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Eight Energy Myths Explained

Gail Tverberg's picture

My background is as an actuary, making financial forecasts for the insurance industry. In 2015, I began investigating how the limits of a finite world might affect the financial system, oil...

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Republicans, Democrats, and environmentalists all have favorite energy myths. Even Peak Oil believers have favorite energy myths. The following are a few common mis-beliefs, coming from a variety of energy perspectives. I will start with a recent myth, and then discuss some longer-standing ones.

Myth 1. The fact that oil producers are talking about wanting to export crude oil means that the US has more than enough crude oil for its own needs.

The real story is that producers want to sell their crude oil at as high a price as possible. If they have a choice of refineries A, B, and C in this country to sell their crude oil to, the maximum amount they can receive for their oil is limited by the price the price these refineries are paying, less the cost of shipping the oil to these refineries.

If it suddenly becomes possible to sell crude oil to refineries elsewhere, the possibility arises that a higher price will be available in another country. Refineries are optimized for a particular type of crude. If, for example, refineries in Europe are short of light, sweet crude because such oil from Libya is mostly still unavailable, a European refinery might be willing to pay a higher price for crude oil from the Bakken (which also produces light sweet, crude) than a refinery in this country. Even with shipping costs, an oil producer might be able to make a bigger profit on its oil sold outside of the US than sold within the US.

The US consumed 18.9 million barrels a day of petroleum products during 2013. In order to meet its oil needs, the US imported 6.2 million barrels of oil a day in 2013 (netting exported oil products against imported crude oil). Thus, the US is, and will likely continue to be, a major oil crude oil importer.

If production and consumption remain at a constant level, adding crude oil exports would require adding crude oil imports as well. These crude oil imports might be of a different kind of oil than that that is exported–quite possibly sour, heavy crude instead of sweet, light crude. Or perhaps US refineries specializing in light, sweet crude will be forced to raise their purchase prices, to match world crude oil prices for that type of product.

The reason exports of crude oil make sense from an oil producer’s point of view is that they stand to make more money by exporting their crude to overseas refineries that will pay more. How this will work out in the end is unclear. If US refiners of light, sweet crude are forced to raise the prices they pay for oil, and the selling price of US oil products doesn’t rise to compensate, then more US refiners of light, sweet crude will go out of business, fixing a likely world oversupply of such refiners. Or perhaps prices of US finished products will rise, reflecting the fact that the US has to some extent in the past received a bargain (related to the gap between European Brent and US WTI oil prices), relative to world prices. In this case US consumers will end up paying more.

The one thing that is very clear is that the desire to ship crude oil abroad does not reflect too much total crude oil being produced in the United States. At most, what it means is an overabundance of refineries, worldwide, adapted to light, sweet crude. This happens because over the years, the world’s oil mix has been generally changing to heavier, sourer types of oil. Perhaps if there is more oil from shale formations, the mix will start to change back again. This is a very big “if,” however. The media tend to overplay the possibilities of such extraction as well.

Myth 2. The economy doesn’t really need very much energy.


We humans need food of the right type, to provide us with the energy we need to carry out our activities. The economy is very similar: it needs energy of the right types to carry out its activities.

One essential activity of the economy is growing and processing food. In developing countries in warm parts of the world, food production, storage, transport, and preparation accounts for the vast majority of economic activity (Pimental and Pimental, 2007). In traditional societies, much of the energy comes from human and animal labor and burning biomass.

If a developing country substitutes modern fuels for traditional energy sources in food production and preparation, the whole nature of the economy changes. We can see this starting to happen on a world-wide basis in the early 1800s, as energy other than biomass use ramped up.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

The Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s in Britain. It was enabled by coal usage, which made it possible to make metals, glass, and cement in much greater quantities than in the past. Without coal, deforestation had become a problem, especially near cold urban areas, such as London. With coal, it became possible to use industrial processes that required heat without the problem of deforestation. Processes using high levels of heat also became cheaper, because it was no longer necessary to cut down trees, make charcoal from the wood, and transport the charcoal long distances (because near-by wood had already been depleted).

The availability of coal allowed the use of new technology to be ramped up. For example, according to Wikipedia, the first steam engine was patented in 1608, and the first commercial steam engine was patented in 1712. In 1781, James Watt invented an improved version of the steam engine. But to actually implement the steam engine widely using metal trains running on metal tracks, coal was needed to make relatively inexpensive metal in quantity.

Concrete and metal could be used to make modern hydroelectric power plants, allowing electricity to be made in quantity. Devices such as light bulbs (using glass and metal) could be made in quantity, as well as wires used for transmitting electricity, allowing a longer work-day.

The use of coal also led to agriculture changes as well, cutting back on the need for farmers and ranchers. New devices such as steel plows and reapers and hay rakes were manufactured, which could be pulled by horses, transferring work from humans to animals. Barbed-wire fence allowed the western part of the US to become cropland, instead one large unfenced range. With fewer people needed in agriculture, more people became available to work in cities in factories.

Our economy is now very different from what it was back about 1820, because of increased energy use. We have large cities, with food and raw materials transported from a distance to population centers. Water and sewer treatments greatly reduce the risk of disease transmission of people living in such close proximity. Vehicles powered by oil or electricity eliminate the mess of animal-powered transport. Many more roads can be paved.

If we were to try to leave today’s high-energy system and go back to a system that uses biofuels (or only biofuels plus some additional devices that can be made with biofuels), it would require huge changes.

Myth 3. We can easily transition to renewables.

On Figure 1, above, the only renewables are hydroelectric and biofuels. While energy supply has risen rapidly, population has risen rapidly as well.

Figure 2. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

Figure 2. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

When we look at energy use on a per capita basis, the result is as shown in Figure 3, below.

Figure 3. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

Figure 3. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

The energy consumption level in 1820 would be at a basic level–only enough to grow and process food, heat homes, make clothing, and provide for some very basic industries. Based on Figure 3, even this required a little over 20 gigajoules of energy per capita. If we add together per capita biofuels and hydroelectric on Figure 3, they would come out to only about 11 gigajoules of energy per capita. To get to the 1820  level of per capita energy consumption, we would either need to add something else, such as coal, or wait a very, very long time until (perhaps) renewables including hydroelectric could be ramped up enough.

If we want to talk about renewables that can be made without fossil fuels, the amount would be smaller yet. As noted previously, modern hydroelectric power is enabled by coal, so we would need to exclude this. We would also need to exclude modern biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn and biodiesel made from rape seed, because they are greatly enabled by today’s farming and transportation equipment and indirectly by our ability to make metal in quantity.

I have included wind and solar in the “Biofuels” category for convenience. They are so small in quantity that they wouldn’t be visible as a separate categories, wind amounting to only 1.0% of world energy supply in 2012, and solar amounting to 0.2%, according to BP data. We would need to exclude them as well, because they too require fossil fuels to be produced and transported.

In total, the biofuels category without all of these modern additions might be close to the amount available in 1820. Population now is roughly seven times as large, suggesting only one-seventh as much energy per capita. Of course, in 1820 the amount of wood used led  to significant deforestation, so even this level of biofuel use was not ideal. And there would be the additional detail of transporting wood to markets. Back in 1820, we had horses for transport, but we would not have enough horses for this purpose today.

Myth 4. Population isn’t related to energy availability.

If we compare Figures 2 and 3, we see that the surge in population that took place immediately after World War II coincided with the period that per-capita energy use was ramping up rapidly. The increased affluence of the 1950s (fueled by low oil prices and increased ability to buy goods using oil) allowed parents to have more children. Better sanitation and innovations such as antibiotics (made possible by fossil fuels) also allowed more of these children to live to maturity.

Furthermore, the Green Revolution which took place during this time period is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. It ramped up the use of irrigation, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, hybrid seed, and the development of high yield grains. All of these techniques were enabled by availability of oil. Greater use of agricultural equipment, allowing seeds to be sowed closer together, also helped raise production. By this time, electricity reached farming communities, allowing use of equipment such as milking machines.

If we take a longer view of the situation, we find that a “bend” in the world population occurred about the time of Industrial Revolution, and the ramp up of coal use (Figure 4). Increased farming equipment made with metals increased food output, allowing greater world population.

Figure 4. World population based on data from

Figure 4. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978
and Wikipedia-World Population.

Furthermore, when we look at countries that have seen large drops in energy consumption, we tend to see population declines. For example, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were drops in energy consumption in a number of countries whose energy was affected (Figure 5).

Figure 6. Population as percent of 1985 population, for selected countries, based on EIA data.

Figure 6. Population as percent of 1985 population, for selected countries, based on EIA data.

Myth 5. It is easy to substitute one type of energy for another.

Any changeover from one type of energy to another is likely to be slow and expensive, if it can be accomplished at all.

One major issue is the fact that different types of energy have very different uses. When oil production was ramped up, during and following World War II, it added new capabilities, compared to coal. With only coal (and hydroelectric, enabled by coal), we could have battery-powered cars, with limited range. Or ethanol-powered cars, but ethanol required a huge amount of land to grow the necessary crops. We could have trains, but these didn’t go from door to door. With the availability of oil, we were able to have personal transportation vehicles that went from door to door, and trucks that delivered goods from where they were produced to the consumer, or to any other desired location.

We were also able to build airplanes. With airplanes, we were able to win World War II. Airplanes also made international business feasible on much greater scale, because it became possible for managers to visit operations abroad in a relatively short time-frame, and because it was possible to bring workers from one country to another for training, if needed. Without air transport, it is doubtful that the current number of internationally integrated businesses could be maintained.

The passage of time does not change the inherent differences between different types of fuels. Oil is still the fuel of preference for long-distance travel, because (a) it is energy dense so it fits in a relatively small tank, (b) it is a liquid, so it is easy to dispense at refueling stations, and (c) we are now set up for liquid fuel use, with a huge number of cars and trucks on the road which use oil and refueling stations to serve these vehicles. Also, oil works much better than electricity for air transport.

Changing to electricity for transportation is likely to be a slow and expensive process. One important point is that the cost of electric vehicles needs to be brought down to where they are affordable for buyers, if we do not want the changeover to have a hugely adverse effect on the economy. This is the case because salaries are not going to rise to pay for high-priced cars, and the government cannot afford large subsidies for everyone. Another issue is that the range of electric vehicles needs to be increased, if vehicle owners are to be able to continue to use their vehicles for long-distance driving.

No matter what type of changeover is made, the changeover needs to implemented slowly, over a period of 25 years or more, so that buyers do not lose the trade in value of their oil-powered vehicles. If the changeover is done too quickly, citizens will lose their trade in value of their oil-powered cars, and because of this, will not be able to afford the new vehicles.

If a changeover to electric transportation vehicles is to be made, many vehicles other than cars will need to be made electric, as well. These would include long haul trucks, busses, airplanes, construction equipment, and agricultural equipment, all of which would need to be made electric. Costs would need to be brought down, and necessary refueling equipment would need to be installed, further adding to the slowness of the changeover process.

Another issue is that even apart from energy uses, oil is used in many applications as a raw material. For example, it is used in making herbicides and pesticides, asphalt roads and asphalt shingles for roofs, medicines, cosmetics, building materials, dyes, and flavoring. There is no possibility that electricity could be adapted to these uses. Coal could perhaps be adapted for these uses, because it is also a fossil fuel.

Myth 6. Oil will “run out” because it is limited in supply and non-renewable.

This myth is actually closer to the truth than the other myths. The situation is a little different from “running out,” however. The real situation is that oil limits are likely to disrupt the economy in various ways. This economic disruption is likely to be what leads to an  abrupt drop in oil supply. One likely possibility is that a lack of debt availability and low wages will keep oil prices from rising to the level that oil producers need for extraction. Under this scenario, oil producers will see little point in investing in new production. There is evidence that this scenario is already starting to happen.

There is another version of this myth that is even more incorrect. According to this myth, the situation with oil supply (and other types of fossil fuel supply) is as follows:

Myth 7. Oil supply (and the supply of other fossil fuels) will start depleting when the supply is 50% exhausted. We can therefore expect a long, slow decline in fossil fuel use.

This myth is a favorite of peak oil believers. Indirectly, similar beliefs underly climate change models as well. It is based on what I believe is an incorrect reading of the writings of M. King Hubbert. Hubbert is a geologist and physicist who foretold a decline of US oil production, and eventually world production, in various documents, including Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, published in 1956. Hubbert observed that under certain circumstances, the production of various fossil fuels tends to follow a rather symmetric curve.

Figure 7. M. King Hubbert's 1956 image of expected world crude oil production, assuming ultimate recoverable oil of 1,250 billion barrels.

Figure 7. M. King Hubbert’s 1956 image of expected world crude oil production, assuming ultimate recoverable oil of 1,250 billion barrels.

A major reason that this type of forecast is wrong is because it is based on a scenario in which some other type of energy supply was able to be ramped up, before oil supply started to decline.

Figure 8. Figure from Hubbert's 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.

Figure 8. Figure from Hubbert’s 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.

With this ramp up in energy supply, the economy can continue as in the past without a major financial problem arising relating to the reduced oil supply. Without a ramp up in energy supply of some other type, there would be a problem with too high a population in relationship to the declining energy supply. Per-capita energy supply would drop rapidly, making it increasingly difficult to produce enough goods and services. In particular, maintaining government services is likely to become a problem. Needed taxes are likely to rise too high relative to what citizens can afford, leading to major problems, even collapse, based on the research of Turchin and Nefedov (2009).

Myth 8. Renewable energy is available in essentially unlimited supply.

The issue with all types of energy supply, from fossil fuels, to nuclear (based on uranium), to geothermal, to hydroelectric, to wind and solar, is diminishing returns. At some point, the cost of producing energy becomes less efficient, and because of this, the cost of production begins to rise. It is the fact wages do not rise to compensate for these higher costs and that cheaper substitutes do not become available that causes financial problems for the economic system.

In the case of oil, rising cost of extraction comes because the cheap-to-extract oil is extracted first, leaving only the expensive-to-extract oil. This is the problem we recently have been experiencing. Similar problems arise with natural gas and coal, but the sharp upturn in costs may come later because they are available in somewhat greater supply relative to demand.

Uranium and other metals experience the same problem with diminishing returns, as the cheapest to extract portions of these minerals is extracted first, and we must eventually move on to lower-grade ores.

Part of the problem with so-called renewables is that they are made of minerals, and these minerals are subject to the same depletion issues as other minerals. This may not be a problem if the minerals are very abundant, such as iron or aluminum. But if minerals are lesser supply, such as rare earth minerals and lithium, depletion may lead to rising costs of extraction, and ultimately higher costs of devices using the minerals.

Another issue is choice of sites. When hydroelectric plants are installed, the best locations tend to be chosen first. Gradually, less desirable locations are added. The same holds for wind turbines. Offshore wind turbines tend to be more expensive than onshore turbines. If abundant onshore locations, close to population centers, had been available for recent European construction, it seems likely that these would have been used instead of offshore turbines.

When it comes to wood, overuse and deforestation has been a constant problem throughout the ages. As population rises, and other energy resources become less available, the situation is likely to become even worse.

Finally, renewables, even if they use less oil, still tend to be dependent on oil. Oil is  important for operating mining equipment and for transporting devices from the location where they are made to the location where they are to be put in service. Helicopters (requiring oil) are used in maintenance of wind turbines, especially off shore, and in maintenance of electric transmission lines. Even if repairs can be made with trucks, operation of these trucks still generally requires oil. Maintenance of roads also requires oil. Even transporting wood to market requires oil.

If there is a true shortage of oil, there will be a huge drop-off in the production of renewables, and maintenance of existing renewables will become more difficult. Solar panels that are used apart from the electric grid may be long-lasting, but batteries, inverters, long distance electric transmission lines, and many other things we now take for granted are likely to disappear.

Thus, renewables are not available in unlimited supply. If oil supply is severely constrained, we may even discover that many existing renewables are not even last very long lasting.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 28, 2014

Gail, the word you’re having trouble pronouncing in your description of Figure 8 is “nuclear”.

Though many fossil fuel advocates (a group with which I think I can accurately associate you) avoid this N-word, Hubbert was not referring to “some other type of energy supply”. He was referring to a specific one with no carbon emissions, with known reserves (including thorium) which could power the planet for 10,000 years or more, and with the capability of recombining atmospheric carbon and water to synthesize hydrocarbon fuels which would completely obviate the need for pulling more carbon out of the ground.

The graph tells all.

That the petroleum industry recognized a threat in nuclear energy, and worked actively to inhibit it is not disputed. Now that that industry has fairly well mucked things up, perhaps it’s time to add “nuclear” back to our energy lexicon.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Apr 29, 2014

Too bad all the environmentalists, and other “experts” don’t want what is depected in figure 8. Surely, the fuel costs for some best form of nuclear is trivial compared to “everything else”. In fact, we have enough heavy metal in the Earth’s crust to power the planet for hundreds of centuries (assuming there is a limit of about 10 billion people throughout).

Yes, we can even mine dirt and seawater because the trace amounts will still be more profitable than fossil fueled depletion… if only we can do what Argonne and ORNL set out to do decades ago, I guess we had better get on it!

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 29, 2014

Thanks Gail. Again, you display the fuels trajectory nicely. But we have had shortages before, and we have solved many. Natural rubber was an essential transportation resource, synthetic rubber replaced it. Wool and animal hide garments now have substitutes. The mail has been replaced by electronics.

Certainly biomaterials are less abundant than fossil biomaterials. And I think it will take longer to replace fossil fuels than most suggest. Some transition is already underway.

Something to consider is how we might make biomaterials better substitutes. My ancient grad research involved “(water) hydrogen exchange kinetics” in proteins at very high pressure. Proteins are huge biomolecules that stick together in a shape; much like cellulose is huge biomolecules that stick together in a shape. High pressure with water will do to cellulose just what it does to fracture oil shale. Cellulose is a very low density, high strength material. The pressure of a metal saw blade cuts it, and cellulose doesn’t rejoin to become the original wood board.

The point is, we process oil to value added products, we can process cellulose, too. Burning wood is as primitive as burning tar. We see a lot of pretend science these days. Repeated failure doesn’t prove impossibility.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 29, 2014

The issue with all types of energy supply, … nuclear (based on uranium),… is diminishing returns.”

I believe you meant to say “based on enriched uranium”.  Since as we know, the Earth has essentially inexhaustible fuel for fast breeder reactors like the IFR which does not require enrichment (see IFR on Brave New Climate).  And fast breeders are not mere future aspirations like controlled nuclear fusion or dry-rock geothermal, they (the sodium-cooled fast breeders) have been built in the US, Russia, France, and are being prototyped today in China and India.  

Thorium is also inexhaustible, and advocates of reactors such as the LFTR (a thorium breeder) believe it could be significantly cheaper than sodium-cooled fast breeders (heavy water reactors such as those used in Canada, can also make inexhaustible energy from thorium, but these are likely more expensive than fast breeders if the needed fuel reprocessing were included).  China is now funding a LFTR prototype as well.

The average ton of the Earth’s crust has enough uranium and thorium to provide an order of magnitude more energy than a ton of fossil fuel.  The really good news is that we don’t have to mine the average crust; there are plenty of places where it has been naturally concentrated for us, and of course rain and erosion act on the rocks to insure that uranium in seawater is never depleted.  (I really like Hubbert’s figure 8, thanks for reproducing it in the article).

Breeders have several advantages, but there is no need to hurry to deploy them based on uranium scarcity.  Geologists assure us that we could quadruple our nuclear power production from today’s light water reactors, and we’d have plenty of affordable uranium to power them for their 80 year lives.    Every time we launch a new round of uranium prospecting, we find more uranium and our reserves go up.  Unlike the petroleum industry, uranium exploration is not a routine part of the business.


Also, it’s worth noting that when the article gives warning about “oil shortages” restricting access to other energy sources, it really should specify only “sudden oil shortages”, since in the long term, we can substitute syn-fuel made from any large sustainable energy source (e.g. nuclear, wind, solar, or OTEC).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Apr 29, 2014

Good comment! It’s mandatory to prevent any sudden oil shortages. Thus we must hurry to deploy nuclear, cheap wind, solar and storage before the next oil war!

It’s strange how the enviro’s say “no nuclear” but when it comes down to covering the 1% of land or so necessary to replace fossils, they say “No, we can’t do that either”. When confronted, they say “efficiency will save the day”, and when confronted again about how much more energy will be needed in a fully developed world (and that no amount of efficiency can relax the laws of physics), they say that “resource depletion is the greatest concern”.

Then I say to them, “don’t push your Malthusian prophecies on me. The world simply can NOT allow for it, because where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the Earth’s crust will provide all the elements ever needed to do anything, including all the raw materials to develop unlimited clean energy. Unlimited clean energy for 10 billion people is essential for survival, not just an optimist’s dream”.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Apr 29, 2014

One of the wildcards in the nuclear field is that thorium, which is currently a waste product of rare-earth refining and lost its former market in the making of lamp mantles, works beautifully in light-water reactors to the point that the Shippingport reactor demonstrated net breeding during its final run.  Lightbridge is currently developing a uranium-thorium fuel element for existing reactors.  Developments in cladding technoogy (e.g. silicon carbide) could increase the useful life of a fuel rod well beyond what’s feasible with Zircaloy.

Shippingport ran 5 years on its final core.  If that became the standard, fuel changes would become far less frequent and LWR capacity factors would go up substantially.  Fuel which increases its reactivity over the first portion of its lifespan would require less fissile loading at manufacture, cutting the need for natural uranium.  It’s going to be an interesting time between now and 2030.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Apr 30, 2014

Before we go scampering off in the nuclear direction, could we first bring Fukushima-Daiichi under control and maybe have a reasoned debate on whether we want to go down that road?  Unless you are willing to have a nuclear power plant in your backyard, being pro nuclear is real nice as long as it’s someone else that has to deal with the consequences.  That includes the waste stream  Are we going to produce even more waste than we know what to do with today just to please the nuclear yahoos in the crowd?  I oppose nuclear because one accident here, another accident there and pretty soon, my elbow will be growing out of my forehead and your brain will be stuck to your a…


Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on Apr 30, 2014

The problem that ties all of the shortages together is cost. We can fix one problem, or another, or another, but in the end, the solution costs more. Our wages don’t rise though, espeically those of young people.

So, in the end, the problem we end up with is financial. Young people can’t afford to pay back their student loans, or to buy new homes and cars. The government can’t collect enough taxes to pay all of the benefits it has paid out. At some point, something has to give. 

Many economies have collapsed in the past. Quite often what happens in that the government collapses–think of the Former Soviet Union. People are not looking in the right direction to find the problems that are building up.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Apr 30, 2014

Great point about thorium, LWRs, and Lightbridge.  The other interesting technology Lightbridge is developing is metallic fuel for LWRs.  This could potentially lower the cost of fuel reprocessing for thorium fuel (that has historically been an expensive problem since thorium oxide fuel is hard to reprocess), since then the IFR-style pyroprocessing could presumably be used.

But what this means is that there is basically no chance we’d have to shut down our light water reactors due to fuel shortages, no matter how many of them we build.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Apr 30, 2014

 Eric, check your facts.

“Eighty-one percent of (nuclear power) plant neighbors favor the use of nuclear energy as one way to provide electricity in the United States. Forty-seven percent of the residents living within miles of a nuclear facility “strongly favor” the use of nuclear energy, compared to nine percent who are “strongly opposed.”

An Irish study found that 81% of the general population supported wind power, and 4% were opposed.
62% of people living near a wind farm supported more wind power, and 19% opposed.


Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 30, 2014

Again Gail, I agree.

I simply reply what CAN be done, and offer nominal science pathways. People CAN go to and from the moon. But the US is no longer able to even send people into earth orbit.

Politics, banking, sociology are beyond my skills set. I don’t get too involved anymore. But I do think your posts are by far the best on TEC, and look forward to them. Thanks.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Apr 30, 2014

Nuclear needs to be built much smaller in the factory and fitted with a hardened containment to withstand attack. It can also be designed to operate at sea (as in aircraft carriers and submarines). It also doesn’t  have to be of the same design used today.

Non nuclear options are hundreds of thousands of square miles of solar (and a global grid), millions of wind turbines, very cheap utility scale batteries, and of course, a retreat back into the dark ages, should environmentalists object to the above (covering just 1% of the land with renewables). Only this time, without the energy required to clean up our mess, we bring the whole biosphere down with us.

Bty, billions of people still live in un developed areas… and I haven’t seen any three legged humans lately.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 1, 2014

A study released in early March shows that public health in the communities surrounding California’s Diablo Canyon power plant in San Luis Obispo County declined dramatically after the plant was built. The findings also document the presence of Strontium-90 in baby teeth.

The study, released in early March by the Santa Barbara-based think tank World Business Academy for its Safe Energy Project, found that public health indicators such as infant mortality rates and cancer incidence in surrounding areas rose dramatically after Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) two nuclear reactors at the Diablo Canyon power plant began operations in 1984 and 1985.

“This should be a concern for any nuclear reactor and its health risks, whether it’s been operating for a day or 30 or 40 years because these reactors create over 100 cancer-causing chemicals; much of it is stored as waste at the plant, but a portion of it is released into the environment and gets into human bodies through the food chain,” said Joseph Mangano, who authored the study. He is the executive director of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 1, 2014

Eric, while some people believe anything qualifies as a “study”, what really matters is who’s doing the studying. In this case it’s the director of an organization which has spent decades basing facts on theories; whose credibility with the scientific establishment, according to the New York Times, “hovers near zero”:

”What they do is what’s popularly referred to as junk science,” said Dr. Joshua Lipsman, the health commissioner in Westchester County, home of the embattled Indian Point nuclear power plant and, according to the Radiation and Public Health Project, children with the highest strontium 90 readings in the region. ”We found a number of scientific errors both in measurement and process in their proposals.”

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 1, 2014

Don’t count on coal-to-liquid operations. For one thing they require a lot of water. If a country has a lot of coal, as China does, it doesn’t necessarily have water to go with it. The US West has a lot of coal, too, but not the water needed to produce a liquid fuel from oil. 

THe other issue is that the liquid produced from coal is expensive. It also is very high in CO2 emissions, because of the extra coal burned in the process, besides the coal that goes to make the oil. With the high cost, it has detrimental effects on the economy–people can afford fewer other goods, so there will be lay offs. 

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 1, 2014

The Mangano and Sherman “study” was slapped down by none other than the San Luis Obispo Department of Public Health.  The methodology is tendentious and the conclusions worthless.

Mangano and Sherman are long-time activists, aka propagandists.  They are not academics, not interested in facts which do not support their agenda, and should be considered no better than lobbyists or politicians.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on May 3, 2014

Gail, I am not a fan of coal to liquid, (CTL) but lets be fair and accurate.

It takes 5-7 gallons of water to produce a gallon of CTL fuel. It takes 1,000 gallons of water to grow and process 1 gallon of corn ethanol. Our gasoline is mostly 10% ethanol, so we consume 100 gallons of water per gallon of blended gasoline now, plus drilling and refinery water consumption.

We can pay western corn farmers to stop withdrawing water from rivers lakes and aquifers, leave their land fallow, saving it for the future, and produce 150 gallons of hydrocarbon fuel for each gallon of corn ethanol not produced, with no increase in western water consumption.

Each of those 150 gallons has a 20% higher energy content than the gallon of ethanol not produced, and a water production content 93% LESS than the blended gas we buy now.

High temperature reactors like the simplest MSR can provide process heat and electricity using dry cooling towers with no water consumption.

Since the hydrogen is produced using non fossil nuclear energy, the fossil carbon emissions per unit energy produced is less than for burning the coal directly, and there are no soot particles, SO2, NOX, or CO released into the air.

Well what do you know, turns out I just became a CTL fan.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 1, 2014


Health Risks of Nuclear Power:

check out the conclusions.


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 1, 2014

This is from the pdf you linked to: Inherently safe nuclear power is inherently impossible.” Determining whether or not inherently safe is “impossible” requires an engineering responsibility to prove 100% that there is “no way” to contain all aspects of the force of fission. Therefore, if we find that it is “possible” to contain fission products and actinides in proper storage, and to be able to do so without release of a greater amount of radiation than what is already present from the Earth, AND if we can design the reactors to not depend on inherently reactive components (such as water mixed with high temps) THEN we have proved the impossible (just as with “everything” else in today’s society such as landing a man on the moon, converting mega tons of coal into extra CO2, etc.

Guess what… we have already done much of that already (not completely, though) with molten salt reactors, and now with pebble bed reactors, ect. We still have to learn the “perfect” containment of actual reactor parts in decommission (and recycle those actinides for 1000x less geologic storage time)!

Simply more research and development can actually build the safest inherently meltdown proof reactors necessary to save the biosphere. I feel the need to repeat that last five words.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 1, 2014

Eric, if you choose to give credit to the opinion of a self-avowed “consultant” over one of the most respected climate scientists in the world, there’s not much more I can say to you. Call me close-minded, but it’s been about half a century since I believed in the Easter Bunny.

“Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole” Hansen writes in an essay, “is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

Hansen’s controversial conclusion is that we need to build a new generation of nuclear power plants. Nuclear alone, in Hansen’s view, has the potential to produce “clean” (carbon-free) electricity in the prodigious amounts that we will need it in the decades ahead.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 2, 2014

Let me review.  We have right now a nuclear nightmare that is ongoing in Fukushima-Daiichi.  We were told this could never happen.  It happened.  In New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plan is leaking after barely 15 years of existence.  We were told that this could not happen and that the radioactive waste would be safe for at least 10,000 years, longer than recorded history.  A small opps happened on the road to nuclear nirvana.  Now I know some of the folks at this site make their living off of nuclear, oil and gas, etc.  I don’t.  The irony is that I am constantly attacked with two prevailing arguements.  The first is that the evidence I present is highly biased.  The second is that the technology is so far advanced that we don’t have to worry about anything.  In other words, if I don’t support nuclear I am wrong no matter what I say.  You need to look in the mirror and ask yourelf, “who is the one in fantasyland?”  I have said all along that I don’t have a problem with nuclear if we have the same threats to human safety as solar power has and if we take care of the waste issue created by nuclear power.  In other words, instead of running helter skelter into the future believing that the issues will be taken care of, I argue that we reverse the principle.  First prove that nuclear power is completely safe and that nuclear waste is not an issue then start down the nuclear path.  I will not support another industry that puts the cart before the horse.  A precautionary principle should be applied.  I know that gets a few of you upset but so be it.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 2, 2014

We have right now a nuclear nightmare that is ongoing in Fukushima-Daiichi.”

No, we don’t.  The tsunami that killed 20,000 people was a nightnare.  The reactor accident was trivial by comparison; it’s also small compared to the harm that is caused by burning fossil fuels every year (just because nuclear opponents tells us it’s worse than a tsunami doesn’t mean that it is).

First prove that nuclear power is completely safe and that nuclear waste is not an issue then start down the nuclear path.”

You’re totally missing the concept of putting risks in perspective.  The big risks to human health and the environment come from burning fossil fuels.  Nuclear is the best existing technology for displacing fossil fuel (try replacing fossil with renewables, and in most locations, you’ll hit a wall between 20-40%, and you’ll lock-in fossil backup for the balance; hence the “solar-rich option” is nearly as dangerous as the fossil fuel option).

The anti-nuclear lobby (i.e. the fossil fuel industry) has convinced you that there is a nuclear boogey man under your bed.  The only solution is for you to take the light of knowledge in your hand and look under the bed for yourself.

Please accept that people like Mangano and Lovins do not represent the scientific mainstream, and are paid by fossil fuel companies to scare people.  There is lots of stuff you can read that won’t have this bias.  There is this report, by the World Health Organization, which predicts there will be no detectable health impacts of Fukushima radiation.  You could try Bernard Coen’s free book on nuclear power.

If you’re stuck on the idea that the nuclear industry is corrupt and biased, I suggest reading Sherrell Greene’s blog Sustainable Energy Today.  He’s a retired government nuclear scientist, and his writing reflects a deep concern and compassion for the public which is served by the nuclear industry and the government labs.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 2, 2014

Yes, we need to prove that we can do it. I get paid by painting houses, not by promoting solar or nuclear (and I don’t invest in hydrocarbons, either, except to gasoline to drive to work). If we do not properly develop nuclear, then my kids will not be able to drive to work as easily as we do, today (because of fossil fueled depletion into an overheated biosphere).

Joe Giambrone's picture
Joe Giambrone on May 2, 2014

Nuclear insanity is alive and well here.  Doesn’t it bother any of these proseltyzers that the system is inherently fascistic, relying on state/corporate merger to silence the public, skew the “science,” and to rely on propaganda?  It doesn’t matter if the people reject it, as it would in an actually democratic system, nor even if the markets reject it. Government/corporate mergers force high risk atomic power onto the population in clearly anti-democratic fashion.  This is technically fascism.

Fukushima, still leaking uncontrollably into the Pacific, is contaminating the ecosystems without restraint.  But we’re to believe that it’s not a problem because the cover-up skews the public perception.  That there is a cover-up by the Japanese government is undeniable. The mayor of Futaba, a city near the plant, has protested this cover-up and revealed that the Japanese state is lying about sick children all over the region…

“…in reality radiation is still there — and it is killing children. They are dying of heart conditions, asthma, leukemia, thyroid complications. Lots of kids are extremely exhausted after school, others are simply unable to attend PE classes. But the authorities are still hiding the truth from us…”

But the nuclear proseltyzers have an uncanny knack for never noticing the problems, instead relying on a tired old bag of propaganda tricks to deflect.  Deflection is their art.

The nuclear cover-up is international, and implicates the IAEA, as it has — again clearly — since 1995 and Chernobyl.  IAEA prevented publication of a WHO study of Chernobyl, blatant censorship, as documented in Nuclear Controversies.  
Chernobyl Heart won an Academy Award for showing cesium damage to the hearts of the children of Chernobyl, thousands requiring open heart surgery!  But this information never seems to reach the nuclear proseltyzers.  They have a remarkable, outstanding ability to never see (or more likely to never acknowledge) negative consequences of the ridiculously reckless technology they promote.




Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on May 2, 2014

Eric, you can’t have zero risk, which is what you seem to want.  I suggest you read *Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy* by Gwyneth Cravens.  The central thesis of this book, supported by heaps of research and Cravens’s person experience, is that the risks from nuclear energy are diminishingly small compared with the alternatives of (1) burning fossil fuels as we have been, especially coal which is the fossil fuel of choice for electrical generation in the U.S. and China; (2) attempting in vain to use renewables to replace fossil fuels as a way to handle baseload.

(By the way, if you take into account background radiation plus the average dose of radiation absorbed in medical procedures by Americans, you’ll see it’s higher than what a person would experience in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Not that I’m endorsing Chernobyl-like reactors and their attendant dangers; the safety difference between Chernobyl and U.S. designed and built reactors is like the difference between a concrete bunker and a mobile home in a tornado.)    

 If you run the numbers on the amount of space and the amount of materials required to meet baseload in any advanced economy, you’ll find nuclear beats wind and solar by every measure, by an order of magnitude.  And, even if wind and solar could match nuclear output in sheer output, you would still have the intermittency problem staring you in the face.  

Speaking of the intermittency/storage issue, you’ll notice that folks with solar collectors on their homes are demanding net metering, and in many places they have it.  It sounds fair on the face of it, but in effect the solar customers are using the grid as an enormous storage system which other customers are paying for.  That’s because the utilities are being required to buy back energy at the same rate at which they sell it.    

Electrical storage systems are costly and require vigilance to maintain.  Just ask any off-the-grid solar user.   

I challenge you to read Cravens’s book at least a third of the way through without having your outlook changed considerably. 


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 3, 2014

Yes, there are two diametrically opposed views on the truth about nuclear power.  The one you advocate requires that thousands of scientist collude in a giant cover-up, for the purpose of forcing a technology on the public that is less profitable than fossil fuels (see this United Nations committee report which predicts no detectable health impact from Fukushima radiation, or this one from the World Health Organization with a similar conclusion).  Why would they do this?

The easier explanation is that the fossil fuel industry (which is clearly very harmful to public health and to the environment) has recognized that humanity can replace nearly all fossil fuel use with the safe, clean, inexhaustible alternative of nuclear power, and has choosen to lobby against it.  This lobbying would include paying self-proclaimed nuclear whistle-blowers (with no scientific reputation to jeopardize) to tell the public scary and un-supported stories about alleged health impacts of the nuclear industry.  The news media loves a scary story, and can give the mic to these whistle-blowers without risking any factual errors of their own.  Once public opinion tilts a given direction, opportunistic politicians can be counted on to join in the attack as well.

The second explanation does not require any large conspiracies,  just a doomed fossil fuel industry with money to spend on lobbying.  Humanity can either align itself with the fossil fuel companies and follow them to their doom, or let science be our guide and embrace safe, clean nuclear power.  (I don’t claim that nuclear power is perfectly safe, only that it is much safer than fossil fuel or renewables with fossil backup; note that in the US, air pollution from fossil fuel use kills around 20,000 people/year).

Lots of stuff claiming the horrors of nuclear power get published or put on the web.  Why do you believe it?  If you believe just because it fits your preceived notions, then that is the definition of confirmation bias, and is not a viable path for truth-seeking.  (And you do realize that we are constantly being exposed to natural radiation, from the sky above us, the ground beneath our feet, and even the food we eat?)

Using the free market to attack nuclear power is naive.  The reason we have government is there are some things that private industry can’t do; and controlling pollution is one of them.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 3, 2014

Gail, I just finished reading the Hubbert paper you sourced in your article. It’s a remarkable document in that its author, a geologist, acknowledges that nuclear energy represents a nearly boundless source of energy with not only the capability, but the likelihood to completely replace fossil fuels:

It has been experimentally demonstrated that both of these [breeder reactions] are possible and are capable of producing from the fertile materials more fuel material than is consumed…In the subsequent discussion it will be assumed that complete breeding will have become the standard practice within the comparatively near future...

It appears that there exists within minable depths in the United States uranium rocks whose total energy content is probably several hundred times that of all fossil fuels combined…Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshhold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than that made possible by the fossil fuels.

The decline in petroleum production and the concurrent rise in the production of power from nuclear energy are shown schematically in Fig. 29…The rise of nuclear power is there shown at a rate of about 10 percent per year, but there are many indications that it may be actually twice that rate.

We may at last have found an energy supply adequate for our needs for at least the next few centuries of the “forseeable future”.

Noteworthy about these comments, which their API audience possibly regarded as an affront, is as much what they leave out as what they include: there is no mention of specific technologies. The energy potential is there, and the mechanisms which put it to work are mere details.

What stepped in and interrupted this seemingly unavoidable progression? Is it unlikely that the powerful heirs of John D. Rockefeller worked as deviously and tirelessly as he did to undercut any challenge to their fortunes?

Gail Tverberg's picture
Gail Tverberg on May 3, 2014

This paper was written during the period when electricity from nuclear energy was expected to be “too cheap to meter.” In a later paper, he talks about using the energy from nuclear to “reverse combustion” and make liquid fuels.

By 1976, Hubbert had changed his view of what might work. He showed solar energy taking over from fossil fuels, instead of nuclear. Solar doesn’t scale nearly as well. I think the issue was disillusionment with nuclear, rather than conviction that solar would really work.


Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 3, 2014


For a moment, let’s remove the issues of safety, security, long-term consequences and Black Swans.  Instead, lets get real about the practicality of nuclear.  Lets say that we all decided to go down the nuclear path.  First, who is going to invest?  There don’t seem to be many takers.  Second, let’s say we find a couple of investors with $7-11 billion to plunck down on a brand spanking new nuclear power plant.  If we start today, we might have the first one operational in 10 to 15 years.  That’s if there are no delays or catastrophic cost overruns.  Below is a link that shows the folly of the nuclear fantasy.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 3, 2014

The RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute) is Amory Lovin’s fossil fuel (anti-nuclear) advocacy company.  Of course the fossil fuel companies don’t want us to like nuclear.

And of course, if nuclear were as uneconomical as you claim, there would be no need for anti-nuclear lobbying.  The fossil fuel industry would have wasted all the money they have given to the RMI.  In actuality, the US government EIA says that nuclear power costs about the same as other energy sources (the only stand-outs are natural gas which is very cheap, and off-shore wind and solar thermal which are very expensive). 

The path you suggest: letting the lobbyist run the country, will surely lead to ruin.  For technical matters (like energy and environmental policy), science is the best tool we have.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 3, 2014

Has anyone really died directly from radiation at Fukashima. If so, how many times more people died because of toxic chemicals from “normal” business as usual, and from smog, mercury poisoning and particulate matter from coal. Please consider that the biosphere will fry unless we stop spewing CO2 into the very thin and fragile atmosphere. However, I must agree that we need to focus on only the best way to do nuclear.

Bty, that weird adjective you tagged everyone with is a religious “convert” term. We talk’n science here.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 3, 2014

Nathan, I am seeing a very clear pattern here.  Anyone who doesn’t agree with your point of view is part of the fossil fuel conspiracy.  I’m sorry but if there is one thing that is not true it’s that RMI is a fossil fuel front.  I think you need to start listining to those who don’t agree with you and stop dismissing them out of hand. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 3, 2014


I’ll let Nathan answer you as he pleases, but please note that Neither Solar nor Wind Power is able to function without backup from Fossil Fuels.

Amory Lovins and other Nuclear Haters are really just locking in Natural Gas, this is why Natural Gas producers speak glowingly of renewables.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 5, 2014

No, its not the fact that they don’t agree with me that turns me against them (contrary to what you have assumed, I read to learn).  It’s the fact that the scientific establishment does not agree with them, and the fact that they are funded by organizations and individuals that like their message (ie. like a political think tank).  That’s why I call their work paid lobbying rather than real science.

Normal scientists are paid to study a given area, and their work is peer reviewed for quality, and their conclusions are expected to be reproducible by other researchers, with the double blind study considered the gold standard of objectivity.  RMI and the other anti-nuclear organization don’t get funding from large health organizations, universities, or the national science foundation.  They don’t publish their work in peer reviewed journals (except in a few cases where the papers were outside of the field of study for the journal and reviewers).

Whenever a serious scientist makes an important claim, other scientists will  try to validate it by independently reproducing it.  The claims made by RMI are only ever validated by sources with similar funding. 

As an engineer, I’m particularly annoyed that there is no “acid test” for their claims.  Their predictions can’t be tested using prototypes or controlled experiments.  And their is no accountability if they are wrong (and RMI has made mostly failed predictions over the decades it has existed. see Soft Energy Paths).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 5, 2014

How could scientific minded people listen to anyone which (whether knowingly or not) promotes only that which is guaranteed to lock in (an even greater percentage of) fossil fuels for a very long time. Anyone who doesn’t agree should just do the math for what’s required to obtain (future) global 99.9% clean energy before bringing up divisions based on conspiracies theories. The fossil fuel companies were really our friends until global warming came about (they don’t have to be evil), thus the RMI could just unknowingly be a front for fossil fuel lock in by advocating “renewables only”.

It is plainly self evident and obviouse that we need that graph in figure 8 to become true, in order to save the biosphere.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 5, 2014

Paul,  exactly what is wrong with this? 


Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 6, 2014

Please see my reply at the Top of the Page.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 6, 2014


You ask, exactly what is wrong with “this”, meaning what is wrong with locking in Natural Gas, a Fossil Fuel?

Well what is wrong with it is that it is a fossil fuel and produes CO2, and leaks Methane. This is obviously wrong for  GW.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 6, 2014

Let me put it this way, Paul.  Right now fossil fuels power most of the economies of the world.  At the same time we are headed toward a climate disaster.  Now, if we switch to solar with natural gas as a back up when needed, we would probably cut 60 to 80% of our fossil fuel consumption.  You seem to argue that it’s all or nothing.  I say let’s move as quickly as possible to solar and use natural gas as a back up when needed.   Why is this so problematic? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 6, 2014

Eric, that would be a completely reasonable assumption if a 60-80% solar power mix was not wildly optimistic and outside the scope of any credible scientific evaluation.

Even with the expansive growth of solar in the past few years, solar remains less than 1% of global generation and will never significantly challenge fossil fuels. There are three main reasons:

  • Expense
  • Variability
  • Impractical in northern latitudes

The amount of energy contained in the sunlight around us, on average, is a tiny fraction of the energy we use – especially if we hope to power transportation cleanly. That point is being proven every day in Germany, where the push toward renewable energy is making carbon emissions significantly worse. Falling back on coal when solar fails to deliver is not only problematic, it’s disastrous – and we have no more time to lose.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 6, 2014

The most cost effective way to do 70% solar is to put the solar plants with 15 hours of storage in the desert, and transmit power and syn-fuel to the rest of the world. (and when we say solar is almost as cheap as other energy sources, this does not include storage, which is still very expensive).

With few exceptions, most countries and regions do not contain deserts, so using desert solar means that solar energy is imported energy.  People would much rather put their power plants near demand centers to keep the energy jobs and dollars local (and boost energy security).  Hence proposed schemes like Desertec have  been enormously unpopular.

If California and Arizona manage to go solar, they will do so in a way that others cannot follow.

Putting the solar plants in cloudy areas makes it degenerate to 30% solar, 70% fossil backup on the grid, even when storage is used.  The solar synfuel idea is simply not credible from an economic standpoint in this case either.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 6, 2014

Gail, though the subject of Lewis Strauss’s comment “too cheap to meter” was misattributed early on to nuclear fission, Strauss was actually referring to the promise of nuclear fusion. As chairman of the AEC Strauss oversaw Project Sherwood, a secret Atoms for Peace fusion program which once employed 500 scientists. Because of the project’s secrecy he wasn’t free to correct press accounts of the comment, and the phrase stuck.

Let’s take the liberty of imagining a source of energy which actually is too cheap to meter – fusion, kryptonite, whatever. Would it fare any better than fission is now? Is the construction of a half-cocked conspiracy even necessary  to recognize that any serious threat to a half-$trillion global business, like stacks of $100 bills lying on the corner of Wall and Broad streets, creates a motive which virtually guarantees a crime?

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 6, 2014

The just completed Blue Wing Solar plant here in San Antonio, TX is a 14.4 megawatt installation.  It is capable of producing more than 26,570 megawatt-hours  of electricity per year — enough to power 1,800 households.  And, if there is an accident, South Texas won’t be threatened with a ‘dead’ zone or a continuous stream of hazardous waste that needs to be contained for thousands of years.  Am I missing something here?  Why on earth would we want to go nuclear when we could be popping off solar plants like this all over the country?   

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 6, 2014

Bob, check my post to Nathan.  The problem with solar is not what you itemize, it’s a lack of will.  By the time the first nuclear power plant is built and operational, you could have hundreds of solar power plants all over the country.  The problem is not with solar, it’s with us and our lack of imperative.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 6, 2014

Eric, What is the Use of something that provides power to 1,800 households, but only for about 8hrs (while there is adequate sunlight)  I was of the mistaken impression that there are 24hrs in a day.

This is the amusing subtle fraud of claims that Solar Power is enough to provide power for X,000 households. I use the term Subtle because strictly speaking in terms of Power, the claims may be true.

There is a world of difference between Energy, and Power however, and something that provides enough power for x,000 households, may not provide enough energy to last a 24


In the case of Nuclear power, if it claims to provide power to a number of households, it really does provide that power, day-in, day-out, in any season or time of year, and in any part of the planet.

Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on May 6, 2014

I love it when solar enthusiasts say things such as “enough to power 1,800 homes”.  

For sake of argument, let’s set aside the huge problem of intermittency (Eric ignores it anyway) and the concomitant problem of storage.  Let’s take the “1,800 homes” figure at face value.  Let’s take those “homes” as being representative of the average U.S. home. 

How many “homes” are there in the U.S.?  According to the U.S. census bureau, there are approx. 115 million “households”.  Take 115 million households and divide by 1,800 and you get close to 64,000 solar power plants needed to power those households.  

Now, if we could crowd all those households into the states of (southern) California, the Four Corners States plus Texas and the Gulf States, you might be able to find room for 64,000 solar power plants scattered about in a way to minimize transmission losses as well as habitat fragmentation.  (I’m going to ignore the huge footprint problem for now also; suffice it to say that wind and solar installations require 10-100 times the area of nuclear power stations for the same power output).  (I’m also going to ignore the water use problems common to those solar-intensive states.)

But then, in addition to “homes”, we have industry, hospitals, schools, emergency services (police, fire, and medical), offices (commercial and governmental), stores, broadcasters, service stations, museums, military, airports, train stations. . . . I’ll stop here.  This may help to explain why it is that Germany, try as it has to promote renewables, is burning ever more coal in the wake of nuclear phase-out, and Japan, having pulled back on nuclear, is now backing off its prior commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  If Germany and Japan, full of smart, hardworking people, can’t make it work, who can?

Promoting renewables is good; there’s hardly a nuclear scientist or engineer who would disagree with that.  However, expecting to scale up renewables to cope seriously with the carbon problem in the needed time frame is simply wishful thinking.   

Not that most of the contributors to this thread fail to know that.  




Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on May 6, 2014

Paul, what is the use of something that can cause worse devestation than a tsunami or pollute the planet for 10,000 years or more and that is so expensive no one wants to invest in it unless the government (read the taxpayer) is willing to pay to build it, run it, and protect the corporation in case anything screws up.  Two can play this game of which is worse.  I have said all along that we start building solar plants and use natural gas to augment power when needed.  Is that really so hard to comprehend?  Why do you have such a problem with this?  Let’s take your argument that solar is only available for 8 hours (which is a ridiculous assumption), that would cut our fossil fuel consumption by one-third.  Energy efficiency can cut another quarter to a third.  Does it really take a Rhode Scholar to figure this one out, Paul? 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 6, 2014

Inadvertent double post.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 6, 2014

Ooh! Eric, let’s not get personal. I am certainly not a Rhode  Scholar, as you can see in my profile, I am merely a lowly eeg tech. I thought we were having a constructive debate/argument, unless you work for the solar power industry and find my comments directible toward you personally.

If you wish to end this line of conversation, fine with me, however I’ll say these points before I go.

1) Nuclear Power, even Fukushima did not cause worse problems than a Tsunami. Twenty  Thousand (20,000) lives were wiped out by the Fukushima Tsunami, and Zero by the nuclear meltdown.

2) MSR and IFR, won’t polute the planet for 10,000yrs. The left over Trans Uranics are only dangerous for about 300yrs. After 300 yrs, the left over substance is safe to handle and can be used for industrial purposes. We definitely know how to keep monuments for 300 yrs.

3) Natural Gas is still a CO2 emitter. If we had to use it at all, I’d rather we used it for transportation. This matters a hella lot, because if and when the 3rd world countries start to industrialize, and they begin using Natural gas, we may suddenly find the supply limited. Furthermore, the increased use of Nat. Gas will also mean increased CO2 emissions.

4) I live on this planet same as you do, and so I also want a hazard free and bountiful future for our children. There is room for solar power, if there is adequate storage, and locations where sunlight is quite abundant. However I think that Locking in CO2 producing Natural Gas is the wrong move, and Knee-Jerk hating on Nuclear Power not withstanding it’s strengths and modern advances is also a wtrong move.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 7, 2014

Why on earth would we want to go nuclear when we could be popping off solar plants like this all over the country?

A few reasons:

  • Solar plants don’t work as well as you think.  The Texas plant you mention will have a capacity factor of 22%.  That means that if such plants were fully scaled up,  “flexible generation” (i.e fossil fuels) would have to supply about 73% of the average demand.
  • Energy storage with today’s batteries is very expensive (about $220/kWh for the batteries, which amounts to about 22¢/kWh for electricity they produced, not counting the energy to charge them).
  • Putting the solar plants anywhere in the North (i.e. the parts of the US with the most population) yields much lower capacity factors, and many more cloudy days in which even batteries can’t help.
  • Small reductions in developed country fossil fuel use are not adquate; their are billions of people in developing countries whose energy consumption is much too low for a decent standard of living, and who must be supplied with sustainable energy at low costs.  Including a large fraction of fossil fuel backup in their mix will destroy the environment. (see any of Gail T’s posts for ideas on whether the world even has enough affordable fossil fuel for them).
  • Nuclear power is nowhere near as dangerous as you seem to believe.  Here’s a few critiques of writing from Amory Lovins at the anti-nuclear RMI: herehere, and here.  I’m not sure why you so easily dismiss reports by reputable and accountable organizations like the WHO and UN; they don’t support your claims of extreme nuclear danger.
  • Solar PV and batteries are not as clean as you apparently believe.  Their are made from toxic chemicals that will be hazardous forever. It is a much more difficult waste problem than for nuclear, as it is distributed geographically, and more voluminous for a given amount of energy.


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