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The Case for 100 Percent Renewables Rests on a Lie. Here's What It Teaches Us About Energy and the Environment

Earlier this week an all-star group of energy and climate scholars published a scientific article in a prestigious journal pointing out that a Stanford professor’s proposal for powering the United States entirely on renewable energy sources rests upon a gigantic lie.

Over the last several years, Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo and many politicians have pointed to Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson’s modeling as proof that we can quickly and cheaply transition to 100 percent renewables.

What is the lie? That we can increase the amount of power from U.S. hydroelectric dams ten-fold. According to the U.S. Department of Energy and all major studies, the real potential increase is just one percent of that.

Without all that additional hydroelectricity, Jacobson’s entire house of cards falls apart. That’s because there’s no other way to store all of that unreliable solar and wind energy, given the shortcomings of current battery technologies.

The authors diplomatically call Jacobson’s lie an “error,” but it is in fact a lie and everyone — Jacobson included — knows it.

In his response, Jacobson writes, “Increasing hydropower’s peak instantaneous discharge rate was not a ‘modeling mistake’ but an assumption.”

What is an assumption? It is “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof” [emphasis added].

But what have Jacobson, Gore, DiCaprio and politicians around the world been insisting for years? That Jacobson’s study proves not only that we can power the world with renewables-alone, but also that doing so would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Upon the big lie rest others.

For example, around the world, politicians and renewables advocates seeking to close nuclear plants justify their actions by claiming Jacobson’s work proves that nuclear plants are not needed as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Jacobson himself told the audience during our debate at UCLA last year that California would replace our last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, entirely with renewables — and at a lower cost than keeping the plant running.

Jacobson says these things even though he knows perfectly well that everywhere in the world nuclear plants are closed, fossil fuels are burned instead.

There are other victims, too, as Environmental Progress Fellow Jemin Desai recently discovered.

For his summer project, Jemin has been comparing the mining, material use and waste impacts of different energy sources including renewables like solar and wind, which we tend to think of as having little to no environmental impact.


Environmental Progress staff and fellows

The first thing he discovered is that solar panels in fact contain significant quantities of toxic metals like lead, chromium and cadmium — known carcinogens — and yet no nation outside of Europe has a plan to safely dispose of them. Many could end up in waste dumps in poor communities in Asia and Africa and poison drinking water supplies.

How much solar waste is there? About 300 times more per unit of energy than there is from nuclear power.

As a result, if solar and nuclear waste from producing the same amount of electricity were stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).

The reason for the difference is obvious. Sunlight is diffuse and so a large number of collectors (panels), as well as the land they take up, is required to generate enough electricity. Because nuclear fuel is so energy-dense, very little is required in terms of materials or land.


Sierra Club advertisement claiming solar panels move us “beyond mining”

That the energy density of our fuels determines their environmental impact is intuitive when you think about it for a few minutes, and yet the basic, physical connection between the two has been denied by renewable advocates including Jacobson for decades.

With the publication of the new paper debunking Jacobson’s big hydroelectric lie, that may be changing. Even so, everyone — academic researchers, journalists and policymakers — still has a very long way to go.

It is telling that while there are thousands of articles, studies, books and movies about the relatively miniscule quantities of well-managed spent fuel that comes out of nuclear plants, there is to date only one estimate of how much solar waste the world is on track to produce, and it was calculated for the first time by an 18-year-old nuclear engineering student from UC Berkeley and (proudly) published yesterday by Environmental Progress.

Content Discussion

Guy Dauncey's picture
Guy Dauncey on June 26, 2017

Thanks for this. Solar recycling plants are already being developed in Japan: http://asia.nikkei.com/magazine/20161117-INCOMING/Tech-Science/Japanese-companies-work-on-ways-to-recycle-a-mountain-of-solar-panels

There’s lots of work going on, for a problem that will begin to arise in 20-30 years time: http://www.renewableenergyfocus.com/view/3005/end-of-life-pv-then-what-recycling-solar-pv-panels/

And there’s going to be a huge economic market for it all: https://electrek.co/2016/06/21/solar-panels-recycling-value/

Jemin Desai – can you do another research piece that balances east-to-solve solar recycling with the hard-to-resolve nuclear waste?

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on June 26, 2017

100 % renewable energy is a lie. This is how they usually spin it:

Hundreds of US mayors endorse switch to 100% renewable energy by 2035

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/26/hundreds-of-us-mayors-vow-not-to-wait-for-trump-on-clean-energy

Energy and electricity are not the same thing. All they have committed to is renewable electricity.

wind smith's picture
wind smith on June 26, 2017

Why don’t we make a slurry out of it and use it for oil and gas fracking fluid. They say the toxic stuff they use now will never reach the ground water.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 26, 2017

Thanks for shining a light on the PV waste issue. Back before PV was so much cheaper that CSP, most solar energy advocates touted the benefits of CSP over PV: cheaper storage (using thermal storage) and simple metal & glass construction for a simple-to-recycle waste stream. Now that it’s clear that CSP won’t be cheaper than nuclear, and few cities have agreed to out-source their energy jobs to a far away sunny desert region, we had forgot that those CSP advantages were really PV disadvantages.

The PV/battery waste problem is another reason we should be skeptical of distributed generation as compared to centralized utility scale generation. Distributed waste problems are harder to control and more expensive to manage. In rural areas not far from where I live, it is common to see abandoned furniture on street corners; if people in unincorporated areas won’t pay to use the landfill, will they really pay to have their used PV/battery system hauled away?

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on June 27, 2017

Ok, what is worse to eat: 10kg of flour or 1g of zyankali?
So much about the “waste” argument.
At which places solar plaenl include lead and chromium to your information? Cadmium is present in one kind of thin film cells, but remains there unless they are badly mistreated. but they are a small minority of panels.
Which document are you refering to? The only one I found that fits to your description assumes 87.42 GW of hydropower in the US in 2015 and 87.48 GW hydropower in 2050. So this can not be the document to which you reference.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on June 27, 2017

Yes – Everybody knows.
Even Greenpeace knows.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 27, 2017

Guy, what’s to research? How to safely store spent fuel from nuclear reactors, what most people refer to as “waste”, has been resolved for decades. In 2017 it’s about as challenging as the Hindenburg/Lightning issue, or the Titanic/Iceberg issue.

Spent fuel is extremely valuable. The amount stored at over fifty locations in the U.S. can be re-used as fuel in GE’s new generation of fast-neutron reactors to provide clean electricity for 800-1000 years.

Its energy value may never live up to the value of its reputation, however, which permits Greenpeace to raise hundreds of $millions by scaring the daylights out of people who are into that kind of thing.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on June 27, 2017

Although the authors reject a 100% renewable scenario, they immediately reassert the viability of an 80% scenario:

“A number of studies, including a study by one of us, have concluded that an 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid could be achieved at reasonable cost (1, 2). The high level of decarbonization is facilitated by an optimally configured continental high-voltage transmission network. There seems to be some consensus that substantial amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be avoided with widespread deployment of solar and wind electric generation technologies along with supporting infrastructure.”

Now, BECCS is often cited as necessary to draw down CO2 even after massive reduction in CO2 emissions. Therefore, the biomass component of an 80% scenario can be seen as a partial fulfillment of that requirement. Appropriate technologies for the achievement of that goal might by pyrolysis or torrefaction of the biomass, with an Allam cycle turbine to capture the CO2 for ultimate sequestration.

As to the remaining 20%, this could be done with NuScale SMRs, or more Allam cycle turbines, whether they burn natgas or more biomass produced syngas.

[1] MacDonald AE, Clack CTM, Alexander A, Dunbar A, Wilczak J, Xie Y (2016) Future cost-competitive electricity systems and their impact on US CO2 emissions. Nat Clim Chang 6:526–531.. Google Scholar
[2] NREL (2012) Renewable Electricity Futures Study (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO), Tech Rep NREL/TP-6A20-52409.. Google Scholar

Jeffery Surratt's picture
Jeffery Surratt on June 29, 2017

I think 50% renewable energy use by 2050 is more like it. If gasoline is so bad how come Gore and company have not stopped using it. There are EV’s that I am sure they could afford, unlike us retirees living on $20,000 per year.

John Cooper's picture
John Cooper on June 29, 2017

I’d be more circumspect when using the word “Lie” in a title. That’s playing with fire. As such, I read the rest of your article with a wary eye, and indeed found an agenda, not even well hidden, as it came out immediately.

You engage in inaccurate hyperbole – nowhere have I seen transition to 100% RE described as “quickly and cheaply” – that’s a Straw Man. Then you use phases like “house of cards” “unreliable solar and wind” and “everyone knows it” – really? In a professional piece? You’re losing me in the first few paragraphs. You suggest that storage is inadequate, “given current battery technology,” but make no mention of predicted advances in storage tech, or of alternatives like CCAs coupled with urban virtual power plants, a demand-side alternative to storage that is becoming highly viable with greater numbers of deployed DER systems. Open your mind, explore new business models, if you want to contribute to a healthy, constructive debate.

After that set up you move on to selective treatment of data to introduce this idea of “solar waste.” Any production cycle has a waste stream, and the challenge is to plan for recycling and re-use to address a sustainable strategy. You are really stretching it with your opening graph and later use of height metaphors. First, solar waste is deferred (panel lifecycles suggest no considerable waste for another 20 years) and at that point, recycling and management are entirely feasible. Second, solar waste is relatively manageable – we have time to address a strategy.

Nuclear waste, on the other hand, regardless of volume, is deadly, pernicious, and a thorny problem – thus all the articles. And its danger doesn’t go away, it lasts forever. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, down through the ages. Nobody wants it – except maybe those looking to make a dirty bomb. And waste is just the beginning of a litany of problems associated with nuclear, beginning with siting, moving on to liability, and competitive dispatch of base load, then there’s stranded investment, etc., etc.

Where are you even going wth this argument? If waste is your issue, why not rail against plastic water bottles? Now there’s a problem. Or disposable diapers in landfills. Or how about managing the clean up from obsolete North Sea Oil Rigs, now emerging as an issue in the UK? There are so many directions to take this argument.

In summary – scholarly argument continues with points being made on both sides. But as for Solar vs Nuclear waste? Solar – deferred, manageable – safe. Nuclear –
Immediate, deadly, unmanageable – dangerous. With waste, its quality more than quantity, safe vs dangerous.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on June 29, 2017

Michael,

The NYTimes had an article debunking Jacobson in a recent issue

Several years ago, I made a study and debunked Jacobson’s study as well.

http://www.theenergycollective.com/willem-post/2264202/reducing-us-primary-energy-wind-and-solar-energy-and-energy-efficiency

I sent it to Jacobson asking for comments.

He finally answered after a few insistent emails.

I pointed out to him his proposed system would not work without a nationwide HVDC transmission overlay system to distribute energy from anywhere it is generated and stored to anywhere it is consumed, 24/7/365, year after year, a $500 billion capital investment.

Huffy protestations and “peer-reviewed” assertions.

He did not have such a system in his cost estimate. His study relied on a lot of storage from CSP with 10 – 12 hours of storage in the US southwest, which thus far is proven to be a flop after about $10 billion in Obama/US-DOE subsidies.

He presented his article at Paris COP-21 and starry-eyed folks, wanting to believe anything with 100% on the cheap, swallowed it whole.

Regarding the 100% renewables idea, this article debunks that as well.
http://euanmearns.com/the-quest-for-100-renewables-can-curtailment-replace-storage/

Regarding offshore wind, this article debunks that as well.
http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/a-very-expensive-offshore-wind-energy-folly-in-new-england

Regarding the Energiewende, there is no way Germany will meet its 2020 and 2030 CO2 emission reduction targets.
http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/wind-and-solar-energy-lulls-energy-storage-in-germany

Here is another “saving the world folly” coming up.
http://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/cop-21-world-renewable-energy-and-world-trade

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on June 29, 2017

While the PV|Battery waste is of course a problem that needs to be addressed, I think that as the technology matures, we’ll see vast improvements. Batteries can become self-charging, for example, and may be one day completely biodegradable. Panels will be more efficient. Nuclear waste will never reach that. The only favor for nuclear energy for me is the fact it does not generate as much CO2, but well manufacturing the fuel and transport should of course be taken into account, as well as with any renewables like solar and wind. Then there is the maintenance factor and danger exposed by nuclear plants, as well as the plant building costs. What would be so ecologic about that? Not much I think. So, for me, PV is an option that is the best of all options nowadays available and promises clean growth of our economies. For wind, same logic is valid. Both are applicable to small and big scale.

Michael Hogan's picture
Michael Hogan on June 29, 2017

There’s no question existing nuclear plants should be kept running for as long as it’s determined they’re safe to do so, but it’s not true that the energy produced by shuttered nuclear plants has “everywhere” been replaced by fossil-generated energy. Germany has a lot of problems with its failure to tackle it’s coal problem and the questionable wisdom of its early nuclear phase-out, but if you look at the data nearly all of the drop in nuclear energy production since 2011 (when the first round of nuclear plants were closed) has come from an increase in renewables production, with coal and natural gas flat to declining over the same period. That masks other issues with managing the intermittency of renewables, but on an annual MWh for MWh basis your statement is belied by the data. And as for new nuclear, while there is little question it would be very valuable to have an affordable, flexible nuclear alternative as we move toward full power sector decarbonization, 60 years of history tells us that the current large central station paradigm will never take us there. We need to move decisively past the other Big Lie, which is that that paradigm will ever produce the desired results. All work on new nuclear needs to be shifted to small modular reactors. Finally, as for storage, it is well known but rarely acknowledged in your columns that nuclear at scale is as dependent on storage as renewables at scale in order to serve demand reliably and affordably. Battery storage is expensive, but batteries are not the only alternative. There is vast untapped potential for thermal energy storage associated with existing thermal energy services, available at a tiny fraction of the cost of battery storage and capable of delivering nearly all of the same services. So by all means, let’s sideline the charlatans and have an adult conversation about this.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on June 30, 2017

Although the authors reject a 100% renewable scenario, they immediately reassert the viability of an 80% scenario:

The 100% scenario being rejected is for 100% of all energy.
The 80% scenario asserted is just for electricity.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on June 30, 2017

You’ve stumbled on part of the lie. The debunked document does not assume 87.42 GW of hydro at all. In fact (and you can see this clearly in one of the simulation output figures in that document) the modeled system uses 1300 GW of hydropower, not 87 GW.
By stating 87 GW of hydro in one of their tables while (quietly) running the model with 1300 GW of hydro capacity available, the authors of that study have managed to fool almost the entire world, including you.
Studies that appear to show that 100% renewable energy is cheap and easy always rest on these kinds on tricks. Such studies are carefully crafted to trick the casual reader into thinking the study is sound and the results trustworthy. Experts see through these tricks readily, but the public does not. And that is precisely what these studies are all about: they are not designed to convince experts, but to mislead laypersons.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on June 30, 2017

100% renewables is an inevitability, the only thing in question is how long it will take and how painful the transition will be.

1) The present amount of energy coming from U.S. hydroelectric dams in MWh is a poor indicator of their cumulative power in MW. This is because of the way they are operated, which is based on a complicates set of grid, political, and environmental constraints. Furthermore, the sum total of installed generating power is a poor indicator of the potential power that could be generated from a given dam. Futhermore, the potential power from existing dams is a poor indicator of what could be generated from US rivers and tidal opportunities. Furthermore, the ultimate potential for US rivers and tidal does not begin to count the potential associated with pumped hydro storage.

2) Jacobson’s work does indeed prove that nuclear plants are not needed as an alternative to fossil fuels. Already, onshore wind is less expensive per MW and per MWh and that advantage is only going to get more significant. Offshore wind is now cheaper then fossil plants in Europe, and that will soon be true in the US. Solar in the US southwest is now less expensive than fossil fuels plants and way less than nuclear plants. Why would we opt for expensive nuclear when it comes with 10,000-year headaches?

3) In your statement, “How much solar waste is there? About 300 times more per unit of energy than there is from nuclear power.” You are talking about the amount of spent fuel compared to all the materials embodied in solar systems. You neglect that that spent fuel is radioactive and must be stored at taxpayer/ratepayer expense for thousands of years. You also neglect the remainder of the nuclear installation including the reactor containment components that remain hazardous. The cost of decommissioning a nuclear plant typically exceeds the original cost of building it. Only a fraction of the non-radioactive debris is recyclable.

4) Regarding energy density, you neglect the expensive process of mining and processing ore and the land associated with uranium mines. You also neglect the security zones around nuclear plants, areas that can not be used for other purposes.

5) Old solar panes are 100% recyclable.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on June 30, 2017

No, I asked which document he refered to, since in the document I found there was no plan to build 10x more hydropoer for the US, so like everybody would understand Mr Shellenberg 10 x more hydropower dams, to increase hydropower output by factor 10 in Energy. This is something which would not be possible.
If this is the document Mr Shellenberg referes too, but does not mention (although claiming there is a lie) there is “just a expansion of turbine capacity, and the costs for this expansion are included with reasonable prices which fit to similar projects around the world. So it is less a lie than the many claims about SMR-Reactors up and down here in similar texts, since it’s the cost of already built projects, not hypothetiacal guesses.
So Jacobsen is correct that technically this capacity can be built, with approximately the money calculated in the model, and supplied with enough water to get the energy when needed.
Second question is, if this water can be handeled downstreams, and if everybody would be happy with this.
I know from swizerland that the waterwas are built for roughly 10x theo output at full turbine capacity, to allow a overflow of the reservoirs in case of heavy rain or similar, without causing damage downstreams. Mr Jacobsens assumptions are within this ballpark.
Question would be if it would be cheaper and more simple to get some GW from biolmass (wastes) in real world applications which was excluded in this model, which would cut the hydropowerpeaks a lot. Or from some pumped storage peakers. Or if it would be neccesary to dedicate some money in a downstream reservoir with some hours capacity, whch would smooth out the downstream flow a lot (and would allow pumping this water in reverse direction as well with the same turbines and generators/motors)
But this was not the question of the Study, it is no technical detailed design of what should be built. The question for the study was: can a energy supply system for the US be built with only wind, solar and existing hydropower dams (As far as I could understand it while reading threw it fast.) The answer is : yes, it is theoretical possible, and it would supply the needed energy at every hour threwout the moddeled time. But it would need quite a lot of extra turbines.
So next question would be, for another study: what could be done/added to reduce this amout, or what could be done to build this amout of turbines in reality.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on June 30, 2017

The 80% scenario is what the US is/was aiming for. A lot of the new transmission lines have been going in as part of adding renewable projects. It creates the necessary line capacity required to make them profitable which is part of the reason why utilities were dragging their feet installing them under the 2005 energy plan.

We will be removing heat generation sources and not be compounding the problem. I don’t know if it will be enough. but it might be enough to get it to rain in some places which should help cool, and help plant growth, which can help us get out of the cycle of creating heat to generate electric, to use it to cool.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on June 30, 2017

Helmut,

The document is one of the references on which Jacobsen built his case:

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15060.full

Figure 4 shows modeled hourly heat + power generation for 4 days in January 2055. As you can see, hydro generation exceeds or matches wind generation on each of 4 days – in a system where offshore and onhore wind nameplate capacity is about 2400 GW and hydro 91 GW.

Draw your own conclusion.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on June 30, 2017

I agree with John Cooper, There’s a lot of inaccurate hyperbole in this article. For instance the waste stream of nuclear power is not limited to spent reactor fuel, various components, etc. Uranium mine tailings, which are ignored here, are a much larger problem in terms of volume. Long lived decay products such as thorium-230 and radium-226 are not removed during processing. Also, not all of the uranium present in the ore can be extracted so the processed sludge also contains 5% to 10% of the uranium initially present in the ore. So approximately 85-95% of the initial radioactivity in the ore is retained in the sludge. Uranium mill tailings are normally dumped as a sludge in special ponds or piles, where they are abandoned.. The largest such piles in the US and Canada contain up to 30 million tonnes.That would cover a football field to a height of about 4 miles. In Saxony, Germany the Helmsdorf pile near Zwickau contains 50 million tonnes, and in Thuringia the Culmitzsch pile near Seelingstädt 86 million tonnes of solids. So just one large North American pile, plus the two German ones already climb to about 23 miles into the sky. That would be about 3.5 Everests, to use the hyperbole.

In terms of why nuclear power plants are closing, the main reason is expense. Nuclear is more expensive to maintain and install. The latest Lazard figures show unsubsidized solar and wind to be half as expensive as nuclear.(https://www.lazard.com/media/438038/levelized-cost-of-energy-v100.pdf) There are also fewer headaches regarding siting. One does not have to worry about earthquakes or other disasters as the effects are localized without the kind of wider effects the Fukushima reactor problems have caused. One also cannot count on the competency of management, like when SoCal Edison tried to sneak in a modification of the San Onofre rectors only to have it all go horribly wrong. Can SMR’s be made to work as a different nuclear model? That remains to be seen. No one has really set up a model. It would be a nice backup and base load set up for smaller locations.

And yes, utility scale batteries are already here. Granted the contribution is small, as in less than 0.2% of the CAL-ISO grid. But as you might recall, solar was a pretty small contributor 10 years ago., about 0.22% of the grid. So give batteries 10 years. The tech is already here, it’s just a matter of establishing industrial infrastructure. Today, solar supplies about 14% of the grid and is growing rapidly as the industrial infrastructure matures, and as costs drop. Given that more than 75% of rooftops in the US have solar potential, we can do a lot without increasing the footprint on undeveloped land. Add parking lots, Superfund sites, etc. and you can really make a large contribution in electrical power. So we are on our way to a near 100% non-fossil grid. BTW as a reminder, the grid capacity will have to increase as transportation becomes more electrically based. In my neighborhood they had to add a transformer and a higher capacity line for the EVs here. My neighbor across the street also bought an EV but it charges off the the solar at home and the solar installation at work.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 3, 2017

There are finaances included in the model to extend hydro (new turbines) not to 91 gW, as you claim, but to 1300 GW. And hydro exceeds wind during on eday, on the other 3 days wind and hydro ar on same level for some time, or hydro exceeding win dfor a short time.
It might be worth to discuss if all extensions are possible, but it is not worth to discuss a claim about 91 GW hydro when finances for 1300GW hydro are included in the calculation.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on July 3, 2017

Helmut,

It is simply not possible just to add turbines to existing dams and turn them into pumped storage equivalent. Emptying dams very quickly would cause flooding downstream. And how long would it take for them to fill up? Many dams act as reservoirs, you can’t just empty them.

Environmentalists may be all excited about the 100% renewable energy plan but they would kill this sort of hydro management suggestions PDQ.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on July 4, 2017

Saying that “an 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid could be achieved at reasonable cost” is NOT the same as saying that renewables can supply 80% of all power to the grid at a reasonable cost.

“Decarbonization” includes nuclear power and power from fossil fuels with CCS.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 4, 2017

And the rivers downstream are prepared for the dam spilling over in case of heaviy rainfsall etc. I do not know the nubers for the US, I have just read the numbers of swizerland, there is usually a factor 10 higher than todays turbine flow possible without causing problems downstream. Which brings the whole thing in the right ballpark for Jacobsens model, although I do not think this extreme model (exluding bimass and many other cotributors to the grid) will be a realistic model for building a 1005 renewable grid. It is a edge post odf the big field of possible solutions, being a extreme solutions with it’s restrictions, the optimum soulution will be somewhere more in the middle of the field. It just marks the size of the field in this direction.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on July 4, 2017

Joris and Roger, you’re right, I skimmed the PNAS piece to the paragraph I quoted, and jumped to the wrong conclusion about WWS, sorry! Totally agree we’ll need FF w/CCS and nuclear for total energy decarbonization.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 4, 2017

John, you support your counter-argument with the same fallacies of which you accuse the author, in support offering only the same Greenpeace fabrications recited by anti-nuclear activists since the 1970s.

Nuclear waste is “deadly, pernicious, and a thorny problem,” is it? That’s a remarkably subjective evaluation. Can you name one person who has been killed by nuclear “waste”?

I eagerly await a scholarly response.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 4, 2017

Sean, using renewables to mitigate heat generation from nuclear plants is an answer without a problem.

Nuclear plants generate an infinitesimal percentage of the heat received from the sun every day. It all would be radiated harmlessly out to space, were .58 watts/meter retained by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Fossil CO2 is the problem. And indirectly, the false solutions being propoosed to stop emitting it.

Earth’s Energy Imbalance
https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/hansen_16/

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 4, 2017

Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently created a piece on how solar power will kill coal sooner than you think. It was really upbeat, but one central graph of the piece spells disaster:
https://assets.bwbx.io/images/users/iqjWHBFdfxIU/ie1IJs_7srRA/v0/-1x-1.png

Fossils shrinking from 60% to 40%. Really? And I guess energy consumption will increase by 50%, so the net gain will be close to zero. This is truly disastrous. But why am I rambling about that? Because it’s at the core of the problem! Jacobson delivers lies that postpone real action. You talk about deferred waste and ask us to “open up your mind” to the possibility of future improvements that could make intermittent RE viable for deep decarbonization while slamming nuclear power. This is playing Russian Roulette with the environment, nothing else.

We need to build what’s good today, and not just hope that some innovations will eventually fix this. What’s good today is nuclear power. Its waste issue is technically and economically insignificant, so politically blown completely out of proportion. You willfully exacerbate this and your grandkids likely won’t thank you for it.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on July 4, 2017

You are right, but there is no sense in adding to the heat problem. It is a localized effect and you don’t want the heat to prevent it from raining.

A bigger issue is freshwater use which most nuclear uses a lot of freshwater as does coal and NG. Most areas in the US don’t worry about it. It is an issue out west. Freshwater is an issue in a number of places around the world.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on July 4, 2017

We need to build what’s good today, and not just hope that some innovations will eventually fix this.

We agree!! Wind, solar and batteries are cost competitive today in a number of markets, and prices will continue to decline as we get better at it, and the market will continue to expand.

You are defeating your own goal of reduced CO2 emissions by trying to dump on solar and wind. You should be talking about nuclear replacing gas and coal.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 5, 2017

How good nuclear is can be seen in Hinkley Point. The supply chain is so weak that just after starting construction there is already a delay of two years, because some parts can not be bought on time – along with a significant rise of costs.
The nuclear power plants expected to come from Westinghouse seem to be canceled, since nobody wants to build them, and Hiachi also desperately seeks someone who will finance the construction of the power plants, if they don’t dfind someone with deep pocket in the next months these projects will be cancelled too.
It’s time to accept facts, and to redirect money and political will to improvement of high voltage grids in all directions, and to allow wind and solar to be built in huge amounts whereever someone wants to build them. And to internalise the external costs of fossil fuels.
It’s time to do something in reality, and not waste time with nuclear pipe dreams.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

Wind, solar and batteries are cost competitive today in a number of markets,

No, they aren’t. They are very, very far from that. You’re being tricked by CleanTechnica and such. LCOE for such solutions are so far from cost competitive levels it’s almost hilarious.

You are defeating your own goal of reduced CO2 emissions by trying to dump on solar and wind.

I think the truth is important for correct policy choices. If people, like you, erronously believe intermittent RE + hydro or batteries can reasonably do deep decarbonization now, or that we just need to wait for the cost trajectories to produce the solution, complacency ensues and the currently available solution (nuclear) is stonewalled.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

Well, 10 new reactors per year was connected to the grid in 2015-2016. And in other news, India has started constructing more reactors of Russian origin, the UAE four-reactor project is a success and China is also starting to flex its muscles in the market for nuclear exports. Hinkley C will provide 7% electricity, which is not too bad for a pipe dream, and it is a minor part of the UK new build programme.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

Nuclear maintenance is cheaper than for PV, and its CO2 emissions from construction are much lower than for PV. Nuclear waste is very compact and easily handled. Nuclear should be seen, as an approximation, as a coal plant with no fuel requirements and no emissions. Similar resources needed and similar properties from the grid vantage point. The rest is politics and scare mongering.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

on an annual MWh for MWh basis your statement is belied by the data.

This is your interpretation. My interpretation is this: Nuclear, when shut down, is instantaneously replaced by fossils. Then old fossil generation is gradually replaced by RE. Intermittent RE always has the role of saving fuel in fossil plants. Nuclear is a drop-in-replacement for coal and any NG used in baseload mode. That’s a huge difference.

while there is little question it would be very valuable to have an affordable, flexible nuclear alternative as we move toward full power sector decarbonization, 60 years of history tells us that the current large central station paradigm will never take us there

The opposite is true. France and others have shown 50-80% nuclear is not that difficult. It just requires some political will. It’s cheap, even. To do the same with intermittent RE is unproven.

All work on new nuclear needs to be shifted to small modular reactors.

I don’t disagree about the promise of SMRs, but regulatory agencies are very, very slow. That needs to be adressed and as long as that hasn’t happened, we should build whatever is currently approved. Nuscale should have a go-ahead already, it’s clear from the white paper they’re using standard LWR design in a much safer configuration than what’s traditionally had, so why the h-ck does NRC need to hold it up for 10 years?

Finally, as for storage, it is well known but rarely acknowledged in your columns that nuclear at scale is as dependent on storage as renewables at scale in order to serve demand reliably and affordably.

Because it absolutely isn’t. There’s an enormous difference in storage dependency and this is well known. If you want an “adult conversation”, you shouldn’t try these cheap shots.

There is vast untapped potential for thermal energy storage

You don’t want to store electricity thermally, in general. Shifting some cooling and heating needs hasn’t got very high potential.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

100% renewables is an inevitability

It’s not. Extremely diffuse energy vs extremely dense energy. Why would the diffuse sources win out?

Your number one point is just handwaving that won’t save Jacobson’s lies.

2) Jacobson’s work does indeed prove

Absolutely nothing, since it’s based on multiple falsehoods.

Already, onshore wind is less expensive per MW and per MWh and that advantage is only going to get more significant.

It’s debatable if that’s the case in China and India, for instance. And wind serves to save fuel in fossil plants, but the flip-side of that coin is that the fossil generation is locked in for the duration of the RE assets’ life.

Solar in the US southwest is now less expensive than fossil fuels plants and way less than nuclear plants. Why would we opt for expensive nuclear when it comes with 10,000-year headaches?

Because it doesn’t come with 10,000-year headaches and provides easy deep decarbonization.

You neglect that that spent fuel is radioactive and must be stored at taxpayer/ratepayer expense

The waste handling cost is internalized and low.

You also neglect the remainder of the nuclear installation including the reactor containment components that remain hazardous.

The containment isn’t hazardous to any significant degree. People work in there, you know? The pressure vessel and some more stuff, yes, but that’s not very much, and it’s benign within reasonable time frames.

The cost of decommissioning a nuclear plant typically exceeds the original cost of building it.

Only because the plants were so incredibly cheap to build before regulatory ratcheting set in. From an LCOE point of view, assuming reasonable cost of money, decommissioning doesn’t incur a significant cost. Do the math!

Only a fraction of the non-radioactive debris is recyclable.

Still much, much less than the wind and solar debris.

Regarding energy density, you neglect the expensive process of mining and processing ore and the land associated with uranium mines.

It’s not expensive, it’s cheap and easy. Uranium is abundant. In many instances, you get it more or less for free from copper and silver mines.

You also neglect the security zones around nuclear plants, areas that can not be used for other purposes.

I don’t think he does. And those zones are pretty small.

5) Old solar panes are 100% recyclable.

Everything is, from the perspective of a power point warrior. In the real world, little is recycled in the typical case.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

So approximately 85-95% of the initial radioactivity in the ore is retained in the sludge

So you’re saying that uranium mines remove 5-15% of the radioactivity in the original rock and that’s bad because … the rock needed it?

Not mentioning that uranium ore is typically not very radioactive to begin with.

The largest such piles in the US and Canada contain up to 30 million tonnes.That would cover a football field to a height of about 4 miles.

Such a thin and high pile would be 46 million cubic metres, so you’re saying waste rock has a density quite a bit lower than water. I don’t believe that. I’d put the density of rock at about 2.5, so I’d say ~1 mile high. However, much of it can be put back into the mine.

And of course, the mining activities needed for RE is simply much larger, with larger waste streams, and uranium mining is an extremely small fraction of overall mining. And as I mentioned, often uranium is an additional value stream from copper and silver mines, which gives no additional tailings. So you’re trying to paint this as something huge or special, which it clearly isn’t.

In terms of why nuclear power plants are closing, the main reason is expense. Nuclear is more expensive to maintain and install.

How do you know, when RE additions are heavily subsidised and natgas and coal doesn’t pay their external costs? Also, a lot of the nuclear cost is due to unnecessary resistance from politicians and regulators.

The latest Lazard figures show unsubsidized solar and wind to be half as expensive as nuclear.

Not show, claim. And of course, if you shatter supply chains for nuclear and encourage them for RE, and use the worst nuclear costs you can find and the best RE resources you can find in the US, the result is not that surprising. Doesn’t say anything about the total cost that would be incurred when scaling different combinations to achieve deep decarbonization. If you tried to acheive that with mostly nuclear, supply chains and industrial learning would lower nuclear costs to a fraction.

There are also fewer headaches regarding siting.

Except Lazard has conveniently picked optimal sites…

One does not have to worry about earthquakes or other disasters as the effects are localized without the kind of wider effects the Fukushima reactor problems have caused.

Reactors have always handled earthquakes and now handle tsunamis too. So no worries.

One also cannot count on the competency of management, like when SoCal Edison tried to sneak in a modification of the San Onofre rectors only to have it all go horribly wrong.

If you’re anti-nuclear, management and owners are always incompetent, yet nuclear has a good track record and has saved 2 million lives world-wide to date, according to a NASA study.

And yes, utility scale batteries are already here.

For energy storage, it’s just some trials.

So give batteries 10 years.

Yes, first we should give wind ten years, that was 1997-2007. Then solar 10 years, that’s 2007-2017. Now we should give batteries 10 years, 2017-2027. We lose decades, million dies, AGW accelerates, and your solutions underwhelms. We should build nuclear now, 2-4 a year, to warm up supply chains. Then when your solutions continue to underwhelm and the spell breaks, we can choose to ramp from a more solid base of experience and lower costs. But I guess you don’t want that. All or nothing, chicken-race against the climate, right?

In my neighborhood they had to add a transformer and a higher capacity line for the EVs here.

Just part of the gish gallop of solutions to intermittency. I’m into my second Nissan Leaf now, but I’m using 100% certified nuclear power to charge it.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 5, 2017

But also it is unclear if in UK there will be another reactor beside Hinkley point, because hualong one did not pass allowence process, and westinghouse and hitachi projects are heading towards being cancelled if no investor is found for them.
AE will not build any further reactors, and as it seems south krea too. Leaves china and india, where there is still some slow progress.
Costs for Hinkley point are rising, whild costs for wind and solar are falling.
It looks like this year less than 10 reactors will go online, while wind and solar are increasing installation rates. PV modul manufacturing capacity seems to be busy, and manufacturers for PV module factories arre also busy.
With improvements in sawing technologies, reducing polysilicon consumption from 5,5 to 3,5g/W polysilicon and wafer capacity worldwide will rise (including additional capacities coming online) tosometing like 200GW/year in 2020. Which leaves nuclear in the “others” region.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 5, 2017

This you would need to proove for nuclear + supply chain dow to uranium mines. Show a reasonable over the thumb calculation which maes you think like this, and don’t forget the reactor itself is also waste after use, as well as the non used parts of uranium ore.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 5, 2017

Provide proof your many claims.
e.g. that price of nuclear would be cheap.
Or that solar panels are not recyceled. They are mainly just glass, and aluminium, which is recyceled naturally and without any problem.
Todays modules include around 600g pure silicon, which is also not a problem, and are inerconnected lead free in Europe (remember, there are EU regulations on this), wires are recyceled also, at lest here in germany. Leaving besind the silicon, just the plastic backsheet.
So far the amounts of pure silicon and backsheets are to small to recycle them.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

I didn’t write nuclear “would be cheap”.

I won’t provide proof just like that, because I can’t write dissertations for every comment I make. If you make a credible challenge of anything I wrote, I’ll defend.

Solar panels aren’t recycled, they are landfilled. Glass typically is, and to separate the aluminium is generally not worth it. Lots of private rooftop owners that will just tear down the junk in 10 years or so and drive it off to their local landfill when there’s no subsidies left to be had and no gain in making a repair or to preserve the stuff when redoing the roof.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on July 5, 2017

hualong one did not pass allowence process

It has just started the process, so of course it’s not done.
GDAs completed: EPR; AP1000.
GDAs under way: ABWR (due Dec 2017); Hualong One (due 2021).

westinghouse and hitachi projects are heading towards being cancelled if no investor is found for them.

And no solar will be built if no investor is found. Do you have any more obvious things to say?

AE will not build any further reactors, and as it seems south krea too. Leaves china and india, where there is still some slow progress.

Yes, leaves China and India, Russia, Egypt, Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Iran, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, UK, USA and Vietnam. I agree this is fairly horrible with only 59 reactors under construction and 160 planned or on order, but your beloved coal hasn’t won yet, even if it does in Germany.

Costs for Hinkley point are rising, whild costs for wind and solar are falling.

Is it meaningful to point to a single wind farm and say that wind farm is becoming more expensive?

tosometing like 200GW/year in 2020. Which leaves nuclear in the “others” region.

That would be nice, but solar-positive GTM Research is expecting 110 GW in 2022. If 200 GW, then solar would at least take 1% of global electricity market share per year, but there’s a long way there.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on July 5, 2017

Uranium is an unwanted byproduct of phosphate mining, as well as silver and other metals (the Australian production of uranium is as a byproduct).

Solution mining of uranium extracts no rock and leaves no tailings.

We can already recover uranium from seawater cheaply enough to add less than 1¢/kWh to the cost of power in LWRs; for fast breeders able to use > 99% of uranium, the cost of fuel would be infinitesimal.  The uranium in the oceans is in equilibrium with rocks and is thus 100% renewable.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on July 5, 2017

Funny, the cost of guaranteeing that the lights stay on doesn’t fall with the price of pinwheels and black rectangles.  You still need 100% backup for the so-called “renewables”, and if you count environmental costs of the fuel that backup requires your “cheap” solution just plain isn’t.

If you were an honest broker I would tell you that your problem is that you are comparing LCOE when it is inapplicable and you need to start with LACE (levelized avoided cost of energy) instead, but nothing I say will move you.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 6, 2017

The world is not as simplistic as you think.
First of all, the guaranteed fractionof power for renewables is rising with the grid size you look at.
Second the cost per capacity is drastically falling wether you need baseload or just a backup for a few hours per year. There is a diffence in costs between a nuclear power plant at 6000€/kWp, a coal power plant with all modern filters at 2000€/kWp, or a Diesel or NG genset which is sufficient for 100hours per year at 150€/kWp.
But who cares for price differences of Factor 13-40 among friends….

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 6, 2017

Sean, nuclear does require a lot of water to condense the steam used to generate electricity back into water again. At modern nuclear plants, more than a billion gallons/day – that’s why most nuke plants are located on waterways or next to the ocean, where once-through cooling systems take cool water in then spit warm water back out.

A lot of water is necessary because nuclear generates a lot of energy, and though less could do the job, the water coming out would be too hot for fish and other animals. Diablo Canyon in California uses saltwater from the ocean. Exit water temperature is limited by state law, and depending on the temperature of the ocean that day. It comes out ~15ºF hotter than it went in. In the immediate vicinity of the exit pipes on Paleto Bay it has the effect of replacing the ecosystem from one of Central California to one of Southern California.

Palo Verde, the largest nuke plant in the U.S., is located 15 miles from Phoenix in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. With no fresh nor salt water within several hundred miles, they had to get creative. So engineers developed a system to pipe in recycled wastewater piped in from Phoenix to cool Palo Verde’s six reactors.

With the country’s biggest nuke plant humming along 15 miles upwind, antinuke activists in Phoenix are few and far between. If anything, Phoenix residents are proud of the 5+ billion watts of clean energy generated at a plant cooled off, indirectly, by the beer they drank last night.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 6, 2017

Well, it was expected that utisiation of manufacturing capacities would be around 60% this year as I could read in another article today. But demand remains strong this year, so they lifted capacity utilisation to be expeccted around 80% this year. The 60% utilisation would lead to a installation rate of 85GW this year. The utilisation rate of 80% would result in a somwhat higher amount of installation this year.
A average price of 0,33$/Wp on the world market for modules, and a price of around 650€/kWp for utility scale solar in germany, india, china etc. makes solar financial attractive in many places.
I know several installers for solar equipent in germany which have closed their books for this year. New contracts only for 2018, no workers and no modules available on the market.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 6, 2017

the difference is between “can” and what is actually being done.
Australias contribution is just 12 % of the world market,
Olympic dam again is not the only uranium mine in Australia, there are other mines where the primary product is Uranium.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 6, 2017

So far Westinghouse and Hitachi were the investors to build the power plants in UK. If Hitachi does not find a investor the next months the project will be scrapped.
and with 59 reactors under construction – several of them for decades – the 10 reactor per year to go online will not be reached any more in forseeable future.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on July 6, 2017

I think you need a update how reality looks like : http://www.solarwaste.eu/

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