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Why Nuclear Fusion is Gaining Steam - Again

Construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France.

Although no breakthrough has happened in nuclear fusion since it was hailed as the clean energy source of the future in the 1970s, there are reasons to be optimistic now, writes Scott L. Montgomery of the University of Washington. There have been advances in technology, two large reactors are being built and a dozen startups have become active. “The dream of fusion power now seems certain to neither die or remain merely a dream.” Courtesy The Conversation.

Back when I studied geology in grad school, the long-term future of energy had a single name: nuclear fusion. It was the 1970s. The physicists I studied with predicted that tapping this clean new source of electric power by forcing two nuclei of hydrogen to combine and release massive amounts of energy, might be 50 years off.

Four decades later, after I’d left my career of research and writing in the energy industry and begun a second career as an author and a professor, I found myself making this same forecast with my own students and readers. In what had become an ironic cliché, fusion, it seemed, would forever haunt a distant horizon.

That seems to be changing, finally.

Thanks to advances in physics research, materials science and supercomputing, scientists are building and testing multiple fusion reactor designs. About a dozen fusion startups with innovative ideas have the private investment they need to see what they can achieve. Still, it’s too early to break out the champagne, and not only for technical reasons.

Underwhelming breakthroughs

One problem is that a breakthrough in the lab doesn’t guarantee innovation or success in the marketplace because energy is very price sensitive. Also, fusion illustrates how few things can erode faith in a new technology like an imminent “breakthrough” that fails to materialize.

The tendency of scientists and journalists to hype real progress toward fusion has undercut public support in the long run

First, there was the cold fusion debacle in 1989, when two scientists went to the media with the unverifiable claim they had achieved room-temperature fusion and were ostracized by the scientific community, sullying the image of this energy source as a real option.

Then, scientists hit a milestone in 1994 when the test fusion reactor at Princeton set a new record for peak power of 10.7 megawatts, which The New York Times said at the time was “enough to power 2,000 to 3,000 homes momentarily, meaning roughly a quarter of a second. Scientifically, that event had great importance, though it was topped in 1997. Yet it hardly promised a power reactor just around the corner.

Along the way, the tendency of scientists and journalists to hype real progress toward fusion, whether it’s to attract funding or readers, has undercut public support in the long run.

Today, in fact, various media reports continue to suggest a rash of fusion breakthroughs.

Real advances

Has there truly been some progress? To an impressive degree, yes. But mostly in terms of scientific and engineering research. If there is yet again another claim announcing that the world is now finally closing in on the solution to all energy problems, then myth is being sold in the place of truth.

Many scientists are drawn to both fission, the power source in today’s nuclear reactors, and fusion, because of the spectacular amount of energy they offer. The main fuel for fission, Uranium-235, has 2 million times the energy per pound that oil does. Fusion may deliver up to seven times that or more.

The fuel used for fission is extremely abundant. The same goes for fusion, but without any long-lived dangerous waste. For fusion, the fuel is two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, the first of which can be extracted from seawater and the second from lithium, whose resources are large and growing.

Hence, the failure to pursue these colossal non-carbon sources might well appear to be colossally self-defeating.

If the roughly $3.5 trillion invested in renewable power since 2000 had all backed fission, I believe the advances in that technology would have led all remaining coal- and oil-fired power plants to have disappeared from the face of the Earth

Fusion is hard to harness, though. In stars, which are made of plasma, a high-energy state of matter in which negatively charged electrons are completely separated from positively charged nuclei, fusion takes place because of immense gravitational forces and extreme temperatures.

Trying to create similar conditions here on Earth has required fundamental advances in a number of fields, from quantum physics to materials science. Scientists and engineers have made enough progress over the past half century, especially since the 1990s, to make so that building a fusion reactor able to generate more power than it takes to operate seems viable within two decades, not five. Supercomputing has helped enormously, allowing researchers to precisely model the behavior of plasma under different conditions.

Reactor types

There are two reasons to be optimistic about fusion right now. Two big fusion reactors are built or being built. And fusion startups aiming to build smaller reactors, which would be cheaper, easier and quicker construct, are proliferating.

Nearly a dozen startups are designing new kinds of reactors and power plants they say can come online long before and far more cheaply

One of the two big reactors is a donut-shaped tokamak – a Russian acronym for a Soviet invention made in the 1950s that was designed to confine and compress plasma into a cylindrical shape in a powerful magnetic field. Powerful compression of the deuterium-tritium plasma at extremely high temperatures – as in about 100 million degrees Centigrade – causes fusion to occur.

ITER (Latin for “the way”) is a collaboration between the European Union and the governments of India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and the U.S. This consortium is now spending more than US$20 billion to build a giant tokamak in southern France. By 2035, it’s slated to generate 500 megawatts while operating on just 50 megawatts. Meeting that goal would essentially confirm that fusion is a feasible source of clean energy on a large scale.

The other is a more complex, twisted donut stellarator, called the Wendelstein 7-X, built in Germany with the same objective. Bends in its chamber twist the plasma so that it has a more stable shape and can be confined for greater lengths of time than in a tokamak. The 7-X cost about $1 billion to build, including site expenses. And if things go according to plan, it might be able to generate a significant amount of electricity by about 2040.

Meanwhile, nearly a dozen startups are designing new kinds of reactors and power plants they say can come online long before and far more cheaply – even if the requisite technology isn’t there yet.

For example, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spin-off still tied to the university’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and partially funded by the Italian oil company Eni, aims to create especially powerful magnetic fields to see if fusion power can be generated with smaller-sized tokamaks.

And General Fusion, a Vancouver-based venture Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is backing, wants to build a big spherical reactor in which hydrogen plasma would be surrounded by liquid metal and compressed with pistons to cause a burst of fusion. Should that work, this energy would heat the liquid metal to generate steam and spin a turbine generator, producing massive amounts of electricity.

Rich enough

With lean operations and clear missions, these startups are nimble enough to move rapidly from drawing board to actual construction. In contrast, multinational complications are costing ITER time and money.

Since future energy needs will be vast, having different fusion options available could help meet them however long they take. But other sources of non-carbon power are available.

That means fusion proponents must convince their funders around the world it is worth continuing to support this future option when other non-carbon sources, like wind and solar power (and nuclear fission – at least outside the U.S.Japan and the European Union) are scaling up or expanding. If the question is whether it’s worth making a big bet on a new non-carbon technology with vast potential, then the rapid growth of renewable energy in recent years suggests they were the better gamble.

The dream of fusion power now seems certain to neither die or remain merely a dream

Yet if the roughly $3.5 trillion invested in renewable power since 2000 had all backed fission, I believe the advances in that technology would have led all remaining coal- and oil-fired power plants to have disappeared from the face of the Earth by now.

And if that same money had instead backed fusion, perhaps a working reactor would now exist. But the world’s wealthy nations, investment firms and billionaires can easily support fusion research and experimentation along with other options. Indeed, the dream of fusion power now seems certain to neither die or remain merely a dream.

Editor’s Note

Scott L. Montgomery is lecturer at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. and author of many books, including “The Powers That Be: Global Energy for the Twenty-First Century and Beyond”, and “The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Built the Modern World”. 

This article was first published on The Conversation and is republished here with permission from the author and publisher.

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Recent Comments

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 13, 2018

We may need nuclear fusion in the far future to propel space ships, etc.
So we should invest in further research and developments such as the stellarator and other more advanced ideas.

For this century wind and solar alone can already produce more than the world needs against prices that are decreasing to levels which will compete all generators that need steam (fossil, fission) out of the market.
Which is quite logical when one looks at the fundamentals:

– For solar only a thin sheet of silicium (becoming thinner and thinner towards less than 0.1mm) packed between glass plates are needed. No movements.
So technically those plants can last centuries.

– For wind only an axis with blades and a generator on it are need.
No high temperatures, etc. with associated fast wear maintenance and management costs, as with fossil & nuclear.

With grid expansion and the decreasing costs of Power-to-Gas and other storage technologies, the intermittence problem hardly add substantial costs (<0.5cnt/KWh).

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on April 13, 2018

Yet if the roughly $3.5 trillion invested in renewable power since 2000 had all backed fission, I believe the advances in that technology would have led all remaining coal- and oil-fired power plants to have disappeared from the face of the Earth by now.

That is a bold statement given the technology still doesn’t work. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t work if you don’t have a viable solution. In 15 years, you get at the very most 3 generations of reactors.

There is no mention of the competitive cost of electric produced by a fusion system, and wind and solar are already competitive with coal, and we aren’t seeing a massive change yet.

Last, if you are really trying to combat global warming having 100s of thousands of reactors running at 100 million degree temperatures doesn’t seem like the brightest idea.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on April 13, 2018

That is a bold statement given the technology still doesn’t work.

Someone who looks reality boldly in the face and denies it.

I don’t know what things are like on Bizarro world, but on Earth (the one Earth we have) nuclear power is the ONLY thing which has EVER decarbonized a fossil-dependent grid.  It has been working in France, in Sweden, in Ontario, and in dozens of sealed tubes under the oceans in close proximity to humans.  It has been working reliably, repeatably and safely for over 6 decades.

In contrast, the biggest success story for “renewables” appears to be El Hierro which has achieved some periods of operation on wind power buffered with pumped-hydro storage.  This is not something which can scale to the needs of N. America; you’d literally need reservoirs the size of Lake Erie to provide storage.  It’s “renewables” that still don’t work, that don’t and almost certainly can’t live up to the claims made for them.

Bas loves to talk about power-to-gas.  Nobody’s ever done that at scale either.  So many of the PtG demos so far haven’t even been used to power FCEVs or make something storable like ammonia; they’ve just taken their (very expensive) fuel and dumped it into the fossil-methane supply.

wind and solar are already competitive with coal

Only if you externalize all their costs of balancing and buffering.  The natural-gas industry is rubbing its hands with glee at the thought of all the money to be made that way.  It will lock the market in to their product (and its GHG emissions) for decades.

if you are really trying to combat global warming having 100s of thousands of reactors running at 100 million degree temperatures doesn’t seem like the brightest idea.

Spoken like someone who has never taken a physics class, or has studiously forgotten everything he learned there in order to score debate points.

The problem with fusion isn’t the temperature.  It’s the neutron damage and activation that’s unavoidable when you’re throwing around gram quantities of 14.7 MeV neutrons.  If you’re going to be generating literally tons of radioactive structural parts either way, you might as well stick with fission.  It’s cheaper and scales better.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on April 13, 2018

I don’t know what things are like on Bizarro world, but on Earth (the one Earth we have) nuclear power is the ONLY thing which has EVER decarbonized a fossil-dependent grid.

Actually Hydro would be the first.

It’s “renewables” that still don’t work, that don’t and almost certainly can’t live up to the claims made for them.

Except we keep finding places where they do work, you even gave a solid example. If you want one with batteries, American Somoa is good example, they are 100% electric. Kauai has dropped from 92%FF generation to 44% RE. It is working. We are over 1% solar, and roughly 7.5% wind now. We just use a LOT of power.

You are boohooing battery storage, but in reality the costs have come down. They do have to drop more, but with batteries, you don’t need nearly as much space and they can be sited anywhere on the grid turning your lake erie hydro into a trailerpark.

The natural-gas industry is rubbing its hands with glee at the thought of all the money to be made that way.

Yeap. For about 30 years maybe. NG use for generation was down last year though as folks are starting to get a handle how to manage the grid more effectively and efficiently. California most likely will kick NG for generation out of their state in the next decade. They won’t need it.

Spoken like someone who has never taken a physics class, or has studiously forgotten everything he learned there in order to score debate points.

You don’t win -any- debate points by not being able to refute the point, which even if you have a physics background, you were unable to do.

Last, if you are really trying to combat global warming having 100s of thousands of reactors running at 100 million degree temperatures doesn’t seem like the brightest idea.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on April 14, 2018

The problem with the ITER fusion solution is that they are starting with a huge prototype (built by an international coalition). Successful programs normally start small then grow (e.g. fision was first started in a racket-ball court sized pile, then ship propulsion, then power plants).

Fortunately, the new super conducting magnet technology is allowing smaller and smaller prototypes to be feasible, such as the compact tokamak.

Definitely cool science, but far from obvious that these machines will ever beat the cost of fission; fission systems appear to have higher power density, cheaper parts, much less of an issue with troublesome hot-spots.

There is still a possibility of the winning solution being a fission-fusion hybrid. Someday, our fission systems will switch from the once-through enriched-fuel cycle to a cycle with break-even breeding (so nukes become billion year sustainable).Even if a breeder is more expensive than a LWR, a mixed fleet can still work if the cheaper reactors do most of the work. Fusion systems may be the cheapest way to make neutrons, so they may replace fast breeders in mixed systems. There are lots of ways to imagine that:
– classic plutonium cycle with reprocessing, and 40/60 mix of LWRs and fast breeders.
– Indian thorium cycle with reprocessing, and HWRs and fast breeders (70/30 mix?).
– once-through traveling wave fast breeder reactors.
– liquid fuel thorium breeder fission reactors with reprocessing.
– liquid fuel thorium near-breeder fission reactors with fusion breeding and reprocessing (95/5 mix?).
– thorium fueled LWRs plus fusion based breeders with reprocessing (90/10 mix?).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on April 14, 2018

“… the intermittence problem hardly add substantial costs (<0.5cnt/KWh)"

Wow, as the world increasingly accepts that continued fossil fuel use (potentially with CC&S) or an expensive hydrogen economy will always be needed to prop up variable renewables, you continue to promote this power-to-methane delusion.

Power-to-fuel might someday be only somewhat more expensive than valuable transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel. It will _never_ compete with cheap coal and fossil gas.

And once you’ve made hydrogen, where do you get CO2 to make methane? Of course from your local fossil fuel fired power plant. Why should they give it to you, instead of selling it to a sequestration company for a cut of the carbon credit? Not sustainable, not cheap in a world with carbon taxes.

We need to accept that our fossil fuel infrastructure and end-use equipment must all be replaced with infrastructure for carbon-free energy carriers like electricity, hydrogen, ammonia, and hot water.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on April 15, 2018

“…f the roughly $3.5 trillion invested in renewable power since 2000 had all backed fission, …”

Was “fission” supposed to be “fusion”?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 16, 2018

For this century wind and solar alone can already produce more than the world needs against prices that are decreasing to levels which will compete all generators that need steam (fossil, fission) out of the market.

Bas, maybe there is a place in the space/time continuum where wind and solar can already produce energy for this entire century, where future and past tense are freely interchangeable. In the one I inhabit, you’re not making any sense at all.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 16, 2018

Hops, read on:

And if that same money had instead backed fusion, perhaps a working reactor would now exist.

The author was referring to nuclear fission, and he’s not alone in his belief that

advances in that technology would have led all remaining coal- and oil-fired power plants to have disappeared from the face of the Earth by now.

The purpose of DOE’s Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), which entered service in 1982, was to enable design and testing of a fast-neutron fission reactor which was passively safe. It had succeeded when the project was killed by John Kerry/Bill Clinton in 1994.

On the other side of the aisle, George W. Bush and fossil-fuel friends in Congress didn’t like the FFTF either. They realized the mothballed facility at Hanford, if resurrected, might enable development of a reactor which could doom their industry. So they set about to destroy it, drilling holes in its coolant vessel to “drain sodium coolant” which had already been drained from it.

Had a President been elected in 2000 who understood fission’s potential for fighting climate change, the FFTF could have been (and can still be) restored to working condition, with enough left over from $3.5 trillion to build thousands of IFRs at $1.5B a pop.

Renewable energy will go down as the biggest waste of resources, both environmental and financial, in human history.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 16, 2018

Sean, what grid has hydropower freed from dependence on fossil fuels?

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 16, 2018

It’s the neutron damage and activation that’s unavoidable when you’re throwing around gram quantities of 14.7 MeV neutrons.

Yes, fast neutrons are an problem to be addressed, but they don’t seem to have stopped fast fission reactors from coming into existence. I think the political resistance to Pu production is the largest impediment there.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 16, 2018

Except we keep finding places where they do work, you even gave a solid example.

El Hierro is a failure by most measures. The project promised to provide 100% RE power and free the island of its diesel gensets. Average RE power penetration is 42% through 2018, falling as low as 18% in low wind months, and the pumped hydro system is hardly used. Wind capacity factor varies monthly from 37% to 8%. Strong wind months force are most likely forcing the wind turbines into curtailment though pitch regulation. Thus all diesel generators remain in place, and monthy diesel deliveries by ship continue. The wind-hydro RE system has cost $94 million, or $8.2K/kW.

https://s31.postimg.cc/jv5waokez/Untitled.png

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 16, 2018

Kauai has dropped from 92%FF generation to 44% RE. It is working.

Apparently Kauai still retains 13 diesel and gas turbine generators, total 125 MW against the island average load of 75 MW. A biomass wood burner supplies 12% of generation (1/4 of RE), and small hydro 8% of generation. The residential effective rate is $0.31/kWh; large commercial is $0.29/kwh.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on April 16, 2018

There’s an enormous difference between neutrons with a modal energy of ~700 keV and ones at 14.7 MeV.  The EBR-II ran 30 years without having to replace major parts due to neutron damage; in a D-T fusion reactor, that would be a regular maintenance job (and a dangerous one due to the high level of neutron activation; it would probably have to be done by robots).

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on April 16, 2018

Their solar/battery system cost 11c/kwh. It doesn’t surprise me they still have generators, but these are some of the facts from their utility page:

“As of 2017, more than 40 percent of the electricity generated on Kauai will come from a mix of renewable resources: solar, hydropower and biomass. That’s up from 5 percent in 2009.

On the sunniest days, 90 percent or more of Kauai’s daytime energy needs are met by solar, which is believed to be the highest percentage of solar on an electrical grid of any utility in the U.S.

Customer solar: Up from a total of 311 systems in 2010 to 2,536 as of January 31, 2015. Rooftop systems are now used by 7.8 percent of residential customers.”

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 16, 2018

Sean, if Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) is selling electricity to customers for $.11/kWh, they’re losing money hand-over-foot. For nightime battery “generation” alone, they’re paying Tesla $.14/kWh for the next twenty years:

These days, because so many residences and businesses [in Kauai] have installed solar power, there’s a greatly reduced need to burn fossil during the day — but at night, the generators kick in. Tesla wants to change all that, with a massive new solar farm and energy storage project on the island….KIUC didn’t purchase the solar panels and battery system from Tesla outright. Instead, the utility contracted with Tesla to purchase electricity. There’s a 20-year contract in place to buy the solar-generated power for 13.9 cents per kilowatt hour — in effect, Tesla is now in the power generation business.

Of course Tesla wants to “change all that” and dump Kauai’s diesel generators. Is Tesla regulated by the KIUC? Of course not, Tesla isn’t a utility. What do you think will happen in 2038, when Tesla owns a monopoly on nighttime electricity and can name any price it wants?

Though these are all lessons which have been learned before, maybe the people of Kauai have spent more time hanging ten than in History class.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on April 16, 2018

If that 3.5 trillion spent on renewables had been used to build up existing nuclear designs, using the Olkiluoto 3 EPR building costs as the benchmark (8.5 billion /1600 MW), you could have built enough nuclear to replace 50% of global coal generation.

If, in the process, companies had learnt to build nuclear on schedule and on budget, all global coal generation could have been replaced with that 3.5 trillion.

25% of CO2 emissions come from coal.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 17, 2018

In 2015 French govt institute ADEME executed simulation studies regarding the situation for the French grid in 2050. They concluded that 80% by renewable would be cheapest and that 100% renewable would be only 5% more expensive.
With av. whole sale price of 3cnt/KWh it implies an increase of only ~0.2cnt/KWh, which is less than the 0.5cnt/KWh that I stated…

No need for expensive Powet-to-Fuel. Much cheaper Power-to-Hydrogen gas will do. Why make methane?

We agree that gradually fossil fuel burning and heat injecting (into the atmosphere) equipment has to be replaced in next decades in order to effectively fight climate change..

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 17, 2018

My message is not about the past…

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 17, 2018

They didn’t install enough wind & solar to reach 100% renewable.
Though the situation is gradually improving as shown by your graph.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 17, 2018

Mark, unlike nuclear fuel reprocessing using the PUREX process, Pu never leaves an IFR facility. Electrorefining occurs within an onsite, robotized hot room (the “I” in IFR stands for Integral). Because attempting to physically remove reprocessed fuel at an IFR would prove fatal within minutes, it’s a self-solving problem.

If there’s poltical resistance to IFRs it’s founded on ignorance (not unlike political resistance to nuclear, in general).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 17, 2018

Bas, how much wind and solar would be required to make the sun shine all night long and the wind to blow constantly? This is fascinating.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 17, 2018

Bob,
Believe can be a good predictor if there is substantial evidence how that situation can be reached. E.g:
With PV-solar it was already clear in the nineties that with the ongoing advances in clean silicon and chip technology, PV-cell’s would become extreme cheap too produce once they could be mass produced. Because they require only a very little amount of a basic material which is abundantly available on the earth.

But with fission there is no scenario for much cheaper production at all.
The only idea is mass production of same high temperature (often also high pressure) nuclear reactors with complicated high temperature, high pressure steam generators, high temperature, high pressure turbines running at 3000 revolution per second, followed by a generator running at same high speed.

The high maintenance costs of those can never compete with solar cells safe between two glass plates and alu profiles. Those can last centuries without any maintenance….

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on April 17, 2018

After seeing the omissions and deceptions in Jacobson’s “roadmap”, it is certain that the ADEME report is equally fraudulent.  If any such program was cheap, Germany and Denmark would have the cheapest electricity in Europe rather than the costliest.

Power-to-methane at least produces a stable, storable (not food for sulfur-metabolizing bacteria), less-leaky fuel that is already in widespread use.  It still makes no sense because it’s based on the false premise is that wind and PV are going to run everything, but at least it’s not downright crazy like hydrogen.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 17, 2018

The ADEME report uses magic for storage, and magic LCOE.

They assume non-existent CAES for the short term, and non-existent methane based power-to-gas using, in their scenario, a no longer existent gas fleet. The might as well have assumed commercial fusion power.

ADEME assumes 400 GW of PV, nearly eight times daily peak French load, but maintains LCOE of PV is constant, not impacted by falling value of increasing PV share of load, a universally accepted outcome.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 17, 2018

“But with fission there is no scenario for much cheaper production at all.”

Fission plants are made largely from concrete and steel, not gold.

Pacca 2002 is the definitive study on raw materials required. PV efficiency has improved since then (Pacca assumed 100 W/panel), more than doubling, but the comparison ranking of material tonnage remains unchanged.

https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f82808cb6f97efe7f06fb3b91a35c23f80d...

Regardless of PV cell manufacturing costs, other costs prevent if from higher penetration: installation and the cost of the other system components required to complement solar outages, e.g. coal, gas, and hydro, and these components also have cost floors.

…nuclear reactors with complicated high temperature,

The idea in Gen4 is run nuclear at temperatures similar to those found in super critical coal and gas; hardly “complicated”.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 17, 2018

As wind is already curtailed with the wind installed, more wind power installed means an escalating unit cost for the project, which was already pricey at $8.2K/kW. And as the graph above shows, the wind lulls on occasion, giving diesel 100% of the load, forcing all existing gensets to remain in place and maintained.

Black outs occur on El Hierro now. In periods of relatively high wind, a quick drop of 1-2 MW in wind power is too fast for a response from the generators.

http://euanmearns.com/el-hierro-first-quarter-2018-performance-update/

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 17, 2018

They have pumped storage at the Island. Assume it has enough capacity to bridge 24hours, and overall efficiency P=>S=>P is 40% and its capacity is fully used 3 times a month, then av. wind+solar production should be 125% of av. consumption. Average is now 42%. So 3 times more wind+solar capacity will do to reach ~98% renewable.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on April 17, 2018

With PV-solar it was already clear in the nineties that with the ongoing advances in clean silicon and chip technology, PV-cell’s would become extreme cheap too produce once they could be mass produced.

Actually, that’s not true at all. Had it been “already clear” that silicon PV wafers would become so cheap, then literally billions of dollars would not have been lost by the venture community backing attempts to develop thin film and alternative PV technologies.

For a long time, extending well into the ’90s, silicon PV had been bottlenecked by its dependence on scrap silicon from the electronics industry. Being scrap, it could be sold cheaply to PV producers. That allowed for a modest supply of silicon PV panels at a price that, while high by today’s standards, was low enough to serve a market. But it was a limited market.

There was no way that the PV industry, such as it was, could afford to buy “virgin wafers” of electronics grade silicon to expand PV production. That’s what everyone “knew”, and that was the reason for all the money thrown at thin film and other technologies.

I don’t recall just who it was or when, but a few individuals with an appetite for risk decided that it might be feasible to produce “PV grade” polysilicon wafers at a price that was well below the cost of electronics grade wafers produced at the time. They succeeded, and that broke the “scrap silicon” bottleneck. The PV wafers produced initially were probably more expensive than those made from scrap silicon, but the supply could be expanded. And Germany’s energiewende happened along about that time. It created a market that was large enough to justify the dedicated “PV silicon” business, and kicked off the “virtuous cycle” that has gotten us to where we are now.

But it wasn’t obvious ahead of time, and it isn’t obvious now how much further the process can be pushed. Advances, in general, don’t “just happen”. There’s always an economic climate and a set of circumstances that drive them.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 17, 2018

“Their solar/battery system cost 11c/kwh. ”

Assuming that cost is accurate, it does not mean KIUC is able to use more of the same if solar-battery already hits 90% for some hours on some days. Rather, the investment in solar plus battery requires the complementary diesel generators and biomass plant remain in place indefinitely.

At $0.31/kWh for KIUC residential, I’d like to see a cost comparison of a full load geothermal system on Kauai, (in lieu of the solar-battery investment and all O&M for the existing thermal generation). Some of the small nuclear reactors, like the Russian 35 MWe and 50 MWe from OKBM, might prove a near term route to 100% clean power on Kauai.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 17, 2018

I don’t know about Denmark but Germany has about the cheapest electricity in NW-Europe. Hence it is the biggest net exporter of electricity.
Its av. electricity price is ~3cnt/KWh. UK’s av. electricity price is ~5cnt/KWh…

Power-to-methane makes no sense because Power-to-hydrogen is much cheaper. It can be injected in natural gas up to 5%, so that becomes then 5% renewable.*)

Wind and PV are not going to run everything. As you can see when you study the German electricity mix they also have ~8% dispatch-able biomass and ~7% hydro.
The new EEG2017 puts the first conditions up which restrict the use of biomass to periods when electricity price is high, which is without wind & sun..

When you account also:
– for the potential that 10% is converted to renewable gas*), and the fact that the total of long periods (longer than the 24hrs which batteries can bridge) are less than 5weeks;
– the adaptation of major loads in Germany. They restrict consumption when electricity prices are high (e.g. alu smelters only operate when electricity prices are very low) ;

than 100% renewable electricity is easily reachable with those simple measures. Even in Germany with its low hydro and solar resources.
___________
*) German gas consumption is ~1000TWh/a. So in principle they can inject ~50TWh/a into the natural gas network, or convert an electricity overproduction of ~60TWh/a (=10% of their electricity production) into renewable gas without using dedicated hydrogen storage.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on April 17, 2018

@EP,

Regarding the requirement for natural gas to make wind and solar competetive, you write:

It will lock the market in to their product (and its GHG emissions) for decades.

Agreed, it will “lock in” the market for natural gas (sort of). However, it needn’t lock in the GHG emissions.

This is the same issue we’ve butted heads over elsewhere. The cost of reforming NG to pure H2 and pure CO2 streams appears to be quite low. The H2 stream can be used fuel PEM fuel cells, producing power at an overall efficiency that is comparable to a CCGT power plant, and a capital cost that is far lower.

The CO2 stream can be sequestered at a cost that would make sequestration a no-brainer, if there were a realistic price on carbon emissions. But political opposition from Greenpeace and other groups would have to be overcome.

You’ve said before that if one were to employ fuel cells, it would make more sense to just use direct methane FCs. Two problems with that. One, direct methane fuel cells are nowhere near as cheap and efficient as hydrogen PEM fuel cells have become. I don’t know why that is, but it seems to be the case. Two, methane fuel cells emit CO2 in a flue gas stream with a lot of nitrogen and residual oxygen from the combustion air. Capturing the CO2 for sequestration would impose a high capital and energy cost that’s hard to justify.

Maybe it’s possible to have a direct methane fuel cell that isolates the CO2 production and emits a pure CO2 exhaust stream. That would remove the second problem. But there’s still the first problem to contend with.

Bloom Energy, as I’m sure you know, produces power from natural gas. Their units are not cheap. A full two orders of magnitude more expensive than what 100 kW PEM systems for the auto industry appear to be costing. If you (or anyone else) can provide a solid reason for that, I’d be grateful. FWIW, I believe Bloom uses SOFCs that are auto-reforming for NG to H2.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 17, 2018

EU accountants found that twin EPR reactor Hinkley C will cost £24.5billion.*)
It are EPR number 5 and 6 under construction, so they are / should be cheaper than the Olkiluoto 3 EPR.
So it’s ~$17.5billion/1600MW. (£ to $: 1.4287). Twice your estimation and more in line with the costs of the AP1000 in USA.

The 200 EPR’s which can be constructed for that $3.5trillion will generate only a small fraction of the amount of electricity generated by coal.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on April 17, 2018

The problem with fusion isn’t the temperature. It’s the neutron damage and activation that’s unavoidable when you’re throwing around gram quantities of 14.7 MeV neutrons. If you’re going to be generating literally tons of radioactive structural parts either way, you might as well stick with fission. It’s cheaper and scales better.

99% agreed. The neutron problem is among the reasons that back in 1967, when I was graduating in physics, I chose not to pursue a graduate career in plasma physics. The “engineering” problems associated with fusion power were just too deep and intractable for it ever to become commercially feasible. The high energy neutron problem was near the top of the list.

In fairness, however, I have to note that some of the advanced fusion concepts that entrepreneurs are working on today are aneutronic. The proton – boron 11 cycle in particular. There are other reasons for questioning its feasibility, but high energy neutron production isn’t one of them.

The deuterium – He^3 cycle perhaps has potential. D-He^3 fusions produce He^4 nuclei + protons. It’s an aneutronic fusion. The plasma density, temperature, and confinement time requirements are virtually identical to mainstream deuterium – tritium cycle. They’re also easier to maintain, since the plasma isn’t leaking such a torrent of energy in 14.7 MEV neutrons.

A D-He^3 fusion reactor, however, wouldn’t be entirely aneutronic. There would be a background of D – D fusion events, with half of those producing He^3 nuclei + neutrons. (The other half would produce tritium nuclei + protons, and the T nuclei subsequently undergo D-T fusion, with fast neutron production.) The overall neutron emission rate for D-He^3 is some two orders of magnitude less than for D-T fusion, but that’s still problematic.

As a side note, even though He^3 is currently extremely scarce and expensive, it’s wouldn’t actually be difficult to produce in commercial quantities. It comes from radioactive decay of tritium. Tritium is produced by neutron irradiation of lithium, and has a half-life of 12 years. So all that’s needed to produce He^3 is to build up a large inventory of tritium, and harvest it periodically to extract the He^3.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 17, 2018

The CO2 stream can be sequestered at a cost that would make sequestration a no-brainer, if there were a realistic price on carbon emissions.

Roger, given

1) a realistic price on carbon emissions, and
2) the geographic impracticality of sequestering carbon from tens of thousands of H2 dealers, and
3) the expense of same, and
4) the impossibility of demonstrating compliance, and
7) the energy/financial price of compressing and/or cooling H2, and
8) the chicken-egg problem of constructing a $half-trillion nationwide fueling infrastructure, while simultaneously convincing a skeptical public to spend $9.75 trillion replacing their gasoline cars with hydrogen ones

what evidence to you have we wouldn’t be better off, both financially and environmentally, driving the gasoline-powered cars we drive now?

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on April 17, 2018

So many gross failures in forethought.

Shutdown due to excess wind speed is a known and relatively common phenomenon for wind farms.  Obviously, to maintain continuous power something would have to be on-line as spinning reserve to take over.

If the hydro system can’t respond fast enough, the obvious candidate for that spinning reserve is the diesel generators themselves being spun by electric input and used as compression brakes to dissipate the excess power.  When the wind turbines trip off-line, the diesels go from jake-brake mode with zero fuel feed straight to production; all this takes is a switch out of braking mode (deactivating the cam lobe on the exhaust valve) and a stroke of the swashplate angle on the fuel pump.

All the pieces were there, but nobody thought of it.  What kind of failure of brainpower is this?

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on April 17, 2018

Why, Bob, do you insist on changing the topic to H2 as a transportation fuel? I thought I was pretty clear about what I was addressing: zero carbon dispatchable power for the power grid.

For that application, H2 would be produced from natural gas by proton membrane reforming at the power plant itself. Minimal H2 storage required. And the CO2 stream from the reformer would be monitored all the way to its injection well — which in most cases wouldn’t be all that far away, given the ubiquity of deep saline aquifers below most of the country.

I know that you’re strongly pro-nuclear, and I applaud you for that. I am too. But you’re letting your pro-nuclear sentiments blind you to any technical possibility that could make variable renewables more practical — or less impractical — than they currently are.

The IPCC produced a comprehensive but accessible report on CCS. Perhaps you’ve already read it, but have chosen to reject everything it says. If you haven’t at least perused it, you really ought to before you go off the deep end about what is and isn’t feasible.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on April 18, 2018

The utter shamelessness of some people…

Germany has about the cheapest electricity in NW-Europe. Hence it is the biggest net exporter of electricity.
Its av. electricity price is ~3cnt/KWh.

Bas, you have been called on your half-truths many times.  The German renewable surcharge alone is €¢6.79/kWh.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 18, 2018

Roger, my apologies if I misunderstood your comments. It was likely because to me, hydrogen makes even less sense as a fuel to generate electricity.

Liquid H2 fuel for transportation is apparentlly getting some traction as a marketing tool to keep service stations open. It’s portable. But I can’t see any benefit to PEM reforming methane, just to get a pure CO2 waste stream, over simply burning methane in CCGTs, with vastly better economics and energy efficiency, then sequestering the entire waste stream.

You’re a physicist, I’m not: is breaking the hydrogen bonds in CH4 using a catalyst more energy-efficient than doing it by traditional steam reformation? If so, that’s progress. Would PEMs be more expensive and less reliable than CCGTs? Has the energy expense of pumping CO2 to a suitable location, then 2,400 ft underground, into an aquifer of unknown capacity been factored in? Do you feel the estimated 2.5% of methane in the U.S. supply chain which leaks into the atmosphere is acceptable?

Re: verifiability:
Last weekend I drove from L.A. to Oakland and back. On the Golden State Freeway drivers are limited, by law, to a maximum speed of 70mph, and I admit: I broke the law almost all the way there, and all the way back. Why? Because I could get away with it. Monitoring my speed by law enforcement would be, for practical purposes, impossible.

Similarly, verifying that CO2, an invisible, odorless, ubiquitous gas, is being responsibly injected into saline aquifers on the scale where it would prove effective would be impossible. So we’re left to trusting an industry notorious for being untrustworthy to “do the right thing.” With what we’re up against, to me that’s simply not a bet worth making. But I know you disagree, so I’ll do my best not to waste more time on this issue.

In response to your accusation I’m going off the “deep end”: CCS has yet to be demonstrated as something remotely affordable at scale in the U.S., much less developing countries. Until it is, the hyper-complex pathway you propose as a viable energy solution makes safe nuclear fission look like child’s play. It baffles me, that a physicist would overlook the importance of simplicity and efficiency in any real-world, industrial application requiring a full accounting of energy inputs.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 18, 2018

Roger, the problem the neutron flux required to make notionally commercial tritium. If the answer is a fission reactor to make He^3 to make a commercial D-He^3 fusion reactor, requiring at least a fission event for every couple fusion events, the concept defeats itself.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 18, 2018

“…electricity price is ~3cnt/KWh …

At the current annual German generation of ~500 TWh, for another another $15B /yr of subsidy, on top of the current $30B/yr subsidy, Germany could sell power for 0ct/kWh, and leave lignite production unchanged for another 20n yrs.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on April 18, 2018

No kidding.  At ~200 MeV/fission vs. 18.4 MeV/fusion, the energetics actually favor D-T fusion as an energy-losing neutron source for U-238 fission.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 19, 2018

Mark,
Wind is hardly curtailed. It is used to pump water in the upper reservoir of their pumped storage system (check the graph below). So they should increase wind which is not expensive anymore (~5cnt/KWh in German auctions).

When there is no wind, it’s nice weather*) hence solar in combination with their pumped storage can then do the job. So they should expand primarily solar. Especially since:
– that is cheaper than wind now**).
– their pumped storage can cover demand during 24hrs as shown in the graph at March 29.

Your price of $8.2K/kW was already exceptional in 2013, so I assume that it includes the pumped storage facility.
The poor quality of the utility is demonstrated by the black outs you refer. Its easy to prevent those.

Reading the El Hierro history I get the impression that:
– it’s mainly a public relation operation:
“come to El Hierro, we are 100% renewable!”,
but nobody cares about actual performance; and/or
– they have stability or other problems with their pumped storage. It delivered all electricity during >24hrs as shown in the graph at March 29, but not Jan.21 and Feb.12.***).

____________
*) No wind occurs when the island is in an high pressure area. Which implies little clouds. In high pressure areas the air comes down and warms up hence can contain more moisture which implies that clouds dissolve.

**) Even in Germany with its poor insolation. This spring all technology neutral tenders for renewable energy were won by PV-solar with prices below 5cnt/KWh.
And El Hiero has much better insolation…

The utility may not want to invest in PV-solar since house owners may do that too once the present Spanish monopoly law is removed which would occur when the socialists take govt. That monopoly law requires that private PV-solar owners pay such a fee to the utility, that private rooftop owners took their solar panels off their roof and solar farms owners sold their farm for a very low price to the utility (leaving them with major losses).

**) In the graph: Green is wind; Light green is wind pumping water up; Blue is hydro (water coming down); Ocher is diesel generated power.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 19, 2018

EP,
The software of the wind turbines can be adapted such that they cut out gradually and each at different wind speed, etc. Hence the water turbines of El Hierro’s pumped storage can gradually take over.

In non island situations such extreme high wind speeds starts affecting others, then the border of the grid and then gradually moves further. So the grid operator has enough time (many hours) to arrange spare capacity of running generators (incl. import), and when that is not enough warn peakers that they should come up.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 19, 2018

Mark, Your Berkeley study states that solar needs 76 times more and wind needs 10 times more material (steel, etc) per TWh than nuclear.
Yet, solar is now cheaper than wind*) and both 2-6 times cheaper than nuclear. So those Berkeley study results seem far off reality.

Your ideas that high integration costs would prevent solar and wind from high penetration levels is opposed by:

– Simulation studies such as those of French govt institute ADEME show that 100% renewable cost only 5% more than 80%.

This report by Agora think tank about integration costs is the result of studies and discussions between experts in Paris and Berlin.
Note that Lion Hirth, whose simulation studies suggested that those integration costs would become high when wind & solar penetration surpass their capacity factor, was involved too.

__________
*) Even in Germany with its poor insolation! Demonstrated this spring where solar did win all technology neutral renewable auctions. Only offshore wind may still be cheaper than PV-solar.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 19, 2018

Thanks for your interesting background story.

Yet the Energiewende scenario developed gradually during the hot German debate in the nineties, and decided for by the Schröder govt in the autumn of 2000, was based on the well researched assumptions that PV-solar and wind would become much cheaper:

– when mass produced hence somebody (Germany) had to create a mass market, which the Energiewende did with 20yrs guaranteed prices of 62 – 40cnt/KWh in the first decade of the Energiewende.

– with progress of technology, hence expansion should not go very fast.
Which also suited the idea that the Energiewende could only be successful if the costs would stay insignificant. Hence the 50years scenario: from 6% renewable in 2000 towards >80% in 2050.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 19, 2018

Mark,
Why do you present only part of the picture?
The first graph below presents the full picture.

Of course the capacity increase of renewable has effects on renewable share in electricity production as shown in the second graph.

Btw.
The Fraunhofer graph shows that the share of renewable in public available electricity production for 2017 is 38.2%.

AGEB considers also electricity produced and consumed by factories, etc. As those migrate less towards renewable, renewable figures by AGEB are lower. For 2017; 33.3%.

As Fraunhofer considers only public electricity, it can produce the graphs (semi-)automatic. So those adapt each day/week/month. Note that renewable share in production*) for 2018 until now is 40.8%.
AGEB has to ask to everybody, hence their figures for 2017 are preliminary and won’t be final before Sept./Dec. They have small corrections until then.
________
*) as % of German consumption it will be ~9% higher as Germany has a net export of 9% of production.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on April 19, 2018

At the same sheet that you linked, you can read that households in nuclear Belgium (~50% by nuclear) pay 26cnt/KWh versus 30cnt/KWh for German households.

Household / consumer prices are here mainly a matter of taxes and subsidies.

E.g. We in NL pay an energy tax because parliament had the idea that we would be more economic with energy if electricity & gas prices would be higher (good for the environment, etc). It’s a % of the KWh price.
If the tax is less than a certain amount per year (~€300), then the tax is returned.
So for poor people with a small house that consume little (or people with PV on the roof who also consume little), the tax is zero.

Considering electricity prices I think German consumers are better off than those in Belgium. The yearly costs of the Energiewende are about at the max. and predicted to go down and down in next decades, while the Belgians face major costs with their old problematic nuclear power plants which they have to close in next decade and their nuclear waste.
So Belgian households will probably face major costs increases unless their govt shifts costs to other sectors as the French do.

The French pay part of the electricity costs from the general budget. When those invisible illegal “subsidies” become too much visible, parties have to litigate up to the EU court in order to correct…

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 19, 2018

References to the published literature are wasted if you won’t engage them on the details, so many kg of metal, concrete, and glass, per unit of energy, etc. Hand waiving (“seem far off”) is unresponsive.

The ADEME report was addressed earlier; it magically assumes storage (e.g. CAES) into existance, assumes 5X PV overbuilds without cost explanation. Please don’t bother with unpublished literature from advocacy organizations.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 19, 2018

I’ve yet to see a plausible neutron accounting for tritium production from lithium in any of the ITER literature. ITER is demo run by physicists out to prove the science, so they might be happy to walk after declaring ignition and that fuel is a boring engineerng problem.

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