Laurent Franckx: Review of “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”

In March 2011 Laurent published an in-depth review of David MacKay’s essential reference. He brought to my attention in his comments on my little review David MacKay: Sustainable energy without the hot air. I recommend Laurent’s review to you. Here’s my comments:

(…) I’ve read your review twice, and am working my way through your other posted reviews. I agree in general with your review of Mackay’s book, which is a remarkable contribution to the literature on energy policy.

You make several good points on the economic realities of energy policy, such as

MacKay barely touches upon the energy and non-energy resource cost of creating the infrastructure that will provide all this renewable energy. This is not a trivial matter.  

I have just one quibble with the way you characterize the book as concluding that “yes, it is physically possible to fulfil a country’s energy needs with renewable energy”.

Adding to MacKay’s physics analysis a view of political economy and economic efficiency, my conclusion was rather the inverse. Specifically, that “renewables” as popularly defined could make a useful but small contribution to a zero carbon 2060 future. There are a number of special cases, such as availability of buffering hydropower, that allow wind and solar to compete. But Kholsa’s “Chindi test” of “cheaper than coal” and nearly-zero-carbon is only satisfied by nuclear power.

MacKay was very careful to avoid “picking winners” in his text. But I think you can see his mind in the quote I chose to head this post:

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic. — David MacKay

Of course I cannot speak to what Dr. MacKay actually thinks. In his own words, his Q&A site includes the following:

You say I am pro-nuclear; I don’t quite agree; the way I would put it is “I am in favour of any plan that adds up”; and I think we should push for a plan that adds up, not half measures and figleafs. I would be perfectly content with a renewable-only plan. I don’t think we should allow religious dogmatism about any one option to prevent us making a plan that adds up. All technologies have risks, and many human activities make toxic waste. I discuss nuclear waste in the book. It’s not infinitely dangerous. It is dangerous. Where to put it? Well, there’s lots of choice, but here’s one idea for the UK – we already have armed guards and security fences around Balmoral, and the public aren’t allowed in there. So we could kill two birds with one stone. The entire UK’s high-level nuclear waste for 50 years could easily be stored in a very small area (one square km is more than enough). The high level waste remains intensely nasty for roughly 1000 years. It’s definitely nasty, but as I say in the book, I think it’s a relatively small problem, compared with the much greater bulk of other wastes, and compared with the challenge of making an honest plan that adds up. In Britain today, there are anti-wind people, anti-tidal-barrage, anti-nuclear, and anti-coal campaigns. We can’t be anti-everything. We need a plan that adds up. Not wishful thinking. Honest numbers.

In his comments he avoids any discussion of next-generation nuclear technology — which consumes as valuable feedstock what is today called “nuclear waste”. I think that exclusion is entirely appropriate to the purpose of his book. But IFR is a real technology. In 2060 it will not even be controversial.

Why is nuclear power the core climate change solution?

[For accessibility, I've bumped the time-stamp on this post from Jan 2010 to May 2011. Ed.]

Here’s an email from critical-thinker friend and paleo oceanographer Will Howard:

January 2010: Trying to get my head around nuclear power issues. I would describe myself as a nuclear “agnostic.” But the more I read the more I can see the merits of Barry Brooks’ (and your) point of view, and realizing we’ve lost a lot of time bringing nuclear power online.

I replied:

I too was “agnostic”, but leaning against more nuclear generation. I was concerned about all that long-lived “waste”. Why do we need nuclear power — my optimistic-self wanted to believe Ray Kurzweil that “nanotechnology” would somehow enable solar to become the answer for clean, affordable energy. Or geothermal, wind, tidal, or bio-something.

As I studied energy policy it became clear that a necessary condition that must be satisfied by carbon-free energy is that it must be “cheaper than coal“. Otherwise, the dominant future polluters, the developing world, will continue building coal power stations. After 25 years of government subsidies, the results for “renewables” just don’t add up — not even close. Certainly, there are geographic niches where the free market will adopt wind or solar, but on a global basis, pushing for such “renewables” just prolongs the dominance of coal (and gas). The Big Green NGOs and Green parties have lost the plot — they have forgotten that the goal is to achieve zero emissions, not to promote particular popular technologies.

As you say “we’ve lost a lot of time bringing nuclear power online”. Instead of being coal-dependent, both America and Australia could easily have adopted the French model, which with almost entirely nuclear-based electricity generation, makes France the standard for other developed countries to achieve (the challenge for the rest of the planet is to catch up to where France is today!). Sigh… The good news is that China does not seem to be that stupid.

So — what solid information can we offer that is useful to our friends? For foundation reading I recommend David MacKay’s famous energy policy book “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” . Dr. Mackay is now Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. You can follow some of David’s efforts here, and you can find Seekerblog posts on MacKay’s work with this search.

Next, I recommend Australian environmental scientist Prof. Barry Brook (Adelaide University). Barry and colleagues have created a remarkable resource — the BraveNewClimate.com blog, where Barry has been applying his considerable critical-thinking skills to the energy policy issue. His September 2009 post “A necessary interlude” is a concise summary of why Barry eventually shifted his focus to concentrate on the nuclear solution. I recommend a careful read of the short essay. In brief, Barry wants the conversation focused on energy policy that will work in the real world. Near the end of the post Barry succinctly summarizes his view of the energy options — this is so good I have reproduced that segment here [the emphasis below is mine]:

(…) It is my conclusion, from all of this, that nuclear power IS the only viable FF [fossil fuels] alternative.

I am vitally interested in supporting real solutions that permit a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, especially coal (oil will, at least in part, take care of itself). If the conclusion is that wind/solar cannot meaningfully facilitate this transition, why bother to promote them? Now, I should make one thing quite clear. I am not AGAINST renewable energy. If folks want to build them, go for it! If they can find investors, great! Indeed, I’m no NIMBY, and would be happy to have a conga line of huge turbines gracing the hills behind my home, just as I’d be happy to have a brand spanking new nuclear power station in my suburb. But why should I promote something I have come to consider — on a scientific and economic basis — to be a non-solution to the energy and climate crisis? That doesn’t make sense to me.

To your questions:

1. Coal with CCS — doomed to failure. Why? Because the only thing that is going to be embraced with sufficient vigour, on a global scale, is an energy technology that has the favourable characteristics of coal, but is cheaper than coal. CCS, by virtue of the fact that it is coal + extra costs (capture, compressions, sequestration) axiomatically fails this litmus test. It is therefore of no interest and those who promote it can only do so on the basis of simultaneously promoting such a large carbon price that (a) the developing world is highly unlikely to ever impose it, and (b) if they do, CCS won’t be competitive with nuclear. CCS is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

2. Natural gas has no role in baseload generation. It is a high-carbon fossil fuel that releases 500 to 700 kg of CO2 per MWh. If it is used in peaking power only (say at 10% capacity factor), then it is only a tiny piece in the puzzle, because we must displace the coal. It it is used to displace the coal baseload, then it is a counterproductive ’solution’ because it is still high carbon (despite what the Romms of this world will have you believe) and is in shorter supply than coal anyway. Gas is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

3. The developing world lives in Trainer’s power-down society already, and they are going to do everything possible to get the hell out of it. The developed world will fight tooth and nail, and will burn the planet to a soot-laden crisp, rather than embrace Trainer’s simpler way. Power down is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

4. It is nice to imagine that renewables will have a niche role in the future. But actually, will they? They don’t have any meaningful role now, when pitted in competition with fossil fuels, so why will that be different when pitted fairly against a nuclear-powered world? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t frankly care, because even if renewable energy can manage to maintain various niche energy supply roles in the future, it won’t meet most of the current or future power demand. So niche applications or not, renewables are peripheral to the big picture because they are a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

5. Smart grids will provide better energy supply and demand management. Fine, great, that will help irrespective of what source the energy comes from (nuclear, gas, coal, renewables, whatever). Smarter grids are inevitable and welcome. But they are not some white knight that will miraculously allow renewable energy to achieve any significant penetration into meeting world energy demand in the future. Smart grids are sensible, but they are not a solution to the climate and energy crises.

To some, the above may sound rather dogmatic. To me, it’s the emergent property of trying my damnedest to be ruthlessly pragmatic about the energy problem. I have no barrow to push, I don’t get anything out of it — other than I want this problem fixed. I don’t earn a red cent if nuclear turns out be the primary solution. I don’t win by renewables failing. The bottom line is this — if this website is looking more and more like a nuclear advocacy site, then you ought to consider why. It might just be because I’ve come to the conclusion that nuclear power is the only realistic solution to this problem, and that’s why I’m ever more stridently advocating it. This is a ‘game’ we cannot afford to lose, and the longer we dither about with ultimately worthless solutions, the closer we come to endgame, with no pawn left to move to the back row and Queen.

So what can you expect from BNC in the future? Much more on nuclear power (both Gen III and Gen IV), obviously, since I now consider this technology to be the core climate change solution — whilst openly acknowledging the yawning gulf between the scientific understanding of nuclear power and the public’s perception. This must change, and I hope, in my modest way, I can be an agent for that attitudinal shift. I also plan to launch an extended series on renewable energy, with an aim to break down the often complex and multifaceted critiques being made, into simpler, single-issue chunks, which can be more readily pinned down and understood. I will also profile some of the less well-developed low-carbon technologies, such as tidal, wave, microalgae, and geothermal, and speculate on their possible future roles. I hope in this way that I’ll be able to reinforce people’s understanding of why I no longer hold renewable energy to be a primary solution — and yet, by the same yardstick of maintaining intellectual honesty, I’ll also try my very best to keep an open mind to unconsidered possibilities and caveats that are raised by commenters (be these against nuclear energy, and/or for renewables). As I said, healthy thought should never cease to evolve.

When you see anti-nuclear propoganda, always ask yourself “Who Benefits?” And yes, the following is exactly our objective — to kill all coal fired generation (except for CCS plants, if they can make it work).

Summary of developing world nuclear planned and under construction:

China already has 9 GWe operating, with 61 GWe new reactors planned, including some of the world’s most advanced. Their goal is least 60 GWe (total) by 2020, and 120-160 GWe by 2030. China demands aggressive technology transfer in their contracts — e.g., in return for the large commitment to Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, China will be building and supplying most of the components after the first two plants are completed.

India expects to have 20 GWe nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 63 GWe by 2032. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050 [I think this goal is much less than India is likely to achieve]. India is a leader in Thorium Fast Breeder (FBR) technology and could turn out to be a major global supplier of new nuclear plants.

(…) India has uniquely been developing a nuclear fuel cycle to exploit its reserves of thorium.

Now, foreign technology and fuel are expected to boost India’s nuclear power plans considerably. All plants will have high indigenous engineering content.

India has a vision of becoming a world leader in nuclear technology due to its expertise in fast reactors and thorium fuel cycle.

Russia is producing some 22 GWe in 31 plants, including the BN-600, one of the longest operating fast breeder reactors in the world. Russia has another 37 GWe of new capacity under construction, planned, or proposed.

Brazil has about 2GWe power by two Siemens plants at Angra, and 8GWe more planned for 2030 and 60GWe total by 2060. The bad news is that there will be many megatons of coal burned before this turns around.