Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Using our brains

I am not a scientist, nor did I graduate from a great University, but somewhere along the line in my education I learned to ask questions and use my brains to lok for answers. One of the other things I learned is to check sources. My academic training includes coursework in the philosophy of science, and the philosophy, methology and history of the human sciences. A number of years ago, I became interested in a dispute among among psychiatrists about issues related to do the histroy and scientific status of several psychiatric diagnoses. I acquired access to a collection of historic psychiatric diagnostic manuals, books by past authorities on psychiatric diagnosis, and outdated standard references written much earlier in the 20th century. l also consulted books by psychiatrists and social scientists that had criticized past diagnostic practices. Finally I consulted works by patients who had been treated for mental illness during the period in question. What I discoverd was that many of the psychiatrists who claimed to be experts on the subject, simply did not know what they were talking about. When I compared claims made by psychiatrists who were assumed to be authorities, which the historical sources, significant discrepancies occurred. Thus papers published in highly reputable peer reviewed journals, misquoted and misrepresented their sources. Well respected figures were guilty of the most obvious errors. They had either not read the sources they claimed to read or even worse had read the sources and misrepresented them. For example, professor X, a distinguished Canadian Academic had claim that Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler had not included certain symptoms as indicating schizophrenia. But when I looked at the index of Bleuier's Dementia Praecox, there they were. I looked at papers by Bleuer's assistant from the time, the famed Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung, and found the same thing. The lesson is simple, never assume that people have done there homework, check things out.

The rule to never assume that people have done their homework is never more true than in enegy related discussions. my rule of thumb in these discussions is that critics of nuclear power and advocates of renewables always need to be checked out. You may not have the time or energy to check every reference in every source, but at least check out a sample. If an alleged energy authority makes a statement siting 2 broken internet links, an article from a humor magazine that is behind an internet wall, and an allegation from a propaganda mouthpiece of an extremist organization that certain allegedly leaked but unquoted documents made certain assertions. This author does not live in a world of facts. when I down load reports from the internet, I sometimes do a quick search for expected terms. For example I always look for the word inflation in reports discussing future energy costs. If the word "inflation" does not occure, I look for evidence that the reports author or authors had inflation in mind. If the report simply says something like, wind generator facilities will cost 10% less in 2030 han today, then it is time to ask Scottie to beam me up.

I frequently criticize the postings of Benjamine Sovacool on Scitizen. Let me give an example of a Sovacool error. In a November 2 posting Sovacool wrote:
A collection of new studies, however, suggest that these figures may underestimate the cost of building new nuclear units by more than a factor of 3. Researchers from the Keystone Center, a nonpartisan think tank, consulted with 27 nuclear power companies and contractors, and concluded in June 2007 that the cost for building new reactors would be between $3,600 and $4,000 per installed kW (with interest). They also projected that the operating costs for these plants would be remarkably expensive: 30 ¢/kWh for the first 13 years until construction costs are paid followed by 18 ¢/kWh over the remaining lifetime of the plant. (For comparison, the average residential price for electricity was about 10 ¢/kWh last year).
The numbers Sovacool quoted 30 cents per KWh for the first 13 ear of operation for example, seemed remarkably high. Did this number actually come from the Ketstone Report? I did some checking and I found that the press release issued with its report, THE KEYSTONE CENTER stated:
“A reasonable range for the cost of new nuclear power is between 8 and 11 cents per kilowatt hour delivered to the grid, based on “life cycle levelized costs.” While this value is significantly higher than many current vendor or government estimates, that is because our estimates are based on recent escalation in construction and raw material costs, which can be compounded in the future by tightness in the supply chain”.

The Keystone Report itself is clear that its estimated future reactor construction costs factor in inflation. The same 8 to 11 cent figure is mentioned in the body of the report. A search of the text of the report does not yield the 30 ¢/kWh figure Sovalcool claims, and since the reports’ a high lifetime levelized cost of 11 cents, Sovacool report of an 18 ¢/kWh lifetime generating cost is simply not supported by the text of the report, and indeed is not mentioned by the report.

During a discussion of the same posting, Sovacool asserted:
Just as it would be unfair to take the costs quoted from Duke Energy in North Carolina or FPL in Florida for nuclear plants and misconstrue them as being national averages, so is pointing to hypothetical costs for building new renewables in a highly unlikely Proposition 7 California market. The average cost for building new nuclear plants cited above, between $3,600 and $8,000 per installed kW, makes them much more expensive than constructing new renewable power stations. If it is baseload power you are after, new hydroelectric and geothermal power plants cost about $1,150 to $3,000 per installed kW. New wind farms—even with their recent price increases—are about $1,710 per installed kW in the U.S. and $1,900 in Europe. Solar photovoltaics are near the upper range of nuclear estimates—$7,500 to $8,000 per installed kW—but can provide peaking power which nuclear units cannot. These numbers are from a few technical journals that aren’t available online, but I’m sure you can find similar figures on the internet.
I responded:
There is multiple confusions in your comparison of the cost of wind and nuclear. In the first place you compair the current price of wind, to the future inflation adjusted price of nuclear. Since wind turbine manufacturers have something like a 5 year back logue of orders, it is very unlikely the inflation driven cost of installing new wind capacity in 2013 will be anywhere near the $1710 figure you use for wind costs. The investor in the 2013 wind project will have to calculate how much the cost of wind instalation will be increased by inflation. Since the cost of wind installations doubled between 2002 and 2007, and the same inflationary forces it is not unreasonable to assume that the coust of land based wing installations will be double the price you assume in 2013.

The second apples to oranges issue is your comparison between nuclear and renewables is the distinction between name plate capacity and actual electrical output. Typically in the United States nuclear reactors over a year will produce 90% of their name plate capacity, while windmills on average produce 27% of their nameplate capacity. Even in the best localities Windmills rarely produce more than 40% of their nameplate capacity. In order to to mstch the output of a nuclear facility, the investor would have to buy windmills with a nameplate capacity that is 225% of the nuclear plants averin wind powered age electrical output. Thus even with the best wind conditions the future investor electricity is going to pay $7600 per capacity factor KW in 2013. That figure is close to the %8 billion figure that you have mentioned. At that price however you still don't get enough reliability for wind to be counted as base power. A Stanford University study found that if wind facilities in 17 locations in the Southern Grate Plains were linked that 20% of their nameplate capacity could produce base power 80% of the time. The cost of building base power capacity using such a a scheem would be a staggering $17000 per KWh if the project were constructed in 2013, the earliest date turbines would be available.
I had read the same reports Sovacool had, and had done my search for the word "inflation". I have assumed inflationary pressures can rapidly escalating nuclear costs unless checked, and have suggested ways to control nuclear costs. The key to nuclear cost control is a rapid movement to LFTR technology with factory built reactors, and a full court press approach to cost containment.

Some of the things i learned in my childhood are very useful. For example, My fith grade teacher, Mrs Huffman was a conservation enthusiast. She taught her classes about things like soil conservation. Such lessons were driven home to me by family drives through the Tennessee country side, where it was possible to see soil errosion caused bad farming practices. Once while driving past a tobacco patch, my mother noted that tobacco was bad for soil's fertility. :Why is that," I asked. My mother explained that tobacco removed minerals and nutrients from the soil and deposited them in the leaves. The leaves were removed from the soil and smoked by people. Thus the minerals and nuetrients needed to maintain the soil's fertility are lost. A simple lesson about nature from childhood, but one that passes unobserved in discussions of the use of biomass for energy.

4 comments:

Benjamin Sovacool said...

Greetings, Charles:

I appreciate that you do indeed do your homework, and also invite readers of your blog to scitizen.com where our debate over nuclear power continues.

As for the numbers from the Keystone Center, perhaps we are reading different versions of the report. The results from a Keystone analysis were reprinted in an article in "EnergyBiz Insider," at http://energycentral.fileburst.com/EnergyBizOnline/2008-3-may-jun/Financial_Front_Prices.pdf.

Here is what that article says:

"“There’s a lot of sticker shock,” said Jim Harding, an
energy consultant who helped the Keystone Center
develop its June 2007 report, “Nuclear Power Joint
Fact-Finding.” That report concluded that overnight
estimates for a new reactor would be $2,950 per
kilowatt-hour, or between $3,600 and $4,000 per
kilowatt-hour with interest. That estimate, generated
with the input of 27 participants, including power
companies and nuclear contractors, is already
outdated because of the rapidly rising cost of metals,
forgings, other materials and labor needed to build a
new nuclear unit, Harding said."

And:

"Harding said he estimates that operating cost
per kilowatt-hour for a new nuclear plant will be 30
cents per kilowatt-hour for 12 or 13 years until construction
costs are paid down, at which point operating
costs will drop to 18 cents. Harding said those
costs are a tough sell when concentrated solar power
and wind power can be had for about 14 cents per
kilowatt-hour. He said he believes that those renewable
resources, as well as natural gas — perhaps LNG
— might prove competitive to a new nuclear plant."

Charles Barton said...

Ben, although you have a PhD, I have been, to a certain extent educating you in the school of hard knocks. My hope was that you would learn from the lessons I have been teaching you, and your latest work shows signs of improvement. You have raised your grade to a B. You should understand that citing outliers is not considered the best approach of making a plausible case. But you show much more flexibility than you have shown in the past. You stick more closely to what your sources say, and that is progress. You next step is to learn how to question both your own assumptions, and the assumptions of your sources.

Randal Leavitt said...

Nuclear power works. It can deliver the power needed to light, cool, warm, and operate our cities and transportation systems without pollution. It is useful. Solar, wind, and combustion dont work. Solar and wind have too much entropy, and combustion is too filthy. These technologies are useless. Does anyone really think I should decide to employ a useless technology because it is cheaper than a useful one?

Now, if you want to compare one form of nuclear fission with another, then it may be the case that one is less expensive and yet still useful. So I may be interested in making that choice. Lets start there at least, ie discussing technologies that have a hope of working, and perhaps consider the wilder ideas later on if we have some idle moments. Cheap and useless is not a good starting point.

So which is better - LFTR or Hyperion?

Charles Barton said...

Well of course nuclear power is the answer, And we have to very publicly think through why nuclear will work and why renewables won't or people won't see it.

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