California’s Energy Future — The View to 2050

Jane C. S. Long was a member of the California Council on Science and Technology who published the captioned report. Here’s an excerpt from her comments at Nature News. California’s politics seems to be dominated by “magical thinking”. In contrast this report reflects systems thinking, because they staffed the study with actual energy experts like Nobelist nuclear physicist Burton Richter.

In 2005, California threw down the gauntlet: by executive order, the state must reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 80% below what they were in 1990, by 2050. Similar targets have been adopted in Europe, but the California goal is well beyond any federal policy taken on in the United States. Is it possible? What will it take to achieve it? For two years, I was part of a group of energy experts in California that tried to answer those questions. Our report, California’s Energy Future — The View to 2050 , was released by the California Council on Science and Technology earlier this year.

(…) Similarly, it is popular to promote extensive use of wind power, with no worries about what to do when the wind doesn’t blow. Somehow the problem just gets ‘solved’. Some say that we can radically reduce emissions with only a major emphasis on efficiency, or just by changing our behaviour. But what if it doesn’t add up?

In our report, the California’s Energy Future Committee looked at the big picture, asking which technical strategies will achieve an energy system with near-zero emissions yet still meet society’s needs. We estimated how much more efficient buildings, industry and transportation could become, and how quickly cars, buses, trains and heat production could be electrified. We looked at how to supply that electricity from near-zero-emissions sources: nuclear power, fuel-based power plants used with carbon capture and storage technology, and renewable energy. We also worried about emissions from ‘load balancing’, in which generators are used to meet peak loads or fill in for intermittent power from solar or wind sources. We assessed how much biomass might be sustainably available to meet the remaining demand for fuel, and how much it could help to cut emissions. We counted everything, but only once. It was hard, but it was honest.

(…) A reliable reinvented energy system should provide base-load power without intermittency or emissions. California should exploit all the geothermal energy it can. Carbon-capture schemes should focus not on coal-fired plants, but on lower-cost natural-gas plants, which produce fewer emissions to sequester. And the state should rethink its opposition to nuclear power.

It is remarkable to see a California state-affiliated report that even mentions the word “nuclear”. Further, the excellent report segment on nuclear power was led by Stanford’s Burton Richter, the former head of SLAC. Here’s Dr. Richter’s introduction:

Dr. Long explained this morning the analysis that led to the inclusion of nuclear power as part of the California energy mix in 2050. I will briefly summarize the main conclusions of the nuclear energy report, and then go on to the two issues that are probably most in the minds of all of us; the impact of the Fukushima accident and what will be done about spent reactor fuel.

Report Highlights

The report assumes 67% of California’s electricity will come from nuclear while the rest is renewables as called for in AB-32. This would require 44 Gigawatts of nuclear capacity or about 30 large reactors. While reactor technology is certain to evolve over the period of interest, we assumed that they will be similar to the new generation of large, advanced, light-water reactors (LWR), known as GEN III+ that are now under review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This allows us to say something about costs since these are under construction in Asia and Europe, and a larger number of similar systems have been built in Asia recently. Our main conclusions on technical issues are as follows:

• While there are no technical barriers to large-scale deployment of nuclear power in California, there are legislative and public acceptance barriers that have to be overcome to deploy new nuclear reactors.

• The cost of electricity from new nuclear power plants is uncertain in the United States because no new ones have been built in decades. Our conclusion is that six to eight cents per KW-hr is the best estimate today.

• Loan guarantees for nuclear power will be required until the financial sector is convinced that the days of large delays and construction cost overruns are over. Continuation of the Price-Anderson act is assumed.

• Nuclear electricity costs will be much lower than solar for some time. There is insufficient information on wind costs yet to allow a comparison, particularly when costs to back up wind power are included.

• Cooling water availability in California is not a problem. Reactors can be cooled with reclaimed water or with forced air, though air cooling is less efficient and would increase nuclear electricity prices by 5% to 10%.

• There should be no problem with uranium availability for the foreseeable future and even large increases in uranium costs have only a small effect on nuclear power costs.

• While there are manufacturing bottlenecks now, these should disappear over the next 10 to 15 years if nuclear power facilities world-wide grow as expected.

• There are benefits to the localities where nuclear plants are sited. Property taxes would amount to $50 million per year per gigawatt of electrical capacity (GWe) in addition to about 500 permanent jobs.

The full report discusses all these issues in more detail including weapons proliferation issues in a world with many more nuclear plants, spent fuel issues, and future options (including fusion).

Read the whole thing »