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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.

  1. In some countries, onshore wind isn't even the cheapest source. See Figure 1.
  2. The costs he quotes for wind don't include integration costs (new transmission lines etc) passed on to consumers by the grid operator. See Figure 3.
  3. The German "Energy Transition" experiment has demonstrated that when integration costs are included, wind and solar are proving to be even more expensive than new nuclear.
  4. His repeated quotes of low wind prices are not an indication of future wind prices (windiest places are the cheapest and will be developed first, less windy places developed in the future will cost more--picking the low hanging fruit first).
  5. Intermittent power sources are essentially fuel flow reduction devices for peaking and load following power stations which makes them competitors with natural gas, not nuclear when used for baseload (i.e., they can't replace nuclear as Germany is learning, fossil fuels are).
A commenter attempted to demonstrate many of these points with a single graph but it was held for moderation ...and never posted. The graph is shown below.
Figure 1 Energy costs in four countries with  approximation for integration costs

Figure 2 Ranges of Levelized Cost of New Energy Sources in United States

The CleanTechnica community manager later quoted an integration cost of "$0.0005/kWh which is about nothing." A look at his source found that it did not include the cost of new transmission lines, making his quote roughly 50 times too low.
Figure 3 Summary of transmission line integration cost studies with ERCOT highlighted
An analogy for wind turbine costs would be car rental costs. They don't reflect the costs of transmission lines or roads respectively, which are paid for separately. If you have to build more roads to expand the use of cars, that cost has to be accounted for in total transportation costs.

Interestingly enough, that same source quoted by the community manager also predicted that 40% of the electricity in that grid could come from renewables, which begs the question, where's the other 60% of low carbon energy going to come from?


The next time you encounter someone insisting that we should replace nuclear with wind on the basis of cost, feel free to copy and paste the following retort without attribution:

  1. If we should replace nuclear with the combination of onshore wind and gas because it's cheaper, then we should replace offshore wind, biomass, geothermal, and rooftop solar with it as well for the same reason.
  2. It's deceptive to quote wind prices without including grid integration costs which can be as much per unit energy transported as per unit energy produced.


 The CleanTechnica community manager is a champion of the argument that pumped hydro storage can fix the intermittency of wind and solar (he spent a lot of time telling readers how that can be accomplished):

Extrapolating to all US dams that would give us about 13,175 PuHS candidate dams spread around the country.

Excavate a catchment basin below the dam, large enough to hold a few days of run out. Install a pump/turbine hybrid. You've got a PuHS ready to store energy.

In addition PuHS can be built in abandoned rock quarries. There are a thousand or so on federal lands alone. Open pit and subsurface mines are also candidates.

There's no shortage of places for PuHS.

We have pump-up hydro storage which is perfectly workable and affordable. We don't have to build a lot of transmission lines

We could easily find may multiple times more locations than we would need.

The problem with storage is purely cost. If you have a battery capable of operating for $50/MWh and the cost of the energy being generated to put in that battery is $30/MWh, the total cost of energy retrieved from that storage system is $80/MWh (ignoring thermodynamic losses). So the antinuclear Jacobson is, for once, right, in that pumped hydro storage will never be able to scale up enough to fix problems associated with wind and solar intermittency (see note at end of article). This puts the CleanTechnica community manager in a bind. He has to either admit he was wrong about pumped hydro storage all of these years, or call out his antinuclear wind and solar enthusiast counterpart's big idea.

Pumped hydro is still the cheapest storage, although, not cheap, but only when geographic topology makes it feasible. This restriction in feasible geologic topology is why the U.S. only gets 2% of its electricity from pumped hydro storage and most of it is associated with nuclear power stations.
Figure 4 A typical pumped hydro system--does this look inexpensive to you?

The CleanTechnica community manager does not see that as evidence of a lack of feasibility. He thinks we should dig reservoirs at the bases of thousands of dams to create pumped hydro facilities and in addition, fill existing caverns with water and then dig equally large reservoirs near each cavern to create pumped hydro facilities.

To borrow one of his phrases, I'd call that "tin foil hat crazy." If that idea were economically feasible, a lot more nuclear would already be using pumped hydro to turn their baseload output into peaking and load following as needed to maximize profitability and flexibility. Given enough affordable storage, we could eliminate gas for peaking and load following, using nuclear with storage for everything. But not to worry, wind and solar enthusiasts, there's no such thing as storage capable of feasibly scaling to that level. We will still need wind and solar to act as natural gas fuel flow reduction devices in addition to nuclear for baseload and load following.

The fact that the CleanTechnica community manager's idea isn't new and hasn't been taken advantage of by various power producers is just one piece of evidence that storage remains too expensive. There's the study by the antinuclear Mark Jacobson which has pulled the rug out from under the pumped hydro storage idea and to ice the cake, there's also a real world test case out there with the stated goal of providing 100% of an island's electrical power with nothing but wind and storage via pumped hydro. Their average since completion of the project last year is 39% from wind (roughly 9% of total energy demand).

That 39% (roughly 9% of total energy demand) is significant which shows wind can contribute, but also makes the point that wind and solar can't do it all.

The Analysis

As I’ve done in other posts, rather than rate comments as true or false (a step function), I will give each claim a veracity (conformity with truth or fact, accuracy) score. I’ll calculate the average score at the end of the post. For example, a typical politician may average a veracity score of about 3 out of 10 any time his or her lips move, a televangelist, maybe a 2 out of 10. A score of zero indicates not a grain of truth to be had. A score of 10 would indicate a cold, hard, fact. The ratings are somewhat facetious and completely made up, so feel free to make up your own.

Below is a summary of the analysis which is followed by the detailed analysis:

Summary of Comment Analysis 1

The CleanTechnica community manager told a reader that integration costs for wind was "$0.0005/kWh which is about nothing" when in reality, it's 30 to 48 times higher than that, depending. The CleanTechnica community manager also held for moderation and then deleted a comment that tried to show integration costs.

Veracity score = 0.0005 for quoting a source that excluded the cost of new transmission lines when integrating wind into various grids.

Summary of Comment Analysis 2

In an attempt to make nuclear look expensive in comparison to wind, The CleanTechnica community manager pulled the "health care costs related to coal" card. Using his own numbers I showed that Nuclear, having greatly reduced the amount of coal used over the last half century, has saved trillions in health care costs. I also showed that the cost of transmission lines in Texas were the same as a new AP1000 nuclear power plant. One simply carries energy, the other makes it.

Veracity score = 2 for failing to provide any links to sources and for exaggerating potential costs of nuclear while failing to take into account savings attributable to nuclear.

Summary of Comment Analysis 3

The CleanTechnica community manager incorrectly corrected a distance estimated by a commenter. See Content Analysis 3 below.

Veracity score = 4.3.

Summary of Comment Analysis 4

The CleanTechnica community manager shows a graph of declining German wholesale energy prices without showing the corresponding increase in retail electricity prices.

The CleanTechnica community manager gets a veracity score of 1 (a score of 10 for a correct graph divided by a score of 10 for a missing graph).

Comment Analysis 1

In response to an inquiry into the integration costs of wind, The CleanTechnica community manager claimed that it was "$0.0005/kWh which is about nothing". This value for the Texas ERCOT grid came from Michael Goggin who works for the American Wind Energy Association:

“...the total cost for integrating wind came out at about $0.50 per megawatt-hour.”

However, that value is from this source: Variability cost =$0.14/MWh + Uncertainty cost = $0.36/MWh.

$0.14/MWh + $0.36/MWh = $0.50/MWh, which excludes the cost of the new transmission lines needed to get wind where it is needed or to export excess wind rather than curtail it.

From a meta study of transmission line costs:

ERCOT average for transmission lines = $24/MWh or 2.4cents per kWh (average American pays about 12 cents per kWh).

A claim that wind in that area is being sold for $24/MWh would need to be doubled to $48/MWh to convey the total costs.

The CleanTechnica community manager's quote of $0.5/MWh is 48 times lower than the average cost for ERCOT wind farms in the study.

The median for all data in chart is $15/MWh or 1.5 cents per kWh

The community manager's quote of $0.5/MWh is 30 times lower than the median cost for all wind farms in the study.

That meta analysis also found that the majority of studies showed integration costs were roughly 25% of the cost of building a wind project.

When a commenter attempted to show the costs of integration with a graph, his comment was held for moderation and never published. That disappeared graph is shown below which approximates integration costs at 30%.

You didn't count, for example, the eight billion dollars Texas spent to build power cables out to the Panhandle, to bring wind to the cities - infrastructure they're now saying they'll have to double up on to avoid curtailment.

The CleanTechnica community manager, who didn't seem to be aware that those eight billion dollars worth of transmission lines were not in his "$0.0005/kWh which is about nothing" integration costs quote, responded with "We're going to have to make changes to our grids as we transition off fossil fuels and nuclear energy and to renewables."

...and it's going to cost a lot more than $0.0005/kWh.

As an aside, the community manager also quoted Goggin saying:

“Newer research suggests systems can go to 40 percent renewables with no problem,”

Which might be possible in some places but 40% of the 40% of our energy from electricity = 16% of our total energy. We are going to need a lot of nuclear. 40% renewables+ 50% nuclear +10% gas =100% for electricity only.

I'm giving The CleanTechnica community manager a veracity score of 0.0005 for quoting a source that excluded the cost of new transmission lines when integrating wind into various grids.

Comment Analysis 2

Not wanting to get our "bloomers all in a bunch," The CleanTechnica community manager strove to put that $8 billion cost of transmission lines into perspective.

He could have pointed out that the four U.S. Generation III AP1000 (Advanced Passive) reactors coming on line in the next two or three years will each cost about the same as those transmission lines above and those reactors are being installed at existing power stations, so integration costs are quite minimal when it comes to transmission lines but instead he said:

We spend between $140 billion and $242 billion every year treating the health damage caused by coal pollution.

The CleanTechnica community manager doesn't seem to realize it, but, assuming his numbers are true, you couldn't get a better ad for nuclear power which has been coal's main competitor for about half of a century now, reducing its use by roughly a third. Rough estimate; 50 years x (1/3) x $242 billion/year = $4 trillion saved.

Just a couple of days ago the estimate for the Fukushima disaster was increased to $176 billion.

That purported $176 billion (and no link was provided for that) cost is peanuts compared to the trillions in health cost savings from nuclear displacing coal in Japan. Rough estimate; half as many reactors as us, = 0.5 x $4 trillion = $2 trillion (a savings to cost ratio of 14).

From 2011 through 2013, Japan’s trade balance worsened by a cumulative 18.1 trillion yen ($169 billion), estimates Taro Saito, director of economic research at the NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. Of that amount, 10 trillion yen, or 55 percent, came from energy imports.

55% OF $169 billion = $93 billion.

2016-2011= 5 years.

5 years x $93 billion/year = $465 billion dollars (almost a half-trillion) lost to fossil fuel costs as a result of antinuclear fear mongering that has closed Japan's nuclear.

Money spend on building transmission will save us $1.4 trillion to $2.4 trillion over a decade.

Again, no source so we have no idea what he's talking about but $4 trillion - $2.4 trillion is still $ 1.6 trillion in health costs saved by nuclear.

Certainly, Germany is spending money like there's no tomorrow building out transmission lines. 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.

Germany is demonstrating the real world cost of trying to reduce emissions with only renewables; $30 billion a year, according to Germany's economics ministry. $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. And their emissions reductions have been flat for the last six years ...six years of carbon in the atmosphere we can't get back.

And a US meltdown close to one of our urban centers could run into the trillions of dollars.

Talking about incurred costs and savings is one thing ...predicting a trillion dollar loss from modern reactors with containment domes is a bit lame. Should we stop building skyscrapers considering that the New York Times estimated the impact of the Twin Towers terrorist act at $3.3 trillion?

If any of our reactors were of the primitive cold war era Soviet design like at Chernobyl, he'd have more of a point, but they aren't. The complete meltdown of not one, but three modern Western designed reactors with modern containment structures in Fukushima will cost something like 15 times less than the cost savings of having used nuclear instead of fossil fuels in Japan. Using the CleanTechnica community manager's coal argument, there's a big net savings to society from using nuclear instead of coal even with the meltdowns.

Veracity score = 2 for failing to provide any links to sources and for exaggerating potential costs of nuclear while failing to take into account savings attributable to nuclear.

Comment Analysis 3
A commenter replied:

And that's only 350 miles, for 18.5 GW. From New York to the high plains windy areas, which have been touted as a good power source for the coastal cities, is five times as far. New York to Indian Point reactor is only 45 miles, and the power lines, like the reactors, are providing a return on their investment 93% of the time.

The CleanTechnica community manager responded to the above portion of a comment about transmission lines for wind in the Texas ERCOT grid:

It's about 1,000 miles from NYC to windy Iowa. Let's try not to be too obvious in your misinformation, John.

Google search on the term "distance from New York to Texas"  =1,768.6 miles. 5 x 350 = 1,750.

Veracity score = 4.3 (1000 is 57% of 1750). 10-5.7 = 4.3.

Comment Analysis 4

The CleanTechnica community manager showed a graph indicating that the wholesale price of electricity in Germany dropping from 2008 to 2013. To the uninformed, this looks great because they would assume it translates to lower retail electricity prices for German citizens. But it doesn't:

This year alone, German consumers are expected to subsidize green energy to the tune of a whopping €23.6 billion ($33 billion) on top of their normal electricity bills for the so-called “renewable energies reallocation charge.”

The charge has skyrocketed from 1.15 ct/kWh in 2008 to 6.24 ct/kWh this year. Since then, another 1.4 million households slipped into energy poverty.

A 6.24 cent per kWh increase in the average American electric bill would be a 50% increase in your monthly payment (assuming yours is average). Part of that surcharge is to keep energy companies financially solvent so they can back up wind and solar. The grid can't function with just wind and solar as we already know because the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine.

So how does wind and solar drive the other energy providers toward insolvency? Let's call it the Intermittent Power Glut Effect.

When there's too much wind and solar capacity in a grid they can produce more power than is needed at a given time of day, creating a glut that can drive the wholesale value of power down to a level that, if it happens often enough, will eventually lead to fiscal insolvency for power producers. All power companies have bills to pay. It's simple supply and demand economics. A rare penny becomes worthless if someone dispenses a billion of them they discovered in a warehouse. This started out as an economic theory but has since been repeatedly proven in practice:

  1. A study by German economist Lion Hirth (pro-renewables and pro-nuclear):“...the value of wind and solar declines as they become a larger percentage of the German grid."
  2. From the United Nations Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (pro-renewables and pro-nuclear):“The more that solar PV penetrates the electricity system, the harder it is to recoup project costs.”
  3. From David Roberts (antinuclear): "As they grow, wind and solar hit economic headwinds."
  4. From the NREL (pro-renewables): "Still higher levels of variable renewable energy generation [wind and solar above 30%] is technically feasible but could test the economic carrying capacity of the U.S. power grid."
  5. From MIT (pro-renewables and pro-nuclear): "...even if solar generation becomes profitable without subsidies at low levels of penetration, there is a system-dependent threshold of installed PV [and wind] capacity beyond which adding further solar generators would no longer be profitable."
  6. Jesse Jenkins (pro-renewables and pro-nuclear): "Instead, the fundamental economics of supply and demand is likely to put the brakes on VRE (variable renewable energy) penetration."
  7. From John Morgan (pro-nuclear and pro-wind) "The “CF% = market share” boundary is a real limit on growth of wind and solar. Its not impossible to exceed it, just very difficult and expensive. It's an inflexion point; bit like peak oil, its where the easy growth ends. And the difficulties are felt well before the threshold is crossed. I’ve referred to this limit elsewhere as the “event horizon” of renewable energy."

Veracity score = 1.0 for insinuating that intermittent power gluts that drive wholesale prices down are a net financial positive for German citizens.

Average veracity score for all analysis = 1.8 out of 10.

That's all for now and I've just scratched the surface.

Update: I changed the term "moderator" to "community manager" in all places after finding that job description on the CleanTechnica website. I've made minor edits and added a note below to clarify that Mark Jacobson's plan does not rely on an increase in pumped hydro storage although it does rely on an increase in other forms of storage.

Note on pumped hydro storage:

When asked if his plans rely a lot on energy storage, Jacobson replied: 
If you get the [power] transmission grid right you don’t need a whole lot of storage. 

Some storage certainly would help; we have storage in the form of hydrogen and in concentrated solar power plants.
From CityLab:
Jacobson and company propose to do this without any new battery technology by assembling a host of creative energy storage devices, such as piping surplus energy as heat into the ground and pulling it up later for use, or using cheap off-peak electricity to make ice which then goes to work cooling buildings during high-demand periods.

Jacobson calls for 605,400 megawatts of new storage capacity. U.S. grid storage as of August 2013 totaled 24,600 megawatts, meaning a nearly 25-fold increase would be required to meet the roadmap.
From Energy Media Society
Jacobson does mention battery storage at the distributed level in homes and businesses, however he does not include grid-scale battery energy storage.

Similarly, there is the assumption that grid integration will rely on “prioritizing storage for excess heat (in soil and water) and electricity (in ice, water, phase-change material tied to CSP, pumped hydro, and hydrogen)”, limited pumped hydro, and demand response. 

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