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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pumped hydro storage will eliminate wind and solar intermittency ...really?

I'm a big fan of wind and solar if properly sited to minimize impact to wildlife and ecosystems. I'm a fan because I know that nuclear energy can't replace fossil fuels on its own. I'm a fan of nuclear energy because the latest National Renewable Energy Lab study demonstrated that renewables can't do it alone. I wrote this article so that I (and others) can point to it the next time I (we) encounter someone claiming that storage is the answer for intermittency.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration there are only 40 pumped hydro storage sites in the entire United States (producing just 2% of our electric power) because the powerplants have to be situated near two bodies of water that have very different elevations and there are not many places with those characteristics located where powerplants need to be. From the EIA:

"The last pumped hydroelectric facility to come online in the United States was in 2002, with the prior facility built seven years earlier.

There has been increased interest in building new pumped storage plants, although construction has not yet been authorized. According to the National Hydropower Association, as of January 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had granted preliminary permits for 34 GW of pumped storage capacity over a total of 22 states, which would more than double existing capacity. There are, however, significant challenges to building new pumped storage plants, including licensing, environmental regulations, and uncertainty in long-term electric markets.
In 2011, pumped storage plants produced 23 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of gross generation—roughly as much as petroleum-fired generation in that year [2 %]. Pumped storage plants, however, consumed 29 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity in 2011 to refill their storage reservoirs, resulting in a net generation loss of 6 billion kWh. "

In other words, the relatively few potentially economically viable sites suitable for pumped hydro storage have largely already been spoken for. If pumped hydro were always an economically viable thing to do, all powerplants would have it. There are not anywhere near enough suitable sites to eliminate the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

Ironically, it is thanks to pumped hydro that some nuclear power plants can produce both steady baseload power and extra power from its pumped hydro to help make wind power more viable by taking over when the wind quits blowing:

"Pumped storage plants play an important role in electric load shifting. They typically consume electricity during low-demand hours (e.g., nighttime), helping baseload plants to operate more efficiently by minimizing unwanted cycling on and off (a particular concern for nuclear plants, where cycling is extremely expensive and time-consuming). Subsequently, the gross generation that pumped storage plants put back on the grid is produced when electricity demand is high (daytime). This load shifting helps reduce generation from less efficient and more expensive plants, such as combustion turbines, that would otherwise operate during peak-demand hours."

Personally, I can't see humanity reducing GHG emissions in time, so this is largely an academic exercise for me. Because it is unlikely that renewables and nuclear together will be able to replace most fossil fuels in the time frame necessary to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, ocean acidification, etc, anyone who claims to know with certainty, or thinks we should take the risk that one or the other can do it alone has failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the problem.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nuclear energy kills more birds than wind ...really?

In a rebuttal, and in the comment fields that followed, the author of the study that kicked off the internet urban legend claiming that nuclear energy kills more birds than wind said that his study does not advance the conclusion that nuclear power causes more bird kills than wind. He also said:

"...the numbers in my study are preliminary, first-order guesses ...A final secondary conclusion is that if there is a real “bird killer,” it is neither wind energy nor nuclear power but coal and fossil fuels, especially if you factor in climate change ...I have just started engaging people on Wikipedia to try and correct distortions of my research."

Read the following articles and be sure to read the comments below them as well:
  1. Nukes kill more birds than wind? This is a critique of the study that purportedly claimed that nuclear energy kills more birds per kWh than wind.
  2.  Benjamin Sovacool takes issue with Lorenzini’s criticism of his work. This is a rebuttal of the above critique by the author of the paper being critiqued.
  3. Lorenzini rebuts Sovacool’s defense of nuclear bird kill paper as weak. This is a rebuttal of the rebuttal.
 And finally, read this peer review of the study in question: Bats are not birds and other problems with Sovacool's (2009) analysis of animalfatalities due to electricity generation and its rebuttal.

The study in question was done by an Associate Professor at Vermont Law School, who doesn't care much for nuclear energy, acknowledging that he sometimes blurs ..."the line more than most; some of it is considered “research,” some is considered “advocacy and service.” From the abstract of his study:
"It estimates that wind farms are responsible for roughly 0.27 avian fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while nuclear power plants involve 0.6 fatalities per GWh and fossil-fueled power stations are responsible for about 9.4 fatalities per GWh. Within the uncertainties of the data used, the estimate means that wind farm-related avian fatalities equated to approximately 46,000 birds in the United States in 2009, but nuclear power plants killed about 460,000 and fossil-fueled power plants 24 million."

Although the study concluded that nuclear would kill 50 times fewer birds than fossil fueled power plants, it was the claim that nuclear power plants kill more birds per kWh than wind that is being used as a weapon in articles and comment fields to attack nuclear energy. Even if the conclusions were valid (and they aren't), the study still suggested that nuclear is 50 times better than fossil fuels when it comes to bird deaths.

Attacking nuclear energy does not promote wind and solar for the following reasons:

  1. Nuclear, being baseload, does not compete with wind and solar photovoltaic, which, because of their intermittent nature, can only be used to reduce the fuel bills of natural gas or diesel peaking and load following power plants which can vary power output to match the fluctuations from wind and solar.
  2. The latest National Renewable Energy Lab study found that renewables can only provide maybe a third of our total energy needs, making nuclear the only low carbon technology available to help replace the reaming 2/3 of our energy needs. If we are going to replace fossil fuels, we will need both renewables and nuclear.

This same paper also summarized:

"... the wildlife benefits from a 580-MW wind farm at Altamont Pass in California, a facility that some have criticized for its impact on wildlife."

Some have criticized? Considering that an estimated 1300 raptors (among them 70 golden eagles) are killed annually at the Altamont Pass wind farm, one can certainly hypothesize that the population of common ground squirrels that they prey upon are doing very well (sarcasm alert).

Some findings of the above reviews (here and here) follow:

A claim that the abandoned Berkeley uranium pit mine kills 300 snow geese per year turns out not to be true, and to make matters worse, it was a copper mine, not a uranium mine. Note that because wind farms tend to be located further from the cities that use their power, they consume far more copper in the form of power lines than nuclear power, which could also be used in many instances to replace coal power plants in existing coal power plant locations, requiring no new power lines.

A grossly exaggerated estimate of birds killed when colliding with smokestacks during nightly migrations at a nuclear power plant turned out to be smokestacks used by a coal fired power plant which was co-located with a low-profile nuclear power plant that does not use the smokestacks or nearby cooling tower. And to make matters worse, lights were installed on those coal plant towers which ended the bird strikes.

The rest of his data linking bird strikes with nuclear power plant cooling towers shows that they kill ten times fewer birds than his wind estimates.

Also, his wind bird kill numbers were about five times too low, making wind 15 times worse than nuclear, and if you include bats, wind kills 20 times more flying vertebrates than nuclear.

Had the author included all of the mining that supports wind power and bird kills from all of the extra power lines needed by wind, nuclear would have looked even better in comparison.

Photo by Xavier de Jaur├ęguiberry via Flickr Creative Commons.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Energy Use in the Galapagos Archipelagos

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

I just spent two weeks on the Galapagos Islands. Their economies are driven almost entirely by Eco-tourism. Like the rest of us, the people of the Galapagos Islands are utterly dependent on affordable sources of energy for their existence.
As a result of a fuel tanker grounding and attendant oil spill in 2001, a consortium of energy companies from the G7, calling themselves e7 (created to bring renewable energy to developing nations), funded the installation of three wind turbines on San Cristobal, an island in the Galapagos archipelago, to minimize the amount of fuel that had to be delivered to run the generators. They also created a trust fund for maintenance and eventual removal of the turbines at the end of their twenty year life spans.

My youngest daughter is studying in San Cristobal. Her class took a field trip to the power station shortly after my arrival. I sent along a list of questions.

Her class was told that there is no wind for three or four months out of the year. They were also told that at least one of the five diesel generators is always running. When my daughter asked why the computer screen only had three icons for the generators when there are five of them, she was told that two of the three icons represent a pair of generators.

My daughter took the above photo of the computer screen in the control room. The diesel generators were producing  over half of the power (162.5 + 222.5 =388 kW of power from the diesel generators, and 239 + 231+ 236 = 726 kW from the wind turbines).

The plant supervisor had explained to the class that the San Cristobal electric power system is a diesel/wind hybrid. I was impressed. Few people understand that virtually all wind turbine installations require the consumption of fossil fuel because they are part of a hybrid system that includes some form of fossil fueled peaking power plant to take over when there isn’t enough wind. A wind turbine without fossil fuel back-up is about as useful as a car without wheels.

The turbines are located on a hill about a mile away from another hill that has the only fresh water pond on the island (in an old volcanic caldera) which is frequented by frigate birds and the Galapagos White-cheeked pin-tail duck, which is endangered.  The original site chosen for the turbines was abandoned when researchers discovered that it was in the flight path used by the endangered Galapagos Petrol returning to their nests in the night after fishing far out to sea.

While riding a bike on a dirt road leading away from the wind turbines, I found an endangered Galapagos Rail and a common species of Darwin’s Finch within a few miles of each other that had recently been hit by cars. This gave me an epiphany.

To put the bird and bat killing potential of the three wind turbines in terms of road kill, picture a 1/3 mile long oval race track in an area known to harbor endangered bird species, with nine equally spaced cars going around it at 180 mph, 24 hours a day (three turbines, each with three 100 foot long blades spinning at 25 revolutions per minute, 5,280 feet/mile, 60 minutes/hour, circumference = 2pR).

There are also three wind turbines (from a different manufacturer) located on the island of Baltra. Although it was always quite windy, I never saw them spinning. All of these turbines are essentially an experiment testing the viability of wind energy in the Galapagos Islands. Will they eventually fall into disrepair and join the rest of the abandoned structures on the islands?

I briefly discuss below a few other energy schemes that may also be effective at preventing oil spills.

Natural Gas

If Ecuador were really serious about protecting the “Mona Lisa” of biodiversity from the next inevitable oil spill, everything in the Galapagos would run on natural gas. Much of the taxi fleet in Buenos Aires (a city of 13 million) runs on natural gas, as does Seattle’s garbage and recycling trucks. The generators could also be run on natural gas. Petroleum products are heavily subsidized by the Ecuadorian government. Gasoline here costs $1.50 a gallon. This has, of course, created a black market for Ecuadorian petroleum products in neighboring countries.


Roughly 90% of the biomass here is from invasive plant species. One of the worst is the guava tree. A system might be developed to pay farmers to haul biomass (roots and all) down the mountainsides with their donkeys to a biomass fired steam turbine or  a power-from-waste combustion system with the intent of controlling or possibly eliminating some invasive species.

Power from waste and Plasma gasification

Decades ago, environmental activists successfully shut down the worst of the old technology incinerators in the United States that had little or no pollution control. Attempts to build modern power-from-waste or plasma gasification facilities (which bear no resemblance to the old trash incinerators) will usually attract a crowd of aging activists waving signs with the word “incinerator” somewhere in the text. All the same, most developed nations are using the technology. From the Wikipedia article:
Waste combustion is particularly popular in countries such as Japan where land is a scarce resource. Denmark and Sweden have been leaders in using the energy generated from incineration for more than a century, in localized combined heat and power facilities supporting district heating schemes. In 2005, waste incineration produced 4.8% of the electricity consumption and 13.7% of the total domestic heat consumption in Denmark. A number of other European countries rely heavily on incineration for handling municipal waste, in particular Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and France.
Although there is a recycling program, some of the Galapagos Islands are, literally, awash with trash. Sea turtles and sea birds will sometimes eat plastic debris and die as a result. I witnessed scrap metal  being hauled to a dock and loaded by hand onto small barges which ferried it out to ships that had just unloaded cargo in the reverse order.

An economically viable technology to convert cellulose into a liquid fuel does not exist. It is still more efficient to burn woody biomass for electricity or heat. Humanity is the cause of the sixth great extinction event. Habitat loss is the main driver and agriculture is the main driver of habitat loss and deforestation, which is also a significant contributor to global warming. Because palm biodiesel or cane or corn ethanol require the conversion of ecosystems elsewhere into cropland, I would not consider them any better than oil when it comes to overall environmental impact.

Dedicated bicycle lanes?

Santa Cruz is the most populous of all the islands. The tourist district has dedicated bicycle lanes with a physical barrier separating bikes and car traffic. Bicycles are already used extensively on all of the islands because weather is rarely an impediment and because most destinations are not very far apart. Unfortunately, thanks to the low cost of motor fuel, there is less incentive to ride a bike than to drive the ubiquitous crew-cab short-bed pickup truck.

The future of the Galapagos Islands

The population of the Galapagos is growing rapidly because there are so many young people who are just beginning to have a family or are not old enough to do so yet, and all of their children will of course have children of their own.

Thanks to ecotourism, the standard of living in the Galapagos Islands is much higher than on the mainland of Ecuador, although still well below most developed nations. It’s illegal to migrate there unless you are married to a  citizen of the islands, and it isn’t legal to marry somebody just so you can.

Fresh water is very limited and on some islands you shower and wash in salty water. Any kind of social upheaval that disrupts Eco-tourism or the supply of fossil fuels would be disastrous for the people and the wildlife of the Galapagos.

Unlike wildlife found at other Eco-tourism destinations like Costa Rica, the indigenous wildlife of the Galapagos never developed a fear of man. Nowhere else on the planet can you stand next to a sea lion at the fish market, share your fork with a finch (Darwin’s), wait for the occasional giant tortoise to cross the road …

…have a staring contest with a marine iguana.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The "Nuclear energy costs too much" argument

Photos via Wikipedia commons

Amory Lovins: " hopelessly uneconomic that one needn’t debate whether it’s clean and safe."

Joseph Romm: "... too expensive to matter for the foreseeable future."

Bill McKibben: " burning $20 dollar bills to make electricity."

Some recent headlines: Wind Energy Company to Pay $1 Million in Bird Deaths and  Costs Derail Giant UK Offshore Wind Farm

Two typical estimates to replace home electricity use with solar 10/13/2013

The above solar estimates come from one of several websites that offer estimates based on where you live. These websites are designed for solar contractors to drum up business. They are not going to offer high estimates. Go ahead and click here to get an estimate for your home.

 Source for above graphics

Let's talk capital costs

Average cost (sans subsidies) of solar for above estimates = $54,242 per home, ($65,353 +$ 39,131)/2.

Average cost of a new $9 billion 1100 MWe nuclear power plant per home = $10,078 per home, ($9,000,000,000/893,000 homes).

I've always been a big fan of solar ...but damn. That's five times as expensive as nuclear. There's also something appealing about just having three wires coming to my house instead of being personally responsible for tens of thousands of dollars worth of solar panels on my roof. 

Never mind for now the fact that the nuclear will also produce power 24 hours a day.

In addition to the up-front capital costs (see above pictures), utilities will eventually have to start charging you for use of the grid to disperse the electricity your solar power produces. Somebody has to pay for all of those power lines, backup power plants, and transformer stations.

UniSource Energy in Arizona for example, which is highly supportive of solar, is one of many utilities that already charges solar panel owners rent for the grid. One fee called the "Delivery Services" would  add about $20 to a $110 bill (depending on kWh used) and another fee called "Green Energy Charges" adds roughly $10 more for a total of about $30 per bill to allow your solar panels to share the grid.

You will also be stuck with the costs of maintenance when a wire comes lose, or inverter fails, monitoring system goes dead, cleaning, and on and on. If you paid cash, you will be losing the interest that money would have earned, and of course, if you borrowed money, you will be paying interest on it. I may yet put solar on my house, but if I do, it is very unlikely to ever pay off.

Other than up-front capital costs, what does "cost too much" mean exactly? In a nutshell it means that it costs more than other alternatives, like natural gas (a fossil fuel that emits 30 times more green house gas emissions than nuclear).

Thanks to a great deal of very sound critique from the internet, most (but not all) of the more visible anti-nuclear energy proponents (see above photos) have largely, slowly, grudgingly, abandoned the grossly exaggerated danger and waste arguments against nuclear energy. They now hang their collective hats on the cost argument; new nuclear power plants are more costly to build (capital intensive) than fossil fueled power plants, natural gas in particular.

However, the dishonesty inherent in this argument is twofold:

1) Wind and solar also cost more than fossil fuels.

2) They are only talking about construction costs. Construction costs are irrelevant if the result is a net profit (like rent received on a skyscraper). Although horrifically expensive to build (and horrifically environmentally damaging) Grand Coulee and Hoover dams have been very profitable. This has been true with few exceptions for nuclear power plants as well.

What do Lovins, Romm, and McKibben all have in common? Crystal balls. They can see into the future. They are so confident that nuclear power can't produce gargantuan amounts of cost competitive low-carbon energy as it has done for the past half-century, they are (unlike NASA scientist James Hansen, author of Storms of My Grandchildren) willing to bet our children's and grandchildren's futures on it for us. Thanks guys! At the same time they can see the cost of solar going from three or four times the cost of nuclear to ...too cheap to meter?

For those who would rather displace nuclear with renewables instead of displacing fossil fuels with them, consider reading the "we don't need nuclear energy because renewables can do it all" argument. A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Lab concluded that it may be possible to replace about a third of our energy use with renewables ...if we can increase by an order of magnitude the use of geothermal, biomass, solar, and wind by 2050. When the NREL demonstrates renewables alone can't displace fossil fuels (on purpose or not), you can pretty much hang your hat on it. Once the use of renewables have maxed out, further reduction in fossil fuel burning will have to come from nuclear power ...or some other low carbon energy source yet to be invented.
About those solar estimates

The internet is rife with websites that will estimate the cost of a solar installation for your home because they want your business. They are not going to give you a high estimate that may scare you away ...if they can help it. But it's only an estimate. For example, they don't ask if your roof slopes the right way or is even big enough. Google "solar cost estimator." I chose one of the sunniest cities (Tucson) and one of the cloudiest (Seattle). Sunnier places will require fewer solar panels.

These websites also tell you what subsidies you might be eligible for and go to a great deal of effort  to convince you that, over time, your solar panels (like nuclear) will eventually pay off.

Typically, to prevent sticker shock, they also, by default, estimate replacement of only 50% of your electrical use. You have to change the default value to 100% to get the full cost. The Seattle installation is eligible for $34,000 in government subsidies. The Tucson installation is eligible for $14,000 worth of subsidies. I mention the subsidies only because there is another anti-nuclear energy argument out there claiming that nuclear energy is more heavily subsidized ...when it actually isn't.

Similar arguments apply to solar hot water, which is far more efficient than solar photovoltaic. Although I'd love to put a solar hot water system on my home the next time my water heater needs replacement, I will probably just buy another $350 (low capital cost) hot water tank rather than investing $9,000 or so (high capital cost) for solar hot water. If I were paying a few hundred dollars a month to heat my hot water with natural gas, I just might risk the solar, but we only pay about $20 a month.

$9,000 / ($20/month x 12 months/year) = 37 years to break even.
$9,000 / ($200/month x 12 months/year) = 3.7 years to break even.

Installers always insist that the system will pay for itself over time and go to great lengths to demonstrate how, but they are no better at predicting the future than I am. The safe bet is to buy another $350 natural gas fired hot water tank. Your typical plumber, if called to fix solar hot water problem, is likely to be clueless. The cost of keeping that system running is going to be significant.

Likewise, cheap natural gas is also a major reason why investors are hesitant to fund a nuclear power plant which can run for half of a century but, like solar hot water, requires a big investment up front that will take a significant amount of time to pay off ...or not, depending on things like the price of natural gas.

So much for capital costs.

What other kinds of costs are involved? Nuclear power plants can be profitable for many decades. But nothing lasts forever. Our nuclear power plants are getting old and with age comes higher maintenance costs. Wind turbines and solar panels also get old, and don't last nearly as long as a nuclear power plant. Their day will come as well and somebody will pay a fortune to have worn out panels taken off their roof to the nearest landfill.


I'm less of a fan of wind than I am of solar, primarily because turbines too often get placed where they devastate local raptor and bat populations. Never mind what they do to natural landscapes.

Does wind also cost more than other alternatives? Google the term "wind too expensive." I stopped looking at 40 pages deep. Why else would investment in wind come to a halt with any suggestion that the wind subsidy should not be renewed yet again (five times and counting)?

Snippets from Bloomberg Sustainability:
The British government has set the industry a goal of reducing its costs to 100 pounds ($167) a megawatt-hour by 2020. New Energy Finance estimates it’s currently as high as $246, or 147 pounds, and is unlikely to meet the target.

“Big German companies have lost their cash-cows, because Angela Merkel said they have to close down their nuclear power stations,” Stamer said. “That’s where they earned their money that they could then go off and invest in offshore wind.” He said even reaching 6.5 gigawatts will “take a lot of work.”

New projects tend to be further from shore and in deeper waters. That means costs are rising, and utilities can no longer afford to shoulder the cost of projects themselves, said Ben Warren, an environmental finance partner at Ernst & Young.

Three utilities yesterday scrapped an expansion of the world’s biggest offshore wind farm in the Thames estuary, east of London. That capped three months when each of the six largest U.K. utilities retreated from marine energy projects...

“It’s either the cost because of the technical challenges or the environmental issues” that’s thwarting projects, Keith Anderson, chief executive officer of Iberdrola SA’s ScottishPower Renewables unit, said in an interview. “There’s a bit of realism that unless we can deliver these projects for a lower price, then it’s unrealistic to expect to continue to get political and government support...”

Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has set incentives for offshore wind through 2019, hoping to stimulate clean-energy jobs ...Those ambitions are being chipped away as developers better understand the costs of the projects. Utilities have canceled as much as 5,760 megawatts of planned capacity since Nov. 26, when RWE AG dropped its 1,200 megawatt Atlantic Array.

Wind (or grid tied solar for that matter) does not and cannot exist as a stand-alone power source. It has to be connected via the grid to natural gas power plants that can take over when the wind dies, otherwise it has no value at all. Because wind turbines are essentially a component of a gas turbine power plant, wind is not really fully renewable. The advantage of a hybrid (car or wind/gas turbine) is that it will use less fossil fuel. The disadvantage is the higher sticker price ($40K for a Volt).

Consider reading this well-sourced article: Wind Power Costs in U.S. Are Six Times Higher Than Claimed.

Bottom line; low carbon sources of electricity (nuclear, wind, and solar) presently cost more than electricity produced by natural gas (thanks to the present low cost of natural gas).

If nuclear energy deniers throw a party when a utility decides to close a nuclear power plant like Vermont Yankee because it presently can't compete with today's low natural gas prices, they think they are celebrating a victory for renewable energy. In reality, they are celebrating a victory for a fossil fuels.  Nuclear energy does not compete with renewables because it is used for baseload power.

Nuclear isn't more expensive than wind and solar. If these guys really could predict the future cost of any energy source, they would be worth billions by now. End of story.