How can the developing world escape poverty without climate change calamity?

This article is the result of some very interesting discussions below a recent TEC article on the potential of coal, nuclear and wind/solar to supply the rapidly growing energy needs of the developing world. In that article, I estimated that nuclear is roughly an order of magnitude less scalable than coal, but more than double as scalable as wind/solar. These estimations were challenged by both nuclear and wind advocates and, as such critical discussions often do, have prompted much closer investigations into this issue. In particular, data pertaining to the near-term prospects of nuclear energy in China, the nation accounting for fully 43% of nuclear plants currently under construction, has been analysed in more detail. — SCHALK CLOETE

Schalk Cloete’s superpower is the ability to execute and explain exactly the analysis required to penetrate a difficult, controversial topic. And there are a few others – you know who you are. 

Schalk’s recent article Can Nuclear Make a Substantial Near-Term Contribution? supports answers to my “most important questions”: How can we help the large fast-growers to make the transition from fossil to clean energy? For discussion, let’s focus on three key nations:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Africa

The reason I posed this in terms of three different developing countries is because the support & partnership that the rich countries can offer is different in each case. 

  1. China is already putting more resource than any other nation into building up their nuclear deployment capability. Even so, China can benefit hugely from without-limit contributions of capital, science, and engineering know how. I left regulatory know how off that list, though there may be possible contributions there. As it stands today the US NRC is probably mostly a hinderance to the deployment of advanced nuclear – not because of the NRC staff, but because of the budgetary straight-jacket imposed by the US Congress (make the ‘customers’ pay for everything up front).
  2. India is improving their nuclear deployment capability at a slow, deliberate pace. But India too could benefit from external technology contributions. Remember that India was cut off for decades from western nuclear tech as punishment for their indigenous nuclear weapons development.
  3. Africa needs affordable energy-machines that are suitable to their infrastructure and operational capabilities. If Africa does not have access to affordable and suitable nuclear they will have no real choice but to build more and more coal and gas.

Cumulative CO2 avoidance potential over lifetime of investment (Gton CO2)


Our affordability challenge is that we need to offer clean, reliable electricity at the best price per ton CO2 avoided. So what can compete economically with coal and natural gas? If you study Schalk’s chart for a few minutes I think you will conclude, as I have, that we need to pull out all the stops to accelerate deployment of mass-manufactured “nuclear batteries”. By “batteries” I mean simply that no-maintenance energy-machines that can be rapidly installed by underground burial, connected to the grid, then left alone for up to four decades until the maintenance crew arrives to replace the “battery”, trundling the original off to the factory for refueling. 

China is training-up to build and staff Western-style plants like the AP1000 – which China will be building internally on Chinese-owned IP. That is not going to happen very soon and at scale in Africa. While my guess is that India will need some time to develop their skill-base and supply chain. Sadly, Greenpeace has succeeded in preventing availability of the simple plants that Africa wants to purchase. Given the reality of the nuclear supply chain, it will be close to two decades before vendors are manufacturing and installing plants suitable for most low-tech nations.

Africa isn’t waiting for someone to make a clean generation option available to energize their growth. Currently seven of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. Sadly the massive scale of African urbanization and growth is going to be enabled the same way it happened in Europe, N and S America – building relatively cheap coal and gas plants as fast as they can be built. That trajectory will end very badly unless we get serious about what happens next. We can create a happy ending if, inside the next two decades, we achieve the capability to produce affordable nuclear plants that can be installed and operated without losing two additional decades developing a deeply-trained nuclear workforce and local supply chain. By 2015 Africa’s urban population is expected to triple [UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision].

It’s obvious that these SMR designs must be substitutable for the fossil thermal machines that got built in the first phase of dirty industrialization. It will be a lot easier and cheaper if the first-stage dirty plants are designed for such an evolution: rip the dirty heat out, stick the clean heat in.

There’s heaps more to be learned by studying Schalk’s essay, so get on over there. If you find any flaws in his work, please contribute to the dialogue there on TEC (I am subscribed to those comments).

Footnotes from Shalk’s essay: why China’s nuclear avoidance potential is actually greater than the above chart.

[1] It should also be mentioned that the Chinese tariff system favors wind over nuclear by paying a fixed feed-in tariff of $83–100/MWh to wind and $70/MWh to nuclear. Another important factor to consider is the reduced value of wind relative to nuclear due to the variability of wind power (see my previous articles on this subject here and here). Wind power also requires expensive high voltage transmission networks to transport power from good wind locations to population centres, something which is creating substantial challenges. Thus, if the playing field were to be leveled, the difference between nuclear and wind scaling rates should increase substantially.

Robert Rapier on Global Coal Consumption


Robert has been working through the definitive BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014, producing so far three posts on the implications of the BP data. Today he looks at the reality of coal power trends. Last year China consumed over 50%, and produced over 47% of global coal. 

This is why I cringe every time I see a breathless announcement such as Germany Now Produces Half Of Its Energy Using Solar.

Roberts previous two BP-based posts are – World Sets New Oil Production and Consumption Records and The US and Russia are Gas Giants.

Stop burning coal

Brad Templeton, wizard of robocar thinking and strategy, also engages his active mind with challenges like GHG emissions. In this post Brad looks carefully at the logic of reducing coal burning. Most greens are focused on “feel good”, Brad shows how to be effective instead:

So while it is good to look at reducing all energy production that has problems, right now if you want to do something green, it’s a fair, if broad statement to say that the best way to do it is to stop the burning of coal.

What that means for people who don’t run power companies is that reducing electrical demand in a sub-grid that is heavy with coal (such as Chicago or West Virginia) is a fair bit better than doing it in a coal-light sub-grid like California. And doing it in a place like China would be even better.

There is an irony here. Californians tend, on average, to be more eco-conscious than others. This is the birthplace of the Sierra Club after all. And because it is natural for people to focus on where they live, you see lots of effort to conserve energy or use alternative energy in California. But the same efforts would get 65% more bang for the buck if they took place in the midwest or southwest. This calculator claims to report the CO2 cost of electrical production in each zip code. (…)

This conclusion will be disturbing for some. If you’re considering putting a solar panel on your roof in California, you would do 65% better at reducing pollution if you put the panel up on a roof in Arizona. (Actually a little better as Arizona has better sun.) If you are considering putting a solar panel up in Vermont, you would do almost 3 times better to put it in the southwest, since not only is their power twice as dirty, but they get a lot more sun.

What you would not get is the personal satisfaction of seeing panels on your roof and feeling that you personally are green. But there really is no such thing as solar electrons. Electricity is just electricity. There’s a big grid (and not being grid tied is really non-green) and the most you can do is improve how green the grid is. It doesn’t make a difference if you put the solar panels up on your house or a house across town. And it makes a positive difference if you put it up where it will have the best effect. It just doesn’t feel as good.



California’s dirty coal legacy


Searching for facts on California’s actual coal-fired electricity consumption, I found the Milford et al report “Clearing California’s Coal Shadow from the American West” [PDF]. The latest data therein is 2004, when California’s coal-fired electricity consumption was about 20%. California politicians prefer to quote the “inside California borders” coal burning stats, which according to EIA data was around 1.2% in 2010. The strategy of the politicians has been to drive energy-intensive businesses out of the state, and to outsource the pollution associated with power generation so that other Western states can “enjoy” the coal mining and burning.

Far from the southern California beaches, the movie studios of Hollywood, and the Golden Gate Bridge, a fleet of coal plants in distant western states churns out power for the California market. These coal plants discharge vast quantities of air pollution, consume huge amounts of water and emit destructive global warm- ing gases. Some of the largest mining operations in the United States tear up the land to provide the coal they burn. While the power from these coal plants is transmitted many miles to customers in California, the pollution and environ- mental disturbances stay behind, sending a cascade of human health and environ- mental impacts across the American West and the globe. Although coal-fired electricity production accounts for a smaller share of California’s power mix than it does in other western states, the sheer size of the California market means that the Golden State’s consumption of coal-based power casts a long shadow over the American West.

(…) In 2004, coal plants located in the interior West supplied an estimated 20% of all electricity in California, which is twice the share that comes from renewables. Large quantities of air pollution are discharged from these coal plants.

(…) Coal-fired power plants owned by California utilities also consume precious water in the Southwest. The Navajo Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant each con- sume more than 8 billion gallons of water every year. The environmental footprint of coal-fired power plants further extends to the coal-mining operations that supply them. The Black Mesa-Kayenta mining complex, which supplies the Mohave and Navajo generating stations, is one of the largest strip-mining operations in the United States.

China: coal plant shutdowns due to coal prices

High coal prices are definitely causing pain in China:

“Many coal plants have shut down their generators because the more they produce, the bigger the losses they will suffer,” Li Chaolin, a coal and energy industry analyst at Anbound Group told the Global Times.

As a result, as much as 30 GW of power shortages are forcast as struggling coal power plants in China are unable to stay in business. China intends to build at least 75 GW of new clean energy to help supply new energy demands as its economy grows. But the dramatic loss of coal power was not factored in several years ago.

Are current high coal prices a supply/demand squeeze that will ease as new mining and transport capacity is created? Please comment if you know of a coal forecast that covers transportation as well as mining.

UPDATE: Roger Clifton posits a supply/demand squeeze:

(…) It would be good to believe that the price of nuclear has dropped permanently below the price of coal. I am under the impression that the current high price of coal is because the expansion of supply is struggling to meet the expansion of demand. Inside China, the railways are already loaded with the traffic of the increased economic activity, effectively overpricing the transport of indigenous coal. However they have plenty of sedimentary basins, and thus plenty of coal resource.