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New Hinkley nuclear plant should have fewer wrinkles than its predecessors

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The government announced on Monday that it had reached agreement with energy firm EDF over the construction of a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

The facility should be operational from 2023 and according to the government, will create jobs, increase energy security and provide clean electricity for the masses.

Ilaria Bertini caught up with Francis Livens, professor of radiochemistry and research director at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, to see what the news might mean for the UK energy’s future and global efforts to tackle climate change.

Some opponents say that relying on nuclear energy will raise bills, while the government claims the opposite. What will be the effects of Hinkley Point C on consumers and what can be done to avoid high energy bills?

I suspect energy bills will rise over the next decades with or without Hinkley C. Energy demand has historically risen pretty steadily over recent decades, and price follows demand closely. From a UK perspective, there are many uncertainties over energy supplies and their costs on a timescale of 40 or 50 years.

It will be a long time before we know if Hinkley C is a good investment or not, but what the strike price reflects is a judgment on the state of the energy market from about 2020 to beyond 2050. EDF and the government have made one judgment; other people may make different ones.

Aside from the purely financial argument, new nuclear reactors are a relatively secure source of energy compared with, say, imported gas. So the question is not just financial; it is about energy security, too, and diversity of supply is probably a good thing there.

 How to avoid higher energy bills? There’s probably no easy answer. Use less, which takes you to energy efficiency measures.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Hinkley Point C plan?

Well, it is different from the UK’s previous approach, in that the reactor isn’t being built by a UK nationalised industry. Allowing a company to do the job means that the risks are shared and may insulate the project from politically driven changes. So that is probably a good thing.

As with all the potential new build reactors, we aren’t designing this from scratch. It is based very much on an existing design and you’d expect construction to get more efficient and cheaper as more and more are built. In the specific case of Hinkley, this design is already being built in Finland and France, and there are certainly problems with those but, by being third in line, you’d hope there would be fewer wrinkles in the Hinkley programme.

I guess there is also a risk, with some of these projects, that an overseas supplier won’t be familiar with the British regulatory system, which is very demanding, but EDF have run reactors in the UK for many years, so they understand it very well.

What could be the successful future UK’s energy mix?

If I knew this, I would have retired to a private island somewhere warm many years ago! It is very difficult to know, especially over the 50-year plus timescale of a new nuclear plant. There are technologies out there which could completely change the game, or may just never fulfill their promise and turn out to be insignificant.

I suppose what’s becoming clear is that current fossil fuel technologies are too expensive and too polluting so there is a move away from those. It’s also pretty unlikely that demand will fall substantially. So conservation and energy efficiency have to be part of the story, and until it becomes a bit clearer which technologies will and will not deliver the goods, it is prudent to keep options open, and that means a balanced energy mix, which is what the government’s pursuing. 

Two of the most common objections to nuclear plants are the construction costs and waste disposal issues. The first issue has been partly addressed with the involvement of EDF, but what are the plans over waste disposal?

The government has indeed been very clear about the importance of waste disposal. One attraction of the reactor type EDF are proposing is that it is an evolution of a long-established design, which has been used worldwide for many decades.

Several hundred have been operated worldwide since the 1950s. That means that the waste produced is well understood, and there is enormous experience in managing it.

Hinkley C waste will be no different from Sizewell B waste, which we have already been looking after for almost 20 years, or from the wastes produced by overseas Pressurised Water Reactors. While the UK has been slow to develop a geological disposal facility, the government has done a lot of work and it does have a clear pathway towards disposal and, if we look overseas, we can see the Swedes, Swiss, and French making good progress towards disposing of the same types of waste that Hinkley C will produce

There has been a lot of talk recently about fossil fuels divestment, given that their uncertain future and volatility could be a major threat to investors and the climate. Would you say that it’s safe and sustainable to invest in nuclear?

I think what’s become clear is that producing energy on a large-scale from whatever source brings a price. That price will be a mix of financial, social, political and environmental costs – just look at the financial costs of mitigating climate change, protests over fracking, or objections to wind turbines.

In that sense, nuclear is no different: it brings costs – the large up front finances, public concern – and benefits – low-carbon energy, security of supply.

Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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Energy

Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?

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sustainable wood burning ideas

Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?

Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.

Is Biofuel Green?

One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.

Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?

Homegrown Technology

Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.

Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.

Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.

Benefits Of Biomass

The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.

Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.

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