Friday, June 19, 2009

The Energy Collective in the Era of Confusion

One of the principle problems of the Energy Collective, is the failure of most collective writers to understand the issues they write about it terms of cost. Not only are Energy Collective writers confused about cost, they spread their confusion to the public. Some of the most popular writers on the Energy Collective are what I charitably call aggressive, anti-nuclear nut cases. The anti-nuclear nut cases relentlessly harp on the supposedly enormous cost of nuclear power plants, often using high end cost estimates to make nuclear power look bad. These writers inevitably advocate the use of renewable generating capacity as an alternative, with the implied assertion that electricity generated from renewables will cost far less than nuclear generated power.

Needless to say the aggressive anti-nuclear nut cases never compare the cost of nuclear power with the cost of reliable renewable electricity. But even renewable advocates who do not take an aggressive anti-nuclear position, pitch puffballs at renewables costs. Renewables manufacturers, and installation builders frequently try to hide the very high costs of part time, unreliable renewables facilities. Unfortunately renewables friendly writers are party to the conspiracy to hind renewables cost, This pattern shows up over and over in the writing of Energy Collective renewables friendly writers.

In order to demonstrate the problem I made a case study of a recent Energy Collective post by Tyler Hamilton, a senior energy reporter and columnist for the Toronto Star. I would not classify Tyler an anti-nuclear nut case and I have posted a link to "Clean Brake" on Nuclear Green. But Tyler is a far to uncritical renewables advocate in my book. My case study is based on a post of June 18 titled, Duke Energy solar storage pilot worthy of replication. Tyler is nothing, if not a shameless cheerleader for renewable energy, opens his story:
It’s with great delight that I read about the handful of U.S. utilities that are seriously testing out various conservation, smart grid, storage and renewable technologies in an effort to extend greener offerings to customers. The latest is Duke Energy’s McAlpine Creek project, part of which involves the deployment of a 50 kilowatt solar PV array, consisting of 213 solar panels, at a substation that feeds the grid or, alternatively, can charge up a 500-kilowatt zinc-bromide battery system.
But no where in Tyler's story is there a hint about how much such a system would cost. This is a very practical question that energy writers should be answering. I decided to to do the leg work that Tyler failed to provide his readers. So how much does the installation cost? According to solarbuzz, PV installations cost from $8 to $10 per W. That would give us an installation cost of $400,000 to $500,000. The facility will have an optimal output on uncloudy days of 333,000 kWh. Hamilton claims that battery backup costs as little as two cents per kW, but I was unable to find any confirmation that zinc-bromide batteries were available at that price. I managed to track down the cost of ZBB zinc-bromide batteries which run to $400 per kWh. Thus the 500 kW battery most likely costs another $200,000. We clearly have a facility which is capable of producing electricity on demand, and will produce something close to 14 kWs per hour in a 24 hour day. The facility costs $600,000 to $700,000. Thus we have a cost of from $43 to $50 per watt of reliable output, or 5 to 6 times the cost of a hugely expensive nuclear plant.

Were Tyler to compare the cost of reliable electricity from the Duke PV facility with the cost of nuclear power, he would simply be forced to admit that reliable PV power was not competitive with nuclear power. No doubt Tyler would experience something less than "great delight" as he made this admission.

During the last two years, I have done repeated case studies that address the cost of reliable renewable electricity. I have looked at several schemes to make solar and wind generated electricity reliable, and assessed the cost of each scheme. The results were always the same. The estimated cost of reliable renewable electrical generating facilities have always proven to be more expensive than the estimated costs of new nuclear generating facilities, For far to many Energy Collective writers, this all too obvious conclusion is so distasteful, that they are simply participating in what amounts to a massive coverup of the real price of reliable renewable generating facilities. The failure of Energy Collective writers to address the issue of adverse renewables cost is an ethics issue, and it has serious consequences.

I have dubbed this current period in thinking about energy, the era of confusion.
We live in an era of confusion. We know that our energy future will be different, but we are like people who are somewhere between dreaming and being fully awake. Our dreams intrude into our thoughts, confusing us. In order to wake up we must stop confusing dreams with reality.
Unfortunately this confusion between dream and reality infects writers whose real responsibility is to help deliver the public from its confusion. To continue to yield to ones own confusion while ignoring evident reality is only human, but to lead in an era of confusion one must do a great deal more than yield to one's own confusion. For energy writers there is an ethical imperative to not yield, even if by not yielding we are forced to admit things which we find distasteful.


DV8 2XL said...

This is one of your more relevant posts Charles (not to say the others aren't!) and its subject lies at the roots of what I have been trying to say in several arenas devoted to nuclear energy. That is we are failing in this debate because we are not accepting the fact that the rules are not what we wish them to be.

We wring our hands over poor reporting and rail all we want about mendacious propaganda presented as fact in the media, but in the end we are not going to change the behavior of anyone on the other side, or even the neutrals. If we want to win we have to fight back on their terms. That doesn't mean we have to lie and prevaricate, it does mean though we have to present a unified and positive message extolling the benefits of nuclear energy and showing why it is superior.

donb said...

Charles, while this is certainly the era of confusion, we are here because of a lot of wishful thinking, as well as a lack of ethics.

The wishful thinking part is encouraged by popular culture that says we can have what we want if we want it enough. Wanting something enough may provide the incentive to work hard to achieve it (this is often but not always stated).

But some things won't happen no matter how much I may want it. If I am 5 feet 8 inches tall and weight 140 pounds, I am not going be in the front line of a professional football team. I can probably gain some weight, but I am stuck with my height. Similarly, no amount of wanting and wishing is going increase the peak amount of solar power reaching the surface of the earth much beyond 1 kW/m².

Ethics come in when I see the truth but don't like the conclusion, so I ignore it. For example, I may be a heavy smoker. I go to my doctor due to early symptoms of heart disease. The doctor says if I stop smoking, I can reverse the damage, but if I continue, I will die an early death from heart disease. I don't want to stop smoking because it is too hard, so I ignore the doctor's advice and try to find reasons to continue smoking. Again, I let my desires trump reality. This is how much of media and society react today.

Charles Barton said...

domb, there are those who believe in magic. Those who believe that the laws of nature do not apply to them, and that there is always a way around the conclusions of sound scoence.

donb said...


To me, there is magic, or something very close to it in nuclear power. The magic is that one can take some metal (like U235), surround with with, say, graphite or water, and it produces heat. LOTS of heat! The metal is only consumed after producing vast quantities of heat. Other metals (like thorium) can be transformed from one metal into another in the same process that produces heat, so that they can in turn produce vast quantities of heat.

If this isn't nearly magic, I don't know what is.

Charles Barton said...

donb the idea for nuclear power emerged from a deep understanding of the laws of nature, and an understanding of how the foces of nature could be controlled. What I object to is a form of magical thinking that says we can escape the laws of nature.


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