The European Energy Review (free subscription required) recently published an interview with Arne Mogren, Director of the Power Programme of the European Climate Foundation (ECF) titled Everyone agrees on where we need to be in 2050, but not on how to get there. The ECF is billed as one of the more influential climate lobby groups in the EU because it collects about $23 million per year in contributions that it then distributes among other groups working to influence policies on the climate issue. As provider of funds, it has a great deal of say in the specific issues pursued by others.
The interview revealed a dangerous blind spot in the group’s strategy for addressing the challenging reality that burning fossil fuels and dumping their waste products into the atmosphere is a risky activity that must be slowed. The accepted position among European lobby groups seeking to take advantage of concerns about CO2 as a tool to encourage support for policies that will provide favorable results for their funding sources is to support large scale investments in unreliable power systems backed up by equipment that burns natural gas. Arne Mogren is apparently one of the more influential pushers of this doomed strategy.
I frequently admit that I worry about the long term effects of dumping CO2 into the atmosphere and about the political destabilization effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels as fast as we can pull them out of the ground. I do not want to leave my children and grandchildren the world that will inevitably result if we continue on our present course and speed. That does not make me a friend to stupid policies like emissions trading, investments in wind and solar, or policies that seek to get rid of reliable, modern coal plants in favor of fracking enabled new supplies of natural gas.
Here are three questions and answers from the EER interview with Arne Mogren that motivated me to respond to the interview both in the associated comment thread and here on Atomic Insights. I believe that Mogren’s responses reveal a dangerous attitude and demonstrate that the European Climate Foundation is really more interested in promoting natural gas and transmission infrastructure investments than in taking effective actions that will reduce CO2 emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Though I need to do some more digging into the funding sources, I am tentatively labeling this as a smoking gun.
Q: How much “grid” do we need? Does micro-generation alleviate some of the need?
A: You will need a lot of grids. If you want the same sort of quality in your supply with solar or wind capacity you still need to have some sort of backup. It’s not a choice between a grid or not, it’s where you invest in the grid. In general I would say a decarbonised system will be much more visible. Look at Germany, you see wind farms everywhere. And you will see cables too. Power has for a long time been a very abstract thing – something somewhere far away – but that’s going to change.
Q: How important do you see the traditional sources of power – gas, coal and nuclear – going forward?
A: Gas I think will be very important. It will be more and more important in the power system up to 2030 because the more renewables you have in the system the more flexible thermal generation capacity has to be. The problem today is that the carbon price is low and gas price high in relation to coal so gas-fired plants are hard to run. I think today it’s very hard to establish new coal-fired plants – you have health issue and other things – but it depends on the carbon price, fuel price and market structure.
The problem with gas has been that it has a very rigid market structure. We have seen spot trading start to develop but the short-term effect of Fukushima has been to push gas prices up. I think – also with shale gas – prices can go down and the market structure can evolve.
Aside: Notice that Mogren did not even mention nuclear energy in that response. End Aside.
Q: What about carbon capture and storage (CCS)?
A: I think it’s clear that on a global scale it will be very hard to do without CCS. Because if you look at China and India, you have an enormous amount of coal. In Europe I think it will not make a huge difference before 2030. In the end it also has to do with where you can find public acceptance.
For nuclear too you have an always present acceptance risk. I think from an investor’s perspective it seems quite risky.
Mogren’s vision of a power grid that is more visible and intrusive, has a far greater dependence on natural gas and has faith in not-yet-invented CCS infrastructure is a strategic approach that is vulnerable to attack. Those attacks should be focused on the unworkable nature of the vision, while accepting the truth that effective policies should be implemented to reduce fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emission rates. Here is a slightly improved version of the comment that I posted on the EER web site.
Does Mogren believe that public acceptance risks for nuclear are really harder to solve than the enormous technical AND public acceptance challenges associated with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)?
Fukushima was a wake up call, but not because it was a true disaster in the sense of causing much physical harm. Instead, the event – hopefully – has awakened the rational people in the world who KNOW that nuclear is safe, clean and affordable but who have seen how the fossil fuel and “renewable” energy lobbies have been far more successful at marketing their products by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about their only real competitor in the market.
I’m a former nuclear submarine engineer officer who was taught the importance of “remaining undetected”. I believe that is a good motto for the electrical power industry. People, also known as customers, do not WANT their electrical power system to become “more visible” or intrusive. Mogren admits that more visibility is absolutely required if you want to have a system that is trying to be dependent on low energy density, weather controlled power systems like wind and solar energy.
Collectors for natural energy flows HAVE to be massive and will be idle much of the time. The average solar power system only produces about 15-20% of the total energy it would produce if operating at advertised capacity 100% of the time.
The transmission grids HAVE to be massive and intrusive in order to move power from where it might be windy to where it is predictably dark or from where it might be sunny to where a high pressure area has settled in and there is NO WIND available for days at a time. If it happens to be cold, still and dark. or hot, still and dark at the same time – both combinations happen quite regularly – the gas companies will loving life and selling millions of tons of product.
Nuclear energy is different. It is incredibly concentrated with fuel that contains between 10,000 and 2,000,000 times as much energy per unit mass as oil, allowing fuel supply systems to virtually disappear. (The vast range depends on the efficiency of fuel use, not on the fuel itself. All uranium and thorium has 2,000,000 times as much energy as oil does.)
Nuclear energy is clean enough and safe to operate inside sealed submarines or on aircraft carriers carrying thousands of valuable people within a few hundred meters of a powerful nuclear energy source. That means that power plants can be located close to the loads and in key areas of the existing grid system. They do not need vast swaths of currently pristine land to be cleared to add new pylons and transmission paths to low population places that happen to have a bit more wind than average (offshore in Baltic) or a sunny, dry climate (Sahara)
Never forget – Fukushima did not result in a single injury due to radiation. NOT one! Routine accidents in the natural gas infrastructure often kill several people; bad accidents can cause hundreds of painful, lingering deaths caused by explosions, loss of limbs or internal injury and burns over large portions of the skin.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast