Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Joe Romm Bombs on Salon

I once thought Joe Romm to be a man of some intelligence and intellectual depth. His repeatedly took on global warming skeptics, and demonstrated the weakness of their arguments. I was aware that Romm believed that nuclear power could only play a limited role in our energy future, but I believed that with new information, Romm might become an advocate for a more progressive approach for nuclear power. I was quite wrong. I presented to Romm arguments that the LFTR could solve the problems of nuclear power, and he rejected them out of hand, on the grounds that that I was writing about technology that had not been developed yet.

My point with Romm was that the LFTR was promising technology that should be explored as a sustainable energy source that could serve as the basis for the human energy economy into the a very long future. Romm in effect repeatedly dismissed the argument as being not worthy of his consideration. Kirk Sorensen, attempted to run similar arguments past Romm. Both Kirk and I eventually got frustrated with Romm. 

In an article on nuclear power published this week on Salon, Romm sets out his case against nuclear power. Romm is not quite an anti-nuk, but he is a kindred spirit. According to Romm, nuclear power is the "Ishtar" of power generation.

Romm's case against nuclear is fairly simple, "nuclear plants have become so expensive that cost overwhelms the other problems." In contrast to nuclear power, Romm argues that Renewables are far cheaper. Romm tells his readers, " Jigar Shah, chief strategy officer of SunEdison, explained to me that he could guarantee delivery to Florida of more kilowatt-hours of power with solar photovoltaics -- including energy storage so the power was not intermittent -- for less money than the nuke plants cost."

Romm adds, "Many other forms of carbon-free power are already cheaper than nuclear today, including wind power, concentrated solar thermal power and, of course, the cheapest of all, energy efficiency. Over the past three decades, California efficiency programs have cut total electricity demand by about 40,000 gigawatt hours for an average 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour."

Many Salon readers of Romm's nuclear article responded to it in the comment section. In fact these comments are an indicator of the extent to which public opinion has shifted against nuclear nay-sayers like Romm. Jeffrey Radice summed up the general concensus of many Salon readers:

"Romm had his thesis a priori, and pigeonholes the facts to support his opinion."

Radice adds, "It's heartening to see that salon readers are not so gullible to swallow this anti-nuke diatribe without critique."

Brian from Seattle wrote, "this article really just chooses one dimension of policy analysis to beat up on Nuclear power again, which makes little sense. You need a full spectrum of criteria to analyze, then create a final conclusion taking into account all criteria for a particular energy policy. This certainly does not do it."

Bspeakmon noted, "Among the many other problems, Romm seems to think that the only possible nuclear reactor design is a submarine reactor scaled up. Ridiculous.

There are many new designs, . . ."

Willard Roker wrote, "It is time to get pass the knee jerk reaction we have to nuclear power. It is a vast, clean energy source that can produce all the electricity needed by the US and do it in the foreseeable future."

Roker added, "You do more environmental harm just getting oil and coal out of the ground than a nuclear power plant will ever do and when you figure in process and burning nuclear power is many time cleaner. It is time to embrace the future not wallow in the past."

Skeptical Scientist commented sarcastically, "Mr. Romm argues convincingly that it is impossible to generate affordable nuclear power. This is, of course, much like "proving" bumlebees can't fly (er, they do.) Most electricity in France is from nuclear power. Perhaps the "can't do" Americans need to get a helping hand from the "can do" French."

Ssgman noted, "According to my (conservative) calculations, the 2,200 megawatt plant costing 14 billion will generate power at 2.42 cents per kw hour, if it runs for 30 years. If it runs for 50 then it will be almost half of that. A solar installation will cost about $5,000 per kilowatt and that it only runs during daylight so it really costs about 10k. So Romm's math is really wrong."

Many of the Salon commenters seconded Ssgman in questioning Romm's calculations.

Jeffrey Radice complains, "The fact of the matter is that all alternate energy technologies have hidden costs. Romm either purposefully ignores those of solar and wind, or he has seriously underthought these issues."

I might add that Romm has been confronted in the past about his once over lightly approach to renewables' costs, by Kirk Sorensen, by me and by many others.

Radice notes what he describes as a disingenuous statement by Romm:
"In fact, from 2000 through October 2007, nuclear power plant construction costs -- mainly materials, labor and engineering -- have gone up 185 percent!"

Radice asks, "How about providing comparable numbers for the costs of wind and solar construction?" Radice retorts, and then adds, "Is steel not a primary component in wind turbines? How much has the material cost of steel gone up since 2000? I'd be willing to bet well in excess of 185% The same could be said for polysilicon. I would not at all be surprised to find that construction costs for wind and solar per watt have escalated in excess of 185% since 2000. Yes there have been dramatic technological advances improving the efficiency of both power sources, but at what cost?"

Finally Radice castigates Romm, "Casting stones at viable nuclear power while downplaying the inefficiencies of competing wind and solar does nobody a favor."

In addition to the Salon comments, bloggers are beginning to "Fisk" Romm's latest "Bomb."

Clearly then Joe Romm received thrashing at the hands of Salon readers. Romm needs to pay attention to what his critics say. Romm's approach to energy issues is based on confirming his a priori theories, without a careful review of what the data really shows. Romm has been confronted about his intellectual short comings in the past, so his failure to change his views in the face of telling criticism is either a manifestation of arrogance or of intellectual incompetence.  Romm needs to clean up his act, or he will be left behind, just as global warming skeptics are being.

The Salon readers' comments on Romm revealed that there is a well informed group of people who access the internet, and who know far more about energy issues than most policy makers. People like them should undoubtedly be given a voice in future national energy debates and discussions.


Red Craig said...

Charles, just by coincidence I came across this article by Ferdinand Banks, which shows another link between Romm and Lovins. Mostly the article is more exposure of Romm's faulty analysis.

David Walters said...

I love the "40,000 GWs"...boy...the whole world doesn't use that much. California may of saved about 10 GWs...a LOT in anyone's book, but not "40,000"...talking about moving the decimal point!!!

Romm is anti-nuke. Period. I understand what he's doing. He's 'realistic' in his anti-nuke attitude, smarter than most. He doesn't preach the impossible "shut them down/phase-them-out" nonsense. He is against any NEW nuclear and just hopes after 30 years there will be no more licensing.


Greg Barton said...

Did you see what I wrote in response to Romm? :)

Charles Barton said...

Greg I saw your comment, but did not look at the writer ID line. Very good observation!

Joe Romm said...

The ad hominem argument in this post is a testament I think to the strength of the overall analysis.

This post originally had private material posted on it inappropriately -- I am glad it is gone. The insults, however, debase the debate.

Since nobody has rebutted a single factual point of my article -- which would be hard to do since they are all primary sources -- I don't have a lot to say here on the substance. I won't reply to the many people who misstated my thesis.

That said, anybody who read the original report I wrote knows how absurd this criticism is:
Radice notes what he describes as a disingenuous statement by Romm:
"In fact, from 2000 through October 2007, nuclear power plant construction costs -- mainly materials, labor and engineering -- have gone up 185 percent!" Radice asks, "How about providing comparable numbers for the costs of wind and solar construction?" etc.

In fact, this data comes from a CERA analysis of a variety of types of power plants -- nuclear's cost escalation vastly exceeds that of the other plants they looked at (which rose about 79% during the same time), including wind.

The other critiques are equally flawed.

Note to David Walters -- you are like most of the critics who ridiculed things I never said. I wrote "California efficiency programs have cut total electricity demand by about 40,000 gigawatt HOURS." Gigawatt hours ain't gigawatts. But this unwarranted mockery is characteristic of much of the criticism of this article.

I confess I did only look at commercial technologies currently being considered by US utilities. Some people can imagine noncommercial technologies will somehow save the day. After five years at the US Department of Energy listening to people assure me about how noncommercial technology they were peddling was about to become cheaper than existing commercial technologies, I admit I am a skeptic. I look forward to that happening, but the climate problem does not permit much delay.

Kirk Sorensen said...

Take a look at Joe Romm's "primary sources" in this document. The main person he seems to be referencing is himself...

The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power

Red Craig said...

Mr. Romm, thanks for taking the trouble to respond. It's an honor to be able to comment back.

You're being unnecessarily sensitive in claiming you've been attacked ad-hominem-ally. People are challenging your analysis, but no one on this page has said anything derogatory about you personally. As a point of reference, though, consider that language like "the federal government shovels tens of billions of dollars more in subsidies to the industry, and then shoves it down the throat of U.S. utilities and the public with mandates" will necessarily draw adverse attention. Incidentally, you're abusing the subject of subsidies, as often is done by nuclear opponents. Please see Bafflegab: Energy Subsidies for more on this point.

Your article has already been criticized where it appears, but I'll offer some criticism of my own, which may overlap others. First, it depends on studies done by others, none of whom can be considered objective. The MIT study only considers nuclear energy and doesn't compare its costs with those of other energy sources. After all, it's relative cost that matters. The CERA statement purports to estimate costs of new nuclear energy plants in North America. How could it possibly do that? None have been built in--what? decades? Construction technology has changed altogether. Estimates based on scaling up old technology will necessarily overstate costs. You claim, "In fact, from 2000 through October 2007, nuclear power plant construction costs -- mainly materials, labor and engineering -- have gone up 185 percent!" Don't you think that shows an abnormal degree of precision for something so poorly defined? CERA doesn't make reference to any of the construction going on in Japan and France. Why not? Is it possible that data doesn't coincide with CERA's predetermined conclusion?

It's probably better to stay away from glib slogans. Warren Buffet went on TV at the peak of the internet bubble and solemnly advised investors that the market rules had changed and from now on the market would only go up, never down. In respect to our subject, though, investors are warm to nuclear energy, both in the US and in other countries.

The FPL link didn't take me to a document. Maybe your could correct that.

Mainly what you've done in your article is string nuggets together. Pulling factoids out of kindred analyses because they suit your target. In the future, I hope to read of some analysis you've done for yourself.

Charles Barton said...

Joe, what can I tell you? You are damaging your own reputation. Look at what the Salon readers are saying. Pay attention to what is happening to you. You are a fool if you sacrifice your career by repeating Amory Lovins crack pot opposition to nuclear power instead of thinking things through on your own.

Mike said...

Romm's statement on the conclusion of the 2003 MIT study was take out of context.

The complete finding in the study was “In deregulated markets, nuclear power is not now cost competitive with coal and natural gas. However, plausible reductions by industry in capital coast, operation and maintenance costs, and construction time could reduce the gap, Carbon emission credits, if enacted by government, can give nuclear power a cost advantage”

Since some form of a carbon tax is now very likely, I would say that the conclusion of the study is that nuclear power is cheaper then coal and natural gas.

In my opinion, given the number of misleading statements, Romm's article is nothing but anti-nuclear propaganda.



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