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Rocky Mountain’s Real-World Data Blunders

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s summer newsletter “debunked” nuclear’s theology and their press release “doused the hype about ‘nuclear revival’ in an icy bath of real-world data”. Well, after checking out the data and doing some analyses, I was far from being doused. They argue that nuclear cannot help with climate change because it is too costly and is a "failed option". Their solution to climate change is cogeneration and renewables.

Here’s a quick summary of cogeneration and renewables:

In 2003, cogeneration accounted for 5% of total US electricity generation. Renewables accounted for 8%. Of this 5% of cogeneration, natural gas made up about 90% of its primary fuel. I could see why the graph in the newsletter was highlighting cogeneration, it’s because natural gas is booming right now.

The blunder with natural gas is that the prices are higher than the price of oil for electric generators. Check it out by looking at the EIA’s Short Term Outlook link above and selecting the Electricity tab of the Excel file. It’s under Fuel Prices which list coal, oil and natural gas. Utilities and investors thought natural gas would be an excellent buy because it was cheap and the US had plenty of it. But since 2002, natural gas prices have doubled.

Cogeneration is a good thing. It comes down to being more efficient at the way electricity is produced and steam used. But any fuel source could do this, even nuclear. It does help curb climate change, but not anywhere near the extent nuclear could. Your primary source of fuel is natural gas and it is still a fossil fuel which produces greenhouse gases.

Here’s my analysis of RMI’s analysis. Their graph and data in the newsletter was medicore at best and very misleading. I’ll give you four reasons why:

The graph they provided is only looking at capacity (GWe). What you should be looking at is generation, the real result. Typically when looking at renewables, you need three times as much capacity as nuclear to produce the same amount of electricity. Nuclear power plants’ capacity factor (how efficient a plant generates electricity) is the highest of any fuel source (90.5%). Renewables are in the 30% range, natural gas for cogeneration is about 40%.

The second reason the graph is misleading is because of yearly capacity increases. The reader only sees what was built in that year. What you should see in the graph is the total operating capacity in existence today. From the Department of Energy’s Annual Energy Outlook 2005, a table here shows the total capacity in 2003 and projected capacity for 2004 – 2025. Cogeneration and renewables make up about 15% of the US capacity and nuclear only makes up about 10%. But as I stated above, cogeneration and renewables made up a combined total of 13% of US electricity generation while nuclear was at 20%. It’s efficiency not quantity.

The third reason the graph is misleading is because it uses five different sources for its information. For example, when conducting a search on EWEA, they said that wind could supply 12% of the world’s electricity by 2020. After doing some calculations, 1,250 GW (the amount needed to achieve 12%) would be a wind farm the size of Texas. Let’s be realistic here, right now the total capacity in the US of wind is about 4 GW.

The fourth and final reason the graph is misleading is because it stops at 2010. The sources they use for nuclear are the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Nuclear Association, and the International Energy Agency. All are respectable sources. According to IAEA, there are 24 reactors being built. There are an additional 39 reactors planned, according to the WNA. It takes 5-10 years to build a nuclear reactor and the graph conceals what nuclear’s capacity will be when they are all built.

If you would have looked at the numbers in the 1970s, you would have seen nuclear’s capacity skyrocketing. In another 10-15 years, as the world has to make intelligent choices involving economic growth and environmental protection, it may begin skyrocketing again.

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We should keep a look out to see if any media sources pick up the RMI's press release and send a response citing David's excellent analyses.
DV8 2XL said…
In August 2003 there was a major electricity blackout in the eastern U.S. This meant the coal-fired power plants shut down, and weren't burning coal. It provided a unique opportunity to study what would happen if coal-emissions were reduced.

As power plants were turned down in south-east Canada and the north-east and mid-west US, levels of pollutants fell, says meteorologist Russell Dickerson.

His team from the University of Maryland in College Park flew an aircraft over the middle of the blackout zone 24 hours after the power had gone down. "This was a unique opportunity to explore what would happen to air quality if power station emissions were reduced," he says.

The team compared pollution levels over Pennsylvania with those on a similar hot, sunny day the year before. While there was no significant difference in levels of pollutants associated solely with traffic, other pollutants linked with power stations fell dramatically.

Sulphur dioxide levels decreased by 90 per cent, there was around half the amount of ozone and visibility increased by 40 kilometres.

9 May 2004, Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition, Jenny Hogan
Rod Adams said…

The "renewables" figure that you quoted is even more interesting when one scratches deeply down into the notes. Here are the sources that the Energy Information Agency considers in the "renewables" category and their relative importance within that category as of 2002, the latest year in which statistics are available.

Geothermal 4.13%
Hydro 75.25%
MSW/Landfill 5.75%
Biomass 0.76%
Solar 0.16%
Wind 2.95%
Wood 11.01%
(Source: Table C6. Total Renewable Net Generation by State, 2002 - Energy Information Agency)

In other words, take away conventional hydro power and you have very tiny contributions from "renewable" power. Take away combustion based - i.e. polluting - "renewable" fuels and you are down to the real contribution of new renewable power supplies after 30-40 years of heavy government subsidies.

Between wind, solar, and geothermal you get about six tenths of one percent of the electricity produced in the US. Since electricity is only about 1/3 of the total energy consumption, that means that all of the noise about wind and solar power is about something that produces two tenths of one percent of the energy used in the US each year.

Hardly worth the hot air.
Amory Lovins said…
If David Bradish would kindly read what I wrote more carefully, and look up its heavily documented backup paper (, he'll find he's wrong on every count. Our data were global, not U.S.-specific, and hence reflect global market conditions including fuel prices. All technologies' capacity factors are empirical. The capacity graph's URL points to the TWh/y as well as the GW graphs and data, carefully documented to the technology-specific data from the respective industries (and IAEA, WNA, IEA, etc); the TWh/y and GW graphs (total, not incremental) are in the fall 05 RMI newsletter on Post-2010 world nuclear capacity goes down, not up, because retirements overwhelm additions: see Schneider & Froggatt, Nucl. Eng. Intl. pp. 36-38, June 2005. And contrary to a later comment, our analysis explicitly excludes all big hydro (>10 MWe).

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