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Energy realism: Why we need more coal, gas and nuclear power plants

(Part 5)

I attended Day 1 of the Giga Summit 2023 organized by the Meralco Power Academy, which was held from Sept. 11 to 13. I was particularly interested in the viability of nuclear power generation in the Philippines and there were three good speakers that afternoon.

They were Ike Dimayuga of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. talked about small modular reactors (SMR), Roland Backhaus of Ultra Safe Nuclear in the US talked about micro modular reactors (MMR), and representative Mark Cojuangco of Pangasinan’s 2nd District and author of HB 6030, “An Act Providing for a Comprehensive Nuclear Regulatory Framework, Creating for the Purpose the Philippine Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority, and Appropriating Funds Therefor.”

Among the stories reported in BusinessWorld from Days 1 and 2 of the Giga Summit were: “Meralco taps US company to study nuclear energy development in PHL” (Sept. 12), “AboitizPower on track to build LNG facility” (Sept. 12), “ERC: Revised CSP guidelines expected by end of September” (Sept. 12), and “Net metering program reaches 8,500 customers” (Sept. 13).

Mr. Dimayuga emphasized nuclear power’s main advantage, which is high energy density as just a small amount of fuel can generate a huge amount of energy, and so it requires the least amount of land to generate electricity. And once built, a nuclear plant can operate for many years with low operating costs. He mentioned that some SMRs that can run for 20 years non-stop, 24/7.

Mr. Cojuangco pointed out that nuclear power is the safest energy source of all — in cases of power plant accidents, it has the lowest deaths per terawatt-hour (TWH). He also mentioned that if the 620-MW Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was allowed to operate, 18 months of continuous operation would need only 20 tons of fuel assemblies, which can fit in just one truck.

Mr. Backhaus said MMRs are safe and can be sited anywhere as they have modular designs and brief on-site construction period. They have a plant life of 40 years, with three to 30 years refueling period — very practical.

The speakers recognized that public perception of nuclear power remains generally negative, so they emphasized the safety aspect of nuke plants, whether large like the BNPP or SMR or MMR.

The last nuclear accident was the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan in 2011, which resulted in no casualties. The last major nuclear accident before that was the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine, then under the USSR, which resulted in about 60 casualties.

I put together a table showing the per capita energy consumption of coal, natural gas, and nuclear in various countries. It is clear that the high consumption of thermal power and/or nuclear power leads to a more modern life, more developed economies, and longer life expectancy of the people in those countries.

The most coal-intensive countries in the world — those which consume more than 50 gigajoules (GJ) per capita — are Poland, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, China, Australia, South Korea, South Africa, and the Czech Republic. They also have high gas consumption (except South Africa and Estonia) and have high life expectancies of 70-83 years.

The most nuclear-intensive countries in the world — which consumed more than 20 GJ per capita in 2022 — are Sweden, Finland, France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Canada, the USA, and South Korea. And all of them have long life expectancies, 72 years and up. So the narrative that “nuclear power is dangerous, more deaths” is fiction.

The United Arab Emirate is a surprise newcomer in nuclear power. A powerhouse in oil and gas production, their first nuclear electricity generating plant started only in 2020 with 1.6 TWH, jumping to 20.1 TWH in 2022. Now they have nuke consumption of 18 GJ per capita.

The other speakers on Day 1 were Dr. Caleb Brooks of the University of California, Berkley, Tat Ming Yu of PacificLight Pte. Ltd. in Singapore, Emmanuel Rubio of Aboitiz Power (AP), and Dan Neil of MGen Power and Global Business Power (GBP).

Mr. Tat Yu discussed something which I consider a disturbing trend — Singapore will raise the carbon tax from the current $5/ton to $25/ton in 2024-2025, the increase it to $45/ton in 2026-2027, and $50-80/ton by 2030. Singapore developed fast on cheap, stable energy but now thinks expensive energy is beautiful and wants to follow the UK, Germany, other western countries in shooting themselves in the foot in the wild pursuit of “net zero.” It is understandable if they shoot themselves in the foot provided they wear bullet-proof shoes, but they do not.

Mr. Rubio emphasized that “Meeting today’s energy needs is imperative. It fuels our nation’s growth, sustains our industries, and powers our homes. A secure energy system is not a luxury but a necessity.” I fully agree with him on this, including one of his slides showing that the country needs “consistent enforcement of regulations, strengthening of political and regulatory institutions, fostering transparent markets, reducing energy taxes, creating an investor-friendly environment.”

Mr. Neil said that “Towards a balanced energy mix: Expansion in both RE and baseload capacity is a way forward for MGen.” I also fully agree with him. Their current renewables comprise 10% of total capacity and will rise to 39% by 2027, meaning some 61% of MGen’s power will still be conventional thermal — good.

I briefly passed by on Day 2 of the conference and saw the presentation by the Ayala group including ACEN. Their goal is weird — net zero by 2050 and 100% renewables-only power generation. I say “weird” because the main business of the Ayalas is real estate, not power generation. They have 32 big malls, 24 hotels and resorts, 264 residential condos, 88 office condos, etc. These hotels and condos need electricity 24/7. Last July, we had three weeks straight of cloudy days and on-off rain, and it was not windy either. In early September we have had one week straight of similar weather. Solar output at night is zero and solar power had very little output in the daytime due to the clouds and rain. Those glitzy condos and malls were running on coal and gas, the energy sources they demonize but which save their malls and hotels from blackouts.

I think MGen, AP, and SMC Power with their coal and gas plants are the conglomerate heroes of Philippine’s bid for industrialization. Germany and the UK have had two to three decades of “decarbonization” policies and they have not succeeded until now. We should focus on our national agenda — more sustained growth, more jobs for our people, more lights for our houses, schools, offices and streets. Net zero and the climate crisis are just narratives with dangerous policy implications of deindustrialization and degrowth economics. We should avoid these.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the president of Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. Research Consultancy Services, and Minimal Government Thinkers

Neil Banzuelo

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