The word ‘sustainability’ is inextricably linked with carbon emissions, but does it – or should it – mean more than that?
In Europe sustainability in terms of power generation is all about reducing CO2, however that’s because most European countries enjoy a long-established energy mix that embraces – however unevenly – various forms of power generation. If a population has access to reliable power then you have the luxury of being able to ponder the side effects of how that power is delivered.
But for many so-called emerging nations, where great swathes of country remain unelectrified, it is impractical and disingenuous to expect a government to provide power to its people yet ignore what might be the cheapest and quickest option because it fails to meet someone else’s criteria of being sustainable.
An example of such a country is Malaysia. Economic growth is driving huge energy demand and there is only one way the country is going to meet that demand: coal. And a lot of it – up to 40 million tonnes a year by 2020 according to new figures.
At POWER-GEN Asia in Kuala Lumpur in September, the issue of whether Malaysia could balance heavy coal use with issues of sustainability was discussed at length (see my article on p24). Mark Hutchinson, managing director of IHS Energy, said that “price is the main driver. Economics trumps environment: coal wins, sustainability loses.”
But Torstein Dale Sjotveit, chief executive of Sarawak Energy Berhad, said: “For me, sustainability means a balanced mix between economic growth, technology and environment. So sustainability is about more than CO2.” He added that “people have a very narrow mindset in terms of sustainability”.
Which is not to say that Malaysia and other countries facing a reliance on coal are not exploring the best carbon-abatement technology to utilize in their coal plants, and this technology is evolving at great pace.
Zainudin bin Ibrahim, vice-president of generation at TNB, Malaysia’s biggest power company, said: “If ever there was a need for the industry to collaborate on the way forward, it is now. There is a common interest to develop a modern power system that is smart and sustainable.”
‘Smart’ and ‘sustainable’ are two words that apply to the work of power companies developing the latest emissions reduction technology, however there is a third word that must be added to complete the 21st century energy trilemma: ‘efficient.’
As Jussi Laitinen of Wärtsilä Power Plants explains in our article on emission-reduction technology on p18: “If you want to cut NOx emissions in half, efficiency goes down by 2 per cent. This means the CO2 footprint grows by 10 per cent. Which is better for the environment? You should look at the big picture and not just a single type of emissions. A golden middle way has to be found.”
It is the need to deliver low-carbon energy at scale and reliably that has put nuclear back on the map for many countries.
In an electronic vote carried out among delegates on the final day of POWER-GEN Asia, more than half of those polled believed that it was likely that nuclear would make a comeback in Asia despite the Fukushima disaster of 2011.
In the Middle East, too, nuclear plants are being planned and built at an enviable pace when compared to Europe, where, despite Germany ditching nuclear altogether, the technology has not gone away – it has stalled, as flagship new plants in France and Finland have been dogged by delays.
The region’s hopes of a kickstart lie with Hinkley Point C in the UK, and a leak from Brussels has revealed that a deal has been done to allow plans for the EDF plant – which would be the first nuclear power station to be built in Britain for two decades – to move to its final phase of approval with European commissioners.
If it gets the go-ahead then a nuclear renaissance driven by the best technology from around the world will take place in Britain, where dormant domestic nuclear engineering skills will be revived. If it is refused, the decision will torpedo the UK government’s new market reforms and potentially bury nuclear for good in Europe.
In terms of sustainability – however you want to define it – I’m hoping for the former.
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