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Why the Future Belongs to Decentralized Renewables, Not Centralized Hydrogen and Giga-Scale Nuclear

IIASA building in Austria

IIASA building in Austria

What the future of our energy system will look like continues to be a subject of heated debate. According to one well-established tradition, writes Professor John Mathews of Macquarie University in Australia, the route to decarbonisation will run via massive nuclear power systems to the hydrogen economy. But China and to some extent India are emerging as the principal practitioners of an alternative vision of energy growth, underpinning their vast industrialisation efforts with conventional renewables that are the products of manufacturing. According to Mathews, the world is much more likely to follow the second route. Renewables, he argues, are benign, provide energy security, create jobs and above all are the least expensive option.

How we envision the future of our energy systems is important as this tends to drive our policies and decisions. In a new scientific paper, “Competing principles driving energy futures: Fossil fuel decarbonisation vs. manufacturing learning curves”, published this month in the journal Futures, I contrast two broad energy visions.

Both are based on an argument concerning the phasing out of fossil fuels. One envisions a process of decarbonisation that evolves towards a centralised energy system based mainly on hydrogen, which includes large-scale ‘zero emission power plants” (ZEPPs), to be reached through the route of a massive expansion of nuclear power. The other, alternative vision is based on the expansion of decentralised renewable energies systems, such as wind and solar power, which are products of manufacturing and which embody increasing returns and decreasing costs. In this alternative vision, decarbonisation is not the primary driver but instead the side effect of a process of creative destruction of fossil fuels by lower-cost renewables.

The IIASA view of decarbonisation

The first “centralised” vision was developed by scholars who in the past were associated with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA),  an East-West research centre based in Laxenburg near Vienna founded jointly by the US and Soviet Academies of Science. It was first developed by the visionary physicist Cesare Marchetti when working at IIASA in the 1970s. It displays a marked techno-bias towards giga-scale nuclear power and the hydrogen economy as well as a marked disdain for present trends towards solar, wind and renewables generally.

The fact is that there is no relentless process of fossil fuel decarbonisation, leading inevitably to a hydrogen economy

Marchetti developed a ‘master-concept’ of decarbonisation as the driver of energy transitions, culminating  in an article published in Futures in 1986, where he outlined his idea of a 50-year pulse underlying transitions in technology in energy, power and transport systems. Marchetti viewed energy transitions as moving ineluctably from one fuel source to another with continually lower carbon: hydrogen ratio: the sequence goes from wood (with a C:H ratio of 10:1, to coal, with a ratio of 1:1, to oil, with ratio of 1:2 and then natural gas (mostly methane, or CH4), with a consequent ratio of 1:4. The sequence culminates in hydrogen, where there is no carbon at all.

This was surely an elegant idea, and it seemed to be based on an observable gradual decline in global carbon intensity in the real world, as shown in this figure:

Fig. 1. Declining global carbon intensity, 1860-1990

Mathews 1 Source: Ausubel 1996, after Marchetti 1985

The problem is that this trend has recently reversed or at least stalled.

There has been no secular decline in global carbon intensity in the last two decades, as can be seen in this chart from the International Energy Agency (IEA):

Fig. 2. Global carbon intensity, 1990-2010

Mathews 2

Source: International Energy Agency (2013), Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013, OECD/IEA, Paris. 6DS: a trajectory assumed to result in temperature increase of 6 degrees C; 4DS a trajectory corresponding to 4 degrees C; and 2 DS corresponding to 2 degrees C.

The fact is that there is no relentless process of fossil fuel decarbonisation, leading inevitably to a hydrogen economy, and there is no clockwork mechanism, as Marchetti believed, driving substitution of energy sources one after another in a sequence leading from highly carbonised to the least carbonised source.

Marchetti’s notion of a relentless process of fossil fuel decarbonisation was a clever depiction of the way things stood in the world by the 1970s – but shocks like the oil shock of the 1970s (OPEC in 1973 and Iran in 1979), and the ‘China shock’ of rapid industrialisation utilising coal in the 2000s, and now the ‘India shock’ following perhaps a decade behind – not to mention the American coal seam gas ‘shock’ and the (small) inducements towards energy efficiency and renewables provoked by the ‘climate shock’ have all played their part in destroying the statistical regularity of the system.

Zero Emission Giga-Power Plants

Resting on the false foundations of a purported ‘decarbonisation’ driving the energy system towards nuclear and hydrogen, scholars in the IIASA tradition then make their own techno-optimistic proposals for giga-scale power plants (zero emission power plants, or ZEPPs) and their Continental Super Grids (CSGs) that (it is argued) are the only options that are consistent with these (non-existing) trends.

If we take China for example, we see that wind power in that country already exceeded the contribution of nuclear in terms of capacity by 2009 and in terms of electric energy generated by 2012

Marchetti envisioned the creation of giga-scale ‘energy islands’ which would be producers of nuclear power and nuclear-power-based hydrogen, standing apart from the wider industrial system, feeding their massive contribution to a global grid. All of this is very interesting – but quite irrelevant to the energy choices having to be made by countries today. Continental Super Grids (CSG) fed by dozens or so enormous ZEPPs seem an extremely unlikely pathway of energy evolution at a time when Google in the US cannot even negotiate a connection and transmission across the country for its proposed Atlantic Wind Connection. What is rarely canvassed in these discussions of a possible nuclear giga-future is the counter tendency towards smaller, modular nuclear reactors, which may be simpler, safer and cheaper than their giga-scale competitors. Bigger is not always better.

The validity of conventional renewables

The proponents of a centralised view in the IIASA tradition are quite disdainful of conventional renewable energy, especially solar and wind power. They tend to ignore hydropower altogether, as it does not fit into their scheme, although some countries, like Norway and Brazil, have largely built their electricity systems on it.

Wind power they disregard on the basis of its low power density and its supposed impossible demand on land areas. But if we take China for example, we see that wind power in that country already exceeded the contribution of nuclear in terms of capacity by 2009 and in terms of electric energy generated by 2012, as shown in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3  Electricity generation: Wind power vs. nuclear in China

Mathews 3

Source: Mathews and Tan (2015). Primary data up to 2007 for wind power capacity and generation is available from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014; data for the years 2008-2014 is available from the China Electricity Council; data for nuclear power capacity up to 2007 is from the EIA International Energy Statistics database.

Wind power is also frequently criticised for making excessive resource demands, but, as I show in another paper (Mathews and Tan, 2014), 1 TW of wind power, equivalent to the entire US electric generating system, requires 29 million tonnes of iron, 90 million tonnes of steel and 350 million tonnes of concrete. In China alone, the year 2012 saw the country’s industry producing 709 million tonnes of crude steel and 654 million tonnes of pig iron. So materials supply is not the issue.

The IIASA case against solar is built on equally flimsy foundations, e.g. assuming that solar panels “remain stuck at about 10% efficiency”, which is simply untrue. In Italy the Montalto di Castro solar PV power farm has been completed, covering 1.7 km2 with panels rated at 84 MW, and generating 140 GWh of electricity in a year. This is a real capacity factor of 19%. If we take these data and scale this up to the 1 TW of the entire US power system, we would need a land area of 20,000 km2 – or just over 0.2% of the US land area of 9.6 million km2.

An alternative vision of our energy future

Let me develop the real reasons why conventional renewables are likely to emerge as the dominant primary energy sources in the first half of the 21st century. The fundamental advantages of renewables, as revealed by practical experience in China as well as in industrialised countries like Germany where an energy transformation is well under way, are these.

As they scale renewable energies do not present greater and greater hazards. Instead they are relatively benign technologies, without serious risk

They are clean (low to zero-carbon); they are non-polluting (important in China and India with their high levels of particulate pollution derived from coal); they tap into inexhaustible energy sources; and they have close-to-zero running costs since they do not need fuel. They are also diffuse, which should be viewed as an advantage, since this means that renewable sources are decentralised, and can be harvested by both large and by small operations. So they are eminently practicable.

Some advantages of renewables are not at all obvious and need to be made explicit. Fundamentally, they are scalable. They can be built in modular fashion – one solar panel, 100 solar panels, 1000 solar panels. As they are replicated in this fashion so their power ratings continue to rise, without complexity cutting back on efficiency. This cannot be said of nuclear reactors, which have an optimal operational size – below which or above which the plant under-performs.

Moreover as they scale they do not present greater and greater hazards. Instead they are relatively benign technologies, without serious risks. When they use hazardous materials, such as the cadmium in Cd-Te solar, the solution would be to recycle materials in order to minimise the use and waste of virgin materials.

Most importantly, the superiority of conventional renewables lies in their cost reduction trends which are linked to the fact that they are always the products of manufacturing – and mass production manufacturing, where economies of scale really play a role. This means that they offer genuine energy security in so far as manufacturing can in principle be conducted anywhere. There are no geopolitical pressures stemming from accidents of chance where one country has deposits of a fossil fuel but another does not. Manufactured devices promise an end to the era in which energy security remains closely tied to geopolitics and the projection of armed force. As Hao Tan and I put it in our article published in Nature, manufacturing renewables provides the key to energy security.

Manufacturing is characterised by improving efficiencies as experience is accumulated – with consequent cost reductions captured in the learning or experience curve. Manufacturing generates increasing returns; it can be a source of rising incomes and wealth without imposing further stresses on the earth. Add to these advantages that renewables promise economic advantages of the first importance: they offer rural employment as well as urban employment in manufacturing industry; they offer an innovative and competitive energy sector; and they offer export platforms for the future.

The real driver of the renewable energy revolution is not government policy, or business risk-taking, or consumer demand. It is, quite simply, the reduction of costs 

This is to list the advantages of renewables without even mentioning their low and diminishing carbon emissions. Indeed they offer the only real long-term solution to the problem of cleaning up energy systems.

With all these advantages, it is little wonder that China and now India are throwing so much effort into building renewable energy systems at scale. These are not exercises undertaken for ethical or aesthetic purposes, but as national development strategies of the highest priority.

So the real driver of the renewable energy revolution is not government policy, or business risk-taking, or consumer demand. It is, quite simply, the reduction of costs – to the point where renewables are bringing down costs of generating power to be comparable with the use of traditional fossil fuels, and with the promise of reducing these costs further still. Supergrids are also being promoted for renewables, but these are very different conceptions, based on integrating numerous fluctuating sources in IT-empowered grids, offering the same practicable, scalable and replicable energy future.

Against these advantages, the obstacles regularly cited are small indeed. There is the fluctuating nature of renewables, which can be addressed by various forms of systems integration (smart grids, demand response) and of course through energy storage, which is moving into the same kind of cost reduction learning curve that has characterised solar and wind power, promising rapid diffusion of both commercial and domestic energy storage units. With rapidly falling costs of storage providing the buffer that can even out fluctuating levels of generation, there is no further serious argument against renewables.

I conclude that of the two competing principles, the one based on decarbonisation and giga-scale nuclear plants producing hydrogen is destined to remain a fantasy, while the other based on renewables and the manufacturing of renewables devices, with their declining costs, is destined to power the further industrialisation of emerging giants like China and India. Donald Trump will discover this if he delivers on his campaign promise of a 100% pro-fossil fuels course and negates a renewables future.

by

This article is based on a scientific paper by John A. Mathews, Competing principles driving energy futures: Fossil fuel decarbonization vs. manufacturing learning curves, which was published in Futures in November 2016 (.http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328715300227)

John Mathews is author of the Greening of Capitalism: How Asia is Driving the Next Great Transformation”, published by Stanford University Press: http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=24288. His latest book, “China’s Renewable Energy Revolution” (co-authored with Hao Tan) was published by Palgrave Pivot in September 2015: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/chinas-energy-revolution-john-a-mathews/?isb=9781137546241.

See his author’s archive on Energy Post.

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Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Nov 18, 2016 9:18 pm GMT

Where to start? The author makes it easy for himself by pitting a decades old nuclear-hydrogen economy vision against a current RE vision. Let’s just assume nuclear and wind/solar will compete in the electricity arena – leave the hydrogen out for now.

Continental Super Grids (CSG) fed by dozens or so enormous ZEPPs seem an extremely unlikely pathway of energy evolution at a time when Google in the US cannot even negotiate a connection and transmission across the country for its proposed Atlantic Wind Connection

This is ridiculous. Nuclear does not need continent-wide grids, but wind and solar does! That’s one of the advantages of nuclear over RE.

But if we take China for example, we see that wind power in that country already exceeded the contribution of nuclear in terms of capacity by 2009 and in terms of electric energy generated by 2012, as shown in Fig. 3.

Which conveniently leaves out 2015. That year had China add 38 TWh new nuclear generation, but only 25 TWh new wind generation. In 2016, nuclear will likely surpass wind in China again since Chinese nuclear installations are coming in rapidly.

In Italy the Montalto di Castro solar PV power farm has been completed, covering 1.7 km2 with panels rated at 84 MW, and generating 140 GWh of electricity in a year. This is a real capacity factor of 19%.

Italy in total produced 25 TWh using 19 GW for a CF of 15% and a penetration of 8%. It is no longer building appreciable amounts.

Wind power is also frequently criticised for making excessive resource demands, but,

If you compare it to nuclear, nuclear wins. Also, solar is far, far worse than wind in terms of resources needed.

The fundamental advantages of renewables, as revealed by practical experience in China as well as in industrialised countries like Germany where an energy transformation is well under way

The practical experience of China is horrible. They are dumping excess industrial capacity into RE growth, but doesn’t have flexible enough grids to handle even those small percentages. Average wind CF of 16% says a lot. Germany has given up, but hasn’t said it publicly yet. It is now only growing wind appreciably. No biomass and solar only in token amounts.

They are clean (low to zero-carbon); they are non-polluting (important in China and India with their high levels of particulate pollution derived from coal); they tap into inexhaustible energy sources; and they have close-to-zero running costs since they do not need fuel.

These are no major advantages over nuclear. Nuclear has virtually the same properties.

They are also diffuse, which should be viewed as an advantage

I don’t know what to say. Diffuse being an advantage? Come on!

They can be built in modular fashion – one solar panel, 100 solar panels, 1000 solar panels. […] This cannot be said of nuclear reactors, which have an optimal operational size – below which or above which the plant under-performs.

Very convenient that you choose wind for materials requirements and solar for scalability. But we know that wind plants have optimal operational sizes, right?

Moreover as they scale they do not present greater and greater hazards. Instead they are relatively benign technologies, without serious risks.

The same goes for nuclear, that has a lower death print than RE.

Manufacturing is characterised by improving efficiencies as experience is accumulated – with consequent cost reductions captured in the learning or experience curve.

Nuclear isn’t different. Start scaling and costs decrease.

This is to list the advantages of renewables without even mentioning their low and diminishing carbon emissions. Indeed they offer the only real long-term solution to the problem of cleaning up energy systems.

No, as it stands, nuclear is the only solution. RE might become a solution, but isn’t proven. France decarbonised in less than two decades. Germany started decades ago but isn’t planning to be 80% done until 2050. And nobody in their right mind believes them.

Supergrids are also being promoted for renewables, but these are very different conceptions, based on integrating numerous fluctuating sources in IT-empowered grids, offering the same practicable, scalable and replicable energy future.

This is painting lipstick on a pig, not serious arguments. Nuclear doesn’t need supergrids. RE does, and it’s hard and a major drawback.

Against these advantages, the obstacles regularly cited are small indeed.

You just keep telling yourself that.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 19, 2016 12:43 am GMT

Indeed they (renewable) offer the only real long-term solution to the problem of cleaning up energy systems.
There is no alternative as nuclear (“ZEPP’s”) is not zero emission at all.
Nuclear results in 3-20 times more CO2eq emissions per MWh than renewable; wind, solar, storage, etc.

Also shown by their 3 – 20 times higher costs if all subsidies are accounted for!
And the difference is increasing with;
– the widely expected continued cost decrease of renewable during next decade.
– the continued costs increase of nuclear as it has to become less unsafe.

Then we also have to consider the health and genetic damage normal operating nuclear creates, as well as the disaster risks.
History shows that roughly 1% of nuclear power plants ends its live via an accident, emitting substantial radiation, damaging the population’s health and genes.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 19, 2016 1:58 am GMT

John, I’m not surprised to see your background is in marketing.

If the goal is profitability, burning coal for electricity is without question a better choice than erecting wind turbines and solar farms (understandably, it’s the goal of which the demagogue America has elected President is hellbent in pursuit). Rational individuals the world over recognize such an approach is unsustainable. That doesn’t mean, however, they don’t recognize the inherent value of centralized energy generation.

No doubt, your training has equipped you with an understanding of the notion of economies of scale. Many economists/management professionals don’t realize the concept has an analogue in physics – large physical systems designed to provide energy to large numbers of people, in general, do so more efficiently. They generate an inversely-proportional paucity of emissions and wasted energy – concepts which engineers understand. The following excerpt of your article:

They are also diffuse, which should be viewed as an advantage, since this means that renewable sources are decentralised, and can be harvested by both large and by small operations. So they are eminently practicable.

makes it eminently clear you don’t understand them. From an efficiency standpoint what you describe is not only disadvantageous, but a disaster. That diffuse sources might permit better access to reliable energy; that they can be better “harvested by both large and by small operations” is nonsense.

There is a movement of like-minded individuals who are equally convinced DE makes sense; none of them are energy, engineering, or climate experts. With choices of such vast and immediate import, experts should be calling the shots – shouldn’t they?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 19, 2016 6:26 am GMT

There is the fluctuating nature of renewables, which can be addressed by various forms of systems integration (smart grids, demand response) and of course through energy storage…

Advocates keep repeating this mantra, but keep failing to demonstrate it in the real world. Every claimed renewable success story (e.g. Germany, Denmark) instead demonstrates that variable renewables can be made to work if they are diluted into a grid that is mostly fossil fuel powered; the only major grids in the world today which are nearly zero fossil fuel are those powered by a combination of nuclear and big hydro. France demonstrates that nuclear can carry a much bigger share of the load than hydro.

The linkage of nuclear with super grids is a joke. It’s renewables that need a super-grid. The Hawaiian experience shows that even reaching 25% solar+wind without a very large grid or very plentiful storage is very difficult.

In fact, a 2015 study by NOAA and UC Boulder demonstrated that even very cheap storage would not be economical in a grid dominated by variable renewables when fossil gas was available. Using grid modeling software developed by NREL and NOAA’s weather data, they evaluated storage at $0.75/Watt, which is $94/kWh for 8 hours systems, and found essentially zero storage deployment through 2030. They also published the graph that NREL and other renewables advocates did not want us to see … it shows that even with renewables much cheaper than fossil fuels, the grid still needs a lot of fossil fuel in order to use along-side the renewables. The renewable-rich grids NOAA modeled ended up being much dirtier (in their use of fossil backup) than a real-world nuclear-rich grid!

The following graphs from the NOAA report shows results for a range of fossil gas prices (in $/MMBtu) and the resulting renewable buildout, assuming a single national US super-grid is used to help smooth the local power variation. It shows that fossil gas prices must be several times higher than today’s $2.5/MMBtu just to reach 50% renewables.

Another problem with solar and wind is that they are not evenly distributed around the world. We frequently hear that Arizona could power the whole country with solar (e.g. CSP w/ storage $$$); in fact it could do it much more cheaply than a group of northern states with similar total insolation. Whereas nuclear plants can be located where the workers and consumers live, solar and wind will be an imported energy source for most regions when a super-grid is used. Georgia might buy wind energy from Kansas, but the reverse will never happen.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 19, 2016 6:39 am GMT

Of course nuclear power does not need hydrogen to decarbonize the grid (as demonstrated by the many naval ships that have been decarbonized in this way). Hydrogen made sense for a scalable non-fossil gasoline substitute before the development of Lithium ion batteries (which can be reliably charged every night with nuclear power). And to the extend that other energy use sectors can use electricity combined with low, medium, or high temperature heat, nuclear can decarbonize those sectors without hydrogen too.

On the other hand, the multi-day and seasonal power fluctuations (and seasonal anti-correlation with demand) for solar and wind mean that without a full-blown hydrogen economy (with its extremely poor efficiency, resulting high energy cost, and large variations in cost, which has seen nearly zero acceptance to date), these variable renewables must always be used in a fossil fuel dominated electrical system (with the notable exception of the energy-impoverished people who are willing to accept a weather dependent charger for the flashlights that illuminate their dung-burning stoves instead of having the real electricity-on-demand that developed nations will never give up).

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Nov 19, 2016 7:04 am GMT

IEEFA forecasts that China will install an additional 22 GW of wind, 16GW of new hydro, another 6GW of nuclear and 18GW of solar (60% utility scale, 40% distributed rooftop solar) in 2016.

Like always, your numbers for nuclear are fantasy.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 19, 2016 10:18 am GMT

Germany has given up … solar only in token amounts.
Nonsense.
The new Energiewende law (EEG2017) has similar wind & solar targets as previous EEG’s. For solar it was and is an expansion of 2.5GW/a. As the installation rate was far below target in passed 12months the Feed-in-Tariffs even will be increased at jan2017.

The expansion rate of wind is increased by targeting more offshore wind.
Onshore wind target stays 2.5GW/a; the FiT will become higher for wind turbines in areas with less wind, which will solve part of the North-South transmission bottleneck.

The transition speed of the Energiewende towards renewable was in past 5 years, with 2.8%/a on av., far beyond its target of 1.5%/a. In 2015 it even was 4.1% (renewable jumped from 27.4% in 2014 towards 31.5% in 2015).

German govt. promsised to keep the costs insignificant (so support of the population stays at ~90%). Hence the new EEG will reduce the speed somewhat. I estimate that the speed will become ~2.2%/a, which is stil far higher than the target speed of 1.5%/a which delivers >80% renewable in 2050.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 19, 2016 10:36 am GMT

The IT industry long ago discovered the major benefits that distributed data processing deliver: Far more reliable and cheaper.
It’s time the electricity world follows with far more distributed generation by small units dispersed over the country.
Electricity supply will become far more reliable and cheaper!

Such developments now emerge in advanced countries, such as Germany, with a.o. Virtual Power Plants (VPP’s).

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Nov 19, 2016 11:26 am GMT

2.5 GW solar/a @10% CF will have Germany build solar for 4-5 years to replace a single large nuclear reactor, and it still has 8 such reactors active, providing only 14% of electricity. So that solar expansion is far too little. It’s token amounts!

“Keep costs insignificant.” That’s rich. Japan has spent $7-8 billion annually on all Fukushima-related stuff since the tsunami in 2011. Germany is spending $24 billion annually to support the energiewende.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 19, 2016 11:30 am GMT

Strange. Your study contradict the results of similar studies done for Germany by wellknown international firms during the decade long debate about the possibilities & costs of an Energiewende towards renewable.
Those delivered in the nineties the conclusion that 80% renewable was possible against insignificant costs, if the transition would be spread over a 50years period (a transition speed of 1.5%/a).

So govt. decided in 2000 for a scenario towards 80% renewable in 2050, which decision was converted in the first EEG in 2001. Despite low population support which was also caused by the publicity campaign of the incumbent utilities.

That utility campaign promoted ‘facts’ that such transition would be extremely expensive, affect supply reliability, and wouldn’t reduce fossil.
As none of these turned out to be true, the utilities lost a lot of trust and the Energiewende gained an unprecedented high level of support!

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 19, 2016 11:52 am GMT

Power-to-Gas(P2G) is no longer expensive, and is decreasing further in price.
Also thanks to many new developments which improve simplicity of the unmanned plants and the efficiency.
In Germany the number of P2G plants is increasing.
P2G at car refuel stations, P2G plants that inject produced gas in the natural gas pipes, P2G that produce hydrogen for chemical plants, etc.

Gas storage is extremely cheap and easy (decades of experience with storage & retrieval in earth cavities).
Such stored renewable gas is excellent (and not expensive) to meet seasonal power fluctuations.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 19, 2016 12:06 pm GMT

Renewable replace nuclear!
In Germany solar CF is ~14%.
In 2015 solar production expanded from 36.1TWh in 2014, towards 38.7TWh. An increase of 7% which is substantial.

Doubt your figures regarding Fukushima, etc.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Nov 19, 2016 1:12 pm GMT

Actually, German solar average capacity factor 2012-2016 is a bit under 11%.

German solar expansion stalled once the subsidies dropped to 3-4 x wholesale market prices.

To compare, Germany has 10.8 GW of nuclear capacity that generated 92 TWh of electricity. They have almost 40 GW of solar capacity that generated a bit under 39 TWh in 2015.

So, each nuclear GW of capacity generated 8.5 TWh and each solar GW of capacity generated a bit under 1 TWh of electricity.

Nuclear electricity kilowatt hours were sold at market prices and penalized by fuel rod tax collected by the German government. Each solar kWh was subsidized 3-4 times the market price for 2015 installations (up to 10-15 times for earlier installations) by German electricity consumers.

The subsidy is worth 10 billion euros annually. The total cost of German solar subsidies will be close to 200 billion euros, with the assumption that they will cease once 52 GW of capacity is reached.

Meanwhile, German dependence on coal will go on….they would need almost 100 GW more solar to replace the remaining nuclear power generation. In theory, because there is very little sunshine in December in Germany.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 19, 2016 5:25 pm GMT

Wrong, Bas. All critical data processing occurs at massive data centers, not at “small units dispersed over the country”. Far more reliable, cheaper, and less energy-intensive.

The only significant development in Germany and the Netherlands are Virtual Public Relations Plants (VPRP’s) which, with a fair amount of success, have convinced nitwits both at home and abroad that coal is not providing most of their electricity.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 19, 2016 5:54 pm GMT

Of course I applaud deployment of power-to-fuel systems, when the fuel is carbon-free and made from scalable feedstocks (e.g. water, air). Power-to-methane (as practiced in a few tiny German demonstration plants) is an idea that is not scalable without an equally large fossil fuel industry, because otherwise there is no scalable & economical CO2 source.

And the relatively little CO2 which can be captured from concrete and biomass production urgently needs to be sequestered underground to reduce atmospheric CO2 content, not converted to fuel and released when the fuel is burned. Attempts at deep reductions in fossil fuel use will fail without a carbon tax, and such a tax will also prevent use of hydrocarbon based power-to-fuel, since such a tax will make it preferable to bury all CO2, regardless of origin.

Once again Bas, you’ve been conned by the fossil fuel industry into another dead-end technology which prolongs dependence on fossil fuel, while helping to greenwash business as usual for energy users.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Nov 19, 2016 6:08 pm GMT

In Germany solar CF is ~14%.

It’s solar does 11%, but over lifetime, including some degradation, 10% is optimistic.

In 2015 solar production expanded from 36.1TWh in 2014, towards 38.7TWh. An increase of 7% which is substantial.

Not substantial, since there is no expectation of long-term compound growth of 7%. 2.6 TWh/a is 0.4% market share in Germany. So after 25 years, 10%. Germany has 14% nuclear and 50% fossil today.

Doubt your figures regarding Fukushima, etc.

They are verifiable.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 19, 2016 6:10 pm GMT

I doubt there is a real contradiction in the data, usually these studies come with a press release saying how great the renewable vision is, but the data in the studies contradicts the spin in the press release. We no longer have serious science journalist who scrutinize the studies of this politically correct orthodoxy, reporters report on the press releases.

As I mentioned, NREL has never published the (obviously important) graph of renewable penetration versus cost, but we know they could have: NOAA and UC Boulder created the graph using NREL software.

Anti-nuclearism is a rotting disease which afflicts the environment movement and leads to this blatant data suppression and ideologically biased data interpretation by renewable promotion organization.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Nov 19, 2016 6:16 pm GMT

So according to you, solar will add 18 GW @ 12% CF, that’s some 2.2 GW continuous. Wind would add 22 GW @ 16% CF, that’s some 3.5 GW continuous. So 5.7 GW average intermittent RE power. That’s about as much as 6 GW nuclear.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 19, 2016 8:43 pm GMT

…the counter tendency towards smaller, modular nuclear reactors, which may be simpler, safer and cheaper than their giga-scale competitors.

Maybe, but in large markets, I think it’s more likely that small & modular reactors (SMRs) will serve only as pilot projects which allow utilities, constructions companies, supply chain companies, bankers, and government regulators to gain their first (recent) nuclear experience before moving up to larger units.

Small reactors are a good fit for isolated smaller grid regions with demand in the <4 GWatt range. This is great as it can allow developing nations to skip coal, and jump straight from solar+diesel to solar+nuclear, without stopping to develop a long distance transmission system.

Overall though, I think the factors the author lists (simplicity, …) are over-sold. The more important issue is that smaller reactors allow the energy jobs to be put where the energy users live. Globalization is making people much more concerned about job loss, and SMRs are a way to avoid this for energy.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Nov 20, 2016 6:45 am GMT

Power-to-methane (as practiced in a few tiny German demonstration plants) is an idea that is not scalable without an equally large fossil fuel industry, because otherwise there is no scalable & economical CO2 source.

While I fully agree with most of the points that Nathan, along with Jesper, Jarmo, and Bob, have been making, in fairness I have to demur on the above.

If as-available energy gets cheap enough — or fossil energy gets costly enough through carbon taxes — then there is an easy, environmentally friendly, and highly scalable source of pure CO2. It’s calcination of limestone. The amount of carbon tied up in limestone is far greater than the amount of carbon in all fossil fuels. I don’t recall the numbers, offhand, but it’s at least 2 orders of magnitude difference. There’s a LOT of limestone spread around the world.

Certainly it takes substantial thermal energy to liberate CO2 from limestone, but that’s where the “cheap enough” conditional comes in. The thermal energy needed to liberate the CO2 through calcination is actually modest, compared to the electrical energy needed to produce the hydrogen needed to convert it to fuel.

As a nice side effect, the quicklime produced by calcination, if spread over the land or simply stored in the open, will fairly quickly re-absorb as much CO2 from the atmosphere as calcination liberated. So synthetic hydrocarbons produced from limestone, water, and energy are truly carbon neutral. The same cannot be said when the CO2 is captured from fossil fuel plants.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 20, 2016 8:36 am GMT

Nathan,
Scalability of P2G(methane & liquid fuel) is a non-issue as there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere, and it is released again when the fuel is burned. Check also developments at a.o. your famous MIT which will improve P2G efficiency using CO2 from the atmosphere further(membrames, catalysts, etc.).

Capturing CO2 from concrete and biomass is also major step forwards. As it will take ~50years before fossil fuel burning is eradicated in advanced countries such as Germany (USA a century?), such CO2 use for P2G will prevent the insertion of new CO2.

Underground CO2 sequestration is not a final solution as it will resurface again in the future. It has to be converted into other not dangerous fix material.

The bad properties of underground storage, which prevent safe permanent storage, is clearly demonstrated with underground nuclear waste sequestration.

France spent billions in its search for a permanent nuclear waste store. In vain until now. They may choose something out of despair.
USA did the same. Not strange that failed as Yucca mountains is geological not stable.
German scientists concluded that they found stable underground salt layers (600m deep) to store the stuff packed in steel containers.
The population is now faced with multi-billion (>$100B?) costs to get the waste up to the surface before it will spoil surface water and make agriculture impossible. It would be impossible without the help of more advanced robots.

It’s one of the reasons the population realize how extreme high the real cost of nuclear electricity is.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 20, 2016 9:23 am GMT

The fuel rod tax brings only a small part of the costs nuclear waste causes. The handling of the nuclear waste at Asse alone will take already >$100B.
German population has to subsidize main part (near all) of the costs, as the utilities won’t / cannot pay it.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 20, 2016 9:47 am GMT

As far as I know, all Vrtual Power Plants deliver only guaranteed 100% renewable electricity. Here suppliers (the VPP) have to proof such statements!

Distributed processing & electricity generation
Once data centers housed one or a few data processors called mainframes. Similar as Nuclear Power Plants now.

Now data centers house many thousands of data processors. Each being similar as the processor in your PC (unless you have an Apple).
One of the major benefits is the highly increased reliabilty,

In Germany electricity supply reliability increased ~25% when many thousands of small generators, dispersed all over the country often near consumers, started to deliver substantial share of the electricity in first decade of this century!

USA need such supply reliability increase, considering its present electricity supply unreliability!

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 20, 2016 9:55 am GMT

Carbon tax?
The EU has something better than a carbon tax: the ETS (Emission Trading System). It allows to trade emission rights, so emissions will only be done where it is most urgently needed.

The problem was that there were too much rights (due to changes in the economy), so the costs for e.g. burning lignite are small.
But that will end gradually as now the emission rights are depreciated with 2.2%/year. So a power plant has to buy each year 2.2% more rights at the ETS market, while the volume of rights is not increased.

The shortage will increase emission prices. It ends emission activities which deliver small economic benefit first, etc.
In the end only economic activities with emissions, when there is really no other option, as emissions will become very expensive (if the system is not changed).

It’s a far better system than a carbon tax.
How far is USA?

China, etc. follows the EU with similar ETS.
If most major countries do it, we can have a global ETS market with ETS rights traded globally.

It would be a real solution as present situation in which some countries take action and other countries do nothing leads to unfair competition.

The EU and other countries that have the ETS such as China, should start with import taxes on products that are (partly) produced in countries that do not participate in the ETS.
The import tax being based on estimated carbom emissions of the product in the countries of origin, and the emission price as traded at ETS!
It will help backwards countries such as USA, so they also start with the ETS (or similar).

Russ Finley's picture
Russ Finley on Nov 20, 2016 4:12 pm GMT

The more important issue is that smaller reactors allow the energy jobs to be put where the energy users live. Globalization is making people much more concerned about job loss, and SMRs are a way to avoid this for energy.

Excellent and novel point. We may use parts from China, but we still build and maintain our own infrastructure.

Russ Finley's picture
Russ Finley on Nov 20, 2016 4:50 pm GMT

A Google search on term “NOAA and UC Boulder renewable costs” returns headlines like: “Switch to Clean Energy Can Be Fast and Cheap, Rapid, affordable energy transformation possible, NOAA, CU Boulder researchers find way to share renewable energy, NOAA study suggests U.S. could switch to 100 percent renewable”

Do you have a link for your graphic?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 20, 2016 9:16 pm GMT

Roger, maybe, but… If spreading quicklime in the open is an economical way to capture atmospheric CO2, then the other minerals that you and others have mentioned which can absorb CO2 without first emitting it will also work. That means we have no present-day need for sustainable energy, and drill-baby-drill (with CC&S) becomes the best strategy.

I’m not against atmospheric CO2 capture, I just don’t think we should count on it to save the planet. Also, with a carbon tax, I would think your system would pay the carbon tax as the syn-fuel is produced, then collect a refund as the quicklime absorbs CO2 (is that months, years, or decades?).

For pipe-line gas applications, using hydrogen directly (in a dedicated pipeline) must be cheaper than any process that converts the hydrogen to something else. Similarly, for seasonal storage for peaking power plants and long haul truck fuel, making ammonia would be as cheap as methane (cheaper if there’s a carbon tax); the ammonia fertilizer industry already uses about 1% of fossil gas production. The only reason I can see not to build the hydrogen pipeline or the ammonia system is that we don’t really intent to go big with power-to-fuel: for greenwashing, power-to-methane is a clear choice.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 20, 2016 9:28 pm GMT

Yes, amateurs frequently tell us how dangerous underground storage is, but I never hear that from geologists (for nuclear or CO2 storage). The real problem is obstructionists interfering with the geology work (Yucca mountain was chosen by politicians for its pre-contaminated state: as a former above ground nuclear weapons test site, it will never be farm land).

Cheap atmospheric CO2 capture is as far off as cheap nuclear fusion. It might happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

Until then, your steadfast defense of hydrocarbon-based energy use does nothing but support fossil fuel use.

Russ Finley's picture
Russ Finley on Nov 20, 2016 11:00 pm GMT

From the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, second in command to Merkel, who was also the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 2005 to 2009:

“I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden [$30billion a year]…We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it. Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices.”

While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said. Biomass energy is too expensive and its cost structure hasn’t improved, he said.

Germany is demonstrating the real world cost of trying to reduce emissions with only renewables; $30 billion a year, according to Germany’s economics ministry. $30 billion a year would pay for forty custom built $7.5 billion Generation III AP1000 reactors over ten years ($30B/year x 10years = $300B, $300B/$7.5B = 40 AP1000 reactors). Add those to existing reactors and they could supply about 97% of Germany’s electricity by 2025. And their emissions reductions have been flat for the last six years …six years of carbon in the atmosphere we can’t get back.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Nov 21, 2016 1:13 am GMT

Attempts at deep reductions in fossil fuel use will fail without a carbon tax, …

Nathan, I don’t know that a carbon tax is the only solution. Elsewhere you reference the graphic from the NOAA authors’ paper indicating calculated renewable share versus natural gas price. I imagine that if one accepts the premise of those authors, especially a small and constant nuclear share, then yes only a heavy carbon tax prevents 70% share of electricity generation from natural gas.

Yet I see no good reason why low cost gen iv nuclear can not also force deep carbon reductions. Granted the technology is not in mass production, but neither is gen 4 nuclear an out-there, we-don’t-know-all-the-physics-yet play like fusion.

Technological advance has a good record of retiring existing paradigms, while the record for the political implementation of a global tax on things is zero, especially something that will draw endless political pressure for exemptions and cheating on the emissions tally. Apropos, in a global carbon tax world, expect to see Bas lobbying for a carbon tax exemption for German P2G with one hand, and asserting that radiation will wipe out all female births with the other.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Nov 21, 2016 1:23 am GMT

Future cost-competitive electricity systems and their impact on US CO2 emissions

MacDonald, Clack, et al in Nature Climate Change, January 2016

Figures are available in supplemental information. The one Nathan referenced is figure 23, page 54.
http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v6/n5/extref/nclimate2921-s1.pdf

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Nov 21, 2016 2:04 am GMT

The comparison, nuclear to the German renewable push, is not a euro for euro swap. Nuclear would be far cheaper.

The net cost to the German rate-and-tax payer for nuclear at $7/W does not require the $30B referenced by Germany’s Gabriel, as the $30B is subsidy, placed on top of the historical electricity rate structure to induce the purchase of that which would otherwise be far too expensive. Nuclear might require some advantage to close down all existing coal and gas plants, but not the current $30B/yr. The historical rate structure paid for Germany’s existing nuclear plants, and it could pay for more over time.

Russ Finley's picture
Russ Finley on Nov 21, 2016 3:00 am GMT

…much appreciated. I managed to find the following graphic:

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 21, 2016 3:11 am GMT

Yes, I agree that globally, cheap nuclear power is more likely to happen and cause deep emissions reductions than a global carbon tax. Already in South Korea, China, and India, existing Gen III nuclear is roughly the same cost as coal, and could easily grow to 60% of generation, even as hydro and solar are added (were it not for lobbying by the coal industry and anti-nuclear groups), for about the same electricity cost as coal (but with more upfront investment required).

In the US though, the nuclear industry has no momentum, so it would need a big push to get new builds going again. It should be clear to outside observers that the US is not on a path to deep emissions reductions (we’ll just swap coal for gas, and grow variable renewables from 5% to 10%, and then announce a new emphasis on basic research rather than deployment). And without the US being on-board, it hard to see the rest of the world reaching aggressive targets/promises either (it’s easier to give in to the fossil fuel lobbiests).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 21, 2016 3:48 am GMT

Roger, ultimately you’re capturing CO2 from the atmosphere, with energy required for the added step of crushing rock.

I don’t see the advantage of including that step. Carbon capture directly from the atmosphere isn’t efficient, but is it not more efficient than mining and crushing limestone?

Electrolysis isn’t a particularly efficient process either. If synthetic gasoline/methyl alcohol/ethyl alcohol/ammonia is our goal, the required hydrogen can be liberated from water efficiently and without any carbon impact using process heat from HTGRs and the sulfur-iodine cycle. In 2007 MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Engineering Studies concluded 650 HTGRs could generate enough liquid fuel, carbon-free, to power all domestic transportation.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Nov 21, 2016 3:51 am GMT

A significant cost item that’s not accounted for in the typical nuclear pricing comparison is the cost of some kind of failure that causes or contributes to the early loss of the plant. This includes anything from steam generator failures at SONGS, the LOCA at TMI, or the belated determination 40 years after opening that Oyster Creek’s that the use of Barnegat Bay for cooling water was too harmful. All types of power plants can fail, but the cost and time involved in large nuclear are unique.

Whatever the reason, fair or not, the utility i) loses an investment that might cost another $10B and 10 years to replace in kind, and ii) may represent a sizable fraction of the capital value of the utility and so its loss might represent an existential threat to the utility. [Edit:] US utilities hold one or two nuclear plants in their grid portfolio, but I suspect it is the risk of large plant loss (in part) that keeps them from adding more, and caps the US at 20% nuclear. Small modular, at the size of, say, $500M with half the time to install, makes moot the risk to the utility of any given reactor loss.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 21, 2016 4:21 am GMT

Bas, you compare distribution of a service (information processing) to distribution of a generic commodity (electricity). Apples and screwdrivers.

Thanks for informing us what “USA need”. Your concern is duly noted.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Nov 21, 2016 4:46 am GMT

I agree with all of the above except the last sentence. In the event that nuclear becomes cheaper than coal abroad, then US slow-walking does not stop deep deployment abroad of the least expensive option.

If nefarious fossil fuel lobbies are somehow all powerful, then a carbon tax also has no chance.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 21, 2016 8:16 am GMT

…amateurs tell how dangerous underground storage is…
May be US govt decided to leave Yucca mountains after investing $1B? without decisive advice of all scientists,
but that is not the practice in EU (seems to me rather backwards if US govt still operate that way).

E.g. in France there is no substantial anti-nuclear movement, still the country invested already billions in its quest to find a suitable site.

“your steadfast defense of hydrocarbon-based energy”
I promote the transition towards 100% renewable for electricity and then for all energy. In line with Denmark’s scenario who target 100% renewable for electricity in 2040 and for all energy in 2050.

As nuclear is baseload, it’s a stumble block on the road to reach that target.
Worse, the high subsidies per KWh nuclear need take the money away, which is much better spent for much cheaper renewable as those produce 3-20times more KWh’s per $ subsidy!

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 21, 2016 9:37 am GMT

Nuclear emit 2-20 times more CO2eq per KWh produced than renewable wind & solar. So such move would be bad for the climate.

Especially in the future as renewable will continue to become much cheaper in next decades thanks to further design & efficiency improvements (=less emissions), while history shows opposite for nuclear in western world (=more emissions for nuclear).
Main reason: govt’s want nuclear to become less unsafe.

Since the emission studies a decade ago (on which the IPCC report is based), wind & solar decreased a factor 3 -10 times in costs and nuclear increased >50%. As the emissions are closely related to costs the emission picture changed accordingly.*)

Anyway, no chance that Germany will change its “all nuclear out asap” policy. Too many hurdles. E.g:
There is still no solution for the nuclear waste. Which is an important issue in Germany as the German tax payer still has to foot a bill >~$100Billion for cleaning the nuclear waste storage at Asse 600m below surface in a “scientific shown to be stable” salt layer.**) To prevent that the already escaping radio-active material will spoil the surface water in a few thousand years (making agriculture impossible).
_____
*) All costs paid end in the pockets of workers, investors, govt., etc. who spend the money for acitivities & products which generate a certain amount of emissions.
There is no real difference between the spending pattern of renewable workers, investors, etc compared to nuclear. Hence the emissions are closeley related to the costs.
Except for burning fossil as that process generates emissions in itself.

**) The heat which the nuclear waste generated accumulated as it couldn’t be transported away fast enough in the dry stable salt layer. So over the years temperatures became very high which changed the behavior of the salt and allowed water to penetrate. The high quality steel casks also started to leak already (the high temperatures, effects of the hot salt and the radiation on the steel, etc).

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 21, 2016 10:36 am GMT

That $30B is stated as there was then a discussion with the Greens & Greenpeace who also want all coal out asap. Gabriel object that as:
– It would make the costs of the Energiewende significant, and all govt’s promised since the start in 2000 that it would stay insignificant.

– Such coal closures imply the owners get compensation*) which is extremely high for the new plants as those produce for <2.5cnt/KWh and are flexible like gas plants. So they can compete well until ~2050.

It's far better to spend the money to increase renewable share. As the marginal costs of wind & solar are <1cntKWh, those will gradually compete all fossil incl. coal plants off the market.
Just as they did since the start of the Energiewende.
While electricity production increased 10%, production by all coal reduced 7%.

Note that the Jan.2014 Bloomberg article that you linked is filled with the usual faults, which create a wrong impression. E.g.:
– it states that Gabriel seeks to reduce onshore wind expansion to 2.5GW/a. But that was already the target in previous years.
– it doesn't state that Gabriel seeks to expand offshore wind much faster, which takes a lot of money. Successful:
Offshore wind produced in 2014; 1TWh and in 2015; 8TWh. (total German production ~646TWh/a).
____
*) The high compensation costs for premature closure is also the reason Germany didn't close all nuclear much sooner.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Nov 21, 2016 12:10 pm GMT

You’re a liar, Bas.  Sovacool’s and Storm and Smith’s carbon numbers are fraudulent, as you’ve been told time and time again.  Repeating them is blatant, bare-faced lying.

Countries relyng on nuclear and hydro have grid carbon emissions 1/5 to 1/20 of “Green” Denmark and Germany.  D and G burn COAL in mass quantities and have no plans (because no ability) to stop, ever.  Nuclear never “stops blowing” so there is no need for 100% fossil backup; “renewables” can’t do without it.

You, Storm & Smith, Sovacool, Mark Z. Jacobson, and the rest of you anti-nuclear liars should be made to prove your claim.  I suggest putting you all on Baffin Island for a winter, with nothing but wind and solar for heat and light.  When it thaws out around May we’ll recover your corpses for burial and enjoy the end of the assault of lies you’ve thrown at us for so many years.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Nov 21, 2016 2:49 pm GMT

And even more importantly, smaller sizes, more standardization, shorter construction times will lower the cost of money and get industrial learning effects going..

Mike Conley's picture
Mike Conley on Nov 24, 2016 6:00 pm GMT

Absolute hogwash.

Renewables are not independent. They are interdependent: they will only be able to power the country if thousands of wind and solar farms are interconnected so they can back each other up. But don’t take my word for it. Read Mark Jacobson’s 50-state plan.

Running the country on Renewables is the exact opposite of decentralized power. In fact it is the biggest Big Energy scheme on record.

michael fellion's picture
michael fellion on Nov 24, 2016 10:31 pm GMT

the future does not belong to wishes, it belongs the energy source which is always working and gives enough energy to power everything while lasting at least the life of the house which can be100 years or more. Solar collectors take up a lot of room, In crowded cities there is simply not enough room for the collectors nor for the energy storage units which have to be large enough for several days of operation with zero energy input at full output. Nevermind the fires and explosion which can result for battery units. I live in the suburbs and do not have enough roof to supply all the energy I use if I turn everything on. If you do not have that you are back to 1BC and campfires. The other problem is cost. no solar system is less costly than central energy sources and never will be as the cost of storage is more than the cost of the solar. Currently solar systems operate part time, 37 percent in a recent study of a bunch of systems in a hot, snow free climate, in Michigan it would be a lot less. When they are not operating there is no cost effective storage system for the power so either you shut down everything and go back to campfires or you turn on the central power plant.

michael fellion's picture
michael fellion on Nov 24, 2016 10:38 pm GMT

When you speak of nuclear it would be foolish to ignore the newer designs most of which are easily scalable to whatever size you want, some of which have plugin units so you never have to shut down the whole plant , you simply plugin in the new unit and haul the old away. The actual RE power source of the future may be nanotech rectifier grids which turn any wave length into DC electricity. Saw an article on them last week.

michael fellion's picture
michael fellion on Nov 24, 2016 10:57 pm GMT

Germany is buying a huge chunk of its electricity from France. Since French reactors are being safety checked somewhere in the not to distant future, Germany is going to run out of energy. Meanwhile the peons pay a rate twice that of others in the EU which is causing Merkel political heat.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Nov 25, 2016 12:57 pm GMT

John – It’s technically conceivable to apply most of your arguments about manufacturing economies, modular system scaling, and low running costs (approaching zero) to nuclear systems. Though they still need fuel on occasion, the occasions can be separated by many years. In fact, the organization where I learned to be a nuke now produces ship reactors that last for the entire life of the ship – 33 or more years.

Many applications don’t necessarily benefit from investing the kind of up front capital needed to make reactors last that long without new fuel, but it’s certainly possible because it’s being done today. Even with the primitive 1970s technology core in my last submarine, small reactors could be built with enough STORED, on board fuel to last for 15 years.

The wind and solar systems that you advocate do not last forever. By their nature, they cannot be protected from the weather, so they suffer from the same kinds of damage from UV rays, dust, occasional high winds, and bird droppings that all of have noticed cause outdoor equipment and furniture to eventually need replacement or major repairs.

I like the idea of distributed generation just like I like distributed restaurants, garages, grocery stores, and shopping. Concentrating production doesn’t address the problems of distributing products to the end customers. The production costs might fall, but at the cost of increasing transportation or transmission costs — including the very substantial cost associated with the required infrastructure investments.

Solar works pretty well as a distributed technology that can be put in countless good locations, but wind is much more difficult to locate near customers. Small, residential scale wind turbines are available, but they produce expensive power. They can also lead to terrible neighborhood conflicts, especially if the bearings go out in the middle of the night. (I’ve been in a harbor when that happened to a sailboat mounted turbine. It ensonified the entire downtown area of Annapolis.

As you probably know, China and India both have aggressive nuclear energy development programs. They are pushing hard to make nuclear systems that can be mass produced. Their efforts are not hampered by a government agency that is agnostic toward the importance of using nuclear energy as a tool to dramatically reduce dependence on fossil fuels. They are not the home base for enormous multinational petroleum companies that have recognized the competitive threat from fission.

Their nuclear programs have the strong capacity to integrate well with their renewable energy programs to provide a truly clean and decarbonized grid while not falling back on “demand response” which can also be called “customer curtailment”.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Nov 25, 2016 3:03 pm GMT

Germany buying electricity???
Doesn’t fit with the numbers.
In 2015 German export 85, import 34 TWh.

Export-import 52 TWh, being 8% of German production.
(German production 646, consumption 595 TWh )

Rate causing Merkel political heat???
No sign that the unprecedented high(90%) support for the Energiewende under the population is changing.

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