explains to him how it will all be all right because they saved the topsoil and will put it all back the way it was. Maybe that’s true
I have my doubts. Topsoil is built up in layers over centuries. You can’t just unroll it and put it back like a good carpet being taken out of the way while you renovate. There’s an extensive literature on this; stockpiling topsoil is better than dumping deeper layers on the surface, but it takes a major investment to get anywhere close to restoring the original condition of the land.
As for this one:
“If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it”
From your description, this movie sounds as if it rates a lot of shovels.
If I’m lucky, I’ll glimpse the shadow as it sweeps across the garden scape. Then the sounds of silence… the chickadees, sparrows, and jays retreat to their nests, doves squat nervously on the horizontal branches, and the hares “slow hop” unwittingly to the brush.
Great moments…hawks in the garden…anyone for lunch?
Well, given that they are happening even as we speak, I’d say pretty robust.
[Response: The greater the warming, the more robust the damages look. It's in the lucky case where climate sensitivity is low and we stop emitting at around a trillion tonnes cumulative carbon that the net damages are hardest to quantify. At the high end of emissions and sensitivity, things look pretty simple, since most land photosynthesis stops at around 40C, and Sherwood and Huber make a compelling case that most mammals outdoors in the tropics die, and probably a lot in the midlatitude summer, too. For a discussion of the impacts over a range of temperature, just put "Climate Stabilization Targets" into your search box and you'll find our National Research Council report, available for free download. --raypierre]
Raypierre wrote: “I think expansion of nuclear energy has an essential role to play in decarbonizing our energy supply, and I greatly admire the success France has had with their transition to nuclear electricity.”
Um, are y’all suspending the ban on “debating” nuclear power?
Because both of those assertions (that expanding nuclear power is “essential”, and the allegedly admirable “success” of nuclear power in France) are eminently debatable.
[Response: I didn't really want us to get distracted by that debate. I only wanted to make the point that even though I myself am of the opinion that there is a role for nuclear power, I found the discussion of the issues in the film wanting. You'd probably find them even more wanting. If anybody commenting has seen the film and wishes to comment on the specifics of aspects of nuclear power discussed in the film (e.g. whether French nuclear reprocessing really works as well as they say, and whether a containment vessel would withstand a 747 crashed into it), that would be welcome. But please no generalized rambling debates on the subject. --raypierre]
Bill Bedford, no one knows how bad it will get. If we continue with business as usual, it is likely that a large amount of permafrost carbon will be liberated. That may in turn set some methane free. Risk analysis indicates that we should have quit fossil fuels yesterday.
There is no planet B.
Comment by Pete Dunkelberg — 3 Apr 2013 @ 10:44 AM
One of my favorite ballads from one of my favorite balladeers.
The only way I survived the super-patriotism after 9/11 was by blaring “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
You sure have a lot of faith in humanity. I’ll just note that diversity is a grand thing with regard to energy supply. That France took one route while Germany another has improved both of their economies. Megawatts cross the borders of Europe as each country’s choices result in local surpluses and deficits.
Bill Bedford: the predictions are mostly not robust in the direction of understating the risks, since there is a lot of pressure on scientists not to be “alarmist”. I addressed this recently in another thread: take a look at the points I made there.
The most depressing message from the review is the view that
really good at fossil energy so why bother…?
[Response: Note that that's not my message -- that's the message the movie manages to convey. In fact, in the last few bits of the film, there is an earnest attempt to turn the conversation around to conservation, but the main reason it didn't work is that the film never gave the viewer any understanding of the necessity of a switch out of fossil fuels, so insofar as the viewer gets any impression of the need for conservation at all, it tends to be as a way to close the gap between demand and production. To the extent that SWITCH convinces the viewer that we are really good at fossil fuel production, it undercuts what little argument it had for conservation. --raypierre]
That being the case, we have to ask what happens when fossil fuels all go. And that’s not as far off most as people think. I’ve seen a figure of 200 years’ supply at current rates of use. The critical thing most miss is that “current rates of use” should be adjusted for growth in demand. I calculated a few years back that at 2.4% growth per year, 200 years drops to 75 years.
Fossil fuels don’t stop being viable when we’ve used them up. They stop being viable when the supply-demand gap makes them more expensive than the alternatives (or the net energy return goes negative, but I doubt that will be the endpoint). Even throwing tar sands and less accessible oil and gas into the mix doesn’t help a lot because towards endgame, usage under BAU growth is at a much higher level of use than today’s. At a growth 2.4% pa, the doubling time is 29 years. Since I wrote the article using the 2.4% number, I’ve seen an update to 2.5% as the long-term average growth rate in primary energy demand, reducing the doubling time to 28 years. At best, squeezing out every last drop of fossil fuels buys you a few years at the cost of falling off a much higher cliff. And there’s the risk that there’s not enough quality energy resources left to build the alternatives if you wait too long.
Anything that does not dramatically slow dependence on fossil fuels will take us over a cliff a lot sooner than most realise. Maybe not in your lifetime; very likely in your children’s lifetime, and certainly in your grandchildren’s lifetime. The people running fossil fuel businesses must really hate their grandchildren.
What the fossil fuel industry desperately does not want is a slow tailing off of usage long before we hit a crunch point, because when we hit that crunch point with insufficent alternatives in place, they score big time. That there will likely be a worldwide economic meltdown and potential for major resource wars is not a concern if profits are your only goal.
I think this may be time for a moderated discussion of the options of nuclear power, perhaps on another related site. Personally, I am not pleased to entertain the thought: I think that the people who are currently running the fossil fuel industry will probably end up running some portion of the nuclear power industry, and they have not proven ethical. And, if we had more time, I believe that there are large-scale solutions that do not involve such risks. But we are looking into the mouth of the dragon, and it is time to consider all our choices.
[Response: I hope I'm not opening the floodgates here, but since the movie did include the nuclear option, and I did mention it in the review, I suppose it is only fair to have some follow-up discussion here. In other threads we've tended to discourage this because it tends to very quickly wander off-topic, but here it is very much on-topic. So let's have a go at it. From my standpoint, I would start by acknowledging real dangers of nuclear, but to me the dangers of nuclear look more manageable than the dangers of caol. I'd rather see the whole climate problem solved with just renewables and efficiency, and I think probably if we had started 30 years ago we could have done that, but given how much time has been wasted I think taking nuclear off the table would make an already difficult problem much harder -- especially since one needs to allow for energy demand in China and India. The important physical issues concern waste storage, nuclear proliferation, consequences of accidents, and the extent to which all these things can be affected by improved nuclear reactor designs. The important economic issue is the expense of nuclear power, especially hidden subsidies or bad accounting that could conceivably unfairly advantage nuclear over renewables. My take on that is that even with hidden subsidies, nuclear is so expensive that renewables already compete pretty well with it. The real problem economically right now, at least in the US, is that nuclear can't begin to compete with currently cheap natural gas, so there's not much incentive to build nuclear plants. I'm not sure where China and India are going on expanded nuclear power right now, so if anybody knows, please chime in. Are there other important topics I've left out? So let's try having a focused, fact-based discussion on these issues. In this thread only, where it is definitely pertinenent. --raypierre ]
Direct subsidy is mostly in the form of tax preferences, and on that count nuclear drew the short straw since at least as far back as 1977. Fossil fuels got the most, followed by non-hydro renewables with nuclear a distant third.
The other main source of subsidies is DOE spending, in which nuclear has had a bigger part.
Nuclear power plant operators in the US have to pay $0.001/kWh into the spent fuel fund and also have to maintain funds for decommissioning – at a rate of generally in the range $0.001-002/kWh.
Fossil fuel propaganda is amazing. My sister, who lives in Kentucky, tells me that there is a TV ad that describes how mountaintop removal saves lives.
The narrator describes how, when he was stricken by a heart attack, an airplane was able to land on an airstrip built on a flat area which formally was a mountain. This allowed the heart attack victim to be airlifted to a hospital.
So thank God for turning the Appalachians into a series of flat rubble piles.
Philip Machanick ~ 12
re: hating grandchildren generally
Just cowardice taking refuge in shortsightedness, clinging to the security blanket of political credibility with power brokers.
About the middle east, but I think it applies here,quoting Edward Said:
“Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position, which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take,” wrote the late Edward Said. “You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.”
“For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence,” Said went on. “If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.”
In any case, in the eyes of some, oil is well worth killing for.
They say things like, “no war for oil.” Well, is that just to say, “oil isn’t worth fighting about,” or doesn’t matter what Saddam Hussein does to the oil reserves of the region. I mean, how irresponsible could you possibly get?
Raypierre wrote: “My take on that is that even with hidden subsidies, nuclear is so expensive that renewables already compete pretty well with it.”
And that’s exactly why there is not going to be any significant expansion of nuclear power. There is no need for it, because wind and solar and other renewable energy sources can easily produce more than enough electricity to power human civilization, and can do so much faster and cheaper and with none of the very real dangers of nuclear power.
And while the cost of new nuclear power plants continues to skyrocket, the cost of renewable energy is plummeting, and will continue to do so, while the technology for harvesting solar and wind energy will continue to rapidly improve. No one in their right mind is going to invest in new nuclear power plants, OR new coal-fired power plants, knowing that by the time those power plants can come online, they won’t be able to find buyers for their electricity in a market saturated with ultra-cheap solar and wind power.
With all due respect, I think that folks who believe that nuclear power has a future, or that it is “essential” to eliminating GHG emissions from electricity generation, are simply not paying attention to what is actually going on with renewable energy today — both the rapid deployment of today’s powerful, mature solar and wind technologies, AND the much more efficient and less costly technologies that are approaching commercialization.
It is quite possible that the old dream of “electricity too cheap to meter” may come true in our lifetimes — but it won’t be electricity from nukes, it will be electricity from ultra-cheap, ultra-efficient, mass-produced, distributed photovoltaics.
Re- Comment by SecularAnimist — 4 Apr 2013 @ 10:24 AM
How about some generation IV plants that would not produce weapons grade fuel, would run on waste from the gen I and II plants and thereby help solve this problem, and could provide a little base load or do some desalinization. I think that Hansen may have suggested some of this a long time ago.
One thing that you have missed is the incompatibility of nuclear power with liberty. It might be fine for China or other non-liberty based societies from this perspective, but for us it is a problem. Nuclear power requires the extension of state power into the indefinite future to guard the waste from being used for weapons proliferation. Our conception of liberty requires that the state must be, in principle, dissolvable by the will of the people. Nuclear power requires a perpetual security state to maintain the fiction that it can be used safely. It is thus in fundamental conflict with our founding principles.
It should be remembered that dreams of the perpetual and perfectible security state were at the root of the largest conflicts of the last century so the issue is not a small one.
[Response: How does your notion of liberty fit in with the way we treat CO2 emissions? Is it more compatible with liberty to just dump them into the atmosphere and not take responsibility for them? Or what about carbon capture and storage, which would seem to engage the same stewardship issues as nuclear waste. It seems that any technology that has long-term impacts would engage the same issues of liberty. --raypierre]
Unfortunately, even these large programs are small compared to the coal-fired power plants being built in both China and India. Any hope that intermittent energy sources like wind and solar will save the day is nothing but a Green dream. Nuclear has got to play a major role in future clean energy development. That is, if the environmentalist prejudices against nuclear power can be overcome.
Installing mainstream, mass-market photovoltaics on every flat commercial rooftop in the USA would generate as much electricity as all the nuclear power plants in the country.
Concentrating solar thermal power plants on just five percent of the USA’s deserts could generate more electricity than the entire country uses. The same is true of the commercially harvestable wind energy resources of just four midwestern states.
All of which represents just a fraction of the USA’s vast solar and wind energy resources.
IF we needed to expand nuclear power to meet our electricity needs while phasing out fossil fuel-generated electricity, then it would arguably make sense to struggle with the very real dangers and problems of a technology that is based on mining, refining, transporting, reprocessing, re-transporting and storing vast amounts of the most toxic and dangerous substances known to science — in perpetuity.
But we DON’T need nuclear power, so there is no need to deal with any of that.
Something Mark Twain said about predicting a man’s politics based on his source of “feed” comes to mind. Twain’s quote pretty much sums up the current global climate change debate and pretty much tells you all you need to know regarding the film. Scientists aren’t immune to income-induced bias. Which is why independent academic institutions are essential.
I ask folks to do some Googling (Tournquist and Morton are especially helpful as is this list of sources from the USGS http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/gc-subsidence/publications.html) on the controversy over coastal land subsidence and oil and gas production in Lousiana and Texas. The USGS notes that subsidence, subsequent land loss and damage caused by oil production was first diagnosed by Texas geologists in the 1920′s and yet today the debate over its existence still lives on.
Ongoing and future subsidence from oil, gas and produced water exceeds even the high end eustatic-caused land loss predictions for coastal Louisiana.
KevinM, with all due respect, to deploy the epithet “anti-science” against those of us who think that expanding nuclear power is neither a necessary nor particularly effective means of de-carbonizing electricity generation, is to admit that you have no argument and therefore must resort to insults and name-calling.
Pete51 wrote: “Any hope that intermittent energy sources like wind and solar will save the day is nothing but a Green dream.”
Proponents of nuclear power keep repeating that slogan with increasing shrillness and desperation as nuclear power’s share of the world’s electric generation capacity stagnates and declines, while wind and solar are skyrocketing.
China, for example, has 75,000 MW of wind capacity installed now, which is projected to double by 2015 and reach 250,000 MW by 2020. China is also building ultra-high-voltage transmission lines to connect windy rural sites to population centers, with 19 such projects on track for completion in 2014. During 2012, for the first time China installed more new wind power generating capacity than coal-fired capacity — AND produced more electricity from wind power than from nuclear power.
India’s “National Solar Mission” plan calls for deploying 20,000 MW of solar capacity by 2020, to be scaled up to 100,000 MW by 2030. But even this is just scratching the surface — the official Solar Mission report notes that India receives 5,000 Trillion kWh of solar energy PER DAY.
I never thought I’d favor nuclear power. But here it is: I believe nuclear energy is our last best chance to stem the tide of climate change.
…I profess “sustainability” and there is probably nothing in this world that challenges the notion of sustainability as much as the safeguarding of nuclear waste repositories continuously for 40 000 years or more (the half-life of 239Pu is 24 360 years).
… after 150 years, institutional control is lost and responsibility for protection of a site would no longer exist.
That’s just crap. If I remember correctly, you installed a solar system, but instead of paying for it yourself, you relied over 100% on government subsidies. If you actually believed what you spout, you’d have paid for your system yourself.
So yep, if I as a taxpayer pay you over 100% of the cost of your system, then yep, to you solar is cheap. But, had you been walkie/talkie/ethical then you’d probably have said, “whew, I paid ever so much more for my system than I could have by merely going with fossil fuels, but I’m ethical and so would never let others pay for my electrical usage.”
[Response: So how are you more ethical if you burn fossil fuels but pay nothing towards the cost of the environmental and health damaged caused by that? It would be better to put on a carbon tax that reflects the social cost of carbon and then get rid of direct subsidies for renewables, but since a carbon tax hasn't happened, renewable subsidies perform something of the same function, though probably not as efficiently. By the way, try to ratchet down your hostility, please. --raypierre]
(this is an offer to engage. Please show Your Side)
Mal Adapted wrote: “whether liberty and high population density are compatible with long-term sustainability”
As for high population density, some of the most densely populated places in the world also have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world, so I don’t see why high population density is necessarily incompatible with sustainability.
As for “liberty”, it’s an ill-defined term. So unless and until there is agreement as to what exactly it means, it’s hard to discuss what its implications for sustainability might be.
Having said that, it would seem that technologies like cheap, high-efficiency, mass-produced PV that (1) give people everywhere the ability to generate their own GHG-free electricity and (2) are so benign and harmless that they can be freely proliferated everywhere without danger of, for example, being misused to make weapons of mass destruction, are conducive to both liberty and sustainability.
aic says, “after 150 years, institutional control is lost and responsibility for protection of a site would no longer exist.”
Nah. either in 150 years the government is still operational, OR we’ve entered Mad Max World, and the dangers of nuclear waste are laughably small compared to other issues. Seriously, give me ONE scenario where nuclear waste is a real issue. ONE. I’ll be waiting with plenty of logic to apply to that scenario.
It’s easy to imagine 4′th generation nuclear being economical, and wonderful to think about a way to consume leftover ‘waste’ from existing reactors.
I’m hard put to imagine 4′th generation nuclear being well researched and engineered for safety, economy, and reliability – and then rolled out into production in quantities sufficient to make a difference – before multiple tipping points have been passed. Perhaps it’s just a lack of imagination on my part.
After fukushima, I’m also very concerned about large parts of our infrastructure being maintainable in the increasing chaos that climate change will cause amid natural disasters. Can we adequately protect nuclear plants, for example, after a solar super-storm melts the transformers connecting them to the grid? In a combined heat-wave/drought? These concerns cover more than just nuclear plants, but it’s nukes that are on-topic here. (boy does that sound strange:)
Although the risks associated with nuclear waste and proliferation are formidable, I think they could be managed. My reticence about nukes arises from the fact that they don’t get us any nearer to the actual goal–sustainability.
Rather, we will substitute one energy special interest for another, and I expect no less opposition and obfuscation as we progress toward sustainability from the new interest than we’ve had from the fossil fuel lobby.
That said, I fully expect a lot of nukes in our future, as well as a lot of geoengineering and a whole host of other really bad ideas as we try to mitigate the catastrophe we are creating.
As such, I really hope we get a lot better at understanding what I call “the stupid factor”, which has been responsible for every serious nuclear accident to date. It isn’t a lack of intelligence–you have to be clever to get around all the failsafes and safeguards in these systems. However, foolishness is the one thing our species does better than any other.
OK, here we are once again, tiresomely debating nukes vs. wind and solar. SA does a good job of pointing out that many of us are still seriously behind what is happening right now in renewables. It is truly startling, if you look.
However, I have some serious questions about nuclear power (which I am not opposed to, by the way.)
Given that we need to seriously scale up some alternative or alternatives to fossil fuels ASAP–two decades back would have been good–what would it take to scale up nuclear generation at the kinds of growth rates we’ve actually been seeing in renewables? What are the limits? More specifically:
–How many skilled workers can we train in nuclear technologies, how fast? (That would include engineers, technicians, operators, and so forth.)
–How many suitable sites do we have–seismically stable, featuring available coolant supplies, politically and economically suitable?
–How do we deal with waste? Can we adopt breeder technology to use it, given proliferation concerns, etc?
–Can we deal with liability issues in the post-Fukushima world?
–Can we raise the extremely high capital costs necessary to create the kind of nuclear building spree we’d need?
–Can the long-promised advanced nuclear technologies improve prospects? For example, China has begun construction on the first commercial-scale Thorium Bed Reactor (if I have this right):
My overall sense on this is that given the existing situation, nuclear is just not scalable to what we need, as fast as we need it. But I’d certainly be interested to learn more on this, so pointers are welcome–perhaps off-line, so as not to veer too far OT?
[Response: The experience in France provides a useful point of reference. France managed to go all-nuclear in something like 20 years. On the other hand, France is pretty good at implementing top-down problems, enforcing uniform designs, educating a technical workforce, etc. It's unclear that the French experience with nuclear could be duplicated in the US, but it shows that if there's a problem it's a cultural one, not a technical one. Maybe we should just subcontract all our nuclear development to Areva . Nuclear engineering is a dying art in the US, but maybe that is changing --raypierre]
Fast reactor design is already commercialized and awaiting customers: GE-Hitachi PRISM based 100% on the EBR-II well described in “Plentiful Energy”. Various threads on http://bravenewclimate.com/
, linked on the sidebar, offer descriptions.
It seems that one of the major problems facing nuclear power is the poor reasoning used by its proponents. When making arguments, it is normally best if they are actually relevant to the discussion.
Nevertheless, to answer your obviously rhetorical and somewhat pointless questions:
1) If the choice was between fossil and nuclear I’d definitely go for nuclear. But they are not the only options.
2) Assuming a 1GW nuclear power plant, running full power 7500 hours a year, and assuming 5MW wind turbines running 3000 hours a year equivalent full power (that’s a windy place like Scotland, or offshore), you’d need 500 turbines. What’s the problem?
3) Assuming 7m2 for a kW of PV panels, 1700kWh/kW per year (a sunny place like the southwest US), you’d need around 31km2 of panel area. Land area needed would be about twice that if you’re not too far north. That’s equal to 0.0015% of the land currently used in the U.S. for agriculture. Again, please point out the relevance of this.
4) This question makes no sense unless you want to insinuate that renewable electricity is an order of magnitude more expensive than nuclear. Actually, for the new nuclear plants proposed in the UK, one number that has been floating around is a guaranteed price for the electricity around 10p/kWh. That is similar to the cost of PV electricty in the not-very-sunny England and considerably more than on-shore wind (offshore is probably a bit more than 10p/kWh).
The interest in high temperature gas cooled reactors is partly due to their very high intrinsic safely levels and also because they are “high temperature” offering potential to provide industrial process heat eg for the production of hydrogen.
Aside from CSP (where climate, location etc permits), there are no other low emission realistic alternatives for generating high temperature industrial process heat than high temperature reactors. Use of fossil fuels in this application is a significant source of GHG emissions.
The only direct connection with thorium is that in China’s quite separate molten salt thorium reactor research program, the first experimental reactor is planned to use not molten thorium fuel, but TRISO fuel pebbles from the HTGR (because of avalability) in molten salts so that the behavior of the molten salts can be studied. A true, fully molten core experimental thorium reactor is planned to follow than. Don’t expect a commercial molten core thorium reactor from China before the 2020s sometime.
At the 18% capacity factor of wind in Germany, that 20 GW of wind produces about the same amount of electricity as 4 GW of nuclear capacity or two and a bit Areva EPRs. Throw in PV deployment, and you end up wind 10 years of wind+PV build producing about as much electricity as about three EPRs.
The case for rapid deployment of solar and wind as compared to nuclear has been, to put it mildly, greatly overstated.
Or another way of looking at it. Global PV capacity is now something like 100GW total. At 15% average capacity factor (which may be generous) that PV produces about as much electricity as the 16 new nuclear reactors expected to come online in 2013 world wide.
The hard truth is that it’s all woefully inadequate, and excluding nuclear power which has proved to be the most successful low emission technology (aside from hydro) demonstrates an attitude to climate risk that I find incomprehensible.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the Alta-Oak Creek Mojave Project in fall 2010 was supposed to generate 150 MW using 50 3 MW (4,000 hp) generators. No capacity factor is stated, but typical capacity factors are 15–50%.
The Civaux, France site houses two 1450 MWe class (N4 design) reactors, the most recent design operating today. In 2003 the stations were uprated to 1500 MWe. France’s reactors are used in load-following mode, sometimes closed over weekends, so their capacity factor is low by world standards, at 77.3%.
So it’s about 1000 very new windmills per relatively individual reactor, 2000 windmills for the plant. The windmills have 300 ft diameter rotors and weigh 70 tons. That’s 100 miles of rotor blade.
I used 3 MW windmills and corrected for capacity factor, compared to the French N4 reactors and got about the same count. The blades on the 3 MW turbines are 300ft diameter, so it would take 56 miles of rotor blade to replace the Chernay plant. The full assembly is just huge, 130 tons each and comparable in size to the Eiffel Tower.
I got about 15 square miles for one reactor, 30 square for the plant. The plant I referenced was in Civaux France, near Poitiers. The entire city of Poitiers is only 16 square miles.
I’m saying that even if the economic cost were equal all around, coal, solar, wind, nuclear, whatever, there is a strong argument that the environmental cost of nuclear is lowest. Some kind of 1960s anti nuclear hangover refuses to allow a subset of environmentalists to get over it.
No mention of Fusion Power? We should be expecting the prototype (commercial) reactor to be at least in the design stage in 20 years or so – and this with the constant underfunding of the technology (to give my unsolicited opinion).
[Response: Fusion power has been "around the corner" for as long as I can remember. Maybe it will play a role eventually, but we have to get through the next 50 years first without accumulating a whole lot more carbon than we already have. That calls for technologies we know can be deployed, with some more predictable engineering tweaks. Even CCS is farther along than fusion. --raypierre]
… expect no less opposition and obfuscation as we progress toward sustainability from the new interest than we’ve had from the fossil fuel lobby.
That said, I fully expect a lot of nukes in our future, as well as a lot of geoengineering and a whole host of other really bad ideas as we try to mitigate the catastrophe we are creating.
As such, I really hope we get a lot better at understanding what I call “the stupid factor”, which has been responsible for every serious nuclear accident to date. It isn’t a lack of intelligence–you have to be clever to get around all the failsafes and safeguards in these systems. However, foolishness is the one thing our species does better than any other.
I suspicion we are in for more serious breakdown within decades, not centuries, and worry about infrastructure (which we are demonstrating an ability to maintain), particularly in the context of nuclear, but join those who are not altogether against it. But it is to trade problems into the future, nonetheless.
Global PV capacity is now something like 100GW total. At 15% average capacity factor (which may be generous) that PV produces about as much electricity as the 16 new nuclear reactors expected to come online in 2013 world wide.
The case for rapid deployment of solar and wind as compared to nuclear has been, to put it mildly, greatly overstated.
Mm. But wind power doubled globally between 2008 and 2011, with upwards of 40 GW added yearly. It’s not clear how longer this accelerated deployment can continue, but it’s not stopping yet, particularly with ambitious targets in a number of important jurisdictions (including, as noted above, China.) At that pace it won’t be long before the capacity added exceeds those 16 reactors–and we won’t be adding any more than that in the next few years, at any rate.
On solar PV, doubling times have recently been just two years, and it’s less mature technologically than wind. With costs starting to hit grid parity and continued support for the technology, there seems little reason to expect deployment to slow. “GBI Research predicts global solar PV installed capacity to reach 331GW by 2020 from 97GW in 2012, climbing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16.6%.”
Let’s see, that would be 234 GW of added capacity, times 15% capacity factor, for roughly 35 GW of actual generation, or twice those reactors. That’s still a slower rate, of course–eight years addition versus just one. But the likelihood is that it will still be increasing.
And wind? “…284GW in 2012 to 685GW by 2020.” Call it 400 GW, or 100 GW of generation. Or about as much per year as those projected reactors.
I think adoption of renewables is, or very soon will be, well past “woefully inadequate.”
But it’s not an either/or proposition, of course. Much of the growth in renewables will be in places where nuclear is not politically acceptable–China excepted; they really are doing ‘all of the above.’ From that perspective, there’s some complementarity between renewables and nuclear.
I’m the director of Switch, and thought I’d address Ray’s criticisms, point by point.
The GSA carefully reviewed the film, and like the large majority of professional reviewers, government agencies, energy companies, environmental groups, academics and general audience members, found it an educational, entertaining world tour of the energy frontier, which presents the benefits and challenges of each energy source as fairly and objectively as possible in one 90-minute summary.
Fossil fuels are not portrayed as ‘powerful, cool and desirable,’ while other energies are otherwise. We actively sought out the leading production sites for every energy resource then, often with great difficulty, secured permission to film in each.
Yes, we featured one of the best run coal mines in the world, in the most productive coal basin. Also, the world’s largest solar plants (at the time), both for PV and CSP; the world’s largest wind farm and leading (in per capita production) wind nation; the world’s leading geothermal producers; the world’s leading (per capita) hydro producers; some of the world’s leading biofuel and alternative transportation researchers; the world’s leading (at the time) unconventional gas play; the world’s leading LNG producers; the world’s leading nuclear fuel reprocessing center. The film states this frequently, but Ray neglects to mention it.
The Belle Ayr coal mine absolutely reclaims their mining areas. The state of Wyoming has very strict regulations, and as a result, the mining companies have extensive programs. The reclamation process is a continuously monitored 7-year process of reintroduction of native grasses in an area that has been stripped of them by overgrazing. Ray could have learned about this with a simple internet search.
We actually filmed this reclaimed area and an interview with the mine’s reclamation manager, but opted not to include it in the film because of pacing, and we thought that some viewers might construe it as apologist.
For this scene like every other, we were vigilant to maintain, as much as possible, a neutral stance. That said, for viewers who are far to the left or right, that neutral position is too right or left for them. The result is a review like this one — and we’ve received them from both sides.
If Ray left with “a vague impression that renewables are not to be trusted,” that’s his impression, not our intention. We rate each energy on how many people (global average citizen) each could power in a year. This metric does not include carbon emissions, fuel use, land use, longevity, or anything except utility.
And here, stated plainly, is our bias. Over a combined 19 years studying the energy transition, we’ve seen time and again that a technology’s utility is the determining factor of whether we will deploy it. That utility is determined by its ability to affordably, reliably, and to a lesser degree, cleanly power our energy demands.
Of course, the affordability of competing energies would be impacted differently if we were to price their externalities. But doing so is complicated, imperfect and in most countries politically impossible. While carbon taxes are a partial attempt to do so, these have been sparsely adopted and marginally embraced. Many in Australia, for instance, predict their government to change parties soon and with it eliminate their carbon price.
The reliability of an energy is often undervalued and misunderstood — I see a lot of that in the comments to this review. Because a technology has the capacity to produce power doesn’t mean it will do so when we need it to. For most of the utilities and governments who play the largest roles in choosing our energy resources, dispatchability trumps capacity.
There are certainly some countries incorporating more clean energy, often making compromises in affordability and reliability to do so. But for the large majority of the world’s energy consumers, the long term threat of carbon emissions continues to take a backseat to immediate economic benefits. This is simply the reality — though readers here may view this as a disastrous reversal of priorities.
Similarly, Ray’s opinion is that the central educational mission of the film should have been to advocate for carbon emission reduction, and faults it for not focusing on his area of study. While this has been well explored in several other films including one featuring a former vice president, this was not our objective.
Instead, it was to try to predict, based on long, well established trends of global energy production and consumption, how the energy transition likely will happen, rather than to prescribe how it should happen. Importantly, the prediction assumes that no carbon reduction policy will be globally adopted, because after 30 years of awareness we have taken little action. We do factor in efficiency and renewable incentives at slightly increased levels to today.
(We’ve calculated how this likely transition affects atmospheric CO2 concentration, and since the topic has received understandable attention from sources such as this one, we plan to release a discussion of this on the website in the coming weeks.)
Finally, different from the large majority of energy films, we wanted to include the thinking of some of the world’s most experienced and well regarded energy experts, rather than views from the margins. You can see a list of these experts, and their long form interviews, here:
They include current, former, and upcoming US and international government energy leaders; heads of energy and climate research programs at Stanford, MIT, Cornell and the UC system; heads of fossil, renewable and nuclear energy companies; and site managers of their resources. There simply is no other energy film with more credentialed interviewees.
Ray’s treatment of these experts is often unprofessional. In particular, attempting to discredit Scott Tinker’s years of energy expertise by calling him a ‘soporific, Quaalude addicted, bobble-headed doll,’ says more about reviewer than subject.
I encourage readers to watch the film, available on Amazon and soon other online outlets, and visit http://www.switchenergyproject.com to make their own decisions about our content.
Raypierre, first on my #12 – I wasn’t accusing you of holding those views. I was trying to focus on the weak point of the argument the movie is making: if it’s this or nothing, nothing will happen in a few decades, so they’d better be wrong. Or: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
On nuclear, the biggest problem is that alternative fuel cycles haven’t been researched to the level where they can be deployed fast enough to make a big difference. R&D has mostly focused on fuel cycles that mesh with weapons requirements. There’s a lot more thorium (for example) than uranium but no one to my knowledge has demonstrated a working commercial-scale thorium plant. Too much focus on nuclear misses another key point: not all energy demands are stationary or possible to feed from a stationary source. One technology that should be investigated with dispatch (currently funded in low $millions per year) either to show it works or to dismiss it is polywell fusion. The cost of showing definitively if this can work at scale is relatively modest compared with a lot of other money sinks like carbon capture and storage (which is highly unlikely to work at a scale that makes a difference).
I’m rereading Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren and I think too much of his solar pessimism is grounded in German experience. Germany has insanely low insolation to be focussing on solar. For much of Europe, the solar solution is high-voltage DC connections to North Africa.
If I were focused on just one thing, it would be storage. If two things, how to scale up biofuels without taking out food supply, because these address both stationary and highly mobile requirements. Storage is a hard one to crack because the alternative to grid-scale storage (meaning huge, and not too lossy) is massive over-capacity, of the order of 3x base demand e.g. for wind. Possibly with continental-scale grids of renewables, these things can be brought more under control since you have your resources spread over a wider geography. Solar thermal can work if you have the right geography, but some parts of the world don’t.
The most promising biofuel technology is algae though in the spirit of not picking winners I would back anything that has the potential to scale up and not consume food-competing fuel stock. You need biofuels because there is no other practical solution than jet aircraft for fast cross-water travel. On land, you can fall back to stationary energy powering high-speed rail.
Not picking winners seems like a reasonable logic; what the fossil fuel business is about is picking losers and backing them heavily.
RE:”…, but you never get to see the vast scale of environmental destruction wrought by tar sands mining outside.”
The surface area of Canada is about 2.6 bilion acres and is a lot more if the surface are of the oceans out to 200 mile economic limit are included. The tar sands are just a mere scratch in this vast unpopulated wilderness.
The dirtiest mineral mined in Canada is diamond which has no intrinsic worth.
Comment by Harold Pierce Jr — 5 Apr 2013 @ 4:51 AM
The problem with the whole climate change movement is that any of the solutions they propose to reduce CO2 emissions absolutely kills economic growth and really screws poor people. Sorry, but raising taxes on someone to double their heating / cooling and then giving them a busstop a half mile away in some form of state redistribution is simply not going to fly because it is fundamentally unfair. Climate aside, one of the largest drivers of wealth inequality is chronic real rises in energy prices. The last oil price surge most likely was the real cause of the 2008 global economic meltdown.
If the problem is greenhouse gasses, then nuclear power has to be on the table. It’s the only system with the land use, energy density to not only meet current needs, but, also to meet some big future ones. At some point, we will need massive desalination to meet basic water needs. At some point, we will need to do something to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere. After all, and do correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it the case that even if we stop CO2 emissions entirely that it will take 800 years for CO2 to revert to pre-industrial levels if nature is left to its own devices. Both will require enormous amounts of energy, and the kind that only nuclear power can deliver.
Finally, I cannot even calculate just how much opposition to nuclear power undermines the whole effort to deal with climate change. Climate remodification proponents scream the sky is falling on CO2, and it might be, but, then to turn around and say “we can’t use the most obvious answer”, completely undermines their position. IT’s like saying, well, the ship is sinking, the ship is sinking, but, this lifeboat isn’t good enough. Sometimes, it just has to be.
1. You say that a focus on nuclear misses addressing non-stationary energy issues. I can’t any basis for this. Neither can I see that a focus on renewables for electricity generation would miss non-stationary energy issues.
However, the engineering to achieve low emission electricity generation is in a much better state than that for say, low emission transport. Also electricity generation is the prime user of the number one enemy – coal. If we are going to get very far, electricity generation will have to lead the charge. It remains of prime importance at this time.
2. I’m not sure what you mean by alternative nuclear fuel cycles, but once through uranium fueled water moderated thermal reactors (PWRs, BWRs, PHWRs etc) do a good job of generating low emission electricity reliably. There is no impending uranium shortage.
While there are very good reasons for transitioning to a closed nuclear fuel cycle, there are no particularly good reasons for delaying the deployment of Gen III reactors in anticipation of such a transition. Spent fuel from such reactors can be stored for recycling at some future date. That’s pretty small beer compared to the CO2 problem.
I don’t think your claim that research on closed fuel cycles has been basically tied to weapons requirements has a lot of basis. The biggest project in the US by far was the Argonne work with EBR-II and pyroprocessing for recycling put together as the Integral Fast Reactor. A primary design goal was a high level of proliferation resistance and that none of the technology could be applied for separation of weapons grade Pu. Of course you could get Pu out of spent fuel by other means, but that would be a major (and readily detected) effort.
Most (all?) Pu for weapons has been made in graphite moderated thermal spectrum reactors. Shed loads of it, in fact. It’s much easier, cheaper and faster than using fast reactors for the task.
As for time frame for embarking on a closed fuel cycle, it can be started right now. GEH has PRISM derived from the Argonne work, and you can have one right now if you want (after jumping through considerable regulatory hoops) which would put N of a kind deployment feasibly beginning at around the end of this decade. PRISM is 300 MWe – at the large end of small modular reactors and designed for mostly factory construction. There is a serious possibility of two being built in the UK.
The surface area of Canada is about 2.6 bilion acres and is a lot more if the surface are of the oceans out to 200 mile economic limit are included. The tar sands are just a mere scratch in this vast unpopulated wilderness.
Thanks for characterizing a nation of 35 million, boasting some of the world’s ‘most livable’ cities and the the world’s 13th largest national economy as a ‘vast unpopulated wilderness.’
Of course, one of the great things about Canada is its low population density: 3.41 people/km2 (228th–of 241). But the fact that Canada has lots of area in which to contain its pollution does imply that it is therefore wise to pollute massively. The oilsands operation is a huge scar on the Alberta landscape–and the carbon pollution is of global significance.
… Nuclear power requires the extension of state power into the indefinite future to guard the waste from being used for weapons proliferation. Our conception of liberty requires that the state must be, in principle, dissolvable by the will of the people. Nuclear power requires a perpetual security state to maintain the fiction that it can be used safely. It is thus in fundamental conflict with our founding principles.
Actually the waste has always been guarded against use for weapon proliferation by its weapon unsuitability. (Hat tip to Ben Heard for showing me what Google Maps can do.)
It is as if tax revenue on horses and buggies were a mainstay of government budgets, and cars with piston-in-cylinder engines were making inroads.
There is an undeniable thermodynamic link between pistons in cylinders and bullets in barrels, and so enemies of cars could claim the founding values of the republic were inalienably hostile to the garrison state that would have to exist to guard junked V8s from being turned into eight-barrel cannons.
Because the horsey money interest would be shared by everyone in government, there might be security theatre around junkyards. The actors might be perfectly sincere in their belief they were guarding against weaponization of car remains, but in fact they would be dramatizing the existence of that threat.
Jim Larsen wrote: “If I remember correctly, you installed a solar system, but instead of paying for it yourself, you relied over 100% on government subsidies.”
You remember wrong. That’s ludicrously false.
But hey, don’t let that stop you from making stuff up and pretending I said it.
By the way, if you want to know what government subsidies are actually available for residential solar, it’s not hard to find that information online. If you can find a locale in the USA where the Federal tax credit plus any available state subsidies combined exceed 100 percent of the cost of a PV system, let me know.
Raypierre wrote: “The experience in France provides a useful point of reference. France managed to go all-nuclear in something like 20 years.”
I always think it’s funny when nuclear power proponents point to France as some sort of example for the USA to follow.
The USA, not France, operates the largest number of nuclear power plants of any nation on Earth (104, compared to only 58 in France) and generates the most electricity from nuclear power of any nation on Earth (over 100,000 MW compared to 63,000 MW in France).
So if you want to talk about going big with nuclear power, France has a long way to go to catch up with the USA.
Conversely, for the USA to go from getting 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear, to getting 80 percent from nuclear as does France, would require building several hundred MORE nuclear power plants — a number comparable to all the 437 nuclear power plants currently in operation on Earth, and far beyond anything that France (or any other nation) has ever attempted.
It’s also worth noting that China and India, which are often cited by nuclear proponents as exemplars of expanding nuclear power, have tiny nuclear power industries compared to the USA: just 20 nuclear power plants in India, and only 17 in China.
What’s with the troll-bait? You might as well have panned a film linking cell phones to cancer. RC was just starting to become readable again (as in moderately focused on climate science and free of polemics) but goodbye to all that. I thought the goal was to put the fire out, not throw gasoline on it.
[Response: It was basically the heavy promotion of this film by GSA that, in my mind, made it worthy of comment on RC. It's not good news when one of the world's major scientific societies backs an effort like this that so thoroughly messes up the communication of the climate aspects of energy systems. Actually, though I had some fears I would be troll-baiting, I've been pretty happy with the discussion. Among other things, we've had some of the more calm and fact-based exchanges on nuclear power that I've seen on RC, and we do need to figure out how to talk about such things without getting stuck on the hot-button sound bites. --raypierre]
Yeah, I should know better than to make ambiguous comments like that. With the understanding that I’m way off-topic, I’ll risk elaborating a bit more.
Discussion of sustainability, to my mind, should always be on a global scale and on a long timespan. It should make explicit references to global carrying capacity WRT human population. It should encompass impacts on biodiversity, among our other planetary support systems. And so forth…
By “liberty”, I was thinking of something like “freedom to maximize private benefit by externalizing public cost,” including “freedom to buy political influence”, “freedom to control mass media”, etc.
Both discussions are beyond the scope of this blog, of course, so I’ll say no more.
Actually, SA makes a very good point that should be amplified most of the challenges wrt nukes scale with either the power generated (waste disposal) or the number of sites (proliferation/security concerns). At some point, these may simply become unmanageable, so it may be the amount of power produced rather than the proportion that is limited by practical considerations.
Instead, it was to try to predict, based on long, well established trends of global energy production and consumption, how the energy transition likely will happen, rather than to prescribe how it should happen. Importantly, the prediction assumes that no carbon reduction policy will be globally adopted, because after 30 years of awareness we have taken little action. We do factor in efficiency and renewable incentives at slightly increased levels to today.
Why produce a movie then? If you aren’t trying to influence trends, why bother? We need radical change and reinforcing BAU as if it’s incontestable isn’t helpful.
The tobacco industry knew in the 1930s that their product was linked to cancer. If we follow this reasoning, we should have said, “OK, that’s it, tobacco won” instead of continuing to take them on until we got at least some relief from a predatory unethical industry.
#55 “Raypierre wrote: “The experience in France provides a useful point of reference. France managed to go all-nuclear in something like 20 years.”
#57 “most of the challenges wrt nukes scale with either the power generated (waste disposal) or the number of sites (proliferation/security concerns). At some point, these may simply become unmanageable”
So France represents some sort of national limit, does it? Sorry Ray, the logic escapes me.
Mr. Harry Lynch writes on the 5th of April, 2013 at 1:23 AM:
“Importantly, the prediction assumes that no carbon reduction policy will be globally adopted, because after 30 years of awareness we have taken little action.”
Yes, this is quite important indeed, and most perhaps in disclosing the intent of the filmmaker.
As I have written before, this is the fourth stage:
1) It’s not happening.
2) It’s not us.
3) It’s not bad.
4) It’s too hard.
(I await stage 5: “It’s too late.”)
Sorta like the “close by assumption” in a business deal. Ignore and dismiss any possibility of doing it any other way. Since for thirty years that “we” have been aware of the slow strangling of this green planet and “we” have ignored her screams, “we” shall continue to do so as long as it suits “our” all knowing fossil fuelled overlords to stuff their ears.
Speak for yourself, Mr. Lynch. There are those of us who would have it otherwise, and we work for our visions every day. We are not as weak as you imagine, and our opposition is not as strong as you describe. We dare to hope for better futures than you are willing to concede. These futures include the demise of the very companies you so approvingly depict, futures which they cannot countenance, and neither apparently, can you.
Simon Abingdon: “Sorry Ray, the logic escapes me.”
Let me try again. It is the amount of waste one must dispose of that poses the challenge–not the amount of waste one must dispose of in proportion to one’s energy generation or GDP or land area. If we were to try to generate the same proportion of our energy with nukes as France, it is likely that the waste could simply become unmanageable (there are only so many places suitable for disposal).
Likewise, generating more nuclear energy means more dispersed plants, more transport of spent fuel and waste, and so more security problems. This would be an even bigger issue for a country with a large land area than for a small country.
I’m not sure the problem has been examined in this fashion.
simon abingdon wrote: “So France represents some sort of national limit, does it?”
Obviously not, since the USA already operates almost twice as many nuclear power plants as France.
I think it is very likely that the number of nuclear power plants in the USA, and the percentage of the USA’s electricity produced by nuclear power, will decline going forward as the older ones are inevitably shut down — and given the skyrocketing cost of new nuclear power plants and the rapidly plummeting cost of wind and solar, it’s very unlikely that many (if any) new ones will be brought online.
Raypierre @57: I totally understand the rationale, but I worry that endless nuclear debate is a distraction from the larger issue, which in my view is industry capture of science and/or individual scientists. Should we be surprised to learn that the premier geological society is dominated by extractive industries? The core problem is that many of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals got that way by doing things that make no sense whatsoever in the long term, or even in the short term except in some ghoulish Machivellian sense. However absurdly paradoxical it may be, the remaining fossil deposits are currently the most valuable assets on earth. It defies logic that the owners of those assets would willingly pauperize themselves by allowing their assets to remain in the ground forever without compensation. I think of their yachts and planes and mega-mansions and private islands, or the bizarre spectacle of Dubai, with its glittering towers and indoor ski resort, and ask myself: what would it take to buy off the greediest, most rapacious people in all of human history? And yet this appears to be what’s called for.
[Response: But GSA is not, in fact, dominated by extractive industries. As I said in the review, they have a scientifically sound policy statement on global warming. Heck, they even used Shell (or maybe BP) money to bring in Bill McKibben as a keynote speaker, who promptly went on to tell his massive audience not to go work for oil companies. This movie is an anomaly, and I hope there is some chance to persuade GSA to do some damage control by at least balancing the movie with some better information on climate change impacts of fossil fuels. Regarding your concern about industry, I think that to conclude industry can do nothing right is as bad a mistake as the right makes when they conclude that government is always the enemy and can do nothing right. I would like to think that energy systems could go all-distributed, but I can easily see a continued role for large centralized providers, and the best of industry can do well at that -- especially hand in hand with good government policies on standardization and so forth. --raypierre]
RayPierre 13: I have always thought nuclear is one viable option we have in our arsenal to combat CC. The biggest drawbacks as highlighted above are the obvious safety issues but like you I consider nuclear’s dangers pale in comparison to the near future catastrophic effects of CC.
Another point is we have got to start steering the fossil fuel energy sector into renewables or nuclear and not to leave it to the pre-industrial glacial speed of market forces. Natural gas is still 1/3 as damaging than CO2 is and any inevitable gas leaks( mainly methane) will have 20x the forcing effects of CO2.
As I mentioned in another RC thread -us here in Australia have over 1500 wind turbines but they are not making any dent whatsoever on our carbon footprint, solar energy slightly more so but negligible with regards to fossil fuel sources which this country has copious amounts of.
Geothermal is still in it’s infancy. Hydro is basically unsuited to Australia except for the little island state of Tasmania in the south. So that leaves natural gas or nuclear ..(or a simply massive rollout in solar energy) as really the only two realistic options.
Nuclear has got to on the table at any governmental meeting or committee if we are serious at saving civilisation.
Comment by Lawrence Coleman — 5 Apr 2013 @ 7:54 PM
Re: Korda and Raypierre’s comment: GSA isn’t dominated by extractive industries? That’s certainly not the opinion I formed after attending the GSA meeting in Houston. Perhaps it was the location. The Univ. of Texas BEG (Bureau of Economic Geology) is certainly dominated by the fossil fuel extractive industries.
You correctly point out that for the United States to obtain about the same percentage of it’s electricity from nuclear as does France would require approximately the whole world’s reactor fleet. However, you don’t really spell out what you think the implication of this are. Numbers don’t mean much without context.
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture of the climate/energy problem.
Today there are about one and a half billion people in the world without proper electricity supply. Global population may peak at say, ten billion. We are therefore looking at approximately doubling world wide electricity supply this century assuming that per capita electricity consumption does not rise.
But this is just the start of the problem. Today, just 17% of world energy use is met by electricity. Another 13% by burning waste and biomass and the rest by burning fossil fuels. Not only does essentially all electricity production need to become low carbon, but it also needs to dramatically expand to support electrification of transport, heating and everything else that can plausibly be electrified.
Put this together and our requirements for a stable climate are looking to be something like a 5-10 fold increase in electricity production that also must be low carbon during the course of this century. It might be more.
Our 400 reactors for the US, significant as they may be, look a bit puny but certainly no more puny than any plausible deployment of renewables over a multi decade time frame.
And this is the bottom line – citing the difficulty of dramatic expansion of nuclear as an anti nuclear talking point is a bit dishonest without measuring it against the difficulty of dramatic expansion of the alternatives.
The following piece looks at the build rates, material and land use requirements of nuclear and some renewables using current technology for a scenario of expanding electricity production five fold by 2050:
It may be objected that a five fold expansion of electricity production is not likely by 2050, and I’d be inclined to agree, but it is in the right ballpark as a requirement for a safe climate.
All options look horrendous, but to do it only with renewables looks just plain implausible. The edge goes to nuclear because of a fundamental physical reality – it’s very high energy density. The great weaknesses of renewables are intermittency and low energy density. The jury is still out on the intermittency issue, but the low energy density will never change.
The scale of the climate/energy problem is completely unprecedented and it is impossible to believe there exits a solution without both renewables and nuclear. What the mix ultimately ends up as is purely speculative as of today.
The utilities here in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) are incorporating additional intermittent generation, principally wind turbines with now one utility scale solar PV farm. Some homeowners and commercial businesses are adding their own solar PV. There is currently no active interest in building a second nuclear power plant (NPP) in the region, but that may change. [And yes, the hydro capacity is maxed out at about 70% of yearly demand.]
The utilities are quite concerned about the reliability of the grid in the face of increased intermittent generators, especially as wind farms generation is on a ‘must take’ basis. [Spain is more sensible about that aspect.] Some of my colleagues here are academic power engineers; the best in the West since the days of building Grand Coulee dam. Some of them work closely with two of the computer science professors regarding just those issues of enhanced gird stability despite increased penetration of intermittent generation. I frequently have lunch with one of the computer science professors, a former undergraduate student. [Come to think of it, so is the other.] There is confidence that up to quite high levels (ca. 30%) of intermittent generation can be successfully used.
But not more, at least in the PNW. So for low carbon generation the remainder of new build is going to have to be NPPs. I’ve looked into (what I hope are) all the issues and I’m in basic agreement with quokka and Barry Brook; there are no insurmountable obstacles. What I don’t consider are the various possibilities of so-called breakthrus in energy generation or storage; as Joe Romm points out those are not schedulable. I only consider what is available now or is forthcoming in the next 7–8 years.
Comment by David B. Benson — 5 Apr 2013 @ 11:07 PM
At the high end of emissions and sensitivity, things look pretty simple, since most land photosynthesis stops at around 40C, and Sherwood and Huber make a compelling case that most mammals outdoors in the tropics die, and probably a lot in the midlatitude summer, too.
That would be:
Any exceedence of 35°C for extended periods should induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible. While this never happens now, it would begin to occur with global-mean warming of about 7 °C, calling the habitability of some regions into question. With 11–12 °C warming, such regions would spread to encompass the majority of the human population as currently distributed. Eventual warmings of 12 °C are possible from fossil fuel burning.”
Something more recent that may also be of interest:
The general absence of ichthyofauna in equatorial regions coincides with the temperature maxima reconstructed from the d18Oapatite record, and we interpret this coincidence as recording equatorial exclusion because of inhospitably high temperatures. In contrast, invertebrates remain common in these intervals (19), especially sessile mollusks with their better adapted oxyconforming metabolism allowing them to cope with synergistic stresses of high temperature and low oxygen (17, 20)…. Our compilation of tetrapod fossil occurrences reveals them to be generally absent between 30°N and 40°S in the Early Triassic (Fig. 1), with rare exceptions (25, 26); this is a stark contrast to Middle and Late Triassic occurrences, when they occur at all latitudes (fig. S1).
Sun, Yadong, et al. “Lethally hot temperatures during the Early Triassic greenhouse.” Science 338.6105 (2012): 366-370.
People should note, however, that the distribution of the continents at that time was quite different, and likely greatly diminished ocean circulation, and with it, the poleward oceanic heat transport, so in this respect at least, the early triassic may not be that great a guide to the the near future.
68: quokka. Excellently balanced and thought out comment quokka.
I wholeheartedly agree!. 5-10 fold electricity demand does sound daunting doesn’t it. With just renewables it certainly would be impossible given the terribly short time frame that we have to achieve this energy transformation. To throw possibility again into the survival equation we must heavily invest in nuclear.
If nuclear was as expensive as everyone says it is why do the French pay so little for their power?
Still realistically it would take a absolute minimum of 15-20 years to get a serious nuclear program off the ground and into the electricity grid. The arctic will probably be ice free in summer within the next 7-9 years, if that doesn’t send a clear message to our respective governments then nothing will.
[Response: I wouldn't say electricity is "cheap" in France, but it's not ruinously expensive either. The base tariff is something like .12 Euro cents per KwH , though you can bring that down by using off-peak power. On a straight exchange rate basis, that's higher than the US average (about 11.8 US cents per KwH; I pay 10cents per KwH for straight wind power from one of the more expensive providers. Con Ed in NY was up to 25.8 cents per KwH for a while), though exchange rates introduce their own distortions. But keep in mind that in some sense, energy NEEDS to be more expensive one way or another, since that encourages more efficient use. Even though nuclear electricity is low-carbon, it still is worthwhile conserving it, since it frees up electricity that can be sold into other markets and displace fossil energy, or at the very least, frees up capital that can be put to use on other things. --raypierre ]
Comment by Lawrence Coleman — 6 Apr 2013 @ 6:40 AM
I am glad RC generally avoids the nuclear debate. I am also glad there is a thread which seriously considers the issues.I wish to challenge some of the nonsense about nuclear waste. Please correct me if I am wrong.
A popular line is that used fuel is deadly for 250.000 years. This is the time taken for Pu 239 to decay to 1000th of it’s original level. There are many isotopes in used fuel, most of which decay within a year. After that there are two main categories, Pu 241 (14 year half life) Cesium 137 and Strontium 90 (both 30 years.) In the long group there is Pu 240 (about 6,500 years) and Pu 239 (about 24,000 years). Of these only the 239 isotope is ideal for bomb making, 241 being fiercely radioactive and 240 being a spontaneous neutron emitter, making the bomb a dud like all the North Korean weapons. Pu 241 decays to the useful commercial product, Americium 241, used in millions of homes in smoke detectors.
Uranium supplies are limited, with only the 0.7% of the 235 isotope usable in reactors. Fast breeders which produce more plutonium than they burn Uranium have serious safety issues.
The problem with reprocessing is the dangerous radiation, If we waited long enough this would cease to be an issue. My suggestion is temporary storage for several hundred years before recycling to destroy the Plutonium. Permanent storage would after 20,000 years from a large repository leave enough Pu 239 to make tens of thousands of bombs, a terrible heritage for our descendants. If nuclear is to last longer than fossil fuels we need to recycle. Let us do it safely.
“Hydrogen generation accounts for less than 33% of the cost at the pump. The costs of hydrogen compression, storage, and distribution make up the majority of the cost of hydrogen, offering the greatest opportunities for improvement and innovation.”
Maybe those improvements will come, and maybe they won’t.
There are many gotchas in energy.
[Response: What is certain, though, is that continued reliance on fossil fuels will make the climate warmer -- and unquestionably dangerously so if we continue the current rate of emissions growth and don't run out of fossil fuels before 2150 or so. What is certain is that somethings gotta give. If we don't make the switch, either we'll run out of fossil fuels or run out of habitable climate. --raypierre]
Wrt fast reactor safety are you aware of the safety experiments performed on the EBR-II (forerunner of the GE Hitachi PRISM) at Argonne that would have catastrophically destroyed any operating light water reactor. Failure to scram and simultaneous station blackout is about as bad as it can get. The EBR-II was completely undamaged and restarted the same day.
PRISM is passively safe. A decay heat accident as at Fukushima is not possible. Passive cooling by air convection can continue indefinitely without power and without need for makeup coolant as there eg would be with AP1000 after 72 hours.
There is an account here from the author of the safety testing programme for EBR-II:
Lawrence Coleman wrote: “I have always thought nuclear is one viable option we have in our arsenal to combat CC.”
We have plenty of other viable options for eliminating GHG emissions from electricity generation — options which are already being deployed at all scales all over the world, which are already having a significant impact on GHG emissions from electricity generation, and which have the potential to reduce those emissions to near zero in a decade or so, without any expansion of nuclear power.
Lawrence Coleman wrote: “us here in Australia have over 1500 wind turbines but they are not making any dent whatsoever on our carbon footprint, solar energy slightly more so but negligible with regards to fossil fuel sources”
It’s true that wind power is still a small part of Australia’s electricity supply (around 2.5 percent) but it is growing rapidly, about 35 percent per year for the last several years. There is huge potential for further growth, with 14,000 MW of new utility-scale wind power in the works. The economics are also favorable since new wind power is already cheaper than either new coal-fired power or new natural gas-fired power.
While Australia is a world leader in deploying rooftop PV (with penetration rates second only to Japan), it is lagging in deployment of utility-scale solar, even though it has some of the biggest and best solar energy resources of any nation on Earth. However, this is hopefully changing as Australia recently launched its first utility-scale (10MW) PV power plant, and other utility-scale solar projects are in the pipeline.
quokka wrote: “Today there are about one and a half billion people in the world without proper electricity supply.”
Right. And most of them live in impoverished developing countries which have no resources to build either fossil fueled power plants OR nuclear power plants, not to mention the power grids to distribute electricity from large, centralized power plants to remote rural areas.
While we in the rich, developed world waste vast amounts of electricity (and energy in general), there is indeed a critical need for electricity among those many millions of people who now lack ANY access to electricity and the literally life-transforming benefits that it brings (e.g. the health benefits of replacing kerosene lamps with electric lights, refrigeration for food and medicine, access to telecommunications).
But those people are simply never going to get grid power.
Fortunately, there is an ongoing revolution in rural electrification in the developing world, particularly in Africa and India — using cheap, mass-produced PV to provide off-grid, village-scale electricity.
I am relatively ignorant of how nuclear electricity could help ameliorate our climate problem and maintain something better than a near aboriginal lifestyle in our future, so I am eagerly reading commenters on this problem. For this purpose I have to evaluate the veracity of statements outside my area of understanding by what a commenter says regarding something I do know something about. In this regard, your statement-
“The great weaknesses of renewables are intermittency and low energy density. The jury is still out on the intermittency issue, but the low energy density will never change.”
-makes all of your nuclear energy assertions suspect. When there is plenty of land area and the energy is free, energy density is totally irrelevant to decision making. I am looking for honest information brokers.
quokka wrote: “The following piece looks at the build rates …”
With all due respect, I do not consider BraveNewClimate to be a reliable or credible source of analysis when it comes to renewable energy technology. It is a pro-nuclear advocacy site, and the articles there typically disparage renewable energy technologies with inaccurate, ill-informed assumptions and estimates. The article you linked to is a case in point.
Moreover, the deployment, and the rapid technological development, of renewable energy technologies make any analysis that is almost 4 years old (that article is from 2009) outdated.
As I have done before, I will recommend the CleanTechnica.com site as a good resource for up-to-date information on developments in the renewable energy field (as well as storage, smart grid and electric transport technologies). Joe Romm’s site ClimateProgress.org also has good general coverage of renewable energy issues.
A very valuable site that I highly recommend is the Energy Self-Reliant States blog from John Farrell of the Institute For Local Self-Reliance, which focuses on distributed renewable energy.
#13 above, raypierre said ” I’d rather see the whole climate problem solved with just renewables and efficiency, and I think probably if we had started 30 years ago we could have done that”…
A surprisingly non-quantitative assessment, given the author and the blog. Fortunately, there are quantitiative assessments — one of the most recent and comprehensive being “Re-Inventing Fire” from Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mtn. Institute. They make a convincing, quantitative case that we can, in fact, divest ourselves of fossils by mid-century without invoking nuclear.
Yeah, distributing hydrogen isn’t likely smart. What makes sense (if production becomes cheap) is using hydrogen (like pumped hydro or molten salt thermal) as a local temporary storage of energy when it exceeds what the grid can accept, that can be used locally to feed the grid later or as a direct heat source for the surrounding area.
I argue every nuclear plant should dedicate the surrounding acreage that’s kept open for security and safety to a wide variety of renewables, whatever works in that area — yes, they’re producing power that’s more intermittent, and more expensive (when all’s going well). Yes, some are experimental, some won’t work in practice. But when (not if, when) the grid goes away for months on end (another Carrington event), they’ll be cheap.
That’s when and every operating fission plant and fuel store requires power to keep cooling pumps working, some of those local renewable sources can be switched over and used. That’s the time that local renewable power is invaluable — when hauling diesel or even refining is problematic due to grid and transport failure, and when the fission generators can’t be kept operating because the grid can’t accept their power output so they can’t cool themselves!
The fission industry should be the best and most faithful friend of renewable power sources — all of them, whatever might work locally around each such plant and spent fuel pool storage. Take some of the benefit of that cheap longterm clean power and build the other half of the fission power system — the ring of renewable clean local power that each atomic plant will need when the grid goes away.
Yes, we’re fine hauling new power lines or new generators or fire trucks or whatever it takes to protect a single fission operation when the local grid fails from an earthquake — it’s expensive, it’s inefficient, and there are oops moments due to lack of planning. But that won’t suffice when another Carrington event happens — and there’s no reason to think that the Carrington event was the worst case.
The “cheap gas” profit should be dedicated to investing in a future that we’d like to see happen, not investing in the future we know is a dead end.
> or molten salt thermal
Note that’s not a single thing, it’s a broad category being experimentally investigated. It’s a subset of phase change stuff. The science fiction suggests someone come up with a nanotech material that winds up like little clock springs to store energy and controllably releases that again in some useful form, whether as heat or rotation or expansion or something else.
We need Maxwell’s Demons in a variety of sizes to capture and hold energy reversibly.
I saw the movie before I knew that RC had reviewed it. For the technically inclined, it’s an impressive flick, a very classy production.
I attended the screening with my wife, a physicist, and the two of us discussed it extensively over dinner immediately after seeing it. The more we talked about it, the more disturbed we became (see below). We wound up wondering who foot the bill for this obviously very expensive film, an indication that we were not satisfied with the film’s claim to be agenda free (“…rather than advocate for how it should happen, Switch travels the world to discover how it most likely will happen” [The Switch Energy Project website lists six donors, including the American Geosciences Institute (a venerable consortium of some few dozen geoscience societies, including GSA, AGU, etc.), the GSA Foundation, and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Foundation.]
Why disturbed? As raypierre says, there is virtually no discussion of the problem – the motivation for the “switch”. There are various references to the undesirability of CO2 emissions, and at first I took this to reflect a tacit understanding that the audience is expected to be hip to the issue. But no way; by the end of the film the “problem” has been reduced, by omission, to an annoyance that, sooner or later, our children will have to deal with, probably by some combination of more ingenious fossil fuel development, a bit of this-and-that renewables, and some common sense turning-off-of-lights. Intended or not, that is the takeaway message.
Most egregious is Tinker’s summary projection, near the end of the film, that renewables will, perhaps, be contributing comparably to fossil fuels (mainly natural gas) sometime around 2060-2070, with nary a mention of what that might mean for the planet and its inhabitants.
Also conspicuous by its absence is any mention of policy issues. Lynch states that the intent of the film was to “…predict, based on long, well established trends of global energy production and consumption, how the energy transition likely will happen…the prediction assumes that no carbon reduction policy will be globally adopted, because after 30 years of awareness we have taken little action.” In other words, the makers of Switch are far ahead of the rest of us; they have divined the outcome of the all the current debates, and concluded that they are essentially futile. And they cloak this message in a flimsy veil of cheery techno-optimism.
[Response: And they fail to give any honest indication of what the climate will be like if the films assertions about continued reliance on fossil fuels turn out to be right. --raypierre ]
Oh, don’t neglect possibilities like this found somewhere along the hopeful-to-scary axis — biobatteries are looking interesting. I wish Tesla had known about them.
[Response: And even earlier, the Finnish novelist Arto Paasilinna predicted an energy revolution based on biobatteries (liver-loaf was the secret ingredient in that case, I think). Sadly, it doesn't turn out well for poor Adam, the inventor. For a good laugh, go read Aatami ja Eeva , if you can find it in a language you can understand. I know there's at least a Swedish translation. --raypierre]
My suggestion is temporary storage for several hundred years before recycling to destroy the Plutonium.
My suggestion would be controlled storage “until further notice”… the whole paradigm of “dump and forget” is something we should finally get over, IMHO. Actively controlled storage works indefinitely, or until the technology, and the need/desire, comes up to do something else/better — like reprocessing.
Note that even storage for all eternity will still require a finite amount of “storage work”, due to the exponential decay law. And we shouldn’t second-guess future decisions to be taken in a very different and unknown technological context.
Skipping way ahead in the comments, so sorry if this was covered above, but:
Regarding using nuclear for desalination (as suggested above): To me solar would make more sense because when you need to desalinate and pump more water you’re likely to be in a drought. But I’m assuming a sufficiently strong correlation between cloud cover and precipitation (and that the solar power is stationed within the watersheds involved). … Well it really doesn’t make sense to dedicate one energy source to one purpose unless you’re off the grid, but anyway – have there been studies of the complementarity between solar and hydroelectricity (PS I’m not referring to usage of hydro as a dispatchable source to help load and supply balance on the hourly+ scale), and/or solar and energy consumption when water supply is a significant part of that consumption?
This demand is representative although other balancing agent areas may not show the dual peak but rather just one with a long tail after about 4 pm. Nonetheless, the demand may be approximated by: 70% from 11 pm to 6 am; 100% from 6 am to 11pm.
The overnight low part is called baseload. In areas without this significant hydro resource it is met by a combination of nuclear (NPPs) and coal or possibly also combined cycle gas turbines. Neither of the latter two are low carbon.
The challenge is to met the approximated demand by low carbon generators only under the assumption of little hydro or geothermal. That leaves only NPPs, wind turbines, solar PV, concentrated solar power (CSP) and a modest amount of biomass thermal units. One can fiddle with providing reasonably low cost solutions with the aid of http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/tech_lcoe.html
and some understanding of the costs of these technologies.
When I have done this I can never find a solution in which included wind turbines is less expensive than leaving them out (assuming reasonable LCOE for wind). However, including retail (household/commercial) solar PV up to around 30% of maximum demand begins to pay once the cost of solar PV declines far enough. The necessary storage is provided by inexpensive thermal stores hung on the NPPs. However, at higher penetration costs begin to climb.
Everyone is certainly welcome to try out their own favorite low carbon generation mixes using the idea of an idealized reference grid. Be sure to remember the utility companies ‘n+1′ rule of providing enough dispatchable generation on rolling reserve to accommodate a trip-off of the largest single generator (or wind farm) on the grid. (For a fleet of NPPs this is accomplished by operating the running NPPs at enough less than full capacity to leave room for increase in case one of the fleet trips off.)
Re- Comment by David B. Benson — 6 Apr 2013 @ 8:05 PM
Are you figuring conservation into your calculations? At least for the US, there are nations with a higher standard of living that use one half to one quarter the per person electricity.
— 6 Apr 2013 @ 8:17 PM
Energy density and where a generation plant is located are two completely different problems. For photovoltaic solar, for example, every roof on homes, businesses, parking lots, and a variety of other regions of accessible sunshine don’t take up very much usable area. Further, this type of production is locally distributed so that it only requires minimal long range transmission.
Other types of low carbon energy production that are necessarily localized, such as geothermal, wind, and nuclear will require a new modern grid. The old one is inefficient and dumb.
I don’t think much of the “honest broker” snipe. It was quite uncalled for. Now to the substance. First principles tell us that land use is a major environmental issue. Hand waving about plenty of land assumes that energy supply is somehow immune from this. It’s not credible.
Once again lets start with the big picture. In Germany, PV output meets about 1% of final energy use and wind about 2%. That’s final energy use – not electricity consumption. Making reasonable assumptions that improvements in energy efficiency reduce final energy use by perhaps one third, how much land would be needed to meet all of Germany’s energy demand from wind and solar? Keep in mind that both wind and PV perform poorly in Germany. PV capacity factor is about 11% and on shore wind about 18%. David Mackay quotes a figure of 2 W/m^2 for a well performing wind farm in the UK. In Germany it will definitely be significantly worse.
If anybody wants to do a “David Mackay” and do their own calculation the IEA energy statistics are here:
A recent paper that suggests that the magnitude of the potential global wind resource has been overestimated deserves a mention. Modelling suggests that wind starts to be affected when wind farms grow to large size and the energy density drops to 1 W/m^2 for 100 km^2 or larger wind farm. I’m not suggesting that this is the last word on the subject, but it would certainly be a matter of considerable concern if the analysis stands up. As a point of reference, at 2 W/m^2 you need about 500 km^2 of land to produce about the same amount of electricity as a 1GW nuclear power plant.
Another big picture issue is the effects of big hydro. I have read estimates of between 40 and 80 million people in total displaced by big hydro projects. Many with little or no assistance for relocation and rehabilitation. That’s two orders of magnitude above the numbers displaced by the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents put together. Furthermore it is not an accident – it’s intrinsic to the technology. Hydro has much to recommend it as a means of generating electricity but new large hydro projects are almost universally contentious because of their detrimental effects on local populations and river systems. It’s not contentious to say that many of the worlds river systems are already in a badly degraded state. There is scope for significant expansion of hydro globally, but whether there should be is a very difficult question to grapple with. Hydro remains easily the most important renewable technology.
More locally specific land use issues abound. A recent study in Scotland suggests that siting wind farms on basically undisturbed peat land could cause sufficient disturbance to result in carbon emissions from the peat negating the carbon benefits of the wind power. Peat is a great store of carbon. These are preferred locations for wind farms because such land has low economic value – which is why it is currently undisturbed.
In the UK, there have been recent attempts to bring back the Severn barrage from the dead. Large portions of the Severn estuary are wetlands of international importance and an important shore bird habitat supposedly protected by listing under the Ramsar Convention and European conservation agreements. Globally, shore birds are in trouble already.
Also in the land use category is the issue of the extra transmission line distance and capacity (because of low capacity factor generators) required to get electricity generated by renewables to the large load centres. There seems to be a prevalent illusion that “distributed generation” means getting your electricity from the PV panels on the roof or the windmill next door. Reality is very different in a world of relentless unbanisation and ever larger mega cities. Transmission is certainly not a show stopper, but definitely is a factor in system cost and rate of deployment. It is quite reasonable to ask why Germany still does not not have transmission capacity to get wind power from north to south. Perhaps some bad planning (though blind freddy should have to been able to see that coming) and well … it just takes time.
When it comes to land use, there are a multitude of issues and this comment has barely started to scratch the surface. There is much work to do with careful assessments.
[Response: I read this comment not as an attempt to show that nuclear is the only way out of our energy dilemma, but rather an attempt to bring to the table a realistic discussion of the hurdles that need to be overcome in achieving a workable energy mix. All energy systems have their drawbacks but the one thing we know for sure is that continued reliance on fossil fuels without carbon capture is not an option, if we are to preserve a livable climate. We shouldn't assume renewables are an easy road to the future, but at the same time, it would be wrong to write them off, because it's only through attempts to deploy at scale, and continued experimentation, that there will be any chance of forcing the technology to the point that the hurdles can be surmounted. --raypierre]
quokka #77: I’m rereading Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and he makes pretty appealing claims about fast reactors including they can burn nuclear waste as fuel, essentially eliminating two of the biggest problems of the conventional uranium fuel cycle: extremely dirty mining (there’s enough waste not to need new uranium for a long time) and 10kyear+ half-lives of waste (fast reactors he claims produce waste of the order of 100 year half-lives).
I would like to see some informed discussion (not advocacy) of whether this can really work, or whether there’s some negatives he missed.
For example: I suspect he has glossed over some of the safety issues including claiming that molten sodium (used as a coolant) is relatively safe because unlike water it need not be pressurised at the temperatures needed and is non-corrosove. Fine, but it is one of the metals that burns readily in air (and has a strongly exothermic reaction with water, producing hydrogen, so you have potential for a radioactive-contaminated hydrogen fire too), so preventing a fire is a major design and safety concern.
You certainly wouldn’t want one in a tsumani zone. Why would anyone put any kind of major power plant in a tsunami zone? It is this sort of stupidity that worries many with nuclear safety concerns. Done right, you may be able to produce a plant that is a lot safer than a coal power plant. But it does not take a lot of mistakes to have a very expensive outcome. The argument that the last accident was a freak and couldn’t happen again is not very well supported when we get another.
Liquid sodium is not the only available coolant; my core point is we should not argue as advocates but be open to understanding why some technologies are very hard to bring to scale, and be open to solving those problems if there is a possibility of doing so.
One of things that I really like about this site when we talk climate science is that we debunk each other, which differentiates a real science site from an advocacy site (WUWT e.g. happily accepts anything that reinforces their anti-science prejudice). Maybe this is not the place for it since it’s not a site run by energy experts (even if there are some present): it’s that level of debate I would like to see if not here, then at least somewhere.
Why would anyone put any kind of major power plant in a tsunami zone?
Actually Philip I have to disagree. It can be done safely, but it has to be done that way, consciously. It doesn’t even cost that much. And Fukushima was claimed to be safe — only problem, the claim was false (I got egg on my face reassuring my sister just after the event that yes, F is tsunami-proof).
One problem with the nuclear industry today is the lack of a robust safety culture — like one finds in, e.g., international aviation. We know and acknowledge flying is dangerous; still, we do it, and remarkably safely. It’s a matter of culture, TEPCO being a caricature on how not to do it.
“… pretty appealing claims about fast reactors including they can burn nuclear waste as fuel …”
Yes I hear this a lot. The worst of these claims includes the U238 in natural or lightly enriched uranium fuel as ‘waste’ — which is as silly and dishonest as including the deuterium in the coolant water flowing through the reactor ;-)
There are promising designs on the table for ‘fast’ reactors (‘fast’ refers to the neutrons not being slowed down to thermal speeds by a moderator) which are in many ways inherently safe. E.g., the fuel is in liquid form and is reprocessed on-site and on-line, so fission waste doesn’t build up inside the reactor core. The liquid fuel is in fluoride salt form, insoluble in water even if it were to end up in the environment / ground water. BTW these very same fluoride salts are also being studied for solar thermal, as they promise a much higher Carnot efficiency than existing designs.
However, these are at the prototype stage at best. It will take decades of development for them to come on-line. The cruel truth is that innovation is not something you can schedule, and while it’s probably wise to further work on this option among others, let’s not bet the farm on it (or anything else on its own). And finally remember, energy != electricity…
As part of our discussion of nuclear energy, I’d like to introduce the issue of how one would go about increasing the share of nuclear energy, if one were to decide that that would be desirable. In much of the world, the problem is that the expense of nuclear is so great that there’s not a lot of free-market incentive to build more nukes. In the US, the current competitor is natural gas, and in much of the world it’s coal. A command economy like China could just decide to go ahead and do it anyway, regardless of the price. To some extent, this option is available to democracies as well. France was able to implement a top-down decision to go nuclear because there was, in effect a single electricity supplier EdF, which was more or less under the control of the government. The US obviously couldn’t go the same route, and I’m not sure what could be done in the turbulent democracy of India.
Probably the cleanest way to level the playing field for nuclear would be to impose a carbon tax sufficiently high to allow nuclear to compete with the cheapest available fossil fuel. Given the difficulty of passing a carbon tax in the US, for renewables the approach has been direct subsidies and renewable portfolio standards. But so far as I know, we don’t have anything similar for nuclear power. There’s no “carbon free” portfolio standard that would include nukes, and evidently whatever indirect subsidies nuclear currently gets are not enough to incentivize a great deal of activity in the US. Thoughts?
I watched a few of the energy segments on the website and was struck by Barry Smitherman’s $25,000 solar system (which should produce 600kwh/mo) saving him only $20 per month. In order to make the math work, he’s quoting utility bulk price for electricity, not consumer price for electricity. It’s not an honest interview.
Getting caught saying something dishonest and then griping about it is called tone trolling. You then go on to cherry pick situations in order to support your bias. I don’t believe that there is any single technology that will get us out of the CO2 trap. If you disagree, then cherry pick these:
What would be faster and less expensive than a small solar panel and a battery to bring electricity to the poor of the world who don’t have it? A very modest system can easily power LED lights, a radio, and charge a cell phone.
Many home owners in the western portion of the US can purchase and install solar panels in one month that will pay for themselves in two to ten years, after which the electricity they generate is free. This is a pretty good way for homeowners to protect themselves from the increasing costs of grid electricity. What other generation technology can you suggest for this market that could be employed for less expense and as quickly?
Mind you, I am not proposing distributed photovoltaics as the big answer, but it is certainly quick to deploy, off the shelf, can be installed incrementally, and is quite effective for leveling out the daytime grid load.
I think the first prerequisite for new nuclear build in most countries is clear political support for it. Without that, prospective investors are likely to feel exposed to unacceptable sovereign risk. In the UK both the Tories and Labour support nuclear power and so do, I think, the unions. That is the basic reason I think the UK will get at least some new nuclear build, though it will be a rocky road with plenty of problems. EDF is supposed to be making a decision right about now on proceeding with Hinckley C.
It looks like the form of support for nuclear in the UK will be contract for difference with a strike price possibly in the region 90-100 p/kWh. If the market price for electricity is less than the strike price, consumers subsidize EDF and if it’s higher, consumers get a rebate on their bills from EDF. Despite all the political noise, that strike price is not that expensive – similar to and perhaps a little less than that of on-shore wind. DECC estimate the LCOE of new unabated gas capacity to be 80 p/kWh, and new FOAK nuclear to be 81 p/kWh. There is no cheap gas.
If you get get genuine bi-partisan political support, then I think specific support mechanisms appropriate to various national circumstances can and will be found. It’s hard to see it being anything other than very difficult in the US though for while with gas being so cheap.
… Probably the cleanest way to level the playing field for nuclear would be to impose a carbon tax sufficiently high to allow nuclear to compete with the cheapest available fossil fuel. Given the difficulty of passing a carbon tax in the US, for renewables the approach has been direct subsidies and renewable portfolio standards. But so far as I know, we don’t have anything similar for nuclear power.
A tax on fossil fuels proportional to their carbon content can be very clean or very, very dirty. It all depends on whether the proceeds end up concentrated in hands that can throw stumbling blocks in the paths of effective measures for fossil fuel conservation and substitution, or not.
A brief article in the April 2, 2012 English-language edition of The Mainichi shows what can happen in the concentrated-revenue case:
TOKYO (Kyodo) — Japanese tax revenues in February increased 4.8 percent from a year earlier to 3,348.73 billion yen as rises in the receipts of tobacco, energy and other taxes more than offset declines in major components, the Finance Ministry said Monday.
Of the revenues on a general-account basis, those from petroleum and coal tax expanded 12.1 percent to 39.57 billion yen due apparently to more consumption of liquefied natural gas by utilities, which have boosted thermal power generation as an alternative to stalled nuclear power following the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant …
This windfall happened, even though Japan doesn’t have a carbon tax as such, because the government prohibited the operation of most of the power stations that could use $0.25/MMBTU uranium in favour of ones using LNG ($16/MMBTU) or oil (significantly more than $16/MMBTU).
Information on royalty rates is hard to find for Japan, and I haven’t seen similar candour on its Finance Ministry’s part this year — has anyone? — but in the USA the rates are either 12.5 percent or 18.75 percent.
If a carbon-tax-as-such were implemented, and a Hansen-style rebating to the citizens of equal shares of its proceeds came into effect simultaneously, the most effective decarbonation methods would gain no undeclared enemies in the public service due to that revenue, because those potential enemies wouldn’t be getting it.
If the dividend were instituted for existing fossil fuel royalty and excise tax revenues, without any new C-tax-as-such being added, every highly effective decarbonation method would lose the undeclared enemies in the public service that those revenues are buying for it now.
Plus, that rebate would be a small tax reduction for most, and a larger one for the half of the population whose per-person rate of fossil fuel burning is less than the national average. People will vote for it if they get the chance.
As is often the case with such discussions, I am really impressed by how hard some people work to avoid looking at accurate, up-to-date information on what is actually happening with renewable energy in the real world today, and to base their comments exclusively on “analysis” of renewable energy from pro-nuclear advocacy groups.
[Response: A big point of having a discussion like this is to help tease out all the information that is out there. So if you think the analysis done by any one group is flawed, the thing to do is to counter with numbers from some other group. I think the clearest statement of a path forward to carbon free energy, without heavy reliance on nuclear, is Amory Lovins' "Reinventing Fire." Some think that Lovins' assumptions are overly optimistic, but I'm so scared of the magnitude of the decarbonization problem I'd like to start with Lovins, and then have the capability to layer on nuclear as needed in case things don't work out the way Lovins thinks. If you take nuclear optimism and Lovins optimism and combine them, things start to look a bit more hopeful. Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, despair is not an option. --raypierre]
Speaking as a man-in-the-street with no technical training in any of the areas under discussion on this site, but who’s been following climate and fossil fuel issues since 2005, two factors which are very worrying to me about existing nuclear plants are 1) the increasingly imminent impacts of global warming on the availability of cooling water supplies and 2) the threat to others from flooding.
I can offer some comments about installed consumer photovoltaic. We live in the more or less sunny Everbrown half of the Evergreen State. We installed a 4.2 kw array of 22 photovoltaic panels that went online on 11 July last year. The cost of $42000 is balanced against a 30% federal income tax credit which we will apply to our 2012 taxes (although any amount of the credit we can’t use will apparently carry forward to future years). In addition, Washington State has a $0.54/kwhr production tax credit until 2020 (the generosity of the credit is dependent on using components manufactured in-state. Benton REA pays us something for power we feed into the grid when we are producing more than we are using. Finally, we have generated about 3550 kwhr in the almost 9 months since installation. April/May/June will likely be up and down weather, but mostly sunny, so we can expect to average 20 kwhr/day until 30 June, when out annual Washington production tax credit will be calculated. So, probably 5200 kwhr for the year and $2700 PTC for the year. Living in the hydropower-rich NW and with a public power provider, our electrical rate is around 8 cents per kwhr, so we also save about $400 dollars on our electrical bills. The installation is very well made, not at all a low-priced spread — it has survived a windstorm that probably reached 80 mph gusts on our hill side and caused extensive damage throughout our little desert metropolis. The most our 4.2 kw system has produced in a day is 25 kwhr.
I don’t think carbon dioxide really poses a weapons proliferation problem. Do you? Nor would properly sequestered carbon need guards. The Cliffs of Dover are not in danger of being released as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere owing to terrorists are they?
[Response: Nuclear waste doesn't pose a weapons proliferation problem either. Other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle do, but nuclear waste storage isn't high among them. The point of the comparison with CO2 waste and nuclear waste is that both have harmful effects for thousands of years, and therefore both sbear careful watching. But there's only one of them that we let anybody freely release into the environment. Guess which one it is. --raypierre]
Raypierre wrote: “I’d like to introduce the issue of how one would go about increasing the share of nuclear energy, if one were to decide that that would be desirable.”
Well, first you have to make the case that expanding nuclear power is “desirable”.
Because there is a very strong, if not overwhelming, prima facie case that expanding nuclear power is NOT “desirable” for a number of reasons — including but not limited to the toxic pollution associated with every step of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to permanent sequestration of waste, and the inherent undesirability of relying on a technology that requires mining, refining, transporting, reprocessing, re-transporting and storing massive amounts of the most toxic and dangerous substances known to science, in perpetuity.
And that is, after all, the reason that nuclear proponents continue to insist, contrary to observable facts, that nuclear is the “ONLY” solution to meeting our electricity needs without fossil fuels. There is an implicit admission that nuclear power is inherently undesirable, so the argument is that expanding nuclear is necessary.
Raypierre wrote: “the cleanest way to level the playing field for nuclear …”
This ignores the fact that nuclear power only exists because it has received massive subsidies for half a century, and that according to the nuclear and utility industries themselves, new nuclear power plants will only be built in the USA if the taxpayers absorb ALL the upfront costs and ALL the risks — including the very real risk that new nuclear power plants will not be profitable to operate by the time that they eventually go online.
And if you want to “level the playing field for nuclear” in the USA, the place to start is by repealing the Price-Anderson Act.
[Response: First, you're getting off-topic. Notice the conditional in my query. I'm not trying to address the issue of desirability, but the barriers to implementation. Just as we've discussed the challenges to implementation in the case of renewables (e.g. the energy density issue). Second, I wish you would introduce some numbers and sources to back up your points. What is your data on the extent of subsidies to nuclear? Way back at the beginning of this discussion, somebody posted a list of subsidies for various energy systems, and nuclear didn't come up particularly high. I can believe that the answer you get depends on the way the accounting is done (e.g. how much of our military budget should count towards fossil fuel subsidies? What is the expected in-lieu-of-insurance liability risk that government is taking on for nuclear? etc.). But if that is the case to be made, please do point to some sources. --raypierre]
Raypierre wrote: “Probably the cleanest way to level the playing field for nuclear would be to impose a carbon tax sufficiently high to allow nuclear to compete with the cheapest available fossil fuel. Given the difficulty of passing a carbon tax in the US, for renewables the approach has been direct subsidies and renewable portfolio standards.”
First of all, I’m absolutely in favor of putting a high price on carbon pollution, whether through a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade, or direct regulatory limits on CO2 emissions, because it will benefit ALL non-fossil fuel energy sources, not just nuclear power.
As for subsidies, a 2011 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on US government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the last half century found that “even conservative estimates add up to a substantial percentage of the value of the power nuclear plants produce — approaching or even exceeding 100 percent in the case of legacy subsidies and subsidies to new privately-owned reactors … Subsidies to the nuclear fuel cycle have often exceeded the value of the power produced. This means that buying power on the open market and giving it away for free would have been less costly than subsidizing the construction and operation of nuclear power plants.”
The Snake River Alliance (“Idaho’s Nuclear Watchdog & Clean Energy Advocate”) has a recent (August 2012) white paper which provides a pretty comprehensive overview of current Federal subsidies for nuclear power, particularly the loan guarantees for construction of new nuclear power plants.
Raypierre wrote: “I wish you would introduce some numbers and sources to back up your points.”
I have been doing so. For example, my reply to Lawrence Coleman about the status of renewable energy in Australia (#78) included nine separate links to the sources of the numbers that I provided.
Raypierre wrote: “What is your data on the extent of subsidies to nuclear?”
I just posted a comment that linked to two separate reports on US government subsidies to nuclear power.
Raypierre wrote: “Way back at the beginning of this discussion, somebody posted a list of subsidies for various energy systems, and nuclear didn’t come up particularly high.”
I believe you are referring to a comment by quokka (#14) who cited a 2012 CBO report and wrote:
“Direct subsidy is mostly in the form of tax preferences, and on that count nuclear drew the short straw since at least as far back as 1977. Fossil fuels got the most, followed by non-hydro renewables with nuclear a distant third.”
Two comments on that.
First, by focusing on tax preferences and DOE programs, that CBO report misses important subsidies to the nuclear industry — in particular taxpayer assumption of risks through loan guarantees and accident indemnity (the Price-Anderson Act).
Second, I would submit that choosing “as far back as 1977″ as the starting point for comparing subsidies to different energy industries is cherry-picking akin to choosing 1998 as the year in which global warming “stopped”. Like, you know, can you think of anything that happened around that time that just might have negatively impacted public support for subsidizing nuclear power?
And lastly, I really don’t think it makes sense to approach this debate by saying “let’s assume that expanding nuclear power is desirable and figure out the best way to do it”. If expanding nuclear power is NOT desirable — and particularly if it is NOT NECESSARY, which is my argument — then there is no point in figuring out how to do it.
As far as I’m concerned, the real issue with nuclear power in the USA today is that we have over 100 nuclear power plants which we more or less need to keep running for at least a while longer, and there is very good reason — based on post Fukushima investigations and analysis — to be concerned about whether those reactors are being maintained and operated as safely as they should be. We still have no real solution to the ever-increasing problem of waste storage. We should address those issues before we embark on building the MANY more nuclear reactors that would be needed to make a “dent” in GHG emissions.
#95, Philip Machanick, 7 Apr 2013, 1:22 AM and #96, Martin Vermeer. 5:01 AM
Merely an anecdote, but I recall reading (on a blog) fairly in the period when Fukushima’s generation was daily front page headlines, a pithy comment on TEPCO by a stock annalist specializing in the area of non US utilities. His “take” on TEPCO was for a rather consistent history of external factors and “so sorry’s” offered as excuses for an under performing enterprise. The usual caveats apply, but I found the observation, provisionally, convincing as well as informative.
Hank Roberts wrote that “molten salt thermal” (energy storage) is “a broad category being experimentally investigated”.
Um, no. It is well beyond the stage of “experimental investigation” and already being used in utility-scale solar thermal power plants.
The Andasol solar power station in Spain consists of three 50 MW parabolic trough CSP power plants with enough molten salt storage to provide up to 7.5 hours of full power output. The first of these power plants, Andasol-1, has been online since 2008.
The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant near Tonopah, Nevada is on schedule for completion this year. This is a 110 MW concentrating solar thermal power plant, which includes molten salt thermal storage to provide “up to 10 hours of full power storage, which enables it to supply power on an on-demand basis, just like any fossil fuel or nuclear power plant”. The developer (SolarReserve) has already signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with NV Energy.
A smaller 10 MW solar thermal power plant incorporating thermal storage to provide 24×7 power, built by the Spanish company Abengoa, has just come online in Chile.
Philip Machanick & others — For a technical discussion of molten sodium fast reactors, read “Plentiful Energy”. It is an account of the 30 year operation of the EBR-II, 30 years with no technical problems whatsoever. The Russians have experienced at least one sodium fire at their fast reactor; it was easy to control. They are currently constructing a larger version of their unit and plan to construct a full scale one thereafter.
For excerpts and discussion of this book, see the appropriate threads on Brave New Climate, linked on the sidebar. I’ll add that the EBR-II has been commercialized by GE-Hitachi as the PRISM; it only awaits customers.
As for transporting and otherwise caring for nuclear materials, this is already routinely done and in a much safer fashion than a great many other hazardous materials in routine use. For example, at this time of year the tank cars full of anhydrous ammonia arrive for the nitrogen fertilizer plants. Check out what happens when water is added; this is a dangerous operation which is routinely safely performed every year at the two nearby plants.
is a fair statement of the old risk analysis and a good example of what the science-fiction writers call the two mistakes made predicting the future: failure of imagination, and failure of nerve. All the assumptions stated there have been revised since.
In Catalyst, from Union of Concerned Scientists: As of May 2012, 288 coal-fired generating units totaling more than 41 gigawatts (GW) of capacity — 12 percent of the U.S. coal fleet — have been judged a bad investment by their owners and scheduled for closure. … We found that 353 coal generators (in addition to those already scheduled for closure) are ripe for retirement, representing 59 GW of capacity — the equivalent to nearly 18 percent of the existing U.S. coal fleet. … For example, power grid operators project that the United States will have 146 GW of excess generating capacity by 2014, so many coal plants can retire without needing to be replaced at all. In addition, the United States has a significant number of underused natural gas plants that, if further utilized and combined with growth in renewable energy and energy efficiency spurred by state-level policies, would more than make up for all coal generator retirements by 2020 …
The bright yellow band represents “yellow” energy. It is fairly obvious that yellow energy has displaced coal and significantly reduced GHG emissions in the electricity sector. If we place a high value on reducing GHG emissions, then why should there be an intrinsic problem with subsidies for “yellow” energy?
Would such subsidies be a crime against the free market? Do purported environmentalists believe they have a moral obligation to take on the role of narrowly focused consumer advocates?
Just what is the problem?
[Response: Subsidies for low-carbon energy are never a crime against the free market. I think even Milton Friedmann would be in favor of mechanisms that internalize externalities. A carbon tax is better because you internalize exactly the metric that causes harm (carbon) and let the market duke it out on how best to deal with that -- CCS, nuclear, renewables, etc.. Risks from nuclear waste, and some costs of storage, might also be regarded as externalities that need rectification, but so do health effects from burning coal, which probably blow away any conceivable estimate of risks from nuclear power plants. --raypierre]
quokka – I would say that subsidies are a crime against a freemarket. It means someone external to the market has picked a winner, not the market. I think people quite rightly mistrust governments to make that decision, especially when money (campaign contributions) can influence who gets subsidies. I think raypierre is right – carbon tax is better. For a start you set the level at the cost of the externality which is fairer than setting a subsidy at price to kill the competitor. Second, as raypierre points out, the market sorts it out.
I think a subsidy seems preferable to tax only if you believe that you will pay the tax and assume the subsidies will be paid for by the fairy that magically pays off government debt.
Since the creation of excess carbon dioxide is a world problem it may be of interest to know just how many (1) high carbon, i.e. coal burners, (2) mid carbon, i.e. gas turbines and (3) low carbon generators are under construction around the world. I only know how to find a list for NPPs under construction: http://www.world-nuclear.org/NuclearDatabase/rdresults.aspx?id=27569&ExampleId=62
wherein I count about 70.
But what is really worrying about nuclear power is that it still needs subsidies even though it has been around for years. The Vogtle plant construction is both dunning rate payers for construction costs and has a huge federal loan guarantee. No doubt they’ll get an effective feed-in tariff as well if construction is ever completed since all renewable competitors will be cheaper when the plants are commissioned. So, there you have a state subsidy, forcing rate payers to pay for electricity they don’t consume, a federal subsidy guaranteeing loans, and a utility subsidy, guaranteeing to buying the $0.20/kwh or more power the plant will produce.
Worse (from the standpoint of requiring a perpetual security state), over time, the waste becomes easier to use in weapons.
I just don’t see how placing guards on the waste from fossil fuels protects anything at all.
Just to reiterate, nuclear power probably does not pose the same philosophical quandary for a totalitarian state that assumes it will last forever as it does for a state like our own which protects its continued existence through the acknowledgement that it may not last forever.
In fact, we have outlasted the Nazis and the Soviets and there systems may be more brittle and more at risk of losing control of material that could be used for weapons. The Nunn-Lugar program might be considered and example of how the stability we create by assuming the possibility of instability assists in reducing long term threats. But, we betray our founding idea when we create nuclear waste without a plan to transmute it to stable isotopes.
“Is that the late Prof. Bernard Cohen, the LNT denialist?”
LNT is not the law of gravity and there is perfectly respectable scientific opinion that it is not valid for low and very low radiation dose. For example see this 2005 report by the French National Academy of Sciences and national Academy of Medicine
That report explicitly rejects the notion of “collective dose” to evaluate population irradiation risks. Since that report was published both UNSCEAR and ICRP have also rejected the use of “collective dose” for such purposes.
However the likes of Greenpeace persist in using collective dose to derive huge numbers of deaths from the Chernobyl accident. It’s politics not science.
Personally I have no opinion on LNT (because I wouldn’t even start to have the expertise to sift through the evidence), other than to acknowledge that there is much still to be learned about the effects of very low radiation dose and LNT appears to be the upper bound on harm.
Why don’t you calculate the emissions saved per dollar of subsidy for nuclear power and non-hydro renewables in the United States? You could start with the numbers on the ClimateProgress blog piece if you like.
Avoiding emissions surely is the whole point isn’t it?
“What is the expected in-lieu-of-insurance liability risk that government is taking on for nuclear?”
That one is pretty easy. Drop a radius the size of the evacuation zone for the Fukushima accident down over the Indian Point reactor. Add up the property value in that radius. It turns out that a payout of the Price-Anderson liability could make the federal government insolvent. So, the risk is the existence of government itself.
Price-Anderson should be repealed, and reactors in very high property value areas should be closed as uninsurable risks.
I cannot conceive of what a “crime against the free market” would be. A crime? Really? Words of that sort show up all the time, and it’s just a part of modern cant. Our era’s phrenology or Divine Right of Kings.
That one is pretty easy. The remaining uranium supply is good for about 75 years at the current rate of consumption. Solar is good for 2 billion years at essentially any rate. So, nuclear displaces about 5% or less of the remaining fossil fuel supply and solar (including wind, hydro and biofuels) the rest. Nuclear subsidies are very ineffective in avoiding emissions.
Reading the review of the movie, I am reminded of a saying in my mother tongue that half-truths are irrefutable lies. It is a pity movie isn’t better, because a change in the energy mix is already under way, and the process is likely to accelerate.
In discussing renewables and electricity generation it is important to try to separate local small scale adaptation of solar or wind (ongoing throughout the developing world) and grid connected large scale production sites in the industrial or industrialising world. With regards to a switch to cleaner source of electricity production it is the latter group that matters.
Currently the world electricity production is about 21 431 TWh, thereof 68% is generated with fossil fuels, Nuclear is about 13%, Hydro about 16%, wind energy is somewhere between 1 – 2 %, and other sources (solar, biofuels, tides etc.) are smaller (see Key World Energy Statisics, iea.org for details).
The book “Wind Power” by Musgrove goes through the history of wind energy and offers useful perspectives on the coming decades. Although the current share of wind energy is quite small, this share went from 0.1% to 1% in the first decade of the century. From the 1990′s to 2010 the annual growth in installed capacity of wind power was roughly 25% a year, and thus the doubling time of installed capacity was less than 3 year. While the growth in some countries seems to have saturated (Danmark has had a fairly stable ~3000 MW wind capacity for many years), there is no reason to expect the global growth to stop in the coming years. In 2012 the growth in installed capacity was about 20% globally. With this in mind, it is likely that wind will reach 10% of global electricity generation around 2020. After that continued growth of wind power will depend on off-shore development. Already there is substantial near-shore development occurring, and this is likely to accelerate for various reasons. The interesting thing with offshore is that there is more scope for innovation. Foundation costs are higher, and starting costs are relatively insensitive to turbine size. Thus the economies of off-shore wind farms will likely result in larger turbines (10 – 15 MW range).
While the current growth of solar power is astounding (according to the 2012 BP statistical review installed capacity grew by a factor of 10 in the last 5 years) they are starting from a low base line. However, there is no reason to assume that solar will not become a fairly big player in the coming decades. My impression is, however, that the technology is less mature than that of wind power.
With regards to the capital cost of nuclear, Musgrove makes an interesting comparison with wind power. In both cases the costs are dominated by the repayment of the capital costs over some number of years. This means that the expected return on investment, and patience of the investor become major issues. In decades past, public sector owners of electric utilities were typically satisfied with 5 – 8% return and repayments over the life time of the power plant, a few decades in the case of nuclear. Private owners are usually not this patient and need a higher rate of return. Thus, you can expect the mix of public vs. private ownership of utilities to matter in how quickly the energy production mix changes. (In France, Électricité de France (EDF) the main utility is 85% state owned).
To summarize, the world is on course for a change in the energy mix, with renewables and nuclear taking an ever larger part. However, time is not on our side, and even in a “optimistic” scenario where renewables+nuclear exceed 50% of the total by 2030, that still leaves huge amount of fossil fuel generated electricity. Fossil fuel use for electricity generation has been growing for about 3.5% a year for the last 40 years, and on those rates it will almost double before 2030.
Judging from the review and the comments of the director, the movie authors seem to be resigned to the continued growth of fossil fuel use. However, this is not a foregone conclusion. There is a well known statement to the effect that nations will sometimes to the right thing, – but only after exploring all other options. As the costs of climate change mount it is likely that the energy policy will change, with an all-out push for a rapid change in the energy mix. I hope it won’t be too late.
[Response: I've seen the quote attributed to Winston Churchill -- "We can always count on the Americnas to do the right thing ... after they've tried everything else." Too bad the effect of CO2 emissions is essentially, irreversible. --raypierre]
Comment by Halldór Björnsson — 8 Apr 2013 @ 9:56 AM
#133 Chris Dudley
Not interested in bait and switch exchanges. But I will point you to the large MIT study – The Future of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and one of it’s major findings
“Uranium resources will not be a constraint for a long time.
The cost of uranium today is 2 to 4% of the cost of electricity. Our analysis of uranium mining costs versus cumulative production in a world with ten times as many LWRs and each LWR operating for 100 years indicates a probable 50% increase in uranium costs. Such a modest increase in uranium costs would not significantly impact nuclear power economics.”
This finding relates to uranium use in a once through nuclear fuel cycle and does not include potential for extraction from seawater which the report did not dismiss and reserved for future study.
In a closed nuclear fuel cycle there would be about two orders of magnitude more energy from the same amount of uranium (or thorium). And resource availability would not be an issue for a very long time indeed.
The video is long, and not information/policy dense, but it does give the viewer a sense of what the power industry anticipates.
In the US, the expectations include higher efficiencies, slowing demand growth, continuing regulation, (read less coal/CO2), increased generation distribution, greater reliance on grid based demand management/load balancing, more gas generation, more renewables, (a bias toward solar), and uncertainty around nuclear generation.
The grid, its management and perhaps more importantly, its governance, will be critical regarding future generation and transmission. Rules and definitions matter. For example, a regional utility may invest millions into measurable demand management technologies. The achieved quantifiable reduction in peak demand could be treated as “grid generation” and compensated as such.
Successful generation distribution will depend on distributed grid access. Rules around access might be loosened to accommodate regional renewable generation advantages, or small scale “drop in” generation and storage. An example might include private or co-op CHP. These kinds of changes are occurring.
Future rule changes could be written to favor carbon free generation for grid entry and transmission. In essence, a generation carbon tax could be levied at the point grid entry. No need for national legislation… and the courts have been sympathetic to potential harm of CO2 emissions. Smaller, modular nuclear generation with better load following ability, reduced capital investment and construction constraints, may be a good fit to this kind of structure.
Rules regarding the order of fuel sourced generation dispatched by utilities could be changed. Often the utility is legally obligated to dispatch the least cost fuel generation first. In the US this usually means coal or hydro. Rules could be modified to include externalized costs and load balancing.
For a number of reasons the SE of the US seems amenable to the construction of nuclear generation. I am not familiar with the local hurdles/battles/delays that prolong the process, but in the interest of R & D, if nothing else, that region appears the best hope for construction. Unconventional gas has given us a reprieve of sorts, and every effort, including renewables, of course, toward a C free generation should be taken.
Finally, few will be content leaving our carbon future to the utility industry. The link above points to a strong inertia, some might say lethargy, but the change is underway. The power/utility industry is not the denialist community. They are the begrudging horse at the water, so to speak. Maybe Sam Brown could inspire a drink!
#139–Pete D.–That has been, unfortunately, relatively standard practice for all sorts of things. (Though the causality may also run the other way round sometimes, as the real estate discounts for potentially hazardous neighbors.)
No, not if you frankly admit that you don’t know. I don’t either, but I do pride myself on a sensitive nose for denialism of any kind. You should get one too… protects you from fooling yourself, the most dangerous kind of getting fooled. Again I’ll link Bob Applebaum, a retired nuclear physicist. He’s an equal-opportunity debunker: no kind words for Arnie Gunderson either.
REN21, an international nonprofit organization that “promotes renewable energy to meet the needs of both industrialized and developing countries that are driven by climate change, energy security, development and poverty alleviation”, published their first “Renewables Global Futures Report” (4 MB PDF) in January.
The report “presents the range of credible possibilities for the future of renewable energy, grounded in the opinion of 170 leading experts worldwide and the projections of 50 recently published scenarios”.
The report states that “Future renewable energy shares are in the range of 15–20% in conservative scenarios, 30–45% in moderate scenarios, and 50–95% in high-renewables scenarios. Prospects of attaining high shares depends on the sector: electricity is considered easiest, high shares of heating/cooling most difficult, and high shares of transport energy most uncertain.”
The scenarios reviewed come from a variety of sources, including governments, international agencies, trade groups, corporations (ExxonMobil) and clean energy advocacy groups (Greenpeace).
Chris Dudley wrote: “… reactors in very high property value areas should be closed as uninsurable risks.”
Pete Dunkelberg replied: “Right — put them in poor neighborhoods.”
Given that Chris Dudley was writing about the potential damage from a major accident at the Indian Point reactor, located 35 miles from midtown Manhattan, the “neighborhood” involved would be a very “high property value area” indeed, and would include both rich and poor people.
According to the New York Times, Indian Point’s existing evacuation plans cover a 10 mile radius, inhabited by about 300,000 people.
A 20 mile radius (comparable to the “area of highest concern” at Fukushima) would include nearly a million people.
During the Fukushima crisis, the US government advised its citizens in Japan to stay at least 50 miles away from the power station. The New York Times says:
“In the case of a comparable disaster here, this is what a 50-mile circle around the Indian Point nuclear plant on the Hudson River in Westchester County would look like: past Kingston in Ulster County to the north; past Bayonne and Elizabeth, N.J., to the south; almost to New Haven in the east; and into Pennsylvania to the west. It includes almost all of New York City except for Staten Island; almost all of Nassau County and much of Suffolk; all of Bergen County, N.J.; all of Fairfield, Conn.
Of course, as the Times notes, “A 50-mile evacuation plan does not exist and is hard to imagine.”
That seems rather fanciful since it seems to assume that mining ore that is 1000 times less abundant in uranium will cost only 50% more to mine than currently. Might as well grind granite with your teeth and never expect to need a dentist.
The physical scale of mining uranium from sea water makes it untenable as a supply. Mentioning it shows a definite tendency to fantasy.
Redbook numbers indicate a feeble supply and it is not as if prospecting for uranium is hard. People covered the world back in the fifties. We know where it is and that it gets hard to get at the end of this century.
BEIR VII reviews the evidence to conclude that there is insufficient evidence to discard LNT in favor of the more accurate quadratic-linear dose relationship for solid cancers. They found that quadratic-linear was statistically significantly preferred for leukemia. I emphasize that the data is based on dose applied almost instantly; a high dose rate. I further opine that the statistical treatment was inappropriate; a Bayesian analysis was not performed.
Using the simplest of DNA repair models, neither is plausible at low dose rates, although quadratic-linear is closer. A recent experiment performed at LLNL indeed shows this simple model is about right, but further research is obviously required.
It’s misleading to assert that “low levels of radiation” may be harmless or even helpful, as a generalization — any uncontrolled source (whether from some aspect of fossil fuel production and use, or some aspect of fission production and use) is going to produce various kinds and doses over time.
Even if some specific form and dose proves hormetic for some specific purpose — we aren’t going to get a power industry that happens to increase only that particular result.
Irradiating seeds with electron beams (beta radiation) to reduce viruses and fungi on the seed coats to increase germination, without damaging the seed inside its coat, sure, that works. I did my fifth grade science project on that, thanks to kind help from staff at the local university’s Van de Graff accelerator — a thing like this one: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51mEiUseazL.jpg
The low-dosed bean seeds germinated better than the controls; the mid- and high-dose, worse and much worse. Hypothesis, zapped fungi and other stuff living on the seed coat. But I didn’t try to pursue it.
Ah, the 1950s — wonderful time to be a kid scientist. “Sure, kid, just step behind the concrete wall there and we’ll do’em for you.” Just walk in and ask. Not so easy nowadays for grade schoolers to get access!
The most recent research indicates a cost of $300/pound of uranium extracted from sea water. In view of the small portion of the cost of nuclear power due to the cost of uranium, even today that is not prohibitively expensive. It is not unreasonable to assume that further research could lower that substantially.
It is not possible to rule out extraction of uranium from seawater at economic cost. Quite the reverse. It seems more likely than not that it may be possible, especially over the time frames where it may need to be called upon. There is lots of time to develop such technology.
[Response: Not to pile on, but Chris D. , I recall you used to be afraid that anthropogenic CO2 emissions would cause a runaway greenhouse and turn us into Venus. Sure, nuclear energy has some scary aspects (though the track record so far is pretty good compared to coal), but are you really more scared of nuclear energy than a runaway greenhouse? I myself don't think a Venus-type runaway is even a remote possibility, but I still think the climate that could be caused by unrestrained CO2 emissions is far more scary than any fears nuclear energy could conceivably awaken. I'd think that somebody who believed in a CO2-induced runaway would be even more inclined than me to accept what theoretical risks there might be in nuclear energy. -- raypierre]
Remember how it started folks: not with the Hiroshima survivor studies (that sadly still are the most extensive empirical material for studying dose-effect). It was a young British medical researcher called Alice Stewart, who discovered in the 1950s, that the then common practice of X-ray scanning pregnant women produced childhood lukemia, a finding long opposed by the medical establishment — what doctor likes to be told that they have been killing children? — but now conventional wisdom.
Whenever an industry tells us that a risk that interferes with their business operations is ‘uncertain’ and should be ignored, I stop taking that industry seriously — and the think tanks and crooked scientists that speak for them. It really is as simple as that. Or should be.
Regarding your concern about industry, I think that to conclude industry can do nothing right is as bad a mistake as the right makes when they conclude that government is always the enemy and can do nothing right.
I never said that industry “can do nothing right”, and it’s unclear how you jumped to this conclusion. My criticism was directed at plutocrats who consume an overwhelming and ever-increasing share of earth’s resources, and shamelessly rob future generations–presumably including their own descendants–of a hospitable planet. It’s inadequate to say that they’re blinded by greed; their neurotic obsession with self-enrichment is quasi-religious and sociopathic*. Much of the plutocracy’s wealth comes from extractive industries, particularly fossil fuels, hence the vast sums of money being poured into climate denial, miseducation, and greenwash. One might hope that given sufficient political will, they could be pressed into the service of more constructive goals. More rational and altruistic policies have arguably prevailed in the past–e.g. in the aftermath of WWII, when American public schools were the envy of the world, and the top tax bracket was as high as 91%–but such episodes are mere punctuation in a litany of cruelty and waste. We don’t have time to sink to the depths of the Gilded Age or Weimar Germany before regaining our moral compass.
*”Confronted with a high probability of environmental catastrophe on Earth, the richest people on the planet–people who systematically overeat and who air-condition the outdoor forecourts of gas stations–are unwilling to wait an extra four months to increase their incomes by 40 percent. Understood this way, the growth fetish appears to be a form of madness.” (Clive Hamilton, “Growth Fetish”, p 183)
The comment string is into triple digits so as usual the discussion is degenerating- time to sum up: Adding all of the world’s needs for transportation and heating, along with a relentlessly growing cooling demand, to the current electricity load on the grid, and supplying it all with non-carbon sources, is the requirement. This within a few decades. Some type of base load supply must be chosen for those parts of the world where hydro is unavailable, an ever increasing area since water supply conflicts are widely the first pain of climate change. The realistic choices for base load appear to begin and end with nuclear. Fossil fuel with carbon capture has yet to be invented, much less demonstrated. Renewables with energy storage likewise. Nuclear has drawbacks everyone recognizes. But you can get electrons out steadily without emitting CO2, making it unique among known technologies. So for a time it will be a necessary evil. Hope we start in time.
82 Robert: You profess to be better qualified than Ray Pierre on this issue do you Robert??
You are indeed an optimist, maybe a blind one but an optimist none the less.
So if we are in the process of switching energy sources by 2050 then we can expect to see a theoreoretical reduction in CO2 maybe by 2100? Umm…what you may have overlooked is the additional simultaneous positive feedback forcing to the climatic system within this time frame. Ice albedo..the arctic would by them be ice free for the majority of the year, methane from the ocean beds would be well and truly building up steam. The tundra in an advanced state of thaw. Millions more arces of rainforest cut down for housing or fuel. Around 8-10 billion people on this little planet vying desperately to support their struggling families. So even if you might get some reduction in CO2,NO&CH4 from alternate sources of fuel all this will be completely swamped into insignificance by the natural and appropriately drastic forces of nature/gaia in an attempt to rid itself of it’s No1 pathogen..us!.
Still I like your optimism.
Comment by Lawrence Coleman — 9 Apr 2013 @ 6:39 AM
raypierre wrote: “I still think the climate that could be caused by unrestrained CO2 emissions is far more scary than any fears nuclear energy could conceivably awaken.”
Fortunately, our choices are not limited to “unrestrained CO2 emissions” or the legitimate “fears” that would quite rightly be “awakened” by a massive world-wide expansion of nuclear power.
Actually, you seem to be arguing from fear, something that is known to impair clear thinking. My interest in contacting you here at realclimate was to discuss the implications of the Kombayashi–Ingersoll limit on Hansen’s published assertion that the Venus Syndrome was a dead certainty should all fossil carbon be burned. I never got you to read the relevant chapter in his book even though the book is available at the University of Chicago library. Nevertheless, we did get to the point where a predominantly water vapor atmosphere with say ten atmospheres of surface pressure might be a reasonable result of Hansen’s assumptions regarding the size of available carbon pools. We were not agreed on how permanent that condition would be. You argued that reactions leading to geological sequestration of carbon ran faster at higher temperature and thus carbon dioxide would be drawn down and water vapor would re-condense. I suggested that since those reactions use wet chemistry and precipitation might not reach the surface (where the atmosphere would be dry steam), fresh emissions from volcanism might keep up with those reactions.
Regarding your fear inspired argument that we must chose the lesser of two evils when it comes to nuclear power you may take comfort that a rational analysis indicates that nuclear power offers a path to larger emissions than other available choices owing to opportunity cost. Your library also has “Reinventing Fire” by Amory Lovins available for checkout. http://lens.lib.uchicago.edu/?q=Reinvienting Fire
You will see that a faster cheaper path is available for emissions reductions so that regarding climate, nuclear power is the wrong choice.
There are safety risks involved in nuclear power. And these do impinge on climate concerns indirectly. Germany, for example, is now burning more coal owing to the recent nuclear accident in Japan while Japan is burning more natural gas. A large and deadly accident in the US would bring a number of coal power plants out of retirement. An accident in France might cause the same thing in France’s neighbor countries. Such accidents appear to be inevitable given our habit of allowing so many near misses. http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_risk/safety/nrc-and-nuclear-power-safety-annual.html
But, even should the safety issue be resolved, cost alone makes nuclear power a climate problem rather than a climate solution.
I said close them, not move them. I doubt moving would work since the sites available with adequate cooling water are limited, particularly considering how sea level rise makes tidal areas untenable, and used reactor vessels are too radioactive to move rapidly.
The Price-Anderson risk to the solvency of the US government comes from the neighborhoods of power plants. Those in rural/agricultural regions might be insurable using the private sector. Repealing Price-Anderson would identify those power plants which could obtain private insurance.
How about RMI’s scenario to transform the US electric grid so that rather than US electricity demand growing 1 percent per year per EIA projections, “projected efficiency gains cut nationwide demand by 1 percent each year, even with the added demand from 150 million electric vehicles”.
Rich Creager wrote: “Some type of base load supply must be chosen for those parts of the world where hydro is unavailable …”
Not true. There are better (i.e. cheaper, faster, cleaner, safer, more sustainable) ways to provide plentiful electricity to the millions of people in the developing world who currently lack it than building “base load” power stations and the grids to distribute their electricity — principally, cheap, mass-produced, highly-distributed photovoltaics.
And in the developed world, both utility-scale and distributed solar and wind are making base load power generation increasingly less important (not to mention less profitable).
Rich Creager wrote: “The realistic choices for base load appear to begin and end with nuclear. Fossil fuel with carbon capture has yet to be invented, much less demonstrated. Renewables with energy storage likewise.”
As for carbon capture, that is correct.
As for the rest — again, not true.
Multiple studies in both Europe and the USA have demonstrated that a diverse, regional portfolio of renewable energy sources, managed through a smart grid, can provide 24×7 power that is AT LEAST as reliable as nuclear or coal — without storage.
As for saying that renewables with storage have “yet to be invented, much less demonstrated”, that’s just plain wrong. Several utility-scale concentrating solar thermal power plants with thermal storage are up and running already, in the US and Spain. Utility-scale battery storage is a commercially available technology today.
We have plenty of options for storing energy, including electro-chemical (batteries), thermal, and kinetic energy (compressed air, flywheels, pumped-hydro) — all of which are already quite advanced and are being rapidly developed (especially battery technologies).
Rich Creager wrote: “Nuclear has drawbacks everyone recognizes. But you can get electrons out steadily without emitting CO2, making it unique among known technologies.”
Again, that’s simply not true. You can “get electrons out steadily without emitting CO2″ from ALL of today’s mature, powerful renewable energy technologies, some of which can provide reliable base 24×7 load power by themselves (e.g CSP with thermal storage), and/or by integrating a diverse array of intermittent sources through a local or regional grid.
Rich Creager wrote: “So for a time it will be a necessary evil.”
In my view, nuclear power is already a “necessary evil” in as much as the safety of the USA’s existing, aging nuclear power plants is a very real concern. I see no reason to extend the time in which it will be so, by unnecessarily building more nuclear power plants.
You make the error of not considering the vast environmental damage such a mining effort would cause. Nuke nuts are quite amusing. They hammer on hydro power for using vast areas of land, even though most of these would be used for flood control in any case, yet they want to invoke the magic of uranium from sea water which would stop the Gulf Stream.
Post your citations, please, gentlemen.
Tell us why you think what you think.
Citations to support your claims make you credible.
Citations to support your claims respect the conversation.
Point to your own publications, if they’re not easy to find,
or if you’re not stating your own work, whose you trust.
Chris Dudley wrote: “Germany, for example, is now burning more coal owing to the recent nuclear accident in Japan …”
Just barely more, and total fossil fuel use is slightly down. The rapid growth of renewables combined with reduced demand have more than compensated for the nuclear power shutdowns, enabling Germany to export more electricity than ever.
According to German law professor Karl-Friedrich Lenz, citing “the latest data release on electricity generation in Germany from 1990 to 2012 from Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen”:
There are some who … assert that switching off German nuclear plants has lead to a massive increase in coal generation, while in the real world coal use was at 117 TWh in 2010 and 118 in 2012, which is just statistical noise [...]
Renewable energy is replacing nuclear just fine, thank you, exactly as the energy transition policy wanted.
In some detail: Fossil fuel (all flavors) was at 358.1 in 2010 and is essentially unchanged at 356 in 2012.
Nuclear is down to 99 in 2012, from 140.6 in 2010. Nuclear is in decline, exactly as expected and wanted by all parties who supported the unanimous vote to do this in 2011. The amount of decline is 41.6 in two years.
And the biggest chunk of that decline is compensated by a rise of renewable generation from 103.3 in 2010 to 135.0 in 2012, in a year with poor wind generation. That’s a rise of 31.7, which compensates most of the deficit left by phasing out nuclear.
That leaves about 10 TWh of not compensated deficit, but actually consumption has gone down by more than that in these two years. 2010 had 610.9 of in country consumption, 2012 only 594, which means savings of 16.9, and explains that Germany has exported (on balance) more than ever last year.
So, again, the big picture is that nuclear is declining, that renewable energy is replacing that deficit, and that everything is progressing exactly as it was supposed to do.
Germany exported more electricity to neighbouring countries than it imported last year despite a government decision to scrap nuclear power in favour of an ambitious drive towards renewable energy.
Figures just published appeared to vindicate Germany’s clean energy revolution, showing that the country’s electricity surplus had nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2012.
[Response: But think how much Germany's carbon emissions would have gone down if they had done all that impressive stuff with renewables and demand, but retired coal plants instead of retiring nuclear power. --raypierre]
Raypierre wrote: “But think how much Germany’s carbon emissions would have gone down if they had done all that impressive stuff with renewables and demand, but retired coal plants instead of retiring nuclear power.”
I agree that shutting down coal-fired power plants is and ought to be a much more urgent priority than shutting down existing nuclear power plants.
Having said that, I can certainly understand how people living within the evacuation zone of particularly troubled or at-risk nuclear power plants might feel that shutting down those particular power plants is their top priority.
However, that’s an entirely different matter than building hundreds MORE nuclear power plants.
I have nothing to add to the energy discussion, but I don’t understand your obsessive fears with runaway greenhouses.
There are more rational concerns if we triple or quadruple CO2 concentrations at higher-end sensitivities, like 1) We don’t really understand the Pliocene climate, which looks quite a bit different today at similar boundary conditions. Is there some sort of “switch” in the climate system that changes the nature of the variability, or the behavior of the General Circulation? 2) Do we do something to wipe out summer sea ice extent in the Arctic or the Amazon rainforest? 3) Something like that outlined in Sherwood and Huber that was mentioned before– if the wet bulb temperature exceeds ~35 C the human body doesn’t get rid of the minimum 100 W of heat it generates — this also assumes a person is in strong, doused with water, naked, and not working. That could pose problems for people without accessibility to air conditioning in currently warm climates. I should note though that at least one climate model (work in progress) produces drier continents than what Sherwood and Huber expected, so the wet bulb is colder.
You could have figured that one out in your head. Gulf Stream flow is 30 sverdrups. 1 sverdrup is needed at 100% uranium absorption efficiency to supply about 16% of current electricity demand. So, at 3 times current demand and an optimistic 10% efficiency that is about 180 sverdrup needed, much less that the Gulf Stream can supply. http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/4558
If you look at fig. 30 in Hansen’s book, he is seeing signs of runaway at four doublings, not two. You really have work to get at that much fossil fuel. Coal seams a few inches thick, low quality oil shale, tarsands etc. And all the soil carbon would be a part of it too I think. But, ultra-cheap renewable energy would let you get at that stuff if you have a taste for gas and oil as we do. There is no need for the extracted carbon to provide positive energy. It need only provide convenient energy. So, on an economic basis, Hansen’s scenario is not impossible.
“Yet another scenario for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — in the nation which currently has the highest per capita emissions of any developed nation:”
I’d be extremely surprised if that happens. I fully expect we will still be churning out substantial quantities of GHGs in the power sector in 2030. And buying foreign carbon offsets to soothe our collective conscience.
More interesting is the forthcoming report that the Federal government has instructed the AEMO (Australian Electricity Management Office) to produce on the feasibility of 2030 and 2050 all renewables scenarios. It will be a lot more interesting because it comes from a body that can lay some claim to independence, is accountable and has responsibility for ensuring the operation of an electricity grid that actually works properly. Importantly, such a report will be much more likely to influence policy.
AEMO has farmed out some of the work to the CSIRO (good thing). I don’t have the reference handy, but one of CSIRO papers was a literature survey of the numerous all renewables scenarios. It found them all lacking with many of the deficiencies common to them all. It concluded that the field is still immature with more work to be done. It’s a conclusion that shouldn’t really come as a surprise at all. Ascribing a certainty to this sort of work that doesn’t really exist, just because such scenarios exclude nuclear power really does nothing to hasten emissions reductions.
One of the inputs AEMO will use is the Australian government’s Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics 2012 Australian Energy Technology Assessment. A summary chart of their projected 2030 LCOE estimates for the potentially available generation techologies is here:
All scenarios that include nuclear power lead to a faster reduction of emissions and a lower final level by 2050. They also have some small cost advantages, but possibly not that significant in view of uncertainties.
Pretending that there is certainty in these all renewables scenarios that doesn’t exist in reality has far more to do with stopping nuclear power than stopping climate change.
[Response: I also wonder whether Australia intends to start applying a carbon tax to exported coal. Australia exports massive amounts of coal to China, and given the coal mine expansion already under contract, this is set to increase in the coming years. Fair carbon accounting would require this exported carbon to be taxed at at least the same rate as domestic carbon, with the cost presumably being passed on to the buyer of the coal. Actually, given the energy inefficiency of the Chinese economy relative to Australia, there would be an argument for taxing it at a higher rather than applied to domestic usage. --raypierre]
The all renewable scenarios I’ve seen lack credibility. A reliable, on-demand power grid requires controlability. To control it requires having dispatachable generators which can vary the power supplied to meet the load.
Here I give a simplified analysis of the crux of the engineering issue. Let the demand be D, the power supplied by renewables be R. For simplicity the renewable are on a ‘must take’ basis (which is almost correct for Bonneville Power Authority but a bit less so for Spain). Let P be the power supplied by the dispatchable generators. As supply must always equal demand (or else the grid collapses) we have
P + R = D
For which the net load seen by the dispatchable generators is
P = D – R
and this sometimes leads to very high ramp rates for the dispatchable units. The traditional ramp rate is 5%/minute which is adequate for almost all demand profiles, sans renewables. However, once again look at http://transmission.bpa.gov/business/operations/wind/baltwg.aspx
for the mornings of Apr03 & Apr 09. Here the wind is decreasing at the same time the demand is picking up. This leads to higher than usual ramp rates, which is hard on equipment and causes early wearout. It also makes the control problem more difficult.
Now if there are no dispatchable generators, P=0, so net renewable generation must always be in balance with demand. Irrespective of the cost of such a grid (very, very high) I have yet to see a credible study which shows it is possible at all with reliability at least as high as the rather undemanding FERC requirement.
[Response: There's no way around the need for power storage in the not-so-long run. Natural gas provides backup up to a point, but as Michael Levi's analysis shows, it doesn't get you very far along towards a decarbonized economy. So either there will need to be enough storage plus excess renewable capacity to keep it charged, or we'll need storage so that baseload power from nuclear (feasible) or coal with CCS (uncertain feasibility) can be stored and dispatched. In addition to other possibilities that have been mentioned, it's possible that the best use of hydrogen would be not as vehicle fuel, but as a way of stockpiling energy for later dispatch via fuel cells. --raypierre]
Imagine you owned a Leaf and drove it pretty hard, using 70% of its range every day for ten years. Well, after that ten years, you’d be using about 90% of the range for your commute. The battery performance has degraded. Not enough cushion. So, you replace that battery pack.
What happens to that still very rugged but just below transportation grade battery? It gets another fifteen years of use degrading further but in a stationary application with close attention to battery life management.
So, what happens if all US commuter transportation goes electric? We get enough storage to hold half a days worth of non-transportation US power consumption from the used batteries, no V2G, just aftermarket batteries. Based on a figure in Lovins’ book, all that storage should be in place around 2034 or so. Pretty much all the storage you could need arrives right on time pretty much for free. The batteries will be made in any case and they won’t be recycled while they still have a use.
I think you should reconsider your use of the word “excess” here. If renewable capacity is charging storage, it is not excess capacity, it is capacity that is charging storage. It is needed capacity.
[Response: The word "excess" clearly only meant enough capacity in excess of demand (on average) to store enough power to meet peak demand. I don't see what your problem is. But I am sympathetic to the utility of used battery banks for meaningful storage. An off-grid buddy in New Zealand runs his mini-hydro and photovoltaic system with a battery bank that was retired from a telephone switching exchange. He pretty much runs his life on two hundred watts of electricity (when everything is working well) and the times I've stayed with him and his family make me wonder what-all extra I'm getting out of my kilowatt of usage (wind powered though it is). --raypierre]
Still a quibble. If you have the capacity to meet average demand, you don’t need much more, just what is needed to cover the loss in round trip storage.
Because renewables are going to be so inexpensive (scary in one way because that makes junk fossil fuels more accessible) I expect profligate use may expand. Let us hope it is for things like space catapults or art or atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reduction rather than cooking the last drops of oil from the Earth’s surface.
An interesting point. The oil exporter’s cartel, which has a number of members with national oil companies, manages to charge a large effective export duty by keeping the markets “well supplied” with $100/barrel oil that costs them perhaps $15/barrel to produce. The effect on demand has been noticeable but not terribly large so profits are probably maximized. A coal exporter’s cartel might manage a similar feat though it might need to join with a natural gas exporter’s cartel to avoid substitution and coal price collapse similar to what we are seeing domestically.
An advantage to such arrangements is that they only need cooperation among a limited number of countries. For climate, a disadvantage is that such efforts encourage desperate resource extraction among importers such as Arctic or deep water oil drilling or fracking since the artificially high price makes these efforts profitable as well. Larger low quality carbon pools are tapped, likely leading to larger emissions overall.
I suspect that Australia, in the area of duties and tariffs, would do better to declare China responsible for shifting us into the dangerous climate regime that has caused so much damage there and charge punitive tariffs on China’s imports to Australia to recoup the losses.
“Are you saying the Australian government should get a larger share, so as to increase its motivation to curtail the practice?”
No, he’s saying Australia should make exported coal more expensive to increase Chinas motivation to ‘curtail the practice’. Yes, the export of fossil fuels provides income for a number of governments, including Saudi Arabia and Canada, those countries are going to need to adapt just as much as importing countries.
David B. Benson wrote: “The all renewable scenarios I’ve seen lack credibility.”
Which scenarios, and specifically in what way did they lack “credibility”?
David B. Benson wrote: “A reliable, on-demand power grid requires controlability.”
With all due respect, that comment and your subsequent “simplified analysis” suggest to me that you are not well-informed about the work already being done, today, on integrating large amounts of renewable energy sources into the grid.
It’s important to keep in mind that VERY large amounts of distributed photovoltaics can be deployed with no worries about integrating them into the grid — because virtually all the electricity they produce is used on-site, which the grid sees as simply a dramatic reduction in demand (typically during peak demand periods).
Of course, while big reductions in peak demand are not a problem for grid operators, they are a problem for large, centralized electricity generators who want to sell their gigawatts at a profit.
Comment by SecularAnimist — 10 Apr 2013 @ 10:34 AM
The killer objection to relying on nuclear power is that it’s an expensive distraction. It’s the only energy technology with a negative learning curve, as documented by Arnulf Grubler. As a result of this more than of the widely spaced but large-scale accidents, the number of reactor starts worldwide is not keeping pace with shutdowns of old reactors from an aging park, and total capacity has flatlined. Nuclear power plants take on average 13 years to build, some much longer. You can add a gigawatt of solar in months – China is going from 500 MW in 2010 to 15 GW in 2015.
Nuclear plants are paradigmatic baseload plants, a model that cheap and plentiful wind and solar has made obsolete, for coal as well; they need complementing with quickly despatchable power, from storage, hydro, geothermal or gas.
Nuclear is simply not worth fighting for.
Comment by James Wimberley — 10 Apr 2013 @ 10:36 AM
> He pretty much runs his life on two hundred watts
More good examples ought to be published somewhere.
But don’t forget one big benefit to ‘wasting’ heat — keeping a building dry enough not to rot, which the old combustion furnaces did. The first round of energy conservation — tight buildings, little air exchange — gave us humidity problems not well solved yet, maybe impossibly expensive and technically difficult to solve. Building science: (PDF)
Contractors I’ve known as friends for years, and the local building inspector, have told me they’ve seen these problems develop in old buildings when cavity insulation and vapor barriers were added without also adding dehumidification that requires using energy. If we “save energy” by prematurely rotting out wooden buildings, it’s a net loss.
Get a cheap humidity and temperature data logger (e.g.) and watch what happens in a building — particularly attic and basement space and inside wall cavities if you have access to those, where cold walls can condense moisture from inside air– for a whileas outside temperature changes. Then look at the temp/humidity conditions for dry rot in wood.
Every new solar panel installed on European rooftops chips away at power utilities’ centralized production model. Unless they reinvent themselves soon, these giants risk becoming the dinosaurs of the energy market.
The industry faces drastic change as renewable energy turns consumers into producers and hollows out the dominance of utilities. With their stocks at decade lows and a millstone of debt around their necks, Europe’s utilities have little margin for error.
In Germany, where 22 percent of its electricity came from renewable sources in 2012, the big four utilities … are nearly absent in this new sector.
Of the 71 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity installed at the end of 2011, the four owned just 7 percent, environment ministry data show … Individuals owned 40 percent of renewables capacity, energy niche players 14 percent, farmers 11 percent, various energy-intensive industrial companies 9 percent, and financial companies 11 percent. Small regional utilities and international utilities owned another 7 percent.
Further expected increases in renewable energy will continue to erode the credit quality of European thermal generation companies in the near to medium term …
Large increases in renewables have had a profound negative impact on power prices and the competitiveness of thermal generation companies in Europe … What were once considered stable companies have seen their business models severely disrupted and we expect steadily rising levels of renewable energy output to further affect European utilities’ creditworthiness …
Moody’s cautions that storage does have the potential to further negatively affect peak power prices and would increase the competitiveness of renewables — a credit negative for thermal generators.
Comment by SecularAnimist — 10 Apr 2013 @ 12:46 PM
If we did not share a planet then it would not matter to other countries that China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter and plans to increase its emissions. One country increasing coal export duties won’t get them to reconsider their trajectory but holding them financially responsible for the damage they do might help. Polluter pays. Think a little harder and you’ll get it.
[Response: The main reason to charge export duties on coal, for a country like Australia that has a carbon tax, is to prevent "leakage." If there is no such export duty, then you come out ahead economically by exporting the coal to a country without a carbon tax (or with a lower carbon tax) and buying back manufactured goods. An additional virtue of the export duty is that it makes the coal more expensive for the end user, in this case China. It seems bizarre to me that China spends money on importing Australian coal rather than spending money on making their grotesquely energy-inefficient economy more efficient. Increasing the price of coal tilts the decision towards investment in efficiency. For some fossil fuels, market forces alone drive up the price to the point where conservation becomes more attractive, but as somebody noted, this also increases the profit to be made by extracting more of the resource. Increasing the price with a carbon tax avoids that trap. --raypierre]
> Increasing the price of coal tilts the decision
> towards investment in efficiency.
That’s thinking a little harder, and clearer.
Regrettably Australia’s probably thinking the US will undercut their price if they do tax exported coal appropriately. And the US does “… come out ahead economically by exporting the coal … and buying back manufactured goods.” The US exported its air pollution; now it’s Chinese dying for producing our crap instead of US citizens.
And in all seriousness — if the US had exported its consumer protections, health rules, pollution rules, and worker protections along with its technology, China wouldn’t have industrialized as quickly — nor done nearly as much damage to China. They’ve now spread the lead and mercury pollution from burning coal and careless metalwork all over China.
It’s like the US thought it was a horse race and China needed to have all the toxic handicaps that the US has imposed on itself — so we taught them to do it wrong like we did it wrong.
We could have been smarter.
There may still be time.
Yeah, I know exporting Tom Paine and true revolution is hardly what the contemporary USA wants to be doing — the US soured on Tom Paine before the man even died, you know.
[Response: It's worth keeping in mind that, with all its inefficiency, China's per-capita usage of the "safe" cumulative carbon emissions of one trillion tonnes C is still below its fair share, whereas the US exceeded its fair share long ago. The analysis is in my recent paper on the Carbon Commons, available at my web site. Unfortunately, the atmosphere doesn't care about fairness, only about net carbon, so it is urgent to get China (and soon India) on a path to greater efficiency. Cheap coal doesn't help that. The US actually controls quite a lot of the world's coal, so our policies toward coal export will have a big effect on what will happen. --raypierre]
The report also states renewables become the world’s second-largest source of power generation by 2015 and close in on coal as the primary source by 2035. However, this rapid increase hinges critically on continued subsidies. In 2011, these subsidies (including for biofuels) amounted to $88 billion, but over the period to 2035 need to amount to $4.8 trillion; over half of this has already been committed to existing projects or is needed to meet 2020 targets. We see that Econ 101 ‘free market’ economics does not appear to be appropriate in the electric power industry. Furthermore, I doubt such a large penetration is actually possible. I’ll give some of the reasons in a subsequent comment later today.
Comment by David B. Benson — 10 Apr 2013 @ 5:40 PM
Thank you for this excellent review. Now I know to look out for this movie and to avoid it. One minor gripe though. Was the dig at Nebraska really necessary? There are lots of people in NE who understand the reality of global warming and its consequences and the need to actually switch to more sustainable energy sources. I’ll admit our elected officials may not always reflect that sentiment, but at least we’re not as bad as Oklahoma ;)
[Response: It was not actually meant to be a dig at Nebraska, and I am sorry if it came off that way. I was just trying to express the idea that so far as reaching an audience goes, a generally more conservative audience with a big stake in new oil (as is the case in red-state Nebraska) might be more willing to find common ground in areas that reduce carbon emissions if traditional virtues like conservation and stewardship are emphasized while the basic scientific issues of global warming are presented in a drier scientific fashion. That's not to say that everybody in Nebraska is identical, but I do think it is a different audience on the whole than I typically would address around the University of Chicago. --raypierre]
“Nuclear plants are paradigmatic baseload plants, a model that cheap and plentiful wind and solar has made obsolete, for coal as well; they need complementing with quickly despatchable power, from storage, hydro, geothermal or gas.”
And the world, for some strange reason, keeps on building base load power plants. Coal continues to increase it’s share of global primary energy production and the IEA projects coal to potentially overtake oil as the world’s number one source of energy by 2017. Funny sort of obsolescence. For the sake of the climate it might be as well to acknowledge reality rather than make up nice sounding stories.
If baseload is obsolete, I’ve yet to hear any plausible explanation for Germany bringing over 5 GW of coal fired capacity online in 2013 while retiring just 1 GW. Why not just build more wind capacity?
As for backing wind and solar, geothermal is a non-stater. The only serious proposition that could ever potentially scale to decent size is EGS – engineered geothermal systems (deep dry hot rock and friends). Progress has been less than encouraging and there is no possibility of it being a significant player in the foreseeable future. There is no grid storage at very large scale and no reliable indication of when they may be. Hydro/pumped hydro is a limited resource and far from universally available. And gas is a fossil fuel. The climate benefit of switching from coal to gas is somewhere between small and none.
Every electricity grid of any size in the world is powered by baseload generators, if you define hydro as baseload which is can be. No exceptions. To think this can and will change over a few short years is the worst type of wishful thinking.
Claims of baseload obsolescence are so typical of the political need to overstate progress with the climate/energy problem just to shutout nuclear power. Collectively we are failing and not just failing but badly failing. If we insist on being anything other than reality based, there is no hope.
Here in the Palouse the so-called million dollar rain comes in June or anyway by the 4th of July. Thereafter is the big dry, sometimes punctuated by thundery storms. The winds almost cease until the autumn rains commence in October. But in 2011 the breezes completely stilled for over 6 weeks. Pacific Northwest air quality http://lar.wsu.edu/airpact/
significantly declined and wind generated power http://transmission.bpa.gov/business/operations/wind/baltwg.aspx
was essentially zero. The Pacific Northwest was suffering a so-called blocking high.
Both examples are of blocking highs and so low wind generation. I’m under the impression that blocking highs are persisting longer. Whatever, wind generation is poor to nonexistent during such events. No available storage can possibly (economically) make up for the lack of wind generation for that long; only fossil fuel, hydro or NPPs can do so.
To counteract the fact that the wind might not be blowing in some locations, but still blowing in others http://www.20percentwind.org/
suggests a dramatic increase in transmission capability. First of all, 20% is huge; the same as the NPP fleets contribution in the USA. Second, I doubt the transmission can be built very rapidly; planning and permitting takes too long. For example, the http://www.boardmantohemingway.com/news.aspx
500 kV line has been in planning and permitting for slightly over 10 years; they had hoped to start the 3 year construction project this spring but clearly are not going to make it. And this is only 500 kilometers. [The current German experiences are relevant as well.]
All told, grid power is best generated by dispatchable energy dense sources relatively near the loads. Wind doesn’t do well by these criteria, but it is low carbon.
Comment by David B. Benson — 10 Apr 2013 @ 11:03 PM
Ray’s review is prejudiced and inaccurate in many facts. We encourage you to see the film and make your own judgement. At least, visit the website to browse the nearly 5 hours of short videos. We try to be very thorough, and as much as possible, non-partisan.
Our intentions in making the film were not to promote any one technology, but to raise awareness and encourage practical discussions. In that sense, I’m glad his review has sparked a productive nuclear debate.
Given that, I wanted to offer our take on nuclear and how it fits in the larger transitional energy mix. Our projection concludes that:
In about 50 years, even without an organized global carbon policy, lower carbon energies will overtake the foundational energies of coal and oil, mostly due to utility, rising supply, and the rising cultural importance of efficiency and renewables. To clarify, this means they exceed 50% of total global energy, with a continued upward trend. This mix is made up of:
1.7X natural gas, 2.6X nuclear, 5X renewables, and 1.25% per year demand reduction through efficiency
If we can increase efficiency to 2% per year, it further lowers total energy demand but does not bring faster change (since existing infrastructure decommissions at the same rate, and in fact supplies extend). But it reduces the infrastructure requirement to:
1.4X natural gas, 2X nuclear, 4X renewables
After much study we believe either could naturally and affordably occur. But we also calculate these to mean atmospheric CO2 at 600-700ppm, rising to as much as 900ppm as fossils continue to contribute after 50 years.
It’s difficult and imprecise to predict the associated warming. The models are widely divergent, but a window of 3C to 4C seems a likely median.
Most here would agree that this time frame, CO2 concentration and warming are too great. So how do we reduce them? More of the substituting resources, faster — which could be theoretically possible, but may not be economically or practically possible.
What would this mean for nuclear? The world currently has 430 reactors, which were built over the last 50 years. The majority of these will decommission within the next 50 years.
This means that increasing nuclear capacity 2X would entail building 600 to 800 new reactors (depending on how quickly we do it, compared to the decommission rate of existing supply.) That’s 20 per year over the next 30 to 40 years. About 2 per month. Again, theoretically possible, but doesn’t seem likely given our reticence and, relatedly, the great cost and difficulty.
Hitting this target would require improving public opinion. A viable waste management plan would help. Better, moving to gen 3 passively safe reactors; gen 4 breeders which burn much farther through the fuel cycle and leave far less waste; LFTR (thorium) reactors; perhaps ultimately fusion.
All these might one day become commercially viable, but we’re in the very early steps of this progression. We won’t get there in 50 years, certainly no way we’d move farther faster, without a much stronger commitment to the technology, and to the politics.
And, as with any of these alternative technologies, substituting them faster than existing technologies naturally decommission adds to the challenge by working against market forces.
Whether we choose to, and can afford to, time will tell.
[Response: Harry, you state that "After much study we believe either could naturally and affordably occur. But we also calculate these to mean atmospheric CO2 at 600-700ppm, rising to as much as 900ppm as fossils continue to contribute after 50 years. " Was this stated anywhere in the film? If it was, it must not have been stated very prominently, since it went right by me and the entire rest of the audience present at our screening. The only reference to the amount of warming that might occur, according to the notes I took in real time, was the very flawed statement by Richard Muller. This is, as I said, my main beef with the film. It's OK if you want to make a film that says we're just likely to continue being carbon gluttons because it's more fun that way, but you need to be honest about the consequences. This aspect of the future SWITCH envisions is soft-pedaled to the point of oblivion. --raypierre]
One more thought: the 600 to 800 reactor number would be at similar size to today’s. Global average size is slightly less than a more common 1250mw reactor of today. If future technologies yielded more powerful reactors, that of course would mean fewer needed to replace current stock.
“China’s per-capita usage of the “safe” cumulative carbon emissions of one trillion tonnes C is still below its fair share, whereas the US exceeded its fair share long ago.”
This is a very incorrect way of thinking about emissions. There was a time of innocence during which all had an equal opportunity to emit carbon dioxide without consequence. China spent that time in Great Leaps Backwards, sending their educated people to forced labor camps and letting their people starve to death rather than ask other nations for food assistance. They had their chance at that time but they decided to occupy themselves with other pursuits.
Now, there is an age of culpability where intentions matter regarding emissions because the climate change has become dangerous. A nation planning to increase emissions is carrying out a belligerent act. It is intending for heatwaves to kill people, for crops to fail and for late October storms to gain such energy that they wipe out Coney Island.
There is nothing per-capita about a nation’s belligerence. There is no fair share. If you step on the gas instead of the brake when approaching a traffic pileup, it is a crime. That is what China is doing regarding emissions. It is intentionally endangering other nations.
quokka wrote: “Every electricity grid of any size in the world is powered by baseload generators … To think this can and will change over a few short years is the worst type of wishful thinking.”
Not long ago, the number of personal computers in the world was zero, and all the electronic computing in the world was done by giant mainframes that filled an entire floor of an office building — and to think that PCs could completely transform “data processing” in a few short years was wishful thinking.
Not long ago, the number of cell phones in the world was zero, and all telephony was handled by giant, centralized, wired phone systems — and to think that cell phones could completely transform “telecommunications” in a few short years was wishful thinking.
Today’s ultra-efficient, ultra-cheap, mass-produced, distributed photovoltaic technology has a similar potential — which is already being realized — to be a disruptive technology that will completely transform the way we generate and use electricity.
This is true not only in the developed world, where distributed solar (and wind) are already making traditional baseload electricity generation less important (and less profitable), but especially in the developing world.
Just as a number of developing nations chose to forgo building wired telephone networks, and to instead build their national phone systems using cellular technology from the ground up, some today are beginning to recognize that the best, fastest, cheapest and most practical method of providing electricity to large rural populations who desperately need it is NOT to build giant, centralized baseload power plants and the grids to distribute their power, but instead to go directly to distributed solar power.
Comment by SecularAnimist — 11 Apr 2013 @ 10:04 AM
Chris @193, why are you singling out China?
Does the U.S. not rank high on the list of emitters? Do the U.S. and Australia not export vast quantities of coal to China? Are we not, therefore, endangering other nations?
Chris Dudley wrote: “That is what China is doing regarding emissions. It is intentionally endangering other nations.”
Then what is the US government doing by subsidizing the extraction of massive and increasing amounts of coal from public lands for export to China?
Not to mention, of course, that the nation most gravely and seriously endangered by China’s use of coal is China itself.
Are US coal exports to China actually an attack on China?
Comment by SecularAnimist — 11 Apr 2013 @ 10:38 AM
“But we also calculate these to mean atmospheric CO2 at 600-700ppm, rising to as much as 900ppm as fossils continue to contribute after 50 years.”
Is this statement largely agreed to on this thread under the laissez-faire scenario described?
[Response: It's hard to say for sure without having data files for the precise assumptions about energy demand and the energy mix used in SWITCH, but 900ppm is consistent with the general run of numbers coming out of scenarios with a slight moderation in the of fossil fuels in the energy mix. Complete laissez faire, or extrapolation from the present rate of growth in CO2 emissions, can be much worse, amounting to 5000 GtC emissions by 2150, if we don't run out of coal first. That gives you a persistent global mean warming of 10C based on the mid-range IPCC climate sensitivity. By the way, I find it much easier to think about these things in terms of carbon budgets and cum. carbon emissions than ppm. See also my response to Harry Lynch below. --raypierre]
#193–Chris, I see your logic. But it’s disingenuous at best to attach all blame for China’s technological and economic shortcomings to her leadership from, say, 1950 through 1990. A great deal more opprobrium should also attach to European colonialism throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Moreover, the common citizens of China were the victims of your ‘Great Leaps Backwards’; how just would it be to make them (and their descendants for the foreseeable future) captives of those errors imposed on them in the past? “Not very,” has been the consensus answer, hence the structure of Kyoto.
Yes, we all need to be stepping on the brake. A few are doing so, but most are not–not decisively so, anyway. China’s current failings in this regard are widely shared.
> it is a crime
Shall we start with 1800? Or perhaps you’d want to excuse the US Civil War conflagration and start with say 1900?
This isn’t like finance, where an old crime by a swashbuckling ancestor who just happens to have made you a rich grandchild leaves you with no guilt, now, is it?
I say we let whichever nations haven’t sinned against the climate run the climate court and climate jail.
Which ones would that be? The Algonquins might qualify.
[Response: Relatively speaking, that might be Africa, which among populous continents is also likely to be among the hardest hit by climate change and least able to deal with the consequences. --raypierre]
… the 600 to 800 reactor number would be at similar size to today’s. Global average size is slightly less than a more common 1250mw reactor of today. If future technologies yielded more powerful reactors …
Good point. Nuclear power stations whose output energy is in the form of a storable energetic chemical would tend to have capacities similar to the top end of today’s oil refinery capacity range, ~400,000 times 66 kW, or in the units they use, 400,000 barrels per day. Dividing by a 0.33 heat-to-fuel conversion efficiency that makes 80 GW.
Yes, Jesse Ausubel, a brilliant futurist and ‘habitat-oriented green,’ thinks the most promising use for nuclear reactors will be to make hydrogen, and envisions an energy economy in 2100 built on hydrogen and electricity from nuclear plants. Sounds far fetched today, but he’s been right about many things.
Warning, he is very disturbed by the land use of large scale renewable projects, and hits them pretty hard in this paper.
[Response: I find your sympathy with Ausubel's take on impacts of green energy hard to reconcile with the way SWITCH whitewashed the environmental impacts of Nordic hydropower. But however one feels about the land use impacts of renewable energy, those impacts must be interpreted in the context of the far more threatening climate impacts of unrestrained fossil fuel use. This is where SWITCH fails most miserably. All energy systems have adverse impacts, but among energy systems surely coal and tar sands are the worst of the worst, since you not only get all the bad impacts of CO2 emissions, but also mercury and widespread devastation of the landscape. SWITCH prettifies coal and tar sands to such an extent that the viewer has no basis for making the kind of difficult judgements that need to be made. If it takes review of the production notes and script, and a frame-by-frame analysis of the film to get the point, then the film is a failure. The film you thought you were making is not the film you actually made, still less the film the viewer sees and responds to. --raypierre]
Here’s an excerpt to give you an idea of his writing style. Well worth reading:
“I will offer both renewable and nuclear heresies. I trust readers will not commit
hereticide. Because culture defines heresies, readers coming from a nuclear tribe will
probably applaud my renewable heresies and grumble about the nuclear. While my
heresies may not rival favouring polygamy or sharing all worldly goods, they will
disturb many. My main heresies are that renewable sources of energy are not green
and that the nuclear industry should make a product beside electricity.”
Harry Lynch wrote: “Jesse Ausubel … thinks the most promising use for nuclear reactors will be to make hydrogen, and envisions an energy economy in 2100 built on hydrogen and electricity from nuclear plants …”
Interesting that he chooses the options that are most costly, and least effective at reducing GHG emissions in the very short time frame we have, over the options that are already being rapidly deployed at all scales all over the world, which we already know how to scale up even more rapidly.
Indeed, a “nuclear-hydrogen” energy economy is the ideal vision for those who want to perpetuate BAU consumption of fossil fuels for another century.
Harry Lynch wrote: “he is very disturbed by the land use of large scale renewable projects”
Many nuclear advocates argue that renewable electricity has far too big a land ‘footprint’ to be environmentally acceptable, while nuclear power is preferable because it uses orders of magnitude less land. If we assume that land-use is an important metric, a closer look reveals the opposite is true.
Harry Lynch quoted Jesse Ausubel: “I will offer both renewable and nuclear heresies”
You know, “heresy” can be a lot of fun. But sometimes it is just wrong.
So Senators Barton and Inhofe are so goofy because of the Mexican drug trade?
You are kind of missing the point. In an age of culpability, who sets the emissions policy? National governments. Just like they set their military policy or their human rights policy. There is no per-capita or making up lost ground. If you want to develop, you do it using renewables. If you are developed and have sunk costs you substitute gas for coal then renewables for gas and eat the sunk costs that can’t be depreciated.
Kyoto was negotiated before dangerous climate change started. But now there are attributable damages that are occurring. It is national governments that have a policy of increasing emissions that are responsible for those damages.
Ray, as I described already, and is described in the film, we visited each resource where it is best in the world. We did that for the big dirty ones, and the little clean ones similarly. Coal plants or solar plants, we did not prettify any of them. We simply found which sites best demonstrate their particular technology, and interviewed the people who knew them best. Each resource received the same treatment.
Only 20% of Alberta’s tar sands can be mined in the environmentally disastrous manner that currently dominates. Soon the deeper sands will remain, and require the superior steam injection method we show.
[Response: But surface mining hasn't stopped yet, has it? In fact there are still new surface mines going into production. Some of the recent mining operations are described here. The 20% of minable deposits will keep surface mining going for quite a while. And I suppose the air and water pollution from the in-situ techniques are irrelevant? As is the very considerable amount of energy these new techniques require? So it's OK if the only picture of oil sands production your viewers come away with is a bunch of guys in a lab mooning over their flask of dilbit? Yeah, that all makes Keystone XL a lot more palatable. ]
We demonstrate in the film that CCS will not be economically feasible, suggesting the world will not pursue it. If you follow those demonstration projects, it appears our prediction was correct. We leave it up to the viewer to determine whether we should continue use coal, given that it will not be clean. I know what my answer would be. But that doesn’t mean we will stop.
[Response: You don't actually demonstrate anything of the sort, you just state it. Whether it's economically feasible depends on what price is put on carbon, and also depends on future developments of CCS technology. But that's mostly besides the point. The main problem is that you never connect the dots and tell people that if CCS really is unfeasible, then continued coal burning is going to lead to very serious climate problems. I guess you don't think that's important.]
As you correctly mention, all energies have environmental impacts. We focus on these least because this what the vast majority of the world’s populace, and therefore their governments and businesses, do. Environmental impacts should weigh more heavily in our energy choices, in this energy user’s view — but they do not. This is the reality.
[Response: Maybe your reality. Maybe it's also your reality that nothing can ever change. --raypierre]
And, also as explained, we did not aim to provide what an idealist on the margin (any idealist, any margin) thinks should be our energy solutions. (This is one reason Jesse Ausubel, though we admire him, did not appear in the film itself.) Instead we tried to provide practical practical knowledge, and encourage practical discussions.
[Response: It does not take an idealist to face up to scientific reality. If you wanted to make a film saying that the reality is we're going to continue practically unrestrained fossil fuel use, you should face up to the reality that it is eventually going to entail very serious problems from climate change. To do otherwise is dishonest.]
I don’t consider the film a failure at all,
[Response: That's not really for you to judge ]
nor do the middle 80% of our audience, who have been enthusiastic —
[Response: I have to wonder how scientific your poll is, or how many of those 80% have any familiarity with climate science at all ]
including many more knowledgeable on energy than any posters here, myself included. Only the 20% on far ends of the issues have found that it does not sufficiently condemn ‘those evil fossil fuels,’ or condemns them too strongly, or ‘fails’ in some other grand manner.
Though you are far too immersed in your own world view to imagine this, a group of coal lobbyists saw the film and the next day made an appointment to visit the Texas governor, demanding to know why he had allowed a state employee (Scott as Director or the Bureau) to make an anti-coal film.
Not long after, an antinuke advocate publicly accused us of being in the pocket of the nuclear industry, surmising that the entire effort must have been secretly funded by Areva.
Then I was attacked at a California screening for promoting “the energy industry.” I asked which one, and they said “all of them!” and began to urgently explain why we must return to an agrarian society.
We have been accused, by everyone who champions one particular technology or solution over others, of somehow ignoring their solution or promoting someone else’s.
Energy is highly polarized, and this means that, try as we might to find it, there is no neutral path. We’re always left or right of someone.
[Response: But making a film about energy which fails to inform its readers about the climate consequences which need to inform every energy decision is hardly a public service. In that regard, the film is a failure, and the more people who get snookered into watching it, the greater the failure. --raypierre]
I seem to remember that making hydrogen at the Fukushima nuclear power plant ended up spreading pieces of the power plant all over the place. It was a problem at TMI as well. Not an auspicious idea I’d say.
Who was responsible for the Pearl Harbor attack? The nations that sold iron to Japan to build a navy, or the country that ran that navy? Emissions policies are set by national governments.
I don’t think US miners should be dying to supply other countries with coal but I don’t mind Australia selling coal if they are OK with that kind of thing. Our coal company executives wrap themselves in flags to justify miner deaths so exports don’t really work for us. Just don’t treat imports from countries that are increasing emissions the same as imports from countries that are cutting emissions if you suffer from climate damage. The polluter should pay.
raypierre — inline to my 197. Thank you. Found the Potsdam figure of less than 700 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions allowable from here on if we’re to have a “reasonable” chance of exceeding a 2c increase.
Given “reasonably” hard numbers like that, it seems insane that governments wouldn’t work to establish firm national commitments and infrastructure development plans, rather than float down the river naturally as Mr. Lynch depicts.
And Chris Dudley — according to a Nature study referenced by Potsdam, ““In principle, it is the sum of all CO2 emissions that matters. In practice, substantial reductions in global emissions have to begin soon, before 2020.”
There’s no “age of culpability,” unless you include all of those involved from the industrial revolution onward.
[Response: The Potsdam number corresponds to a 75% chance of staying under 2C. The trillion tonne total C number (3.7 trillion tonnes CO2), which gives us about 500 billion tonnes C (1.85 trillion tonnes CO2) left to go, corresponds to a 50% chance of staying under 2C. The Potsdam number used to be a trillion tonnes CO2 as of the Meinshausen paper, and I don't know what happened to bring it down to 700 billion. --raypierre]
You could at least read Ausubel’s paper, or visit our website, or watch the movie, before commenting knowingly on them. It tells me how carefully you’ve read and fact-checked the sources you use to support your arguments.
“…over the options that are already being rapidly deployed at all scales all over the world, which we already know how to scale up even more rapidly.”
What data could you possibly be looking at? Your political opinion of solar and wind has blinded you to the realities of their slow growth (30 years to very partial materiality, in only a few countries) and limited application. In a world where we demand electricity at any time of day or night, they cannot meet that demand and therefore remain supplemental. (Don’t believe the few dubious and debunked studies that suggest we could get 100% of our electricity from intermittents.)
But a supplement is good, and very valuable. More reasonable studies and real world experience indicate modern grid systems could integrate 20% of intermittents before instability. Given the monumental scale of energy use, 20% globally would be a monumental achievement, make a very significant impact, and would be an admirable if not practical goal.
Someone mentioned 20percentwind.org, which suggests that the 20% come from wind in the US. This would entail building 16,000mwe of wind capacity per year from 2018 through 2030.
That’s means duplicating the world’s largest wind farm, Roscoe (we shot there for the film), 21 times each year. To clarify, that’s 2 of the world’s largest wind farms, completed each month!
Remember that each of these takes up 100,000 acres. 2,100,000 acres per year. Nearly 30,000,000 acres total. And that wind developers are struggling to build anything since continuation of the PTC is uncertain.
We could do even more dramatic calculations with Andasol, the world’s largest solar plant, at 150mw capacity (still about 16% capacity factor) which we also visit in the film. It would require 16 of them PER MONTH over the same time period.
That’s not fast, or easy, or near term, or likely.
Here’s another chestnut:
“Indeed, a “nuclear-hydrogen” energy economy is the ideal vision for those who want to perpetuate BAU consumption of fossil fuels for another century.”
Again, if you took the time to read Ausubel’s paper before commenting, you’d see that the main tenet of his argument is decarbonization. How exactly does this promote fossil fuel use?
But hey, don’t let research, data, practicality, history, economics, thermodynamics or the laws of physics stand in the way of your vision. They’re just cramping your style!
Actually no. Nobody told us when we were industrializing that emissions were a problem and they would have been wrong if they had because emissions were not a problem at that time. Now, we have to rebuild what we already built and which already worked because it turns out emissions are a problem. But industrializing counties now have been told that emissions are a problem. There is no reason at all to industrialize based on fossil fuels particularly since we invented the transistor which makes photovoltaics work. So, it is not about the total, it is about culpable emissions which demonstrate intent to do damage.
[Response: Lack of knowledge of the law (of nature) is no excuse, but in any event, it was abundantly clear that emissions are a problem any time after Manabe's work of around 1960. There might be some justification in writing off first-world emissions before then, but so much of our emissions have happened since that it wouldn't make a huge difference. China and India have a problem with emissions not because they have used up their per-capita share of the trillion tonnes (they haven't), but because the first world exceeded its fair share. In that sense, we ought to pay the developing world something for our over-use of this common resource, in order to help them accelerate their decarbonization and make up for their share of the carbon commons we have already used up. --raypierre]
Interesting to note that if we keep going with nuclear power for the next 60 years with the current accident rate, nuclear power will have made permanently inhabitable radiation exclusion zones with the same land area needed to replace all nuclear power with solar pv farms.
Harry Lynch wrote: “Your political opinion of solar and wind has blinded you … don’t let research, data, practicality, history, economics, thermodynamics or the laws of physics stand in the way of your vision. They’re just cramping your style!”
So now you are reduced to insults.
Harry Lynch wrote: “… blinded you to the realities of their slow growth (30 years to very partial materiality, in only a few countries) and limited application.”
As you must be well aware, wind and solar have only recently begun to scale up, so your choice of 30 years as a time frame in which to evaluate their growth is cherry-picking akin to selecting 1998 as the year that global warming “stopped”.
The reality is that wind power in the USA has been growing at record rates for years. In 2012 US wind generation capacity grew 28 percent, accounting for 42 percent of all new generating capacity, more than any other source of electricity. That’s over 13,000 MW of new wind capacity installed in one year.
As for “limited application”, total installed wind capacity in the USA is now over 60,000 MW — but that’s quite small to the total wind energy resource of more than 10,000,000 MW onshore and 4,000,000 MW offshore (according to NREL).
Elsewhere in the world, wind power has already surpassed nuclear power as China’s third largest source of electricity, produced more electricity than any other source for 3 months in Spain, and provided more than 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity consumption, and grew by 20 percent in Germany. The EU installed more than one offshore wind turbine PER DAY in 2012.
As for solar, it is still much smaller than wind but growing much faster — indeed, solar is the fastest growing source of new electricity generation in the world. US solar installations in 2012 totaled more than 3,300 MW, up 76 percent over 2011 — and utility-scale solar, which is just getting started, grew by 134 percent.
According to FERC’s March 2013 “Energy Infrastructure Update”, solar accounted for ALL new utility generation capacity added to the US grid in March, and 30 percent of all new utility-scale capacity for the quarter. Note that this does NOT include growth in end-user distributed solar installations which account for more than half of US solar capacity. There is every reason to expect continued rapid and accelerating growth, especially given the plummeting costs of solar, which have dropped 40 percent in just the last two years.
And of course solar is growing even faster elsewhere, particularly in Australia and Germany. And as with wind, the harvestable solar energy resources of the USA, and the world, VASTLY exceed all of human civilization’s energy consumption.
Harry Lynch wrote: “Don’t believe the few dubious and debunked studies that suggest we could get 100% of our electricity from intermittents.”
Now there’s a “political opinion” for you.
Multiple independent studies, including studies published in peer-reviewed journals, have shown clear paths to a 100 percent renewable electricity supply, and none of those studies have been “debunked” as you assert.
Your repeated use of the disparaging term “intermittents” to describe wind and solar is very clearly a politically-motivated choice.
Harry Lynch wrote: “… if you took the time to read Ausubel’s paper before commenting, you’d see that the main tenet of his argument is decarbonization. How exactly does this promote fossil fuel use?”
I didn’t say that Ausubel’s intent was to promote fossil fuel use.
What I said is that schemes based on technologies that don’t exist and will not exist for many decades — like building hundreds or thousands of “generation whatever” science-fiction nuclear reactors that only exist on paper today, to produce hydrogen to be stored and distributed and used through systems that are likewise vaporware — are ideal for those who DO want to postpone the phaseout of fossil fuels for decades.
As far as I can tell, your comments here have reaffirmed Raypierre’s impression of the film: downplay the threat of global warming, portray continued fossil fuel use as inevitable, disparage the mature and powerful clean energy solutions that are already being rapidly and widely deployed, and promote alternative technologies (e.g. nuclear & hydrogen) that are at least decades away from having any impact on the profits of the fossil fuel industry.
Australian coal exports to China have been mentioned a number of times on this thread. As a matter of fact, Japan is the biggest export market for Australian coal, followed by China, Korea, India and Taiwan in that order.
I’m sure that the likes of Gina Rinehart will shed no tears if the shutdown of nuclear power in Japan continues.
Australian thermal coal exports are projected to grow at an average of 11% per year to 2017. And exports of metallurgical coal by 8%. A large portion of Australian exports are high quality metallurgical coal.
Wind generation requires balancing agents. Typically these are combined cycle gas turbines, which ramp rapidly enough (just barely). The Wind Energy Association recently announced that in the USA wind farms operated at an average of 34% capacity factor in 2012. [That is impressive since the average for the Columbia Basin wind farms is but 27%.]
For a nameplate 360 MW wind farm the grid operator needs to allocate 360 MW of a CCGT. For a cost of
0.34W + 0.66C per MWh
where W is the cost of wind generation and C is the cost of natgas generation, the grid operator now has 360 MW of dispatchable power available (with restrictions as wind is must-take). To be concrete, W might be US$92/MWh, as in a recent contract with Idaho Power, while from http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-Positive_outlook_for_nuclear_energy-1004131.html C might be US$55/MWh. The result is certainly less than the US$80–120/MWh for nuclear new build as represented by a pair of mPower NPPs in http://www.babcock.com/products/modular_nuclear/
This results from a lack of a carbon tax which if set at around US$45/MWh for natgas then makes the NPPs about as financially attractive as wind+natgas.
Comment by David B. Benson — 11 Apr 2013 @ 6:35 PM
It was not until 2008 that we were told that the 450-550 ppm stabilization target would be a problem. Some still think it is OK including you apparently. And solid attribution of dangerous climate change effects is more recent still. So, until recently, emissions were going to be a problem but were not yet a problem and there was a pie to divide up. But, now they are a problem because they are causing current damage, damage that shows up in crop insurance payouts and flood insurance payouts in the federal budget. Who should pay for that? Those who are causing the problem with malevolent intent demonstrated by their insistence on increasing rather than reducing emissions.
For now, rather small tariffs can cover those costs.
China might be able to blame scientific reticence for not providing a clearer warning that they did not have the headroom they thought, but now we have facts on the ground and they are still unresponsive. So, it is time for some unilateralism to defend ourselves. Better a little now than later when we would have to take in kind steps as our military capability in the Pacific is degraded as the Pentagon is predicting. Having to provide a compensatory degradation of China’s capabilities would not be pretty at all.
“Interesting to note that if we keep going with nuclear power for the next 60 years with the current accident rate, nuclear power will have made permanently inhabitable radiation exclusion zones with the same land area needed to replace all nuclear power with solar pv farms.”
I’ve never found stuff that is just made up to very interesting.
Take a look at the radiation maps for Fukushima here, and note the decline from Nov 2011 to Dec 2012
If you do the simple calculation, you will find that annual dose for anybody spending 24 hours a day outdoors in any of the blue and light green areas would be not significantly more than to residents of Cornwall in the UK where average natural dose is about 7 mSv per year. Unlike in Cornwall projected annual dose will continue to decline fairly rapidly for a few years as the Cs-134 decays and then more slowly as Cs-137 becomes the only significant source.
Unlike the dioxins in the mud at bottom of Sydney harbour, pollution from a radiation accident is not forever. I believe the experience from the Chernobyl accident was that about half of the lifetime projected dose was delivered in the first year after the accident. If you crunch the numbers, you would find that only for an individual living for a full lifetime in the red and perhaps a little of the orange areas on the map, would projected lifetime dose exceed that to residents of Cornwall in the UK from natural sources.
As for the significantly worse Chernobyl accident, the Ukraine government has declared most evacuated towns fit for habitation after extensive radiation surveys:
Hydrogen is a perfectly viable ‘chemical storage of energy,’ and when people refer to ‘storing energy as a fuel’ hydrogen is usually a top option. It’s our predominant energy carrier.
Electricity is our predominant energy carrier. When energy is used to make an energetic chemical that then is delivered to energy users, my guess is that that chemical is zinc. Non-rechargeable zinc batteries still seem to be in stores in large numbers, so I estimate 10,000 to 100,000 tonnes a year is used this way.
I used to be a hydrogen-for-energy-transfer fan, like the late computer scientist John McCarthy, who had a hydrogen page on which he said, “We hydrogen enthusiasts will just have to wait”. And I see his web pages still exist (http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/index.html).
Chemical-fuel-making nuclear power stations could calcine limestone, extract hydrogen from water, and react the carbon dioxide from the limestone with the hydrogen to make oil. The alkaline earth left over from the calcination could be spread over flat land to take back CO2 from the atmosphere, and be calcined again. This would make more sense than trying to get people to run their cars on hydrogen without carbon.
Sorry, perhaps that was obscure. European relations with China were semi-colonial. They worked through ports established by the unequal treaties and had the facade of trade relations. Railways were built, but from the coast into the hinterland rather than connecting Chinese inter-province commerce. But, one of the ways that silver especially was extracted from China was the opium trade. This was ruinous for Chinese prosperity because there were so many addicts created. The US tried to help to put an end to it.
So, my joke was that the Senators are stoned and that is why our efforts are not as strong as they should be similar to blaming colonialism (and opium) for China’s inability to grow a pair on emissions issues.
Mr. Chris Dudley wrote on the 11th of April, 2013 at 7:00 PM:
“It was not until 2008 that we were told that the 450-550 ppm stabilization target would be a problem.”
who is “we” ? it was clear long before
“So, until recently, emissions were going to be a problem but were not yet a problem and there was a pie to divide up.”
there still is
“But, now they are a problem because they are causing current damage, damage that shows up in crop insurance payouts and flood insurance payouts in the federal budget. Who should pay for that?”
You are. Have you noticed the increase in food prices ? Don’t like it ? Change your representatives. Oh, wait, agribiz owns them all…and gets the bulk of the crop insurance. So sad.
“Those who are causing the problem with malevolent intent demonstrated by their insistence on increasing rather than reducing emissions.”
Excellent. Put Rex Tillerson on trial.
“China might be able to blame scientific reticence for not providing a clearer warning that they did not have the headroom they thought, but now we have facts on the ground and they are still unresponsive.”
So…all the wind and solar and nuke built in China indicates a lack of response. What then shall we call the lack of action in the USA ?
“So, it is time for some unilateralism to defend ourselves. Better a little now than later when we would have to take in kind steps as our military capability in the Pacific is degraded as the Pentagon is predicting. Having to provide a compensatory degradation of China’s capabilities would not be pretty at all.”
I see. Bomb their coal fields and coal burners to save the world. This kind of adolescent jingoistic rant is more appropriate on a denier site.
We have approx 500GTon C of atmospheric fossil loading left on a lucky course to avoid 2C. The OECD countries have burnt more than their fair share of the carbon budget in the past. They need to decarbonize fastest and furthest, precisely to allow the developing countries the headroom they need to follow. And they should opensource the technologies for renewables such as panel and turbine blade design.
That last bit is of course anathema to the powers that be … but they too shall pass
And to return to the particular piece of dreck that’s the subject of this post:
It calls for a sequel: what if we were stupid enough to actually do what the movie claims assumes is going to happen ?
[Response: Something to add to China's credit side on efforts to keep down their emissions is their successful effort to rein in population growth. The policies have caused real sacrifice, and many of them are morally questionable and I do like to think that there is a more benign way of achieving the same end, but be that as it may the Chinese emission situation would be far worse (as would be their problems with alleviating poverty) if they had been steadily growing at the rate of India. --raypierre]
Comment by David B. Benson — 11 Apr 2013 @ 10:57 PM
Actually, hydrogen, in the form of carbohydrates and hydrocarbons, is our predominant energy carrier.
In the middle of our outdoor interview with Dr. Dan Sperling, Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and one of the world’s leading authorities on transportation alternatives, one of their hydrogen fuel cell cars drove by. We paused for a moment, and he said, “There goes the real future of transportation…”
Why 30 years? That’s an average of how long it takes to make a partial energy transition, to take a technology from experimental to some level of materiality. That’s also about how long we’ve been building wind and solar seriously. (In truth, it’s been longer, since the 70s. Saying 30 years is giving them a decade.)
Here’s Vaclav Smil on the subject:
“Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of energy transitions is their speed. Substituting one form of energy for another takes a long time. U.S. nuclear generation began to deliver 10 percent of all electricity after 23 years of operation, and it took 38 years to reach a 20 percent share, which occurred in 1995. It has stayed around that mark ever since. Electricity generation by natural gas turbines took 45 years to reach 20 percent.
In 2025 modern wind turbines will have been around for some 30 years, and if by then they supply just 15 percent of the electricity in the United States, it will be a stunning success. And even the most optimistic projects for solar generation don’t promise half that much. The quest for noncarbon sources of electricity is highly desirable, and eventually such sources will predominate. But this can happen only if planners have realistic expectations. The comparison to a giant oil tanker, uncomfortable as it is, fits perfectly: Turning it around takes lots of time.”
No one has debunked the 100% intermittents theory?
“…We must be realistic about their contribution…suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny…renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future…’
This is James Hansen, who I believe you’ve cited, writing in his personal email newsletter (skip past the baby pictures):
“Recently I received a mailing on the climate crisis from a large environmental organization.
Their request, letters and e-mails to Congress and the President, mentioned only renewable
energies (specifically wind and solar power). Such a request offends nobody, and it is worthless.
Indeed, it is much less than worthless. If you drink the kool-aid represented in the right part of
Fig. 7, you are a big part of the problem.”
I know you won’t believe me, but perhaps you’ll believe Hansen? This type of thinking is not just unproductive, it’s counterproductive.
“The right part of Fig. 7” refers to an intermittents-only approach first proposed by Amory Lovins 30 years ago. Please see the link — there is much other worthwhile in it.
Hansen supports a nuclear-led portfolio of zero carbon energies, including large scale hydro and intermittent renewables, and a carbon price. I would agree with all that, but add stricter efficiency legislation and encouragements to substitute natural gas for coal in power and oil in transport, since both can act relatively quickly at scale.
IF we decided to get serious about CO2 reduction, that’s the only practical path toward a solution.
But it would be expensive and disruptive, and requires prioritizing potential long term benefit over the short, including durable policy lasting beyond administration changes. For these reasons and others the world’s people and governments have shown little serious interest.
Which is why, going back to my original comment, we produced the projection in Switch. To show how the transition likely will happen, even in a gradually improving (per Ausubel, naturally decarbonizing) BAU scenario.
This, from my earlier post, is the core of the carbon policy suggestions I intend to write on the Switch site.
“…a nuclear-led portfolio of zero carbon energies, including large scale hydro and intermittent renewables, and a carbon price… plus stricter efficiency legislation, demand management, and encouragements to substitute natural gas for coal in power and oil in transport, since these can act quickly at scale.
IF we decided to get serious about CO2 reduction, that’s the only practical path toward a solution.”
I know you’re no fan of my filmmaking (just as I’m no fan of your writing), but I’ve also been considering making this the follow up to Switch.
Could I suggest an addition to your statement to include the need for much expanded government involvement (and spending) in energy R&D. It is not clear at all that the tools currently at hand are sufficient to do the job. One thing that a carbon tax does not necessarily do is foster R&D spending in long term projects with timelines of more than say a decade+. Whatever one thinks about ITER, it is hard to see projects of such duration and scale would be undertaken by private industry – even with a carbon tax. It may turn out that we really will need the results of such R&D.
This is especially important for advanced nuclear power, but there are probably quite a number of areas where a good case could be made. For example research into low emission alternatives to current methods of producing iron and steel or cement. Both are big emitters.
SecularAnimist- Re my 152 and your 158: I appologize for the delay, but since you have declared me repeatedly wrong, let me address your contentions point by point.
There is an absolute need to drastically increase conservation measures, the lowest hanging fruit, especially in the US. Who would dispute that? Add all the world’s needs for transportation and heating, along with a relentlessly growing cooling demand, to the current electricity demand on the grid, and subtract savings from conservation. Cover that all with non carbon sources within several decades. That is the requirement. As I said.
Perhaps the evolution of the power infrastructure in the developing world can follow a path allowing reliable supply without any baseload plants, as you assert. Certainly the movement of the technology is in that direction. How completely and rapidly that can occur I lack the autonomous expertise to evaluate. Even allowing that to be true, you refute my assertion for the developed world that some type of base load supply must be chosen, for those parts of the world where hydro is unavailable, merely by stating that “utility-scale and distributed solar and wind are making base load power generation increasingly less important”. It is a mighty long step from there to we don’t need tham at all, so I’ll have to go back to True on that one.
Next you again assert, this time without qualification, that renewables can reliably supply it all with a smart grid, even in developed countries. Hopefully true. I am just a scientifically literate lay-lurker here, with what I like to think of as a modicum of critical thinking skills, though perhaps I’m just cynical. But it would clearly take a much smarter grid than now exists. Is there a clear, shared vision of how to get there? How to fund the re-engineering and retrofitting of the existing grid? Is this proved technology or are we talking about newly conceived ideas, never implemented on a large scale? It has to work the first time and be fully implemented within decades. My critical thinking skills (or cynicism), on the advice of nearly all expert opinion tell me not to put my eggs in that basket. We will need base load of some type. I’ll change that one back to True.
I assert that renewables with energy storage have yet to be invented, much less demonstrated, lumping them for practical purposes with CCS. Okay, several solar collecting plants with thermal storage have been built, tho one reads of problems. And you can make as big a pile of batteries as you like. But can you make thousands and thousands of huge piles of batteries all over the world; can this scale to replace coal plants on a significant basis? When I was in gradeschool my Dad was a chemist in a battery plant. We moved when the EPA closed it down. I think it ended as a superfund site. Anecdotal of course. Compressed air, thermal storage, geothermal, flywheels are in different stages of developement- none are ready for widespread immediate construction to displace coal, which is what is needed. Deploying them on a wide scale before proper smaller scale engineering research has been done, pilot plants operated, operating and safety routines established would just result in power outages, political ass-covering, etc. When(if) these technologies go widely on line they have to work first time, all the time. Hospitals, water utilities, and all my Wisconsin neighbors whose heating will hopefully be on the grid, don’t want to hear that the flywheel in the e-storage plant is down again because it turns out the special ceramics in the main bearings crack after a few months at load, or whatever or whatever.
We have wasted the time we had to methodically develop these technologies before they were needed. The political and economic inertia of the trajectory the world is on combine with the short time available to narrow the realistic implementable options to nuclear. What is needed is broad implementation of conservation combined with significantly increased funding for basic and engineering research on smart grid development and energy storage. Nuclear plants should be built to displace coal, and then natural gas plants. As varius energy storage modalities, or CCS mature they should be built as situationally appropriate to replace retiring currently existing nuclear plants. The technologies that prove out could then be more widely deployed to replace the most recently built nuclear plants.
I see your misunderstanding. I was speaking of military capabilities in that paragraph. Destruction of our Pacific military infrastructure owing to climate change can be seen as an intentional effort by China to shift the balance of power. All they have to do is keep increasing their already huge emissions and we lose bases and have less capability to defend our allies. Reducing their offensive capabilities to rebalanced would be a very nasty effort to undertake.
Military conflict as a result of climate change is very likely and informs present planning efforts. But conflict with China, as their emissions plans indicate the want, would be a frellin shame.
Since you insulted the energy expertise of readers of this site, it is rather concerning to me that you hold up an energy non-expert, Hansen, in opposition to one of the top energy experts in the world, Lovins. Lovins has explored all options in his recent book “Reinventing Fire” and found large scale renewables with new transmission to be the lowest cost option. He prefers more localized generation owing to its reliability against large scale disruptions, but he also finds that to be more expensive. Using nuclear is more expensive still.
People here are very much aware of Hansen’s extraordinary expertise, but is in the area of climate science, not energy. You are strongly indicating that you lack credibility by proposing this comparison.
From a recent link:
Physicist Amory Lovins, consultant to business and government leaders worldwide and active in the electricity industry for over 30 years, has written 31 books and over 450 papers. He’s received the Blue Planet, Volvo, Onassis, Nissan, Shingo, Zayed, and Mitchell Prizes, MacArthur and Ashoka Fellowships, 11 honorary doctorates, and the Heinz, Lindbergh, Right Livelihood, National Design, and World Technology Awards. Formerly an Oxford don and a visiting teacher at nine universities (most recently Stanford’s School of Engineering) he’s an Hon. AIA and a Swedish engineering academician. In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and Foreign Policy, one of the 100 top global thinkers. He’s currently Chairman and Chief Scientist at Rocky
Citing Smil for support for a go slow approach lacks credibility. Just look at his argument. He uses nuclear power, the least nimble of all energy options to say that things are slow. He considers a system where demand growth is slow, then says things take a long time. He has bamboozled you which is his usual MO.
If we are willing to eat sunk costs, renewables can take over in 15 years as many peer reviewed studies have shown.
> It was not until 2008 that we were told
> that the 450-550 ppm stabilization target would be a problem.
“we”? c’mon. Who is this “we” and why are they ten years late on the uptake?
Didn’t they pay attention? Or are they falling for the predicted “can’t happen … not happening … not serious … too expensive …. too late” sequence the denial industry uses routinely when warned of consequences?
Physicist Amory Lovins …
… received the Blue Planet, Volvo, Onassis, Nissan, Shingo, Zayed, and Mitchell Prizes, MacArthur and Ashoka Fellowships …
Incredulous emphasis mine. And in his own words, “I’ve worked for major oil companies for about thirty-five years, and they understand how expensive it is to drill for oil.”
This reminds me of something I wanted to say earlier, after raypierre said this:
Some think that Lovins’ assumptions are overly optimistic, but I’m so scared of the magnitude of the decarbonization problem I’d like to start with Lovins, and then have the capability to layer on nuclear as needed in case things don’t work out the way Lovins thinks.
Isn’t it obvious it’s his job to make overly optimistic projections of decarbonization by non-nuclear means? Projections that give fossil fuel revenue-corrupted governments cover in doing exactly what they want to do in order to maintain that revenue? “Physicist”.
“… Today people are starting to think about what will happen, and numerous agencies have published studies that reflect this interest (National Academy of Sciences, JASON, NERC). … research is being conducted to lessen transformer vulnerabilities by developing smaller, more mobile versions ….”
“the vulnerability of U.S. nuclear power plants to space weather effects?
… The Secure Grid 2011 Exercise didn’t explicitly look at this issue. There are a wide range of very severe cascading and secondary effects that can result from a widespread grid blackout but that were beyond the scope
of the exercise. The assumption is that backup generators will
be in place, but should they not be, the plants would be extremely vulnerable.
… FEMA is looking into this issue, but the solution depends on the supply of diesel generators when there is no grid.”
I say again, the nuclear fission industry should be the best friend of the local renewable power businesses and every nuclear plant should _cover_ its surrounding acreage with renewables of every available type, including experimental ones. Use that buffer zone for something besides Homeland Security bollards. Cover it with solar PV, put in heat storage, put up windmills, do pumped hydro with excess power.
All that renewable electricity may cost more than nuclear and way more than natural gas generation — while the grid is in place.
When the grid goes away for months — as it will eventually across wide areas — the fossil fuel infrastructure will stop, transport will stop, diesel won’t be available for every fission plant reliably and continuously for the months it takes to get the grid back.
At that point, a ring of renewable power around every fission plant and fuel cooling pond will be — invaluable.
Keep those pumps running for months with the grid down?
Yes we can.
Remember, a fission generator can’t produce power to keep itself cool when the grid goes away.
Hello, Fermi Paradox, is anybody listening?
Bang on your fission industry contacts to surround every plant and storage pond with renewables, spend the money improving the renewables for the sake of the fission industry. Nobody needs renewable power more than fission plants do — when the grid goes away.
Harry Lynch wrote: “No one has debunked the 100% intermittents theory? … This is James Hansen …”
James Hansen is a climate scientist. He has no expertise on the subject of energy technologies. I am well aware of his views on energy technologies, which are ill-informed and wrong.
It’s interesting to note that global warming deniers are also fond of asserting that “the global warming theory” has been “debunked” by someone or other who has no expertise in the relevant science.
Comment by SecularAnimist — 12 Apr 2013 @ 10:15 AM
Rich Creager wrote: “The political and economic inertia of the trajectory the world is on combine with the short time available to narrow the realistic implementable options to nuclear.”
If you are saying that Big Energy interests who want to maintain ownership and control of the energy supply, in the form of giant baseload power stations and grids designed solely to transmit power from those stations to end-users, are using their entrenched political power and wealth to LIMIT the options to nuclear, there is certainly some truth in that.
There are plenty of ongoing attacks on the renewable energy industry, from last year’s conspicuous politically-motivated attacks on R&D funding (e.g. Solyndra), to attacks on the wind energy production tax credit, to attacks on state-level renewable energy portfolios — all of it backed by Big Energy interests, e.g. the Koch brothers and their various organizations.
If you look at the interests that are pushing nuclear power, you see that there is a lot of overlap with the interests that are resisting the phaseout of fossil fuels or even any regulation of fossil fuels (e.g. stricter standards for mercury emissions, disclosure of fracking chemicals, etc).
Comment by SecularAnimist — 12 Apr 2013 @ 10:30 AM
Harry Lynch wrote: “Why 30 years? That’s an average of how long it takes to make a partial energy transition, to take a technology from experimental to some level of materiality. That’s also about how long we’ve been building wind and solar seriously. (In truth, it’s been longer, since the 70s. Saying 30 years is giving them a decade.”
With all due respect, that’s generalities and nonsense. Indeed, as “skeptic” Vaclav Smil says in the passage you quote, “In 2025 modern wind turbines will have been around for some 30 years.”
Sure, wind turbines have been around for a while — the world’s first grid-connected 1 MW wind turbine was installed in Vermont in 1941. But the modern, high-tech wind turbines that have driven the rapid growth of wind power are much more recent technology. And since they’ve been around — looking at the timeframe Smil mentions — the electricity generated by wind power in the US has grown from 3,288 MWh in 1997, to over 140,000 MWh in 2012 (DOE figures), with most of that growth in just the last few years.
Moreover, there is no reason to believe that any generic “average of how long it takes to make a partial energy transition” applies uniformly to technologies as different as, for example, coal and nuclear powered centralized power plants on the one hand, and distributed solar PV and wind turbine farms on the other. The issues involved in scaling them up are entirely different, and the growth curves we are seeing in the real world are entirely different. The explosive growth curves of wind, and especially of distributed PV, look a lot more like those of personal computers, cell phones and flat-screen TVs than those of Big Energy technologies like coal and nuclear.
Indeed, as I noted earlier, according to the most recent FERC report, renewables accounted for 46 percent of all new electrical generation capacity in 2012; in the first quarter of 2013 renewable energy accounted for 82 percent of new capacity; and in March 2013, 100 percent of all new capacity. NO new coal or nuclear generation capacity has been added this year.
Renewable energy now accounts for almost 16 percent of US generating capacity (8.5 percent from hydro, 7.2 percent from non-hydro), and about 13 percent of net electrical generation. And keep in mind that FERC’s statistics exclude electricity from PV systems below 1 MW in size, which comprise about half of all US solar capacity.
As Dan Seif from RMI wrote last year, “What’s even more impressive is that non-hydro renewable generation has grown approximately 150 percent since 2004, primarily from utility-scale wind, with the preceding 13 years seeing basically no non-hyrdo growth.”
If these growth rates continue — and there is every reason that they CAN continue, and indeed can drastically accelerate if we choose to do so — then we can easily blow past that goal of 20 percent wind power.
Comment by SecularAnimist — 12 Apr 2013 @ 11:28 AM
Harry Lynch wrote: “More reasonable studies and real world experience indicate modern grid systems could integrate 20% of intermittents before instability.”
I note again your consistent use of the word “intermittents” as a pejorative term, instead of the more commonly used term “renewables”. It makes your “political opinion of solar and wind” very clear.
I also note the begging-the-question fallacy implicit in characterizing as “reasonable” claims that you have not shown to be “reasonable” at all.
I also note the implication that “modern grid systems” are static, and that development of new energy sources must be limited to accommodate those grid systems, rather than adapting the grid to new technology.
The reality is that the “real world experience” of nations and states with large amounts of renewable generation has shown that very high levels of renewable energy can be integrated into the grid without causing “instability”. And this is especially true of distributed end-user photovoltaics, whose only impact on the grid is to reduce demand — and usually peak demand — which, if anything, makes the grid operators’ work easier. (Though it does cut into the profits of baseload generators.)
And of course, our so-called “modern grid systems” are in need of major overhauls and upgrades for many reasons — and the ability to integrate a variety of energy producers at all scales, centralized and distributed, baseload and variable, is certainly one of them. And of course that’s why (as you must be aware) so much work is going into smart grid technology today.
Again, I’ll offer the analogy with information technology.
At one time “computer data networks” consisted of large centralized mainframes, connected by dedicated point-to-point lines, that were accessible to end-users with dumb terminals who connected to a mainframe over a dumb phone line and rented clock cycles and bytes of storage. That’s a similar model to the “modern grid systems” you mention.
But then came the Internet — a massively-interconnected, smart network, able to intelligently connect and transfer information between intelligent “peers” which may be anything from a warehouse-sized Google data center to a wireless handheld device. That’s the sort of model that we need for the 21st century “electricity Intranet”.
And the reality is, the grid is going to have to adapt, because highly distributed renewables are coming whether the grid operators like it or not — for the simple reason that, as with PCs and cell phones and smart TVs, people want them, and are going to buy them and connect them to the grid.
Comment by SecularAnimist — 12 Apr 2013 @ 12:00 PM
That rules out the 450-550 ppm stabilization 2 C warming limit on which many international negotiations have been based and shows that there is no room for increased emissions from China, cuts need to start now. And, since that means greater expense for us than for them in making a rapid transition, since we have to junk prior investments while they need only shift new investments that they planned to make anyway away from fossil fuel energy, we really can’t be subsidizing their intransigence through covering the cost of the damage they are intentionally causing. The cost to the flood insurance and crop insurance programs from climate disasters needs to be made up using import tariffs on Chinese goods.
… 28.4GW of solar PV capacity was installed in 2012, bringing total global capacity to 89.5GW in the 23 countries in the International Energy Agency’s study … another estimated 7GW of capacity is in the pipeline in markets outside the 23 countries looked at by the IEA which would increase the total to 96.5GW … with installations worldwide difficult to quantify with precision, the 100GW milestone has already been passed in the first quarter of this year …
… China has progressed so quickly that it represented the second largest market in 2012, ahead of Italy or the USA. In terms of total installed capacity it has already reached third position …
In Europe, for the second year in a row, PV was the first source of electricity installed (power-wise), ahead of wind and gas, and ahead of all other sources of electricity, from coal to nuclear. This is accompanied by several countries where the annual PV contribution to electricity demand has passed the 1% mark, with Italy at the top with at least 5.75% …
Finally, the report notes that PV has become a major source of electricity extremely rapidly in several countries all over the world. The speed of its development stems from its unique ability to cover most market segments, from the very small individual systems for rural electrification to utility-size power plants (today above 100MW). From the built environment to large ground-mounted installations, PV finds its way, depending on various criteria that make it suitable for most environments.
The IEA’s “New Snapshot of Global PV 1992-2012″ report is available as a PDF here:
Comment by SecularAnimist — 12 Apr 2013 @ 12:29 PM
No, that is not at all what I am saying, and is impossible to infer from what I wrote. That is Your soap box talking. Let me be more clear: We’ve used up our grace period. We need to start building baseload powerplants soon, to displace coal. Only nuclear plants can be quickly and widely deployed and reasonably expected to work when built. For one generation of powerplants, we have to suck it up and deal with the nuclear devil. All that you say about the machinations of the vested energy interests, Koch brothers etc, in using up our grace period may be true but are completely beside my point.
The Chinese population policy really does not have anything to do with emissions. It is more about political control. The Nationalist revolution was strongly influenced by the Chinese emigre communities around the world. Those communities could fund activists like Sun Yat Sen and undermine the empire. The communists were aware of this, indeed they also had outside training. With the Japanese invasion, the communists strengthened their position and eventually obtained power. But, to hold power, they felt they had to avoid the potentially subversive influence of the emigre communities. So, they close the country, including pretty much all trade including foodstuffs.
Under those conditions, and with their gutting of the professional classes, it was pretty clear that they could not feed the population if it grew. In fact, they could not feed it if it did not grow. Many starved. So, they adopted the one child policy. This was not needed. Obviously, China imports lots of food now, and there were certainly many places to emigrate too had population grown. But, they were able to retain power by that policy and avoid emigre influence in internal politics. And, now, the core Chinese value of family loyalty and filial piety has be transformed largely beyond recognition. Yearning for absolute political power does that sort of thing.
Not much to admire in that though. Lots of human rights abuses and lost culture is about all it amounts to.
With the responses here, particularly from SA, I see Harry Lynch’s presence in this thread to be entirely supportive of Raypierre’s review, and displaying a tone of desperation – the film is basically ignoring the immediacy of the climate change question in support of BAU because of ‘proprietary’ economic considerations. OTOH, economic considerations will certainly be the undoing of us all due simply to the unsustainable size of the human presence on the planet. All this talk of how the energy system should or could be by 2050 totally misses the fact that we are increasingly have trouble feeding polulations well or supplying enough potable water . . . to flush down the toilet.
And Chris, Americas approach is not much different than Chinas
Rich Creager wrote: “We need to start building baseload powerplants soon, to displace coal.”
In practical terms, “displacing coal” means (1) preventing new coal-fired power plants from being built and (2) allowing existing coal-fired power plants to be shut down. The rapid growth and plummeting costs of solar and wind are contributing to both of those goals already. And so is reduction in demand thanks to efficiency improvements. Keep in mind that more than half of all the USA’s primary energy is wasted. Replacing coal-fired power plants one-for-one with nuclear power plants is certainly NOT the only way to “displace coal”.
Rich Creager wrote: “Only nuclear plants can be quickly and widely deployed and reasonably expected to work when built.”
Sorry, but that’s just plain false.
We know exactly how today’s mature, powerful, rapidly improving wind and solar technologies can be “reasonably expected to work when built” — they work superbly.
And wind and solar can be — and already are being — deployed MORE quickly and MORE widely than nuclear power plants can be.
I realize that the nuclear industry’s main talking point is that nuclear power is the “ONLY” available option for decarbonizing electricity generation and therefore we have no choice but to accept the very real problems of nuclear power. But it’s simply not true. There are other options that are cheaper, faster, and better — not to mention safer.
I congratulate Mr Lynch on showing up here, and on maintaining a reasonable tone in the face of some hard-hitting opposition, but if he’s said anything much in answer to Raypierre’s central objection to the film, I missed it.
[Response: And with that, I think it's a good time to close off this thread. It's been a good discussion, but I won't have time to moderate it further and I don't like to leave unmoderated threads lying around. My thanks to everybody for participating in the discussion --raypierre ]