December 10, 2005
Electric Power Plant Operators Looking Hard At Nuclear

Electric power plant operators see nuclear power in their plans for the year 2015 and beyond.

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Ameren Corp. is considering building a second nuclear power unit in Callaway County, although the idea is only in the discussion phase, said Gary Rainwater, chief executive officer of Ameren.

Rainwater expects such a plant to take 5 years to construct and to go online in 2017 at the earliest. He says on paper nuclear power looks like the best choice.

Rainwater said the Electric Power Research Institute projects that tighter EPA carbon dioxide emission rules could double the cost of burning coal to more than 8 cents a kilowatt hour. The cost of nuclear power, meanwhile, would remain flat at about 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

Think about it from the perspective of Rainwater and other CEOs of electric power plant operators. Right now the price gap between coal and nuclear is pretty small. On the one hand fear of nuclear elicits much more public opposition. But coal puts out much more pollution in the form of particulates, oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, mercury, and carbon dioxide. If electric power plant operators build more coal plants and emissions regulations get tougher then they'll be stuck with large additional costs. Then if competitors build nuclear plants the coal operators will get undersold in competitive electric power supply markets. A choice to build more coal plants means they could incur massive losses. But if they build nuclear plants then their risk of additional costs due to regulatory changes are much lower once the nuclear plants are in operation.

I keep saying that we have three choices for more electric power in the foreseeable future:

A) More coal plants with more pollution.

B) Nuclear power.

C) Higher prices.

An opponent of nuclear power has to then choose between options A and C.

In California legislators and regulators have clearly chosen option C (and utility bills in California already bear witness to this fact). California Electric power generators have regulatory requirements to get more power from renewable sources.

The fundamental feature of California's new program is the requirement that all major utilities in the state buy 1 percent more renewable energy each year so that at least 20 percent of their total electric supply portfolio is made up of renewable generation by 2017. This requirement could result in procurement of up to an additional 21,000 GWh of renewable energy each year.

When you see news reports that California power generators are making deals to build wind farms and large Stirling solar electric generator facilities out in California deserts this is not a sign that market costs for these power sources have fallen to equal conventional sources. To consider wind and solar as competitive we have to assign high external costs to conventional sources. While those external costs do not show up in market costs and so perhaps Stirling solar and wind really are competitive in some situations once external costs are accounted for. Hard to tell because external costs are hard to price (and I welcome links in the comments to sources for external costs of different power sources).

Wind doesn't work as an option in areas with little wind such as the American Southeast. Also, the sun obviously does not shine at night and shines less in the winter. In the longer run better batteries technologies and long distance superconductivity technologies will eventually solve some of the problems that come from inconsistent availability of wind and sun. But for the foreseeable future we still need electric power sources that can satisfy baseline demand growth. So in this era of high natural gas prices we end up coming back to nuclear or coal for electric power generation.

Check out this table of electric power costs by sector and by state for the United States. (and see here for more charts and tables from the US Department of Energy Electric Power Monthly report). California and the Northeast have high electric costs as do outliers Alaska and Hawaii. The rest of the United States as much lower electric costs. While Californians pay over 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) and New Englanders pay over 13 cents per kwh almost all of the rest of the nation pays less than 9 cents per kwh and a few even pay less than 7 cents per kwh. Proximity to hydroelectric dams and coal fields account for some of the lower cost regions. But also lower population density states can tolerate higher emissions per kwh generated and still have cleaner air to breathe than the higher population density states.

So what do you prefer? Nuclear, coal with current emissions regulations, or higher prices?

Update: While some might protest we really do face the three choices listed above. I'm not arguing that "higher prices" is a bad choice. Whether it is or not depends on what the external costs are for nuclear and for coal with current allowed emissions levels. But we need to start off with a clear understanding that before we consider external costs the choices we face differ in price.

We face several higher priced choices:

C.a) Coal at varying levels of increased emissions controls. Prices would rise. Pollution levels would drop. Electric consumption would not grow as rapidly.

C.b) No more power plants. Increased demand would translate into higher prices. This would force people to adopt more conservation measures. It would also lower living standards.

C.c) Solar Stirling. Only works during the day. In theory we could use Solar Stirling so that coal plants could shut down during the day so that total emissions are reduced.

C.d) Wind. Simillar to Solar Stirling in that it would cost more and not be available all the time. So we'd still need more coal (or nuclear) plants to provide reliable baseload supply. But the coal plants would not operate as much per plant on average.

C.e) Solar photovoltaics. More expensive than Solar Stirling or Wind. But allows local generation and use.

C.f) Lots of Liquified Natural Gas terminals. These are widely opposed for safety reasons but could probably bring in enough natural gas to meet the increased electric demand with more natural gas electric plants. Domestic natural gas production is declining in the US and Britain. World natural gas demand is going to rise. Prices will rise as well.

If we choose a tough enough version of option C.a (in the extreme: zero emissions) while also disallowing new nuclear plant construction we will automatically get some amount of the other options as the price for coal electric rises.

The energy debate comes down to the question of how much are you willing to pay to avoid risks or external costs that you oppose?

Now, in the longer run we'll have technological advances that will reduce risks, external costs, and market prices for most of these options. Some day photovoltaics will be much cheaper and batteries will allow easier shifting of solar power from day to night. Advances in nuclear power plant technology will reduce waste problems, costs, and risks. Wind and Solar Stirling will advance and get cheaper as well. I repeatedly have argued for a sort of massive Manhattan Project to develop a large range of energy technologies and far more formidable figures such as the recently deceased Nobel Laureate scientist Richard Smalley have made this argument as well. But right now we need more electric generator plants and we will need more next year and the year after that and so on. We are faced with today's choices and today's costs for each choice. So given today's choices which do you choose and why? Do you favor higher priced choices?

Update II: One key question in the energy debate is just how big are the external costs for each energy source? How to measure these costs? How big is the uncertainty in those measurements?

Also, some oppose nuclear power on national security grounds (e.g. the possibility that terrorists could blow up a nuclear bomb next to a nuclear reactor and thereby release large amounts of nuclear materials in surrounding areas - I think terrorists would blow up NYC or DC first though). But fossil fuels have their own national security costs that don't get the attention I think they deserve. Saudi money has corrupted portions of the political class in Washington DC. Oil money funds the spread of Wahhabism and radical Islam. A portion of the US defense budget goes to US forces in the Middle East. How to measure those costs? They seem pretty big to me.

For a number of reasons I favor government funding of energy research aimed at developing energy sources that have much lower external costs. First off, new energy technologies that would be cheaper than fossil fuels would lower overall energy costs even at market prices. Plus, the cleaner technologies would lower the external costs that regular market failure and political market failure allow to happen. In addition, national security costs would be reduced for a number of reasons as less money flowed to Middle Eastern oil producers and political competition for influence over the Middle Eastern oil greatly dedlined.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 December 10 08:53 PM  Energy Policy


Comments
Invisible Scientist said at December 10, 2005 10:20 PM:

"So what do you prefer? Nuclear, coal with current emissions regulations, or higher prices?"

Perhaps we need more research about the cost of super-clean coal-fired power plants. It may be possible to capture all the CO_2 as well as the heavy metals that get released when coal is burned. Also coal liquification and gasification might be economical and less polluting.

Additionally, the latest issue of Scientific American has an article about the future generation nuclear plants that will be able to burn all the long term waste as fuel, almost totally eliminating the long term waste, and also increasing the uranium fuel efficiency by an astounding 10,000 %. But these new reactors will require more work, and a lot of money to commmercialize them.

We need more feasibility studies, and even for such studies we need an emergency funding process.

Garson Poole said at December 11, 2005 12:52 AM:

Thanks for the link to the web page that illustrates the range of electricity costs among the states in the US. I found another intriguing web page that shows the enormous differences in electricity costs in different countries. Scroll down to the bottom of this web page and you will see data from 1999 at a web site called Solarbuzz.

Example costs expressed in Cents/kWh: Indonesia 2.5, Australia 8, United States 8.1, Germany 15.2, Japan 21.2.

tdean said at December 11, 2005 4:56 AM:

"So what do you prefer? Nuclear, coal with current emissions regulations, or higher prices?"

What a lot of crap. None of the above, Nukeboy. Only when the external costs of waste disposal, massive research subsidies, Price-Anderson catastrophic liability forgiveness and nuclear weapons proliferation risk is ignored does nuclear even begin to look competitive with other sources. Even then, no commercial power company has applied for a new reactor permit in the US for some thirty years, because with halfway reasonable design safeguards, the reactors don't make economic sense. And even with supposedly foolproof post Three Mile Island safety systems we have had near disasters with boric acid corrosion eating away reactor heads. Only with tens of billions of dollars of giveaways and guarantees payed by taxpayers would any energy company consider constructing a new power plant.

In the days when we believed in "fail-safe" technology and the inherent goodness and community-mindedness of god-fearing big business CEOs, we could convince ourselves that the Price-Anderson Act putting the risk of catastrophic meltdown disasters was so remote that if it would give us electricity too cheap to meter, it was a good deal. Well, those days were over well before 9/11 and since then, with numerous clear indications that well financed, irrational and suicidal terrorists were gunning for nuclear reactors, there is no question that risk related externalities make nuclear power completely non-competitive.

Solar PV and thermal systems are far closer to commerciality than liquid metal fast nuclear reactors. Recent advances in converting cellulosic agricultural and forestry waste to liquid fuels could greatly improve the effectiveness of bio-fuels for power generation and transportation fuels with no net greenhouse emissions. Wind, wave and ocean thermal technologies combined with carbon sequestration and improved efficiency can easily allow Americans to maintain and improve their lifestyles. A reasonable accounting of external costs will encourage their development with little government support.

tricia said at December 11, 2005 7:37 AM:

tdean, you can make personal attacks, but to forward the conversation we need sounds alternatives to discuss. I do not think that any one will object to your suggestion of alternative energy sources. I do think that Randall's three choices remain despite your rhetoric. Once we can drive down the cost of Alternative sources they can stand as truly viable chocies which are not cost increases. There is a reality that is clear in Randall's choices, we need power now. Those arguing for more feasibility studies are right but they are not substitutes for the choices outlined. Further, they must be framed with a time line. They represent an opportunity cost both in terms of spending and time.

martha said at December 11, 2005 7:42 AM:

Biofuels are not a viable alternative on planet earth given the ecosystem we would like to maintain. Those who advocate biofuels must not realize that the opportunity cost they represent is HUGE. We can fuel machines and not fuel other life forms. Sounds like a great plan.

James Bowery said at December 11, 2005 8:50 AM:

Martha, most of the earth's surface is ocean desert and much of that is missing just one trace element needed to support autotrophism: iron.

James Bowery said at December 11, 2005 8:58 AM:

What ever happened to the Toshiba 4S nuclear rector?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toshiba_4S

Seems to me the approach they're taking -- mass-produced small low operating cost fail-safe nuclear reactors -- has a prayer of realizing nuclear's potential as an economic energy source.

There is, of course, the potential of nuclear proliferation but any future scenario that depends on the lack of nuclear proliferation is an unrealistic and despotic vision.

tdean said at December 11, 2005 11:33 AM:

Tricia,

Parker's update does better at discussing externalities. If external costs are not factored into the price of energy it is misleading and unjust in that the producer and consumer are allowed to pass on those costs with no penalty to the third parties who bear those costs. That is an unjust situation and talking about prices perpetuates the injustice. Pricing externalities is difficult but not doing it is worse. The reasons California's energy prices are higher is because they have begun to price in externalities and because of the residual costs of ill-considered de-regulation and illegal gaming of the system by Enron and other criminal energy companies.

Again, nuclear power has unacceptably high external costs that have never been factored into the price and which have been borne by taxpayers to the great benefit of large power companies. That is why Parker's choice is a false and misleading one.

Martha, conversion of cellulosic and agricultural waste into liquid fuels utilizes biofuels that otherwise are oxidized by natural processes and so puts no additional burden on ecosystems. It only increases the efficiency of existing impacts of production. Commercializing cellulosic conversion has a development lag time, but it is probably about the same as nuclear. It will take ten years for conventional nuclear power plants to come on line and at least fifteen for unproven liquid metal fast nuclear reactors, if they ever do.

AA2 said at December 11, 2005 11:49 AM:

Read this pdf http://www.world-nuclear.org/economics.pdf for cost estimates of the dominant sources of energy. At the bottom of the pdf they list 7 recent studies that have been done on the technologies. Each use slightly different estimates for the cost per megawatt for installing, the cost of fuel, the interest charges and so on.

The conclusion is that nuclear is the cheapest form of generation in almost all studies. The biggest factor at the moment is that nuclear is more expensive up front, but much cheaper to operate. So economically the interest rates are really the key factor. And imo with the low interest rates, it dramatically shifts things in nuclear's favor.

I also expect nuclear to continue fallign in cost to build, as we get better at materials science, eg.. the nanotech revolution. And for the operating costs to fall even much more, as we stop panicking about the dangers of nuclear power and stop having so many human workers at the plants quadruple and quintuple checking safety measures. Instead automating it or just using new reactor designs that inherintly don't meltdown.

AA2 said at December 11, 2005 11:50 AM:

Btw cost will be the determining factor I believe for which way the developing countries go. Which when you think about it from a global perspective is the most important part. Because its obvious most of the load growth is going to come from China and like countries.

Randall Parker said at December 11, 2005 12:03 PM:

AA2,

When looking at current costs one also has to consider likely future costs. Natural gas and oil have gotten much more expensive in the last 5 years. Comparisons done even in 2001 or 2002 make them look more competitive than they are now. The US has natural gas prices which are much higher than in some other parts of the world. How much could LNG terminals close that gap? By the time the LNG terminals are built will world prices be much higher due to increased Asian demand? Also, how rapidly will domestic demand decline? Also, will domestic opposition to LNG terminals prevent US natural gas prices from equalling world natural gas prices plus LNG shipping costs?

Tricia,

Yes, exactly. Right now we face the three choices. Pointing this out in no way misrepresents the choices. Some are angered by the choices and respond with childish insults. But the alternatives really do all have higher market prices. Some alternatives (e.g. biofuels) even have important external costs.

Also, the external costs for nuclear and coal are hard to calculate. The waste disposal costs are already handled by taxes on nuclear power generators which are more than enough to pay for Yucca Mountain.

The CO2 emissions problem is especially hard to measure. What will be all the costs and benefits from rising atmospheric CO2 levels? Will the net effect be beneficial or deleterious to the human race as a whole? The costs will not fall evenly. Russians might reap a huge benefit while Bangladeshis experience huge costs. Well, what ethical beliefs should govern reasoning about this?

Hugh Angell said at December 11, 2005 1:58 PM:

Tdean, California's electric power costs are higher because they use natural gas and force
the utilities to buy what 'renewable' power is available. They have, to their credit, even
foregone the option of buying power from out of state sources that do not meet their air
quality goals. That is you can't build a coal fired plant in Wyoming and sell the output
to SCE or PGE even if the transmission lines were built.

Over in Spain, right now, due to the high cost of natural gas, wind farms are reaping
'excess profits' by selling their output on the 'spot market' rather than entering into
long term supply contracts. That is part of what bedevils the electric markets. 5 years
ago when natural gas was selling for $3/thousand cubic feet and electricity for $50/mwh
a lot of utilities and independant power producers ordered more natural gas generation.
It was more expensive than coal but it was cleaner,permits easier to obtain and the plant
could be up in running in 1/3 the time that it took to build a coal fired plant.

Then things went wrong. Gas supplies got tight. The price rose. The plants could not sell
their output. Nuclear and coal fired operators got smarter and got some regulatory relief
as well. Back when Clinton was president the EPA considered any increase in gross annual
emissions resulting from any modification to a coal plant a 'new source' emission. That
meant if you had a coal power plant that produced X number of tons of pollutants in 1999
and in 2000, after you improved it, it emitted X+Y emissions you had to install 'best
available' emissions technology to the plant. The EPA and the courts have since ruled

that
if your plant, because of your 'modifications' merely operates 90% of the time whereas as
before it operated only 75% of the time, you have not created 'new source' emissions and
do not have to retrofit the plant to best available standards.

Same thing has happened with nuclear power plants. They are getting better at staying on
line as the power they produce is 'cheaper' and as their management is taken over by a
a few firms that have the expertise to operate them better.

The point is this has squeezed natural gas fired plants out of the base load market yet
they account for almost 20% of our installed capacity.

We can either go back to the regulated utility model where the local utility supplies and
includes in your base rate ALL the costs of providing ALL the power to your service area
requires or continue on with the deregulated model where the local utility buys what power
it does not currently have the capacity to generate on the open market.

Since having a small local utility try and operate a mix of power plants is inherently
inefficient the regulated model will cost more per kilowatt hour. Don't know where you
live but if your utility only has one or two nuclear power plants, a few gas fired plants
and a few coal fired plants their economies of scale are limited to say the least so,
hopefully you can see why the regulated model is inefficient as compared to having Exelon
or Dominion operate 10 or 20 nuclear plants and sell their output to a regional market.

Anyway that is powerplant economics 101 and I'll leave it there for now.

AA2 said at December 11, 2005 3:08 PM:

Good point about gas and oil plants, the 2001 costs for them are way lower then they currently would be. And that isn't even taking into account that they could rise further. Most of the building of power plants in North America has been natural gas over the last 10 years, but it is obvious a very short term strategy. I guess for politicians it is cheaper to do up front, and its the least feared environmentally.

I don't really know how much LNG terminals would change the economics, but I would be curious to see.

aa2 said at December 11, 2005 3:15 PM:

The local utility model to me is moronic, when we compare it to other sectors of the economy. Can you imagine if your local government had to discover, extract, refine and distribute oil only to your little city? We need massive corporations involved in this in a competitive market.

One small example is the hydro utility where my father works. They have a few hundred designers, but its not enough for them to put money into researching ways to increase designer productivity. If they had thousands it would be much more worth it to put money into more training and research to increase design productivity.

S. Cormack said at December 12, 2005 7:36 AM:

Future options for coal are a lot better than Mr. Parker suggests. From the Lawrence Livermore Labs website:


http://www.llnl.gov/str/June01/pdfs/06_01.1.pdf

Direct carbon conversion - carbon to electricity. Eighty percent efficient, half the emissions.

Jim said at December 12, 2005 10:50 AM:

wind is a here-and-now technology that is cost competitive where wind is available.

note the post by Hugh Angell about wind farms in spain.

note the privately funded wind sites popping up in the midwest

note the huge, off-shore wind farms proposed for the NE atlantic seaboard with private funding

while these are low-cost, they have the disadvantage of being intermittent, although off-shore is significantly more steady. they also have the disadvantage of being site-specific (i.e. works great in s.dakota, not so great in s. carolina)

the dominant wind turbine manufacturer in this country was owned by enron, and ge bought it out after their collapse. i've heard ge engine guys mock the engineering expertise of the ge wind guys, but technology is advancing for the gears, bearings, and turbines that are the heart of wind turbine technology...... i.e. the performance/price is still improving

Engineer-Poet said at December 12, 2005 11:05 AM:

Sandy:  Those direct-carbon fuel cells require ultra-purified carbon; by the time you've done that you're probably down in the 60% region with everything else.

Tdean:  I'll spare the other readers the scathing appraisal of your character, ancestry, and habits that you so richly deserve and leave you with a one-calculation refutation of your claim:

(A) There's estimated to be 1.3 billion tons/year of unused biomass in the US.
(B) Iogen claims a yield of 330 liters (87 gallons) of ethanol per ton.
(C) Ergo, the maximum yield of ethanol assuming 100% utilization of waste biomass is (wait for it)... 113 billion gallons/year, well under US gasoline consumption (and worth even less in terms of energy compared to volume).

The standard route to biofuels is not going to do what you claim, no matter how much you puff up your nonsense with abuse of our host.

Engineer-Poet said at December 12, 2005 6:57 PM:

Randall:  You might be able to do far more with solar Stirling systems than you think.  You could generate electricity directly, then use an absorption chiller to make cooling from the waste heat.  Of course, this means mounting them on or right next to buildings, but that also cuts out the T&D losses.

If the Stirling is 30% efficient and generates 25 kWe, it will have about 58 kW of waste heat.  Run this through an ammonia absorption chiller at 0.50 CoP, and you get 29 kW of cooling (almost 100 kBTU/hr, or 8.3 tons).  McLeod's numbers indicate that an absorption chiller costs about twice as much per watt of cooilng as a compression chiller, but being able to run off free waste heat has to count for something.

Systems like that could flatten load peaks (eliminating the need to start and stop lots of generating plants and saving a lot of natural gas) and/or charge GO-HEV's in the parking lot (displacing petroleum).  At $2/watt they'd be fairly reasonable, too.

tdean said at December 12, 2005 7:33 PM:

EP, your scathiness,

Thanks for sparing us your biting wit. Let me address your points:

A) Who says that we can only consider biomass from the US. We certainly don't only consider obtaining petroleum from domestic sources, do we? Since the average American uses something like 10 times the energy of the average human we import quite a lot of petroleum and fight very expensive wars to continue to do so. That is a very significant external cost of petroleum. Since biomass is distributed much more evenly around the world we would be less constrained in our choices of unstable regions of the world to obtain fuel or we could just try to occupy the whole world.

B) Thanks for the reference for yet another promising cellulosic-to-liquid fuel enterprise. But my discussion certainly did not limit itself to this one tiny Canadian company. Iogen converts cellulosic waste to carbohydrates and then ferments those to ethanol. Other methods exist that convert carbohydrates in aqueous solution to hydrocarbon fuels, which are insoluable and can be separated without expensive distillation steps. The products contain over 95% of the energy content of the input. Science reported the research less than a year ago. There are many other proposals for utilizing carbohydrates to produce hydrocarbons. And of course there is the closely related area of fuel from landfill waste and even artificial photosynthesis that uses solar energy to produce liquid fuels more efficiently than nature can. All of these processes have much lower external cost than nuclear and produce no net carbon emissions.

C) Ergo, you are a pinhead who tries to make points by beating up on straw men that could more effectively be utilized for hydrocarbon fuels.

If nuclear is such a great choice to meet the world's rising energy needs, why is the Bush Administration spending so much diplomatic energy to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear power industry? The answer is weapons proliferation. Pretty much all nuclear power infrastructure can be diverted to weapons production. Do we really want, say Nigeria to be developing a nuclear power industry when it produces vast amounts of unused biomass? Any technology that concentrates huge amounts of highly radioactive material into a small volume is inherently extremely dangerous and a surefire target of terrorists seeking to destabilize society. And terrorism is sure to become more common and more sophisticated in the future. We have not achieved that victory no matter how many times we might chant the word.

Randall Parker said at December 12, 2005 8:29 PM:

Jim,

When it comes to sporadic energy sources keep in mind that they require a second generator plant that steps in when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine. The need for the second backup base load plant increases total capital costs. So when I see that some wind farm claims to generate electricity for x many cents per kwh I always wonder what additional cost needs to be added to that per kwh cost to pay for the base load.

E-P,

I'm all for the development of technologies that would allow us to shift heat or cool from one time of the day to another. I've also read about technologies that store summer heat to warm buildings during the winter. But there's the not so small matter of cost. Yes, some of this could work some day. But I'm waiting for the evidence that it can work today.

We need more rapid development of better batteries, better waste heat energy extractors, better heat and cold storage mechanisms that are cheaper to build and operate, and the like. Such technologies would make both wind and solar a lot more attractive than they are now.

As for biomass energy extraction: The situation is even worse than your numbers. Some of the biomass is extremely diffuse. Collecting it would take far more energy than could possibly be extracted under the best future extraction process. Plus, a lot of that biomass feeds organisms at many different positions on the food chain. Some of it has much lower energy density than corn.

Aside: The politics of corn ethanol makes me disgusted. Corn would be far better used to burn for heating than to make liquid fuel. For heating it can actually be cost justified and a far larger fraction of the energy in the corn goes for its intendned use.

tdean said at December 13, 2005 1:37 AM:

E-P,

Your latest post nearly shows that even pinheads have their moments of clarity. I say "nearly" because your post indicates that you really don't understand the principle of Sterling engines. The Sterling engine is a nearly ideal heat engine the efficiency of which is directly related to the temperature difference between the heat source and the heat sink. If you exhaust heat from a Sterling system at a high enough temperature to be useful for an absorption cooling system, you will be giving up a great deal of efficiency from a high temperature application for a relatively low quality heat application. It would be more efficient to use solar heat from less expensive non-concentrating collectors for cooling and selling excess power from a Sterling system during the heat of the day with heat exhausted to conventional cooling towers or cool water ponds if land is inexpensive.

But solar thermal in general is much closer to commerciality than exotic nuclear reactors that require inhumanly perfect engineering and multiply redundant system. Imagine the complexity of engineering a highly redundant system to pump highly radioactive liquid sodium in a fast neutron reactor where the high neutron flux tends to turn steel into non-crystaline material with the properties of glass. What an exciting target for terrorists. All they need to do is to breech the sodium system and watch as radioactive liquid sodium bursts into intense flame that dissolves metals and eats reinforced concrete. When it finds its way to water it explosively forms radioactive sodium hydroxide that is highly soluable in water and flammable hydrogen gas. Who wants to volunteer to clean that one up?

Randall Parker: "The politics of corn ethanol makes me disgusted." Well, the politics of nuclear power propaganda units buying off internet bloggers makes me sick. Why do we never hear Parker discuss the problems of nuclear power and weapons proliferation.like he used to? Parker from this site, 2003:

"So what realistic options are there for fossil fuel alternatives? Nuclear is one. But the biggest problem I see with it is the nuclear proliferation problems it poses. See my Weapons Proliferation Control archive on my ParaPundit blog for posts on the very large problem we face with nuclear proliferation. If a nuclear fuel cycle that was proliferation-proof could be devised I'd be more supportive of nuclear."

And today all we hear from Parker is "Nuclear is our only hope for salvation!" What has changed? Could this change have anything to do with Parker's steadfast refusal to answer or even address the question I have posed many times about support for his website from the Nuclear Energy Institute or other nuke industry sources? You decide.

Garson Poole said at December 13, 2005 2:22 AM:

Randall Parker said, “When it comes to sporadic energy sources keep in mind that they require a second generator plant that steps in when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine.”

One strategy for storing energy generated by wind turbines involves compressing air and storing it in caverns. The idea is discussed here and here. The Iowa Stored Energy Plant would store compressed air in an underground aquifer to be released and blended with natural gas to fire combustion turbines to make electricity. Another strategy for storing energy involves pumping water “backward” to a reservoir at a higher elevation as mentioned here">http://www.eere.energy.gov/de/pumped_hydro.html">here. Of course, these ideas do increase complexity and costs.

Switching topics - CNET has an article about a key part of the economy that may be more sharply affected by energy prices than most people are aware. The electrical costs of running computer servers using power-hungry chips of the future could end up being far larger than the initial hardware price tag claims one Google engineer.

Jim said at December 13, 2005 8:27 AM:

true, wind (and solar for that matter) is intermittent, and back-up is needed for down times at peak demand.

for the first such wind/solar farm added to the grid, this is not a problem (your additional marginal cost = 0) because the magnitude of the added capacity is within the noise of supply/demand in the power grid system. as the percentage of the total grid power from wind/solar increases this problem of low sun/wind generation must be offset through some sort of stored capacity (i.e. batteries, natural gas, hydrogen, hydro is probably ideal, coal?, etc.) leading to increasing additional marginal cost with increasing percentage of intermittant sources. it is beneficial to have the intermittancy of these power supplies de-coupled from each to reduce this cost - dispersed wind + solar + probably tidal

plans for genIV nuclear reactors envision the co-generation of hydrogen at the plant using thermal/electrical process. this makes for a convenient store of energy.

the overall power supplies in this country should be viewed as a total system. coal and nukes will form the base of this power system. wind and solar will have an ever-increasing role, however, even with recent natural gas prices, solar isn't yet price competitive. it's not an either-or debate.

p.s. - do you have support from the nuclear industry? that wouldn't discredit you.... i research technologies for many applications (nukes, coal, & wind), but still state my honest opinions. either way i think you should address the issue directly.

AA2 said at December 13, 2005 1:53 PM:

Garson said:

"Switching topics - CNET has an article about a key part of the economy that may be more sharply affected by energy prices than most people are aware. The electrical costs of running computer servers using power-hungry chips of the future could end up being far larger than the initial hardware price tag claims one Google engineer."

Very few people get this. We have seen with economic growth from day one as it rises power use rises. I predicted that the new (environmentally friendly) economy would end up being even more power hungry then the old economy. Not because I could forsee all of the technology, but simply by knowing that with all nations as their standard of living rises so does energy use. As their economy grows so does their energy needs.

The internet server farms that are going in are so power dense that the power companies actually have to upgrade the power supplies going to their buildings. They are like putting in a factory or saw mill in terms of power use.

And the server farms imo are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg that we have seen so far, for what we will do with processors. In biotech for example its clear to see that in the future experiments are going to be done "in-virtual". But the processing power is immense, estimates right now are that they will need over 1 petaflop. Which is an order of magnitude higher then the biggest supercomputer in the world today.

Already biotech companies in the UK are complaining because their power bills are increasing at an exponential rate. As they are using arrays of hardrives and servers to store the growing statistical information. One company I saw, increased almost 10 fold in 5 years their power bill. As the amount of computing they had increased.

AA2 said at December 13, 2005 1:57 PM:

Which brings up the other point I try to say, is that even if some technology in 2030 could meet TODAY's energy needs, it doesn't really matter. Because in 2030 it will have to meet 2030's energy needs. Which could easily be double the world production in 2005. (The US government projects electrical demand in the US doubling by 2030). Then in 2055 the technology will have to meet 2055's energy needs. Which will likely be quadruple today's.


Its amazing how the intellectual and political leadership in the western world is so focused on conservation as the answer. To me it is suicidal.

tdean said at December 13, 2005 3:53 PM:

Garson P.

You are correct and Parker's argument against renewables is wrong. Renewable power plants will add incremental power to an existing grid that can carry the base load. Much of that base capacity could be cleaned up and carbon sequestered, but additional renewable power capacityeven if intermittant, directly reduces greenhouse gas emissions at a competitive cost in terms of market price and at a tremendous bargain if we consider external costs, as we reasonably should. Solar thermal is particularly effective since it comes on line at precisely the right time to meet peak summertime loads.

AA2: "Its amazing how the intellectual and political leadership in the western world is so focused on conservation as the answer. To me it is suicidal." It is massive waste of energy that is suicidal. Enlightened leadership is talking about efficiency, not conservation. How is it reasonable in an age of carbon fiber materials that 5000 pound steel behemoths are transporting 150 pounds of passengers down our nation's freeways? Electric vehicles actually become practical when modern, lightweight materials are used. Energy efficiency produces economic efficiency, and that is beneficial to everyone.

Hugh Angell said at December 13, 2005 6:40 PM:

As surprising as this maybe to some here, those in the business of supplying energy are not
ideologues. They will build that which they think is profitable. Unfortunately, prices energy prices
have become too volatile. We may have to provide
some form of price guarantee ( as has been done
with windpower in some states) if we are going
to see any substantial move away from imported
energy. Say guarantee $40/barrel equivalent for
any bio, shale oil, coal gasification plant and
see if there are any takers. Samething will have
to be done with electricity generation. Say $50
mwh off peak. Like the 'stranded costs' of
California utilities during the 1990's or
agricultural price supports we have to cover the
risk of these new investments. We were doing that
anyway in the Deep Gulf, waiving federal royalty
payments for companies drilling there as long
as the price stayed over $5/mcf.

For the short term though we have to go with what we've got and what we've got is coal.
We do have a shortage of railroad and mining capacity to expand our production though.
Last spring heavy rains washed out the railroad that delivers much of the nations low
sulfur coal from the Powder River basin. It was a near thing and if it happened in
conjunction with an event like Katrina, well this country could experience Baghdad levels
of power delivery with all the economic ramifications of that.

Which brings me to terrorism. If terrorists get an atomic bomb with a Hiroshima size yield
then it really doesn't matter where they set it off. Trying to smuggle it close a nuclear
power plant would actually be pretty stupid as they are guarded and you'd have to get it
close. Reinforced concrete structures far less robust than a nuclear power plant were left
standing 1500 feet from ground zero in Hiroshima I remind everyone. Why bother with that
when you could simply hide the thing in a yacht and set if off next to Wall St. or in any
other downtown. The nuclear terrorist scenario is no argument against the UNITED STATES
building nuclear power plants though it does have relevance in the third world. As I
mentioned above obliquely a far less ambitious project of the sort within the capability
of a small terrorist gang would be to attack our conventional energy infrastructure. You
can't guard a thousand mile long railroad, 500KV power or 36" gas lines yet a coordinated
attack on them using chemical explosives could do a lot of real economic damage and even
more psychological damage.

I don't know the answer to our energy situation. There is certainly no single one but what
has to happen is for the US to reduce its dependance on foreign energy supplies because if
we don't we may have to live without them anyway. Look at the list of major OPEC producers.
If memory serves by order of exports it is... Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Kuwait, Iraq
etc. Pipelines are exploding not just in Iraq, there were bombs in Venezuela too. Israel
may attack Iran next year and anyone or more of those nations could implode. If one or more of
them did any fuel or power we were getting from
any North American source would seem a bargain.

Randall Parker said at December 13, 2005 8:08 PM:

Jim,

I would be way luckier than I am if only someone paid me to blog. I've never answered the jerk's question about this because he's an obnoxious jerk and I no longer respond to him.


AA2,

Sun is touting their new servers based on energy efficiency. They've made a big leap in thruput/energy usage by putting many cores on a slower clocking chip.

Yes, economic growth drives up demand for energy. If energy prices get high enough to stop growth in energy usage then the prices will be so high that many countries will go for nuclear. The debate here we are having about nuclear really only applies to some Western countries. China, Korea, and Japan are not going to hold back on nuclear development. Let prices get high enough and they'll shift heavily toward nuclear.

Since wind and solar can't satisfy all baseload demand we end up coming back to the choice between coal and nuclear. Given that the Chinese are not going to lower emissions for coal burning by putting on expensive equipment I hope they go more for nuclear. I do not want all that mercury, particulates, and other emissions added to the atmosphere.

tdean said at December 14, 2005 5:13 AM:

Hugh: "As surprising as this maybe to some here, those in the business of supplying energy are not
ideologues. They will build that which they think is profitable. Unfortunately, prices energy prices
have become too volatile."

Essentially right, and as a geophysicist currently working for profit in the petroleum business, I can say that some in the business are idealogues and some aren't. The problem with large energy companies (which I consciously choose not to work for) is that it is very profitable for them to invest in the process of influencing legislation, which due to their massive financial clout, distorts the process of writing laws in a representative democracy. Enron is just the most agregious example of this process. Enron actually wrote complex deregulation laws that no one read and then used those laws to game the system and steal from taxpayers and consumers. And worse than the caniving oil companies, who at least have a legitimate profit motive, are the politicians like former oil company lobbyist Joe Barton who betray his constituents by conspiring with big business to steal money from taxpayers to provide billions of dollars in federal benefits to giant petroleum companies with record profits. Idealogues, maybe. Thieves, without a doubt.

Hugh: " If terrorists get an atomic bomb with a Hiroshima size yield then it really doesn't matter where they set it off. Trying to smuggle it close a nuclear power plant would actually be pretty stupid as they are guarded and you'd have to get it close."

Nuclear power plants are guarded, but they are not effectively guarded. In required tests of nuclear plant security, even when warned of the approximate time of a planned attack exercise, over half of the time, the threat force was able to breach security to gain entrance into critical control facilities or the core area itself which would have lead to a loss of coolant incident. In a real attack with real weapons the rent-a-cops "guarding" our nuclear facilities would be too busy hiding and messing their pants to have any real effect unless they got lucky.

The reason for terrorist to attack a nuclear plant is not to destroy a few billion dollars worth of infrastructure. The object is to cause a release of a significant fraction of the nuclear core material into potentially thousands of square miles of surrounding territory, making them uninhabitable for generations. In your example of a Hiroshima sized bomb, the bomb itself contains on the order of ten Kg of radioactive material and if detonated in a city, would destroy perhaps ten square miles and slightly contaminate a larger area for a short period of time. Remember, people lived in Hiroshima even after the atomic bomb attack with only a few additional cancer deaths. Also recall that the Chernobyl accident released only one or two percent of its nuclear material and there are still areas that are uninhabited due to contamination. A nuclear power plant core contains tons of nuclear material with a wide range of half-lives which, if vaporized by a nuclear device (and yes, it would have to be close) would contaminate thousands of square miles for generations, leaving a state sized no mans land in the middle of our country. This would cause more damage than the entire nuclear industry in the world is worth or has generated in its entire history. That is why the risk of nuclear power is too great. It is simple economics. And the risk is too great if the risk of this sort of incident has only a 10% probability in the next 50 years. Given that we know that a terrorist cell in Australia was targeting nuclear plants in Australia and that there were documents about US nuke plants in Al Kaida headquarters in Afghanistan, I'd say the probability of an attack on a US nuclear plant is greater than 10%. And as I pointed out before, the cat can be skinned in a number of different ways. A precision guided, air dropped penetrator will do the job nicely as will a standard anti-armour gun or missile. A 150 mm sabot round would easily penetrate the containment building and pressure vessel and a few hits would guarantee a meltdown. And you can get the ammo in India or Pakistan (http://www.army-technology.com/contractors/ammunition/apfsds.htm). All of the sophisticated failsafe engineering in the world won't stand up to a few well aimed anti armour rounds.

Parker claims his feelings are so hurt by my name calling that he no longer responds to my viscious attacks. Let's see, I called him Nukeboy and he calls me obnoxious jerk. I can take it. I just consider the source, like my momma said. The true fact is that he does respond to me. His "updates" in this article are clearly a response to my points. He claims hurt feelings because he cannot win an honest debate with me and he got tired of losing on his own blog so he went home crying. And please note that Parker's claim that he doesn't "get paid" for blogging is actually a highly qualified and tricky response to my question as to whether he receives "any support" from the nuclear industry. Nice try, Parker.

S. Cormack said at December 14, 2005 12:38 PM:

Engineer-Poet said: "Those direct-carbon fuel cells require ultra-purified carbon; by the time you've done that you're probably down in the 60% region with everything else."

E-P: According to that Lawrence Livermore white paper, the 80% efficiency takes into account the pyrolysis stage. Efficiencies are determined by the carbon source and range from 80% for direct petroleum coke to 67% for natural gas. I've emailed Dr. Cooper to verify this.

Also, I have some experience with absorption chillers (as we have a source of cheap summer steam from waste energy) and have found them to be maintenance hogs. We have abandoned them in favor of turbine chillers. However, we will probably abandon steam driven chillers altogether in favor of co-generation.

AA2 said at December 14, 2005 2:03 PM:

Randal said: "Sun is touting their new servers based on energy efficiency. They've made a big leap in thruput/energy usage by putting many cores on a slower clocking chip."

I think for a lot of reasons computing is going towards multi-threading, as opposed to more superscalar. Like energy costs for servers, but also the heat issues limiting things for single threading. Still it would have to break the historic trend of gdp roughly equaling electrical use. Even in Europe with extreme measures to stop increasing power use and an economy growing slowly the electrical demand still is growing.

AA2 said at December 14, 2005 2:09 PM:

Randall said: "Yes, economic growth drives up demand for energy. If energy prices get high enough to stop growth in energy usage then the prices will be so high that many countries will go for nuclear. The debate here we are having about nuclear really only applies to some Western countries. China, Korea, and Japan are not going to hold back on nuclear development. Let prices get high enough and they'll shift heavily toward nuclear."


I agree Korea, Japan and China aren't anti-nuclear or anti-technology in general. Projecting recent trends it also looks like a large percentage of world electrical growth over the next 30 years is going to be in these 3 nations as well.. and obviously mainly in China.

America's energy plans have 100 new coal plants approved for construction.

tdean said at December 14, 2005 4:23 PM:

S. Cormack,

That LLNL paper on carbon fuel cells is really amazing and more so in that so little is in the news about this potential breakthrough technology. That it can produce a pure CO2 exhaust stream at 80% efficiency is very important. It is a natural for carbon sequestration since there isn't the separation step necessary when 80% of combustion exhaust is nitrogen. I recommend the paper to everyone as an example of first class government sponsored research. With aggressive funding this process could revolutionize coal power plants in 10 years - less than the time to get conventional nuke plants online. Thanks for the great link.

Obnoxious Jerk

Hugh Angell said at December 14, 2005 4:28 PM:

I won't disagree with the effect of political lobbying by energy companies on energy
policy. I don't think Rep. Barton is an egregious example however. I was more alarmed
by the efforts of Senators Shelby and Lott, to name just too to come to the aid of there
big utility Southern in the recent energy bill. Seems Southern's version of 'deregulation'
is to award supply contracts to subsidiaires it set up even if lower cost power was
available elsewhere. Entergy was doing the same as were any number of other companies.
FERC was powerless to stop it because Senators could hold up the 'energy bill Barton was
trying to pass if FERC was given the power to enforce open competition in electricity
markets.

Look, I agree a nuclear bomb going off in a nuclear power plant would be a catastrophe.
I just don't think it a very plausible terrorist threat. First they have to get the bomb,
which no country currently is willing to do for the very obvious reason that if they are
caught giving atomic bombs to terrorists they can expect a 'Hard Rain' to fall on them
in a very short time. Now what national leader is going to invest the future of himself
and his country on a terrorist's scheme to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the US, much less
attempt to smuggle it close to a nuclear power plant? Nuclear weapons leave 'fingerprints'
and given the likely American reaction you definitely would not want yours on it.

As to firing a 150 mm SABOT round into a nuclear power plant. A American M1-A1 Abrams main
battle tank has a 120 mm gun that can fire SABOT rounds of that nature. It is the most
powerful antitank gun in the world generating around 10 million megajoules. The Abrams
main battle tank weighs around 70 tons. Even lesser antitank gun platforms weigh many
tons. Now from where will terrorists in the US get and move such massive artillary pieces?
Do you think they can just drive their weapon down Highway 101 to Diablo Canyon, pull up
3000 thousand feet from the power plant and begin blasting away? Don't you think some
motorist might call the police on his cell phone and say he just some some Arab looking
guys climbing into their tank and pulling onto the freeway? Might the police then call
the USAF, Navy, Army or Marines and have them send some aviation units to cut short this
bold terrorist operation?

While you must plan for the worst it is useful to remember terrorists are not 10 feet tall.
Even 9/11 wasn't technically sophisticated. All you really needed was people willing to
commit suicide by flying the planes into buildings. This was al Qaeda's magnus opus yet bin
Laden apparently was surprised that the towers actually collapsed. I don't want to appear
unconcerned cause I not but al Qaeda is probably not capable of mounting even a 9/11
operation in the US anymore otherwise they would have done it. Even abroad they have not
been able to mount anything more serious, and serious it is, beyond sending some marginally
capable lunatics into nightclubs, trains and subways with HE bombs.

tdean said at December 14, 2005 7:05 PM:

Hugh,

Thanks for correcting my mispelling of "egregious" and of course you are correct that 150 mm should have been 120 mm. If I were trying to smuggle a nuke into the US I would go through Mexico and deliver it to a nuclear reactor using a business-class jet with suicidal pilot guidance. Given the amount of weapons grade nuclear material that we know is lost in the former Soviet Union, we would probably not retaliate against Russia if one of their tactical nukes was used against us by terrorists. Using nuclear weapons is certainly tricky and even if they had one right now, it would probably take a few years for them to figure out how to arm it and fuse it. But it could be done. And considering the negative value of this type of strike, it is something that they likely would spend a lot of time, money and effort on. Al Qaeda has said as much and even claim to have a nuclear weapon. It is hard to say how credible that claim is, but there are a lot of hungry military officers in FSU countries who might be willing to make a deal.

Agreed, an anti-tank gun is a large piece of steel, but the barrel material could probably be smuggled into the US in a shipment of petroleum casing and the gun breech and recoil mechanism could be fabricated in a garage with a $100,000 digital milling machine. The gun could be mounted in a semi trailer and by the time the cops, much less the military had figured out what was going on the show would be over. Surely not easy, but not impossible. If you don't like guns, then KE kill anti-tank missiles are also pretty common. Bottom line is that it might take a few million dollars of terrorist petro dollars to accomplish maybe a trillion dollars worth of havok on the enemy (that's us). It's true that terrorists have demonstrated surprisingly little technical chutzpah thus far, but I see no reason to think that they are not seeking to improve their capabilities.

Engineer-Poet said at December 14, 2005 8:10 PM:

tdean blathers:

I say "nearly" because your post indicates that you really don't understand the principle of Sterling engines.
That's utterly hilarious.  I'll bet dollars to donuts that you can't state the Ideal Gas Law without looking it up, cannot integrate v^(-gamma) dv without refreshing your calculus if you can do it at all, and have not analyzed an air-cycle engine in your life.  You cannot even spell "Stirling" correctly.

I'm well aware that Stirling engines come closer to the ideal Carnot cycle than most, and increasing the temperature of the heat sink drops efficiency (as it does in steam turbines, gas turbines, and even piston engines).  OTOH, the difference between a heat sink at 323 K and 380 K is small compared to a source at 1000 K; you might get a drop from 30% to 28% efficiency, or a drop to 23.3 kW from 25.  Losing 1.7 kW of electricity to gain 30 kW of cooling (which would take roughly 10 kW of electricity to generate using compression chillers) is a huge win, and it does not require a separate collector (the most expensive part of the setup).  It effectively boosts output by 1/3 at minimal cost.  If the original unit costs $2.00/W(peak) and an absorption chiller costs $.32/W(cool), the total system would cost about $1.79/W(effective), roughly a 10% savings.

The absorption chillers I've used have been maintenance-free.  Running a sealed ammonia-water unit employing the Electrolux cycle requires levelling and little else.

As for buying the rest of the world's biomass?  Look at how much of the world's total biological productivity we use already.  Add what we now use from oil, and you're way down in negative territory remaining.  Nations will prohibit exports if it's in their interest, and it will be.

But solar thermal in general is much closer to commerciality than exotic nuclear reactors that require inhumanly perfect engineering and multiply redundant system.
You mean, like the walkaway-safe pebble-bed reactors which shut themselves down if they get too hot and are cooled by inert gases?
Well, the politics of nuclear power propaganda units buying off internet bloggers makes me sick. Why do we never hear Parker discuss the problems of nuclear power and weapons proliferation.like he used to?
Damn, I missed the gravy train.  I've been defending nuclear power for free.  Where do I sign up to get bought off?
</sarcasm>

Hugh:  I'm with you there.  I hope that terrorists decide to try hitting a nuclear plant instead of a city, because containment buildings are very hard targets and the security will make the plan far more likely to be discovered and the conspirators captured before they can attack it.  Of course, this is a distant hope; terrorists are dumb, but apparently not that dumb.  Even Teeny Deanie knows that it would take development of a brand new high-tech penetrator, carried inside a civilian aircraft (it would be caught if carried outside, and military aircraft from hostiles would be shot down) to carry out the aerial attack he postulates.  If the ground-based attack was so easy, we'd have seen it employed in Iraq or elsewhere.  That gives us plenty of warning to improve our security; if you can't get a semi within firing range, you don't have a plan.

Last, we can deal with all of that relatively easily.  All we'd have to do is place all new reactor containment buildings under a protective heap of earth and rocks.  No shell is going to shoot through boulders, and an aircraft-borne penetrator wouldn't even be able to aim properly.  But does Dean have a clue?  Nope.  He can't even come up with new claims for the ones which get refuted, and that's what makes him such a great argument for nukes.

jimcrack said at December 15, 2005 4:11 PM:

As a now-veteran viewer of this site I am amazed that tdean, who claims to be a geophysicist working for a for profit company (no mention what that is) finds the time to post fustian twaddle at great length, which we have to spend many man hours to plow through. He apparantly can do this during work hours, which most of us, I reason, cannot. And his view of human nature is that we will spend the rest of our lives cowering to anticipate nuclear sabotage, airline hijackings, and the like. He doesn't realize that the same week as the TMI disaster, 100,000 people faced evacuation in Ontario due to a chlorine explosion. Much later in Japan, 40 people died of a serin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, committed by a cult known as Aun. There is no groundswell of support to eliminate organic chemistry from American life, now is there?

We can bulletproof airline cockpits with armor, like El-Al, and support Amtrak, which you can't crash into buildings, so as to protect these red herrings called nuclear power plants. The fact is the cheapest windpower in the US is as expensive as the dearest natural gas, and I think wind farms are about as attractive as a long distance power transmission lines, or those little berms they replce trees with in so-called suburbs. Since we can't build enough lines to the best windpower sites to bring electricity to the rest of the US (imagine North Dakota hooked to the entire northeast!), we'll end up with NIMBY in every liveable community that has a wind farm proponent. Get a life, the sooner we bring on nuclear power, the more petroleum and gas we will have for our vehicles. Tdean has a lot of complaints, mainly directed at the existence of the rest of us, but no solutions to the energy crisis, and no viewpoint of what kind of human or political nature it takes to adopt the right solutions.

Bob Badour said at December 15, 2005 7:36 PM:

Jim,

I just skip over any post with TDean's sig. Doesn't take any time at all. Try it. I think you will like it.

Engineer-Poet said at December 15, 2005 10:06 PM:
The fact is the cheapest windpower in the US is as expensive as the dearest natural gas....
Uh, I don't think so.  Wind power is down around 4.5¢/kWh at favorable sites; NG at $15/mmBTU fed to a 55%-efficient CC plant costs 9.3¢/kWh for fuel alone.
Rob said at December 16, 2005 2:55 PM:

As for wind and solar, take a look at the forecast for Austin, Tx for the next five days:

No wind to speak of, highs in the 40's and lows in the 30's, overcast.

Even if our wind or solar generation had perfectly efficient ways to store excess capacity, they would have to have planned to save up enough for FIVE DAYS without either. No way that makes sense, economically. And, of course, it could be TEN days, you never know.

So, we would have to have backup capacity standing by, all winter long. We wouldn't actually be able to shut down any plants at all, just idle them. If you charge the cost of all those idle plants, staffed and waiting to go on line, against the solar or wind generation, it suddenly becomes extremely expensive.

Biomass? Yeah, I think it could be mixed in, and probably should be, but I don't think it can put a big dent in what we get from gasoline. And it produces carbon, too.

I think nuclear is the only option that could significantly reduce our gasoline consumption.

On the other hand, there is a LOT of energy in conservation. This hasn't been explored very well at all. A modern "energy management system" on a commercial building can cut energy usage by 15%, using pretty crude methods (only turning on lights when needed and not a second longer, strictly controlling HVACs - and monitoring for bad compressors and such - and so on). Get serious about it and I think we could make that 25%. There is even more to be done to modulate peak demand.

Engineer-Poet said at December 16, 2005 9:54 PM:

Rob, consider instead a mix of nukes, wind and biomass.  You idle the biomass system when the wind is blowing and crank it up when it's calm (or run a gasifier system for F-T fuels and chemical synthesis when the wind is up, and use it to run gas turbines when the wind dies down).  Nukes handle your base load.  Ice-storage air conditioners and vehicle batteries provide some capacity to exploit surpluses.

If you're running 30% of your electrical demand off biomass, a 5-day lull is no problem.

Randall Parker said at December 18, 2005 7:24 AM:

E-P,

Given that corn is a much cheaper source of therms than natural gas at this point would it be cheaper to generate heat for electricity by burning corn than by burning natural gas?

I just found a figure of 11 billion bushels of corn produced in the United States in 2005. That is up from 8.3 billion bushels in 1992. Corn is projected to cost between $1.60 and $2.00 in 2006.

Referring back to my post on Brazil and ethanol that wandered off into a discussion about corn for heat consider BTU costs:

The Penn State corn equivalents table lists 1 million BTUs of natural gas as the equivalent of 170 lb of corn (which is just slighly more than 3 bushels). I do not know how much retail distribution adds to natural gas prices but on commodity exchanges lately natural gas as been between $12 and $16 per million BTU.

At $2 per bushel the corn cost of $6 gives the equivalent number of BTUs as the natural gas cost of $12 to $16.

Of course, if we made a major shift toward corn as an energy source then corn prices would rise. Their rise would have an upper limit somewhere below the BTU cost of natural gas.

Jim said at December 19, 2005 10:01 AM:

on the nuke support, RP's answer was good enough for me

similar to corn, many people in vermont (and probably many other similar areas) already get a lot of home heat from burning wood.... doesn't get much cheaper, especially when you have to take down a tree in your property periodically anyhow. simple, ancient, and effective.

tdean doesn't really bother me. he's obviously pretty strongly against nukes, and i've always found a benefit from knowing the opposing perspective and debating points...
it seems that if the real problems with nukes is terrorist attacks, then we should start dismantling the nation's dams - they've got to be much easier targets than nukes.
and the notion of being able to build and mount a large diameter gun tube for an attack is silly. you can count on your fingers the total number of global suppliers for the steel ingots and the subsequent forging and machining work that are capable. in fact the u.s. currently uses a french steel supplier, which is obviously not by choice!

Paul Dietz said at December 19, 2005 2:35 PM:

Comparisons of the cost of wind vs. other energy sources are often comparisons of apples and oranges.

Electricity from wind is often unpredictable (not 'dispatchable'). This means the utility has to have backup capacity available to take over if the wind is weak. This extra capacity is not free, and its cost must be added to the cost of the wind energy. Hydro can be used to level the supply, but this flexibility is also a resource that could be used to offset fluctuations in demand, so using it for wind will still cause the wind plants to incur an opportunity cost.

Contrast this with nuclear or fossil fuels. To a large extent, the power from these sources is predictable. Outages, except for exceptional circumstances, can be scheduled far ahead of time. As a result the utility needs to spend much less to ensure their reliability.

So, if the raw cost/kWh of wind is the same as that of nuclear, that would still mean wind is more expensive at a system level. The cost of wind energy has to drop well below that of nuclear before it is truly competitive.

Paul Dietz said at December 19, 2005 2:41 PM:

That it can produce a pure CO2 exhaust stream at 80% efficiency is very important. It is a natural for carbon sequestration since there isn't the separation step necessary when 80% of combustion exhaust is nitrogen.

Another technology that can do this is called 'chemical looping combustion' (google for that term). This involves using a pelletized solid material (such as iron, manganese, copper, nickel, etc. and their oxides) as an oxygen carrier, so air and fuel are never mixed. Combustion is also broken into two steps, which can be performed at different temperatures, thereby reducing some of the entropy increase that occurs in normal combustion.

tdean said at December 22, 2005 1:14 AM:

Jimcrack: "As a now-veteran viewer of this site I am amazed that tdean, who claims to be a geophysicist working for a for profit company (no mention what that is) finds the time to post fustian twaddle at great length, which we have to spend many man hours to plow through. He apparantly can do this during work hours, which most of us, I reason, cannot."

Since Mr. Crack can't refute my points with facts or logic, he attacks the person with unsubstantiated nonsense and mindless insults. That is the definition of an ad hominem attack. I am a geophysicist working in the oil business in a company I own and run. But that doesn't have any bearing as to whether the points I make are true or not. I only brought it up because of a remark about idealogues in the energy business, something I have personal experience with. I guess I can write some posts at length because I am a fairly good typist and sometimes I have time and sometimes I don't. But I can pretty well decide when to work and when not to on my own.

Mr. Crack: "There is no groundswell of support to eliminate organic chemistry from American life, now is there?" No, but there are substantial efforts to control dangerous chemicals that can be used in WMDs and other mass terror attacks. That makes sense. And if there were cost effective ways to defend nuclear plants from terrorist attacks, that would also make sense. But there really aren't any. Ringing every nuclear reactor with anti-aircraft missiles and substantial military ground forces would do a lot to reduce the probablility of a successful terrorist attack, but if customers had to pay for those resources, nuclear energy would be even less competitive than it is at present. Not paying for those resources and giving the big energy companies a pass on catastrophic damage liability via the Price-Anderson Act means that citizens and taxpayers are paying extra for nuclear power by absorbing the risk based costs of nuclear power. They are just paying tomorrow and largely unknowingly for these risks that no private insurer would touch with a thousand foot pole. If nuclear is so safe, why does the industry need these extraordinary subsidies from the government? It is simply because the nuclear industry would be completely unsustainable without those free government guarantees. And if it was unsustainable before 9/11 due to catastrophic risk, it sure as hell is now. End of story.

Engineer-poet: "All we'd have to do is place all new reactor containment buildings under a protective heap of earth and rocks. No shell is going to shoot through boulders, and an aircraft-borne penetrator wouldn't even be able to aim properly." And what about the ones that exist now? Maybe the nuke industry can get the taxpayers to eat the expense of putting the entire industry under 100-200 feet of rocks and dirt. It seems to be working for the Iranians. But then they aren't really worrying about the profitabiltity of building atomic bombs. If the industry had to pay for that extra cost and complexity, we definitely would not have to worry about new plants being built. But since they don't have to worry about catastrophic accidents thanks to the Price-Anderson giveaway to the industry, why would they even think about those sorts of safety features?

Jim: "it seems that if the real problems with nukes is terrorist attacks, then we should start dismantling the nation's dams - they've got to be much easier targets than nukes." A large hyroelectric dam might be easier to hit, but it takes a lot less penetrating power to punch a big enough hole to destroy a nuclear reactor than a fifty foot thick chunk of reinforced concrete. A containment dome is intended to contain the release of a limited amount of high pressure steam from an out of control reactor, not to protect a reactor from modern penetrator weapons. And if you have driven past a large dam lately, it will be immediately clear that there is significantly greater defensive measures around the dam. That is not apparent when you drive past a nuclear reactor.

Jim: "and the notion of being able to build and mount a large diameter gun tube for an attack is silly." How many gun barrels from burnt out T-72 tanks are laying around in the desert in Iraq and Afghanistan these days? You could probably get one on Ebay. Of course terrorists just need a cutting torch and a truck. Both Pakistan and India make and sell suitable ammo.

Paul D: "Electricity from wind is often unpredictable (not 'dispatchable'). This means the utility has to have backup capacity available to take over if the wind is weak. This extra capacity is not free, and its cost must be added to the cost of the wind energy." That capacity is already available in the power grid and it is called "peaking capacity". If the wind is blowing during peak times, you can turn off some expensive gas powered tubine peakers. If it is blowing during off peak times you can reduce the output of coal fired plants and save fuel and pollution. Most studies suggest that wind capacity at about 10% of installed capacity is very cost effective. Solar is more effective since it is more often available during peak summer periods. The base load currently provided by nuclear can be replaced with carbon sequestered fossil fuel and bio-fuel plants. Reducing GHG emissions from electric power can certainly be done without nuclear, which will not come on line for at least 12 to 15 years in any case.

Please note that debate consists of restating your opponents' points and then refuting them with facts and logic. I have seen precious little effective or honest refutation of my points concerning the infeasibility of expanding nuclear power and lots of grousing and nonsense about me personally.

Happy holidays.

Tdean said at December 22, 2005 1:52 AM:

And by the way, since Parker seems determined to use Nobel Lauriate Richard Smalley's name in vain, check out what Professor Smalley says about nuclear providing large increases in the future energy balance: http://www.agci.org/0302agenda.html#agenda

To save you downloading a large PPT file I will summarize: The problems with nuclear are:
1) What to do with nuclear waste
2) Terrorism
3) Cost

Obviously this is a very smart man who deserves a Nobel Prize even though terrorism should have been #1 on his list.

I recommend his powerpoint presentation very highly.

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