Thursday, September 16, 2010

Energy: Renewables and Efficiency won't work, but the Molten Salt Reactor can.

In order to be reasonable assured that replacement energy resources of the current fossil fuel based energy economy, serious attempts should be made to identify plausible options. Most 2050 replacement energy plans, both for the United States and globally, do not offer anywhere near a one for one replacement for current energy sources. Indeed, much of the energy in future energy plans comes from a source that can be labeled, unwarranted assumptions.

Take for example the Zero Carbon Australia, 2020 report which claimed that all of Australian energy could com from renewable energy sources by 2020. Ted (F.E.) Trainer, a well known Australian energy theorist pointed to some of the plans flaws,
To summarise, my back of the envelope impression is that when the foregoing points are added the ZCA conclusion is out by the following factors:
i. The efficiency gain assumed for electric vehicles should be perhaps halved.
ii. The assumed proportion of travel that can be transferred to electric vehicles is too high, in view of how well people and freight can be got to intended destinations by light vehicles and public transport, and in view of what people will accept.
iii. The embodied energy costs of plant might be much more than 10 times as high as has been assumed.
iv. Far more storage for solar thermal needs to be assumed, perhaps 96 hours, as distinct from 17.
v. The amount of solar thermal capacity might need to be trebled I am right about the peak vs average issue.
vi. Very optimistic assumptions and estimates have been made throughout, including regarding costs.
Trainer was not the only critic of the ZCA plan to point out its unrealistic optimism. DaveBurraston has offered fact based critiques of the ZCA plans assumptions about wind implementation time, and solar facility construction times Martin Nicholson and Peter Lang, offered a long and detailed critique of the ZCA plan. They note,
BZE make a number of assumptions in assessing the electricity demand used to calculate the generating capacity needed by 2020. In summary these are:
1. 2008 is used as the benchmark year for the analysis. BZE defend this by saying “ZCA2020 intends to decouple energy use from GDP growth. Energy use per capitais used as a reference, taking into account medium-range population growth.”.
2. Various industrial energy demands in 2020 are reduced including gas used in the export of LNG, energy used in coal mining, parasitic electricity losses, off-grid electricity and coal for smelting.
3. Nearly all transport is electrified and a substantial proportion of the travel kmsare moved from road to electrified rail including 50% of urban passenger and truckkms and all bus kms. All domestic air and shipping is also moved to electric rail.
4. All fossil fuels energy, both domestic and industrial, is replaced with electricity.
Demand is reduced through energy efficiency and the use of onsite solar energy.
the net effect of these assumptions is to reduce the 2020 total energy by 58% below the 2008 benchmark and 63% below the ABARE estimate for 2020.
The plan thus assumes that over 50% of energy demand will simply disappear by 2020 because of efficiency improvements. Even given wildly optimistic assumptions about the growth of energy efficiency and its permanence, it is unrealistic to imagine that efficiency growth would lead to a 50% decline in Australian energy demand by 2020. But beyond ZCA's highly improbable assumptions about the gross increase in efficiency, is the highly questionable assumption that all efficiency gains will endure without rollbacks. In this respect ZCA resemble other pro-renewable ideology driven future energy plans. Yet a well established principle of classic economic theory suggest that efficiency is far from being a royal road to energy savings . The principle, called Jevons Paradox asserts that increased energy efficiency leads to increased energy use. Numerous scholars including Blake Alcott have questioned assumptions about energy efficiency made by Amory Lovins, and numerous renewables advocates. Alcott writes,
One certain conclusion, though, is that if Jevons is right, then efficiency policies are simply counter-productive. Even taxes on fuel or CO2 will be compensated by efficiency increases, and moreover they face the problem that tax revenue also gets spent on material and energy (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996, p. 20).
And finds a further paradox,
By enabling population and affluence to rise, both business-as-usual and policy-induced efficiency gains are partial causes of environmental stress.
Thus at the very least, the assumption that efficiency gains will bridge the gap between current fossil fuel powered energy sources and the limited capacity of renewable energy sources to meet future societal demand for energy, we must acknowledge that the argument for a Malthusian collapse of civilization in a future energy crisis, has a real basis. Yet conventional renewable energy plans such as the ZCA2020 plan suffer from a serious flaw. They assume that nuclear power cannot and will not play an important role in the transition to a post carbon energy order. Were this assumption were to prove true, it can be argued that little will prevent the Malthusian collapse of civilization, but there are strong reasons for rejecting the assumption of a none nuclear future.

Critics of nuclear power assert that nuclear power is too expensive to serve as a practical source of post-carbon energy. The best thought out presentation of this argument is presented by Mark Cooper. But Cooper's research is seriously flawed, by a perspective that is limited to France and the United States, and by a perspective that assumes only the highest possible costs, rather than a range of future cost possibilities.. In fact new nuclear costs in Asia are quite low. For example the EIA reports that current levelized nuclear power costs in South Korea run from $0.029 to $0.048 per kWh. the high rang assumes a higher than current interest range. The levelized cost for nuclear power in China runs from $0.03 to $0.055 per kWh. These prices are very competitive with coal and extremely competitive with renewable costs in China and South Korea. The same source reports the levelized power costs of nuclear power in the United States to be $0.048 to $0.077, a cost which is very competitive with renewables. The levelized nuclear cost range for France is similar. These cost ranges fall within the current range of electrical prices charged in the United States, and are well below the current electrical price range in France.

But beyond the exaggerated cost claims about nuclear power, critics of nuclear power frequently ignore opportunities to decrease nuclear costs. In fact numerous steps can be taken to lower nuclear costs. These include factory manufacture of reactors, recycling the site and equipment from old coal fired power plants. It is far easier to transport small reactors than large reactors from factories, and small reactors can be set up far more quickly. Rapid manufacture lowers interest cost. Thus the movement to small, factory manufactured reactors holds potential for lowering nuclear cost.

In addition a switch to a more advanced nuclear technology, the molten salt reactor, has a significant potential for further lowering nuclear cost. MSRs are both simple and compact, thus potentially lowering materials input costs, as well as manufacturing cost. MSRs also produce far higher temperatures, opening the door to providing industrial heat, and combined heat and power uses. Waste heat from MSRs could be used in nuclear desalinization systems, opening the does for further income streams. Thus rather than offering one use for its heat, a MSR could operate an industrial heat topping cycle, an electrical middle cycle, and a desalinization bottom cycle, easily pushing total thermal efficiency to well above .50. These multiple uses would significantly lower the levelized cost for electrical generation.

Because of their high thermal efficiency MSRs can be manufactured in small sizes without sacrificing their efficiency when compared to large conventional reactors. Thus the MSR is an excellent candidate for factory manufacture. Molten Salt Reactors can also be air cooled, a feature that adds to their flexibility.

Because of their simplicity, safety, potential ease of manufacturing rapid set up, and because they have a virtually unlimited fuel supply, Molten Salt Reactors like the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor offer a significant route to a post carbon energy deployment. LFTRs in particular offer solutions to the nuclear waste problem, can produce their own fuel in a way that will prevent nuclear proliferation, and have the potential to produce electricity at a cost that is lower than conventional nuclear power plants, or renewable electrical sources. Thus MSR technology as to potential to be the energy silver bullet.


Anonymous said...

While nuclear technology is firmly in the 21st century, the minds of those against it are pure 1970's vintage. Getting a new type of nuclear plant approved by a federal bureaucracy full of aging hippies will be an exercise in futility. While these new types of nuclear plants are feasible technically (and maybe even economically), they will never be able to secure the massive investment capital needed because of the political and regulatory hurdles that special interests will inevitably throw up.

The re-certification of California's Diablo Canyon plant is a prime example.

Charles Barton said...

Anonymous, excellent comment.

Charles Barton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.


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