Working Toward an Electricity Economy

Posted in Energy Security , Other | 16-Aug-08 | Author: Heinrich Bonnenberg | Source: Atlantic Community

Heinrich Bonnenberg: The need to reduce CO2 emissions, manage price increases, and deal with resource shortages is causing the energy economy to change. Electricity should eventually replace oil and gas. Nuclear power will have to play an increasingly important role in the new electricity economy.

Today in Germany, nuclear power is barely significant. For starters, electricity only represents 20 percent of the energy consumed. The remaining 80 percent is drawn from oil and gas for heating houses and driving cars. In addition, only 33 percent of the electricity consumed is produced by means of nuclear power. The largest share, 63 percent, results from burning coal, lignite and gas and the remaining 4 percent from renewable energy sources. As a result, only about 7 percent of today's total energy consumption in Germany is supplied by nuclear power.

Electricity is essential for lighting, cooling, and running machines and household equipments. The two other fundamental outlets for energy producers, heating and transportation, are areas where the use of electricity is extremely limited or non-existent.

CO2 emissions, the scarcity of natural resources, and the cost of oil and gas are three problems that can be solved by the use of electricity produced in an environmentally-friendly manner. The use of electricity should thus be extended and used to heat houses and run motorized equipments such as cars as well. This is what the German Party "Alliance "90/The Greens" is rightly demanding. The electricity driven heat pump for heating and the electromotor with highly developed batteries for cars show it is possible and it is going to be more and more economic.

The development toward an electricity economy such as described above, however, would involve a heavy increase in demand for electricity, from 20% today to 50% or more in the future.

The following questions arise:

  1. Can the separation of CO2 from gaseous emissions during the burning process be achieved in a cost-effective manner and can this energy be stored safely and permanently?
  2. Will we succeed in making renewable energy processes economical, i.e. no longer needed to subsidize them?
  3. Will we successfully solve the problem of storing electrical energy?
  4. Will we succeed in building nuclear power plants that operate continuously and economically and use the energy produced by nuclear fusion?
  5. Will we succeed in devising catastrophe-proof nuclear power plants where the storage of spent fuel is easy based on nuclear fission, in order to make nuclear power acceptable?

The first four questions are still open. The fifth question, on the other hand, has already been answered with a resounding YES. However, many of our contemporaries, especially in Germany, have not come to terms with this yet. The high-temperature gas cooled reactor with spherical fuel elements (pebbles) provides an answer to the fifth question. Internationally, this type of reactor is referred to as the PBMR (Pebble Bed Modular Reactor).

The high-temperature pebble bed reactor is a German invention, a device which was first created in the 1950s, with the integration of know-how from the United States and the United Kingdom and some additional research pursued in Italy, Sweden and Switzerland and mainly financed by EURATOM. The industrial development of this future-oriented technology, directed towards market launch with two pilot power plants in operation, was discontinued in Germany at the end of the 1980s. One could say it was "killed" by political decisions, mainly those of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

It was very successfully continued, and is still going on today, in China, South Africa, the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Germany's neighboring countries, the Netherlands and France. The high-temperature reactor is recognized as the most promising option in the international project GENERATION IV, a project which analyzes future nuclear power use and was commissioned by the US Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington. All of the countries that use nuclear energy are participating in this project apart from Germany. So the mentioned homepage of that project is published in all important languages, but not in German. Germany is also the only G8 country that has not affirmed the necessity to use nuclear energy.

It is imperative that the Germans, as a high technology society, rethink their attitude toward nuclear energy and with this also toward the German high-temperature pebble bed reactor, a versatile future-oriented system, developed mainly in Germany, but cancelled, and thankfully already in China in operation and in the phase of engineering of further plants.

The prolongation of the running time of the nuclear power plants in operation in Germany is only the very first and very small step in the right direction.

Dr.-Ing. Heinrich Bonnenberg is the chairman of the supervisory board of Energiewerke Nord, Lubmin, Germany.

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