Thursday, January 29, 2009

Solar costs, and the future of electrical generation.

There is a considerable gap between the actual cost of solar thermal power generation systems and what we have been told to expect. When renewables advocates talk about ST costs, they talk about cost projects made several years ago that did not survive testing by recent cost realities. This gap between expectations and experience has been apparent in actual cost data for existing and projected solar thermal projects. I have pointed to the evidence on ST costs in a number of posts as data has become available. Solar thermal lags far behind nuclear in its ability to produce power on demand. In short, solar thermal ceases to be a bargain as soon as you want to switch the lights on.

The renewables crowd keeps telling us that this is about to be fixed. That the day of cheap solar thermal generated electricity on a 24 hour a day basis is said to be at hand. We know this must be so, because Joe Romm keeps telling us that solar thermal power is now base power. Unfortunately, many of us noticed some time ago that just because Joe Romm states something the proposition does not become fact.

Last year the sun shown on the solar thermal industry in California. PP&E handed out contracts to Solar Thermal manufacturers as fast as the applications flew though the door. This was occurring despite evidence of truly atrocious cost-to-capacity-factor ratios. The best I was able to determine facilities that generated on average 20% of their nameplate capacity were costing $4.00 a name-plate watt to construct. It is evidence of exactly how screwed up thinking about energy is in California is that there is not a ratepayers revolt against the solar thermal scam.

Last fall I called attention to Ausra, an ST business that had its origins in Australia. Ausra claims to be able to lower ST costs, including heat storage costs, through a series of low cost technological innovations. Ausra was the apparant darling of some California venture capital firms that were moving to become players in the the California renewables generating market. Ausra told the VC people that it could provide round-the-clock ST electricity at a cost that was too low to meter. That was the story, but my review of published cost data for Ausra's Barstow project was inconclusive, but suggested that matters might not be nearly as happy as Ausra claimed. Furthermore, a careful analysis of Ausra performance claims yield a remarkable amount of wiggle room, if those claims were ever brought up in court. Thus Ausra's low cost claims could be marked down as unconfirmed, pending further investigation. This judgment suggested that it would not be a good idea to invest the widows and orphans funds in Ausra just yet.

It is not surprising then that Ausra is retrenching.
Ausra's chairman, president and CEO, Robert Fishman now acknowledges that Ausra cannot raise the finances for a large project on the basis of his companies performance on its 5 MW pilot project. "That's simply not reality. The finance market will not support it." Fishman has not acknowledged Ausra's cost data from its Barstow pilot project, but clearly Ausra expectations are being trimmed, as is corporate staff.

It should be quite clear by now that California's most excellent renewables adventure is not going as well. Producing low cost renewable electricity in California is going to prove a tremendous bust. California is running out of good land-based wind resources and offshore wind resources will be quite expensive to exploit. The cost of Solar Thermal is quite outrageous given its truly modest capacity factor. Constructing a renewables system with adequate energy storage would carry a price tag that would be considerably higher that constructing a nuclear power generating system of similar capacity. Now conventional nuclear generating systems are hardly cheap, and conventional nuclear might not be the best long run fossil fuel replacement. A better solution is needed.

My readers by now know where this is headed. California's renewables subsidies could be better spent on LFTR technology. For what California will spend subsidizing overpriced pathetically inadequate renewables technology, California rate payers could have low cost electricity from safe, non-wasteful, sustainable generation-IV nuclear technology.

It will not happen of course. First, the renewables myth serves the interest of the fossil fuel producers. As long as there are the notion persists that renewables are the answer to peak fossil fuels and global anthropogenic global warming, the fossil fuel interests will continue see their products being burned to generate electricty. The renewbles crowd, Amory Lovins, Joe Romm, and David Roberts, may not be taking money under the table for the coal barons, but they are certainly serving the interest of coal by propounding their anti-nuclear ideology.

We are not yet ready to turn to advanced nuclear technology to do what renewables and conventional nuclear technology cannot do, that is take the world economy off its carbon habit. But the ability to do so, the ability to actually control carbon emissions while generating massive amounts of electricity, is about to be taken seriously. By 2012 low carbon power will be a matter of the most serious global concern. Athough our day has not yet arrived, it is coming. It is coming soon. The Sun probably is not going to shine on Ausra this year or the next.


Konstantin said...

I haven't read your latest post yet but I have a suggestion. I would encourage you to post your Oil Drum article on LFTR paradigm to the widely read and popular Huffington Post. Maybe make it a little more explanatory for the general public. That will reach a huge audience of the general public who don't understand much about LFTRs and the difference with conventional nuclear reactors.

I think that will go a long way in getting real honest info to the general public and start honest debates.

There is an article about inviting bloggers soon to participate at the Huffington Post ath this link Thanks to the People Who Worked on OffTheBus; Here's What Comes Next

There is a link in the article to sign up.

At least I think you should consider being a guest blogger of some regular blogger at the HuffPost but I don't know how to go about that.

Marcel F. Williams said...

I wrote an article on this subject last year on my blog: The Cost of Non-Carbon Dioxide Polluting Technologies which can be found at:

Without subsidies, most renewables really don't make economic sense. Biowaste and small hydroelectric facilities appear to be the best renewable options, IMO.

Marcel F. Williams

Charles Barton said...

Marcel, people who go to the trouble of analyzing the information come to the same conclusions. Renewables don't work as reliable energy sources, and it is extremely expensive to concoct a renewable based energy system that works 24 hours a day, You are to be commended for your effort. Eventually the message will be heard.

Anonymous said...

The Smart grid is about to get funded through the stimulus bill.

If you are interested to understand how “they” intend to implement the renewable energy infrastructure, you need to understand the “Smart Grid”.

They say that the Smart grid will solve intermittency.

In the end, the power market and to a great extent government subsidies and caps will determine the winners and losers in power generation.

Understanding the Smart Grid is my new project.

See to start as follows:


Charles Barton said...

Axil, ya the smart grid is real smart. It will shut everything down when there is no power to deliver.

Jason Ribeiro said...

I second Konstantin's recommendation about getting the LiFTR article published on the Huffington Post. Through causal conversations, I've discovered virtually no one knows anything about thorium energy and it has never been mentioned in the popular press. Part of the problem why is the press gives extremely poor coverage on energy issues to begin with and they've not done a good job about reporting the problems with renewable mandates in California either, thus no one is calling for a revolt.

Charles, I'm not sure if you disagree entirely with the idea of building Gen 3+ reactors to replace the bulk of large coal plants. Though not a more perfect reactor design, such Gen 3+ plants would be hugely more effective at replacing coal than any renewables efforts. Even if a sizeable number, say 50, were build in ten years time, there is course plenty of room for more advanced reactor designs and plenty more energy to be generated. At the rate we are making progress with efforts to develop clean energy sources, stating a modest goal of 50 new LWR's is tantamount to wishful thinking. Yet by all means this is technically achievable. Though I do place a lot of blame on the stalling of nuclear energy advancement squarely on the foot of the likes of Lovins, Romm, Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists and so on. They have pandered to people's fear and desire for easy answers for far too long.

Charles Barton said...

Jason, my only objection to LWRs is practical. it takes a long time to get them into the ground and the first ones will be expensive, although if enough AP-1000s are sold the price will drop. Asside from that LWSs certainly are going to produce base power 90%+ of the time for at least80 years. So they will be around for a long time. If you can plant enough of them, the first use of the LFTR will be for peak and back up electrical generation.

Brad F said...

Charles, I'm glad to hear your father is doing better.

"They say that the Smart grid will solve intermittency."

Axil, "they" say a lot of things about the Smart Grid. A lot of those things are pretty cool and, as someone who helps to operate a power system, I can see some benefits if the price is right. But the intermittency issue, with wind in particular, will not be truly solved until the advent of affordable energy storage - which isn't happening anytime soon. The short term (minute by minute) fluctuations can be trimmed with creative demand side management, but the longer term fluctuations (daily/seasonal) will still require real, expensive backup generation.

If we can really bring a LFTR on line for a reasonable capital cost, then using one for load following could be more economic than running fossil peakers.

Aladar said...

Just published a book on Amazon

with some insides.

Aladar Stolmar

Anonymous said...

The smart grid wouldn’t look so smart if a rogue nation, terrorist group, Russia, Pakistan or China used an EMP weapon against the United States. Long distance HVDC power lines and converters, Wind Turbines and Solar PV would be particularly vulnerable to EMP. A decentralized power distribution infrastructure consisting of buried LFTR’s or Hyperion Nuclear Reactors, in the 25 to 300 MWe range, located close to the power consumers, would form the foundation of a robust, reliable energy supply infrastructure. No power – no fuel either. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions could also seriously disrupt a nations energy supply, for long periods of time, if based on the long distance transmission of renewable energy.

Iran plotting nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack on the USA

Iran plans to knock out U.S. with 1 nuclear bomb

Non-nuclear EMP Weapons


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