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Japan’s nuclear crisis blows open energy debate

World Coal,

The scale of the human tragedy and economic cost of the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan are undoubtedly tremendous. As analysts attempt to assess the long-term fallout, one resounding fact is clear: it is time to take new safe, clean, sustainable energy solutions seriously. With non-polluting options (i.e. nuclear) called into question, we cannot afford to be complacent about energy issues any longer.

Global Governments’ response to Japan’s crisis have been markedly tempered. Concerned by global energy shortages and climate change they are acting cautiously; too readily accepting that nuclear is necessarily part of a credible energy mix. With an existing £40 billion invested in eight sites in England and Wales, British energy secretary Chris Huhne was careful to note that “It’s far too early to tell at this stage whether there will be any impact on the investment climate.” Keen to appease both left and right, US President Barack Obama quickly defended the technology. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ostensibly hard-line response may have been more of a political strategy in the wake of upcoming state elections. But China’s u-turn decision to freeze approvals for new nuclear reactors will demand an adequate response from the West.

The Financial Times notes that the cost of gas and coal – the two main alternative commodities for power generation – has risen sharply since Friday, as has the price for trading carbon emissions. It is pertinent that Japan’s crisis does not become an excuse to return to the dirty technologies of yesterday. With renewables currently too unreliable to support a sustained energy solution and oil prices rising as supplies diminish, it would be all too easy to rely on today’s fickle media to sweep Fukushima under the table rather than opening up the wider energy debate.

Until renewable technologies reach the required stage of development to meet growing demand reliably and affordably, a transitional solution that efficiently and cleanly uses the world’s remaining fuel resources is essential. Well-meaning talk from politicians is not enough: we need serious investment in a low-carbon future and real commitment to transitional technologies. B9 Coal, a pioneering British company based in London, is doing just that.

Earlier this week, at the Advanced Power Generation Technology Forum (APGTF) at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) offices, it was widely recognised that carbon capture and storage (CCS) needs to be accelerated and extended in light of events in Japan. There is growing agreement that long-term CCS could be a logical beneficiary of fuel switching from nuclear to fossil fuels. B9 Coal’s fuel cell power stations offer the most commercially attractive CCS model proposed to date.

B9 Coal has created a world first template for commercially attractive, flexible, clean energy projects with the ambition of revolutionising the way we produce electricity. By combining revolutionary alkaline fuel cells with fossil fuels in a carbon capture–ready model, B9 Coal provides an essential step in the move to a low carbon future. These power stations offer the benefits of highly efficient power generation and the ability to load-follow to meet peak demand. The company is stimulating a reassessment in attitudes towards fossil fuel power generation and the possibility of decoupling coal use and the adverse environmental impacts traditionally associated with it.

The alkaline fuel cells developed by AFC Energy are the most efficient method of converting hydrogen to electricity. AFC Energy’s system is low-cost, low-pressure and developed for large-scale deployment. The company has been making significant developments across a range of industries including chlorine production and electricity from waste. Integrated with the B9 Coal model, the fuel cells offer a pull through solution for CCS and will provide a fundamental building block in the development of a hydrogen economy. Investing in this British technology would not only combat reliance on foreign reserves, but position the UK as a global leader on CCS and low-carbon energy solutions.

Despite Mr Huhne’s concerns over existing investments, CCS actually has considerable technical, economic and safety advantages over new-build nuclear. In particular, pre-combustion technologies with fuel cells have a highly flexible output, and can back-up a greater capacity of intermittent renewable technologies like offshore wind. In contrast, nuclear stations are far less flexible in output and therefore less able to support the development of the UK’s marine renewable resources. Under current nuclear roll-out plans, it would take billions of pounds of investment to produce a relatively small percentage of the UK’s electricity needs each year. Re-directing this enormous cost towards CCS has potentially huge advantages for national energy security. The UK Government has formalised its commitment to investing in CCS demonstration projects, but development is hugely stalled; something that is not only frustrating for the energy industry but also detrimental to our emissions targets.

Coal and gas will inevitably be a substantial part of the future energy mix, therefore the only viable answer is to reassess the ways in which we use them developing efficient and responsible solutions. This is all the more clear in the wake of the horrific tragedy unfolding in Japan. The decision whether new nuclear should be included in the UK energy mix can wait until 2020, acting to preserve our current energy reserves by investing in CCS cannot.

Author: Alisa Murphy, CEO, B9 Coal, UK.

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