This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


Why we Need CCS - Part 5: Bridge to a Sustainable Energy Future

Schalk Cloete's picture
Research Scientist Independent

My work on the Energy Collective is focused on the great 21st century sustainability challenge: quadrupling the size of the global economy, while reducing CO2 emissions to zero. I seek to...

  • Member since 2018
  • 1,002 items added with 389,260 views
  • Jul 22, 2014


  • CCS together with bio-energy form an essential bridge towards a long-term sustainable energy future. This bridging strategy becomes abundantly clear in all IPCC mitigation scenarios. 
  • Considering the great growth ambitions of the developing world together with the recommendations of climate science, neglecting these bridge technologies can lead to disastrous longer-term consequences. 
  • The pursuit of more ideologically attractive clean energy options (renewables and nuclear) as a primary climate change mitigation mechanism is no longer an option and will arguably do more harm than good in the long run. 


Many developed world citizens participating in the energy and climate debate still appear to hold the belief that wind/solar or nuclear energy represent the best solution for the 21st century sustainability crisis and should be made the primary global energy priority ASAP. On the other hand, CCS and bio-energy are much less popular options that are often dismissed without putting much thought into the matter. Under more careful analysis, however, these less ideologically attractive clean energy options quickly emerge as the most logical solution to the global conundrum of massive developing world growth ambitions within a very tight CO2 budget.

It is fully understandable that people who have lived their entire lives in fossil-fueled developed world luxury would strongly advocate wind/solar or nuclear-dominated decarbonization pathways. Fossil fuels have already given us an enormous assortment of productivity-enhancing technology and infrastructure which allow us to use a very small portion of our disposable income on basics like energy. From this highly privileged viewpoint, it becomes very easy to entertain visions of not-so-distant futures dominated by distributed wind/solar power zipping along perfectly coordinated super-smart grids or an essentially unlimited supply of clean and dispatchable nuclear energy taking human civilization to the next level.

Unfortunately, however, the objective reality is that, barring a number of incredible technological breakthroughs, these visions are badly incompatible with the recommendations of climate science. This fifth and final part of the CCS series will take a closer look at the reasoning behind this statement and further build the case for a technology-neutral approach which would naturally favour the bridge technologies of CCS and bio.

The developing world

As described in a previous article on the matter, the developing world may well emit triple the amount of CO2 of the developed world a mere two decades from now (see below). It is also worth noting that this emission pathway is calculated assuming highly optimistic reductions in CO2 intensity (CO2 per unit GDP) of about 3% per year. In the previous decade, the world managed reductions of a mere 0.4% per year.

Exxon CO2 projection

The challenge becomes very clear when one considers that the 6 billion (and counting) developing world citizens essentially want a similar period of industrialization and increases in material consumption as the developed world enjoyed in the previous century. There are some key differences though: 1) the scale of the expansion will be at least one order of magnitude greater, 2) cheap conventional fossil fuels (especially oil) is approaching supply constraints and 3) climate change is now a very important factor. When considering that the world is already in a stage of severe ecological overshoot (see below), this presents a grave problem.


There are numerous reasons for encouraging the development of the developing world, chief of which is the elimination of the typical cycle of poverty where people born into large and poor families do not get access to proper education and end up producing large uneducated families of their own. For example, the projected quadrupling of the African population over the course of the 21st century (below) may well be an ecological and humanitarian disaster in the making, especially considering the potentially severe impacts of climate change on African biocapacity.

Projected population growth by region

Economic development is the best solution for curbing developing world population growth (see this article for example). Industrialization, urbanization and the resulting rapidly increasing demand for more educated workers has been proven to rapidly reduce fertility rates to levels below replenishment (e.g. Europe and Japan). We therefore have little choice other than encouraging a rapid and ecologically damaging expansion in developing world economic activity. In theory, we could do this slower and cleaner (although this would probably be politically impossible), but this will likely come back to haunt us in the form of further population pressure on an already full planet.

The role of coal in developing world growth

As shown below, nations almost exclusively begin the process of industrialization with coal. There are some very obvious reasons for this: coal is cheap, reliable, simple, versatile and often locally available in abundance. These properties make coal several times more rapidly scalable than any other alternative in regions of the world where economic development is prioritized much higher than environmental protection (almost all developing nations). Those who do not understand these priorities are encouraged to visit a typical developing world slum or spend a month or so trying to live on 10 times less disposable income.

Dominant fuel transition

Yes, we have many alternatives to coal, but they are nowhere near coal when it comes to fueling rapid industrialization. Capital costs of nuclear energy in China are about triple that of coal, implying that coal capacity can be expanded at roughly triple the pace of nuclear. Coal also has a multitude of direct industrial applications (almost half of Chinese coal is used directly in industry), adding another factor of two into the potential scaling rate. When also considering the value of the simplicity of coal in developing nations with large uneducated workforces, coal becomes roughly an order of magnitude more rapidly scalable than nuclear.

As an example, even though nuclear has expanded very impressively in China and India in recent years, the pace of expansion is still about 50 times smaller than coal in absolute terms. As an illustration of this fact, the coal and nuclear energy consumption rates in China and India are plotted below (based on BP data) where it is clear to see that the ratio of coal/nuclear consumption has remained consistently high over the past decade of rapid industrialization.

China India Coal Nuclear comparison

Wind/solar, in turn, are again several times less scalable than nuclear. Yes, in developed nations, nuclear is very expensive, takes many years to license and construct and faces great societal resistance, thereby making it less attractive than wind/solar at present. For the developing world (where the vast majority of new energy infrastructure is being constructed), however, the situation is very different. Nuclear capacity is only about twice as expensive as wind/solar capacity, implying that, when adjusted for capacity factor, it is at least two times cheaper. And then, of course, it must be mentioned that nuclear, unlike wind/solar, is a dispatchable technology that can be seamlessly integrated into tried and tested centralized electricity networks that will remain mandatory to power the rapidly growing megacities of the developing world for many decades into the future.

This brief analysis should make it clear that nuclear or wind/solar is not going to power 7% economic growth rates in the developing world. Unless we see some enormous shale gas expansion, this rapid growth demanded by billions of developing world citizens will continue to come primarily from coal.

Emissions lock-in and overshoot

The developing world will still require several decades of rapid economic growth before approaching the point where further increases in material consumption no longer translate into significant increases in happy life years (a point already reached by the rich world as shown below based on data from the Happy Planet Index).

Happy life years vs GDP per capita

As discussed above and in a previous article, this rapid economic expansion will continue to be driven by fossil fuels, primarily coal, thus resulting in continuously increasing CO2 emissions into the foreseeable future. Due to this simple trend, the world will have locked in all allowable emissions for the “fairly safe” 450 ppm target within the next 3 years and will probably overshoot this target sometime in the 2030’s. This implicitly implies that that, if climate science is correct, we will need to achieve rather impressive retroactive mitigation from existing infrastructure as well as some enormous negative CO2 emissions over the course of the 21st century. This will be the role of the bridge technologies: CCS and bio.

Building bridges

To illustrate the importance of bridge technologies, the IPCC has mapped out multiple decarbonization pathways on a very interesting tri-axis graph (shown below). It is abundantly clear that each and every scenario achieving CO2 concentrations in the range of 430-530 ppm first proceeds from unabated fossil energy to CCS and bio before making the turn up to the ideologically attractive future of nuclear and renewables. If climate science is correct, this really is the only viable path forward.

Decarbonization pathways

Considering the wide scatter that usually typifies the IPCC scenarios (something which is understandable considering the great uncertainties involved in forecasting global CO2 emissions almost one century ahead), the unanimous trend in the figure above really should send a very strong message. All mitigation scenarios resulting in CO2 concentrations deemed to be “reasonably safe” by the current scientific consensus on climate change first head to the right (CCS and bio) before turning upwards (nuclear and renewables).


Considering the enormous growth ambitions of the developing world and the very tight emissions budget prescribed by climate science there can be very little doubt that CCS and bio-energy must play a central role in the global energy future during the 21st century. Directly pursuing the ideologically attractive end-goal of a zero-carbon nuclear and renewable energy system is not a feasible strategy to keep global emissions within reasonably safe limits and a CCS+bio bridge towards this end-goal is clearly prescribed in all IPCC mitigation scenarios.

This is a vitally important point for all renewable/nuclear advocates to understand. Yes, the long-term future must be dominated by sustainable energy sources such as gen IV nuclear and wind/solar power, but advocating nuclear or wind/solar as a primary strategy for rapid CO2 mitigation can do more harm than good in the long run. In particular, ongoing technology-forcing of wind/solar power at the expense of much more efficient technology-neutral approaches will only serve to lock in additional unabated fossil fuel infrastructure and have almost no direct impact on global emissions due to the price-driven rebound effect. If climate science is correct, such a scenario can be nothing short of disastrous in the longer term.

Advocates should therefore be very careful when marketing renewables and nuclear energy as primary climate change mitigation mechanisms. Pushing for preferential treatment of these sources is at least just as detrimental to the longer-term sustainability of our planet as it is beneficial. Yes, there are good arguments for wind/solar and nuclear power, clean air and energy security probably being the two most important ones, but when it comes to climate change mitigation, these approaches fall far short of the less ideologically attractive alternatives of CCS and bio.

Finally, it is vitally important for developed world citizens to realize that these side benefits of solar/wind and nuclear are still of low importance in developing nations where disposable incomes remain around one order of magnitude smaller than in the developed world. In other words, the practicality, reliability and scalability of coal is still valued much higher than the air pollution it causes. Even climate change is a matter of less concern in the developing world since getting rich as quickly as possible is probably the best defence that these billions of people have against an increasingly hostile climate system. As an example, China is now starting to trade increased CO2 emissions for decreased air pollution through very large scale synthetic natural gas

It is fairly safe to say that nothing will stop the 6 billion (and counting) developing world citizens from pursuing rapid economic growth and, currently, there are no alternatives that even come close to challenging fossil fuels as the primary energy source behind this rapid industrialization. The choice is therefore simple: finally get pragmatic about climate change (scrap all technology-forcing policies for a true technology-neutral approach) or pray that climate science is grossly in error (on the pessimistic side).

Schalk Cloete's picture
Thank Schalk for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member
Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jul 22, 2014

Thanks Schalk. I wish I had more time or youth to be more objective and scientific. Please instead accept subjective perceptions from a once upon a time Biophysicist.

To reply to the “where is an existing CO2 dump?” challenge, I reply to take a drive from Duluth to St. Paul Minnesota on interstate 35. Those countless trees make a car look very small.

I have nothing against wind/solar/nuclear. But I have trees down everywhere, just like road crews, just like power line crews, just like fire fighters throughout the US.

Personally, I would greatly prefer programming my new Raspberry Pi microcontroller in some flavor of Linux using TCL or Freepascal. Then people would think I’m a smart innovator on the leading edge and I could be a pompous ass instead of mosquito food.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Jul 22, 2014

Hi Rick;

Do you suggest cutting all those trees on I-35 down, hauling them to the desert southwest, and burying them to prevent their carbon from being recycled into the atmosphere?

What will that cost in dollars and emissions?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 22, 2014

Schalk, I see dots which remain unconnected on the way to your conclusion that “advocating nuclear…as a primary strategy for rapid CO2 mitigation can do more harm than good in the long run”:

  • CCS is unproven at a scale which might provide any significant relief. In short, it may not be effective at all.
  • Any significant reliance on “bio” will starve more people than it will save.
  • From a thermodynamic and resource standpoint, the potential for nuclear-powered synthesis of both liquid and solid hydrocarbon fuels from non-fossil, ambient carbon is unlimited.
Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 22, 2014

The immensity of the nuclear scaleup effort (and the associated electrification of everything) that will be required to achieve the 430-530 ppm scenarios is almost beyond imagination. Given that nuclear is the only energy source to have actually declined over the course of the 21st century (while coal use exploded), I would not get my hopes up. 

That being said, I’m all for nuclear and really hope that new designs live up to expectations, but it remains a capital intensive technology which is limited to new infrastrucutre for electricity production with a long history of strong societal resistance and cost escalations. For these reasons, none of the mainstream rapid decarbonization pathways (e.g. IEA & IPCC) consider a leading role for nuclear. For example, the IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2014 report gives the breakdown of CO2 avoidance towards the 2 deg C scenario as follows:

Efficiency: 33%

Fuel switching: 10%

Power generation efficiency: 2%

CCS: 14%

Renewables: 34%

Nuclear: 7%

However, this is under the highly unlikely scenario of an idealized globally coordinated CO2 mitigation effort starting immediately and it only extends up to 2050. If climate science is correct and the world is eventually forced to commit to the 2 deg C scenario, the emissions pathway will be one of retroactive emissions cuts and large overhoot – a pathway where the unique attributes of CCS really come to the fore as described in my previous articles here and here

These longer-term pathways are perhaps best illustrated in the latest IPCC report. Take a look at Figure 7.10 here for a clear graphical representation of three different projected energy technology portfolios. 

About the discount rate, I will be very surprised if nuclear ever gets the preferential treatment of solar PV. Solar is ideologically extremely attractive to the general public while nuclear is still viewed negatively. I don’t like this any more than you do, but it is the reality we have to deal with. The chances that preferential treatment of nuclear (similar to PV) takes off any time soon therefore appear to be extremely low.

In theory, since electricity capacity in China is expanding at a rate of about 10% p.a., new power infrastructure should be discounted at a 10% rate + a substantial risk premium. Underpricing of financial capital will lead to the uneconomical deployment of technologies that require high up-front investments of materials, energy and expertise, thereby slowing down deployment and hurting economic growth (and the ability to make ever increasing investments in future energy infrastructure). 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 22, 2014

As we have discussed before, CCS already stores CO2 on a multi-Mt per year scale. Sure, on a global scale this is not much, but it is good considering that CCS obviously cannot compete with unabated fossil fuel combustion without a CO2 price and CCS does not have the ideological appeal of renewables. 

The current status of CCS deployment is summarized in the latest Energy Technology Perspectives report referenced in my comment below as follows:

“As of end-2013, four large-scale CCS projects are in operation and have captured and stored approximately 55 MtCO2 in total. In addition, four large-scale enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects that demonstrate elements of CO2 capture, transport and storage entered operation in 2013, bringing the number of projects using anthropogenic CO2 for EOR to eight. Construction of nine large-scale projects with combined potential to capture and store an additional 14 MtCO2 per year by 2016 is proceeding in Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Among these are two of the first projects built in the electricity sector. An additional 15 projects are in advanced stages of planning; if built, they could contribute an additional 29 MtCO2 per year.”

About bio-energy, I share your skeptisism, but keep in mind that a very large carbon negative BECCS rollout can be delayed to mid-century, so we have lots of time to figure something out (perhaps along algae or microbial pathways). 

From a thermodynamic viewpoint, making hydrocarbons from nuclear energy is more inefficient than CCS (about half the exergy is lost as opposed to 10-25% for first generation CCS). And that is under the assumption that you can get sufficiently concentrated “ambient carbon” for free on a truly enormous scale. Power-to-methane operations using atmospheric CO2 generally have thermodynamic efficiencies around 40%. It would be worse for liquid and solid hydrocarbons. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jul 22, 2014

Hi Bill. No I would never suggest that. Pretty simple really; prevent forest fires and use the energy for useful work instead.

On a different trajectory, today I learned the Raspberry Pi Linux has Freepascal and XForms library (libforms2) for download. I did a translation of the XForms C functions to Freepascal some years ago and thought I was nuts building obscure on obscure on obscure. Kind of like liquid crystal electrodynamics; who ever thought the old cathode ray tube TV would disappear? The internet saved a lot of CO2, and a $35 linux computer using 700mAmps @ 5V has energy implications. TCL/TK/iWidgets even works on RPi.

Amazing opportunities out there.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 22, 2014

Schalk, with the world generating something on the order of 15GTC/year a potential of even 100MT/year is not encouraging. We all throw our bets down and wait to see what happens, and I’m not going to write it off. On the other hand, as you know, I am extremely skeptical that accurate verification will be possible and that fraud will make it a futile pursuit.

Here’s a question for you: which is worth more, coal or the profit potential of sequestering its emissions? If the second is worth more, there is an incentive to buy coal and burn it just to profit from sequestration. How will a product with this limited profit potential attract investment?

Making ethyl alcohol from power plant emissions using nuclear energy is about 50% efficient. Gasoline and solid fuels are obviously less, but efficiency is not as critical as you might expect. By quadrupling the world’s reactor fleet, we could generate enough synfuel to replace every drop of road fuel on the planet with existing power plant emissions for feedstock.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 23, 2014

Nice piece Schalk,

The key to making CCS workable is to drive up the value of the CO2 as a commodity rather than just disposing of it as a waste product. Utilization of CO2 makes CCS into CCUS and drives the business models and helps justify the expense. Ironically, the best use is to produce more hydrocarbons, both oil and gas. EOR is already an established industry, but there is big potential in coal bed methane, shale, and methane hydrates as well. Sticking the CO2 back in the ground to help produce energy amounts to a form of CO2 recycling. Rather than continue exploring ever more difficut, expensive and sensitive locations for new oil discoveries we can use enormous quantities of CO2 in the fields we already know about to produce oil and gas for centuries, simultaneously adddressing energy security and carbon emissions.

It is very interesting to listen to the oil guys talk CO2-EOR, they describe their industry as being CO2 constrained, that they can’t possibly get enough, that CO2 is “a magical fluid” “with remarkble properties” for producing oil and gas . Their comments stand in stark contrast to the typical commentary of CO2 as pollutant.

Personally, I don’t think society ever stops using hydrocarbons, they are and remain the master resource and the backbone of the industrial revolution. Hydrocarbons are used in such an incredible variety of products it is difficult to calculate. This is not to minimize the dangers of pollution and climate change but to recognize the benefits as well as the costs. Wind, solar and nuclear all have their roles to play and all have their costs and benefits as well, but none of them exist without hydrocarbons to manufacture the raw materials needed to build them.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 23, 2014

The primary factor pushing up nuclear costs is the low plant build rates.  As described in this remarkable paper, nuclear plants require only half the steel and concrete per unit energy produced as coal plants, and an order of magnitude less than wind power!

With much higher build rates, we’ll have not just competition but also deeper experience in the construction of nuclear plants – that’s where the money is. It is not the monopolies that run the plants that make them expensive (nuclear operating costs are much lower than for fossil fuel plants, due to the low cost of uranium).

With higher build rates, the industry will have more leverage with the government to curtain anti-nuclear regulation.  Jess Jenkin’s new article mentions how regulation is used by emcumbent players to serve their own interests (for example, by slowing down competitors), based on “economic theory of regulation”.

Distributed generation in inherently more expensive than centralized generation, due to lack of economy of scale.  I’ve seen no evidence that regulated public utilities which operate as monopolies sell energy for more than the distributed energy cost.  However, I’ve seen many examples of proponents of distributed energy calculating the cost incorrectly (i.e. by assuming the cost of converting variable power into dispatchable power is zero), and incorrectly concluding that distributed is cheaper.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 23, 2014

The missing piece in this puzzle is, why are Chinese coal plants so much cheaper than nuclear plants?

The EIA report that in the US, coal plants with CC&S cost more than nuclear plants, and even without CC&S, the levelized cost of power from coal costs about the same as nuclear.  The levelized cost of power from biomass is higher than from nuclear.

This paper finds that nuclear plants use half the concrete and steel as coal plants with the same electrical output.

Is the difference causes by lax pollution control on Chinese coal plants?  If so, how long can they continue to build them that way?  

Other thoughts:  Breakthroughs that make biomass environmentally friendly when scaled to terraWatt levels are in the same category  with cheap fusion (maybe, but don’t hold your breath), in my opinion.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 23, 2014

This brief analysis should make it clear that nuclear or wind/solar is not going to power 7% economic growth rates in the developing world. “

Nope. It doesn’t make that clear. It makes clear that wind/solar are not going to power 7% growth, but nuclear could easily do it. What is the difference between wind/solar and nuclear? As is noted in your article, the difference is that wind/solar are very expensive and (additionally) particularly unsuitable for green-field energy system development, which is what developing countries need most of.

Nuclear power expansion in the past has been incredibly rapid in countries which chose the nuclear option, as you well know Schalk. In those countries, the expansion rate was well over 7% per year – more than enough to power rapidly growing economies. So there is nothing ‘clear’ about why such rapid expansion of nuclear could not take place again. On the contrary. There is no technical or economic argument why nuclear power could not replace almost all fossil fueled electricity generation globally before 2050. To do that would require an global nuclear expansion rate which is less than was achieved by France in the previous century with old technology.

Take away the monstrous political (not technical or economic) barriers to rapid nuclear power expansion and it will in fact be clear that nuclear is fully up to the task  to serve rapidly growing energy needs.

Historic growth rates of nuclear versus coal as noted in your article do not indicate any technical or economic superiority of coal of nuclear (although you seem to imply that they do). What these growth rates indicate – if anything – is what happens when societies are ruled by decades of irrational anti-nuclear sentiment, the USA being the perfect example of this.

Which is not to say that CCS is not a crucial part of the fight against AGW. I fully agree with you on that. But to state as you do that nuclear is ‘clearly’ not up to the task of proving all the energy needed by rapidly growing economies is completely incorrect as far as technical and economic (but not political, I’ll grant) realities are concerned. I’d like to think that it is very important that we stress this point whenever we make claims about what nuclear power means for our common future.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 23, 2014

This is indeed a very interesting question. Here is my theory based on the reading and thinking I have done on the subject to date: 

Firstly, it should be mentioned that material costs account for only about 10% of the capital costs of nuclear plants and labour costs (in the manufacturing of components and in the engineering/construction of the plant) are by far the most important component. In that sense the difference between nuclear and coal can be likened to the difference between a rugged, but simple pickup and and sleek sports car. The sports car would require substantially less materials, but, because it is much more sophisticated, may well be several times more expensive. 

The largest component of the “China price” is the very cheap, but still highly reliable labour (combination of a large influx of poor rural workers to cities and the Chinese work ethic). This allows China to manufacture simple things incredibly cheaply while maintaining reasonable quality. Relative to a nuclear plant, a coal plant is a pretty simple thing.

However, the composition of the Chinese labour force is changing rapidly. Costs and expertise are both rising rapidly. This allows China to do more complex things (like building nuclear plants) at a large scale, but also starts to erode the “China price” advantage. The trick is to ensure that China can build a significant number of nuclear plants before increases in labour costs lead to significant price escalations in the labour-intensive nuclear buildout process.

I don’t have any reliable information on the rate at which the current body of skilled Chinese labour can safely build nuclear plants, but I do know from personal experience that finding really high quality skilled labour remains a very difficult task even if you hire in Norway where salaries and benefits are actually too good. If you want to hire people to build a nuclear plant, you would really do well to hire only the best. This can greatly limit nuclear build rates.  

About pollution control, it must be mentioned that the Chinese coal fleet is mostly very modern, highly efficient and relatively clean. Of course the fact that it is done on such an enormous scale is creating large problems, but I don’t think the Chinese are cutting too many corners in the construction of their coal plants. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 23, 2014

The trick is that, in the developing world, a nuclear buildout of X GW per year will cost about 3 times more than a coal buildout at X GW per year. In addition, coal can fuel equally rapid and practical expansions in the industrial sector. The skilled labour required to safely build a nuclear plant can also present an additional bottleneck. 

You are right that it is possible to build out nuclear at a high rate. France is the best example of this. However, the important thing to mention here is that France could barely manage 2% economic growth rates during the rapid nuclear buildout. This is politically unfeasible in China, India and other large developing nations. 

But this series of articles has been about the role of CCS in a strongly climate constrained world. In this sense, CCS has three very important advantages over nuclear:

1. It can retrofit existing plants, thereby preserving sunk investments

2. It can mitigate direct industrial emissions

3. It is capable of achieving negative emissions after we reach a stage of severe overshoot later this century

A possible fourth advantage is the addition of CCS to flexible gas plants to economically balance a future grid of nuclear and renewables (depends on how far we come with storage and demand response and the degree of fossil-fuel lock-in by wind/solar buildouts). 

At least the first three of these advantages are likely to be crucial if the world every commits to the 2 deg C limits. This, together with the “monstrous political barriers” that you cite is the reason why nuclear is not considered as a primary option in any of the mainstream deep decarbonization pathways as outlined in my reply to Fred W further down the thread. It will take some rather enlightening new information before I come to the conclusion that the large teams of experts at the IEA and IPCC are underestimating the role of nuclear in deep decarbonization pathways by an order of magnitude. 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 23, 2014

None of this is very accurate, in my opinion, Schalk.

A state-of-the-art coal plant such as those which have recently been commissioned in my country are far more complex than (and equally expensive as) a nuclear plant. They conform to the highest standards of particule emissions control, power and fuel flexibility, and they are CCS ready. Nuclear power plants in comparison with coal plants do not experience the permanent head-ache of massive amounts of agressive chemical reactions, huge material flows and resultant fouling and corrosion. Neither do they require bulky and proces-intensive fluegas treatment. They also have no need to handle thousands of tons of fuels and ash each day.

If anything, a nuclear power plant need be far less complex than a coal plant having the same environmental performance. Inherent safety technologies which are already proven and available would allow ‘4th gen’ nuclear power plants that can do without the extensive multiple redundant safety measures which constitute up to 80% of the materials and systems cost of current 3rd gen nuclear power plants. All that stands in the way of applying such convenient technologies is irrational propaganda-fueled politics.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 23, 2014

About pollution control, it must be mentioned that the Chinese coal fleet is mostly very modern, highly efficient and relatively clean.”

I don’t think that is true. Last time I checked (which was a few years ago) the performance of the average Chinese coal plant was absolutely abysmal, truly unimaginably bad as compared to current standards in EU and USA.

However, the Chinese are taking this problem very seriously and there has been a strong push to retroactively install basic flue gas treatment measures at existing plants, for example. It could be that the situation today is better than it was. But I don’t know if it’s right to call the Chinese fleet “mostly very modern, highly efficient and relatively clean”. If you have a good source for that statement I’d like to see it.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 23, 2014

The chances that preferential treatment of nuclear (similar to PV) takes off any time soon therefore appear to be extremely low.”

No need to be so pessimistic.

The United Kingdom has already embraced nuclear and is pushing it very hard now. Before that happened, nobody thought it would happen either.

But the UK government has employed David MacKay as a senior energy advisor. David MacKay wrote the book “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air”. After writing the book, he learned some things about nuclear that he didn’t yet know. He is now fully pro-nuclear and the UK government has heard him loud and clear.

I still expect a full-fledged nuclear renassance before the decade is out. I also believe that Germany (and Belgium and France for that matter) will not actually complete their nuclear phaseout plans. Angela Merkel is not an idiot. The ‘Atomausstieg’ is just smoke and mirrors. All bark and no bite.

To rule out nuclear power is folly in my opinion. Reality always trumps gross ideology, sooner or later. We will all go the way of the UK after the ‘solartopia’ fever runs its course.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 23, 2014

Trying to match the unbeatable emissions performance of nuclear with coal is a pointless exercise, especially in the developing world. I agree that coal-fired power generation is all but guaranteed to experience a terminal decline in the developed world (I am assuming you live in a developd country), but the developed world is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the global energy and climate picture. 

In the developing world, the Pareto principle must be utilized to get 80% of pollution control with only 20% of cost increases. For example, one study found that the non-CO2 externalities of coal-fired electricity can be reduced from 10.3-28.4 €cent/kWh to 1.6-3.0 €cent/kWh through levelized plant capital costs amounting to only about 0.7 €cent/kWh. A further 1.4 €cent/kWh in levelized capital costs can reduce the externality to only 0.5-0.8 €cent/kWh through a 99% reduction in SOx emissions and a 75% reduction in NOx emissions. The first step of trading 7.3-26.8 €cent/kWh of external costs for only 0.7 €c/kWh of additional levelized capital costs would typically be more than sufficient for the developing world. 

Sure, perhaps it is technically possible to drop 80% of the nuclear plant costs because it is only for “redundant” safety measures, but, if we assume that scrapping of regulations regarding these safety measures is feasible, this will have some effect on the frequency of black swan events like Fukushima. We both know that it is irrational, but we both clearly saw what the effect of this event was on the global outlook for nuclear power. Risking a higher frequency of such black swan events is certainly not a good strategy for overcoming the “monstrous political resistance” faced by nuclear. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 23, 2014

I truly hope that you are right, but I write based on the trends I see at the moment. At the moment, a global nuclear renaissance on the scale and the time-schedule necessary to meet the 2 deg target is not looking very likely.  

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 23, 2014

Sure, the older Chinese coal plants are very bad, but there has been a clear global trend towards more efficient plants and also to supercritical and ultra supercritical technology. Younger fleets (such as that of China) will inevitably be more efficient and cleaner than older fleets. The IEA capital cost report linked in the article assumes a rather remarkable 46% efficiency for (still incredibly cheap) new Chinese coal capacity. 

For instance, from the 2014 Energy Techology Perspecitves report:

“The efficiency of generation is increasing. Globally, 64% of plants under construction are supercritical or ultra-supercritical, up from 50% in 2012. More than 60% of subcritical units under construction are in India. Between 2006 and 2010, China retired 77 GW of old inefficient plants, with a target to retire a further 20 GW by 2015.”

You can also have a look at this information sheet from the previous ETP report. It is shown that, since the turn of the century when China initiated the global coal explosion after joining the WTO (Chinese coal consumption tripled since 2001), there has been a large increase in investment in supercritical and ultrasupercritical technology as well as a marked increase in the efficiency of all technology classes.

Thus, the majority of the Chinese fleet (built after 2001) is substantially more efficient and clean than the global average (therefore my comment that “the Chinese coal fleet is mostly…”). As stated above, they are also actively retiring old inefficient and dirty plants at a very rapid rate. 

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jul 23, 2014

Schalk, thanks for these insight articles regarding the IPCC ideas!
Few remarks:

1. CCS
In NL, (believe) Shell tried to put CO2 deep in the ground. The project met resistance (“who wants to live on a CO2 bomb”, “remember what happened at that African lake”).
NIMBY became so big, that there was no choice; the project was called off.
A factor may be that we have an ongoing dike raising program, so darkest IPCC prediction can be met.

So I think chance is very low, CCS itself will become significant within a few decades. Especially since feelings of urgency are fading away. Even in Germany!
I see no solution for the problem that installation of a local CCS, implies only costs and risks, and no real benefits for the people.

Partial solution may come from Germany where they have a number of pilots (biggest 8MW) that convert CO2 into gas using (renewable) electricity. With more wind & sun, whole sale prices will be more often near zero, so operating those plants will then become more profitable => more and bigger plants.
Further from Denmark that will be 100% renewable in 2040 (mainly using wind).

2. Decreasing CO2 intensity of electricity.
– IPCC may consider bio a viable solution.
However the general conclusion in Germany is that bio(mass) is (too) expensive without a good perspectives for costs decreases. So they are shifting expansion towards more wind & solar (& storage). Especially since the costs of these, especial solar, are expected to decrease much further.

– Cost considerations kill the nuclear option.
As China also found, the cost of wind & solar is substantial lower than that of nuclear. So they are shifting towards more wind & solar. They install 10GW solar this year. Wind production surpassed nuclear already greatly.

In India we now see solar panels conquering the market in rural communities (incl. (micro-)grids, etc).

Consider that solar costs will sink another 50% in next 10years. And that similar occurs for batteries (check this thread).

Then a huge expansion of especially solar (with batteries) is a far more economic solution. Has far more chance to have a real CO2 impact.

– the long lead time for any nuclear (>5years); and
– the 3-10times higher investment costs compared to solar (+batteries) in 2025; and
– the costs increases (while solar has big costs decreases); and
– the experts and safety culture needed to run a nuclear plant decently. While ‘anybody’ can install and run a small PV-solar installation.

Then I strongly feel the IPCC estimates are wrong again, even with such a clear subject as nuclear.

So the question remains how reliable the other IPCC estimates are.
Don’t know wether it was done, but I haven’t seen a backwards test of their models, neither a competitive group that reviews their whole model against alternatives.

Furthermore I see at regular intervals science reports that add/change (new) major climate effects. And I still remember the huge impact of the club or Rome report at the end of the sixties, which turned out to be mostly nonsense.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Jul 23, 2014

I just had to correct some issues here

With more wind & sun, whole sale prices will be more often near zero, so operating those plants will then become more profitable => more and bigger plants. “
Wrong. Wholesale prices have very little influence on consumer prices because if they did, Germany would not have some of the highest consumer prices. Low or negative wholesale prices means there is a glut of electricity on the market at the time of market and thus all generators are in trouble. If a generator cannot sell his product at a profit, he goes bust. 
We have seen this in Germany with gas. From 2010 to 2013, Germany has increased electricity from coal and renewables by about the same amount as it has decreased nuclear and gas. Consumption has also decreased yet exports have increased. Increasing CO2 besides decreasing demand means that the grid is unbalanced. This is primarily as a result of oversupply.

However the general conclusion in Germany is that bio(mass) is (too) expensive without a good perspectives for costs decreases. “
Yet according to the Agee stat, solar employs similar amounts of people as the biomass (or wind) sector, but requires about 10 times the investment, produces 1/6th the revenue, takes more subsidy than any other renewable energy source and accounts for a measly 8% of renewable energy. Biomass in Germany is at 63%. Look for ‘ development of renewable energy sources in Germany’ on Google. You will find data for 2010, 11 and 12.

As China also found, the cost of wind & solar is substantial lower than that of nuclear. So they are shifting towards more wind & solar. They install 10GW solar this year. Wind production surpassed nuclear already greatly.

Again wrong, For Jan-Nov 2013, you may consult:
(for plants > 6 MW):
Wind: 125 TWh Nuclear: 100 TWh (Total: 4,741 TWh including other sources)


Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jul 23, 2014

The new US nuclear plants, such as Vogtle, get large investment ‘subsidies’.
EIA doesn’t value those (I estimate). If those are valued, major part of the differece in the nuclear/coal plant cost ratio between US and China disappear.

The difference between the costs of high skilled labor vs normal skilled labor may be much higher in China. That may explain another part.
Furthermore, I concur with Schalk’s response.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 24, 2014

Yes, I knew that this article would make me somewhat unpopular with nuclear advocates on TEC. However, when considering that I see nuclear as a sustainable energy option first and a greenhouse gas mitigation option second, my praise is not faint and (I still think) my critisism is valid.

I think Gen IV reactors, especially fast reactors, have the potential to take our global society to the next level because they essentially simultaneously increase the nuclear resource by two orders of magnitude and remove all the factors driving current societal resistance (waste, prolifiration risk and safety). However, these reactors are only projected to reach commercialization in the 2030s and will probably get off to a slow start. By that time, the world would probably already have overshot the 450 ppm target with CO2 emissions still increasing. 

My nuclear critique is only directed at claims that Gen III reactors can play a dominant role in achieving the 2 deg C target. This would require an unprecedented nuclear renaissance starting right now and proceding up to the 2030s when Gen IV reactors seemlessly take over – something which I think is essentially impossible. Gen III reactors offer only evolutionary improvements over Gen II and will therefore face similar societal headwinds to deployment. For nuclear to reach its potential, we need the revolutionary improvements promised by fast reactors. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 24, 2014

Thanks for the comment, Bas. Could I ask you to classify yourself in one of the six climate change opinion categories presented in the short video on the right hand side of this page? It will help me to better put your comments into perspective. 

About hydrocarbon synfuels, I agree about the potential if we eventually get a lot of super-cheap wind/solar production peaks. The next Seeking Consensus article will be about synfuels and it appears to be the most promising modern storage technology available. However, I again have to point out that Denmark is a special case (20x smaller electricity generation than Germany and surrounded by large hydro capacity), so the Danish case does not offer generic proof of the scalability of intermittent renewables to higher penetrations. 

About the current economics of wind/solar vs nuclear, official data contradicts your statements. Economics in the developed world are fairly similar (see the US case for example) with the wind/solar greatly outperforming nuclear mostly due to political factors. In the developing world (mostly China and India), nuclear capacity costs less than double that of wind and solar (below ~$2000/kW – see here and here). When considering the capacity factor, this makes nuclear at least two times cheaper than wind/solar. However, the modular simplicity of wind/solar makes it much easier to install, thereby driving higher deployment rates in China. 

Battery costs will have to fall by at least an order of magnitude before it becomes applicable to anything other than low-volume niche applications (see my recent analysis here), so I’m afraid that proclaiming solar+batteries to be cheaper than nuclear is completely false. 

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Jul 24, 2014

I just pulled this out for a “Quote Without Comment”.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Jul 24, 2014

Hmmm, I was sure I mentioned that I’d made this a quote without comment on The Ergosphere.

What’s going on with vanishing comments?

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 24, 2014

“Yes, I knew that this article would make me somewhat unpopular with nuclear advocates on TEC.”

Popularity has nothing to do with it. What matters is if you are right or wrong. If someone writes on TEC that wind turbines (or PV for that matter) ‘don’t produce enough energy to serve their own needs’ then I will critise that as well. It’s about truth and facts here on TEC as far as I’m concerned. It’s not about subjective preferences or popularity. I don’t give a damn about nuclear power, except for the fact that it is absolutely essential for solving AGW, polution, energy wars and energy poverty. CCS nor renewables can hope to do that. Only nuclear packs enough punch.

“I think Gen IV reactors, especially fast reactors, have the potential to take our global society to the next level because they essentially simultaneously increase the nuclear resource by two orders of magnitude and remove all the factors driving current societal resistance (waste, prolifiration risk and safety).”

Incorrect. Gen IV increases the nuclear resource by at least four orders of magnitude. Two orders due to using all the uranium rather than just the U235. And another two (or more) orders because lean uranium resources (to the tune of billions of tons of trace U in the crust and the ocean waters) become economically exploitable reserves when GenIV is applied.

“For nuclear to reach its potential, we need the revolutionary improvements promised by fast reactors.”

Not ‘promised’, but tried, tested and proven. Gen IV is commonly mistaken to be a ‘future’ technology. It is not. Gen IV reactors have been built and can be built now. Hitachi is offering it’s PRISM technology commercially now. Russia has deployed some and is building more.

Greg Rau's picture
Greg Rau on Jul 24, 2014

Thanks Fred.  Agree that as currently envisioned, CCS won’t get the job done based on economic, technical, capacity, environmental, and political reasons. And CO2 EOR? Yeah, let’s put CO2 into the ground so we can get even more CO2 into the atmosphere, by an industry standard 3 out/1 in !

But do agree with Schalk that without point-source CO2 mitigation of existing and soon to be built conventional powerplants, we are screwed. So it is time to get off the idea of very expensively making concentrated CO2 and then finding a use or storage site for it. Much better to spontaneously remove the CO2 via wet limestone scrubbing (as we currently do for SO2) and benficially put the resulting dissolved Ca(HCO3)2 into the ocean, the largest carbon storage reservoir on the planet:

If you are looking for a beneficial use of waste CO2, look no further than converting it to ocean alkalinity by the preceding method. In order to return the suface ocean carbonate chemistry to pre-industiral levels, I reckon we need to consume about 250GT of waste CO2 to make the required alkalinity, thus saving corals and shellfish from dissolution. And that number increases every year under BAU. If anyone else has a larger benefical CO2 use, please let me know.

OK, this probably isn’t going to singlehanded save our bacon either: most power plants aren’t near an ocean, we’re not going to mine all available limestone (unlike fossil fuel?), more ideas needed.  But it’s pretty clear that relying on making and storing concentrated CO2 won’t itself get the job done either. How about spending 1% of the $10B+ CCS R&D budget to see if we really do have options for bridging the remaining fossil fuel era and saving the planet (in time)?  Or is the CCS mafia and their CO2 EOR henchmen going to continue to dominate policy and funding, and risk taking the whole world down with them?



Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jul 24, 2014


My post concerns plants that convert electricity into gas (using CO2 from a farm or so).
Those plants earn money by buying cheap electricity + CO2, and sell the gas they produce to a gas utility or at the gas whole sale market. No relation with consumer electricity prices.

Bigger power-to-gas plants can buy directly at the Leipzig electricity whole sale market. Av. price €37/MWh last year. If the electricity price is high, or the gas price is low, those plants minimize their activity to near zero as they cannot earn money then.

Your remarks do not indicate that the policy change decision; “minimize biomass expansion, and use the released EEG (Energiewende) money to expand a.o. solar & wind”, was not taken.

Biomass gets an higher FiT than solar or wind. Worse, this high FiT for biomass does never end (FiT for solar/wind end after 20/15years). So biomass electricity cost the Energiewende fund >2times more money per MWh than solar or wind. Little indication that biomass becomes cheaper.

So shifting away from biomass frees EEG money to spend on solar & wind, which deliver more renewable electricity per euro.

The IPCC advice about using biomass is wrong if you consider the German cost picture. Especially when you look into the future, e.g. 2025. As then solar will be ~50% cheaper, while biomass will still cost about the same. Consider also that almost all developing countries are far better situated for solar (much lower lattitude), so solar panels produce >30% more in those countries.

“China; wind produces more than nuclear?”
What is wrong?? The numbers you state support my statement; wind produced 25% more than nuclear (125TWh wind vs 100TWh nuclear).

And the difference will increase. I cite from Wikipedia:
China has identified wind power as a key growth component of the country’s economy;[19] researchers from Harvard and Tsinghua University have found that China could meet all of their electricity demands from wind power through 2030.”

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 24, 2014


Nuclear power and CCS are not mutually exclusive options, we can have both, and need both. In a world of growing energy demand the use of coal, oil and gas have all grown even as other technologies have joined the mix. CCS needs to be a part of the portfolio of solutions.

You make some very dubious claims about dangerous CO2 pipelines and insufficient storage capacity. There are ~4000 miles of CO2 pipelines in operation in the USA today, can you identify any major problems or fatalities due to their use over the last 30 or 40 years? There are thousands of gigatons worth of documented storage capacity in saline aquifers, oil fields and coal beds. And hydrate formations are being studied now that potentially offer even more storage.

Can you document an example of an earthquake being caused by CO2 injection? Which is not to say there is no concern, but this is precisely the type of issue that is being in studied in detail in order to identify safe locations. But even under the scenario of increased pressure in saline aquifers caused by CO2 injection, there is a very simple solution, take the water out. Desalinating brine to make it potable is a promising area of cutting edge research that would be extremely useful.

You quote costs on Kemper and Boundary Dam when those projects are first of a kind demonstrations that are not expected to have competitive economics, but are intended to prove the technologies. And the amine scrubber technologies are not the only option for carbon capture, oxy-combustion and chemical looping are just as likely to be the future, but they are not as far along today.

No one in the CCS industry is claiming that CCS can absorb all of our CO2 emissions, or that it is even a reasonable goal. But in a world where hydrocarbons are not going away, finding useful applications for large quantities of commodity CO2 is a win-win. We need to keep pushing the technology forward to make the capture more efficient and find more ways to effectively utilize and store the CO2.

The Economides paper was widely criticized. See here:

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jul 25, 2014

Wind/solar, in turn, are again several times less scalable than nuclear. “

Assertion without reference.  And bullshit. 

Wind energy is on track to hit almost 8% of total global demand by 2018, double today’s numbers. Wind energy is already clobbering the competition on price in Brazil and the US Midwest. Per NREL both wind and solar will be so cheap by 2025 that on a completely unlevel playing field where there are no incentives for their deployment and continuing economic incentives for other forms of generation they will still be he only economic choice. 

CCS is necessary but very expensive and likely to remain so; the logistics of shipping hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 alone ensure that. Shutting down fossil fuel generation is happening and will just accelerate. 

It’s unclear where the author gets his persistent distaste for reality regarding renewable energy but it makes it impossible to take anything else he says particularly seriously. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 25, 2014

It is not exactly customary to reference the conclusions you draw based on analysis of published data. The published data in this case is the up-front capital cost (proxy for the labor, expertise, materials and energy required to establish a given piece of energy infrastructure) of various energy technologies in the developing world. References: IEA, BNEF and ILAR.

Let’s take the example of a rapidly growing country (like China or India) that wants to drive 10% p.a. growth in its electricity consumption. Say the options of coal, nuclear and wind are evaluated with capital costs of $700/kW, $2200/kW and $1200/kW respectively and capacity factors of 80%, 90% and 25% respectively. This puts the capacity factor weighted capital expenditures for coal, nuclear and wind at $875/kW, $2444/kW and $4800/kW respectively. Thus for a fixed amount of yearly input in terms of labor, expertise, materials and energy nuclear generation can be expanded twice as fast as wind and coal can be expanded 5 times faster. This difference is very important in the developing world where rapid expansions in electricity generation are required to drive economic development (and the ability to deploy further energy infrastructure). 

Also, as mentioned in the article, about half of Chinese coal consumption is in sectors outside of electricity production where there is no competition from nuclear, wind or solar. And then of course there is the intermittency issue which may well negate future cost reductions of wind/solar as their penetrations increase. See my articles on this topic here and here

Lastly, I don’t have a distaste for renewables in general, only for the marketing of renewables as the primary solution to climate change. My comments regularly state that wind/solar are good in ideal locations like the central/south-west US. If not for climate change, wind/solar technology forcing would only cause a mild decrease in economic development, but, if climate science is correct, wind/solar technology forcing represents a severe malinvestment (e.g. this OECD study which found that feed-in tariffs cost 17x more than emissions trading schemes per unit of CO2 avoided). The recent IPCC report also found that a low wind/solar future has essentially no impact on the cost of deep carbonization, while elimination of CCS would double the costs (discussed in the previous article in this series). 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 25, 2014

I think it is a stretch to call power-plant CC&S and biofuel “bridge” technologies.  They don’t help us get to a future destination, but rather help us prolong the use of unsustainable technology and remediate the problems from the past (and bio creates even more problems).

In contrast, I would describe carbon-free fuels made from fossil fuel with CC&S as a bridge.  Fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia currently cost more when made from sustainable sources, but we have good reason to believe their cost will decrease in the future, so a bridge would help things to get started.

It also strikes me as odd that most demonstration CC&S plants are associated with coal-fired power plants.  Looking at the EIA cost estimates, this sounds hopeless, given the other alternatives.

But as Schalk and others have pointed out, CC&S can also be used with concrete and steel production, and are likely much cheaper than alternatives in this application (e.g. hydrogen power).  So why aren’t the CC&S pilot plants built at concrete and steel plants? (Could it be that they are only a stalling tactic to delay a coal phase-out, and we have no intention of deploying them at scale?) 

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jul 25, 2014

China built nine times as much nameplate capacity hence about four times as much generation capacity of wind generation in 2013 as it plans to build of nuclear in three years. That’s about 12 times as much generation capacity in the same period for China which is building nuclear reactors on a crash course.

That you claim that wind energy isn’t as scalable as nuclear is evidence of your lack of empirical regard for this reality.

Similarly, your ignorance of current low-wind designs which are raising capacity factors for wind energy above 50% in the best wind resources and making them strongly economically viable in formerly marginal sites is also indicative of your relatively willful ignorance of wind energy alone.

That you like CCS is fine. It’s a useful wedge. But the real heavy lifting will be done by primary generation technologies, not waste capture technologies of no direct economic value.

Stop cherrypicking. Start looking at current reality. Keep publishing on CCS but stick to what you actually understand.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 25, 2014

Thanks for the advice, Mike. In exchange, I would like to offer some to you as well. 

1. Without references, your numbers will not be taken seriously. Impirical data from the BP Statistical Review shows that China got 131.9 TWh from 91.5 GW of wind capacity and 110.6 TWh from 18 GW of nuclear capacity (nuclear capacity given here). Given this data, please tell me why I should believe that 9 units of wind generate as much as 4 units of nuclear. Also, China already has an additional 28 GW of nuclear under construction (see previous link), most of which will probably come online within the next 3 years. Based on the data above, wind will require about 100 GW of capacity over the next three years (double the installation rate of 2013) to match this scaling rate (let alone beat it by a factor of 12). 

2. Relatively small mandated/subsidized deployment of wind energy (6.7% of the increase in Chinese energy consumption in 2013) facilitated by an economy powered 70% by coal is not proof of scalability. For some empirical evidence on nuclear vs. wind/solar scalability, see the final graph in this article. The day that wind can scale like nuclear in the referenced graph without subsidies (i.e. not dropping 92% when the PTC is removed), I will change my view on this matter. 

3. Don’t accuse others of cherrypicking (without specifying the cherry) when you do it yourself. In an earlier article in this series, you used very high costs for CCS (presumably medium scale FOAK deployment) which are not reflected in more generic and credible sources to make sweeping statements about the feasibility of CCS. 

4. To allow for truly informative discussions, please comment on the central argument of an article, in this case the postulate that wind/solar/nuclear is not capable of meeting the energy needs of the developing world within the recommendations given by climate science. This nuclear vs. wind sideshow is of much lower value. 

5. The superior tone with which you comment does not help the communication of your message. We are trying to remain as objective as possible in our exchanges using the best information we have available to us at any given time. Clearly subjective language obstructs this process. 

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 25, 2014


There is CCS on chemical plants, ethanol refineries and and natural gas cleanup operations. True that is has not been deployed on steel or concrete plants. The main reason why the efforts have been focused on coal plants is because they are far and away the largest point emitters.

The choices of where to deploy are always driven by the economics. The plants where CCS gets implemented for purely commercial reasons are facilities where they are venting nearly pure CO2, and there are actually a lot of facilities like that. Hydrogen production, anything with acid gas cleanup (rectisol or solexol), ethanol refineries vent nearly pure CO2, any kind of coal to chemicals or coal to liquids. The EOR industry has traditionally captured a lot of CO2 from natural gas cleanup. If the exhaust is concentrated CO2 then capture is relatively cost effective and then it becomes a matter of finding a buyer that can pay for the pipelines and pressurization.

For the steel and concrete guys, to talk about adding amine scrubbers or some other heavy equipment that is extremely expensive and onerous is pretty much a non-starter and will surely make their plant uncompetitive when their product is a low margin commodity to begin with. The concrete industry is looking at other methods of recycling CO2 and advancing concrete technology to reduce CO2 emissions. Greater use of coal fly ash is among the methods as that greatly reduces the need for portland cement which is the part of the process that produces a large portion of the CO2. We need better technology than post combustion capture for these industries.

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jul 25, 2014

To recap this, you made a gross and inaccurate assertion without references. I made specific corrections with verifiable numbers, also without references. And you think I don’t have references to back up my specific and verifiable numbers? You really need to think before you get defensive.

Navigant research: 7.3% by 2018. A little shy of 8% but I claimed less than 8%.

Bloomberg: Wind energy wins large majority of energy auctions in Brazil.

GWEC: Wind energy excluded from wind auction in Brazil.

NREL 2025 assessment: reported at Windpower 2014 in Las Vegas while I was in the audience. Pending formal publication, so you’ll have to trust me on this one. I would if I were you.

Wind energy blowing the doors off of nuclear in China:

Low wind generation technologies:

Oh, and coal dying in China:

So once again, stick to what you know, stop making silly claims. 

You are an expert in CCS. It’s a great wedge, if expensive. There are great things to know about it, including its limitations, where it is appropriate and how it can be optimized. Making absurd statements about technologies you don’t understand isn’t useful.

Here’s a little test for you, one I know you’ll hate. How much CO2 has been sequestered via CCS vs how much CO2 has been avoided entirely by deploying renewables? The answer is ugly for CCS and it will continue to be. It’s a niche technology, albeit a good niche. Stop trying to make it something it isn’t.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Jul 25, 2014

Solar and wind are more scalable than nuclear.

Which explains why Denmark is moving past 45% renewable electricity after 20 years of effort, while France went to 80% nuclear electricity in 11 years.

Nuclear is already as baseload saturation driving electricity prices negative. Nuclear is NOT dispatchable, it’s baseload, it cannot throttled of load follow

Which explains why France incorporated “gray” control rods in their Westinghouse-based PWR fleet so they could run power up and down without having to borate their cooling water.

and need topping off using hydrocarbon peak and reserve generators, the very same generators solar and need need for filling in.

Solar and wind need fossil-fired generators to back up 100% of demand, while nuclear only needs FF to fill in for the fraction above the base load (and in the case of France, far less than that).

All sarcasm aside, if you wanted to get rid of negative energy pricing all you’d have to do is eliminate PTCs for any wind/solar power sold at less than a given price.  The generators would curtail their own systems instead of selling at a loss.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 25, 2014

Mike, coal is hardly dying in China. The article you reference merely says that there is a supply glut, and a slower growth in consumption, but its still growing. And coal use is growing by leaps and bounds throughout the world. Which also makes the claims that renewables have displaced any CO2 fairly dubious when energy demand is growing faster than the renewables build out and carbon emissions along with it.

We need all of these technologies, so arguing my pet tech is better than yours is silly in my opinion. None are mutually exclusive, we need them all to succeed.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 26, 2014

Thanks for the references, but I was actually looking for numbers to back your calculations that wind currently scales 12x faster than nuclear in China. Please explain to me the vast difference between my estimations in point 1 above and your 12x number. As you probably know, China has goals for 200 GW of wind and 58 GW of nuclear by 2020. Adjusting from capacity to generation based on existing data (as above) puts nuclear and wind on equal terms in 2020. 

The rise in Chinese wind power can be explained by lucrative FiT of $83-100/MWh although it is unclear how long these tariffs can be sustained due to large fund shortfalls. Such fixed subsidies are ideal for wind because it ignores the lower value caused by intermittency. Higher value nuclear gets a tariff of $70/MWh which should still drive rapid deployment due to good economics, albeit with a time-lag due to long construction times. My analysis in the article is based on unsubsidized costs as outlined in my first reply to you. 

Your question about CO2 storage from CCS is already answered in my comment to Bob below. The 55 Mton of anthropogenic CO2 stored thus far is about a third of the total CO2 avoided by total solar PV generation of 370 TWh by the end of 2013 (BP) under the assumption of natural gas displacement at 0.4 ton/MWh, no rebound effect (displaced fossil fuel just burned somewhere else) and no price driven gas-to-coal switching (e.g. Germany). Considering that global commitment to CCS demonstration activities is currently $20.7 billion (source) and Germany alone has already committed more than €100 billion to solar PV subsidies, this is not bad at all. 

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 25, 2014

For power plants, I see the bridge element as the possibility to retrofit the enormous new fleets of coal fired plants currently being built in the developing world. The potentially very dangerous Chinese SNG buildout will also be an excellent target for retrofits. If the 2 deg C target ever becomes a serious consideration, retrofits will be an essential bridge without which there will be a lot of value destruction in countries that really cannot afford it. 

Most existing CCS projects are based on industrial processes delivering relatively high purity CO2 streams. Coal plants will only come later as outlined in my comment to Bob below. But coal plants are extremely expensive in the US at present and the EIA also uses higher financing costs in their calculations amounting to about $15/MWh extra to the LCOE of coal and CCS. Coal fired CCS is targeted more towards the developing world where even a the 50% LCOE increase caused by Gen I CCS would still keep coal competitive. 

As Ed said below, steel and cement are quite far down the economy scale and there are lower hanging fruits which will be exploited first such as natural gas processing and fertilizer production. 

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 25, 2014


Those Chinese SNG plants are basically CCS ready. They are modeled on the Dakota Gasification Synfuels plant which retrofitted CCS back in 2000 and has been one of the most successful CCS projects anywhere. Coal to SNG w/ CCS is pretty positive in my opinion.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jul 25, 2014

The test result:”I am cautionous”.

Denmark a special case?
No doubt under German scientist that Germany, while 7times more dense populated than USA, can do it too. Current Energiewende scenario; ~35% of all electricity to be generated by wind and ~25% by solar. So it should be a piece of cake for USA.

Current economics of wind/solar vs nuclear
One should compare the economics in 2024 onwards, as a new NPP takes ~10years to build.
In 2024 solar will cost half. So then nuclear will be >3times more expensive.

Indeed NPP’s cost less in China, but solar also (US has ~45% import duty on Chinese panels) as well as wind. Sun & wind are now already cheaper in China than nuclear.
So since ~a year, Chinese government is dimishing nuclear and expanding wind and solar.

official data
Clayton shows research regarding EIA predictions. He shows that such official institutes under-estimate renewable greatly. So you cannot rely on these institutes regarding renewable energy predictions.

Role nuclear
The volume of nuclear electricity decreased ~6% since 2003, while electricity went up by ~40%. And renewable grew ~400% (BP stats)!

In addition:
–  solar, battery and wind costs decrease, while nuclear tend to rise;
–  solar, battery and wind experience substantial technical improvements, while nuclear sticks with the old LWR/PWR technology;
–  last years installed renewable capacity was 40-100 times more than that of nuclear.

All these signs indicate that fission technology will fade away this century.
So I really do not understand how you can estimate that there is a bigger role for nuclear than renewable in the future??

A pity the IPCC produced several lousy advices, such as that regarding biomass. Usually that implies the authors are also somewhat out of reality regarding the other subjects.

My response took some time as it took TEC days to publish my response to Donough.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 25, 2014

I have had this debate before and I tend to look at it from a glass half full perspective. In fact I had an extended back and forth with the author of the paper you cited.

The process of producing SNG requires acid gas cleanup as an integral component, so the CO2 has already been captured and is being vented in fairly pure form. They just need to add on the pressurization components and the pipelines, but they do not need to add any scrubbers, they are already in place. It is exactly what they did at Dakota Gas.

I think we would all agree that using synthetic natural gas is far better for air quality than burning coal directly, so if you leave the CO2 emissions aside for a moment, it is a big improvement to upgrade coal to SNG. Now they just need to put the CO2 into a pipeline and the Chinese are serious about making progress on that front. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jul 26, 2014

It gets tiring listening to nuclear energy advocates declaring all their possibilities frustrated by ignorants. When, in fact, “nuclear” energy, to paraphrase Einstein, is just a fancy way to boil water. It isn’t simple. And done with arrogance, it isn’t safe.

At the same time, people excercise a vast array of bioelectric tools like eyes, ears, heart, nerves, muscles, etc., and feel comfortable declaring bioenergy will never work. Newsflash; the best chemists in the world have a great growth record in modern medicine and agriculture.

When nuclear reactions are easy and trees are complicated, discussion is pointless.

Martin Nicholson's picture
Martin Nicholson on Jul 26, 2014

Shalk you say the capital costs of nuclear energy in China are about triple that of coal, implying that coal capacity can be expanded at roughly triple the pace of nuclear. Economic decisions do not only involve capital costs – they include fuel costs as well. Coal plants burn a substantial amount of fuel over their lifetime – about 15,000 times the amount of fuel used in nuclear plants. You should be using LCOE comparisons not capital cost. When China introduces a carbon cost you will find that the LCOE of coal will be comparable with nuclear or could be higher depending on the carbon cost.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 26, 2014

Of course, but the topic here was the potential scaling rate. In a very rapidly growing economy where power is needed to further drive the expansion, technologies with low up-front costs are valued very highly. In LCOE terms, this can be accounted for by the use of a very high discount rate. For example, during the middle 2000’s when Chinese electricity generation expanded by 15% p.a., the effective discount rate driving energy decisions was probably very high simply because power today was valued so much more than power next year. 

Sure, if a discount rate of 5% is used, the nuclear LCOE in China is similar to that of coal, but, as discussed in my comment to Fred W below, this is not the right number to use. China will need a continued very rapid expansion if it is to achieve its goal of getting rich before it gets old. The role of coal in the expansion will certainly deminish as the Chinese economy modernizes and the war on pollution picks up speed, but its incredible scalability will continue to be a major driver of growth. 

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jul 26, 2014

China installed 16 GW of nameplate capacity in 2013. GWEC

Modern wind turbines have a median 40% capacity factor and exceed 50% in the best wind resources. NREL


I’ll actually throw in another year of nuclear buildout in China: 2010-2014 China put 4.7 GW of nuclear into operation, regardless of stated plans.

Assuming the median 40% capacity factor for wind and giving generously 90% for nuclear, that’s about 6.4 GW of real capacity of wind energy in one year vs 4.23 GW of real capacity for nuclear, or about 1 GW per year.

So the numbers show a little over six times more buildout instead of 12. I obviously made a calculation error originally, but my point stands regarding wind energy’s greater empirical scalability.

We could take nuclear turned on in 2013. That turns about to be 1 GW to. 2014 might be better, as perhaps 2 GW have been made operational this year. We’ll see what reality brings.

China is the real experiment for nuclear vs wind. It is building both as rapidly as possible. It has been on a crash course for both for roughly the same period of time. It has bypassed most of the regulatory red tape for nuclear. And in four years it made significantly less nuclear operational than the wind generation capacity in 2013 alone. Pretty much no other geography is capable of building as much nuclear per capita as China is. Meanwhile, most geographies are perfectly capable of building wind farms, and are, with utility-scale wind generation in 100 countries so far. Globally, for the past five years wind energy has averaged 40 GW of new operational nameplate capacity or 16 GW of median capacity and that’s expected to grow. Meanwhile, globally nuclear capacity has diminished and is expected to continue to diminish as France shuts off 33% of its fleet in favour of mostly wind energy, Germany shuts off its fleet, Ontario intends to move from 55% to 40% supply from nuclear and reactors globally reach end of life with no economic refurbishment possible. In empirical terms it doesn’t matter what anybody claims is possible: wind energy is growing rapidly while nuclear isn’t. That’s real scalability. Ignoring reality doesn’t help anyone.

To be clear, I’m a fan of nuclear where it can actually be built and where it makes economic sense. That limits it mostly to China and India because they both are existing nuclear powers and both have vast disparity between demand and supply. Similarly, refurbishing reactors in the developed world often makes economic sense.

Regarding solar, wind generation by end of 2012 had 534.3 TWh of generation, with likely close to that much again since given the massive growth of wind capacity and capacity factors worldwide. So wind energy has likely avoided in the range of ten times as much CO2e as all of CCS and it’s being built much more quickly, with resultant elimination of fossil fuel generation.

CCS is a smaller — much smaller — wedge than renewables in real terms. Wind energy is provably more scalable than nuclear in the country with the greatest ability to build nuclear in the world, and vastly more scalable in the rest of the world. 

You obviously know a lot about CCS. Stick to talking about it instead of making gross generalizations or overweening statements of CCS’ superiority. Once again, there are a lot of useful things to say about CCS without being wrong about other technologies and CCS’ place in resolving the issue of global warming.

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jul 26, 2014

The author’s mistaken and non-empirical perspectives regarding nuclear, renewables and the relative merits of CSS vs renewables were worth documenting in a full length blog post here:


Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jul 26, 2014

Good, if you now halve your estimate again you will arrive at the real number by which wind grew faster than nuclear in China in 2013 according to the BP Statistical Review: 2.72 (35.9 TWh/year growth in wind vs. 13.2 TWh/year growth in nuclear). 

But this thread is becoming too narrow. Let’s continue the discussion on top. 


Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »