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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reframing Nuclear Power as an Ally of Renewable Energy

Photo courtesy of, ah, Bitchcakes via Flickr

Alec Baldwin weighs in, but which is better, coal or nuclear?

The official response to that question by most environmental organizations is to say "neither."

Neither? Are they privy to a secret consensus finding backed up by multiple, detailed, peer-reviewed, scientific studies which have demonstrated that when all negative and positive aspects of both methods of generating power are assessed they prove to be equally environmentally destructive in the aggregate?

Of course not. I'm being facetious. "Neither" isn't an answer; it's a dodge.

Let me start by presenting my environmental credentials so you can begin the subliminal mental process of stereotyping me and anticipating my bias. I have written many hundreds of articles over the years on environmental issues. I ride a nano-phosphate lithium-ion electric bicycle of my own design. I also own a Prius (Update 10/23/2011 ...and a Nissan Leaf). My neighborhood has one of the highest walkability scores in the country. I am a big proponent of solar power and will soon own a photovoltaic powered solar hot water system. I own eleven acres of forest property adjacent to a state forest that I am allowing to return to old growth. I wear sandals, with socks. I am also an experienced mechanical engineer.

OK, so now you have me pegged as some kind of bastardized chimera, a cross between a gear-head, flood-pants wearing, technology freak and a vegan, dreadlocked, tree hugger, which come to think of it may be closer to the truth than I want to believe ...

I also want to suggest at the start that this is mostly a thought exercise, not something to get bent out of shape over. I have little confidence that our political system (a reflection of we the people of the United States) has whatever it takes to reduce GHG emissions to the levels needed in the time frame allocated. We should already be converting coal power plants over to natural gas as an interim step to replace them entirely with carbon neutral sources. We are more than likely fooling ourselves.

According to the University of Wyoming education department:

The typical coal train is 100 to 110 cars long-a mile of coal! Each hopper car holds 100 tons of coal which lasts only 20 minutes fueling a power plant. Bigger surface mines may load two or three Unit Trains of coal a day. Currently, eighty trains leave Wyoming every day. In 1999 we shipped out 25,882 trains. That's 25,882 miles of coal-more than the circumference of the earth.
And here is a photo I lifted from their website:

Take all the time you need to understand the following colorful chart (click here to see all of it):

It's from a study commissioned by the Word Wildlife Fund. The researchers were asked to see if we could reduce our GHG emissions to the necessary levels in the allocated time frame without increasing use of nuclear power. Note that they did not get rid of nuclear power.

They managed to pull it off but just barely. They admitted that one of the solutions--pumping billions of tons of CO2 captured from burned fossil fuels underground--may not work. Giant bubbles of odorless, colorless, CO2 finding their way back to the surface to suffocate whole cities in the night would not be a good thing.

Their conclusion? We can do this if the entire world hits the ground running in the next four years and maximizes industrial output to create low carbon energy sources (sound of crickets chirping...).

Use your imagination to expand that thin purple band that represents nuclear power to make it as wide as the widest band shown. At the same time, decrease the width of all of the other bands by about four percent. What you will have is a scenario that is hardly impacted at all by greatly increasing nuclear power. My conclusion? We are "probably" hosed regardless.

Staring at that graph you should also be impressed, or maybe stunned, by how much has to be accomplished in such a short time.

Another problem with this analysis is that they also assume that the intermittent and highly diffused nature of wind and solar can be compensated for with more technology called a smart super-grid, which is at this time, an untested hypothesis.

I am fairly confident that to make renewables our main source of energy, we will still need some other power sources to help it (called baseline, provided today by coal and nuclear) as well as some power plants that can rapidly increase output when needed (called peaking power plants and today they are usually natural gas fired). I'll explain why later.

I am not about to argue that we should generate all of our power with conventional nuclear. I'm saying it would be much wiser to accept some additional conventional nuclear in the mix as needed to help bring more renewables on line (help defeat the real enemy--coal) while increasing R&D funding for designs that can reduce the impacts of existing problems, like limits on uranium fuel supply, waste, and safety. Instead of lumping nuclear with coal to make it look bad, we should be more realistic and honest by lumping it with zero carbon sources like wind and solar.

In an article called Miniature nuclear reactors might be a safe, efficient source of power, The Washington post describes how small reactors could be distributed and chained together as needed to power a given town or city, avoiding the loses associated with sending power long distances over power lines. Although the article didn't mention it, one could see how small reactors could also be strategically placed to make renewable energy more reliable and less expensive. A poll following that article shows that eighty percent of readers would favor nuclear power. Public opinion is shifting.

Nuclear power plants today are used for baseline power. However, some designs, like the Canadian CANDU reactors are capable of being used for peak power--more on this later.

Time frames and climate change aside, humanity needs to move away from fossil fuels because the supplies will all eventually peak and decline, making them more expensive and disruptive to economies long before they run out entirely. We heat our structures and fuel transport mostly with natural gas and oil. We are counting on electricity to take over most of those duties as well.

Without environmental groups there would be far fewer environmental safeguards, including nuclear ones. Environmentalism is a good thing but we don't always get it right. Growing plants to fuel our cars sure sounded like a great idea five years ago until we realized it was increasing the price of grains, helping to push the number of chronically malnourished to over a billion souls for the first time in all of human history. Not to mention researchers have proven what common sense would suggest, that to grow more plants you have to clear ecosystem carbon sinks, making crop-based biofuels gallon for gallon as bad or worse than fossil fuels although for slightly different reasons.

Some major (and a lot of minor) environmentalists are beginning to question the party line that nuclear is the devil incarnate. Understand, to belong to any given group you must, by definition, adhere to that group's belief system. It is not a matter of cowardice, its a simple matter of self-preservation and the classic group think dynamic called peer pressure. We know a lot more now than we did thirty years ago and many of the legitimate arguments used against nuclear in the past have lost some of their punch.

That freedom from the peer pressure may explain why a number of highly visible but independent environmental types (typically not immersed inside or strongly affiliated with--and therefore constrained by--a group) have begun publicly suggesting that nuclear power isn't such a bad thing after all: George Monbiot, Steward Brand, James Hansen, Steve Kirsch, and at least one highly visible environmental organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Maybe we should stop with the knee-jerk hysterics every time nuclear power enters the discussion. It hurts our image. It reinforces the stereotype held by many that environmentalists are irrational, uncompromising, innumerates (the same stereotype often used to describe conservatives). That stance is starting to drive a wedge between other environmentalists who have less incentive to carry the anti-nuke banner. Yes, sometimes things we have clung to as absolute truths turn out to be bullshit. Happens all the time now that we have the internet.

On the other hand, there are also some independent (not beholden to a particular group) intellectual giants who still think nuclear power is the devil incarnate, which finally brings us to actor and 30-Rock (one of the best sitcoms ever produced IMHO) star Alec Baldwin.

The Huffington Post, one of the best on-line publications in existence, is no different from any other on-line publication in that (not being constrained by the physical size of a piece of paper) it will print pretty much anything any celebrity figure or any other prominent figure for that matter, wants to write. That's life in America. Articles are filtered less by quality of content than by who wrote them, regardless of qualifications or content. This tends to be true for books as well because profitability is directly proportional to celebrity status, regardless of what is in the book.

I am not going to parse the article here other than to say it's your classic anti-nuclear diatribe, including the standard conflation of nuclear power with nuclear weapons. In his next article he will:

" ...comment on last Saturday's broadcast of Weekend Edition on NPR and how Scott Simon appallingly allowed Stewart Brand to burble on and on with his outrageous pablum about "the new safe and clean nuclear power."

Here is an NPR interview with Alec on a different subject, which I suspect will go down in history.

From an environmental perspective it's not even close, especially in light of climate change. There's no contest. Nuclear power beats coal running away. Some of the old-guard environmentalists have gotten busy cobbling together new arguments against nuclear based on its economics in an attempt to bolster the flagging three-decade-old talking points.

The overarching fatal flaw in the argument that nuclear isn't cost competitive is that wind and solar are also not cost competitive. In both cases fossil fuels win the economic argument while losing the environmental one. As an aside, this explains in a nutshell the importance of getting a price on carbon.

The goal with renewable energy is to get the costs down in the future with mass production. However, a standardized and mass-produced design would also bring the cost of nuclear down as well, making the economic argument against nuclear as ephemeral as the one against renewables.

Also making the rounds is an answer to the question of "which is worse" that might be better defined as "a refusal to engage in debate disguised as an answer." It goes something like this:

"It’s a false dichotomy that lends legitimacy to a false scenario in which we as a region, country, or world are forced to chose coal or nukes and have no access to developing other energy sources. It is a worst-case, stuck-in-the-corner, fake match-up."

The coal vs. nuclear comparison is no more of a false dichotomy than coal vs. renewables. You can just as easily say that the match-up between coal and renewables is fake. It's an untested hypothesis that we can build a national super-grid capable of sending power from wherever the wind is blowing or the sun is shining to the far corners of the country without help from a 100% reliable form of (carbon free) backup power. In addition to the unknown technical feasibility, the cost of that super-grid is an unknown.

We know nuclear works. Nuclear would be a powerful ally of renewables in the battle against big coal. Nuclear could provide the stability needed by a national renewable smart energy grid. The power plants could be modular standardized designs to reduce cost and have less power output than the average plants of today, and strategically placed in areas of the mostly renewable grid to maintain stability.

Nuclear energy is not by any means a worst case scenario. It is a proven, safe, reliable way to generate energy. Sometimes you just have to use some common sense. Twenty percent of our power is coming from profitably run, safe, nuclear power plants that are just sitting there humming along 24 hours a day seven days a week. Japan, Germany, and Finland get almost a third of their power from them, Sweden and Switzerland almost half, and France gets about 75 percent.

All of the high-level waste that America's nuclear plants have generated since they started operating is just sitting in their parking lots waiting for our inept politicians to make a decision. There are several technically feasible options for dealing with that waste and quite obviously there is not that much of it or it could not all still be stored on site after decades of operation.

The main reason we don't have more nuclear power plants is because one-of-a-kind custom-designed reactors are no longer cost competitive with coal or natural gas, but as pointed out earlier, neither are renewables and unless you have a full array of photovoltaic and hot water panels installed on your roof providing you with all the electricity, hot water, and heat that you need (you have not put your money where your mouth is) your defense is already in trouble.

If nuclear power were cheaper than coal there would be no coal plants. You might not be able to say the same about renewables (regardless of cost) because nobody knows if a super grid could really give us the reliable supply needed.

The environmental camp splits into two main groups when it comes to solar. The distributed energy camp who think we should stick all of our solar panels on rooftops, and the concentrated solar power crowd who think we need large centralized power plants where the sun shines and a large sophisticated new grid to get it where it needs to go.

One of the warmest and fuzziest ideas found in some environmental camps is that we could finally stick it to the man by doing away with centralized power plants. I may be a big solar enthusiast but I'm also a realist.

Solar will be a mix of distributed and centralized, depending on which works best in a given locale. Solar panels on rooftops will be constrained by several factors. Seventy percent of our housing is built and most of it can't generate much solar because it was never designed with proper sloping, shadow-free roofs. But the biggest impediment to solar on rooftops will come from consumers who, given the choice, would rather have their power come from three wires than have to be responsible for the capital costs and maintenance of a power plant on their roof, especially when they need a new roof. The analogy would be a choice between a municipal sewer system or your own septic system, or possibly a choice between drilling and maintaining your own well and a municipal water supply.

Get up from your computer and go stare at your water heater for a minute. On average they sell for about $300 retail. They will never get much cheaper than that. Hot water heaters have reached their cost minimum. Now visualize a solar hot water system. Imagine the expense and complexity with its collectors, pumps, tanks, heat exchanger, and temperature switches. That system will always cost far more than a simple water heater (in part because it includes two water heater tanks) even after mass production has brought the cost of solar to its minimum. Given the choice, most people will opt for a simple electric water heater knowing full well that in the long run they may pay more in energy costs.

The arguments against nuclear

I knew this article was going to get too long. The nuclear issue is just too complex to put in a nutshell.

Let me start with some clarifications that might cut some strawman counter-arguments off at the knees. Until very recently I have agreed that there was no need to build more nuclear. We have gotten by for the last several decades without building more by using fossil fuels.

In hindsight you have to admit that coal has done tremendous damage in the form of lung disease, mercury poisoning, mine accidents, water pollution, acidified lakes, climate change, destroyed mountain top ecosystems and buried mountain valley ecosystems and on and on it goes. There is an endless stream of train cars loaded with coal arriving at these power plants with other train cars hauling off the burned waste products. Hauling this coal is the biggest profit maker for railroad companies.

Nuclear was held at bay primarily by its cost restraints and there would not have been many more new plants built protests or no protests. Many projects were canceled after construction started thanks to the combination of cost overruns and really stupid energy demand predictions. As I said earlier, if nuclear were cheaper than coal, there would be no coal, protests or no protests.

I repeat, I am not arguing that we should generate all of our power with conventional nuclear. I'm saying it would be much wiser to accept some additional conventional nuclear in the mix as needed to help bring more renewables on line (help defeat the real enemy--coal) while increasing R&D funding for designs that can reduce the impacts of existing problems, like limits on uranium fuel supply, waste, safety, and proliferation.

I suspect that America has already lost the ability to design and build its own affordable nuclear power plants. If we want more of them, we will probably have to buy tried and true designs as well as expertise from others. Lots of engineering firms here would love to be given tax dollars to learn how to build custom designs again for a government with a bottomless ability to borrow money, but that is guaranteed to drive costs into the stratosphere. We always have to guard against pork politics spoiling it for everyone.


As mentioned earlier, the high-level waste generated by our nuclear power plants since the day they started operating is just sitting there in their own parking lots waiting for our government to make decisions--proof positive that they don't generate large amounts of waste (and that our government is largely incompetent). By law, nuclear power plants have to pay the government a set amount per unit of power generated to fund a permanent waste storage solution. Our government is then supposed to use that money to find that solution. Yucca Mountain ate a pile of that money before being shit-canned. I rest my case. The waste issue is largely political, not so much technical.

Most countries reprocess their used nuclear fuel. The United States plans to simply store used fuel in a place like Yucca mountain (but not Yucca mountain). According to the World Nuclear Association, it is reprocessed mainly to extract the unused fuel left over (about 25%) and to reduce the amount of the more problematic high-level waste that has to be stored (by about four-fifths). Reprocessing tends to increase the amount of low-level waste, which is not as dangerous or long-lived (loses its radioactivity much faster).

Again, according to the WNA, after reprocessing, all of the "high-level" waste generated to provide a typical European with all of her electricity for her entire life could be held in the palm of her hand--make that both hands for an American.

Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, along with various and sundry rivers, lakes, and aquifers all over this country have been compromised by pollution from agriculture, landfills, industry, and sewage. Our landfills are chock-full of deadly toxins like PCBs and heavy metals that are separated from ground water by a thin layer of clay and a plastic liner. Nuclear waste is put into high-strength metal containers and will one day be sequestered thousands of feet underground far away from aquifers and fault lines in bone-dry caverns and salt mines that have been geologically stable for millions of years.

The guy who suggested shooting waste into space should be made into a saint. We would call him the "Saint of a total lack of any semblance of common sense."

Note that anti-nuclear proponents will invariably talk about waste produced by nuclear weapons manufacturing and the abysmal government track record for dealing with it in the same article they discuss nuclear power. Although the two have little in common, this is done to shine a bad light on nuclear power by association--the same tactic is at play when associating nuclear power with coal.

Most nuclear fuel today actually comes form dismantled nuclear weapons. This is a case of turning swords to ploughshares writ large.

A concerted effort is being made to design some kind of long-lived warning sign to be used at nuclear waste sites to warn future generations that something bad is buried about half-a-mile below their feet.

It has been suggested that hundreds or thousands of years from now, our ancestors are either going to be so technologically advanced that they will be humored by our concerns or they will be hunter-gatherers unable to tunnel thousands of feet down to satisfy their curiosity even though we have pinpointed for them exactly where to dig (more potential candidates for that sainthood). And if I'm wrong and somebody digs that far down in the middle of nowhere to see what is going on, they won't be doing it again. That's one hole that will be back-filled in a hurry.


One idea to prevent people from creating weapons grade nuclear material from their nuclear fuel processing is to have all that done by existing nuclear powers. Iran exposed the idea's weakness by declining the offer. Clearly they want to make a nuclear bomb.

Building a nuclear weapon takes tremendous resources and advanced technology. A rag-tag gang of fundamentalist religionist freaks may be stupid enough to use a nuclear weapon but they are not smart enough to build a nuclear weapon. That takes the resources of a national economy.

Our dearth of new nuclear power plants has had no impact on North Korea or Iran. Solutions to the problem of nuclear proliferation, whatever they are, have little if anything to do with the number of nuclear power plants in America.

Uranium supply

It will one day peak and decline like fossil fuels. The timing of this eventuality would depend on how many nuclear power plants there are.

Another popular argument used against nuclear is to point out that we would have to build about a bazillion of them a day for the next hundred years to meet all of our energy needs.

But that is not what I'm suggesting. I'm suggesting we use them judiciously as needed to shore up a renewable grid.

In addition, there is truly a reasonable chance that nuclear technologies presently in development will neutralize the uranium supply issue by using other sources, including our own stored waste.

I am aware of the weakness of the "use existing technology as a bridge to future technology" argument. If that technology never arrives you are stuck with what you got. But that does not mean we should not use nuclear to promote the success of renewables. If improved nuclear technology that minimizes existing problems never comes to fruition, at least we will have bought time and produced power that was carbon free all that time.


I'm going to ask you to use your imagination again. Pretend you are in orbit looking down at the US of A with a special camera that only sees electricity. Through the lightning flashes you see spread out across the country a complex web with glowing blobs that represent power plants.

That is our power grid. It acts like a single circuit board. Some components in a complex circuit board are more expensive than others. A high voltage diode may cost more than a cheap resistor but if you want that circuit board to work more efficiently, you may have to include a few of the more expensive parts to make the overall circuit board less expensive than a design using cheaper parts but requiring a lot more of them.

Nuclear power plants should not be viewed by themselves. They should be viewed as parts in a circuit board that make it more efficient and therefore less expensive overall.

I've talked a lot about cost already but I'll add some thoughts here. I live in Seattle so the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) debacle hit close to home. This analysis looks at why the cost of building a nuclear power plant went ballistic.

As I've pointed out before, renewables are also not cost competitive but the hope is that they will be someday. The Canadian designed CANDU reactor is an example of how you can lower costs by tweaking designs. And we all know that standardization and mass production, coupled with learning curves can have dramatic impacts on costs.

I saw the power of learning curves first hand as lead engineer on the Boeing 777 wing in-spar shear structure (that's a mouthful). One of my duties was to develop a standard procedure to make three dimensional Boolean solid models of these incredibly complex machined parts such that numerically controlled machines could be used to cut them out of blocks of metal.

It took a week to model the first part. By the end of the program it took three hours by simply climbing up a learning curve.

Giant custom designed from scratch nuclear reactors here in America are not cost effective. We may never build another one but that does not mean we won't be able to build standardized modular designs that are not too expensive.

You can document what you paid or were paid but you cannot predict very far into the future what something will cost. Cost is whatever you ended up paying and that is all anything is worth. Cost is a moving target.

Chernobyl in perspective and in hindsight

The closest you will get to the truth can be found in a book called Wormwood Forest by Mary Mycio.

Did you know that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant continued to operate for 14 years after the accident?

A lot of the anti-nuclear fervor seen today stems from the Chernobyl disaster. Shortly after the incident sensationalist photos of deformed children began to circulate (that turned out to have nothing to do with Chernobyl). We were expecting to see mutants emerge from the woods and an epidemic of cancers.

Over 43 thousand people were killed auto accidents in the United States last year. Less than 60 people have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, including nine people from thyroid cancer who were children at the time and in the path of the fallout.

Roughly 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer (which has a cure rate of about 97%) have been detected and treated in people who were children at the time of the disaster.

Studies have not detected higher rates of cancers or birth defects in the population of people who were hired to clean up the radiation.

The "dead zone" has become rich with wildlife including many rare species that have either returned on their own or have been reintroduced: Lynx, Wild Boar, Wolf, Eurasian Brown Bear, European Bison, Przewalski's horse and Eagle Owl.

It turns out that high levels of radiation are far less detrimental to wildlife than high levels of human beings.

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  1. Hi Russ,

    for the record, you sound perfectly reasonable to me. I do have a few things I would add, in the hope they might sway more people of the merits of nuclear power.

    One thing renewables advocates do not often consider is the amount of material needed to build their favoured solution. Wind turbines need vastly more steel and concrete than nuclear for the same amount of power, to the extent that powering the whole of the US with wind-turbines would require the total steel output of the US for three years to build. That's an awful lot for something that only lasts 20 years or so! If more people considered what it costs (in every sense) to scale up a renewable energy technology to the scale of a nation, they might realise that it's not as green a solution as they think.

    On cost, it's true that a nuclear power station costs a lot of money. But a nuclear power station can operate for 60 years or more, maybe a century, with little additional cost. I think it's not surprising that many companies are reluctant to invest in something with such a long lifetime, especially if they are at the whim of changes of government that can destroy their investment before it has paid back its costs. How much easier it is to build a coal or gas-fired power plant that requires far less investment (including regulatory costs) and to pass on the volatile fuel-costs to the consumer!

    The size of nuclear power stations is something the industry is addressing, quite vigorously. There are many designs for small nuclear power plants, with some small enough to be factory-built and shipped by road or rail to their destination. If the NRC were able to evaluate and certify such designs rapidly, these plants could be built quickly, with much less risk for the investor. They could be delivered one at a time to a power station that eventually uses a dozen of them, but it could start producing power as soon as it gets the first one. That would be a real win!

    Many of the safety concerns that people level at nuclear power have also been addressed by the nuclear industry. The cold war drove the nuclear industry in the direction of making plutonium for weapons, which required uranium-based reactors. Safer, more efficient designs which produce less radioactive waste were ignored, for that very reason. Reactors based on thorium were ignored too, because, although you can produce power from it in the same was as you can from uranium, you cannot weaponise the waste, it's just not useable. Thorium can also be used in ways which are inherently far safer than uranium, such as in liquid-fuel reactors.

    It's really a shame that people react negatively to nuclear power without thinking, when it has done far less damage to the world than coal. It's also a shame that they dismiss it as part of the future, when it can be shown to have a far lower carbon/concrete/steel footprint than any renewable. Thank you for writing such a well-balanced piece as this, hopefully it will change a few more minds.

  2. Anonymous5:13 AM

    “However, a standardized and mass-produced design would also bring the cost of nuclear down as well, making the economic argument against nuclear as ephemeral as the one against renewables.”

    There are 439 nuke plants built over the whole world. Why are they still so expensive to get built ?

    “It's an untested hypothesis that we can build a national super-grid capable of sending power from wherever the wind is blowing or the sun is shining to the far corners of the country without help from a 100% reliable form of (carbon free) backup power.”

    Scandinavia IS already doing this. They use Norwegian hydro power as a backup carbon free system. The Danes generate over 25% of their electricity on a yearly base using only wind turbines. Their installed wind turbine capacity is so big, that on windy days, they generates 25% more power than they need for their whole country. They then have the option of either shutting down turbines or find a way to sell it to someone else. Denmark is not an island in the middle of nowhere, like Hawaii. Denmark is e.g. connected to Norway, and therefore sell it’s surplus in wind turbine electricity there, to be consumed by Norwegians. The Norwegians are very happy to shut down their massive hydro power dams when that occurs, to keep stored dam water levels on a high level, as backup energy. When the measured wind forecasts show that in 3 hours, the wind will start to go down in Denmark, and Denmark will need other power sources than wind to cover their whole power needs, the Norwegians begin to start their hydro power dams up, to compensate for the decreasing Danish wind power capacity, selling hydro power electricity to the Danes. That allows both country to supply their population with cheap electricity, while each avoid having to install new expensive backup power systems to cover their power demands, since Denmark and Norway split the bill between themselves, each using their best energy resources found locally. That is why Denmark and Norway can give relatively cheap electricity rates to it’s consumers.

    The USA and hydro power rich unpopulated Canada could easily install the same arrangement.

  3. Anonymous5:14 AM

    “ I repeat, I am not arguing that we should generate all of our power with conventional nuclear.”
    I agree, if 20% is nuke, then we are ok, since baseload is around 20%. Add 20% hydropower and you have 40% of your baseload and peak load covered. The rest can be done using concentrated or diffuse solar, coupled with massive wind turbine farms, biomass cogeneration, biogas conversion and of course the elephant in the room : energy saving on a massive scale by issue of new building codes and smarter energy use.
    McKinsey explains that these measures, if fully enacted over the next decade, would save a remarkable 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent annually, which is 17% of U.S. CO2 emissions in 2005. In other words, the entire 2020 target in the Waxman-Markey climate bill could be met with energy efficiency at a net savings to U.S. consumers and businesses of $700 billion. Such a program is estimated to reduce end-use energy consumption in 2020 by 9.1 quadrillion BTUs, roughly 23 percent of projected demand. And what is even more stunning about this analysis is that it didn’t even look at the transportation sector, where we know huge savings opportunities are possible
    There is a common misconception that economically developed nations have harnessed all of their available hydropower resources. In the United States, according to the US Department of Energy, "previous assessments have focused on potential projects having a capacity of 1 MW and above". This may partly explain the discrepancy. More recently, in 2004, an extensive survey was conducted by the US-DOE which counted sources under 1 MW (mean annual average), and found that only 40% of the total hydropower potential had been developed. A total of 170 GW (mean annual average) remains available for development. Of this, 34% is within the operating envelope of conventional turbines, 50% is within the operating envelope of microhydro technologies (defined as less than 100 kW), and 16% is within the operating envelope of unconventional systems.[4] In 2005, the US generated 1012 kilowatt hours of electricity.

    The total undeveloped hydropower resource is equivalent to about one-third of total US electricity generation in 2005.

    Developed hydropower accounted for 6.4% of total US electricity generated in 2005.

  4. Anonymous5:15 AM

    Here is what other developped area’s of the world are doing.
    The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) says 39% of all new capacity installed in 2009 was wind power, followed by gas (26%) and solar photovoltaics (PV) (16%). Europe decommissioned more coal and nuclear capacity than it installed in 2009. Taken together, renewable energy technologies account for 61% of new power generating capacity in 2009.
    By autumn, the nine governments involved – Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland and the UK – hope to have a plan to begin building a high-voltage direct current network within the next decade. It will be an important step in achieving the European Union's pledge that, by 2020, 20% of its energy will come from renewable sources.
    More than 100GW of offshore wind projects are under development in Europe, around 10% of the EU's electricity demand, and equivalent to about 100 large coal-fired plants. The surge in wind power means the continent's grid needs to be adapted, according to Justin Wilkes of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). An EWEA study last year outlined where these cables might be built and this is likely to be a starting point for the discussions by the nine countries.
    Renewable energy is much more decentralised and is often built in inhospitable places, far from cities. A supergrid in the North Sea would enable a secure and reliable energy supply from renewables by balancing power across the continent.
    The strategy document claims that “the integration of the European energy market can add an extra 0.6% to 0.8% GDP” and that “meeting the EU’s objective of 20% of renewable sources of energy alone has the potential to create more than 600,000 jobs in the EU.”

  5. Anonymous5:16 AM
    Spanish electricity giant Iberdrola has announced plans to invest €9 billion in renewables over the next three years, after recording a €2.8 billion profit last year. In total, the company plans to invest 18 billion up to 2012, consolidating its international expansion and strengthening its involvement in renewables generation. Its focus for growth will be the US, which is in line to receive 39% of the company's total investment. Much of this will go towards wind farms and electricity transmission and distribution, the company said. The company already has 3,500MW of installed wind capacity in the US, and a project pipeline of 23,500MW, reflecting the $577 million of US Treasury grants it secured last year for renewables. Meanwhile, the UK is set to receive the second largest share - 25% - of Iberdrola's planned investment, with the bulk again earmarked for renewables.
    Iberdrola already has 802MW operational and a further 5,200MW projected. Along with Sweden's Vattenfall, Iberdrola is also in line to develop a possible 7,200MW, having successfully bid for one of the UK's round 3 offshore zone licences. Spain will receive 24% of Iberdrola's investment, and Latin America and other parts of the world 12%.By business area, renewables will account for the largest share of Iberdrola's planned investment - €9 billion - while €6.3 billion and €2.7 billion will be invested in networks and generation and supply respectively.
    Spain is roaring ahead with plans for additional CSP. The government has approved more than 50 projects and by 2015 total capacity should be over 2 GW. Torresol Energy alone intends to have 1 GW installed within a decade. When finished, the Seville complex should be capable of generating more than 300 MW, providing power for some 180,000 homes – meeting most of the city's domestic needs. Almost a third of a gigawatt represents genuine utility scale and the complex should, moreover, prevent emissions of some 600,000 tonnes of CO2 over its intended 25-year life.
    Assuming that the California Public Utilities Commission gives the green light, the first 100 MW units could be operating by 2013 at a site near Ivanpah, delivering some 286,000 MWh of electricity per year to Californians. The full 1300 MW of projects, when completed, should deliver enough clean energy to serve nearly 845,000 homes, avoiding more than 2m t of CO2 emissions annually. Solar power towers will contribute about 900 MW of this. According to Stuart Hemphill, senior vice president renewable and alternative power at SCE, the scheme will make the utility America's largest purchaser of solar energy.

  6. Anonymous5:16 AM
    MENA Solar Market, Opportunities To Grow in 2010. In 2009 the potential for the region really started to heat up with some of the following announcements:
    * Qatar Solar Technologies will invest a total of more than $500 millions in construction of a production facility with a planned annual capacity of around 3,600 tons of high-purity polysilicon in its first stage of expansion. Start of production is planned for the third quarter of 2012.
    * Egypt: Cycle Power Island, which will use a 20-MW CSP system was contracted, is currently under construction and expected to start operation in the year 2010.
    * Tunisa: Government outlined plans to develop 40 solar projects planned between 2010 and 2016 and 29 will be financed by private sector
    * Morocco: Undertaking a US $9 billion solar energy project, with five solar power generation sites throughout Morocco producing 2,000 MW of electricity by 2020.
    * Jordan: The JOAN1 project is expected to enter operation in 2013 and will be the largest CSP project in the world using direct solar steam generation.
    * Saudi Arabia: Kingdom’s Minister for Petroleum and Mineral Resources says solar will be a major contributor to energy supply in the next 5-10 years and has begun building the first solar-powered water desalination plant.
    * Masdar & Abu Dhabi: 1.5 GW of CSP is slated for development by 2020, with the first 100 MW already under construction at Madinat Zayed and due for completion in 2011.
    * Abu Dhabi: Made $2 billion investment in photovoltaic manufacturing.
    * Algeria: Set goal to provide for 10 percent of the energy demand with renewable energy by 2025. One solar thermal plant is under construction.
    * Syria: Increase in investment, especially foreign, in non-fossil fuel electricity sector.

  7. Anonymous5:26 AM
    The law that passed Friday aims to increase the amount of power generated by renewable energy sources, including wind and solar power, to 30 percent of the renewable total by 2020, from 14 percent now.
    Germany's share of wind in its total electricity generation is 4.4 percent, third after Denmark and Spain, the Environment Ministry says. Renewable energy makes up about 6 percent of the total primary energy supply.
    The amount of energy that will be generated by direct sources of electricity and the excess heat they generate - a process known as co-generation - will be doubled to 25 percent over the same period.
    Co-generation is a common and efficient system in Germany and Eastern Europe, allowing excess heat from power stations to be converted into electricity instead of being released into the atmosphere.
    The law is the first of two that are part of the government's overall goal to reduce Germany's carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels. That is twice the minimum percentage cut agreed to last year by the European Union's 27 member states.
    The second package of environmental laws, to be passed after the summer recess, according to the Bundesrat, will include measures designed to lower electricity consumption, with the focus on private homes. For example, the bill, agreed on last month by the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, stipulated that beginning in 2009 all new and renovated buildings will have to meet stricter energy efficiency standards.

  8. Anonymous,

    that's an impressive collection of links about what people are doing, but you've still missed an important point. Renewables do not scale to country-sized deployment, so you cannot get off fossil fuels with renewables alone.

    The fact that people are building renewable power sources in many places does not automatically mean that it will work on a larger scale. Compare the numbers you're talking about with the actual consumption of electricity today, and they just don't make a big enough dent. Compare it to what you need to electrify transport too, and it's even worse.

    The best example I can give for understanding scalability of energy sources is David MacKay's book, Sustainable Energy without the hot air, in which he analyses Britains' renewable resources from first principles. It's free for download on the web, so no reason why it shouldn't be more widely read.

    Barry Brooks TCASE series is another must-read on the realities of what it means to deploy renewables at large scale.

    The numbers that come out in both cases are staggering. It's not just a case of putting up a few windmills and hoping for the best. We really need to work out what it is going to cost to do this on the huge scale required to displace fossil fuels before ruling out options.

  9. Anonymous,

    Consider using a unique moniker so we can tell if just one person is commenting or five anonymous persons.

    The cost of a nuclear plant is moot if it turns out to be the only zero carbon technology capable of backing up a mostly renewable grid.

    Look at the grid as a giant circuit board. Look at nuclear power plants as the more expensive but necessary components of a circuit board design. Imagine trying to design a circuit board if all you get to use are admittedly less expensive resistors.

    This article does not pit nuclear against renewables as your comments suggest. It joins nuclear with renewables.

    Biomass and hydro have their own negative impacts on the environment: soot for biomass and destruction of ecosystems for both.

    There's no free lunch out there.

    What may work in one country, say Sweden with lots of hydro and forests with only 9 million people in a country the size of California won't work here.

    Another analogy.

    Brazil has often been held up as an example for the United States to emulate when it comes to using ethanol for car fuel.

    But what works in Brazil won't work here. Sugarcane produces about ten times more net energy than corn. Brazilians use about six times less oil per person and there are far fewer persons. It can and will expand agriculture into the Cerrado and Amazon.

  10. Also, Anonymous,

    Consider using paragraph breaks to make what you are cutting and pasting from your cheat sheet more readable.

    And CHP and efficiency arguments apply to nuclear as well as renewables.

    Ideally, nuclear plants would be placed where waste heat could be put to use, which is also true for solar thermal.

  11. Great post! Ahead of its time. Now that Pandora's Promise is out, you should update this.

    FYI, here is my less well researched piece on the topic: "Unite and Conquer"


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