Skip to main content

Assume a Can-Opener

An economist, an engineer, and a physicist are marooned on a deserted island. One day they find a can of food washed up on the beach and contrive to open it. The engineer said: "let's hammer the can open between these rocks". The physicist said: "that's pretty crude. We can just use the force of gravity by dropping a rock on the can from that tall tree over there". The economist is somewhat disgusted at these deliberations, and says: "I've got a much more elegant solution. All we have to do is assume a can-opener."
In an op-ed appearing in the August 31 Washington Post, David A. Fahrenthold discusses the practical realities glossed over in former vice president Al Gore's call for converting to "clean electricity" in 10 years. Central to Mr. Fahrenthold's piece is the recognition that the nation's electrical infrastructure represents the cumulative investment of trillions of dollars. Replacing this massive amount of capital assets in an orderly, affordable (i.e., responsible) manner will take time - more than Mr. Gore's impressive-sounding, but unrealistic 10-year deadline.

Electricity providers are compelled by their state public utility commissions to manage capital assets responsibly. "Responsibly" means shepherding those assets to ensure that in the long term a fitting balance is maintained among all the competing interests, including costs to rate payers, environmental impacts, return to shareholders, and so forth. This requires careful analysis and long range planning. It isn't done with sound bites or easy assumptions.

Comments

Ed said…
I saw the article over the weekend and noticed an error. In his 'local' calculation for wind turbines to account for anticipated demand increases around the DC area, the author neglects the fact that capacity factors associated with wind (unlike nuclear) are only around 30-35%. He arrived at 3,700 1.5 MW turbines required to satisfy this demand when in actual fact it's over 10,000.

I Emailed him the correction, but the report wasn't corrected when last I checked.

The concept of capacity factors is critical, particularly to renewables with intermittancy issues. Sadly this is often confused or overlooked by the MSM.
Pete said…
Ed-
In the best locations, wind turbines might give a 35% CF. They can't just build them anywhere and expect to get that kind of performance.
KLA said…
@ed,

What's overlooked also, but very rarely mentioned, ist that unlike with conventional power plants with low capacity factors, you CANNOT just up the number of wind turbines or solar panels to make up for it. A capacity factor of 30-35%, because the wind does not blow at times, is NOT made up by building 3 of them. Because if the wind does not blow for one, it does not blow for three either.
Wind power advocates would basically build a 12 cylinder engine into a car that needs only a 4-cylinder. They would add on another 8 cylinders in case the fuel for 4 cylinders runs out.
Ed said…
Yes, I realise the facts pertaining to both comments. For me (as I expect for the reporter in the quoted article) it was just a mental exercise of scale.

I 'gave' them 35% to keep the calculation conservative and easily defend-able. You are correct though, as the capacity factor drops, more (theoretical) turbines would be required.
Anonymous said…
The "12 cylinder engine" analogy is appealing, but this does not solve the problem with wind, because with wind power over 60% of the time none of the cylinders are working. And when the cylinders do work, it's a lot more power than one would need. This drives wind to need storage. Storage, like pumped hydro or hybrid cars, makes sense when coupled to nuclear because it gets cycled every day to collect cheap nighttime electricity. With wind the storage needs to be much larger, so it can accommodate the weekly and monthly variation of the weather.
Anonymous said…
anon - The idea that "60% of the time none of the cylinders are working" is precisely the point - if the gas tank is empty it doesn't matter how many cylinders you have, and if the wind is not blowing, it doesn't matter how many windmills you have...
D. Kosloff said…
"if the wind is not blowing, it doesn't matter how many windmills you have"
A good windmill salesman can overcome that consideration; especially if he is selling windmills to somebody who is spending other people's money so that he can feel good.

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear Is a Long-Term Investment for Ohio that Will Pay Big

With 50 different state legislative calendars, more than half of them adjourn by June, and those still in session throughout the year usually take a recess in the summer. So springtime is prime time for state legislative activity. In the next few weeks, legislatures are hosting hearings and calling for votes on bills that have been battered back and forth in the capital halls.

On Tuesday, The Ohio Public Utilities Committee hosted its third round of hearings on the Zero Emissions Nuclear Resources Program, House Bill 178, and NEI’s Maria Korsnick testified before a jam-packed room of legislators.


Washingtonians parachuting into state debates can be a tricky platform, but in this case, Maria’s remarks provided national perspective that put the Ohio conundrum into context. At the heart of this debate is the impact nuclear plants have on local jobs and the local economy, and that nuclear assets should be viewed as “long-term investments” for the state. Of course, clean air and electrons …