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Sizewell B is the UK’s newest nuclear power plant. Courtesy of British Energy.
In turning back to nuclear fuel, the U.K. will be by no means alone. France has been largely nuclear for decades and has been exporting surplus power to the U.K. via a sub-sea, high-voltage DC link for many years. More surprising, perhaps, given its Scandinavian reputation for being greener than green, Finland gets some 25% of its power from nuclear facilities and currently hosts the only nuclear plant under construction in Europe at Olkiluoto.
Current projections are for a new generation of nuclear plants to start coming on stream in the U.K. by 2015. That seems optimistic, however. The last plant built in the U.K. took more than ten years just to get through the Byzantine planning procedures before construction could even begin. Measures have recently been announced to streamline these procedures but, in the meantime, utilities will be looking to a new generation of “clean coal” plants to fill the gap.
Showing the way is Europe’s largest coal-fired plant, the huge 4,000 MW facility at Drax in Yorkshire, which is soon to embark on a £100-million upgrade program to replace the low- and high-pressure turbines on all of its six units, raising overall efficiency to nearly 40% and reducing CO2 emissions by 5% or some million tonnes a year. Drax is also pioneering the co-firing of biomass, derived from coppiced willow with coal in a program aimed at deriving 10% of its output from renewables by the end of 2009 and, hence, saving a further two million tonnes of CO2 a year.
Longer term, the aim, not just in the U.K., but across Europe, is “cleaner coal,” based on CO2 sequestration or carbon capture and storage (CCS). This would involve the retrofitting of existing plants in a manner similar to the flue gas desulphurisation program, which dramatically cleaned up Europe’s power industry in the 1980s and 1990s.
The U.K. government is currently assessing a number of coal-fired, carbon-capture system (CCS) demonstration projects, and these now look likely to take precedence over one of the main alternatives, pre-combustion carbon capture for natural-gas-fired power plants. On the same day that the U.K. white paper was published, BP pulled out of a joint program to build a 475MW gas-fired station at Peterhead in Scotland, citing government delays.
With the current divergence of official opinion between the U.S. and Europe on the cause of climate change and the need to do anything about it, carbon capture is the one area where progress, at least in the medium term, is likely to be faster in Europe than in North America. The same is not true of biofuels although, once again, the motivation and justification differ widely. In the U.S., bio-ethanol and its close relation, bio-butanol, are seen primarily as substitutes for, rather than as carbon-neutral alternatives to, imported oil. The reverse is true in Europe, but already public opinion is changing because of growing evidence that, when the entire production process is taken into account, biofuels derived from conventional crops could actually add more carbon to the atmosphere than fossil fuels, and that’s before the effects of displacing food production are taken into account.
At the same time, a growing reliance on fuel crops from the tropics is seen as having a negative environmental impact, in effect exporting carbon emissions from the first to the third world. It’s clear that if biofuel production is to rely purely on indigenous biomass, then its contribution can only be limited.
Current targets are low, if still ambitious. The E.U. is requiring diesel producers to incorporate 5.75% biodiesel by 2010. The Europe-grown component will almost all have to come from rapeseed oil, the end product of the yellow flowered oilseed rape, which already seems to cover most of northern Europe in springtime. To meet the current European diesel demand of some 170 million tonnes, that’s going to mean growing some 8 million hectares of rape. Currently only about 5 million hectares are in cultivation, of which 3 million go for food, which means a huge increase in the area of rape in cultivation with unpredictable consequences for other crops.
None of which is preventing substantial investment in biofuel capacity. At one extreme Ineos, the world’s third largest chemical company, has announced its intention to become Europe’s largest biodiesel producer, planning 2 million tonnes of capacity by 2012, and more than half of that by 2010. Earlier this year, it announced a €90-million investment in a 500,000-tonne-per-year biodiesel facility at the former BP site at Grangemouth, Scotland, which it hopes to bring online by the middle of 2008. At the other extreme, but arguably more “eco-friendly,” is Envirogroup, a biodiesel franchising operation in southern England whose franchisees produce 600 litres of biodiesel per day from used cooking oil collected from local restaurants, hotels and schools.
Clearly investment in clean energy technology for whatever motivation is set to boom, and that can only be good news for the process automation industry. What is less certain is whether current U.S. governmental reluctance to accept that emissions of greenhouse gases are a major driver of climate change puts North American vendors, for all their avowed stance as global organizations, at a disadvantage vis à vis their European competitors. In the world of climate change, it may not be sufficient to be doing the right things; it may also be necessary to be seen to be doing them for the right reasons.
Andrew Bond is a Control Contributing Editor and editor of the Industrial Automation Insider newsletter.