets are tied up in nuclear issues. In fact according to one analysis 95% of DECC’s budget went on nuclear clean up.

Also DECC was always dominated by supply side thinking with little real appreciation of the demand side. Even to this day there has never been a real bottom-up demand side modeling exercise to work out what energy supply we need. All modeling is supply side dominated – usually based on selecting a set of favoured technologies. Also the energy industry has people in and out of DECC all the time, ranging from regular meetings to full-time secondments. The energy efficiency industry has never been able to get equal billing – it only had its first short-term secondee into DECC a few years back which was a novel experience for both the industry and DECC!

Also if you haven’t read the UK ACE report “Corruption of Governance” before read it to get a good idea of how things work.

We need to move from energy policy driven by what the supply industry wants (including the renewables industry) to an energy policy that starts from what the real demand for energy is (and could be) – what do we need and how do we manage demand through energy efficiency and distributed generation and storage. At least if energy is part of Business and Industry there is a hope, and it is only a hope at the moment, that the demand side may get better recognition.

I may come up with some specific recommendations soon but right now I am distracted by the terrible events unfolding in Nice. On energy policy at least I am always optimistic but delivery is everything.

Dr Steven Fawkes

Welcome to my blog on energy efficiency and energy efficiency financing. The first question people ask is why my blog is called 'only eleven percent' - the answer is here. I look forward to engaging with you!

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