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In my forthcoming textbook Energy and Economic Theory (2011), the last chapter contains a section called 'On the Sunny Side of the Nuclear Street', which is a shortened version of a keynote talk on nuclear energy that I volunteered to present at a forthcoming energy conference in marvelous summer Stockholm.
However on the basis of the tragic situation at the Fukushima nuclear complex, a question must now be asked as to whether my presence is desired at that congress, since I have never attempted to conceal my upbeat attitude on nuclear energy. In addition, for reasons that I am not inclined to examine here, I have come to believe that my contribution would not be of interest to some of the conference bosses if the Fukushima incident had never taken place, and every reactor on the face of the earth had been awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
I have therefore decided to circulate some aspects of my talk in this short paper, because whether they realize it or not, the persons attending that and other energy conferences need to receive a realistic glimpse of the nuclear future, rather than the panic-inspired misrepresentations being circulated by members of the anti-nuclear booster club, many of whom are trading on the Fukushima calamity.
The Real Nuclear Deal
Let me begin by saying something about neoclassical economic theory. My favorite example has to do with the American entrance into the Second World War, when it was discovered that the Japanese possessed a fighter plane called the Zero that was a superb advance in the evolution of military aircraft. After evaluating the Zero's capabilities, the Americans realized that if they were unable to match or exceed its technical excellence, command of both the skies and the sea might be lost. The bottom line in this drama was that qualitatively and quantitatively the United States easily overcame the challenge.
The same kind of phenomenon is going to take place with nuclear. Anne Lauvergeon, the director of Areva, has called the new Chinese reactors "worrying", by which she means worrying for her firm, and probably for every other producer of (nuclear) reactors. Fortunately, however, neo-classical economics suggests that this is a short-run phenomenon. Eventually the achievements of Chinese nuclear designers will be duplicated, and when that happens, we may be at the beginning of what Professor Kenichi Matsui has termed The Seventh Energy Revolution, which he believes will be based on nuclear energy.
There have been times when my friendly and modest lectures and articles have been condemned by zealous bloggers and others; however this does not bother me at all, because I know that when the topic is nuclear, it is necessary to confront all sorts of nonsense. For instance, Dr Warren Reynolds is a self-proclaimed expert on nuclear matters, and according to him France has turned away from nuclear and is moving toward renewables (2011). What he should have said was that the French energy establishment claimed that they were moving toward renewables, just as the Swedish government has taken virtually a sacred oath to move in the same direction, and this is also true of the Chinese and the Germans and just about every dominion and authority between Copenhagen and the Capetown naval yard.
The key observation here is that the proposed abandonment of seemingly abstract machinery is exactly what a large segment of German voters want to hear, and the same is true of the young party animals posturing themselves and courting attention in the fashionable bars and discos of Sweden. As it happens though, no matter what the high-and-mighty say about moving somewhere, to include why or when, they are definitely not moving away from nuclear. Globally, hundreds of nuclear plants are in the construction or planning stages, and this is just the beginning. Moreover, eventually some of those plants are going to be radically different from the installations that Dr Reynolds and his well-wishers are eager to warn us against.
Fukushima: N'est Pas Mon Amour
Hiroshima mon Amour is a famous film, directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras, which concludes with a mass demonstration featuring young people calling for an end to nuclear armaments. Nuclear armaments and the district in which Fukushima is located have a place in my memory, because I was given an unexpected acquaintance with nuclear weapons during an extremely pleasant vacation in the U.S. Army in Germany, and while enjoying a similar long holiday in Japan I almost made the acquaintance of Sendai-Fukushima and its 'glider infantry' school, which I managed to avoid at the last moment.
In any event, many years ago a Japanese gentleman and myself left a small conference in order to walk through the streets of Vienna, and before we had gone very far he explained to me that nuclear energy was crucial for the future of Japan -- "irreplaceable" -- by which he specifically meant not just the energy obtained from the prevailing light-water equipment utilized in Japan and most countries, but breeder technology. The kind of technology that Ralph Nader once called "maniacal", because it possesses some of the characteristics of a 'perpetual motion' machine.
That stroll took place before the massive sodium leak at Japan's Monju 'breeder' installation, but in remembering some fragments of the long conversation to which I am referring, I doubt whether there has been a change of heart among Japan's decision makers. One of the theories presented to my good self was that every country in the world with nuclear capabilities is going to turn to breeder technology shortly after it becomes politically possible, and it will be politically possible if economic meltdowns of the type now being experienced in many countries become endemic.
That may or may not be so, but if you are interested in economic logic, there are many phenomena in the nuclear panorama that should be studied. For example, immediately after the Fukushima incident, I spent a few minutes looking at a television program in which a young lady waved a crank exposé written by some anti-nuclear fanatic, and informed three fellow debaters, as well as her studio and the TV audience, that the presence of nuclear energy created a life-threatening ambiance in nuclear intensive countries.
As far as I have been able to discover, life expectancies in very nuclear intensive Sweden and France, and especially Japan, are longer than in countries like Denmark and Norway that have no nuclear. This result is made clear in a number of references, among them the CIA 'Fact Book'. The simple truth of the matter is that in countries like Japan and Sweden, life expectancies have increased as economic welfare has increased, and the increase in economic welfare is mainly the result of a rising energy intensity -- an energy intensity that often features the optimal employment of nuclear equipment.
My first economics professorship was in Australia, and at a conference in Canberra, an over enthusiastic American virtually bawled a song of joy to breeder technology. Everyone I talked to at that meeting thought that he had taken leave of his senses, to include myself, but as I found out later, there were quite a few admirers of breeder technology in various parts of the world. My prediction is that for better or worse their forty year wait for approval is coming to an end, and the first unambiguous, large scale and completely successful breeder program can hardly be more than a decade away.
A physicist of my acquaintance once informed me that the Monju project mentioned above would never be started up again, but he was wrong, nor is it true that the French 'Superphoenix' breeder is a lost cause. Actually, the only thing keeping the tempo at these installations from expanding is a belief by governments that breeders are not needed at present, nor perhaps even in the future. The first belief probably makes economic and political sense, while the last will disappear during or after the next macroeconomic meltdown.
The Japanese gentleman mentioned above used the word 'waste' to describe non-breeder technology. I had some problem agreeing, because while I am completely uninterested in the half-baked propaganda about renewable energy promoted by people like Amory Lovins and Ralph Nader, their obvious distrust of the competence of many of our political masters in nuclear and other matters may well be justified.
But even so, I feel it necessary to insist that Messrs Lovins and Nader, as well as many Nobel Laureates, have failed to understand that there is a law of economics far more powerful than the physics of Albert Einstein or anybody else. The law I am thinking of is that ALMOST EVERYBODY PREFERS MORE TO LESS, which makes it difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that 'almost everybody' will eventually be receptive to all nuclear initiatives and contrivances. For that reason the fervor that has gone into discounting the social and economic progress that plentiful energy have made possible, would be better utilized making sure that avoidable blunders like the erroneous positioning of the Fukushima reactors will never happen again.
Banks, Ferdinand E. (2011). Energy and Economic Theory. Singapore, London and New York: World Scientific (forthcoming).
Reynolds, Warren (2011). 'Nuclear power is dead' (Parts 1&2). Energy Pulse (www.energypulse.net)
For information on purchasing reprints of this article, contact sales. Copyright 2013 CyberTech, Inc.
"ALMOST EVERYBODY PREFERS MORE TO LESS" -- At now, an undeniable absolute truth. Anyone with any awareness looking around this world will notice immediately that a) there is a huge unfilled demand for new baselaod electricity generation, especially in newly developing countries. b) coal, oil and gas are not the ideal alternative solutions to the demand that anti-nuclear activists must obviously think they are. c) even if nuclear energy generation killed thousands per year, like coal mining (see China), which it does not, the energy reactors provide would be a huge net gain in person-years of life lived.
To be anti-nuclear, one must declare their proposed alternative. Is it 1) powerdown with its nasty effects on huindreds of millions+ 2) development of "renewables" for baselaod supply at current first-world levels worldwide 3) magic fairy-dust?
With the most logical renewable, solar thermal in high-insolation areas, not yet even accepted by US utilities in sunshine states like California and Arizona, it looks to me lthat to be sane and to oppose nuclear energy, one MUST re-direct their efforts away from anti-nuclear activism toward solar energy development promotion. Lacking any viable substitute, nuclear MUST step uo to fill the role assigned.
Ferdinand E. Banks 5.28.11
Thanks Len. As hard as I try, I just cant buy the the anti-nuclear position. Sure, we dont want or need a reactor on every street corner, but we do need a source of reliable and inexpensive power, and as far as I can tell that means nuclear. I dont remember who it was - or was too preoccupied to absorb the name - but someone in this forum used the expression EXTRA ENERGY in a discussion about nuclear energy or power or something, and that expression should be kept in mind.
Let me make it clear though that when I say that 'almost everybody prefers more than less' I'm talking about money, about 'goods', about what 'everybody' thinks of as the 'good things in life'. Obviously, the way to settle this issue is to tear down every nuclear plant and give certain people all the wind and solar they want. After a few years or decades with that kind of situation, any government that refused to construct and/or employ reactors would have a revolution on its hands. But that is a textbook arrangement that probably has no place in the real world.
Nuclear makes sense to me because I want the kind of world that they were trying to create in Sweden when I came to Sweden a couple of centuries ago, and that means a high energy intensity. To me a high energy intensity and the right kind of educational system, can lead to money, 'goods', social welfare, employment, adequate medical and dental care, and sport for all. According to Michael Moore they have some of this in Canada, just as they do in Sweden, and evidently the voters want more. One thing thought is certain: on balance very few are anxious to experience less.
Finally, a word about renewables and alternatives. Renewables and alternatives - to include wind and solar - are perhaps even more essential than nuclear. but the winning combination is renewables and alternatives AND a certain amount of nuclear. Who is going to figure out how much of each. I would love to say that I would if I were paid enough, but the truth is that I hardly know where to begin.
Malcolm Rawlingson 5.28.11
Good article once again Fred. You underscore the basic human condition that we all - every one of us - prefer more than less. When one sits smugly in the comfort of wealthy Western nations (who have far too much of everything) it is easy to forget that most of the worlds population has nothing.- not even the basics of life.
What lifts all of us out of the drudgery of a hand to mouth existence is plentiful supplies of energy. That is why the west is wealthy. In particular electrical energy is the key to the wealth building power of western economies.
I am all in favour of any energy source that can reliably and predicatbly generate the electricity needed for the worlds economies without causing major damage to the quality of life we enjoy.
Of all the energy sources I see only nuclear energy able to deliver what is required on the scale that it is required and for the foreseeable future. Not just to serve the needs of the west but to lift the rest of the world out of poverty.
Len, of course, supports solar and surprisingly so do I where it is practical. However the energy inputs to making solar panels are very high and to make and deploy them in sufficient numbers to make any real difference is a huge undertaking requiring a great deal of energy. They also consume substantial quantities of relatively rare metals such as silver and when manufactured on the scale necessary to make a difference would place large demands on the supply of such metals.
As bad as the situation at the Fukushima plant is one needs to consider that tens of thousands have been killed by the natural disaster and no-one has died of overexposure to radiation.
It is also worth noting that the plant was designed for a very severe earthquake and withstood one 100 times more powerful than it was designed for. The earthquake did not cause the damage to the reactor cores. It was also designed for a coincident Tsunami but did not withstand one that was three times larger than the worst case expected.
If the designers are to be faulted they should have put the standby generators on higher ground.
But as you both indicate if you want the good things of life better get used to more nuclear plants.The safest techn ology ever developed by humans.
Scott Brooks 5.28.11
The Fukushima nuclear accident was very preventable. TEPCO got a heads up on the Indochina Tsunami but failed to take preventative measures by building a flood wall or having water proofed the emergency water pump circulators, very critical to BWRs.
In the initial stages of the crisis, TEPCO refused the US's offer of modular pumping stations to divert the lost of the emergency cooling pumps crisis. The tsunami rendered the TEPCO emergency backup pumps inoperable by shorting out the electrical controls and power feeds. Another unforeseen problem prevented TEPCO from hooking up emergency power generators to power the backup cooling pump stations.
There may be a design flaw with the MRK I reactors in emergency cooling.
This means that a review of a emergency shutdown situation of US BWR's would be prudent. The new Gen III LWR's reportedly have a simpler, passive cooling system design that negates the inherent cooling problem of the BWR's. The Gen IV reactors do not use water cooling systems by design. A few still use steam generation of the Rankine cycle while most use the much more efficient Brayton cycle eliminating the need for system water altogether.
What is needed is the push from renewables to Gen IV reactors and following designs.
The inherent problems with wind and solar is:
Energy is very diluted so massive infrastructure is required.
Maintenance costs are under estimated.
No practical cost effective storage systems except on a limited scale.
Although the energy is carbon free the hardware is not. Building and installing the equipment will require millions of pounds of rare earth metals (from Mongolian areas devastated by mining and smelting the metals), concrete, steel, copper and fiberglass… accompanied by the fossil fuel energy, pollution and CO2 associated with mining, smelting and manufacturing these materials.
Without the RPS mandates and massive subsidies wind and solar would be limited to remote applications or more cost effective applications. In subsidies per unit of energy actually produced, gas-fired electricity generation got 25 cents per MWh in 2007 subsidies; coal received 44 cents (mostly for clean technology research), while wind turbines got 23.4 dollars and photovoltaic solar received 24.3 dollars per MWh. So while so called subsidies for oil and coal were larger in sum totals they resulted in more bang per buck investment.
So renewable subsidies are the biggest, stinken elephant in the energy circus while the green clowns parade around.
Ferdinand E. Banks 5.29.11
Excellent observation, Scott. Of course the Fukushima accident was preventable, and for the reason you gave. And as usual Malcolm was correct.
But even so, we live in democracies, and if the voters want renewables and alternatives, then I say OK. Here in Sweden that is what they want, and they are being given them, But not enough to upset intelligent people like those commenting above. In this country, in the long run, it is going to be hydro and nuclear, but some renewables and alternatives.
One more observation. The greens are not clowns. These are people who have not received the education they need to judge energy issues. They have been failed by their teachers, if they studied economics, and if they did not, then by the bosses of their universities and schools, who are unable to comprehend the importance of energy.
Jim Beyer 5.31.11
I'm beginning to weigh in against the nuclear option. Not that I don't think nuclear power can be safe and economical, but for whatever reason, they (the nuclear industry) keep dropping the ball. As many have noted, Fukushima was preventable. Yet it still happened. Mistakes like this, especially after TMI and Chernobyl, simply aren't acceptable, and there are consequences to them.
I'm not usually a huge fan of Bill Maher, but he once said, in reference to the effectiveness of the private sector, that (terrorist) security should not be a problem, given that casinos can figure out if you are counting cards in your head. So the private sector should be able to get around these issue w.r.t. nuclear power. Yet they don't or they won't. They should solve them and have investors clamoring to build plants worldwide. Yet it is not happening. The whole enterprise is too tied up in (admittedly necessary) regulation and long-term issues such as waste storage which private sector firms are loathe to take on. How does one put the cost of 100,000+ year storage onto a balance sheet? So if the gov't sector has not shined w.r.t nuclear power, then neither has the private sector. Wouldn't it have been cost effective for Fukushima to have been updated? Heck, put the generators on some frigging stilts, fercrissakes..... Yet, this didn't happen. Sadly, big business USED to be about innovation. Now its about paying off Congress to get favorable legislation. But this dog won't point w.r.t nuclear power, as the public is scared to death of it. So the Congresspeople won't play.
The alternative is, what? I'm not sure. In a bizarre turn, it seems as if we must somehow make the green vision of wind farms and solar panels somehow work. I'm not sure how exactly we are to do this. Maybe all those plug-in battery packs (which address our oil thirst) can somehow be made to manage the thin gruel of energy that is what comes from these greener options. I'm not saying this will be easy, or even possible, but the nuclear power industry, and their repeated failings, have left us little recourse. Say what you want about wind farms, but they don't go batsh!t and force millions to evacuate their homes.
Michael Keller 5.31.11
Noticed in the paper a statement from Chancellor Merkel "... phasing out nuclear power will be a challenge, but it will give Germany a competitive advantage. ... As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies…"
Absent repealing the laws of nature and basic economics, I really do not see how that will work, but I delighted to see Germany headed down the crapper. Less competition for the US with our vast fuel resources, once we drop kick the Obama regime over the side.
Ferdinand E. Banks 5.31.11
Michael, if Ms Merkel looked like Marlene Dietrich or Romy Schneider, she would never have come up with that crazy statement. She would be glad to get back to the swinging life. As it is though she prefers being the big boss instead of teaching physics 101. "It will give Germany a competitive advantage". Where does she get a stupid statement like that, and who is going to be dumber than stupid to believe it?
Sorry Jim. I usually agree with you - in fact I make a practice of it - but not this time. I have seen the nuclear future - in Sweden before they started letting dummies express themselves on the subject - and that future works. In fact if Fred Banks was giving the orders it would work better - in theory at least.
Jim Beyer 5.31.11
I agree. If you were giving the orders, we'd have safe and economical nuclear power. The problem is, you aren't. Instead, the orders are being given by fearmongering politicians, and being carried out by lackadaisical corporations. How much would it have cost them to shore up the back up generators at Fukushima? $10M? $25M? For saving those pennies, they lose $6B+ in their lost reactors, and damage the credibility of nuclear power in general. For nuclear power to work, we need companies that can look beyond their next quarterly report. None of them do that at this point.
Bob Amorosi 5.31.11
I didn't think I would ever comment on a subject I know very little about here, but when I see Jim and Fred disagree, I couldn't resist the temptation.
I do sympathize with Jim's views because I am a product designer in another industry. Products only become commercially successful if the economics of making the product make sense, and only if the customers are happy to buy into them. Meeting BOTH of these criteria is critical to making something commercially successful, and in the case of large central nuclear plants, customers are not very happy today buying into them in many parts of the world. Yes my friends IMAGE of a product, good or bad, makes a HUGE difference.
Sad to say we badly need the scale of energy and economics that nuclear is capable of, but its image is very badly tarnished with many of the people around the world that set all the rules for the future of electrical power It is a classical failure of design engineering on a grand scale.
One thing I am puzzled by however that may give nuclear some hope. Why has there never been catastrophic failures in military submarines and surface ships that use small nuclear reactors to power their propulsion systems? Is it because they are designed and maintained to military standards? If so there is a message here - nuclear reactors could be made bulletproof failsafe but at a very high price tag as is most military hardware.
Cheers guys, the future of electrical power generation promises to be nothing like we've enjoyed for the past 100 years or so.
bill payne 5.31.11
Coal exports may argue against electric energy problems in the US?
Excellent observation, Bob (about submarines etc). I'll use it somewhere in the future, and I hope that I spell or pronounce your name right.
Incidentally, the German decision to drop nuclear is going to breathe life into every half-failed energy corporation near Germany. My electric bill is also going to go up.
Len Gould 6.1.11
Jim - " For nuclear power to work, we need companies that can look beyond their next quarterly report. None of them do that at this point." - Exactly.
Bob - "It is a classical failure of design engineering on a grand scale." - Exactly.
Briliant observations. I've also been gradually comming to the knowledge that, though nuclear power COULD be done in a way which would preclude contamination of large populated areas, ( I actually filed a patent on a plan to construct reactors about 1 km underground in the stable granit of the old shield regoins where uranium is mined. Reactors underground, turbines at the surface, gravity provides the coolant feedwater pressure for free). However I learned that the "PTB" would never do it because the long-distance transmission would add perhaps $0.01 / kwh to the cost of power. Stupidly shortsighted.
I now strongly support solar thermal with thermal storage.
mike alexy 6.1.11
Jim's comments highlight a more general and more critical weakness of the nuclear industry, its rigid and extensive support of legacy technology. This is far more pervasive and insidious than is generally understood. As an example of the scope of the problem, the USA is presently using gaseous diffusion for isotopic enrichment. This approach is completely obsolete technically and financially. This is so much the case that the only other plant in the world using similar technology is in the process of shutdown. In contrast, the present state-of-the-art technology, centrifugal enrichment, is well proven at multiple locations, with many years of use. It is also substantially more cost effective. As an indicator, the US gaseous diffusion plant can require as much as 2 GW of power for operations while a comparable centrifugal plant would use roughly half as much. Rather than encouraging a rapid conversion to centrifugal enrichment, or, possibly much better still, facilitating start-up of the laser enrichment process in development in North Carolina, key Congressional members, notably McConnell, are pushing to retain operation of the Paducah diffusion plant.
Similarly, the Gen 3 and Gen3+ designs, while improved in many important aspects compared to presently operating plants, are essentially derivative of those early designs and based on the same fuel cycle.
Although they are building a large number of such Gen 3 plants, it appears China will be the first to begin to break the legacy bonds if they are successful with their pebble bed reactors. And, if successful, they will effectively obsolete existing Gen 3 designs.
At this point, the nuclear industry should seriously revisit lessons learned in its early days, i.e. reactors should be inherently safe and highly standardized (indeed "mass produced", at least in the sense that Boeing mass produces 747s). To this I would add an aggressive effort to commercialize the Thorium fuel cycle as this appears to address many of the issues of legacy nuclear energy. (Yes, I know it has some of its own, but they appear to be addressable by reasonable engineering means.)
Jim Beyer 6.1.11
I'm guessing that if you ever did a cost analysis for nuclear power in submarines or aircraft carriers, you'd find the cost of that power would be enormous. First, they are smaller reactors, so the scale is not favorable. Second, they are competing against bunker fuel, not coal-fired electrical generation, so their cost goals are not similar. Third, they are competing against bunker fuel in a wartime footing, which is more expensive still. Also, they aren't completely safe. The Soviets had some issues with nuclear power on their submarines (the K-19 incident) and their disposal of old submarine reactors hasn't been particularly tidy, at least in the recent past.
On the other hand, they do represent a repeatable design, and their sizing may not be out of bounds for a newer power sources. There is a schooling methodology in-place to train operators.
It would have been great (and oddly ironic) if either the USS George Washington or the USS Ronald Reagan could have reached Fukushima and provided the needed power from their own reactors. Others have commented on this site as to the merits of sea-based (floating) reactors for power production.
Ferdinand E. Banks 6.1.11
No, no Mike and Jim. I can't buy your reasoning.
Gen 3 reactors are quite satisfactory for the time being. There was an article in one of the French journals about their shortcomings, but now that they have been identified, they can be remedied. If the French can't the Chinese will. As it says in the Burt Bacharach tune 'What the World Needs Now', we don't need to go looking for mountains to climb and rivers to cross.
And as for nuclear powered submarines, there have been reactors in 500 of them in the last 50 years. And cost? Well, the hell with cost, because the issue is safety - that is, whether those reactors function more or less the way they should. If the crews on those submarines can maintain those reactors, after their enlistment is up give them jobs on land at four or five times the pay they get in the service. I got a wonderful vacation in Europe because fools thought there was going to be a war, and so maybe they should put those subs in a museum.
The basic problem here is that something that is easy peasy has been made difficult by half educated energy experts in our governments.
mike alexy 6.1.11
Regarding nuclear subs, key criteria include: endurance without refueling (multiple benefits including: time on station, mission range, refueling safety, location secrecy, etc.); no oxygen consumption thus greater mission secrecy, safety and flexibility; lower relative noise level; relative size (including fuel storage); performance (power and energy density); performance (ability to substantially and quickly modulate speed); independence of fuel source; safe operation. Historically, fuel cost savings was given little if any weight. If one considers that the cost of a Los Angeles class attack sub is roughly $2 billion, the S6G reactor cost itself is probably on the order of $200 million. Sound “cheap”? Consider what is not needed on a sub versus a commercial electric power plant.
And they are operated quite safely, although incidents have happened. See for example the USS Puffer.
Regarding Gen 3: yes it is the technology we have today and yes it is much better than the present fleet. Indeed, each of the various Gen 3 designs has attractive features. For the rest of this decade, they can and should be appropriately employed.
Having said that, there is no reason to “hang on to” LWR technology just because it is what we presently have. In addition to multiple potential technical and financial benefits, the Thorium fuel cycle combined with “alternative” plant designs provides a number of “intangible” benefits. In the interest of brevity, I will mention only two: the potential to disassociate nuclear power from weapons and waste issues in the minds of the electorate; the potential to “solve” the waste fuel issue from existing reactors.
Ferdinand E. Banks 6.1.11
Mike, thorium's day will come, but as for hanging on to the present technology, it gave us some of the lowest cost electricity in the world here in Sweden, and occasionally the lowest cost. Of course, we might already have something better if laws had not been passed forbidding research on nuclear technology.
The present situation with the Fukushima incident is absurd. There is a tsunami in Japan, and as a result perhaps the smartest woman politician in Sweden calls for the immediate closure of two reactors. What is it going to be next, and why?
Let me add that I don't know anything about nuclear subs and am completely uninterested, but they seem to be another of those technological masterpieces that are capable of infuriating our friends and colleagues with what Freud might have called 'physics envy'.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.3.11
Mike, A couple of points from your interesting posts. First Pebble Bed Reactors. Certainly this technology will get nuclear power away from the inefficient steam cycles we are coupled to at present. However while they offer significant safety advantages there are some drawbacks to widespread deployment both associated with the helium coolant gas. As you know helium has some very useful features in reactor technology however it is also a very expensive and rare gas and I am not convinced there is enough of it to deploy thousands of pebble bed reactors. Secondly it is not easy to contain and will leak out of just about any vessel. The molecule size is smaller than the hydrogen H2 molecule so under conditions of high temperature and pressure leak rates are likely to be high. The designs I have seen show helium used in a direct cycle with a gas turbine therefore no intermediate steam system. Not sure if any systems using an alternate gas have been proposed or developed but I see helium as an achilles heel for pebble bed reactors. Perhaps there are solutions to these difficulties but I do know that helium was proposed in the early Magnox designs but rejected because of availability. At the time the US controlled almost all of the available supply.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.3.11
Mike, Second point. I absolutely agree with you that reactor designs must be standardized and mass produced to be competitive. The industry (with the very notable exception of EdF and Areva in France) has never been able to do this. It has and still does insist on building singular designs that are unique rather than the same design repeated many times over. It seems we have not learned a single thing from Henry Ford and his mass production methods. It is time we did.
Since it is capital cost and the costs associated with borrowing money that are the main drivers of nuclear power plant construction it has never ceased to amaze me that the industry has not deployed mass production methods to bring down the capital cost and therefore the price of electricity. The use of passive safety features such as thermosyphoning and gravity are low cost highly reliable safety systems. Only a few reactors deploy these measures.The Canadian CANDU being one such type.
With low capital costs and cheap natural gas I can see many utilities with access to natural gas supplies opting for this rather than nuclear. So the industry had better get its costs down. I am sure it will survive Fukushima not sure it will be able to stop pricing itself off the market. Malcolm Malcolm
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.3.11
Jim, your note on nuclear powered ships is good but I would add a few points. Submarine reactors are small in comparison to land based units at about 30MW. They are also very very highly reactive cores which would never be permitted by the USNRC for commercial plants. These units can go years without refueling because they use highly enriched fuel suppressing the chain reaction by control rods. Such reactors could not be licensed for commercial operation. I think you can see that running out of fuel on a mission poses a bit of a problem for a submarine or an aircraft carrier for that matter. Of course there is no cost comparison worth making for these units because the military advantages are simply not available with any other technology. Nuclear submarines can and do operate for months at a time underwater - impossible for any other type of sub. With such advantages costs simply do not enter into the equation. Other nuclear powered surface vessels also have similar reactors to submarines and also allow deployment without refueling for years which is a huge strategic advantage over all other ship-borne power plants. They are all PWR derivatives.
So do not see much point in making cost comparisons with these plants since they could not be built on land anyway and it is their military and strategic advantages not cost that is the reason they are used. That is why only the military can afford them. For commercial shipping they are an economic non-starter.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.3.11
Bob, I agree with you that nuclear suffers from a massive negative image problem. Some is of its own doing while some is not. Nuclear power is the safest industry in the world by orders of magnitude. However if you were to ask Joe Public they would rate is as the most unsafe industry. Therefore there is a huge disconnect between reality and perception. But it IS perception that sells NOT reality. If the public perceives nuclear energy as unsafe then no amount of statistical evidence to the contrary will make a hill of beans difference.The public will forever associate anything nuclear with nuclear weapons and unless you want to train the entire population in nuclear physics to explain why that is impossible it will always be that way. The public - because it know nothing of the technology - relies on the industry to demonstrate its safety. However the industry has consistently and very publicly demonstrated the exact opposite. When we allow events like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima to occur because we want to save a few pennies the damage that does to the image already tarnished by the mushroom cloud of nuclear weapons tests is almost impossible to recover.
And yes as much as we all protest the vacillations of our political masters it IS they who make the decisions not us.
All we can do is to continue to operate our reactors with the UTMOST attention to detail and to safety. As an ex nuclear reactor operator it was drummed into my young head daily that reactor cores contain a massive amount of energy that must be treated with respect at all times.
Indeed what would it have cost for TEPCO to have placed the standby generators above the Tsunami wave height or waterproofed the enclosures so that they would be unaffected by water ingress. A lot less than it is spending now. It is no good saying that we have designed for the most credible events. Designs must cater for the worst possible event. It is really not that hard or expensive to do.
I don't think Fukushima will mark the death nell for nuclear as some would have us believe but as an industry we better wake up and smell the roses before the politicians (for risk of losing their very cosy positions) think nuclear is too much of a political gamble to make.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.3.11
Fred, With reference to Ms Merkel and her decree that Germany will be better off without nuclear - alas the hypocrisy of it is alarming even for a jaded old soul like me.
While Germany may not be operating any nuclear plants within its borders its economy will be humming along using French neutrons instead of German ones. The French will be running their plants flat out and making a bundle of Euros in the process. Mr. Sarkozy will no doubt be delighted to provide all the electrical power Germany needs. Ms. Merkel can state she is GREEN and get away with the lie and Mr Sarkozy can demonstrate a nice influx of Euros and BMW's in return for the nuclear electricity it provides.
Fred - the PERFECT political solution - that is until the French decide not to sell electrcity to Germany any more and the lights in the Reichstag go out.
Ferdinand E. Banks 6.4.11
I mentioned this business of the French selling electricity to the Germans ten years ago in the Bulletin of the IAEE - or something like that. I will mention your observations in the short paper I am writing now. I just dont get it. Why do people buy this Merkel brand of nonsense?
Scott Brooks 6.4.11
Ferdinand E. Banks 5.29.11
Good point on public perceptions. The public in general has been sold on the renewable prospects of the green energy alternates of solar, wind and some bio without consideration to actual yields, infrastructure costs, 24/7 availability, end of life cycle and disposals costs. The only thing renewable is the fuel, other costs are glossed over. And then there's logistic problems involving infrastructure costs.
Here is a good article that ventures into that and there are others.
So nuclear and evolving associated technologies seem to be the more viable to me. I was not aware of the helium problem that Malcolm Rawlingson brought out with the Brayton cycle. Promoters will have to be challenged on that.
Then there are the 4th Gen designs of metal and sodium salt passive cooling and heat transfer. One design was discussed at the following site.
Integral Fast Reactors: Source of Safe, Abundant, Non-Polluting Power
by George S. Stanford, Ph.D.
He claims they had a viable design up to 1994 when then President Clinton ended it, claimed it was unneeded and the scientists who worked on it were ordered to remain silent. But Jim Hansen (overlooking his lunacy on global warming), recently re-discovered the IFR. "Those who have been briefed on the IFR believe it is an essential technology we must develop to combat climate change and should be restarted immediately."
This reactor is promoted as being able to handle a wide variety of fuel types and can burn them up very effectively, thereby effectively solving the waste storage problem. You would have to go to the website to read all the issues covered in a Q&A format.
There is a LFTR thorium reactor design that looks good except it relies on the Helium Brayton cycle.
The other potential reactor designs is the Hyperion and tiny thorium reactors.
Development of Tiny Thorium Reactors Could Wean the World Off Oil In Just Five Years
Then there are exotic drawing board designs like the http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/22114/
TR10: Traveling-Wave Reactor
Regarding clean coal alternatives (the plant side) I read where a researcher in New Zealand came up with a working prototype of a carbon fuel cell that doubles the energy yield over a standard coal-steam powered generating plant.
So I think there are some worth while technologies to pursue over the wind and solar whose capability are being blown out of reality.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.4.11
Scott, There are indeed many nuclear reactor technologies that have been developed but I ask the simple question - what is wrong with the ones we have? They are incredibly reliable, designed to withstand just about anything mother nature or ourselves can throw at them and we have hundreds of years of Uranium supply. Thorium reactors are a great technology if we are running out of Uranium - but we are not. Fast breeder technologies are great if we were short of Uranium and had to recycle what we have - but we are not running out of Uranium.
I am also not quite sure of the link between reducing dependence on oil and the develpment of nuclear power. Oil is use mostly in the transportation sector where electricity has yet to make any serious in roads except in rail transportation. Electricity tends to compete more with natural gas rather than oil since most home heating systems are either gas or electrically powered. There are still some that use oil but very few nowadays due to cost.
What I do see happening is direct competiution between electricity and natural gas. Gas is both plentiful and cheap in North America which has had the effect of depressing LNG prices worldwide. Therefore as gas distribution (the achilles heel of natural gas) improves people will opt for natural gas furnaces and water heaters. In addition solid oxide fuel cell technology that converts natural gas to electricity in a home unit operating at over 60% efficiency will mean that only one fuel supply is required.
Getting off oil is likely going to happen by conversion of natural gas and natural gas liquids to pertroleum products not by substitution by nuclear power.
I do agree with you though that the public has been sold a bill of goods with wind and solar. Solar thermal may have a role as Len Gould often points out here but solar PV is far too expensive and will remain so for the foreseable future. Wind is simply too unreliable and of course when the wind fails to blow on schedule the power output is zero. With poor capacity factors of around 20 - 25% (laughable in the nuiclear industry) they can never be cost effective without Government subsidy. Remove those and wind and solar die on the vine.
But it will take time for the public to realise they are paying a very high prioce for a Government experiment. Wind generators have a lifespan of only about 5 years before major component replacement is necessary so ongoing capaital costs are also very high.
The real trend to watch is this. As experiments with the electricity grid continue to drive up electricity costs and natural gas costs continue to fall in the long term gas will be replacing electricity for all the large demands such as heating and cooking and will further replace electricity directly with SOFC or similar technologies. Grid electricity demand is about to drop off a cliff.
Len Gould 6.6.11
At home we've just recently switched from an electric cooktop range to a gas cooktop and electric oven. ;)
Jim Beyer 6.6.11
The pessimist in me thinks that the greens don't understand the reality of solar and wind (that is, its limitations) and the status quo types don't understand the reality of global warming. The nuclear power types don't understand lots of stuff:
They don't understand:
1. The practical cost to them of stupid mistakes like Fukushima.
2. The practical cost to them of having no long term storage plan (this affected what happened at Fukushima as well, given that two pools of spent fuel rods boiled off due to the tsunami.)
3. The bottom-line ACTUAL cost to them of not having a standardized plant to build. Absolutely ridiculous.
Fred, I should reiterate I have no problem with the nuclear technology on a theoretical or even practical level if it is executed soundly. It is not being executed soundly, at least not in the United States. Nor in Japan, apparently.
Ferdinand E. Banks 6.7.11
All the mistakes you mentioned about nuclear can and will be corrected. I can't say when though. If some of the people commenting on this topic on EnergyPulse were giving the orders, it would be soon I think. Note the word 'SOME'. I wasn't thinking of...
I was about to say some of the people, excluding my good self, but in point of fact I think that I have a contribution to make on the security side.
The point that you have made about not having a standardized plant to build is, as you say, ridiculous. Absolutely and completely. But where that matter is concerned, you can congratulate the anti-nuclear booster club. They have a greater influence on the high and mighty than many of us think possible.
Len Gould 6.7.11
"Sadly, big business USED to be about innovation. Now its about paying off Congress to get favorable legislation. " -- Excellent quote. Our problem is we have a high-technology industry being run by lawyers.
mike alexy 6.7.11
First, thanks for your observations. I absolutely agree with you regarding the technical challenges associated with using He. Although I have not done detailed research on the matter, that is the reason I would consider using N2 instead. It appears N2 would enable use of existing turbine technology with relatively minor modification. Further, we know how to produce reasonably tight seals for N2 and we certainly don't need to worry about it being in short supply. Yes, I know it has its own issues, for example C14. However, these issues appear solvable with relatively straight forward engineering.
Second, I agree with your observations regarding naval nuclear power and its (in)applicability to commercial use.
Third, I appreciate your concurrence (and similar comments from others) regarding the importance of design standardization and mass production. And, I absolutely agree that Fukushima is a good example of "penny wise & pound foolish". That being said, I do not agree that the only reason for breeders or Thorium is to address the potential of running out of U in the near future. I believe that these options (Thorium in particular) have the potential to change the entire discussion about nuclear and address "all" the major criticisms of the present technology and industry.
The nuclear industry inherently relies on an elite core of technical and scientific staff. Due to the complex and sensitive nature of present technology, much of the activity involved in nuclear energy is not known or understood by "the average person", nor will it ever be. Thus, they must place a high level of trust in the nuclear staff. When that trust is undercut, for example by failing for days to acknowledge that an incident occurred in Chernobyl (particularly after an incident that appears to have had a significant element of human factors in its cause) or by providing confusing and misleading information in Fukushima (particularly after preliminary indications are that safety may have been compromised due, at least in part, to financial concerns), then public support is also undercut. I believe that the Thorium cycle may provide the opportunity to rebuild that public trust by "starting with a clean slate", a slate that may enable addressing most, if not all, the standard issues aimed at existing technology.
Although it seems likely that the nuclear industry will not be killed by Fukushima, in the US and most of Europe it will certainly be impaired for an extended period. I believe that the Thorium fuel cycle may enable faster, more extensive and "less painful" nuclear industry growth.
Fourth, I was very interested in your observation regarding the potential for "grid demand to drop off a cliff". If natural gas does not substantially increase in price, in the USA this seems very possible during the next decade, certainly on a local or regional basis. I do however think you underestimate the impact of (certain) renewables and efficiency. In some ways, Hawaii is an extreme example of this. Its electric rates are quite high, 30+ cents /kWh (this is typical of most islands). At that price, and with commercial sized solar PV installations now possible for roughly $5/W (unsubsidized), payback in 5 to 10 years is already achievable. And, forecasts are for the price to continue downward. No, it won't provide 100% of the needed energy. But, it will help nudge the demand from the existing system "over the cliff". Similarly, many efficiency or load shifting actions are increasingly economically attractive. Not all of them and not in every location, but it is spreading. As an example, a recent analysis for a "mid-sized" publicly traded US restaurant chain indicates that off the shelf efficiency improvements to their existing facilities would provide a simple payback of roughly 4 years, saving them roughly $1 million per year in electricity costs. (The total savings potential is much higher but with an extended payback period.) When combined with fuel shifting and distributed generation as you propose with nat gas and sofc, the impact on grid demand could be substantial. Further, it seems quite unlikely that new load, e.g. plug in hybrids or electric vehicles, will have a meaningful impact before 2020 (other than in some very localized instances).
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.7.11
Mike, Thank you for a very well thought out response and I have no major disagreements with the points you make. You are correct that the Thorium cycle does not have many of the perceived drawbacks of current technology however I use the word perceived because although current technology is perceived to be capable of aiding and abetting nuclear weapons production it is in fact extremely difficult to do it. There is plutonium in spent fuel of that there is no argument. Getting it out is very difficult however and I am not sure how you would sell the argument for Thorium as strong as it is - when the public has no understanding of the concepts involved. If it is a nuclear reactor the pubic will already have preconceived ideas about it however hard you try to make the technical arguments. They all look the same from the street. I have said many times here that I support wind and solar where they are practical Hawaii is one such example. In my various visits to that beautiful place I recall there is always a breeze blowing - it is almost constant and quite strong on the higher elevations of Oahu. This is a good place for wind generation if you don't mind dotting the island with them. The electricity demand per island is relatively small and the islands cannot be connected easily therefore a good case for distributed energy systems can be made. Also again if my memory serves me correctly it is very very sunny for very long periods in Hawaii. A great place for solar thermal and solar PV. The alternatives are hauling coal from Australia or oil from the middle east. Thus large transportation costs for these fuels. So no argument from me that there is a case for solar and wind in island nations with relatively modest power demands where power costs are very high. This is a good application of the technology. Where I have serious disagreement is when these same concepts are applied to cold northern climates with none of the attributes of Hawaii or Samoa or the Cook Islands or Tahiti. Of course it makes perfect sense in those places for the very same reasons it makes absolutely no sense in Chicago or Toronto.
Like your idea about using N2. It does become radioactive in core which means you will need to shield the gas cycle as well as the turbine as the gamma doses may be too large during operation. It then becomes a whole lot more difficult to maintain and the simple concept becomes a maintenance nightmare I think. Any further thoughts on that. May not be so big a problem because it is a gas.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.7.11
Len, Your conversion to natural gas for cooking is a trend I see accelerating. Using natural gas for drying clothes, cooking and heating are the large demands that I anticipate being lost to natural gas at least in the household market. I expect it also to change in the commercial market too. The only large household demand that I cannot see a direct substitute for is Air Conditioning.
I was in Walmart yesterday and noticed that LED lighting is being sold. Now THIS technology (as opposed to CFL) is going to change things. No mercury very low power consumption 2 watts = 60 watts light output, work in the cold outdoors just as well as indoors. Fairly expensive but last for 35000 hours. At 8 bucks a pop - they are not cheap but the prioe will come down.. Need to do some costing calcs but back of the envelope it looks like it will pay off.
If we are not very careful I can see the electricity industry facing some very strong headwinds and the traditional assumption that demand will always grow may be very very wrong. We seem to regard the consumer as a bottomless pit of money and I think many are rethinking their electricity use which with the plentiful supply of natural gas on this continent may result in a sea change away from electrical watts to gas BTU's. If SOFC's come to fruition (and they will) many customers may see the advantage of disconnecting from the grid altogether. If that happens the grid could be dealt a mortal blow less customers to carry higher cost burdens. I hope it does go that route not but I see nothing the industry is doing to alter that course.
mike alexy 6.7.11
Malcom, With regard to the potentially impending cliff in grid based demand in the USA, you and I appear to differ only in potential extent and timing. Your mention of LED lighting being sold in WalMart is clearly indicative of future trends. Even more telling are economic payback analyses of particular LED applications. It now appears that LED downlighing retrofits for many commercial applications are "no brainers". Similarly, Cree claims their newest lighting product, an LED alternative to fluorescent troffers offer a one year payback for new commercial installations. There are a number of other examples, involving lighting but also involving non-lighting uses.
I even expect that the utilities themselves will contribute to reduced load on the grid in the short to medium term. A few simple examples include the replacement of existing T&D transformers with higher efficiency units; replacement of low efficiency spinning reserves / peakers with non-generation ancillary services such as frequency regulation; re-conductoring congested circuits with composite core aluminum conductors.
Frankly, I believe that for the rest of this decade the effect of these and similar changes will have far greater impact on the construction of new nuclear capacity. in the USA than Fukushima.
Regarding N2 "becoming radioactive" , you are of course correct. That said, others have already given this a bit of more formal thought. I'll provide more details on this in a comment in this thread later this week.
Ferdinand E. Banks 6.8.11
Mike A, what happens in the US and many other countries as a result of Fukushima is a question mark. There is one country, however, for which Fukushima doesn't mean beans, and that country is China.
The 'workshop of the 'world, the super industrial power of the future - CHINA - is completely uninterested in being made a fool of. They have real business to take care of.
Len Gould 6.8.11
mike: If you check it out, you should find that there has not yet been invented a lighting system more efficient that flourescent with electronic ballast. And typical HID downlights like metal halide, are very nearly as efficient. No revolution in lighting is going to make a noticable difference to grid load, once incandescents are finally completely replaced.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.8.11
Agreed Fred Fukushima has not and will not affect China one iota. Nor India or many other developing nations. They cannot save electrical energy when most of the country uses little or no electricity.
Len I agree that (in Western economies) lighting alone will not change grid load much but your shift to gas cooking is indicative of a growing trend to move large electrical household loads to gas. Once the big loads are moved only small appliances (with the exception of air conditioning) are left it will be easy to buy a small SOFC machine to power the rest. Then you are off the electricity grid and on the gas grid 100%. Only one standing charge instead of two. One bill instead of two. No add ons for this or that. When I do some simple math and divide the total electricity bill I receive by the number of kW-hours I use the number comes out at about 16c/kw-h on the most recent bill.
The point is that unless nuclear power plant construction gets its costs in line with reality the competition (gas) is going to hollow out the market both from a generation perspective and from a consumption perspective. The commonly held belief that electricity demand will always rise is going to change. There is no basis for that assumption except that it always has. That is the same folly that wrecked the US housing market isn't it - assuming demand and prices will always rise.
There is no law that says that is true and what I see is a convergence of a number of factors - technological and economic that are going to make nuclear power - at its present costing - singularly uneconomic to build.
Nuclear needs to sharpen its pencils and start designing plants that are mass produced, cheap to operate with low capital costs. If not - gas will be king.
Ferdinand E. Banks 6.9.11
Malcolm, gas MIGHT be king if shale gas delivers the goods. MIGHT. Otherwise forget about it. And there are some places in this old world of ours where shale is not going to deliver the goods.
Len Gould 6.9.11
This is interesting and perhaps relevant. GE uses integrated solar power-tower and a bit of wind generation to raise the efficiency of a CC gas turbine plant rather than as stand-alone generation. Being in Europe, I assume they're calculating efficiency based on HHV of gas, so this 70% should be compared to other pure gas plants 58% to 60%. Wonder how the cost works out?
"The power plant will be the first to integrate natural gas with two renewable technologies, and GE claims that the plant will be 70% efficient, an unheard of number in electricity production. Because the system shares components, costs for the renewable parts of the system are much lower than for stand-alone systems."
mike alexy 6.9.11
I agree that Fukushima impact on China, and multiple other countries, regarding construction of new nuclear plants seems likely to be limited. Generally, their base load requirement is not being met (in many cases, a gross understatement) and still growing (in some case, substantially) while, for various reasons, their options for providing such base load are constrained. I would not be terribly surprised by 100 new Gen 3(+) plants built globally between 2010 and 2030. I was attempting to address the situation in OECD nations in general and the USA specifically, in which the demand v. supply situation is generally quite different.
Ferdinand E. Banks 6.9.11
Like it or not, this is the story. Many, though not all, of our political and bureaucratic masters feel that their foot soldiers are pretty damned hopeless, and as a result it is unnecessary to tell them how many reactors need to be constructed, or how many urinals there should be in their vacation homes.
This nuclear thing tells the whole story. The TV audience cannot understand nuclear physics, nor can yours truly for that matter, but yours truly can understand nuclear economics, which informs me that all this talk about massacreing nuclear is a pack of lies or misunderstandings or something similar. Nuclear isn't going anywhere, and that's all there is to it.
mike alexy 6.9.11
Further to your most recent comment in this thread, I visited some folks in New Jersey over this last Christmas holiday (2010). They use oil to create hot water for heating their home and gas for cooking. “For fun” while I was visiting them I looked at the potential to use the Panasonic fuel cell to provide electricity and hot water. The economics don’t yet work, but they are “close”. Installing Panasonic’s present residential fuel cell system would presently cost $20,000+. Gas would cost less than half the price of oil, on which these folks spend nearly $3,000 per year. And, they too are paying roughly $0.16 per kWh for electricity presently. If the target price I have heard for the fuel cell is achieved, $5,000, a switch to such a system would be fairly easy to justify for these folks...with no subsidies. Panasonic, Tokyo Gas and others have been installing “trial” systems for a few years and now claim “thousands” of systems installed. I conjecture that installation of these systems in Japan will ramp-up substantially over the next year. Could Germany be thinking this way also as they propose ending their nuclear program? (I ask this with memories of the smell of oil from the boiler at my favorite Gasthaus.)
Widespread use of such generation would not only remove a meaningful grid load. It would also inject supply, perhaps “undesirably” so. In the New Jersey example above, on cold nights the home was warmed by the hot water yet there was very little electric load, likely less than 100 W, so the power generated by a fuel cell would undoubtedly have exceeded demand and would have been exported to the grid (as is allowed by New Jersey regulations).
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.9.11
I'm inclined to agree Fred that replacing nuclear base load would not be easy or quick but it appears that we do have lots of gas from both conventional gas wells and other sources such as shale gas and coal bed methane. Royal Dutch Shell is building a floating LNG platform to be positioned off the coast of Western Australia to extract gas from the fields discovered off that coast. Electric utilities seem to be convinced that demand destruction of their product is the way to go and are spending large sums convincing people not to use electricity which seems like complete lunacy to me.
The problem is they may very well be successful at it and many of the heavy electrical loads can easily be replaced by gas.
In short demand for grid delivered electricity and the large power plants that supply it could fall dramatically if utilities continue along the path of providing incentives not to use the product they make.
It will be interesting to see what happens to base load demand over the next few years.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.9.11
Mike, Very interesting. An Australian company is making SOFC fuel cells and is going through the process of obtaining approvals from the various authorities to market the system there. The point of all this is that while I consider nuclear power is the best long term option there are many politicians who are looking for ways to meet demand without using nuclear reactors. One way is to reduce demand. If successful these various technologies may reverse the ever increasing demand for electrical energy from grids and move it to local more efficient distributed generation.
mike alexy 6.9.11
First of all, my response to Malcolm was meant to expand on his observation, with which I agree, that grid load in developed countries may be near peak, and could potentially drop somewhat precipitously over the next two decades. Much of his observation was based on the potential for greatly expanded distributed generation. I think his insight in that regard is spot on, particularly as he expanded it in his subsequent comment. I did not mean to imply that LEDs would be the basis of a possible substantial change in grid load. Rather, I used them as a specific example of efficiency improvements I expect will reduce marginal grid load (energy and demand). In addition to the obvious impacts, such load reduction provided by LED lighting at a specific user location may facilitate the switch to distributed generation as suggested by Malcolm. (I believe this effect may be particularly true for the next generation of very high efficiency home cooling units.) Regardless of that, in an environment where the rate of increase of grid load has been declining for decades, and may now be 1.5% per annum at best, any marginal reduction in load can have significant impact on utility business models.
Regarding your specific observation, I agree that elimination of incandescent lamps is likely to have a more noticeable impact on grid energy requirements than upgrading commercial fluorescents lighting. I expect the ongoing conversion from T12 fluorescent lamps using magnetic ballasts to T8 lamps using electronic ballasts will also have an important (but different) effect.
In your comment you suggest, “mike: If you check it out, you should find that there has not yet been invented a lighting system more efficient that fluorescent with electronic ballast.”
Ok. Let’s check it out.
mike alexy 6.9.11
1. A key standard measure for lighting performance is efficacy, measured as lumens output per Watt input. By that measure, the still widely used T12 with magnetic ballast fixtures generally provide an efficacy of roughly 70, although it can be quite a bit worse. T8 lamps using electronic ballasts provide efficacies in the range of 80 to 100. But, these efficacy figures are based on initial output of the lamp. Over time output drops. After roughly 4000 hours (about 1 year of commercial use) output drops about 10%. After roughly 6000 to 8000 hours light output is down by about 20%. Note that this degradation is due to the lamp alone and does not include impact on light output due to degradation of the fixture or lens. During lighting design for a commercial facility, this degradation in light output is usually considered, frequently resulting in installing “extra” fixtures. 2. The (“drop-in replacement” for commercial fluorescent light fixtures) CREE CR24 specifications indicate efficacies ranging from 90 to 110, depending in the specific model. By this measure alone, this product is much better than the still very widely used T12 & mag bal. And, it is roughly 10% better than a T8 & elec bal. In the worst case it is probably merely comparable. However, there is a key difference in degradation in light output over time. After 4000 hours, output from such lamp will “barely” degrade. Even after 8,000 hours the degradation will still be in the range of low single digit percentages, versus roughly 20% for fluorescent. But it doesn’t end there. 3. Frequent on / off cycling can substantially degrade the life of the T12 & mag bal lamps. It can also impact the life of T8 & elec bal lamps. In contrast, such cycling appears to have no meaningful effect on LEDs. This feature is important because it facilitates the use of occupancy sensors on lighting in areas without continuous use. Although such a system does not result in a directly comparable efficacy improvement, it enables energy consumption reduction, potentially substantially depending on the application. 4. A similar argument can be made with regard to the ability to dim LED lighting. The CREE CR24 anticipates offering this feature later this year. LEDs in general are very amenable to such use. In contrast, T12 & mag bal fixtures effectively are unable to be dimmed. While some electronic ballasts in use with T8 lamps do offer that capability, it is usually a more expensive option and usually does not provide full range control. While this feature may seem trivial, increasingly buildings are being built (and being retrofit) to avail themselves of natural lighting. In these cases, sensors automatically dim the relevant light fixtures to ensure appropriate light levels while also reducing energy consumption. Once again, this energy saving capability is application specific and can not easily be quantified by a measure such as efficacy. 5. The bulk of the applications using such fluorescent fixtures are in commercial, industrial, government, medical or educational facilities. As such, use of these lights tends to contemporaneous, more or less, with peak grid loads. Thus, even if the energy reduction using LEDs versus fluorescent is “only” about 20%, it has the potential to help mitigate peak demand on the grid. 6. To the extent that such LED fixtures reduce waste heat, they also reduce air conditioning load. A substantial fraction, if not a majority, of the buildings that would use such lighting in the US are mechanically cooled much of the year. 7. One final point in this regard. After nearly 100 years, fluorescent efficacy has roughly doubled in the last few decades. LED efficacy, in contrast has improved remarkably in that time. Further, it seems unlikely that fluorescent technology will demonstrate substantial additional improvement. In contrast, CREE recently announced performance of a “hero LED” in their labs providing an efficacy that doubles the presently commercially available products. And, I rather doubt they are finished with improvements.
mike alexy 6.9.11
Having written the preceding, I do apologize for a bit of confusion. Lighting is not my area of expertise, and I intended to use the term downlighting in my original post with regard to lamps in cans recessed into ceilings, track lighting and the like rather than the metal halide lamps (MH) you mentioned . Even today, recessed ceiling and track lighting are frequently incandescent, although CFLs are increasingly being used. Their replacement by LEDs can already be cost effective and I believe will be broadly implemented by the end of this decade. As an example, in a preliminary analysis performed on a restaurant chain, replacement of ceiling lighting could save more than $1 million per year and provide a simple payback of roughly 3 to 4 years. Even in those cases where CFLs are used for such downlighting, LEDs are now more, or at worst comparably efficacious. Specifically, a “standard” screw-in, low wattage CFL will have an efficacy of roughly 40 (versus incandescent of roughly 15). A high wattage CFL will more likely offer efficacy of up to 75. The CREE LR6 specifications indicate efficacy up to 70. And, products such as the LR6 offer features such as: longer life; greatly decrease light output degradation over time; substantial insensitivity to frequent on-off cycling, etc .
Although MH high wattage lighting is, as yet, more efficacious than LED lighting, the other features of LEDs ensure that LEDs can be more energy effective for certain applications. For example, in certain warehousing applications continuous lighting is unneeded in specific sections of the warehouse. LEDs used in such areas can be dimmed, or even shut off completely, and then turned to full intensity when needed. Due to operating characteristics, such is not the case for any MH lamps about which I am aware. In those cases, even now LEDs may be cost competitive. And, the performance of the “hero LED” mentioned above, if commercialized, will place LED performance in a range directly competitive with MH fixtures.
It is important to realize that these improvements to efficiency are already happening, and not just in lighting, and that they are gathering momentum. It is also important to understand that even though any one of these changes will affect grid demand in the margins, cumulatively they can have a meaningful impact. This is especially true in an environment, such as that in the USA, where the increase in grid demand has been decelerating for decades and which may now be 1.5% at best for the rest of this decade. It is my belief that the marginal reduction in energy and demand growth provided by more efficient technologies over the next two decades can leave the grid and certain generation technolgies, particularly in certain regions, vulnerable to the type of distributed solutions envisioned by Malcolm.
Len Gould 6.10.11
Mike: Agreed all, but the point is the changeover to LED lighting isn't going to make a "huge" difference to any utility's calculations. I do agree that a viable small SOFC fuel-cell home boiler at a reasonable price (lower than $30,000, somewhere around $10,000) would be a serious difference over time. At that point, we need to get them hooked up with thermal storage and a very smart grid management system like my IMEUC (see articles this site) so they contribute to grid stability and economy, rather than disrupting it.
Malcolm Rawlingson 6.15.11
Mike, Len, Fully agree with what you say here. My point really is that utilities appear to have the idea that there is a captive market for electricity and that there is no substitute for the product they make (electrons). On this is based the notion that electricity prices can continue to escalate without impact on utility business models. That is - demand will always be there and it will always increase. I firmly believe that those times are changing. I used the LED example really as an illustration not to propose that LED's alone would change electrical energy consumption patterns.
If a 2 watt device can replace a 60 watt device with equal lighting quality and reliability then consumers will buy them. If their lifespan is as good as predicted (35000 hours) then they are cost effective.
Distributed energy solutions such as fuel cells are not yet at the right cost point where people will switch from the grid to these machines. But the key point is the technology is already there, it will be refined and the costs will come down and in the not too distant future consumers will have an alternative to grid supplied power.
As I noted earlier it is not just the cost of electricity that is rising. All of the peripherals such as distribution costs, debt retirement costs, grid loss costs are also all increasing. Sooner or later the high cost of electricity will converge with the lower cost of alternatives and then grid demand has the definite potential to drop right off a cliff.