Category Archives: Energy

Can Nuclear Power help save the Rain Forests?

This is my latest look at what life might be like in 2050. It looks at the use of nuclear power, a topic that I have hesitated to cover because it causes so much division among those who are concerned to protect the planet. However it is an important option for 2050, which is likely to be required unless our energy use falls significantly. I apologise for the sketch, I am taking lessons but progress is slow!

A nuclear station near a rain forest
A nuclear station near a rain forest

A power station comes into view on a tropical coast in 2050. It is one of many nuclear stations of various types and sizes that have been built  over the past 30 years.

There has been a big expansion in nuclear power because the amount of energy required by people on the planet is so large. The poorer countries in the world have all become richer and have energy requirements of their own. Transport is electric, as is all heating, so that electricity demand has soared.

There are of course major renewable installations as well. Large blocks of the Sahara desert, the Australian desert, and the North American deserts are covered in solar panels and solar concentrators for power generation. There are many floating wind turbines at sea. There have been huge strides in cutting energy use, many of which I have covered previously, such as the trend to live in cities and to use community transport rather than individual cars. However, despite these changes, the growing wealth and population of the planet mean that energy demand remains high and that nuclear power is required to meet it.

Back in 2014 there was a strong aversion to nuclear power. Many people were terrified of it. There had been an accident in Japan that contaminated a stretch of land and caused it to be evacuated. That in turn led to decisions by Germany and France to shut perfectly sound nuclear stations. The somewhat idealistic intent was to replace the nuclear stations with renewables but this proved physically impossible. The outcome was therefore an increased burning of coal and the burning of  more and more bio-fuels.

Back then bio-fuel was seen as  a useful way to generate electricity and power cars. It was obtainable from woodlands or from crop wastes so there was little impact on overall food markets. However as it began to be used more these sources reached capacity and bio crops began to be grown on agricultural land – land that was already under pressure from the growing demand for food. To meet the combined demand for food and bio-fuel more and more wild spaces were taken into agricultural use. Some of that land was rain forest. Eventually the demand for bio-fuel was brought under control by building large solar plants in the desert and by building more nuclear plants.

How much land could be saved by nuclear plants? A large plant like this produces the same output as 2/3 of Wales would produce if it was entirely devoted to growing bio-fuel. Rain forest areas can be more productive because they are hotter and wetter, so the area saved is rather smaller, but it is still around a quarter of Wales, three times the area of Greater London or 50 times the area of Manhattan for each large nuclear plant. For an explanation look below, underneath the poll.

Why can’t this happen now? Firstly because many green organisations fiercely oppose nuclear power. More and more people are questioning their position, but as yet there is little sign that they are changing.

Secondly nuclear power ideally needs some intense development. Most of the current investment in nuclear development is devoted to waste reprocessing and to the long term aim of making a nuclear fusion plant. We need Research and Development focused on developing plants that have lower costs, are inherently robust against natural disasters, and are quick to build. .

Explanatory Note

Suppose we compare this typical nuclear station against a bio-fuelled power station of the same output. What area of land would it take to supply the bio-fuelled station?

Assuming that we grow the best crops, process them well and burn them in the best power station, the output we might expect in Europe or North America is around 0.2 Watts for each square metre that is devoted to growing crops, on average around the year. This figure is taken from Ref. 1, which contains a full explanation. It may look small but crops grow quite slowly and the plant material needs to be converted to electricity, a process that is at best around 50% efficient.

Now how much power can the reactor produce? Let us assume that it is similar in size to the reactors planned at Hinkley Point in the UK. The two reactors on that site can produce, on average after allowing for shutdowns, nearly 3000 Megawatts.

Taking the figure of 0.2 Watts/square metre, the output from the nuclear plant therefore equates to the bio-fuel grown on 14,400 square kilometres of land, which is 5,560 square miles. That is an area nine times greater than Greater London, 24 times greater than Singapore, and 165 times greater than Manhattan. It is a square block of land 120 km (74 miles) across. It is equivalent to 2/3rds of Wales saved by this one nuclear station alone. Quite a lot!

What happens if we grow our crops in a hot, wet place? We can get more plant material out, perhaps three times more. That means that this station is worth around three Greater London’s worth of rain forest.


Can the Deserts power us?

The African Coast in 2050
The African Coast in 2050

The picture is on the North-West coast of Africa in 2050. Large ships are loading fuels for export across the world. In the distance smaller ships are loading specialist chemicals and bringing feedstock for processes.

Inland, across the 5000 kilometre wide Sahara desert, huge solar power stations are in action. Some use solar cells, others store heat and use it to make power for 24 hours a day, others generate hydrogen. Near the Atlantic coast, where access is available for large ships, industrial plants use that hydrogen and electricity. The output is chemicals of various types and transport fuels for cars, ships and planes.

Mauritania, which is on this coast, is now one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Its development from one of the world’s poorest countries was as sudden as the oil boom that transformed the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century. It boasts cities built by the best architects. Its citizens own the top soccer teams.  Its population has grown as it has attracted people from across Africa and the brightest and best from across the planet.

The abundance of electricity has attracted other industries both to Mauritania and to its neighbours. Nigeria is now a top manufacturing country and has remained prosperous even though there is little demand for its oil.

This is not the only such industrial site in the world. There are others in Australia, the Southern USA, Mexico, Namibia, the Middle East, India and China.

The North African countries that face the Mediterranean also generate electricity and hydrogen but their prime market is direct sales to Europe. Half of Europe’s electricity supply comes from North Africa.

Why can’t this happen now? Fuels produced this way are more costly than fossil fuels. Opinions differ on when the cost of energy from renewable sources will fall far enough to make them competitive. My view is that renewables may be more costly than fossil fuels for many years. The cost of renewables is falling, but not quickly enough. There is more than enough fossil fuel available to destroy the planet.

Isn’t solar electricity becoming competitive now? Well I keep reading that it is, but I suspect that doesn’t include the costs of the kit required to turn an intermittent supply during the middle part of the day into a 24 hour supply wherever it is needed. I’d be very pleased to be proved wrong.

Can’t we increase the price of fossil fuels to deter their use? Taxes on fossil fuel, or charges on fuel producers will always be politically unpopular. They make fuel expensive. They leave the poor unable to heat their homes or travel to work while the rich can still afford tons of fossil fuel for their super-yachts.

The most important issue in bringing about a sustainable economy is to find an acceptable financial mechanism to drive it. The Qtax is one option. It directly measures the environmental degradation caused by each individual. It does not prevent the rich from owning super-yachts, but it punishes them financially if they use fossil fuels to build or propel them. The rich will therefore drive development of sustainable technologies.

Why make fuels? Won’t everything be electric in 2050? Many things will be electric, because it is efficient to use electricity directly, but liquid fuels like petrol are much more energy dense than even the best battery. Hydrogen gas is another potential fuel. It can be used directly as a fuel but it tends to work out heavier than a liquid fuel because of the heavy containers needed to store it. There are therefore many applications where range, weight and power requirements will dictate the use of a liquid fuel.

Why not make liquid fuels from plant materials? That is done at present but the amount that can be made is limited by the space available to grow plants and the fact that we need plants for food. In theory much more could be produced using solar power in deserts.

Is it possible to make liquid fuels this way? See Wikipedia for the state of development of these processes. The cost and efficiency of these conversion processes will be crucial factors in deciding whether they are widely used.

Isn’t it environmentally destructive to industrialise the desert? Yes, to an extent it is. Humans have to make judgements about which parts of the planet they want to sacrifice in the interests of protecting the remainder. The Qtax gives a mechanism to drive the least damaging forms of planetary degradation. Desert power production to meet all of the world’s energy requirements would use much less than half of the available desert, There will still be vast tracts left empty. See SEWTHA for details of how much energy can be produced in this way.

Is desert solar the obvious answer to all our problems? It looks very promising, and will probably be a big part of the future. There are however potential political questions that could affect the reliability of supply. The cost of this energy will be higher than fossil fuels, and if it is too high only the wealthy will be able to afford it. It is worth developing other energy options until those questions are answered.