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Don't Expect Energy Transitions to Come Soon

In The American magazine, Vaclav Smil (a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba) wrote a "big idea" piece titled "Moore’s Curse and the Great Energy Delusion" (nothing to do with Patrick Moore). Smil's piece rebuts Al Gore's claim that the US can completely transition to wind and solar in ten years, but also goes on to convey the bigger idea which is that energy transitions take decades to happen not years. Below are many nuggets from his piece that readers will enjoy. (I almost pasted the whole thing because I think it's that good but of course you readers may not go to the article then.) Enjoy!
During the early 1970s we were told by the promoters of nuclear energy that by the year 2000 America’s coal-based electricity generation plants would be relics of the past and that all electricity would come from nuclear fission. What’s more, we were told that the first generation fission reactors would by then be on their way out, replaced by super-efficient breeder reactors that would produce more fuel than they were initially charged with.

During the early 1980s some aficionados of small-scale, distributed, “soft” (today’s “green”) energies saw America of the first decade of the 21st century drawing 30 percent to 50 percent of its energy use from renewables (solar,wind, biofuels). For the past three decades we have been told how natural gas will become the most important source of modern energy: widely cited forecasts of the early 1980s had the world deriving half of its energy from natural gas by 2000. And a decade ago the promoters of fuel cell cars were telling us that such vehicles would by now be on the road in large numbers, well on their way to displacing ancient and inefficient internal combustion engines.

These are the realities of 2008: coal-fired power plants produce half of all U.S. electricity, nuclear stations 20 percent, and there is not a single commercial breeder reactor operating anywhere in the world; in 2007 the United States derives about 1.7 percent of its energy from new renewable conversions (corn-based ethanol, wind, photovoltaic solar, geothermal); natural gas supplies about 24 percent of the world’s commercial energy—less than half the share predicted in the early 1980s and still less than coal with nearly 29 percent; and there are no fuel-cell cars.


The absolute quantities needed to capture a significant share of the market, say 25 percent, are huge because the scale of the coming global energy transition is of an unprecedented magnitude. By the late 1890s, when combustion of coal (and some oil) surpassed the burning of wood, charcoal, and straw, these resources supplied annually an equivalent of about half a billion tons of oil. Today, replacing only half of worldwide annual fossil fuel use with renewable energies would require the equivalent of about 4.5 billion tons of oil. That’s a task equal to creating de novo an energy industry with an output surpassing that of the entire world oil industry—an industry that has taken more than a century to build.

The scale of transition needed for electricity generation is perhaps best illustrated by deconstructing Al Gore’s July 2008 proposal to “re-power” America: “Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable, and transformative.”

Let’s see. In 2007 the country had about 870 gigawatts (GW) of electricity-generating capacity in fossil-fueled and nuclear stations, the two nonrenewable forms of generation that Gore wants to replace in their entirety. On average, these thermal power stations are at work about 50 percent of the time and hence they generated about 3.8 PWh (that is, 3.8 x 10^15 watt-hours) of electricity in 2007. In contrast, wind turbines work on average only about 23 percent of the time, which means that even with all the requisite new high-voltage interconnections, slightly more than two units of wind-generating capacity would be needed to replace a unit in coal, gas, oil, and nuclear plants. And even if such an enormous capacity addition—in excess of 1,000 GW—could be accomplished in a single decade (since the year 2000, actual additions in all plants have averaged less than 30 GW/year!), the financial cost would be enormous: it would mean writing off the entire fossil-fuel and nuclear generation industry, an enterprise whose power plants alone have a replacement value of at least $1.5 trillion (assuming at least $1,700/installed kW), and spending at least $2.5 trillion to build the new capacity.


To think that the United States can install in 10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct is delusional.


There is no common underlying process to explain the gradual nature of energy transitions. In the case of primary energy supply, the time span needed for significant market penetration is mostly the function of financing, developing, and perfecting necessarily massive and expensive infrastructures. For example, the world oil industry annually handles more than 30 billion barrels, or four billion tons, of liquids and gases; it extracts the fuel in more than 100 countries and its facilities range from self-propelled geophysical exploration rigs to sprawling refineries, and include about 3,000 large tankers and more than 300,000 miles of pipelines. Even if an immediate alternative were available, writing off this colossal infrastructure that took more than a century to build would amount to discarding an investment worth well over $5 trillion—but it is quite obvious that its energy output could not be replicated by any alternative in a decade or two.


New promises of rapid shifts in energy sources and new anticipations of early massive gains from the deployment of new conversion techniques create expectations that will not be met and distract us from pursuing real solutions.


The historical verdict is unassailable: because of the requisite technical and infrastructural imperatives and because of numerous (and often entirely unforeseen) socio-economic adjustments, energy transitions in large economies and on a global scale are inherently protracted affairs. That is why, barring some extraordinary commitments and actions, none of the promises for greatly accelerated energy transitions will be realized, and during the next decade none of the new energy sources and prime movers will make a major difference by capturing 20 percent to 25 percent of its respective market. A world without fossil fuel combustion is highly desirable and, to be optimistic, our collective determination, commitment, and persistence could accelerate its arrival—but getting there will demand not only high cost but also considerable patience: coming energy transitions will unfold across decades, not years.
I'm definitely keeping this piece handy!


bw said…
I think the Baloyarsk BN-600 breeder nuclear reactor in russia should count as a commercial breeder reactor.
Charles Barton said…
The transition could come for electricity by 2030. There are very interesting discussions going on on Energy from Thorium, If you would care to have a look. A germ of a plan seems to be emerging.
Joffan said…
Professor Smil has one item that I know of wrong: Al Gore's aspiration to decarbonize electricity does not include replacing nuclear. It is still a huge task to replace all fossil electricity but with nuclear as part of the equation, especially with the prospect of assembly-line reactors of molten salts or hydride (if this comes to fruition), it comes into the realm of the possible.
Anonymous said…
Will it be difficult to totally repower our planet? Certainly. And we don't have much time to do it, especially if we wish to stave off social disaster. This is one of the reasons I favor liquid-fluoride thorium reactor technology so much for our future energy needs, because it gets past the bottlenecks of current nuclear technology: big pressure vessels, large containments, a multitude of engineered safety systems, poor fuel efficiency, poor power conversion efficiency, inefficient air cooling potential, lack of desalination capability, difficult to reprocess spent fuel form, etc...
Anonymous said…
But the disadvantage, Kirk, of the liquid flouride reactors you propose is the infrastructure and experience for all the chemical processing that has to be done. There isn't really a wealth of experience with regard to handling radioactive molten salts.
Anonymous said…
There are three reprocessing steps that need to be done: fluorination, reduction, and distillation. Fluorination and reduction are very simple and are done every day at the tonnage scale for the enrichment of uranium. These features will be inside the primary containment and run essentially continuously and unattended. Distillation is also simple and may or may not be done inside the primary containment. One of the great advantages of fluoride fuel is the simple reprocessing, which is almost trivially easy when compared to solid-fuel reprocessing like PUREX.
Anonymous said…
Geez, I hope your optimism is justified, Kirk. Going to liquid flouride reactors seems like a big change, and the NRC isn't anywhere near the ability to license such a reactor.
Charles Barton said…
Anonymous ORNL did a great deal of work on Fluoride salt chemistry between 1950 and the 1970's my father was involved in much of it. The ORNL scientists during that time were very confident they could solve the difficulties, and the made alot of progress before the Nixon/Ford administration pulled the plug.
Arvid said…
While this professor Smil is certainly very skilled and highly competent, he should look outside the borders of North America.

This energy transition was indeed done by both France and Sweden in a mere 15-20 years. So it can certainly be done quickly.

Because of this transition, these nations gets about 40 % of their energy (not electricity) from fossil fuels compared to the global average of over 80 %.
gh said…
A new paper from the Pardee Center at Boston University, ("Does Nucler Energy Have a Future?" by Moeed Yusuf, 2008), comes to the same conclusion. That there is no nuclear revival waiting around the corner for us.
Sovietologist said…
I read the Yusuf paper. Have to say I wasn't terribly impressed--it was only just published but it's terribly out of date, ignoring the decision of the UK to build new plants and of eastern European countries such as Poland and Lithuania to pursue new nuclear capacity, not to mention the fact that there are actually new plant orders in the US now. To be fair, though, I appreciate his general pessimism, which is far more realistic than the "solartopian" fantasies of people like Harvey Wasserman. But the paper is stuck in a Gen III+/LMFBR mindset. Gen IV technologies such as the LFTR and PBR can solve the waste, proliferation, security, fuel security, and other concerns he raises neatly, and potentially quite affordably. LWRs aren't gonna save the world--I don't think any of us "nuclear enthusiasts," as Yusuf terms us, believes that. Gen III+ is a stopgap and always has been; any really substantial nuclear expansion will be based on other technologies.
Rod Adams said…
Sovietologist is certainly correct about the timeliness and slant of the Yusuf paper. Its section talking about the conclusions of the MIT "Future of Nuclear Power" comparisons, for example, fails to mention the fossil fuel price assumptions made for its computations and how much the actual world prices have varied from those predictions.

Yusuf states that a 25% improvement in nuclear capital costs is "farfetched" and he states that obtaining a situation where nuclear plant interest rates equal those for gas and coal is "even more farfetched". (I do not understand why a coal or gas plant investment would inherently be considered less risky considering the political, technical, and economic situations that face those fuel sources over the 4-6 decades that a power plant will be operational.)

His bias against nuclear power is clearly evident in quotes like the following:

"The world’s two most deadly nuclear accidents, the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986—the latter affected a total of nine million people and 155,000 square kilometers of land—were caused by reactor core damage."

Quick - can anyone name a single person that died as a result of the "deadly" TMI accident.

Here is another example of slanting that makes the conclusions unsupportable:

"Any release of radioactive material—this can occur due to the slightest negligence—could cause either a slow leakage into the air or water or a sud-
den burst resulting in widespread human and environmental damage."

How can anyone who believes that "any" radioactive material release - no matter how small and no matter what material it is - is going to result in widespread human and environmental damage be regarded as a credible source when it comes to predictions of the truth or fiction of a nuclear renaissance?

Here is another loaded comment:

"Nuclear power’s preferential position with regard to energy security explains why countries like China and India are adamant about following this path despite the source’s lack of competitiveness, the heavy resource burden it will
end up laying on states, and its excessive safety and security concerns."

Anyway - you get my drift. Yusuf is a man with an opinion and a mission; his opinions on whether or not a nuclear renaissance is possible or in progress are worth just about as much as any other commodity in great abundance in a market with little demand.

I will agree with the anonymous poster who mentioned the paper - there is no nuclear revival WAITING around the corner. If it is going to happen, it will be MADE to happen by the conscious efforts of people like Kirk, Charles, Joffan, Arvid and others.

I highly recommend that proponents of nuclear fission power read Professor Smil's excellent thought piece very carefully and ask yourself the following question. Do we have to passively accept the status quo and the inertia implied in the article or can we take actions to push the world in a new energy direction? I think some of us have already answered that question for ourselves.
Anonymous said…

Your optimism doesn't take into account the burden of the "precautionary principle" regulation that infects the US NRC. I have no confidence that this type of regulatory atmosphere will abate under the new Administration. Men with vision such as yourself and Kirk Sorensen will (I am afraid) be stymied in your efforts by a regulator that wants perfect demonstration of absolutely safety before ever building a single new nuclear power plant. That type of attitude doesn't exist in the same degree for fossil fuel (although Obama did speak negatively about new coal fired power plant construction).

That being said, I WANT you to be correct. I just think you're over-optimistic, but who knows? I might fortuitously be wrong (again).
Rod Adams said…
@anonymous - I hope I did not come off as "optimistic". That is an insult to an engineering type who tries to see the world as it is.

What I was trying to say is that a nuclear renaissance is definitely POSSIBLE because the underlying technology supports it, but it is going to take HARD work to force it to happen. There is nothing passive about the effort required to overcome more than a century of effort by the fossil fuel pushers and promoters.

This is why I keep advocating a course of action where nuclear advocates forge ties with others who HONESTLY dislike the continued consumption of fossil fuels. There are far more of us "addicts" than there suppliers, even though the suppliers temporarily hold the upper hand of power and wealth.

I emphasize the word "honest" because some of the more vocal anti-nuclear "greens" are actually wolves in sheep's clothing. People like Amory Lovins, Al Gore, Bill Richardson, Hazel O'Leary, Ted Turner, E. F. Schumacher and many others who have led the fight against nuclear power have deep and binding ties to fossil fuel suppliers that want to protect their market share. They talk nicely about all of the weak alternatives that have no technical hope of competing with oil, coal or gas for reasonably priced RELIABLE power; those pose no real threat to fossil profits.

In our current era, we also have people that own currently operating nuclear plants in the mix of people who stand to lose money and market power if a new generation of lower cost nuclear plants are built. Watch out for those seeming "friends" to damn our technology with faint praise and to put up as many regulatory roadblocks as possible.

Public opinion is changeable, politics are changeable, regulations are changeable, action is possible. It will not be easy, but I believe it is worth a tremendous amount of effort.

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