April 22, 2004

Price of Electricity in the U.K.

Thanks to Bizzare Science, we have these two links to a Royal Academy of Engineering report and summary on the costs of various kinds of electrical power generation. Eight page summary here (PDF) 56 page report here (PDF) The money shot is here which shows the two cheapest forms of electrical generation are Combined Cycle Gas Turbine and Nuclear each at a bit more than Two Pence/kWh where Wind is about three times higher. powercost.png Despite the hysteria associated with Nuclear, there are actually some very good reasons for bringing it back. The quantity of waste is about one millionth that of ash from coal plants or particulates from gas plants. True, it is dangerous for a couple hundred years but its decay is pretty rapid after that. There is a lot of high-level nuclear waste that needs to be quarantined for much longer but these are relics of the weapons programs and various experimental reactor designs (breeder, fast fission, etc...) The waste from coal and gas burning plants remain toxic for their entire duration. These contain heavy metals -- some nations (China) are burning low grade coal and are releasing enough mercury into the environment to account for over 40% of the mercury pollution in the Pacific Northwest. The initial designs of the reactors was poorly done - each unit was essentially different. If we do what the US Navy and France and Japan have done and standardize on a few core designs, we will quickly recognize weak spots in the design and if a pump fails more than once or twice, every pump in every reactor of that design gets replaced. Safety was already excellent and it can be made much better. Hundreds of people die every day in automobile crashes but when one airplane goes down, that is world news. Still, flying is several hundred times safer than driving. Same thing with reactors -- even the old designs. People get killed every day from respiratory ailments caused by atmospheric pollution from gas and coal power plants but the 300 or so people who died from Chernobyl, that was world news. A very good argument (I do not have the figures to back it up though) was made that the three Chernobyl reactors actually saved more lives than were lost since the disaster because this relieved the Russians from having to run coal power plants for the several years they were online. The Russians standards for pollution are a lot lower than ours and their death-rate for coal power plants is higher. The mining of the Uranium ore is fairly low key compared to coal. It is open pit but much smaller than a coal mine. Less of a 'footprint' on the environment. This is not to say that the nuclear industry should not be carefully watched but it has the potential to lessen our need for oil. The technology is very very simple, the disposal is straightforward. (For those worrying about transferring the waste to a disposal site, I will check up on the tests the casks have to pass - it's pretty amazing, six hours exposure to a hot fire, 40' drop onto hard surface all with zero breach -- I'll get the exact numbers in an update) The basic givens are that we need the energy. Having expensive electrical energy will force us to find cheaper sources and these may not be as clean. If we cannot find cheaper sources, this will greatly impact the rest of our economy. The key resistance to nuclear is the knee-jerk reactions from the environmentalists. The people who do not take the deep view. Who see what has happened and say never again instead of seeing what can happen in the future. Hydrogen is not a fuel - it is an energy transport mechanism and a very inefficient one at that. it is a dead end and any research funds put there will be wasted. Home-brewed 'alternative energy' sources each and every one of them suffer from the same fatal problem -- they do not scale. One person out in the country may be able to make enough energy to live comfortably but try to scale this up to enough power for a city and you will fail. Give these ideas some thought - I will be returning to this subject again soon... Posted by DaveH at April 22, 2004 8:37 PM