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Friday, March 24, 2017

Which Low-Carbon Plan has the Lowest Risk and Cost?

Figure 1: 2017 Technology Neutral Low Carbon Solution from Joint IEA and IRENA Study for Germany



Jesse Jenkins and Samuel Thernstrom just published a paper that might be described as a meta study of meta studies:
In addition to the 30 papers directly reviewed, this literature review also covers other review articles (Cochran, Mai, and Bazilian 2014; Morrison et al. 2015) that summarize findings from an additional 21 previously published studies, as well as Kriegler et al. (2014) and Krey et al. (2014), which describe results from a detailed inter-model comparison exercise involving 18 energy economic and integrated assessment models.
As it turns out, dispatchable baseload significantly decreases the cost and technical challenge of decarbonizing power systems. Huh, could that be why we use it in virtually all power systems today? There are only three low carbon, dispatchable power sources: nuclear, biomass, and hydro.

All three are resisted by major environmental groups but only two out of the three are resisted for rational reasons:
  1. Biomass displaces carbon sinks while usurping land needed for food production and biodiversity and in most cases isn't low carbon at all.
  2. Hydro destroys thousands of miles of river ecosystems (think end of the Amazon, extinct river dolphins and salmon runs) and can produce massive amounts of methane as submerged vegetation decomposes. In addition, it can't always be used for baseload depending on precipitation patterns, and to ice the cake, dams eventually silt up.
This paper was, in turn, written about in Utility Dive where Mark Jacobson (mastermind behind a hypothetical global zero-carbon energy master plan based purely on wind, hydro, and solar), was asked to weigh in on the critique of his work found in said paper.

Jenkins is fundamentally wrong about nuclear generation, Jacobson told Utility Dive. “In the U.S., nuclear is absolutely not dispatchable.”


The word "dispatchable" in regards to power sources has two commonly assumed definitions. Some (Jacobson) use it as a label to distinguish load following and peaking power stations from baseload and intermittent (wind and solar) power stations. Others use it to distinguish intermittent sources (wind and solar) from all other sources (it is either intermittent or dispatchable). From Ben Heard in regards to nuclear:

Here’s the thing though: what would you do with a generator that was so “dispatchable”, it could dispatch power at close to its full rated capacity for almost 24/7, 365 (barring planned or unplanned outages)?

Rather than being dispatched for intervals of minuets, hours, days, or months, as is the case for peaking and load following gas plants, nuclear can be dispatched for years on end. The quality of being dispatchable, like many things, is a matter of degree which makes wind and solar the least "dispatchable" of energy sources.

Baseload is defined as the minimum amount of energy consumed in a given grid area--demand never drops below the baseload of supply. Jacobson's plan does not eliminate baseload demand, rather, it hypothesizes a way to supply it with a Rube-Goldberg collection of widely dispersed but interconnected intermittent sources and non-battery storage.

Jenkins and Thernstrom use the term "dispatchable baseload" (nuclear, biomass, and hydro) to distinguish it from the Rube Goldberg version of supplying baseload by stringing together intermittent sources (wind and solar) as proposed by Jacobson.

Not only did Jacobson fail to comprehend the term dispatchable baseload as used by Jenkins and Thernstrom (and many others) he limited his remark to just the United States where nuclear was never designed (correction--see comment by Todd De Ryck below) is not used to load follow as it does in places like Canada, France, and Germany. Given that new nuclear in the U.S. is capable of significant load following, his remark about U.S. nuclear not being dispatchable (regardless of definition chosen) is wrong on a multiple levels.

Jacobson said, the IPCC report’s Executive Summary concludes, “there is ‘robust evidence and high agreement’ that nuclear has meltdown, safety, weapons proliferation, and financial risks.”

The link provided does not contain the word "meltdown." Nuclear is one of our safest energy sources, no material (for many sound reasons) from a commercial nuclear power station has ever been used to make a bomb, and clearly, financial risk is everywhere as German electric bills and hundreds of solar company bankruptcies attest. Not to mention, Jenkins later posted a graph on Twitter from an IPCC meta analysis which showed that low-carbon systems without "dispatchable baseload" (nuclear or biomass) can cost roughly 40% more.

The paper was also briefly mentioned in an overall excellent Vox article 5 ways to think about the remarkable slowdown in global CO2 emissions by Brad Plumer.

Only one quibble with it:
Scaling up nuclear power requires serious policy changes and/or technical innovation.
Brad appears to have been sold on the idea by Third Way (an organization promoting commercially unproven nuclear designs in lieu of conventional ones) that nuclear's future relies on the successful introduction of different nuclear technology. Always room for improvement, but KEPCO's rapid and cost effective deployment of four reactors in the UAE is all the evidence needed that conventional nuclear is highly competitive when a proven design is built by a company that's at the top of its learning curve with that design.

Safety, waste, and proliferation antinuclear arguments are demonstrably false, having been created and disseminated by antinuclear organizations specifically to hobble nuclear energy. New nuclear designs will simply spawn new false arguments. Nuclear energy designs don't need to improve anymore than airliner designs need to improve. There is also no time to develop new designs.

Brad also linked to a new joint study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA):

...the German government has requested the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to shed light on the essential elements of an energy sector transition that would be consistent with limiting the rise in global temperature to well below two degrees Celisius (2°C), as set out in the Paris Agreement. The overarching objective of this study is to analyse the scale and scope of investments in low-carbon technologies in power generation, transport, buildings and industry (including heating and cooling) that are needed to facilitate such a transition in a cost-effective manner, while also working towards other policy goals. The findings of this report will inform G20 work on energy and climate in the context of the 2017 German G20 presidency.
The two agencies took different approaches. One was technology neutral, looking for the least cost solutions (see Figure 1 above). The other held nuclear at 2016 levels (aka, they did not look for an optimal cost solution). And guess what they found? The renewable agency solution cost a full third more. And it was clearly biased. Below is an excerpt from the renewable energy study:

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 led to an increase in the use of oil and other fossil fuels in the power sector, temporarily raising the overall carbon intensity of power generation. Since then, aggressive energy efficiency measures and the increased use of renewables (mostly solar PV) helped to return the share of oil in the power mix to near 10% in 2014. As of mid-September 2016, three nuclear reactors had restarted, with others approved in principle but delayed by local opposition or judicial proceedings.

In reality, since closing its reactors, Japan gets almost all of its electricity from fossil fuels now. The study provided a chart of carbon intensity for various countries and regions. Strangely enough, Japan and Germany, the two countries that have closed their nuclear, are both missing from the chart.

Bottom line, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that humanity is going to do what it takes to curb global warming. Our very human nature is preventing it.

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