Skip to content

Newsletter 16th November 2007

- Energy security - Fuel from algae - Galileo: what goes around, comes around

Energy insecurity

On November 7th, the International Energy Agency launched its latest World Energy Outlook report, with a projection that energy demand by 2030 could be 50% higher than today's. A large part of this inexorable growth will inevitably come from the world's two largest countries, China and India, both developing rapidly and investing heavily in new generating capacity to meet demand. With populations of about 1.3 and 1.1 billion respectively, they make up 37% of the world total, and any increase in per capita energy consumption will certainly have a major effect on the global figures. By mid-century, when the world population is likely to be approaching a projected peak of around 9 billion, these two countries will still account for about one third of the total, and India seems set to overtake China as the world's largest country, with a staggering 1.6 billion population (more than the total world population in 1900).

This clearly has implications for energy security, not just for China and India, but the whole world. The rapid expansion of China's power generation capacity is a matter of record, as is its primary reliance on coal. Coal has the benefit of being the fossil fuel with the largest proven reserves and therefore its use offers in principle a high degree of security. Certainly it won't last forever, but it is unlikely to run out in less than 300 years. However, it also has associated problems. Deep mines are dangerous and unpleasant places to work and loss of life remains all too common an occurrence. And, although sulphur and other pollutants can quite easily be stripped out of exhaust gases, in a world increasingly concerned about carbon dioxide emissions, coal remains the greatest culprit per unit of power.

In the developed world, where per capita energy consumption is already high, governments are encouraging the development and commercialisation of alternative, renewable, energy supplies. Unfortunately, the contribution these can make is bound to be limited. Most viable hydro-electric sources have already been tapped. Wind power, although now probably close to economic viability, suffers from the primary problem of intermittency and lack of predictability. Solar panels are becoming more efficient but, although their intermittency is at least largely predictable, there seems little prospect of the technology becoming economically competitive for the foreseeable future. Wave and tidal power are in their infancy and their reliability generally unproven. Burning wood and other biomass in power stations is fine, but unfortunately cannot do more than fulfil a small proportion of demand.

Leaving aside for the moment either the commercialisation of nuclear fusion, which might at last become a reality in a generation's time, or the development of space-based solar panels or some other novel scheme, we are faced with the need to generate base load power for a world where average per capita energy consumption will continue to rise. Things which we in rich countries can do to reduce our consumption are laudable but, in the overall scheme of things, pretty insignificant. And few of us would begrudge Chinese, Indians and others the enormous benefits of a reliable, distributed energy supply.

So, how do we cater for the next quarter century or so? Although current high prices will stimulate further exploration and extraction of oil and gas, we are probably unlikely to see a major increase in supply in the next ten years. In any case, it seems sensible to use oil as the primary source of transport fuel, until we can come up with a better alternative. There remain two alternatives: coal or nuclear fission. Burning coal generates large amounts of carbon dioxide which, if emission reduction targets are to be met, has either to be sequestered or used in some kind of "clean coal" power generation cycle. Either option itself consumes energy and therefore requires the use of yet more coal.

Which leaves us with nuclear power. In the UK, as the present generation of stations is decommissioned, our carbon emissions will rise. Building a new generation of plants in existing locations would reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, result in far less waste than earlier plants, and produce reliable, economic base load electricity. France has by far the highest proportion of its electricity generated by fission, and sees no reason to move away from that. Finland has now committed to new build. Even the German government seems to be questioning its opposition to the technology.

Nuclear power is, of course, not without its problems. Containment of high level waste is not something which can lightly be dismissed, but is not something which is insurmountable by deep burial. Chernobyl remains as a reminder of the dangers if a reactor is not properly controlled. But even Chernobyl did not result in the massive regional catastrophe which was predicted, and the current generation of reactors is simply incapable of getting out of control in this way. There are also newer, intrinsically safe designs such as pebble bed reactors, and the prospect of using thorium in place of uranium.

If we are serious about providing energy security not just for ourselves but for an increasingly prosperous developing world, and we want to do this at the same time as reducing emissions, nuclear has to be a large part of the solution.

Fuel from algae

There continues to be much debate about the pros and cons of biofuels. These have come in for a bad press recently for a variety of reasons, ranging from the low energy efficiency of ethanol to the impact of biodiesel on clearance of tropical rainforest. Even rises in food prices are blamed on biofuels, although there seem to be a number of more important reasons, including a string of poor harvests. But, as we know, the ability to produce fuels by digesting biomass should overcome many of the objections and provide significant quantities of fuel from agricultural waste. Not surprisingly, there are many companies, attracting plenty of investment, trying to be the first to come up with a commercially viable process.

But they potentially have competition, in the form of algae. The facts seem impressive. They can quadruple their biomass in a single day, and some strains contain over 50% oil. An acre of maize yields 1,600 litres of ethanol, we can get just 265 litres of biodiesel from an acre of soy, and yet the same area of algae could produce 19,000 litres, according to a market analysis by Kiplinger.

Of course, it's not quite as simple as that. If it was, we would already be relying on algae to produce fuels. In practice, there are difficulties in producing high yields reliably without investing in expensive bio-reactors. Nevertheless, the possibilities are highly attractive, and it makes absolute sense to develop the technology in parallel to biomass processing. Who knows what the final results will be?

Galileo: what goes around, comes around

Galileo, the proposed EU satellite-based positioning system, has come in for some robust criticism from the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, which has said that Europe is "sleep-walking" into a hugely expensive project. The EU does not do big projects well, and Galileo is no exception. The project to put up a more accurate European competitor to the US GPS system is years behind schedule and the projected public-private partnership fell apart when a consortium of companies decided the project was not viable.

Hardly surprising when GPS is free and will in any case be upgraded before long to meet essentially the same standards as Galileo. Who would want to fund such a project, and who would expect businesses and individuals to buy its services? Such prestige white elephant projects do nothing to inspire confidence in the competence of European institutions.