Thursday, March 4, 2010

Alternative Energy Fictions

Over a year ago, I posted here on the insane push to scrap our existing energy infrastructure and replace it with a variety of "alternative energy" sources that, other than nuclear power, are deeply cost ineffective and not proven to scale. Two recent articles highlight those realities.

The first from Shannon Love is an exceptionally articulate primer on why replacing our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels with non-nuclear alternative energy is pure fantasy:

Here’s a fact you won’t see mentioned in the public policy debate over “alternative” energy:

There exists no alternative energy source, no combination of alternative energy sources, and no system of combinations of alternative energy sources that can fully replace a single, coal fired electric plant built with 1930s era technology.


Yet many want to make this group of functionally useless technologies the primary energy sources for our entire civilization.

Most discussions of alternative energy talk only about the cost and reliability of the electricity when it leaves the grounds of the alternative-energy installation. This is called the Point of Generation (POG). However, energy is useless unless you have it where you need it, when you need it. It does no good to have plenty of power in Arizona when your work and home are in Michigan. It does no good to have a roaring fire in July when you’re freezing in January. Therefore, the only real factors that count are the cost and reliability at the Point of Consumption (POC).

All current and forecast alternative energy sources fail miserably at POC. When you look at all the hurdles, redundancies and hypothetical/theoretical technologies you have to invoke to make alternative energy reliable at POC, you see they can’t even come close to matching the 80-year-old coal plant.

An obsolete coal plant using 80-year-old technology can provide power where and when you need it. It can be positioned almost anywhere from the equator to the tundra. . . . It can be positioned immediately adjacent to the point of consumption. It works around the clock and in all types of weather. It can easily store weeks or months of coal reserves in a big pile outside. 99% of its offline time is scheduled and it is trivial to build in redundancy to compensate for both scheduled and unscheduled offline time. For the last 80 years, this type of technology has chugged out the electricity all over the world without pause.

“Alternative” energy sources have none of these attributes. They can only be built in specific locations, and those locations are wholly unrelated to the points of consumption. They can only operate under specific weather/environmental conditions, so they cannot fulfill the when of the point of consumption need.

They operate on nature’s schedule not ours. If we could easily operate on mother nature’s schedule, we wouldn’t need the energy in the first place, because we primarily use the energy to alter natural environmental conditions to keep ourselves alive. . . .

Do read the entire article.

The UK is much further along in the green madness than we - though Obama seems determined to catch us up, whatever the economic cost. As I posted here and as discussed by Dr. North of EU Referendum, Brits have seen their energy prices double in the past five years and are staring at exponential rises in energy costs in the future. As discussed in those posts, the things driving up their energy costs are a variety of charges aimed at reducing carbon dioxide. And today there is yet another charge added - "feed in" tariffs to encourage Brits to start generating their own alternative energy through installation of such things as solar panels. This from George Monbiot on just how insane and costly this idea is for the Brits:

Those who hate environmentalism have spent years looking for the definitive example of a great green rip-off. Finally it arrives, and nobody notices. The government is about to shift £8.6bn from the poor to the middle classes. It expects a loss on this scheme of £8.2bn, or 95%. . . .

On 1 April the government introduces its feed-in tariffs. These oblige electricity companies to pay people for the power they produce at home. The money will come from their customers in the form of higher bills. It would make sense, if we didn't know that the technologies the scheme will reward are comically inefficient.

The people who sell solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and micro wind turbines in the UK insist they represent a good investment. . . . The government wants everyone to get the same rate of return. So while the electricity you might generate from large wind turbines and hydro plants will earn you 4.5p per kilowatt hour, mini wind turbines get 34p, and solar panels 41p. In other words, the government acknowledges that micro wind and solar PV in the UK are between seven and nine times less cost-effective than the alternatives.

It expects this scheme to save 7m tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2020. Assuming – generously – that the rate of installation keeps accelerating, this suggests a saving of about 20m tonnes of CO2 by 2030. The estimated price by then is £8.6bn. This means it will cost about £430 to save one tonne of CO2.

Last year the consultancy company McKinsey published a table of cost comparisons. It found that you could save a tonne of CO2 for £3 by investing in geothermal energy, or for £8 by building a nuclear power plant. Insulating commercial buildings costs nothing; in fact it saves £60 for every tonne of CO2 you reduce; replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs saves £80 per tonne. The government predicts that the tradeable value of the carbon saved by its £8.6bn scheme will be £420m. That's some return on investment. . . .

Solar PV is a great technology – if you live in southern California. But the further from the equator you travel, the less sense it makes. It's not just that the amount of power PV panels produce at this latitude is risible, they also produce it at the wrong time. In hot countries, where air conditioning guzzles electricity, peak demand coincides with peak solar radiation. In the UK, peak demand takes place between 5pm and 7pm on winter evenings. Do I need to spell out the implications? . . .

We don't need to guess the results: the German government made the same mistake 10 years ago. By 2006 its generous feed-in tariffs had stimulated 230,000 solar roofs, at a cost of €1.2bn. Their total contribution to the country's electricity supply was 0.4%. Their total contribution to carbon savings, as a paper in the journal Energy Policy points out, is zero. This is because Germany, like the UK, belongs to the European emissions trading scheme. Any savings made by feed-in tariffs permit other industries to raise their emissions. Either the trading scheme works, in which case the tariffs are pointless, or it doesn't, in which case it needs to be overhauled. The government can't have it both ways. . . .

(H/T EU Referendum)

There are significant opportunity costs for engaging in this alternative energy madness. While there are current costs to each person for having to subsidize this push to alternatives, we are also neglecting both our existing infrastructure and our future supplies of coal and oil. Obama's war on coal today may only be making the back pages of the newspaper, but its real effect will be in a decade or so out, when we are paying skyrocketing costs for energy that may well not be be there when we want to flip the switch.


OBloodyHell said...

> we are also neglecting both our existing infrastructure and our future supplies of coal and oil

Oh, much more than that. As you note, nuclear, if you actually wanted to cut carbon emissions, is the way to go (geothermal and hydro are location dependent, while a nuke plant can be built anywhere a coal plant can be built)

So it's clear that the best idea would be to analyze what makes building and operating a nuke plant
a) expensive
b) "nominally" dangerous (public hysteria to the contrary, they aren't dangerous even now)

One of the smartest things to do would be to create a modular design which could be built anywhere and, most critically, mass produced. Such a design could be quite failure resistant as well as safe from terrorist abuse or attack (Abuse in the sense of stealing purportedly nuclear weapon making material, attack in the sense of scaring people).

Such plants might be designable to even be smaller than standard nukes are, which are usually much higher in rated generating capacity than coal and oil plants are (This assists with the "PoC" issue Shannon mentions)

There is no nation on earth with the technical expertise to do this design job better (Though Japan and France might come close, for various reasons).

This could be a lucrative source of money for the indefinite future -- licensing and construction of component modules and parts for these modular nuclear installations.

But let's face it:
Power generation is not the goal.

POWER, and not of the electric variety, is the goal.

cdor said...

My head is swimming with all those numbers. I have some simple numbers. The USA has a 14 trillion dollar debt and between medicare, medicaid, and social security, a minimum of 65 trillion in unfunded liabilities. The good news is that on a balance sheet there is also the asset side of the page. This is what drives me nuts, yet gives me hope, at the same time. Between our coal, oil shale, already discovered oil, and natural gas reserves we have the barrel of oil equivalent of approximately 3 trillion barrels. This number does not yet mention the fact that we haven't done any serious exploration of our coastal off shore areas for 30 years. Seventy-five percent of the land holding these reserves are Federal. That means they are owned by you, me, and every other citizen of this country. At $50 per barrel, those assets amount to $150 Trillion minimum. We must defeat the environmental communists and take control of our assets again. That was Sarah Palin's strength that McCain never harnessed because he is an environmental communist himself. At a minimum he has been brainwashed by the global warming cap and traders. What a waste of valuable assets!

And Bloody, check this out:

I hope the link works, if not google "mini nuclear".

OBloodyHell said...


"The NRC cannot engage in any meaningful, formal technical interaction with the potential applicant until we receive those reports. Because of the very limited amount of test data and lack of operating experience available for a uranium hydride reactor, the NRC staff anticipates that a licensing review would involve significant technical, safety, and licensing policy issues.”

Right. It's pretty obvious the reason we aren't already doing these is a lack of interest from the Admin, who should be pushing them like hell. Obviously full testing and design analysis needs to be done before widespread use, but still -- this is the kind of thing The Big O ought to be pushing as a growth industry.

So of course they're getting ignored.

Are we surprised?

We are not.