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The 100% Renewable Energy Nuclear Option, Part 1

It is time for the world to get serious about renewables, by formally recognising that nuclear energy is one in all ways that matter. 

This idea, which is at least 50% serious, started off as a rant against the persistent characterisation of renewables and nuclear energy being at war with each other. I get annoyed when commentators seem to forget that ‘renewables’ is actually a grab bag term for a truly diverse range of energy technologies, all with unique selling points and drawbacks. There must be some competition between these, but I can’t remember the last time I saw that noted in a media report and everyone seems happy to accept these diverse energy forms can in fact peacefully co-exist.

Usually the term renewables is taken to mean wind and solar, but this makes the idea of a life and death contest with nuclear all the more ridiculous. The power supplied by a nuclear reactor is qualitatively very different from that produced by wind turbines or solar panels, and they are hardly in direct competition. Let’s face it – nuclear does big and reliable, it is ideal for cities and major industrial centres and is an excellent alternative for baseload coal. Solar and wind (onshore at least) are fantastic for less energy intensive purposes/areas and can definitely take the edge of fossil generation, particularly gas. About the only thing they have in common is that they are all low carbon, and in a world that is staring down the barrel of a  greater than 2 degree rise in temperature we need all the low carbon tech we can lay our hands on.

With the energy policy debate currently hijacked by a singular focus on renewables (especially wind and solar) in most countries, the world is currently on the path to abject failure in terms of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Don’t get me wrong, it is great news that renewables are expanding and they certainly help to reduce emissions, but this is only dealing with less than half the problem, and not particularly efficiently at that. Some of our most promising large scale, energy dense, greenhouse gas reducing technologies are currently under-supported by governments and often actively opposed by those who are supposedly the most ardent supporters of climate action.

renewables and future energy planning and nuclear

Global CO2 emissions are really not under control and no one technology is going to fix it

 

Nuclear energy in particular has become the wedge issue that a) greens are apparently unwilling to compromise on and b) many sceptics would probably support, but are too busy objecting to renewable energy. Unfortunately the moderate voices who embrace all low carbon options and a balanced approach that also promotes development and prosperity are apparently in the minority, and while they are growing in number I’m afraid this may turn out to be too slowly. The crippling nature of political polarisation in the climate debate is eloquently expanded on by Mark Lynas here.

I think I have something of a radical solution. If neither political extreme is willing to compromise then why not simply change the argument? We convince governments, official institutions and ourselves that nuclear energy is, functionally, a form of renewable energy. This could be accomplished by winning acceptance in a few influential arenas, perhaps by bringing cases before the courts who have purview over energy policy, or by introducing bills into parliament.

I’m not crazy. I’m not even the first to think of this. There’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to the matter. In the USA quite a few bills have cropped up in the state legislature that sought to include nuclear as a form of renewable energy. Just the other week news came through that an Arizona senate committee has passed a bill backing this rather brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea. Nevertheless I figure that this suggestion has probably just caused a few heads to explode, so let’s examine in more detail why nuclear is worthy of the renewable moniker.

Splitting atomic hairs

What makes an energy form renewable? With no internationally recognised definition, Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start. “Renewable energy is generally defined as energy that comes from resources which are naturally replenished on a human timescale such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat.” It is pretty obvious that this definition attempts to capture precisely those technologies which most of us currently consider to actually be forms renewable energy. Beyond the technical definition, the cultural values usually attached to the word include that renewables are natural, that they have little or no environmental impact, and that they can be owned by individuals and communities.

All of this is frankly pretty nebulous as far as definitions go, and this is where it gets interesting, because nuclear energy matches or beats at least one accepted form or renewable energy under pretty much any criteria you care to mention.

Fuel resource: The renewable fuel resource is replenishable unlike uranium (and perhaps thorium) which is finite. Can’t argue with that. Can however argue that:

  • The nuclear fuel resource is vast, especially when you tap unconventional deposits like the oceans. The introduction of fast reactors will increase this resource 60 – 70 fold. Nuclear fuel is recyclable and that makes the technology damn near as good as replenishable.
  • The geothermal energy resource comes from the decay of radioactive elements within the Earth’s crust. You know, stuff like uranium and thorium. Nuclear is therefore as replenishable as geothermal energy.

Natural: Ain’t nothing more natural than the wind and the sun. Nuclear energy is unnatural since it involves splitting the nucleus using science. That’s a good point, but:

  • Atomic nuclei are natural too. In fact it’s hard to think of anything more natural as they make up just about everything. Their decay also happens in nature all the time. We call it radioactivity and we are all constantly bathed in radiation, whether we like it or not.
  • Solar photovoltaics are based on heaps of formidable science. Incoming photons bump valence band electrons up into the conduction band of a semi-conductor material. It’s really cool, but means nuclear is about as natural as solar PV.

Pollution: We know that renewables are squeaky clean. They are as good for the environment as eating vegetables is for your health. Nuclear produce toxic wastes which therefore instantly disqualify it. I get where you’re going, however:

  • All energy forms actually produce toxic waste, including renewables. What matters is how much waste, how dangerous it is and what you end up doing with it. The volume of high-level waste produced from nuclear energy is small, and most of it can actually be recycled.
  • Waste is different from pollution. Nuclear waste is actively contained and monitored with plans for final disposal. Burning biomass on the other hand discharges waste pretty much directly into the atmosphere. Nuclear energy is way cleaner than biomass.

Safety Nuclear plants can have serious accidents with impacts way beyond that of any energy form currently considered a renewable. Actually:

  • Large hydro has the same general risk profile as nuclear, and hydro power accidents have caused far more fatalities than has ever been caused by nuclear. Are you listening Austria? 

CO2 All renewables are low carbon. When you consider its whole fuel cycle/lifecycle nuclear has very high emissions of greenhouse gas…

  • Stop right there. If you really want to argue that take it up with the IPCC. Nuclear has about the same lifecycle CO2 emissions as onshore wind and that’s better than most.

Community ownership. Ok, I know this is a stretch, but renewables are about the revolution – giving power to the people and taking it out of the hands of big companies, right? The nuclear industry is pretty much the prime example of big centralised corporate control.  Well, yes. Except:

  • Some nuclear plants are in effect communal. It’s pretty much how these things get built in Scandinavian countries. A collective of consumers (industry and small energy companies) band together to fund a plant and in return receive electricity at cost price. In other places you can always look to invest in the projects/companies. In fact please do so! In most countries building nuclear today the central government is the owner and they are supposed to work for the people. (Note I said ‘supposed’.)
  • You can have a small tidal project, but where’s the fun in that. As for the bigger tidal power proposals, they are major infrastructure projects just like nuclear energy.

So there you have it, functionally nuclear is clearly a form or renewable energy when treated on a non-discriminatory basis and it shares many of the same values too. I think that gaining acceptance for this has the potential to turn the existing climate-energy dialogue on its head. If you support renewables ™, you support nuclear by default and vice versa. Can you deal with that? I hope the answer is yes. I also dearly hope to never again read a story which insists that regions developing nuclear energy do so at the expense of renewables. It really isn’t a competition you know.

Part two of this gedanken experiment will look at what accepting nuclear energy as a renewable would mean for existing policy.

Discussions

Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 23, 2015

David, nuclear is in many respects “renewable”, “clean”, and “natural”.

But for many, what’s driving the push to wind and solar is an irrational fear of nuclear power. As a potent tool to address global warming, renewables certainly don’t make a lot of sense on their own.

You’ve got your work cut out for you.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 23, 2015

Uranium is actually renewable in every sense. The amount of uranium washed into the sea every year from the continents is greater than the amount we actually use, or ever would use in any foreseeable future. Currently it’s not economic to recover uranium from seawater, but it would be if the price of yellowcake reaches $100/lb or so (about triple the current price). 

Also, the slope between recoverable reserves of uranium and assumed price is very steep. Doubling the price of uranium increases recoverable reserves by a factor of 10. So it’s going to be a long, long time before we ever get to the seawater recovery point.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 23, 2015

David goofed up the link. Here is the one that works:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_proposed_as_renewable_energy

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 23, 2015

David:

Everytime someone makes the logical suggestion of classifying nuclear energy as part of the brand known as “renewables” I am reminded of this rant by Michael Eckhart, the head of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).

According to Michael, a former marketing guy for General Electric, ACORE and its associates have worked too hard to establish “renewable” as a brand and nuclear energy is not invited to participate in the associated goodwill and financial bounties associated with that brand.

http://atomicinsights.com/is-nuclear-renewable-michael-eckhart-president...

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 23, 2015

Dear oh dear. That is pretty much exactly the kind of arbitrary statement that I’m seeking to challenge here. What a depressing rant. I remember a video of a presentation from Benjamin Sovacool along similar lines. 

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 23, 2015

Dear oh dear. That is pretty much exactly the kind of arbitrary statement that I’m seeking to challenge here. What a depressing rant. I remember a video of a presentation from Benjamin Sovacool along similar lines. 

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 23, 2015

that I did. Now fixed

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 23, 2015

Too true. Doubt this will piece will alleviate any deep-seated fears, but maybe, just maybe, it will put them in a little more context

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 23, 2015

Ok, I’m basically pro nuke, however, there’s one argument that kinda made me feel for their side. The little bit of fallout from Japan’s reactor only slightly increased the natural background (I believe). However, their kids were’nt allowed to play in the dirt. I suppose breathing the dust while playing in the dirt might present problems.

Therefore, I’m still afraid of whatever unknowns which would cause a breach in the water containment, however, I KNOW we need nuclear (and hope the small modulars and other designs would be safer and then standardized).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 23, 2015

Rod – not sure what’s more arrogant:

1) Michael gets to define the word “renewable”

2) Michael gets to decide who can use it

This had all the hallmarks of a cult five years ago.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 24, 2015

Yes, they did work very hard in making sure nuclear was not defined as renewable. Nuclear power’s ‘unrenewableness’ is already laid down in law in the EU and in my country, the Netherlands. And since nuclear is defined to be non-renewable, it cannot benefit from any of the government stimulus and subsidies for sustainable development, since all those government programs specifically target ‘renewable energy technologies’, of which nuclear power is defined to not be a member.

Nuclear also cannot be included in any of the EU programs stimulating and monitoring the sustainable development of member states, because sustainable development is defined as using renewable energy, and nuclear was defined out of that category.

So to revisit the ‘renewableness’ of nuclear power would require changing the law, at least in the EU.

I seems pro-nukes are late to the party (again). We can discuss whether nuclear is (as good as) renewable or not, and this article does a fine job of supporting that discussion, but the anti-nukes have already stacked the deck against nuclear power by writing the law. While pro-nukes were sleeping.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 24, 2015

If I may, I’d like to suggest you also look into how nuclear is defined in law.

What we need in my opinion is to get the law changed to include nuclear as (effectively) a renewable energy source. Or perhaps there can be a separate category in law for nuclear power as being an “inexhaustible energy source”. Inexhaustible and renewable can then both be defined in law as being equivalent, legitimate tools of sustainable development, allowing generous government stimulus programs for sustainable development to target nuclear as well, as opposed to the current situation where renewables are heavily subsidized to compete with and push out nuclear power, causing massive waste of public resources with no climate benefit.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 24, 2015

I visited a government sponsored networking event last year, where members of the public were invited to participate in workshops, attend lectures, talk to civil servants (“speed-dating”), and find information on how they can get subsidies for their particular technical innovations in energy in support of sustainable development. I attended because I was looking for subsidies to support a limited feasibility study of applying micro-nuclear power plants as a replacement for the many small existing natural gas district heat and power plants currently running at hospitals and campusses in my country. I was told by the civil servants that my innovation was nuclear and since nuclear was excluded from the list of renewable energies in the law, it could not benefit from any of the subsidies for sustainable development. So the door was thrown shut in my face because nuclear was not defined as renewable in law. I was even told that if I would have asked for subsidy in support of a study into how wind turbines could replace district heat and power (which they obviously cannot) then they would have probably been able to help me get a subsidy!

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 24, 2015

I’m fairly sure that the people in charge don’t consciously think of it as a categorical definition. There is certainly an embedded idea that renewables are different, special. Choosing the battlefronts is therefore key and there would have to be return for effort. The question is what impact the process and/or potential victory might have. What discussion would it generate? What other institutions might engage in the process and examine their positions in more detail?  

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 24, 2015

Which civil servants? Which law? If we were to try and change this, how would we go about it?

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 24, 2015

I agree the existing policy approach to supporting what we currently call renewables is inadequate, and creates negative market impacts for other generators. As countries continue to integrate higher levels of ‘renewables’, governments should adjust markets so as to not lose the benefits of existing generators they wish to keep in order to avoid perverse outcomes. I make the case for this here. It’s about getting to an optimal mix and nuclear is certainly a big part of that. The reliability of nuclear and economic profile of operating plants are major benefits that deserve to be valued. Winning acceptance for this would be much easier however if nuclear was recognised as part of the clean energy/renewable standard

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Mar 24, 2015

Doubling the price of uranium increases recoverable reserves by a factor of 10. So it’s going to be a long, long time before we ever get to the seawater recovery point.

If we ever make disposal expensive enough to make reprocessing for fast breeders preferable to once-through, we won’t have to mine another gram for many decades.

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 24, 2015

That is indeed what I would like to do with part 2. Actually, I’m beginning to wonder if I have bitten off a bit more than I can chew there. I don’t actually know that much about national/international laws and how RE is defined. Was particularly interested to read the comment above on the definition of renewables in the Netherlands. If experts in this area want to post some links I would be very grateful, and would certainly give a shout out in the next installment      

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 24, 2015

I watched part of a hearing called the Future of nuclear energy (which Energyfromthorium uploaded yesterday)… It is just sad. Some of the advanced nuclear people are asking for advanced nuclear regulatory proceedures (there is none!).

The “honorable” Dr Lyons is willing to say that they’re working on advanced cladding materials to prevent some hydrogen production if things get hot, but he won’t admit that we have the tech to do anything other than LWR. Lyons won’t even try to reclassify nuclear as being part of renewable energy, for example. He’s also against Yucca. He’s not very clear in his responses to much of the questions.

Unfortunatelt, I believe the industry is going nowhere because it appears to be so ingrained in the LWR. Even a SMR requires millions of gallons of water in order to be “walk away safe”. Pools of water can be breached, right?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sbI9Z7mXvY

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 24, 2015

Put simply, the costs of new nuclear in Western countries have to come down. There needs to be a major commitment on this and some novel solutions tried out. International good practise should play a key role.

However a few points on what you say. Firstly, it is important not to confuse the performance on the first couple of new units after a long hiatus as indicative of the costs of new nuclear. It is quite resonable to expect that future project costs will come down as further units go ahead, especially for standardised designs. In fact the biggest gains should be made after the first, as the more obvious mistakes are hopefully circumvented and legal disputes hopefully avoided. What is true for renewables should be true for nuclear in this regard, all other things being equal.

Secondly I’m very very skeptical of any cost projection, for anything, out to 2050 but I guess that’s just me. Also skeptical of any report that finds nuclear ‘twice’ the cost of renewables since there’s that pesky false generalisation again. Another false generalisation – it is the project cost, not ‘technology’ cost which determines viability. Quite a bit goes into that. Finally, the system costs for variable renewables get higher as you add more of them. 20% is about the level at which major investments start being needed.

I.e. there is an economic case to be made for new nuclear, although I admit it could do with being more clear cut. I heartily recommend you broaden your search for information to sites other than just Agora Energiewende

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Mar 25, 2015

When I first heard the term renewable energy in the late 1970’s … which, just to be clear, is prior to the existence of the world wide web, let alone Wikipedia, though not prior to the existence of the internet … it was in reference to the two Oil Price Shocks of the 1970’s and a distinction in resource economics between non-renewable resources and renewable resources, where non-renewable resources were resources that were consumed once and then exhausted, and renewable resources were resources that were regularly replenished, and so available for repeated harvest. Most renewable energy resources are directly (eg, solar PV, CSP, distributed solar thermal) or indirectly (eg, wind) solar power, some (eg, tidal power) powered by gravity effects of celestial mechanics (and some, like wave & ocean current, a combination of both).

The branding of renewables is therefore a branding of something that had already been defined.

The technical definitions of renewable energy I have ever seen in resource economics or ecological economics are open-system definitions and typically focus upon the existence of a large nuclear fusion reactor at the center of the solar system and the fact that the earth in orbit around it receives an ongoing supply of energy as a tiny fraction of the massive output of that reactor.

The status of “deep geothermal” is the most similar to the case of nuclear fuel cycles. The heat of earth’s mantle and core is a combination of heat retained from the early formation of the earth, possible heat generated by early impacts (if the moon was formed from an impact with a Mars-sized body, that would have generated substantial heat), heat generated as heavier elements descended toward the core, and heat from radioactive decay. When we harvest that heat, we are not actually using a renewable energy source in the sense of the original definition, but we are harvesting an energy source that is so much more abundant than prospective harvesting efforts that any impact on the total heat contained deep in the earth would surely be negligable.

 (What is sometimes referred to as geothermal are heat pumps that use a heat exchange medium that is circulated below the seasonal temperature incline, and these more properly qualifies as a renewable resource, and what is renewable about the “geothermal” is in a certain sense driven by the solar energy heating of the earths surface, at a depth that effectively buffers the seasonal temperature swings at the surfave … but as far as I can tell, its mostly called “geothermal” by HVAC system salesmen because it makes it sound “cooler”).

Advocates of nuclear fuel cycles where it can be argued that the consumption of the available resouces on a feasible scale will not substantially impact the available recoverable  over the “seven generations ahead” test of strong sustainability seem like they could argue that “this fuel cycle is renewable in the same sense that geothermal is renewable”

Of course, the tougher fight is not over the “renewable” side of the sustainable, renewable mantra but on the “sustainable” fight, since that is the ground on which convinced anti-nuclear activists have long chosen to make their most determined fight.

 

 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 25, 2015

In The Netherlands.

The change we need is that nuclear power is seen (in law) to be a perfectly legitimate technology which is equivalent in every relevant respect to the renewable energy sources. Whenever the term ‘renewable energy’ is used in law in the context of policy for environmental protection and sustainable development, it must be understood that this includes (closed-fuel-cycle) nuclear energy technology.

The EU uses the following definition of renewable energy (see the section on definitions here)

‘energy from renewable sources’ means energy from renewable non-fossil sources, namely wind, solar, aerothermal, geothermal, hydrothermal and ocean energy, hydropower, biomass, landfill gas, sewage treatment plant gas and biogases;

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 25, 2015

Their kids were never in any danger.

Japanese kids eat sea-weed. Sea-weed contains iodine. So no Japanese kid is at risk due to getting exposed to a little radioiodine. It won’t be absorbed in any great amount. There will be zero thyroid cancers due to Fukushima. So there will be zero cancers, period. That’s all there is to say about the expected health consequences from the Fukushima fallout. End of story.

Besides, kids should never breath dirt in the first place. Dirt always contains various toxins such as asbestos (which is always present in nature), and heavy metals (much of it being fallout from fossil fuels combustion).

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 25, 2015

Bruce:

I love to engage antinuclear activists on the “sustainable” battle ground. My trump card is to challenge them to find a single wind turbine factory or solar panel manufacturing facility that is powered by wind or solar energy without a massive input from the electrical power grid.

Wind and solar are only sustainable in the same sense that most “non-profit” organizations are sustainable. They can only exist as long as there are external donations provided. They cannot sustain themselves through retained earnings.

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 25, 2015

Afraid I’m not swayed by pretty much anything you just said there. But I think that’s enough for economics on this post. I intend to write something on newbuild economics sometime soonish and should address some of your points there. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on the main contention of this post thouogh. Do you think nuclear energy should be considered a renewable?

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 25, 2015

I’ll take a look. Cheers

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 26, 2015

As I have explained to you many times Bas, tiny Denmark does not have an independent grid; they blend their wind power into the mainland grid which has low average wind penetration, and use their neighbor’s dispatchable power (as well as their own coal & biomass) for smoothing.  

As described here, Denmark has an average grid demand of only 4.1 GWatts, and they connect to the Norway’s grid (with its 35 GWatt of hydro capacity), and they also are connected to the German grid (which has electricity storage equal to 15% of their average demand) and the Swedish grid (which is roughly half nuclear, half hydro).  Their total electricity exports in 2013 amounted to 94% of the wind power generation, and their total imports were 103% of wind generation.

Regarding your belief that renewables with storage are cheaper than nuclear, again I suggest you re-check your math, as China apparently thinks otherwise.  They currently have 26 nuclear plants under construction, and have resumed approvals for new plant starts (following a brief post-Fukushima pause).  They have no major energy storage projects that I know of, and all of their renewables are being  installed with coal plants (and a bit of hydro) for balancing.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 26, 2015

The cost of wind bottomed out around 2004 and has been going sideways since then. Wind is a mature technology and while incremental improvements are still possible, there will be no major breakthroughs. 

The very high cost of solar has been coming down, but it is not cost competitive without its current massive subsidies, and it is unlikely ever to be. The reason is the large amount of physical structure needed to capture the modest amount of energy available in sunlight. We’re rapidly getting to the point where the limiting cost for solar is no longer silicon, but aluminum, glass, and steel.

The “study” you cite is junk science at its worst. It is a deeply flawed apples-to-oranges comparison of feed-in-tariffs (which are NOT costs, but are set by government policy) in Germany to strike prices (which are also NOT costs, and are also set by government policy) in the UK. In response to this, I would simply point out that the FIT for both solar and wind, in Germany, is higher than the FIT for nuclear in Germany, and the strike price for both solar and wind in the UK is higher than the strike price for nuclear in the UK.

 

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 26, 2015

Nathan:

Interesting. Does Darius Bentvels = Bas Gresnigt?

They sure have similar styles and arguments.

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on Mar 26, 2015

Yep all in well with the smaller reactors. Waste desposal issues have been solved. Trust me the new designs are safer and will not melt down. This time!

life time storage costs have been factored in total cost. 

And people are all convinced with the nuclear love in on this board. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Mar 26, 2015

What a twisted story you tell. Nuclear is not cost effective, is not safe, uses water and creates toxix waste.

If it’s so good and safe why don’t you have a Nuclear system at your home?

Why can’t new Nulear plants be built without finacially help?

Why did the Government just approve more waste to be stored on site since there is no solution for the waste ?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 27, 2015

I’m 99% certain they are the same person.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 27, 2015

If the two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear plant are completed for $15.4 billion, that’s about $7.8 per average Watt delivered, for a first of a kind project, built by suppliers with no recent nuclear plant construction experience.   That’s excellent.

For comparison, the solar industry trade group SEIA reports that their “modeled cost” for utility scale solar in the US is now $1.55/W_DC (fixed tilt).  This is around $1.86/W peak AC, which gives $7.8 to $15.5/Watt avg for capacity factors of 12 to 24%, before transmission upgrades.  

So the US solar industry (which the SEIA reported installed 6.2 GWatt of DC PV last year) still cannot beat the cost of first of a kind nuclear power.  And that is before the addition of batteries and fossil backup, without which solar cannot be compared to nuclear (or used at high penetration at all). 

Regarding the upfront investment of fossil fuel for construction:  this study from UC Berkeley reports that modern nuclear plants use half the concrete and steel of a coal plant of the same average power output, and an order of magnitude less compared to wind farms. 

As to the notion that efficiency improvements will eliminate the need for nuclear, this is demonstrably wrong.  Global energy consumption must certainly increase, as there are still billions of people living in energy poverty.  The poor of the world are not going to deploy renewables with expensive energy storage for backup; they’ll use coal instead.   The concensus from the IPPC calls for CO2 emissions targets which are too low to be achieved by mixing renewables with coal (as is practiced in Germany).  Once they deploy coal plants, they certainly won’t be using CC&S while they are poor, therefore the renewables+coal plan is doomed to fail in poor nations.  In contrast, poor nations like China are having no difficulty building nuclear plants (China has 25 under construction, and has been completing them for 1/3 the cost of Vogtle).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 27, 2015

Ned, when Vogtle comes online it will generate 68 times as much clean energy as all of Georgia solar combined. As is obvious from the graph below, solar has not a chance of meeting Georgia’s clean energy needs – it’s available 20% of the time, and without nuclear coal or natural gas make up the difference.

 

Efficiency efforts could actually make things worse. Obama’s Clean Power Plan is written so that states’ efficiency programs count toward carbon reductions whether they work or not:

Including EE as a compliance mechanism can reduce CO2 abatement.

This somewhat counterintuitive result happens for multiple reasons. Many EE [energy efficiency] policies are already in place at the state level and are thus included in our Reference Case. We expect that states that include EE as a compliance mechanism in their implementation plans will claim credit for these existing programs (as EPA allows them to do under the proposal), reducing the additional emission reductions the CPP delivers relative to the without EE scenarios in which compliance is achieved through changes in generation alone.

In our analysis, EE crediting also reduces abatement because it weakens the incentive to build new generation (which, due to cost, would be NGCC generation). Generation from new NGCC units accounts for a significant amount of abatement in our no EE scenarios as they displace coal-fired power. Therefore, crediting EE eats into demand, reducing the need for new NGCC generation and reducing the amount of coal generation that is displaced. Not included in our analysis is the possibility that states credit EE that fails to materialize, which would further reduce the CPP’s emission reduction benefits (see Figure 5-4 for CO2 abatement across our four scenarios).

http://csis.org/publication/remaking-american-power

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 27, 2015

Ned, you can claim that “in about two or three years solar power is going to be hands-down cheaper than nuclear” but I’ve been hearing that for forty years.

So I’ll accept your offer to disbelieve you, but only because these fact-free, reference-free renewables sermons make it so very easy.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 27, 2015

You’re right about one thing, Ned: climate change is an intelligence test. Let’s see how well you did on it.

1. Vogtle did not get and $8.3 billion subsidy. That was the amount of the loan guarantee announced in 2010, but the value of the subsidy embodied in that guarantee is the difference between the interest rates provided by the federal government vs. the commercial paper that Vogtle’s owners had already obtained for building the plant. The actual value of the subsidy is roughly $450 million, or about 18 times lower than the number you cite.

Further, overall federal subsidies for nuclear power are lower than any renewable technology, and vastly lower than solar.

2. Energy efficiency is useful because it saves money, but energy efficiency never has, and never will, reduce overall energy use. That’s because the money saved from efficiency is immediately used for something else that uses energy. This is the so-called Jevons effect, or rebound effect, that has been formally proven in the thermodynamic framework of physics. See: Garrett, T. J. (2011). Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?Climatic change104(3-4), 437-455.

3. You’re right that it requires long lead times to build a nuclear plant. But it requires even longer lead times to change the climate. Those with enough foresight to understand the long-term risks of climate change should have enough foresight to understand the long-term benefits of nuclear power.

4. Numerous life-cycle analysis (LCA) studies have been done on nuclear power, including construction, transport, and fuel refining, and the consensus is quite different from the number you cite. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory looked at numerous peer-reviewed LCA studies and determined that the median emissions from nuclear to be 12 gCO2e/kWh, compared to 980 for coal. That’s a factor of 82 times better than coal, rather than the 4 times that you cite. The IPCC also looked at numerous LCA studies and found nuclear at 16 gCO2e/kWh vs. 1001 for coal, a factor of 63, vs. the factor of 4 that you cite. Both the NREL and the IPCC indicate that the lifecycle emissions of nuclear are comparable to renewables. If you’re willing to trust the IPCC on climate change, why do you distrust them on how to fight climate change?

 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 27, 2015

Here’s a little Education, Ned:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Strauss

 

In 1954, Strauss predicted that atomic power would make electricity “too cheap to meter.”[7] He was referring to Project Sherwood, a secret program to develop power from hydrogen fusion, not uranium fission reactors as is commonly believed.[8] [9]


Would you care to rephrase your comment?  Further, politicizing energy discussions “but the Republicans are very fond of data suppression and some of the agencies have simply stopped providing this information.” lends nothing to this debate.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 27, 2015

“…a lot of solar development is going to third world countries precisely because it is cheaper if you don’t already have the central generation infrastructure.”

Actually, it is only cheaper if you only need power when the sun is shining, and distributed solutions in particular are only cheaper than centralized solutions if the amount of energy needed has a value of less than the cost of the distribution network.  So as electricity demand grows in developing nations, they’ll inevitably develop grids, and regardless of any preferrence for renewables, their grids will be mostly powered by “thermal generation” (i.e. fossil fuel or nuclear).

Renewables …  Each new order makes the next one a little cheaper. “

This is a result of the learning effect, which is universal, therefore it must be true of nuclear also.  Past negative learning in nuclear costs have resulted from declining production volumes (due to low demand) and vigorous lobbying by the fossil fuel industry and anti-nuclear activists (which result in regulatory impediments). 


Energy storage technology is widely available and cheap

If your goal is to power hand-held devices, then sure.  To power a grid, it is absolutely untrue.  The US government EIA uses data from real-world utility projects to compile its data;  here they report power plant capital costs.  Pumped hydro is the cheapest form of bulk energy storage (see this report from Sandia labs), which is only available in locations with mountains or large hills, and costs $5.3/Watt (EIA) without accounting for energy to charge it; the same report cites a cost for nuclear of $5.5/Watt.

Therefore renewables+storage is not cheaper than nuclear.   Furthermore, the transition path (which starts with renewables+fossil fuel) has a very high risk of stalling, thus locking in fossil fuel use given that the cost increase accelerates as penetration grows beyond 10 or 20% (whereas the cost of nuclear is constant for any pentration from 0 to 60%, and rises only slowly thereafter).  The cost increase of a renewable-rich grid over a nuclear one also grows over time as the effects of the long nuclear plant lifetimes occurs 30 years down the road (when the wind and solar plants get replaced, but the nuclear facilities have continued low costs).  Nuclear also has the best seasonal demand matching: it runs at 98% capacity factor during the winter and summer peaks then drops to 80% in spring and fall for refueling (wind peaks strongly in spring when demand is lowest, and solar is terribly mis-matched for northern locations with cold winters).  The society that invests in low penetration renewables sets an economic time-bomb which will cripple the next generation’s attempts to further reduce fossil fuel use. 


Whether or not anyone agrees with this vision, we need something new to deal with this challenge of replacing our power grid, since we have never done that in the past.”

Actually, in the 1960s, much of the world’s electricity was supplied by oil.  That part of the grid has been replaced in all countries (except certain Middle-eastern oil producers):  some nations successfully replaced it with non-fossil generation (i.e. France, Sweden, and Switzerland replaced nearly all of their fossil fueled plants with nuclear and hydro), whereas the countries that rejected or limited nuclear power remain addicted to fossil fuel to the detriment of the environment and humand health.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 27, 2015

Ned, Lazard is a financial advisory firm which directed General Electric’s $16.9 billion acquisition of Alstom’s thermal, renewables and grid businesses a mere three months before your “respected electric industry reference” was released last year.

What a coinky-dink. But why would Lazard/GE be bullish on non-hydro renewables when they make up a trivial 1% of U.S. electricity generation? Simple – their greenwashing value is priceless, and when the wind stops blowing and the sun goes down, guess what takes their place? The Future of Power Generation, according to Lazard-client GE:

65% of power installs over the next 15 years will be centralized power generation.

More than 50% of those installs will be gas and steam turbines.

Over the next 10 years, 60% of the world’s generation will come from fossil fuel plants.

They’re quite proud to be profiting on the burning of fossil fuels, and no doubt ecstatic they’ve been able to enlist the naive renewables community to advocate on their behalf.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 27, 2015

> Sure, efficiency programs could count even if they don’t work.  So could nuclear plants even if they don’t work, and there are a lot more nuclear plants that didn’t work than efficiency programs.

Untrue. Unbuilt plants (of any technology) don’t count under EPA’s proposed rules. In fact, the reverse is true: under the proposed EPA rules, 94% of nuclear power isn’t counted even though it does work.

> in about two or three years solar power is going to be hands-down cheaper than nuclear or fossil fuel generated electricity.  Solar is already cheaper than fossil or nuclear if the comparison is done based on the time of day that solar produces, since it always coincides with peak well enough to be worth about twice as much as the average KWh. 

Solar energy will never be cheaper than wind, and never be cheaper than nuclear. It’s simply too diffuse: it takes a lot of structure to capture a tiny amount of energy, and that structure costs money to build. If you do the math, solar would be more expensive than wind on an LCOE basis even if the solar cells were free. The reason solar appears to be approaching a competetive level with fossil right now is because of the massive subsidies solar recieves, whopping 59 cents per kWh according to EIA. Anything can look competitive with that kind of hidden hand to help.

Regarding time-of-day comparisons, you’re confusing price with cost. The cost of solar power does not depend on the time of day, but the price of solar power does, and radically so. This is actually an enormous disadvantage to solar, because when your solar panel is producing its maximum, so is everyone else’s. That drives down the wholesale electricity price, which means that (unless you are sheltered from market forces by regulation) solar power ends up getting rock-bottom prices for its generation, while the cost of construction remains unchanged by the time of day. The upshot is that as more and more solar is added to the grid, solar becomes more and more an economic loser.

The other upshot is that solar drives down the price of noontime electricity for all other technologies too, including other low-carbon technologies, which all suffer as a result. But solar suffers the most from its own limitations, because solar owners are always selling into a buyer’s market, instead of just some of the time.

> Vogtle’s subsidy is larger than the entire US cost of the wind production tax credit, and is larger on a cents per KWh basis too. 

Wrong again, on both counts, The PTC for wind (FY 2013, the most recent year available) was $1.614 billion, about four times greater than the Vogtle loan guarantee. (Once again, you’re confusing the size of the loan with the value of the subsidy. They are not the same, and not even close.)

On a per-kWh basis, for FY2013 the wind PTC subsidized 167840 GWh for $9.61 in subsidy per MWh. During its lifetime (assumed 50 years, although the plant is engineered for 60 years at minimum), Vogtle can be expected to produce 881 million MWh (2 reactors x 1117 MW per reactor x 50 years x 8766 hours per year x .9 Capacity Factor). That’s just 51 cents per MWh for the loan guarantee, about 20 times less than the wind PTC.

 > But don’t believe me.  Just pay attention to what the market is saying.

The market says what it has always said: if you subsidize something, you get more of it.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 27, 2015

As a matter of fact, the nuclear waste storage problem has been solved to a greater extent than any other of society’s waste problems; for comparison, consider waste from fossil fuel combustion (which is dumped indiscrimantly into the environment), municipal solid waste (which is buried in shallow landfills which will ultimately leach toxic chemicals into our water), waste from battery production/disposal (land fills), and waste from production/disposal of solar PV systems (???).

Rather than getting all of your information on nuclear waste from hate groups, try reading the report written by the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.  The main problems they discovered with nuclear waste disposal were not technical or safety related, but merely public relations (i.e. combatting mis-information from hate groups).

And yes, the cost of lifetime storage is counted-in to the extent that the cost is negligible.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 28, 2015

>And I didn’t say that nuclear wasn’t lower carbon.  I said that it was too expensive.

Actually, what you said was that nuclear’s emissions were 25% of coal’s emissions. Which is simply false, and by more than an order of magnitude false.

The Vogtle subsidy is a subsidy because Southern Company can’t replay the loans from revenue they will earn from their customers, because the new nuclear units will suppress sales.  This has happened many times before and it is the reason that utilities for the most part won’t have anything to do with nuclear power.

Not only is this completely false, it’s significant that you have not cited a single example of the alleged “many times” this has happened before. And you won’t. Because there haven’t been any such examples. 

>Jevons is a myth.  It doesn’t apply in the real world.

Is the Second Law of Thermodynamics a myth? Did you read Garrett’s paper? Did you spot any math errors there? And, just as pertinent, can you cite even one single example of any energy efficiency improvement ever leading to an overall decrease in energy demand, at any time in the history of the world? 

I didn’t think so.

> When you say that subsidies for nuclear is lower than subsidies for renewables, you are being extraordinarily selective.  You are ignoring Price-Anderson.  You are ignoring loan guarantees.  You are apparently ignoring the fact that Congress killed the wind production tax credit. 

Completely untrue. I’m including Price-Anderson, and I’m including loan guarantees (from 2014). And I’m assuming the PTC for wind had lapsed. And even when you do all of that, federal subsidies for renewables are still vastly higher than for nuclear. 

EIA baseline numbers from 2013:

SOLAR: $589.64 per MWh

WIND: $35.37 per MWh

NUCLEAR: $2.10 per MWh

Now modify that by removing all tax credits for wind and we get $25.76 per MWh. Now add the subsidy for nuclear loan guarantees ($0.51/MWh from computations in comment below) and for Price-Anderson (a trivial $0.08 per MWh, according to the CBO) and the final subsidy amount for nuclear is $2.69, compared for $25.76 for wind.

Wind is subsidized 10 times higher than nuclear, and solar is subsidized 219 times higher than nuclear. (And that’s not even including the substantial state-level subsidies for solar and wind.) Biomass and geothermal are also subsidized higher than nuclear by wide margins.

> You are ignoring fuel storage and disposal costs.  You are ignoring the role of the Federal government in paying for nuclear fuel processing. 

Nuclear reactor operators pay for storage and disposal, and pay for processed fuel. Those costs are already fully internalized. Federal support for nuclear fuel processing is included in EIA data as an indirect subsidy.

>And as I said before, even if economics didn’t matter, the nuclear technology is dependent on front-loading the fossil fuel carbon impacts, and that’s exactly wrong if we are trying to reduce emissions. 

The same is true of solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro. Yet somehow, only nuclear gets your approbation on that point. Care to explain why that is? Because frankly, your point about “converting to a sustainable energy resource as we go along” makes no sense at all. Nuclear is just as sustainable as wind or solar is.


David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 28, 2015

really encourage you to read the article Jim

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 28, 2015

> Notice that according to Garrett, energy use can never decrease: every term in the sum is positive and there are no discount factors or weights. So this cannot be a law of nature. For example, we could have a major pandemic next year that kills half of humanity and global energy use would then indeed go down, contrary to Garrett. 

Not true, and I think you’ve misread Garrett. The equation you’re looking at may contain only plus signs, but so what? The values of the variables are not necessarily positive! Energy use can decrease, but only if civilization declines. Civilization, not nature, demands energy use. Which is sort of the whole point. If we had a global pandemic, or global economic collapse, sure energy use would decline. And so would civilization.

Back in the 4th century BC the Romans built a road south from Rome to Appia, called the Appian Way. The purpose of that road was to carry the commerce of civilization between the cities. That road is still there, and still carrying commerce. It has been maintained for over 2300 years, because there is still civilization and still commerce in that part of the world. Having built that road, civilization has two choices: we can continue to maintain the road, and continue to expend the energy necessary to do so; or, we can allow the road to decay, and the commerce along with it. 

Perhaps you can tell me at what point we should cease paying the energy cost to maintain the road, and allow the commerce to collapse; and what the implications for such a decision would be for civilization. Because it seems to me that the decision we made to build that road two millenia ago does indeed still cost us energy today.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 29, 2015

Bas, as to the issue of how cheap solar will affect nuclear:  a little daytime solar power would be a good addition to the baseload nuclear plant at Vogtle.  But does solar make a good power source at night?  (I’ll use your prediction of 3 ¢/kWh for PV).

Assuming batteries get down to the $100/kWh prices that the EV pundits predict, for a system with 15 hours of storage, 70% depth of discharge, and $500/kW for balance of plant, storage would cost $100*15/.7+500=$2640/kW (which is $176 per usable kWh).  With 200 equivalent full 15h cycles/year and 12 year life, that’s 7.3 ¢/kWh; with 6% interest this comes to $2640/kW/15h/200*0.1193=10.5 ¢/kWh.  Note that changing from batteries to pumped-hydro doesn’t help, since the EIA reports a capital cost of $5.3/W, which more than offsets the increased service life.  

The surrounding area is not a desert, so solar plants will need nearly complete fossil fuel backup, let’s assume 75%; according to EIA data; this will cost 0.75*3=2.3¢/kWh using the levelized fixed cost for fossil gas with CC&S.  Assuming an 80% round trip efficiency and your value of 3 ¢/kWh for power to charge up = 3.8 ¢/kWh.  The total cost of night-time power from solar+batteries with optimistic assumptions is = 10.5 + 2.3 +3.8= 16.6 ¢/kWh, and the system relies heavily on fossil fuel all winter long (it is also a mystery why anyone would not simply choose to use the fossil fuel at night also:  solar_power = fossil_fuel_lock-in).

In comparison, the EIA says that existing nuclear plants will make power for $1.2¢/kWh (variable cost only since the plant will be paid for already, and it’s owned by a regulated public utility), and power from new nuclear plants is 9.6 ¢/kWh.

As to the land required (which will require cutting down forest, since the state of Georgia is basically all forest).  Assuming PV on average generates 20W/m^2, which is 50 (km)^2 per GW, or 100 square kilometers (38 sq miles) to make the same electricity output (about 1/8th of Georgia’s electricity) as the two new units at the Vogtle nuclear plant (which can also produce over 3 GW of useful waste heat to power district heating networks and/or desalinization plants).

If time-of-use electricity metering is included, note that daytime electricity users get cheap off-peak power in both the solar+batteries and nuclear+solar scenarios.  However in the solar+batteries scenario homeowners who work during the day will essentially buy only expensive electricity from batteries, for evening use and night-time EV charging.  In contrast, the nuclear-rich alternative offers inexpensive nuclear power at night, and blended (mostly nuclear) power in the evenings. Hence nuclear is cheaper for homeowners.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 28, 2015

Bas, see my reply upthread.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on Mar 28, 2015

The terms in the sum of his main equation relating annual energy use to ‘wealth’ are inflation adjusted gdp. These are always positive.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 29, 2015

Jeffrey and Keith, Jevons/Garrett is a reasonable hypothesis which can never be proven nor yield quantifiable results. We can use empirical evidence – experience – as a guide for policy, but I agree with Jeffrey that any accurate thermodynamic basis for the actions of civilization would be so extraordinarily complex as to be intractable, and any mathematical accounting, including Garrett’s, must therefore rely upon hopelessly simplistic assumptions.

First, we would need concise thermodynamic defintions for ‘GDP’ and other variables (pity the poor Ph.D. candidate assigned to take that one on). But beyond that, in the language of chaos theory, the system is “sensitive to initial conditions” – because the amount of initial information to which we have access is limited, beyond a certain time the system will no longer be predictable.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on Mar 29, 2015

Jevons’s observation has widespread empirical backing. Some fraction of the energy savings from increased efficiency is lost through greater direct and indirect consumption. 

Garrett’s model however leaves a good deal to be desired. It makes predictions – like energy use can’t decline- which clearly cannot be true in general. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 29, 2015

Nathan, I thought it might be Bas too but I found this photo of Darius online:

Darius, sorry some of us were confusing you with “Bas Gresnigt” – a TEC contributor who repeated half-baked, ideological mistruths so often he made himself unwelcome.

I can tell you’re the “real deal”.

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David Hess's picture

Thank David for the Post!

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