Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Why is Society Ignoring the Easiest Path to a Low Carbon Energy Infrastructure by Rejecting Nuclear Power
For decades certain parties have dreamed of the reality of “renewable” energy generation with the sun and/or wind providing the lion’s share, if not all, of the energy for a given society. Unfortunately decades removed from those initial dreams, society is little closer to that reality. Solar and wind proponents would argue that such a statement is foolhardy for the total percentage of energy generation from these sources rises ever higher year after year. However, these same proponents fail to acknowledge, or even realize, that neither solar or wind have had to face any real test supporting their viability as the chief energy generator. Can one say that an individual is really closer to passing a test when his percent correct has increased from 1% to 6%?
The lack of sufficient penetration has tabled effective identification of what type of integration methodologies will be required to evade consistent brown outs due to the intermittency of these technologies. However, it is known that battery technology for storage is still in its infancy, especially on a mass scale, and little discussion is given towards the significant shortfall in numerous rare earths to ensure solar and wind economic viability relative to the scale demanded; for solar economic viability is questionable even with these rare earths. Also there is a lack of general understanding regarding the required levels of redundancy to create the storage reserve. Despite these real unanswered questions where theory is stacked against solar and wind supporters, groups like ARPA-E continue to search for the “next energy breakthrough” commonly to support the expansion of wind and solar while seemingly ignoring the fastest and most stable route to a no/low carbon emission energy future… nuclear power.
No one can dispute the stability, low to no carbon emission and base-load power generation ability of nuclear power. The failures associated with the widespread adoption of fission based nuclear technologies, including the development of breeder reactors, have not be the result of technical flaws, roadblocks produced by the laws of physics, safety profiles or even overall capital and operational costs, but instead has been the result of a direct campaign against nuclear power based only upon paranoia, overreaction, fear and opposing economic interests.
Some may argue against nuclear power by citing certain projects that experienced large delays in construction and cost overruns. This criticism has valid and invalid points. The problem with simply citing a construction delay or cost overrun is that almost no construction project in the history of humanity be it a complex structure like a nuclear power plant or wind farm or a more simplistic structure like a corner grocery store have come in on-time and on-budget. The entire predictive process for the construction is consistently fraught with optimistic estimations and assumptions in effort to win the “bid” for the project either through associated agencies like subcontractors or to win approval for the project as a whole. Therefore, time and cost overruns should be treated as the norm, not the exception for any construction project.
However, optimistic estimations cannot explain all of the cost overruns. Another reason nuclear power appears more expensive than it actually should be is the lack of uniformity/standardization in design. For example when considering breeder reactors several different reactor prototypes have been proposed and even had initial construction periods. Anyone with any design experience knows that the most expensive type of product is the first working prototype (i.e. version 1.0). Due to the lack of coordination and cooperation between nations, instead of six or seven countries working together on one universal reactor design, economic competition has created an environment with numerous high level generation II to generation III breeder reactor version 1.0s, which has further increased costs.
Another rationality for cost increases with regards to nuclear power, especially breeder reactors, is simple short-sighted analysis regarding long-term cost benefit analysis. Basically breeder reactors remain more expensive (i.e. not directly cost-competitive) with more standard thermal reactors because research and development into breeders was quasi-sabotaged for decades by cheap uranium prices and corresponding economic incentives. So instead of acknowledging a time in the future when uranium may not be cheap due to potential shortages or more expensive extraction methods or simply understanding that nuclear power needed to evolve to be more effective in general and preparing for this reality with proper planning, both private corporations and government elected to take advantage of short-term gains that have now created long-term losses.
Basically capital costs associated with breeder reactors have been heavily influenced by the lack of standardization and the lack of a devotion to the continuous evolution of their design and construction. Any economist will sing the praises of assembly line and scale economics at dramatically reducing costs. Nuclear, especially breeders, has not been able to engage in these types of processes because of this “start-stop” mentality due to uranium prices, lack of long-term thinking, which is still plaguing the energy environment with so much short-term focus on solar and wind, and lack of cooperation among companies and governments.
Another issue that has been blown out of proportion is the danger of reprocessed material being siphoned off and/or stolen for the production of nuclear weapons. One of the original reprocessing methodologies, PUREX, certainly warranted concern because it is able to produce concentrations of pure plutonium after completion; however, PUREX is certainly not the only reprocessing method. There are a number of other methods most of which make plutonium isolation and extraction nearly impossible, thus making weaponizing the reprocessed material nearly impossible. Also appropriate safety measures can easily be applied to eliminate the potential seizure of any “weaponized” material. If terrorists acquire nuclear weapons it would be from some secret lab in Iran or from North Korea over a modern nuclear breeder reactor.
The final issue is the most depressing one when it comes to nuclear opposition, the overreaction to a meltdown. Overall there have only been two legitimate meltdowns in history, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. The events on Three Mile Island actually demonstrated what is supposed to happen when safety procedures are properly applied. The “demonization” of nuclear power at the hands of Chernobyl is especially ridiculous when considering both the technology at the time and the circumstances of the meltdown. If similar consideration was given to the airline industry then modern aviation would shutdown because a Wright Brothers’ era plane happened to crash. Of course that would never happen, which demonstrates the serious bias towards nuclear power possessed by certain entities.
Concerning Fukushima Daiichi, a power plant from the 50s built in one of the worst regions of the county it could have been relative to safety, it still required a once in a 1000-year natural disaster event to produce any negative outcome, which was in large part thanks to a lack of basic contingency safety protocols; yet these failures were heavily unjustifiably propagandized as inherent to nuclear technology instead of what they actually were: simple economic laziness/greed.
If nuclear power is the answer to addressing global warming what does that make of the other contenders? Clearly anything that produces significant quantities of CO2 or other greenhouse gases is out due to global warming issues, thus coal, oil and natural gas are non-starters. The idea of natural gas as a “bridge” from coal to a low-CO2 emission source may have been an option two or three decades ago, but is certainly not a cost-effective transition option now, despite the money the U.S. is wasting, relying on natural gas is a fool’s errand.
Geothermal is an option that would have been interesting to study regarding the enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) methodology as a realistic competitor to nuclear, but with the pertinent issue involving the potential progression of tectonic activity (periodic 2-3 Richter scale earthquakes under initial EGS tests, with time would this magnitude increases?) there does not appear to be adequate time to return to the start so to speak if earthquake magnitude progression was indeed a feature of EGS. Pipe dreams like tidal power and microwave/satellite solar are either boondoggles or do not have nearly enough momentum and potential to even be considered viable responses. Fusion, either of the hot or cold variety, seems no significantly closer now than two/three decades ago. Thus, the only valid competitors for nuclear appear to be terrestrial solar and wind power.
The biggest problem with both wind and solar is the intermittency associated with their energy generation. Try as they might to mitigate its importance, wind and solar proponents cannot in good conscious ignore the additional costs, maintenance, storage and redundancies required to compensate for this deficiency, which raise the costs associated with both solar and wind to levels that far exceed nuclear power. Without the need for storage and redundancy capacity to fill that storage then solar and wind are cheaper, which is the story solar and wind proponents sell the public; however, without storage and fill redundancy, it is logical to suggest that solar and wind will do nothing but produce rolling brownouts to blackouts as the principal energy provider. Unfortunately the current penetration structure of wind and solar does not provide any test cases to demonstrate these realities.
Another problem associated with wind and solar is that measuring their production via nameplate capacity commonly results in optimistic to unrealistic analysis. For example a wind farm reporting a nameplate capacity at 200 MW means that it produces 200 MW when functioning at optimal capacity. Unfortunately to actually achieve this maximum generation result, the wind needs to be blowing within the optimum speed range over the entire farm simultaneously, which is a meaningful statistical achievement; can it happen… yes; does it happen frequently, not even close. Furthermore the statistical probability of this occurring over multiple wind farms is even more unlikely. Basically the greater nameplate capacity built into this type of system, either within a single farm or throughout multiple farms, will result in an overall reduction in the expected maximum capacity that can be feasibly attained relative to the actual nameplate capacity.
In short it is unrealistic for a large wind producer to ever reach 100% nameplate at any given time and the more capacity that exists the lower percentage of the maximum that can actually be reached. For example (note these numbers are for explanation purposes not empirically derived, but accurately demonstrate the trend) a wind system with 3000 MW of nameplate will be able to achieve an average maximum generation of 2500 MW (83%) whereas a wind system with 4000 MW of nameplate will be able to achieve an average maximum generation of 3100 MW (77.5%). Of course these are only maximum values that are attained for a few seconds to minutes at a time; actual average wind capacity values for days to months range from 25-35% and have remained within this range for decades and show little sign of changing, despite certain levels of hype, hence the need for storage and redundancy to fill that shortage.
Another concern with both wind and solar generation is that their production potential changes significantly during winter months. The loss of solar during the winter is of no surprise to anyone that actually pays attention to general climate patterns; however, wind is trickier because while the overall average “amount” of wind does not seem to have any significant level of variance between seasons, its daily levels typically vary more during the winter than other months. Basically during winter months there is a higher probability that wind values depart from the mean both in magnitude and direction (i.e. positively or negatively). These larger departures place greater pressure on plant operators to smooth power curves and properly incorporate the energy produced from wind into the mix with other energy mediums. Remove those other more stable energy mediums and integration becomes even more difficult.
A number of solar and wind proponents have put forth the idea that smart grids will act as a panacea of sorts for the issues associated with integration addressing load balancing, peak curtailment and demand response among other potential problems. However, the scale of application associated with smart grids has been much lower than expected over the last decade despite attempts to invest billions of dollars in the process. Part of this significant delay is that some communities are rebelling against the installation of smart meters, central elements to the smart grid, even when costs of maintenance and installation are deferred to the utility company. While most of the reasons for the rejection of smart meters are thought to be questionable, it does not appear that smart meter detractors will be easily convinced off of their current position.
For example a portion of this resistance is the concern about the safety of potential electromagnetic and/or radiation that could emanate from the smart meter. Unfortunately smart meters may have entered that cell phone zone when it comes to radiation in that even if they are safe it may be impossible to convince some people of that fact and you can easily have an environment of “dueling” experts. Also unlike cell phones, smart meters do not have that “necessary for existence in society” reputation that cell phones seem to have.
Another problem for smart meters is a resistance by utility companies themselves to install them unless someone else is paying the bill due to a lack of standards through how the devices are connected to grid and communicate with each other. Basically no utility company wants to commit to a given format/design because that format may not be the one that “wins”, thus that preemptive commitment will result in significant financial losses. The situation is similar to the problem with the expansion of electric cars. Currently the existing infrastructure to support electric cars is basically non-existent outside of certain areas in California because those responsible for building it are waiting for electric car sales to increase to the point that justify building it, but without an infrastructure few individuals have interest in buying an electric car in part due to the worry that the infrastructure will never be built to support the purchase. One side has to take the leap, but neither side is willing to do so.
Even if smart meter installation was as widespread as hoped, smart grid proponents have acknowledged the problems associated with securing the flow of information and energy within the system. Currently there are valid concerns regarding how prone the system is to being hacked, which raises questions regarding the long-term security and safety of a smart grid. This is not to say that smart meters, and in large part a smart grid, do not have a role to play or cannot be safe, but the issues associated with their adoption and safety place a burden on their speedy application and mass testing that significantly damages the viability of a dominant wind and solar energy infrastructure.
Another issue with wind power that is not commonly considered is whether or not the general price of wind power is close to its minimum in that with a vast majority of the high-value wind collection land masses already being utilized, newer wind turbines will have less naturally efficient areas to generate power. Realistically this issue should not produce an environment were traditional wind power will significantly start increasing in price, but instead it would counteract any cost savings from any further technological advancement in wind turbines. The real question regarding future costs associated with wind power is storage level and medium.
Further problems for solar/wind supporters is even some of the “champion countries” of renewables are not seeing the carbon emission reduction numbers theory and general behavior would suggest. While in isolation Denmark’s wind generation numbers look impressive, they are not consistent, to the point where Denmark relies heavily on energy transfers to and from neighboring countries. Basically if these transfers did not exist Denmark would be in a state of constant brownout due to wind intermittency.
Currently this transfer process is stable because of the more consistent generation mediums possessed by other European countries, most notably natural gas and Swedish and Norwegian hydropower. At the current time and in the foreseeable future the ease of transfer to reduce volatility in Denmark’s energy markets would become incredibly difficult, if not impossible, if Europe adopted similar wind percentage generation profiles. Basically while wind proponents like to cite Denmark as the poster child for “what wind can do for you” its close proximity to Swedish and Norwegian hydropower provides a very unique environment that is not technically or economic replicable for other countries.
Also despite investing heavily in wind and solar power over the last decade Germany has not meaningfully reduced the level of coal and natural gas derived energy production. In fact for Germany CO2 emissions in the energy sector, the most critically relevant area for judging the impact of renewables, have increased relative to the past year (2012 vs. 2011, etc.) in 3 (2012, 2013 and 2015) of the last 4 years for when information is available. The reduction of CO2 emissions in 2014 relative to 2013 is also somewhat marred for it is highly probable that these reductions occurred because of lower energy consumption during the winter due to much warmer than average temperatures over that winter. So while the share of renewable sources of energy in Germany continue to expand, the CO2 emissions from its represented sector are not dropping, which speaks poorly towards the ability of renewables like solar and wind to quickly drop energy derived CO2 emissions, which is exactly what needs to occur to combat global warming.
Note that the issue concerning winter temperatures is also a big deal in Germany because of the lack of available renewables during that time period; solar is almost non-existent in Germany during the winter netting a typical average capacity of 10-11% and wind generation is rather erratic.
Some could argue that this result has been heavily influenced by the decision to suspend operation of the German nuclear power plant fleet with the intent of its future decommission. While this decision certainly has resulted in greater coal and natural gas use, the problem is that there was little reduction of energy derived carbon emissions even before the decision to suspend nuclear power use in Germany instead most of the overall reduction stemmed from the measurement point being 1990 right after the integration of heavily industrialized East Germany into West Germany producing an artificially high point of reference.
Finally one of the troubling aspects of the solar and wind proponent argument is a questionable interpretation of time. They properly acknowledge that ceasing carbon emissions must occur quickly, yet do not acknowledge that creating the type of solar/wind energy infrastructure to actually accomplish this reality will take a long time. Part of this apparent contradiction is that supporters are emboldened by the solar and especially wind percentage growth rates over the last decade as justification for the superiority of wind and solar despite these growth rates not representing meaningful penetrations into global energy markets. Basically wind and solar are still at best small supplemental energy producing elements.
Furthermore another problem, as mentioned before, is a number of proponents believe that once society “actually” commits to a solar/wind energy infrastructure future, the problems and issues associated with this system will magically disappear with Master Plan #1 succeeding without qualm or fail. It is akin to attempting to build a railroad track ahead of a speeding train… everything must go perfectly for it to work and anyone who thinks that any of the current infrastructure plans pushed by solar and wind proponents is anywhere remotely viable is, quite frankly, a fool.
At the present time the best idea to combat global warming is for the entire global community to agree on a single design for a nuclear fission breeder reactor and then allocate resources to begin the specialization required for manufacturing the required components and training the necessary construction and operational personnel. The simple fact is that too many questions and inefficiencies exist in any feasible plan to defeat global warming via the utilization of mass solar and wind energy generation; so much so that foregoing nuclear in favor of solar and wind is a recipe for disaster. Overall global cooperation through the initiation of a real and new nuclear renaissance is the most effective, economical and direct way to combat global warming while maintaining a consistent and reliable energy infrastructure in the developed world as well as allowing energy impoverished nations the ability to advance their energy consumption profiles without endangering the environment.