Touch here for mobile friendly version

Thursday, December 29, 2016

David Roberts Thinks "Solar is Winning"--Still Antinuclear

In his article "2 remarkable facts that illustrate solar power’s declining cost" Roberts starts off well:

First, there’s no such thing as an electricity source that is cheapest in all circumstances, nor is there likely to be such a source any time soon. All sources have advantages and disadvantages; they all have circumstances in which they excel.

But goes downhill from there, concluding with the following nonsensical remark:

 “Solar is winning.”

What does that even mean?

Industrial solar is going to play an important role in future grids but unless it’s located in one of the sunniest of places, it won’t be the least expensive source. And even when it is the least expensive source, it will never be the only component of a grid. More expensive components, be they nuclear, wind, gas, and possibly some amount of much more expensive storage, will have to be part of that grid ...especially at night. So, what matters is the total cost of operating all of the components of a grid. The fact that you may have lowered the cost in very sunny places of just one component (solar) will not necessarily lower your electric bill. Evidence to date strongly suggests the opposite.See Figure 1.
Figure 1

Why? One reason would be integration costs, which are not included in LCOE calculaltions. The price charged by the solar farm owner does not reflect all costs to the grid operator (which all get passed on to the consumer) of the additional transmission needs of industrial intermittent sources. The integration costs for wind can double the final price charged to customers. If the wind farm is charging $22/mWh and the cost of installing new transmission lines to export excess power produced when it's not needed locally is $22/mWh (see Figure 2), the real cost is twice that being charged by the wind farm. Integration costs of intermittent sources tend to be much higher than for dispatchable sources because of the need for more transmission infrastructure to export excess power produced at times when it is not needed in the local grid.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

David Roberts on Illinois Passes Huge, Bipartisan Energy Bill--Still Antinuclear

Shortly after the elections I tweeted the following:

Below, David kicks off his article about bipartisan politics:

With the possible exception of California’s recent bill, it might be the most significant state energy legislation passed in the US in decades.

Interestingly enough, the link he provides in that quote goes to an article by Brad Plummer which had the following quote about California's bill:

Few countries have ever achieved cuts this sharp while enjoying robust economic growth. (Two exceptions were France and Sweden in the 1980s and ’90s, when they scaled up nuclear power).

Below are some examples of David doing his usual antinuclear energy double-speak:

The bill is somewhat misleadingly being headlined by most journalists as a bailout for nuclear plants.

But while the bailout is in there ...

Lots of them are pushing for bailouts ...

So that’s what Exelon wanted: a bailout for its nuclear plants...

...many enviros and consumer advocates remain deeply opposed to the bailout.

Government assistance for nuclear zero carbon energy is called a bailout but for wind and solar it's called a subsidy?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

CleanTechnica Watch: Comment Analysis of Thorium Article--Volume 1

In this article I clean up behind CleanTechnica's community manager who made a total of 87 comments under an antinuclear article published on CleanTechnica. Consider it a debate where each debate partner is banned from the other's comment field :  )

Some pronuclear commenters had their remarks held for moderation (even though CleanTechnica's comment rules claim they never do that) which were subsequently never published, while others had comments deleted. I saw one instance where this community manager posted a long rebuttal a comment he'd deleted! Apparently, he does this fairly routinely.

Because the CleanTechnica community manager made 17% of the 509 comments before he shut them down, I'll be parsing them by category. I'm also breaking this up into more than one volume. This is Volume 1. The community manager's arguments occasionally trip on each other but in a nutshell they are based on his erroneous insinuation that wind will always cost less everywhere and that storage will fix the intermittency problems.

Feel free to drop into that comment field to see quotes taken from it in full context.


The CleanTechnica community manager's main argument is that when wind costs less then nuclear, we should replace nuclear with it.

Using that simplistic reasoning, we should eliminate all other new low carbon sources of energy that may cost more than onshore wind (which, in the U.S., would, in addition to new nuclear, include solar PV, solar thermal, offshore wind, geothermal, and biomass). See Figure 2.

Monday, December 19, 2016

CleanTechnica Watch: Is Thorium A Future Option For Nuclear Energy?

Previous CleanTechnica antinuclear articles reviewed:

Screenshot From Documentary of Sunniva Rose, Nuclear Physicist
Sunniva Rose explained some nuclear physics terms in the documentary. Be sure to see her TEDx talk: "How is it possible to worry about global warming and not be pronuclear?"

Click here to learn more about CleanTechnica watch. 

The CleanTechnica version of this article was originally posted on the German antinuclear energy website Energy Transition.

The article is an ad for the author's book in the disguise of a review of a TV documentary that aired in October on Arte (a Franco-German TV station), promoting a thorium molten salt reactor design. I found a version with English subtitles here. I recommend that you read Myths and Misconceptions about Thorium nuclear fuel instead of watching the film. It will save you an hour and the article is far more factual.

In his first sentence he calls pressurized-water reactors "awful." I'm not convinced that a total of three incidents of note in over a half century of low carbon energy production with only one of them releasing enough radiation that will (after eighty years), result in a statistically possible total number of fatalities that are less than a percent of annual global car deaths ...fits the definition of awful.

The film clearly calls for tremendous investments in thorium nuclear, with a prototype reactor costing “a billion euros.”

If that's a "tremendous" investment, what would you call the $30 or so billion Germany has been spending annually for several years now trying to displace its existing nuclear with wind and solar? Ginormous?

Just as there are millions of ways to skin a cat, there are thousands of potential configurations for nuclear power reactors. Using a thorium fuel mixed with molten salt is just one of them and would come with its advantages and disadvantages if ever put into commercial operation. The film touted three advantages: the abundance of thorium, the potential for passive safety (lose power, the fuel drains into a big bathtub and just cools off) and less waste.

The Story of the Semi-off-grid Apartment Building

Picture an apartment building in a city that gets almost all of its electricity from nuclear power stations. It has solar panels and a gas powered generator.

The power lines from the utility are only connected to the ventilation fan that runs continuously at the same power level. A gas powered generator heats and cools the building via a heat pump in addition to powering lights and appliances. The constant current flow from the nuclear power station to the ventilation fan is the building's baseload electrical energy need.

On sunny periods of sunny days, the generator output decreases because the panels are providing electricity. The panels are acting as fuel (and emissions) reduction devices for the generator.

The owner is very concerned about climate change and wants to minimize emissions. One day, a stranger knocks at the apartment owner's door and tells her she should disconnect from the nuclear power and add more solar panels because, ah, sunshine is free. So she does but soon finds that the gas bill and attendant emissions are higher than they used to be.

Why is that? Because the solar energy was often produced when not needed (nobody was home) and was wasted. Adding more solar panels didn't change when they produced power, it only increased how much was wasted when they did produce power. The extra panels displaced what nuclear had been providing but only when they were producing power for part of sunny days, which is why they were never able to reduce gas flows to the level seen when the ventilation fan was being continuously powered with nuclear 24 hours a day, every day.

The stranger returns yet again and tells her to add batteries to store the wasted solar. Alas, this city is located where there is very little sun for months at a time and the cost of having enough batteries to store months worth of energy (called seasonal storage) is twice the value of their entire apartment complex (this is actually the case with my home).

Because the addition of more solar panels did not lower the emissions to the level seen when there was a ventilation fan running on nuclear power, the owner reconnected it to the grid and sold the extra panels on Craigslist.

The apartment owner eventually learned that the stranger who she had assumed was a power systems engineer, was actually the pizza delivery guy, who having been imprinted at an impressionable age with antinuclear dogma, had been parroting things he had read on the internet but didn't really understand.

The End

This story is an analogy to explain how a real power grid works and why emissions rise when nuclear is removed from it. It also demonstrates that a grid is composed of many players and they all have different costs. Assuming that the solar panels were the cheapest to install and operate, you still could not eliminate the other, more expensive players because intermittent sources like wind and solar can't do the job alone. To minimize emissions a grid must minimize fossil fuel use. Using wind and solar as fuel reduction devices to minimize the use of natural gas in load following and peaking power stations and using nuclear for baseload instead of coal could rapidly decarbonize our grid.

The story  is also a warning that we shouldn't be taking advice from the fry cooks, journalism, and philosophy majors out there writing articles about a complex topic like power engineering.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CleanTechnica Watch

CleanTechnica Watch will be an ongoing series of articles that discuss their antinuclear energy articles, which are typically either republished from other antinuclear energy sources or written by an assortment of antinuclear guests.

You can think of these articles as a form of public peer review.

Their policy of hoovering up antinuclear pieces to put on their website is a convenience for me in that they have become my go-to source for nuclear energy misinformation material.

In a nutshell, CleanTechnica promotes the belief that the planet can decarbonize without help from nuclear.

Reality Check

The German Energy Transition

Studies, and there is no shortage of them, have limited value. As any experienced engineer knows, real world data trumps theoretical calculation.

Luckily we have the German experiment (often referred to as the Energiewende or Energy Transition) which has been testing the hypothesis that a highly motivated, wealthy, industrialized nation can rapidly decarbonize its electrical grid by displacing nuclear energy with wind and solar.

The experiment isn't complete, but it has already provided a wealth of real-world data.

Putting the cost into perspective

The roughly $30 billion dollars being spent annually to expand wind and solar in Germany could build enough third generation AP 1000 nuclear reactors to fully decarbonize their grid over a ten year period (similar to what France did decades ago).

$30 billion a year would pay for forty custom built $7.5 billion Generation III AP1000 reactors over ten years.

$30B/year x 10years  = $300B

$300B/$7.5B = 40 AP1000 reactors

Add those to existing reactors and they could supply about 97% of Germany's electricity by 2025.

From the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, second in command to Merkel, who was also the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 2005 to 2009:

I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden [$30billion a year]...We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it. Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices."

While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said. Biomass energy is too expensive and its cost structure hasn’t improved, he said.


Growth of biomass essentially stopped when its subsidies were truncated. It currently provides roughly four percent of Germany's total energy (electricity, heat, transport) consumption.

Given the discussion about the sustainability of biomass, the question is therefore whether the Energiewende itself is sustainable. That’s one reason why the German government has slammed the brakes on biomass.