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Distributive Generation and Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Stuff

Amory Lovins popularized the idea of distributive electrical generation as a foil to the emerging nuclear power industry.  Lovins argued that what was needed was not large nuclear generation facilities, but small localized generating facilities that drew their power from nature.  Such facilities, Lovins maintained, would be low cost and more reliable than large generating facilities such as nuclear plants.  Unfortunately, Lovins did not subject his ideas to rigorous examination. Had he done so, he would have discovered that his idea of distributive electrical generation would break down when applied to the problem of producing the energy required to keep the American economy going.

Lovins’ long term plan required the production of much of America’s energy through the use of solar and wind resources, but solar and wind resources cannot be harvested reliably twenty-four hours a day 365 days a year. Part of Lovings’ justification for his distributive approach was the desirability of local as opposed to long distance electrical generation sources. Distance sources required long distance high voltage power lines to transmit electricity from the generators to the consumers. This is what happens with nuclear power although Lovins’ readers could envision solar cells on the roofs of their homes feeding electricity to refrigerators, light bulbs and dishwashers.

In fact, solar cells only provide electricity a few hours a day. If electricity is to be made available only on a few hours a day basis from local solar cells, it will have to be stored in batteries during periods of peak sunshine. The batteries then discharge electricity at night or when the sun is rising in the morning or going down in the afternoon. This means that a lot of cells have to be devoted to generating electricity for the batteries. Extensive and intensive control systems have to manage the flow of the electricity from the batteries to the dishwasher or to the heater at night.

Similar complications would arise with the use of wind. In most parts of the country there are days when the wind simply does not blow or blows at a very low speed while on other days the wind blows so hard that wind generators have to be shut down in order to prevent them spinning out of control. Again, extensive battery back up systems are required. There are parts of the country where very little electricity is produced by wind, but where there is a high demand for electricity. This is especially the case over much of the country during the summer time. Unfortunately electricity demand tends to peak for the year during hot summer days, just when wind turbines grind to a halt. One solution to the problem is to move the turbines to places where wind is more reliable, for example, the great plains of the north and south west. Large investments in giant wind generating facilities covering hundreds of square miles have occurred in these areas. Electricity gathered from large wind facilities to a central station and then dispatched over long distance high voltage power lines to cities a thousand miles away.

Solar power is most collectible in the desert southwest of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Although the sun still does not shine at night in these localities, in order to take advantage of the generating potential of the southwestern desert areas, solar generated electricity is gathered at dispatch facilities and transmitted long distances as far as the east coast in the renewable concept.

These solar and wind schemes cannot be described as distributive, they seem quite the opposite of what Amory Lovins seems to mean when he discussed distributive generation facilities. In one respect, Amory Lovins is quite correct, it is highly desirable to place electrical generators close to the location of electrical consumers. This insight would seem to support the distributive model, but as we have seen the distributive model does not work with renewable electrical resources. Lovins assumed that the distributive model would not work with nuclear energy, but when I began to analyze the potential of small Molten Salt Reactors, I realized that they had considerable potential to fulfill the requirements of distributive energy.

Traditional reactors have been large and produced over 1000 MW of electricity. The large size of these reactors and their reliability makes them excellent base load electricity sources. The down side is that large reactors may be providing electricity to distant consumers. High voltage lines are not 100% reliable. Every now and then the electrical grid goes down over major portions of the country. This causes major disruptions of energy for hours at a time. Facilities such as hospitals that require 24 hour a day reliability backup their electrical sources with on site diesel powered generators that are started up if the grid goes down.

It is likely that in the future electrical use will extend to energy fields that are currently powered by fossil fuels. This would create even grater demand on a grid system. In addition, the likelihood that backup fossil fuels, such as diesel fuels, might not be available in a world stressed by global warming. Thus, means have to be found to increase electrical reliability and to cope with the consequences of grid failure. One approach might be to scrap or at least limit the gird and use small reactors capable of generating electricity on demand locally. Thus, paradoxically, nuclear power could serve as a basis for a distributive electrical system that would be far more feasible than a renewable based system.

Photo Credit: Nuclear and Distributive Generation/shutterstock

Content Discussion

Paul O's picture
Paul O on August 20, 2013

Why? I see no reason why America should emulate Germany’s mistake forced on it by pressure from “Green” groups..

Paul O's picture
Paul O on August 20, 2013

It doesn’t matter how cheap solar PV gets, there is still none at night.


It does seem that you are stuck on believing that any Kind of Nuclear power has the same characteristics as every other kind. This is not true for airplanes, as it is not true fr reactors either.

You are unwilling to entertain the fact that long before current types became the standard, ther was already a Thorium reactor, and other fast breeder reactors in existence.

Alistair Newbould's picture
Alistair Newbould on August 21, 2013

If it takes “distributed nuclear” to make sure coal gas and oil stay in the ground then so be it.

Another easily implemented way to increase the amount of local solar that can be utilised without disruption to the grid is to match usage with generation instead of the reverse. Thus a deep freeze could be “programmed” to run at peak production times by freeing up the thermal limits. Food is still safely frozen at -5 C as well as -18 C. Current equipment “assumes” a constant supply thus setting close thermal limits on the deep freeze, assuming that when the temperature rises a little it can switch itself back on and draw from the grid. In an intermittent supply world, there would be an over-ride which allows draw during certain “production” conditions (time of day, grid voltage) but restricts draw at other times. A further switch in priorities would occur as temperature in the freezer approached a secondary limit – say -3 C. Other equipment such as clothes washers and dish washers could be operated in a similar way. When you think about it there are very few domestic applications that are time critical.

Now the clever bit is to have 2 “grids” – one highly dependable and stable, the other more variable and likely local – perhaps only within the building or suburb – a “local area grid”. 

As for space heating at night, central heating system water can be heated by solar hot water tubes and stored until needed a few hours later. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on August 21, 2013

Concentrated Solar Power, (CSP) is a version of solar power that has built in storage and is non intermittent. If the “Greenies” would have supported this type,  and maybe used Windmills to increase the amount of heat stored in molten salts  from the CSP, then we’d have been better off.

Instead, one gets the impression that Green groups fell in love with distributed energy generation and the opportunity they saw to up end the power generation system as an instrument of change in and of itself, and not change for the sake of low carbon reliable energy. If this is truly their motive, then they are in error and are playing games with our energy security.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on August 21, 2013

Great article Charles!

American Atomics is proposing exactly what you outline above – 10 MW fast reactors with walk away safety made on an assembly line at $40M a pop.
I don’t know how they will get the project licensed or financed but their blog sure is an interesting read:

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on August 21, 2013

Germany’s solar fleet is achieving a capacity factor of 11%.

The economics of a Germany’s PV are absolutely miserable when compared to other options including nuclear.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on August 21, 2013

There would be no Nuclear Risk with thorium either, and we’d still have power at Night.

There just is no logical reason to Broadly oppose all and any type of nuclear power, without even looking at the science of it. This is not a religious discussion where you oppose something simply because your “Bible” tells you so. If you oppose Thorium based nuclear tell us why.

I have told you why I am not thrilled with solar PV, because there just isn’t any at night, and what there is in the daytime is not steady. It varies from zero to max, and tapers back to Zero at night. This is a huge problem for us to adapt to. 

Why should we adapt our lives to something that dioesn’t suit our ways, when we have alternatives that work well and are safe?

Paul O's picture
Paul O on August 21, 2013

Really? Success?

The six blind men of Hindustan comes to mind.

Germany is pumping out more CO2 and exporting it’s unusable power to other countries in exchanged for those countries’ pumped storag. How is that Success?

Pete Danko's picture
Pete Danko on August 21, 2013

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 25.2 percent since 1990 to 2012, from 1,251 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents to 931 million tons. And its emissions for the years 2008 to 2012, the first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, were 192 million tons below the country’s target.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on August 21, 2013

Solar power with energy storage is still way more expensive than nuclear, or geothermal, or hydro, or wind.  

Opponents of nuclear power keep assuring us that nuclear poses great risks.  We keep having accidents, yet in each case, the fatal cancer outbreaks we are continually warned about never materialize (i.e. the observed increase is always too small to measure, whereas the fatalities from fossil fuel are common enough to easily be measured in medical studies).  The notion that the “big one” is yet to come is often advanced, but from a risk assessment standpoint, Chernobyl was the big one, there is simply no plausible way for an SMR to release more radioactive material than that (because of their small fuel load).

It remains true that the only countries that have substantially eliminated fossil fuel from their electric generation have done so using a combination of nuclear and hydro (see France, Sweden, and Switzerland at IEA website).

So the really big risk comes from anti-nuclearism, namely that the needed breakthroughs in solar energy storage and solar energy cost will not happen, and the resulting high cost will keep us addicted to fossil fuel (the 80% of the time that on average PV don’t provide full output). 


Paul O's picture
Paul O on August 22, 2013

Peter, This proves nothing.

Germany is pumping out CO2 from Dirty Brown Lignite coal,

all because of irrational fear of Nuclear Power..

Please compare the USA, CO2 output at the same time.


Websites that proclaim Germany as green glorious,

and USA less so, will seldom reveal this statistic.


                          2007          2008        2009      2010             2011

Germany …. 826.7170 823.311 772.4220 793.3060 748.4860 USA  …………. 6,026.28 5,844.58 5,435.27 5,636.74 5,490.63





Clearly the USA’s emmissions also decreased in the same time frame

WIthout PV and with Nuclear, and thankfully without dirty brown Lignite

like the Germans use.


George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on August 23, 2013

I think these statistics are a bit misleading as the majority of Germany’s emissions reduction has occured due to energy efficiency and a reduction of per capita energy consumption.

I believe carbon emissions per unit of energy produced have actually increased due to the increased use of coal-fired generation in recent years.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on August 23, 2013

Well Capt D,

I would have you know that there are in fact SMR designs that are in fact completely incapable of meltdown or releasing large amounts of radiation at all whatsoever period end of story.

These include the EM2 module from General Atomics and the Hope 10 design from American Atomics.

These SMRs also provide non-proliferatable fuel

Don’t require uranium mining (run on waste)

and like other SMRs are contained completely underground.

These are much more practical solutions to global warming than solar PV, and if they receive funding near what solar PV has recieved in China (30 billion) and Germany (130+ billion), then these designs will be providing a large amount of global energy.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on August 23, 2013

 Do you really think that solar is going to power the WORLD… Well if you think so, there is only one way at this time (because batteries are not as cheap as molten salt).

Speaking of molten salt, wouldn’t be be easier to install modular (and meltdown proof) reactors requiring FAR LESS materials per unit of usable power produced?

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on August 23, 2013

Hey Nathan, have you been following this at all:

Some pretty bold statements being made by this mysterious startup. I have to wonder if any of the individuals here are involved:

Hopefully its not just a publicity stunt.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on August 23, 2013

Yes nature can destroy PV, light water reactors and molten salt reactors. When it hits PV, a bunch of glass shatters (and we lose energy). When nature (or man) hits the LWR, it could blow up (because of high pressures due to solid fuel and water in the core)… and when nature or man hits the MSR, a mess of solidified salt type material is present. Simply keep it contained as there would be no radioactive liguid or gas, since the reaction would PASSIVELY shut down (by virture of the laws of physics, search it).