Power Up: Can clean power cash in on the energy crisis?
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Fingers are already pointing about who’s to blame for the energy crisis that has seen long lines for petrol form in the UK while oil and gas prices have risen substantially as demand increases.
Demand for coal has also climbed with reports emerging that China might let up on its ban on Australian coal in order to meet demand.
Rather predictably, conservative voices are pinning the blame for the crisis on renewables and the rush to net zero with our very own Senator Matt Canavan claiming that it had led the UK to turn off industry just to keep the lights on.
Green pundits have been quick to respond, saying that fossil fuels are to blame as the UK is overly reliant on natural gas for power generation and that while it had made significant strides in adopting renewable energy, it still trailed many of its European neighbours.
In fact, there’s a very strong case for dispatchable clean energy sources such as nuclear and green hydrogen to gain ground amidst the ongoing crisis.
Nuclear power has always been an energy policy conundrum.
While it is capable of generating baseload power cleanly, there was the ever-present threat that something could go terribly wrong as evidenced by the Three Mile Island accident along with the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.
However, while these much-publicised incidents demonstrate the risks of using nuclear power, they do have to be weighed against the strong safety record for the other 445 nuclear reactors that are currently operating.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates is certainly a fan. The multi-billionaire was quoted by CNBC as saying that the total deaths per unit of power for nuclear is actually lower than for “coal plants, coal particulate, natural gas pipelines blowing up”.
And he is putting his considerable fortune behind this belief, founding TerraPower in 2008 to develop next generation nuclear power plants that feature more reliable cooling systems, which further increase their safety.
This safety aspect is backed up by US oncologist and radiation expert Robert Gale, who told The Financial Times that while every death is tragic, it was important to look at the perspective.
“For every terawatt hour of electricity produced, nuclear energy is 10-100 times safer than coal or gas,” he noted.
The UK is already looking into the construction of a new plant while China, which is looking to add a further 70 gigawatts of nuclear power before 2025, is poised to start testing an experimental reactor that uses thorium rather than uranium.
Thorium is far more plentiful than uranium and promises to generate much smaller amounts of radioactive waste.
However, it will be many years before this is mature enough to use, years where uranium remains a valuable fuel.
The Sprott Physical Uranium Trust is clearly betting on uranium’s ascendency. Its recent move to buy enough physical uranium to power France for a year is likely why the spot price has rocketed past the $50/lb mark for first time in nine years.
The rising oil, gas and coal prices could also eliminate one of the major barriers to broader adoption of green hydrogen, namely the cost of producing the gas.
Green hydrogen is not cheap. The electrolysers required to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen are the single largest cost in the process while the need for renewable energy to power said electrolysers adds further to this.
Green hydrogen also has low energy efficiency across the entire supply chain compared to other sources of energy, which adds further to its cost disadvantage.
However, Spanish energy forecasting service AleaSoft chief executive Antonio Delgado Rigal told PV magazine that green hydrogen is already competitive at current natural gas prices.
“This energy price crisis is a great opportunity for renewables, solar and green hydrogen. It is only about getting greener – this makes us independent from gas,” he noted.
“Hydrogen will inevitably replace gas as a fuel and, as much as gas prices remain at this level, this process will be accelerated.”