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How Much Land Does Solar, Wind and Nuclear Energy Require?

A story of golf courses, bombing ranges, and wiser energy choices

Full Spectrum: Energy Analysis and Commentary with Jesse Jenkins 

UPDATE: Post updated on June 26, 2015 to correct nuclear and wind land use figures and add summary table at end.

What kind of energy system has the smallest impact on the natural world?

This seemingly straightforward question is actually bedevilingly complex, as evidenced by the rich discussions and debate at the 5th annual Breakthrough Dialogue hosted by the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based think tank. [Full disclosure: I worked as Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Institute from 2008-2012].

The impacts of energy systems on the human and non-human environment are manifold, from climate change to ocean acidification, air pollutants to mining, ecosystem damages to physical land footprint.

While averting climate change dominates so much of the discussion about how to shrink the impact of energy systems on the environment, once we limit ourselves to a menu of low-carbon energy sources, real environmental tradeoffs still remain.

When it comes to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, the diffuse nature of these resources and the relatively large land area requirements that result is often held up as a barrier to widespread adoption.

Do we really have enough land to turn en masse to solar and wind energy to power modern economies? Or is land use a showstopper for renewable energy?

The reality is that, excluding biomass (more on that later) and with the exception of a few densely populated countries with relatively poor renewable resources, the land area required for widespread renewable energy adoption is relatively minor, especially compared to other human uses of the landscape.

Let’s look at the numbers…

The recently released MIT Future of Solar Energy study contains this useful infographic, which puts everything into perspective.

Land use and solar energy
Source: The Future of Solar Energy, MIT Energy Initiative 2015

According to the MIT authors, powering 100 percent of estimated U.S. electricity demand in 2050 with solar energy would require roughly 33,000 square kilometers (sq-km) of land. That’s if we spread solar panels evenly across the entire country. If we concentrate solar production in the sunniest regions, the total land footprint falls to 12,000 sq-km.

Those sound like big numbers. On the one hand they are. Massachusetts (where I reside) spans about 27,000 sq-km, for comparison.

On the other hand, the United States apparently devotes about 10,000 sq-km of land just to golf courses. And as the infographic illustrates, it’s agriculture and forestry that truly drives humanity’s footprint on the natural landscape.

In reality, no one is calling for 100 percent solar energy. Even the most bullish renewable energy advocates typically envision solar providing less than half and usually no more than a quarter of U.S. electricity. (See: “Is There An Upper Limit to Variable Renewables”)

If solar provided one-third of Americans’ electricity in 2050, it would require just 4,000-11,000 sq-km.

In other words: with an area no larger than the amount of land currently devoted to golf courses, we could power a third of the country with solar energy.

An area of land no larger than that devoted to golf courses could power one-third of American electricity with solar power
Solar panels spanning an area of land no larger than that devoted to golf courses could power one-third of American electricity needs. Image source: Sunkist Country Club

That assumes we build solar farms on undeveloped land, in deserts or other untrammeled areas. If instead, we put solar on one quarter of U.S. rooftops and across parking lots, industrial brownfields, landfills, and other degraded lands, this total land footprint would shrink dramatically.

If carefully sited, it may even be possible to power a third of the country with solar without measurably expanding humanity’s land use footprint. Accomplishing that would end up costing more, as large solar farms in the desert are usually the cheapest way to harness solar’s potential. But if land use is your bellwether, there’s no reason not to embrace solar power.

What about wind energy?

As I discussed with Robert Wilson in this recent column, wind farms span a larger area than an equivalently-productive solar farm.

Powering one-third of the country’s projected 2050 electricity demand with wind energy could take a land area spanning on the order of 66,000 sq-km, according to land use figures calculated by Australian environmental scientist and Energy Collective contributor Barry Brook.

That’s a lot of land, but only about twice as much land as we’ve already devastated with coal mining or three times as much land as we’ve bombed to shit in military test ranges, according to the MIT study.

However, that’s the total land area spanned by the wind farms. Wind turbines are spaced out, however, and wind energy can cohabitate perfectly well with farming, grazing, and other productive uses of the underlying land.

The direct land use impact associated with wind turbine pads, roads, substations and transmission lines is much smaller.

According to data collected by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on dozens of U.S. wind farms completed before 2009, the land area permanently taken out of production by wind farms amounts to just about 1 percent of the total area spanned by the wind farm. Another 2 percent of the total area is temporarily impacted during construction activities, used for staging areas, temporary access roads, etc.

Land use and wind energy
Source: Denholm et al. 2009, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Powering one-third of the country in 2050 with wind farms would thus truly impact only on the order of 2,000 sq-km, of which less than 700 sq-km would be permanently removed from production.

That’s an almost trivially small amount of land, equal to only 7 percent of the land area wasted, er, devoted to golf in this country.

Update June 26, 2015: Wind land use figures in original post were rounded to 60,000 sq-km for one-third of U.S. electricity. More accurate figure of 66,000 sq-km included above, with updates to direct and temporary land area impacted accordingly. End update.

If well sited and co-located on already disturbed and productive agricultural lands, wind farms could thus fuel a sizeable fraction of America’s energy demand without expanding the human footprint on the land in any meaningful way, except aesthetically.

Wind farms co-habitate just fine with other productive uses of the land, including grazing and agriculture
Wind farms co-habitate just fine with other productive uses of the land, including grazing and agriculture. Image source: Shutterstock

Indeed, as the MIT infographic makes abundantly clear, and as anyone who has flown over or driven across America’s vast agricultural heartland has seen first hand, farming and forestry are far and away the real drivers of humanity’s impact on the landscape.

Croplands span a staggering 1.65 million sq-km in the United States, an area almost as large as France, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. A majority of the 5.2 million sq-km of forests, grasslands, pasturelands, and rangelands in America are also under active management, placed into service for forestry, grazing and other human activities.

Agriculture and forestry has thus already disturbed three to four orders of magnitude more land area than would be impacted if we powered two-thirds of the country with wind and solar together.

That’s no reason to ignore the imperative to responsibly site wind and solar energy in order to limit their ecological impact, but it also means that discussions about shrinking humanity’s physical footprint on the planet should center on agriculture and forestry, not solar or wind energy.

That’s also why biomass makes so little sense from an ecological perspective.

Corn ethanol supplies only about 4 percent of transportation fuel in the United States, yet already requires 66,000 sq-km of agricultural lands, about five to ten-times more land than would be required to derive two-thirds of the country’s electricity from wind and solar.

Biomass for electricity is just as bad, requiring an order of magnitude more land than solar power, according to Brook.

While energy density is thus no reason to turn our backs on wind or solar energy, biomass is another story. From an ecological perspective, we would be wise to severely limit the use of biomass, perhaps to high-value uses without other alternatives, such as a bio-based replacement for high-density jet fuel.

Nuclear power is of course the densest form of energy harnessed yet by humankind. A ton of nuclear fuel used in a light-water reactor contains more than 200,000 times more energy than a ton of coal, making nuclear five orders of magnitude more energy dense than fossil fuels.

Nuclear fuel is so compact that only two grams of natural uranium, about the weight of two paperclips, would fuel 100 percent of an average British person’s energy needs for a day, according to Cambridge University engineering professor David Mackay.

Four grams of uranium would be sufficient to meet a fuel-hungry American’s daily needs. Slightly more than 3 pounds would power your life for an entire year.

Uranium weighing as little as this sack of potatoes could fuel an American's entire energy needs for a year

Uranium weighing as little as this three pound sack of potatoes could fuel an American’s entire energy needs for a year. Image source: Sun-Glo of Idaho

That incredible density means that everything associated with the nuclear fuel cycle—from the size of the reactors themselves to the impact of mining to the amount of spent nuclear fuel that must be stored or reprocessed at the end of the cycle—scales down accordingly.

To fuel one-third of the United States’ 2050 electricity demand with nuclear power would require only 440 sq-km, according to the land use figures compiled by Brook.

Update, June 26, 2015: It was brought to my attention that the land use figures used by Brook and Bradshaw assume “fourth generation” nuclear reactor designs and are thus not appropriate for comparison to current generation solar and wind here. Brook and Bradshaw assume a land use intensity of 0.1 sq-km per terawatt-hour per year (sq-km/TWh/year) of generation for fourth generation nuclear, which was the basis for the calculation above. My apologies for not closely veryifying the assumptions behind the Brook and Bradshaw paper. 

Thanks to commenter “Som Negert” for providing a link to this table compiled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which lists the power output and total site area for all nuclear reactors in the United States.

Using NRC data, I calculate that the actual U.S. nuclear fleet spans 1.02 sq-km per TWh per year of generation (assuming an average 90 percent capacity factor for all reactors). That figure includes the full site area for each reactor, including buffer zones and cooling ponds/lakes etc. in addition to the reactor site itself, and is two orders of magnitude less energy dense than Brook and Bradshaw assume. It does not include land area required for uranium mining or spent fuel storage.

Using these real-world figures, I estimate that suppyling one-third of projected 2050 U.S. electricity demand with nuclear reactors would require nearly 1,500 sq-km of land. That’s still only 15 percent of the land currently devoted to golf courses in the United States.

Using these updated figures, nuclear energy is still less land-intensive than solar or the total land area spanned by wind farms, but nuclear’s land requirements are larger than the land area actually taken out of production by wind farms, and equivalent to the total area disturbed during and after construction of wind farms. At the same time, the cooling ponds/lakes and buffer zones at nuclear sites are also often used as recreational sites or wildlife sanctuaries, so only a portion of the total site area spanned by a nuclear facility is devoted solely to electricity generation. 

The most compact nuclear power facility in the United States is the 84 acre San Onofre site near San Diego, California (now closed), which has a land intensity of as little as 0.017 sq-km/TWh/year. 

If every reactor was able to utilize natural cooling and was built on a site as compact as the San Onofre site, powering one-third of U.S. electricity in 2050 would require as little as 24.3 sq-km, demonstrating the incredible potential density of nuclear energy.

But as they say: real-world mileage may vary. End Update.

The density of nuclear energy is a thus major advantage, from an environmental perspective. More nuclear energy means fueling humanity’s energy appetite will require a substantially smaller physical footprint.

Minimizing the land use footprint of our energy system is an important part of considering the most environmentally benign energy portfolio. But it’s only a part.

Some advocates of nuclear energy take a philosophical preference for energy density to extremes, arguing that nuclear’s density makes it wholly superior to wind or solar energy.

Yet as we’ve seen, land impact is hardly a barrier to widespread use of wind or solar energy, and of course, land use is just one of several important ecological metrics to balance.

As Bradshaw and Brook, a staunch nuclear advocate himself, write:

Because there is no perfect energy source … conservation professionals ultimately need to take an evidence-based approach to consider carefully the integrated effects of energy mixes on biodiversity conservation. Trade-offs and compromises are inevitable and require advocating energy mixes that minimize net environmental damage.

Updated June 26, 2015: A reader requested a summary table comparing results, which I’ve created below.

Land use requirements of different energy resources
Click table to enlarge 

Jesse Jenkins's picture

Thank Jesse for the Post!

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 24, 2015

Jesse, land use is a bit of a straw man objection and is obviously not the biggest challenge solar faces. More daunting are its expense and intermittency. The MIT study operates under the assumption that

…every kWh of energy produced by solar generators can be fully utilized to meet demand regardless of when it is generated.

Unacknowledged is a similar assumption for where it was generated – that energy available in one location will be freely transferable anywhere in the country it’s needed. The second assumption is wildly unrealistic; the first would require lossless storage and thus is physically impossible.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on June 24, 2015

There is a current article in “The Economist” that frames some of your “biomass” analysis:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/06/economist-expl...

Basically, we have two types of agriculture; new technology and old technology. We are improving global food supplies by new technology and would already be starving with old technology. So we can be smart or we die.

Then I read this kind of analysis, and I feel forced to try politely say this is less smart than we need to be considering our bioenergy options. It is hard to know where to even start discussing useful opportunities for better nutrition, cleaner air and water, healthier habitat.

Clearly, agriculture and forestry are doing some things very right and deserve respect for their sophistication and vital contributions.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on June 25, 2015

Nuclear fuel is so compact that only two grams of natural uranium, about the weight of two paperclips, would fuel 100 percent of an average British person’s energy needs for a day, according to Cambridge University engineering professor David Mackay.

Four grams of uranium would be sufficient to meet a fuel-hungry American’s daily needs. Slightly more than 3 pounds would power your life for an entire year.”

These numbers are assuming only the U235 is utilised, and the rest of the uranium – more than 99% of it – is simply thrown away. Since modern reactor technologies already being implemented by a number of countries today utilise almost the complete 100% amount of natural uranium, this assumption seems overly conservative.

Using modern nuclear technology available today, 4 grams of uranium can supply a fuel-hungry American’s daily total energy needs not for 1 day, but for at least 100 days. Daily uranium consumption per American would amount to less than a tiny 0.04 grams per day. That’s less than the weight of three grains of rice. The earth contains about 400.000.000.000.000.000.000 grams of uranium and thorium. That’s enough to completely power the lives 10 billion Americans for almost 3 billion years.

Of course, we probably won’t consume all the uranium and thorium in the earth – much of it is located too deep in the earth for us to reasonably get at – but even if we consumed just one millionth of the uranium and thorium resource, that would give humanity thousands of years of carbon-free energy. It would solve climate change and save the lives of millions of people annually who currently die from air pollution and/or lack of access to affordable modern energy. It gives us time for an orderly, equitable and responsible transition to non-nuclear energy, if and when we desire it and can afford it.

Furthermore, there would be no need to mine the earth at all. We could obtain all the uranium we need from the oceans. Offshore uranium absorption ‘farms’ would be out of sight, silent, clean, safe, and would deliver inexhaustible supplies of uranium for use in modern nuclear reactors supplying energy cheaper than coal. It would eliminate existing conflict over energy supplies, ending resource wars. If we wanted to, we could place the absorption farms on the oceanic gyres where we could use them as a platform for launching credible efforts to clean-up the otherwise unsolvable ‘plastic soup’ nightmare which resides there. Uranium absorption and water filtration cleaning (to get rid of the plastic pollution) can be combined at little additional cost.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on June 25, 2015

 

Much depends on where you live. Saudi Arabia has started a big push in solar. They have a lot of otherwise unusable land and a high percentage of sunny days. 

What they don’t have is water, and at present they actually, in some places, desalinate water to boil in power plants. Solar won’t need any water.

Nuclear need a steady stream of cold fresh water, right? 

I recall during a drought many years ago, some reactors in the U.S. southeast were in danger of having to shut down.

So you could have a scenario in places where nuclear would become unavailable for lack of water over long periods of time, especially if you built a lot of it.

Also, I was reading an article in MIT News yesterday saying a company has been spun off to develop batteries using a new process that will cut the price in half. They are presently focussed on utility scale batteries. They are talking about $100/KwH of storage.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 25, 2015

Hops, nuclear doesn’t need fresh water, and Saudis have coastal access to both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

If the power plant is next to the sea, a big river, or large inland water body it may be done simply by running a large amount of water through the condensers in a single pass and discharging it back into the sea, lake or river a few degrees warmer and without much loss from the amount withdrawn. That is the simplest method. The water may be salt or fresh. Some small amount of evaporation will occur off site due to the water being a few degrees warmer.

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Cooling-...

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 25, 2015

Do we really have enough land to turn en masse to solar and wind energy to power modern economies?”

Those of us living in the sparsely populated heartland could power our own needs with solar and wind many times over;  those living in dense cities apparently cannot.  Additionally, source variability and supply-demand mismatch are a huge concern which will strongly favor the continued dependence on fossil fuels (the available non-fossil solutions all constitute huge problems on their own: high cost storage, expensive and contentious grid expansion, expensive dispatchable fuel synthesis).  These issues are technically solvable in the US, but politically they will be very difficult; in many other countries the idea of entrusting one’s energy security to faraway grid participants and the challenge of creating a fair market structure (that is not dependent of fossil fuel as the price setter) will be even more problematic.

So the real problem with solar and wind is the fact they are distractions that prevent us from embracing the more important solution: nuclear energy.  It is rather analagous to putting a McDonald’s next to the school cafeteria (this happened at a college near me; the result was exactly what one would expect, the cafeterial service has now been replaced with four different fast food shops, and no healthy food is available at all).

Great points about the problems with biomass Jesse.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on June 25, 2015

 

Salt water is pretty corrosive. Back in the 80’s I lost automobiles to rock salt. Does it cost more to use sea water as far as expense of parts or replacements?

 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on June 25, 2015

No land is required. We have millions of homes and companies that can use the power direct with no leaky GRID or transmission lines or transformers.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on June 25, 2015

The US has several coastal nuclear reactors cooled by salt water. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on June 25, 2015

Note that solar installation on individual rooftops costs almost double that of utility scale ground installations per Watt. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on June 25, 2015

“…To fuel one-third of the United States’ electricity demand with nuclear power would require only 440 sq-km…”

The derivation of the land use figures from Brook (Table 1, nuclear  = 0.1 km^2/TWh/yr) are unclear. As Jesses suggests, because of energy density of nuclear fuel I have little doubt that the reactor itself rises well above  alternatives for power density.  But other factors may sometimes detract from the reactor density advantage. For instance, the US North Anna 1.9 GW nuclear plant had a man-made dedicated 53 km^2 lake built for cooling water.  If the Lake Anna was included in a power density calculation per the Brook figure North Anna should be a ~60 GW facility.  BTW, the 53 km^2 of cooling lake receives ~53 GW of solar insolation in favorable conditions for some hours.  


Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on June 25, 2015

This is true for Residential rooftop but Commercial rooftop pricing is much closer to Utility.  It is now down to $2.19/W vs. $1.55/W for Utility. see below

A really interesting use case of Commercial solar surfaced recently when Southern California Edison (SCE) signed a deal for 33MW of solar on 17 large commercial buildings in LA area.  There are plenty of large industrial buildings in cities and these solar installations can be strategically located to provide a maximum benefit to grid.  

http://www.seia.org/research-resources/solar-market-insight-report-2015-q1

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 25, 2015

Hops, from a materials perspective it does cost more. Anything that comes in contact with seawater is a copper/nickel alloy (typically 90/10 Cu/Ni) and needs to be replaced every 20 years. Because the ocean acts as a massive heat sink there are other advantages to once-through seawater cooling which may offset the materials cost disadvantage.

Titanium shows the best corrosion resistance to saltwater, with cooling tubes showing no evidence of corrosion after 40 years in service. Some have cracked, but it’s believed to be due to vibration and the inherent brittleness of the metal. New alloys are expected to last 60 years or more.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 25, 2015

Perhaps you’re thinking of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (Kacare), which is formulating a plan to shift their electrical generation away from oil and gas, and towards nuclear and renewable power?  With the baseline plan of 41 GW of solar, 9 GW of wind, and 18 GW of nuclear, after adjusting for capacity factor, nuclear will be a larger contributor than solar or wind.

The Saudis are starting slowly, and maybe the first customer for the Korean SMR: the 100 MW SMART reactor, which would be deployed to co-generate electricity and desalinized water.

Also, their neighbors in the UAE have already started construction of a 5.6 GW nuclear plant (with Korean technology), the first unit of which should go on-line in 2017.

See

WNA UAE

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-O-S/Saudi-Arabia/

http://www.kacare.gov.sa/en/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/tomzeller/2015/01/23/saudi-arabias-abdullah-leaves-behind-unrealized-renewable-and-nuclear-power-ambitions/ 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on June 25, 2015

Mark, Note that roof top provides shade and puts the power where you need it reducing transmission and transformer loads along with transmission losses of 5-10 %. Add them up and it more that double the savings. Utility scale is full of loses and poor design along with miles of transmission.

In our area we have Mega watts of Solar PV all flat not facing South yet tracking East to West and covered in dust. No one watches them or seems to care for them. Yet on local buildings and parking areas we have Solar PV that faces South and it tilted at 20% or more to the ideal of 33 degrees for our location. Users notice in any are dirty or have issues. They even think twice before using power. since they own it and take ownership.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 25, 2015


Cogeneration

Mark, Lake Anna was created to cool North Anna, but it’s not dedicated to that purpose.

On the Louisa County shoreline, the North Anna nuclear power plant draws on the man-made lake for coolant to condense steam inside the plant….For those in the know, the hot part offers an extended resort season. Even as leaves were changing and homeowners were cutting firewood for the winter on a chilly Saturday, boaters, swimmers, jet skiers and water boarders in wetsuits took to the lake.

“Stick your hand in the water,” Hanna said as his speedboat passed over schools of fish. Largemouth bass reproduce in larger numbers in the hot part, an attraction to year-round fishermen. Their habitat felt like bath water to the touch.
<>
Authorities and locals stress that the lake, which straddles the Spotsylvania-Louisa county border, is perfectly safe.

“It’s so regulated by everyone and anybody,” said Irene Luck, who lives near the power plant and is a reporter for the Central Virginian, a weekly newspaper.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/27/AR200711...

Lakefront homes run from $600,000 – $800,000, very few (if any) of which have solar panels.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 25, 2015

Jesse,  the title of your post is:

How Much Land Does Solar, Wind and Nuclear Energy Require?”

But where is the answer?  I scanned quickly for a table or chart that shows the land area required per unit of electricity supplied through life for each technology (preferably on an LCA basis).  I didn’t see a quick and easy summary that asnwers the question posed in the title.  It would be helpful if you could add a table or chart to answer the question posed in the title.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 25, 2015

Mark,

Why pick out one item such as the area needed for cooling water?  If you are going to do this, why didn’t you uses as your example the land area needed for sufficent storage to make renewables comparable with nuclear (the energy for nuclear is stored in the fuel untill it is needed, and the area is miniscule).

According to this analysis, published yesterday, UK would need 1-5 TWh of storage to make renewables capable of supplying UK’s electricity.

<blockquote>The volume of storage needed to convert intermittent renewable energy into dispatchable energy is very large, with estimates running in the 1 to 5 terawatt-hour range even at modest levels of renewables penetration. (Note that these estimates are confirmed by an independent estimate from David Mackay detailed in this comment.)</blockquote>

For context “ (total UK pumped hydro storage capacity is presently only 0.03TWh)”

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on June 26, 2015

They say that a garden can solve all of humanity’s problems.

We should turn an entire desert into a “garden” that sequesters CO2 (into soils). Now, all that requires is the intrinsically least expensive way to make fertilizer and provide vast amounts of fresh water. With that, almost an entire new continent of economic activity, and new homes, becomes the aftermath. Therefore, we really need to get the ball rolling towards that source which can both displace FFs in a growing world and power the sequester processes for excess CO2.

I believe it’s a no brainer – advanced nuclear such as the molten salt reactor. 24/7 meltdown proof reliability with at least 6x less actinide wastes than conventional. Unlimited power for global prosperity and water desalination.

Open cycle wastes should be stored onsite until the closed cycle is scaled which should be used to consume the once through cycle’s actinides. The molten fuel would make it easier to separate(What’s the difference between actinides and transuranics?) Are there any scientific issues with isolating such geologically minute volumes of closed cycle fission product waste, and old reactor “cans” for just 300 years? If there was a “problem” it certainly would not be as pressing as the current excess CO2 causes of planetary damage – which, in this perspective, also includes desertfication.

There are 21st century designs which require even less fissile than conventional, too.

http://terrestrialenergy.com/imsr-technology/

Let’s just develop the safe reactor for mass scale up and practice permaculture on the vast scale! I say “just” because it’s the simplest possible choice for a planetary civilization which must save itself from itself – in time.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on June 26, 2015

 

The Guardian and other news sources are reporting today that Bill Gates is going to double the Gates Foundation investments in energy research. He has long been a fan of advanced nuclear and has funded TerraPower.

 

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on June 26, 2015

What would it mean for solar to supply 1/3 of US electricity?  Does the statement make sense?  I don’t know the answer to those questions yet. I’d need to model it for about every hour of the day over a year. Solar makes no electricity at night. During winter solar output is considerably less than summer. Winter demand it typically half as much again as summer. I wonder whether there’s a single renewable energy advocate anywhere who’s bothered to do this modeling?

I disagree with the land area value calculated to supply 1/3 of US electricity. Based on the Xirolimni (Crete) study of 2007. I’d say the minimum land area to make 1/3 of US electricity is: 22,731 km² (total), and 6,863 km² (active). My ‘active’ value is already 1.7 × Jesse’s minimum value. I guess ‘active’ means the area totally covered by solar PV. My total value is over 2 × his maximum value.  That just shows we can do some simple calculations. It doesn’t show a 1/3 solar power scenario is possible. Nor does it calculate how much reserve fossil fuel plant Jesse wants to support his solartopia, nor the cost of that plant plus the wages for the workforce who twiddle their thumbs when they’ve no electricity to make as the solarians make hay.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on June 26, 2015

Robert, please consider what evaporative cooling of ocean water might contribute to your land/energy outline. Bob Meinetz discusses nuclear cooling elsewhere in these comments.

Fresh water from sea water might be a beneficial byproduct of some modern nuclear electric power plant. Spraying a huge mist of warm sea water into some hot desert coastal air would enormously enhance cooling, and provide a lot of vital humiditity where needed.

Anthropogenic climate change need not all be destructive. And please don’t consider me in any pro nuclear group; I’m just trying to grow green.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on June 26, 2015

Hi Peter,

I’ve updated the post to include a summary table at the end. 

Jesse

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on June 26, 2015

Joris, you are correct that Mackay’s figures are for the mass of natural Uranium required to produce nuclear fuel. So that’s for the fissionable U-235 as well as the remaining isotopse that are not utilized. I think it’s worth considering the fuel mass of Uranium required however, as that gives you a sense of how much material has to be mined, then processed into fuel. I link to the chapter of Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air which discusses this figure in the post, and I highly recommend the free e-book to anyone interested.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on June 26, 2015

Mark,

The land use figures for solar are not mind, but are from the MIT Future of Solar Energy report, which I clearly referenced. A vareity of assumptions go into any of these calculations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if two different papers/studies differed by a factor of 2x. If they are in agreement on the order of magnitude, that is what I would expect. And note that a 2x increase in the land use figure still doesn’t change the general conclusion at all. If solar took up 7-22,000 sq-km rather than 4-11,000, would that change much of anything about my post? I don’t think so. 

Second, I am in no way advocating any particular shares of any resource in this post, just providing land use figures for comparison. So “my solartopia” is a figment of your imagination. If you’ve actually read any of my articles, you know I take a pretty nuanced view on the role of variable renewables in our energy system. You may want to try adopting some nuance yourself. 

Jesse

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on June 26, 2015

Thanks for the link to the NRC resource! I’ve updated the post with data from these figures on the U.S. fleet.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on June 26, 2015

Dear Mark,

The Brook paper actually assumed a Gen IV nuclear design apparently. A reader brought this to my attention and I verified in the supplemental material for the article. 

I’ve updated teh post to include data from actual U.S. reactor sites now. Cheers,

Jesse

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 26, 2015

Another example of how nuclear power improvesd the environment: Ottawa, Canada, residents have been swiming in Lake Ontario in the cooling water as it exits the 8 unit Pickering nuclear power station.  see photo here

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-qd2cYV7MlvA/TZl0XuQqguI/AAAAAAAADi4/JfOCbhdXER...

Here’s the view of the Pickering plant, nestteld quietly in the suburbsa of ottawa, Canada’s largest city: 

http://media.treehugger.com/assets/images/2011/10/pickering-opg.jpg 

 

PS, could someone please tell me how to make the photo display in comments on this web site?

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 27, 2015

Jesse,

Could I suggest a follow up analysis and post:

  ‘What kind of energy system would supply low emissions electricity at least cost?’

  Assume:

 All costs in, say, 2014 US$/MWh

  • Must meet current electricity system requirements
  • Assume current costs or projected costs to 2020 but no further out than that

 Break the costs down into these three major components: 

  • Generation (including the fair market cost for land area)
  • Energy storage if it is needed to meet the current reliability requirements
  • Transmission – (transmission to intermittent renewable plants must have the capacity to carry the full name plate capacity of the renewable energy plant, even though their capacity factor is very low on average).

 I did a simple example of such a comparison for Australia’s National Electricity Market, for four mostly renewables and one mostly nuclear scenarios here.

Figure 6 compares capital costs, cost of wholesale electricity and CO2 abatement cost (i.e. with transmission costs additional to the existing grid) for the five scenarios.

Figure 5 compares the CO2 emissions intensity of the systems for these five scenarios

Figures 7 compares my very rough estimate (limit analysis) of the transmission cost (capital cost and cost of electricity) for the five scenarios.

 You can download the explanation of the renewables scenarios from here and my spreadsheet for the four renewables scenarios from here:

 The inputs for the mostly nuclear scenario are in the Appendix here.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 26, 2015

Peter, you can display photos when you reply to a post by clicking on Input Format beneath the text box, then selecting Full HTML. At the top of the text box will be a tree icon, on which you can click to insert the image.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 26, 2015

Thank you Bob.  I’ll try that.

 

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 26, 2015

OK, part successful.  My textr description didn’t display And only half the picture displayed, so the swimmers aren’t fisible.  How do I make it dispaly in portrait view? And why didn’t the description show?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 27, 2015

Peter, you’re at the mercy of the column width of your post, so anything that extends beyond it will be hidden.

You can resize the photo, however, by going into Edit and then dragging the lower right corner so it’s smaller. Not sure why the description didn’t show (by the way, after someone responds to your post you won’t be able to edit it any longer).

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 27, 2015

Thank you, Bob.  I’ll try that next time.

 

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 27, 2015

Thank you, Bob.  I’ll try that next time.

 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on June 27, 2015

Lake Anna was created …”

Bob – Yes I know, I’ve lived within ~40 miles of the lake and have been boating on it myself.  Very nice. Nonetheless, one point of theis article was tally displaced area for various energy sources, and that lake drowned 53 km^2 of what at one time were farms and the like.  I personally much prefer the N. Anna plant to the emissions from a couple coal plants and non-stop coal trains to and from, but that does not change the accounting, nor the fact that somebody else’s farm, not mine, was given up.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on June 28, 2015

It’s worth noting that it’s possible for solar, like wind, to have a minimal footprint on the land occupied by a solar farm, leaving more than 90% of the land available for other uses. It’s a matter of deploying the panels in an arrangement that distributes them sparsely, well above the ground. The land below would be only partially shaded, with the shaded areas moving as the sun crossed the sky. “Solar trees” is what I call the concept I’m thinking of. The collectors would be on slats running horizontally between the two branches of a forked trunk. Space between the slats would allow wind to blow through, to reduce dynamic loading.

As far as I know, the arrangement has never been used in an actual solar farm. Built by contractors on-site in small numbers, “solar trees” would be much more expensive than the ground-covering frames normally used. But it the major sub-assemblies were factory-built in mass production, the cost might actually be lower than the conventional arrangements.

The significance of a “solar tree” arrangement isn’t in the cost per square meter of panel surface. Rather, it’s in the relative non-interference with other uses of the land. Permitting for new solar farms would become much easier. Sparse “forests” of solar trees could share private land with agriculture in California’s Central Valley, with no need for the environmental impact studies, reviews, and legal challenges that make permitting of solar farms on publick lands so costly and tedious.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on June 28, 2015

@Jesse As you stated, mileage may vary with respect to land use for nuclear, especially when using a data source that contains a number of unstated complications.

For example, I’m familiar with two of the nuclear plant sites listed on the table, Turkey Point and Crystal River. What the table does not indicate is that both of those sites are actually large power plant sites with more fossil fuel generation capacity than nuclear capacity.

Crystal River hosts five plants – four large coal plants and one relatively small nuclear plant.

Turkey Point’s 24,000 acres hosts two nuclear units, but also 2 oil fired steam plants and four combined cycle gas turbine plants with two additional nuclear plants planned for the same site. One of the reasons the site is so large is that Turkey Point uses a system of canals for cooling. That canal system looks like a giant radiator on a satellite photo.

http://www.energytrendsinsider.com/2015/03/03/turkey-point-power-station...

To get a better idea for how energy dense a nuclear plant CAN be, I like to think of the submarine reactors I used to operate. Tiny footprint, lots of power.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 29, 2015

Som, the short answer is that the United States is thirty times as big as Germany.

Ideally all generation would be local, but in Germany local renewable energy is insufficient. So minus nuclear, renewables “imply” the extra environmental cost of burning coal.

Kent Beuchert's picture
Kent Beuchert on June 29, 2015

Gen 4 molten salt reactors is where the world will end up, of that I have no doubt whatsoever. They can burn nuclear wastes, which means no need for new uranium in this country for more than 600 years. They extract 50 times more energy than a conventional reactor and thus can use uranium extracted from the seas – the fuel costs, regardless of source, are insignificant. They also cost little more than half a traditional nuclear plant to build, will last over 60 years, are inherently safe, never need to shut down for refueling, are proliferation resistant, have a smaller footprint than tradtional reactors and can largely be built in factories and cited most anywhere. No form of prower generation (certainly not primitive, unreliable, costly solar or wind) can compete with this reactor. It also has load following capability. They will become comercial in a few years. There should be immediate removal of govt subsidies for solar and wind, the only thing that’s keeping these technologies alive. The world needs to wise up about power gneration.

Kent Beuchert's picture
Kent Beuchert on June 29, 2015

Gen 4 molten salt reactors is where the world will end up, of that I have no doubt whatsoever. They can burn nuclear wastes, which means no need for new uranium in this country for more than 600 years. They extract 50 times more energy than a conventional reactor and thus can use uranium extracted from the seas – the fuel costs, regardless of source, are insignificant. They also cost little more than half a traditional nuclear plant to build, will last over 60 years, are inherently safe, never need to shut down for refueling, are proliferation resistant, have a smaller footprint than tradtional reactors and can largely be built in factories and cited most anywhere. No form of prower generation (certainly not primitive, unreliable, costly solar or wind) can compete with this reactor. It also has load following capability. They will become comercial in a few years. There should be immediate removal of govt subsidies for solar and wind, the only thing that’s keeping these technologies alive. The world needs to wise up about power gneration.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 29, 2015

Kent,

I agree with much of what you say in this comment, but not these two statements:

 

<bockquote>They also cost little more than half a traditional nuclear plant to build,

They will become comercial in a few years. </blockquote>

There is no evidence that they are cheaper than Gen III+, yet, because they are not commerciall proven.  You’d need a large fleet of fully commercial plants having been running for decades and competing and winng bids against LWR’s to support your point.  We are decades away from that.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on June 30, 2015

They might last 7 years per “pot”. However, these pots could be made very cheap with the 1960’s tech. Uranium is easier because it’s already bau, especially since very low enriched can now be utilized according to the design of IMSR (and others).

Their once through would extract about 6x more energy.  Hopefully, some sort of reprocessing will be cheap enough in the future, to gain literally 100x the efficiency and reduction of wastes. If not, the volume of wastes are so small that we could probably just store onsite until some sort of fusion process could, with its unlimited energy, could isolate the fusion (Edit, I meant fission) products from the actinides. Or something like that

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on June 30, 2015

We need a Hymen Rickover for the molten salt reactor.  He hated “decades away”!

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on June 30, 2015

He also poited out the difference between academic reactors and real world reactors.  The quote is well worth reading

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on June 30, 2015

Rickover’s real reactors don’t need to burn uranium-235/uranium-238 fuel. Could just as well burn uranium/thorium, which is easier to reprocess with far better waste profile. Bad regulation stops this, not physics.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on June 30, 2015

I believe he went for what was best for the ships at the time – and proved that it did not have to be decades away to build all the complicated LWR reactors.

Since then, at least the reactor at ORNL demonstrated that it’s  not just paper. It’ll probably rust out on 7 years but still doable because less melt down prone. Parts can be made relatively cheaper. 

I fail to totally agree with the LWR because the MSR would be more efficient and “new and better”.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on June 30, 2015

Thorium is too much trouble at this time because of regulatory.  A reactor which uses low enriched uranium will have a better chance at being allowed to being developed. Why not it be the more efficient MSR?

I watched a movie about the admiral and believe that it is only because of his relentless pursuit of nuclear safety and old fashioned supervision that prevented the kinds of mishaps that the Russians had. The MSR requires less overall engineered safety because not high pressures and would not melt down.

LWRs require water for core cooling which definitely requires his kind of determined management protocol. Humans will fail, eventually. Why not scale up a machine that doesn’t have to blow it’s top when we fail? 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on June 30, 2015

Russian success at developing metal cooling reactors seems to be a result of their no-nonsense approach to science and technology development. During the development of their BN-XXX sodium fast reactors, they had dozens of sodium leaks and fires. Instead of shutting down and delaying the development of their technology after the first leak – like the French and Japanese did – the Russians simply cleaned up the mess and continued their work to perfection. They recognise ‘mishaps’ (which hurt nobody and polluted nothing) as an unavoidable part of developing new things.

That is the way to be successful.

 

In the West, all things nuclear are dominated by well funded and influential antinuclear psychological terrorist organisations which make the development of clean, inexhaustible and affordable energy technologies practically impossible.

Mark Pawelek's picture
Mark Pawelek on June 30, 2015

We can actually power current PWR/BWR with thorium (were it not for regulations preventing us). The possibility was shown 55 years ago at Shippingport. The spent thorium fuel is far easier to reprocess with a much better waste profile. The reprocessed fuel performs far better than plutonium-MOX. Anti-proliferators prevented the development of breeder technology in the USA (in Carter/Clinton admins). To scare us senseless, a 2nd bunch of anti-nukes wail about all the nuclear “waste” we can’t reprocess (the stuff first set of anti-nukes helped make); to top it off, a 3rd bunch of anti-nukes tell us we only have 50 years uranium left because we can only use U-235. Fascinating how political forces takes the paths of least resistance yet achieve their ends better than any plan or conspiracy could!

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