This post is in response to a blog post 100% renewables and 100% nuclear are both practically impossible by Janne M. Korhonen who, with Rauli Partanen, co-authored a book: Climate Gamble: Is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering Our Future? and which I read cover to cover when first published and recommend that others read. Thus I was somewhat surprised to realize he doesn’t believe 100% nuclear is possible. After reading his reasons I felt the need to respond.
Consider the following statement closely: 100% nuclear is feasible while 100% RE is simply impossible. Should we be aiming to remove existing renewable from the grid? Of course that would be silly. However we must come to grips with the folly of intermittent renewable. To do otherwise would be sidetracking us to a dead-end street. Does that mean my position is in the minority of views expressed by nuclear supporters? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Actually this statement Janne made is making me wonder if in fact he is not a closet 100% nuker himself:
“However, the 100% nuclear argument is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first, and before arguing why I don’t quite believe in it I must first explain what it is all about.”
Aha! He agrees it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem at first! 😛
OK maybe he doesn’t quite believe it’s possible so perhaps I can turn him completely to the bright side by poking holes in his key objections.
I take no issue with Janne’s analysis of intermittent renewables other than the name he (and many others, especially renewables advocates) use. Variable renewables eh? Can’t all renewable power levels be varied? In fact, as I know Janne realizes, even nuclear power levels can be varied. That’s in spite of the miscomprehension by some who believe because nuclear runs at full power 24/365, it must run at full power 24/365. That’s not true of course. All sources of power can vary output levels. Thus the more accurate term to be applied to unpredictable energy sources like wind and solar is “Intermittent Renewables”. Thus IRE, not VRE, is the more accurate short-form to be used for such energy sources.
Side note: The other term I’ve noticed is Unreliable Renewables but that one seems overly evocative.
Janne accurately breaks down the dilemma of increased share in the use of intermittent renewable. Indeed it cannibalizes its own use as described in more detail by Jesse Jenkins and Alex Trembath.
But then Janne asks:
“Why do we nevertheless need all of the above?”
The correct answer is “we don’t” and here’s how his arguments supporting the affirmative to that question break down:
1. All low-carbon energy reduces fuel burn and conserves hydro reservoirs.
Yes. This is an especially important strategy allowing wind and solar to become feasible in many(most?) situations where otherwise they would become totally unfeasible. In reality the strategy too often is used to justify the use of fossil fuels like gas and coal because “well we reduced the use of fossil fuel by using wind and solar when that energy is available.” True, but the use of natural gas and coal would be reduced to zero if nuclear were used instead.
As for hydro, indeed coupling IRE with hydro is an important means of deferring hydro use. Hydro thus becomes a surrogate energy buffering method, a means of storing wind and solar energy (or nuclear for that matter) without having to convert electrical energy to gravitational potential energy. The problem with this strategy is that hydro facilities are limited to certain geographic regions. Also the use of hydro dams and reservoirs is increasingly under attack by environmental interests. Thus even if geography allows this technology, its use isn’t a foregone conclusion.
2. Totally discounting technological change is unwise.
A true statement but the laws of physics limit the possible pathways. However the way the ensuing argument is framed sounds a lot like the “but wind and solar are new technologies, give it time” argument.
Keep in mind that mankind has used wind and solar to our advantage for millennia. Solar to electricity conversion was discovered almost two centuries ago, wind to electricity conversion began about 150 years ago. Yet in all that time the intermittency issue hasn’t been resolved because it’s very difficult to store electrical energy in sufficient quantities to make enough of an impact. In fact the electricity to be stored must be converted to some other form of energy and subsequently converted back to electricity when demanded. These conversion steps thus introduce additional costs and inefficiencies.
It must be accepted that two key properties of wind and solar cannot be sufficiently overcome by technological advancements:
- Diffuse energy harvesting: There is simply no getting by the diffuse nature of direct (sun radiation) and indirect (wind) energy. Harvesting this energy requires elaborate structures spread over large areas that are best suited for harvesting said energy (southern latitudes for increased solar irradiance and hilltops for wind energy) and wide-spread electrical transmission facilities to distribute the harvested energy to where the energy is being demanded. The late Sir David Mackay covered this aspect quite well in his Without the Hot Air (pdf) book.
- Intermittent energy availability: The so-far-unrealized hope of intermittent renewable advocates is to have a means of storing electrical energy harvested from wind and solar farms that can cost-effectively put in place. Pumped hydro storage is by far the most deployed form of electrical energy storage but like river-dam hydro, its use is geographically limited and the size of reservoir required to make a sufficient impact becomes an environmental issue for many. That’s why the great IRE hope is continually-improved batteries will reach the point that they are sufficiently efficient, energy dense, and low cost for wide-spread deployment.
That expectation is proving to be a long wait indeed. The battery concept were discovered almost 300 years ago so you’d think that by now some genius would have figured out the magic formula. Actually there have been and still are some very smart people working to advance battery technology and it seems the end is in sight … reaching the limits of battery storage advancements. See When will the limitations of the battery be surmounted? (Quora) for example.
Conclusion: Counting on technological change to overturn physical realities is even more unwise. False hope must be pointed out for what it is otherwise we become mired deeper in a problem of our own making, with less of a chance of progression.
3. Electricity price crashes build necessary niches for critical decarbonization technologies.
Seriously? We need destabilized energy markets? How can business folks make rational decisions in the face of the uncertainty that accompanies such market instability? Certainly it’s reasonable to encourage market innovation with competitive motivators but to position the price crashes as some sort of market Darwinism in action is both misleading and foolish.
Take Feed-in Tariffs (FiT) for example. Yes well-intentioned to be sure however they run rough-shod over established reliable power generation plants that were justified on the basis of a steady cash-flow income. Sure some utilities have been complacent however the FiT mechanisms, giving IRE a chance to gain a foothold”, are closing down even well-run nuclear power generators. Why should utilities be forced to accept IRE power generated when it’s not needed? Why must stable, dispatchable power sources be threatened with bankruptcy when truth be told, stable power delivery should be encouraged, in fact should be demanded! If an intermittent power generator can’t match production with delivery needs, make that their issue to resolve. Power utilities are charged with delivering power to match demand in so-called deregulated energy markets. Don’t pass on power generation problem to the utilities.
BTW, deregulated market my ass! In spite of the “Deregulated” moniker, electrical markets are indeed very much regulated. However many of the regulations to encourage “green energy” are simply misguided and misapplied. “Deregulated energy” markets, at least in North America, might better be termed “privatized energy” markets — both at the wholesale and retail level. Power markets have been set up using the same monopoly-prevention paradigm as that applied to the communications industry a few decades ago. Indeed that paradigm worked reasonably well for communications markets; however there are some important differences that were ignored when regulators set the rules, allowed the combatants into the ring, and washed their hands of any further management responsibility. Where in the communications markets is there any equivalent to FiT and net metering regulation?
The key distinctions between the communications and energy markets are matters of physics:
- While information can be stored at atomic dimensions, electricity cannot be stored in bulk without taking up a lot of space;
- While information can be transmitted at ever-increased speeds and smaller transmission cross-sections, electrical power requires a cross-section proportional to the current being delivered at a given voltage level; and
- While information can be generated at ever increased volumes with ever-faster computer systems, electrical power generation requires space in direct proportion to the amount of power being generated by a given energy source.
Market mechanisms fail to recognize such key differences. There is no energy equivalent to Moore’s Law.
Application of the communications market paradigm to energy markets fails because the physical realities are completely different. Generators could compete on the basis of having “better” clean, sustainable energy but only if “better” equates to “when we need it would be good, not when you can produce it”. Transmission pipes could be shared but giving bulk discounts for transmitting more electrons, runs into the cross-section limit. Distribution could be virtualized but electrons can’t be labelled so as to tick meter “A” vs meter “B”.
Thus transmission and distribution must remain regulated by a monopolistic model whereas generation can be shoehorned into a competitive market arena. But then to handcuff some by demanding that the monopolistic distribution utilities take some electrons when and where they they are produced even though delivery of said electrons has to traverse a continent and cannot be guaranteed without turning off the tap of other electrons is simply a loony scheme. What would make a lot more sense is to tell the electron suppliers, “look we don’t need your remotely-located electrons right now so kindly store them until we have a demand for them and we’d be happy to take them off your hands when delivered to our doorstep.” would make a whole lot more sense.
4. Both 100% RE and 100% nuclear by 2050 are politically and technologically unrealistic pipe dreams.
I agree that 100% nuclear faces technological challenges however it faces political resistance at any scale. I disagree that 100% nuclear is technologically unrealistic.
Also I agree that in many (most?) locations, 100% RE faces technologically unrealistic pipe dreams but faces little political resistance, certainly at current scale. However when dispatchable RE resource limitations are exceeded, and IRE costs climb exponentially with further scale-up, I expect political resistance to increase way before RE gets even close to 100%.
Where dispatchable RE is not available in sufficient amounts, 100% RE is simply not feasible within the GDP of nations to implement. And even if the funding were available, resource limitations would prevent anything even close to 100% RE.
Now just because the current political climate is decidedly anti-nuclear, at least in most democratic countries, can that not be changed? In fact, the biggest political resistance is due to costs. Surely the expected price drops when Generation IV nuclear hits the market in the early 2020s, will change the hearts and mindsets of many (most?) politicians and the citizens who elect said politicians. Yes build rates will have to increase drastically but factory-built cores in airliner-style assembly lines as envisioned by Hargraves and other SMR developers will achieve dramatic results.
Many have questioned if sufficient nuclear can be built quickly enough, pointing with derision at the huge number of nukes required to power the world. Of course they fail to question how many wind farms, how many solar panels, how many wave and tide facilities, how many geothermal plants, etc. would have to be built instead.
I think the best way to approach this is to ask how much scarred landscapes, money, material resources, etc. It would take of each potential source of power to produce the equivalent amount of dispatchable power. That must include process heat power needs, not just electrical power requirements. While history can teach many lessons for future actions, the wrong approach is to use sunk costs and resources as the basis of proceeding in future energy expansion policy, plans, and projects.
Examining power production capabilities for the next increment, e.g. 1 GWh of clean, sustainable power, clearly nuclear is the correct approach. Yes there will be niche micro-grid applications where nuclear is less competitive however even for smaller grids, nuclear SMRs can fit the bill. Any implementation of power production facilities that do not take advantage of the best incremental value, represents an opportunity cost lost to the wind.
I have no doubt that at some time in the future, mankind will realize IRE is a dead-end technology sector. No doubt in time it will be recognized that the best electrical energy storage medium — the best battery if you will — is the potential energy residing in atoms that can be fused or fissioned to release that energy. Yes, in fact a nuclear reactor can best be viewed as a battery; a power source periodically recharged with fuel that has the nuclear energy locked in place since being placed there by supernova — which subsequently created the matter comprising our solar system. The real question is how long it will take us to collectively come to that realization.
We would be foolish if we don’t make use of nuclear energy to advance our societies with energy prosperity and the ability to reverse climate change mechanisms. The mechanisms set in motion by our continued practice of unlocking CO2 from its long slumber as the earth locked up those deposits and cooled will have to be reversed. Nuclear energy is the only means we have of making that possible.