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Nuclear Energy: Mark Bittman's Renewables Delusions

Nuclear and Renewables

Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman’s column. 

New nuclear plants are being built around the world including in the United States. Bittman incorrectly suggests that nuclear energy is going away. In fact, there are 69 nuclear power plants under construction around the world right now, dozens of which will come online in the next year. China has 28 plants under construction, Russia has 11, and there’s even a small handful in Europe. Japan is not only restarting some of their idled reactors, but also approving construction of new nuclear plants.

In the wake of Fukushima, no countries announced plans to cancel new nuclear reactors, and several countries (UAE, Turkey, Jordan) announced plans to begin construction on their very first nuclear power plants. The United States is indeed closing a few old plants — Vermont Yankee operated for four decades — but we also have four new larger nuclear reactors under construction.

Renewables require a massive expansion of the grid, not its demise. Bittman imagines that renewables are like personal computers displacing mainframes, essentially freeing us from the grid, but this is the opposite of what the NREL study he cites actually claims. NREL’s study relies on a huge expansion and upgrade of the electrical grid, not its dismantling. Renewable energy like wind and solar, by their intermittent nature, require more grid infrastructure not less.

In Germany, for instance, the government is currently spending $25 billion on 2300 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines, and when the sun doesn’t shine (which is often the case in Germany) the country relies on the interconnected European grid to import electricity from other countries (like nuclear-powered France).

Renewables, on the other hand, are far from ready to replace fossil fuels in any country. Germany, in fact, is building new coal plants.

Nuclear receives far less subsidies than renewables. Bittman attacks nuclear subsidies, but they are far smaller than renewables subsidies. Since 1950, nuclear power has received $3.60 in federal subsidies for every megawatt-hour of electricity it has produced, compared to $1.50 for coal, $5.70 for gas, $6 for hydro, and over $100 for solar and wind. Germany has committed over $130 billion to solar subsidies since 2000, yet only receives 5 percent of its annual electricity from solar.

Renewables are far more dependent on subsidies than nuclear. Meanwhile, renewables are completely dependent on federal and state subsidies. When the federal PTC for wind expires, new wind projects plummet. And these are not loans; these are direct payments, tax credits and grants ($10 billion from 2009-2014). Wind and solar may be competitive with coal in some areas, but that’s including these massive subsidies. Renewables also receive many implicit subsidies like renewable portfolio standards, priority access to the grid, net metering, etc.

Utilities pay billions to insure their nuclear plants. What about insurance? Utilities are required to buy the maximum amount of insurance available and pay into an additional fund of $12.6 billion in the event of an accident. And while federal loans for nuclear power plants are quite new (only one has been accepted), new nuclear power projects are under construction in South Carolina sans federal loans.

Nuclear scales seven times faster than renewables. Bittman claims renewables can scale quickly while nuclear is slow — the opposite is the case: nuclear can be scaled seven times faster than renewables. One recent analysis examined how quickly countries could add energy from various sources over an 11-year period in terms of how much additional energy was added per person (MWh/person/yr). Sweden, France, and Belgium’s nuclear build-out were the fastest, adding 5-7 MWh/person/yr. What of Germany’s push into renewables over the last decade? It added just 1 MWh/person/yr of wind and solar over the same amount of time.

The only country that has decarbonized at a fast enough rate to meet climate targets was France during its massive nuclear build-out. It went from zero percent nuclear to 80 percent in 30 years.

Sweden voted in 1980 to phase-out nuclear power by 2010, but this plan was cancelled over concerns of climate change and the realization that renewables were not a feasible option. And while coal use is shrinking in the United States, it is because of cheap natural gas, not a valuation of externalities. 

No energy technology is perfectly clean, and solar panel production creates toxic waste. Bittman imagines solar is clean but the mining of materials used in solar panels is extremely toxic, and the production of PV solar panels produces more SO2 than when coal is burned (per unit of energy created). About 80 percent of European solar panels are manufactured in China, whose environmental and occupational protections may not be up to Bittman’s standards. In 2011, massive protests erupted in China after an accident at a solar panel factory resulted in a toxic waste spill.

Advanced nuclear reactors are being developed around the world. There have been a variety of designs built and tested over the decades, from salt-cooled to gas-cooled, pebble-bed to liquid fueled. In 1986, the US EBR-II plant performed a demonstration of its advanced passive safety features, where power was shut off, cooling ceased, and the reactor was able to shut-down and cool itself without any human or mechanical intervention. A similar test was performed with a gas-cooled reactor in China in 2004. The Superphénix plant in France – another sodium-cooled fast reactor that operated from 1986-97 – was 1200 MW, larger than most commercial nuclear power plants today. None of the examples above are “coulds.”

Since they use fuel much more efficiently, advanced reactors would lessen the need for uranium mining. Some new reactors can use nuclear waste as fuel or decommissioned weapons material, meaning there is much less need for new uranium to be mined. And while uranium mining can indeed be dangerous, it’s not nearly as dangerous or environmentally harmful as coal mining.

Antinuclear activists are one of the greatest threats to action on the climate. Bittman likely has no sense of the scale that’s required to deal with climate change. Consider that if a single 500 MW nuclear reactor is taken off the grid, over 100,000 solar home installations and 750 wind turbines would need to be installed in order to generate enough power to fill the void. Bittman fears the new nuclear craze, but what’s crazy, and scary, is his insistence that we shut down the development of new, advanced nuclear plants that have proven to be able to displace coal. As former NASA climate scientist James Hansen said, “The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed.”

Photo Credit: Renewables Delusions/shutterstock

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Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Sep 11, 2013 8:18 pm GMT

There are a multitude of discussions running in response to this article.  The basic issue presented by the author is if nuclear reactors will continue to be a viable energy source in the U.S. economy.  The historic trend would suggest no.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 11, 2013 10:42 pm GMT

According to what sources?

Have you analyzed the financials of Vogtle or Summer? Is modularity and advanced licensure expected to have no impact? Should we instead build coal plants or rely more heavily on inevitably volatile natural gas? What is your point exactly?

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 11, 2013 10:45 pm GMT

The much stronger climate initiatives that have emerged recently make the historic trend irrelevant as will small modular reactors which significantly decrease financial and safety risks for all those involved.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 11, 2013 10:53 pm GMT

CA has actually spent far more per MWh of solar PV than for nuclear, and its not even close. There is no data supporting the comment you made not even the report you provide. Nuclear has received more subsidy overall but it has been around longer and has provided many many times the energy to the state. 


Research UCS and their work on GMO. They aren’t a valid source of scientific information whatsoever.


It may seem counter-intuitive, but nuclear energy is man-kinds best tool for long-term prosperity.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 11, 2013 11:16 pm GMT

literally dozens of other well researched articles out like this one written around the time that the PTC was set to expire. 

Wind turbines require retransmission and land, both of which have real costs even if government grants cover them.

The variability of wind adds costs to grid operation.

energy from wind turbines is worth the marginal fuel savings it provides, ~4C/kWh, not 10c. 

perhaps the water savings it provides makes it worth more, I don’t really know, but globally speaking wind still relies on government intervention like every other clean energy source.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 11, 2013 11:29 pm GMT

Solar has less than 1/4 the capacity factor of nuclear, so it takes more than 4GW of PV capacity to create an equivalent amount of energy as a 1GW of nuclear capacity annually. 


in other words, the 66GW of Solar PV will create a roughly the same amount of energy as 12 typical reactors on an annual basis, and the output from the reactors is of course controllable and predictable allowing it to be seamlessly scaled in with existent grid infrastructure and at large penetrations.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 12, 2013 12:48 am GMT

They were probably over budget because of all the extra regulations. The UOCS told me that they are not interested in molten salt reactor either, yet I hear that a lot of physicist s agree that nuclear is the best way to go. I mean, how else are we to power a growing planetary civilization? I did some basic math last night and came to the conclusion that an all solar powered world would cost 15 dollars per watt. That’s 2 for the installation, 2.50 for 25 hours of storage at just 100 per kWh, assuming 75 percent efficiency requires about 5.3 total global solar installations, additional in order to have a some what reliable clean grid!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 12, 2013 1:27 am GMT

Steve, your reference is a perfect example of the cherry-picking and misquoting anti-nuclear activists must resort to in their attempt to discredit nuclear by any means possible.

Case in point: the author’s “zinger” at the end, in which he quotes nuclear physicist/Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz as remarking in a recent interview that “if these plants now under construction keep racking up huge cost overruns and delays, ‘it is very hard to see a future for nuclear power plants’ in the United States.”

Wow. I’m quite familiar with Dr. Moniz’s previous statements on nuclear, and that would be quite a shocker – if it was anything like what he actually said:

“Frankly, if they have cost overruns like some of the recent construction in Europe — Finland and France — if they have that kind of performance, I think it is very hard to see a future for nuclear power plants unless a new technology like small modular reactors becomes available in say, the next ten years.

If, on the other hand, they perform well, and the recent news – just in last few days actually, about cost and schedule performance has been on the positive side – if that happens, then a lot of the utilities, especially those in traditional regulated areas will start expressing a lot more interest. And for the future, we’re investing in trying to get licensing of these new small modular reactor designs, so that’s the next phase.”

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 12, 2013 1:28 am GMT

Guess what, storage is now large scale and economical. From 3.5MWH local indistrial storage to 60MWH plant being built in Japan.

DOE report on progress in VBR’s 2012

Wind Firming energy Farm. (this is a ZnBr flow battery)


Primus Power is deploying a 25 MW/75 MWh EnergyFarm in the Modesto Irrigation  District, located in California’s Central Valley. An EnergyFarm comprises an array of 20 kW EnergyCell flow batteries combined with off-the-shelf components and power electronics housed inside a standard shipping container. The modular design and operation will be field tested at Pacific Gas & Electric with support from Sandia National Laboratories
and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The EnergyFarm will displace a planned $73 million natural-gas-fired power plant intended to smooth (or firm) the output of intermittent wind and solar energy. The 25 MW EnergyFarm will deliver the same load balancing benefit as a 50 MW thermal plant and cost $56 million less than the thermal plant over 20 years.

Advantages over gas-fired plant:

No emissions
No water use
Less noise
Faster response time



Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 12, 2013 2:41 am GMT

Forgot to mention the necessity for NG peaker plants, to. Also, does anyone think that the UCS will go for 400,000 sq mi of total global solar? Just as with nuclear, permitting and regs will increase, especially since there really would be some sort of toxicity involved. Better than all out fossil fuels, but that is what all these environmental groups want… more fossil fuels… because they fight large scale “anything” (but FF’s).

Another factor to consider is the fact that the diffuse and intermittent nature of the collection device requires the cheapest energy inputs. Do you think that the increased costs of FF’s in 30 years will be justified by lower manufacturing cost s?

The most important consideration is…Will renewables even be able to provide the power to clean up the excess CO2 mess?

The UCS needs to get their priorities, as I have been able to figure out just by using common sense.

I HOPE I’M WRONG, that renewables are made DIRT cheap, storage too. There going to have to be in order to compete with a source one million times as energy dense!

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 12, 2013 3:22 am GMT

Total surface area of the earth. 57,308,738 sq mi.

exagerrated scenario, total solar PV, excluding all other sources (wind, water, biogas etc.. 400,000 sq. Mi.

Percentage covering the globe. ?  0.7%

the total impervious surface area(ISA) of the 48 states and District of Columbia is approximately 112,610 square kilometers [43,480 square miles] – rooftops, parking lots, roads, etc. Given that the US uses about 20% of the energy on the planet that would work out the US needing to cover an additional area of slightly above the same area of ISA .  Thus spake the exaggeration.

As far as NG peaker plants, Turns out for a 75MWh ZnBr flow battery system in a wind farm, is $56 million less than a 50 MW thermal plant over 20 years. And without using up any water. How much water? 200gal/MWH assuming a themost efficient combined cycle plant. That’s about 110 million gallons of water saved over 20 years by the battery plant. Nuclear, BTW, uses about 700 gal/MWh.


Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 12, 2013 3:42 am GMT

First of all you aren’t covering “hundreds of thousands” of sq miles with solar. That is a total exaggeration. In the US to use your scenario of 100% solar we’d need about 80,000 Sq. miles for domestic use. There are problems with that scenario of course.   For one you have other sources of energy – geothermal, tidal, biomass, hydro, and wind.  Funny enough you can put PV and wind over the same plot of land. You can put PV over a biomass plant. As it is about 43,000 sq. miles of the US are covered with impermeable surfaces such as homes, parking lots, roads, etc. So let’s say we cover up half of that or 20,000 sq miles. We’d only be covering 60,000 sq miles for solar. About half the size of Ohio.   But then again there is wind, including offshore wind. Maryland for instance can get more than 2/3 of its annual electricity from off shore wind. California can get a large amounts as well. the advantages i that offshore winds are more constant. The storage situation is intersting. We have pumped water storage of course and that takes up land. Batteries can be put above ground, Underground anywhere. So maybe we night cover a few thousand sq miles of land dedicated solely to solar. But definitely not hundreds of thousands.






Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 12, 2013 10:15 am GMT

hope yo don’t mind. Vertical readin is a bit of a pain.

George. Last point first.  All energy sources are subsidized. From coal to oil and gas to nuclear. Nuclear relies upon the Price Anderson Act. Without it, every nuclear plant in the country would shut down.  All power sources require transmission buildouts and land. I don’t see how that is unique to the wind industry. Look at how much land a coal fired power plant takes, including coal mining. As it is, land with windmills is leased for multiple uses including farming, grazing and even solar.Coal is a wasteland for many years.

I maintain my point which has not been refuted that wind is still viable even without the tax credit which is good for ony 10 years.The .10c/KWh at the Budweiser plant calculation above is the avoided cost of purchasing electricity from PG&E, which varies from 7 cents to 13.2c/kwh plus additional fees for usage. Foundation WindPower runs the windmill, pockets the federal and state tax credits and gets a piece of the cost avoidance in return for building and running the windmill. So Budweiser buys cheaper energy for 20 years. Lose the tax credit and FoundationWindpower will still stay in business but at reduced revenue, until PG&E raises its rates in a year and two then the tax credit benefits are a moot point. the rising utility price takes care of that.  Note that I did not include in my calculation the tax credit AND tax write off for the wind turbine. I had wanted to see what a totally unsubsidized look at the costs would be and it is still very viable from a business standpoint. The IRS sets the depreciation for windmills at 5 years. Quite substantial too as the tax avoidance is over 1.5 million dollars in those first 5 years if its a c-corporation, and a few hundred thousand more if it’s an S-Corporation. That’s a lot higher than the $70K they get in annual tax credits.

Variability only adds a small cost as in California we already have the gas turbines for peaking and auxilary power and the effect of wind, solar and other alternative sources is that they are on a lot less. California’s grid has been updated to utilize the current amount of variable sources. The variability is very predictable thanks to 5-7 day weather forecasts and the rather quick spin up time of 20 minutes for the gas turbines makes it very manageable. CAL-ISO had no problem handling the “variable” 62,700 MWh of wind and solar yesterday.   Already slated for construction is a 25MW/75MWh ZnBr redox flow battery system in Modesto that will allow USP like control of the power from a nearby wind plant. It will cost $50 million less than a comparable gas-turbine plant over a 20 year lifetime. VBRs like this are very low maintenance and have a minimum 10,000 cycle lifetime, roughlly 27 years so the cost savings will be much higher in the end.  A significant price advantage for renewables here.  Better than coal or nuke? No. But more desireable, and given California’s water situation – first year of drought, possibly equivalent or cheaper in a systemic analysis of all costs. Recall that nuclear needs up to 60,000 gal.MWh to cool off and that Texas, in the third year of a drought, has had to lower power output of its coal plants to deal with low water conditions. Only  a little, but enough to show how vulnerable thermal generation of electricity is to drought conditions. Solar and wind have no such vulnerabilities. As for base load, Once wind generation goes offshore it will start to replace some of the base load.

Finally, the take away quote from your link

Each major wind farm in America creates 1,079 jobs and can add tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and other benefits to the community in which it is located, according to two new reports from the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national not-for-profit environmental organization………..A new 250-megawatt wind farm will create 1,079 jobs in manufacturing, construction engineering and management, according to the NRDC report “American Wind Farms: Breaking Down the Benefits from Planning to Production.”  



Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 12, 2013 10:56 am GMT

That’s the thing, the PGE bite is at least 30%, so you don’t get 20 cents per KWh at peak times, you get maybe 2/3 of that in the late afternoon, and for more than 80% of the time, when the price is at 7 cents/hour you are getting 4-5 cents an hour. Then there are all the fees. You still pay transmission fees and nuclear plant decommisioning fees. Those are on my PG&E bill every month. So in the end, maybe you get 3-4 cents/KWh.  Even if you rely solely upon solar, you are still paying for grid and transmission infrastructure and nuclear. Grid stability as mentioned before is at this time not particularly problematic. CAL-ISO has had the California grid modernized to maintain grid stability. True the reduced use of fossil fuel generation pushes the amortization schedules.  There is a  20 minute ramp up for the current turbines whether they are on for 2 hours or 10 hours and if it is shorter, of course the efficiency drops. The fuel savings, however, dwarf the loss of efficiency. Also on the plus side, those turbines aren’t using up some very precious water. California is in the first year of an official drought but in reality has been in overdraft mode for more than 3 decades. Still another postive note is that most of the generated PV stays local in DG systems, so not much is transmitted through the grid, instead it reduces grid load during peak period, especially in A/C land, otherwise known as the Central Valley.

Part of California’s energy push is a widespread build out of storage and it is offering tax credits for that. As with PV and wind, a slow early build out. There are several plants operated by PG&E along with their pumped storage, the new 4MW/24MWh plant in San Jose and a 3 yr old NaS 2-MW /14 MWh installation up near Vacaville that is used for load shaping, renewables integration –mostly from the nearby solar plant, and ancillary services. Both are probably used for storing some of the base peak load at night.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 12, 2013 11:37 am GMT

But much of that future electrical will be renewable, not fossil based. Desalination need will be reduced as water draws to cool power plants are reduced.  Also, most transport will be recharging at night, during off peak times. We already have smart metering to adjust charging levels depending on grid conditions.

As for conservation, nope it can’t cure the problem but it can make a very large dent in domestic usage. Only 30% of homes have completely gone over to energy efficient lighting, I would guess that a similar percentage have a couple of low wattage bulbs and the rest are still using conventional lighting.   A single 20-watt compact fluorescent lamp used in place of a 75-watt incandescent will save about 550 kilowatt-hours over its lifetime.  The LED lighting will reduce total US energy use by up to 10% by the time it’s all built out. Maybe more as lighting accounts for 17% of total electricity use.

Since 1978, in the case of appliances, California has had an aggressive push on getting rid of old inefficient ones and replacing them using rebates and pushing manufacturers to increase appliance efficiency. By 1983, PG&E had to scrap 3-5 power plant construction plans. Since California has a huge market, many manufacturers started putting out more efficient appliances for the state and then built out to include other states. Today most if not all states have rebate programs. Look fro improved HVAC efficiencies, cool roofs in southern climes and a host of other programs that will make a significant dent in per capita use of power.

As for California being a blip compared to India. Both have 2 trillion dollar economies.  California uses about 3/8 the energy India does but with only 3% of of India’s population.  300GWH/ year is hardly a blip. The trend in the US and world wide, unfortunately, has been toward increased waste of total energy with increases in electrical generation and transportation. Finding ways to reduce daily commuter needs would go a long way to reversing that trend but that mean better land use planning and a host of other things.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 12, 2013 3:43 pm GMT

Marcus, guess what? At peak energy use in California your 60MWH battery would be dead in six seconds. Meaning it would only cost $33 billion, or roughly the state’s entire annual budget, to provide an hour’s worth of peak energy, meaning if the wind stops blowing for just one hour at maximum capacity you’re burning coal again.

The kind of “load balancing” you’re referring to is inconsequential compared to the kind of storage which is  required to make renewable energy practical. Please…solar panels and wind turbines are shiny, dangerous toys which increase coal consumption and are making the climate problem worse.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 12, 2013 3:59 pm GMT

Marcus, you’re throwing a lot of numbers around with a limited understanding of what they mean.

Turns out for a 75MWh ZnBr flow battery system in a wind farm, is $56 million less than a 50 MW thermal plant over 20 years.

What is your point here? The 75MWh battery is completely incapable of substituting for fossil fuel power when the wind stops blowing. This kind of misleading argument, whether intentional or not, doesn’t benefit anyone except wind turbine manufacturers.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 4:59 pm GMT

The global solar resource is many times greater than the global demand for energy, that is a fact.


But extracting that solar energy in a cost effective way, and providing it to the population centers around the earth in a manner that follows demand precisely enough to maintain constant voltage and frequency is a very difficult task from a technical and economical standpoint, which is why it isn’t done on a large scale anywhere in the world. Not one cityor even town exists that is completely powered by solar.

When batteries or solar are cost effective solutions you will see profit driven utilities adopt them rapidly, the fact that neither of these contributes much to global energy despite hundreds of billions in government subsidy globally in the past decade is direct evidence that they are not cost effective or practical solutions as of now.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 5:32 pm GMT

globally speaking we would need hundreds of thousands of miles to provide all of our energy needs by solar PV considering the projected rapid growth in energy demand among developing nations and including the land needed to mine raw materials for the trillions (yea you read that right) of required panels, the millions of miles of new transmission and conductors, millions of tons of aluminum racking, and the unfathomable numbers of battery banks. The amount of raw materials needed is enormous, even most advocates for PV are going to concede that it cannot alone power the globe or the average country when the economical and environmental impacts are considered..

So you are going to say we can do it with a combination of PV geothermal tidal offshore and inland wind biomass etc A La Mark Jacobson of Stanford. While technically possible the problem with that idea is that it totally collapses under any economic scrutiny. We live in a period of global capitalism, for the sake of economic viability it is paramount that the cost of energy for a given counrty is competetive with that of neighboring countries, which is why no country has adopted a really meaningful carbon tax as of yet. The cost of energy is also directly related to the standard of living of the general population in a country.

Geothermal, Tidal, Offshore wind, and solar PV are all much more expensive than inland wind and nuclear before considering storage and grid modification needed to incorporate them at 100% share.
The comprehensive costs of powering a country or city on 100% nuclear are lower than any other emission free energy source excluding expansion constrained hydro.

Humanity needs a clean energy source which can compete with fossil fuels in price if we want to limit global warming. Nuclear has done this in the past, and as far as efficiency goes it has the greatest room for improvement among all energy sources and therefore offers the most promise to deliver affordable clean energy on a global scale.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 5:37 pm GMT

well a thimble full of uranium has as much energy as a ton of coal, and when considering land and carbon impacts nuclear energy is considerably more environmentally friendly than PV according to the IPCC.

And of course spent fuel can be used in fast neutron reactors foregoing the need for mining altogether. The US has enough spent fuel inventory to power the country via fast neutron reactors for several centuries. Uranium can also be extracted from seawater.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 5:46 pm GMT

Actually utility scale solar is around $3300/KW installed here in the states, and around $2300/KW in Germany. Rooftop systems are considerably more expensive. And of course if you take out the 30% federal subsidy in the US and the even higher subsidy in Germany then the prices are not remotely competetive with conventional generation before even considering that solar is a variable source with real value equal only to the fuel savings it provides.

Aside from cost there are two issues with large battery banks that affect their viability:

Reliability and rate of charge/discharge.

Discharge rates of batteries limit the extent to which they can act as proxy for dispatchable generation. Flywheels, compressed air, or industrial size ultra-caps are more fitting solutions for utility scale storage in many scenarios.

Even if affordable battery storage exists implementing it into the grid is going to be far from straightforward.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 6:25 pm GMT

First of all, nobody is endorsing coal. Secondly, the assumption that replacing nuclear with wind or solar is a good thing is very flawed. California will not replace all of the clean energy that SONGS produced with wind or solar anytime soon – It would take 6 GW of wind turbines operating at 30% CF or 9.1 GW of solar PV operating at a 20% CF to completely displace the annual amount of energy (10% of all of CA’s energy) that SONGS produced. In 20+ years CA has installed 3.3 GW of solar and 5.4 GW of wind and of course interconnecting variable capacity requires more grid infrastructure modifications as time goes on. It will be a long time before the clean energy from SONGS is completely replaced, meaning more emissions, which is bad if you weren’t sure. The engineers overseeing the turbine replacement at the plant made a very costly mistake, but making the necessary investments to keep it online would have been better for the environment and more economical than other building new capacities of renewables at a scale that even approaches the size of SONGS.

Yes all energy sources receive subsidy, but Im guessing you dont quite understand the extent to which wind and solar receive subsidy in comparison to conventional sources:

“Variability only adds a small cost as in California we already have the gas turbines for peaking and auxilary power and the effect of wind, solar and other alternative sources is that they are on a lot less”

Using generating assets a lot less makes prices go up a lot. It is the same situation as lowering usage rates on ammortized manufacturing equipment. This is precisely why utility rates have gone up in every area where penetration of variable generation sources is significant.

I actually think inland wind is a legitimate way to cut emissions, but the way that a few wind turbines and their back up natural gas plants has kicked much larger capacities of nuclear off-line works against the goal of lowering emissions. Wind should be worked into energy markets in a fair manner, and technically speaking its value is really nothing more than the marginal fuel savings it provides – 4c/kWh (and perhaps the water savings it provides in drought stricken areas). So wind needs to get closer to 4c/kWh without such heavy dependence on subsidies to be viable in a free market.

Not all nuclear plants have large water requirements. The first US DOE funded small modular reactor from B&W, the Mpower reactor, will be air cooled.

Wind turbines require much greater transmission infrastructure than any other source due to the fact that they have low energy density and usually need to be located far away from population centers. In most cases conventional central power plants such as nuclear or natural gas can largely utilize existent transmission infrastructure.


George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 6:37 pm GMT

You should still pay transmission fees if you have a PV system. A PV system actively uses transmission as backup at all times.

“Also on the plus side, those turbines aren’t using up some very precious water”

Considering that a large portion of this capacity is idled on standby out of necessity I dont think that is true.

“Still another postive note is that most of the generated PV stays local in DG systems, so not much is transmitted through the grid”

Usage of transmission has negligible costs but fixed costs of said transmission are high. When PV system owners contribute less to the fixed costs of transmission that they rely on it makes the costs for other customers go up.

CA is doing a lot of things, including gradually increasing utility rates for its customer base.


George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 6:44 pm GMT

“But much of that future electrical will be renewable, not fossil based”

Marcus, this is not true at all, you are completely out of touch with the unfortunate situation of fossil fuel expansion annually. Every year global emissions and coal usage sees an enormous increase and this is projected to continue for decades without economically competetive alternatives.

Please do enlighten yourself a bit:

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 12, 2013 6:52 pm GMT

The US has been operating Gen I and II reactors for 50 years with no need to utilize Price-Anderson.

Gen III reactors are orders of magnitude safer in that they incorporate passive cooling systems that make the meltdown scenario in Fukushima an impossibility (btw the Onagawa reactor survived the Quake/Tsunami with no issues simply because the operators were not negligent) and the most of the upcoming Gen 4 SMRs will have none of the operational safety liabilities that the Gen I and Gen II reactors (with impeccable safety history) have.

I can tell by your commentary that you have little understanding of nuclear fission technologies in general, so why are you so quick to assume that they aren’t an option? Best to glean your information from scientific sources rather than the mainstream media.


Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Sep 13, 2013 12:00 am GMT

As an engineer for 4 Fortune 100 Corps, my career was defined by economies of scale concepts.  While smaller reactors will likely pull permits with less difficulty, smaller reactors will also increase the cost per kWh. 

I am not against nuclear energy, rather only the costs and regulations that must to go along with it.  I wrote an article 7 years ago suggesting that a few of the U.S. military bases should install and run reactors as they would be able to do so with far less expense than in the private sector as the security for the plants would be significantly off-set by the infrastructure of the bases.  I understand this direction is still being discussed.  During the Cold War, the U.S. airdropped very small reactors into the Canadian Klondike for base stations for the Strategic Air Command support.  Sanford Shuler at GE was the Project Engineer in the ’50’s.  That scale reactor is still common in the naval ships and subs so installation in bases would require virtually no R&D.

I expect that nuclear energy will be the last resort – even burning coal with still better emission scrubbers will be exhausted before society embraces nuclear. 

Then again, government management of energy projects have a poor track record.  I had the opportunity to review the project docs for the Nellis solar array.  When I looked up, the Chief Engineer of that project simply stated – 74 was the answer I was calculating (ROI in years for recovery).  That of course was a problem as the projected life cycle of the panels is less than 30 years.

The power of the media and the poor education of the public are a dangerous combination.  Frankly, I have stopped worrying about Climate Change as the human race is now facing a dark period where more than half of the world’s current population will likely cease to exist before the end of this century.  Energy production from coal or NG or nuclear will simply be less of an issue. 

Per your blog submissions, you gentlemen have sharp, well diciplined minds.  Please focus that brain trust at some worthwhile effort.  Life is short.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 13, 2013 2:34 am GMT

Bob, first of all, the entire battery is not supporting the grid. Second, California’s renewable energy mix is heterogenous – large and small hydro, solar, geothermal, biomass, biogass. It is not limited to wind.   That’s the kind of hyperbole that adds nothing to a discussion. The plant is for local area energy management as previously stated. Nothing else. As for solar and wind increasing coal consumption there has yet to be a study to prove that point.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 13, 2013 2:36 am GMT

Actually it will help substitute for the gas power plant it is replacing.  the point which you miss is that the facility is for local storage and local grid management.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 13, 2013 2:46 am GMT

What is it with you guys? Solar or wind is not a SOLE source of energy. They are PART of the energy mix. They also integrate nicel with the updated grid.

From “PG&E delivers some of the nation’s cleanest energy to our customers. And we are planning for the future by exploring new sources of renewable technologies. We are also investing in state-of-the-art, cleaner sources of fossil fuel-based power to meet growing demand.”

“We are aggressively adding more renewable energy to our power mix under California’s renewable portfolio standard and are well on our way toward 33 percent renewables by the end of 2020. We are investing in a range of clean energy resources such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and small hydro.”

February 24, 2009 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is getting into the solar business as an owner.The utility announced Tuesday a $1.4 billion plan to build, own and operate 250 megawatts of photovoltaic solar power plants – part of a 500-megawatt solar power initiative it hopes regulators will approve this year. With this move, PG&E joins fellow utilities Southern California Edison, Duke Energy and Public Service Electric and Gas Co. (PSE&G) in entering the solar power field as owners of their own plants

As noted earlier, PGE has already started investing in battery storage. This was added earlier this year.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 13, 2013 2:59 am GMT

Actually part of my university curricula included nuclear engineering and other energy production engineering. And economics, resource economics and political economics. And climatology.

The proof that the nuclear industry still needs P-A is that they lobbied heavily for its 20 year extension in 2005. FYI, the current mix of reactors is what is relevant here, not a future build out.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 13, 2013 3:01 am GMT

All new technologies start with baby steps. Storage is in baby steps mode but it is now priofitable enough to install PGE has one in Vacaville and is building a second in San Jose. Another one is slated for Modesto with constructioon starting shortly. .

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 13, 2013 1:59 pm GMT

With lower financing costs, lower licensure cost, less labor requirements and operational overhead, and less in field assembly and subsequent construction delay it is likely that SMRs will in fact be cheaper per kWh than conventional LWRs. And of course their scalability allows them to fit into many markets where the large LWR was just to big and expensive.

Working in the industry doesn’t make your opinion informed. Based on your commentary it doesn’t seem as though you’ve investigated the operational attributes of a single proposed SMR design.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 13, 2013 2:08 pm GMT

You made a comment about the scale of solar PV needed to power the globe and I responded that it wasn’t very feasible.

“We are aggressively adding more renewable energy to our power mix under California’s renewable portfolio standard and are well on our way toward 33 percent renewables by the end of 2020. We are investing in a range of clean energy resources such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and small hydro.”

This statement is false in terms of energy. CA is at 23% RE for electricity, much lower for overall energy.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 13, 2013 2:19 pm GMT

Youre entire response is strange.

Yes customers have been paying for these costs for 30 years, and including these costs in the overall cost of electricity from SONGS and it is still quite cheap especially for a clean energy source. 


People get confused when they hear that something costs a billion dollars because they simply dont understand the scale at which it creates energy annually. These costs in no way made SONGS uneconomic when it was running. Admittedly the problem with the steam generators was an economic plunder, but continuing to run the plant at 70% would have undoubtedly been the best option economically and environmentally.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 13, 2013 2:34 pm GMT

Having nuclear as part of university curricula is far from an adequate base of information to understanding how it fits into our energy mix. I never argued the Nuclear industry doesn’t want to maintain P-A as an ultimate insurance plan, I argue that pointing to it as a large subsidy for the nuclear industry is faulty because an accident in the US costing 50 billion as Fukushima did is unlikely based on 50 years of operating history, and becomes more unlikely each day with advancement in technology.


To the contrary what is relevant is what we do in the future. Taking existing capacities of operational generation of any type off-line prematurely is uneconomic in most scenarios. From your comments you seem completely unaware that coal power generation continues to see the largest capacity additions globally on an annual basis, and that emissions continue to rise each and every year. Sure wind and PV can be part of the energy mix, and possibly some expensive battery storage too, but if you don’t understand the importance of nuclear energy in reducing emissions in an economically acceptable and realistic way then you have some more research to do.

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on Sep 13, 2013 3:55 pm GMT

I disagree that RE “takes up more land” than nukes.  Wind farms are also used as agricultural land. The footprint of a wind turbine is, what, about 1 meter squared? 

Solar farms can be sited on desert lands that grow nothing.

When do you think the San Onofre site will be available for picnics?

jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on Sep 13, 2013 3:59 pm GMT

Before wind and solar came down in cost, nukes were the only game in town, as far as low carbon energy was concerned. Now, that is not true.  That is why they are doubling every 6 years. 

For example, in Minnesota , Xcel Energy is signing power purchase agreements with wind developers for 2 cents/kWh.

Remember back in the day when the nuclear guys said that nuclear was going to be “too cheap to meter”?
(Well nuclear for the past thirty years has turned out to be “too expensive to matter”) – sorry about that Jim Hansen and Stewart Brand- you need to double down on your RE homework assignments.

But the joke on the street in Minnesota is that 2 cents/kWh makes wind nearly too cheap to meter.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 13, 2013 5:08 pm GMT

Jan, I take exception to the myth that wind’s impact on the environment is minimal, or that only places which are “available for picnics” need to be conserved. Wind’s impact is huge – a drive through California’s San Gorgonio or Tehachapi passes would make that clear to you – and it’s ugly. The footprints of the towers themselves are miniscule compared to the miles of transmission lines which must be erected to support them. San Onofre’s footprint of .5miles2 is dwarfed by the hundreds of square miles of desert garbage you see below, which will never be “decommissioned” even though much of it is non-functional. It was installed thirty years ago because of income tax breaks – and similarly, new wind turbines are the result of the generous Production Tax Credit (if you want proof, merely take a look at what happens to new investment when the PTC disappears).  Like the tax scams of the 1980s, the PTC is on what we’ll be able to blame a new generation of rusting hulks in coming decades.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 13, 2013 5:59 pm GMT

Jan, Minnesota relies on dirty coal for more than half of its electricity and ranks 23rd in the country in per capita CO2 emissions (it would be a lot worse were it not for a 22% share of zero-carbon nuclear). So it’s ironic that residents feel entitled to joke about a 17% contribution from wind.

Do they fall back on coal power when the wind dies, or do they turn off their flatscreen TVs and refrigerators? In that case I would be truly impressed.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 13, 2013 7:51 pm GMT

Jan, in addition to Bob’s good input below the land is distrubed for transmission lines and the raw material requirements for wind energy are much greater. Factor in energy storage for large penetrations of wind energy and the environmental footprint becomes worse.


On top of that wind turbines have affect on regional winds, and if scaled up enough can even have negative impact on local and regional climates:

If we utilize wind power to its practical limits (which would lead to ugly landscapes in the opinion of many) we would still be in need of a lot of energy. Without a breakthrough in other clean energy sources we need nuclear for the sake of the climate whether you like it or not.



Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Sep 14, 2013 3:10 pm GMT

It is the age-old discussion between centralized vs. distributed ie; mainframes vs. distributed server arrays or big box stores vs. the corner hardware or even WalMart vs. 7-Eleven.  Both can be successful.

Typically the cost savings is radical – factors in favor of economies by scale. Can you purchase anything in a 7-Eleven for less $$ than in a WalMart?

Having worked in the industry as an Analyst does make me an expert as I was crunching the numbers for a nuclear reactor for the largest public utility in the world and managed data collections for the Yucca Mt. Nuclear Waste Facility for 4 years.

Every energy source has thresholds – typically today and for the past several decades – that is achieved per plant at 1Gw – thus the historic engineered/financial target.

So in the end, the SMR’s will likely make some headway where larger plants are not welcome, but they will cost more and will show a smaller profit than the LWR’s.  Dedicate a few months of your life and review all the document and report submissions for the NRC.  I have.  The cost of the actual reactor is a surprisingly small portion of the total cost of the facility.

I am meeting with the Chief of Staff for the DoE next Friday, she is a nuclear waste expert, I will make inquiries as to her projections.  She is currently in the state of WA spending $2M/day working hard trying to deal with 5% of the nuclear waste still haunting our nation from the Manhattan Project (1942-1946).  She stated that per the current process and program, the contractors will have all the nuclear waste material from the Manhattan Project completely “contained” by 2140 @$100+B.

This article paints an interesting picture for nuclear in France.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 13, 2013 8:16 pm GMT

Jan your contribution here will continue to be limited until you educate yourself on the basics of electrical generation. A generator asset such as wind or solar PV that has non-dispatchable and unpredictable output is significantly less valuable to a grid network than assets that are dispatchable and predictable. There are many reasons for this, but the primary ones are that variable generators create capacity redundancy and reduce usage rates and efficiencies of the essential generators they rely on for backup. The comprehensive economics are far more complicated than the $/kWh sticker price advertised for wind, and it is well known that without the generous PTC subsidy the US wind industry would mostly collapse.

Also a PPA does not reflect the total LCOE of a generation source, especially wind power which by and large has land and transmission costs covered by utilities and/or the state who are incentivized to do so by renewable portfolio standards. The average total LCOE of wind power is below nuclear, but the comprehensive cost of creating an equivalent amount of energy from wind including its impact on the grid as a whole is above the cost of a nuclear plant.

Wind and nuclear will undoubtedly co-exist, but without an affordable storage medium or a public willing to clutter the landscape with turbines the contribution of wind energy  to the grid will remain below 20% for the nation as a whole leaving a lot of fossil generation to be offset if we are worried about emissions. Without a breakthrough in other energy sources nuclear is the best option whether you like it or not.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 13, 2013 11:26 pm GMT

Total surface area is like 4x. I’m talking just (about) 1% for 400,000sq miles of LAND (close enough)! Actually, in order to provide as much power as an average American uses FOR EVERYBODY, it may even be more!

I’m being approximate… If you add in all the extra solar collection needed for storage… and then all the extra needed for the inefficiency of that storage… well, you should get the picture (as for why so much land would be required)… This is why we want very cheap batteries, because that would entail less than half of the solar “field” required by heat storage (and its just 33% efficicent steam generators if heated by concentrating mirrors).

That 75MWh “battery” should cost about 10 cents/Wh, or about 7.5 million, as long as it lasts for 30 years. If it costs any more than that (100/kWh) then “we’re” getting ripped off! Shees, an ebay battery is about $2/Ah, meaning that it costs about $40 for a Chinese 20Ah twelve volt. 20 x 12 = 240 watt hours. $40 / 240 = just 16 cents for a “retail” customer… shipped!

Wouldn’t be much easier to promote advanced nuclear? By advanced, I mean atmospheric pressure (no blow ups), less wastes (just fission products) and higher temps (meaning less water or even air cooled).


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 13, 2013 11:36 pm GMT

To me, these are still just trivial little green things. I will flip over backwards, thogh, if a system of batteries could be made to entirely replace 90% of ALL the fossil fuels we are burning… for (almost) just as cheap!

We’re gonna NEED these batteries, not necessarily for utility scale storage, but for industrial scale equipment batteries (and for the cars and trucks, too). Not because nuclear can’t provide the process heat to make (carbon free) ammonia fuels, but just as another economic stimulus to drive down the price of that would be ammonia infrastructure!

After MUCH consideration, nuclear is the ONLY source that can keep up with everybody and their kids (and all those in the un developed countries, too) and power down global warming, provide power for (all out) space exploration, to build GIANT buildings and large 3d cities, etc without relying on combustion. In short, to fulfill the dreams of 10,000,000,000 people!

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 13, 2013 11:46 pm GMT

I am here to promote nuclear, precisely so we don’t have to exhause our fossil fuel source on “mere” combustion! Nuclear is 1,000,000x better than FF’s…

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 14, 2013 12:03 am GMT

Hate to use the vernacular but what part of “well on our way toward 33 percent renewables by the end of 2020.” don’t you get? They are not talking about today which has 15.7% RE but the goal for 2020 of 33%. That goal is very feasible.Your criticsm is 7 years too early.

RE needs to increase by an averge of 2.5% per year linearly until 2020. More likely the increase weill be getting exponential as RE output for solar is more than doubling (about 2.5x this year so far), wind is increasing but more slowly – about every 3 years.  Output in solar went from 1GW a year go to as high as 2.5GW. Which means the 2600GWH  of solar in 2012  will probably be above 6GWH. With solar more than doubling each yearand wind poer increasing as well, RE should reach 100,000GWH by 2020.  BTW, California has another goal, 1.3 GWh of Grid Storage by 2020.That may or may not be enough to handle the solar and wind RE.  There’s also hookin gup charging cars to teh grid and either drawing power from or charging as the grid needs. There’s a lot of new things out there. For most of the past 35 years, California has exceeded almost every conservation and production goal that has been set. No reason to see that change.



Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 14, 2013 12:07 am GMT

I would half agree. Nuclear will definitely be needed for baseload for at least the next 50 years if not for as long as we can. However, current industry practices are, let us say, less than stellar. The shutdown of the San Onofre plant is a paean to toal incompetence from corporate on down. SMR’s I think area  better way to go.


Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 14, 2013 12:26 am GMT

George, PV and wind are both dispactchable and have been for years in the California energy grid. Solar and wind are not exactly unpredictable as we have 5 day weather forecasts which are pretty accurate and thus the scheduling of operations of NG plants that are the “backup” a(lthough I think partners is more appropriate) is fairly easy to do.

The PTC subsidy is not as generous in the first 5 years of operation as the straight line 5 year depreciation is. At 2 cents a KWH the PTC only lasts for 10 years. Most windmills are rated for 20+ years. So without the PTC the ROI for a windmill is shoved down a couple of years but there is still a significant ROI. You also have to include utility rate increases that in a couple of years make the PTC more of a moot issue. A 2 cent increase in local rates is as good as a PTC in terms of cost avoidance or distribution. Wind is econimical. Live with it.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Sep 14, 2013 12:27 am GMT

Not true at all.  Biodiesel is the only scalable, environmentally friendly, economically viable and truly sustainable fuel to replace petroleum AND baseload power from coal and NG. 

Robert U. Ayres has identified concepts of the inter-dependencies of nature – biological, mineral, energy conversion, … and collectively assigned the label “Industrial Metabolism“.  We can learn from these inter-dependencies and cycles as they provide solutions to many of our current challenges.

When raising our awareness to the level of Industrial Metabolism, EV’s, batteries, nuclear, …, do not contribute in any way to the natural flow of the systems of our planet.  Rather the minerals necessary for their manufacture/production are being “burned”.  

Biodiesel and baseload power from biomass are part of the natural order.

It really is that simple. 

I also suggest you read the research papers coming out of ASPO (Peak Oil). 

Please research Dr. Colin Campbell (Ph.D., Oxford Geologist – Energy Adviser to the IMF and dozens of nations – his long and celebrated career virtually defined petroleum exploration). One interviewer mentioned the challenge of food production per the rising cost of petroleum to feed the current 7 billion world population as it grows to 9 billion. Dr. Campbell’s response was to state that his projection was a total world population of 3.5 billion by the end of this century. The interviewer was dumb founded.  How does a current 3.5 billion population mass cease to exist in 80 some-odd years?  Resources wars, famine, natural disasters, …

Dr. Campbell writes:  Despite the uncertainties of detail, it is now evident that the world faces the dawn of the Second Half of the Age of Oil, when this critical commodity, which plays such a fundamental part in the modern economy, heads into decline due to natural depletion. A debate rages over the precise date of peak, but this rather misses the point, when what matters — and matters greatly — is the vision of the long remorseless decline that comes into sight on the other side of it. The transition to decline threatens to be a time of great international tension. Petroleum Man will be virtually extinct this Century, and Homo sapiens faces a major challenge in adapting to his loss.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 14, 2013 1:23 am GMT

Marcus, as far as business goes, the handling of San Onofre was brilliant. SCE will be able to bill Southern California ratepayers for $13 billion to decomission SONGS and construct new carbon-emitting plants to take its place – carbon that will be the equivalent of an extra 1.6 million automobiles on the road.

Because of ignorant antinuclear activists California wholesale electrical prices are going through the roof – they’re up 59%, and no doubt our carbon intensity is higher as well. This was nothing more than a maintenance issue – a turbine was leaking 80 gallons of low-level irradiated water every day into an area which never got outside the plant. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was prepared to replace the faulty steam turbine for free – it was under warranty and would have taken 6-8 months – but once the antinuclear Hysteria Brigade got wind of it they started pulling their hair out and filing lawsuits, and SCE decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. They cashed out.

These are points you won’t find on the Greenpeace, Sierra Club, or Union of Concerned “Scientists” websites. CA needs their concern like it needs higher rates or a hole in the head, and the world needs their concern like the extra 8 million tons of carbon every year which they’ve generously donated to its atmosphere.


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