Stories this week:
- Rapid cost escalation not intrinsic to nuclear power
- Alberta creates climate office as feds back struggling province
- Do expanding forests actually increase temperatures?
- Extreme weather events have tiny impact on climate opinion
- Alberta offering incentives for municipal, agricultural solar power
Rapid cost escalation not intrinsic to nuclear power
A new study that looks at the cost of building nuclear plants across seven countries including Canada suggests that contrary to many critics’ claims, there is no inherent rapid cost escalation associated with the clean energy source.
While debate rages over the safety of nuclear power—which today delivers one third of the world’s low-carbon electricity—one aspect that both supporters and opponents have long agreed upon is cost. While the fuel is cheap, nuclear plants are expensive propositions. This is primarily a result of construction costs, but many detractors have also charged that unlike other technologies that see costs decline over time, the very complexity of harnessing nuclear power drives sharp cost increases the more plants we build.
Such claims have been based on analyses of nuclear cost trends over time in two of the 31 countries that generate electricity from nuclear power—the United States and France—or 26 percent of the number of nuclear plants.
However, a paper appearing in the journal Energy Policy last week that compared cost trends in the above two but also Canada, West Germany, Japan, South Korea and India, covering 58 percent of the world’s reactors, tells a different story. It found that cost trajectories vary wildly across jurisdictions. The authors suggest that after an initial sharp drop in costs in the US, its rapid increase is an outlier because roughly a third of the US nuclear fleet was in the process of being built during the infamous Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. The accident caused lengthy construction delays, which substantially pushed up costs, as did tightened safety standards. West Germany’s experience was similar to the US, with cost increases occurring over this same period, albeit shallower.
France for its part experienced an initial sharp drop in costs followed by moderate cost increases later on, a product of a changing regulatory regime as Europe liberalised its energy market. Canada’s experience was similar to that of France, the authors found, looking at 24 of the country’s 25 commercial reactors, enjoying significant cost reductions early on, albeit subsequent modest cost increases. The paper suggests that Canada’s cheaper experience compared to its southern neighbour may have been due to greater consistency in builders and manufacturers, smaller reactor size, and that multiple reactors were built at the same time.
Japan saw initial sharp cost declines followed by moderate increases, but has been relatively stable for almost three decades. In India, costs increase from a low level, peak and then enjoy moderate declines. South Korea meanwhile has enjoyed initially sharp and then steady cost declines over the lifetime of its nuclear programme, benefiting from joining the nuclear market much later in the game and other countries’ prior learning, as well as standardised design and a stable regulatory regime.
The authors conclude that with two states experiencing sharp cost increases, two states experiencing moderate increases, two states a decline and one state a stabilisation, it cannot be said there is any overall trend. Instead policy makers and analysts should focus on which factors are shared by those states with the lowest-cost experience. Here the researchers emphasise reactor standardisation, building multiple units at the same time, and regulatory stability.
The paper only considered construction costs and not those associated waste disposal, decommissioning or insurance.
Alberta creates climate office as feds back struggling province
Alberta’s New Democratic government is to establish a permanent climate change office that is to coordinate the province’s emissions mitigation strategy that was announced at the end of last year.
Premier Rachel Notley made the announcement last week as she unveiled a cabinet expansion from 13 to 19 members. Because climate change and energy affect so many policy areas, particularly in Alberta’s fossil-fuel-focussed economy, the new office is to coordinate climate and energy policy across all relevant departments. A government statement described its responsibilities as “assisting in the implementation of Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan, which will support green research and infrastructure, economic diversification and renewable energy” and will report to environment and parks minister Shannon Phillips.
“The level of ambition that was announced by the government in November does require some support to it,” Phillips told reporters. “We are clearing their decks and ensuring that they are focused on implementing this very ambitious set of policies.”
The climate office, which will bring together staff already working on the subject in other departments, appears to be modelled on British Columbia’s Climate Action Secretariat (CAS). When BC set out its climate strategy in 2008, Victoria established CAS, a central government agency responsible for meeting the province’s greenhouse gas reduction targets by coordinating activities across different ministries and to work with stakeholders outside government. CAS has four core units focussed on carbon neutral government, climate policy, climate investment, and business development.
Alberta’s announcement came as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued fresh announcements of fiscal support for the struggling province. Trudeau described tumbling oil prices as delivering “rapid change and significant shock” to Albertans that required urgent help from the federal government.
That help will come in the form of a fast-tracked $700 million in infrastructure spending in the province to give the economy a boost. The funds had already been committed to Alberta by the previous Conservative government, but Trudeau intends to speed up its delivery. Cash is expected to start flowing within the next few weeks, according to Notley. Speaking from Edmonton following a meeting with the premier, the prime minister however would not be drawn on what projects the funds would be spent on.
Notley and Trudeau also spoke about how the two levels of government can coordinate climate and energy policies. The prime minister is due to host a meeting of his provincial and territorial counterparts in March to hammer out the country’s first national climate strategy.
The pair also discussed how Ottawa can assist with ensuring Alberta’s oil and gas is able to access new markets. Edmonton has pinned its economic hopes on the rest of the world pulling back from its criticism of pipeline construction and oil sands development now that the province has committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity generation while introducing a tax on carbon.
Do expanding forests actually increase temperatures?
Europe’s forests may have expanded their range since the 18th Century, but their management by humans has actually contributed to global warming, according to a highly controversial paper appearing this week in the prestigious journal Science. Even a well-managed forest today stores less carbon than the smaller woods that covered the continent more than two centuries ago, is the surprising conclusion of the researchers.
Since 1750, the area covered by forest in Europe has increased by 10 percent. However, over this period, the extra trees have produced an increase in summer air temperatures of up to 0.12°C—a counterintuitive finding that quite understandably resulted in widespread coverage in the media.
The researchers came to their conclusions using a model that takes into account deforestation, afforestation (tree-planting), collection of forest-floor dead wood, and management practices that preferred some species of tree over others. They found that foresters have steadily replaced broad-leafed and light green deciduous trees such maple, oak and birch with fast-growing and more commercially desirable evergreen trees such as Scot pine, Norway spruce and beech. The former tend to reflect more sunlight away from the Earth, while the latter’s darker colour traps heat from the sun. In addition, evergreens have a different impact on water balance and heat retention than deciduous trees. Finally, say the authors, wood extraction has produced a net reduction in the storage of carbon in forests.
The paper has received significant push-back from other forest ecology and climate researchers, including Werner Kurz, a researcher with Natural Resources Canada and the leader of PICS’ five-year Forest Carbon Management Project launched in 2014.
While the notion that not all forest management policies are equally effective for climate mitigation, the primary criticism of the paper by Kurz and his colleagues is what they feel has been an unfair conflation of two distinct periods in forestry practices. From the 18th Century until the 1950s, massive deforestation took place in Europe. Only since then have forestry practices shifted from an indifference to how many trees were cut down to modern sustainable forest management, with positive mitigation results.
In addition, the researchers assumed that the carbon stored in all products from harvested wood has returned to the atmosphere, which may not be the case. This would mean that they underestimated the mitigation that has occurred.
In any case, says Kurz, the findings are not applicable to Canada because the overall forest cover in the country has essentially remained stable, with very small decreases due to deforestation. And forest management in Canada has not replaced deciduous with evergreen trees.
Kurz worries that the press the paper has received will lead to the public concluding that forest management does not work. Instead, the aim should be to devise ways to maximize the potential of our forests and their soils to capture carbon, and to keep carbon stored in long-lasting products such as furniture and wood-construction buildings instead of short-lived products such as pulp and paper.
Extreme weather events have tiny impact on climate opinion
Social scientists are finding that experience of extreme weather events may not be working as well as expected in altering public opinion on global warming.
A 2012 analysis of 74 different surveys over a nine-year period in the United States examined five factors that affected levels of concern over climate change: extreme weather events, scientific information, media coverage, and mobilisation either by political elites or advocacy groups. They found contrary to expectation, weather extremes have no effect on public opinion as a whole compared to media coverage and political mobilisation.
In a more recent study appearing in Climatic Change that has been gaining press coverage this month, researchers wanted to drill down to the level of the region near an actual extreme event. The scientists matched up data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Events Database with 50,000+ person national surveys on a range of political and cultural issues taken in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and administered by polling firms YouGov and Polimetrix.
They found that there was actually a tiny bump in concern about climate change in regions that have experienced extreme weather events, but only very recent events. Anything older than three months had no impact. And even this effect was minimal in comparison to the effect that partisan identification had on feelings about climate change.
Sabine Pahl, a psychologist with the University of Plymouth and one-time PICS visiting scholar specialises in the psychology of climate change. A 2014 paper from Pahl and her colleagues surveys research on temporal (that is, time-related) psychological dimensions of climate change. There are fundamental constraints on how we perceive events in time that emerge from how our minds evolved and how social structures work. These temporal constraints in turn affect how we think about climate change, they argue. For example, people are most likely to base judgements on information that is most readily available in memory. As extreme weather events fade in the memory, climate risks begin to be underestimated. “Information about climate change faces stiff competition from the media barrage and other daily issues that are simply more salient,” the authors write.
The future hardly fares much better. Cognitive psychology research indicates that we experience less emotive mental imagery with long-term goals compared to short-term ones. The human brain developed at a time when humans were largely concerned with immediate dangers and opportunities in the surrounding environment (e.g. “There are some berries. Is that the sound of a tiger?”). As a result, we are geared to emphasising short-term consequences of behaviour over the long-term future.
While climate change is fundamentally mismatched with human temporal perception, the authors say there are frames that are more meaningful to humans. As people are powerfully influenced by visual images and stories that are relatable to themselves, relations and friends, framing the climate discussion around how changes to transport and energy systems can deliver benefits to individuals and communities may produce better results.
Alberta offering incentives for municipal, agricultural solar power
The Alberta government has unveiled the first part of its strategy to boost solar power in the province, with a plan to invest $5.5 million in solar power projects for municipalities and farms, as well as regulatory changes for homeowners looking to install their own renewable energy production resources.
Some $5 million is to be provided to the province’s Municipal Climate Change Action Centre to fund a solar program for Alberta’s municipalities. The scheme will provide rebates of up to 75 cents per watt, to a maximum of $300,000, for solar installations atop municipal buildings including offices and community centres.
Another $500,000 is earmarked for the On-Farm Solar Management programme, which is to provide direct funding to farmers to install solar systems and generate their own electricity.
The municipal funding extends an existing program offered by the centre while the agricultural program follows up on a pilot project that added some 500 kilowatts of electrical capacity to Alberta’s grid.
Both programmes are expected to fund 160 projects and cut greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 8,400 tonnes over the next 25 years.
The On-Farm Solar Management programme opened for applications on Monday. The Alberta Municipal Solar Program will begin accepting applications on March 1.
Environment minister Shannon Phillips said of the two announcements: “This is just the beginning.”
The Alberta government is also looking to adjust regulations to allow people who generate their own wind and solar power to earn money by selling excess electricity back into the grid.
Currently under rules introduced in 2009, there is an upper limit of one megawatt under the buy-back provision for such micro-generators. Any electricity produced in excess of the limit is placed on the homeowner’s bill, but cannot be sold for profit. This means that the owners of microgenerators can reduce their costs, but cannot actually become net energy producers.
Edmonton MLA Richard Feehan told reporters last week that the government is currently exploring how to change this, although details have yet to be released.