Power and Climate Change

31 January 2010 (Last Updated January 31st, 2010 18:30)

For many the Copenhagen climate summit last year was a big disappointment, but it did highlight the need for change. Ian McInnes looks at where the world is heading for its energy supplies.

Power and Climate Change

Global consumption of marketed energy is projected to increase 44% between 2006 and 2030, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). This is the largest projected increase expected to come from non members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes China and India.

Even allowing for a decline in those projections, because of the recession it is clear that more power is needed. However, because the generation of power and its use is usually the largest contributor to a nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (GGE), for the sake of the planet, legacy power stations must produce less GGE or close down, and new power generation must produce less or no GGE at all - and that is a tall order.

Copenhagen effect

The global climate change summit at Copenhagen in December 2009 has been called disappointing by some, disastrous by others.

Nonetheless, the process has raised awareness, and ongoing severe climate events will doubtless drive the point home that something has to be done.

Even without the spectre of climate change it is not possible to keep expanding the power generation base of fossil fuel-fed stations. Something has to change radically.

At the end of January 2010, as part of the Copenhagen Accord, nations will be coming forward with their non-binding carbon reduction targets for 2020 in order to keep a global rise in temperature to 2ºC or less, with the peak at 2020.

"For the sake of the planet, legacy power stations must produce less GGE or close down."

Countries throughout the world has to use alternative methods to produce energy with fossil fuels and deploy renewable energy solutions on a massive scale, however, nations are long on options but short on time.

There is a rush to build nuclear power stations, particularly in China in India. China has said that, as it attempts to move away from coal, it intends to generate over 10% of its electricity requirements from nuclear reactors by 2030. To this end, 11 nuclear power plants are up and running with 20 more under construction.

Globally there are 437 nuclear reactors working with a total of 55 new reactors under construction, nowhere near enough to solve the problem and, given the length of time nuclear power stations take to build, almost too late to realistically affect the 2020 target.

Next power king

Coal is abundant and China and the US in particular rely on this fossil fuel for the majority of their power generation. Switching from coal in ten years is not likely to be achievable. However, using coal smarter and better? That is a maybe.

"The US government invested $1.4bn in October 2009 for 12 CCS projects, with nearly another $1bn to be invested in three more."

While not fully proven, carbon capture and storage (CCS), the practice of storing CO² underground, is emerging as a real possibility; couple that technology with new, clean coal-burning techniques and coal may yet continue to be king of power generation.

The US government invested $1.4bn in October 2009 for 12 CCS projects, with nearly another $1bn to be invested in three more CCS projects down the line.

According to the US EIA, power generated by natural gas-powered plants will surpass nuclear energy over the next 20 years. Natural gas is a clean-burning fuel and with the implementation of centralised gas turbines and combined cycle units thermal efficiencies of up to 60% can be achieved.

Natural gas will not be the fuel of choice for every nation, but for the US in particular, which has recently found ways to efficiently and cost effectively extract abundant shale gas reserves, natural gas could take some of the pressure off of aging coal-burning power plants.

Renewable energy

Much is made of renewable power generation methods, including hydropower, biomass and biofuels, wind power, wave power, solar power and geothermal. However, there is a long way to go before any of these can make a significant difference in global terms.

Research and investments have increased substantially and according to figures released by the United Nations (UN) in June 2009 wind, solar and other technologies attracted $140bn of investment, outpacing oil gas and coal power investment at $110bn; the UN estimates that $750bn needs to be spent between 2009 and 2011.

"In June 2009, wind, solar and other technologies attracted $140bn of investment."

Hydro power generation also has a niche. For example, Brazil is estimated to generate 93% of its power from hydro facilities.

There is a warning here too: Venezuela announced in January 2010 that it was implementing power outages because of a lack of water at its hydro power-generating facilities.

In 2008, installed wind power capacity grew 28%, with the top two wind power-generating nations being the US and Germany.

The UK will soon challenge those positions following the announcement by the government in January 2010 of a potential 6,400 offshore wind turbines with the capacity to power almost all of the homes in the UK, creating a £75bn industry supporting 70,000 jobs by 2020.

A global crisis always perceived to be a long way off then suddenly it is on the doorstep. Such is the case with climate change. The challenge is colossal. Let's hope governments and industries can rise to it.