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Daily Archives: May 1, 2022

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Will the Ukraine War Change Europe’s Thinking on Nuclear?

Dave Keating wrote . . . . . . . . .

Two decades ago, the Green Party of Belgium demanded a commitment to phase out nuclear power as a condition for joining the federal government. They got their wish, and Belgium was supposed to end all nuclear power by 2025. But in March 2022, in light of the Ukraine War, the Belgian Greens did a U-turn. On 18 March, they gave their assent to extend nuclear power in Belgium until at least 2035. Just four months earlier, in December 2021, the Greens had successfully insisted the 2025 phase-out date be respected, even as other parties in the coalition government argued the early phase-out would be bad for climate change because it would drive a need for gas.

The phase-out plan is “ready and feasible, but reassessment is needed with Ukraine”, the Green Belgian energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten said in early March. The fear was that closing Belgium’s seven nuclear reactors would mean burning more gas for power until enough renewables capacity became available, and that gas would have to come from Russia. The country’s two newest nuclear plants alone, operated by French utility Engie, account for almost half of Belgium’s electricity production.

The idea of phasing out nuclear power has been popular in much of Europe for some four decades, but more recently, its status as a CO2-neutral power source has prompted a rethink as Europe aims to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent in 2050.

Nuclear safety concerns in war

Germany next door, however, has been a different story. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel made a dramatic recommitment to phase out German nuclear power in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Of the 17 operating reactors in Germany, eight – mostly older ones – were permanently shut down following that decision. Today, only three remain, and the government is sticking with its plan to shut these down by next year; a decision confirmed by a vote in the German Parliament in mid-March.

That decision surprised many, considering the difficult position Germany now finds itself in because of its high dependence on Russian oil and gas. For some, however, the heightened sense of urgency around energy independence has been outweighed by the frightening images of Ukrainian nuclear plants on fire after missile attacks over the past weeks.

“In Germany it is [safety fears] already something which is deeply rooted in peoples’ minds, including under this government,” says Yves Desbazeille, director-general of the European nuclear industry association FORATOM. He notes that the Greens are more powerful in the German governing coalition than in the Belgian governing coalition. “For [the German Greens] it is really very deep in their DNA. So having them make such a U-turn was [going to be] very challenging.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which coordinates nuclear safety worldwide, has been working with both the Russians and Ukrainians to guarantee the safety of nuclear plants in the war zone. They have in particular been working to get the Ukrainian technical staff back on rotation at the Chernobyl plant, which they reported was completed towards the end of March.

IAEA director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi says he is continuing consultations to agree a framework with both sides to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities. “With this framework in place, the agency would be able to provide effective technical assistance for the safe and secure operation of these facilities.”

The two operating units of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, which caught fire after being hit by Russian missiles two weeks ago, are operating at two-thirds of their maximum capacity of around 1,000MW each, after the repair of two power lines in late March. Of the country’s 15 reactors, eight remain in operation and radiation levels are normal, according to the IAEA. Everything, they insist, is under control, despite the war.

This is also the message from governments that are pushing for nuclear power as part of the solution to both energy security and climate change, such as France and the US. “Despite Russia’s reckless military activity there has been no near-term challenge to safety,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm on a visit to Paris on 22 March to chair the annual ministerial meeting of the International Energy Agency. “Containment structures are built to withstand nuclear accidents as well as external assault. The safety risk here is not from the presence of nuclear power but from Russia’s unjustified invasion and violation of basic safety principles.”

“The US continues to view nuclear energy as really playing a key part in both our domestic and international efforts to enhance energy security and global climate change,” she added.

However, despite these assurances, breaking news about a nuclear plant on fire after a missile attack is hard to ignore, and will likely linger in peoples’ minds. As much as the Ukraine crisis is showing the value of nuclear power as a home-grown alternative to imported fossil fuels, war in a nuclear country is a reminder of the risk that is always present with this form of power.

“There is no human-made site or infrastructure that can resist proper attacks with powerful weapons like Russia has today,” acknowledges Grossi. He notes that nuclear power plants are protected against most external shocks, including an airplane crash. “Any infrastructure you can attack would be at risk,” he adds. “You could do the same to a hydro dam.”

Changed thinking on nuclear?

Grossi says it is too early to know exactly how the Ukraine crisis will impact Europe’s thinking on nuclear power in the long term, although last week’s developments in Belgium and Germany give some clues. “The gas and power price crisis has already lasted for some months now and a lot of governments have in mind that something should be done,” he says. “The current situation isn’t sustainable and solutions have to be found.”

As the energy price crisis has unfolded, fuelled by the economic recovery from the pandemic, its impact is already clear in the outcome of a long-running debate over an EU taxonomy for green investments. In the end, both gas and nuclear were included on the list. It was a demonstrable comeback for nuclear power in Europe after fears that Brexit would tip the balance of opinion against it in the remaining EU 27.

However, when the European Commission came out with its REPowerEU strategy on how to wean the EU off of Russian gas on 8 March, nuclear was strangely absent. The strategy had been in the works since the start of the year as a response to rising energy prices, but it was quickly retooled with a Russia focus following the outbreak of the war.

“We are disappointed that very little is said about nuclear in the communication, given that it consistently produces around one-quarter of electricity in the EU,” said Grossi. “Ignoring the EU’s main source of highly dispatchable, low-carbon and non-weather dependent energy raises questions about whether the proposed measures are realistic.”

New nuclear power plants will not solve today’s energy security problems, he acknowledges, because they will take at least ten years to build and come online, but at the very least the Commission should be advising against taking existing plants offline, he says.

“The Commission itself has already admitted that nuclear will form [part of the] the backbone of a carbon-free European power system, together with renewables,” Grossi notes. “Having an energy mix composed of both nuclear and renewables is key to ensuring an affordable, secure and stable supply of energy in the long-term.”

However, recent decommissionings, coupled with fewer new plants being built as they struggle to attract investment, means the number of nuclear reactors operating globally fell to a 30-year low in 2020, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. A total of 55 new reactors are currently being constructed in 19 countries, but they are almost all outside Europe. China, India and Russia are building the most new plants. The only plants being built in the EU are one in France and one in Slovakia.

The very different reactions in Belgium and Germany this past month show it is hard to predict how the Ukraine crisis will impact European policy on nuclear power. Much may depend on whether the nuclear plants in Ukraine stay safe in the coming weeks and months. Were any kind of nuclear incident to occur, it would likely be game over for nuclear power in Europe – no matter its climate benefits.

Source : Energy Monitor

Chart: The Countries With the Best Work-Life Balance

Source : Statista

Electric Planes Are Coming Sooner Than You Think

Elissa Garay wrote . . . . . . . . .

Electric aviation is no flight of fancy: Leading airlines like United and EasyJet are onboard as early adopters, with the first U.S. commercial routes slated for 2026.

You may be boarding an electric plane sooner than you think. The first rollouts for a major airline—with United—are due in 2026, and countries like Denmark and Sweden have announced plans to make all domestic flights fossil fuel–free by 2030.

The past year has propelled the aviation industry ever closer toward a goal of viable commercial electric aircraft. United Airlines announced in July that it’s buying 100 19-seater, zero-emission electric planes from Swedish startup Heart Aerospace; they are set to take flight for short hops in the United States in 2026.

Over in Europe, EasyJet’s partnership with U.S. startup Wright Electric has led to development plans for the Wright 1, an all-electric, 186-seat commercial passenger jet with an 800-mile range that’s targeted to enter service around 2030. Up sooner still, Wright Electric additionally announced in November plans for an electric 100-seater, the Wright Spirit, due out in 2026.

While those are some of the front-runners, a host of aviation companies—from fledgling startups to industry titans and government agencies like NASA—are actively pursuing electric commercial planes in hopes of achieving carbon emissions–free flight. Experts say the trajectory is an environmental necessity in the face of a worsening climate crisis.

“We know that transportation is the single largest contributor to carbon emissions and to global warming right now. And flying is a big part of that,” says Jeff Engler, CEO of Wright Electric.

Lukas Kaestner, cofounder of Sustainable Aero Lab, an accelerator in Germany that mentors global sustainable aviation startups, says the industry’s current fervor is representative of “the new zeitgeist, where global warming has become an issue that a growing number of people care about, and an issue people want to see addressed through action.”

Swiss bank UBS estimates a full quarter of the civil aviation industry will be hybrid or fully electric by 2035. The race to get electric commercial flight off the ground is on—here are where things stand.

Why electric aviation is taking off now

The aviation sector pumped about a billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually, prepandemic, or about 3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. If left unchecked on its current fast-paced-growth trajectory, the amount of carbon from airplanes is projected to triple by 2050.

That puts the industry at odds with the net-zero carbon emissions deadline for 2050 set by the U.N. In October, most major global airlines signed on to meet that target, but the limitations of current fossil-fuel-reliant aircraft technology is a setback for such decarbonization goals.

Venkat Viswanathan, a Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineering professor and aviation battery expert, says that electric battery power is “going to give an avenue for addressing emissions, at least for a significant portion of aviation.” Yet he adds a caveat that it alone won’t resolve the carbon crisis: “I think there has to be many other pieces—many other competing technologies—that have to be considered for the full arc of the future of aviation.”

Aviation’s reach toward clean energy is coinciding with other areas of transportation, too. “The inevitable shift that’s already happened in the automotive world, that’s happening in the maritime world, we see the same trends in aerospace,” explains Engler, of Wright.

At the same time, governments are increasingly establishing policies to usher in a greener era for aviation. Scandinavia is leading the charge: Denmark and Sweden will make all domestic flights fossil fuel-free by 2030; in Norway, it’s 2040. France and Austria, meanwhile, have recently enacted bans on some domestic short-haul flights.

In the United States, the Biden administration is also making a push for slashing emissions, with an emphasis on a clean-energy transportation sector. Yet climate activists like Charlie Cray of Greenpeace say U.S. policies “are only just starting down the runway.” Cray says that the administration has focused too much on sustainable aviation fuels and rather “needs to prioritize the introduction and adoption of electric engine technologies for shorter passenger routes and cargo aircraft.”

What electric flight will look like

Electric planes, like electric cars, rely on battery-generated electricity for power, rather than standard liquid jet fuel. Yet today’s batteries aren’t nearly as energy-dense as jet fuel, requiring bulk and weight that pose significant aerodynamic challenges.

While batteries that are lightweight yet powerful enough for smaller electrified planes, operating shorter ranges, are increasingly viable, Viswanathan says that for larger airplanes, more significant battery breakthroughs—or alternative technologies—are needed. “You probably need like three, four times the weight of the airliner [in batteries] to be able to power that, which is why you can’t make them,” he explains.

Accordingly, the budding industry is most immediately targeting short-distance regional flights on smaller planes, which syncs up with a sizeable segment of aviation: About half of the flight routes operated worldwide today are less than 500 miles.

Electric planes are proving to be more economical for airlines, too, with reduced expenses around fuel and maintenance. Engler says, “For the airlines, we expect lower costs over time, and they can pass those savings on to consumers.”

Michael Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures—the airline’s corporate venture fund—says the ES-19 planes it is purchasing from Heart Aerospace are 100 times less expensive to maintain, which offers “operational savings that can be passed on to our customers.”

Those lowered operation costs mean electric planes have the potential to revive short-haul routes to smaller regional airports, too, that were previously abandoned due to unprofitability. “Nineteen-seater aircrafts were the norm until a few decades ago for regional flights, until costs drove the industry to use larger planes,” explains Leskinen. He says the airline intends to use the ES-19s on more than 100 of United’s regional routes, out of most of its hubs.

Who the main players are

An estimated 200 global companies are currently pursuing electric plane projects, several of which have already made short and successful test flights. It’s a diversified competitive landscape where startups may have an edge—Sustainable Aero Lab’s Kaestner says that startups “are faster moving and much more flexible than the industry heavyweights.”

Smaller two- to four-person electric planes for private, corporate, and air taxi–type service—primarily via eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft—are already rolling out, with the first-generation technology backed by big names like Boeing, Airbus, NASA, and Toyota, along with a host of buzzy startups, including California’s Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation, Germany’s Lilium, and the U.K.’s Vertical Aerospace. United, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Japan Airlines are among a growing number of airlines that have eVTOL orders on the books, with plans to debut a new kind of air taxi service as soon as 2024.

“Ten years from now, the flight from LAX to JFK will still not be electric, but you will probably be able to fly to the airport by electric air taxi at a very reasonable cost and emissions-free,” Kaestner says.

Six- to nine-passenger planes are also close to liftoff. Israel’s Eviation has developed a nine-seat electric plane called Alice, which regional U.S. carrier Cape Air is set to fly starting next year. Alice’s electric propulsion engine was built by its sister company MagniX, based in Washington State. Canadian seaplane carrier Harbour Air is also testing the MagniX system to retrofit its fleet, with hopes of debuting commercial service on the newly electric seaplanes later this year.

United’s larger 19-seat planes from Heart Aerospace are planned for short-haul domestic routes, out of hubs like Chicago and San Francisco, in 2026; regional U.S. airline Mesa Airlines and Finland’s Finnair have also signed on to purchase Heart’s ES-19s.

The largest electric plane in the works is Wright Electric’s 186-seat Wright 1, which EasyJet intends to operate as soon as 2030. Wright also announced plans in November for its 100-passenger Wright Spirit, which will retrofit BAe 146 planes (from British aerospace company BAE Systems) with electric batteries.

Retrofitting existing planes with battery technology is considered to be a significantly quicker path through certification than starting from scratch. “It allows us to get to market much faster and start to impact the carbon footprint of the industry much earlier,” Engler says. He estimates the retrofit will reduce the federal certification process to half the time, if not less.

Where things go from here

Apart from the engineering hurdles around batteries, experts see other barriers against the widespread adoption of electric planes. There are stringent and lengthy certification processes with regulators, funding challenges, and an acclimation period for the public to consider the new technology as safe.

And then there is the issue that electric aviation, targeting smaller planes and shorter routes, won’t ultimately put the kind of dent that’s needed into the industry’s emissions reduction goals. “On the emissions side, 95 percent of the carbon footprint of the industry is airplanes larger than 100 passengers,” Engler says, explaining Wright Electric’s decision to target the development of bigger planes.

Kaestner notes that since “transcontinental or even true long-haul operations are still out of scope for the foreseeable future,” cleaner emerging energies like sustainable aviation fuels and, further afield, hydrogen power, must be the industry focus for longer routes.

Hybrid-electric technology, which combines batteries with traditional jet fuel engines, is another promising strategy, with companies like California-based startup Ampaire and France’s VoltAero already developing hybrid planes.

“I think that hybrids are going to be an important bridge to hopefully, overall, all electric further down the road,” says Viswanathan, who explains that hybrids would offer fuel and energy savings, emissions reductions, and help get the public comfortable with electric flight, similar to what cars like the Toyota Prius have done for the automotive industry.

Experts say that consumers, too, hold the purchasing power to help drive a greener aviation industry. Overall, Engler says, “Customers are demanding cleaner, greener, quieter, lower-cost ways to fly.”

Herwig Schuster, of Greenpeace, says that environmentally conscious travelers should think twice before flying and suggests more immediate policy measures are needed “to tackle the out-of-control emissions from the aviation sector,” like flight reductions, short-haul flight bans, and investment in alternative greener modes of transport, such as rail. Without more urgent action, he cautions, “Greener fuels or electric planes will only provide emissions cuts that are far too little or far too late for today’s demand.”

Source : AFAR

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority Calls for Public Feedback on Retail Digital Currency

In a paper released last week, HKMA examined the benefits, challenges and use of the potential e-HKD. It also looked into design considerations such as the issuance mechanism, interoperability with other payment systems, privacy and data protection, as well as legal considerations. The paper is accepting public feedback until May 27.

Read the paper . . . . .