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Why Is Renewable Energy So Expensive, While Molten Salt Reactors will be So Cheap?

Sometimes the most important information comes from seemingly boring sources. Scholars are said to have the souls of ants because they look at seemingly boring material. But sometimes that boring material yields interesting and useful information that tells interesting stories. If interest is based on how much the story will effect the life of the reader or the life of every human being who lives on earth, then this story should be of considerable interest.

Vestas Wind Systems, is a Danish wind turbine manufacturer. In January 2011, Vestas published a report titled Life Cycle Assessment of Electricity Production from a V112 Turbine Wind Park. Within this report’s boring and tedious pages are found some of the deepest secrets of the wind industry. “Life Cycle” contains a detailed account of the materials inputs for a 100 MW wind farm. The 100 MW is a nominal rating based on the use of 33 Vestas V112 wind generation systems in a theoretical facility. Each V112 is rated at 3 MW, although its actual output will varie from 0% to 100% depending on wind conditions. Average V112 output can also varie with location.

The report breaks down the materials input by component. Thus the wind turbine mechanisms and towers themselves will require 6634 metric tonnes of Unalloyed or Low alloyed steel and iron, 1442 tonnes of highly alloyed steel, and 2170 tonnes of cast iron. In addition the foundations will require 1491 Tonnes of Steel and iron materials, and 29770 tonnes of Concrete and mortar.

The wikipedia rates the average electrical output – the capacity factor – of wind generators from 20% to 40%. 20% of a 100 MW rated facility is 20 MWs while 40% is 40 MWs. Each V112 requires 355.7 tonnes of steel and iron to construct, or 117.7 tonnes per MW rated capacity. At a capacity factor of 40%, 293 tonnes of iron or steel input will produce one MW of average output, while at a capacity factor of 20%, 587 tonnes are required to produce a MW of average output.

In addition, about 300 tonnes of concrete is used for the tower foundation per every 1 MW of rated generating capacity. At 40% capacity factor that means 750 tonnes of concrete per average MW of output and at 20% capacity factor 1500 tonnes.

There are other significant material inputs into the V112 installation including Aluminum (total 208 tonnes per facility) and Copper (total 176 tons per facility).

Now lets look at another renewables technology, Solar PV. I looked at, A Review of Risks in the Solar Electric Life-Cycle, by V.M. Fthenakis and H.C. Kim of Brookhaven National Laboratory. Those writers reported drawing on date reported by Mason, J. M., V.M. Fthenakis, T. Hansen and H.C. Kim, in “Energy Pay-Back and Life Cycle CO2” Emissions of the BOS in an Optimized 3.5 MW PV Installation. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications, the report materials input for 1 MW on nominal PV generating capacity. These include 40 metric tonnes of steel per MW, 19 tones of Aluminum, 76 tons of concrete, 85 tonnes of glass, and 13 tons of silicon.

The Wikipedia reports capacity factors of from 12% to 19% for solar PV instalations. This would yield between 120 and 190 kWs of average output for every 1 MW of installed PV power. This would require an input of between 333 and 210 tonnes of steel and between 633 and 400 MT of Concrete per MW of average electrical output. The input of other material into the Solar PV instalation would be equally impressive.

Discussions of the future of energy should focus on costs and resource availability. Switching the world energy system from fossil fuels to post carbon energy technology will be a massive undertaking, that will require huge inputs of materials and labor, whatever energy technology is chosen. Yet the choice of technology is important because the cost of labor and materials inputs matters. Per Peterson illustrates the problem by a comparison of some material inputs for various nuclear technologies:
Image

PBMR is a gas cooled Pebble Bed Modular Reactor while AHTR-IT refers to a molten salt cooled graphite moderated reactor that could use pebble bed technology. Peterson’s graphic nicely demonstrates why Pebble Bed Technology, once viewed as very promising has ceased to be viewed as an important nuclear option. Yet pebble bed research has not been entirely wasted. Professor Peterson believes that all of the materials input problems of Pebble Bed Technology. AHTR-IT refers to molten salt cooled graphite moderated reactors that have similar featurs when compaired to MSRs.

In “Metal And Concrete Inputs For Several Nuclear Power Plants,” Per F. Peterson, Haihua Zhao, and Robert Petroski of the University of California, Berkeley, reviewed the concrete and steel inputs requirements of several nuclear designs. They stated,

The construction of existing 1970-vintage U.S. nuclear power plants required 40 metric tons (MT) of steel and 90 cubic meters (m3) of concrete per average megawatt of electricity (MW(ave)) generating capacity, when operated at a capacity factor of 0.9 MW(ave)/MW(rated) . . .

Peterson and his associates stated that,

In nuclear energy systems, the major construction inputs are steel and concrete, which comprise over 95% of the total energy input into materials. To first order, the total building volume determines total concrete volume. The quantity of concrete also plays a very important role in deciding the plant overall cost:
• Concrete related material and construction cost is important in total cost (~25% of total plant cost for 1970’s PWRs [3]);
• Concrete volume affects construction time;
• Rebar (reinforcing steel in concrete) is a large percentage of total steel input (about 0.06 MT rebar per MT reinforced concrete for 1970’s PWRs [3]);
• Rebar is about 35% of total steel for 1970’s PWRs [3];
• Concrete volume affects decommissioning cost.

Peterson and associates explain the AHTR,

The AHTR is a new reactor concept that combines four technologies in a new way: coated particle nuclear fuels traditionally used for helium cooled reactors, Brayton power cycles, passive safety systems and plant designs from liquid cooled fast reactors, and low pressure molten salt coolants [14]. The new combination of technologies may enable the development of a large high efficiency, lower cost high temperature (700 to 1000oC) reactor for electricity. As the peak reactor coolant temperatures approach 700oC, several technologies (Brayton cycles, passive reactor safety systems, available materials, etc.) work together to improve total system performance while significantly reducing costs relative to those for other reactors.

Peterson estimates that the steel and iron input for a 1235 MWe AHTR facility to be around 19348 tonnes of metal with some where between 10% and 20% being non ferrous metals, or about 16 MTs per rated MW or 18 MTs per MW of average output. Concrete input would be 184354 cubic meters. Which comes to somewhere close to 424000 MT of concrete, or 343 MT per rated MWe, or around 380 MT of concrete per average MW of output.

The AHTR sufficiently similar to MSRs in design to argue that its material inputs would be similar to that of AHTRs. It should also be noted that Per Peterson and his associates did not consider this concrete and steel savings proposal. Namely that MSRs, be located in recycled coal fired generation facilities. We have no detailed studies of the benefits of the recycling approach would be, but if we assume a saving of 25% of ferrous metals and concrete. That leaves us with 285 MTs of concrete and around 13.5 tones of metal input per average MW of output.
At least one additional “trick” can be used to lower the materials input into MSR installations. The “trick” involves the use of underground housing of the reactor core. Above surface reactor installations require massive concrete and steel outer shielding structures, while such structures add no protection to an underground housed core, and thus are unneeded.
The AHTR derives its advantage from its materials advantage from its compactness. Peterson and his associates compared their AHTR design to the ESBRR, a generation III+ reactor. The ESBWR facility occupied 485477 cubic meters of building space compared to 184354 cubic meters for the AHTR. We can assume that the relationship will be similar for MSRs and ESBWRs.
We began this story with an account of the materials inputs for Wind and solar PV installations. There is a flaw in that story as we have told it so far. Both Wind and Solar PV are variable and do not provide energy on demand. With such unreliable energy sources balancing from other energy sources. I recently noted that a recent IER publication Harnessing Variable Renewables: a Guide to the Balancing Challenge. A discussion of that publication in offshoreWIND.biz tells us,  
The resulting analysis shows that each region has the technical resources to balance large shares of variable renewable energy.


Potentials range from 19% in the least flexible area assessed (Japan) to 63% in the most flexible area (Denmark). The IEA also assessed the resources of the British Isles (Great Britain and Ireland together), 31%; the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal together), 27%; Mexico, 29%; the Nordic Power Market (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden), 48%; the Western Interconnection of the United States, 45%; and the area operated by the New Brunswick System Operator in Eastern Canada, 37%.

 

Most of the balancing resources will be carbon dependent. Thus the stable, reliable grid will continue to draw somewhere between half and two-thirds of its electricity from carbon emitting sources, if we exclude nuclear power. The only alternative to nuclear that will put us close to the carbon control 80% carbon reduction goal climate scientists say we need in order to prevent massive climate disruption, would be the the introduction of some form of energy storage. What ever form of energy storage will be chosen it will require materials input and will cost money, thus increasing the cost of renewables energy, without adding to energy output gain.
Thus the MSR and similar technologies represent reliable and low cost energy technologies, that should successfully compete with renewables on both reliability and cost.
Charles Barton's picture

Thank Charles for the Post!

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Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 9, 2011

Charles Barton – “We began this story with an account of the materials inputs for Wind and solar PV installations. There is a flaw in that story as we have told it so far.”

The flaw in your story is that wind and solar PV actually exist and are being deployed as we speak. Even the most optimistic projections would put a production AHTR or any other, at present, imaginary technology at least 20 years in the future – far too late to make any difference whatsoever.

Also as the technology is imaginary at the moment how can you possibly know that it will be cheap? It may be, however it is totally impossible to predict the final cost of a technology from blueprints and lab projects. Real life has a nasty habit of blowing away rosy predictions.

Furthermore I notice that you have excluded solar thermal from your analysis. As solar thermal can both store energy and use biomass for backup for a price not exceeding existing (not imaginary) nuclear, it blows away your analysis as the CF of a solar thermal plant can be whatever is needed and is not limited when the sun shines.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on June 9, 2011

Much of what you cite is quite right and long known. A book, “Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy,” by Farrigton Daniels (1961) IIRC had about the same numbers. He elaborated on wind futher by suggesting windmill structures supported more like kites. Similarly the solar panel structures are little changed since then.

But I share the challenge that the nuclear industry has some old, serious messes to clean up before they start pointing fingers. And some big bills to pay.

There are renewable energy designs not included in your comparison. The nuclear industry promotes capacity factor as over-riding. Electricity is consumed with variability, there is no reason it can’t be produced with variability. All of the electronics marketplace is shrinking to smaller scale, there is every reason to expect generation to follow.

*moderated

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on June 10, 2011

@Rick, As I have indicated, finding lifecycle studies studies or other studies that includes materials inputs has proven a challenge.  Your claim that “the nuclear industry has some old, serious messes to clean up before they start pointing fingers.”  Has left me puzzled.  What messes and what bills?

@StephenGloor, Developing nuclear technology is simply a matter of work hours.  Skilled labor input is desired to perform a task.  If you assign a few workers to perform the whole task it takes a long time.  If you devide up the task into componants it may be completed in .10t% of the time.   During World War II, the graphite core reactor went through a therr stage evolution in a three year period of time, with the first stage emerging at Chicago, the second stagein Oak Ridge, and the third stage emerging at Hanford.  Thus in under two years after the first reactor ever built was first tested, a reactor 250 times mpre powerful was ready for operation.  This was because a huge amount of skilled labor was assigned to the task.  The key as that the reactor designers threw out the business as usual play book, and assigned enough people to the task to get it done quickly. 

Stephen, we have had this argument about imaginary technology before.  In the first place two successful Molten Salt Reactor prototypes were built and tested in Oak Ridge.  They were not imaginary.  I only propose that the technology proven in the second prototype be used in commercial reactor.  My argument is that a commercial reactor using proven MSR technology could be a commercial success, and could could compete with renewable generation facilities. 

@WT Your observations are in fact correct, but exceot for as I indicated lifecycle information on renewable technollogy has proven difficult to find.  If you can point me too better information sources, I would appreciate it. 

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on June 10, 2011

@RickEngebretson – What renewable energy systems did Charles fail to mention? 

The focus on capacity factor is actually quite valid for any production equipment in any industry. The inverse of that number is what most analysts focus on – idle time. If equipment has an average capacity factor of 20%, that means that the capital invested in that equipment is sitting idle for an average of 80% of the time. 

The other problem with politically favored “renewables” as an alternative to fossil fuel is that they are not controllable. As you say, demand varies, but production has to BE varied in order to match that demand. If both production and demand are variables that are not within the control of system operators, you cannot design a stable system. Believe it or not, electricity is a product that MUST be stable and predictable in order to be useful. Our devices do not like varying frequency or voltage – chips, motors, and other devices do not respond well to rapidly varying input power.

The bills that you mention are not the responsibility of new nuclear product developers any more than the failed wind turbines at Altamont pass are the responsibility of new wind turbine developers. 

I do agree with your statement that smaller scale generation has some advantages. That is why I am a huge fan of small modular reactors and why I believe that it may soon be politically possible to build reactors that are small enough to power neighborhoods and industrial parks. Longer term, I want one in my basement. The technology for small reactors is well established, we just have to apply the economics of mass production to make them a widely available reality.

Rod Adams

Publisher, Atomic Insights

*moderated

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on June 10, 2011

@StephenGloor:

 

So, you think that a solar thermal with storage capability and biomass backup can generate electricity for a total operating and maintenance cost of approximately 2 cents per kilowatt hour? (That is the cost of existing nuclear power plants that are actually constructed and operating today.)

How much storage capacity do you think would be necessary to produce as much power as customers demand even if there are a few cloudy hours every day or a few cloudy days in a row?

What is your proposed heat exchange and storage medium? I spoke to one of our engineers the other day who was working on a solar thermal project under contract for Lockheed Martin before he joined our project. He indicated that the project collapsed under the weight of the math associated with figuring out how many truckloads of molten salt would be required to be trucked to the desert and also the math associated with supplying required quantities of cooling medium for the heat sink portion of the low pressure steam system associated with solar thermal power systems.

There was also an issue associated with keeping the mirrors clean and shiny and with determining how the whole complex array of material would be removed when the system became obsolete. 

As he told the story, the operating cost started approaching 20 cents per kilowatt hour – and that was with capital and land acquisition costs ignored because of the available subsidies.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on June 10, 2011

I am glad to see commented by you, the practical problems of keeping vast expanses of reflective surfaces clean, shinny and well..reflective. This obviously would be a vexing issue in a dessert environment where fine particulate matter like dust and sand is part and parcel of the environment.

I have also wondered  how coolling water would be managed in the desert. People who oppose nuclear power often point to their large cooling towers and water requirements as downsides to nuclear reactors.

Just my thoughts.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on June 10, 2011

Delighted to again offer the suggestion of light pipes, or optical fibers. The solar collector doesn’t have to be anywhere near the PV transducer. Optical circuits can concentrate and alter bandwidth, greatly changing the PV efficiency, while safely maintaining the expensive PV in a temperature controlled shelter.

I’ve been trying to figure out some window blinds incorporating some optical tricks. Everybody on the planet wants a nice window (except on submarines), but needs a way to manage the light.

For starters.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on June 10, 2011

@RickEngebretson – why not try pixie dust or unobtainium? Both are about as well-proven and have roughly the same energy market share as the ideas you advocate.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on June 10, 2011

RodAdams: I heard similar reactions when I started pushing a fiber optic computer supernetwork. “Who ever heard of glass wires?” “Who would want it and use it?” Then it mattered to explain, now it does not.

If you cared to think about it, solar energy is really nuclear energy at a safe distance.

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 11, 2011

Charles Barton – “@StephenGloor, Developing nuclear technology is simply a matter of work hours.  Skilled labor input is desired to perform a task.”

Are you serious??????  Now I get an inkling of why you imagine that these reactors can make a difference.  I cannot believe that you think it is a simply a matter of putting heaps of people on the job and the final product emerges by magic.  I guess Boeing should have consulted with you about the 787.  All they had to do was to throw more people at it and the 2 year delay after 8 years of design work would have vanished and the 787 would have been rolling out to airlines right now.

The funny thing is that I am accused of being delusional however at least I can appreciate the difficulty of designing complex systems and bringing them to a state where production can begin.  It is so hard sometimes, no matter how many smart people you throw at it, systems promising in the lab do not make it and fail.  Try your ideas on a few design and production engineers and see how long they take to stop laughing.

“My argument is that a commercial reactor using proven MSR technology could be a commercial success, and could could compete with renewable generation facilities. “

As I said in the preceeding paragraph lab tests only count as proof of concept.  Many many products do not survive the transition from lab to production and while they are in the lab they are still vapourware.  Ask a few VCs how many lab projects they finance and how many make it.  I am sure only a small percentage actually do it.

Until you have something the at the same level as a commercial wind turbine, trough CSP or PV panel you cannot possibly say whether a lab prototype will compete or not.  Your argument at the moment is completely without data and is only your fervent wish and nothing more.

 

 

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 11, 2011

Rod Adams – “So, you think that a solar thermal with storage capability and biomass backup can generate electricity for a total operating and maintenance cost of approximately 2 cents per kilowatt hour?”

So you think that new nuclear can generate electricity for 2 cents a kW?  Just to save you the trouble here are a couple of recent analysis:

Kaplan, S. (2008). Power Plants: Characteristics and Costs. CRS Report for Congress, RL34746. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. [Full-text at http://bit.ly/d7M0Ja]

Lazard Ltd. (2009). Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 3.0. New York, NY: Lazard Ltd. [Full-text athttp://bit.ly/agFmJA]

Kaplan places the LCOE of nuclear at USD$83.22/MWhr.  Lazard has it between 8c and 13c per kWhr.  Please provide a reference nor new nuclear at 2 cents.  Comparing old reactors with the bills paid is disingenious.

“How much storage capacity do you think would be necessary to produce as much power as customers demand even if there are a few cloudy hours every day or a few cloudy days in a row?”

Modelling shows between 7 and 14 hours covers most of the demand and reduces backup fuel burn.

“What is your proposed heat exchange and storage medium? I spoke to one of our engineers the other day who was working on a solar thermal project under contract for Lockheed Martin before he joined our project. He indicated that the project collapsed under the weight of the math associated with figuring out how many truckloads of molten salt would be required to be trucked to the desert and also the math associated with supplying required quantities of cooling medium for the heat sink portion of the low pressure steam system associated with solar thermal power systems.”

Molten salt – NaNO3 and KNO3 is the usual mix.  Most of it is transported in the millions of tons to farms and factories every day.  I think your your mythical friend had a problem with the math of this should have found the nearest farm co-op and asked how they do it.  Molten salt is not trucked anywhere as the common salts used as the storage medium and in the case of Solar Reserve the working fluid are transported in as room temperature powders.

The cooling medium for the steam in desert areas will be available in huge quantites.  Have a look at the BZE 2020 plan for Australia and see they use air cooling.  It does drop the efficiency however where there is not enough water it is the only option. 

 

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on June 11, 2011

@ StephenGloor, Stephen, you forget that i grew up in the shaddow of the Manhattan project.  You may scoff, but the Manhattan project proved that given good leadership  by putting heaps of people with the right skill set on the job and hard work, thirty years of progress can be accomplished in three years.  There was no magic involved in the Manhattan project, but there was a lot of hard work.  The secret to the magic is hard but well organized work and a willingness to set aside business as usual.  If you follow this formula amazzing things can be accomplished.  

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 11, 2011

Charles Barton – “@ StephenGloor, Stephen, you forget that i grew up in the shaddow of the Manhattan project. “

On the contrary I acknowledge that your view of reality is colored by this.  The Manhattan Project was a very special set of conditions including absolute secrecy, unlimited money, no scrutiny from media, minimal graft and corruption due to the military nature of the project.  These conditions are very unlikely to be duplicated.  You invocation of the Manhattan project as a mantra that will make all problems go away and produce what you want is an indication of how far you have sunk in your particular thought bubble. 

Remember the Manhattan project actually delivered two laboratory prototypes that happened to actually work.  The fact that they made two different types because they were not sure which one would work confirms this.  The actual production nuclear weapons fit for operational service did not emerge until much later. 

Two can play at this game.  What renewables need is cheap storage.  This would also solve the transport problem as the same batteries could be used in cars.  So invoking the magic of the Manhatten project all we need to do is assemble the required people with the new LiIon anode and cathode materials that are in the lab at the moment and out will emerge lithium ion batteries that cost $100/kWhr and have 100C charge and discharge rates and last for 10 000 90% DOD cycles.  Do you think this is realistic?  I think that the answer is no however you have absolute faith that your invocation of the MP will cause production ready MSRs in three years instead of the normal twenty or so.

I think you need to face the reality that no invocation of the MP will cause MSRs to be ready in anything less than the required time for an unproven technology to go from the lab to the factory even if it is possible.

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on June 12, 2011

@ StephenGloor, it is my belief that when people know their ass is on the line, they will do what ever is necessary to save it.  As far as energy is concerned out ass is on the line, only people don’t know it.  When the situation becomes truely desperate, the chances of people waiking up increases.  At that point the remarkable will become possiblle.

Stephen you miscounted the number of reactors that the Manhatten Project delivered.  Infact the Manhatten project delivered four prototypes of three distinct types of reactors.  One in graphite reactor in Chicago, one production prototype graphite reactor in Oak Ridge, One prototype heavy water reactor at Chalk River, and one prototype homogenious reactor at LAs ALAMOS.  In addition three production reactors were built at Hanford.  The first of three WWII Hanford reactor was went into operation less than two years after the Chicago prototype was first tested.  The Handford reactors was over 250 times more powerful than the Chicago prototype.  The first nuclear weapon based on plutonium from Handford reactors was tested, 2 1/2 years after the first test of the Chicago pile, and the first waretime militaty use of a plutonium bomb came less than a month later. 

Stephen I have repeatedly looked at energy storage, and have concluded that the most viable energy storage system involves the use of Molten Salts.  Unfortunately this storage system only works one renewable generating system. , conccentrated solar power, which ene EIA a mature technology, that is more twice as expensive than conventional nuclear power. http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2010/01/eia-2016-nuclear-costs-will-be-...

Some time ago, I discussed Mark Z. Jaconson’s paper on the Car to Grid storage system.

http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2009/03/would-vehicle-to-grid-battery-s...

I noted, “Jacobson would have us believe that only 3% of the current American car fleet or 4.5 million cars could provide backup for the entire wind powered grid. This would mean that Jacobson believes the entire grid can be backed up with 45 billion Watt hours of electricity from back up batteries, assuming the batteries were on a 24 hour a cycle. A single nuclear plant could produce 24 billion watt hours of electricity in a day, or over half the electricity that Jacobson claims will back up a wind penetrated grid. To appreciate the magnitude of the backup problem it should be pointed out that on February 28, 2008, Texas wind electrical production dropped from 1,700 megawatts to about 300 megawatt in a 10 minute period. 1100 MW of backup capacity were brought on line during the wind outage. This outage would require the battery storage of 110,000 Texas cars if the wind outage continued for an hour. Clearly Jacobson has failed to conduct a serious analysis of the V2G idea, and this failure is consistent with Jacobson’s generally shoddy standards of analysis.”

Thus clearly the case for car to grid storage systems in no where near a slam dunk, and requires a great deal more attention.

As for a business as usual approach to MSR development, commercial MSRs can be built using only MSRE tested technology.  The MSRE ran successfully and almost continuoulsly for three years without a problem.  A commercial MSR could be developed using that tested technology.   Dr. Kazio Furukawa, a Japanese reactor scientist, has stated that utalizing MSRE technology and a business as usual approach, he can have a commmercial mini-reactor prototype ready in 6 years, and a larger reactor ready in 12 years.  http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2010/10/dr-furukawas-vision.html

The primary reason for a Manhatten project type approach would be to develop a factory production system that would be capable of deplying thousands of MSRs before 2050, and to develop a sustainable MSR, the LFTR.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on June 12, 2011

@Stephen: “Even the most optimistic projections would put a production AHTR or any other, at present, imaginary technology at least 20 years in the future – far too late to make any difference whatsoever.”

I agree that it is likely to take over 20 years to take a new reactor like AHTR or LFTR from project launch to a large deployment (say, 40 GWe, the size of the current US wind power fleet).  That is exactly why I believe that we should begin their development today, rather than waiting to see if the renewables+efficiency+gas strategy works (we can always halt production if sufficient renewable breakthroughs occur).

As to whether 20 year is too late to make any difference, the reality is that the US will not remake its entire electrical grid in less than 40 years, under any foreseeable circumstances (i.e. unless all of our fossil fuel resources magically disappeared).  Failure is always an option (the worst suffering from climate change will befall poor nations).  Additionally, private industry in the US will not build any Gen IV reactors if Gen III reactors do not sell (remember, today’s light water reactors are sufficiently sustainable for at least 100 years, and running out of low cost uranium is no where near as big a problem as running out of low cost petroleum, the resource distribution is better, and the replacement technology, Gen IV, is known).

I like your reference to the Boeing 787, as it highlights the range of “imaginariness” that new technologies can have.  A device the size of a warehouse that could deliver 500 MW of stored solar power for a week could be called imaginary, but more importantly, impossible with today’s technology.  A device that is bigger than a 737 and smaller than a 747, with a few percent better per-seat fuel economy than either, could also be described as imaginary, but could clearly be built at any time we desire.

Similarly, the science behind the AHTR (and to a lesser extent LFTRs) is settled; we can build one anytime we want.  The project risks won’t be whether or not they can be made to work.  There will be schedule and costs risks, as with any project.  And as with the auto industry, there is a market acceptance risk.  There is also a bureaucratic delay risk, which is unique to nuclear power.

As to the main question of which technology is cheaper, absolute certainty is not required to launch a new product development, nor is it often obtained.  Engineers make their best guess on the cost, and billion dollar projects are launched as a result.

The reason to develop these new reactors is simple:  An electrical system that is affordable, and both non-nuclear and non-fossil is currently not just imaginary, but impossible.

P.S. I agree that Rod has provided “operating cost for existing plants”, when what we want is “levelized cost for new plants”.  Still, the levelized cost of power from new CSP plants is a couple of times higher than for new nukes (according to US IEA analysis: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm).

Also, your biomass CSP-back-up plan may work in some locations, but it is not scaleable.   The biomass resource is small to begin with and competes with food for land (in a free country, why should a farmer choose to use “degraded land” for biomass when croplands are more productive?), the best biomass is far from the best CSP, and biomass is very expensive to transports since the energy density is a much less than coal’s.

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 12, 2011

Charles Barton – “When the situation becomes truely desperate, the chances of people waiking up increases.  At that point the remarkable will become possiblle.”

If that is what you truly believe then nothing I can say will sway that faith.  The really funny thing is that your description of me on your blog site is that I have a quasi religious view on Limits to Growth etc.  However this statement of yours shows that you really believe that there is genie in the bottle just waiting to get out if the good folks would all gather together like our ancestors did.

“Unfortunately this storage system only works one renewable generating system. , conccentrated solar power, which ene EIA a mature technology, that is more twice as expensive than conventional nuclear power.http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2010/01/eia-2016-nuclear-costs-will-be-…

However I can point to two other studies that show the complete opposite:

http://www.narucmeetings.org/Presentations/2008%20EMP%20Levelized%20Cost%20of%20Energy%20-%20Master%20June%202008%20(2).pdf

That shows that Solar thermal has lower capital costs than any nuclear and a comparable LCOE.  As it is lower in capital cost the addition of thermal storage would simply bring it up to much the same cost as nukes however without all the attendant problems.

or:

http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1417884

That shows on Figure 12 the price of solar thermal with storage dropping to 11c/kWhr by 2016 and a capital cost of a 60%CF CSP plant with storage of $1,347-$1,426 /kW range which is far below even the lowest price Chinese reactors that cannot apparently be built anywhere else.

The EIA projection for CSP that you refer to has an abnormally high price for CSP that disagrees with just about every other study done.

Anyway I think we are done here.

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 12, 2011

Rick – ” That is exactly why I believe that we should begin their development today, rather than waiting to see if the renewables+efficiency+gas strategy works (we can always halt production if sufficient renewable breakthroughs occur).”

However who is going to pay for it?  Your country is near the end of the credit bubble and struggling with mountains of debt.  You can’t print money forever so can you afford to gamble on a solution that you do not know will work?

“Similarly, the science behind the AHTR (and to a lesser extent LFTRs) is settled; we can build one anytime we want.”

And that is the simple assumption that may doom you.  Not everything that the science says is OK will necessarily work.  Plenty of promising technologies that work in the lab have failed to make it to production due to any number of unforseen problems that killed the project no matter how good the science was.  Some intractable problems simply cost too much to fix or cannot be fixed and the design has to start again with a clean sheet.

Until you have a working commercial reactor you cannot say that we can just build a proven design because it does not exist. 

“Still, the levelized cost of power from new CSP plants is a couple of times higher than for new nukes (according to US IEA analysis:http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm).

Have a look at the references I posted to the reply to Charles Barton.  They tell a very different story.

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on June 13, 2011

@Stephen Projections of concentrated solar and wind price trends made a decade ago, anticipted dramatic drops in their prices over the last 10 years.  Inreality the price trend for both between  2000 and 2009 was tgenerally higher rather than lower. 

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 13, 2011

Charles Barton – “@Stephen Projections of concentrated solar and wind price trends made a decade ago, anticipted dramatic drops in their prices over the last 10 years. “

As did the ones for nuclear which has since skyrocketed upwards so much that the latest USA builds gave such a sticker shock they were cancelled.

So if future projections are unreliable then you cannot say the CSP will be twice as expensive as nuclear in 2016 as the EIA forcast is probably just as unreliable as all the others.

The flagship CSP plants – power towers with large storage and oversize collectors are probably the only ones that will compare with nuclear for costs at least for the first plants.  However they will be only a small part of the required plants.  At least half of the CSP plants will be smaller plants with less than 7 hours storage or none at all and they are cheaper than nuclear now and in the future will continue to fall in costs.

Anyway the main take home point here is that it is unlikely that either renewables or nuclear will be possible without large lifestyle changes so that we use less energy and start living within the planet’s primary resources. Neither nuclear, no matter how magical it sounds, or renewables can replace the overfished fisheries of the world, refill the overpumped aquifers or replace the denuded topsoil that we all depend on for life.  Until we address the problems from overshoot no energy source unlimited or otherwise will help.

Stephen Gloor's picture
Stephen Gloor on June 13, 2011

Charles Barton – ” This outage would require the battery storage of 110,000 Texas cars if the wind outage continued for an hour. “

http://www.tdi.state.tx.us/reports/documents/hb3588rpt.doc

“There are approximately 15 million registered motor vehicles in Texas”

So 110 000 cars is less than 1% (.74%) of the registered cars in Texas – I am guessing that Texas has a similar car ownership rate to the rest of the USA.  In estimates I have seen over 80% of cars in a given city are parked at any one time even during peak hours.  So Jacobson’s estimate of 3% of cars is 3 times what would be required for this particular outage.  Or more importantly of the 3% of V2G cars only a third to one half of the battery would have been required, depending on how many of the V2G cars were charging.

Maybe it is you that has not done the proper analysis and perhaps you should look at your own before you accuse someone else of shoddy analysis.

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on June 14, 2011

@Stephen we are talking about a loss of less than 1.5 GWs on the Texas Grid.  you ar hoping that enough fully charged cars will be around to provide that sort of Grid, but how many cars will it take to back up the Texas Grid if wind Penetration reaches 20%, 30% or even 50%?  Consider energy demand in Texas on hot summer evenings as the sun sets and there is almost no wind.   All of your battery powered cars have exhausted their batteries with evening commutes with their airconditioners having run at full blast.  Where are you going to find your wind back up then?

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on June 14, 2011

@Stephen, CSP is completely impractical in much of the United States because of the percentage of time during which the direct sunlight is obscured by cloud cover.  For example, in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I currently reside, we only get unobstructed sunshine on fewer than 100 days a year.  On average more than 150 days a year we get no unobstructed sunshine, and another hundred days a year we get partial cloudyness.  Only in the southwestern United States do uncloudy conditions pregvail. But even in that area, CSP will drop significantly during the winter because suneshine ia avaliable for fewer hours a day, and because the sun is lower on the horizon.  The Southwest has a serious water shortage, and CSP cooling requires as much water per kW as nuclear power does. 

Finally if you are going to provide backup with Molten Salt storage, it would be cheaper and far more flexible to heat the molten salt in MSRs than with CSP.

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