The U.K. is far from alone in recognizing that in order to achieve any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, nations have to embrace renewable energy and nuclear power. For those energy generation technologies without obvious natural benefits, like hydro-electric power, it isn’t a case of one technology or the other.
Both renewable and nuclear energy require essentially subsidized energy tariffs to make them viable. In the case of renewables it is feed-in rates and the provision of back-up power for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine that add to the carbon footprint. Britain’s proposed Hinckley Point nuclear project has an index-linked, guaranteed feed-in tariff at $121.54 per megawatt/hour (£92.50 MWh) for 35 years in order to make the $21.02 billion (£16 billion) project for two reactors with a combined output of 3.26 gigawatts viable. Compare that to recent auctions for solar projects which went at around $104.10/MWh (£79.23/MWh) and that number gets close to the price of natural gas before back-up power is factored in.
Carbon Emissions Flourish Elsewhere
Of course, many countries in the world are doing no more than paying lip service to reducing carbon emissions. India, for example, has its sights set on bringing onstream as much new generating capacity as possible to meet rising population and industrial demand. As anyone who has spent time in the sub-continent will know, reliable electricity supply is a still a luxury for many of the massive country’s regions.
A 1.3 billion and rising population lives there so it should come as no surprise that — although new solar and wind is being added at breakneck speed including some 36 gw of renewables or 15% of its demand, not shabby by any means — India is planning to add another 69 gw of coal-fired power generation as well. New capacity will be progressively better technology, but much of the existing coal infrastructure is of low efficiency and, therefore, particularly polluting for every KWh produced. Where Japan manages efficiency levels around 40%, the U.S. is said to be around 35%, but India struggles to meet just 25%.
In the U.S., nuclear reactors are being closed down even as coal-fired plants persevere, only the rapid rate of solar is keeping emission levels falling.
Back to the UK
The U.K. government has come up with another wizard wheeze to reduce carbon emissions, even though the government’s fixation on the problem causes the puzzlement of much of the electorate.
This fix is aimed at reducing emission of greenhouse gasses but it’s said to offer a double whammy. The U.K. is heavily reliant on natural gas, not just for power generation but crucially for home heating and cooking fuel in 80% of U.K. homes.
With a near-countrywide gas pipeline network, the U.K. feeds North Sea gas to just about every suburban home and many rural ones. Unfortunately, methane is even more environmentally damaging that carbon dioxide, so leaks from the network add to carbon-dioxide created when the methane is burnt at the point of use to increase environmental damage.
A Hydrogen Fix?
Major distribution utility Northern Gas Networks (NGN), has been running trials to test the practicality of switching the gas used from methane to hydrogen. Hydrogen, of course, generates memories of the Hindenburg and is highly flammable… but so is methane, and NGN’s trials have shown that because hydrogen is lighter than air, it dissipates in a house or enclosed space more quickly than methane and may actually be less of a fire risk in the event of a leak.
A detailed feasibility study concludes that the plan is viable and should be a precursor to converting 16 more major urban areas by 2050, resulting in a 73% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Admittedly, conversion of the whole network would cost in the region of $65.7 billion (£50 billion) but that’s three Hinckley points and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would more than allow the government to meet its targets of an 80% reduction by 2050.
The attraction of hydrogen, of course, is that it burns to produce just water vapor, but the question is where would you get the hydrogen from? Cracking by electrolysis from water would be prohibitively expensive, so NGN proposes splitting natural gas processed in “steam methane reformer” plants to extract the hydrogen, leaving carbon dioxide that would be pumped out for storage in disused gas fields, of which the U.K. has many.
Not only does it have the fields, it has the pipeline infrastructure from shore to ocean bed. The cost would still be immense, but the business opportunity for boilermakers, engineers and process plant manufacturers would be huge, too. May be the U.K. will need those Polish plumbers after all.