Monday, January 12, 2009

The Flawed Renewables Paradigm

When I first began thinking about renewable generation of electricity, the first question I asked was "how are you going to provide electricity when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing?"  I got two different answers in response,  The first answer was that we will use the existing generating resources of the grid to bridge any gap when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine.   The existing resources being "nuclear", a word that causes most renewable advocates to foam at the mouth whenever it is mentioned.  Almost all of  the grid resources that renewables advocates would depend on bun fossil fuels.  Coal, which every renewables advocate professes to hate, even though some of them take coal money to advocate something called carbon capture and sequestration, is marked by renewables advocates for replacement by renewables. Natural gas, which is after all a carbon based fuel, is almost always treated in the thinking of renewables advocates as an honorary renewables and carbon free resource.   Thus we have renewables advocates, in effect, arguing emitting CO2 is OK as long is prevents the use of new reactors in the generation of electricity.  

When I looked at the entire energy economy, I saw that there were areas where it would be very difficult to replace fossil fuel.  For example some cement manufacture require 1500 degrees C heat.  Advanced high temperature reactors produce 1000 C.  The theoretical maximum for LFTR's with carbon-carbon parts is somewhere around 1200 C.   Thus heat for cement manufacture, and other industrial processes, may have to come from natural gas.  Land transportation can be electrified.  Unless small reactor power plants for ships become a practical reality ocean going transportation may remain dominated by fossil fuel power for a long time.  Air transportation is heavily dependent on fossil fuel and if the air transport industry is to continue to exist, it may remain dependent on fossil fuels for a long time to come. Fossil fuel consumption may continue to be required for agricultural use.  Fossil fuels may continue to have a variety of military uses.  Thus if our goal is an 80% reduction in fossil fuel use by 2050, it is unlikely that much of the remaining 20% will be devoted to the generation of electricity.   Thus we will have to assume that the 2050 electrical system will have to do without any fossil fuel backup.  

In 2007 I looked at these facts and came to the startling conclusion that neither a renewable dominated electrical generation systems, nor a conventional nuclear dominated system was likely to be affordable as a replacement for the fossil fuel electrical generation.  In addition energy had to be found to power surface transportation.  Other energy gaps included a new technology for lower temperature industrial process heat, were not well filled.  

I found Robert Hargraves' Pebble Bed Reactor site.  I was impressed with the argument for factory production of  of Pebble Bed Reactors, but I knew of a radical reactor design that could be mass produced, and which in a number of ways was superior to the PBR, and which was amenable to mass production.  

But natural gas is not renewable, it is expensive, and when it is burned carbon dioxide gas is produced. There is something else about natural gas that renewables advocates will not tell you. When natural gas is burned radioactive gases such as radon get released. Now the big rap against nuclear power is the argument that the danger of releasing radioactive materials like radon is two great and thus nuclear power is toxic and dangerous. When renewable advocates tell you about how clean natural gas is they ignore the release of the very radioactive and toxic gas radon from natural gas powered plants, and the ignore the emissions of CO2 from the same natural gas fired generating facilities.

When it is pointed out to renewables advocates that their plan to use grid resources when mother nature fails to cooperate in the production of renewable generated electricity, they fall back on energy storage. Three schemes get mentioned: Battery storage, pump storage, and Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES). In addition solar thermal electrical schemes may rely on energy storage in such media as molten salt, or pressurized water. All energy storage schemes are expensive, in fact so expensive that when the cost of the storage system and redundant generating capacity required to produce the energy to be stored, the cost of carbon free renewable systems almost invariably turns out to be higher than the cost of nuclear power. In addition the CAES solution requires the burning of natural gas.

Thus the renewables paradigm is either requires that we continue burning natural gas or turn to a storage solution that makes renewables produced electricity more expensive than nuclear power.  Thus renewable generated electricity either will not completely displace the use of carbon based fuels, or it displace them at a cost that is higher than new conventional nuclear power. It would be very damming if the cost of a carbon-free renewable system were to be higher than the cost of a conventional nuclear power system.  

The renewable paradigm yields the following operational hypothesis: "Renewable electrical sources can replace replace carbon emitting fossil fuel burning electrical generating systems at a lower cost than nuclear power."

The Null hypothesis would be: "Renewables can only replace carbon emitting fossil fuel burning electrical generating systems at a cost that is higher than nuclear power."

I have repeatedly tested the Null hypothesis on Nuclear Green using actual cost information from the renewables industry, and data on capacity from reliable sources.  When I had to make assumptions, I was if anything generous to the renewables industry, but it would have been unreasonable to assume that nuclear costs would be subject to inflation while renewables  costs would not be, unless it could be shown that renewables costs would not be subject to the same inflationary pressures  that nuclear costs would be.  That evidence has yet to emerge. Repeatedly. I have tested the null hypothesis in Nuclear Green case studies of renewables costs.   The null hypothesis tests have  shown that renewables cost data supports rather than falsifies the null hypothesis.  That is it has not been possible, using cost data and capacity factor data, to show that it would cost less to replace the fossil fuels electrical generating system with a renewable based system, than it would cost to replace it with a nuclear based generating system.  Thus the renewables paradigm fails the falsification tests.   Admittedly it is has not been possible to explore every possible renewables system, because in some cases there is not enough empirical data to construct a test, so while the range of possible renewable options has been shown to be very limited - for example wind, PV and most forms of ST have been shown to fail the falsification test - it has not yet been possible to run the falsification test on every form of  ST.  

I have performed falsification test on both state wide and national renewables plans.  The state plans were for wind generation in Texas, and the plan to produce 33% of California's electricity from renewable by 2025.   I also tested the Picken's energy plan, and the google energy plan. Both plans had nation wide scope, both plans contained significant flaws in addition to failing the falsification test for their renewables components.  It is clear then claims that the claim that a renewables based electrical generating system will cost less than a nuclear based electrical system is not not derived from facts.  

Thus renewables, at a cost that is lower than the cost of nuclear power, cannot fully displace the use of fossil fuels.   It would appear that the cost of fully replacing the use of fossil fuels in electrical generation would drive the cost of an all renewable electrical generating system  to a cost level that is higher than the cost of a nuclear based system.


Marcel F. Williams said...

Wind and solar will never be more than peak load supplements, when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining.

The nuclear industry, however, continues to make a mistake by not focusing (like a laser beam) on the production of carbon neutral synfuels using currently wasted off-peak nuclear electricity which could be used to make industrial chemicals like methane, methanol, ammonia, and hydrogen.

And nuclear power facilities dedicated towards carbon neutral synfuel and industrial chemical production would be the ultimate answer to the world's energy needs.

Marcel F. Williams

donb said...

Marcel F. Williams said:
The nuclear industry, however, continues to make a mistake by not focusing (like a laser beam) on the production of carbon neutral synfuels using currently wasted off-peak nuclear electricity which could be used to make industrial chemicals like methane, methanol, ammonia, and hydrogen.

I think that is step 2 in moving towards a nuclear energy economy. Step 1 is constructing enough nuclear power generation to displace baseload coal-fired generation. When step 1 is done, then step 2 -- the construction of nuclear power plants needs to continue to provide peak power, and then use available off-peak power to make industrial chemicals.

Back to the original posting: When people discuss renewables, and dismiss the high cost, I always call to mind that wealth is built at the margins. That is, I build my personal wealth using money left over after paying for necessities. Say I can save 10% of my income. Say also that by going to renewable energy, the additional cost consumes "only" an additional 5% of my income. If this happens, I need to cut my savings rate from 10% to 5%. That is a BIG hit when trying to build my personal wealth.

Charles Barton said...

Donb, The cost issue is one of the major reasons why I have focused on the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. The cost saving advantage of the LFTR just don't work with conventional reactors.

DV8 2XL said...

Unfortunately, the argument is about ideology, not facts.

Those that have enough of an education to follow the quantitative arguments know the truth. Those that cannot are being swayed by a vision of a society powered by magic in the form of windmills and solar panels. They are incapable of understanding that this is fantasy. They believe the hype that some breakthrough is just around the corner, and they are adamant about it to the point where they cannot be reasoned with. I have had people laugh in my face and tell me that we will see cars powered by a solar-cell paint; you cannot fight that sort of ground-in ignorance with anything as paltry as mere fact.

However as luck would have it, there seems to be a large silent majority of people that realize that our arguments are sound. Slowly they are making their presence felt in polls and in government. It is the unconverted among these that we need to reach out to. The demagogues, and their sycophants are beyond reach. The bottom line is that more people have to be mobilized to show support for nuclear energy, to give the politicians (most of whom are fully aware that wind and solar are useless) some support for new builds.

John Tjostem said...

Natural gas is used to make hydrogen for anhydrous ammonia and for sweetening sour crude. About 5% of the natural gas consumption goes for these purposes. The thermo-chemical splitting of water has been demonstrated at an efficiency of 50+%. High temp water splitting by reactors should replace natural gas as a source for hydrogen.

The Brits report that electricity generation by wind is more costly than nuclear generated electricity by a ratio of 7 to 4.


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