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Nuclear vs. Wind, Part II

Today, I'm posting the conclusion of my discussion with Dave Erickson from Re/Action on Climate Protection regarding the relative benefits of wind and nuclear energy. In my last post, I looked at why displacing all of America's coal generated electric capacity with wind wasn't practical or achieveable. To read Part I, click here.

Today, in Part II, I'm taking a closer look at the economics of wind and nuclear energy.

Cost of Wind vs Cost of Nuclear to Replace Coal
There are several points I would like to argue about Dave’s post: capacity factors, costs and new nuclear build. The sources Dave uses for his information are excellent. He cites the MIT Study on the Future of Nuclear Power and IEA’s Projected Costs of Generating Electricity.

Everyone who wants to pronounce nuclear as uneconomical always cites the MIT Study. The study, whose authors are in favor of nuclear, offered suggestions for how nuclear can overcome a number of well known challenges, including waste disposal, among others:
We decided to study the future of nuclear power because we believe this technology, despite the challenges it faces, is an important option for the United States and the world to meet future energy needs without emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) and other atmospheric pollutants. (first sentence in Forward and Acknowledgements)
In his own post, Dave cherry picks from the MIT study:
In deregulated markets, nuclear power is not now cost competitive with coal and natural gas.
That seems definitive enough, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the study assumed natural gas prices to be between $3.50 - $4.50 / MMBtu. Prices are twice that. And this doesn't even begin to take possible carbon caps into account -- something many utilities see as inevitable.

The IEA study provides cost data on generating technologies throughout the world. But once again, Dave cherry picks his data. He only focuses on costs in the U.S. while ignoring the cost figures from the rest of the world. The overall cost of nuclear in the U.S. falls in the more expensive range compared to other countries.

Wind, however, is the cheapest in the U.S. versus other wind facilities throughout the rest of the world. Yet when comparing the two at the same discount rate in the U.S., they are comparable.

Dave also assumes that nuclear’s investment costs are riskier than wind and will have a higher discount rate therefore concludes nuclear is “completely unnecessary and uneconomical.”

This claim has merit but after the industry and regulator get over the hurdles of building the first few plants, we believe the risk will be much lower and the construction and licensing of new plants will be far more routine and predictable.

I would like to point out that Germany’s costs, where wind is very popular, are twice the U.S. costs of wind (pg. 61 & 62 of the IEA study). What is the U.S. doing that its wind costs are so low compared to everyone else in the world? Subsidies?

In Dave’s “Replace Coal with Wind” blog, to replace the current generation of coal with wind would require 120,000, 5 megawatt wind turbines which would cost a total of $610 Billion.

Do you know how much it would cost for nuclear to replace coal? $502 Billion. If you assume a 1,000 MW nuke plant will cost $2 Billion (a very conservative estimate) and you would need about 250 nuke plants to replace all of the generation from coal.

It doesn’t appear wind power is more “cost-effective than using nuclear.”

Capacity Factors
It justifies the capacity factor by saying that the 90% CF cited by David (me) has only recently been achieved by U.S. plants, and represents a peak. 75%-85% is more in line with actual plants over their operating lifetime.
The 90% CF is not a peak, it’s not going to fall and in fact EIA projects in 2030 the CF will be 91%-92%. Most of the fleet has about a 75%-85% lifetime capacity factor like Dave noted. But the latest plant to come online in the U.S., Watts Bar 1 (1996), has a 91.3% lifetime CF. Any new nuclear plant built in the U.S. will have a CF that high. We've gained much experience running nuclear plants over the past 40 years.

New Nuclear Build
In fact, there are currently no new nuclear power plants being planned in the U.S., in spite of so-called “incentives” built into the 2005 EPACT.
Building a new nuclear plant is a 10 step process. Dave is talking about step 5 and right now we’re on step 2. Nine companies have announced intentions of submitting applications for a Combined Construction and Operating License to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build between 14 and 20 new nuclear plants. One COL allows up to two nuclear reactors to be built.

Building a nuclear plant is about a ten year process: 4-5 years for the licensing process and another 4-5 years for actual construction. It’s a long time but the benefits are worth it: 60 years of clean, affordable and reliable electricity.

In my mind, Dave makes the same mistake a number of environmentalists make when it comes to comparing power sources: They continually set up a false choice. Our energy options are continually cast as a fight between one source and another, when the plain fact remains that future electricity demand will be so great, that no one type of generating capacity would be able to provide all the electricity we'll need on its own.

Sure, we live in a competitive environment where generating capacity needs to be economical. But the world also needs a diverse fuel mix in order to support security of supply.

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Jim Hopf said…
This article doesn't present what is likely the most important argument of all. Wind is intermittant, generating power only ~25-30% of the time. Not only that, but the timing of peak wind generation is, if anything, negatively correlated with peak demand. And the 20-30% capacity factor problem can not be solved by installing 3-4 times as much wind capacity (as there is no economical means of gross electric energy storage).

For the above reasons, most experts believe that wind's future contributions will be limited to anywhere from 10% to 20% (at most) of total power generation. Once again, even the American Wind Power Association's (optimistic) "goal" is for wind to provide ~6% of overall US generation by 2020. Thus, wind is only part of the solution, and support for wind does not justify opposition to all other sources, such as nuclear.

With renewables potential contributions (market share) being limited, with gas becoming too expensive, limited and valuable to use for base load, and with coal's increasingly unacceptable environmental problems, it is clear that nuclear must play a major role if we are to address our environmental and energy security problems.
Starvid, Sweden said…
"Our energy options are continually cast as a fight between one source and another, when the plain fact remains that future electricity demand will be so great, that no one type of generating capacity would be able to provide all the electricity we'll need on its own."

Except nuclear power. Remember France gets 75-80 % of their power from nuclear.

I wonder how they do with peak load? Can their hydro capacity deal with it, or are their nuke plants load following?

I know the EPR can follow loads, but is that competitive, with the high nuclear capital costs and all?

"Sure, we live in a competitive environment where generating capacity needs to be economical. But the world also needs a diverse fuel mix in order to support security of supply."

Bah. With Australia and Canada providing the bulk of the worlds uranium that "diverse fuel mix"-argument is only the nuclear industry trying to look humble (or arguing for a couple more reactors).

We don't need a diverse fuel mix. We need 400 new US nuclear reactors.
Robert Merkel said…
Starvid, that's a interesting question. Do the French export baseload power to their neighbours?
Starvid, Sweden said…
Yes, especially to Italy.

And since Italy is mainly powered by oil and natural gas plants, maybe they import surplus French power and only use their gas and oil for their own peak load needs?

Or something like that.
Anonymous said…
The operating French plants do load follow extensively which is apparent if you look at the capacity factors. As I understand it the French PWRs with more load following in mind than US PWRs.

Also, the wind capacity factor limitations also apply to solar power with practical capacity factors at 30% or less. Biomass is probably the only "renewable" without a serious capacity factor limitation.
Anonymous said…
It would seem to me that relying on a baseload power source that has a 20-30% CF to power a modern industrial-technological economy is a prescription for disaster. You simply can't have a large-scale, modern society function smoothly if your most important energy source may not be there two out of the three times you call upon it. Look at the inconvenience now of even short outages, such as occur during severe weather. I think the populace would rise up to tar and feather any business or political leaders that led us down such a path.

That's not to say intermittant energy sources, when they are available, could not help on the demand curve assurring adequate reserves, if we can solve the long-term storage problem in an environmentally acceptable manner. Frankly, that would be more of a challenge, and risk, than building more nuclear plants, probably even more “completely unnecessary and uneconomical.”
Dave Erickson said…
Thanks David for the opportunity to comment. I would like to address the capacity factor issue. Data taken from the Spanish electric grid shows that the contribution from a large number of widely geographically distributed wind turbines is smooth, continuous and predictable. The key idea here is that the wind is always blowing somewhere. What this means is that the grid must be utilized somewhat differently than it is now. The electric power grid must be used to connect and distribute a widely geographically dispersed wind power resource. With a properly planned deployment of wind turbines, utilizing the demonstrated and proven wind reserves both onshore and offshore, the contribution of the wind power approaches and then approximates a baseload power source, as turbines are added. You can contact me to obtain the data from the Spanish grid.
Anonymous said…
But that's the problem. The wind may indeed always be "blowing somewhere", but that "somewhere" may be relatively far from where you need it. That means two things. One, you need a lot more generators, and those must be widely dispersed, which complicates interconnection and management, and, two, you'll have a less efficient system because of transmissions losses, if your sources are widely dispersed (which is likely if your country is geographically large, like the US). If your capacity factor is 30% or so, you're going to have to overbuild the total capacity by about a factor of three to make up for the two-thirds of a time a given source is not producing output (somewhere).

I live in an area where at certain times of the year you definitely don't want to be without reliable electricity, because people will die without it. Seems like we're placing a sucker's bet if we rely on something that might not be there frequently (relative to the reliability we have now) when you really, really need it.

But even if windpower becomes a viable source of intermittant power, I'd rather use it in a pollution dispatching kind of role, where greenhouse gas-emitting sources like coal-fired units are taken off line first, followed by gas-fired units. The last thing we should displace are zero-emissions sources like nuclear plants. I have often wondered if a very clean environment would not result if we had our baseload needs met by nuclear units, supplemented by intermittant sources when available and when the demand curve was peaking. Certainly a reasonable compromise for reasonable, fair-minded people.
Dave Erickson said…
Anon, see my post on Part I of David's commentary, regarding how a large scale wind project is engineered. The annual generating capacity of a wind turbine is calculated, given the rotor diameter, rated power and mean Rayleigh wind speed. This annual output is used to determine how many turbines are required.

The function of an electrical grid is to deliver power where it is needed. The problem of managing an electric grid that has a significant, widely dispersed wind generated component, has to do with wheeling and control. This is primarily a "software" problem, not a problem with the hardware.

Don't get hung up on the "intermittancy" of wind. If you like, I can send you a graph showing the total wind power contribution measured on the Spanish electrical grid. It is smooth, relatively constant, and predictable.

In my worked example, I showed that about 290-300 new nuclear plants would be required to replace coal. I am still arguing about the capacity factor with David that one could expect. However, adding this many new 1000 MW facilities is a significant siting problem. I don't think it is realistic that you are going to be able to site a new nuclear plant near where it is required. Any capacity expansion project of this magnitude is going to require significant modifications of the grid.

Finally, "even" a nuclear plant does not have a 100% up time. There must be backup generation capacity for those times when the plant is down. The difference between nuclear and wind is that, because of the huge difference in the faceplate power, when the nuke plant goes down, you need to match that generation capacity with one of equal size. The point is, you need to overbuild with nuclear plants, as well, and the magnitude of the backup is much larger.

Finally you state, "Even if windpower becomes a viable source of intermittant power...". This is the case today. It is not a matter of if. Windpower is the fastest growing technology for new generation today. Wind is becoming a viable source of baseload power, because it is competitive with coal and gas, emission-free, and has the smallest environmental footprint of any large scale power generation technology.
Anonymous said…
Even the AWEA (wind's version of NEI) acknowledges that wind can realistically produce only about 20% of our electrical needs.

NREL has numerous studies concerning wind power integration if anyone is really interested.

Erickson is adept at creating strawman arguements and then knocking them down.
Anonymous said…
I don't think it is wise to write off the problem of managing a whole bunch of small, intermittent energy sources if they comprise a significant percentage of your available capacity. Nor is it simply a "software" problem. I have been in the dispatching center of a regional grid, working this very same problem in real life (yes, within the last five years). It is not an insignificant problem. There were numerous occasions where we came very close to having to shed load because of unreliability of supply. Not a good thing if you are on the receiving end of a blackout. So I am not "hung up" on the intermittency (you'll please pardon my earlier spelling errors) so much as wary of it from having to deal with the issue in real life. Believe me, when your posterior is on the line managing the supply of a grid, you are very, very thankful for those reliable, intense energy sources. Makes your life (and everyone else's) a whole lot easier (and sweeter).

To be honest, I am not impressed with arguments that rely on the experience of a small country when it comes to managing a nationwide energy supply. The problems you face managing the energy supply of a technologically advanced, geographically dispersed, large population country with a robust and diverse economic base are not in the same league as those of a smaller country. Nor am I impressed with the "fastest growing" argument. It is easy to "grow fast" on a percentage basis when your base percentage is small. It is tempting to make (unrealistic) projections on the basis of initial large percentage gains based on an overall small sample size, but it is fallacious to do so.

It is true that nuclear plants have outages that have to be managed, as any energy source does. But you're talking about a different color of a horse. Nuclear plant outages are primarily a function of fuel burnup, which is predictable in a reliable manner. That makes managing outages more straightforward. Intermittent energy sources are dependent on natural phenomena, which can vary in unpredictable ways in relatively short timeframes. That makes managing the outages more of a challenge, one that goes beyond "software".

So, let's be realistic and assume that the technology matures to the point where realistic projections come to pass, maybe 20% of our baseload supply can somehow be derived from wind-based sources. OK, then, so we face the problem of the remaining 80%. Where do you want to go for that? Maybe you can chip away 10% of that with some form of solar (although I think the challenges there are similar). NG is a fuel better matched to end use in domestic applications, so we're better off to save that. I don't think we're going to squeeze much more out of hydro in this country, given that you've got "environmentalists" going around the country blowing up and otherwise tearing down low-head hydro installations, as well as advocating blowing up the Glen Canyon and Columbia River dams. Coal? Well, I don't know, for all the talk about "clean coal" technologies, you've always got the problem of having to combust large quantities of carbon-based fuel, and that means managing the byproducts. And that will always mean CO2 and nitrous oxide effluent abatement. Better to avoid the combustion process and go with the zero-emissions nuclear sources for the other 70-80% capacity we're going to need, and save the gas and coal for the transport sector, if you must use it anywhere.
Anonymous said…
So which is more effective? Wind power or nuclear energy?
Earthling said…
Again, no one is factoring in the cost, risk, and long-term impacts of having to manage, transport (kringe), and store nuclear waste.

Waste management HAS to be included and considered when comparing the use of nuclear generation to other technologies. Just as emissions must be considered when comparing with coal.

It is the nuclear industries responsibility to manage its own waste.
Anonymous said…
As i have reviewed both sides i dont think they are thinking about the furture and what it holds for our kids and the kids after them. I believe that it would benifit a lot of people to spend the 610 billion dollars for the wind mills while you look at the other side add more nuclear plants the attack rates go higher and there is a huge radation problem with them. i think it would be in the countrys best intrest to go with wind it may cost more but at least we would drop air pollution. so i would ask people to take a second look at this agian and redecide.
Anonymous said…
Between the article and the comments, there is one thing that has not been addressed on the wind side and two things on the nuclear side.

Today wind has a 20-30% CF with *intermittence*, but this may effectively not be the case in the future. This comes from two sources. 1) A significantly geographically dispersed set of wind turbines have a "smooth, continuous, and predictable" power output. 2) Mass storage of electrical power is possible and economical.

The first one has already been discussed. The general problem is that in a large dispersed country such as the US, we would need to significantly increase and upgrade the transmission infrastructure to ship large amounts of power around. And it is still possible that wind penetration of more than 20% of the total generation capacity may result in power outages.

This brings up the second part. At some point we need a form of storing massive amounts of electrical power. This would significantly cut down on the transmission infrastructure and it would greatly simplify matching supply to demand. It would allow added wind power to function as peaking generators. And it would allow wind to make up large double digit percentages of the total type of power generation.

The first of these is the vanadium redox battery and the second is storing compressed air in geological structures, such as salt domes or depleted oil wells. Neither one of these have been tested on a grand scale, but the vanadium redox battery is now getting paired up with a wind farm for the first time.

The VRB can be installed anywhere, its power output scales, and the ampere-hours of storage can be increased at any time by adding more vanadium storage tanks. This technology is in its infancy of adoption, but it could very well be one of the keys to cracking the hard problem of storing massive amounts of electrical power. We need something more than hydro-dams pumping water backup the dam and releasing it when needed. While transmission lines can be built, the size of dams and their holding pools cannot easily or realistically be increased.

The question that this bring up is exactly how much does it add to the overall cost for installed capacity. I don't know. But from the linked article, for their particular wind project it is financially sound. They expect an increase in the rate of return from 10% to now 17.5%.

If we primarily plan on replacing coal with wind, it is going to take a LOT of time to build 200,000 5MW wind turbines. There are going to be a lot of problems that have to be solved. The hardest problem maybe insuring that the supply of electricity is stable and consistent, but we have time to test out storage options before we start getting anywhere near 10-20% let alone into the high double digits. The technology is here today, we just need to start deploying it and getting a better feel for how well it performs, its problems, and the cost effectiveness of it.

On the side of nuclear, not a lot has been discussed in the article or comments about radioactive waste or the demand for nuclear fuel over 60 years.

With a plant life span of 60 years, keeping the waste onsite indefinitely is not reasonable. Currently all high level waste is being kept onsite at nuclear power plants. No onsite storage system is designed to last tens of thousands of years while the material decays and becomes safe.There has been some moves to deal with this at the national level, with Yucca mountain, but it has yet to really materialize. We will see if Yucca actually ever opens. This is largely a hard political problem.

It would be best if the nuclear power plants did not produce waste at all or was significantly minimized. We do technically have the capability of reprocessing the spent fuel rods. This would result in less uranium having to be mined and it would reduce the amount of high level radio active waste. The down side is that reprocessing nuclear waste is a very BIG world political problem as it can be used to extract plutonium and make nuclear weapons and might allow nuclear proliferation.

The second problem has to do with the overall cost of producing electricity from nuclear power plants and the supply of uranium over a 60 year plant life time. Uranium is relatively cheap. Today, a significant portion of the uranium in fuel rods comes from decommissioned Russian and United States nuclear weapons. Once these stock piles are used up, the price of uranium is going to be more than it is today. How much more will it rise? I don't know. And will it just be a temporary spike until mining matches usage? At what point where EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) begins to fall and prices begin to permanently rise? There is a LOT of uranium dispersed throughout rocks and the ocean, but it has to meet a certain percentage to be feasible let alone cost effective to process into fuel rods. The effective amount of mine-able uranium is not as well known as other resources, such as oil and coal. We might be able to run hundreds of reactors for decades, but can we really run that many for 100s of years? Or is uranium nuclear power plants a stop gap measure in the long run?

Ultimately pressure to reprocess spent fuel is likely to increase due to rises in uranium costs and the need to reduce the amount of high level radioactive waste. There are other options, but they are not yet commercially proven or are not yet proven at all. The thorium reactor has a lot of promise for REALLY solving some of the hardest problems with uranium power plants.

I personally believe that we should strive for a diversified mix of electrical power. I'm certain that nuclear will continue to play at least some role in our generating future. I believe that we should plan on utilizing wind power to its full potential and just ratchet up our plans as a higher percentage of power production from wind becomes possible. We should also look to using all renewable energy sources such as CSP (concentrated solar power) which has good characteristics of producing power at peak demand in the south west and geothermal which now has the possibility of generating electricity with much lower operating temperatures. And we should increase funding for all promising renewable energy, such as ocean wave and tidal power.

And lastly we MUST conserve and increase the efficiency with which we use electricity. We have a lot left to do in this area. It is still generally cheaper to increase the efficiency at which it is used then to build new generating capacity. California has really strived to increase efficiency before they build yet another power plant.

And as my boss likes to say with many things, "It is rarely a technical problem, but a people problem." Many aspects to our long term energy production problems fall neatly into this idea. Understanding the nature of the problem is half of the battle.

And as I like to say, everyone should be looking for answers to the truly hard problems in life.
Aussie said…
It is refreshing to see some real logic and actual numbers (rather than emotive generalisations) in the debate about nuclear power verses other options. As an Australian I would like to contribute some other factors for you all to consider and debate.

Regarding price and availability of uranium, Australia has enormous un-exploited reserves. Despite being a major contributor to the world market, successive Labour (main-stream left-wing) state governments and intermittent Labour federal governments have restricted output through the Three Mine Policy (no more than three operational mines at any one time). We have a federal election now and Labour is softening it’s resistance to Uranium mining (because of the economic, hence tax benefits) while still opposing nuclear power generation in Australia on environmental (read political) grounds. (Ask most Australian to name a nuclear power plant and they say Chernobyl or Long Island or even Hiroshima). The Liberal (main-stream right-wing) party is taking the brave step of starting the debate on nuclear power in Australia mainly because of the growing un-popularity of coal-fired power stations in the wake of global-warming hysteria and pressure to sign the Kyoto Protocol.
There is the potential that the Greens (loonie-left) party although small, could hold the balance of power forcing Labour (through preferential voting) to yield to their extreme anti-nuclear stance. The Greens also have an extreme anti-coal stance and would probably force massive subsidy of wind, solar, tidal, wave, bio-mass, herbal, psychic and perpetual-motion energy development.
Few Australian are aware that coal generates more export revenue for Australia than does wheat, wool, meat and gold combined.
China’s already huge industrially based economy is growing at an astronomical rate and fuelling (excuse the pun) an equally phenomenal demand for energy, without the constraints of environmental concerns.
Regarding nuclear waste disposal, Australia is about the most seismologically stable region on earth and also has huge, accessible areas with almost no population (no one’s immediate “back yard”) making it ideal for the safe disposal of nuclear waste.
Regarding nuclear power bi-products becoming weapon materials in “rogue” states, if Australia “leases” fuel rods (supplies, disposes and replaces) rather that selling uranium then the material is 100% controlled and accounted for.

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