Nuclear vs Solar

August 13th, 2013

One slightly dispiriting feature of the current environmental movement is the sniping between “old” environmentalists, opposed to nuclear power, and “new” environmentalists who embrace it, about the relative merits of nuclear and solar as low carbon energy sources. Here’s a commentary on that dispute, in the form of a pair of graphs. In fact, it’s two versions of one graph, showing the world consumption of low carbon energy from solar, nuclear and wind over the last forty years or so, the data taken from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

nuclear vs solar lin graph

The first graph is the case for nuclear. Only nuclear energy makes any dent at all in the world’s total energy consumption (about 22500 TWh of electricity in total was generated in the world in 2012, with more energy consumed directly as oil and gas). Although nuclear generation has dropped off significantly in the last year or two following the Fukushima accident, the experience of the 1970′s and 80′s shows that it is possible to add significant capacity in a reasonable timescale. Nuclear provides the world with a significant amount of low-carbon energy that it’s foolish to imagine can be quickly replaced by renewables.

nuclear vs solar log graph

The second graph is the case for solar. It is the same graph as the first one, but with a logarithmic axis (on this plot constant fractional growth shows up as an increasing straight-line). This shows that world solar energy consumption is increasing at a greater than exponential rate. For the last five years, solar energy consumption has been growing at a rate of 66% a year compounded. (Wind-power is also growing exponentially, but currently at a slower rate than solar). Although in absolute terms, solar energy is only now at the stage that nuclear was in 1971, its growth rate now is much higher than the maximum growth rate for nuclear in the period of its big build out, which was 30% a year compounded in the five years to 1975. And even before Fukushima, the growth in nuclear energy was stagnating, as new nuclear build only just kept up with the decommissioning of the first generation of nuclear plants. Looking at this graph, solar overtaking nuclear by 2020 doesn’t seem an unreasonable extrapolation.

The case for pessimism is made by Roger Pielke, who points out, from the same data set, that the process of decarbonising the world’s energy supply is essentially stagnating, with the proportion of energy consumption from low carbon sources reaching a high point of 13.3% in 1999, from which it has very gently declined.

Of course, looking backwards at historical energy consumption figures can only take us so far in understanding what’s likely to happen next. For that, we need to look at likely future technical developments and at the economic environment. There is a lot of potential for improvement in both these technologies; not enough research and development has been done on any kind of energy technology in the last few years, as I discussed here before – We sold out our energy future.

On the economics, it has to be stressed that the progress we’ve seen with both nuclear and solar has been the result of large-scale state action. In the case of solar, subsidies in Europe have driven installations, while subsidised capital in China has allowed it rapidly to build up a large solar panel manufacturing industry. The nuclear industry has everywhere been closely tied up with the state, with fairly opaque finances.

But one thing sets apart nuclear and solar. The cost of solar power has been steadily falling, with the prospect of grid parity – the moment when solar generated electricity is cheaper than electricity from the grid – imminent in favoured parts of the world, as discussed in a recent FT Analysis article (£). This provides some justification for the subsidies – usually, with any technology, the more you make of something, the cheaper it becomes; solar shows just such a positive learning curve.

For nuclear, on the other hand, the more we install, the costlier it seems to get. Even in France, widely perceived to have been the most effective nuclear building program, with widespread standardisation and big economies of scale, analysis shows that the learning curve is negative, according to this study by Grubler in Energy Policy (£).

What is urgent now is to get the low-carbon fraction of our energy supply growing again. My own view is that this will require new nuclear build, even if only to replace the obsolete plants now being decommissioned. But for nuclear new build to happen at any scale we need to understand and reverse nuclear’s negative learning curve, and learn how to build nuclear plants cheaply and safely. And while the current growth rate of solar is impressive, we need to remember what a low base it is starting from, and continue to innovate, so that the growth rate can continue to the point at which solar is making a significant contribution.

Decelerating change in the pharmaceutical industry

June 13th, 2013

Medical progress will have come to a complete halt by the year 2329. I reach this anti-Kurzweilian conclusion from a 2012 paper – Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency – which demonstrates that, far from showing an accelerating rate of innovation, the pharmaceutical industry has for the last 60 years been seeing exponentially diminishing returns on its research and development effort. At the date of the anti-singularity, the cost of developing a single new drug will have exceeded the world’s total economic output. The extrapolation is ludicrous, of course, but the problem is not. By 2010 it took an average of $2.17 billion in R&D spending to introduce a single new drug, including the cost of all the failures. This cost per new drug has been following a kind of reverse Moore’s law, increasing exponentially in real terms at a rate of 7.6% a year since 1950, corresponding to a doubling time of a bit more than 9 years (see this plot from the paper cited above). This trend is puzzling – our knowledge of life sciences has been revolutionised during this period, while the opportunities provided by robotics and IT, allowing approaches like rapid throughput screening and large scale chemoinformatics, have been eagerly seized on by the industry. Despite all this new science and enabling technology, the anti-Moore’s law trend of diminishing R&D returns continues inexorably.

This should worry us. The failure to find effective therapies for widespread and devastating conditions – Alzheimer’s, to take just one example – leads to enormous human suffering. The escalating cost of developing new drugs is ultimately passed on to society through their pricing, leading to strains on national healthcare systems that will become more acute as populations age. As a second-order effect, scientists should be concerned in case the drying up of medical innovation casts doubt on some of the justifications for government spending on fundamental life sciences research. And, of course, a healthy and innovative pharmaceutical industry is itself important for economic growth, particularly here in the UK, where it remains the one truly internationally competitive high technology sector of the economy. So what can be done to speed up innovation in this vital sector? Read the rest of this entry »

Innovation policy and long term economic growth in the UK – a story in four graphs

May 10th, 2013

I have a post up on the blog of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute – The failures of supply side innovation policy – discussing the connection between recent innovation policy in the UK and our current crisis of economic growth. Rather than cross-posting it here, I tell the same story in four graphs.

1. The UK’s current growth crisis follows a sustained period of national disinvestment in R&D

GDP and GERD

Red, left axis. The percentage deviation of real GDP per person from the 1948-1979 trend line, corresponding to 2.57% annual growth. Sources: solid line, 2012 National Accounts. Dotted line, March 2013 estimates from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility.
Blue, right axis. Total R&D intensity, all sectors, as percentage of GDP. Data: Eurostat.

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Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler and me

March 21st, 2013

Next week – on the 26th March – I’m participating in a discussion event sponsored by the thinktank Policy Exchange at NESTA, in London. Also on the panel is K. Eric Drexler, the originator of the idea of nanotechnology in its most expansive form, as an emerging technology which, when fully developed, will have truly transformational effects. It will, in this view, allow us to make pretty much any material, device or artefact for little or no cost, we will be able to extend human lifespans almost indefinitely using cell-by-cell surgery, and we will create computers so powerful that they will host artificial intelligences greatly superior to those of humans. Drexler has a new book coming out in May – Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization. I think this view overstates the potential of the technology, and (it shocks me to realise), I have been arguing this in some technical detail for nearly ten years. Although I have met Drexler, and corresponded with him, this is the first time I will have shared a platform with him. To mark this occasion I have gone through my blog’s archives to make this anthology of my writings about Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology and my arguments with some of its adherents (who should not, of course, automatically be assumed to speak for Drexler himself). Read the rest of this entry »

Fulfilling the promises of emerging biotechnologies

January 18th, 2013

At the end of last year, the Nuffield Foundation for Bioethics published a report on the ethics of emerging biotechnologies, called Emerging Biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good. I was on the working party for that report, and this piece reflects a personal view about some of its findings. A shorter version was published in Research Fortnight (subscription required).

In a speech at the Royal Society last November George Osborne said that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, it is his job “to focus on the economic benefits of scientific excellence”. He then listed eight key technologies that he challenged the scientific community in Britain to lead the world in, and for which he promised continuing financial support. Among these technologies were synthetic biology, regenerative medicine and agri-science, key examples of what a recent report from the Nuffield Council for Bioethics calls emerging biotechnologies. Picking technology winners is clearly high on the UK science policy agenda, and this kind of list will increasingly inform the science funding choices the government and its agencies, like the research councils, make. So the focus of the Nuffield’s report, on how those choices are made and what kind of ethics should guide them, couldn’t be more timely.

These emerging technologies are not short of promises. According to Osborne, synthetic biology will have an £11 billion market by 2016 producing new medicines, biofuels and food – “they say that synthetic biology will heal us, heat and feed us.” Read the rest of this entry »

We sold out our energy future

December 7th, 2012

Everyone should know that the industrial society we live in depends on access to plentiful, convenient, cheap energy – the last two hundred years of rapid economic growth has been underpinned by the large scale use of fossil fuels. And everyone should know that the effect of burning those fossil fuels has been to markedly increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, resulting in a changing climate, with potentially dangerous but still uncertain consequences. But a transition from fossil fuels to low carbon sources of energy isn’t going to take place quickly; existing low carbon energy sources are expensive and difficult to scale up. So rather than pushing on with the politically difficult, slow and expensive business of deploying current low carbon energy sources, why don’t we wait until technology brings us a new generation of cheaper and more scalable low carbon energy? Presumably, one might think, since we’ve known about these issues for some time, we’ve been spending the last twenty years energetically doing research into new energy technologies?

Alas, no. As my graph shows, the decade from 1980 saw a worldwide decline in the fraction of GDP major industrial countries devoted to government funded energy research, development, and demonstration, with only Japan sustaining anything like its earlier intensity of energy research into the 1990s. It was only in the second half of the decade after 2000 that we began to see a recovery, though in the UK and the USA a rapid upturn following the 2007 financial crisis has fallen away again. A rapid post-2000 growth of energy RD&D in Korea is an exception to the general picture. There’s a good discussion of the situation in the USA in a paper by Kamman and Nemet – Reversing the incredible shrinking energy R&D budget. But the largest fall by far was in the UK, where at its low point, the fraction of national resource devoted to energy RD&D fell, in 2003, to an astonishing 0.2% of its value at the 1981 high point.

Government spending on energy research, development and demonstration

Government spending on energy research, development and demonstration. Data: International Energy Authority

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Why isn’t the UK the centre of the organic electronics industry?

November 12th, 2012

In February 1989, Jeremy Burroughes, at that time a postdoc in the research group of Richard Friend and Donal Bradley at Cambridge, noticed that a diode structure he’d made from the semiconducting polymer PPV glowed when a current was passed through it. This wasn’t the first time that interesting optoelectronic properties had been observed in an organic semiconductor, but it’s fair to say that it was the resulting Nature paper, which has now been cited more than 8000 times, that really launched the field of organic electronics. The company that they founded to exploit this discovery, Cambridge Display Technology, was floated on the NASDAQ in 2004 at a valuation of $230 million. Now organic electronics is becoming mainstream; a popular mobile phone, the Samsung Galaxy S, has an organic light emitting diode screen, and further mass market products are expected in the next few years. But these products will be made in factories in Japan, Korea and Taiwan; Cambridge Display Technology is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Japanese chemical company Sumitomo. How is it that despite an apparently insurmountable academic lead in the field, and a successful history of University spin-outs, that the UK is likely to end up at best a peripheral player in this new industry? Read the rest of this entry »

Do materials even have genomes?

October 22nd, 2012

I’ve long suspected that physical scientists have occasional attacks of biology envy, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the US government announced last year the “Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competiveness”. Its aim is to “discover, develop, manufacture, and deploy advanced materials at least twice as fast as possible today, at a fraction of the cost.” There’s a genuine problem here – for people used to the rapid pace of innovation in information technology, the very slow rate at which new materials are taken up in new manufactured products is an affront. The solution proposed here is to use those very advances in information technology to boost the rate of materials innovation, just as (the rhetoric invites us to infer) the rate of progress in biology has been boosted by big data driven projects like the human genome project.

There’s no question that many big problems could be addressed by new materials. Read the rest of this entry »

Responsible innovation – some lessons from nanotechnology

October 19th, 2012

A few weeks ago I gave a lecture at the University of Nottingham to a mixed audience of nanoscientists and science and technology studies scholars with the title “Responsible innovation – some lessons from nanotechnology”. The lecture was recorded, and the audio can be downloaded, together with the slides, from the Nottingham STS website.

Some of the material I talked about is covered in my chapter in the recent book Quantum Engagements: Social Reflections of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies. A preprint of the chapter can be downloaded here: What has nanotechnology taught us about contemporary technoscience?”

Geek power?

September 5th, 2012

Mark Henderson’s book “The Geek Manifesto” was part of my holiday reading, and there’s a lot to like in it – there’s all too much stupidity in public life, and anything that skewers a few of the more egregious recent examples of this in such a well-written and well-informed way must be welcomed. There is a fundamental lack of seriousness in our public discourse, a lack of respect for evidence, a lack of critical thinking. But to set against many excellent points of detail, the book is built around one big idea, and it’s that idea that I’m less keen on. This is the argument – implicit in the title – that we should try to construct some kind of identity politics based around those of us who self-identify as being interested in and informed about science – the “geeks”. I’m not sure that this is possible, but even if it was, I think it would be bad for science and bad for politics. This isn’t to say that public life wouldn’t be better if more people with a scientific outlook had a higher profile. One very unwelcome feature of public debate is the prevalence of wishful thinking. Comfortable beliefs that fit into people’s broader world-views do need critical examination, and this often needs the insights of science, particularly the discipline that comes from seeing whether the numbers add up. But science isn’t the only source of the insights needed for critical thinking, and scientists can have some surprising blind-spots, not just about the political, social and economic realities of life, but also about technical issues outside their own fields of interest.

But first, who are these geeks who Henderson thinks should organise? Read the rest of this entry »