Interested in linking to "Politics, Appearances and Thinking Green "?
You may use the Headline, Deck, Byline and URL of this article on your Web site. To link to this article, select and copy the HTML code below and paste it on your own Web site.
By Andrew Bond
Some months ago, in a conversation over lunch at a press event in Europe, Jim Nyquist, the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) president of Emerson Process Management, one of the leading North American process automation vendors, said current concerns about climate change and global warming would have little or no impact on public opinion or policy in the U.S. Not many weeks later, ABB, one of Europe’s leading process automation vendors, focused much of its North American user conference on how its technologies could contribute to mitigating global warming. Metaphorically rubbing his hands in anticipation, Dinesh Paliwal, its then-president of North American operations, summed up the company’s stance with the claim that on climate change, “We are in the sweet spot.”
Renewables such as wind power still account for less than 5% of UK power generation, but provide rich pickings for vendors such as Emerson which recently won the contract to provide a wide-area data gathering system for 19 active wind farms operated by npower renewables.
Fairly or unfairly, the contrast neatly sums up what many Europeans perceive as the difference between European and North American attitudes to global warming. It’s probably an unfair comparison, but it does tend to confirm European prejudices, best summed by the PR consultant for the European arm of another U.S. automation vendor, who said of his clients, “They just don’t get it.”
In truth, however, much of the difference between Europe and North America on these issues is in presentation rather than substance. Mankind’s contribution to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions may be accepted as fact in the public utterances of European politicians, opinion-makers and, increasingly, business leaders, but there are still plenty of sceptics or “climate change deniers” on Europe’s streets, and their numbers are as likely to increase as decrease when lectured on film by former U.S. vice president Al Gore. Moreover, while the justification for the major policy decisions on the two sides of the Atlantic may differ, the underlying motives and the policies themselves are remarkably similar.
Take the white paper published by the U.K. government at the end of May 2007, setting out its energy policy for the next two decades. It was presented primarily as a master plan for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, but it could be more accurately described as a strategy for reducing dependence on imported energy in general and Russian gas in particular. That’s not so very different from the current U.S. government policy of promoting and subsidising biofuels to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Indeed, it’s helpful to governments of either or no persuasion that most of the decisions on energy policy that are dictated by realpolitik can be presented with a suitably green veneer.
That U.K. white paper may well have a wider significance, marking as it does the moment when the climate-change community recognized the full implications of its commitment to reductions in emissions. Thus far the U.K. has led Europe in reducing, or at least reducing the rate of increase, of its emissions of CO2, setting domestic targets which go beyond the requirements of the Kyoto treaty. That requires the world’s developed countries—well, most of them!—to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 5.2% below 1990 levels over the period 2008 to 2012. E.U. member states agreed to an overall 8% reduction of which the U.K.’s contribution was a 12.5% reduction on 1990 levels for a “basket” of six greenhouse gases. In a fit of enthusiasm, the U.K. government set its own objective of a 20% reduction on 1990 levels of CO2 by 2010.
ABB supplied the process control system for this 260 million liter/yr bioethanol plant at Zeitz, Germany, its first major Profibus-PA installation. Courtesy of ABB.
Although that goal now looks unlikely, the U.K. is nevertheless one of the few countries on track to meet its Kyoto obligations, even if that’s not quite as admirable as it might sound. In fact, the reduction is almost entirely due to a massive transfer of generating capacity from coal to natural gas, which was already under way before Kyoto had even been contemplated.
The “dash for gas” saw the construction of a fleet of relatively low-cost, quick-to-construct and easy-to-locate combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants and the closure of large numbers of older and smaller coal-fired stations. At a time when gas was cheap and the U.K. was a net exporter, that looked like a smart policy. Ten years on, the U.K. is a net importer, dependent in part on a long, complex and vulnerable umbilical stretching from the North Sea to the far side of the Urals. That, as much as climate change, has triggered the latest rethink.
Whereas 20 years ago the bulk of U.K. electricity came from coal, today coal’s share is only a third, and gas accounts for nearly 40%. Nuclear power continues to provide a 20% base load, but renewables, despite the hype, still account for just 5%. Moreover, the U.K. government concedes that its own target of 20% from renewables by 2020 is unlikely to be met. More important, however, is the fact that all but one of the current nuclear plants are due to be withdrawn from service by 2023, as are most of the existing coal-fired plants. It’s this looming gap which has led the U.K. government to conclude that the British public will be prepared to set aside its long-standing aversion to further nuclear investment if the alternative is having Vladimir Putin’s thumbs on its collective windpipe.
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.