Sunday, August 24, 2008

Comments from the Economist's Debate

My comment ofthe morning in the Economist Energy Debate

The real issue we should be debating are not between existing technology and technological innovation. The important issues have to do with which existing technologies to implement. We ought, of course continue to invest in technological innovation research, but we cannot count on it. At the same time we need to invest far more in promising technologies in which the breakthrough innovation has already occurred, but which have not yet been developed to maturity. High on that list would be energy storage technologies. Even in a predominately nuclear energy economy, a low cost mass energy storage system would be highly desirable. Daytime electrical demand will almost always outstrip night demand. Light Water Reactors function best when they are run at 100% of capacity. Thus at night, as electrical demand drops, nuclear plants could switch from generating for demand to generating for next day storage. Of course, without low cost storage renewables have no hope to serve as an a base load power source.

Paradoxically, the technology which offers the best hope for low cost over night storage of renewable energy is molten salt technology. Molten Salts make an excellent medium for the storage of heat, and can be used with concentrated solar power. The irony is that the solar power industry would borrow molten salt technology from the nuclear industry, since it was developed originally as part of an innovative reactor program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory between 1950 and 1976.

Batteries are probably too expensive to use in mass energy storage, but are light enough to use in transportation. Lithium Ion batteries have the potential of storing up to 10 times as much electricity as currently used technologies would allow. 500 mile range Lithium Ion powered cars are a possibility. Half of the fundamental breakthrough has already taken place. Further development of Lithium Ion technology will be required to bring up the energy density to the maximum allowed, to deal with the problem of heat generation during battery use, and to lower the price of Lithium Ion batteries.

Lithium Ion batteries will probably never be used in mass electrical storage systems because of their price, but capacitors very well might be. At present capacitors represent have only limited use in the transportation system, but capacitors have several advantages over chemical batteries. A breakthrough involving ultra high electricity density capasitors is unlikely, but capacitors with a somewhat lower but still significant energy density are being developed, and they might be useful in the electrification of transportation. For example, the capitol cost of rail electrification would be significantly lowered if the entire rail line would not have to be electrified. Experiments are already underway in China, involving the use of capacitors with buses. The bus automatically plugs in to a high voltage electrical outlet at each bus stop, recharging its capacitor. This eliminates the need for rail lines and overhead electrical lines in electrified mass transit.

Finally the most significant issue is the debate between advocates of renewables and the advocates of nuclear power. Renewables advocates often argue against nuclear power by pointing to its alleged and real liabilities. The same renewables advocates fail to apply the same sort of liability analysis to renewables that they apply to nuclear. There are fundamental problems with both solar and wind generation of electricity that may require breakthrough innovations to fix. When we have an honest account of both the liabilities and advantages of nuclear and renewables, nuclear power wins hands down.

There is another debate which at present exist largely beneath the surface of the energy debate. That is the debate between the advocates of deploying standard nuclear plants, and deploying alternative nuclear technologies. One one side of the debate are the advocates of standard technology would involve deploying ever larger Light Water Reactors. They propose enormous and extremely expensive construction projects, with traditional reactor manufacturing technologies.

On the other side of the debate among nuclear advocates are the advocates of alternative nuclear technologies. They offer a number of tested technologies that can both increase reactor safety, and efficiency, while lowering reactor costs. Many alternative nuclear advocates also support the plan to build a very large numbers of small reactors in factories. Factory production can accomplish a number of things. It can speed up reactor construction time from the several years required by standard reactors to a few months at most in factories. By speeding up production and deployment, the interest carrying cost of utilities would be lowered significantly. Factory production wouldn allow more efficient use of labor and the use of robots on reactor assembly lines. Two Generation IV reactors, the Pebble Bed Reactor and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium/Molten Salt Reactor are especially promising because they can be boult in small sizes, and do not carry many of the liabilities of Light Water Reactors. Both the LFTR and the PBR reactor are extremely safe. They are not vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the both can produce electrical power with greater thermal efficiency than standard nuclear plants. The LFTR produces almost no nuclear waste, because it uses its nuclear fuel with far greater efficiency than standard nuclear technology.

Both the PBR and the LFTR are tested technologies, that require no breakthrough innovations. Development programs for the PBR are underway in China and South Africa, while LFTR development programs are underway in Japan and France. Given a more appropriate level of funding, development and deployment programs can move forward more rapidly. As it is, both the Chinese and the South Africans expect to be building PBRs in factories by 2020. Thus alternative nuclear technology will coming soon to many parts of the world.


Warren Heath said...

Charles the numbers are looking mighty impressive on that Hyperion Nuclear Reactor. Apparently sold to Eastern Europe. Those numbers would blow all renewables out of the water. They wouldn’t even come close to competing. And these would be easy to make CHP, and would form the backbone of a highly decentralized power distribution system. Eat your heart out Armory Lovins, Mr. MegaWatts. Contrary to the Desert Solar & Mega-Wind fantasy technologies which would be an example of EXTREME CENTRALIZED POWER DISTRIBUTION.

The Hyperion Nuclear Reactor, 50% fuel burn, $1000 per KWe, $350 per KWth

Robert Hargraves said...

Costs like this can stop global warming even without a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade policy. Even with coal, China's industrial electric power costs ar $0.072/KWH, delivered. All we have to do to stop global warming is to sell nuclear power technology that undercuts the cost of coal-generated electricity. China would certainly buy it. Such power sources would be a great export market for the US.

Bob Hargraves


Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High