Saturday, 7 March 2009

Pressing the nuclear button has never looked so attractive

We are at the dawn of a new nuclear age, and, this time, it's good news. Increasing the provision of nuclear energy is the best way to stop the lights going out and make the UK less dependent on foreign energy in the future.

By Tracy CorriganLast Updated: 6:22AM GMT 06 Mar 2009

It is also our only chance or hitting very optimistic renewable energy targets in 2020. But there are also important secondary benefits to be gained from the expansion of the nuclear programme: most importantly, it should, if we play our cards right, provide a very timely boost for British industry and British jobs.
Yet so far the UK's nuclear revival looks spectacularly un-British. In the next few weeks, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will conduct an internet auction of three sites suitable for new nuclear power stations. Potential bidders include Vattenfall of Sweden and Iberdrola of Spain. Not so British.
There are already plans for eight new nuclear reactors in the UK by 2020, four from Ele/ctricite/ de France, which has recently bought British Energy, and another four from Germany's Eon and RWE. Their construction is likely to be undertaken by France's Areva and Westinghouse of the US. Again, not many Brits on the scene.
And Centrica, which is supposed to be buying a stake in the EDF-owned UK nuclear business, is now having second thoughts as a result of the sharp fall in energy prices since the deal was mooted.
The distinct lack of British names in the headlines, particularly if Centrica drops out of the picture, does not look encouraging, but it is less important than you might think. For a start, it is old news. The UK, once at the vanguard of the nuclear industry, let its expertise in designing plants wither away years ago.
More than 20 years after the Chernobyl disaster effectively killed the nuclear power industry, there is an urgent need to build new stations to replace old ones that are due to be decommissioned, as well as supplement diminishing oil and gas supplies. The first wave of nuclear power expansion will be mainly in the UK, where our former pre-eminence now means our plants are the oldest, and the most urgently in need of replacement. But demand for new plants is spreading throughout Europe, where there are similar worries about security of supply – and to the rest of the world.
And big British companies such as Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, as well as many smaller specialists, are well positioned to become the suppliers of choice in the re-emerging global nuclear industry. Many are already active overseas. Apart from actually building and running the reactors, there is almost nothing that can't be done by British companies, given their existing engineering and management expertise (thanks in part to the continuing demands of the British nuclear defence industry). And the experience they hope to gain in the burgeoning British programme will help them expand internationally. A big push is now needed to train a new generation of nuclear scientists and engineers to support the industry's renaissance, now it has finally come.
Sir John Rose, chief executive of Rolls Royce, tells an anecdote about a British politician bemoaning the lack of nuclear physics graduates in the UK, to which Sir John retorted that "if you are smart enough to be a nuclear physicist, you are also smart enough to know that there isn't a nuclear industry in this country". The industry's revival, at a time when jobs for graduates in the City and other service industries are hard to come by, should mean that it has its pick of some of the smartest graduates.
The government seems to get the idea, judging from Lord Mandelson's speech in Mansion House earlier this week: "We should never make a major regulatory or public procurement decision in the UK – on transport, energy or anything else – without asking whether there are supply chain opportunities for UK-based companies to compete for. And if there are, and if it makes long-term economic sense for the UK to compete for them, we have to equip ourselves to do so. Without closing our market and while safeguarding the taxpayer's long-term value of money... Others ask these questions routinely. In Britain we don't ask them enough."
He's absolutely right, though backing British companies' participation while continuing to trumpet free trade and eschew economic nationalism requires a certain finesse. In practice, the government probably doesn't need to intervene much at all.
Foreign companies are about to commit a vast amount of capital to these very long-term projects. It would suit them quite well to have the interests of British politicians – through the creation of British jobs – tied to their own. The opportunity to recreate a highly-skilled British nuclear industry is there for the taking.

Gales set wind power record for Spain

Fierce winds push north-west Spain's wind farms to provide 40% of the country's electrical power

Giles Tremlett in Madrid, Friday 6 March 2009 15.16 GMT

Spain set a new record for wind power generation yesterday as gales blew across the country, with more than 40% of the country's energy needs being covered by wind turbines at one stage.
The peak of 11,180mw of electricity supply came mid-morning yesterday, as fierce winds swept across much of north-west Spain, where most of the country's extensive wind farms are situated.
That covered 29% of Spain's energy needs at the time. The percentage had been even higher, reaching above 40% for several hours, earlier in the morning when demand for electricity was lower.
Spain's Wind Energy Association said at the moment of peak production, the country's turbines were working at 69% of their maximum theoretical potential.
Wind energy alone has covered 11.5% of demand so far this year, with production up by a third on last year.
The figures came as the World Wildlife Fund praised Spain's rapid move into renewable energies. These provided 31% of total electricity supply in Spain in February, partly thanks to heavy rainfall that increased hydroelectric production.
Together with a fall in demand over the past year, that meant a 38% reduction in CO² emissions compared with 2008.
WWF praised Spain's efforts to develop renewable energy over the past 12 years. It said it was now on target to produce 30% of annual demand for electricity from renewable sources by next year.
"This shows that Spain's commitment to renewable energies is paying off," said Heikki Willstedt of WWF. "This advance has been possible thanks to both the legislative and financial support received."
He also said that Spain should be able to cover half its energy needs with renewables by 2020 if it maintains its current enthusiasm.

US ethanol producers urge Obama to up ethanol content of motor fuels

• Wesley Clark says move would create American jobs• Lobbyists want corn-based fuel content to increase to 15%

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Friday 6 March 2009 18.28 GMT

America's ethanol producers, who have been hit hard by the economic recession, today urged the Obama administration to raise the ethanol content in blended motor fuels to 15%.Wesley Clark, a former Nato commander and Democratic presidential candidate who now lobbies for the ethanol industry, said the move to use more of the corn-based fuel would help America create jobs at home and cut back on the use of imported fuel.
"This is about jobs, energy security for America, improving the environment and meeting our legal responsibilities," Clark, the chairman of Growth Energy, a coalition of ethanol firms, said in a statement.
Growth Energy filed a formal request with the Environmental Protection Agency asking for the limit on ethanol in motor fuel be raised from the existing 10% ceiling to 15%.
The industry, despite years of subsidies by the US government, has been suffering in recent months, with falling prices and production because of the economic downturn. VeraSun, one of the country's largest producers, filed for bankruptcy after losing hundreds of millions of dollars in the corn market.
The entire ethanol industry is also facing increased scrutiny – both for its claim to be a greener alternative to fossil fuels and for its effect on food prices. Recent studies have raised doubts about whether a switch from petrol to corn ethanol significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The increased demand for ethanol, which saw more farmers growing corn for fuel, was also blamed as a factor in last year's soaring food prices.On Friday, the organisation argued that without the increase in the ceiling it could be difficult to meet targets set by Congress for increasing the use of renewable fuels. It also said that the cap would block the emergence of newer forms of ethanol which are made from grasses and sugarcane, rather than corn.
Congress has directed refineries to increase their uptake of ethanol to 36bn gallons a year by 2022. Under the current 10% ceiling, the ethanol industry is supposed to supply 14bn gallons of the fuel.
Obama has said that he would support pushing the target much higher, up to 60bn gallons a year. The energy secretary, Steven Chu, has also said that he would support raising the ethanol ceiling - perhaps to 12% - so long as the auto industry offers assurances about what effect the higher concentration would have on cars.
Clark, citing a study by North Dakota State University, in his statement argued that the 5% increase in ethanol would put $24.4bn into the economy. "These figures are dramatic and prove that we can create desperately needed jobs in the midst of difficult economic times with a relatively simple step," he said. "By increasing the amount of ethanol blend into our current gasoline supply, we can create thousands of new American jobs that can not be outsourced, support rural communites and farmers, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure the market for cellulosic ethanol."

Industry Seeks to Raise Ethanol Levels in Fuel


WASHINGTON -- The ethanol industry is putting pressure on the Obama administration to allow higher levels of ethanol in gasoline, a step that auto makers and some public-health advocates have resisted amid concerns it could harm engines and air quality.

Wesley Clark
On Friday, an ethanol trade group led by Wesley Clark, the retired Army general and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to allow the ethanol levels in gasoline blends to be as high as 15%, up from the current 10%. Without the increase, the group said the U.S. won't be able to meet a congressional mandate requiring some 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into the domestic fuel supply by 2022.
Demand for the corn-based fuel has been falling. Consumers have cut back on driving due to the economic crisis, and the plunge in oil prices from last summer's record high has pushed down ethanol prices, cutting producers' profits. The industry also has been stung by high corn prices, which increase the expense of ethanol production.
The EPA already is approaching another big decision with consequences for the ethanol industry: how to measure the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with biofuels such as corn ethanol. Many producers are nervous that the EPA will use a formula that hurts the industry, by taking into account not only emissions in the U.S. as a result of ethanol production but also emissions overseas when farmers world-wide respond to higher food prices by converting forest and grassland to cropland.
The vast majority of ethanol used in the U.S. is blended with gasoline to create E10 -- gasoline with up to 10% ethanol. Some auto-industry officials and public-health advocates, worried that higher ethanol blends could damage vehicles' engines and overwhelm their pollution-control systems, say there hasn't been enough testing done to justify raising the cap.
The group led by Mr. Clark, Growth Energy, cited an Energy Department study last fall that found blends as high as E20 didn't significantly change vehicles' emissions levels, and that "no operability or driveability issues were identified."
A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said the group believes that "more testing is necessary before the impact of midlevel blends on the 240 million vehicles currently in operation can be determined." A spokesman for the American Lung Association said the EPA shouldn't rush its decision before concluding its own research.
At the EPA, a spokeswoman said the agency will review the petition and "act based on the best available science." Speaking to reporters at an agriculture forum last week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said a decision on lifting the cap would likely take several months.
Write to Stephen Power at

Clinton: 'Never waste a good crisis'

Friday, 6 March 2009

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today told an audience "never waste a good crisis", as she highlighted the opportunity of rebuilding economies in a greener, less energy intensive model.
Highlighting Europe's unease the day after Russia warned that gas exports to the EU via Ukraine might be halted, she also condemned the use of energy as a political lever.

Clinton told young Europeans at the European Parliament global economic turmoil provided a fresh opening: "Never waste a good crisis ... Don't waste it when it can have a very positive impact on climate change and energy security."
Europe sees the United States as a crucial ally in global climate talks in Copenhagen in December, after President Barack Obama signalled a new urgency in tackling climate change, in stark contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush.
Europe has already laid out plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions to about a fifth below 1990 levels in the next decade, while Obama has proposed a major shift towards renewable energy and a cap and trade system for CO2 emissions.
But with many countries in the grip of a punishing recession, some question whether businesses can muster the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to cut carbon emissions.
"Certainly the United States has been negligent in living up to its responsibilities," said Clinton, on her first visit to Europe as secretary of state.
"This is a propitious time ... we can actually begin to demonstrate our willingness to confront this.
Political lever
Many politicians argue that the economic crisis, energy security issues and climate change can all be dealt with in a "New Green Deal", replacing high-carbon infrastructure with green alternatives and simultaneously creating millions of jobs. "There is no doubt in my mind the energy security and climate change crises, which I view as being together, not separate, must be dealt with," Clinton added.
She attacked the use of energy as a political weapon, echoing Europe's worries after repeated spats between Russia and gas transit country Ukraine hit EU supplies in recent years.
"We are ... troubled by using energy as a tool of intimidation," she said. "We think that's not in the interest of creating a better and better functioning energy system."
Clinton is set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for dinner in Geneva in the hope of improving relations after a post-Cold War low during Bush's presidency.
The latest cuts to Russian gas exports in January forced the closure of factories, hospitals and schools in Eastern Europe and left thousands of snowbound households shivering.
A new row between Ukraine and Russia appeared to have been averted on Thursday after state-owned Gazprom said Ukraine had settled payments at the heart of the disagreement.
But European leaders were rattled by the warning of cuts to supply by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin .

Countries that block global climate change deal risk isolation: Miliband

Climate minister says Obama's commitment to environment has raised prospects of global agreement at UN summit in December

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Friday 6 March 2009 11.02 GMT

Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: Linda Nylind
Countries that stand in the way of a global warming treaty now risk international isolation because of the US's new commitment under Barack Obama to reaching a deal, the climate change secretary, Ed Miliband has said.

Miliband, who was in Washington this week, meeting members of Obama's green team, said the change in the administration had dramatically improved the prospects for reaching an agreement at a UN summit in Copenhagen in December.
"There is a real important point about the change that Obama creates and that is that nobody really wants to be the country that wrecks this global deal," Miliband said.
Obama campaigned on a promise to commit America to a climate change treaty and to create new green jobs. His predecessor, George Bush, made America a climate change pariah by rejecting the Kyoto protocol, arguing that it would hurt US business interests while making no demands on emerging economies like China and India. Other nations were able to point to the non-cooperation of the US, then the world's biggest polluter, as a reason for inaction.
The Obama White House's determination to seal a deal, restated even as the Administration seeks ways to combat the economic recession, has raised optimism about the prospects at Copenhagen, Miliband said.
"There is a real determination in the administration to try to meet the December 2009 deadline for an agreement and I think that is incredibly encouraging," he said. "There is a real sense of optimism that has created not just in Washington but in Europe and elsewhere."
Miliband said he discussed co-operation on the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which could bury emissions from coal power stations, with the US energy secretary, Steve Chu. The US and UK are to hold a summit next month to try to push ahead with those efforts.
Britain's climate change secretary said it was in the interests of both Britain and America to try to research as wide a range of technologies as possible to produce the "clean" coal power he believes will be needed in the future.
"We have to join together all the intelligence there is on carbon capture and storage," he said. "We need to look at all the different technologies that exist. "
CCS technology is unproven at commercial scale and will be costly to develop, but many see it as essential given that countries with large coal reserves, such as the US and China, are very likely to rely on those reserves for power.
Obama has cast the pressures of climate change and economic recession as an opportunity. He argues that it is possible to craft a short-term fix with policies that would lay the foundation for a low carbon economy.
His $787bn recovery package contains some $100bn in green investment for insulating federal government buildings and private homes, upgrading America's electrical grid, expanding public transport, and research for clean coal technology.
The administration describes the green aspects of the recovery plan as a first step towards that new economy promised by Obama. It is looking to Congress to pass legislation later this year to expand the use of renewable energy such as wind and solar.
The White House has also been working closely with Congress to try to build political support for a global climate change treaty. Despite those efforts, however, administration officials admit that there may not be the political support in Congress to pass legislation reducing greenhouse gas emissions before Copenhagen.
Some leaders, such as Denmark's climate minister, Connie Hedegaard, argue America will be unable to play a leadership role without that tangible demonstration of commitment.
However, Miliband said America could still lead. "What is really important is that the US shows ambition to get a global deal and shows ambitions in its commitment," he said. "They are serious about this and they mean business."

China announces green funding for Tibet

The Tibetan plateau is suffering from soil erosion, melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, grassland degredation and declining biodiversity

Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent, Friday 6 March 2009 16.24 GMT

China plans to spend 15bn yuan (£1.5bn) on environmental protection in Tibet, including measures to halt the encroachment of deserts on the roof of the world, the state media reported today .
Although the new money is presented as green spending, Tibetan exile groups fear much of it will be used to fund ecologically and culturally damaging development projects, including the damming of rivers and measures to force nomads off high-altitude pasture lands.
The Tibetan plateau, the highest region on earth, is suffering from soil erosion, melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, grassland degredation and declining biodiversity as a result of increasing human activity and climate change.
Since 1961, temperatures have risen 0.32C every 10 years, one of the fastest rates of warming in the world, leading ice fields on the "third pole" to melt faster than anywhere else in China. The population has almost tripled in the same period as a result of an influx of migrants from China's dominant Han ethnic majority.
Under the government's new ecological protection plan, funds will be provided to preserve grasslands, woods and wetland, protect endangered animals, grow forest shelter belts to protect against gales, and expand clean energy, the China Daily reported.
The government plans to build several big hydropower dams on the Yarlung Zangbo (better known in the outside world by its downstream name, Brahmaputra), the Nujiang (Salween), the Lancang (Mekong) and the Jinsha, a major tributary of the Yangtze.
Qiangba Puncog, the chairman of Tibetan regional government, said in the China Daily: "Hydropower is clean and can greatly ease the electricity shortage in Tibet at present." It is unclear if the 15bn yuan includes the funds for dam construction.
Tibetan exile groups warn that water and other resources are being extracted at a high cost to the fragile mountain environment and its native people.
In the name of protection and climate-change adaptation, tens of thousands of nomads have been forced off the grasslands, which account for 70% of the Tibetan landscape, but many conservationists believe this ignores the real problem of over-development and mismanagement of resources.
Kate Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: "Far from being environmentally friendly, the consequences exemplify the damaging impact of the imposition of Chinese urban and industrial models on traditional and sustainable modes of production in rural Tibetan areas."

PM sees green jobs vital to recovery

Published: March 6, 2009

By Gerard Wynn and Peter Griffiths
Britain's economic recovery depends on jobs and investment from a "vast expansion" of carbon-cutting technologies such as wind power and efficiency measures, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Friday.
Brown chaired a meeting of business leaders meant to rally ideas for what he called a new industrial strategy, to promote a green economy which he said would employ 1.3 million Britons by 2017, 400,000 more than now. "I don't think we will have the strength of recovery we need unless as a central part of that there is a low-carbon recovery," he said, referring to a needed economic boost.
"For climate change, energy price stability and energy security we need to act," he added, referring to longer benefits of diversifying away from fossil fuels.
Britain is in recession, unemployment has risen to two million and Brown is under pressure to create jobs before an election which must be held by mid-2010. The Bank of England cut interest rates to a record low on Thursday.
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Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told the business meeting that Britain had no high-carbon future, and said the global green economy was already worth 3 trillion pounds.
"There is a low-carbon race on," said energy and climate change minister Ed Miliband, using the example of the United Arab Emirates' plans for a $15 billion (10.5 billion pound) zero carbon city.
The government drew criticism for not announcing new measures of its own on Friday, for example to boost clean energy investment stalled by a credit squeeze.
"We need fewer speeches and more ambitious action from this government," said Greenpeace executive director John Sauven.
The world has already committed an estimated $200 billion to the green economy under economic stimulus plans, and especially the United States and European Union.
Additional measures such as loan guarantees were needed to unblock project finance, say industry experts and advisers. Mandelson said the government would consider interim support.
"(We will) look at this across a range of claims and demands ... to help bridge these funding gaps."
A protester against the planned expansion of Heathrow airport threw green custard at Mandelson as he arrived at the meeting in central London. The government approved plans in January for the expansion of the airport.
Brown said he wanted a meeting in London on April 2 of the G20 leading developed and emerging economies, aimed at stabilising financial markets, to help coordinate green stimulus spending from China to the United States.
"I want to see the G20 meeting in London as an opportunity to begin the construction of a global green new deal," he said.
In the 1930s, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" helped to lift the United States out of the Great Depression.
-- Additional reporting by Stefano Ambrogi