Earlier this year the EU started debating a proposal to label energy generated from some nuclear power and natural gas plants as ‘green’ sources for investment purposes. This is despite there being internal disagreement over whether either or both qualify, for different reasons, as environmentally friendly options.
The proposal is based on an assumption that some energy from these sources will be necessary for the transition towards carbon-neutral energy in the fight against climate change.
“We’re setting out how gas and nuclear could make a contribution in the difficult transition to climate neutrality”.EU financial services chief, Mairead McGuinness
At the end of last year, the EU’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said that the bloc needed to be “pragmatic”, and that the EU would need to double its overall electricity production over the next three decades, which he said was “simply not possible without nuclear power”.
The proposal says that, “for nuclear power, appropriate measures should be put in place for radioactive waste management and disposal”. For gas electricity generation, it is proposed that percentages of hydrogen or biogas would need to be included and carbon-emission limits should be set to well below those produced by coal-burning plants.
Nuclear generated energy is carbon intensive at the construction stage, large quantities of concrete and steel are involved which involve CO2 emissions. During the operating phase nuclear power is carbon neutral. But the safety, disposal and long-term storage of nuclear waste remains an issue.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel and is responsible for methane emissions during electricity production, as well as during its production, distribution and transport. Methane is a greenhouse gas 84 times more powerful than CO2 over a short 20-year term.
Energy sources in Europe
According to the Eurostat website:
“In 2020 at EU level, renewable energy sources accounted for 39% of the electricity and overtook for the first time fossil fuels (36%) as the main power source. In addition, 25% of electricity came from nuclear power plants. Among renewable sources, the highest share of electricity came from wind turbines (14%), hydropower plants (13%), biofuels (6 %) and solar power (5%).”
Germany was an early adopter of wind and solar power and is opposed to the proposal. It plans to close its remaining nuclear facilities in 2022, despite being reliant, before the Ukraine war, on Russian gas supplies.
France was an early adopter of nuclear power and supports the inclusion of nuclear in the proposal. Nuclear power supports 70% of electricity generation in France. In 2020 along with France there were ten other EU member states in which nuclear energy makes up 20% or more of their own energy mix.
It has been reported that, “Fossil fuel reliant countries in the EU’s east and south would like the use of natural gas to be included, at least as a transitional source, even though it still produces significant greenhouse emissions and is not carbon neutral”. One way to compare electricity generation in different countries is to calculate the grams of CO2 equivalent produced for each kWh of electricity generated. The interactive map at electricitymaps.com visualises the variation between different countries (and regions within them).
As at 7am on 2 October, the European region with the lowest CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity was Orkney, which had 100% renewable generation: 13gCO₂eq/kWh. In contrast, the highest ranked was Estonia, at 681gCO₂eq/kWh (52% low-carbon generation, 39% renewable generation – biomass, coal and solar making up most of the mix). The UK is somewhere in the middle: 242gCO₂eq/kWh (56% low-carbon generation, 39% renewable generation – nearly half of the UK’s electricity is generated by the fossil fuel natural gas).
What is the UK’s position on electricity generation?
UK electricity is heavily dependent on natural gas. In 2019 the electricity sector’s grid supply for the UK came from 43% fossil fuelled power (almost all from natural gas), 48.5% from carbon-neutral power (including 16.8% nuclear power and 26.5% from wind, solar, and hydroelectricity). There has been a dramatic rise in the price of natural gas, partly as a result of the war in Ukraine and the limiting of Russian gas resulting in a worldwide competition for natural gas supplies. As a consequence, UK electricity prices have soared.
In June of this year, a coalition of some EU parties emerged in opposition to the proposal. While they accept that nuclear and natural gas have a part to play in the energy transition, they object to the proposal on the grounds that there is possibility that investments that may have been more environmentally friendly, for example wind and solar, could be diverted to nuclear and natural gas.
Response to war in Ukraine
In July the proposal was approved by the EU parliament and unless it is subject to a veto by a large majority of member states it is likely to become law.
Meanwhile as a consequence of the Ukraine war, Germany is considering the prospect of gas rationing and interruption to electricity supply; there are reports of old coal plants being re-opened to help meet demand. In addition, Imports of coal and liquified natural gas into Europe through the port of Rotterdam have surged to replace sanctioned Russian supplies.
The UK Government is considering methods of strengthening its domestic security of energy supply. A new nuclear plant at Sizewell C has recently been granted development approval. Hinkley point C is under construction but is not expected to operate until 2027. A government decision on the plant has, in the past, been much delayed.
A number of the UK’s nuclear plants are scheduled for decommissioning in the coming decade. Rolls Royce are being encouraged to develop small modular reactors which, it is hoped, can be designed and manufactured offsite then rapidly deployed as a potential means to increasing local nuclear power generation.
In the short term any increase in nuclear generated electricity is unlikely
The government has confirmed its support for a new round of oil and gas exploration licences confirmation is expected in October. It has also removed its moratorium on shale gas fracking.
In a painful interview with Radio Lancaster on 28 September, Liz Truss struggled to answer questions on the subject but stated “it’s very important for me that any fracking has local community consent”.
The Bowland Shales, potential host of UK’s shale gas resources underlies much of the northwest and north of England but “it is unclear how much shale gas exists in the UK that would be technically feasible and economically viable to extract”. To that we should add that there is also a further restriction based on “community consent”. Environmental, social and governance factors are growing in importance in project planning and investment circles
It has been pointed out that shale gas is unlikely to be a short-term solution to the supply or pricing of UK’s gas.
What has been suggested by both the government, and the opposition at its Liverpool conference, is an increase in the development, and investment in, onshore and offshore wind generated electricity. The government has proposed changes to the planning regulations. In an attempt to speed up developments.
“Wind and solar power were already cheaper than fossil gas for electricity generation before the gas crisis hit and they have become even more cost-competitive.”
How does this help the climate emergency?
The EU debate was initiated in response to the climate emergency as an attempt to decide how best to move to carbon-neutral energy: the energy transition. The situation reminds me of the story of a motorist who stops to ask for directions and is met with the reply “If I were you I wouldn’t start from here”. With the urgency created by the war in Ukraine, the removal of Russian gas from Europe and the world wide increase in gas prices, the energy transition is not now starting from an ideal position. Even before this happened, the situation was not great, but this is where the transition in the EU and the UK now stands It is likely that many sources of power generation will play, at least in the short term, a part in the transition to carbon-neutral energy, including the fossil fuel natural gas. It is my personal hope that this ‘least grubby of the fossil fuels’ will be replaced in the UK’s electricity mix by alternative low carbon sources sooner rather than later.
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