Nuclear energy at the heart of the sustainable debate
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed; it is transformed. That is, there is a constant amount of energy that undergoes changes in its state.
If we follow this statement by the book, we could think of a system of ‘self-use’ of energy in which, for example, a car runs without having to refuel by continuously reusing the energy that made it run the first time.
However, this premise still belongs to the universe of science fiction and is the object of science, innovation and technological development to reach that ultimate and non-polluting future.
At the moment, renewable and nuclear energies are part of the debate to respond to the current environmental crisis; each of them with their advantages and a set of challenges ahead.
The alarming data has existed for many years. It almost seems that we are playing to stretch the rope to see at what point it breaks, without being aware that at that moment there will be no turning back.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy-related CO2 emissions will increase by almost 5% by 2021.
If there had been some kind of recovery because of the productive stoppage caused by Covid-19, little is remembered about it and now we go back to the pollution peaks of 2018 and 2019.
“Global carbon emissions are expected to increase by 1.5 billion tons this year. This is a direct warning in which the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.
Basic concepts on nuclear energy
1. Nuclear energy: is it renewable?
There is much puzzlement about this. While it is true that nuclear energy is based on uranium, a chemical element found in nature, we would not be talking about renewable energy.
Renewable energy is the one that profits from the processes that occur in the environment, or uses inexhaustible resources, in other words, that has a regeneration time equal to or less than its consumption.
In the case of nuclear energy, although uranium mining still has a long way to go, it can’t be said that it is renewable and inexhaustible.
2. Nuclear energy: is it clean?
Although it is not 100% clean, as it generates nuclear waste that must be managed and stored in the so-called “nuclear cemeteries”, nuclear energy does not emit any greenhouse gas, in fact, the only thing that comes out of its reactors is water vapor.
For this reason, nuclear energy is seen as an essential part of the energy transition.
3. How is nuclear energy produced?
Nuclear energy is the energy contained in an atom and it has to be released in order to become electricity. There are two processes to achieve this:
– Nuclear fission: this is currently used in nuclear energy plants. It consists of separating the nucleus of the atom into two or more, smaller ones to produce energy.
– Nuclear fusion: energy is released by combining light nuclei and forming a heavier one. This is how, for example, the energy of the sun is produced.
In both fission and nuclear fusion, the immediate reactor’s function is the same: to produce water vapor and generate energy.
However, these two production formulas are dissimilar. We must consider that fusion is a type of energy with great potential due to its low emissions and the small amount of waste, in addition to being free from the danger of explosions.
Currently, physicists and engineers are involved in the design and construction of experimental reactors, trying to imitate, in short, what happens inside the stars.
Different views on nuclear energy
The Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents put a large part of the public opinion on alert, and the need for an energy transition to deal with the climate emergency has been put back at the center of the debate.
At user level, it is possible that anyone who has any knowledge about these catastrophes will not put their trust in nuclear energy.
On the disparity of opinions, the stir caused by the miniseries Chernobyl, produced by HBO a few years ago is striking . The series recounts the events that led to this major nuclear disaster and explains them all.
After its viewing, a large part of the viewers positioned themselves against and another part in favor of nuclear energy. Why? Because in the final speech many remain with the idea of danger, while others observe that it is an unrepeatable scenario nowadays.
Is nuclear energy an option?
Humanity does not have many more opportunities to stop the climate crisis. In this context, it is urgent to find alternative solutions that allow us to produce clean and stable energy.
What about renewable energy? That, in spite of having great possibilities, due to the increasing development and favorable results (as for example is the case of the so-called energy communities), it is still necessary to give an answer to the question: “What do we do when there is no sun or wind?”.
Renewable energy generation is unstable and needs a good support to meet global energy demand.
In the face of this situation, and until a large-scale storage technology that allows a 100% renewable energy supply is developed, nuclear energy is regarded as a more than adequate option for the energy transition. Even more so, if we take into account the advances in nuclear fusion.
There is much to be discussed about nuclear energy. At the moment, these pointers provide a small context on the state of nuclear energy in the standpoint of the energy transition.
This type of energy, which has advantages and disadvantages, is an option to consider in the face of a sustainable and more environmentally friendly energy future.
It is supporting element, until we reach a future based on renewable energies, keeping a steady eye on the projection offered by the nuclear fusion.
Energy communities, a common project
I personally was unable to attend for scheduling reasons. However, Alfredo Rivela, CEO of Turning Tables, was present. And, thank God he was there, because, as he told me, it was a great opportunity to meet with fellow adventurers such as at Sapiens Energía, EnerCoop and Km0, among others. For my part, I was only able to join in via streaming, but I was able to share some conclusions and generate conversation.
First of all, and I don’t want to sound like I’m pandering to anyone, but I’m glad that something like this has been done. What’s more, I’m excited about it. This Energy Communities thing, which a while ago were two words that made little sense to most people, is snowballing into a bigger and bigger thing. Non-profit associations, businesses, citizens and the government are putting enormous energy into something that, I am sure, will have a huge impact on our country.
Every day we see more and more examples of Energy Communities in Spain, among which is the one in Crevillent, which was presented at this conference by Joaquín Mas, Managing Director of EnerCoop. As a friend of mine would say, “impressive what they are setting up there”. It looks very promising and we wish them all the luck in the world. They have ambitious objectives from which, I am sure, we will all learn a lot.
Why support Energy Communities? Sara Aagesen, Secretary of State for Energy, made it clear: “citizen participation is key to success“. We must stop being mere consumers, and become key players with a voice. We must take advantage of the millions coming in (around €1230M if I am not mistaken) and lay the foundations that will allow us to implement a new energy model that is more sustainable, fair, inclusive and collaborative.
These are certainly wonderful-sounding words, but by no means an easy road to travel. IDAE Director, Joan Groizard, shared with us 4 key points around where the Ministry’s strategy for achieving its objectives revolves:
- Creation of an ecosystem to support Energy Communities, which is based, mainly, on 3 phases: Learn, Plan and Implement. Each one of them with its own objectives and specific resources.
A strongly Irish-inspired model, or at least that’s what I understood after listening to William Walsh, CEO of SEAI, the Irish Energy Agency. An approach that, to my ears, makes a lot of sense and has a lot of potential.
I would also like to add an idea I heard the other day from a colleague, who talked about the possibility of allocating budgets to the Communities as they complete each of these 3 stages. It could be a good way to incentivise and control spending, something with great potential.
- Creation of what they have called “Community Transformation Offices”, entities that, it seems, assist citizens, with a more pedagogical role, in the creation of Energy Communities.
Personally, I really like the fact that we have something like this, because I believe in its importance. Over the last few years, at Vergy we have worked with many citizens, and it is amazing to see the impact on people’s awareness of how they relate to energy, and their ability to take control of it.
- Knowledge and experience network, which allows us to identify good practices and share experiences among all those who are or want to promote Energy Communities. Count on us, IDAE!
- Not only financial support, but also support in other areas of great relevance, such as the legal area, or the business model.
I think I’ve said this before, I love when I hear about long-term sustainable business models, and not just about subsidies without any reason.
That said, there is a lot of work to be done, but I believe that as long as we accompany these points with agility and, above all, action, we will be moving in the right direction. What do you think? You know that I like to listen to other people’s opinions.
It seems that a huge machinery around Energy Communities is being set in motion and, I insist, it is something I am very excited about. I see an ambitious and collaborative ecosystem eager to make the most of this new revolution we are living. I hope that we will be able to translate words into action as soon as possible, and that the administrative barriers that some of us suffer from will not continue for much longer.
I would like to thank IDAE and CIDE for giving visibility to the work we do at Turning Tables and Vergy, and all the institutions that were present yesterday, through different channels, and that are doing their bit to ensure that the Energy Communities take shape. Each with their own model, their own vision, their own way of working, but all with the same intention: to conquer small realities that end up having a massive environmental, economic and social impact.
I look forward to talking to you again very soon. Until then, I leave this door open for discussion and exchange of ideas.