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Why the EU is wrong with regards to what we need to reach net zero

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Nuclear Power

What do we need to reach net zero? That’s the trillion dollar question, but it’s one that’s causing a lot of arguments across the European Union. Jordan O’Brien, Editor of Electrical Review, assesses the quarrel regarding what exactly ‘green’ means. 

When you think of green energy sources, you probably have visions of wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric facilities. These are sources of power that leverage readily available natural resources that don’t emit any harmful substances into the atmosphere, without fear that those resources are going to be depleted. 

Of course, while that may be the common view of what’s ‘green’, there’s a storm brewing in the European Union over its proposed definition of green. That’s because the political body has proposed labelling both natural gas and nuclear energy as green sources of electricity, meaning they can both benefit from investment in green technologies as the world moves towards net zero. 

Naturally, this has caused quite the stir. After all, how can natural gas or nuclear energy, both with their associated environmental disadvantages, be classed as green? Well, it turns out this has more to do with politics than climate science. 

Better the devil you know

Let’s start with natural gas and its apparent ‘green’ credentials. Yes, we can admit that this is a preferable source of electricity production compared to coal power plants. But that’s damning with faint praise. The EU’s definition of ‘green’ is what will define future investment, and while it’s cleaner, should we be constructing environmentally damaging facilities that are likely to last decades?

Thankfully, the European Union has a solution for this. It will only classify natural gas as green where it’s used as a ‘bridging fuel’, to be installed only where renewable energy sources – such as the aforementioned solar and wind farms – cannot currently create the capacity needed. That’s why the political bloc has proposed that any investment in natural gas will be subject to the promise that capacity will be switched to renewables or low carbon gases by a specific date.

However, what are the environmental impacts of this ‘bridging’ fuel? Well, they’re pretty stark. More recent scientific studies have uncovered evidence that natural gas is far dirtier than initially thought, largely due to methane emissions lingering on in the atmosphere long after the plant has ceased operation.

It’s not just from burning natural gas that’s the issue either. The industry estimates that there is around a 2% leakage of methane from natural gas power plants, which when released into the atmosphere is damaging to the Paris Climate Accord’s goal of keeping warming below 2°C. Without the phase out of natural gas, it’s unlikely that warming can be kept below that level. 

But it’s only a bridging fuel I hear. The year is 2022, what exactly are we waiting for? It’s certainly not for renewable energy technologies to reach maturity, as the industry is already gearing up for an onslaught of renewables. Just look at Scotland where it recently approved 25GW of offshore electricity generation from offshore wind farms, which will more than triple the renewable capacity in the country. 

Other countries could easily follow suit, but of course, gas power plants are required for the stability of the grid, right? Wrong. The majority of natural gas power stations utilise combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT); this cannot simply ramp up quickly, for that you’d need gas reciprocating engines (GRE) and open cycle gas turbines (OCGT), but even they’re slower than installing grid-scale energy storage. 

Plus, do you really want to rely on a source of electricity which is liable to massive spikes in price based on the production of a finite resource, just ask those impacted by the current energy crisis. 

Let’s go nuclear

So, we’ve established that maybe natural gas isn’t the best option for going green, but what about nuclear? Nuclear is the reliable stalwart of the industry, it can produce massive amounts of electricity for years, has no direct CO2 emissions, and has been heralded by many in the industry as the safest bet if we’re to achieve net zero. 

Those with the above views have clearly been smoking too much of whatever the nuclear industry has been selling, because while nuclear power plants may not have any direct emissions, something clearly smells off. 

Now, I’m not going to tell you that nuclear energy is inherently unsafe. Events like Chernobyl and Fukushima are extremely unlikely, although if we were to have a competition, a wind farm is also less likely to make an area inhabitable for years because of an accident. Although, that’s not even the thing we should be concerned about when it comes to nuclear energy. 

Uranium mining, which is a huge part of nuclear energy, is still incredibly damaging for the environment, but arguably the longest lasting environmental impact from nuclear energy is in the waste that it produces. There is a huge operation involved in dealing with this waste, after all it’s highly radioactive and damaging to almost everything it touches. If improperly managed, it’s possible that nuclear waste could have a disastrous impact on the local environment, or worse leak into nearby waterways, and believe me, Blinky, the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons would be the least of our worries. 

It’s for these reasons that Germany has been a vocal opponent of nuclear energy receiving the ‘green’ classification by the European Union, much to the chagrin of France, one of the technology’s biggest proponents. Austria has gone a step further than its neighbour, threatening the European Union with legal action if it continues with the proposals. 

The two countries are correct in their assessments of nuclear energy, that while yes, on the face of it, it doesn’t produce any direct emissions, it is greener than what we have, but we can’t simply put aside the negatives for direct emissions. As Germany points out, “Serious accidents with large, cross-border and long-term hazards to humans and the environment cannot be excluded.”

So what’s the solution?

The European Union will probably proceed with the definitions as it has proposed, natural gas and nuclear energy will receive their green labelling, while activists will argue that the whole thing is ‘greenwashing’ on steroids. These silly arguments do nothing to actually solve the issues of the day – which is actually tackling climate change. 

There is a whole host of cleaner renewable technologies available for countries within the EU to go all-in on. No one is saying close down all your polluting power plants immediately, but when it comes to future investment, this needs to be targeted at getting us to net zero as quickly as possible – and that can only be reliably done with other renewables. 

Why suck up all the investment for green energy in a single nuclear power plant, where the same amount of money could be spent on even greater capacity from an offshore wind farm? In fact, it’s estimated that the next generation of nuclear power stations in the UK will cost around £60 per MWh, compared to offshore projects, which are coming in at as low as £39.65 per MWh. 

Sure, many of you will disagree or tell me about the negative environmental benefits of the production of solar panels, or the fact you couldn’t recycle a wind turbine until very recently, but while those are valid concerns, the industry is continuously working to improve its green credentials. It’s time to stop playing ‘yeah, but’, and to start actually addressing the looming challenge ahead. It’s bound to be fruitful for all of us.

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