Category Archives: Energy Policy

Why is there strong political support for coal & gas, but not for nuclear power?

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Good question – what do you think? I thought it was probably the strong anti-nuclear lobby feeding a media who know that fear makes for high ratings. I’m sure that’s a contributor – but the dominant causes could be just routine democratic politics. Today reddit.com is hosting a Science AMA Series with members of the UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering. Here’s the question “I recently watched Pandora’s Promise and was surprised how many misconceptions that I had regarding nuclear energy and renewable alternatives.”

And Prof. Rachel Slaybaugh’s reply:

The documentary seemed accurate to me (a good rundown can be found here, though I didn’t go through and fact-check everything. I did feel like the end of the film was a bit overly rosy, but not necessary non-factual.

In terms of public sentiment driving politics, the public sentiment about nuclear is frequently viewed as being negative, but polls often show that this is not actually the case. There is a large and active anti-nuclear crowd, however, and they can dominate the air waves (like all loud-but-not-representative groups). I think the reasons behind lack of political support are deeper and more complex than public opinion. In large part the lobbying behind fossil fuel is much larger than other electricity sources. Wind, solar, and geothermal are still small contributors, so don’t have the lobbying support on the same scale. Nuclear produces similar amounts of electricity as coal or natural gas, but because the energy density of nuclear is so much higher than there are far fewer people and sites producing that electricity – meaning they also have a smaller lobby. Further, when politicians are making decisions, they’re thinking about who is in their district or their state. Every single state has coal and gas – that just isn’t true of the other electricity sources.

This reminds me of the “Aha!” that I had when I learned about the power of the American teachers’ unions. Think about – every political district has a population of union members in about the same proportion to the population. If you were a politician would you want to make the unions hate you?

I’m fairly sure that coal & gas interests love wind & solar – because they know that renewables will never threaten their market dominance. Nuclear is different – it can eliminate coal & gas in the electric utility markets, and eventually even in the industrial sectors such as nitrogen fertilizer production.

The Poverty of the Energiewende

Vaclav Smil on the fatally flawed Energiewende:

….Anybody aware of Germany’s technical prowess must ask: why has the nation that helped to pioneer the age of electricity (above all thanks to the engineering genius of Werner von Siemens and organizational achievements of Emil Rathenau) rushed into the difficulties that were easy to envision — into generating those highly fluctuating electricity flows? These flows create havoc with the grids in neighboring countries by suddenly overloading their transmission capacity, and they undermine economic viability of traditional utilities due to low returns realized on the repeatedly interrupted, but still necessary, fossil fuel-based generation.

And the impacts go far beyond the fate of large utilities. Germany now has the most expensive electricity in Europe. In September 2013, Der Spiegel, the country’s premier weekly, gave the headline “How electricity became a luxury good” to its report on Germany’s new energy poverty. The levelized cost of German photovoltaic electricity is easily four times that of coal-based generation, even as the subsidies for renewables continue to rise: they reached €16 billion in 2013. And due to the high cost of imported natural gas (about three times the U.S. price), German thermal power plants fill the demand with the cheapest alternatives, such as domestically produced lignite and, increasingly, imported inexpensive U.S. coal. So far, die Energiewende has not resulted in lower carbon dioxide emissions, one of its key goals.

 

Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.

Is it possible to make a negative $ contribution to PBS? The February 28th PBS Newshour on Fukushima is shocking. Imagine a script written by Arnie Gunderson and Helen Caldicot, designed to create maximum fear and anxiety. 

Hiroshima Syndrome has posted a March 4th critique titled PBS Fukushima Report is Fear-mongering at its Worst which begins:

The February 28 PBS report, Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, is fear-mongering at its most disturbing extreme. The obvious intent is to scare and upset the viewer with exaggeration, innuendo, and thinly-veiled conspiracy theory, all predicated on proliferating fear, uncertainty and doubt. (FUD) There seems to have been little or no effort towards rational informing of the viewers.

Even the lead-in by anchor Judy Woodruff drips with fear and doubt, “Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.” Hardly seen since? Who is she trying to kid? Fukushima has been in the Japanese Press every day for three years, and the internet has been inundated with apocalyptic scenarios made by leading international antinukes on a regular basis. Plus, what about the Fukushima radioactivity reporting coming out of the Pacific coastline of North America the past two months? “Hardly seen”? Give me a break. In addition, the implication that the Press in Japan isn’t covering Fukushima “because it’s so dangerous” is a complete fabrication! They are all over it… like white on rice.

The report itself begins with end-of-the-world insinuations by PBS’ Miles O’Brien, when he says the evacuation zone around F. Daiichi “remains a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned towns, frozen in time. We were on our way to one of the most hazardous places on Earth, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.” Who wrote the script? Harvey Wasserman? Arnie Gundersen? Helen Caldicott? This is straight out of the antinuclear persuasion’s “Fukushima 101” rhetorical guidelines. The apocalyptic beginning follows with a quote from the plant manager posed in a fashion that makes it seem as if he is not taking his job seriously enough, “After all, if you are just cleaning up after an accident, there is a lack of quality, meaning speed is the only concern. I feel that isn’t enough. We need to look ahead, 30 to 40 years.”

Next comes two misleading statements – “Engineers believe some of the nuclear fuel has melted right through the steel containment vessels on to a concrete basement floor, where it is exposed to groundwater.” (Which it isn’t) – “As the ground water passes through the pump, it gets mixed in with the contaminated water that is used to cool the melted-down cores.” (What is O’Brien talking about? What pump? How is the pump mixing the waters? Is he making this up, or does he simply not have a clue?)

Read the whole thing…

Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley

As we try to understand what is really going on in China’s advanced reactor developments, one of the sources has been Mark Halper @markhalper. Mark covered the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 (ThEC13), held at CERN in Geneva last November China eyes thorium MSRs for industrial heat, hydrogen; revises timeline

From Mark’s reports I learned that one of the presentations was by a key figure, Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. Hongjie is the director of what China dubs the “Thorium Molten Salt Reactor” (TMSR) project. One of his slides is shown above, presenting an overview of the TMSR priorities (left side) and the timelines. Happily the Chinese are also focused on the process heat applications of the PH-AHTR (hydrogen to methanol etc.) and the huge benefits to a water impoverished region like China. The Chinese are demonstrating systems-thinking at scale.

There are two Chinese MSR programs:

  • TMSR-SF or solid fuel, which looks to me to be very similar to Per Peterson’s PB-AHTR program at UC Berkeley
  • TMSR-LF or liquid fuel, which I gather is similar to popular LFTR concept.

Both designs are derivative of the Weinberg-driven Oak Ridge (ORNL) molten salt reactor program (that was cancelled by politicians in the 1960s). I understand the PB-AHTR to be most ready for early deployment, which will lay critical foundations for the liquid fuel TMSR-LF (LFTR) implementation a decade or so later. UC Berkeley’s Catalyst magazine has a very accessible summary of the PB-AHTR program.

Mark Halper reported from the Geneva Thorium Energy Conference. The 

I proposed a few days ago a China – OECD cooperation to fast-track deployment of nuclear instead of coal. Fortunately, the Chinese and several of the US labs and universities seem to have figured this out without my help. This is probably all detailed somewhere online, but I’ve not been able to find it so far. These are the parties to the China – US cooperation:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • University of California Berkeley
  • University of Washington

I apologize to anyone I’ve left out.

 

Nuclear City: updates

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Update: Will F @NeedsMorePower in Melbourne (Will’s blog) sent me the announcement Construction of Chinese ‘Nuclear City’ to start at Haiyan in Zhejiang province. And Martin Burkle sent the same press release with the comment 

Since we spent twice the money to build the same thing as China spends, we need about 350 million to get the city started. That seems unlikely.

Indeed – China can make progress faster in the “politically sensitive zones” that aren’t favored by the establishment. So where is China on the road to fast deployment of zero-carbon nuclear energy? So far I’ve not been successful to find out what progress has been completed with the “China Nuclear Power City” since the initial press release (I am finding mostly 404 bad links). Here’s an excerpt from the original press release that Will and Martin sent me:

Plans are advancing for the construction of the first industrial park in China to help with the rapid development of the country’s nuclear power industry, with detailed engineering and construction preparation work at the site in Haiyan, Zhejiang province, expected to start soon.

The coastal city of Haiyan, on the Yangtze Delta, has been selected to house the ‘Nuclear City’. It is some 118 kilometres (70 miles) southwest of Shanghai and close to the cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou and Ningbo. It also lies midway along China’s coast, where several nuclear power plants have been constructed or are planned.

…CNNC and the Zhejiang government plan to accelerate the construction of the nuclear components centre and training centre in Haiyan. The central area of the industrial park and the exhibition centre was to be launched first in July 2010. Enterprises in the industrial park will enjoy priority for bidding quota, bidding training, qualification guidance and specific purchasing with CNNC.

China will reportedly spend some $175 billion over the next ten years on developing the 130 square-kilometre Haiyan Nuclear City.

The Haiyan nuclear industrial park is entitled to all the preferential benefits granted to national economic and technological zones and national hi-tech industrial zones.

The Nuclear City is expected to have four main areas of work: development of the nuclear power equipment manufacturing industry; nuclear training and education; applied nuclear science industries (medical, agricultural, radiation detection and tracing); and promotion of the nuclear industry.

On its website, the Haiyan Nuclear City said that it will be based on the Burgundy region of France, which successfully became an industrial centre for the French nuclear industry. Several small and medium sized French nuclear-related companies moved to Burgundy to actively participate in the global market.

Whatever has happened since the announcement, I take this as a positive indication that the Chinese leadership is thinking seriously about how to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon nuclear. 

Working out what is really happening in China is challenging. For example, reading the WNA China Nuclear Fuel Cycle, I find the identical quote (as above) on “China Nuclear Power City” in Haiyan. Then at the bottom of the section on Industrial Parks I find this:

In May 2013 CGN and CNNC announced that their new China Nuclear Fuel Element Co (CN- FEC) joint venture would build a CNY 45 billion ($7.33 billion) complex in Daying Industrial Park at Zishan town in Heshan and Jiangmen city, Guangdong province. It was to be established during the 12th Five-Year Plan and be fully operational by 2020. However, in July 2013 the plan was abruptly cancelled. The 200 ha park was to involve 1000 tU/yr fuel fabrication as well as a conversion plant (14,000 t/yr) and an enrichment plant, close to CGN’s Taishan power plant.

Dear readers – I would appreciate links to current information. Comments?

System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables?

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From the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a serious piece of work on renewable integration costs.

Abstract:

Levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) are a common metric for comparing power generating technologies. However, there is qualified criticism particularly towards evaluating variable renewables like wind and solar power based on LCOE because it ignores integration costs that occur at the system level. In this paper we propose a new measure System LCOE as the sum of generation and integration costs per unit of VRE. For this purpose we develop a conclusive definition of integration costs. Furthermore we decompose integration costs into different cost components and draw conclusions for integration options like transmission grids and energy storage. System LCOE are quantified from a power system model and a literature review. We find that at moderate wind shares (~20%) integration costs can be in the same range as generation costs of wind power and conventional plants. Integration costs further increase with growing wind shares. We conclude that integration costs can become an economic barrier to deploying VRE at high shares. This implies that an economic evaluation of VRE must not neglect integration costs. A pure LCOE comparison would significantly underestimate the costs of VRE at high shares. System LCOE give a framework of how to consistently account for integration costs and thus guide policy makers and system planers in designing a cost-efficient power system.

Nuclear City: how to help China choose to build new nuclear instead of coal power

Carbon emissions increase 3% per year

Fig. 4. (a) Energy intensity, defined as energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent) divided by real gross domestic product (trillions of 2005 U.S. $), and (b) carbon intensity, defined as fossil fuel carbon emissions (GtC) divided by energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent). Energy intensity of China is normalized to 1.56 that of the United States in 2005. — James Hansen 2014

How are we doing on transitioning off fossil fuels? Renewables activists would have us think we are making more progress every year. In truth, we are making less, not more, progress towards zero-carbon emissions. The global production from non-hydro renewables is about equal to one years growth in energy consumption. At the end I’ll offer further evidence on just how serious our situation is.

As a thought experiment, imagine that less developed regions (LDRs) such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia were building 100% new nuclear plants instead of coal plants. In this imaginary future, we would be close to stabilizing the GHG concentration of our atmosphere. I say “close to”, because if the LDRs are willing to choose nuclear over coal, there is no-problem-whatever with USA, UK, EU accomplishing the same.

Can you imagine China and other fast-growing LDRs giving up coal? I absolutely can imagine it.

Rich country politicians and media spend most of their time talking about what rich countries should do. Not about what China will decide to do based on self-interest. For now, let’s stop talking about rich countries. Instead, let’s talk about what we can do that makes China decide to grow their energy supply using only low-carbon options.

To keep it simple, let’s just talk about China – as a proxy for all the less developed nations (LDRs). China has already demonstrated that:

  • The leadership wants to decarbonize their economy.
  • They will not sacrifice significant economic growth to build zero-carbon power.
  • China will do whatever it takes to avoid a shortfall of energy supply relative to demand.

If we could deliver to Beijing the whole technology package for low-cost, fast-build nuclear the leaders would be very interested. I do not think that political motivation to decarbonize is the main problem in China.

Alternatively, we can keep doing what we are doing. In the absence of any serious political leadership, dedicated scientists and engineers in the national labs, universities and a few startups are working hard to innovate. They are developing new nuclear designs that are walk-away safe, fast to mass-manufacture, mass/volume efficient and fast to deploy. None have enough funding to innovate at any reasonable speed.

Worse is that to actually bring their new design to the market is effectively impossible – both in cost and elapsed time. The innovators must pay the entire cost of teaching the NRC staff about their new technology, then pay to the NRC the entire cost of certification, then pay the cost of building first of a kind commercial scale plant, while creating a complex supply chain that suits the new technology. And so forth. Such institutional barriers also mean that nuclear innovation does not suit venture capital funding, where most funds would expire long before the product began to earn a return.

To make this innovation remotely feasible requires a complete reform of the regulatory framework, and a top level commitment by the national leadership to actually decarbonize. What do you think is the chance that this is going to happen in America? At least before such time as Norwegian beachfront becomes a hot vacation property market.

OK, so it isn’t going to happen in America. Not in Germany. Not even in France. Keep in mind that among the western nations there are powerful, entrenched political and economic interests who are quite happy with the status quo. And extremely unhappy with the prospect that the old hydrocarbon economy would be uncompetitive against carbon free nuclear energy.

These institutional impediments are similar to that faced by low-performance political systems. You can easily name many such nations just in South America and Africa. China had a similar problem coming out from under the curse of Mao. Deng Xiaoping knew he had to liberate the Chinese economy, including attracting foreign direct investment from the “running dog capitalists.” If Deng had tried to reform the entire Chinese nation at once, well he would have had his legs cut off in a heartbeat. The Army and the wealthy who controlled the SOEs would make sure that the status quo was not destabilized.

Deng wondered whether the Hong Kong model could be replicated in new locations that would not threaten the entrenched interests? Maybe in a place like Shenzhen (one of the first four Special Economic Zones). If that worked, then politically it would be much easier to progressively extend the new successful rules to the rest of China. That is roughly the path that Deng Xiaoping set for China.

Oversimplifying, Deng’s SEZ initiative is similar to the concept that prof. Paul Romer has been evolving around the term “Charter Cities“. These are new development zones “chartered” with proven-successful rules. These charters allow families to opt-in to live and work there; allow investors to opt-in to build infrastructure and factories. Therefore creating a competition of cities: competing for residents, investors and markets.

Why can’t we adapt the Charter City concept to create a Nuclear City SEZ? A place where:

  • Taxes and rule-of-law are attractive to investors.
  • Efficient, suitable regulations can be developed.
  • Ample sites are available for constructing new reactors, from demonstration to commercial scale.
  • The new nuclear supply chain can be grown.
  • Factories and skilled labor can be developed to produce as many designs as can compete.

Where would be the ideal place to locate your Nuclear City? China is the obvious place because they have:

  • An almost insatiable need for enormous amounts of carbon-free energy.
  • The political commitment to economic decarbonization.
  • Ample low-cost capital to invest in new plants whose costs are front-loaded.

To progress from imagining to reality we need two things:

  1. Nuclear life-cycle cost to be comparable to coal.
  2. Nuclear deployment rate at least as fast as coal.

How can we accomplish this? Particularly in a climate where America is having to shut down paid-for, nearly zero-carbon nuclear plants? Where Germany is closing ALL of their paid-for, nearly zero-carbon nuclear plants? And Japan? The MDRs (more developed regions) are setting a shockingly awful decarbonization example for the LDRs.

I believe that nuclear fission can be built out at the cost, scale, and rate required to substitute nuclear for coal. This is a decision for China, not a decision for Western politicians. That means developing and deploying low-carbon energy that is dispatchable, scalable, and “cheaper than coal” in terms of System LCOE (including intermittency costs, not just LCOE).

Serious people talk about the expense of new nuclear. In fact the challenge is even bigger than achieving cost parity – a necessary but not sufficient condition. Aside from low cost, we need to make rapid progress on many human fronts. We can thoroughly simulate new reactors on our super-computers, yet this kind of fast-paced effort depends on real people:

  • Growing the nuclear people skills.
  • Growing the safety culture.
  • Growing a sensible regulatory capability.
  • Creating a new high volume supply chain.

Now, imagine that China has committed to creating such a Nuclear City. How can the old nuclear powers marshal their resources to dramatically accelerate the day when nuclear deployment is so attractive to China that they substitute nuclear for coal. Here’s a sketch:

  • The nuclear-technology nations (US, UK, France, et al) offer a nuclear cooperation and technology sharing agreement with China. The idea is to put your best ideas, your best people and your capital into this project — for the long term (decades).
  • Reform the legal framework that prohibits exporting peaceful nuclear power technology.
  • Lose the popular political idea that “We are competing with China”. Substitute the idea that “We are working together to save the planet while we get rich together”.
  • Lose the idea that dirty energy must be expensive. Substitute the idea that clean energy must be cheaper.
  • Invest national R&D funding into the Nuclear City cooperation.

So, why would the various players be motivated to cooperate? Let’s summarize some perspectives:

Update — James Hansen proposes nuclear cooperation  2/24/14 I’m reading Jim’s latest letter this morning Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? I just came to the part of his letter where he addresses the topic of this post. Here’s a fragment:

Second, the United States and China should agree to cooperate in rapid deployment to scale in China of advanced, safe nuclear power for peaceful purposes, specifically to provide clean electricity replacing aging and planned coal-fired power plants, as well as averting the need for extensive planned coal gasification in China, the most carbon-intensive source of electricity. China has an urgent need to reduce air pollution and recognizes that renewable energies cannot rapidly provide needed base-load electricity at large scale. The sheer size of China’s electricity needs demands massive mobilization to construct modern, safe nuclear power plants, educate more nuclear scientists and engineers, and train operators of the power plants.

The United States nuclear industry and universities have much to offer, and in turn they have much to gain by cooperating in development of modern safe nuclear power in China. Opposition to nuclear power in the U.S. has slowed but not stopped progress in nuclear technology. However, the realistic size of the market in the U.S. for improved nuclear designs, as well as for evolving still more advanced designs, is limited, at least in the near-term. Furthermore, for reasons that do not need to be debated here, construction time for a nuclear power plant in the U.S. is of the order of a decade, while it is as short as 3-4 years in China. Thus deep nuclear cooperation between the China and the U.S. over the next 1-2 decades could produce both (1) base-load electricity in China that allows China’s carbon emissions to peak within a decade and then decline, as is essential if climate is to be stabilized, (2) an opportunity for both countries to achieve progress in nuclear technology and thus a basis for comparing the merits of the most advanced renewable and nuclear technologies.

Jim has a lot more to say, a whole page on this general topic — I highly recommend that you read his new letter.

What is in it for “China”?

  • Manufacturing, deployment and operations capabilities will be developed locally (as with AP1000 deal).
  • Chinese human resources can be developed faster when working alongside western scientists, and when taught by the western experts (many of whom are retiring, their deep knowledge soon to be lost to society).
  • Chinese leaders do have to live in their high-pollution cities, a daily reminder of the priority to transition away from coal.
  • Fundamentally this is a very large scale engineering and project-management undertaking — China’s politicians are comfortable with that kind of approach.

What is in it for the existing IP stakeholders?

  • Long term profits. Instead of going out of the nuclear business (like Siemens), they have a chance to be part of the biggest revolution since the beginning of the industrial age.
  • A chance to be shareholders in the new energy infrastructure – to be part-owners in the new utilities and infrastructure.
  • The IP to be contributed is now owned by governments and shareholder companies. A necessary condition is that the existing IP owners must be satisfied that this cooperation will allow them to protect their share of the return on existing IP, as well as the return on the future IP. That’s a negotiation – Silicon Valley law firms can help with options.
  • In this planet-scale effort, it is better to be cooperating than competing.
  • Scientists at the national labs, at experienced suppliers like B&W, these people know that China et al can contribute many very capable engineers and scientists. The scale of the Chinese contribution is being demonstrated already by such as the well-funded MSR development program at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (CAS/SINAP). In 2012 the project had a $350 million budget and a staff off 334 that was supposed to grow to 750 by 2015.

What is in it for the investors?

  • The scale of this planet-wide market opportunity is easily big enough to attract private investors if the political risk is covered.
  • Building the first large scale deployments in China, by itself, eliminates much of the political risk.
  • The nation-partners will have to put up enough risk insurance to lubricate a public-private partnership. I think that means largely insurance against political risk. Against the risks of the familiar Greenpeace lawyering and demonstrating, but also the Rule of Law risk in the non-western jurisdictions. It’s an interesting question: how far will Greenpeace get demonstrating in front of new Chinese nuclear plants?
  • China has demonstrated the political capability to generate MUCH larger amounts of capital than needed to get this going. So DFI (Direct Foreign Investment) may be a case of the outsiders knocking on the door, asking to be let in.

What is in it for Western politicians?

  • I don’t know, because there isn’t much reward here within their motivational framework of about two years. Suggestions?

This challenge is not really technical — it is almost entirely political. The Western institutional structure makes it effectively impossible to achieve rapid progress. France could not rapidly convert from zero to 80% zero-carbon nuclear today. Politically France-could-not-do-it-today. It’s difficult to put into words how large this challenge is. Two charts help me to visualize what is happening on the ground, first Robert Wilson’s recent essay Renewables Growth: Ignoring The Whole Equation shows how insignificant are the 2011 contributions from all hydrocarbon sources + nuclear. In other woods, renewables are detectable but insignificant . Jeff Terry summarized Robert’s essay as “…fossil fuels dominate for decades”.

2011 Everything Else swamps Renewables

Second, this chart is completely self explanatory. Nevertheless I highly recommend that you read the source: Roger Pielke Jr.’s Clean Energy Stagnation.

James Conca explains why California threw away over 13 billion kWhrs of low-carbon electricity each year

Just to recap the SONGS foolishness, three years ago Mitsubishi Heavy Industries sold four new steam generators to SONGS in which the steam generators installed for just one of the two SONGS nuclear reactors contained a manufacturing feature that resulted in a perfect pitch harmonic vibration at 100% steam flow. Vibration amplitudes were large enough in a few hundred steam tubes, out of nearly 10,000, to make contact between them. This unexpected vibration and contact resulted in one tube failing (SONGS Root Cause Analysis). No radiation or other safety issue is a concern with this type of problem, but that’s not what it sounded like in the press.

The other reactor was fine.

This vibration problem did not exist when the system was run at lower power and the unit could be run safely at 70% power.

All we had to do was decrease one reactor’s output by 20% to solve the problem, which would have dropped total output of SONGS by only 8%. So instead of putting out 15 billion kWhrs of electricity each year, SONGS could have put out over 13 billion kWhrs of low-carbon electricity each year. This could have been sustained for 20 years.

Instead, California now has to maintain a shuttered plant for at least that long that is not producing anything and can no longer even pay its taxes for storing its nuclear waste. The cost will, of course, probably be passed on to rate payers somehow.

But such a simple and obvious solution as running at the correct output was not acceptable. In fact, nuclear scientists and engineers (you know, the ones we train for decades to solve these types of problems) were shouted down so fast and so loud by politicos and activists with no understanding of the problem, you’d have thought it was Salem in 1692.

Read on, I think you will agree that James nails it.

Are global wind power resource estimates overstated?

Update: I have bumped this 2013 post to emphasize the significance of this work on limits to wind extraction. The answer to the captioned question is “Yes”, probably overstated by a factor of 5x to 10x. This isn’t an issue for small, dispersed collections of turbines – but it is absolutely a big problem at the scale Germany is planning for offshore wind.

Harvard’s Amanda S Adams and David W Keith recently published their modeling and analysis of the impact of scale on available wind resources in Environmental Research Letters. Update: Dr. Keith’s video abstract is compelling – not to be missed.

(…) Each wind turbine creates behind it a “wind shadow” in which the air has been slowed down by drag on the turbine’s blades. The ideal wind farm strikes a balance, packing as many turbines onto the land as possible, while also spacing them enough to reduce the impact of these wind shadows. But as wind farms grow larger, they start to interact, and the regional-scale wind patterns matter more.

Keith’s research has shown that the generating capacity of very large wind power installations (larger than 100 square kilometers) may peak at between 0.5 and 1 watts per square meter. Previous estimates, which ignored the turbines’ slowing effect on the wind, had put that figure at between 2 and 7 watts per square meter.

In short, we may not have access to as much wind power as scientists thought.

(…) “One of the inherent challenges of wind energy is that as soon as you start to develop wind farms and harvest the resource, you change the resource, making it difficult to assess what’s really available,” says Adams.

(…) “If wind power’s going to make a contribution to global energy requirements that’s serious, 10 or 20 percent or more, then it really has to contribute on the scale of terawatts in the next half-century or less,” says Keith.

If we were to cover the entire Earth with wind farms, he notes, “the system could potentially generate enormous amounts of power, well in excess of 100 terawatts, but at that point my guess, based on our climate modeling, is that the effect of that on global winds, and therefore on climate, would be severe—perhaps bigger than the impact of doubling CO2.”

Environmental Research Letters Volume 8 Number 1; Amanda S Adams and David W Keith 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 015021 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015021

Besides scalability and intermittency there is the minor issue of “how much does it cost“.