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Energy Policy Cannot Be Based on Fantasy. The Truth May Yet Prevail

Milton Caplan's picture
President MZConsulting Inc.

Milt has more than 40years experience in the nuclear industry advising utilities, governments and companies on new build nuclear projects and investments in uranium.

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  • Jul 4, 2017

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Over the last week or so, the internet has been abuzz with articles on the recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar”, by 21 prominent scientists taking issue with Mark Jacobson’s earlier study claiming that 100% renewables is feasible in the USA by 2050. Given the strong desire to believe in this utopian future; and how many prominent people have referenced this Jacobson paper to support their energy views, it is somewhat surprising how much press the opposing view elicited.  That being said, most of the articles had titles like, “A bitter scientific debate just erupted over the future of America’s power grid” or “Fisticuffs Over the Route to a Clean-Energy Future” making it seem like this is about scientific debate, when it is actually about a paper that has been proven to be false.

As stated by this paper’s authors, “In this paper, we evaluate that study [the Jacobson study] and find significant short- comings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.”  These are pretty strong statements for an academic paper.

Of course, for most of us in the industry this study is telling us what we already knew, that 100% reliance on intermittent low-density energy sources is not going to meet the needs of an energy hungry world.  We suggest you read a few of the articles and of most importance, the actual paper.  We would also recommend you read the article by James Conca “Debunking The Unscientific Fantasy Of 100% Renewables” which takes aim at the issue of bad science.

But the world is passionately in love with renewables.  What can be better or more natural than wind and solar?  It makes you feel good – there are no problems that can’t be overcome with these wondrous technologies.  They definitely don’t cost too much [but they need subsidies], or have environmental or waste issues [solar waste is increasing] and of course their intermittency is a modest problem to be resolved by smart people [by building more gas to back them up].  On the other hand, fossil fuels emit carbon and while nuclear plants are low carbon, they are dangerous – everybody knows that.  And in this era of fake news and alternate facts, why would anyone want to change this glorious view of the future?

Of course, the option that does tick all the boxes for a low carbon energy revolution is nuclear power.  And we are starting to see this position being more widely accepted.  As the dream of a renewables only future fades, the merits of nuclear are once again coming to the forefront.  That is why the US government is taking action to save its operating nuclear plants that are struggling in de-regulated markets, the UK is strongly supporting new build, Canada is refurbishing its aging nuclear fleet and China is rapidly expanding its share of nuclear production.

Countries like Germany that are committed to phasing out nuclear for a 100% renewable future are further proof that this approach to decarbonization is flawed as they add coal production to make up for their nuclear shortfall.  Now Korea seems to be following this approach as their new president is committed to getting rid of both coal and nuclear (70% of their current system) for a renewable future.  We only hope this analysis of Jacobson’s paper is a wake-up call that is heeded in these markets that now seem to be following an unrealistic romantic world view rather than a realistic one.

Once again, I have to quote Michael Shellenberger.  In his proposal for Atomic Humanism his first principle is – “nuclear is special. Only nuclear can lift all humans out of poverty while saving the natural environment. Nothing else — not coal, not solar, not geo-engineering — can do that.  How does the special child, who is bullied for her specialness, survive? By pretending she’s ordinary. As good as — but no better than! — coal, natural gas or renewables.”

And it is this pretending that needs to stop.  There is no longer a need to be defensive when supporting the nuclear option.   Or as stated by the Department of Energy in the USA“…  we’re particularly proud of the contributions being made by the nation’s nuclear power plants. Nuclear is, in short, a clean, constant, and downright cool energy resource. Unfortunately, many people may not understand how remarkable this unique energy source truly is, or the role that it plays in our energy portfolio and Americans’ daily lives.

We are at a crossroad.  The time has come to strongly support the best technology that can reliably meet the energy hunger of the world and we need to make it known to policy makers everywhere.  Making energy policy on a hope and a dream is no way to plan our energy future.  Nuclear power is the only true path to a low carbon future with the vast amount of energy needed to fuel the world that is both economic and reliable – and yes safe.  If we work hard to support the facts, the truth may yet prevail.  Or as stated by Michael Shellenberger – Nuclear is special – let’s say it loud and let’s say it proud!

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Luigi Antonio Pezone's picture
Luigi Antonio Pezone on Jul 4, 2017

Energy policy can not be based on fantasy but not even scientists who can not design plants globally. Actually No existing technology can exceed 100% yield, normally, we currently have the best performance with the thermal energy that is up to 35% but it pollutes the environment. While with interactive energy and new hydraulic circuits pressurized with compressed air, we can produce electricity with little bulk and yields hundreds of times higher than current ones, producing energy that even protects the environment by releasing oxygen into the water in proportion at operating pressure. You can find all the projects on, where there are also two open letters addressed to the International Courts of Justice to investigate the reasons why, above all, Public Science keeps silent on these solutions simple and efficient that do not have secret fouls, but only the principles of physics and hydrodynamics applied correctly with the aid of technology

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jul 5, 2017

Once gain the fake news about germany adding coal power. In real world germany is phasing out coal. Slower than some would wish, because germay is phasing out nuclear first, but the phase out of coal has long since begun.
Coal power plants in germany are closing in significant numbers, some to be nocked down, some leaving the market but remaining for some time in cold reserve in case something unusual happens. Power stations in cold reserve do not emmit CO2, wether they are coal powerd, gas powered or nuclear powered – well nuclear powered cold reserve would consume significant amounts of electricity, so let’s skip it from this list.
Nuclear costs by far exceed the costs of wind and solar today per kWh, even if the nuclear power station runs around the clock. One might complain that wind and solar still get some low subsidy to compete with fuel costs of existing fossil fueled power plants, but this is, in comparison with nuclear, irrelevant as long as nuclear requires much higher subsidys for the same task.
A reasonable discussion today would start witht he fact that wind and solar are cheaper per kWh than nuclear, and would discuss how much can be done with this price difference to overcome the loacal intermittency of renewables e.g. bey expanding grids, or improving other modes of generation like hydro and biomass. In comparison with the measures of the same kind which are neccesary to accomodate huger amounts of nuclear in the grid.
Most people have no idea how much of power transportation can be done in high voltage grids with one or two cents per kWh.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Jul 5, 2017

Craig Morris gave a quite revealing statement relating to real costs of wind and solar in Germany and EU:

The problem, as the experts certainly know, is twofold. First, wind and solar react to the weather, not to prices. From the grid operator’s perspective, this situation is undesirable: they want generators that produce more power when needed and less when not. Solar and wind cannot be switched on.

Second, solar and wind cannibalize themselves. When the wind blows and the sun shines, more power is generated, so power prices on spot markets go down. If no payment is ensured for curtailment, it doesn’t matter how cheap solar and wind get; they price themselves out of the market. In other words, if you want wind and solar, you want guaranteed payments for them. Calls for them to make do with spot prices (and, eventually, forgo curtailment payments) are tantamount to saying, let’s just not have wind and solar, shall we?

Grid stabilization costs in Germany rose to 1 billion euros in 2015. Wind curtailment was almost half of this.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jul 5, 2017


A) Germany’s energy policy IS based on a fantasy. Germany’s CO2 emissions (from all sources) are about the same as in 2009. There is no way Germany, a big industrial nation, will meet its 2020 and 2030 targets. German households paid a MINIMUM of about 8 x 25 billion euro = 200 billion euro in subsidies during these 8 years to gain ZERO CO2 emission reduction. German boasting about COP-21 and criticizing the US is just empty rhetoric.

B) COP-21 goals are based on a fantasy. COP-21 is a non-binding, CO2 emission reduction agreement, which aims to limit the world temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level during the 1861 – 1880 period in 2100. By 2015, the increase was about 1.0 C. That leaves just 1.0 C to go, if a 2 C increase is the limit, or 0.5 C, if a 1.5 C increase is the limit. This may appear minor, but it is not, because present trends point to much higher temperature increases.

The world CO2eq emissions, all sources, were about 52.7 billion metric ton in 2014 and are on a trajectory to become about 65 billion Mt in 2030.

The UN Environment Program, UNEP, is optimistic. It estimates the emissions would be about 60 billion Mt in 2030, if all policies and pledges, made prior to COP-21, were fully implemented. If so, the increase would be about 3.7 C above pre-industrial in 2100 without COP-21, about 3.5 C with COP-21.

MIT and Lomberg, a Danish professor, base their analyses on 65 billion Mt, because past COP experience shows, all policies and pledges likely will not be fully implemented. They predict an increase of about 4.3 C above pre-industrial in 2100 without COP-21, about 4.1 C with COP-21.

The below summary is based on UNEP estimates:

1) With full implementation of policies and pledges prior to COP-21, the increase would be about 3.7 C in 2100.
2) With full implementation of COP-21 pledges by 2030, the increase would be about 3.5 C in 2100.
3) With additional CO2eq reduction by 2030 (gap no. 1), the increase would be about 2 C in 2100.
4) With even more CO2eq reduction by 2030 (gap no. 2), the increase would be about 1.5 C in 2100.

C) The Jacobson Plan aims to use energy sources with low- to medium Energy Return/Energy Invested ratios, with relatively short lives and wear out quickly, i.e., high replacement/refurbishing rates, compared to traditional near-CO2-free energy sources, such as hydro and nuclear.

Millions of additional people would have to be employed in the “distributed-everywhere” energy sector. It would be as if highly efficient, industrial farming, employing relatively few people, were replaced by millions of family farms. This likely would portend an uneconomic energy future for the US.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Jul 5, 2017

Milt, Here another, older comparison of the Jacobson WWS roadmap to advanced nuclear power. It would take the entire industrial output of China for 28 years to manufacture the generation required by WWS.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 5, 2017

To elaborate on Morris’ point about solar and wind cannibalizing themselves, the issue is the marginal cost of production. For wind and solar, it’s zero, or essentially zero. That means that, in a free unregulated market, whenever potential supply happened to exceed actual demand, the wholesale price would drop to zero as different suppliers underbid one another attempting to sell what they had available. Since their marginal cost to produce electricity is zero, any price above zero that they can get is better than not producing it. But that means that, in a free market, the producers could never recover their capital investment.

That’s not actually an argument against wind and solar; it’s an argument against deregulation and the talk of “free competitive markets” that is trotted out whenever it seems to cut in favor of the party advancing it. Wind and solar — or any goods or services whose marginal cost of production is zero — is absolutely dependent on control by either a government, a cartel. or a guild with disciplinary clout. A simple free market business model can’t work.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 5, 2017

Most people have no idea how much of power transportation can be done in high voltage grids with one or two cents per kWh.

And most RE advocates who tout high voltage power transmission as a silver bullet against the problems of intermittency have no idea how small a fraction of electricity consumed is currently transmitted over long distances. In the U.S., I believe, some 95% of kWh consumed are generated within 50 to 100 km of where they’re consumed.

Most RE advocates also have no idea how difficult, time consuming, and costly it is to get new high voltage transmission lines permitted and built. Moving from the current model of mostly local generation to one in which power generated in one part of the country is routinely shipped 2000 km to another part of the country would require an enormous increase in transmission capacity. I can’t give a precise figure, but I’d guess at something like a 20-fold increase.

Making the new long distance transmission capacity HVDC helps, but not dramatically. A 20-fold increase in transmission capacity could be achieved with only a 10-fold increase in miles of transmission line. Whoopee! Wake me when it’s done. Ought to be some time next century.

Besides, call me old-fashioned and romantic, but I despise the thought of landscapes crossed with transmission lines everywhere one looks. I’ll take discreet local nuclear plants any day — preferably with a few square miles of unnecessary exclusion zone around them as wildlife refuge.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jul 6, 2017

If you look at the entsoe-plans for 2050 you can hava a detailed look how much capacity needs to be increased in the case of europe.
And no, the need to increase milage in a 10 or 20 fold amount does simply not exist. there is always the possibility to install masts with more systems per mast, and more power transported per system.
But too many people have the zensors scissors in the head which cuts away the possibility for any changes in the high voltage grids above the level reached in the 1950.
We are not in the times any more where 1,4-1,7 GW per systems at 400kV or 2.8 to 3.5 GW at 800kV AC where the maximum possible. Today it’s 3,8/7.5 GW per system at AC, and rising, we’re still at the beginning, not at the end of the development. And even our ancestorn knew, that the standard 1 or two systems per Mast designs were not the limit, 4 and 6 systems per mast have always exissted, but were not so often used widespread. There is no cause not to use them in larger areas, when they improve the system. Going from a existing 1,4 GW 2 system line to a 3,8GW 6 system line and calculating with n-1 on the systems rises capacity already by factor 13, without using HVDC, and without using the possibilities to rise power per systems above todays levels. HVDC allows to transport even more power on the same line and voltage level.
In germany building NEW lines is neccesary in areas where they have not been built during cold war, and where existing lines have been removed due to cold war, leaving large gaps in the grids. In these areas there are NIMBY problems today, correct, but they onty delay construction not hinder it. Bt it#s small compared to the nimby problems your nuclear power stations would face. (beside non existent supply chain to build them and other tiny problems)
Main “problem” is that the 1950’s technology was enough for a very long time in most places, so generations of engineers neer saw any changes in that area during their whole career. Making many of them think there is no change possible in that area, and then fighting anybody proposing changes in that area. From technology side there is no problem. Where the grid has a certain density today, it is sufficient to upgrade existing lines to the levels which are possible today. It might be neccesary to fill some gaps in the grid, and may be gaps are more frequent in the US than elsewhere. But there is no factor 10. In germany the factor is 1,1-1,2 for 2050.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jul 6, 2017

A well known problem, Partial solutions so far are
a) increase the amount of demand which is flexible on prices. There is a lot of flexibility available on industrial scale power users, in the heating and cooling sector, and with BEV in the future. There#s not only the light and the TV consuming power in the grid
b) increase the market which can be addressed by the local producer of wind and solar by increasing and strengthening the grid.
When you look at hinkley point producing at 11ct/kWh and on the other end at solar producing at (average) 3ct /kWh you can loose 3/4 of power due to transmission losses on the way when there is oversupply of solar power in a region (so prices <<3ct) and still be competitive with a nuclear power station like hinkley point. With HVDC as used in china today, to "achieve" so high losses it is not enough to send the power the maximumpssible 20.000km point to point distance around the world, it would be neccesary to wrap tha cable in extra circles to have enough distance to "generate" these losses.
Ever lower prices for renewable power production allow to invest more and more money into increasing the amount of power transported per each power line, and to build new power lines where they are missing today.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jul 6, 2017

Hi Robert,

That certainly puts that in perspective.

Jacobson underestimated his capital costs by at least 50% by using high capacity factors and low $/MW, in true Alice-in-Wonderland fashion.

And for storage he relies on the CSP in the US southwest, which has been an overly-expensive production flop, after about $10 billion in Obama/USDOE subsidies and loan guarantees.

Here is an article of about 3 years ago that has been updated.

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