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The history of power conversion can be traced back some 4000-years ago with small-site installations involving water wheels doing some form of mechanical work. Crude forms of windmills appeared during a later period. While the combustion of biomass to raise steam first appeared in ancient Egypt, the first practical uses of steam power began during the early 19th century. The development of electrical generation and transmission technology during the late 19th century resulted in the development of large-scale power generation installations. Economy of scale involving higher efficiency and less manpower per megawatt of output gave the mega-power installations the competitive edge over most small-scale power generation installation.
Except that small-scale power generation never quite disappeared. Ongoing research and development by hobbyists, enthusiasts and companies that directed marketing efforts at the small-scale power market continued throughout the 20th century. By the late 20th century these efforts resulted in the appearance of more efficient small-site technologies such as low-power water turbines of under 1-megawatt output that can operate at over 80%-efficiency. Several new small-scale thermal power technologies have appeared that show future promise. A partial list of technologies includes small-scale nuclear power generation.
Toshiba of Japan recently unveiled a micro-reactor fuelled by an isotope of lithium-6 that could generate 200-Kw output for up to 40-years and with a byproduct that would be free from radiation. The Toshiba technology could operate as a co-generative technology that can provide heat for a building during winter, or use the exhaust heat to energize an absorption refrigeration air conditioner system during summer. An American research group claims to have developed a method of directly generating electric power for a period of up to 28-years from radioactive isotopes and without using a reactor. The Strontium 90 byproduct is expected to be free from radiation.
R esearch is underway in other radiation-free nuclear technologies that involve the fusion of boron to isotopes of carbon or to protons. One byproduct would be the metal element beryllium that can be chemically bonded to any of oxygen, nitrogen or aluminum oxide to form a metallic compound with high specific heat. A future generation of thermal storage compounds and mixtures may involve oxides, nitrides, and aluminates of beryllium.
The Hyperion Energy Group has developed a prototype small-scale reactor and power system of 25-Mw of output. The compact system can be transported in a highway semi-trailer of railway car. A single installation can be housed underground on the premises of a single large industrial property or single large industry that has large demand for electric power. It can provide heat or the combination of heat and power. There would be enough heat from the latter concept to energize a water-based steam-vacuum refrigeration system that could cool water to 5-deg C (41-deg F) and provide cooling for a campus of buildings during summer. The cost of leasing and operating such a unit is expected to be cost-competitive with grid commercial power rates. The manufacturer plans to exchange the unit every 5 to 8-years when they plan to recharge exhausted units at their factory.
Cost competitive small-site power generation involves a range of technologies that includes fossil fuels and renewable energy. A new range of micro turbine engines of up to 250-Kw and even up to 500-Kw of output is presently being tested. These units can operate on a wide range of liquid and gaseous fuels. Many buildings in large cities in the NE USA already have micro turbine engines of up to 100-Kw of output installed in their basements and capable of providing back-up power during severe weather and when grid power is unavailable.
Several externally heated engines of under 100-Kw of output are being researched while others are under development and being tested. Companies such as Enginion and Amovis in Germany and Cyclone Engines in the USA have undertaken pioneering work in developing a new generation of small-scale reciprocating engines that operate on supercritical steam of some 4000-psia and 1200-deg F. The thermal efficiency of these engines is on par with that of a modern commercial diesel engine or thermal power station. The exhaust heat can either provide heating for a building or it can drive absorption refrigeration cooling technology.
These new generation steam engines compete directly with an evolving new generation of Stirling-cycle engines, thermo-acoustic engines and evolving solid-state thermoelectric power conversion. The two latter engine concepts involve using fewer moving or sliding mechanical components than the former. Thermo-acoustic engines involve converting heat to low-frequency standing sound waves in a pressure chamber. One solid-state variant can convert sound waves to some 2-Kw of electric power at over 30% efficiency. A larger variant can produce some 50-Kw at over 40% thermal efficiency where the standing sound waves energize a linear alternator.
The thermal conversion efficiency of traditional solid-state thermoelectric technology has for several years rarely exceeded 6%. However, new research being undertaken by groups such as Johnson Electromechanical in Texas promises to raise that level of efficiency to over 30%. The promise of cost-competitive, efficient, solid-state thermoelectric power conversion operating on concentrated solar thermal energy or biomass combustion would have widespread application in many countries.
Several companies and groups have made grade strides in reducing cost and raising efficiency is solar and wind technologies. The cost of solar photovoltaic technologies has been dropping per kilowatt of output for several years and the trend may be expected to continue into the long-term future. New generation concentrated solar PV power competes directly with new developments in concentrated solar thermal power generation and that trend may be expected to continue into the foreseeable future. Photovoltaic windows will likely appear in office towers and high-rise apartment buildings within the next decade.
Numerous advances are underway in coastal and offshore oceanic power involving wave conversion technology and kinetic turbine technologies that convert power from ocean currents and tidal currents. Suitable waves occur off the American east and west coasts. While some offshore ocean wave installations may be extensive, there are locations where shore-based installations may serve the electrical power needs of small neighborhoods or small groups of buildings. Kinetic turbines may be placed at the mouths of numerous small ocean inlets or in fast rivers and streams of suitable depth to generate local power for small communities.
There has been ongoing research and development in high-altitude wind power conversion. Skypower, Makani Wind Power and Magenn Power are all testing and evaluating airborne technologies that carry electrical generation equipment aloft. The Makani group proposes to install wind turbines on to kites. Research from Delft University in the Netherlands involves a concept known as a ladder-mill that involves the movement of a series of kites to draw energy from winds at over 1000-ft elevation. The ladder-mill uses ground-based electrical generation equipment.
Kite enthusiasts who build super kites that involve multiple control lines and stacks of super-kites have begun to apply their expertise to high-altitude wind power conversion using ground based electrical equipment. Adjusting the kite control lines changes the kites' angle of aerodynamic attack and also changes the tensile force on the control lines. The control lines of multiple groups of kites are linked to winches and one-way clutches that drive a drive shaft and electrical generation equipment. Some groups of kites pull outward while other groups of kites retract in an ongoing repeating cycle. Kite wind power is projected to become a cost competitive technology.
Economic regulation of affordable, cost-competitive small-site decentralized power generation would be quite unnecessary. The demand for electric power is expected to greatly increase in many nations one the current economic depression is resolved. The post-depression period would likely be a period of economic growth where more generation capacity will have to be brought on line. Small-site decentralized generation could grow rapidly during an absence of economic regulation and can co-exist with mega-power installations in an expanding electric power market. The very nature of small-site decentralized generation technology encourages the kind of market competition that would keep power prices competitive.
For information on purchasing reprints of this article, contact sales. Copyright 2013 CyberTech, Inc.
Nice overview of all the work going on to develop distributed local generation on many fronts, including some forms of small-scale nuclear. But nuclear probably won't be as commercially successful as the others, particularly solar based ones.
This should be a wake-up call to the pro-nuclear club that substantial R&D investments are being made in advanced alternative designs never thought possible before. Large central nuclear plants will end up sharing the grid in the future with many other forms of small-scale generators.
Bob Amorosi 3.17.09
The "wake-up call" to the pro-nuclear club is very simple - if large central plants want to play a bigger role competing for future generation, they must find a way to reduce their large up-front capital costs, or at least amortize them over much longer periods than 3 decades or so.
Len Gould 3.18.09
Only problem, Bob, is that at 8% interest, the payment per year per million at 25 years amortization is $93,678 but at 50 years is still $81,742. Not really a lot of difference. Perhaps what investors need to consider is taking a loss (eg. 0% return) until borrowed money is paid off say in 20 years, then profiting on the remaining 40 to 60 years lifetime of the facility?
Len Gould 3.18.09
A possibly interesting further point here is that the higher the "rate of return" on loaned money, the less difference between 25 year amort. and 50 year amort. loan payments. Its an obvious statement, but seems (to me) it might "contain" some interesting explanation information regarding investors timelines getting shorter during good economic times? Then again, might not ;<]
Bob Amorosi 3.18.09
Len, you're probably right about investor timelines getting shorter during good economic times. Too, investors get harder to find during poor economic times like we currently have because the only ones willing to lend are the much fewer ones willing to accept longer timelines.
Bob Amorosi 3.18.09
Concentrated solar power (CSP) is promising to be very exciting. It has made breakthroughs in engineering design in Toronto Canada. Morgansolar.com has dramatically cut capital costs of CSP by using patented light-guide optics, needing more than 1000 times less silicon cell area for a given amount of sun-light area captured. I don't have cost figures but they claim to be "extremely low cost" and "affordable" on their website. Combined with the premium 80-cents per kwhr subsidized incentive the Ontario government is proposing to offer to pay in 20-year contracts for private rooftop solar systems, my retired relatives might just be buying one soon for their own houses.
barry hanson 3.20.09
Len....Based on your comments above regarding the cost of money (assume 8%, 25 year financing) would it be correct to assume that in the first ten years $4.68 billion in interest would have to be paid back on $5 billion borrowed?
barry hanson 3.22.09
""Based on the comments above regarding the cost of money (assume 8%, 25 year financing) would it be correct to assume that in the first ten years $4.68 billion in interest would have to be paid back on $5 billion borrowed?"'
The answer appears to be yes based on my search...although I was hoping to get a response from an expert in energy economics on this blog.
Reasonable capital cost recovery factors are between .115 and .15 giving a cost of money of about $5 billion for the first ten years of the nuclear plant financing. About the same as the total capital cost.
This amount of money, instead of being wasted, could be directed toward any number of 'local economy' DG solutions having a payback of only a few years in all cases and an average installed cost of about $2,000 per KW. The $5 billion investment would generate 160 billion kWh over eight years, before the nuke could even begin generating, for less than 6 cents per kWh. 160 billion kWh is what the nuke plant would be expected to generate in 20 years, but only after it actually gets started.
Not taken into account are facts such as: DG allows for heat recovery...deduct that from the production cost of the DG electricity.
With DG no transmission is required...allow for at least 2.5 cents per kWh in avoided associated electrical costs.
Instead of to Hitachi, Toshiba and Areva the $5 billion would go into local economies and family farms.
Warren Reynolds 3.25.09
The cost of a nuclear power plant has risen to $8 billion today not $5 billion. They are too expensive to build ! The IAEA has shown that nuclear power rates are the highest at $0.14- 0.16/kw-hr. Dr. Chu, Secy of DOE has stated that no more commercial nuclear waste will go to Yucca Mtn depository. It is already 75% committed to Government nuclear waste. As an ex-nuclear engineer, I know nuclear's "dirty secrets". Let me put the final nail in the nuclear coffin. A GE report has shown that the profit in nuclear power is only 3% over its 25 year amortization cost. The only reason the nuclear plants were originally built was the direct and indirect Government subsidies. The cost for dismantling these nuclear "dinosaurs" will be in the $ billions and passed on to the rate-payers. Eighteen European nations have voted to ban, stop construction or dismantle nuclear power plants. No, nuclear is not the answer.
Bob Amorosi 3.26.09
After reading your post above I think professor Banks, who publishes articles and comments on this website regularly in support of nuclear, should pay close attention to what you are saying. Here in Ontario our regulated rates are presently in the 6 to 7 cents per kwhr range, which is considered pretty low. Over half our generator fleet is presently in nuclear plants, but our rates were heavily subsidized in the past when our nuclear fleet was built. On top of basic rates, Ontarians have now been saddled with extra “debt retirement” payments charged to everyone's monthly electricity bills since several years ago – specifically to pay down the massive multi-billion dollar stranded debt the old Ontario Hydro built up in part from building our nuclear fleet. So I tend to believe your claims above very much so.
Jim Beyer 3.27.09
I appreciate the comments about the cost of nuclear power, but it is still much less expensive than any DG proposed now, especially if one considers that nuclear is a 24/7 power source. If you applied the accounting methods to DG with the same degree of pessimism that you apply to nuclear, you'd realize their costs are very high as well.
I would like to suggest that this conflict is specious. The issue is not DG/renewable vs. nuclear. It's DG/renewable AND nuclear vs. coal. Because (ignoring CO2 emissions and coal's pollutants in general) coal is far cheaper than either of these two. Which means, in our cost-conscious world civilization, coal will win, the climate be damned.
The reasons nuclear is more expensive than coal are political and organizational, not technical. The reason DG is more expensive than coal are technical, at least at present. Say what you want about nuclear waste and uranium mining, etc., but that's a far more bounded problem than climate change. DG/renewable doesn't have a ghost of a chance of displacing coal in the next 25 years. Nuclear can, and should. Maybe after that, renewables will be ready to replace nuclear.
Bob Amorosi 3.27.09
Some numbers to ponder for Ontario.
A 3kW system can be installed and connected to the local grid with off-the-shelf equipment for about 30,000 Canadian dollars, less if you can install it yourself. This amount of power should provide an average homeowner about one third of their household energy consumption, and at 80 cents/kWhr that Ontario is proposing to pay for 20 years, it should generate on average across the year about $7 per day, or about $2500/year. This average takes into account that on summer days it will make much more than $7/day, and in winter much less if anything at all.
At $2500/year it will take only 12 years to pay off the system, and from then on it’s all gravy. And with the advances in solar like morgansolar.com is poised to market, and with falling equipment costs every year, that 12 years is shrinking.
No doubt if there is a huge take up of rooftop solar in Ontario after the first few years, they will probably scale back the 80-cent offer to something lower for new ones, but by then costs will have also come down. It's no longer unthinkable that we could see several hundred thousand rooftop solar systems in Ontario within 5 to 10 years.
I really think Malcolm should reconsider his refusal to believe in solar when some of his neighbors are padding their bank accounts doing nothing but letting the sun shine, and probably working somewhere else at some day job earning a regular income. BTW I checked and implementing a rooftop solar system to sell back into the grid will definitely be considered by the Canada Revenue Agency to be a small business operation with all the income tax deduction incentives enjoyed by a commercial business.
Now consider if you have a large enough roof to install a 10kW system, and back it up with a few days or more of storage. That one third of an average homeowner's consumption triples to virtually all of their needs. And the size of a roof necessary for a given power output will shrink if more efficient solar being developed emerges.
Ferdinand E. Banks 3.30.09
Warren, the 8 billion figure you give is probably for Finland. Yes, it was a nasty surprise, but they are already talking about building another reactor, and it will NOT cost 8 billion, although if it did it would probably be worth it. The Finns are not going to let any predudice against nuclear keep them from relatively inexpensive power in X years when supplies of oil and gas are scarce, and even the price of coal might be increasing rapidly.
By the way, if you think that the Finns are a little 'off', try visiting Finland this summer, and then take a cruise ship over to Stockholm.
Also, I think that you know even better than I do that in the long run almost all nuclear fuel will be reprocessed, and so you can store it in your basement, and all new reactors will be breeders. I don't like this at all, to put it mildly, but the voters are going to insist. I just hope that they don't forget to put a reinforced ranger company around every plant, and not deal with security issues the way that the Swedes will probably do: a guy sitting at a guard shack with a mobile telephone and a copy of a book called 'Relations', telling him or her how to talk to nutters.
Jim Beyer 3.30.09
By your own numbers, it would take $90,000 ($30,000 x 3) to provide the power for one home. This compares with a nuclear power plant (1500 MW) that can power about 1,500,000 homes. To equate the costs, that would correspond to a $135 Billion power plant. Much more expensive that anyone has ever suggested for nuclear power, even under pessimistic circumstances.
It's great that Ontario is willing to pay 80 cents per kw-hr, but that's an unsustainable rate for large amounts of power.
Ferdinand E. Banks 3.30.09
Jim, it's strange the problems that some people have with math, by which I include arithmetic. I taught a class in Bangkok in which almost everybody was an engineer, but when I put a Lagrangian (multiplier) on the board, and my students later told the ignoramus I worked for about it, he went ballistic and attended my class the next day. I suppose that I would have been arrested on the spot if my math on that occasion had gone beyond 2 + 2.
Michael Keller 3.30.09
Having been around for a while in the energy business, I know nuclear plants built in the 1960’s were relatively inexpensive to construct and have turned out to be bargains for ratepayer and utility alike. Plants built in the 1970’s were a lot more expensive due to increased government mandated safety requirements – took a lot more steel, concrete and time to build. However, those plants have also turned out to be pretty good deals for consumer and utility alike, although a lot of the 1970’s investors were badly singed.
Nuclear plants today are breathtakingly expensive – to the point where you are playing “you-bet-your-company” to build one. However, I suspect that over the long haul, the plants will again be good deals … if we can find enough money to build them.
Seems to me that while Distributed Generation is pretty pricey, the financial risk is much less than nuclear power because if a particular unit turns out to be not so good, the amount of money involved is not that high. Easier to write-off a few million in taxpayer money, although it is obviously better if the technology ultimately turns out to be reasonably cost effective.
Bob Amorosi 3.31.09
Jim, and Professor Banks,
Solar is still and was never expected to supply 100% of a home's energy needs 100% of the time. The point is once the system is paid off with the 80 cents/kwhr, one third of a home's energy is virtually free from then on. The other two thirds obviously comes from the grid. That's a very attractive consumer deal in my books. Maybe not yours, but then saving money isn't on every one's mind either.
And what Banks refuses to have any faith in are the heroic engineers that are working steadily on shrinking that $30,000. Again I refer to the MorganSolar.com people about to dramatically lower it. And besides new emerging technologies, that $30,000 is just one company's prices in Ontario, there are others emerging that will drive it lower just from plain old competition - another novel concept in the ignorant minds of some economists. link Banks
And finally, that $30,000 figure is to RETROFIT and existing house. Building it into a brand new house costs considerably LESS right now.
Ferdinand E. Banks 3.31.09
I'm not interested in solar, wind and distributed power - that's for somebody else to work on and try to get right. I'm more concerned with eventually presenting a correct calculation for the cost of nuclear energy, which will at least indicate that it is superior costwise to other options.
And I know that I can do this, and eventually will, but why should I hurry. The bloggosphere has cheaped both the written and spoken word (or symbol) to an extent that my humble efforts on this front are not particularly useful. It's quite clear to me that the utility of nuclear energy IN THE LONG RUN is so great that governments should make it their business to subsidize them, but instead of doing that they become involved in senseless wars in stone age countries.
Bob Amorosi 3.31.09
This article is about distributed power, so if one is not interested in it, why bother posting anything about it.
Jim, More points to consider. The $30,000 price I’m discussing is the retail price charged by a small Ontario company to install it and make a substantial mark-up profit on the equipment and labor. The bare equipment for a 3kW system costs far less than $30k, and it doesn't scale linearly either meaning a 10kW system is very roughly more like twice the cost of a 3kW system, not 3 times.
Now a company dealing in much higher volumes of systems would lower equipment costs by factors of 2 or 3 times, which is typical volume price reductions for hardware when you scale up from dozens of units per year to thousands per year. This is definitely the case for the inverter and other electronic gear that must interface the system to feed back into the grid.
An emerging technology like MorganSolar.com has the potential to offer a 3kW system for $5000 or less wholesale. And who knows what price is possible should they get into volumes of thousands of systems per year. If it reaches near $1500 per kW, nuclear and other large central generators will have serious competition, and also remember distributed rooftop generators don't require expensive long-haul high-voltage transmission lines.
Of course I agree 80-cents/kwhr for rooftop solar being offered here is unsustainable, but as costs come down, Ontario will surely lower this until is becomes no longer subsidized, and is exactly what the Ontario government is gambling on in the long run.
Bob Amorosi 3.31.09
BTW, the Ontario government is gambling on rooftop solar subsidies just as a venture capitalist would do to invest in developing new technology to lower its costs through mass commercialization. Wow, isn’t that a novel concept for an "investment", with all the risk taking that any entrepreneur can relate to, but perhaps some economists cannot relate to or understand.
Roger Arnold 4.5.09
Coming late to the party, again. Just to keep Harry honest, I'll inject a small technical correction: Toshiba's micro-reactor is not fueled by lithium-6; it uses molten lithium as a combined moderator / coolant. Convection in the molten lithium bath is sufficient to transfer reactor heat to the integrated steam turbine, so no pumps are needed.
The reactor is self-regulating by load; if the electical load drops, less heat is withdrawn, causing the core to heat up and expand. The expansion reduces the reaction rate to match the heat withdrawal rate. Rather a neat system! The fuel cycle, however, is still based on "ordinary" fission. It has a very high burnup ratio, transmuting non-fissile U-238 or Thorium into fissile plutonium or U-233. It's projected to run for 30 years without refueling.
I'm not at all clear on the differences between Toshiba's design and Hyperion's. They seem very similar in concept, but doubtless have major differences in detail.
Regarding Morgan Solar and their "breakthrough" in concentrated photo-voltaics (CPV), I'm taking a "wait and see". I've read what's on their web sited, as well as articles in Technology Review from MIT that seem to be about the same approach using dyes mixed into transparent plastics. It may be "real" and workable, but I doubt very much that its performance is a match for the hype. Whether it will achieve a significant reduction in cost / installed kilowatt of capacity remains to be seen. Since it requires tracking mounts, it can't be installed cheaply on rooftops. That means it's starting with a big disadvantage. Even if the solar panels themselves were free, I suspect that the cost of the tracking mounts would render the final system costs not much less than "conventional" PV.
But I'd love to be proven wrong.
Wallace Brand 4.5.11
The author ignored fuel cells. Until recently, the market has been insufficient to gain for Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells the economies of scale that are needed to make the hardware competitive. They are already competitively efficient in fuel use, more so that giant coal fired steam turbines. When initially introduced, the Fuel Cell Energy fuel cell was stated to be viable at 500 MW per year. Through the learning curve, the estimate number has gone down to 75MW -125MW. FCE has never produced more than 35 MW per year but commencing in 2012 its orders from South Korea will rise to 350 MW per year and in 2016, to 700 MW per year. It appears to me that the fuel cell is our future. The third generation solid oxide fuel cells are doing well too. VERSA Power has, through the government's SECA program reduced the cost of manufacturing solid oxide fuel cells (in volume) to $700 per kW and anticipates this cost will decline to $400 per kW next year. Their fuel cells uses the same electrolyte as that of Bloom Energy but Bloom has far better public relations than VERSA Power.
Wallace Brand 4.5.11
The author ignored fuel cells. Until recently, the market has been insufficient to gain for Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells the economies of scale that are needed to make the hardware competitive. They are already competitively efficient in fuel use, more so than giant coal fired steam turbines. When initially introduced, the Fuel Cell Energy fuel cell was stated to be viable at 500 MW per year. Through the learning curve, the estimate number has gone down to 75MW -125MW. FCE has never produced more than 35 MW per year but commencing in 2012 its orders from South Korea will rise to 350 MW per year and in 2016, to 700 MW per year. It appears to me that the fuel cell is our future.
The third generation solid oxide fuel cells are doing well too. VERSA Power has, through the government's SECA program reduced the cost of manufacturing solid oxide fuel cells (in volume) to $700 per kW and anticipates this cost will decline to $400 per kW next year. Their fuel cells uses the same electrolyte as that of Bloom Energy but Bloom has far better public relations than VERSA Power.