One Thing Every World Leader Should Know

Energy is a crucial topic for most countries today.

Fortunately, national energy systems are not complicated. There are not many choices available.

Up front it is important to understand that not all energy is a natural resource. Electricity is a convenient form of energy that we use in homes and businesses, but it cannot be dug out of the ground. Electricity has to be made from another energy source, and there are really only four types:

energy types

  1. Coal, oil and gas will burn to produce heat. That heat can be used directly in a fireplace in a house, or a blast furnace in a factory. The heat can also be used to boil water, make steam, turn a turbine which turns a generator, converting heat into electricity.
  2. Uranium can be reacted to produce heat. The same process of boiling water can then be used to make electricity.
  3. Nature has energy that we can harness: the sun’s warmth, the wind’s movement, the river’s (or ocean’s) movement and volcanic heat can all be used to generate electricity.
  4. Finally there is other material we can burn to generate either heat or electricity, purpose-grown crops such as wood from trees, or oil from plants, and waste that can be burned instead of buried in a landfill.

There are no other realistic options for providing a country with energy. That makes decision-making simple. There are three steps.

#1 Make Electricity without Making Greenhouse Gas

I am persuaded, as most people are, from the overwhelming evidence that the climate is being changed because of humankind burning fuels. The science is very clear.

That affects our energy choices in two ways: the yellow quadrant with coal oil and gas must be reduced as much as possible, but the blue quadrant burning crops and waste is also questionable. Burning wood produces greenhouse gas, but growing new trees will remove that gas from the atmosphere. The difficulty is that you can burn a tree in an hour, but growing a new one takes a century. Overall, perhaps it is simpler to just grow as many trees as possible, and use as few as possible for fuel. How is that achieved? By having every house with an electricity supply. There is no need to burn wood if an affordable alternative is available.

Geothermal energy, getting heat from deep in the earth, is a focus of innovation but at the moment it is a viable energy source only for a few countries where volcanic activity is available to be harnessed.

That changes our map of energy sources.

energy types 2

These four are the technologies that countries around the world are using today to generate clean affordable energy. All four of them have been around for decades and are well understood. New innovation may improve them, but they are all market-ready.

#2 Ensure Reliable Electricity Supply

These four energy sources work together in an important way that is often overlooked. Solar and wind energy only supply electricity for part of the day. The average is 16% of the time for solar and 35% of the time for wind. Nuclear power stations and hydro dams generate electricity constantly for days and months. A country’s electricity grid needs both for success. #WeNeedItAll

Sometimes the need for hydro and nuclear is not immediately obvious because if a country that is completely dependent on coal builds a wind farm, then the coal consumption goes down a little. Build a second wind farm and coal consumption goes down again. That approach does not work indefinitely though. If you build enough wind to replace the whole fleet of coal power stations, on a windless day there will still be no electricity.

The evidence is clear. Where countries are already successful at generating more than 90% of their electricity from clean sources, intermittent wind and solar power are supported by constant nuclear and hydro power.

  • France operates the largest low-carbon electricity system in the world. It generates over 500 TWh each year and is over 73% nuclear, plus 12% hydro powered.
  • Ontario, in Canada produced more power than many countries, 92% carbon-free in 2016 (58% nuclear, 23% hydro, 8% wind and 2% solar), improving further in 2017, and has eliminated all coal power.
  • Quebec, in Canada produced the same amount of electricity as Australia in 2016, 95% hydro and 4% wind.
  • Switzerland, produces electricity 60% from hydro and 33% from nuclear, with a little from solar and wind.
  • Norway and Paraguay are both heavily dependent on hydro for 98% and 100% of their electricity respectively.
  • British Columbia, in Canada has an electrical system as large as many countries and is 90% hydro-powered with 1% wind.
  • Sweden, generates 80% of its electricity from hydro and nuclear, with an additional 11% from wind.

Those are all the jurisdictions where more than 90% of the electricity is carbon-free. There are no others. Denmark, the UK and Germany are nowhere near, though all have lots of wind power, they fall short on hydro and nuclear which only leaves fossil fuel when the wind is not blowing. Each successful country has a different approach, dependent on their specific circumstances. The economics also work. All four technologies produce affordable power.

#3 Move more energy consumption to electricity

Once a country has lots of low-carbon electricity, and knows how to add more, the final step is to help other sectors e.g. transportation, move away from fossil fuels and towards more electricity usage. For example:

  1. Heat homes and businesses with electricity instead of natural gas
  2. Power cars with electricity rather than diesel/gasoline/petrol
  3. Move heavy freight off the roads and onto electrified rail

These changes only make sense after steps #1 and #2. Only after a country is generating clean electricity from a mix of solar, wind, hydro and nuclear, does it make sense to drive an electric car, because if the electricity is generated from coal, it is essentially a coal-powered car.

The pattern is clear. A country needs a healthy fraction of constant generation from hydro and/or nuclear in addition to wind and solar for success.

The technologies already exist. All that is missing is political will.


Learning From Failure

I had a great time last week talking with the local chapter of North American Young Generation in Nuclear. With their enthusiastic agreement my topic was ‘Dirty Laundry’. Too often we let emotion direct our response to failures, both personal and from the team. A rational approach is to examine failures for lessons that can be learned, and better still for others to learn too.

As humans we are very experiential, ‘once bitten, twice shy’ is a truism for a reason. OPEX is the next most powerful way to learn, as long as it can be conveyed as a meaningful story. We have been story-tellers since the stone age.

I tried to sum up what I have learned from projects that I was personally involved in, not trying to untangle the big reason a project failed, but to speak to my experience, and perhaps shine light on that piece of the bigger puzzle.

Thanks to Mimi and the NAYGN organizers.

Witness to a Moment in History

It is not often that someone gets and opportunity to be present at a moment that will later be remembered as a piece of history, but that was how it felt to be in the Control Room of the NRU research reactor on the evening of 2018 March 31st.

control room banner

Watch the short clip of the shutdown from the NRU Control Room.

As planned, the nuclear research reactor was shut down for the last time that evening, ending a period of more than 60 years throughout which NRU made substantial contributions to the quality of life of people all around the world.

When NRU was constructed and first operated in 1957, there were about 2.9 billion people in the world. Over its operating life it generated medical isotopes that treated or diagnosed over 1 billion people. Canada won just a handful of Nobel prizes in the 20th century, but one came from pioneering work in NRU developing a new branch of physics: Neutron Scattering, developed by Bertram Brockhouse. It is such a profoundly useful technique for researching materials that it is used world-wide today, and the team at NRU has published 1,000s of papers on materials as diverse as cell membranes, jet engines, superconductors and medical implants. Finally, NRU provided the test-bed for the development of nuclear power in Canada: the CANDU reactor. Because of that, Ontario is one of the greenest energy generators in the world, reliant on a mix of affordable nuclear and hydro generation, and was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to eliminate coal power from its electricity grid.

I know of few other science facilities that have made such profound impacts on the world, and I am proud to have worked there.

The shutdown was an emotional moment for all those in the NRU team whose singular focus has been safe, reliable operation of this world-class science facility. The moment of shutdown was captured in this moving short video. A full-length documentary about NRU is due for release in the summer of 2018.

How to Build Your Own Nuclear Reactor: and What Your Friends Will Think

This is a talk for the general public or for students aged 12 and older. It starts with the basics of how a nuclear reactor works (they are surprisingly simple machines). But then goes into the social response to nuclear energy including events like, Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, and issues such as fossil fuels, renewable energy, hydrogen power and nuclear waste.

If you know an audience who would enjoy an interesting and thought-provoking discussion about nuclear technology please contact me.

TEDx Talk: The NRU Research Reactor

I was so happy to be invited to give a talk at the Ottawa TEDx event in 2017 September. It focused on how inspiring our scientists and engineers are when we as a society give them powerful tools to work with. The NRU research reactor as an example was designed to be flexible, because the designers of the facility in the 1950s did not try to predict what it would be used for in the future. As a result, by the time NRU reached its 60th anniversary on 2017 November 3rd, it will have produced medical isotopes used for well over half a billion patient treatments in 80 countries. Treating people with medical isotopes was a pioneering idea that came from the NRU research reactor and its predecessor NRX.

As I write this, NRU has two experiments ongoing (out of many), one on how to produce thousands of years of electricity, with no greenhouse gas, from thorium fuel and from fuel we currently call nuclear waste; the other is developing new technology for the next generation of medical isotopes to diagnose and treat patients in decades to come.

Follow the link to the YouTube TEDx talk

TEDx Ottawa stage2