Thursday, March 26, 2009

Nuclear Power: An Indispensable Climate Change Solution

Joe Romm clarifies his position on nuclear power:

Why not more than 1 total wedge of nuclear? Based on a post last year on the Keystone report, to do this by 2050 would require adding globally, an average of 17 plants each year, while building an average of 9 plants a year to replace those that will be retired, for a total of one nuclear plant every two weeks for four decades — plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste. I also doubt it will be among the cheaper options. And the uranium supply and non-proliferation issues for even that scale of deployment are quite serious. See “An introduction to nuclear power.”

Note to all: Do I want to build all those nuclear plants. No. Do I think we could do it without all those nuclear plants. Definitely. Therefore, should I be quoted as saying we “must” build all those nuclear plants, as the Drudge Report has, or even that I propose building all those plants? No. Do I think we will have to swallow a bunch of nuclear plants as part of the grand bargain to make this all possible and that other countries will build most of these? I have no doubt. So it stays in “the solution” for now.

Romm's take on nuclear power is not particularly well-informed, as I've discussed in the past. But examining its limited role in his proposed solution reveals that Romm has not seriously considered the physical limitations associated with his preferred energy options. For political, geographical, and practical reasons, nuclear power must ultimately play a vastly larger role in our energy future than predicted by Romm.

Romm describes his preferred future energy mix as follows:

What's wrong with this picture?

4000 GW wind, 5000 GW solar thermal, 2000 GW solar photovoltaic. This is an increase of two orders of magnitude for wind and three for both types of solar. I notice that the capacity factor assumptions implied by Romm are quite high. Wind turbines are now a fairly mature technology, so its economics are increasingly apparent, but the costs solar thermal and solar photovoltaic are still unclear. But for the sake of argument I'm willing to grant Romm that maybe in 2050 these technologies will be cost-competitive. The important thing is that the qualitative limitations of these sources of energy go far beyond cost. With the possible exception of a handful of exceptionally well-endowed nations, investment in solar and wind can NEVER assure energy security.

Solar and wind generators depends on the ambient energy resources available in the locations where they are installed. There is, of course, no place on earth where the sun shines all the time, and not many where the wind always blows. So these are intermittent resources by nature. But some countries are better-endowed than others. Imagine, if you will, a future world of 2050 with the energy supply specified by Romm. Some nations, such as Russia, would be unable to meet their own generation needs through wind and solar power. They could import electricity from abroad, but they would have to compete with other markets such as India and China for it. Not only would this make energy expensive, but it would also place Russia at the mercy of its energy suppliers. Hostile states could cripple Russia's economy by interrupting its energy supplies. States exporting renewable energy would also have substantial incentive to underproduce to both encourage uncertainty and raise energy prices. There would be little incentive to produce enough energy for the have-nots, especially since electricity transmission would make them largely captive markets, unlike present-day oil importers. Countries without abundant renewable energy resources would therefore have a desperate need for more secure energy supplies.

Hence the reason why nuclear energy is likely to dominate our energy future. Because relatively few nations have the renewable resources needed to support their economies themselves (just how many depends on how these technologies develop), the most logical step for them to take to secure their post-carbon energy security is to invest in nuclear energy infrastructure. They would have every reason to doubt that other countries would build the infrastructure needed to provide them with affordable and reliable energy, as it would be in those states' interest to underfulfill their needs. Even in a world where renewable energy technology could fulfill all of the world's energy needs affordably, geographic realities would make nuclear power more attractive.

I do not actually believe that wind and solar power are cheaper than nuclear, but my point is that the barriers to a world powered by solar and wind are not merely technological, but geographical, political and economic. I do not expect that solar thermal electricity will cost less than nuclear electricity in 2050, but even if it did this would not translate into energy security for most of the world. Only the provision of non-intermittent energy sources with the ability to store months' or years' worth of energy will secure the interests of these nations. And nuclear power fits these requirements.

In 2050, I expect there to be far more than 350-700 GW of new nuclear plants in operation. In fact, I would not be surprised by 5000-6000 GW of new nuclear by this point. Most of this will probably consist of mass-produced Generation IV reactors, including ALMRs, PBMRs, and various kinds of MSRs. Not only can these technologies replace fossil-fuel electrical generation anywhere on earth at reasonable cost, but they also allow nations to stockpile decades or even centuries worth of fuel--meaning that even a war or natural catastrophe could potentially have minimal effect on energy production.

The real-world alternative to this is NOT an idealistic future of cooperation, windmills, and solar panels. It is a dystopian nightmare where most of the world continues to burn coal because they lack the ability to domestically produce or import environmentally benign energy. It is a world wracked by war, catastrophe, and want. Even if the myriad technological problems of renewable energy were solved, the simple geographic fact remains that some nations lack sufficient energy resources, be they oil, gas, sunshine, or wind. For this reason, nuclear power is indispensable for averting climate catastrophe. Those who pretend otherwise, such as Romm, are fooling themselves.


Charles Barton said...

Edward, You are making excellent points. Recent estimates of the price of wind have run as high as $3.00 per watt. Solar is at least twice as expensive. And this is without storage. It did npt ;ppl nearly this bad in 2007, when I first looked at the big picture, but it was obvious that the renewables weren't going to to be the energy future. I turned to the LFTR because we need an energy source that cost less than conventional nuclear.

Charles Barton said...

What is most amazing about Joe Romm's plan is his utter disregard for cost. Reported costs for wind installations last year ran from $2200 to $2800 per kW, with 2009 estimates running as high as $3000 per kW. Four million MWs of wind generating capacity would run to $12 trillion. That is without storage.

The current cost of St facilities without storage runs to $4000 per kW. 5000 GWs of St power would cost $20 trillion, again without storage.

Geothermal heat pumps are too expensive for more householders to afford, but probably would work for industrial and commercial buildings. Air Source heat pumps work better for residences.

God only knows how much the PVs will cost. So we get a price tag on Joe's energy plan of $40 or so dollars, without assured 24 hour a day electrical reliability. Is that crazy or what?

Charles Barton said...

A great post. I would love to have it cross posted on Nuclear Green.

Sovietologist said...

Sorry it took me so long to answer--I was attending a conference. I'd be honored to have my post cross-posted on Nuclear Green.

DV8 2XL said...

Wind and solar are nothing but greenwash for natural gas. It really is that simple. The fundamental problems and limitations of these are both obvious and well known enough that it is simply impossible to believe that anyone involved with the charade is not aware of them.

The bald fact is that this whole 'renewable' circus has been orchestrated for the sole purpose of providing an expensive subsidy for NG baseload generation. For example former German Chancellor Gerard Schroeder, who presided over the passing of legislation to shut down the German nuclear industry and it's replacement by wind, is now a member of the supervisory board of Gazprom, the Russian natural gas conglomerate. Draw your own conclusions

Barry said...

Excellent analysis Edward. I've been making some of the same general points on my blog recently:

In particular considering the relative mix of nuclear and renewables in a future zero carbon energy supply -- and trying to be realistic about what each will contribute.