I was half joking last night on twitter when I asked if someone could please make an energy transition epic rap battle of history. (If you haven’t seen an epic rap battle, may I recommend this one: Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison )
Spurred on by President Obama’s entrance to rap music at the White House Correspondents dinner a couple of nights ago, (not to mention his stand-up, roll around the floor laughing, speech: highly recommended viewing), I thought I should explain what I meant by the need for an energy transition epic rap battle.
Before I do, let me set some context.
Three piece of news caught my eye yesterday. Firstly, the news broke that the world is edging closer to passing the symbolically important 400 parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Amongst other climate impacts, this makes tidal surges and flooding in major cities, including London, more likely.
Secondly, there was plenty of news around air pollution, including a UN report showing that 7 million early deaths per year are caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution. In the UK, Defra estimates 29,000 early deaths per year are caused by air pollution. That’s three times more than deaths resulting from obesity. The BBC1 prime time science programme Bang Goes the Theory covered this issue very well, and will be available to watch again on i-player for six days. The key message is that black carbon, belched out by cars is highly toxic, and is linked to serious health problems ranging from cancer to respiratory diseases. Despite lots of innovation and research to try to clean up this pollution and reduce health impacts, the scientific conclusion is that the only solution is to slash car emissions. The UK has been slow to wake up to this. I am a commuter cyclist in London, where there are 4,000 early deaths per year caused by air pollution. It’s ranked as one of the most polluted cities in Europe. Of all road users, cyclists are exposed to the worst levels of pollution.
Imagine our cities with an electrified transport fleet: quiet and clean. To achieve this, we first need to scale up our low carbon electricity generation, to meet additional demand without harming people or contributing further to climate change.
Now you know what’s coming: nuclear, of course. Yes, it is an industrial scale source of clean, reliable and affordable electricity. *so amazing super power*
The third, and most amazing, piece of news I heard yesterday is that Ontario, Canada, has effectively phased out coal and achieved 85 per cent carbon free electricity generation. World Nuclear News reported: Nuclear provided 58% of electricity, with hydro at 26%, gas at 13% and wind at about 2%. This results in a carbon dioxide intensity of about 72 grams per kilowatt-hour.
The health effects of such a dramatic reduction in fossil fuels are measureable. As WNN reported: The former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, recently co-authored a paper that conservatively put a figure of 76,000 on the number of lives saved each year through the use of nuclear power instead of a representative mix of coal and gas.
In my view, this truly sets the stage for an epic rap battle of history. Germany’s energy transition (energiewende) is by some measure pursuing the most wide-ranging renewables goals of any major industrialized country.
Because renewables are given dominance on the grid, they are making dispatchable thermal plants uneconomic to run. As a result, they are threatening to close. Because renewables are unpredictable and variable, and therefore cannot be relied to produce power at times of peak demand, Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed to pay the coal and gas plants a “capacity fee” that will pay them just for standing by to generate electricity even when it’s not needed. She said this week:
“We have to think about how to slow down the dynamics so that we get a sensible expansion of renewable energies but not a situation in which no gas-fired power plant can be operated profitably anymore and each gas plant has to be subsidized so it provides baseload capacity.”
As William Tucker reported in his excellent Nuclear Townhall blog post: How to ruin an electricity grid. Germany shows us how. “So that means Germans will be paying twice for their electricity – once when it is generated by renewables and again when it isn’t generated by something else.”
It isn’t just a matter of the cost (and the German energy minister recently estimated the energiewende will cost consumers up to 1 trillion euros). Demand for coal in Germany has been rising since a May 2011 move to phase out nuclear power by 2022.
Robert Wilson reported recently that 8.4 GW of new coal capacity is under construction in Germany today to provide necessary baseload capacity. Add this to what was opened last year and we have a total of 10.6 GW of new coal online in the years 2012-2015. (Source: Robert Wilson’s blog ‘German coal and solar: a self defeating scenario’)
One estimate suggests that by 2020, Germany will have produced an extra 300 million tonnes of CO² as a result of its nuclear closure: equivalent to almost all the savings that will be made in the 27 member states as a result of the EU’s energy efficiency directive.
Fear of nuclear is a convenient truth for the coal industry.
Mining and burning lignite (brown) coal has a huge environmental health impact. Old king coal is the worst culprit in terms of toxic air pollution, mining accidents and carbon emissions. Let’s bring on a full comparison of these two energy transitions. I would like to see Ontario’s energy transition compared with Germany’s.
Or, to quote the Epic Rap battle format. Who wins? You decide.
 Air pollution, for example from road transport, harms our health and wellbeing. It is estimated to have an effect equivalent to 29,000 deaths each year and is expected to reduce the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by 6 months on average, at a cost of around £16 billion per year. Air pollution also damages biodiversity, reduces crop yields and contributes to climate change.