The right’s anti-wind campaign is pure scaremongering

by John Quiggin on July 24, 2013

That’s the headline for my latest piece in the Oz edition Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, in Oz and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, and disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.

Attempts will doubtless be made to draw a comparison with leftwing attitudes to nuclear power. But this fails for numerous reasons

  • A substantial number of environmentalists support nuclear power as a necessary replacement for coal
  • Among those who don’t a substantial number (me for example) base their view on the conclusion that nuclear power is simply more a mpre expensive aLternative to fossil fuels than are renewables or energy-efficiency measures

*The health risks associated with nuclear power are real, even if they are sometimes overstated

  • Finally, even those environmentalists who are reflexively opposed to nuclear power aren’t guilty of the hypocrisy of their rightwing counterparts. Typically, they simply hold extreme concerns about risks of all kinds.

The only environmentalists I would convict of hypocrisy on this issue are people like Robert F Kennedy Jr, who campaigns against both nuclear and wind power while claiming to care about climate change. But RFK Jr is an anti-vaccine loon, whose only claim to fame is the name he inherited from his father. He has been rightly denounced by genuine environmentalists. Meanwhile, even those on the right who know that the scare campaign about wind is nonsense make excuses for their allies (I quote Greg Hunt in the article, and I anticipate more of the same in comments here).

Update I’m happy to say that my predictions on comments at my blog have been more than borne out. A number of rightwing commenters have weighed in with the claim (false, when you take account of the underpricing of CO2 emissions) that wind is subsidised relative to fossil fuels. Several comments have implied that, since wind energy is supposedly subsidised, it is OK to make up anti-scientific lies about it. None of our rightwing tribalists has been willing to call out their fellow tribespeople.

More amusingly, on the pro-science side of the debate, we’ve been testing out Poe’s Law. Check out the comments that reject mainstream climate science and put forward alarmist claims about wind. See if you can tell which are real and which are parodies. I had some genuine difficulty.

{ 176 comments }

1

MapMaker 07.24.13 at 1:26 pm

Wind pricing is a challenge and I haven’t seen very good, honest accounting on the costs of transmission, instant-on stand-by power, and stranded costs, etc. Any recs?

If you want a fairer comparison on anti-science, it has only been in the past few years that left wing environmentalists have backed off ethanol claims that were scientifically silly to begin with, even before rent-seekers on both sides in congress got a hack at them …

2

Dick Veldkamp 07.24.13 at 1:51 pm

#1 Cost of transmission, intermittency (backup) etc of wind energy

Here are two good reports
http://www.gl-garradhassan.com/assets/technical/beyond-the-bluster_Aug2012.pdf
http://www.ukerc.ac.uk/Downloads/PDF/06/0604Intermittency/0604Intermitt
encyReport.pdf

The first one is for the general public, the second one is quite detailed. Bottom line: at current penetration, the extra cost because of intermittency is less than EUR (or USD, or GBP) 0.01 per kWh.

BTW Intermittency is nto really a problem for larger areas. Output variations cancel, and wind power is well predictable for the next 24h or so. See here for a good example:
https://demanda.ree.es/demandaGeneracionAreasEng.html

3

Cranky Observer 07.24.13 at 2:29 pm

Dick Veldcamp @ 1:51 pm:
Do you consider MISO (the North American Midcontinent [formerly Midwest] Independent System Operator) a “larger area”? They dispatch about 12 GB of wind distributed fairly well around their 2.6 million sq km service territory. During the 3-week heat wave just finished (temps in the 27-41 deg.C range depending on location) they received essentially zero contribution from wind; other than severe thunderstorms (when turbines are usually feathered) the entire region was under calm winds during that period.

A reasonable reply would be that that means we need more wind sites, and I would agree, but we need to be realistic about full lifecycle & seasonal dispatch costs of wind just as we ask of the fossil resources.

Cranky

4

Katherine 07.24.13 at 2:50 pm

Somewhat off topic, but my concern about nuclear is that it is replacing one finite source (fossil fuels) with another (uranium). At this point, Tim Worstall will usually turn up to say that there is enough uranium for a 100 years (I can never remeember whether this is at current usage or projected future usage).

My response is simply – so? 100 years still isn’t infinite, and in the meantime we’ve spent billions on something we have to dismantle at ever greater cost probably within the lifetime of people being born now.

Also, no one has yet come up with a good enough plan for storing the waste long term.

5

Omri 07.24.13 at 3:12 pm

Cranky Observer, you might care to observe that heat waves coincide with sunny weather, and so are pretty easily addressed with another renewable technology: solar power. If the Germans can avoid brownouts during heatwaves these days, so can lower-lattitude inhabitants of the MISO zone.

Katherine: too true. Future generations will equate that kind of talk with the “peace in our time” talk of 80 years ago.

6

SamChevre 07.24.13 at 3:18 pm

Katherine @ 4

The highly-radioactive components of nuclear waste can be separated out of the waste and used as fuel (that’s what the French used to do.) That solves both problems at once.

And if my memory serves, current stocks of already-enriched uranium and plutonium would last somewhere around 1000 years, without fuel re-processing or further mining. (Using it to produce electricity seems to be a better idea than keeping it as bombs.)

7

donquijoterocket 07.24.13 at 3:18 pm

At least I didn’t see anyone come up with the “dead birds” argument against wind turbines.I’ve seen it before and wonder when right wingers started caring about migratory birds and why they do nothing about restoring habitat for those species and reducing the amount of pesticides and other poisons we spew into our ecologies.

8

Sebastian H 07.24.13 at 3:47 pm

Being hard on your enemies and easy on your friends is what humans do, but its a bad thing that humans do. You’re right that wind power isn’t dangerous. My understanding is that wind and solar share the problem of being intermittent at sometimes annoying times, but essentially my position is that we need to be doing lots more nuclear, wind and solar–a position which isn’t exactly easy to vote for in the US (or anywhere really).

Mapmaker is right on ethanol. We still haven’t gotten that environmentalist mistake under control, and if my (yes totally anecdotal) experience is remotely mainstream there are still lots of normal people who believe that ethanol as transportation fuel/additive is good for the environment.

The birds thing is typical gaming on both sides though. I fully admit that I may be totally behind on the research, but last I heard the bird thing really was a thing. I’m fine with pointing out that people who rarely care about birds are being selective in counting that as a serious cost, but people who normally are willing to shut down large projects over such questions see surprisingly blasé over the issue. Which I guess brings us back to my first sentence.

9

Omri 07.24.13 at 3:48 pm

SamChevre, the problem with reprocessing is that while you’re doing it, you’re maintaining possession of weapons grade material. So you either do it right, with proper security, and with good relations with all present and former military rivals so they don’t feel prompted to restart an arms race, or you just don’t do it.

I support that as a policy not because of the energy provided but because it does hasten the day our existing stock of spent fuel ceases to pose a hazard, but let’s not pretend it’s an easy thing to do.

10

SamChevre 07.24.13 at 3:50 pm

Omri @ 9

Agree–reprocessing has its own set of problems. It’s certainly better than mining and enrichment, but the international security issues with any form of enrichment are huge.

11

Omri 07.24.13 at 3:53 pm

“Being hard on your enemies and easy on your friends is what humans do, but its a bad thing that humans do.”

Enemies? I left the Republican party in the US because they were talking like that about fellow Americans. There remains this pesky issue of the national interest, and anyone who leaves it behind for this kind of talk should be given a second anus.

12

Jerry Vinokurov 07.24.13 at 4:04 pm

There’s enough uranium in seawater to last for thousands of years. Extracting it is expensive, to be sure, but lots of progress has been made in recent years in reducing that cost by developing better extractors.

13

Anderson 07.24.13 at 4:32 pm

I would hope in a thousand years, if we’re still here and not reduced to primitives, we’ll have figured out how to harness fusion. All for solar and wind where cost-effective, and our whole culture might benefit from being less energy-crazed, but I don’t see how nuclear isn’t necessary.

14

The Tragically Flip 07.24.13 at 5:04 pm

I don’t buy that we need nuclear for anything, and I strongly suspect the reason certain classes prefer it is that it, like fossil fuels is great for rentier classes to dominate. Another great natrual resource for everyone to rely on and a privileged few to own, and the need for very large centralized captial intensive facilities to keep down pesky competition. Renewable energy is not inherently amenable to rent sucking, since wind, solar and geothermal are feasible at household or neighbourhood levels and you can’t own the sun or wind.

(As I type this, the Simpsons was probably more prescient than many realize in making their plutocrat a nuclear power plant owner, and they even had a plot where Burns blocks out the sun because it provides the town free light & heat).

If we base the system on renewabled and find in practice we need a certain amount of nuclear for those periods of low light/wind, fine, but let’s cross that bridge when we get there. Giving up now and basing the grid on nuclear is to say “we’ve tried, nothing and we’re all out of ideas!” We’re really at the dawn of renewable energy technology and if it half the state help nuclear got to get off the ground (not that it ever really did since no private entity can cover the worst case liability), we’d likely be well on our way to a clean energy system.

15

Dick Veldkamp 07.24.13 at 5:42 pm

#3 Crank Observer

Saying ‘Intermittency is not a big problem’ is NOT the same thing as saying ‘We should go for 100% wind because there will always be enough windpower under any circumstances’. In the case you mention I would presume the lack of wind was predicted, and MISO took appropriate measures to avoid problems. Note that EVEN IF you needed (much) backup, you would still save lots of fuel.

Obviously the sitution could be improved with solar (as Omri obeserves), which is almost a 1-to-1 match for air conditioning needs. Also connecting grids and integrating hydropower would help (storage).

My point is that the intermittency is overhyped. People who bring intermittency up always overlook that there are (and there always have been) demand variations utilities deal with on a regular basis, that statistics work in our favour, and that there are various technical tricks we can (and do) apply. Wind is not the answer for all energy, but it can sure help a lot.

Please have a look at the links I provided.

16

Cranky Observer 07.24.13 at 5:53 pm

I’ve worked in large power dispatch centers, and also in long-term generation planning, so I’m generally familiar with the concepts ;-)

The problem isn’t, as you note, as hard as the reactionary forces claim (Upton Sinclair rule), but neither is it anywhere as easy as renewable proponents assert. We’ve built a society that is so heavily dependent on a guaranteed supply of electricity that – like breathing air – we don’t even notice it is there. Maintaining that availability & amount is difficult and tricky. Especially since we don’t really understand how the electric grid we have built really works.

Cranky

17

hix 07.24.13 at 5:59 pm

In Germany, windgenerator opponents are always nominal left/green. De facto they are the usual middle till upper class nimbys. The big environmental groups often do join their opposition, just like they join any nimby opposition to the construction of anything, streets, airports, theme parks, whatever . Some life close enough that they might suffer some from genuine externalities, most just hate any change to their imidiate environment, even if it is just the sight of a windgenerator on the horizon. The angel to sue is usually some bird. Wedont have any environmentalists that prefer nuclear over coal. The burn plants and call it green approach in my impression has less love here from environmentalists. The incredible power of the agriculture lobby is to blame for this. There is even some pushback against the worst abuses from environmentalists.

Regarding the UK, does anybody know if nimby opposition is the reason why the Uk started with expensive off-shore wind before even touching the best on shore locations?

18

Cranky Observer 07.24.13 at 6:00 pm

In the US of A we also have to deal with the Federsl Energy Regulatory Commission being controlled by Republican appointees with freshwater-school views who fervently believe that the solution to every electricity problem is more “markets” and auction processes. Including planning for future supply – that’s one they are ramming down the throats of the provision industry (unregulated & regulated) right now, and ignoring the objections of state regulators in doing so. That makes Germany-style forward planning quite difficult.

Cranky

19

Omega Centauri 07.24.13 at 6:01 pm

JQ didn’t mention the anti-science (or anti any sort of conservation) on the USA tight. I suspect we got you topped by an uncloseable margin. There is even opposition to letting the energy department study efficiency standards for ceiling fans.

Here its the usual excuses given -any regulation equals absolute tyranny. But, its probably mostly a case that anything that will piss off your enemies is good. Of course good old fashioned constituent or contributor servicing is also in play.

20

Jerry Vinokurov 07.24.13 at 6:31 pm

Renewable energy is not inherently amenable to rent sucking, since wind, solar and geothermal are feasible at household or neighbourhood levels and you can’t own the sun or wind.

Renewable energy generation isn’t something you’re going to put together in your garage over the course of a few weekends, it’s an advanced technology that requires significant capital investment to develop and deploy. Not as much as a nuclear plant, but it’s not like it just comes from nowhere.

21

Trader Joe 07.24.13 at 6:41 pm

” Renewable energy is not inherently amenable to rent sucking, since wind, solar and geothermal are feasible at household or neighbourhood levels and you can’t own the sun or wind.”

Seriously?

Solving the “problem” at the household level is abou 10% of the problem. Where does the power come from to run the office buildings, factories, schools, hospitals and pretty much everything else that doesn’t sit in a rural village or suburb.

I’m way on board with the idea of wind and solar, but they aren’t exactly highly conducive to densely populated areas – if you’re going to put them elsewhere to solve the geography problem, then the “rentiers” are going to control the distribution. Its hard to solve both problems simultaneously. It seems to me, saving the earth and building the renewal non-carbon generating systems should be job one, then worrying about who earns profits from having done so should be second.

22

SamChevre 07.24.13 at 7:02 pm

The burn plants and call it green approach in my impression has less love here [in Germany] from environmentalists.

My impression (admittedly, from The Economist) is that Germany prefers burning trees, rather than corn. I suppose this is an improvement, but I’m not certain how great an improvement.

23

The Tragically Flip 07.24.13 at 7:04 pm

Renewable energy generation isn’t something you’re going to put together in your garage over the course of a few weekends, it’s an advanced technology that requires significant capital investment to develop and deploy. Not as much as a nuclear plant, but it’s not like it just comes from nowhere.

Right, but roof top solar and home sump geothermal are already in use. This isn’t theoretical, it’s just a matter of how much better and cheaper can we make them, in what period of time.

The climate crisis should dictate a Manhattan Project level effort to get these things as far and fast as we can to get the majority of our emissions halted. That isn’t happening and it’s pretty obvious why when you consider who benefits from the current fossil energy system.

24

Layman 07.24.13 at 7:09 pm

Perhaps tangential to the OP, we’re currently experiencing an anti-solar campaign here in Arizona. Recently, Arizona Power Service announced they’re seeking approval from regulators to begin imposing a monthly fee on all new rooftop solar owners – citing infrastructure upgrade costs needed to support net metering. APS claims existing installations would not have to pay the fee under their plan.

But APS employs a consultant, who is in turn linked to a Virgina-based 501(c), 60 Plus. 60Plus claims to lobby for lower taxes, etc, on behalf of seniors, but receives funding from the Koch brothers.

60Plus is funding a media campaign in Arizona, which claims rooftop solar owners are effectively being paid 5x the going rate for the electricity they feed into the grid, and that other ultility customers are paying higher fees in order to fund that overpayment.

The campaign is aimed at galvanizing the majority behind a scheme to end net metering or assess penalty fees on homes participating in net metering; in essence, to kill the program.

The alleged connections aren’t conclusive – APS wants to change billing practices to the detriment of rooftop solar, APS hires a consultant to work on that plan, the consultant also works for 60PLUS, 60 PLUS gets funding from the Koch brothers, the Koch brothers are out to kill alternative energy, and suddenly 60Plus is running anti-solar ads in Arizona targeting supporting the change APS wants to make. Maybe it’s a coincidence, not a conspiracy. Maybe.

25

john in california 07.24.13 at 7:23 pm

Uhh, now what was that little problem with nuclear? Oh yeah, Fukishima!! When a wind turbine falls down, the squirrels die, When a nuclear power plant falls down, people die and they keep dying long after the power plant owners/investors have retired on the government payouts they extracted to created this never ending liability.

26

Tim Worstall 07.24.13 at 7:47 pm

“That’s the headline for my latest piece in the Oz edition Guardian.”

I think it’s wonderful the way the Guardian’s Oz edition is giving opportunities to previously underheard voices. That was what they were intending, wasn’t it?

OK, snark over, I’ve taken their cash too. Nice place to write for.

Re wind power even as a fully paid up right wing loon I don’t worry about the health effects. But I am rather concerned about the economics of it.

“A number of rightwing commenters have weighed in with the claim (false, when you take account of the underpricing of CO2 emissions) that wind is subsidised relative to fossil fuels.”

I think I’d like to see proof of that contention. We know from Stern what the carbon tax should be, $80 per tonne CO2-e. And I don’t actually know what the wind power subsidy is per tonne not emitted. Which is why I’d like to see it. I do know the German one for solar, which is something disastrous like $1,017 per tonne not emitted.

And I have to admit that I’m very, very, dubious about offshore wind: engineering friends (I know, arguing from anecdata!) tell me that marine environments are going to require a great deal more maintenance than is currently planned for.

All of which is pretty odd really given that the biggest current market for the metal I deal with is for wind turbine blades: actually makes them more efficient.

“Somewhat off topic, but my concern about nuclear is that it is replacing one finite source (fossil fuels) with another (uranium). At this point, Tim Worstall will usually turn up to say that there is enough uranium for a 100 years (I can never remeember whether this is at current usage or projected future usage). “

It’s actually some thousands. And yes, of course, every physical commodity does have ultimate limits to its usage. But I generally regard “more than one thousand years” as being someone else’s problem. Seriously, would we have welcomed Willy the Bastard telling people not to use up alum deposits because people might like to have them in 2066? Technology changes so much over such time scales that, as I say, I regard a thousand year supply as being sufficient for us to carry on.

As to reprocessing, vitrification. Works, known to work technically, just not acceptable politically.

“Cranky Observer, you might care to observe that heat waves coincide with sunny weather, and so are pretty easily addressed with another renewable technology: solar power.”

That’s not really a good answer. For your assumption is that we must have both wind turbines to meet peak demand and also solar power to meet peak demand (and summer heatwaves in AC land is peak demand). That gets very expensive in capital very quickly, insisting that we must have two power generation systems.

“And if my memory serves, current stocks of already-enriched uranium and plutonium would last somewhere around 1000 years, without fuel re-processing or further mining. “

You might be right but that sounds excessive to me. No real evidence, it just sounds too long a period. Off topic though I would like to praise Al Gore for a moment. His bombs for electricity thing after the fall of the SU was inspired. Don’t like much else about him but will applaud that.

“There’s enough uranium in seawater to last for thousands of years. Extracting it is expensive, to be sure, but lots of progress has been made in recent years in reducing that cost by developing better extractors.”

Correction: tens of thousands of years. Possibly even long enough to get fusion working. (4.6 billion tonnes of U in salt water apparently).

“Renewable energy is not inherently amenable to rent sucking, since wind, solar and geothermal are feasible at household or neighbourhood levels”

Seriously? You need silicon fabs to make solar cells (OK, they’re not as expensive as computer silicon fabs but still). Plus the mining of Ga, Ge, In and Cd and Te. These are all capital intensive industries. For wind you need aluminium plants: their capital requirements ain’t chopped liver either. The production of the energy can be local, but the production of the things that produce the energy is a hugely capital intensive and entirely global industry. Quite seriously, the Te to make the Cd/Te solar cells like First Solar makes requires the entire global copper industry to be sending their wastes to one plant in the Phillippines. That’s hardly local cottage industry, is it?

“Regarding the UK, does anybody know if nimby opposition is the reason why the Uk started with expensive off-shore wind before even touching the best on shore locations?”

No, sadly, the idiots that rule us think that offshore is more efficient.

As some here will know my day job is spent with the weird metals that these various renewables technologies need. I get something of a worm’s eye view of what’s happening next. My best guess is that solar will be truly competitive against coal within a decade: except for the intermittency problem. Wind won’t be, ever (this is excluding the CO2 costs. I do think that unsubsidised solar will beat un carbon taxed coal soon, not just in remote locations at the end of or off the grid). But we still need base load. Maybe a DC long distance grid. Maybe nuclear, fission or fusion. Or the one I have my bet upon, solar to the electrolysis of water to provide H2 for fuel cells. If solar gets cheap enough, and I think it will, this works.

We don’t actually face a shortage of power: insolation is too vast for that. An engineering problem of how we harness it, yes, but that worm’s eye view tells me that we’re close to solving those problems. Indeed, we know how they can be solved, it’s just a few more interations of the technology.

27

Tim Worstall 07.24.13 at 7:52 pm

Apologies, that turned out rather long….

28

Dick Veldkamp 07.24.13 at 7:55 pm

#16 Cranky

I think that generally we do not disgree then.

The consensus view seems to be that up to 20% grid penetration of renewables we don’t have to do anything. If we want more, we need various clever solutions: more grid interconnections, combination with hydro and solar, some back up conventional plants, load shedding, storage.

I think it’s interesting to look at the problem from the other side. Suppose it was a given that the grid was very unreliable, what would happen? I’ve spent some time in Lebanon in the past, where grid outages used to be fairly common. It was inconvenient of course, but still life went on. People adapt to it. We should have a hard look at which services really must be uninterrupted (hospitals, data centres, some factories, cold storage). Ordinary domestic loads could be switched off first, say. I personally wouldn’t mind a few outages of a few hours per year, if I’d pay a lower rate.

On teh bright side, I think we have only started to look at managing grids with much renewable input, and that there is still much room for innovation there.

29

Anderson 07.24.13 at 7:56 pm

“The climate crisis should dictate a Manhattan Project level effort”

Tho of course, the Manhattan Project was just a ploy on behalf of the rentier class.

30

Stephen 07.24.13 at 8:04 pm

omri@5: “Cranky Observer, you might care to observe that heat waves coincide with sunny weather, and so are pretty easily addressed with another renewable technology: solar power.”

Problem is, though heat waves coincide with stationary high pressure with little wind, which is no problem in summer: but in winter, stationary high pressure with little wind coincides with long nights, bitter cold, and often with thick ground fog or lasting thick cloud. At that point, your renewable technologies leave us to freeze to death.

31

John Quiggin 07.24.13 at 8:57 pm

@Tim Off the top of my head, the subsidy for renewable energy in Australia, associated with the Renewable Energy Target, is about $35/MWh, which translates, conveniently enough into $35/tonne CO2 for black coal. Investors in wind say this is too low, and they will need $50-55 if we are to reach the target. Here’s a link

http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2012/9/18/policy-politics/how-ret-review-hurting-rec-prices

32

Omri 07.24.13 at 9:08 pm

Eh, Stephen? Not sure where you live, but where I’ve been, in the northern US, a thick fog or cloud cover means temperatures hovering around the freezing point, not bitter at all. It’s the sunny days in the winter when the bitter cold hits. When once again solar will at least keep your pipes thawed. (And if you burn carbon to keep warm on those few days a year, you might be limiting yourself to a range where the earth’s carbon cycle can keep up.)

33

hix 07.24.13 at 9:19 pm

@22 Burning various plants for various energy needs receives generous subsidies. I just asign the blame almost solely to the agriculture lobby for that. The feed in tarif for new constructed biogas powerplants is the highest after a massive cut for photovoltaics. The agriculture lobby had a bad influence in general on energy policy. Agriculture lobbiest were for example instrumental in enabling the generous subsidies for small scale rooftop photopholtaics.

34

John Quiggin 07.24.13 at 9:21 pm

Base load (demand) is nonsense, in anything like current conditions. It’s an artifact of pricing systems designed to get rid of the unwanted power produced by always-on sources like coal and nuclear

http://johnquiggin.com/2009/07/22/the-myth-of-baseload-power-demand/

35

Omri 07.24.13 at 9:25 pm

Any grid system that is exclusively nuclear and renewables has to have smart-grid measures to get demand to adjust to supply conditions. (Renewables turn on at God’s command, not man’s demand, and nuclear plants adjust their output levels slooooooooowly. Like steering a super-panamax ship.)

And once you have demand response measures in place, you might as well ditch the nuclear. Every modern nation has a huge sector of its economy devoted to keeping food refrigerated in transit and storage. That sector can easily soak up excess power from renewables, turning them effectively into a base load resource for the rest of the grid’s customer base.

36

Omega Centauri 07.24.13 at 10:45 pm

Trader Joe, They don’t want to hear your (and my) message, that residential solar is a small sideshow. A big volume of solar requires a large utility-scale sector. Especially if we are to seriously try to replace fossil fuels, we will need to electrify industrial processes that currently burn fuel for process heat -so the industrial and commercial share of electric demand should rise. And few industrial/commecial rooftops are large enough to have solar to make much more than a token difference. My place of work just added rooftop panels, that might supply ten percent of our annual usage.

The latest fad, is thinking residential storage means few will even want/desire a grid connection. This strikes me as completely crazy. The way to make renewables at very high penetration work is geographic and type diveristy. Trying to use batteries to store summer excess sun for use in February is pure madness. There will still be a large fraction of energy generation left to the rentier class. I think it will be well over fifty percent. The same will hold for energy storage, it will largely be done in large rentier class owned facilities, because that will be the most economical way to do it.

And wind does not scale downwards, with the exception of a few farmsteads and rural community owned wind turbines, wind is nearly strictly rentier class stuff.

37

Will Boisvert 07.24.13 at 10:49 pm

John Quiggin, you’re right that wind turbines don’t pose serious direct health risks. But you’re overlooking serious indirect effects of energy systems dominated by wind turbines and solar panels. These unreliable generators require “backup” by dispatchable technologies—hydro, biomass and fossil fuels—that pose quite serious risks to public safety and health, on a scale that dwarfs the risks of nuclear power.

Wind turbines in particular are prone to common-mode failure during heat waves, when they fizzle out en masse. That could cause or exacerbate blackouts, with catastrophic consequences. When I lived in Chicago in 1995, we had a heat wave that killed about 600 people; a European heat wave in 2005 is reckoned to have killed upwards of 70,000 people. The death tolls would have been much higher had there been power failures

Grid managers won’t let that happen, of course. They will back up the grid with dispatchable generators sufficient to run the whole system in the complete absence of wind and solar power. But if we’ve ruled out nuclear power, what will they use as dispatchable backup, and at what risk?

Geothermal won’t scale. Hydro devastates large swaths of land and has its own catastrophic safety risks. Over the last 60 years dam breaks have killed many more people than nuclear accidents have.

Biomass? It will have disastrous impacts on the environment and human health by gobbling up immense stretches of farmland and forest. Switching acreage from food to energy crops on a large scale will drive up global food prices; the resulting malnutrition, disease and death among the poor will be orders of magnitude worse than the toll from any nuclear accident.

What’s most likely is that grids will continue to rely on coal and gas plants to back up unreliable wind and solar. Germany is now building many coal and gas plants to take up the slack from the shuttering of nuclear plants under the Energiewende. Even when idling in standby mode, these plants will burn substantial amounts of fuel and emit a lot of air pollution and greenhouse gases, with serious effects on public health and the global climate.

Your post ignores all these risks, John, especially the risks of coal. (Assuming I’ve read you correctly to mean that you prefer coal to nuclear.) Coal is a vastly worse health threat than nuclear energy. Every year pollution from coal-fired power plants kills thousands of people in the United States and hundreds of thousands of people worldwide—many times more in a single year than the combined toll from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. (Indeed, the scientific consensus on the Fukushima accident is that there will be no measurable health effects at all from it.) And nuclear is uniquely suited to provide dispatchable power that can replace coal- and gas-fired plants. A recent study by NASA climate scientist James Hansen estimated that nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives in past decades by abating air pollution from fossil-fueled plants, and could save a further 400,000 to 7 million lives by mid-century.

Greens who blithely embrace wind and solar while demonizing nuclear simply have not made an accounting of systemic costs and risks. The consequences of that thoughtlessness are dire. The shuttering of Japanese and German nuclear plants spells more burning of fossil fuels, hundreds of millions of tons more in yearly greenhouse emissions, and increased air pollution that will kill thousands of people.

Meanwhile the buildout of wind and solar in Germany and elsewhere is faltering under huge costs and visibly failing to dent greenhouse emissions—indeed, it’s being buttressed by increased coal burning. In comparison, by prioritizing nuclear power both France and Sweden managed to decarbonize their power supplies much more completely and rapidly than Germany’s Energiewende will. That’s the ultimate risk of renewables—they are a slow, timid, incomplete and lackadaisical half-response to the crisis of climate change.

Greens really need to take a hard look at their preconceptions about energy policy. An excellent case can be made that nuclear is the safest, healthiest and most environmentally benign (not to mention the cheapest) of all energy technologies.

38

John Quiggin 07.25.13 at 12:03 am

Will, you absolutely misread me on coal vs nuclear. I thought I was pretty clear, but I’ve edited the post to make it clearer.

Your arguments about intermittency and backup have been discussed already, and, more importantly, refuted by experience.

It’s clearly possible to go to 20 per cent renewable and beyond without any special steps to deal with intermittency. After that, it’s necessary to start reconfiguring pricing systems and grids designed for coal and nuclear, but there are plenty of expert studies to say that an almost entirely renewable system is feasible at modest cost. Here’s one by Australia’s grid manager

http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2013/4/29/renewable-energy/100-renewables-feasible-aemo

BTW, i agree that shutting down existing reactors, as Germany is doing, is not a good idea in general.

39

Lee A. Arnold 07.25.13 at 12:33 am

There appears to be a health risk in locating some windmills within earshot of residential structures. There is a perfectly rhythmic, soft whoosh which can cause psychological distress. This is already becoming an issue in some communities in the U.S.

40

Matt 07.25.13 at 1:17 am

Residential electrical demand is not just a side show, at least not in the USA. Per the 2012 LLNL Energy Flow Chart, residential electrical demand is higher than commercial or industrial. It accounts for 4.69 quads of electrical consumption out of 12.56 total, or 37% of the demand. Commercial demand at 4.52 quads makes up another 36%, while industrial demand is only 27% of the total. Both residential and commercial properties (e.g. warehouses, offices, restaurants, stores) commonly have enough roof space to satisfy a non-trivial portion of electrical demand from rooftop solar.

A few years back NREL estimated, fairly conservatively, that residential and commercial rooftop solar could surpass the US nuclear fleet in annual generation, at 819 terawatt hours per annum. Replace their scenario’s 13.5% efficiency modules with today’s most efficient rooftop modules at 20%, and you get ~1200 terawatt hours, or more than nuclear and conventional hydro combined. The rooftop generating potential is so large that the bigger question is whether anyone can develop cheap enough storage technology to maximize rooftop use, or if rooftop systems will need to be undersized on account of producing more electricity than anyone can use on sunny days.

Finally, the vast potential of solar does not mean that I disfavor wind. In parts of the US at least it is cheaper than rooftop or utility scale PV, in fact cheaper than most new generating sources. In Texas 20 year PPAs for wind power have been signed below $40 per megawatt hour, or roughly $65 per megawatt hour once you add in federal and state subsidies plus new transmission infrastructure (most of that extra, $22, is the wind production tax credit, and it only lasts for 10 years, so real subsidies-included cost over 20 years is actually less). That’s considerably cheaper per megawatt hour than new-build coal, nuclear, PV, or hydro power, even if Texas had the geography for a big hydro power expansion. I hesitate to compare it to gas given the unpredictability of 20 year gas prices.

41

Matt 07.25.13 at 1:19 am

NREL rooftop solar link was screwed up: use http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy09osti/44073.pdf

42

stubydoo 07.25.13 at 1:37 am

Having read JQ’s linked article, I’d say that it isn’t the case that the “baseload” argument might be people talking past each other. The “baseload” problem might have a precise meaning as John describes, but I think the real problem people are getting at is the compromised ability to meet demand at any given time. Wind or solar being unpredictable is a problem. Nuclear or coal being unflexible is a problem. Dealing with the unpredictableness of wind or solar requires combining with something.

Accordingly:

- combining wind/solar with inflexible coal: benefits might fail to materialize as the coal still might have to be running at sufficient capacity for full demand in order to be ready when needed

- combining wind/solar with gas: better thanks some more flexibility to adjust the gas usage, but my understanding is that designing a plant to maximize flexibility involves sacrifices of efficiency, which means offsetting the environmental benefit

- combining wind/solar with hydro: only possible in certain places of course, but certainly the built in flexibility of the hydro helps the combination work. Though leaving a hydro station temporarily dormant does nothing to reduce its primary externality. And you get the occasional drought, though having also some mostly dormant spare gas capacity can get you through that while generally retaining overall carbon reduction.

- combining wind/solar with nuclear: John seemingly doesn’t like the option, as its extreme inflexibility means fuel will be wasted like with coal. But this is fuel that has no more preferable alternative use, and does not cause the carbon externality.

Of course this all leaves a lot of math to be done, but assuming you’re in a location where large scale hydro or geothermal is not possible (or where environmentalists fight against them), it turns into a tradeoff between the carbon externalities of fossil fuel versus the, um, other externalities of nuclear. Wind and solar does not take that tradeoff away, unless you’re one of those folks ready to sacrifice being always on.

43

JRHulls 07.25.13 at 2:02 am

We need to look at energy required to sustain exponential growth. There is a real problem with the thermodynamics of exponential growth as discussed in the my somewhat satirical “Republicans are Planning to Cook Your Grandchildren” post at http://somewhatlogically.com/?p=649 which has links to studies of the heat production necessary to sustain this exponential growth, neatly calculated, also somewhat tongue-in-cheek by UC San Diego physicist Tom Murphy on his blog, “Do the math”. Incidentally Noah Smith really doesn’t like Murphy’s little socratic dialogue between an economist and a physicist. http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2012/11/murphys-law.html

Secondly, improvement of grid structure is vital to insure efficient distribution of energy. All those who think this should be left to utilities, who will undoubtedly structure it to maintain market control, should go stand in the corner. The utilities have been real barriers to adoption of distributed power in the U.S. This somewhat older post addresses some of these issue and links to a very interesting American Institute of Physics article on the relationship of grid capacity, reliability and regulation. http://somewhatlogically.com/?p=57

Re: 38…it’s interesting to see that Australia is looking at the practicality of 100% renewables with some degree of seriousness.

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Collin Street 07.25.13 at 2:08 am

” Dealing with the unpredictableness of wind or solar requires combining with something.”

Clearly nuclear is out, then. I mean, nuclear fission is entirely unpredictable on an atomic scale, so our attempts to make an “atomic pile” that reliably generates power are patently doomed from the get-go.

[also, apparently it’s a-priori impossible to make reliable money as a bookmaker or running a casino. I didn’t know that.]

45

Martin 07.25.13 at 2:29 am

Isn’t the question about nuclear etc. scenario dependent? The EMF 22 assessment was quite clear about what e.g. stringent mitigation scenarios require:

http://emf.stanford.edu/research/emf22/

This is compatible with the recent IEA assessment, I think, that also have investment in new nuclear and CCS as quasi-obligatory options for stringent targets (needless to say: renewables play the dominant role). Also, on a more international level for purely renewable generation I know only about the Jacobson/Delucchi assessments that have been published. However, every paper they publish seems to entail highly critical comments in the respective journals. Can anybody help me out with studies that show feasable 100 percent renewable targets, especially for anything but Australia (and that have seen some quality control; I know they exist for Australia)?

If I understand it right, ambitious EE targets have the double aim to a) accomplish emissions abatement and b) get us closer to a specific realization of sustainable energy generation. Is there any hint that – or to what extent – the two coincide, and where tradeoffs in the near term have to be expected?

Specifically, In Germany Eon boss Theyssen demands high compensations for a (fossil-fueled) power station in Irsching he apparently wants to mothball du to unrentability in the face of teh ETS implosion, but the government rules this out for reasons of “net stability”. The issue has even made it to Wikipedia (German entry, but google translator works just fine), already:

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kraftwerk_Irsching

This is anecdotal. But anyway, is this a sign that renewable penetration has reached a point where reliability of generation becomes an issue inasfar as dispatchable generators can’t easiliy be mothballed? Or is this normal? Note that there are are really a lot of discussions recently in German media about how operators want compensation for fossil-fueled power stations that do not run profitably, but the government forces them to stay on standby due to stability issues. This sounds like a need for backup. Personally, I cannot cut through the opposing views according to which this is either due to competetive coal in Europe (as the price on emissions is so low) or due to renewable penetration.

46

The Raven 07.25.13 at 2:38 am

There’s good reason to believe that at least 90% of building heating and cooling energy could be gathered on site. There’s been a lot of research to this point; you might start with Amory Lovins Rocky Mountain Institute for some of the literature.

As to nuclear power…nuclear power has picked up a powerful ally in planetologist James Hansen, who believes that it may be the only thing that will allow us to avoid climate disaster. In fact, he advocates the use of fast neutron to generate more fuel. (Yes, the Hansen who calculated the 350 ppm figure. Yes, that Hansen.) That said, it seems to me a risky course. It seems to me that nuclear power would be a fine technology if we had saints and angels to manage and operate the facilities. Lacking a reliable source of such personnel, it seems to me risky indeed, despite all technical efforts.

47

hix 07.25.13 at 3:00 am

Theyssen is quite obvious in his attempt to get subsidies for nothing. Hes not going to get a good capital return on that powerplant anytime soon, but closing down so many gas powerplants that grid stability is endagered makes no sense outside a coordinated blackmail scenario.

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Martin 07.25.13 at 3:31 am

@ hix

Maybe, but this is beside the point. The topic is here, specifically, is one power plant. Now, Bavaria simply does not allow it to be mothballed (for whatever reason) because it would threaten grid stability. If Theyssen eventually gets money or not, or if he smells of elderberries, is beside the point. The question I am asking is if this is a normal thing to happen (i.e. the regulator demanding the power station to stay on standby as a backup), or if this is due to renewable penetration.

I could have asked a similar question, not pertaining to reliability of generation, but to surcharges: that is, the announcement of Poland to block temporary eletricity overgeneration at its borders, when German renewables temporarily produce much beyond demand, not below. Etc.

The thing is: the notion that problems with the implementation of the energy transformation in Germany are more or less unheard of is really really wrong, as can easily be demonstrated by diverse media reports. But then, I am not in a position to judge if this is just more buzz from the right-wing imagination-gone-wild assessment of the world, or if this is actually an underlying limit (in the short run) slowly announcing itself.

I have no doubt that a renewable transformation will be accomplished, this is inevitable, as everything else is exhaustible, doh. But there is also mitigation – and if there is a problem with the reliability of electricity generation of renewables right there at 20+ percent share, nuclear forbidden, CCS development stopped, and the backup coal, there might be a problem with regard to this, no? How much of a problem depends, I’d guess, on the temperature target (inherent in the emission target), or the tax level, if we follow an “optimal” emission trajectory. This is why I don’t quite understand why the abatement scenario is never mentioned in these discussions (at least that’s my impression).

49

Omega Centauri 07.25.13 at 4:12 am

Certainly there are people in Germany who struggle with the grid stability issues for aliving. I have no doubt that there are serious clallenges; engineering -and legal and business (incentivising generators and consumers to be flexible on demand). But beyond a small group of profesionals, and companies, is this really at a level of seriously that the man on the street is even aware of it. I haven’t heard of any recent large scale outages in germany recently, so i take it that so far at least the management of these issues has been sufficient.

PG&E is already trying to design incentives to convert some geothermal from baseline to dispatchable, as they anticipate significant challenges based upon the different temporal characteristcs of sun/wind, versus demand. There tends to be a sharp demand spike around 8-9PM, when solar without storage is off, and people are truning on big screen TVs, and starting the washer etc. There clearly are issues. At least in the better managed utilities people are working to adress them.

Back to residential, I heard the figure 75%, for the number of households who are effectively not eligible for rooftop solar. This is by virtue of rooftop issues, type of roof, exposure, or they are residents of high rises or renters. So 25% of 37% comes in at around nine percent. The other sectors are going to be crucial. Hopefully community solar can fill in some of this gap.

50

Will Boisvert 07.25.13 at 4:33 am

@ John Quiggin 38 on intermittency, backup, wind and solar, and renewables achieving 20 percent penetration rates.

The crucial analytic distinction to make is not between renewable and conventional, but between dispatchable generators—nuclear, fossil fuel, biomass, hydro, geothermal—and unreliable wind and solar generators. The former can easily achieve very high penetrations. The latter cannot. Dispatchable hydro has achieved 50 percent to 90 percent penetrations in several countries. It’s a world of difference to suggest that wind and solar can break 20 percent penetration without severe problems for the grid.

In fact, wind and solar have not achieved that benchmark in any electrical grid. Denmark? Nope. True, better than 20 percent of the electricity generated inside Denmark comes from wind. But Denmark’ grid is just a small part of the much larger Scandinavian and German grids into which it is fully integrated. The penetration of wind and solar in those larger grids is far below 20 percent. Without Norwegian hydro plants to absorb excess wind power and provide backup in lulls, Denmark’s grid would frequently collapse.

The country that comes closest is Germany, with about 12 percent of the electricity on its grid coming from wind and solar. (The dispatchable renewables, biomass and hydro, make up another 9 percent, but they won’t scale much.) But even at that low penetration Germany is already suffering real problems. High costs have sparked a political backlash. Germany is spending tens of billions of euros on new transmission to relieve bottlenecks, which are costed to the grid as a whole instead of to the wind and solar generators that are causing problems. Poland and Czechoslovakia are threatening to block German access to their systems to protect themselves from chaotic surges of wind power that could overwhelm and black out their grids. Micro-blackouts have been increasing and doing serious damage to German industrial installations and machinery. Wind and solar surges are imposing bizarre distortions on electricity markets, including “negative pricing”: German utilities are legally required to buy wind and solar power at high feed-in-tariffs during periods of low demand and overproduction, and then have to pay customers to waste it to avoid overloading and crashing the grid. Soon these crises of overproduction will grow too large and wind and solar surges will start being curtailed, which will wreak havoc on their finances. Meanwhile, a major effort of the Energiewende is to increase fossil-fueled capacity, which is scheduled to grow from 76 gigawatts in 2010 to 83 GW in 2030.

This is Germany at 12 percent wind and solar—I shudder to think about 20 percent.

France, by contrast, took just 20 years to decarbonize 90 percent of its grid with 80 percent nuclear and 10 percent hydro, with nothing like these problems and with some of the cheapest electricity in Europe. Sweden did likewise with 50 percent hydro and 50 percent nuclear. Germany? It’s planning to reach 80 percent low-carbon electricity by 2050—a sluggish and inadequate performance by any measure.

51

Will Boisvert 07.25.13 at 4:35 am

At John Quiggin 38, on the AEMO study that you cited, modeling a 100 percent renewable electricity grid for Australia in 2050.

The AEMO study is not very realistic. In order to assure continuity of supply while keeping the overbuild of feeble and fickle renewable generators within thinkable bounds, it relies on some dicey assumptions. It assumes cost reductions that have yet to materialize. It models just one year of weather, without allowance for rare weather patterns that could crash its wind and solar generators for longer than expected. It relies on geothermal and wave generators for crucial backup power, but labels them “technology not [yet] available.” (p.22)

Also, if you examine the load charts you’ll see that the power the model generates often falls far short of demand. At those times the model relies on “demand flexibility”—i. e. electricity rationing—to avoid blackouts. (Exactly how the “flexibility” is to be implemented is not specified.) This means that a sizeable fraction of Australia’s economy will have to accustom itself to having its electricity curtailed on short notice. This will undoubtedly impose large systemic costs on the nation as a whole, costs that AEMO doesn’t even try to account for.

52

Matt 07.25.13 at 5:28 am

Combining slightly outdated (2010) EIA numbers about Hawaiian total generation capacity, and newer numbers about wind and solar installations, it looks like Hawaii is probably already past 15% penetration of intermittent renewables. Given the high fuel cost of fossil generation in Hawaii (all based on shipped-in petroleum) it looks like renewables are going to keep growing at a furious pace up to the limits of grid stability. Will that magic point actually be at 20%? It looks like we could see as soon as next year.

53

John Quiggin 07.25.13 at 6:41 am

“demand flexibility”—i. e. electricity rationing—

In a market economy, rationing is usually done through prices. We are currently installing smart meters, which will make this possible. This is a contentious and messy process, but I expect we will get it done well before 2050.

And, as I think I mentioned, South Australia, a largely self-contained jurisdiction, with a single limited interconnection to the rest of the Australian grid, is already at 30 per cent renewables. The interconnector has been in use for decades – the only difference now is that SA exports when the wind is blowing, rather than always importing.

54

Hidari 07.25.13 at 7:05 am

One point that doesn’t get made clearly enough in these debates is the presupposition that nuclear is carbon neutral. It just isn’t. (Of course, in an absolute sense, no method of power generation is carbon neutral, but there are degrees). Another issue is that nuclear is a de facto fossil fuel. I know, obviously, uranium is not a fossil fuel. But it might as well be. At the end of the day you still have to dig it out of the ground and ‘burn’ it for power, and it is a finite resource. Tim Worstall’s guesstimate that there is enough uranium for ‘1000’ years is just one amongst many, and many are more pessimistic than him (I’m not on either side of this debate: I have no horse in this race. I’m just, y’know, sayin’).

http://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/ask-pablo-is-nuclear-power-really-carbon-neutral.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_uranium#Reserves

55

John Quiggin 07.25.13 at 7:48 am

The real problem with nuclear is that there is no actually existing technology, with a substantial track record, on offer. Nearly all the currently operating plants are obsolete designs that would never be approved today. Of the modern designs, the closest to reality is the AP1000, of which there are a handful under construction in China and the US, with the US plants already over time and over budget.

The nuclear fans mostly go on about vaporware like small modular reactors, which won’t even reach prototype stage for a decade or more, if they ever do. It’s bizarre to see them raising trivial quibbles about technologies like wind and PV while promoting a non-existent alternative.

56

Tim Worstall 07.25.13 at 7:53 am

“Micro-blackouts have been increasing and doing serious damage to German industrial installations and machinery.”

This is indeed a serious problem. Running industrial machinery off power supplies that vary in throughput can cause the most horrendous damage to that machinery. There is a solution, which is to have, effectively, a sub station or giant UPS at each factory using such power. But that then adds to the capital costs of your renewables using grid.

Hidari @54. Absolutely true that nuclear is not carbon free. I always forget the units used in the comparison but emissions (mainly from mining and the vast amounts of cement used to build reactors) give emissions levels per unit of ‘leccie around that of hydro and wind power, all three being roughly one third of solar (and the three being something like one tenth or is it one twentieth of natural gas?).

Re peak uranium, this is based on a very common but rather tragic misunderstanding of what “mineral reserve” means. To an acceptable level of accuracy mineral reserves are the current working stock of extant mines. It’s therefore trivially easy to look at reserves numbers and shout that we’re going to run out in a generation or two. For every generation does indeed severely deplete the reserves available at any one time. Those reserves being the minerals that we have prepped up to be used in the coming generation.

In terms of what’s actually available in the future we need to look at mineral resources. This is not undiscovered whatever that we think might be out there. This is stuff that we know roughly where it is, roughly how much is there and that we can extract it at reasonble prices and profits. We’ve just not done the work to prove the resources into reserves. The reason we haven’t is that it costs lots of money. I know of one nickel mine using a new extraction technique. They’ve spent $4 billion so far on it. We know there’s nickel there, we know that it can be produced because it is being. But that nickel in the ground is still not, in the strictest sense, a reserve, because it has not yet been shown that it can be extracted profitably.

Please note this description isn’t 100% accurate, but it does contain the heart of the truth. As an analogy, mineral reserves can be likened to the food already in society’s refrigerator: resources to the vastly greater amount available in the total retail chain and farming network.

Once we get past a few hundred years’ worth of resources then we need to take exploration and changing technology into account. At which point we should rather look at total availability. To give an example of how the numbers progress, for potassium (or potash, for fertilizers) reserves are around 60 years. Resources (as above, known deposits of rock we know we can process) 13,000 and total availability is something like 2.5% of the weight of the entire lithosphere (unless I’m giving you the numbers for the other fertilizer, phosphorous. Always get those two confused).

Judging minerals availability by mineral reserves numbers is simply using the wrong number to start with.

57

bad Jim 07.25.13 at 8:08 am

Until we can manage fusion we face the grim prospect that the sun will outlive us.

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Z 07.25.13 at 8:35 am

The real problem with nuclear is that there is no actually existing technology, with a substantial track record, on offer.[…]It’s bizarre to see [nuclear proponents] raising trivial quibbles about technologies like wind and PV while promoting a non-existent alternative.

This is a truth that is not known enough.

59

John Quiggin 07.25.13 at 8:44 am

My latest incoming email, relevant to several comments above

In Hawaii, the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) is making storage a priority. It plans to install 1.2 MW of battery systems to help support its goal of reaching 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2013. The current system slated for installation is on the forefront of advancements in technology and can compensate for very rapid changes in output, including micro-second fluctuations.

http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2013/07/as-solar-costs-drop-energy-storage-solutions-take-center-stage?cmpid=SolarNL-Thursday-July25-2013

60

Dick Veldkamp 07.25.13 at 10:11 am

As an addendum to John Quiggin’s piece (with which I fully agree): right wingers are often saying that we should not worry too much about the environment and about climate change because “human ingenuity and technology will save us”.

However now we finally DO have some technologies (wind and solar) which can at least help us part of the way in solving the energy problem, what do you know? They hate it! Now ain’t that strange.

61

maidhc 07.25.13 at 10:14 am

I’ve been looking for something for a while without any luck. My grandfather had a house on the NSW coast and at that time there was no electricity there. He just used kerosene lamps, but one of his neighbours was an electrical engineering professor who had his house rigged out with a windmill-powered electric lighting system. According to my parents it was a 9V or 12V system, and I imagine it was based on a car battery.

Where I live we have pretty consistent winds at certain times of the day, so I’ve been wondering if I could set up a similar system to light up the back yard. But I haven’t been able to find anyone who sells something like this. I suppose like my grandfather’s friend I could design and build one, but it seems like a lot of work, and I would rather pay to get an off-the-shelf solution.

62

Alex 07.25.13 at 11:23 am

Poland and Czechoslovakia are threatening to block German access to their systems to protect themselves from chaotic surges of wind power that could overwhelm and black out their grids. Micro-blackouts have been increasing and doing serious damage to German industrial installations and machinery

Will, no-one in Europe has heard of this dramatic and apocalyptic news (I was in Germany last week) and I note with concern that the hyperlinks you doubtless included to support have gone missing?

63

Cranky Observer 07.25.13 at 11:28 am

= = = Omega Centauri 07.25.13 at 4:12 am

Certainly there are people in Germany who struggle with the grid stability issues for aliving. I have no doubt that there are serious clallenges; engineering -and legal and business (incentivising generators and consumers to be flexible on demand). But beyond a small group of profesionals, and companies, is this really at a level of seriously that the man on the street is even aware of it. I haven’t heard of any recent large scale outages in germany recently, so i take it that so far at least the management of these issues has been sufficient. = = =

That’s akin to saying that Y2K wasn’t a real problem and all those millions of person-hours spent rewriting software were wasted because the man on the street saw very few system failures in January 2000. Well, yeah…

Cranky

64

Martin 07.25.13 at 11:52 am

I really do not think that France is a good example with regard to nuclear power. The current construction sites are just extremely expensive. Also, is this really what nuclear advocates call for: 80 percent or so nuclear? There are really nuclear advocates out there who think nuclear is full-blown alternative to renewables altogether? Idk, I thought that a reasonable goal would be somwhere between 10 and 20 percent. I also would have thought that this springs ou of the literature, not of some idea of “advocacy”, e.g.:

http://ideas.repec.org/a/kap/enreec/v51y2012i3p353-369.html

Is there a study suggesting that, internationally speaking, renewables and nuclear are in a direct conflict in terms of mutual exclustivity for the medium term? If not, i.e. if renewables won’t have a near 100 percent share in the medium run, what with the remaining percentage? Shouldn’t, for the rest, the decision about nuclear vs fossil depend on the price on CO2 emissions? (Note that IAMs like WITCH have a higher nuclear share for stringent emissions scenarios. Also, see again, for example, the EMF 22 assessment: there is a 100 percent consensus about the necessity of investment in nuclear and CCS, partly interchangeable, for stringent mitigation – not some crazy idea about 80 percent nuclear, or even close, but not nothing nonetheless.)

65

Layman 07.25.13 at 12:30 pm

@36 “Trader Joe, They don’t want to hear your (and my) message, that residential solar is a small sideshow”

I’m happy to hear it but simply note that I produce more than 80% of my own electricity using residential solar, when you combine direct use with net metering. Without net metering, it’s probably better than 50%. Some sideshow!

66

Barry 07.25.13 at 12:54 pm

Cranky Observer: “That’s akin to saying that Y2K wasn’t a real problem and all those millions of person-hours spent rewriting software were wasted because the man on the street saw very few system failures in January 2000. Well, yeah…”

Or perhaps it’s akin to saying that we see smooth power on a daily basis, but there are actually people working to make sure that it happens, or that we see fresh produce in the stores, but that there are actually people working to make sure that it happens, or …..

67

SamChevre 07.25.13 at 1:09 pm

Also, is this really what nuclear advocates call for: 80 percent or so nuclear?

That would certainly be preferable, in my opinion, over the current 80% fossil fuel generation.

France managed to build (on average) four reactors a year from 1974 to 1989. Scaling for population, that would be the equivalent of the US building 20 per year. If each reactor replaced a coal-fired plant, the benefits would be huge. (Coal, beside CO2, is an environmental mess to mine, and the ash and smoke are both major pollutants.)

68

Trader Joe 07.25.13 at 1:12 pm

@65
Some people certainly can achieve your results and some are even better – and I’m glad that you and they do. In some geographies its quite possible to clear a 100% during certain parts of the year….but as you point out, you’re at 80%. Something needs to respond to the other 20% and also needs to respond to the multitude of residential locations where size, seasons or multi-family issues preclude getting to anything like the 80% you enjoy.

As Omega noted up thread, there is still the challenge of producing industrial and commerical level renewables as well.

JQ has mentioned 20% renewables as a target which is quite realistic and consistent with current technology. The discussion should be about getting there first (since pittifully few places that can be are) and then pressing for more as additional storage and distribution technology emerges.

When people talk about 100% residential as though its just requires a small bit of political backbone and some funding it results in the reactionaries throwing up all the red-flags in the book (some of which are more valid than others). The actual problem solving is challenging enough without un-needed roadblocks.

69

Stuart Ingham 07.25.13 at 1:15 pm

I have heard the argument that renewables somehow inherently lend themselves to independent production before. Despite it being obviously false it is also has a rather worrying implication- that the left should be interested in goods and services that don’t offer economies of scale over ones that do. This is not so much of a problem if it is a ceteris paribus preference. But to afford it priority even when two of the most urgent issues in left wing politics are on the line (1) Reducing carbon emissions and 2) Getting reliable electricity to the hundreds of millions that don’t have it) is utter madness.

70

Layman 07.25.13 at 1:27 pm

@68 I’m responding to Omega’s contention (in claimed solidarity with you) that residential solar is ‘just a sideshow'; not claiming it is on it’s own a 100% solution. In fact, I’ve not heard anyone claim that 100% solar is a practical solution, and I don’t think it is, but it is not ‘a sideshow’. Suppose local solar (residential, commercial, & governmental) replaced 30 or 40% of fossil-fired production in the US? In the world? A sideshow?

71

Martin 07.25.13 at 1:31 pm

@ SamChevre

Yes, but the construction of nuclear power plants have the well-understood problem of a negative learning curve. The nuclear expansion in France, specifically, is known for escalating costs:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421510003526

However, it is not clear if this phenomenon is linked to the scale-up. But as far as I know, the economics of nuclear power plants additionally requires them to run at full capacity most of the time, to get their up-front costs in. They are the mother of all baseload providers, and usually not cited as viable backups for intermittent generation (though, as said, this is an economic limitation, not a physical one, as often claimed). It would be interesting to know how France manages to run so much nuclear power, as for sure they cannot use that much baseload. Is there a connection to Italy and Spain buying it? Also note the supply phenomenon w.r.t baseload Mister Quiggin mentions: during nights in France, you pay an electricity tariff called “heures creuses”. I’d have to look up the exact numbers on my bill, but believe me when I tell you that’s it’s ridiculously cheap!

Anyway, this all calls for an analysis of a rather complex optimization problem. As I said, I think the literature comes out in favor of a limited contribution of nuclear (see publications by Tavoni, for example), and consistently so. And I really think doesn’t make much sense to talk about these issues as if they were completely independent of what the implicit or explicit mitigation target is. If there is a benefit pertaining to the sustainability of renewables that people think has value of its own, then this should clearly be stated, especially if it goes counter mitigation in the short run!

After all, I also do not think that it makes much sense to accuse nuclear power “advocates” of handwaving away (real) problems with nuclear power, just to follow up with a big-ass load of handwaving with regard to renewables. And if somebody claims that there is something more reasonable about the average anti-nuclear stance among environmentalists thatn about the anti-wind stance among right-wingers, then look at this:

http://grist.org/list/these-photos-of-freaky-mutated-veggies-from-fukushima-will-make-you-think-twice-about-nuclear/

Of course there are environmentalists supporting nuclear to a certain extent, as there are conservatives supporting renewables (Romm reported that, for example). It doesn’t follow that the average anti-nuclear stance among environmentalists is anything but batsh*t crazy.

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PHB 07.25.13 at 1:43 pm

There is pretty solid support for wind generation being economic without subsidies in many parts of the world. There are places where there isn’t enough wind for it to work (the US confederate states for example).

But the biggest caveat is the distribution cost. Coal plants can be built where the electricity is needed. Wind generation is best situated where there is wind. But the US needs a new grid anyway. One that is squirrel proof.

So the question of profitability comes down to how the infrastructure costs are allocated.

One reason I oppose nuclear (despite having a degree from a nuclear physics lab) is that the nuclear lobby has for years opposed renewables by using false accounting. Salter’s duck was a potentially viable wave power scheme that the nuclear lobby in the UK killed with a spurious cost comparison. Though of course as we discovered after privatization of the UK electricity system, nuclear actually costs much more than any other source if all the costs and hidden subsidies are factored in.

We might eventually have to build a new generation of fission plants. But let the older generation of nuclear engineers die out first and start the design process from a clean start. The light water and Magnox designs have both been found to be fundamentally flawed. So why build more of those designs? I note that even though the UK claimed that their Magnox reactors were perfectly safe they were all decommissioned in the wake of Chernobyl rather than getting expected license extensions. I strongly suspect that when the details become public we will discover that the reason was that the Chernobyl reactor design had been stolen from the UK in the first place. Although it is not clear that the Soviets got the final plans or earlier drafts.

Solar is not currently economic in most locations but the costs are changing rapidly.

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Norwegian Guy 07.25.13 at 2:35 pm

As hix @17 said, this is not an issue of left and right, or even environmentalists (who need not be left-wing) and non-environmentalists (who need not be right-wing). At least in Norway, environmentalists are split on this issue, with some groups supporting the construction of onshore wind power plants and other groups opposing it. The former groups and people will be those that are more concerned about nature conservation, while the latter groups tend to be of a more “technocratic” orientation. This has little to do with science and anti-science, but more about value judgments.

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Omri 07.25.13 at 2:42 pm

Will, “

Grid managers won’t let that happen, of course. They will back up the grid with dispatchable generators sufficient to run the whole system in the complete absence of wind and solar power. But if we’ve ruled out nuclear power, what will they use as dispatchable backup, and at what risk?”

Nuclear power is not dispatchable. At all. it takes 24 hours notice to shift the power output of a nike.

If you are overreliant on nukes, you have to have demand side response. Someone flicks a switch on, someone else must then flick one off.

If you have demand side response, you might as well rely on renewables and forget dispatchable power altogether.

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ajay 07.25.13 at 3:39 pm

And if somebody claims that there is something more reasonable about the average anti-nuclear stance among environmentalists thatn about the anti-wind stance among right-wingers, then look at this

Yes, it’s an article in which environmentalists raise concerns about nuclear power, and then, in the face of further information, admit that they were wrong and that their concerns were in this case overblown and unjustified. “When the facts change, I change my mind” and all that. I defy you to find something similar among the anti-wind crowd.

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Omega Centauri 07.25.13 at 3:51 pm

Cranky @63.
No. It doesn’t mean the effort put into solving Y2K was wasted. It means that because a significant effort was made, employing many competent people, that the rest of us needn’t have worried our pretty little heads about it. The same thing applies to grid stability. We have to make sure the political/economic system allows the needed investments to be made. But, the heavy lifting will be done by small teams of professionals. The rest of us need not lose sleep over it.

Layman @65:
Well I’m closer to 90%. If I allow myself to count SolarMosaic interest to offset the residual domestic energy bills, my house is already Carbon neutral. But, that doesn’t mean residential rooftops are the answer. They are just one of many BBs. What I don’t like is that that BB gets far more public attention with respect to the other BBs, than its solution-share deserves. In solar, and storage, the real heavy lifting will come from big solar, and big storage.

Palo Alto has contracted to become 100% renewable (electricty only). Half of this is hydro. Eighteen percent is big-solar being built a couple hundred miles away. Rooftop is only a minor piece of the whole.

A 550MW PV farm is under construction. And several more of similar size are planned. Accounting for the fact, that it has much better insolation than the typical residential area, and that the panels are tracked, that is the equivalent of more than 150,000 residential rooftops! The only way we can get from circa 10-20% renewables to 80-90% (still not enough climate-wise), is to have major investment in both big wind and big solar. In terms of renewables we have to do “all of the above, full speed ahead”, we can’t afford to throw up roadblocks on some of it, simply because we don’t like the ownership model.

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Omega Centauri 07.25.13 at 3:54 pm

Another thing at renewables variability, is with good effort -and increasingly better science, most of the variability can be predicted hours to days before it happens. That gives plenty of time to schedule backup generation, and demand response. Add even minor amounts of storage -which is already being experimented with, and the problem of matching wind/solar with the limited ramp rates of other generation gets a lot easier.

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Tim Worstall 07.25.13 at 3:55 pm

Alex: “Will, no-one in Europe has heard of this dramatic and apocalyptic news (I was in Germany last week) and I note with concern that the hyperlinks you doubtless included to support have gone missing?”

Well, there certainly is concern about it.

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/04/17/czech-germany-grid-idUKL5N0D43LA20130417

http://praguemonitor.com/2013/05/09/germany-plans-how-ease-burden-czech-grid

http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/2013/01/23/germanys-green-energy-destabilizing-electric-grids/

“Germany is phasing out its nuclear plants in favor of wind and solar energy backed-up by coal power. The government’s transition to these intermittent green energy technologies is causing havoc with its electric grid and that of its neighbors–countries that are now building switches to turn off their connection with Germany at their borders. The intermittent power is causing destabilization of the electric grids causing potential blackouts, weakening voltage and causing damage to industrial equipment.”

You may have been in Germany last week: I’m in Bohemia this and it did turn up in conversation in the pub….although that might say more about the sort of pubs I frequent than anything else.

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The Raven 07.25.13 at 3:59 pm

John Quiggin@55: “The real problem with nuclear is that there is no actually existing technology, with a substantial track record, on offer.”

But this is also true of wind and solar, and for the same reasons: research and development funding has overwhelmingly gone first to fossil fuels extraction and second to light-water reactors; towards unsustainable technologies that are already in production and therefore have a well-funded base of support.

I am not—I have said above—convinced that nuclear power is an appropriate solution. But we live in a world on the edge of self-destruction, and I am willing to support what might save us.

80

Cranky Observer 07.25.13 at 4:08 pm

Omega,
Perhaps you missed my 5:53 [#16]? I am one if those professionals [1], and while I am all in favor of more wind & solar and aware of the incumbency problems discussed in this thread I’m a bit concerned it isn’t as easy as the non-professionals think. And that decisions such as getting better efficiency by reducing reliability targets really do need to be understood by the general public in North America. Electric service reliability has essentially been magic in the regions where most of the continent’s population lives since ~1930; changing that would be a big thing.

Cranky

[1] more precisely: have been in both the recent & far distant past and currently seeking to return to.

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Dick Veldkamp 07.25.13 at 4:35 pm

#78 Raven Track Record

I don’t see how you can maintain about wind and solar that “there is no actually existing technology, with a substantial track record, on offer.” Both technologies now have 25 years or so track record, world wide 3% of all electricity is from wind (2012). Denmark got 30% last year, Spain 16%.

Another thing that is often not appreciated: because wind and solar generation is decentralised, any failure in an individual installation (e.g. a turbine) does not matter for system reliability.

Full disclosure: I am another one of those professionals, working in wind.

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donquijoterocket 07.25.13 at 4:35 pm

I’ve seen or read a lot of the arguments for nuclear which hype that it’s a relatively clean form of generation at the point of production,however I’ve yet to see a projection that takes into account the costs( of extracting,refining, and transporting the fissionable materials or of the ecological and economic damage done by especially the extraction of ores of fissionables.Most discussion bases in a demand/supply model but usually only addresses the supply side.If we started with decreasing demand by building more efficient buildings and transport it would have the same net effect as increasing the supply factor of that equation.Also I see little mention of the contributions of tidal and wave generation,which individually might be relatively miniscule but collectively are rather large and less intermittent than either wind or solar alone.

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Martin 07.25.13 at 4:42 pm

@ ajay

True. Though it’s quite a stretch to invoke notions of Keynesian epistemological updating just because someone has got an embarrassingly silly belief out of their head that was obviously based on so little knowldege that they shouldn’t have issued an opinion in the first place.

@ Omega centauri

Predicatability is not the problem: it is that the backup is nothing else than conventional power stations that themselves run unprofitably. Also, they emit CO2 when actually backing up. Both costs are not on renewable operators (and in the case of CO2 are basically not accounted for, at all, when we talk about Europe). I am not versed enough in this stuff to draw conclusions, but at least this suggests the possibility that the optimal energy mix (think of a benevolent social planner implementing it) of a given country might include some nuclear (depending on the carbon price), even if nuclear is more expensive, given private costs. I mentioned Tavoni, who has done IAM assessments for this kind of question, here is his repec page:

http://ideas.repec.org/e/pta48.html

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The Raven 07.25.13 at 5:20 pm

Dick Veldkamp@78: not at continental scale. That’s really the acid test for all new energy systems: do they scale? Can we power continents? Denmark is small; Spain has a lot of wind. Tell me truly: does the technology currently exist to power all of Europe with wind? I work in the USA on designing buildings to take advantage of daylight, and I can tell you that we are not there yet. But reliably doing so for the whole of the USA? We are not there yet, and until we fund the research and development to make it possible, we will not be there.

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Omega Centauri 07.25.13 at 5:40 pm

Cranky: “currently seeking to return to.”
Ouch. I wish you the best of luck.

Martin. Predictability does matter a lot. If you when when you will need the backup, and it needs to be pre-heated for instance, you could do it optimally.

I certainly think the profitabilty issue is a real one. Do we have a business model that allows for rarely used backups? We could also change laws, and request those with backup generators to do so during power emergencies, which I understand is currently illegal. We are just beginning to get just enough opportunity for small scale storage companies to survive and experiment. So change in the way systems are managed is possible. At some point, storage may become cheaper than full backup. And of course with any amount of backup/generation capcity there is still the non-zero tail of the distribution which forces curtailment. We will have to decide how much cost for what level of reliability.

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Martin 07.25.13 at 6:48 pm

@ Omega Centauri

Sure, predictability matters, I put that too sloppily: what I meant is that I don’t think that is the problem defining renewable scale-up. Even if everything is perfectly predictable, say, “years” in advance, you still have those backups causing costs, yielding little, and causing emissions.

Sure, one can give a lot of explanations as to what gets cheaper than what, and when, and what externalities have to be accounted for etc. etc. But at the end of the day, you have to put it in some sort of model to see how all these costs interdepent and scale – and what this all would entail in terms of emissions (or: what an emissions constraint would entail!). Again: I am somewhat intrigued that there is one debate about how much we should do about climate change, and then there is a completely independent debate about what technologies to “choose” (or the claim that stringent mitigation coincides with planned and fast transformation to renewables à la Germany – a view squarely contradicted by the available literature). That’s why I linked Tavoni who has done research on this topic.

The question is not 100 percent nuclear or 100 percent renewables. We face the problem that a transition to purely renewable generation will take some time. Up to now we have a lot of guesswork: Germany is simply convinced an energy transition is the way to go; GB is guessing since an eternity if it is ready to pay a certain strike prize to EDF to build new nuclear capacity; France is doing exactly nothing (there is no deep-rooted opposition to nuclear, but Hollande has strategic partnerships with the Greens who strongly oppose it); Italy has voted against nuclear via popular vote (as have Austria and the Switzerlands); meanwhile, the carbon prize in Europe imploded and doesn’t give any guidance at all. The US have shale gas. And absolutely everybody is convinced to have the solution to the world’s problems, and everybody has a story to back that claim up. Absent a “market solution” (e.g. simply put up a Pigovian carbon tax, and some investment in R&D to account for an efficiency/innovation tradeoff), I think decisions should be informed by those who actually publish in this field. I cannot claim to have an overview about the literature, but as I understand it, and if we are serious about emission abatement, it is surely no high shares of nuclear in the medium run, but rather a high share of renewables; but it’s not no nuclear either. This renewables vs nuclear debate is a highly useless debate going on and on in the blogosphere, and with little to no regard for the literature.

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hix 07.25.13 at 6:48 pm

Considering the threat to turn off that gas powerplant in Ingolstadt:
-Solar and nuclear shares are much higher than the German average in Bavaria.
-There has been a coordinate scare campaign in recent weeks by the big electricty companies to gain subsidies to keep powerplants on grid.
-Shuting down gas powerplants is only up to debate because solar power coincides so nice with peak electricity use, a time when gas plants made most money in the past.
-A conventional grid would collapse just like one with renewables if all peak demand plants were shut down.
-Sure there have been problems and people have to work on it, no one doubts that. Albeit the problems have been hardly measurable compared to those caused e.g. by Enron in conventional only grids. Which makes all the load complaints from the libertarian side rather fun.

The high nuclear share in France:
I think they do manage nuclear electricty supply to some extend, shutting down nuclear plants longer than required for maintenance.

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Martin 07.25.13 at 7:07 pm

@ hix

A nuclear power plant under maintenance does nothing to earn its construction costs: if this were the strategy to deal with baseload in huge excess, electricity prices should be much higher in France than they are. At least this claim is as plausible as yours. Do you have any source to back up what you say?

I follow German media quite attentively, but bascially all of what you claim in the first part seems pure conjecture from your part. Again: could you offer some (serious) sources (German is OK)?

I think I abused this comment thread long enough with hardly on-topic stuff, so no responses from my part any more. Though, if a had a free wish (I don’t): I know that Mister Quiggin has published on the topic of sustainability (especially in the context of discounting), and it would be great to have posts about this issue with regard to renewable energy!

89

Cranky Observer 07.25.13 at 7:37 pm

Nuclear units can load follow. It is currently essentially prohibited by US NRC regulations but the systems were designed for it. Not the minute-to-minute regulation of an aeroderivitive GT or steam plant with a drum, but at least some level of turndown at night.

Cranky

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James Wimberley 07.25.13 at 7:44 pm

Few commenters seem to have actually looked at the key AEMO study on a 100% renewable electricity supply for Eastern Australia (where the people are) at current high standards of reliability, and without nuclear (an artefact of the brief; but since the cost data they have on nuclear are completely wrong, this is just as well.) Will Boisvert in #51 misrepresents it. AEMO built two scenarios. The first was a conservative one with high demand and little technical progress, in which the dispatchable capacity was lots of CSP with hot salt storage. This is a shovel-ready system demonstrated at 20MW scale in Spain for 24-hour operation. It’s not cheap and needs long-distance transmission from the outback, but clearly feasible. The second assumed lower demand and middling technological progress. They guessed (implausibly to me) this progress would be concentrated on EGS geothermal rather than energy storage, so in this scenario geothermal, also in the outback, replaced CSP.

They did not SFIK run a sensitivity analysis if you scale back from 100% renewable to 95%. This should cut the need for costly renewable backup a lot. It may be better to use cheap gas generators for the last few % and sequester carbon to offset.

I continue to be amazed at the number of otherwise intelligent people on the blogs who still think nuclear is a live issue, and have never heard of CSP and EGS, which are far more important.

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Stephen 07.25.13 at 7:49 pm

Omri@32
I’m talking about East Anglia, UK. Where I agree the bitterest cold is on cloudless winter days, when there is sunlight for all of the 7-8 hours of daylight, with the sun not far above the horizon (look at a map, we’re as far north as Hudson’s Bay). The amount of available solar energy then with clear skies is not as great as you might suppose. On cloudy or foggy winter days, the temperature can be below freezing for a week or more, with no wind. If you have only renewable energy in those circumstances, you can burn wood (but East Anglia has no forests), or if you are a young adult and healthy you can wrap up warm, eat heartily, generate your own heat by vigorous exercise.

If you are not young and healthy, you will probably die of cold. Not as quickly as in a bitter cold NA winter, but soon enough.

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Matt 07.25.13 at 8:03 pm

Refuelling a nuclear reactor typically takes a month or more, and the reactor produces no power while shut down. But this isn’t a problem for planners because it occurs on a predictable schedule. To some extent, superior prediction makes renewables more like nuclear in that large supply drops are easier to deal with if they are known well in advance. The problem with even highly predictable renewable supply drops is that they are highly correlated: the entire German solar fleet produces much less energy in December than in May. Wind can produce energy in the dark (and typically produces more energy at night) but can also suffer correlated drops over a very large region.

The hardest case for high solar use is dealing with seasonal variation in output, and this variation is worst at extreme latitudes. Most of the world’s population does not live as far from the equator as Germans do, so another nation might have better showcased the global prospects for solar power. I sometimes wonder how different the example would have been if e.g. Taiwan had been the first to commit to Energiewende, or its Chinese equivalent.

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Layman 07.25.13 at 8:29 pm

Omega @75

“Well I’m closer to 90%. If I allow myself to count SolarMosaic interest to offset the residual domestic energy bills, my house is already Carbon neutral. But, that doesn’t mean residential rooftops are the answer. They are just one of many BBs. What I don’t like is that that BB gets far more public attention with respect to the other BBs, than its solution-share deserves. In solar, and storage, the real heavy lifting will come from big solar, and big storage.”

Count me in the middle: I don’t think the answer is residential solar alone, and I don’t think residential solar is a sideshow.

What I think is attractive about it, and what gets it so much attention, is that it is more immediately executable at the individual consumer level than any other alternative; and more immediately amenable to government incentives than any other alternative.

At the individual level, there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to get APS to abandon conventional power plants in favor of renewable generation, but I can make a contribution to reducing how much of power they need to produce with those conventional plants.

Given the choice between governments a) trying to move utility monopolies into alternative energy development against the determined defense of the petro industry, and b) creating incentives for rooftop solar installation, I’m pretty confident which one is more likely to work. It is also much more effective economic stimulus – creating consumers demand for rooftop solar manufacturers, installers, and servicers. That’s a by-product, but a pretty significant one.

So I think the contribution of residential solar to solving the problem is significant, and I think it is directly actionable now in a way that almost nothing else is. I suppose I could have considered a windmill instead, but I imagine my neighbors and the city council would have something to say about that ;^)

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common reader 07.25.13 at 9:15 pm

To a small point, if environmentalists really were concerned about birds they would see to the spaying (or terminating) of cats everywhere and the leashing of dogs in all natural settings, beaches, parks, green belts, etc.

95

Dick Veldkamp 07.25.13 at 9:41 pm

Raven #84 Wind on continental scale?

Please see my post #15 (and the links).

My personal opinion (and the AMEO study seems to back it up) is that we could go 100% renewable if we wanted (at least as far as electricity goes) – but 100% wind is not possible. This would involve energy savings, improved grid connectivity, wind, solar, hydro (storage), load shedding, smart price systems etc (I’m beginning to repeat myself).

96

The Raven 07.25.13 at 10:31 pm

Dick Veldkamp@95: and I agree with you for the most part. Where I disagree is that we do not, in fact, have tested solutions in hand. We have not even so far implemented sustainable energy production at an urban level, let alone the global scale we need if we are to maintain our civilization. The AEMO study is still a study; we won’t know how the system will work until it is actually up and running…or not.

We need to get started!

97

Alex 07.25.13 at 10:45 pm

It is also grateful that the Czech Republic wants to continue investing into infrastructure so as to be able to take electricity from Germany, he added.

This document is evidently very badly translated, but let it stand that the “havoc” is that the Czechs are importing power from Germany. This wind stuff is so feeble (so Will) that there’s so much it’s hard to get rid of it without exporting! I bet the Saudis thank Allah they don’t have to export oil!

Meanwhile, Worstall appears.

Robert L. Bradley Jr. – is president of the Institute for Energy Research. He is an expert on energy policy and its relation to the environment and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Worstall’s old funders via TechCentralStation. He’s stayed bought. I think they gave him a bag of chips?

98

Katherine 07.25.13 at 11:40 pm

I continue to be amazed at the number of otherwise intelligent people on the blogs who still think nuclear is a live issue, and have never heard of CSP and EGS, which are far more important.

Feel free to educate! Can I suggest less jargon though? Sure, I can google CSP and EGS but it breaks the reading flow.

99

john c. halasz 07.25.13 at 11:57 pm

@98:
Yeah. But Concentrated Solar Power, using molten salts as a storage technology. And Enhanced Geo-thermal System, i.e. not depending of natural water formations, but drilling down into hot rocks and injecting the water.

100

David J. Littleboy 07.26.13 at 1:23 am

One potential problem with wind is that it requires rare-earth materials to make generators that are efficient enough, and there may be problems providing enough of those materials, which are needed for other things as well. Wind will be an important part of the energy mix, but I doubt it will be much more than a small fraction. Still, there’s lots of room for many times as much wind energy generation as we have now.

But nuclear is necessary in the medium term. We really have to stop burning coal immediately, and the only way to do that is nuclear. Sure, nuclear is horrifically dirty: it generates vast amounts of radioactive waste (not just the fuel, the reactor facilities themselves are radioactive and can’t be cleaned up) that has to be managed for the rest of human history. But that’s a lot better than the 4 degrees C of global warming it would prevent. Another 50 years of research on renewables, and nuclear won’t be necessary. CSP in the desert, better transmission lines, better solar, some new forms of storage. All of this will happen. But not immediately. Whether it’s 2060, 2075, or 2100, at some point there should be zero nuclear. But there should be zero coal in 2020.

Fukushima was a horrific disaster, but the total number of deaths from Fukushima over all time is going to be very small compared to, say, the deaths from excess pulmonary disease caused by diesel exhaust in metropolitan Tokyo _in any one year_*. As a 60-year old Tokyo resident, I’d be better off retiring to some of the evacuated areas of Fukushima than retiring in place. Sure, background levels are way over Japanese standards there, but New Jersey and Rome, for example, have background levels three times the Japanese standards.

*: “Mortality from diesel soot exposure in 2001 was at least 14,400 out of the German population of 82 million, according to the official report 2352 of the Umweltbundesamt Berlin (Federal Environmental Agency of Germany).” (wiki)
Metropolitan Tokyo has roughly 1/4 that population, maybe Tokyo is only one half as dirty as Germany (unlikely; Tokyo air is not totally gross, but it’s not clean), so we’re talking at least 1,400 deaths every year in Tokyo alone. That’s a lot of deaths; several times as many as the expected excess cancer deaths among the cleanup workers at Fukushima. Sure, everyone dies of something, and a better comparison would be years of healthy life lost. For example, China is looking at coal pollution cutting _everyone’s_ life expectancy by 5.5 years. Oops. They’d be worlds better off with several Fukushima level disasters a year and no coal.

The bottom line is that burning fossil fuels is incredibly stupid, and no matter how scary you think Fukushima was, a vast program of building as many new nukes as possible would save a lot of lives, even in the very short term. (By the way, the reactors at Fukushima were GE mark I containment vessel designs, the same grossly bad design that brought us Three Mile Island. Those reactors should be decommissioned immediately. And there are a bunch of other simple things that can be done to make nuclear a lot safer, e.g. hydrogen explosions can be prevented.)

Of course, none of this is going to happen, and things are going to be very ugly in 2100.

101

John Quiggin 07.26.13 at 1:41 am

“Whether it’s 2060, 2075, or 2100, at some point there should be zero nuclear. But there should be zero coal in 2020.”

It’s impossible to build a nuclear plant in seven years (maybe, just, possible in China where there are no pesky safety laws to worry about). So, if you want to get rid of coal by 2020, nuclear is absolutely not going to help.

In reality, there’s no realistic chance of substantial deployment of new nuclear plants in the developed world before 2030, which is way too late. Site selection, financing and design alone will take at least 10 years for a greenfield site, and only a little less if you are colocating with an existing reactor. Add in an optimistic 7 years for construction, and you’re at 2030 already. That’s on the obviously impossible assumption that there’s an immediate decision to go nuclear on a large scale, with the massive public subsidies it would require.

So, renewables and energy efficiency are the only options on the table.

102

John Quiggin 07.26.13 at 1:41 am

For a more detailed look

nationalinterest.org/commentary/the-end-the-nuclear-renaissance-6325

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Omega Centauri 07.26.13 at 1:56 am

David @100. Rare earths are not required. Without them generators would be bulkier and somewhat less efficient than with them. But, it wouldn’t be a showstopper.

Getting to zero coal in 2020? Maybe for a few isolated places?

104

Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 2:24 am

@John Quiggin 101

You say that a nuclear buildout cannot even begin until 2030, 17 years from now. That claim is disproven by history.

France decarbonized 90 percent of its grid in just 20 years by building nuclear plants from a standing start. No renewables scheme anywhere can achieve such fast and comprehensive progress. Many other countries, including the United States and Japan, have conducted large and rapid nuclearization projects, they are the rule rather than the exception. China and South Korea are doing so now, with five-year build times and costs far below those of renewables. New reactor designs are finished, licensed and under construction in many countries, in the West as well as in Asia; the spadework is done. With a concerted mass deployment as in France, economies of scale and series can be leveraged and costs and build times driven down much further.

Will that require subsidies? Maybe—but how much wind and solar would be built without subsidies? It’s disturbing how quickly greens turn into neo-liberals when the subject is nuclear power.

Nuclear, and only nuclear, can get the job of decarbonizing done in the time we need it done. History proves it. The only thing standing in the way is politics—and the willfully obstructionist ideology of greens.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 2:25 am

@ John Quiggin 53, 59, on wind and solar penetration in South Australia and Kauai and the alleged non-existence of new nuclear technologies.

–No, South Australia does not demonstrated that wind and solar can achieve high penetrations. South Australia has a small grid with only 1.6 million people on it. And it is integrated into the larger grid; as you write yourself, it exports excess wind power over the interconnect and imports fossil-fueled electricity during lulls. So it’s meaningless to say that South Australia has 30 percent wind and solar penetration. The meaningful number is the wind and solar penetration on the larger grid that South Australia ties into, which I believe is approaching 4 percent.

–Still less does the tiny resort island of Kauai, population 66,000, demonstrate high wind and solar penetration. The article you linked to is in error; according to the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative website, the utility is shooting for 50 percent renewables by 2023, not 2013 as you reported. Most of that renewable capacity will be dispatchable biomass and hydro. None of it will be wind, because Kauai’s mountainous terrain won’t support turbines. Kauai’s current photovoltaic penetration is currently 1.2 percent. It will jump to about 13 percent next year with the completion of a solar plant. But it will not scale much more because of concerns about grid instability, which the big battery they are buying will only partially alleviate. This example has little relevance for the problems of wind and solar penetration in large industrial economies.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 2:25 am

–John Quiggin 55, you write, “ The real problem with nuclear is that there is no actually existing technology, with a substantial track record, on offer.”

I don’t understand your thinking. There are ten Gen III+ nuclear reactors under construction in 4 countries with many more planned; China will bring the first EPR on line next year and an AP1000 in 2015. Japan has built and commercially operated several Gen III boiling water reactors. More advanced Gen IV prototypes are already under construction. China is building two pebble bed high-temperature gas reactors, due on line in 2016. Russia has a an 880 MW fast reactor under construction, due on line in 2014. General Electric has offered to build its PRISM 300-MW commercial fast reactor in Britain as soon as Britain licenses it. There are plenty of complete designs for small modular reactors in the States. The Tennessee Valley Authority has signed a contract with Babcock and Wilcox for up to four SMRs; the only thing holding back construction is the extraordinary slowness of the NRC licensing process. Advanced nuclear isn’t “vaporware”—it’s here.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 2:30 am

@ Hidari 54, Yes, nuclear has some life-cycle carbon emissions, but they are very small and comparable to those of wind and solar; see http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/sustain_lca_results.html

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 2:34 am

@ Alex 62, my apologies for not providing a link to substantiate my claim that Poland and the Czech Republic are threatening to block German wind power surges. In addition to the links provided by Tim Worstall above, you can also look at this Bloomberg news story (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-25/windmills-overload-east-europe-s-grid-risking-blackout-energy.html).

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 2:41 am

@ Martin 64, on the high costs of current nuclear builds.

Yes, the current Flamanville EPR build is expensive. But it’s the first one in France in many years. If it were part of a concerted mass deployment, unit costs on subsequent builds would fall because of economies of scale and experience.

Martin, many people advocate a nearly 100 percent nuclear-fueled energy supply. A good case can be made for it on cost, deployment time, safety and public health grounds.

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Matt 07.26.13 at 2:42 am

One potential problem with wind is that it requires rare-earth materials to make generators that are efficient enough, and there may be problems providing enough of those materials, which are needed for other things as well.

This is not actually true. Direct-drive turbines with permanent magnets represent only a small portion of the total wind turbine market, and there are already large regions where wind is cost competitive with new-build coal, even in the absence of CCS or CO2 taxes. Is there going to be a rare earth shortage if wind expansion continues at the present pace and everyone wants direct drive permanent magnet turbines? It depends on the design. Most DD turbines use neodymium magnets. Neodymium is actually pretty abundant (about half as abundant as copper) and has multiple sources coming online outside of China. The bottleneck is actually dysprosium, a much rarer rare earth element that is hard to find outside of China so far and that is needed in small amounts to make neodymium magnets work at higher temperatures and raise their magnetic coercivity. There’s not enough known dysprosium available to make millions of DD turbines with dysprosium-enhanced neodymium magnets. But there is enough neodymium to make millions of DD turbines sans dysprosium enhancement — you have to provide better cooling though. I recall a couple of years ago that Western turbine manufacturers were investigating these dysprosium-free designs to avoid Chinese dependency. In practice they seem to keep avoiding permanent magnets altogether and improving gearboxes in onshore turbines and perhaps using direct drive with superconducting magnets in very large offshore designs.

There’s an oft-repeated falsehood that goes something like: “wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars all rely on rare earths imported from dirty Chinese mines” — delivered with a subtext of drill baby drill or the only real solution is to change culture instead of technology, depending on whether the speaker has a right or left political-tribal affiliation. Wind turbines and electric car motors and batteries can use rare earth elements. They do not require rare earth elements. Tesla Motors, for example, does not use rare earths in motors or in batteries. It is also only heavy rare earth elements like dysprosium that still have a critical dependency on dirty Chinese mining. The light rare earth lanthanum, needed in Prius batteries, is now being mined again in California. So are neodymium, cerium, and the other light rare earths.

Solar panels do not use rare earth elements at all. Some thin film solar designs use indium or tellurium, rare elements sometimes confused with rare earth elements. More than 90% of solar modules sold are based on super-abundant silicon. The best CdTe and CIGS modules are considerably less efficient than the best silicon modules, despite resorting to much more expensive and rare semiconductor materials, so there is no trade-off between abundance and efficiency either.

The Three Mile Island partial meltdown did not involve a GE boiling water reactor. It was a pressurized light water reactor made by Babcock & Wilcox. I agree that nuclear power is far preferable to fossil fueled power, but new safer designs aren’t going to be as cheap as what was built in the 1970s (look at what has happened to EPR costs and scheduling in France and Finland) and is really needed only for baseload power. Like JQ I suspect that the demand for baseload power decreases significantly if you pass through all generation costs, including emissions, to users in near real time. I still hope that small modular reactors might overcome the “reverse learning curve” of nuclear costs, but I will freely admit that they’re not here today and wind turbines are.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 2:55 am

@ Martin 71, just because people claim to have gathered some deformed vegetables from Fukushima doesn’t mean radiation caused the deformities. Deformed vegetables have been around since way before we had nuclear reactors.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 3:09 am

@ John Quiggin 53

I’m pretty dubious about the claim that intermittency problems will be solved by spot market pricing of electricity via smart meters, and that these innovations will even obviate the need for baseload supply.

Even if this works, it means that you’re using market prices to force electricity demand to meet an extremely volatile electricity supply through the mechanism of extremely volatile electricity prices. Do you really think the economy can switch from a regimen of stable electricity prices to one of volatile electricity prices, one that’s explicitly intended to drive volatile shifts in usage, without suffering large systemic costs?

I don’t. The intensified spot-pricing and smart-metering of electricity is the mother of all ill-advised neo-liberal schemes—all just to accommodate the infatuation with wind and solar generators whose unreliability makes them unfit for a modern grid. Again, it’s disturbing how leftists suddenly embrace neoliberalism when it comes to energy policy.

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Martin 07.26.13 at 3:27 am

@ Will Boisvert

a) Yes, that the misbuilt fruit story was complete bolocks (and not that kind of slightly embarrassing, yet understandable mistake that happens to informed people from time to time) was exactly my point. The “wind turbine syndrome” has at least the excuse to be relatively fresh compared to horror vegetable and three-eyed fish stories from nukular radiation, so I really do not see the slightest excuse for Grist to have fallen for it, correction nothwithstanding. Read again what I have written, please.

b) No, economies of scale and experience (as you also hint in a comment to Mister Quiggin) did exactly NOT pan out during the nuclear build-up in France. I linked the corresponding paper: the construction of nuclear power plants was ailed by a negative learning curve – it got MORE expensive as experience increased! That was my point with regard to Flamanville: if there is anything we should expect given past experience, then that these things will get more, not less, expensive. This has been known for decades under the smooth name of “Bupp-Derian-Komanoff-Taylor hypothesis” in general. For specifics about the French scale-up (and to a lesser extent, the US experience) please read the paper. They had diseconomies of scale. The most favorable interpretation of this I hinted to was that this was maybe an effect of the scale-up itself, i.e. that the power plants should effectively be seen as different products (but the paper is quite specific that this was a learning effect, so there). Maybe this time is different, but as far as history is a guide, we should rather assume cost escalation.

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Matt 07.26.13 at 3:36 am

Even though this is a wind thread, I’d like to mention my favorite thing about rooftop solar: the “utility death spiral.” The cost of local distribution infrastructure accounts for about half of retail electricity costs. In most locations it is folded into the per-unit rate rather than billed as a separate fixed charge, even though it is a fixed cost. The death spiral idea is that rooftop solar users who get a portion of their power from the roof* instead of the grid pay less to the utility because they use less electricity, even though they’re not decreasing the reliance on fixed infrastructure**. This leaves their non-solar-using neighbors to pick up a larger share of the fixed distribution costs through their grid electric rates, which encourages those neighbors to jump on the solar bandwagon too. Eventually everyone who can has deployed distributed solar power, your annual demand is way down, and your costs per unit delivered are way up. Depending on how expensive the grid gets and how cheap storage gets, people might even go off-grid in the middle of the suburbs.

The utilities that are fighting so far are campaigning on fairness, mostly targeting incentives: why should your rich neighbor who can afford solar power get government help while a regular guy gets the extra costs? This is not a bad argument. The problem is that as solar costs drop, and incentives shrink, it will be much harder to sell “why should the poor lose their electrical infrastructure subsidies to solar users?” (Which is what would be happening if the fixed infrastructure charges became an explicit part of billing.) The portion of the American public that loathes subsidies doesn’t really seem to care whether they benefit people richer than them or poorer than them, as long as it’s not them. This would be purely pernicious if utility power were already largely decarbonized and solar users were just offloading costs. But since utility power in most locations is much more CO2 intensive than solar power, it is actually a poetically just market failure. If you spend your money to install rooftop solar, not only do your costs go down, but you’re imposing an indirect carbon tax on all your neighbors.

It reminds me of the “subsidized wind can sell at negative prices and still make a profit” complaint from generators. The negative pricing from government incentives makes for a good narrative to turn the public against government wind support. But if you simply prohibited negative-price sales by wind generators it would barely hurt their bottom line, or improve that of competing generators, because it doesn’t happen that often. What’s really killing other forms of generation is the much more common times when wind prices aren’t negative but too low for a nuclear, coal, or gas plant to turn a profit. It’s difficult to rally the public behind “wind is making electricity too cheap,” even though there is a legitimate and much more complicated public interest around preserving availability in the presence of intermittent sources with tiny marginal generating costs. Competing generators getting hurt by wind will tell the story of government meddling leading to negative-price sales and hope that the laws aren’t fixed to correct this problem, thereby forcing them to explain a much more complicated gray area to the public.

*This process is amplified by solar incentives like feed-in tariffs or net metering, but still present if solar does nothing but partially substitute for a user’s grid demand.

**Actually, rooftop solar can delay the need for transmission and distribution capacity upgrades if peak demand is on hot sunny days, but it is probably not enough to compensate for revenue losses.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 3:40 am

@ Omri 74, on the dispatchability of nukes,

It’s a widespread myth among greens that nuclear reactors are not dispatchable and cannot load-follow. This is completely false. Most models ramp power up and down rather slowly—over hours, not days—but they can be designed to ramp very quickly. If you think for a moment, you’ll realize this must be true; naval reactors must ramp their power up and down with lightning speed to accommodate the ship’s sudden accelerations and decelerations.

Commercial power reactors in France also load-follow—they have to because they supply 75-80 percent of the electricity supply. The new EPR reactor is designed to adjust its power between 60 and 100 % of peak at a rate of 50-80 MW per minute—almost as nimble as a gas plant. (http://www.areva.com/EN/global-offer-419/epr-reactor-one-of-the-most-powerful-in-the-world.html) That’s plenty dispatchable.

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John Quiggin 07.26.13 at 3:44 am

@106 To sum up, Gen III+ (1990s and after) designs have zero track record of operation. That’s why I call it vaporware.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 3:57 am

@ Martin 113,

Apologies for misunderstanding the mutant produce comment.

The so-called “negative learning curve” of French nuclear reactors during their 20 year buildout is mainly due to the fact that later in the game they introduced new models with enhanced safety features. Construction costs went up but the small series meant that economies of scale and experience didn’t kick in. Still, the average cost over the entire nuclear build was extremely low; about 1535 euros per kilowatt in 2010 euros—cheaper than wind and solar per kilowatt, and many times more productive.

In order to get cheap nuclear, there does at some point have to be a political recognition that existing nuclear designs are extraordinarily safe–much safer than our current dominant energy technologies–so that it can be built en masse without a constant ratcheting of regulatory standards that drives up costs. If we insist that it be infinitely safe, a standard met by no other work of man, then it will be infinitely expensive. That will be a tragedy, because it will deprive us of our best shot at coping with climate change. That’s the real risk.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 4:11 am

@ John Quiggin 116. Is it really your belief that none of the ten Gen III+ reactors now under construction will ever enter operation, even the Chinese ones that are now less than a year from completion?

If so, I expect you’ll have the integrity to issue a retraction when these reactors do come on line.

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Martin 07.26.13 at 4:19 am

@ Will Boisvert

No, please read the paper. I don’t know what is “so-called” about the scare-quoted negative learning curve: it’s just that. Not material, not safety-standards. The paper is very clear: the cost-escalation was due to negative learning by doing. Period. It is a rare effect, but not an unknown one, and nuclear power plant construction is an example.

As I said, I am not against nuclear: I don’t see why it should not be feasable to build some EPR reactors or the like in advanced economies. But before, governments should actually decide what they want: if they see SCC rather at 10 dollar/tCO2e, new nuclear is perhaps too expensive. If they see it rather at 100 dollar/tCO2e, a couple of reactors are probably reasonable. If they effectively want to pursue a 450 ppm target regardless of SCC estimates based on a different assessment, even more will be reasonable to think about, and at least some might even be imperative. It might also be path dependent, Idk: France will face different choices from, say, Italy. But what I do not see, and this corresponds perfectly to the literature, is the application of the French model to an international level. Won’t happen, too expensive.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 4:24 am

@ John Quiggin

Apologies for my heated and stupid remark at 118.

At any rate, I think the Gen III+ reactors will indeed come on line, and soon, and show the extraordinary promise of the technology.

121

Matt 07.26.13 at 4:25 am

In order to get cheap nuclear, there does at some point have to be a political recognition that existing nuclear designs are extraordinarily safe–much safer than our current dominant energy technologies–so that it can be built en masse without a constant ratcheting of regulatory standards that drives up costs. If we insist that it be infinitely safe, a standard met by no other work of man, then it will be infinitely expensive. That will be a tragedy, because it will deprive us of our best shot at coping with climate change. That’s the real risk.

This seems like a bit of a red herring. I think the EPR and AP1000 are safe enough designs. The European builds of EPRs were way behind schedule and over costs even before Fukushima happened. They weren’t hobbled by rapidly changing regulations or activists chaining themselves to stuff. The standards were high, but known before hand. If Olkiluoto 3 had gone as planned it would have been in full operation before Fukushima and any related regulatory changes came along. The AP1000 build at the Vogtle plant is already over budget despite starting real construction just last year. Again no regulatory whiplash or extralegal obstructionism around to blame. Before building they got all the necessary permits, obtained a generous loan guarantee, located in a friendly region, and promptly started screwing up.

I know that China seems to be able to build nuclear plants on time and within budget. This gives me some hope for the future of nuclear power. It also makes me a bit nervous, wondering if they’re cheap for the same reason that certain Chinese transportation projects were cheap. Taiwan’s under-construction Advanced Boiling Water Reactors are late and over budget just like Western nuclear projects.

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John Quiggin 07.26.13 at 4:40 am

@Will B I expect at least the Chinese projects to be completed. Even so, by 2020, we’ll have about 50 reactor-years of experience with the AP1000 and less (quite possibly zero) with any of the other competitors you mention. Given the failure of the US nuclear renaissance which, as Matt observes, enjoyed strong financial support and no serious political obstacles, it’s hard to believe that such a limited evidence base will lead to investment on the scale we need to eliminate coal.

There are strong arguments that the newer designs are safer, but there’s no actual experience to support those arguments, which was my point.

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 7:28 am

Matt 121, yes, most of the EPR delays and overruns are from first-of-a-kind costs and bad workmanship. But Areva also had to rework major instrumentation systems after the Olkiluoto and Flamanville builds started in response to complaints from regulators. The Flamanville build also went on a months-long imposed “pause” after Fukushima to await regulatory rethinks. Any delay adds greatly to financing costs.

The Vogtle build was also delayed by regulatory actions. NRC took about six months longer to issue the license than promised, which was the main reason for a $900 million overrun now being litigated between Westinghouse and Georgia Power. (Remember, a lot of work was already underway, and money borrowed and interest due, before the license was issued.) There was another months-long delay, and big cost overrun, when the NRC red-flagged a departure from specs in the reinforced concrete basemat—which departure NRC eventually approved anyway.

Taiwan has a ferocious anti-nuclear movement with strong support in the legislature. The plant you refer to was actually cancelled when it was one third complete when a new government came in, then restarted a year later. The project has been grossly mismanaged, but its naïve to imagine that the usual hypersensitivity to quality assurance and rigid construction codes that such political controversies engender doesn’t play a role in the sluggish progress.

Are the Chinese nuclear builds cutting corners? I don’t know of any evidence of that. Meanwhile, China has a real crisis on its hands of air pollution from coal-fired power plants, which kills tens of thousands of people every year. The notion that China should stop replacing its coal plants with nukes on the one in a thousand chance that there will be a Fukushima-scale accident—with probably no discernible health effects—is pretty wrong-headed.

People who worry about the safety of nuclear power are laboring under a crazy misapprehension of risks. The more nukes we build the more lives we save.

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dax 07.26.13 at 8:41 am

Perhaps it seems too tangential to others, but what about having fewer people? Population control. The idea seems to have sadly gone away, killed in the 1980s (that low, dishonest decade).

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Alex 07.26.13 at 9:57 am

The so-called “negative learning curve” chart has always struck me as a good example of reasoning that depends on one or two data points; the negativeness is dependent on the two or so plants in the sample that were started before Chernobyl and finished afterwards, which turned out more expensive I wonder why?

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Alex 07.26.13 at 10:50 am

Also, I’ve just read the Bloomberg piece. It looks like there is not enough grid capacity between Northern and Southern Germany. Specifically, the North is a source and the South is a sink (and Austria is a store), and the shortest path between Berlin and Vienna is through Prague, so the Czechs get a lot of power transiting their grid.

First of all, in what way isn’t Well, build some! a sufficient answer?

Further, one of the complaints from the Czech grid operator is that they sometimes have to turn off coal-fired generators because there is lots of wind power coming down the track from north Germany. But it strikes me that displacing coal generation is a feature, not a bug, and if it damages the profitability of coal plants (old, Soviet-engineered, brown coal burners to boot!) so much the better.

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ajay 07.26.13 at 11:04 am

Perhaps it seems too tangential to others, but what about having fewer people? Population control. The idea seems to have sadly gone away, killed in the 1980s (that low, dishonest decade).

The idea may have gone away (mainly because ascribing the world’s ills to Too Many Brown People is less appealling now than it was in the seventies) but population control is happening; not so much through forcing poor women to have abortions or forcing poor men to get sterilised, but just through making people rich enough and free enough that they pass through transition and start having fewer kids. Peak population is due by about 2050-2075, at around nine billion people. Then it starts to drop slowly.
By that time, the power/emissions situation isn’t really predictable, because in 2075 every single currently operating power station in the world will have shut down, and all the power stations built to replace them will also have shut down. The eighteen or so terawatts of power that we’ll be using in 2075 will come from the grandchildren of our current generator fleet.

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sherparick1 07.26.13 at 11:15 am

One factor that one must always consider when thinking about the motivations of our right wing friends is to remember that The Big Grift is their dominant motivation. Much of the anti-wind power propaganda can be traced back to funding from the Koch brothers and other coal, oil, and natural barons. And it is for a very old fashion reason. They want to suppress competition with their products. Less wind generated electricity, more demand for coal and natural gas generated electricity. http://climatecrocks.com/2011/07/26/out-in-the-open-koch-brothers-make-it-official-we-hate-wind/

P.S. Went and looked up Poe’s law. Of course it should be called “Swift’s Axiom” since Jonathan Swift discovered this particular peril of satire when many reacted to “A Modest Proposal” as a serious proposition when he proposed this solution to Ireland’s problems: “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”[1]

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dax 07.26.13 at 11:25 am

“mainly because ascribing the world’s ills to Too Many Brown People is less appealling now than it was in the seventies”

What a crock of right-wing nonsense masquerading as a sentiment of brotherly love.

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hix 07.26.13 at 12:05 pm

“First of all, in what way isn’t Well, build some! a sufficient answer?”

In the NOOOO, i dont want to see a major power line anywhere within 5 km of my home ill sue so this takes forever kind of way.

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Barry 07.26.13 at 1:26 pm

Stuart Ingham 07.25.13 at 1:15 pm

” I have heard the argument that renewables somehow inherently lend themselves to independent production before. Despite it being obviously false it is also has a rather worrying implication- that the left should be interested in goods and services that don’t offer economies of scale over ones that do.”

I’ve heard the one of the reasons that solar power costs have been declining is precisely because the economies of scale are different – building a nuclear plant is a multi-billion (tens of billions) dollar project, taking 10-20 years. There’s not as much learning curve due to replication, and it is a single, hierarchical, top-down central planning project.

Solar power is being manufactured and installed by far larger number of individuals and business, over the course of thousands of projects. That means a sharp learning curve.

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William Timberman 07.26.13 at 2:03 pm

Many years ago, I was put in charge of cataloging a large depository collection of U.S. government documents. In the course of the decade or so of work that followed, I occasionally found myself reading interesting things, among them NRC documents concerning the design and maintenance of nuclear power plants. I particularly remember one shocking paper about the neutron embrittlement of various grades of steel.

This was in Southern California, where during the same period, I watched the steady deterioration of the Los Angeles freeways. When I arrived, they were just finishing the Santa Monica Freeway. When I left, in the early oughts, it was pretty much a crumbling ruin, in use and usable still, but in an awful state of disrepair in many places, and for all sorts of reasons, mostly economic, there wasn’t much being done about it.

Then I read about the practice, well-managed in France, apparently, and not so well managed in the United States and Japan, of routinely re-certifying nuclear power plants that have already passed their designed operational life. The question which occurs to me, and perhaps to others , is whether heroic attempts should be made to maintain large-scale infrastructure projects decades beyond the date that they were originally designed to last, especially in an era when one must do so at costs much greater than the budgeted amounts available to the agencies which operate them. And can one honestly make the same case for Connecticut Yankee that one makes for the Golden Gate?

Frankly, I smell entropy at work here, or at very least, unacceptable political and economic fiddling, and it worries me. The grand enthusiasms of engineers who designed and built things when concrete and labor were cheap now often seem too expensive to fix, and too vital to do without. Do people reading here who actually know something about how this all works share my concerns, or have I just put two and two together and gotten five.

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Omega Centauri 07.26.13 at 2:10 pm

Matt @114.
I think the writing is on the wall, net metering for new solar customers will have a limited lifetime due to the fairness issue. I think the battle is more over how much longer before we replace it with something else. Obviously connect charges and VOST (Value Of Solar Tarrif) for return flows are the direction things will go. Interestingly Austin Electric switched to VOST, and because the timing of solar reverse flows correlates to high demand, the price is actually a bit higher than the retail rate. But, this happy fact won’t survive a major scaling up of PV enetration, which would probably reverse the current temporal cost diferential -daytime power will be cheaper than nighttime. But this is still afew years off (except maybe in Germany). The fairness quote that I thought was best, was that excess solar from the rooftop installations should be no more costly to the utility than thewholesale price of solar electricty from a gridscale plant. Pay more than that, and the fairness doctrine is violated.

The problem with Nuclear, is the way humans experience fear. Paint a scary picture of what *might* happen in a worse case, and that engages the emotional brain circuitry. Prove that it is 99.999% unlikely, and it has little effect. The engineers can go back to the drawing board and add some more nines, but no matter how many nines they add, the emotional effect is undimished. As long as activists can say “but, it could still happen”, the emotional nature of our brains will trump logical statistical reasoning. So nuclear is stuck with an impossible burden of proving its safety in most democracies. Attempts to address the issue (via adding more nines), simply make the cost increase exponentially. Thats what we saw with the inherently dangerous space shuttle, more and more money was spent trying to make it a little bit safer, and launch costs -and turnaround times just keep rising severalfold. So while I would like to have a robust nuclear component, I’ve just given up the fight as unwinnable.

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ajay 07.26.13 at 2:28 pm

I’ve heard the one of the reasons that solar power costs have been declining is precisely because the economies of scale are different – building a nuclear plant is a multi-billion (tens of billions) dollar project, taking 10-20 years. There’s not as much learning curve due to replication, and it is a single, hierarchical, top-down central planning project.

No idea whether that’s true, but it makes a lot of sense. PV lends itself to small-scale experimentation, too, in a way that nuclear doesn’t. Get a couple of bright materials scientists and a few million in funding, and they can start a startup making their own slightly-better PV cells, and scale up as the business grows. That’s not really an option for a couple of bright nuclear engineers with a great concept for a slightly-better nuclear reactor.

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Layman 07.26.13 at 2:58 pm

Matt @ 114

“The death spiral idea is that rooftop solar users who get a portion of their power from the roof* instead of the grid pay less to the utility because they use less electricity, even though they’re not decreasing the reliance on fixed infrastructure**.”

Another way to say this is “electrical users who conserve pay less to the utility than those who don’t, because they use less electricity, even though they’re not decreasing the reliance on fixed infrastructure.” A corollary is “electrical users with smaller houses pay less to the utility than those with larger houses, because they use less electricity, even though they’re not decreasing the reliance on fixed infrastructure.” When you frame the complaint that way, it is patently absurd. Of course people who use less electricity pay a lower portion of the cost of fixed infrastructure, because the utilities have chosen to recover the cost of fixed infrastructure via the variable fees for electricity used.

I’m not even sure on the last point. APS charges me a fixed fee of about $10 every month, which is supposed to cover some fixed costs. They’re not entirely clear about WHICH fixed costs.

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Trader Joe 07.26.13 at 2:58 pm

“daytime power will be cheaper than nighttime”

This comment calles to mind an interesting article some time ago related to this topic and it mashed together the “problem” of increased solar usage where obviously more power is generated during the daytime and the possiblity of a greater proportion of plug-in hybrid vehicles where, in most cases, people will want to be doing their recharges at night and what this might mean for load balancing, base capacity etc. That author proposed nuclear as the “solution” although it was a simplistic article that didn’t go into the various objections raised here.

Clearly not an insurmountable problem, all the more so if storage systems improve and of course it all deals in ‘potentials’ rather than practicalities. Perhaps a little off topic – but I found it an interesting example of green initiatives colliding.

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Theophylact 07.26.13 at 3:54 pm

Layman @ 145: This is related to the rash of recent proposals for higher registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles (mostly by Republican governors). The rationale: such cars parasitize by using the road system but not paying gas taxes to the state.

Follow this logic and conservation will always be punished.

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Layman 07.26.13 at 4:22 pm

Omega @ 133

“The fairness quote that I thought was best, was that excess solar from the rooftop installations should be no more costly to the utility than thewholesale price of solar electricty from a gridscale plant.”

What’s wrong with ‘excess solar from rooftop installations should be no more costly to the utility than the price the utility charges the rooftop owner for baseline power from the utilities’ grid’? What’s unfair about that?

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Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 4:45 pm

@ Alex 126, on surges of German wind power on the Polish and Czech grids:

“Isn’t well, build some! [transmission] a sufficient answer?”

Maybe, but Germany will have to build *a lot* of transmission. It’s currently embarking on a 20 billion-euro transmission project to pipe wind power from north to south. And that’s just the first of many installments, because Germany is still only at 12 percent penetration of wind and solar power.

Because of their geographical dispersion and chaotic surge-and-slump production mode, a grid dependent on wind and solar generators requires much more long-distance transmission than one powredby dispatchable generators like nuclear. The costs of that infrastructure are usually born by the system at large rather than the wind and solar generators that cause the problem. That’s one of many ways in which the full costs of supposedly cheap wind and solar are hidden and subsidized

“Displacing [Polish and Czech] coal generation [with German wind power surges] is a feature, not a bug, and if it damages the profitability of coal pants…so much the better.”

It’s a bit more complicated. The Poles and Czechs can’t just switch off their coal boilers when German wind comes barrelling through. It takes many hours to reheat coal boilers so they can produce sufficient steam to run turbines, and the grid usually won’t have time to do that when German wind power slumps again. What grid managers often do instead is to keep the coal plants in standby—that is stoked with enough of a head of steam to go rapidly back into production. But doing that requires burning a considerable amount of coal, which is an expensive waste and also produces lots of greenhouse emissions.

Coal plants can throttle their power up and down to some extent to “balance” wind surges, but in that stop-and-start mode they still burn substantially more fuel per kilowatt-hour than they do in steady baseload mode. (Just as your car gets better gas mileage in steady highway cruising than in stop-and-start city traffic.) That’s true even of gas plants, which are better suited to balancing wind.

And Northern European fossil-fueled plants won’t go away no matter how unprofitable they are, because they are needed to provide power when wind and solar slump to producing less than 5 percent of their combined nameplate power for a whole week at a time in the dead of winter. That’s why Germany is expanding its fossil fueled capacity, not shrinking it, as it builds wind and solar and shutters nukes. Plans are developing to cut fossil fuels in on the Energiewende’s subsidy scheme—corporate welfare for coal burners in the name of clean energy.

Wind and solar cannot completely substitute for dispatchable fossil fuels. Any electricity system that relies on them will likely continue burning a substantial quantity of coal and gas.

140

Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 4:52 pm

@ ajay 127, on the longevity of power generators:

“In 2075 every single currently operating power station in the world will have shut down, and all the power stations built to replace them will also have shut down.”

That’s true if you’re talking about wind turbines and solar panels, which are expected to wear out in 20 to 30 years.

It’s not true of nuclear reactors. New models are rated to last 60 years, and there is talk of extending life spans to 80 and 100 years. So nukes that come on line in 2020 would still be around in 2080, and maybe even 2120. Hydro dams could also last that long. That longevity is another reason why those generators could be a better long-term bet than wind and solar.

141

Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 5:21 pm

@ William Timberman 132, on neutron embrittlement and long-term maintenance of nukes:

–Neutron embrittlement is a well-monitored issue at nuclear plants. If it gets worrisome it can be repaired by heat annealing.

–It’s not true that older reactors have a life-span of 40 years fixed by their creators. Engineers know a lot more about reactors and how they age now then they knew decades ago when the plants were built, so there’s a solid basis of experience to support licensing extensions. Nukes are also under a constant intense regimen of heavily regulated maintenance and replacement, which means that most of their parts are much younger than the plant itself. Extrapolating from highway disrepair to nuclear plants is a stretch.

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William Timberman 07.26.13 at 5:41 pm

Thanks, Will. When it comes to systemic failures, though, I’m more of a pessimist than you are, thanks to experiences far removed from the technical. I’d prefer to believe your reassurances, but the darkness just won’t leave me alone….

143

Omega Centauri 07.26.13 at 6:23 pm

Layman: My paraphrase was of a quote from a utility manager. In terms of insuring fairness towards those customers who can’t put their own solar up, it sounds like a very good attempt to be fair. Take a look at the problem from 30,000 feet, with an eye for cost flows, and you should be able to see the correctness of his statement.

Now, I am assuming that early solar installations will have their more favorable status grandfathered in. That is only fair, as these early adopters paid a premium in return for helping the industry along the early part of the learning curve. The major public value from early adopters, is not the putput of the panels (carbon reduction or whatever), but they fact that their spending allowed the industry to mature.

144

Will Boisvert 07.26.13 at 6:34 pm

@ Omega Centauri 133, on nuclear angst:

Your analysis of anti-nuclear anxiety and the dread of worst-case scenarios is a good one. A nuclear risk profile that balances infinitesimal likelihood against seemingly infinite damage fills people with terror no matter how remote the odds.

So it’s worth noting that the damage really isn’t infinite. Even worst-case scenarios for nuclear accidents are no worse than dam breaks, and an order of magnitude smaller than the yearly worldwide toll of hundreds of thousands of deaths from coal-fired air pollution.

The Banqiao dam break in China in 1975 drowned about 27,000 people, about as many as the Union of Concerned Scientists reckon will die from the Chernobyl accident. But while the dam-break body count was very evident, the UCS estimate is conjectural, based on applying high-dose radiation risk factors to the extremely low doses civilians incurred from Chernobyl—and far too small to be discernible in epidemiological studies.

The observable health effects from Chernobyl are modest. There were 6000 thyroid cancers, which could have been avoided had Soviet authorities warned the population not to drink milk contaminated with radio-iodine. (Fortunately, thyroid cancer is readily treatable, so only 15 deaths resulted.) There’s a possible slight uptick in leukemia rates among “liquidators” who received the highest radiation doses, an effect that wavers on the brink of statistical significance. Otherwise, according to the authoritative UNSCEAR report, there are no observable health effects at all to civilian populations. So perhaps a few hundred deaths can be definitely attributed to Chernobyl.

The reality is that radiation is a weak carcinogen that does very little discernible harm at the doses civilians receive even in major nuclear accidents. A nuclear spew doesn’t produce a zombie apocalypse. The risk to an individual is equivalent to discovering that your house has radon; that’s the scale of threat that people should associate with nuclear disasters.

So the risk profile of nuclear power is not, “There’s a one-in-a-thousand chance that it will cause an apocalypse.” The true risk profile of nuclear is, “There’s a one-in-a-thousand chance that it will cause your house to come down with a moderate case of radon that will largely wear off in a few years.”

If people focused on that true risk profile they might be a lot less terrified.

145

Lee A. Arnold 07.26.13 at 6:59 pm

8% of the land area of Japan has higher than usual cesium 137. More went out to sea. It has shown up in fish in Los Angeles. Don’t worry though, there is only a one in a thousand chance it will affect your health. Perhaps slightly worse odds, considering all the other crap you’ve ingested.

146

Layman 07.26.13 at 7:15 pm

Omega @ 143

“Take a look at the problem from 30,000 feet, with an eye for cost flows, and you should be able to see the correctness of his statement.”

I’m trying, believe me. If the problem is that, by drawing less grid power, rooftop solar users end up paying less than their fair share of infrastructure costs, with the result that someone else is paying more than their fair share, what that situation highlights is that those infrastructure costs have always been unfairly allocated, with smaller homes and conservationists transfering costs to everyone else. What that implies is that utilities should change how they allocate fixed infrastructure costs, not that they should pay rooftop solar owners less for a kWh than they charge those same owners when they sell them one.

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Bruce Wilder 07.26.13 at 7:22 pm

I’m amazed at the apparent interest in geeky details marshaled in these arguments, but I cannot help thinking that it all just comes down to one tribe’s brand of b.s. competing with another tribe’s brand of b.s. Is the Right’s “anti-wind” campaign, “scaremongering”? I don’t think they really care about what they say they care about; they’re mad that the hippies might be right once again, and their dreams of suburban bliss (and corporate predation), fueled by cheap gas, are precluded by the hippies, masquerading as reality. As usual, the Right picks up off the ground the scattered remnants of ill-considered Left rhetoric, and uses it. If they are “scaremongering”, it is because they think that is what the Left has been doing on climate change, peak oil, etc. The Right is “scaremongering”, because they think that is an effective mirroring of what they see the Left doing, effective in de-legitimizing at least one of the Left’s approaches.

In this thread, I see a lot of Left b.s., and I wonder, what is it supposed to accomplish? Is optimism, realistic? I understand the political psychology, which says that optimistic frames are persuasive, and I don’t discount it, but I wonder if, in the long game, it doesn’t undermine the whole objective truth and trustworthiness thing. The Right gets a lot of mileage out of mirroring everything the Left says and does, de-legitimating and confusing issues, which have been pre-confused by the Left, layering on an inappropriate layer of optimism.

The world must swallow some bitter pills, or suffer the long-term collapse of civilization. I don’t know that sugar-coating the pill with denial that the pill is bitter gets us to the political will to swallow the pill.

Human ambivalence being what it is, I don’t imagine the Right is going away. And, behind the Left’s faith in a technological god of progress rescuing us from the tragic drama of the industrial revolution run amuck — a literal deus ex machina — is as studied a refusal to look at what coping with reality requires as any temper tantrum staged by the Right.

Every method of power generation and distribution is going to be costly, and the cost of using energy is the waste, the exhaust, and we have to reduce the waste to what the earth’s environment can handle, which is another way of saying that we have to reduce the sheer quantity of energy we use, and better manage its use, and refrain from very tempting uses of fossil fuels. So, energy will cost more, and we will devote much more attention and technical effort to managing the (technical) efficiency of its production, distribution and applications; we will have to give up the luxury of a lot of careless waste. And, we will have to divert some significant resources to managing not just energy use in a narrow technical sense, but to managing pretty much the environment of the whole earth, now that we’ve eliminated the wild and wilderness. Not to put too much of a gloss on it, but these tasks will need some of that spirit of authoritarian domination, which the Right embodies, even if, first, we will have to find a way to frustrate their impulse to pillage the environment.

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Matt 07.26.13 at 8:14 pm

@Layman

Another way to say this is “electrical users who conserve pay less to the utility than those who don’t, because they use less electricity, even though they’re not decreasing the reliance on fixed infrastructure.” A corollary is “electrical users with smaller houses pay less to the utility than those with larger houses, because they use less electricity, even though they’re not decreasing the reliance on fixed infrastructure.” When you frame the complaint that way, it is patently absurd. Of course people who use less electricity pay a lower portion of the cost of fixed infrastructure, because the utilities have chosen to recover the cost of fixed infrastructure via the variable fees for electricity used.

You are right, and I forgot to mention this in my post about the utility death spiral. High distributed solar penetration has the potential to be even more costly for utilities than conservation, due to the fact mentioned above that solar output (grid demand suppression) is highly correlated. But conservation hurts them too: if neighbors respond to solar neighbors and their costs by using a clothesline instead of an electric dryer, replacing failed appliances with more efficient ones, or getting rid of the last of their incandescent lighting, that is also a problem for the utility.

There are different reasons that coal plants are shutting down in the United States: cheap shale gas, wind power, and the anemic yet much lamented “War on Coal” of increasing environmental standards. The main reason coal plants are shutting down is because the demand just isn’t there. Not only has the economy contracted and then sputtered along, but part of the recession belt-tightening was finding out how to be more efficient with energy. In some places the future demand curve that would have been predicted back in 2005 has been delayed by a decade or more. If demand were humming along coal plant operators would just pay the upgrade costs and their customers would just buy electricity that’s a little more expensive, but that’s not going to happen. If and when the US economy returns to robust growth, it will be too late for operators who have mostly-idled coal plants today. The non-coal path dependency will already be locked in.

149

Matt 07.26.13 at 9:03 pm

@Bruce Wilder:

Human ambivalence being what it is, I don’t imagine the Right is going away. And, behind the Left’s faith in a technological god of progress rescuing us from the tragic drama of the industrial revolution run amuck — a literal deus ex machina — is as studied a refusal to look at what coping with reality requires as any temper tantrum staged by the Right.

Every method of power generation and distribution is going to be costly, and the cost of using energy is the waste, the exhaust, and we have to reduce the waste to what the earth’s environment can handle, which is another way of saying that we have to reduce the sheer quantity of energy we use, and better manage its use, and refrain from very tempting uses of fossil fuels. So, energy will cost more, and we will devote much more attention and technical effort to managing the (technical) efficiency of its production, distribution and applications; we will have to give up the luxury of a lot of careless waste. And, we will have to divert some significant resources to managing not just energy use in a narrow technical sense, but to managing pretty much the environment of the whole earth, now that we’ve eliminated the wild and wilderness. Not to put too much of a gloss on it, but these tasks will need some of that spirit of authoritarian domination, which the Right embodies, even if, first, we will have to find a way to frustrate their impulse to pillage the environment.

We know at least in broad outlines what climate stabilization requires. I don’t see signs that it will arrive in time. “The world must swallow some bitter pills” is just hoping for social miracles instead of technological miracles. I don’t believe in miracles.

The “we” that needs to do the reduction of emissions is now a global we. China alone emits more CO2 than the United States and European Union combined, and has done so for a few years now. Unless trends change it will be “more CO2 than the European Union, North America, and Australia combined” by the end of the decade. China’s gradual cleaning up of coal is more likely to comprise scrubbing acid gases and particulates that destroy local and regional air quality, not capturing CO2 that causes global climate problems. Chinese deployment of renewable energy and nuclear power is large on an absolute scale, but total Chinese use is so much greater that it’s just slightly slowing the growth of coal consumption.

Put me on the Central Committee of the World Energy Use Planners and I will take muscular, rapid steps to reduce climate change and other environmental blights caused by energy use. As long as that august body has no vacancies, I must nibble around the edges by working on making the worst energy sources most expensive and all energy more efficiently used in my home country, the United States.

I am not very optimistic about prospects for taming climate change, despite my enthusiasm about certain technologies and trends. I predict that the world is going to blow right by previous emissions aspirations for 2020 and 2030. By the time there’s enough alarm to muster an authoritarian approach to climate stabilization, I believe we’ll be past multiple tipping points and even empowered climate authoritarians will be unable to turn back the tide. I don’t see any reason to expect they’ll be any more just than historical authoritarians, either. About the best I hope for is that the weak efforts we undertake today will still be better than no action at all.

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Omega Centauri 07.26.13 at 9:32 pm

@Willl @144. A very good response. I do think that nuke dangers have been massively overestimated. But there seems to be no way to win the PR battle. I gave up after Fukushima. Fukushima made me change my assesment of the danger of N power. There is little dircet danger to life/health, but huge danger of economic losses, as any areas of increased radiation are rendered uninhabitable because of our overreaction. So bad N accidents mean that hundreds or thousands of square miles are abandoned for several decades, and this results in hundreds of billions of loses for a single serious accident. Unless you can change the public perception of risk of lowlevel radiation, that is what we are stuck with. I know it is highly unoptimal, and fristrating, but we have to deal with the PR envirnonment we have, not with the one we wish we had.

151

Omega Centauri 07.26.13 at 9:46 pm

Layman and Matt.
Grid connected customers do not just reduce their consumption. They also export power to the grid at times, and import it at other times. Even though I am net metered, my bill lists both flows (into and out of the house). If I am near net zero, I am getting free storage of juice by exporting during the day, and importing during the night, or during cloudt weather -or worse during an extreme heatwave my 24hour usage may be a multiple of my PV generation. So I get great benefit from my grid connection. At low penetration, in a region with demand that strongly peaks during sunny days/hours, that isn’t an issue for PG&E, since my power is exported at a time when spot electricity prices are high. That won’t be the case once PV reaches some modest amount (25 or maybe 50 percent), and daytime spot electricty prices collapse. So if I am not to be a net burden to the other customers, I must accept a low price for my exported power. The price of wholesale (utility scale) solar, seems like a fair price to me (even if I don’t like it).

Of course we have the effects on the distribution system. If the size of outflows is are enough, it may force a system upgrade. If my average use is say 1000watts, I probably need something like a 5000watt PV to be near net zero. That means I am exporting 4000-5000 watts during the daytime, and the wires and transformers better be able to handle the increased current. That currently isn’t an issue, as my transformer only has 2 out of 17 solar customers. But if ten more houses add PV, they will have to upgrade the transformer, and probably the underground power lines, at nontrivial expense. The only way around these facts at high DG penetration is distributed storage, which is likely to be quite pricey.

152

Layman 07.26.13 at 10:10 pm

Omega @ 151

“Grid connected customers do not just reduce their consumption. They also export power to the grid at times, and import it at other times. Even though I am net metered, my bill lists both flows (into and out of the house).”

Me, too.

“If I am near net zero, I am getting free storage of juice by exporting during the day, and importing during the night, or during cloudt weather -or worse during an extreme heatwave my 24hour usage may be a multiple of my PV generation.”

Me, too, though I would word this differently: ‘If I am near net zero, I am selling excess power to my utility during the day, and buying electricity from them during the night &tc’.

“So I get great benefit from my grid connection.”

add ‘…as does my utility company’.

“At low penetration, in a region with demand that strongly peaks during sunny days/hours, that isn’t an issue for PG&E, since my power is exported at a time when spot electricity prices are high. That won’t be the case once PV reaches some modest amount (25 or maybe 50 percent), and daytime spot electricty prices collapse. So if I am not to be a net burden to the other customers, I must accept a low price for my exported power. The price of wholesale (utility scale) solar, seems like a fair price to me (even if I don’t like it).”

This is very clear, thanks. I agree that when PV density reduces the value of my daytime excess capacity, I should expect to be paid less for it; but until PV density reaches that point, there’s no justification for paying me less than I pay them, or for claiming I’m stealing from my neighbor.

153

Mao Cheng Ji 07.26.13 at 10:20 pm

All these gyms around the city where I live, hundreds of them. The physical work is done by machines, and people then use other machines and more energy to do their physical exercises… What’s the point… Every health nut should be spinning a dynamo…

154

mrearl 07.26.13 at 10:30 pm

I have been fooling around with public utility rates since 1977, which I suspect is before some of you were born and before many of you got out of college. (Alright, it wasn’t that long after I got out of college.) That pursuit has required me, a humble country lawyer, to become a jackleg economist, a half-ass engineer, and a quasi-accountant, not to mention something of a politician.

The economists want perfection (they call it optimality, often the Pareto sort), the engineers never have enough time and resources, the accountants worship the false certainty of numbers, the politicians are usually ineducable, and the lawyers want what their clients want, and to get paid. Those are the people who set utility rates, at least in the United States.

I have read the above with fascination. Plus ca change, oh, plus ca change. Two things seem persistent all these years. Electricity still cannot be stored in large amounts for very long , which accounts for all the discussion of intermittency, dispatchability, and so forth. Second, marginal cost pricing makes the most economic sense and, ruthlessly applied, is political suicide.

Oh, and third, people in developed countries want juice when they want it. We spent decades getting them hooked on it and there’s no soon weaning off.

The obvious dynamic tension among those three propositions underlies the entire erudite discussion above. What an irony that when CT moves into an area of my own expertise I have no one to argue with–for you are all, in some degree, right.

155

John Quiggin 07.26.13 at 10:54 pm

Following on from #154, a lot of the discussion can be summed up as follows.

Renewables and energy efficiency measures are the most cost-effective way of replacing/displacing fossil fuels in electricity generation. However, existing pricing systems, institutional structures and transmission/networks are set up to handle systems based predominantly on coal. Nuclear would substitute neatly for coal in this sense, but it’s far too expensive. So, one way or another, the existing structure will have to be changed.

That will be messy, expensive and politically painful, like structural changes in other sectors of the economy, but it is the kind of problem that modern societies deal with all the time. By contrast, climate change is an existential threat.

156

Matt 07.26.13 at 11:00 pm

@Layman and Omega,

I understand that grid-tied customers who have solar systems export and import power to/from the grid at different times. I focus on the case of solar self-consumption with no opportunity to export to the grid as a long term limiting case. It’s what happens if solar keeps getting cheaper but neither solar users nor their neighbors want to pay for more wiring and transformers to enable increased peak solar exports — this is a “best of the worst case” scenario where solar costs keep falling but the electric utility model stays the same. Your neighborhood is plastered with solar panels, at the same time the sun is shining on your system it’s shining on all your neighbors, and there is more local power than local demand when it’s sunny. You need to store the surplus locally, get it distributed further, or waste it. Wasting it part of the time may be cheaper than uprating infrastructure to get it out to more distant consumers or building storage to use it locally later. If electric vehicle adoption increases, battery charging at times of peak sun may represent some dispatchable demand that you can match with the intermittent solar surplus.

157

Cranky Observer 07.26.13 at 11:26 pm

A few random thoughts, both on and semi-off topic:

1) Perennial reminder: ~60% of the United States population is no longer served by electric “utilities” (that is, geographically compact, regulated monopolies with at least some degree of vertical integration) but by a collection of semi-competitive entities that participate in dozens of Chicago-school auctions and “markets” (including, as of this year, auctions for demand response [incentives to reduce usage during peak periods] and distributed solar provision). And for those who still are served by regulated utilities, well, the FERC is working very hard to break them up and break the state regulatory commissions in the process.

2) In the area of unappreciated technologies I offer Beacon Power‘s superconducting flywheel systems. Could do a lot to mitigate wind turbine fluctuations and grid fluctuations/instability in general. But they can’t get any significant contracts – in part because there is no FERC-approved “market” for the service their systems would provide – and they are now also getting the full Solyandra treatment from the Republicans. Too bad.

3) On the positive side, MISO is now using synchrophasor data in routine operation. This is good for running a grid more efficiently in general, but in particular for running it closer to edge of stability as variability increases.

3) Interesting map of US electricity usage in 1921 from The Atlantic:
http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/a-map-of-american-electricity-use-in-1921/278147/
As I noted in the comments it is pretty much a map of states where Samuel Insull either lived for a time or had a summer house. Used to be a household name, driving force behind US electrificationforgotten today . Cycle of life.

Cranky

158

mrearl 07.27.13 at 12:33 am

Cranky 157:

Synchrophasor stuff is all well and great, but monitoring 30 times a second instead of every four seconds does not beget 120 times more useful information. That is, I don’t think it will reduce load relief incidents by the same proportion. Still, every little bit helps, if cost-justified, and I note there was a federal grant involved.

Insull (who started out with Edison himself), along with EBASCO (Electric Bond And Share Company), needs to be remembered, and that memory needs to be feared. The multiple financial leverage, in which debt of the parent, and the parent’s parent, and on up, becomes equity in the operating subsidiary, led to a near-total collapse of value in a time period shorter than my vacation. Insull understood two things very well, economies of scale (centralized generation) and ripping off investors.

Against that historical background, the last several years of FERC emphasis on the market as the solution, coupled with its price incentives to transmission investment, may be a bit worrisome. It encourages a move away from holistic power generation and delivery planning to one more function-specialized, and just as when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, when all you have is transmission, everything looks like congestion. RTOs (Regional Transmission Organizations) such as MISO are supposed to mitigate that problem. We shall see.

159

dsquared 07.27.13 at 12:37 am

My view has always been that the renewables industry should take a leaf out of the nuclear industry’s book and try to secure investment by simply telling amazing lies all the time. The equivalent of the thorium reactor would be to claim that there was a special new kind of wind turbine that could turn on still days, and all that was needed was a few billions more in research.

160

engels 07.27.13 at 12:46 am

I agree with Daniel, but they also need to come up with a way of linking their technology with a terrifying weapon with the potential to destroy us all. Maybe a geothermal thing which can cause earthquakes on other continents or a tidal generator which can create tsunamis – I’ll leave the details to the boffins.

161

P O'Neill 07.27.13 at 12:50 am

Apparently the Muslim Brotherhood is against wind power.

162

Layman 07.27.13 at 12:59 am

Matt @ 156

“If electric vehicle adoption increases, battery charging at times of peak sun may represent some dispatchable demand that you can match with the intermittent solar surplus.”

I don’t own an electric car but have considered it. I have short commutes due to opting to live in the city rather than the suburbs of Phoenix, so it’s an option. But I’m guessing I’d want 2, for precisely this reason – to be able to charge one off my solar at peak sun. So, it’s an expensive proposition, doubled.

163

Martin 07.27.13 at 1:22 am

Yes, exactly, and as a reliable source I got high with recently told me, the nukular industry specifically hires reckless liars. That is, whoever applies for a job must literally declare that they love to lie in order to snatch some subsidies. Alternatively, there is a conscious entity called the “nukular industry” that actually lies on its own – which makes perfect sense if you refuse to think about it for a second! Otherwise, the idea that the nukular industry lies more than say, than the renewables industry to get money would one big crazy conspiracy theory!

I thought I’d immediately post this brand-new information here just to see if commenters would notice that I am not only high, but also completely drunk.

164

Will Boisvert 07.27.13 at 1:27 am

@ John Quiggin 155

“Renewables and energy efficiency measures are the most cost-effective way of replacing/displacing fossil fuels in electricity generation….Nuclear would substitute neatly for coal in this sense, but it’s far too expensive.”

I don’t think that’s an accurate summation of the consensus.

Levelized Cost of Electricity estimates generally place new nuclear and onshore wind at about the same cost, with nuclear being substantially cheaper than offshore wind and solar.

But LCOE calculations do not take into account the large systemic costs that wind and solar impose on the grid—like costs for super-redundant transmission capacity and storage and backup. They do not take into account that nuclear plants have very long lives of low-cost production after the mortgage is paid off, while wind and solar must be rebuilt every 20 to 30 years so that they are always paying off the mortgage. They do not take into account the drop in capacity factors that will occur as the overbuild of wind and solar starts to necessitate regular curtailment. They don’t take into account larger costs to the economy of having an erratic, volatile electricity supply from wind and solar that will require volatile spot prices that drive volatile shifts in usage.

Nor can wind and solar and efficiency completely replace/displace fossil fuels in any sense. Countries that have avidly pursued renewable policies, like Denmark and Germany, remain dependent on fossil fuels after decades. Starry-eyed all-renewables schemes rely on dispatchable technologies like hydro and geothermal that may not scale, or on biomass, which hopefully will not scale because of its devastating effects on the environment and food production. Realistically, schemes dominated by wind and solar will continue to burn massive quantities of fossil fuels. That’s not a path to the kind of rapid and complete decarbonization the world needs.

But why puzzle over studies and forecasts? We can just look at history. Both France and Sweden decarbonized 90 percent of their grids in 20 years using nuclear and hydro, at some of Europe’s lowest electricity prices. That’s a performance that no renewables scheme can hope to match either in pace or cost.

Building a low-carbon energy system definitely does not require agonizing structural changes to our economy and way of life.The nuclear-hydro system can do the job fast, cheaply and expediently. History proves it.

165

engels 07.27.13 at 1:37 am

Otherwise, the idea that the nukular industry lies more than say, than the renewables industry to get money would one big crazy conspiracy theory!

Yrs, because of the well-known law of economics which says that the proportion of,liars in every industry is always and everywhere the same – public relations vs. primary school teachers.

166

hix 07.27.13 at 3:01 am

Look, it does not work because Denmark has lots of co2 emissions is besides the point. Denmark did not implement a go green, no co2 strategy from the outset when they started to introduce high energy use taxes and windgeneration. Rather, their focus was and still is in large parts oil independence after the opec embargo. Denmark recently banned fosile heating in new constructed buildings. Those who heat conventional when other options are aviable will soon have to pay an “energy security fee”, not a heat the planet fee.

In the colder parts of the world that have no shale gas boom, a switch from conventional heating to heat pumps is already one of the cheapest ways to reduce co2 emssions in new buildings. Thus, the chearing of cost escalations through indirect solar buildup subsidies (were soon going to see unsusidiced solar buildup on a massive scale, both on roofs and large scale ground mounted so much is predictable*) might backfire. Higher variable electricity costs do not only decourage electrity waste, they also decourage a switch to more efficient electric heating and mobility (at least in a scenario where marginal new electrity does not come from coal powerplants).

*Both solar and the demand management a big solar buildup requires are semiconductor stuff, which gets cheaper at a pretty predictable fast pace.

167

mrearl 07.27.13 at 3:48 am

We can demand manage (by incentive or compulsion) discrete, usually industrial, loads, but residential and commercial are less amenable. We tried them in the ’80s and the result was neglible. Not immaterial, but nothing to write home about.

Heat pumps are useful in “the colder parts of the world,” which is a rather limiting qualification. I can’t make it pay in North Arkansas, which is about where the southern half of the US begins and my latitudinal counterpart is literally two continents away. It’s a device of scant appeal.

This LCOE business is all dependent on the economists’ favorite trick, Net Present Value, which covers a multitude of sins, depending upon the discount rate, about which we can argue until the cows do not come home. I do not regard it as a reliable tool. Handy for discussion, not serious decisions.

Alright, Will, assuming numbers don’t lie (heroically), nuclear has to be in our near future. But what of future futures? What taboo, what “ju-ju,” can we put upon nuclear waste that will last a thousand years or more?

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Omega Centauri 07.27.13 at 3:56 am

One thing that has intrigued me with solar would be a combination of a panel and an appliance. That way a do it yourself type could dispence with all the soft costs, permits, inspections, and so on. I know of one guy who scored for $.34/wat panels, and connected them to an electric water heater. He figures its cheaper than the old fashioned solar-thermal hot water heater for the same app. I could imagine doing something with an aircondition, that could be reversed seasonally as a heat pump. Directly connect it to a couple of PV panels, and you get some heating/cooling without the utility ever being involved. Your reduced cost just might be big enough to make up for the power you waste when you don’t need either.

Also Nova Scotia’s utility is promoting electric heaters that can be turned on when there is excess wind power on the grid. There certainly are oportunities to make use of cheap stranded power, when a robust renewables powered grid has too much.

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Bruce Wilder 07.27.13 at 7:28 am

So, your friend, Rube Goldberg, connected a solar panel generating electricity to an electric water heater?

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Tim Worstall 07.27.13 at 8:48 am

“No idea whether that’s true, but it makes a lot of sense. PV lends itself to small-scale experimentation, too, in a way that nuclear doesn’t. Get a couple of bright materials scientists and a few million in funding, and they can start a startup making their own slightly-better PV cells, and scale up as the business grows.”

Most certainly true to some extent. There are a number of people so funded playing around with all sorts of variations. But the real driver in the recent fall of PV has been that people simply got serious about making the basic silicon metal for it.

Not so long ago PV was made from stuff that had been manufactured for the computer chip industry but had failed the grade. Then solar got big, prices soared to $450 per kg. Which for Si, something that is pretty much just boiled sand, is a high price. So work was done on how to produce Si metal cheaper. Current production costs, inc. capital costs, are around the $30 a kg level now.

This is the same story as yours of course, it’s just been happening in a slightly different corner of the industry. Not so much new materials but better ways of making the standard one.

First Solar with their Cd/Te thin films is a more direct example of your particular variation of the point.

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Will Boisvert 07.27.13 at 10:54 pm

@ mrearl 167, on what do we do with nuclear waste?:

“What taboo, what ‘ju-ju,’ can we put upon nuclear waste that will last a thousand years or more?”

Just putting up signs at nuclear waste depositories will suffice. Any county board of supervisors can handle the task of maintaining and updating signage.

We only need “taboo” or “juju” if we expect the future, as many anti-nuclear greens do, to be a Mad Max movie populated by illiterate nomads who can’t read signs and don’t have county government. Yes, in that future we’ll need to transmit information on nuclear waste handling through folkloric taboos and the song-cycles of tribal bards. Otherwise the illiterate nomads will tunnel down into the sealed depository through hundreds of feet of solid rock, happen upon the waste, paint their faces with it and get cancer twenty years later.

In my opinion the issue of long-term waste storage is the least serious problem with nuclear power. Burying the waste in a hole in the desert is an expedient and obviously safe solution.

Can we guarantee that the waste will stay safe for a thousand, or ten thousand or a million years? Of course not. No one knows what will happen a thousand years from now. But neither is there any plausible scenario for what harm can come of waste buried under hundreds of feet of rock in the middle of an empty desert. When you bury stuff under hundreds of feet of rock, it tends to stay put.

Every disaster scenario attached to long-term nuclear waste immediately crumbles into nonsense when you poke it with common sense.

For example, much opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository centered on the possibility that the waste might someday leak and poison the local aquifer. But what if it does leak? It’s an empty desert. There are a few sheep ranches that use the groundwater; so monitor it and if it gets poisoned, compensate them. The only way a poisoned aquifer could have any significant public health impact is if thousands of people troop to Yucca Mountain and start drinking the untreated groundwater. That’s no more likely than that thousands of people will troop to the beach and start guzzling seawater until they die. Actually, drinking seawater will kill you a lot faster than drinking radioactive groundwater, yet we don’t regard beaches as toxic death zones that have to be sealed off for eternity.

–The dread of nuclear waste as a trans-historical blight that never subsides is quite misplaced. It’s not the stuff that lasts for thousands of years that you should worry about. If a radionuclide has a long half-life that means it’s not very radioactive. It’s the middle-term isotopes that are readily absorbed by organisms, strontium-90 and cesium-137, that pose a health risk. They decay away in about 300 years.

While nuclear waste does decay away, the toxic waste that coal-fueled plants and renewable generators produce—mercury, lead, heavy metals, rare earths—does not. That stuff is released into the enrvironment without the tight regulation that governs nuclear waste—and unlike nuclear waste, it will never go away.

–If you’re concerned about the uncontrolled release of nuclear waste into the environment, then build nuclear plants and shut down coal plants. Mixed in with the millions of tons of coal that a power plant burns every year are tons of radioactive uranium, thorium, radon gas and other radionuclides. That stuff goes up the smokestack and into our lungs or gets dumped in ash heaps, where it lies open to the elements and leaches into groundwater. In normal operations coal plants emit much more radioactivity than do nuclear plants. Spent nuclear fuel is meticulously monitored and sequestered: alarms are raised if mere kilos are misplaced.

The fact that coal plants dump thousands of tons of nuclear waste into the environment every year with few controls shows that long-lived waste isn’t very harmful. But if you’re worried about it, then building more nukes can alleviate the problem.

–There isn’t much nuclear waste—a total of about 80,000 tons for the entire US nuclear power industry over fifty years. (A single coal plant produces more (non-nuclear) solid waste every year.) It’s very dense, so all that waste would fit on a football field. It’s not a problem to find space to bury it.

–There are other safe things to do with nuclear waste besides burying it in the desert. The best one is to use it as fuel in fast reactors. Or we can just let it sit around in dry cask storage, as we’ve been doing for fifty years now with no harm done to anyone.

Nuclear waste is simply not a major risk. The alarm over it is deeply wrong-headed.

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PJW 07.28.13 at 1:04 am

The signanage idea is interesting (to me) as is Yucca Mountain’s connection to Ruin Value: http://articles.latimes.com/2003/oct/15/entertainment/et-hart15

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Omega Centauri 07.28.13 at 6:15 pm

Will@171. That was excellent.

I still think its a lost cause.

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djr 07.28.13 at 7:32 pm

On the topic of strategic reserve power sources, apparently Scotland’s first (and only?) oil-fired power station, and tallest free-standing structure, is currently being demolished.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-23330157

Building started in 1970, but by the time it was completed six years later, burning oil for electricity was no longer economic, so it was kept as a strategic reserve for decades.

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Will Boisvert 07.28.13 at 11:07 pm

Chin up, Omega Centauri. Speak truth to power.

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Happy Heyoka 07.30.13 at 1:20 pm

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the generally excellent comments on this thread… I learned quite a lot, still have a lot of reading to do. Boffo, a good one :)

Today I had the opportunity to confront Victoria’s Premier, Dr. Denis Napthine about VC82, the planning law that essentially prevents commercial wind power development here.

I began politely enough by asking if he’d consider repealing that law… it got less polite and essentially I lost my cool and ended up accusing him and his party of being ideologically moribund and beholden to the energy industry. (If he or his minders notice this post, please know that I accuse Labor of the same).

Anyway, his reasons for keeping that planning law were
* that it was an election promise, which I can understand to some extent (even if _he_ didn’t make that promise) and
* that it was all about maintaining property values.

It seems to me that the “property values” argument is particularly effective – even if someone is generally on board with ecological arguments, the NIMBY thing can still win them over. I’m sure someone must have some data on this one way or the other?

One of points I tried to make (perhaps not coherently) to him for wind was that it can be delivered pretty much entirely from indigenous materials and manufacturing capacity. I realise that’s a long row to hoe given the billion or so dollar a year brown coal industry, gas, oil etc.

It felt a little like throwing pebbles into the Grand Canyon, but I was glad I tried.

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