India’s citizens want a modern life too

Those of us lucky enough to live in the rich world have grown up with abundant, cheap energy. It is very hard for us to see clearly how much our civilization depends on cheap energy. Our parents might have grown some of our food – but it’s unlikely that our mothers spent five hours a day carrying water and chopping firewood or gathering dung. Our energy surplus allows some of us spend time opining about how India should not build coal power stations but should “leap-frog” to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The cheap energy that we don’t notice privileges us to worry about preventing Indian fossil fuel development.

The preceding guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker is remarkable for telling a complex story in so few words: why India’s climb to an urban, energy-rich life is going to happen rather like we did it. And that we can make a big difference for India’s poor by sharing our know-how to accelerate India’s deployment of shale gas and nuclear fission technologies. Solar and wind are self-promoting technologies – let’s put our focus on the less popular but more effective solutions.

Why energy transitions are the key to environmental progress

This is a guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker (This post first appeared on Observer Research Foundation 23 Feb 2016)

At the United Nations climate talks in Paris last fall, US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need to find climate solutions that advance, rather than undermine, India’s development prospects.

But the reality of what both nations are doing on climate change does not live up to the rhetoric. The overwhelming focus of US-Indian government climate efforts is on expanding renewables and increasing energy efficiency. Both have merit, but should be third order, not top, priorities.

The main climate and development focus of all governments should be on accelerating the pace of energy transitions, from wood and dung to fossil fuels and from fossil fuels to nuclear power. To understand why this is, it is important to put energy and environmental progress in their developmental context.

Almost all nations develop following the same pattern. Small farmers become more productive and move from the country to the city to work in factories and offices. Women become newly empowered. Children gain formal education. And couples choose to have fewer children.

As fewer farmers must produce more food for more people, they invest in tractors, fertilizer and other ways to increase productivity.

Over time, all of this urbanisation and industrialisation delivers large environmental benefits. Using liquid petroleum gas, instead of wood for cooking, almost completely eliminates toxic smoke and can save hours a day.

As we move from wood fuel to fossil fuel, our forests can return and become habitat for wildlife. Recently, India was able to protect her Himalayan forests by subsidising the substitution of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for wood fuel.

Factories and cities create more air pollution at first, but over time become cleaner and greener. Rising societal wealth allows for pollution controls such as catalytic converters and smokestack scrubbers. And dust is reduced by paving roads, improving mining and land use practices and tree-planting.

In the US and Europe, conventional pollutants have been in decline since the early 1970s, and carbon emissions for the last 10 years. Rich nations can afford to move from coal to much cleaner natural gas, which generates a tiny fraction of the pollutants of coal, and half the carbon emissions.

In the US and Europe, major oil and gas discoveries were key to shifting from coal to natural gas and reducing pollution. North Sea natural gas in deep waters reduced Europe’s reliance on coal starting in the 1980s. In the U.S., it was natural gas from shale, a rock formation one mile underground, starting around 2007.

China and India both have significant reserves of natural gas and oil in shale, but lack the workforce, drilling rigs and pipeline infrastructure. Those things will develop over time, the question is at what pace.

Because solar and wind cannot generate power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, their value to developing nations that need cheap reliable power for their factories and cities is highly limited.

Solar and wind are limited for similar reasons in rich nations as well. As solar and wind become a larger amount of the electrical grid, their value declines, as Germany is discovering. That’s because solar and wind create power when it’s not needed and don’t create power when it is most needed from 5 pm to 9 pm.

The great emphasis put on an energy source that cannot support industrialisation and urbanisation is not a coincidence. Environmentalists in India and the West have since the 1960s promoted the Romantic idea that low-energy consumption, rural subsistence living, and renewable energy are best for people and the environment. The last 50 years shows how wrong this idea is.

Economic growth remains tightly coupled with energy consumption. A recent analysis of 76 countries found that Indians and Chinese earning $50,000 per year consumes the same amount of energy as Americans and Europeans did when earning that same amount.

Where European, US and Indian governments put great emphasis on off-grid solar in rural villages, historically most people gain access to LPG and electricity by moving to cities.

Solar and wind are promoted as energy sources with little negative environmental impact but both have large impacts measured on per unit energy basis. Both require 100 times more land as fossil and nuclear plants. And wind and solar require five times more concrete and steel, respectively, than coal, nuclear and natural gas plants, according to the US Department of Energy.

Given the limits to solar and wind in both rich and poor countries, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require a faster transition to nuclear energy, first fission and then fusion. Where the transition from wood to coal began 500 years ago, the transition from fossil to nuclear energy began just 50 years ago.

India is a special case in that while most countries complete, or almost complete, the transition from biomass (wood and dung) to fossil fuels, India aims to make both energy transitions happen at the same time.

Rich countries have the strongest scientific and technical workforces capable of building and operating nuclear power plants, but ideological opponents of the technology have successfully spread fear of nuclear energy since the 1960s.

Polls show Indians support nuclear energy but the Indian nuclear energy programme is only now recovering after having been isolated from the global community over recusal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As such, the most important work by Modi and Obama on climate was removing hurdles to greater US-India collaboration on nuclear energy. India could soon start constructing power plants with US and European companies and hopefully one day soon the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.

The same should be done on natural gas. The US can help India to better access its natural gas reserves, and the Indian government can take advantage of low cost natural gas due to the global oversupply, and potentially start importing large quantities of natural gas from Iran.

Nations around the world, including the US and Europe, show that the transition from wood to fossil fuels takes decades. To the extent there is energy leap-frogging it will mostly be from wood to natural gas and nuclear, not to solar and wind. Renewables should play a role but should not distract nations from the main event of accelerating energy transitions for environmental progresss.

Michael Shellenberger is President of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy NGO based in California.

Rachel Pritzker is President of Pritizker Innovation Fund, a philanthropic foundation supporting technological innovation for human development and environmental progress.

Australia can contribute decisively to multi-lateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle

The Commission strongly believes that multilateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle would play an invaluable role in building global confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and any efforts to that end should be encouraged. Such arrangements would provide an important foundation for a world free of nuclear weapons, where all sensitive fuel cycle activities will need to be under multilateral verification and control. — from the 2009 report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament via @BenThinkClimate

Over the next century we need to triple the global quantity of energy production. Everything that makes civilization civil requires electricity, liquid fuels and energy for industry. Plus we need to help boost another three billion people out of poverty. That means most of the expansion of new energy production is needed in the Global South – outside the OECD nations. Safe, carbon-free nuclear fission should be a big part of that solution.

Let’s take Kenya as an example of the nations that want to build new nuclear power plants. To make that commitment they need affordable access to nuclear fuel. They need to be confident that fuel will always be available to them, regardless of future political issues. It also makes their nuclear launch much easier if they need only to contract for fuel delivery and reprocessing/disposal. If they have to also develop their own nuclear fuel cycle that probably makes the nuclear option uneconomic. If Kenya can’t access the nuclear option we know they will continue with the fossil option.

External pressures: the OECD nations may try to block Kenya’s access to nuclear power, especially if they are concerned about increasing weapons proliferation risk. Certainly anti-nuclear NGOs like Greenpeace will raise the bogeyman of proliferation to disrupt new nuclear power. 

I think it is completely obvious that a politically reliable nation like Australia is a perfect match with Kenya’s need for a dependable front-to-back nuclear fuel partner. Australia can be the “Amazon Prime” for nuclear fuel for all the new nuclear nations, and the existing cases like India and Pakistan.

I’m anticipating a favorable report from the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. So is principal contributor Ben Heard who wrote yesterday explaining the benefits of the “establishment of a multinational storage facility for used nuclear fuel and the subsequent recycling of that material for clean power”.

Whatever happens tomorrow, some stakeholders will stop at almost nothing to try and frighten South Australians.

As well as the potential to benefit economically, we may have the opportunity to shift the world to a decisively safer state of relations. There has never been a more important time to listen to the experts. In more ways than one, our future depends on it.

Energiewende and Caliwende – the Heavy Cost of Ideology

The J.P. Morgan Annual Energy Paper for 2015 is an excellent short resource “A Brave New World: Deep De-Carbonization of Electricity Grids”. They have packed a lot of data and analysis into 28 pages. The focus is Energiewende and Caliwende (the California version of Germany’s Energiewende). The high quality of this report is due at least in part to guidance from Armond Cohen, Executive Director and co-founder of the Clean Air Task Force. And of course Vaclav Smil. Chief Investment Officer Michael Cembalest closes with this:

Deep de-carbonization of the electricity grid via renewable energy and without nuclear power can be done, but we should not underestimate the cost or speed of doing so in many parts of the world. At the minimum, the costs involved suggest that efforts to solve the nuclear cost-safety puzzle could yield large dividends in a post-carbon world. Such is the belief of the scientists, academics and environmentalists who still see a substantial role for nuclear power in the future (see Appendix V). See you next year.

The report gives enough detail that you can see why Germany’s nuclear ban leads to a shocking cost of avoidance of $300. I’ve circled in green the baseline Energiewende result estimated to cost $300/mt CO2. J.P. Morgan modeled a balanced deep decarbonization strategy, which using 35% nuclear, costs only $84/mt CO2.Note that the $300 is a bare-bones estimate – none of the cost of the additional transmission infrastructure required by high-renewables is included in the analysis. Even so the baseline Energiewende plan will double already second-highest in Europe current costs from $108 to $203/MWhr.

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What about Caliwende? The cost to consumers is lower than for Energiewende but the CO2 avoidance cost of the baseline plan is $477/mt CO2 — even worse than Germany because California has already done more CO2 avoidance. Happily, if California implemented a balanced plan (35% nuclear) that drops the CO2 avoidance cost to $174/mt CO2. That is still unnecessarily expensive because of the high-renewables ideology.

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Well, at least both plans have closed a lot of those nasty fossil plants, right? Actually not. Because of the intermittency, at least all of the current thermal generation is required to cover the demand gaps. These charts show just how big those gaps are. This is the largest single source of the high CO2 avoidance costs. All that mostly-idle thermal capacity is still required by the ideology of high-renewables. That means a very small capacity factor so the capital has to be amortized over too-few generation hours.

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What does it all mean? Back to Michael Cembalest (his emphasis):

  • Intermittency greatly reduces the importance of wind and solar levelized cost when assessing high- renewable grids. The cost of backup thermal capacity and storage is an inextricable part of any analysis of a high renewable system. Academic and industry research has reached similar conclusions. A 2015 paper from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research notes that integration costs in systems with high levels of renewable energy can be up to 50% of generation costs, and that the largest single factor is the additional cost of backup thermal power
  • Energy storage reduces CO2 emissions but its cost, utilization rate and energy loss must be accounted for. Even when assuming continued learning curves, storage adds to net system cost
  • (…snip…)
  • Even in California, there are uncertainties to this Brave New World: California’s Independent System Operator gave a presentation in 2014 highlighting how the impacts from increasing renewable energy on the grid are still not fully understood. They mentioned voltage fluctuation due to upward/ downward ramps, high voltage issues on distribution circuits, voltage/power regulation control issues, the greater number of operations and increased maintenance on voltage control, etc.

I appreciated the final paragraphs which concisely dispense with some of the common tooth-fairy stories. There are also appendices backing up these points:

We often hear people referring to other what-ifs regarding high-renewable grids. Many rely on highly uncertain assumptions and conjecture, while others neglect related costs.

  • Could cross-border integration of high-renewable grids reduce the need for backup power and its corresponding cost? That’s the next wave of renewable energy research. It would cost money to build these interconnections, but in theory, if wind and solar patterns are more divergent the larger the geographic area covered, the problem of renewable intermittency could simply be diversified away. Unfortunately, new research on wind suggests that this theory has major limitations. This remains a premise best proven empirically rather than by assumption.
  • What about over-building renewable energy and storage so that the need for and cost of backup power is eliminated? The good news: it’s an emission-less system. The problem is that incremental solar, wind and energy storage costs would dwarf foregone costs of backup thermal power. Our models determined that a system in California with enough wind, solar and storage to eliminate backup power entirely would cost $280-$600 per MWh, which is 2.5x – 5.0x more expensive than Caliwende (depending on assumed storage system properties and costs). Bottom line: a renewable energy storage version of the Temple Granaries looks to be prohibitively expensive.
  • Why not draw on electricity stored in electric car batteries (“car-to-grid”) to reduce storage costs? Another theoretical possibility that’s only worth discussing when we can determine the penetration rate of plug-in vehicles, the participation rate of drivers willing to share their battery with the grid and how much of it they would share, the cost of interconnections, and the cost of incentives required by drivers to have their expensive car batteries cycled more frequently. See Appendix VII.
  • What about “demand management”? If demand could (somehow) be reconfigured to match up with variable renewable generation, unused surpluses and demand gaps would be smaller and system costs could decline. However, demand management is meant to deal with intraday supply-demand issues, not intermittency issues which span weeks and months. See Appendix VIII.

Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”

How can you tell if political leaders are serious about decarbonization? If you see policy discussions like this:

“UK energy policy today seeks to deliver solutions to the so-called energy ‘trilemma’ — the need for a system that is secure and affordable as well as low carbon… One thing remains certain — the scale of the engineering challenge remains massive and the need for whole-systems thinking remains critical… all the easiest actions have already been taken”

The captioned report was submitted October 2015 by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”, subtitled “what must be done now to deliver the UK’s future energy system”. I can’t comment on the extent to which this message was digested by the UK leadership. But I take the fact of the commissioning and publication of the report as a positive sign. I’ve seen nothing approaching this quality from any other government (if I could read Mandarin perhaps I would have seen such discussions in China).

Reading this report made me simultaneously hopeful and depressed. Hopeful because there is such clear thinking going on in the UK. Depressed because this is so extraordinarily rare. Instead I typically see intense media coverage of the latest ramblings of professor 100% Mark Z. Jacobson, nicely deconstructed by Blair here. Let’s close on the optimistic view that in Berlin, Paris and Washington there are intense daily conversations that sound like this fragment from the Executive Summary (red = my emphasis): 

The following actions by government are needed as a matter of urgency: 

  • Undertake local or regional whole-system, large-scale pilot projects to establish real-world examples of how the future system will work. These must move beyond current single technology demonstrations and incorporate all aspects of the energy system along with consumer behaviour and nancial mechanisms.
  • Drive forward new capacity in the three main low carbon electricity generating technologies — nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and o shore wind.
  • Develop policies to accelerate demand reduction, especially in the domestic heat sector, and the introduction of ‘smarter’ demand management1.
  • Clarify and stabilise market mechanisms and incentives in order to give industry the con dence to invest.

In undertaking these actions, government must build on partnerships with all industry stakeholders and communicate clearly and honestly with the public the likely consequences of the necessary evolution of the energy system. Each of these points is expanded on below. 

It is also worth noting that, in developing energy policy, the whole system must always be considered. Electricity, heat and transport, although quite different in their characteristics, are all part of the UK’s energy system and are equally important, with complex interactions between them: targets will only be met by addressing all aspects of the system.

Is there a way forward for Japan’s post-Fukushima fears?

Radiation and reason
Cover art: Spencer Weart’s “The Rise of Nuclear Fear”; Wade Allison’s Radiation and Reason

The survivors of Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake have suffered so much. The former residents of the Fukushima exclusion zone are bearing the additional stress of nuclear fear. Polling of former residents indicates that fewer than one-half may be willing to return. There is so much radiation fear and distrust of government.

Radiophobia is common in Japan, probably explaining why the government enacted radiation standards much lower than scientifically justified; and why politicians nourished expectations of nuclear power perfection. Combining this history with the mismanagement of the Fukushima accident has put Japan in a very unfortunate position:  Japan’s economy is damaged by importing fossil fuels to replace the almost 30% of their electricity generation that has been closed. And the widespread radiophobia may prevent restarting the majority of Japan’s 43 operable reactors. In addition to Japan’s economic stress, the fear of nuclear catastrophe is causing Japan to share their fear globally – as unnecessary carbon emissions.

How to help the Japanese people shift to a realistic view of the benefits vs. risks of restarting their nuclear fleet?

Consider the segment of the American population with similar fears of apocalyptic nuclear accidents. If you wanted to form a Presidential Commission to evaluate and report on the entire range of energy options – who would you nominate that could influence the fearful? Who would I nominate? George P. Shultz is an easy choice. If he accepted, the rest of the recruiting would go well. My next call would be to Burton Richter. Besides his deep competence and gravitas he has long experience with just this sort of public policy responsibility, and practical experience with getting things done in government. As an example Burt has been a key contributor to the California Council On Science And Technology project “Policies for California’s Energy Future”. My third pick would be Jane Long – who coincidentally was the very effective leader of the enlightened CCST project.  

Surely Japan has public figures of similar skills and stature. Who are they? How much impact could such an “Japan Energy Commission” have on public fears? Could such a commission get the ear of Japan’s heavily anti-nuclear media?

A complementary approach could be to adapt Robert Stone’s concept of building a high-credibility story around “switchers”. If Robert himself could be enlisted to this project he would be a powerful agent of change. I’m sure he could train a Japanese counterpart. As a director Robert knows how to organize the effort to tell a compelling story. There must be Japanese anti-nuclear campaigners who have switched?

Regarding funding of such a project, moving Japan towards a pragmatic energy policy isn’t just for Japan’s benefit. Earth’s atmosphere will obviously say “Thank you” for reduced Japanese emissions. Emissions aside, Germany plus Japan’s nuclear shutdown is having a big negative impact across the globe. If Japan restarts most of their nuclear fleet that will send a very helpful signal.


Caltech lecture: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century by Burton Richter


The seminar announcement of Burt Richter’s 18 Feb, 2015 presentation for the Chen-Huang Sustainable Energy Seminar Series. The timing of the seminar is driven by the release of the second edition “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors”.

Burton Richter’s award winning book assesses energy demand over the century and the sensible, senseless and biased proposals for averting the potentially disastrous consequences of global warming, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions on switching to more sustainable energy provision. 

The video of the lecture is 96 minutes.

CFR Analysis of the Oil-for-Renewables Trade in the US Budget Deal


At the Council on Foreign Relations Varun Sivaram and Michael Levi completed an analysis of the proposed “oil for renewables” trade in the proposed budget deal.  It looks to be well-done, though there is no discussion of the costs of the proposed renewable subsidies. I’ve inquired via the comments:

  1. How much existing nuclear capacity is likely to be prematurely closed due to the subsidized cheap wind/solar?

  2. How much new nuclear is likely to be built if this deal was technology neutral, treating zero-carbon nuclear generation equally?

  3. What is the total avoidance cost per ton CO2 for the favored renewables?

CGEP Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy

On April 10, 2015 the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a “Discussion on Nuclear Technology and Policy.” The CGEP panel:

Tom Blees, President, The Science Council for Global Initiatives;
Travis Bradford, Associate Professor of Practice in International and Public Affairs; Director, Energy and Environment Concentration, Columbia SIPA;
Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy; and,
Robert Stone, Director, Pandora’s Promise.

There is a lot of well-informed discussion – I recommend the 90 minute video. Around 1:04 Robert Stone was asked to comment on current public attitudes towards nuclear power. He replied that of the screenings where he was present “the response overwhelming support, over 90% in favor of what I’m saying in the film.” At 1:06 Robert goes in to the exceptions to this positive outlook. Following is a loose partial transcript:

Surprisingly, audiences in Europe are still infused with this idea that Chernobyl killed 100s of thousands of people. There are continual documentaries on television about that.

(…snip…) Probably the most controversial and shocking aspect of the film was what the World Health Organization has reported after years and years of study. WHO has published that substantially less than 100 people have had their lives shortened by the Chernobyl accident.

The mayor of the town of where 50,000 people were relocated from Chernobyl asked me to bring the film. They were so grateful for the film because there is this perception that we all have two headed babies, we are all dying of cancer. They said no documentary film maker has ever talked to them or visited them.

Europe: there have been so many EU TV documentaries claiming great damage/death caused by Chernobyl – and more that talked about Fukushima in the same way. No European broadcaster has shown Pandora’s Promise. 

They said we can’t show your film because it contradicts all the films that we have produced. They can’t both be true. It will undermine our credibility with our audience.

China Shows How to Build Nuclear Reactors Fast and Cheap — Plus Serious Advanced Reactor R&D on FHR & MSR


Map credit Forbes

China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) is still in the early planning stage, but @JimConca has just posted an outline of the ambitious nuclear plans at Forbes. Jim sees 350 GW and “over a trillion dollars in nuclear investment” by 2050. Near term to 2030 China plans to build seven reactors per year achieving 150 GW total generation by 2030. Jim concludes that China seems to be commissioning new nuclear plants for roughly 1/3 of US costs.

It seems as though 5 years and about $2 billion per reactor has become routine for China. If that can be maintained, then China will be well-positioned as the world’s nuclear energy leader about the time their middle class swells to over one billion.

That’s the PWR deployment story. Globally some of the most serious advanced reactor development is being undertaken by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in collaboration with the US national labs — working on the solid-fueled salt-cooled FHR (PB-AHTR) plus ORNL for their experience with the MSR. Here’s a summary on the collaboration from my post Nuclear City: it’s happening in Shanghai and Berkeley. The Chinese program is seriously ambitious as you can see from their aggressive schedule and USD $400 million funding:

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

The United States could be leading the global nuclear deployment. But so long as the Big Greens are running the show that won’t happen. The good news is that once the love affair with solar/wind/gas collides with reality, then the US can get in line for low-cost, advanced Chinese nuclear technology.