Thursday, October 30, 2008

Chronicles in Advocacy: Tell It to the Wind

emptied-prairie We don't share as many negative editorials with you as we used to because a.) there just aren't as many as there used to be and b.) the list of arguments is pretty short and tends to get repeated over and over. That's as tedious for us to keep rehashing as it is for you to read it.

So this editorial from the High Country News ("for people who care about the west") did not raise hopes for some original debate:

Then there is always the risk of a meltdown if we resume construction of nuclear power plants. Many Americans probably don’t remember or have never read about the meltdown of the Three Mile Island power plant in the 1970s. Its cleanup took from 1979 to 1993, and cost ratepayers, taxpayers and stockholders around $975 million. To paraphrase cowboy poet Wallace McCray, reincarnated nuclear power in this new century “ain’t changed all that much.”

Well, you get the picture. But what struck us is the ID for the author:

Russ Doty is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the chief operating officer of New World WindPower in Billings, Montana.

Right off the top, we think that op-ed writers ought to advocate the manifest benefits of their favored energy generator and not go after their cousins.

Nuclear and wind are sort of distant cousins (twice removed by marriage, perhaps) because nuclear doesn't pair well with wind farms - nuclear plants are efficient enough that ramping down plants when the wind picks up isn't a very efficacious use of either wind or nuclear - so we get why a wind power guy might like to keep a nuclear plant out of his neighborhood. But that's not what's motivating the editorial officially and we find hiding behind long discredited arguments a little - distasteful.

Wind power looks to be getting a big boost in the next presidential administration - whoever wins - so there's a lot for the industry to tout - and a lot of country for nuclear and wind (and solar and hydro and etc) to share. We're all in it for the common good - let's leave it at that.

A view of the prairie. Seems like a lot of room for a wind farm or two.

7 comments:

perdajz said...

Would all of you at NEI please stop fawning over wind power? Nuclear and wind power have nothing in common. One wrests enormous amounts of reliable power from tiny masses and small footprints, while the other produces power intermittently and consumes inordinate land and raw materials. Wind power is an anachronism left behind by the advent of fossil fuels. Nuclear power is still relatively untapped, with advances and new uses to come.

Red Craig said...

I think I understand your point that existing nuclear plants aren't used for load following because of their low fuel and operating costs, and so they don't meld well with variable energy outputs from wind farms.

But I've been arguing that far in the future the combination will be effective for generating synthetic fuels. Nuclear plants will be able to produce electricity when demand is high and outputs from renewables are low. During off-peak times and when renewable outputs are high, nukes will shift to fuel production. A fuller description can be found here.

It seems to me that without this pairing of resources, there isn't a good argument for renewables at all, which works against the case for nuclear energy. First, that conclusion will only stiffen resistance from the sun-and-wind crowd. Second, it understates the urgency of reducing greenhouse gases.

In the short run, both energy forms will be needed to minimize climate change. I think nuclear-energy advocates ought to be emphasizing that.

Anonymous said...

With wind power, it seems to me that you expend a tremendous amount of effort (windmills spread over open spaces as far as the eye can see) to gather relatively small amounts of unreliable, intermittent energy with essentially zero dispatchability. Nuclear energy takes work, too, but you get prodigious amounts of power with relatively small amounts of material, a small environmental footprint in terms of land use, and on-demand and eminently manageable energy from a load dispatching point of view. I don't really see why we should spend so much effort on the small potatoes when we can have the more robust and reliable supply for less effort.

perdajz said...

Red Craig:

I appreciate your comments but remain unconvinced that "renewable" (I use the term "diffuse") energy sources like wind or solar complement nuclear at all. Demand is always high and the outputs from renewables are always low. What weakness does nuclear power have that wind power compensates?

I can't think of any other industry or product where anyone would argue that we need technology from the middle ages to augment technology rooted in one of the crowning achievements of 20th century physics.

Red Craig said...

perdajz, your question is a fair one. I'm among those who consider greenhouse-gas emissions to be a looming threat to the planet's habitability and I'm prepared to cite convincing evidence.

Failing to develop nuclear energy is the most stupid and destructive mistake we could have made and we only made it by following the siren call of cheap, clean natural gas and then cheap, abundant coal. Now the world is in the predicament of having a very limited capacity for new nuclear construction and it will take decades to build the world's nuclear fleet to where it belongs. As long as fossil-fired plants are generating a large part of the world's electricity, there is an opportunity to displace some of their output with renewable energy. Objective studies show that wind energy is comparable to nuclear both in cost and CO2 reduction. Wind is limited by its part-time nature but within that limit there's no reason not to use it and ample reason in its favor.

In the long run, renewable energy can extend the supply of nuclear fuels and can play an important role in producing synthetic fuels.

I think the way it will work out is that, within natural limits, wind power will turn out to be the better choice in some areas, such as the Great Plains. In other places, nuclear will be the obvious choice.

Anonymous said...

Wind power is based on an ancient, ancient technology that is subject to the capricious and variable nature of natural phenomena. Mankind has labored mightily over the centuries to develop systems that would free him from dependence on those things. Environmental controls in buildings, automotive transport, damming of rivers, harnessing steam power, development of atomic energy, all of these things have pointed the way to reduced vulnerability to the variability of natural processes. We should strive to live in harmony with nature, but not have our lifestyles, our safety, the welfare of our families, our national security, fully dependent on it. To go back to a system that once again places us at the mercy of chaotic and unpredictable natural forces is a step backward.

Rod Adams said...

@red craig - You have provided some very interesting phrases that can point the way to a paradigm shift if you view them in a slightly different order and with a slightly different filter on the world.

My filter is that people and organizations are often strongly motivated by a desire to build income and to protect the sources of their existing income. Put a less generous way - they are greedy. I put myself into that category, by the way.

Let's take a look at the phrases that caught my attention:

"It seems to me that without this pairing of resources, there isn't a good argument for renewables at all.."

"Failing to develop nuclear energy is the most stupid and destructive mistake we could have made and we only made it by following the siren call of cheap, clean natural gas and then cheap, abundant coal."

...it will take decades to build the world's nuclear fleet to where it belongs."

Okay - here is how I see the situation. If nuclear is allowed to compete, it eliminates the justification for wind and solar. Hence, anyone who wants to make money in the wind and solar power industry needs to work to restrict nuclear power's ability to compete by either stopping new projects altogether or by delaying them and increasing their cost.

The siren song of "cheap, clean natural gas" was seductive, but it led to expensive and less clean gas from more and more difficult sources.

The people that sell gas composed the song and played it over and over again. They had a very good understanding of the relationship between attracting people with their song and the income that their product could generate.

They have to work to drown out the voices in favor of building new nuclear plants because successful construction of those plants will reduce the market demand for natural gas. Look at what happens right now in the market - as long as nukes are available, they run instead of gas. Nuke capacity factors average greater than 90% compared to gas CF's of about 30%.

I can guarantee you that both the plant owners (if they are not rate of return regulated utilities) and the fuel suppliers are much happier when nuclear plants have issues so they can run more often and produce more revenue.

The similar, but different siren song of "cheap, abundant coal" is also composed and supported by a industry that recognizes that there is only so much demand for energy to go around. If the coal industry leaders cannot convince us that we have a huge abundance of coal at cheap prices, we will never build new coal plants and their industry will die as the existing plants fade away.

Of course, if the plants get built, that means that those resources expended in the construction process will not go into nuclear plant construction. Many of those resources overlap, BTW. New coal plants with state of the art equipment also means a new addicted market for coal - even if the promise of "cheap coal" turns out to be as truthful as the promise of "cheap gas" did before everyone shifted to sucking from the same straw and it collapsed.

Count me as a guy who believes strongly in competition as a way to choose systems capable of serving customers with the best possible product. Unfortunately, there are way too many companies in the energy industry that are led by agnostic financial deal makers and project engineers - they simply like to assemble big projects and make as much money as possible. They do not care if they are building big wind farms, solar thermal plants, natural gas combined cycle plants, large coal plants or nuclear plants.

When it comes to technology development, I have a great deal of respect and can learn a lot from my technical colleagues in the energy business. When it comes time to step onto the field of marketing competition - where the money gets made - do not expect me to roll over and give gentlemanly encouragement to technologies that I think are severely inferior to atomic fission.

I will probe and exploit their weaknesses with all of the resolve of a good, play-calling football coach.