A new report on possibilities for deployment of low-carbon microgeneration machinery in British homes was published yesterday, and has scored big ink. But most of the coverage has ignored the three main messages of the report. These are fairly simple. Firstly, according to the report, microgeneration in the UK is going …
really any surprises there then.
Can't really blame the microgeneration industry for tagging onto the 'subsidies' issue, as they're down the tubes without it.
As for pellet fuel, what about all the carbon generated in production of and transportation of this fuel to domestic customers? Where do you install the storage silo around about your average semi then? Or a block of flats?
Once again, the 'sensible' option would appear to nuclear.
Let's get them built.
BTW, yes, I WOULD be quite happy for one to be built in my 'back yard', before anyone asks.
Please don't confuse us with the facts
Great article, Lewis. I fear, however, that it will do nothing to address the envirotard litany:
1. Science got us into this "mess", therefore science can't get us out of it. All large-scale, technological means of addressing environmental issues are to be despised, by definition.
2. We must suffer for our sins against Mother Earth. Quick fixes (particularly technological - see 1, above) do not provide the necessary degree of self-flagellation to assuage the wrath of Gaia.
3. Financial arguments are produced by greedy, polluting capitalists and must be distrusted. All together now: YOU CANNOT PUT A PRICE ON THE ENVIRONMENT.
...if the government pays me to put a panel on my roof, I'll still be able to run a beer chiller when the oil runs out and you plebs are stuck with warm lager.
Please Mr Darling, subsidises for renewable post-apocalypse beverage refrigeration. Heck, you can easily pay for it with your increased alcohol duty!
Link to the report please, I do generally like your analysis even if sometimes I think all you advocate is a bit of hand wringing and a worried look.
Whats your thoughts on CFPS with sequestration ? Its the way the world is going as we have a lot of coal, I think I decent design is required sooner rather than later.
Err... A few points straight away
Quote: "In the absence of changes to the fundamental energy economics,"
Oil at 250$ per barrel, gas linked to oil anyone? If dat is not change dunno what is... IIRC, based on calculations on a back of a napkin I did a year go the price of electricity would need to go up only to where it would be at 150-170$ and stay there for a solar installation in south england on a south facing roof to become a feasible investment with around 7 years of payback time (assuming current mortgage rates for crediting). The only condition is that the national grid b*** actually buy it back at standard wholesale rate. No need to even do a German style subsidised rate, at the price of energy derived from 150$ per barrel it will pay for itself.
Unfortunately at the moment this is not an option as anyone who has tried to call one of the "antihelplines" of powergen, british gas, etc can testify. They are published, but there is _NOONE_ actually manning the phone. Noone answers the email either. PR gimmick of the worst degree.
Get the scale right
A small improvement on a large scale i.e the grid, will make a big difference.
A large improvement on a tiny scale i.e. home generation, will make no noticable difference.
I think that the conclusion is a no-brainer!
BTW Half of my village were walking around a local farm at the weekend, when the farmer joked that maybe he ought to apply for a wind farm on his hill. You should have seen the look of shock on his face when we unanimously said we would support it!
Boffin logo, as contrary to what 'they' will tell you, you don't need anything more than common sense to see the answer!
Economics and straw men
If the central generation technologies can double their carbon efficiency by emitting half the carbon to produce the same amount of juice, surely that miracle technology can also be applied to microgeneration scenarios. Because wind power doesn't cut it, and we won't be getting half our energy from nuclear *any* time soon.
The amount of subsidy required to make microgeneration installations economically viable for the consumer (who is more interested in their bill size than the their carbon size-11s goes down as energy prices increase. Is there *any* scenario in which the price of oil and gas is going to decrease from now? I don't think so, with the Third World aspiring so.
The cost of microgeneration installation would go down if it were made a mass industry rather than a niche for eco-freaks. It'd be cheaper to install if it was designed in from new, too, and there's a captive market there, of sorts. Requiring some or all of heat pumps, solar hot water, PV and wind energy production as part of new build houses would create the mass market that would drive prices for retrofitting down too. It makes work for the installation and manufacture of the kit, and applying the subsidies at the manufacturer (in terms of tax breaks on income the Chancellor wouldn't have had otherwise, so he can't say he'd miss it) would reduce the cost of subsidy even further.
I would like CHP at home, for sound reasons, but...
I live 35 miles from London, yet being this far from the capital city of a supposedly 1st World Country, electricity is regarded by the suppliers in my whole region as an optional luxury, to be supplied by them only when it isn't raining or windy, which to be fair in the UK, is heard of. Six days is my longest recent power outage. I also don't bother running an intenet based service from home as broadband where I live is a half meg at best, much less when everyone else is on, and I have metered it at less than dial up (36K) during the daytime. So that's more dead dinosaurs going into the fuel tank for the commute (dont even get me started on "public" transport)
I cannot use decent CHP as currently I am unable to find one that uses oil that suits anything smaller than a factory and is affordable for domestic use. We cannot get mains gas here, and whilst I have some trees (not that many), I cannot cut them down for wood for pellets (if I could compress them) as they are all "listed" by the council, and to be fair trees do help us breath.
I would like also to install ground source heating/hot water(if possible) to reduce any oil consumption further (maybe to the extend that a small solar PV system would power the essentials), but trying to get a professional to survey the house and install a system seems to be impossible. I cannot find anyone who does this outside of the most remote parts of the UK. Everyone's heard of it but no-one actually does it.
There are cogent arguements for microgeneration aside from economics. Local resilience in the event of disaster (natural or man-made) can reduce the burden on public services and utilities trying to cope at a bad time.
If anyone knows of any manufacturers of domestic sized oil based CHP, or a firm that does ground source heating and integration into a current system, I'll be delighted to read the posts.
Nice that someone read the report. It seems that what you are saying is that CHP would be bad in the long term if the government ever gets it's finger out and produces a lot of renewable energy. I think there is an obvious hole in that argument (the one where the governments finger is).
On the other hand, it looks like you are saying that ground source is great. I agree.
Finally, there was no consideration of planning. Microgeneration in general has much smaller opposition from the public than. I suspect it would take a lot longer to get permission to build a nuclear power plant in central London that to convert every roof in the capital to a solar PV system.
@ Anton Ivanov
"a solar installation in south england on a south facing roof to become a feasible investment with around 7 years of payback time "
FYI not everybody lives in south england with a south facing roof.
It's really not a viable proposition for those of us in t' north
On a lighter note, please can you justify your 7 years payback time with some figures.
Great review of the article Lewis
But I have to take issue with one thing. Wind Turbines are not windmills.
Nice analysis but . . . and . . .
As far as I know the economics of microgeneration were discredited some time ago for the UK. This report did make some sensible findings with this regard though. For example the economics of purchasing the kit become much more realistic when applied to a whole apartment block or estate for example - i.e. a decent sized CHP plant providing all the hot water and much of the electricity for 200 apartments makes economic sense. Much more sense than the cost of 200 combi boilers anyway.
You also fail to address (and I'm not sure the report did) the cost of energy leakage from the grid which is substantial. Microgeneration loses alot of this overhead.
In addition - unless we invest in these technoilogies they will fail to develop, and/or gain the economies of scale from mass production that old technologies enjoy.
Personally though I feel any grant/looan invesatment from cewntral government would be much better targeted at improving the efficiency and insulation of old buildings than a major investment in microgeneration.
Surely you could spend the giant subsidy for microgeneration on a giant solar/wind farm, wouldn't that be inherently more efficient? All the maintenance in one place, just the one big tube (or whatever it is that this 'electricity' is moved about in) etc.
Personally though, I feel any grant/loan investment from central government would be much better spent moving people out of the cuntryside and into nice efficient towns, where they can walk to work, don't need a giant 4WD and we wouldn't need as many post offices either.
Perhaps I'm mistaken but...
...there are two obvious things in favour of centralised generation capacity:
(a) economies of scale
(b) ability to "dump" spare energy into portable fuels during periods of low demand.
For example, site a coal plant next to a nuclear plant. In times of low demand, the CO2 from the coal plant is synthesised with hydrogen from electrolysis to produce methanol, which can then be dehydrated to dimethyl ether then stored and distributed to power road transport (in diesel engines).
At this stage, either the coal plant or the road transport can be considered carbon-neutral from a fuelling perspective.
Then once hydrogen storage and transport issues have been solved (or battery technology allows), the road fleet can be converted to zero emissions.
In the longer term, fusion might offer an alternative to both fossil fuels and fission plants, and will likely be so massive as to make our current nuclear plants seem like CHP.
Less glamour but...
Rather than arsing about with micro-generation why are we not working to get houses well insulated? There is a massive energy efficiency benefit right there but its not new or high tech doesn't grab headlines so well.
Now I must admit...
...I haven't read the report but isn't there a fundamental point being missed here?
Just turn stuff off when you are not using it.
I know that our increasing population means that we will need extra capacity ad infinitum it seems, however, we could at least ease the burden on our current setup to allow technology to catch up with our 'requirements'. I am as guilty as the next man (I think I left my router on at home).
If the government were to allow a certain amount of electricity/gas per person/household and then tax the bejeesus out of anything over that (depending on circumstances of course) then turning stuff off would happen.
Does that mean I'm a fan of carbon credits I wonder...?
Whatever you do, don't bother with micro wind turbines. Generated an average of 300W - if you're lucky - you might just have enough to power your laptop. Wind energy is one place where you cannot ignore the economies of scale.
Oh, and Lewis -- /never/ use the term 'decarbonisation' again. Your journalism of late has been par excellence; don't ruin it now.
Solar heating - Subsidies are Evil
I live close enough to the equator to use solar hot water (In Orstralia if you care to know). I've been using it for at least 20 years.
The economics have been well and truly thrashed out. If you get enough insolation and are prepared to maintain the kit for long enough you get a positive cash return. In my case I have the pre-requisites so I am making a (marginal) return on investment.
Solar HWS is recently subsidised by State and Federal Governments, and surprise, surprise the price has risen to exactly absorb the subsid(ies). Consumers pay virtually the same now with subsidy as they did pre-subsidy.
Ironically, one of the blockers to whole-of-life breaking-even is the Government subsidies. When I need to replace a system the price is astronomical The Government in its wisdom doesn't subsidise repairs or replacements so I pay inflated post subsidy prices.
If the subsidy disappeared I would be in a much better financial situation, the capital cost would drop and the sales volume of systems would be mostly unchanged because the price would drop to free market values.
I break even by doing my own repairs. If the subsidy-induced price inflation disappeared I could hire someone else to do the job and still break even.
Now I must also point out that I am unusual. Most solar hot water systems are scrapped within 10 years and never, ever provide a positive ROI. This is due to many factors but generally they are seen as unreliable and expensive to maintain. Reliability is not much different to gas or electric systems but maintenance costs are huge.
So overall, forget the subsidies, allow free competition, and allow the market to determine true value of technology.
Economy of scale
@Anonymous Coward, 09:07 said "If the central generation technologies can double their carbon efficiency ... surely that miracle technology can also be applied to microgeneration scenarios."
If these hypothetical "green" gains come from replacing messy oil, gas and coal stations with nuclear stations, then that improvement will not affect, in any way, the microgeneration industry. You are NOT going to get a nuclear reactor in your back yard.
The biggest efficiency differentiator between central and local energy generation, is economy of scale. A big central plant will always produce more power per unit fuel than a small home system. And some technologies can never be scaled down for home use at all.
Can we have a real green party?
No surprises in this report - exceppt possibly to Dave Cameron as it pretty well rubbishes Zac Goldsmith's Conservative energy policy (home CHP by 2012).
So what about Labour? 11 years and how many committed nuclear power stations do we have? They have managed to both piss off the lentil eaters by talking about them without delivering any. Even if they get their skates on we couldn't expect much before 2020. Oh and wind? Good idea for reducing the absolute number of nuclear stations by 2 or 3 - except they have virtually ditched the fast and (relatively) cheap land option because of perceived nimbyism for hopelessly expensive, difficult to maintain sea based farms which inevitably leads to the Shell/Thames array fiasco. Turbines are in short supply which makes them expensive. Combine that with having very little infrastructure to pile drive and install these monsters far offshore and you see fast delivery of green electricity is not blowing in the wind.
The LD & Green party policies sound nice. But try and atach them to the grid to supply reliable power requires a lot of wishful linking.
Dear John (Latham)
"In times of low demand...."
But what do you propose to do with the CO2 during periods of 'high demand' then?
And just how much energy is it going to take to produce this, so called 'carbon neutral fuelling'?
Are you factoring in the energy losses involved in the transposition processes?
You could site a nuclear plant near a hydro station, then use the 'spare' energy to pump water back into the reservoir during low demand, but then we'd have to build a whole load of new hydro stations too. (Oh look, finally a use for the lake district, other than a pretty looking place to go for a ramble / walk with the dog. Lots of lakes & rain - not a lot of people)
If we do eventually crack fusion power on a viable level, then that'll be great.
Don't expect it in my lifetime, nor probably yours, I suspect. Unless you happen to be in possesion of the elixer of youth. (No. Not lager, silly people)
I do agree with point 'a' though John.
Oh. My. God
I'm sorry, but I got to "it's not surprising that the nuclear energy industry - unlike the microgeneration one - does not consider that it needs any subsidy at all in the UK" and nearly had a fit. Ok, a quick and dirty lesson in how the Grid works (from someone that worked at a power station)...
Boffins work out how much 'leccy they are going to need at various times to make sure we don't get blackouts, but we don't make too much juice and see it go to waste. It's all very clever, involving things like the TV schedule, sporting events, the weather etc.
They then start an auction - each power station makes a bid, stating how many MW they can produce, and how much they will charge per MW.
The lowest bids are taken until the amount of 'leccy they require is satisfied.
Fair enough so far right? But here's the kicker - the nukes all bid in at 0p. Yes, that's right, the nukes *always* get to sell their maximum output. They still get paid, and they get paid sufficiently well to make a profit. So why do they bid in at 0p? Basically nuke power is more expensive than coal and gas, and if they bid in at their market rate they wouldn't be running very often. Running nukes down and starting them back up is something they like to avoid, so to keep them up and running they are SUBSIDISED.
Units and measures
Sorry to nitpick the article, but one of my pet peeves is the confusion between power and energy.
Energy is the stuff that does stuff. The energy in a tank of petrol determines the distance your car travels. Energy is measured in joules.
Power is the _rate_ that energy is used up. The power of your car engine determines how fast you car goes. The faster your car is travelling, the more joules of energy are consumed per second. Power is measured in watts, or equivalently, joules per second.
When it comes to electricity consumption, energy is usally measured in kilowatt-hours, that is, the equivalent of energy used by generating 1000 watts, for the period of one hour. That's 1000W * 3600 seconds = 3.6 Megajoules.
So when you say that a power station generates nine terawatt-hours of power, you should actually say "...of energy". Which is meaningless in this discussion. How _quickly_ does it generate that much energy? One day? Five years? One second?
If you meant to say "nine terawatt-hours every hour", then you could just as well have said "nine terawatts" and be done with it.
But when even that pillar of scientific accuracy, "Star Trek the New Generation" talks about "Kilowatts per second" when it's clear they're talking about energy, it's dead-easy to get confused.
Re: I would like CHP at home, for sound reasons, but...
I will second that.
I was looking for hot water and heating source for a summer house abroad (in an Eastern European ex-5th world country) and came across a number of companies that did the whole ground heat source business from A to Z. The prices were excellent and the only reason I did not do it was that with 1-2 months a year it would have never payed back.
However, inspired by the ease with which it can be done on the continent, I decided to see if this can be done in the UK. Oh my, oh my... Apparently the UK is the only country in the EU where any form of drilling is still a state controlled affair. Essentially, HMG has never ever heard of any drilling for anything but water and minerals. As far as they are concerned heat source drilling does not exist as an option. You have to apply for a drilling permit, deal with the British geological survey and fight a bureacracy specifically designed to make the lives of people like Shell or Thames Water miserable. A mere mortal not backed up by several hundred billions of capitalisation will of course loose.
So the heat source option while most practical is closed for the UK until the govt gets a grip on reality and relaxes the drilling permit regime.
Um, I can't comment on your setup of course but I've built a solar water heater out of some copper piping, black paint, fiberglass insulation and a wooden box covered in a sheet of glass.
No moving parts, simple to build and although it may not get water piping hot it can be combined with a regular immersion heater to reduce costs. On a small scale it's probably about the easiest and cheapest piece of "green engineering" there is. I assume your setup is different, because I can't imagine how you'd go about wearing one of these out.
A time-tested idea too, as this idea from 1979 proves: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Renewable-Energy/1979-09-01/A-Homemade-Solar-Water-Heater.aspx
@I would like CHP at home, @Less glamour but...
My colleagues here in Italy just brought the engineers over from Germanland to install their solar winter-DHW / summer-swimming pool heating system (and another team from Austria to install the screw fed wood pellet backup system) C4 Granddesigns seems to feature many roving tuetons?, so maybe it's not (yet) common in the UK, but theoretically possible. (For ballpark comparisons they also got a team from Germany to drive over 1000kms with an entire Lawn in rolls, rotavate, lay and water to perfection, for less than the cost of local Italian gardencentre quotes)
As for superinsulation, at work we've started screw/glueing full facade 80mm polystyrene tiles, later rendered, to the outside of most of our buildings. I also haven't found a way to do it on a domestic scale yet, but in theory this might be nice! (gvnmts wouldn't like the missing consumption VAT I suppose) you might be able to heat the whole superinsulated house with a single Pentium 4?
To summarize the quandary: Fossil fuels will become scarce and expensive - sooner or later. We don't have a single magic bullet to solve this problem, because no current solution scales properly / at reasonable cost (Nuclear? OK, if you are Australia and sit on the uranium deposits. Wind? maybe some %. Biofulel? Well, we did that in some place called middle-ages and it was OK for a few million people - worldwide. Solar? Ever looked at the energy cost to make a solar cell? Tar Sands? OK if you have the equivalent in natural gas deposits to burn the tar out of the sands, but then you'd have to be a thick Canadian to throw away the gas. Fusion, hydrogen, etc ... well, let's stick to science, not fiction).
So ENERGY in the future WILL BE EXPENSIVE and it will come from many sources. Anything we discuss is ridiculous at current prices, but may be worth a thought in 20 years. Micropower may be worth a thought in isolated places and may be part of the problem/solution, so lets continue playing with ideas so we'll have better ones eventually.
Am I missing something?
All fronts for climate change can be tackled with one simple step... all food shortage, fuel shortages, cabon, etc can all be fixed in one step!
Restrict how many children we have. Simple as!
Solar power and wind turbines are Not the answer....
What you REALLY want to do is fit a methane digester to your septic tank.... tho the envirotards in the local council won't like it ( high BOD content , explosion risk, etc.)
Maybe I could offset the cost of flushing with the sale of the material for power generation purposes???? Pilot trial at Downing Street???
I'm definitely flushed with anticipation.!
Yes, restrict your birth rate, which is great until, like China, once the previous multichild generation gets to retirement age, you suddently have a biiiiiiiiig fucking drop off in the number of taxpayers available to fund the country with.
So not as simple as you think.
Re: 0p nukes
If the auction completely ignores the cost of running your station up and down then I'm not surprised that they have to give nukes a free ticket. The auction process is rigged against them. A fair auction would have the Grid forced to pay back to the stations every time they "reneged" on an agreement to supply.
As for the true cost, nukes currently pay a carbon tax, and their economics include estimates (albeit truly horrendously bad ones, it seems) for the environmental risks/damage of construction, operation and decommissioning, whereas fossil stations are only costed on their building costs and fuel.
I'd be surprised if anyone on the planet actually knows the true cost of different forms of energy. The market is so rigged, in so many different ways, that it hardly seems worth discussion.
The rivers still run into the sea!
No one seems to be prepared to use the potential energy of the rivers any more. There is one mill left in Bedfordshire: Jordan's mill on the river Ivel just south of Biggleswade still uses the river to power its grinders.
On the river Great Ouse, just north of the village of Willington, there is a 25 foot drop in the water level. There is nothing but a lock and an over-sluice. A 25-foot head of water could produce energy 24x7; if someone was prepared to invest in river generation!
They'll be minted when the old codgers cark it though.
One child per family and free fags for the over 60's I say!
Unsubsidised nuclear power?
Nukes are given a free ticket in the energy auctions because they cannot compete in a free market, even with the heavy subsidies they receive. IIRC the EDF figure of 2bn tco for a nuke plant excludes the majority of fuel disposal and decommissioning, which will be a cost to the tax payer.
Also, why not compare the 21bn proposed subsidy of microgeneration with the trillions of tax payers money that has been (and still is) ploughed into nuclear.
Oh, and life audit of a nuke plant shows it to be far from carbon-neutral.
Super insulate house, use ground heat pump (400% efficiency) run on leccy from nuke station. Job done.
So you would suggest we continue to grow the population exponentially to ensure that the resource crunch is someone else's problem?
It is a fundamental flaw in the current economic model that everything falls apart if the population doesn't continue to grow. So do we pretend that this is never going to happen or face the fact that eventually we are going to hit the limit of a resource and things are going to get painful.
Obvioulsy, sticking our head in the sand is much easier...
Yep, well said that man!
Don't forget in many places in the UK, the sea also flows into the rivers. When I was in Uni (about 1996!), I saw the proposal for the Severn Barrage. At the time it was predicted that it could generate 7% of the electrical power required for England & Wales. (Sorry Scotland.). I beleive that's dropped to around 5% now but that's still a big chunk of energy that is totally renewable.
Of course there is the problem that twice each day it stops generating power and that does have to be covered by stations that can start and stop fairly quickly, but we have those already.
Paris 'cos I haven't used her (icon) yet!
That the significant nuclear subsidy we all pay is not mentioned. Fission based nuclear energy is slightly cheaper than wind power at the moment, to the end consumer. But the government picks up the bill for cleaning up and security out of our taxes.
If you then consider some of the other problems that the nuclear industry tends to gloss over:
1) We've got 250 years of fuel left, assuming consumption doesn't go up.
2) We are close to, if not at peak nuclear fuel production
3) It takes a decade to build a new plant
4) Fission is at the end of it's innovation cycle - if you invest a vast amount of money, you might make your plant a shade more efficient (contrasted with "renewables", where relatively cheap innovations are having a huge effect)
5) If you do find a nice improvement for your nuke plant, how long will it take to implement - generally, you can only do it while building. (With micro-generation, you simply stop installing the old stuff and swap to new when you can)
6) The national grid loses up to 10% of the energy generated by nukes, simply between generator and target. Micro-generation doesn't, because it's local.
Of course, if we could build fusion reactors, zero-point energy farms, or mine dilithium crystals, great, but until we invent useful ones, the only realistic approach to our energy problems are to invest in reduction of usage, micro-generation and renewables.
My local council is about to launch a scheme whereby they will lend you up to £10000 interest free to install 'green' technology (anything except wind!) and you only have to pay it back when you sell your house. If this pilot works, it will be rolled out to the rest of the UK.
"Face it - the greenies are a special interest group determined to extract money from everybody else by the means of their supposedly idealist ideology."
Not quite right, the 'greenies' have provided an excuse for the formation of greedy special interest groups that see a big pile of tax payers that they think has their name written all over it. Wolf/sheeps clothing and all that...
The Unspoken Factor
This report assumes that nothing else changes, i.e. household appliances would remain at their current levels of (in)efficiency and that actually putting money into on-the-ground microgen technology would not yield further improvements. In an example most of you can understand:
Your arguments suggest that using the best available now is a waste of time but the IT industry is completely built around that. Without the TRS-80 and the C64 there would have been no C128. Without the 386 there would have been no 486, and so on. Moving forward with what's available now is how real improvements are made. If you wait on Billy-Boffin and his whitecoats to create the "most wonderful, perfectest, thingamabob" ever then you'll be waiting until hell freezes over.
Another issue is that microgen stations have to sell power back to the grid, and this is the unspoken factor that undermines this entire study. Power you generate at home is not used at your home, it is sold back to the provider at the "wholesale rate" and you receive a credit for your power to apply towards next months power bill. Allowing people to use their own power would further development and create entirely new ways to make homes more efficient.
The flaw in the analysis is that if oil prices double again, the price of microgen kit will ALSO double as it requires a fair amount of energy to make and that energy will unfortunately come from oil.....
Actually this isn't so simple: if you take energy out of a river then it runs slower, it drops its silt load, meanders more etc etc. The riverbed gets clogged with mud, causing it to burst its banks quicker during heavy rain, becomes unnavigable to pleasure and commercial boats, downstream areas can become starved of water and more water is lost due to evaporation, and waterborne life can be severely damaged (fish, otters, birds etc trapped in millraces, killed in turbines, riverbed scoured by fast outflow and so forth).
The building of dams in the Spanish pyrenees a few years ago caused an international incident due to the downstream impact in France. A dam on the zambezi devastated another country's agro-economy. And even in the UK small-scale power systems can have this effect if not thought through or implemented in large numbers.
"We've got 250 years of (nuclear) fuel left, assuming consumption doesn't go up."
According to what calculation?
AFAIK, nuclear power generation is fairly fuel-cost-insensitive (since most costs are capital investment, decommissioning etc) whereas estimations of nuclear fuel reserves are very fuel-cost-sensitive.
In other words, if nuke fuel demand goes up, nuke fuel price goes up, more becomes economically recoverable, but the energy price doesn't respond proportionately.
By the time nuclear contamination becomes a problem (a few thousand years?), we'll have genetically engineered ourselves to be radiation proof.
If the choice is to sit in the dark and shiver renewably, or be warm, comfortable and glowing gently, I'll take the latter.
"Of course, if we could build fusion reactors, zero-point energy farms, or mine dilithium crystals, great, but until we invent useful ones, the only realistic approach to our energy problems are to invest in reduction of usage, micro-generation and renewables."
You do yourself no favours in conflating two pieces of science fiction with one piece of science fact. Are you prepared to stick your neck out and say that neither fusion nor any other new form of energy generation will appear within the 250 years that you cite? If so, I think you are an idiot. If not, I suggest you tone down the rhetoric and accept that a known technology that offers a couple of centuries of extra thinking time is probably the best existing option.
Lets see, its now the year 2015, the public inquiries into replacing Dungerness B agr station are into their 3 year as the green lobby ties them up in protests and legalese.
So I decide against all sense to install a nice subsidised wind turbine on my roof, thanks to the stunning advances in technology, this device will pump out an astounding 400 watts of electical power ( or slightly less than the power needed to run this PC) but it takes a windspeed of over 24 MPH to do it because of the small size.
So on nice windy days I generate enough power to just about keep a pc switched on and gawd help me if I want to boil my kettle.(probably need to look at the weather forecast every day to see if I could boil my kettle...)
Or lets go down the micro generation route using a CHP boiler.....which needs to be switched on all the time I'm using power, unlike my old combi boiler that was switched on for a max of 3 hrs a day during winter(praise to the gods of double glazing and insulation)
So if the government comes up with a £21 billion subsidy , it would be better spent replacing the antique power stations we have now that are going to fail in 10 years rather than useless schemes that look good on paper.
How do microbial fuel cells compare - anyone?
1) The whole issue is greatly confused, but the upshot is that we have something like that which can be recovered at something like current costs, that we know about. Vastly more can be recovered at higher costs, and because the cost of ore is a tiny fraction of that of running a nuclear power plant (it's even a small part of the cost of the fuel, which takes a lot of processing), that isn't a huge issue. And once that runs out, in a thousand years, or so, we can move onto the Thorium; India is in fact doing so already. Still sounds better than gas and coal, in terms of security of supply.
2) Eh? Half the mines are closed, due to oversupply from weapons decommissioning. Note that the price, after rising for a while, is now going down again; that's because some of the mines are increasing production.
3) Eh? If you factor in the planning mess which can be required, sure. That's why EDF and so on are so interested in the existing (mostly closed) sites. GE says that their current plant takes two and a half years to build, from first concrete, while AREVA estimates 3 years. The AREVA one in Finland is due to overrun by a year or so, but that's largely because it's first-of-kind.
4) Again, simply not correct. Modern plants are FAR more efficient than plants from the 60s and 70s, even though there was a falloff in research. The plants of the 60s really were insanely expensive; the first nuclear plants in the UK and USSR were effectively government built, while the first one in the US was an aircraft carrier reactor whose design was contributed by the navy; they were worried that they were falling behind. The 4G plants planned for the next few decades are better again.
5) Plants are often uprated, though of course you can't expect huge gains. Of course, you're hardly likely going to want to upgrade your magic CHP thing in the kitchen every week until Putin turns the gas off, either.
6) Irrelevant if production is less efficient.
On nuclear plants bidding at 0p, that is because, unlike gas, but like hydro and most coal, they cannot simply be turned off and on when you feel like it; turning them on takes days or weeks. Even if they could, most of the cost is in staffing, construction, and putting money towards decommissioning, not in fuel.
Nuclear fuel will run with your common or garden fission plant, but with breeder reactors the fuel supply is thousands of years.
It's fairly safe to say that the problems with breeder reactors that are after all only 50 years old, will be ironed out within the next 50 if we need them.
The predicted lifespan of a nuclear reactor is only 50 years or so anyway, so you build it then use it to completion, just like a coal mine.