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What Gets Sacrificed in a Nuclear Energy Shutdown

Writer Mark Gunther over at the Energy Collective talks about his hesitation to renew his Greenpeace membership:

If Greenpeace manages to persuade the US or other governments to "eliminate nuclear power"- that's what the headline [of the renewal letter] says - the risk of catastrophic climate change will grow much worse. Climate activists [and]environmentalists who  support nuclear power include Stewart Brand (in his excellent book Whole Earth Discipline), ex-DOE chief Steven Chu, contrarians Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus (see Going Green? Then Go Nuclear), the former British prime minister Tony Blair, economist Jeffrey Sachs and ex-NASA scientist James Hansen.

You could throw in current DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz (“Moniz is an advocate for a low-carbon future and has, in a variety of forums, promoted the use of nuclear energy to get there.” – from the National Journal) and President Barack Obama if you want.

Gunther also brings up our old bête noir Germany and points to an excellent article in Der Spiegel about the destruction being wrought in the name of renewable energy. This stood out:

Although this conflict touches all political parties, none is more affected than the Greens. Since the party's founding in 1980, it has championed a nuclear phase out and fought for clean energy. But now that this phase out is underway, the Greens are realizing a large part of their dream -- the utopian idea of a society operating on "good" power -- is vanishing into thin air. Green energy, they have found, comes at an enormous cost. And the environment will also pay a price if things keep going as they have been.

The working cliché here is “Be careful what you wish for.” Why? We’ve talked about the land needs of wind and solar power, but biomass also has requirements.

Martin Kaiser, a forest expert with Greenpeace, gets up on a thick stump and points in a circle. "Mighty, old beech trees used to stand all over here," he says. Now the branches of the felled giants lie in large piles on the ground. Here and there, lone bare-branch survivors project into the sky.

Kaiser says this is "a climate-policy disaster" and estimates that this clear-cutting alone will release more than 1,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Kaiser and Greenpeace are none-too-happy about this outcome, but all those mighty beech trees have been repurposed to facilitate clean renewable energy,right? (Honestly, this consequence had not occurred to me – but it is potentially worse than the land mass required for solar and wind – destroying both an effective counter to carbon dioxide and a country’s natural legacy.) Germany doesn’t appear to be taking much care in how it gets to where it wants to go. Let’s hope it finds the right balance as it proceeds.

The Der Spiegel article is worth a careful read – it describes a situation like that in the Luis Bunuel faux-documentary Land Without Bread, in which efforts by the Spanish government to help the people of an impoverished region of the country only makes their lives far, far worse. (Probably, much of what the old surrealist depicts in the movie is made up, but his point is valid – as Germany is showing.)

But back to Mark Gunther. Does he renew with Greenpeace? – well, it’s only fair to go over to the Energy Collective and find out yourself. But his conclusion is valid whatever he decides:

We don't need an all-of-the-above energy strategy--that's folly, if it includes burning lots of fossil fuels--but we do need an all-of-the-above low carbon energy strategy, led by a strong commitment to renewables and energy efficiency, but including nuclear and some natural gas (ideally with carbon capture) to provide affordable baseload power. [bold in original]

I might add that fossil fuels represent a major industry with many workers – a Germany-like move here would devastate the economy of several states and pitch a lot of folks onto the street – but Gunther has the right idea withal.


trag said…
No, Gunther does not have the right idea. We do not need a strong commitment to unreliables. Unreliables (AKA renewables) are a waste of time and money and do not make any significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions.

In every case where unreliables have been built, the same amount of money spent on new nuclear build would have produced 2.5 - 5 times as much usable energy, in a more reliable format, and reduced CO2 emissions vastly more.

You're the NEI, stop supporting unreliables. They're not helping anyone except the folks getting rich off of the subsidies and mandates.

The misconception that unreliables will reduce CO2 emissions stands in the way of a real commitment to new nuclear build outs, and you folks should realize that.

It's very gentlemanly or perhaps egalitarian and all for you to keep claiming that a mix of sources is the way to go, but it's wrong from an engineering stand point and it's the wrong tactic. You can be that the people over at the wind association aren't saying that they want nuclear in the mix.
Anonymous said…
"In every case where unreliables have been built, the same amount of money spent on new nuclear build would have produced 2.5 - 5 times as much usable energy"

Any sourcing on this? or just hat numbers?
SteveK9 said…
Second 'trag'. Used to post comments on Areva's blog criticizing the whole 'all of the above nonsense' (when is a little bit of everything ever the best approach), and they were never published. Not politically correct.
Mark Flanagan said…
Well, at least we post the comments, Steve. Honestly, though, I think - and it's fair to say NEI endorses - the all-of-the-above policy because it promotes energy diversity and security. Those are unfettered good things.

Personally, I also think supporting renewable energy is skin off no one's nose. These are forward looking technologies that, if they can advance, might prove good energy citizens. They need better capacity factors, better battery technology, better economics and better concentration to avoid immense land usage. That's a lot, but it could happen if the plug is not pulled as happened in the 80s.

Sure they get subsidies, but remember that nuclear energy was essentially a government project when the domestic industry was nascent. Sometimes, the country has to act as a complete community to promote progress. Nuclear then, wind and solar now - I guess you could throw in fusion and molten salt and thorium technology, too. We need to stop treating nuclear and its renewable cousins as either/or propositions. That's what's killing Germany and what has put environmentalists in a pickle.


PS - really can't believe that about AREVA.Really? Yikes.
Anonymous said…
I'd feel better about embracing the "all of the above" meme if it were more of a two-way street. Nuclear advocates often go out of their way to embrace the unreliables (sometimes against our better judgment) as a component of the "all of the above" theme, but this approach is very seldom reciprocated by advocates of unreliables. In fact, most advocates of unreliables that I know are pretty stridently anti-nuclear. So we're expected to be inclusive, while the unreliables embrace a "our way and our way only" approach. Doesn't seem very fair to me.
trag said…
Energy diversity is not an unfettered good thing. It depends strongly on the circumstances. I don't think a goat dung burning electrical generator would be helpful, for example. So, not unfettered.

Second, wind and solar do not promote energy security in any fashion. Quite the opposite. They are more expensive in the real world than any other energy sources. They drive the poor out of the energy market, and in some climates, they will kill poor people who can no longer afford adequate heating or cooling because of the price increases.

Wind and solar lead to grid instability. In addition to the challenges of matching their chaotic input they cause a longer term systemic problem of removing the incentive to build other plants to supply peak power while at the same time increasing the need for peak compensating plants.

Wind and solar have been getting a free ride on this issue so far, because the power plants to provide peak power or backup power already exist. So as wind and solar take enough of their market to make them unprofitable, the peakers still exist. But no one is going to build any new ones, because they're no longer profitable. Yet, at the same time, they are absolutely necessary, because wind and solar cannot provide reliable power.

Wind and solar are destroying energy security, not enhancing it.

Wind and solar are driving up energy costs in the real world. Sure, you can find a hundred web sites claiming that the costs have reached parity, but they haven't. It's obvious they haven't when you actually look at real world results, and the EIA numbers reflect it too, if one bothers to read the fine print which clearly states that transmission and backup costs are not included in the LCOE numbers.

For example, here in Austin, people subscribe to wind and get billed at a different rate. Yet, with the lowest natural gas prices in a decade or more, we've seen a huge electricity price increase. Why? The subscribers may pay the wind's increased rate themselves, but the presence of wind on our grid means that more back up power must be purchased on the spot market to compensate for unreliable wind. Spot electricity purchases are much more, sometimes ten times more, expensive that base load purchases. So the wind on the grid increases the amount of spot market electricity purchasesd, the wind subscibers just pay the wind rate, but all of us have to pay for the increased spot market purchases. They don't allocate the increased percentage to the wind subscribers.

Voila, a 10% subscription to wind results in a 20% increase in electrical rates for the whole city. This, after refusing to purchase a share in expanding STNP back in 2009 because it was "too risky".

ERCOT (the Texas energy agency) predicts that Texas won't have enough peak generating capacity by 2015. This exactly because of the presence of so much useless wind electricity on our grid. This is not an increase in energy security. This is a giant step backwards towards a third-world style grid with rolling black outs and brown outs.

Wind and solar are exactly the enemies of nuclear. It was to have money to squander on waste like expensive Texas Wind that Austin forwent buying into the STNP expansion.
trag said…
Your assumption that all generation is good generation demonstrates a lack of examination of the facts at hand. I like your mission. I like most of your work. I think you need to take a deeper look at what is really going on in energy generation.

Everywhere which has subscribed to wind and/or solar has seen large electricity rate increases. Just like Germany writ a little smaller.

Finally, regardless of security or diversity, studies show that neither wind nor solar has any substantial effect on CO2 emissions. Reducing CO2 emissions is an urgent mission and the **only** technology which can do that in any substantial way is nuclear.

That should be the NEI's message and that should be the message that you should be beating into the public's awareness nationwide.

The possibilities are endless. Nuclear power in the USA means how many billions of tons of CO2 not emitted each year? In the last 40 years it's saved how many tons of CO2 emissions? How many lives did Hansen say it's saved? Solar and wind can't come within two orders of magnitude, and gas just emits more CO2. And we can have nuclear at prices we're used to paying without rolling brown outs and black outs.

Because that's what the wind and solar folks are promising us. Smart meters are just a finer degree of control on rolling black outs.

We don't need to plan for the miserable reduced life style the greens tell us is coming with their wind and solar powered future. We can have a bright, prosperous future with plentiful affordable energy for home and industry (no need for smart meters controlling **our** homes) if we embrace nuclear.

That should be your message. Nothing and that's **NOTHING** is as good as nuclear. Nothing has it's promise. Nuclear is the one and only solution to our energy needs and to our desperate goal of mitigating climate change.
trag said…
Finally, for anonymous, unfortunately, no, no published sourcing. This is based on all the times when I run across actual numbers for West Texas or Germany, or other places and I see what actual annual KWHrs they're generating and how much they really spent, and dividing the annual KWHrs by what a nuke would generate, multiplying by the cost of a new nuke, and dividing that number into what was spent on wind and/or solar usually results in a factor of 2.5 - 5 with large uncertainties because the price of a new nuke can be across quite a range. I usually use $5 - $7 billion, but sometimes $4 billion.
Mark Flanagan said…
Trag -

I think we're talking past each other to a certain extent. Some things we simply can't agree on because we have different ideas. I will say, though, that I agree with your overall point that renewable energy is not mature enough to take as large a role as it's being forced into. Germany may be doing wind and solar energy (and biomass) considerable damage by implementing them so promiscuously - not to mention the damage to its environment (the irony in the Der Spiegel story) and possibly to its people.

To anonymous: You promote what you believe in, not for quid pro quo. If the renewable folk are churls about nuclear energy, that's their problem, not ours (though I've met enough renewable advocates to know they have a mix of attitudes to nuclear energy. So there's that.)

trag said…
" I agree with your overall point that renewable energy is not mature enough to take as large a role as it's being forced into. "

Then you agree that there's too much of it installed. That is equivalent to there should not be any more of it at this time. Which is basically the same as opposing it, yet in your actions, you support it.

I don't mind the government spending a few billions on research into wind and solar, but they should never have been installed on teh grid. Period.

Personally, I predict that they will never be ready for prime time, and any place which installs them will suffer. Every place which has installed them are already suffering. That evidence speaks for itself.

As for the future prediction, it's simply not possible to generate sufficient power with wind and solar without creating too large of a geographical foot print. That was obvious from the beginning.

Another obvious fact which seems to be missed is that without storage, wind and solar are utterly impractical on a reliable grid and there is no meaningful storage technology.

But, even if an affordable, practical storage technology emerged tomorrow, we would still be better off building nuclear reactors instead of wind or solar and we could use the storage to balance the load so that the nuclear reactors could run at full power and still match peaks.

Wind and solar require too huge of a geographical foot print. They're too unreliable. And these are qualities which are inherent to the technology. No increase in efficiency, nor reduction in cost is going to change the fact that wind and solar are antithetical to a modern reliable grid and the death of unencumbered open spaces.

Why do you think that wind and solar are promising? What exactly do you mean by, "they are forward looking technologies"? What does that mean?

Frankly, the only promise I see in wind and solar are cluttered landscapes, high energy prices, and rolling black outs.
Anonymous said…
If large-scale, affordable, practical electricity storage were available on a utility grid scale, the best thing to "fill" the storage with would be nuclear energy, since that has the lowest cost per unit input. It makes no sense to build huge storage capability to store energy produced by an uneconomical source.
Ross S. said…
Thanks Trag. The continued installation of wind and solar power not only waste money and resources that could be used to help reduce fossil fuel use, but it also allows those that don't know better to feel like progress is being made. I think it is irresponsible to indulge this belief.
trag said…
I really would appreciate an answer, from Mr. Flanagan, to this question:

"What exactly do you mean by, "they are forward looking technologies"? What does that mean?"

It sounds nice, but what does that really mean? Precise meaning is essential in the solution of any problem.

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