Meelis Kiili: The color of energy?
Why do we need green energy? People usually give climate change and mankind's role therein as the reason. There is truth to that, while the fact that the planet's resources are close to being depleted is also quite important. Estonia needs a national energy security policy, not politicized energy, Meelis Kiili writes.
"You could have any color as long as it's black..."
(Henry Ford on the Model T)
No one needs convincing when it comes to the usefulness of energy. It is an indisputable fact, a guarantee of the functioning of society, our prosperity and security. Electricity is and will remain the chief form of energy in an age where social services and manufacturing of consumer goods is increasingly digitalized and automated.
The availability, sustainability and affordable price of power requires clear vision and concept. A fundamental requirement for security cannot be subject to populist policy facilitating emotional confrontation and manipulation. We need a social contract. In other words, we need a national energy security policy as opposed to politicized energy.
Energy security is more than linear accounting of economic indicators. It covers conservation, ecosystems, social and demographic aspects, cultural heritage, national and international policy. We must realize that power does not come from the wall socket, and switching from one system of generation to another takes more than just flipping a switch.
We need to agree on principles and terminology, go over legacy technologies, new developments, society's expectations and attitudes. We need to ask questions, including uncomfortable ones, and look for answers that would reflect national interests. These and many other interlocked activities must be shaped into a functional structure to ensure an economically sound and sustainable energy system that can ensure continued operation of vital services.
Should Estonia have independent power generation capacity? Theoretically, states around us have enough capacity for us to treat electricity as an import.
However, things are not that simple in reality. Estonia's geographic location alone renders us quite isolated. Cooperation with our eastern neighbor is hampered by great ideological differences wherein reaching a positive resolution does not seem a realistic prospect in the coming decades. Energy, including electricity, is an influence tool rather than a commercial article for Estonia's eastern neighbor, their energy is smeared with blood.
Production capacity and corresponding availability in other, friendlier states is governed by market rules, weather conditions and technology. Considering the aforementioned growth in demand for energy due to digitalization, availability rather than the price could became an issue.
We cannot bet on EU solidarity either. Solidarity has the tendency to be strong in the conditions of plenty or when a collective existential threat emerges. But the principle cannot be relied on when resources are short but there is no imminent threat. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Estonia must have sufficient generation and storage capacity to ensure the continued operation of vital services, also in the conditions of growing demand.
In principle, Estonia has enough power generation capacity to consider itself energy independent. But oil shale energy can create a false sense of security. While having our own production is good in the conditions of an energy crisis, it should be regarded as no more than a measure to buy time for meeting future needs. It should be possible to develop and implement new technology before oil shale reserves run out.
Oil shale energy will come to an end simply because oil shale will. This is another irrefutable fact. The only things we can debate are the when of it and what could replace it. The latter needs to be a source of power that works irrespective of the season and weather conditions.
While solar power is undoubtedly progressive, it will continue to depend on the weather even as new technologies are researched. Estonia has the same amount of light as Germany, while the problem is its uneven distribution. We have a lot of light in the summer, when the need for energy is less, and little of it in the winter when more power is required. Wind is another promising source of power, while it also depends on weather conditions, with its availability uneven in different parts of the country and insufficient in the conditions of growing demand.
This means that energy storage solutions must form a part of energy security. We must also not ignore the fact that solar and wind power solutions are energy-intensive and come with environmental effects, just like all power generation solutions.
The European Union, including Estonia, has chosen the path of switching to green energy, at least in official rhetoric. What is green energy? Why do we need green energy? What will be the transition's effects for ecosystems, the economy, social structure, and what about its ecological footprint?
We must also ask the question of private interests – who stands to benefit? There are many other bundles of questions debates surrounding which can and must be uncomfortable and shake our consciousness and worldview. We need to answer questions plainly and without sugarcoating to create functional policy to serve society's interests.
In theory, green energy should be a way to generate power using renewable resources by implementing existing and future technologies, while minimizing environmental impact. Unfortunately, there is no way to generate power without harming the environment at all.
Why do we need green energy? People usually give climate change and mankind's role therein as the reason. There is truth to that, while the fact that the planet's resources are close to being depleted is also quite important.
Welfare societies, including Estonia, will not give up their convenience standards, with our mentality rather geared toward endless economic growth, production and consumption, while developing societies are still catching up. Existing production capacity is fast being overtaken by mankind's needs.
Is the green transition an all-encompassing solution? Unfortunately, some proponents of the green transition have either knowingly or unknowingly ignored the fact that switching to green energy will result in a spike in the need to exploit natural resources in the coming decades. New technologies are not made out of thin air. We may need more copper, nickel, rare earth metals and other minerals than we have been able to extract before in our industrial history.
These mining operations will likely take place somewhere far away, on other continents. It is quite probable that many corners of the planet will become considerably less green as a result. Should we feel responsible, or should we ignore this fact in national interests?
Neither, really. We cannot nor should we stop the green transition, while we also cannot paint it as a silver bullet able to solve all our problems. We need to ask ourselves whether our stance would be the same were the mines located in Estonia. Looking at ongoing geological surveys and efforts to map Estonia's mineral resources, this may be less far-fetched than it seems.
Do we know what a natural resource even is? Is it national wealth? Could a mineral resource that has been left alone constitute national wealth in some situations? How many generations must benefit from national wealth? We must not create the illusion that exploitation of natural resources will not result in irreversible environmental changes.
People who doubt these words would do well to visit the Kiviõli quarry and ask themselves whether what they see there is wealth for future generations. Our industrial landscape is the result of the [Soviet] occupation's predatory policy. Do we intend to continue in the same spirit? Do the ash fields of Narva and Ida-Viru County coke expanses constitute wealth or are they a burden? We have spent hundreds of millions of euros on neutralizing their effects, while environmental damage will likely continue for centuries there.
We must also consider that all major change and campaigns (including the green transition) create interest groups with the ability to turn high-sounding and noble ideas into lucrative business projects. Someone always gets rich, while it usually happens at the expense of society as a whole. This human inevitability requires future energy policy to be transparent and clever enough to avoid preferring the interests of individuals or interest groups over those of society.
Sober analysis leaves us with the conclusion that we have no alternatives to nuclear energy when it comes to power generation that does not depend on the climate. Existing uranium and thorium reserves are virtually inexhaustible, such power generation does not depend on the season or weather and connecting to existing infrastructure is easily managed.
Arguments speaking against nuclear need to be considered. For example, as concerns the price of electricity, which opponents believe would be quite high. While the initial investment would be bigger compared to a [conventional] thermal power station, the difference would not be great. For instance, connecting nuclear energy to the existing grid would not require much in the way of additional investment. Perhaps a new substation would be needed, while existing infrastructure could be used depending on the location.
Resources needed to mine nuclear fuel, offset damage done in the process and store spent fuel to be used for other applications are much smaller due to the massive difference in volumes.
The coal equivalent of energy produced using just 1 kilogram of nuclear fuel is 700,000 tons or 10,000 rail cars. Storing [nuclear] fuel that has been through the first cycle would take place on a small scale. Fuel used at a nuclear power plant that roughly corresponds to the output and operational lifespan of the Baltic Power Plant can fit in two marine containers and constitutes reusable fuel for future generation reactors as opposed to useless residue.
The volumes and resulting environmental damage cannot be compared to the damage caused by mining and storing fossil fuels. To those still doubting my words I would recommend a visit to the Narva power plants' ash fields where living nature will probably have no business for thousands of years. Therefore, the price tag might not be all that high and might even turn out to benefit the consumer in the long run. The price argument could also be the result of lobby efforts by competing interest groups that feel their income is threatened.
Fears of a nuclear disaster are understandable and sure to be exploited by those opposing nuclear energy. In reality, nuclear energy is one of the safest and cleanest ways to generate power. We can compare it to aviation, which is the safest mode of transport statistically, while most people still admit to feeling a bit apprehensive before a flight.
Because nuclear processes take place in an artificial environment, the smallest change in parameters disrupts the process, with reactors fitted with multilayer automatic safety systems. Therefore, a nuclear mushroom cloud forming is only possible if someone drops a nuclear bomb on the facility.
Of course, it would be foolish to claim accidents can be ruled out completely, especially thinking back to historical events. However, with new generation small reactors, the chance of accidents is so low as to be negligible, and we can claim with confidence that the effects of even the worst accident would be contained in an isolated area no bigger than the plant's perimeter. Safety systems ensure cooling of residual heat for 14 days, even without power and intervention from the operator.
The argument according to which outdated technology could be used and it would be sensible to wait for newer alternatives is unconvincing. First, we might already be out of time to wait, more so as bringing nuclear energy to Estonia requires at least a decade of preparations.
Secondly, we need to somehow decide on a type of reactor. Considering that a nuclear plant's lifecycle is 60-80 years, the pace of technological advancement inevitably means using technology that is older than new prototypes.
This pace means that most people have (smart)phones that are not on the cutting edge of technology, which in no way stops them from using the main function of a phone. We are entering an era where the speed of development renders technology obsolete before it even reaches the assembly line.
That we do not have enough specialists is another argument used. A country the PISA test scores of which in science are highest not just in Europe but the whole world has no grounds to claim it does not have enough promising youths to train, considering that 80 percent of the employees of existing small nuclear reactors do not have higher education.
While we lack [nuclear] know-how today, it is possible to create it, especially since it exists in friendly neighboring states the experience of which can be used to develop study modules and offer in-service training. It is a matter of will and not possibilities.
Nuclear energy is not green. What is stopping us from joining France in saying that it is? It is the form of energy sporting the lowest ecological footprint. The European Union's sustainable funding list includes nuclear energy based on a Joint Research Center analysis that found nuclear does not have a bigger environmental impact than renewables.
Is gas greener than nuclear? Does burning natural gas not produce greenhouse gases? Natural gas plays a part in the energy sector as it enables simple automation and there is plenty of it left. However, we need to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to continue financing our neighbor's aggressive policy? Unfortunately, much of what is happening in Ukraine today has been paid for by the EU.
A social disaster has also been threatened. But Western Europe is full of abandoned and closed mines, and all of these changes have been weathered. We cannot keep mining simply to keep miners employed forever.
Let us also recall that oil shale is not a renewable resource and will eventually run out, leaving hundreds of square kilometers of wasteland, ruined groundwater reserves and ash fields as far as the eye can see. We are talking about drastically worsening the living environment of local residents, including the miners themselves. Too many families have been forced to leave their homes because of wells running dry, pollution of bodies of water or farmland rendered unusable. How much longer?
True, change can be uncomfortable for certain social groups. That is why we need a national policy to shape and create favorable and carefully considered conditions for social development. A transitional period and an energy security policy activity plan would be there for just this purpose.
We are living during a critical period. We are forced to make decisions the realization of which in the form of social benefits will take place in the future, without immediate effect or political credit. But these decisions need to be made. Even though policymaking is the job of politicians, it would be sensible to delegate the task of shaping the foundations of energy security to the Estonian Academy of Sciences.
We could first create a foundation of engineering solutions to which the security, social, economic and cognitive dimensions would be gradually added. Such an approach, together with transparent and wide-ranging policy, would promote innovative thinking and make it possible to involve the private sector through open competition.
Marcus Aurelius has said, "The universe is change, our life is what our thoughts make it." More than one vector of development might differ from the EU mainstream, but just like all other Member States, Estonia has its own national interests that we need to convert in a way to ensure the sustainable operation of our state and people.
The energy and agriculture representatives we have sent to the EU must simply understand that their main task is to represent Estonia's interests in the EU and not the EU's interests in Estonia. We need to continue the green transition in feasible and realistic colors, taking care to avoid emotional confrontation and creating functional energy security on a scientific basis.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski