Electricity generation: options for reduction in carbon emissions

H W Whittington
Philosophical Transactions. Series A, Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 2002 August 15, 360 (1797): 1653-68
Historically, the bulk production of electricity has been achieved by burning fossil fuels, with unavoidable gaseous emissions, including large quantities of carbon dioxide: an average-sized modern coal-burning power station is responsible for more than 10 Mt of CO(2) each year. This paper details typical emissions from present-day power stations and discusses the options for their reduction. Acknowledging that the cuts achieved in the past decade in the UK CO(2) emissions have been achieved largely by fuel switching, the remaining possibilities offered by this method are discussed. Switching to less-polluting fossil fuels will achieve some measure of reduction, but the basic problem of CO(2) emissions continues. Of the alternatives to fossil fuels, only nuclear power represents a zero-carbon large-scale energy source. Unfortunately, public concerns over safety and radioactive waste have still to be assuaged. Other approaches include the application of improved combustion technology, the removal of harmful gases from power-station flues and the use of waste heat to improve overall power-station efficiency. These all have a part to play, but many consider our best hope for emissions reduction to be the use of renewable energy. The main renewable energy contenders are assessed in this paper and realistic estimates of the contribution that each could provide are indicated. It appears that, in the time-scale envisaged by planners for reduction in CO(2) emission, in many countries renewable energy will be unlikely to deliver. At the same time, it is worth commenting that, again in many countries, the level of penetration of renewable energy will fall short of the present somewhat optimistic targets. Of renewable options, wind energy could be used in the short to medium term to cover for thermal plant closures, but for wind energy to be successful, the network will have to be modified to cope with wind's intermittent nature. Globally, hydroelectricity is currently the largest developed source of renewable electricity, but future large-scale projects will probably be limited to the less-developed world: the best schemes in the developed countries have already been exploited. Wave and tidal can be looked on as medium- to long-term generators of electricity, as their respective industries are not as mature as competing renewable resources. Municipal solid-waste combustion and landfill gas technologies can also be seen as short term, as can their rural equivalents, agriculture and forestry waste. Any widespread exploitation of renewable energy will depend on being able to transmit the energy from source to point of use, so the implications for the electrical network from the penetration of substantial levels of renewable energy are presented. Effective management of renewable energy installations will require technical assessment of the range of exploitation strategies, to compare local production of, say, hydrogen and the more traditional transmission of electricity. Such resources will have to compete with others in any national, or grid, system and detailed economic analysis will be necessary to determine the deployment that best fits the trading regime under which the energy will be sold. Consideration will also be necessary to determine how best to control the introduction of this radically new resource such that it does not attract punitive cost overheads until it is mature enough to cope. Finally, it is inescapable that nuclear power is a proven technology that could take its place in any future generation portfolio. Unfortunately, suspicion and mistrust surround waste management and radioactivity release. Unless this is overcome, the lack of confidence engendered by this public mistrust may result in few, if any, new nuclear power stations being built. In the event of that decision, it is difficult to see how CO(2) levels can be significantly reduced: the irony is that nuclear energy may emerge as environmentally essential.

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