I have attended my share of conferences and similar events and while they all differ, one thing is constant: the need for, and importance of sponsors. Big events cost big dollars, and even with sometimes hefty attendance fees, the role of sponsors remains a big one. Conference organisers are constantly seeking and soliciting event sponsorship from companies with whom they can identify potential alignment. In return for their support (and depending on the size of it), sponsors get massive visibility at the events. They have prominent visual branding. They will often have senior staff deliver addresses, introductions, sit on or moderate panels and the like, as well as a level of access to other conference attendees. The principle is that everyone wins, which is the way it needs to be or nobody would sponsor.

When the Canadian reactor company Terrestrial Energy (for whom I provide an advisory role) told me they were thinking of sponsoring the Sustainable Investment Forum, an event organised by Climate Action on behalf of the United Nations Environment Program, I was delighted and very supportive. I have, loudly and clearly, told the nuclear industry they must be less insular and get their message out into the clean energy mainstream. This move by Terrestrial Energy was just what I was talking about. Naturally, the event organisers would be pleased to secure another sponsor.

SIF

Or so I thought.

Terrestrial Energy had just commenced the process when I was forwarded brief correspondence from the organisers that included the following statement:

I looked at your website just now and unfortunately, we cannot accept any nuclear companies as clients.

Why is it surprising to receive confirmation in black and white of something which, deep down, you already know to be true? Climate Action, the organisers of the Sustainable Investment Forum literally could not, according to instructions from UNEP, accept sponsorship from this company because their business was nuclear technology. Which meant, of course, no brand visibility. No speakers. No moderators. No panellists. No access.

This is all despite the fact that the use of nuclear technology avoids around 2.5 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year, is probably the lowest lifecycle greenhouse gas emitter, uses a minimal footprint of land in non-sensitive areas, is long-lived (read highly efficient) infrastructure which takes responsibility for its waste and makes no direct emissions to air other than steam.

But if you split atoms to get this outcome, sorry… we can’t be friends.

Feeling positively incensed at this I hit the interweb and promptly discovered that the statement “we cannot accept any nuclear companies as clients.” was both hypocritical and untrue. That can be a tough combination to pull-off, but in this case they achieved it with a key word: Vattenfall.

Vattenfall were Gold sponsors of the Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015 at COP21, another UNEP event organised by Climate Action. What is Vattenfall? One of the largest fossil fuel companies in Europe. With a quick scan of their site, one could be forgiven for believing their business is renewables, but the numbers tells a very different story.  This is the Vattenfall energy portfolio, in installed capacity aggregated by energy source.

Vattenfall Summary Coal Nuclear Gas Hydro Wind Biomass Total
Installed electricity capacity (MWe) 11,402 7,159 4,282 2,317 2,427 133 27,720
% of total 41% 26% 15% 8% 9% 0% 100%
Installed heat capacity (MWth) 3,717 2,605 632 6,322
% of total 59% 0% 41% 0% 0% 10% 100%

 

Vattenfall is, firstly, a fossil fuel company, with fossils making up over half the electricity capacity and 90% of the heat capacity. Of the coal assets, all but one are in Germany where the source is lignite, the dirtiest, most polluting form of coal. The hydro facilities are concentrated in Sweden and Finland and punch above their capacity, with around 20% of the electricity generated in the portfolio. The wind, at 9% of installed capacity, does the opposite, delivering 6 TWh per year, being a capacity factor of about 30%. It’s a safe approximation that wind makes up <5% of the electricity generated across the portfolio. They have nothing in solar.

None of the fossil fuel exposure mattered. They were embraced as a sponsor at none other than COP21.

But of course a major part of their portfolio is nuclear generation. Just two facilities in Germany provide over one quarter of the installed electricity capacity and generate no greenhouse gas emissions.

So…what the hell is going on here? Three things it seems.

Firstly, what seems clear is that the United Nations Environment Program absolutely does not care what a company’s commitment to fossil fuels is, even if the majority of the portfolio is fossil fuels and the largest source is lignite, so long as there is some renewable portfolio to talk about, however small. If you have that, you can sponsor and come and talk about your renewables. I regard this as an avenue for greenwash.

Secondly, what is also clear is that provided you have renewables, any nuclear will be… overlooked. Ignored. Not talked about. It won’t stop them accepting your money, but it won’t feature at the event even when it is the largest, most reliable, most land-efficient zero-carbon source of generation in your portfolio. I am reminded of an EDF representative being told, in mid session, that he must not talk about nuclear at the recent Clean Energy Ministerial in San Francisco.

Thirdly, if you are only a nuclear company…if the only technology you are interested in is a zero-carbon technology that fissions atoms… even an advanced design that can accept existing waste as fuel, is six times more efficient in operation per unit of uranium input, has inherent safety with impossibility of major accident, is scaleable to the whole world and provides high enough temperatures to also meet the needs for industrial heat which is currently almost exclusively met with fossil fuels…for you, the door is closed.

This all tells us one big thing: these events, that have been held by the dozen all over the world for decades now, have not been clean energy events. They have not been climate change action events. They have been advertising expos for renewable technologies. They have been industry events that pump up the policy and investment prospects of certain technologies, while providing an effective fig-leaf for continued dominance of fossil fuels if that happens to be your core business.

Now fortunately, this story has a happy ending. With simple and courteous persistence from Terrestrial Energy, the folks at ClimateAction did the right thing and took the question up the chain to UNEP. The response was affirmative: Terrestrial Energy may sponsor.

This is a watershed moment. UNEP, Climate Action and Terrestrial Energy are all to be congratulated. This move must be quickly reinforced by other clean energy companies whose core technology is based on fission lest the door quietly closes again. Any semblance of a victim mentality among nuclear technologists has to end. There are forces fighting to keep nuclear technology out of the clean energy discussion. If no one else bothers to show up to the fight, their victory is assured

It’s time to start showing up. See you in New York.

 

16 comments

  1. Ben:

    Thank you for telling this important tale with its positive ending.

    It’s important for nuclear advocates to realize that the virtual blackouts of nuclear at events like the Sustainable Energy Forum – or even the Clean Energy Ministerial – probably cannot withstand polite, but firm requests for participation. When a nuclear company or organization is willing to back up their request with funds, it would seem difficult to deny their participation.

    Passive acceptance of the exclusion policies might be the main reason they have been able to survive this long. Some of us believe it’s impolite to demand an invitation to a gathering where we are not wanted.

    Under our current situation, I hope that more nuclear advocates recognize that there are times when we need to be persistent. If the door opens a bit, a push can result in real opportunity to engage with some surprisingly open-minded and interested people.

    My experiences “clean energy” gatherings has led me to realize that a number of people in the renewables business are interested in learning about nuclear energy and its associated opportunities.

    1. Rod, fantastic remarks that I really endorse.

      These unstated policies are likely the result of a small subculture in places like UNEP that have never been challenges and have become sacrosanct over time.

      There is every chance, for example, that current decision makers at UNEP inherited this situation and this is their first actual awareness of it!!!

  2. I think that for the organizers that companies like Vattenfall are sponsors “too big to lose”. Being familiar with conferences on the organization side, the big sponsors are critical. Losing one is a headache that many organizers don’t want to occur, so they just let any inconveniences slide.

      1. Hi Oscar.

        Just got your tweet r.e. storage economics and life-cycle emissions.
        Economics of Adding Storage to Renewables:
        http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/06/calculating-the-economics-of-adding-storage-to-renewables/
        and
        Flexible Power Grid Resources:
        http://gcep.stanford.edu/pdfs/events/workshops/Barnhart_NEA%20Stanford%20April%202015.pdf
        I’ve a question for you and Ben in particular, and for anyone else — John Morgan or Rod perhaps — who may know the answer. Table 3 of the afore-referenced Barnhart NEA pdf lists EROI for various generation technologies and — perhaps not inconsistent with “Stanford” in the address — nuclear comes in dead last with EROI of 10.

        Well. Uranium fissions with 200 eV per atom, and methane burns with 9.4. Factors of 20 million tend to add up, so what latent physical intuition yet remains prompts a certain degree of skepticism.

        Back-tracing Barnhart’s references leads to a 2008 paper by Manfred Lenzen:
        “Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy: A review” in
        Energy Conversion and Management 49 (2008) 2178–2199
        http://www.laka.org/docu/boeken/pdf/6-01-2-15-45.pdf

        …which appears to be a detailed analysis of a 2006 Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review (UMPNER), commissioned by Australia’s then PM John Howard(?), in turn apparently relying upon some findings by Storm van Leeuwen, at least some of which e.g. uranium mine remediation, appear to derive from the GJ/tonne mine waste van Leeuwen wishes were expended, or thinks should be expended, as opposed to what actually are.

        In contrast, WNA’s “Energy Analysis of Power Systems” meta-review
        http://world-nuclear.org/information-library/energy-and-the-environment/energy-analysis-of-power-systems.aspx
        cites an EROI range of 43 – 81 for nuclear and 4 – 80 for wind. A 2006 Vestas wind study giving 43.

        So I’m wondering how the Royal Commission addressed these conflicting contentions, and in particular since it undoubtedly came up, what was made of Lenzen’s 2008 article and why?

        Citations would be most welcome.

        Thanks!

        1. I have a number of quibbles with the Arstechnica article including EROEI. If I recall they have PV well above nuclear except the pioneer in the field says PV is around 2.45. See
          http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-05-27/the-real-eroi-of-photovoltaic-systems-professor-hall-weighs-in
          A word search of the Royal Commission final report finds Lenzen in the endnotes but no direct reference to EROEI in the body of the report. Ditto Sydney University’s 2006 study ‘Life-Cycle Energy Balance and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Energy in Australia’.

          The parameters are changing. In relation to uranium mining and milling Olympic Dam will change from fine crushing and stirred vat dissolution to open air heap leaching. In any case I think the public doesn’t care about EROEI just radiation and cost.

          1. Thanks John. Your penultimate sentence inspired a thought. (Shame on you.) Here in the States the fracking industry’s radioactive drilling wastes e.g. in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, are perceived to be a Major Public Health Problem. Need to look into the radiation source, but suspect it’s probably uranium. How much? At present they haul the stuff to special state-sanctioned waste dumps to be safely guarded in perpetuity at (*somebody’s*) great expense. So am wondering if it would be economic just to leach the stuff and fabricate useful fuel.

            Would depend on many factors, not least being what other rad sources might be present — decay products, etc.

  3. My recollection is the Nuclear Royal Commission said SA’s interstate connection capacity would be restricted for the foreseeable future. Therefore SA is too small to justify getting current off the shelf gigawatt sized NPP. That view may have to be changed within weeks of the report
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-15/second-interconnector-to-sa-will-boost-competition/7510994
    The assumption being SA will export more wind power with oblique references to importing more coal power. Of the two present interconnectors the main one goes to Victoria with its 7.3 GW of brown coal capacity. That capacity is supposed to be entirely phased out in favour of renewables by mid century. Aside from whether it’s physically possible it would in theory link one high renewables state with another. The SA spot gas price is $7/GJ on today’s AEMO homepage so 40% efficient combined cycle gas must cost well over $7 X (1 Mwh X 3.6 GJ) /0.4 = $63 roughly double the busbar price. of Vic coal power.

    This won’t end well if the renewables-to-the-max crowd get their way.

    1. Just for clarity, the equation is really:
      $7/GJ x 3.6 GJ/1 MWh / 0.4 = $63 / MWh
      The equation shown above just happens to work because it is using 1 MWh. For any other quantity it would provide an incorrect answer.

  4. Great story and even better lesson. Nuclear has been playing the policy of appeasement for far too long. Stop talking about safety like it’s an issue and start talking about clean. And repeat that 2.5 gigatonne figure ad nauseum.

  5. The AEMO homepage hints at several possible developments for SA.
    http://www.aemo.com.au/
    Not only Victoria claiming to go renewable but predicted flat national electricity demand to 2036 and operating the WA grid (SWIS) along NEM lines. I guess we’ll still be driving petrol guzzlers not EVs in 2036. Sooner or later there must be talk of joining the eastern and western grids despite the 1500 km high voltage transmission gap between Pt Augusta SA and Norseman WA.

    Things will have to run their course, like the trial of 100 Powerwalls in a northern Adelaide suburb. If that result underwhelms it will be some other technological miracle waiting in the wings.

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