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Nuclear vs. Wind, Part I

Over the past few weeks I have been engaged in a discussion over the benefits of wind and nuclear with Dave Erickson at Re/Action on Climate Protection. Two of his recent posts, Replace coal with Wind and Cost of Wind vs. Cost of Nuclear to Replace Coal, deserve further discussion.

Dave argues that wind is more cost effective than nuclear. However, his post is about climate protection and he never mentions that nuclear power is the leading source of emission free electricity in the U.S. Nuclear plants already avoid almost 700 million metric tons of CO2 annually in the U.S., and more than 2 billion metric tons of CO2 annually worldwide.

Replace Coal with Wind? Probably not. The U.S. has the largest reserves of coal in the world. Replacing coal completely with wind simply doesn't make economic sense. While coal releases significant emissions, it is getting cleaner. Any new coal plant built has to meet many stringent air requirements. To comply, coal plants are fitted with scrubbers and flue gas desulphurization emission technologies as well as other emission control techniques.

While replacing coal with wind could be beneficial for our air, I asked Dave how much land would be required. I noted that just to replace all the nuclear plants in the U.S. with wind, we would need an area the size of the state of Wisconsin. Dave contends that if wind turbines were packed closely together, to replace all of coal we'd only need an area equivalent to the size of West Virginia.

But think -- is it realistic enough land would be available? We’re talking about areas the size of states. Sure, there’s plenty of land in the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, but the vast majority of future electricity demand will be somewhere else. What good would that do? What about offshore wind? Possibly, if everyone doesn’t mind looking out at the ocean and viewing a horizon of turbines. As we've seen, Americans are picky about our scenery.

I'll have more on Monday when we post Part II of my analysis.

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Anonymous said…
I think you attack wind from the completely wrong direction.

The biggest issues with wind is that capital costs are veru high (but one can build small modular units wich is good) and that the wind does not blow all the time. This means wind can not be base load power. Because of this wind and nuclear are not exactly competitors.

Also wind power is pretty expensive. This might be acceptable to households but is not acceptable to electricity intensive industries which compete on a global market.


* High cost
* Not base load

To this one could add NIMBY (which contrary to popular opiniion is not a problem for nuclear power: ).

One could also add lack of potential. While the global wind resource is absolutely massive, the wind might not always be where the consumers are. For example the Swedish wind resiurce is only 10 TWh while our yearly power consumption is 140 TWh.

(But in Denmark 15-20 % of all power (not of all capacity!) is wind.)
David Bradish said…

Wait till part 2. It will address much of the cost figures.

I am not trying to attack wind. I hope people can draw some conclusions that wind and nuclear are not really competitors like you mentioned. I'm just trying to make straight the analysis of the blogger in the article.

Wind and nuclear are just two sources that can provide emission free electricity in different ways.
Anonymous said…
For large scale power generation, as in the kind needed to power an industrialized nation, wind power is inferior to nuclear power in almost every respect. I don't know why this blog pays lip service to the idea that wind power complements nuclear power. Wind power doesn't complement a fleet of reactors any more than a harbor full of sailboats complements a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Small amounts (~10 %) of wind power can be added to the grid, assuming the remaining 90% is rock solid generating capacity. The German wind power industry, regarded as the best of its kind, says as much in their 2005 year-end report:

But why bother? It's not as if the externalities associated with wind power are better than those for nuclear. Per kw-hr, the ExterneE study, which is extrememly conservative in its assessment of nuclear power externalities, finds only a slight edge in favor of wind power. Given the uncertainties associated with these calculations, there is no reason to believe that wind power is any better for the environment than nuclear power. It's a tie, more or less, even if you use absurdly pessismistic numbers for the nuclear power industry.

Wind power's dirty little secret is its poor industrial safety record. There's a 2002 article by Paul Gipe - one of wind power's most ardent supporters - detailing wind power accidents and calculating death rate per unit energy produced. Gipe found, to his surprise, that the numbers for wind power are little better than those for coal mining, emissions excluded of course.
Rod Adams said…
There is a single line comment in the original post that might be overlooked, but it indicates a rather important technical ignorance for the wind supporter.

Dave contends that if wind turbines were packed closely together, to replace all of coal we'd only need an area equivalent to the size of West Virginia.

As anyone who has ever spent much time in one of those fleets of sailboats that "anonymous" described will understand, devices that capture wind energy create a rather large "shadow" of disturbed air. When you put those devices too close together, the turbulent flow in that shadow reduces the efficiency of the device. The closer together they are, the less useful energy they can capture. In the limit, the output can go to almost zero, even if there is a good breeze.

I have been in the starting line fracas of a sailboat race on a windy day with flapping sails and moving nowhere.

I do not have the time to go back and review all of the calculations of wind proponents, but if they assume spacing of less than 3 times the rotor diameter (a thumb rule number I learned in my alternative energy engineering courses) without also beginning to reduce the efficiency numbers for their turbine, they are blowing smoke and will never reach their designed output.

In addition, the turbulence can cause some pretty significant reliability issues (those flapping sails that I experienced would not last very long if allowed to continue for too long.) For the techies in this conversation, here is a pretty interesting paper on the effects of turbulence in a large wind farm.
distantbody said…
"I am not trying to attack wind"

Well you should be. I am sick and tired of nuclear advocates who preach technological 'coexistance' with wind. Stop calling for mediocre energy solutions. Wind is an awful technology and deserves to be critisized regardless of how personally the 'green' community might take it. I have withessed other such pandering-compromises from the past. No one wins.
Anonymous said…
The world's largest operator of wind turbines, E.On, has a report of their windmills' operational history in 2005 here:

See page 8 for a graphic example of the downside of wind. On Dec. 24, wind produced 6,000 MW. On Dec. 26, two days later, the winds had changed and their windmills only produced 24 MW.

That means that E.On needed to be able to call on the equivalent of 4 to 6 large nuclear or coal units, otherwise sitting idle in hot standby waiting for the winds to die off.

Where is the capital efficency in this, if one needs to pay for both wind AND nuclear?
David Bradish said…

Your presumption is correct. It is an incorrect stat and I'm embarrassed and apologize for it.

To replace all of nuclear with wind, we would need an area the size of the state of West Virginia. West Virginia is about one third the size of Wisconsin. Big error on my part.

We used a stat from one of NRC's Impact Statement that said 1,000 MW of wind require 150,000 acres of land. What was not known is that wind's capacity factor is already calculated in the stat.

Before we knew that we took the 150,000 acres figure and used the capacity factor again and that's why we came up with such a high number. On AWEA's website they say 60 acres per MW (along the lines of what you assume).

About a month ago we did an analysis of how much land each generating technology requires and discovered the error then.

Why is it in this blog then? I simply forgot it was incorrect.

I hope readers will interpret this as a simple error and not try to accuse myself or the industry of being liars or deceivers or whatever anyone wants to call us.

Our intention is to convey accurate and up to date info as best as possible. We strive to be open and honest and we always try to own up to our mistakes. Sorry about the error. Thanks Nick.

David Bradish said…

You're exactly right. Only 5% of the 60 acres per MW is actually occupied by the turbines.

While 60 acres per MW is the land space needed to appropriately cite the turbines for efficiency, 95% can be used for plenty of other things like farming and cattle grazing...
David Bradish said…
Come on Dave, apply the same scrutiny and objectivity you do to wind as you do to nuclear.

Why are you using a 78% CF for nuclear and a 38% CF for wind?

If you are going to say that a new wind turbine will operate that efficiently than you have to say that a new nuclear plant will be operating at a 90% CF. Not take what the average CF has been for the fleet over the past 15 years.

If you are going to do that, then do it for wind. From 1995-2005, the average CF for wind was 27%.

Another thing, you assume all 290 nuke plants will be risky projects. They won't be. Risk is assumed if the company building the plant has mediocre credit and doesn't have enough financial cushion to support an intensive capital project like nuclear.

Most companies that are looking to build nuclear right now are joining up together to build the projects. Therefore the risk is much lower than if a company were to do it alone.

Even when you calculate your numbers at the most optimistic of wind and pessimistic of nuclear, you still find that nuclear's 290 plants are cheaper than wind.

Now you know what I mean about making assumptions. Not everyone makes the same ones. But when you make them, you need to be consistent in your analysis.
Anonymous said…
I would vote for David's (as opposed to Dave's) assumptions. Over the last 15 years I have been involved in 8 overseas nuclear units. They all were completed on schedule and under budget and all but one exceeded 90% capacity factor in the first year of operation.

38% capacity factor on wind power is very speculative. The existing installations that often have actual capacity factors of 15% to 20% have theoretical capacity factors of 30% or more.

The concept of widely distributed wind generation simulating baseload generation is interesting but very hypothetical. It's impractical to transmit power over very large distances. What happens when the entire Midwest is becalmed or when a hurrican hits the southeast and all the generators have to protectively shut down due to excessive wind speeds. In practical terms I think the effective capacity factor takes another big hit.
David Bradish said…

Of course I don't have anything to back up new plants in the U.S. because they haven't been built yet.

Many people may not know this but there are two parts to the history of nuclear costs. Before Three Mile Island and after. The average costs before TMI were around $1,500 / kW. The costs after TMI rocketed due to mainly regulatory delays.

About half of the operating units came online before 1979.
The average construction period was 4-5 years. Whereas the other half took 10-15 years to build after 1979. The last half is what everyone including you seems to only see.

The licensing process back then was that a utility would receive a construction permit, build the plant and then receive a license to operate. It was this process which opened itself up to many delays.

The process now is to apply for a combined construction and operating license where you are not vulnerable to the delays. You receive the licenses before investors put any money down and then once you receive it you start constructing, testing and once ready, turn on the key and run. It should only take about 4-5 years for construction to running.

We're going to test this out in the next 10 years and demonstrate to Wall Street and investors that the process works.

At the same time we hope that environmentalists, anti-nukes or anyone else opposed can bring up their issues during licensing. It will help with the testing.

Read my blogs again about capacity factor and Watts Bar for example. You are incorrect about the assumptions you make.

Nuke plants are built to run 24/7. Not 60%, not 30%. The only time they go down are for refueling and occasionally a reactor trip. That's why their CF is 90% and not 100%.

The assumptions for nuclear in MIT are assumptions. If you look, they use the same figures for coal and gas. In 2004, coal's overall CF was around 70% and gas was around 40%. They are not based on actual performance data, they are based on how they see baseload plants operating which is between 75%-85% CF.

You say nuclear needs much backup capacity for when they refuel. You may not know this but nuke plants shutdown in the spring and fall when electricity demand is low. Therefore not requiring an excessive amount of capacity from other sources. As well, when demand is low, it means market prices are low and replacement power is cheap.

I'm not going after your calculations for wind or how the Spanish grid works because I'm not interested. I'm trying to inform you about how nuclear works which you said you were so eager to learn awhile ago. Obviously you're not interested because you're cherry picking everything to support your claims.

You're whole argument against nuclear being uneconomical is risk. Everything else, nuclear and wind are comparable. Well in the next 10, 20 to 30 years we'll demonstrate how risky nuclear is.
David Bradish said…

Thank you for your contribution as well. I enjoyed the debate!
admiraliphone said…
First off, I am not a nuclear expert, nor am I an expert on wind power. I am just a parent. But, it seems as though the only considerations being made here are the construction costs and capacity. This paints an imcomplete picture.

What about the added cost of nuclear waste management?

The Hanford Site is a decade late and another decade from completion and grossly over budget (I believe that I heard it is projected at about $600 billion now). Also the Hanford Site has had a massive leakage plume that has nearly reached the Columbis River. How much to clean that up?

And what about Yucca Mtn.? When and how much?

I see Hanford and Yucca as temporary solutions. Eventually there just has to be a way fo dealing with it permanently. In any case, these are factors that directly affect the overall cost of the implementation of nuclear.

The only possible solution that I have heard mentioned is Accelerator Driven nuclear Reactors (subcritical reactors). What about that?

Again, I am not an expert in this field, so don't blast me.

Anonymous said…
AWEA Director and wind expert Tom Gray says “my rule of thumb is 60 acres per megawatt (MW) for wind farms on land”. According to the Energy Information Administration, The Fort Calhoun 476 MW nuclear power plant, operational since August 9, 1973, is located on 660 acres near Omaha, Nebraska and has an easement for another 580 acres, the acreage being maintained in a natural state. So on the face of it, on the same 1200+ acres, nuclear gets 480 MW versus 20 MWs for wind, or 40 times more. But the capacity factor for the nuclear plant hovers above 80% and wind is approximately 30%,
Anonymous said…
Couldn't a wind farm be built in the middle of a corn field? I'm sure the land between the wind turbines can be used effectively.

Why hasn't the US been recycling its nuclear byproducts like the rest of the planet has been. This would greatly reduce it's waste disposal costs, and greatly favor the use of Nuclear energy as a greener choice.
Rachel Lewis said…
Understand though, that as wind power develops, single turbines are able to produce more power. Vestes just developed a 3mw (the V90) turbine which will replace many of the smaller 65kw-700kw turbines from just a few years ago. And don't forget about the huge 5mw+ off-shore turbines that don't take up any land, are don't harm sea life, and don't inhibit travel by sea. As wind becomes more sophisticated and more developed it will be able to produce more power while using less land. Here in Tehachapi, most of our windturbines sit on private property and ranches. Land owners lease out their property to large wind companies and allow them to contruct turbine fields, so vacant grazing land is serving a double purpose. And look at places like Wyoming where there are large areas of flat land and steady wind speeds. These places are ideal for turbine contruction and the turbines have very minimal effect on prarie animals. I don't think there is one energy that is right for the entire country, and the most effective way to produce more energy in a cleaner manner is to pull from all green energy resources. Perhaps it's better not to put all of your eggs in one basket.
Tom Stacy said…
From what I can gather in a tertiary browse of this blog, no one has really come out and said the best metric of comparison is not MWH/YR, but rather MW of SECURE CAPACITY. About 1/3 of wind's energy production can be attributed to secure capacity contribution. The rest subverts emissions reduction by forcing more open cycle and piston engine natural gas onto the system at much higher than normal heat rates in their traditional roles. So much so, that some researchers reach the conclusion that if GHG emissions reduction is the metric, combined cycle gas is as effective as wind + open cycle gas, and with much less cost and opportunity for market manipulation.

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