Energy and Electricity Then and Now – A Reflection – Fossil Energy versus Climate Neutral Energy

Sweden and the world need non-fossil and climate neutral energy and electricity production to avert the climate threat. We need also a reasonable balance between climate neutral base load and climate neutral weather dependent energy to manage the needs of electricity and the balance and stability in the grid. First we take a look at the background:

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed from one form to another. In physics, this is the law of conservation of energy. Different forms of energy are heat, electricity, fire and mass. Einstein maybe has formulated the most beautiful and simple equation, i.e. E = mc2, where E = energy in Joule, m = mass in kg and c = the speed of light in vacuum in m/s. Thus, mass is a form of energy, which means that everything on the Earth, everything in our galaxy the Galaxy and all in universe may be described as different forms of energy. Since the dawn the humans always have had a need of energy for many things. Primary you need energy maintenance the metabolism in the body and to cope with the hunt for food and work, and to propagate the species’ survival. The food from plants and animals provide the necessary energy to build muscles and keeping the immune system strong. The sun provides warmth and triggers the production of some vitamins and a nice tan at the right amount of sun exposure.

When the development progresses new inventions are coming up. Before slow, but faster and faster with time. Far back in time people began to understand that the ground could be cultivated. People began to farm and in the beginning they draw the plough by hand. Thereafter, draft animals were used, mainly oxen and horses. One began to use the wind at the sea and the sailing ships were invented. By the sailing ships people began exploring och travel around the Earth. Fire has mankind used for heating, meat cooking and water boiling since ancient times.

First in the early 1600s the first steam engine was invented and in about 100 years later, in the beginning of 1700s, Thomas Newcomen designed the first robust steam engine to pump water from mines. Slowly but surely the steam engine developed to a driving engine for different types of machines in industry, ships and the locomotives of the railways. Modern combustion engines are based on the same principles as the steam engine, but are much more efficient and powerful. The industrialism accelerated when the petroleum products began to be used in the middle of the 1800s. At this time also the use of coal increased. Since the industrialism now really was accelerated, new possibilities and new achievements could be made. New inventions came one by one. The telegraph, the lightning rod, electricity, the electrical bulb, the phonograph and the record player, the telephone, the car, the airplane etc. Because of the new technologies the possibilities of research became wider on different kind of things.

One of the first revolutionary discoveries was X-ray in year 1895. This radiation form was detected by Wilhelm Röntgen, who also received the very first Nobel Prize in Physics in year 1901. With the time also the discovery of radioactive decay came, which may be one of the basis for Einstein to formulate the famous formula of the theory of special relativity, thus E = mc2. Even the discovery that the magnetic field strength depends on the observer’s state of motion is something that led Einstein to formulate the theory of special relativity.

During the 1900s the world experienced a comprehensive technical development, partly triggered by the two world wars; the first World War and the Second World War. War speeds up, for better or worse, the technical development. Scientific progresses that have a military origin are internet, the radio, radar, the tin and nuclear power. During the 1900s also TV, cell phones, computers, jet aircraft, space rockets and satellites were invented.

Until now during the 2000s inventions as smartphones, iPads etc are added. Smartphones and iPads tie TV, telephone and sound media together. Ancient LP and CD discs are almost not sold anymore. Everything are digitally stored in our units, in the digital clouds or can be streamed through sites as Spotify and Apple Music. IoT, i.e. Internet of Things, is a more and more growing phenomenon. IoT means that different things can be connected with each other and data can be saved and exchanged between the things. An example is that a house alarm device can be controlled by someone’s smartphone, also in the case of you are far away from home. Another example is that you can turn on/off different lamps in your house with the same smartphone. Or you can…, yes, the possibilities are unlimited, in principle. The limits are only set by the fantasy. IoT will require much electricity, as well as the computer server rooms do.

All development is not beneficial for everything; the ongoing global warming is a negative consequence of the industrialism. At least two parameters trigger the global warming, thus the climate’s natural variation and the human impact. The human impact comes from the use of fossil energy sources, such as coal, oil and gas and their sub-products. The human impact seems to fasten the global warming; the climate threat. Considering the whole world, fossil energy sources still stand for the major part of producing electricity and heating. Until now, more than 90 % of electricity and heating originate from hydro power and nuclear power in Sweden. The rest, less than 10 %, mainly originates from wind power and bio power. Thus, Sweden is almost supported by fossil free, thus climate neutral, energy sources for electricity and heating.

The main part of the vehicles (cars, aircraft, ships etc) in both the world and in Sweden are driven by fossil fuels; mainly gasoline, diesel and kerosene. In Sweden there is a vision that the vehicle fleet shall be fossil free in year 2030/2040. Examples of fuels will be bio gas, hydrogen and especially electricity. Vehicles that will be powered by electricity need charging. The need of electricity and energy will be high. E.g. charging of three millions electrical powered cars every day will require two to three big nuclear power plants or about 1200 wind power plants, used only for charging the cars. This is the case under optimized circumstances and under so called smart charging. By extreme circumstances even more power plants are required. The need for the production of electricity will, despite the smart solutions and energy efficiency, probable considerably be increased in the future. All energy provided by gasoline and diesel to our cars, trucks and ships mainly will be replaced with electricity produced by power plants. Today the vehicles fleet consists of around six million different vehicles (cars, trucks, busses, motor bikes etc).

To meet the threat of climate change we need to understand what energy sources that are climate neutral and which energy sources are a serious threat for the climate and ultimate hamper our ability to live and reproduce on our planet. Climate neutral energy sources are hydro power, wind power, nuclear power, sun power, wave power, geothermal heating and bio energy (in a time perspective of at least 50 to 100 years). Threats for the climate are the fossil energy sources coal, oil and gas together with the non-fossil bio energy in a short term point of view. Bio mass, thus plants and trees, are breathing carbon dioxide, but by combustion of bio mass carbon dioxide also is exhausted. An estimation is that it takes 50 to 100 years before equilibrium is reached between consumed bio mass and reproduced bio mass.

We need to ask ourselves what is the biggest threat for our planet? What can we do? Sweden is until now a good model and independent of other countries considering climate neutral energy production for electricity and heating. Until some years ago, Sweden had an optimized energy production regarding the balance between climate neutral base load power and climate neutral weather dependent power, looking over the whole country (Sweden). The power control is maneuvered by the controllable hydro power and by need also the base load nuclear power may be used for the power control, even though hydro power is more suitable.

Ongoing and future decommissioning of bigger units of base load in southern Sweden may not only cause lack of power and a possible rationing of electricity in Sweden, also the so called flywheel mass will be too small. The flywheel mass is necessary to maintain the net stability. A lower part of base load in south Sweden will lead to a much more sensitive grid; e.g. lightning. Consequences are loss of power, which can lead to loss of production in the industry and high costs as a consequence. The industry demands a reliable access to electricity and load for a continuous production. If this is not the case, the industry needs to move to other countries, where you can get a safe and stable production without any loss of production. The consequences of a new relocation of industries from Sweden to other countries may be a higher grade of unemployment and an even more segregated society.

We need focusing widely on climate neutral energy production in Sweden maintaining an optimized mixture of climate neutral energy sources even in the future, together with maintaining our independence of considering our own supply of electricity and heating. The goal shall be to eliminate fossil energy production. Also the use of fossil sources such as gasoline and diesel ought to be replaced by climate neutral fuel such as electrical batteries and hydrogen. Then, prioritize the right things regarding taxation of different energy sources. The taxation is today very tough for hydro power and nuclear power, both climate neutral. The property tax of hydro power is about SEK 0.09/kWh while the nuclear power fiscal power tax is about 0.07 SEK/kWh. With a production cost of 0.18-0.25 SEK/kWh in average these power plants do not bear their own costs because of the taxes. Sweden’s biggest nuclear plant has a production cost of 0.28-0.30 SEK/kWh including the fiscal power tax. This cost can be divided into the following parts: Crude cost (staff, capital, fuel and spare parts) of 0.17 SEK/kWh, waste and decommissioning fund of 0.04 SEK/kWh and finally the fiscal power tax 0.07 SEK/kWh. The cost of operating a wind power plant ashore is about 0.55-0.60 SEK/kWh. Subventions of about 0.18 SEK/kWh lead to a net expense for the wind power owners of 0.37-0.42 SEK/kWh. Thus, even though the subventions and the tough taxation of both hydro power and nuclear power, the wind power is considerably more expensive than both hydro power and nuclear power. The operation costs of hydro power are even lower than for nuclear power, but even the hydro power can’t avoid economical losses when the electricity prices are extra low. The electricity market needs to be reformed again. In the case of keeping the subventions, subsidize climate neutral. Remove extra taxes on climate neutral energy sources and tax fossil power and fuels harder. Only then we get an environmental politics that we can say is beneficial for the environment.

Also, focus widely on research of all climate neutral energy sources. There is one climate neutral energy source within the borders of Sweden that we don’t use today. Which one? The answer is the nuclear fuel waste. Today we have in Sweden nuclear fuel waste which could be recycled and reused in a thousands of years without extracting new uranium from the mines. In a fourth generation nuclear power plant, Gen IV, the nuclear fuel can be recycled and reused between 25 to 50 times. The final waste, after it is totally burned, will be considerably more manageable for the coming generations (of people) from both a handling point of view as an environmental point of view. The final nuclear waste does only need to be finally disposed between 500 and 1000 years and the volume of the final nuclear waste will only be a fraction compared to the volume of not recycled nuclear waste. The existing nuclear waste, if it will not be recycled and not will be reused, needs to be disposed in 100 000 years. Lead cold Gen IV reactors should be a future. Except they have built-in passive safety systems, they can be designed and constructed in both small units 2-10 MW as in big units of about 1000 MW. The lead itself forms a passive radiation protection, i.e. by any accident the radioactive substances will be absorbed into the lead.

By returning to the preamble, Sweden needs a balance between climate neutral base load and climate neutral weather dependent energy. If putting energy sources against each other, it shall be climate neutral (non-fossil) energy sources against fossil energy sources. Only then we can say we are defending both the climate and the Environment!

Torsten Dilot
Founder Dilot Consulting AB
Competence Area Manager Energy at Berotec AB
Senior Specialist Nuclear Safety Analysis and Engineering
MSc Engineering Physics