Energy Policy: Burton Richter

I would like to recommend my current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy.This is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them, and has a real talent for making the complex understandable. E.g., for a sample of Richter’s no-nonsense style, he was interviewed by Mark Golden for Power Engineering. Excerpt:

If you got one wish on international policy on climate change, what would it be?

That we would abandon the stupid notion of legally binding agreements on emissions. What are the fines for not meeting your agreements? Who levies the fine? Where does the money go? There are no sanctions, so what does “legally binding” mean?

Also, 15 countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of the world’s emissions. Why are we trying to get a deal with 196 countries, most of which are spending all their time trying to figure out how to get the richer countries to pay them money? What we really need is to get these 15 countries, which includes some developed countries and some rapidly developing countries, to agree on a deal.


Your book takes a middle ground between the deniers of climate change and what you call “ultra-greens,” who insist on drastic action immediately but reject nuclear power and some other low-carbon solutions. Can you talk about that middle ground?

What I tried to say is: Here is what we know, and here is how we know it. Here’s what the uncertainties are. Here’s what I think we ought to be doing. But the reader should think about what we ought to be doing, too.

The future is hard to predict, because it hasn’t happened yet. For some, this is an excuse for inaction. “We don’t know enough. Since we don’t know enough, we shouldn’t do anything.” Whereas there are a lot of things we can do now that don’t cost much at all and that can have a relatively large impact.


Richter continues the pragmatic policy theme by showing why Calfornia should cancel its USD 2. billion subsidy “Million Solar Roofs” program. Instead for less than 20% of that cost, twice the CO2 emissions could be eliminated by converting the Four Corners power station to natural gas. I don’t like the lock-in effects of new investment in gas plants – but I think he is correct. In the light of what is politically feasible today, this is good policy.

Nuclear cost competitive with coal in China and the US Southeast

Harry is my goto source on electrical generation industry perspective. E.g., coal prices vary widely around the world depending especially on transportation costs (and grade obviously). Harry’s comment on BNC caught my attention. Our quest for new-build zero carbon electricity that is “cheaper than coal” is already happening in certain markets:

As a rule of thumb Nuclear is ‘cost competitive’(not considering externalized costs) in a ‘new build environment’ with coal at $4/MMbtu and Natural Gas at $6/MMBtu.

Those conditions exist in China and the US Southeast. That is where AP1000′s are being built. Those conditions also exist in the UK where the government position is ‘nuclear without subsidy’. They also exist in a good many other places in the world.

Australia and the US West have considerable quantities of coal that can be extracted and delivered a reasonable distance to market for well under $4/MMBtu. The discussion as to how to make cleaner technologies financially competitive with coal is therefore a much more difficult discussion.

Imagine how much lower the US cost will be once the “lawyer-protester” risk falls away, and the plants are mass-manufactured.

Mark Lynas: In defence of nuclear power

Mark discovers that the latest anti-nuclear attack is organized by the renewables industries.

Yesterday I wrote a post in defence of offshore wind. Today I feel compelled to write in defence of nuclear power. I do not see any contradiction here – both are major climate mitigation options that can play a substantial role in decarbonising the UK economy. Ironically, however, today’s attack on nuclear comes from environmentalists, many of whom have devoted years of their lives to raising awareness of the threat from climate change and seem unable to appreciate the harm they are currently doing.

At issue is a press release I received this morning via email entitled ‘Lawyers send complaint to the European Commission about subsidies for nuclear power’. I cannot find it online to add a link, but earlier material from the group responsible, an outfit called ‘Energy Fair’, may be found here. The release begins:

A formal complaint about subsidies for nuclear power has been sent to the European Commission. If it is upheld, it unlikely that any new nuclear power stations will be built in the UK or elsewhere in the EU. The complaint may be followed by legal action in the courts or actions by politicians to reduce or remove subsidies for nuclear power.

It further alleges that nuclear operators are not “properly insured”, and that

if nuclear operators were fully insured against the cost of nuclear disasters like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the price of nuclear electricity would rise by at least 14 Eurocents per kWh and perhaps as much as 2.36 Euros, depending on assumptions made. Even with the minimum increase, nuclear electricity would become quite uncompetitive.

At this point, you may be wondering – like I was – who Energy Fair actually is, and who might be behind this legal challenge. The press release states that

Lawyer Dr Dörte Fouquet, with a lawyer colleague, has prepared the formal complaint to the European Commission on behalf of Energy Fair and other environmental groups and environmentalists

and (with admirable openness) reveals that Dr Fouquet is actually Director of the European Renewable Energies Federation, whilst others of the supporters also have commercial interests in the renewables sector. These include Jeremy Leggett from the company SolarCentury, whilst the originator of the press release, a Dr Gerry Wolff, is involved in the Desertec solar initiative in North Africa.

In other words, what Energy Fair seems to represent is an effort from one heavily-subsidised industry to attack presumed subsidies in another – hardly very ‘fair’. It is disappointing that members of what I call the ‘Green orthodox church’ (those of a certain age who have never had an open mind on nuclear and never will, like Leggett, Jonathon Porritt and Tom Burke) have joined this effort despite the unacknowledged commercial conflict of interest. And it is particularly disappointing to see Friends of the Earth also on the list, and to see Mike Childs from FoE quoted at length in the press release.

All this is especially depressing given the reality of the figures, which is that nuclear provides the vast majority of the UK’s current low-carbon electricity – as much as 70% according to the Nuclear Industry Association, whilst avoiding the emission of 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This is why I want to see more nuclear power in the UK and elsewhere, in order to avoid more carbon emissions, and I cannot understand the reasoning of those who claim to work for the good of the climate but put so much effort into opposing the primary existing source of low-carbon electricity.

As George Monbiot aptly puts it in an email to me today in response:

The efforts some people will make to destroy a low-carbon technology are remarkable. We are facing perhaps the greatest crisis humanity has ever encountered – runaway climate change – and instead of tackling the source of the problem (fossil fuels), environmentalists are attacking one of the solutions. People will look back on this era and wonder how such madness took hold.

Read the whole thing »

IEA: the world is locking itself into an unsustainable energy future

If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re heading

The World Energy Outlook 2011 is the most depressing of the International Energy Agency (IEA) outlooks that I have read. Check out the executive summary [PDF], and the associated slideshow deck. IEA has changed their policy to charge a significant access fee. The electronic version (1 user license) is €120 {happily PDFs of the pre-2010 books remain free}. You can access several useful extracts from the full report at the WEO home page, e.g., Developments In Energy Subsidies.

How to summarize? I think these two paragraphs capture the outlook — our chances of holding GHG concentrations to levels of 2°C are slipping through our inactive fingers:

Steps in the right direction, but the door to 2°C is closing

We cannot afford to delay further action to tackle climate change if the long-term target of limiting the global average temperature increase to 2°C, as analysed in the 450 Scenario, is to be achieved at reasonable cost. In the New Policies Scenario, the world is on a trajectory that results in a level of emissions consistent with a long-term average temperature increase of more than 3.5°C. Without these new policies, we are on an even more dangerous track, for a temperature increase of 6°C or more.

Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permissible by 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already “locked-in” by our existing capital stock (power plants, buildings, factories, etc.). If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035, leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

I remain skeptical of the wisdom and indeed the technical feasibility of CCS. But IEA says, in effect, “we gotta”:

(…) In the New Policies Scenario, CCS plays a role only towards the end of the projection period. Nonetheless, CCS is a key abatement option in the 450 Scenario, accounting for almost one-fifth of the additional reductions in emissions that are required. If CCS is not widely deployed in the 2020s, an extraordinary burden would rest on other low-carbon technologies to deliver lower emissions in line with global climate objectives.

The IEA “New Policies Scenario” proposes that nuclear output increases by more than 70% by 2035 and increasing subsidies for non-hydro renewables, projected to increase “from 3% in 2009 to 15% in 2035, underpinned by annual subsidies to renewables that rise almost five-times to $180 billion.”

I do not know how realistic are the IEA projections of renewables costs — especially the costs of maintaining grid stability given an increasingly large proportion of unreliable, non-dispatchable power. One of the slides summarizes the New Policies for renewables as only 30% additional output for 60% of the investment. That is a staggering waste, compared to expanded nuclear generation — but I suspect we will find that figure understates the true cost of that much unreliable generation.

More commentary on WEO 2011:

Energy density: the key to our no-carbon future

Your lifetime energy supply, a golf ball-sized lump of thorium or uranium – Credit Kirk Sorenson

Your personal lifetime energy supply, the golf ball-sized lump of heavy metal at left represents about 780 grams of thorium or uranium. Barry Brook recently used this to illustrate the energy density and cleanliness of fast neutron fission power relative to coal. And compared to solar or wind power options, coal is extremely energy dense. But the energy density of thorium or uranium is about 2.6 million times that of coal.

Bill Gates has described the solar/wind options as “energy farming“, which neatly captures the extraordinarily diffuse nature of these energy sources. For land use-friendly and economical energy, dense is good, diffuse is bad.

A golf ball of uranium would provide more than enough energy for your entire lifetime, including electricity for homes, vehicles and mobile devices, synthetic fuels for vehicles (including tractors to produce your food and jet fuel for your flights). Your legacy? A soda can of fission product was, that would be less radioactive than natural uranium ore in 300 years.

Tom Blees used the above graphic to illustrate the tiny volume of waste generated by fast neutron fission power: Your lifetime energy supply = 1 golf ball, your waste = 1 soda can. For more please see the conference paper Advanced Nuclear Power Systems to Mitigate Climate Change, or IFR FaD 4 – a lifetime of energy in the palm of your hand.

Nuclear power – inadequate risk investment

Boosting taxpayer-funded energy R&D is easy to justify – e.g., for the USA, by 10x from about USD 3 to 30 billion/annum. Why? Because, energy research and development is a perfect illustration of an underinvested public good. The challenge is that the return to the innovator is often far less than the return to society – hence the normal market incentives do not work very well, especially if the payoff is very long term (typical for electrical generation).

Last year in the Washington Post  the former CEOs of Microsoft and Dupont argued for a big increase in energy R&D:

(…) Why can’t the private sector do this? What makes energy different from, say, electronics? Three things.

First, there are profound public interests in having more energy options. Our national security, economic health and environment are at issue. These are not primary motivations for private-sector investments, but they merit a public commitment.

Second, the nature of the energy business requires a public commitment. A new generation of television technology might cost $10 million to develop. Because those TVs can be built on existing assembly lines, that risk-reward calculus makes business sense. But a new electric power source can cost several billion dollars to develop and still carry the risk of failure. That investment does not compute for most companies.

Third, the turnover in our power system is very slow. Power plants last 50 years or more, and they are very cheap to run once built, meaning there is little market for new models.

It is understandable, then, why private-sector investments in clean energy technology are so small. Yet, while it may make sense for individual companies to make these choices, accepting the status quo would condemn our country to very bad options.

This is why we have joined other concerned business leaders (…) to create the American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC).


The AEIC members are Bill Gates, chairman and former chief executive of Microsoft; Norm Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin; Ursula Burns, chairman and chief executive of Xerox; John Doerr, partner at Kleiner Perkins; Chad Holliday, chairman of Bank of America and former CEO of DuPont; Jeff Immelt, chief executive of GE; and Tim Solso, chairman and chief executive of Cummins.

With all those heavy hitters I don’t know why we have heard so little from AEIC since its founding H1 2010.

VLS: Van Leeuwen and Smith’s Egregious Mathematical Errors

David Bradish at NEI carefully explains how the authors of Nuclear power the energy balance wandered off into the trees.

For those who are unfamiliar with van Leeuwen, he and his colleague Philip Smith have been falsely claiming nuclear power’s lifecycle emissions will be higher than a fossil-fueled power station within several decades as high-quality uranium ore grades diminish.

(…) As I said earlier, if you can’t trust the numbers that SLS publish, how in the world can you trust their conclusions.

For a look into our archives where we’ve checked their math and challenged their conclusions, click here.

Is nuclear power still the answer to our energy problems?

Caroline Lucas and George Monbiot debate nuclear power and renewable energy.

That Guardian photo exemplifies the Monbiot accommodative tactic.

This week George Monbiot wrote that the Fukoshima disaster had won him over to nuclear power. Green MP Caroline Lucas believes the technology is costly and dangerous. Susanna Rustin brought them together, and heard the arguments.


I thought George let Lucas off much too easily. E.g., countering her “creating waste that will be radioactive for tens of thousands of years” with “Climate change is far more dangerous than any of the issues we’re talking about…” Lucas is obviously a skilled politico.

Doesn’t that concede the point that more nuclear power means more “highly dangerous radioactive scary waste?”

Read the whole thing »

The double standards of green anti-nuclear opponents

It appears that George Monbiot is using his pulpit effectively. As in the Caldicott debate, George is gently accommodating the less-offensive anti-nuclear claims to that he reserve his sound-byte seconds (words) to argue the more central points. Perhaps this isn’t the best tactic for an Oxbridge debate, but from the comments I’ve seen so far, the gentle accommodation seems to be well-received.

Another example of the Monbiot tactic is this 31 March Guardian essay – here’s an excerpt:

(…) OK, that’s the record-setting done. Now for the counter-attack. Here is a list of what I believe are the double-standards that some of us who have opposed nuclear power (I include myself in this) have used when arguing against it.

Double standard one: deaths and injuries

We rightly lament the horrible consequences of industrial exposure to radiation. Two workers at Fukushima have so far received radiation burns and 17 have been exposed to levels of radiation considered unsafe. This is and should be a cause for serious concern. It is also worth remembering that no one has yet received a dose of radiation that is known to be lethal as a result of the Fukushima disaster. But if we are concerned about industrial injuries, why do we say nothing about the deaths and injuries in the industry most likely to replace nuclear power?


I thought that George chose a reasonable “7” points. Here are the rest:

Double standard two: the science

Double standard three: radioactive pollution

Double standard four: mining impact

Double standard five: costs

Double standard six: research

Double standard seven: timing

Read the whole thing. And see also his text-debate with Caroline Lucas.