The DECC 2050 calculator is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. It allows individuals to experiment with different energy scenarios for the future and calculates aggregate costs, security of supply, environmental footprint and provides a wonderful energy flow diagram. But it is also built around the UK 2008 Climate Change Act forcing the user into Green thinking and in some cases surreal choices.
For these latter reasons I have avoided using the calculator for years – a form of protest. But following a friendly email exchange with David MacKay a few weeks ago where he explained how to get around some of the Green options, I decided to give it a go.
By default, the calculator is there to assist in the design of a carbon free energy future. My priorities in designing our energy future in very approximate descending order of priority are as follows:
- Health and safety
- Security of supply
- Total environmental impact
Emissions therefore are not off the menu but are significantly de-rated. Other vital aspects of my thinking are that the UK cannot afford to go on importing large amounts of energy and must therefore prioritise indigenous supply . And improved energy efficiency is a guiding light for energy use. I have borrowed many useful tips from David MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air, in particular electrification of everything that is practically possible.
Quick guide to the 2050 calculator
The calculator provides 42 choices to be made on patterns of energy supply and use with 4 options available for each of the 42 choices. The main outputs are in 8 tabs labelled as follows;
The choices made are stored as part of the URL, which for the Energy Matters’ pathway is shown below.
To guide the user each choice has a one page explanation accessed through the “i” buttons – these are very helpful and essential guides.
The Energy Matters’ 2050 pathway
And so here are the bare bones of the Energy Matters’ (EM) 2050 pathway. Armed with the knowledge that UK indigenous oil and gas production will likely decline close to zero by 2050 (contingent on what happens with shale gas), coal fired power causes large health problems beyond CO2 emissions, renewables on current experience are expensive, unreliable and environmentally degrading, I made a simple choice for nuclear power – the lesser of many evils. The calculator provides three nuclear options with 13, 30 or 50 power stations. If we are going to have 13 nuclear power stations – why not 30? Selecting option 3 on nuclear power, gives me 30 * 3 =90 GW of generating capacity with proven reliability and muscle to electrify Britain. The other significant choice to set alongside nuclear is option 2 on storage that requires 4 GW with 30 GWh capacity – Coire Glas alone provides that capacity, and 10 GW of interconnection with Europe. The EM pathway produces a significant electricity surplus, hence, power may flow both ways through the interconnectors. After making these choices (Figure 1), most of the other choices are window dressing.
Figure 1 Summary of the choices made for the EM pathway. The left hand column are demand side choices. The right hand columns are supply side choices. Click on graphic for a larger version.
I have included some tidal stream since it helped to balance the security of peak supply without significantly increasing cost. And since tidal stream is fossil supernova (like nuclear) it is predictable and strong. I have also been impressed by German experience where solar PV can help with diurnal load following and so have significant, though not ridiculous high solar PV and sensible deployment of solar hot water (preferably installed on S facing roofs). The map (Figure 5) tells me that the UK would need a single 1.2 GW flexible thermal station (gas or biomass) to balance load. Job done, lets get building new nuclear power stations, cutting turf on one new power station every year for the next 30 years. But more importantly, let’s get researching (with some real urgency) the thorium fuel cycle so that most of this can be done using what is reported to be safer, cleaner and cheaper nuclear power.
I’m happy with the way the energy flow diagram looks (Figure 2) with a few exceptions.
- The enormous amount of waste heat from thermal nuclear generation, there must be a way of using some of this.
- I can’t get rid of oil imports, which I believe is a function of the structure of the calculator. But the end uses are diverse (industry, road transport, aviation, shipping, etc) which perhaps underlines how important oil is to the current global economy.
The EM pathway also has significant electricity exports which is great though not clear where these might go to. The Republic of Ireland, currently going down a high wind route will likely be desperate for cheap dispatchable electricity in the not too distant future. At any rate, spare capacity is a good thing.
Figure 2 The only significant imports are oil where sensible deployment of EOR may increase recovery from mature UK fields that could eliminate the need for imports. Oil still gets used in aviation, shipping, road transport and industry. In the transport demand choices I’ve tried to make realistic as opposed to idealistic choices.
I’m really happy about how the cost fell out (Figure 3). The cost of the EM pathway is the lowest of all those published by DECC on the calculator. It’s lower than the low cost pathway. Perhaps there is a lesson in pragmatism to be learned here, as opposed to the pursuit of climate ideology. The cost chart tells me my pathway doesn’t reduce emissions by 80% to 1990 levels – but I bet you it is close!
Figure 3 Beyond the observation that the cost of the EM Pathway is the lowest shown, I don’t understand what this display is supposed to be showing.
I don’t like the way the calculator treats nuclear as imported energy . Counting nuclear as indigenous reduces UK dependence on imported energy from 819 TWh/y in 2007 to 466 TWh/y in 2050. I could get rid of these oil imports with deployment of CO2 EOR.
The EM pathway passes the DECC stress test (0 GW of additional peaking plant required)(figure 4). This was principally achieved by the introduction of tidal stream and solar to the mix.
With 69% of all primary energy coming from nuclear, over dependence on this source is perhaps a valid criticism. I would argue that the notion of security through diversity is an outdated concept from the time of plenty. Now that we are entering the time of scarcity, what sense is there in relying upon scarce sources of imported energy, or upon unreliable renewables if it is just for the sake of creating a diverse supply.
I would certainly argue that the UK should not settle upon a single reactor design since if that design is flawed, it could create serious problems. Likewise, it makes sense to explore thorium fuel cycle reactor technology creating diversity of nuclear supplies.
Figure 4 The level of dependence on oil is a nuisance. Another option to get rid of that is to convert vehicles to run on shale gas.
Environmental impact – land use
The map (Figure 5) tells me that the EM pathway will have 39 small waste to energy facilities dotted around the country and these presumably may perform as peaking plants. There will be 30 * 3 GW nuclear reactors and the first of these will be built on existing nuclear sites with effectively a tiny footprint. And there will be a single thermal gas station running on shale gas from the Bowland shale. Frustratingly it is shown with carbon capture and storage. There is no need for that technology to be developed or deployed in Britain. It might make sense to have CO2 capture for enhanced oil recovery.
Tidal stream, assuming sensible and safe technology can be developed, may be focussed on two or three sites around the UK, starting with the Pentland Firth. The Hydro footprint is that of the existing hydro dams and lochs. Solar thermal and solar PV will be deployed on existing roofs with barely any environmental impact. The energy crops footprint equates to the status quo of what we have today – since temperate latitude energy crops do not produce significant primary energy, I’d prefer to see that land turned back to food production. The forest footprint equates to what we have today and I by and large support programs of expanding natural rejuvenation of forests with indigenous species providing habitats for indigenous fauna.
Figure 5 Many of the choices I made were designed to minimise environmental / landscape impact. The footprints of thermal generating plant are shown top left as tiny black dots. The area of sea required for tidal stream as the small blue box. The areas required for hydro, solar thermal and solar PV are the blue, orange and yellow squares. The large green squares are the existing deployment of energy crops and forest in the UK which are not impacted by this pathway that includes zero new energy crops and biomass.
Environmental impact – air quality
Replacing coal fired power, that evidently destroys health and kills thousands, with nuclear power results in a dramatic improvement in UK air quality.
Figure 6 The EM pathway shows a dramatic improvement in UK air quality.
Civilian nuclear power probably has the best safety record of any power generation technology. There are well worn arguments about safety and waste disposal. Society either accepts these risks and is rewarded with a 21st Century power delivery system. Or it chooses the Green path that resembles more an 18th Century system that ironically is wrecking our landscape whilst achieving little. Since the safety record of the oil & gas industry and the nuclear industry is continuously held under the government microscope, I would also welcome a government report into the safety of the renewables industries, normalised to the amount of energy they produce.
I do not believe that a capitalist market system can redesign and deliver our whole energy system. Government control of these markets is currently sending us down a highly questionable route. Trying to understand the future cost of nuclear power is extremely challenging, near impossible to estimate. And so the only option may be for The Government to assume responsibility to initiate nuclear new build and in this way discover what the real costs actually are.
The justification for all the choices I have made will be written up as a separate post. I had hoped to have this ready now, but its completion is likely weeks away. What is published today is a work in progress.
1. The calculator treats nuclear power as imported since the U fuel is imported. However, BP treat nuclear as indigenous, correctly in my opinion, since the nuclear fuel only represents about 2% of the overall cost.
2. This statement is based on DECC 2050 calculator. The veracity has been questioned in comments, rightly in my opinion.