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Without Nuclear, A Rube Goldberg Energy Policy

Larry Beahan is conservation chairman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group, so he likely has some tart things to say about nuclear energy. But that’s not his direct goal in his op-ed in the Buffalo News. His purpose is to synopsize and endorse a plan by Cornell Professor Robert Howarth to completely move New York state from fossil fuels and nuclear energy to renewable energy. Professor Howarth’s paper, published in the journal Energy Policy, is clearly a serious work. It has practical guidance as to how New York might proceed with his ideas, but is largely intended, I think, as an explication of its efficacy.

I was amused by a table he created of “plants or devices” needed to achieve his goal – about 16,000 windmills and almost 5 million residential PV systems all told. That’s a lot of windmills that all have moving parts to keep in order. And a lot of buy-in will be required to induce people too install PV systems on their roofs.

But I imagine it could be done.

The real fun comes in how to deal with the intermittency of renewable energy, because it sounds like Rube Goldberg gone berserk. There is no real way to stow significant levels of electricity, which sends Beahan (and Howarth) skittering across the possibilities.

He [Howarth] deals with the problem of variability of wind and sun by building over-capacity and storing the excess energy. It would be stored both where it is produced and where it is used, in batteries, thermal media, pumped water, compressed air, fly wheels, in the batteries of our new fleet of all electric vehicles and in the form of hydrogen for burning where high temperatures are needed.

In bathtubs, crock pots and fish tanks, where ever electricity can be stuffed. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with the electricity stored in an electric car except use it to power the car, but the other possibilities probably can not get you where you need to go – the technology is all over the place.

Here’s how Howarth presents the same issue:

A) combining geographically-dispersed WWS [wind water sunlight] resources as a bundled set of resources rather than separate resources and using hydroelectric or stored concentrated solar power to balance the remaining load; (B) using demand-response management to shift times of demand to better match the availability of WWS power; (C) over-sizing WWS peak generation capacity to minimize the times when available WWS power is less than demand and provide power to produce heat for air and water and hydrogen for transportation and heating when WWS power exceeds demand; (D) integrating weather forecasts into system operation; (E) storing energy in batteries or other storage media at the site of generation or use; and (F) storing energy in electric-vehicle batteries for later extraction (vehicle-to-grid).

So that’s how you’d use the cars – or perhaps just banks of their batteries. But it’s still an ungainly hodgepodge. Howarth doesn’t describe how all this would be mediated, but it’d be tough. I’d say when you include “integrating weather forecasts into system operation” as a suggestion, you’re not moving forward anymore.

The complete loss of baseload energy is a sort of utopia for a fair number of environmentalists and they should be cheered by Professor Howarth’s work. I’m going to trust that what he proposes can be done, even if in a Rube Goldberg kind of way and even if the main interest here is showing how it can be done not whether it should be done.

Howarth is off the hook, but his report is a trap for the dogmatic. It puts a carbon free utopia on a foundation of sand and fog. Nuclear energy gets you to a emissions free energy profile and you don’t have to put the electricity in a trunk – and renewable energy still has a significant role. It’s not either/or. Let’s call Professor Howarth’s paper a worthy exercise and leave it at that.


Anonymous said…
The mediation issue is simply solved in this scheme, although none dare mention it by name and it is the elephant in the living room that everyone pretends not to see. But I will spill the beans. The answer is (although the renewable advocates won't speak it's name): centralized planning and control. Someone else will decide if and when you will have electricity. That is the only solution when there isn't enough supply to go around. Rationing has always been the "final solution". Even the whole storage scheme is a house of cards. Any kind of practical storage system will have a capacity limit. What happens when that is exceeded? You go dark. And I for one wouldn't want that to happen to me in the midst of a cold NY state winter.
Brendan McNamara said…
See the discussion of the NREL 80% renewables by 2050 report at

The story is exactly as Anonymous says and much worse. Only a continent wide system can reach 80%.

The EU is doing this in a piecemeal way. Renewables will be much cheaper when everything else becomes far more expensive. Not soon then.

jimwg said…
Worst, His Honor Nanny Mayor Bloomberg would like to see residency and commercial building insulation standards approach that of thermos bottles to make this "renewable" scheme effectively work if these green groups get their way. Gee, does that mean no more night Yankee or Mets or Little League games or Coney Island fun? What other energy wasteful fun entertainments are greens willing to put on the chopping block to help our beehive standard of living? Has any credentialed nuclear spokesman stood up to challenge Larry Beahan yet?

One last thing: Cape Cod, get off the green ivory tower and face reality, not FUD; You and All NEED Pilgrim beyond petty fears!

James Greenidge
Queens NY
Anonymous said…
I didn't realize the nuclear power industry opposed energy efficiency. or maybe it's just jimwg? can NEI clarify?
Anonymous said…
And really, "final solution"? It's incredibly offensive to compare energy efficiency measures to genocide.
Anonymous said…
Oh, cripes, lighten up a bit, will you? This is an energy technology blog, there is no reason to stretch things like that. Paranoia will destroy ya.
Kit P said…
This is not a serious study. You have to wonder if Cornell and Standford still have mechanical and electrical engineering departments that can explain power production. It is just a little more complex than adding up the number of wind turbines.
JvD said…
Fully agree with anonymous about rationing being the unmentioned "final solution". I know plenty of people advocating for solar and wind who openly confirm that rationing will be 'necessary'. Shockingly, they easily agree that price should be the preferred method of rationing. In other words: whenever there is a need to ration electricity, the price will go up until sufficient demand is 'shifted' (destroyed, in other words).

I guess the poor don't have enough problems already. In the big scheme of the Greens, they are destined to go dark and cold or become even poorer than they are already. I wonder what would happen to the popularity of the 'Green' movement when people start to realize that their plans are going to inherently lead to extreme price shocks right at the moment when people really need electricity, f.e. in the middle of cold, dark, windless winter nights, or on windless, overcast, hot days in summer during life threatening heat waves. I wonder how happy we are going to be with the results of 'Green' policies then. Are the poor going to simply accept their fate? Maybe, but I'd say that today's poor are not as gullible as yesterday's. They'll realise they have been fooled sooner or later and they won't go down easily.
power_gen said…
Anon said, "I didn't realize the nuclear power industry opposed energy efficiency."

I don't oppose energy efficiency, if by "efficiency" you mean do the same work for less expenditure. I do oppose forcing society to use less energy if it means getting less benefit. Which in general, it does. Cheap electric power has emancipated the citizens of the "developed" world and it can do the same for the rest of humanity.

Sadly the so-called "environmentalist" community is opposed to this, preferring to keep the down-trodden trodden-down.
Anonymous said…
I hate so much how the energy industry and the oil and gas industy are vilified so much despite being the the source of the massive technological growth over the last few hundred years.

Without inorganic fertilizers hundreds of millions would starve to death. Without fossil and nuclear powered heating tens of millions would freeze to death. Without chemical based drugs tens of millions would die of treatable diseases. Not only that, but those who did survive would live in a vastly less habitable world without our modern energy infrastructure. It's jsut idiotic how many people want to bite the hand that feeds.

Back in the caveman days people only ate organic foods, they had clean water and clean air. They got plenty of excersize and weren't exposed to any artifical radiation. However, despite all of that the average life expectancy was only ~30 years old. Modern technology has more than double our life expectancy and half of that is directly as a result of cheap energy. If The world were forced to give up fossil fuels and nuclear over the next 10 years then it would mean a drop in life expectancy of at least a decade in my opinion. Obviously the rich people in Cape Cod would be fine, but the middle classes would have to make difficult choices between things like medicine and heating and third world would descend into absolute chaos.
Anonymous said…
OK, the two words final solution don't necessarily always mean that. But why, then, was "final solution" in quotation marks in the poster's original comment, if not to invoke thoughts of Nazis in the context of indictments of centralized mandatory energy policy? What was being quoted or alluded to by using quote marks, if not the Holocaust?
Anonymous said…
Probably quoted because it is an overused expression and in this context it was likely referring to the fact that rationing is always the last resort when it comes to managing shortages of anything. Relying on Rube Goldberg-ish schemes to energy production and management as proposed in this "study" (uh, oh, those quotation marks again, wonder what kind of stretch that will produce?) will certainly lead to that.
Anonymous said…
Without attributing intent, there are many people for whom that resonation of "final solution," especially when set off as a quote, is not at all a stretch. Consider your wording more carefully. I'll leave it at that.
Anonymous said…
Geez, let it go already.

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