Welcome to the Energy Blog


  • The Energy Blog is where all topics relating to The Energy Revolution are presented. Increasingly, expensive oil, coal and global warming are causing an energy revolution by requiring fossil fuels to be supplemented by alternative energy sources and by requiring changes in lifestyle. Please contact me with your comments and questions. Further Information about me can be found HERE.

    Jim


  • SUBSCRIBE TO THE ENERGY BLOG BY EMAIL

After Gutenberg

Clean Break

The Oil Drum

Statistics

Blog powered by Typepad

« FYI: Solar Cell Production Jumps 50 Percent in 2007 | Main | Happy New Year »

December 31, 2007

Comments

Udo Stenzel

Wow, 35% of total US energy consumption by 2050. Assuming we still have an inhabitable planet by then, where does the rest come from? And 90% by 2100, a time when none of the proponents of these schemes will be alive to receive the well deserved spanking for their Pinky-and-Brain plans not working out. Never mind that the $400G are only the needed subsidy, with the actual cost, which is never even calculated, being two orders of magnitude higher. (For that money you could get tens of tera(!)watts of nuke power.) At any rate, I'll remember this study to have something to point the anti-nuke-kooks to who claim that new nuclear reactors would "do too little, too late" and at too high a price.

Cyril R.

There are many huge gaps in the text, yes, but what matters is that we can take the more useful, realistic notions out of it.

The HVDC proposal might need some refining, but in essence it's a good concept. I suggest spreading it out more to reduce risk of critical junctions failing. Although that might add more to the costs, I'd like to point out that having complete grid access to most of the US means other renewables such as PV, wind, geothermal, biomass, wave, tidal and whatnot could be hooked up much easier with less costs to this same grid. I also suggest large amounts of demand side management (smart grid) in particular thermal storage management to act as reserve load.

There are some interesting long term transmission developments such as superconducting materials. I don't think room temperature superconductors are strictly necessary, as long as the superconducting properties occur under temperatures when workable fluids such as the alcohols are liquid it could be doable.

Regarding transportation, V2G could be a useful contribution especially in a nationwide smart grid. It will take a long time to get that many plug-ins on the road anyway. Advanced biofuels combined with advanced battery plug-ins looks like a full solution to me.

Utility non-concentrating PV with large amounts of CAES or even AACAES does not sound as commercially viable to me as concentrating PV with CAES/AACAES or wind plus CAES/AACAES or solar thermal plus thermal storage. So there needs to be some tweaking in the numbers and which technology provides what type of market best.

Cyril R.

Udo Stenzel seems to think that criticizing solar makes nuclear power expansion more viable.

While I support nuclear power in the US, it it best not to hold on to illusions. The political and social problems of and resistance to nuclear fission, although usually overblown, may very well limit it's expansion considerably in the near to medium term. And then, having our eggs in the nuclear basket, as propagandists like Udo would no doubt like to propose, we haven't gotten anywhere. Very strategic thinking Udo.

Cyril R.

There are some useful comments under the article by the authors:

James Mason:

1) The land area estimate is based on the area of the modules (PV) and collectors (CSP) plus the land between the rows, which is spaced to prevent cross-shading when the sun is low in the sky, which is a factor of 2.5 for PV and a factor of 3.0 for CSP. The land area for service roads, buildings, etc. are not included, but will be a very small percentage of the total land area (less than 1%).

2) The desert is not benign, but neither are rooftops. However, we do have twenty years of experience with desert solar systems. The article contains photographs of the Kramer Junction concentrating solar power (CSP) plant and the Springerville photovoltaic (PV). The Kramer Junction CSP plant is located in the Mojave Desert and has been in continuous operation since the late 1980s. The Springerville PV plant is in Springerville, Arizona and has been in operation since 2001. While the desert environment is harsh, the low humidity is beneficial to the long-term operation of solar plants. For example, the mounting frames and wiring conduits for PV plants will easily last for sixty years or more based on the actual experience of power operators in Arizona. This means that post-amorization costs of PV will decline significantly. And the operating life of PV modules, which is not known with certainty at present, may well prove to be sixty years in the low humidity environment of the Southwest.

There will be concerns about wildlife, I'm sure. In our land calculations, we have consulted NREL's (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) maps which designation environmentally sensitive areas and these have been excluded as well as populated areas and areas with a land slope greater than 3%.

In conclusion, we do not see any major obstacles to the use of 200,000 square miles of land in the Southwest. But there undoubtly be issues raised along the way, but again these costs will be minor.

I would like to see hydrogen electrolysis plants built in conjunction with PV plants. Now this will require a lot of water and I'm talking about locating these plants in the most arid regions of the country. Where do we get the water?

Never should we be tapping the underground aquifers or rivers and lakes. With the Solar Grand Plan, we are calling for innovative ideas such as rain-runoff collection systems built into the solar plant design. Rain only comes a few times a year in the desert areas we are considering. The rain is a monsoon type rain, i.e., very heavy amounts in a short period of time, typically 1-3 inches in a couple of hours. The rain runs off into the desert and evaporates. The rain does not feed rivers or aquifers, it simply evaporates. Why not collect this large amount of water (which is many times the water needed to produce hydrogen or to cool the steam at the CSP power plant) by building a series of underground drains and piping network to store the water in underground tanks. The State of Arizona is supporting efforts to establish rain runoff collection and storage systems. As a society we need to be creative and begin working with our environment rather than against it. And I fully support the participation of critics in making this plan work.

3) Under-estimating the costs and over-estimating the benefits. The only way I can answer this is with another question - What are the options? - coal, oil, natural gas, uranium mining and extraction and refineries etc. And not to mention the new energy sources of oil sands and shale oil, which will be even more environmentally invasive. The solar path is not in the same league as these other energy paths in terms of environmental degradation and global political intrusion. But this does not mean that we should turn a deaf ear towards the issues. Yes there are issues but the issues are much more manageable than the issues involved with fossil and nuclear energy forms.

For example, the emerging thin-film firms mentioned in the article are building recycling into their product lines at the point of sale (with an agreement to repurchase the retired modules at their end-of-life). I am not aware of any other industry taking this pro-active stance toward recycling their product line.

Cyril R.

James Mason continued:

Security of centralized solar systems. With PV there is no security concerns. Look at the aerial view of the Springerville PV plant in the article. Imagine someone bombing it. The bomb would knock out a couple of kilowatts of power, which would not significantly impair the electricity production of the total system and could be repaired rapidly. Whereas, if a refinery or conventional power plant is bombed, gigawatts of power production could be permanently knocked off line. The same goes for the power lines. Power lines are already ubiquitous in our society and the HVDC lines will be just one more line. Therefore, I do not believe that the centralization/decentralization distinction is important in terms of security issues.

However, the distinction is important. We did not emphasize decentralized power systems in the article. But it is built into our plan with the notion of distributed, rooftop PV systems. But before we get there, we need to lower the cost of PV.

PV at present is manufactured at sub-optimum scale. The most important aspect of our plan is the ten-year price support program designed to bring multiple PV and CSP firms to optimum scale manufacturing. At the end of the ten year subsidy program, there will be winner and loser companies. The winning companies will be at optimized scale, and with multiiple firms there will be a competitive manufacturing industry. In this manner, PV can attain its "real" competitive price (review the development of the computer industry over the past thirty years).

When thin film PV attains optimized scale in a competitive industry setting, I believe things will get interesting in terms of de-centralized, distributed power applications.

I look around me now and I see small solar strips powering my calculators and all types of small gadgets. When the price of PV gets into the $1 per watt range, I can begin to invision PV roofing materials, backyard hydrogen electrolysis systems producing hydrogen from tapwater, etc.

But before we can consider these possibilities we have to get to optimized scale manufacturing and that means gigawatts of new solar plants installed now and for ten years under a subsidized national solar energy plan with the price support program that we mention in the article.

People are always stating that they don't know how they can have an impact. Individuals do have an impact (if there are enough individuals with the same vision).

First you have to believe in the solar vision, educate yourself about the issues to address critics, be involved politically by getting the message to your public representatives in whatever manner is best for you (at the least write letters to key officials on issues), and bring up the need for a comprehensive National Solar Energy Plan, which includes a ten-year price support program, in forums such as the upcoming one on global warming that you provide the link to.

Is there another plan out there that will actually solve the problems in a timely fashion. And it is important to note that our ambitious plan is going to take ten years of initial development to be up and running at the scale that will actually make a difference. The U.S. energy sytem is huge, and the longer we delay truly addressing the scale of the problem, the higher the price we will pay both in terms of climate change, national energy security, and ever rising energy prices.

Cyril R.

Check out the rest here

Paul F. Dietz

If the cavern were sufficiently insulated the most efficient method would be hot air storage.

The problem is that the cost of the cavern is significant, and is (naively) proportional to its volume, so you want the air stored there to be dense. Hot air is less dense than cool air. It's a matter of capital cost, not efficiency.

Cyril R.

Paul, I was under the impression that the cost of developing the resevoir was relatively low as systems with larger amounts of storage relative to the expander capacity were modelled to have a lower levelised cost per kWh?

Charles Barton

The solar path is not in the same league as these other energy paths in terms of environmental degradation and global political intrusion.- James Mason

The massive Solar Farms proposed by Mason and his associates, will have far more adverse impact on the fragile desert ecology, than breeder reactors will have on their environment. With Molten Salt Breeder Reactors, only limited mining will be needed, there is little waste to dispose of, and electricity.

It is funny that the metals that go into SV, and PT (or for that wind power) arrays are mined and refined without environmental consequences, while mining materials that go into a reactor has terrible ecological impacts. Nor do huge "farms" covering thousands of square miles of desert floor adversely impact desert ecology. If the idea comes from "greens" it must help the environmentally sound, because "greens" care about the environment! Yes indeed they do! In fact no "green" idea needs to be vetted for environmental impact.

Charles Barton

There will be concerns about wildlife, I'm sure. In our land calculations, we have consulted NREL's (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) maps which designation environmentally sensitive areas and these have been excluded as well as populated areas and areas with a land slope greater than 3%.

In conclusion, we do not see any major obstacles to the use of 200,000 square miles of land in the Southwest. But there undoubtly be issues raised along the way, but again these costs will be minor.- James Mason

Imagine, if you will that this statement came from an advocate for nuclear power. Imagine Mason is describing plans to locate fields of nuclear power plants in the desert Southwest. Would environmentalists be satisfied with this statement? What could possibly be wrong with it?

Dannah

One reason solar may have been selected over wind and other renewable energy sources is probably because solar panels require less maintenance and transmit more stable power to the grid.

Dannah

One reason solar may have been selected over wind and other renewable energy sources is probably because solar panels require less maintenance and transmit more stable power to the grid.

Mike

Charles B.,
The problem with your assertions is that nuclear is not sustainable but solar is. It's as simple as that. We are going to run out of U235 before 2100 especially if we ramp up nuclear production. That means creating another energy economy that is good for about one generation.

If you counter with the fast neutron reactor and fuel reprocessing cycle we are then talking about experimental technology with numerous potential dangers including the creation of all kinds of nasty transuranic elements.

It may be that we need some kind of exhaustible-resource back ups to a renewable energy economy but we should focus on the sustainable option first and then build around that.

The strategy you propose is still stuck on mining stuff and using it up.

Paul F. Dietz

The problem with your assertions is that nuclear is not sustainable but solar is. It's as simple as that. We are going to run out of U235 before 2100 especially if we ramp up nuclear production.

You are making assumptions without justifying them. For example, extraction of uranium from seawater would make your statement incorrect, if it can be done at costs not much above estimates that have been made for polyamidoxime adsorber technology.

Charles Barton

Mike wer don't need U235 to run reactors. We can breed Pu239 from U238, or U233 from Th232. The technology is well understood. Or alternative we can build fast reactors, and fission U238 with fast neutrons. Either was we don't need a lot of new Uranium.

Charles Barton

The earth contains a vasr amount of Uranium:
http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf75.html
http://www.americanenergyindependence.com/uranium.html
http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/2005/06/looking-at-uranium-supply.html

There are 4.6 billion tonnes of uranium in sea water and Japanese scientists in the 1980s proved that it was possible to extract uranium from sea water. Although the technology is expensive, it is not so expensive thaqt It would preclude nuclear power. The world contains 3 to 4 times as much Thorium.

The claim that there is not enough Uranium is a canard.

PowerPointSamurai

Ike,

Your claims about used nuclear fuels are categorically false. There are also enormous amounts of wastes from solar PV construction which never degrade...from refining the silicon for example. Moreover, that nuclear "waste" is still 95% usable fuel once you remove the fission products, which degrade in less than 300 years into harmless compounds, and which during those 300 years can be very useful (again, Xenon for example). Spreading FUD about nuclear does not move the ball forward for anyone, including solar, wind, etc, it just spreads FUD and favors the inertia of the fossil industries.

PowerPointSamurai

Charles,

You mention Thorium reactors, which would be great, but we haven't built them yet, but don't forget the Canadian CANDU reactor design, which can burn natural Uranium. The fast reactors you mention can also burn all that so-called "waste" Ike keeps talking about.

Charles Barton

PowerPointSamurai, Not only have we built Thorium Reactors, but my father was involved with the development of one in the late 1960's are ORNL. The Shippingport Reactor was sucessfully modified to breed Thorium in the 1980's.

PowerPointSamurai

Cyril,

I'm not dismissing solar thermal altogether, I'm just saying that the article pretty much typified East/West coast mentality that the rest of the country is "flyover" country and that it's just a big empty space--they pretty much said exactly that on the SciAm podcast in their interview. They are talking about some pretty significant construction areas for the solar sites themselves with their plan, which only talked about the area occupied by the plants themselves. They don't take into account roads and other infrastructure, to include temporary and permanent housing for the construction and maintenance crews, the trunk lines leading out, and the inevitable boom towns that would surround the project to provide services. Can you imagine a construction firm undertaking a project like this without, say, restaurants, schools, family activities and so forth following in its wake? I have no problem with solar thermal at all, but I just have a problem with the scale put forth in the article. There are downstream consequences they wished away.

As for the MOAB, it is a low impulse area effect weapon, not one designed to penetrate a hard target. The USAF (and the Russians with their Czar Bomba equivalent) would employ this weapon against unarmored troop concentrations to wipe out vast formations. It is NOT designed to penetrate bunkers and the like. It's pretty much the descendant of the "Daisy-cutter" fuel-air explosives used in Vietnam to clear helicopter landing sits out of the jungle. The FAE sprays a flammable liquid mist into the air and sets off an ignition blast to detonate the mist, which explodes with relatively small force over a very large area--enough to crush the lungs of humans in it's impact area at least and maybe tip over vehicles near the epicenter of the blast. We even have this type of warhead on man-portable rocket launchers, such as the AT-4 (a thermobaric warhead) for taking out bunkers and such by exploding within and killing the occupants without blowing the whole thing up and killing people in surrounding structures. So yeah, there IS a big difference between a MOAB and a commercial airliner. A commercial airliner would deliver all of its energy on a concentrated area of impact, whereas the MOAB would be like a large fart in a huge area surrounding the containment building. Anyone walking around outside would be dead, and you might damage the cooling towers or something, possibly forcing a shut-down, but that's about it. Perhaps you are thinking of a bunker buster type penetration bomb. Either way, I don't see anyone outside of a state-based military getting one of those, much less employing it against a US reactor anytime soon.

As for the comment about the nodes and key lines as a vulnerability, the article basically has the entire US powered by these systems in the Southwest US. Yes, they are dispersed and have small lines individually, but that high voltage DC grid they mention to power the rest of the country would necessarily be very concentrated (i.e. getting the power from Arizona to New York). This is why I argued for diversification in my comment--such as wind farms, nuclear plants, wave farms, etc. spread over the WHOLE COUNTRY, not just Arizona as TFA imagines.

As far as it being crazy and unfeasible to destroy a square mile of mirrors, it's not as hard as you make it. Let's say the situation in Mexico deteriorates further and some parties blame us (which some do). Let's say a drug cartel comes across the border with a 81mm mortar or a 120mm mortar. Even these small, highly portable weapons, which are widely available have ammunition capable of air-bursting and sending shrapnel over a very wide area--I've seen it. I admit, I think it's rather unlikely because terrorists want to hit a soft target that will get them in the news more than they want anything else. However, if this project really did provide the predominate source of electricity for the country and they could cause widespread destruction, it would make a much more attractive target. This is all the more reason to have diversified and reasonably distributed sources.

I'm also familiar with the military bases in the Mojave, but that hasn't done anything at all for illegal immigration, now has it? Small groups like that are intrinsically difficult to track and interdict. Moreover, most of those bases you speak of are training bases, where US Army and USMC go to do ground maneuver training and the units stationed there are there to facilitate training. Then you also have testing ranges for all four services (missile ranges, etc.) and air combat training areas. Yeah, they could serve as a spring-board for a *response* to an attack, but I don't bank too much on them acting as a deterrent. (BTW, as a side note, I think helping develop something like this in Mexico might do a lot of good too).

PowerPointSamurai

Cyril,

> Perhaps it's just me, but I've been hearing some very silly arguments against solar and wind etc lately.

I have no problem at all with wind or solar, I just have problems with the proposed SCALE and lack of diversification of the project SciAm posits. As a matter of fact, in the interests of full disclosure, I have personal investments in the wind industry.

> Airfields also take up a lot of land. So should we just shut them down then and stop flying airplaines? Roads are all over the US, even in environmentally sensitive areas. And they are rather wouldn't you say? So dig them up and stop driving cars? It's just so deconstructive, the way you talk about solar thermal.

Don't get me started on airfields and roads. I've seen people smacked with "imminent domain" and had their property taken from them to build roads. I think we need to get a lot smarter about the way we do air travel and we need to really do something about the way we use roads in this country. The average American commute of 20m is simply ridiculous.

Happy new year!

Mike

Paul and Cyril,
You don't get "sustainability" do you?

Sustainable means: never runs out...never is depleted. 100 or 1000 or even 10,000 years are in the end unsustainable. We are also talking about adding major EXPENSE to nuclear, which is already expensive. The expense of nuclear isn't currently in the fuel but you are going to add that with this cycle. The MIT study of 2003 advocated remaining with the once-through fuel cycle because of expense.

Solar thermal is about 20 or 30 times simpler than the technologies that would be required to make a fast neutron reactor plus fuel reprocessing etc. work. This is still WAY experimental and dangerous stuff.

You guys LIKE nuclear technology and advocate jumping over x hurdles and incurring y expenses to get there. You are overlooking the fact that renewables, even in the grand plan laid out in SciAm are simpler and less expensive. Once the infrastructure is in place you have a number of decades of very minimal expenses.

At some point, there might be the need to develop a cleaner nuclear alternative as back up to renewables in case of things like volcanic eruptions etc.

But to overlook the free clean fuel of renewable sources because some people are stuck on nuclear is DUMB!

PowerPointSamurai

I think Mr. Mason's comments on here display some real (willful?) ignorance and FUD spreading toward nuclear. He lumps nuclear fuel mining and overall environmental impact in with fossil plants. Man is he dead wrong. Uranium mining can and is done quite cleanly, moreover, 95% of the material that's been through reactors already is still usable fuel! Consider that we've had plants running since the 50s and that we have over a hundred of them, that means that 95% of all the stuff that's gone through those reactors is still usable. Let's flip his argument around for a moment. Where is he going to get all the materials for his project? That's a mammoth amount of mining... Keep in mind that some materials are already skyrocketing in price due to increased competition for them with China--I've seen dozens of local news reports of people stealing copper out of air conditioning systems and such as the price of copper goes up. So I wish he would stop spreading FUD and go back and re-look some of his assumptions about other energy sources.

Also, he misses the mark with the resistance to terrorist attack and bombings. He invites the reader to imagine bombing a solar facility and that the vast array of panels would make any damage insignificant because of the vastness. However, if 90% of the electricity is produced in Arizona with these plants, you aren't going to have hundreds or thousands of wires running to New York and Montana, you are going to have one or two, and those would be juicy and easy targets. In contrast, to hit a nuke plant they would need something on the order of a bunker buster munition and a relatively modern fighter/bomber, which just ain't gonna happen unless we already have much larger problems than some terrorist organization to deal with. If that were the case, then consider that one M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) alone could rain down shrapnel over a 1km area.

My point here is that we need nuclear AND solar, wind, wave, etc. to do this, and relying on one alone is a really bad idea, especially if you concentrate it in a geographical area as Mr. Mason proposes. Moreover, if you are waiting for the government to do something, forget it. An idea predicated on support for the government is a true sign of a nonviable idea. Get the seed money and get started! If this is really plausible, then you will find investors, including ones visionary enough to look past temporary economics for long term benefits.

PowerPointSamurai

Mike, fast reactor technology to burn waste is NOT experimental or theoretical, we had them here in this country years ago. Moreover, the French still do and produce something like 85% of their electricity with them. in short, they keep burning their waste and recycling the fuel, just like we should. No long term disposal, no leftovers for miscreants to play with, just electricity.

Here's another poser for the anti-nukes. Anyone heard of the Plowshares initiative? The US and Russia are enormously reducing their stockpiles of nuclear warheads (to something like 25% of current on hand). They are down-blending the pits to reactor grade material from weapons grade material and then burning it in reactors to produce electricity. 1/10 of all US lightbulbs are powered by former Soviet warheads pointed at us. Thats a whole lot of highly enriched Uranium and Plutonium that will be destroyed and produce clean, emissions free electricity rather than sitting in a silo on top of rockets pointed at us. What would the anti-nukes have us do with that material? Why do so many propose burying reactor fuel that is only 5% used?

As for the comment about solar being renewable is not quite true either. Solar PV panels and components for thermal and other systems have to be maintained and replaced eventually. Everything wears out. Solar PV takes a lot of energy and resources to make, which is why they are expensive. I heard a manufacturer state that their projected lifetime for their PV panels was around 10 years. That's around the timeframe for a nuke plant between major overhauls. As for the fuel, there's more than enough for a very, very long time, especially if you want to get rid of those warheads.

Charles Barton

The MIT study of 2003 advocated remaining with the once-through fuel cycle because of expense. - Mike

In 1977 Alvin Weinberg predicted, that countries that wanted to get nuclear weapons could get them, wether or not the United States has civilian reactors. We have had numerous cases of nuclear proliferation since. In not one case American power reactors the source of the weapons grade materials involved. The MIT study makes the silly claim that building breeder reactors in the United States will create nuclear proliferation. Indeed it would be far cheaper for a small country that wanted to produce nuclear weapons to build a dedicated reactor from scratch, than to some how obtain a far more expensive breeder reacor that produces reactor grade rather than Weapons grade fissionable material.

Mike I am afraid that it is the opponants of nuclear power who are exceedingly ill informed.

bigTom

PowerPointSamurai has a number of good points. Nuclear, and renewables should be considered to be complementary, not in competition. We should expand Nuclear to create stable baseline power, and renewables for the rest. If we could get the Nuclear, and renewables people on the same side that would be a potent political force.

This talk about terrorist threat to renewables IMHO is offbase. A greater threat is potential poaching of materials. The Altamont pass windfarm, which I drive through every working day has had terrible problems with damage due to copper thieves. I suspect the newer larger turbines are probably a lot easier to protect. I don't know how much security might be needed to protect PV arrays, but it could well become a nontrivial expense.

Mike

Um, Powerpointsamurai,
I would take any powerpoint you showed me with a monster-sized grain of salt. Either you have a hotline to EDF's generation portfolio that Wikipedia doesn't or you are seriously lazy with the facts:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fast_breeder_reactor

Their Superphenix closed down in 1997 and didn't produce electricity from 1987...currently it appears that there is only one significant power generating FBR in the Soviet Union.

Another major bit of misinformation:
Solar panels are warrantied for 20 or 25 years. New generation of thin film panels pay back the energy required to make them in less than a year, and Nanosolar says theirs will pay back in energy terms in 2 months.

Yes, everything breaks eventually but when they pay back the energy it takes to the make them in a small fraction of their lifetimes, we are talking about a very substantial net win for society. Most of the materials that go into a solar thermal plant can probably be recycled or re-used.

Charles Barton,
If you are going to file the MIT study under "opponents of nuclear power" you have a seriously distorted view of these matters...their concerns about proliferation are real. Having FBRs in every nuclear nation means more weapons grade material circulating around. It is a large political and technical problem: not at all trivial and involving some of the most unstable regimes in the world.

I think both of you are still fighting the anti-nuke battles of long ago; piling on partisan facts and in the case of PPTSam distortions to make your points rather than looking at all the facts.

I'm not against nukes but I think, using Occam's Razor, that the simpler, lower risk, technologies should be given precedence.

Charles Barton

Mike, The MIT study took a very questionable approach to nuclear power and uncritically bought into many arguments by enemies of nuclear power. There assumptions about breeder reactors, proliferation and the future Uranium supplies. There are a number of breerder designs, of which the sodium cooled fast breeder is the worst. Moderated breeders do a better job of breeding reactor grade plutonium. But Thorium breeders are more proliferation proof. The best of all breeder design is the Molten Salt Breeder Reactor, which is proliferation proof, cheap to manufacture, less of a resource and land hog than ST or PY power and inherantly safe.

The battle you are fighting is against your own ignorance about nuclear power, and you are loosing.

Mike Keller

The Solar Grand Plan involves stunningly high costs that will likely cause rather serious economic dislocations. At face value, the vast scale of the plan is not particularly practical. Soft spots include,
• Transmission costs – major Eastern load centers are thousands of miles from Southwest energy collection points, thus causing massive capital expenditures (and debt) for transmission lines. Energy production centers should be closer to the loads they service.
• Plant capital costs - Most energy is used during the day, essentially causing solar plants that store energy (e.g. via compressed air) to be much larger and more capital intensive than otherwise needed. Storage methods should operate at night when energy demands are much reduced.

The net effect is an investment that would likely be too expensive and, given more conventional alternatives, ultimately not well accepted by the free-market, which is a much more efficient mechanism than the government at sorting out winners and losers.

A more practical solution would involve hybrid combinations of various energy sources to synergistically capitalize on the individual strengths of the underlying technologies. Such an approach is similar to that of hybrid automobiles, just on a grander sale. For those interested, I can forward a summary of one developing hybrid technology that employs fossil, nuclear and renewable energy sources. Odd combination to be sure, but surprisingly effective. I can be reached at m.keller@hybridpwr.com.

Mike

Charles,
Right now, I'm not "loosing" anything.

It is you that is setting yourself against a blue-ribbon panel on nuclear energy and a separate emerging consensus for renewable energy. The onus is on you or people who believe in FNR/Fuel reprocessing to create a more believable case for your option than what the Sciam folk and others have presented for renewables or other competing concepts within nuclear. Right now, you're just a guy commenting on a blog on the Internet who asserts that ideas you don't like are "silly" and "questionable". You would need to make a more credible case to the government, to investors and utilities that what you believe is right. Just asserting your opinion or hopes on the Internet doesn't cut it.

Paul F. Dietz

Paul and Cyril,
You don't get "sustainability" do you?

Sustainable means: never runs out...never is depleted. 100 or 1000 or even 10,000 years are in the end unsustainable.

Well, by that definition, solar isn't sustainable either, since the Sun will eventually go out.

Now, several billion years is a long time. But then, so is a thousand years. Why should something that is only going to last a thousand years (say) not be used now, if at this time it is (let us assume) the most economical approach?

Sustainability, as you define the term, is a fetish, not a sound policy.

bigTom

Personally I'm not a fan of sciam, their quality has seriously declined recently, nevertheless as a starting point for a discussion of our energy future it could be a useful starting point. Lets look at the scale of some numbers:

They talk of $420B in govt subsidies spread over several decades. It has already been noted that we have blown more than that amount on our ill-considered, and ill-planned attemp to control ME oil supplies. Additionally $420B is very close to our annual oil import fee. It is claimed that the global oil industry needs $20T of investment in the next decade or two. So the cost of this scale of program does not seem disproportionate to the potential benefit, nor to the scale of the need.

Another useful number: US electric generating capacity is said to be 800GW, round that up to 1TW.
Thats 1000 1GW nukes, or 5000 200MW solar thermal plants (assuming 100% capacity factor). This clearly is sufficient scale for all affordable means to take part.

I would argue that spreading the effort over a number of potential technologies makes more sense than picking only one or two technologies. Thirty years ago I was working in fusion, most of the research budget went towards tokamaks (the leading concept), but roughly 20% of the research budget went towards other alternative concepts. That sort of distribution of research resources makes sense. It avoids locking into a particular technology prematurely. For solar alone we have three main classes: concentrating thermal, concentrating PV, and traditional PV. Among each of these approaches we have several different subconcepts. I'd hate to pick a winner this early in the game. And of course we have other renewables that deserve some level of research and development: wind, geothermal, tidal power, osmotic power, ocean waves, all deserve some degree of support. As well as the attempt to develop carbon capture and storage. Thats quite a large selection of worthy projects.

Mike

Paul,
Right now nukes will run out of fuel in around 70 years...that's not sustainable.

The FNR/reprocessing idea is still experimental and extremely complex...maybe a couple thousand years worth of fuel.

Billion years, 6 orders of magnitude more, qualifies as never, for me.

I would say those who try to make every excuse to get us to keep on using nukes are fetishizing nukes. Fetishes are concrete objects; sustainability is an abstract concept that I describes in my mind "good practices" and "good sense" in the area of dealings with materials and energy.

If we follow your definition then something like "ethics" another abstract concept that describes good practices is also a fetish. People who try to be ethical in their behavior are not "fetishizing" being good.

You don't want that to be a fetish, do you, Paul?

I'm open to a non-fetishistic analysis on the order and with the bona fides of the 2003 MIT study of how FBR system would work, how much it would cost, how it would be financed, and how safe it would be. Just a bunch of nuke fans commenting on the internet, badmouthing other options are not going to cut it for me.

Tom,
I'm in agreement that the number cited by the study is affordable, even a little bit on the cheap side...it will probably cost somewhat more but that isn't such a bad thing.

PowerPointSamurai

Mike, the fact is that France is still burning fuel produced by their FBRs. Period. As you noted, nobody really wants FBRs in every country, but as we see in Iran, who is going to stop them if they try? The best hope is exactly what a consortium of nations are now working on (including the US, France, Canada, Russia, China, the UK, Denmark, etc.) to recycle fuel as a service in hopes of obviating the need, or at least the excuse, that nation X needs to enrich or reprocess. The fact is that this stuff is going on whether we do it or not, all we can do is make it more convenient for them to be part of the international community. Terrorists don't want Plutonium anyway...they want HEU. Read the book "Atomic Bizarre", the book "On Nuclear Terrorism" by Michael Levi (or listen to the podcast on the Council for Foreign Relations site). Plutonium, which is extracted from used nuclear fuel, is very difficult for a terrorist to transport or work with. It's notoriously difficult to work into bomb material. HEU on the other hand, requires a lot of work with centrifuges or other enrichment methods that take a lot of time and energy to enrich the Uranium, but once you have HEU, it's much easier to sneak around with an build your device without much shielding, etc. Just the Pu oxide from the Plutonium would make it tough. So reprocessing may work out for a state-based bomb program, but is very unlikely to facilitate a terrorist one. A state-based bomb program is subject to international pressure and deterrence because a state has an infrastructure and things to lose.

The Canadians could also step in and be the white knight here with their CANDU design, which burns NATURAL Uranium (read-no enrichment), and could therefore also burn used fuel from other reactors if you removed the neutron-absorbing fission products. No need for enrichment, no proliferation potential. It also lowers the bar quite a bit for small countries to have a plant without raising eyebrows by enriching.

As for the solar panel lifetimes, that was the warranted timeframe I was given by a manufacturer. If you've found some newer ones or companies willing to warranty further, good for you. There are a huge variety of panels and there are bound to be differences in quality and performance. (amorphous silicon vs. thin film vs. crystalline, etc.) As for the resources to produce the cells, I was not talking about energy or the silicon alone. They use a lot of acids and etching materials as they use in semi-conductor manufacturing to produce a lot of these types of cells. Recycling likely means you melt down the silicon again and probably have to re-refine it to get all the impurities you doped it with to make it a solar cell back out again. Then re-etching, etc. The raw material for the silicon is cheap, the refined silicon and the etching process are not.

Moreover, I think you need to back off and re-read some of my posts. I am not against renewable energy at all. I have personal investments in the wind industry and the only connection I have with nuclear is that my BS is in Physics. All I am advocating here is a little balance and a fair presentation of nuclear power and other forms of energy. For what I said about solar PV I still think it has a large role to play, although Cyril has piqued my interest into solar-thermal a bit more than before. I'm also looking at finding a way to invest in some wave power.

PowerPointSamurai

Mike,

As far as SciAm's position on nuclear, that solar article is not necessarily representative of the editorial position of the magazine. A few years back they ran an article discussing the virtues and mechanisms of nuclear recycling. They also had a special issue on energy which had a whole section on nuclear, which basically said we need nuclear unless you want to buy beach property in Nevada (that's a joke, but you get what I mean).

Just to clarify AGAIN--I heartily favor a balanced suite of tools, including nuclear and a range of renewables, such as wind, wave, and various flavors of solar. Oh, and that people don't like to talk about--efficiency.

PowerPointSamurai

Mike, the current on hand supplies without recycling might run out in 70 years, but that's because Uranium has been so utterly cheap that they stopped mining it. Downblended warheads alone will take quite a while to burn up. What are you going to do with that 95% un-used fuel sitting in the cooling ponds? Bury it? That alone is certainly WAY more than 70 years worth of fuel.

Moreover, we've been over the FBR thing before. They aren't experimental--they're a proven technology.

Mike

PPTSam,
Well you may be a more reliable info source on nukes than you are on solar panel warranties. Yes solar thermal is very promising...the SciAm article can be faulted for being over optimistic about PV and CAES and too restrained about solar thermal. I am not saying that SciAm's editors back this plan but, as far as I know, they don't publish pure blue-sky speculation either, so they are conferring some legitimacy to these ideas by publishing them. And they may well publish another grand energy plan with a different flavor next year. So I am not saying they endorse this though I would be encouraged if they continued to put large scale energy issues as feature articles.

I guess I thought that anybody who poked his nose into renewable energy issues at all would know that you cannot sell a solar panel nowadays without a 20 or 25 year warranty. It's almost an industry standard though there may be exceptions; the payback period is too long for them not to. And anyway the darn things do last a long time.

I think nukes will be around for a while; as I think I said in almost every comment I've made here, I'm not anti-nuke. It's just that some of the pro-nuke folks here (maybe you are different) see the need to be anti-renewable energy in order to make the case for whatever flavor of nukes they favor.

No offense to you, but we need to hear from high level academics and government officials, the people who will manage these programs eventually, about what are the pluses and minuses of this or that scheme with regard to what to do with nuclear waste and fuel reprocessing etc. Internet scuttlebutt is not enough.

My focus is on renewables, so it is unlikely that I will get to reading this stuff anytime soon but thanks for the book suggestions.

Charles Barton

Mike, For the first time in over a generation, a line is forming for the licensing of new nuclear plants. I wonder why utility executives would do that if we are going to be out of Uranium in 70 years as you claim.

Frank

$420 billion would buy about 750 TWhs annually from Nanosolar's thin film PV -- assuming that economies of scale and further development will be offset by material resource shortage issues so that production costs remain stable).

That is pretty close to the 1000+- TWh annual US electricity generation we have right now.

Frank

To get to 750+ TWh, I'm using the standard 5 hours daily sun you figure for sizing a home PV system x 365 days x 430 billion Wh purchase (at $1 per Wh.)

Charles Barton

Mike, No blue ribbon panel has yet to be able to deliver reliable, inexpensive 24 hour a day power from renewable power sources. While Scientific American is telling us that it is possible to deliver PV and ST electric power for 8 to 10 cents per KWh from solar sources, Europe's largest manufacturer of ST systems is quoting prices of up to 17 cents per KWh. In the real world PV systems are typically priced at over 20 cents per KWh. I know the prices are going down as production of PVs rise, but we saw that with the price of wind generators to, and then astonishingly the price of wind generators began to rise. Indeed we are expected to see very substantial rises in the price of wind generators during the next few years. Manufacturers blame competition for scarce resources for raising the price.

So is a similar thing going to happen in the ST and PV industries as demand of their raw materials starts to out strip supplies? I am unaware of any studies examining resource requirements for the glorious solar future. It would be a good idea to find out how much resources this is going to take, before we decide to take up such a plan.

I am not at all impressed with blue ribbon panels without the presence of evidence to back up their statements. R

When there is a reasonable demonstration I will be most willing to change my mind. Until then the belief that solar power can be anything more than a source of expensive daytime peak power in desert areas, is without foundation.

I am not opposed to all forms of renewable energy. I just think that renewable energy advocates are over-hyping them, and massively underestimating the problems. The biggest problem with solar and wind that they are not there all the time. No one has developed an inexpensive, and environmentally sound method of energy storage, that will allow the generation of back up electricity. This is true for solar and wind generation.

Right now the price of battery backup capable of providing 12 GWh of over night would buy you several nuclear plants. I have yet to see a study that reports that enough compressed air can be stored in a cavern to provide 12 GWh of over night electricity. I have yet to see surveys identifying a large enough numbers of caverns to make such as scheme practical. I have yet to see study of what happens when you seal up a cavern and start pumping in air.

I frankly do not see the technology coming anytime soon. Solar power would be an candidate for daytime peak power in the American Southwest, if it can be delivered at prices which its backers claim is possible.

Wind is simply too unreliable for consideration as even a peak power source, let alone a base power source.

Advocates of renewable energy continuously tell us that not only can the problems be easily overcome, but highly unreliable methods for producing energy can be made reliable with a few inexpensive technological tricks. This is what Richard Feynman called "Cargo Cult" science. We cannot confuse proven reality with what we wish to be the case.

We know that nuclear power works, because 20% of American electricity comes from reactors. We know that it is possible to breed fissionable materials, because it already happens in most reactors. The only trick is to get the breeding ratio above 1 to 1. We know that we can do that, because it has already been done repeatedly. We know that breeding at over a 1 to 1 ratio is possible with several dramatically different reactors designs because that has been done. We know that it is possible to breed Th232 into fissionable U233, and that the breeding thorium is unlikely to lead to the manufacture of atomic bombs under any circumstances.

It advocates of renewable energy have created a "Cargo cult" science that has turned renewable power generating systems into fetishes. They believe that by saying the words "solar power," they have already solved all the problems and have created new realities. This is simply magic thinking.

Charles Barton

Mike, No blue ribbon panel has yet to be able to deliver reliable, inexpensive 24 hour a day power from renewable power sources. While Scientific American is telling us that it is possible to deliver PV and ST electric power for 8 to 10 cents per KWh from solar sources, Europe's largest manufacturer of ST systems is quoting prices of up to 17 cents per KWh. In the real world PV systems are typically priced at over 20 cents per KWh. I know the prices are going down as production of PVs rise, but we saw that with the price of wind generators to, and then astonishingly the price of wind generators began to rise. Indeed we are expected to see very substantial rises in the price of wind generators during the next few years. Manufacturers blame competition for scarce resources for raising the price.

So is a similar thing going to happen in the ST and PV industries as demand of their raw materials starts to out strip supplies? I am unaware of any studies examining resource requirements for the glorious solar future. It would be a good idea to find out how much resources this is going to take, before we decide to take up such a plan.

I am not at all impressed with blue ribbon panels without the presence of evidence to back up their statements. R

When there is a reasonable demonstration I will be most willing to change my mind. Until then the belief that solar power can be anything more than a source of expensive daytime peak power in desert areas, is without foundation.

I am not opposed to all forms of renewable energy. I just think that renewable energy advocates are over-hyping them, and massively underestimating the problems. The biggest problem with solar and wind that they are not there all the time. No one has developed an inexpensive, and environmentally sound method of energy storage, that will allow the generation of back up electricity. This is true for solar and wind generation.

Right now the price of battery backup capable of providing 12 GWh of over night would buy you several nuclear plants. I have yet to see a study that reports that enough compressed air can be stored in a cavern to provide 12 GWh of over night electricity. I have yet to see surveys identifying a large enough numbers of caverns to make such as scheme practical. I have yet to see study of what happens when you seal up a cavern and start pumping in air.

I frankly do not see the technology coming anytime soon. Solar power would be an candidate for daytime peak power in the American Southwest, if it can be delivered at prices which its backers claim is possible.

Wind is simply too unreliable for consideration as even a peak power source, let alone a base power source.

Advocates of renewable energy continuously tell us that not only can the problems be easily overcome, but highly unreliable methods for producing energy can be made reliable with a few inexpensive technological tricks. This is what Richard Feynman called "Cargo Cult" science. We cannot confuse proven reality with what we wish to be the case.

We know that nuclear power works, because 20% of American electricity comes from reactors. We know that it is possible to breed fissionable materials, because it already happens in most reactors. The only trick is to get the breeding ratio above 1 to 1. We know that we can do that, because it has already been done repeatedly. We know that breeding at over a 1 to 1 ratio is possible with several dramatically different reactors designs because that has been done. We know that it is possible to breed Th232 into fissionable U233, and that the breeding thorium is unlikely to lead to the manufacture of atomic bombs under any circumstances.

It advocates of renewable energy have created a "Cargo cult" science that has turned renewable power generating systems into fetishes. They believe that by saying the words "solar power," they have already solved all the problems and have created new realities. This is simply magic thinking.

DaveMart

Try as I might, on the SciAm site I haven't managed to get a response which categorises the benefits of spending the $420bn they advocate in a costed manner - it seems to me that the installations that are currently being built will test the ideas fine, and that we can start initial looks at storage technologies such as compressed air, and that any idea of going firm on the roll-out of a bunch of unproven technologies which may or may not pan out is premature at best.
I doubt you would delay mass installation by more than 5 years if you took things at a more rational pace and tested properly before committing if they can be made to work.
This proposal has not been made with rational risk assessments or normal costings.

Roger Brown

Ausra claims that It can generate electricity for 10 cents/kWh now and under 8 cents/kWh in 3 yrs (presumably not including storage, which would add another 2 or 3 cents). They claim that all U.S. electric power, day and night, can be generated using a land area smaller than 8,500 sq miles using their equipment.

I think that it is highly likely that the Solar resoures of the American southwest will play an important role in our ecconmic future. However, even if Ausra delivers on their advertised costs, I think that there are problems with the idea that this energy source can enable business as ususal operation of the current economic system for decades to come.

For one thing the energy storage methods available for solar thermal energy(e.g. nitrate) are unlike to provide storage times for longer than a day or two because of low energy density. This implies that winter/summer insolation difference will significantly increase costs unless another renewable energy source complements solar.

For another thing if the Southwest is going to power the whole country, a very expensive supergrid is going have to be built and maintained (Yes I know that HVDC is cheaper and has lower losses than AC, but it is still going to be expensive). Furthemore our most immediate problem is transportation fuel not electricity. PHEVs and an expanded, electrified rail system will be another very expensive investment. I am extrmely sceptical that we can make these invesments and maintain a growing stock market which is the only definition of a 'healthy' economy possible in a system of private finance capitalism.


DaveMart

If you compare the huge costs and doubtful outcome of force-feeding solar in the south-west to supply the whole country with the properly costed and modest proposal from MIT to increase geothermal, then it comes across pretty clearly that this latest is an expensive and bloated folie de grandeur.
Here is a link to the MIT study:
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=517E9954-E7F2-99DF-36C206BCA2D4E3C5&sc=I100322
In the downloadable article they propose around $400-$1,000m spent over a period of some 15 years, to develop further a resource which we already know a great deal about, and which does not involve untested storage methods, and which can be much closer to the consumer.
A wee bit more sensible than this 1,000 times more expensive flight of fancy.
Not that I am against solar power, but with perhaps a carbon tax and at any rate an emissions tax on coal then solar will do just fine anyway, step by step and without the need for a vast and dubious government program.

Roger Brown

Charles Barton wrote:

The net effect is an investment that would likely be too expensive and, given more conventional alternatives, ultimately not well accepted by the free-market, which is a much more efficient mechanism than the government at sorting out winners and losers.

Blanket statements about the market always being more effective than the government are dangerous. Some kinds of large infrastructure projects such as transportation systems and large hydroelectric installations would not be possible without a collective social decision to finance them. Furthermore the market is most effective in an environment of constant product churn and expanding production generally. Eventually we are going to have to reach a state of economic maturity in which production of practical necessities is not in a constant state of flux. It may well be that in a post fossil fuel future a decision to massively exploit the solar resources of the American Southwest will be a good one and that social investment will be required to bring this project to fruition. I agree, however, that no real evidence that such an investment makes economic sense exists as of today. Moreover, SciAm is fully committed to economic growth as an essential and eternal feature of human economic systems, so that they are incapable of objectively evaluating the economic needs of a future sustainable society.

DaveMart

Roger Brown said:
'Moreover, SciAm is fully committed to economic growth as an essential and eternal feature of human economic systems, so that they are incapable of objectively evaluating the economic needs of a future sustainable society.'
The hypothesis that growth would need to be constrained in order to reach sustainability at any time in the reasonably forseable future is entirely without empiric evidence - witness the growth of California's economy for the last many years without corresponding energy use growth.
The advocates of solar power love to point out that it is capable of indefinitely providing energy at a rate many thousands of times greater than total consumption in any case.
Whilst at some point a hundred years or more in the future with wealth per capita many times greater than at present it might be worthwhile to reduce growth, which would probably happen naturally anyway, there is no reason at all to put on hair shirts yetawhile!

Roger Brown

The hypothesis that growth would need to be constrained in order to reach sustainability at any time in the reasonably forseable future is entirely without empiric evidence - witness the growth of California's economy for the last many years without corresponding energy use growth.
The advocates of solar power love to point out that it is capable of indefinitely providing energy at a rate many thousands of times greater than total consumption in any case.

I have worked in Silicon Valley for twenty years. Physical manufacturing has been steadily moving offshore. The energy consumed in China, Thailand, the Philipines, etc. manfuacturing goods for the U.S. market should count against our energy consumption.

Furthermore China and India (not to mention Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America) have a long way to go to reach our standard of living. Competition from these emerging economies has been driving up energy and raw material costs for a number of years. I regard this fact as emperical evidence that limits to growth may not be that far distant.

As for the abundance of solar energy, it is not the total size of the solar resource that matters, but the cost per unit of net energy delivered. If that cost (Of course I mean total cost including energy storage, high capacity/long distance grids, etc. Please don't quote me the current cost of solar PV without any reference to the real cost of intermittency in a post fossil fuel future) is much higher than for fossil fuels
then the level of productivity than can be supported will shrink no matter how large the total resource.

Since China is still building coal fired power plants like crazy, it appears that the solar millenium has not yet arrived

Udo Stenzel

Cyril, you can shove your insights on what I seem to be thinking where the sun doesn't shine, and instead concentrate on the facts, which are that 90% of American energy consumption by 2100 is fucking useless. Call me short sighted, but I'd like to see lowered carbon dioxide levels within my lifetime. Mike, FBR technology is real, the IFR prototype demonstrated it including on-site reprocessing in 1994. Such reactors don't produce transuranics, they consume them instead. No prototype of realistic size was ever built, mostly for political reasons, including some specious non-proliferation arguments. Funnily enough, an IFR is no prolifereation risk, and it needs neither uranium enrichment nor PUREX, both of which are the actual proliferation risks. The IFR gives us nuclear power for about 4 billion years, and solar derived sources won't last any longer than that.

DaveMart

We have been hearing about resource constraints ever since the old days of the Club of Rome's notorious 'Limits to Growth', and most of the models since that time have been equally duff.
To take as evidence of overall capacity constraints a limitation incurred by breakneck growth recently which has for a time outgrown the production of some resources is stretching things unbelievably.
Helium, I grant you - but not much else.
Unless you believe that the present problems with steel costs and availability are due to us running out of iron?
It isn't sensible to pour $420bn into a huge expansion of solar at the present time, I would agree, but it is difficult to imagine that we can't do an effective job of utilising solar power within the next 50years, which is the relevant time frame for the kind of 'limits to growth' scenario you hypothesise.
You can also bung in a huge resource from geothermal, and limitless nuclear power.
Oil is short and is getting shorter, not that we can't produce it from oil sands, liquified coal and so on, which many said was impossible 30years ago, but it may not be a good idea for environmental reasons, and anyway hopefully not needed due to better batteries for transport applications - again, not now, but within the timeframe implied by concerns about overall limits to an 'unsustainable' lifestyle.
What is going to run out that is a show stopper?

The comments to this entry are closed.

. .




Batteries/Hybrid Vehicles