We want electricity. What is the best way to get it? This post is an attempt to summarise objectively three of the most controversial options – nuclear, fracking and wind power. It will be controversial. It is not intended to be the last word on the matter, rather to start the conversation.
This is a slightly unusual post. I’ll update the content if new evidence arrives. Let me know if you have any.
|Cost (source: US energy information administration)||$0.108/kWh||$0.065/kWh($0.075-$0.113/kWh inc. costs of climate change, after discounting the value of the future & ignoring e.g. tipping points & human impact)
Forecast to ~triple by 2030, to about $0.19/kWh excl. costs of climate change.
|$0.086/kWh (onshore); $0.222/kWh (offshore)(forecast to reduce by 20-30% by 2030, to $0.06-0.07/kWh for onshore and $0.15-0.17/kWh for offshore)|
|Time||42-60 months, excluding planning; lasts 30-40 years.||Drilling time plus 2 months to frack; Produces gas for about 10 years.||2 months, excluding planning; lasts about 20-25 years|
|Space||Relatively small, but needs to be sited near the sea.||2580-3000 wells would be required to produce 9bcm (billion cubic metres) per year of gas from shale, which would require 830-970 square km…but production drops rapidly after the first couple of years. That’s about 93 GWh per square KM per annum, excluding the power plant and roads / transport.(the feature image above is Texas fracked)||If I’ve done my maths correctly, taking the numbers from David Mackey’s Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, we’re looking at 26.3 GWh per square KM per annum|
|Legacy||Nuclear waste needs to be stored somewhere safe for hundreds of years, creating a life no-go area – although that could be a long way underground. Doesn’t make sense to shoot it into space, in case the rocket explodes.||CO2 equivalent emissions about 40-50% less than coal, a few percentage points above natural gas (i.e. about 410-480 gCO2eq/kWh), because of the methane released during construction. It’s still contributing to climate change.There will be a big hole and a load of chemicals underground when you’re done.||None – when they’re done with, you take them down and you wouldn’t know they’d been there.(see pictures below)|
|Other Downsides||The waste products are deadly and could be turned into a terrorist bomb.They cannot be quickly started up or slowed down, so the power they produce needs to be first on the grid.||Water use – fracking requires 9,000 to 29,000 m3 per well fresh water, just when water is becoming scarce.The gas needs to be transported to a power station to be turned into electricity.||Some find the turbines to be unsightly. This is subjective.The power they produce is not predictable, so needs to be the first on the grid.|
|Myths||It’s not particularly unsafe – when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong, and this skews people’s view on nuclear safety. It does go wrong, though.||Water contamination – this isn’t a big deal with good construction.Earthquakes – they’re mostly tiny. But if fracking goes on near existing faults then larger earthquakes are possible – and we don’t know where all the faults are. So lots of care needed plus detailed surveys.||Birds – I heard a story about a community scattering dead birds around turbines so they could check that the person employed to clear up the carcasses was doing his job.They don’t generate much electricity / use more than required to power them – of course not, otherwise why would companies be investing in putting them up?|
So, how do you want your electricity generated? To me, it really comes down to whether you think the short-lived appearance of windmills on the landscape is worse than the longer-term impacts of climate change from burning gas, and whether or not you value the future in your decision.
Of course, there is another option. You could use less electricity.