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Life cycle sustainability assessment of electricity options for the UK


Adisa Azapagic, School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, The University of Manchester, Manchester, Room C16, The Mill, Sackville Street, M13 9PL, UK.



The UK electricity mix will change significantly in the future. This provides an opportunity to consider the full life cycle sustainability of the options currently considered as most suitable for the UK: gas, nuclear, offshore wind and photovoltaics (PV). In an attempt to identify the most sustainable options and inform policy, this paper applies a sustainability assessment framework developed previously by the authors to compare these electricity options. To put discussion in context, coal is also considered as a significant contributor to the current electricity supply. Each option is assessed and compared in terms of its economic, environmental and social implications, using a range of sustainability indicators. The results show that no one technology is superior and that certain trade-offs must be made. For example, nuclear and offshore wind power have the lowest life cycle environmental impacts, except for freshwater ecotoxicity for which gas is the best option; coal and gas are the cheapest options (£74 and 66/MWh, respectively, at 10% discount), but both have high global warming potential (1072 and 379 g CO2 eq./kWh); PV has relatively low global warming potential (88 g CO2 eq./kWh) but high cost (£302/MWh), as well as high ozone layer and resource depletion. Nuclear, wind and PV increase some aspects of energy security: in the case of nuclear, this is due to inherent fuel storage capabilities (energy density 290 million times that of natural gas), whereas wind and PV decrease fossil fuel import requirements by up to 0.2 toe/MWh. However, all three options require additional installed capacity for grid management. Nuclear also poses complex risk and intergenerational questions such as the creation of 10.16 m3/TWh of nuclear waste for long-term geological storage. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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