Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Why are greens against plentiful energy?

  • "If you ask me, it’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it."
    Amory Lovins, environmentalist, Mother Earth News, Nov.-Dec. 1977
  • "Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun."
    Dr. Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and Dr. John Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, 1970, p. 323
  • "The prospect of cheap fusion energy is the worst thing that could happen to the planet."
    Jeremy Rifkin, environmentalist, Los Angeles Times, Apr. 19, 1989
  • Nuclear is the one technology around which the entire environmental movement is united against ...

    We thought that we were running out of fossil fuels. That would cause other technologies to become more cost competitive. And the mere running out of those fuels would limit human development, ..., because we simply would not have the energy. Fossil fuels ... we just keep finding more and more of it ... by the time we run out we would've destroyed the planet.

    This was another assumption that I think we got wrong: we also thought that as you provide societies with more energy it enables them to do more environmental destruction. The idea of tying us to the natural forces of the wind and the sun was very appealing in that it would limit and constrain human development. What we've actually found in recent decades particularly with what's happening in the developing world is that the more energy you give a society the less environmental damage they do, primarily because of lower birth rates. And that's the key driver. The areas with the highest population growth are those with the least amount of energy.

    My turn [away from anti-nukes] really came out of making my last film which was about the history of the environmental movement and seeing that the tools and the tactics of the movement that had been developed in the 1970s to tackle things like air pollution and water pollution, and had been very effective, had failed with climate change and the other thing I got to know a lot of environmental activists and leaders and, every single one of them, if I took them out to have a drink privately, ..., every single one of them thought that we were doomed. That there was no hope. That the climate crisis would over run everything and it was all over no matter what we did. And that really made me question things because if these people who were publicly saying that we can solve the problem with wind and solar and efficiency - quietly don't even believe that their own solutions work - why should I follow these people? Quite a number of them didn't have children - which I thought was quite interesting too. The only people I met on that journey, making that film, who had hope for the future were people like Stewart Brand who said there is a path out of this ... and it's using nuclear power.

    Robert Stone (podcast), once anti-nuke, now pro-nuclear power, file-maker, 2014

Patrick Moore:
Patrick Moore is the co-founder of Greenpeace, who left when they became too extreme for him.

The shift to climate being a major focal point came about for two very distinct reasons:
  • The first reason was because by the mid-'80s a majority of people now agreed with all of the reasonable things we in the environment movement were saying they should do. Now when a majority of people agree with you, it's pretty hard to remain confrontational with them, and so the only way to remain anti-establishment was to adopt ever more extreme positions. When I left Greenpeace, it was in the midst of them adopting a campaign to ban chlorine worldwide. Like I said "you guys, this is one of the elements in the periodic table you know. I mean, I'm not sure if it's within our jurisdiction to be banning a whole element"
  • The other reason that environmental extremism emerged was because world communism failed. The wall came down and a lot of peaceniks and political activists moved into the environmental movement bringing their neo-Marxism with them, and learned to use green language in a very clever way to cloak agendas that actually have more to do with anti-Capitalism and anti-Globalization than they do anything with ecology or science.

Greenwash - rose-tinted spectacles, tunnel vision, or just political propaganda.

In 1984, Christopher Flavin, the President emeritus of the Worldwatch Institute, said that in a few years’ time wind energy will not need to be subsidised. Booz, Allen & Hamilton wrote a report in 1983 saying the same thing. As did Amory Lovins and the American Wind Energy Association, who testified that California Energy Commission had predicted wind would soon be cheaper than all other electricity generation.

Despite being consistently wrong on renewable energy economics and viability, greens never admit to their mistaken forecasts. Why?

What's the reality? Physics Nobel Laureate and ex-US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told the New York Times that solar technology would have to get five times better to be competitive in today’s energy market.

  1. Will renewables become cost-competitive anytime soon?
  2. Christopher Flavin, "Electricity’s Future: The Shift to Efficiency and Small-Scale Power," Worldwatch Paper 61, Worldwatch Institute, November 1984, p. 35.
  3. Renewable Energy. The Power to Choose; by Daniel Deudney, Christopher Flavin; Worldwatch Institute, 1983
  4. Booz, Allen & Hamilton : Quoted in Renewable Energy Industry, Joint Hearing before the Subcommittees of the Committee on Energy and Commerce et al., House of Representatives, 98th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983), p. 52.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Comparing carbon emissions of wind and nuclear power

The wikipedia page is sourced from the IPCC [page 982].

Aggregated results of literature review of LCAs of GHG emissions from electricity generation technologies (g CO2 eq/kWh).

IPCC figures for Nuclear, Wind, Gas:
NuclearWindGasAv W+GAv W+2G
25th percentile88422215284
50th percentile1612469241317
75th percentile4520548284372

PS: The last 2 columns are mine. They are averages of wind and gas. Av W+G = Wind:Gas @ 50:50; Av W+2G = Wind:Gas @ 33:67

The wikipedia link only shows the 50th percentile. Estimates vary over ranges of 81 to 2 for wind, and 220 to 1 for nuclear. There's clearly vast disagreement among scientists, engineers, and economists over what the true values are. I think the IPCC should've done their own studies. At the very least, the IPCC should have excluded some of the outlier estimates. Afterall: this is one of the most important 'findings' of their report.

The carbon emission intensity figures one sees for wind always pretend it to be an independent source. It's never. Wind is totally dependent on fossil fuels. From time to time, UK wind drops to low levels throughout.

At times like that fossil fuels generate electricity or the lights go out. When calculating carbon emissions from wind I factored in the necessary fossil fuel (Av W+G, Av W+2G columns) The last 2 columns are carbon emission values for Wind and Gas combined. Carbon emissions (g CO2 eq/kWh) of 241 or 317 for wind and gas combined tell the real story.

Roll on the day when we get nuclear power using Gen IV reactors fueled on reprocessed spent nuclear fuel. This will considerably cut the nuclear power carbon footprint.

The large variation in emissions estimated from the collection of studies arises from the different methodologies used - those on the low end, says Sovacool, tended to leave parts of the lifecycle out of their analyses, while those on the high end often made unrealistic assumptions about the amount of energy used in some parts of the lifecycle. The largest source of carbon emissions, accounting for 38 per cent of the average total, is the "frontend" of the fuel cycle, which includes mining and milling uranium ore, and the relatively energy-intensive conversion and enrichment process, which boosts the level of uranium-235 in the fuel to useable levels. Construction (12 per cent), operation (17 per cent largely because of backup generators using fossil fuels during downtime), fuel processing and waste disposal (14 per cent) and decommissioning (18 per cent) make up the total mean emissions.

An alternative to the IPCC figures, considered superior by many, are those from NREL.

The economics of wind power

How much steel and concrete for the fabrication of windmills and nuclear reactors?

EPR nuclear reactorTypical modern windmill
Power1,600 MW2 MW
Coeff production (h/an)7000 h (80% of 8760 h)1750 h (20% of 8760 h)
Life time60 years15 years
Total production in TWh (over entire lifetime)670 TWh0.053 TWh
Tons of steel40,000150
Tons of concrete200,0001000
Tons of steel per TWh602830
Tons of concrete per TWh30018900

For the same amount of electricity produced, windmills require 50 times more steel and 60 times more concrete than nuclear reactors.

This is with the EPR reactor which is a rather "heavy" reactor (more steel and concrete than its’ competitors, such as the AP-1000).

EFN / Bruno Comby / 7 02 2007

Per Peterson provides a different comparison kinder to wind but using old wind technology. He compares energy cost of building plants: Nuclear, Wind, Coal, Natural Gas.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Simple Molten Salt Reactor, by Moltex LLP

Moltex LLP is a small UK engineering design company based in London. On 20 Oct Ian Scott of Moltex presented his SMSR, lasting 15 minutes, at a House of Lords meeting.

Ian was influenced by the very first Molten salt design from 1950, which placed molten fuel inside narrow cylinders. Ian's design has several such cylinders full of fuel inside a tank of coolant. Both coolant and fuel are molten salts. The fuel circulates in these cylinders by convection, as does the coolant in the tank. A 1 GWe reactor will have a tank about 8 metres in diameter. There are no pumps moving molten salts - circulation is all done by convection. The tank will be a nickel alloy, probably Hastelloy. No moderator either, so it's a fast reactor. Ian reckons the reactor will last many decades.

Stated advantages of the SMSR

  • unpressurized
  • the reaction is barely critical
  • no volatile fissile materials will be left in the reactor (gases will bubble out)
  • safe coolant
  • no pumps
  • materials are all standard industrial parts
  • cheap
  • fuel will be made from spent nuclear fuel, SNF, extracted by a "simple single-stage process".

Potential Issues:

  • The primary coolant is sodium chloride. Natural chlorine is a mixture of isotopes: mainly Cl-35, Cl-37. Cl-36 is present as a trace, and is radioactive, half-life = 300k years, undergoing mainly beta decay to Ar-36, S-36. The thermal neutron cross-section of chlorine-35 = 35.5 σa/barns [can't find the fast version, but the thermal spectrum is worryingly high]. It looks like quite a lot of neutrons may be lost to chlorine-35 absorption, producing chlorine-36 which is radioactive. Ian does not believe enough neutrons will be lost to make the reactor too inefficient, but the coolant will become radioactive. A way around this is to use isotopically separated chlorine-37 in the coolant salt. Using chlorine-37 alone, will prevent chlorine-36 forming and Cl-37 is stable against neutron bombardment. Several quite inexpensive routes are available for the separation of Cl-35 / Cl-37. The cost estimate has been done, still giving a very viable project.
  • The fuel tubes are a consumable item with an anticipated 5 year life, functioning in a similar manner to fuel rods and needing periodic replacement.

A thorium breeder?

Ian believes that a converter makes economic sense now. A breeder will have to wait till the future:

There would then be an economic case for developing a nuclear breeder version of the reactor (this exists now in outline), which would operate on the thorium fuel cycle. That outline design is far simpler, safer and cheaper than current designs for sodium cooled fast breeder reactors.
- [Moltex Energy LLP – Written evidence, section 29]

The best introduction to the SMSR may be references: 6, 4 [translated via Google], 2, 1, in that order. Refs. 2, 1, 3 contain all the detail.

  1. Slides
  2. Evidence to House of Lords, pages: "Moltex Energy LLP – Written evidence"
  3. Patent Application WO-2014128457-A1
  4. Blog on Moltex (in French)
  5. Moltex LLP
  6. Next Big Future - UK MSRs

Earth used to be much more radioactive in the past

In the regions of the former Soviet Union that were highly contaminated by the fallout from the Chernobyl accident, the increased radiation dose rate for local inhabitants is far less than the dose rate in areas of high natural radiation (see figure 2). In those places, the entire man-made contribution to radiation dose amounts to a mere 0.2% of the natural component.
Three and a half billion years ago, when life on Earth began, the natural level of ionizing radiation at the planet’s surface was about three to five times higher than it is now.2 Quite possibly, that radiation was needed to initiate life on Earth. And it may be essential to sustain extant life-forms, as suggested by experiments with protozoa and bacteria.3
At the early stages of evolution, increasingly complex organisms developed powerful defense mechanisms against such adverse radiation effects as mutation and malignant change. Those effects originate in the cell nucleus, where the DNA is their primary target. That evolution has apparently proceeded for so long is proof, in part, of the effectiveness of living things’ defenses against radiation.
Other adverse effects—which lead to acute radiation sickness and premature death in humans—also originate in the cell, but outside its nucleus. For them to take place requires radiation doses thousands of times higher than those from natural sources. A nuclear explosion or cyclotron beam could deliver such a dose; so could a defective medical or industrial radiation source. (The malfunctioning Chernobyl reactor, whose radiation claimed 28 lives, is one example.)
Figure 2. Average individual global radiation dose in the 1990s from nuclear explosions, the Chernobyl accident, and commercial nuclear power plants combined was about 0.4% of the average natural dose of 2.2 mSv per year. In areas of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia that were highly contaminated by Chernobyl fallout, the average individual dose was actually much lower than that in the regions with high natural radiation. The greatest man-made contribution to radiation dose has been irradiation from x-ray diagnostics in medicine, which accounts for about 20% of the average natural radiation dose. Natural exposure is assumed to be stable. The temporal trends in medical and local Chernobyl exposures are not presented. (Based on data from UNSCEAR.)
  1. Radiation risk and ethics, by Zbigniew Jaworowski, Physics Today, 52(9), Sep 1999, pp. 24-29
  2. P. A. Karam, S. A. Leslie, in Proc. 9th Congress of the International Radiation Protection Association, International Atomic Energy Authority, Vienna, Austria (1996), p. 12.
  3. H. Planel et al., Health Physics 52(5), 571 (1987).

Monday, 6 October 2014

Best UK Electricity Policy - wait for molten salt reactors

No need to waste more money on wind, nor Hinkley C. Molten salt reactors will arrive soon. We can burn cheap fracked gas for electricity till then. The IMSR is

8 years to demonstration reactor
- David LeBlanc, 2013.

Q: What is the IMSR
A: The Integral Molten Salt Reactor is designed by David LeBlanc for Canadian nuclear startup Terrestrial Energy. It will be a Gen IV small modular reactor (SMR). A variation of the Denatured Molten Salt Reactor (DMSR), dating from 1980. By applying the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid), the IMSR seeks to quickly pass regulatory approval. It uses:

  • LEU fuel (5% to 10% U-235 enrichment)
  • thermal neutrons, but with "substantial U-238 fast fission bonus"
  • Conversion ratio = 0.9
  • Has a much smaller waste footprint (even with no reprocessing)
  • Is orders of magnitude safer due to intrinsic, passive safety systems, that prevent any major accident
  • Operates at normal pressure, so preventing any possible air-borne contamination (as happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima). A total disaster scenario would only see local contamination.
  • Uses denatured fuel, so avoiding all proliferation risks
  • Uses only ⅙ the fuel of a LWR for same power output.
  • Will be able to generate electricity costing less than 1¢ / kWh (unit)
  • It is much cheaper to build than current reactors. The reactor vessel is much smaller and thinner. It does not need a huge, 8 foot thick, concrete dome around it. It will not need a spent fuel pool. Reactor operation is simpler and safer. Overnight costs should be < 13% of Hinkley C, with a construction time of less than 3 years per module.

Q: Is it real?
A: Yes. Terrestrial Energy have industrial partners and a business plan to guarantee finance from Canadian industrialists for industrial heat applications.

Q: How does the IMSR perform so well?
A: The key is minimal parasitic loss of neutrons

  • No internal reactor structure
  • No burnable poisons
  • Less neutron leakage
  • ½ of all fission products and all important Xe-135 leave due to Off Gas system
  • Comparing parasitic losses:
    3% - 5%

Q: Do we have enough uranium to fuel it?
A: Yes. There's thousands of years worth of easily accessible uranium available to fuel enough IMSRs to make all the planet's electricity. Although current 'known uranium reserves' are limited, we can find huge reserves of less concentrated ore. Even at a cost of $300/kg (many times the current world price), IMSR electricity will still be cheap

At the simplest, it can run without reprocessing for 30 years.

A better run mode will reprocess fuel after 10 years to remove fission products [using cheap pyro- / electro- / vacuum distillation processes which are ~ 1/7; the cost of PUREX]. Whether or not reprocessing will be cost effective is a separate issue. PUREX ~ $2000/kg of fuel produced. If simple reprocessing was 10% of that: $200/kg, it would need to compete with Uranium currently costing $78/kg. Reprocessing has other advantages - lowering the amount of waste, removing TRU from waste and putting it back into the reactor.

IMSR Cost estimates ($ / MWh):
------ IMSR ------
Old NuclearCoalNew LWRfirstmodule
Operating, Maintenance, Labor/Materials6.
Pensions, Insurance, Taxes1.
Regulatory Fees1.
Property Taxes2.
Decommissioning and DOE waste costs5.
Administrative / overheads1.

Table copied from Nextbigfuture, who think the IMSR can get down to 0.86 cents per Kwh.


The myth of subsidised carbon fuels

The myth that fossil fuels are subsidised by government has become common sense in recent years. It's based upon a deliberate confusion between subsidy and tax. A tax is money taken from person A and given to person B. It's most commonly understood in terms of taxes we pay the government: VAT, NI, Income tax, fuel duty, ... Another way to understand tax is in terms of the rentier concept. A rentier is a person collecting tax. In this 2nd definition, a landlord can be seen as taxing his tenants. A subsidy is more complex than tax. Subsidies may be a direct payment made from government to industry. An example of such may be loan guarantees, to the extent that the guarantee lowers the rate at which capital is borrowed, or reduces insurance that may have to be taken out. A subsidy can also result when government regulations mandate that one industry makes payments to another. Such examples happen in electricity generation. Wind and solar electricity having preferential access to the grid at guaranteed prices. This forces higher costs other generators. For example CCGT (gas) plants must be frequently turned on and off as wind generation rises and falls. It takes 50 minutes or so for such a gas plant to warm up before it is generating electricity. CCGT owners pay additional costs in reduced efficiency of fuel, labour and capital.

Let's compare actual taxes on fossil fuel with supposed subsidies

With rough calculations I calculate the UK taxing carbon fuels, at least, 3 times more than it subsidises them.

These are UK estimates.

Various UK taxes on fossil fuel

£ bn
Fuel duty (2009):25.89
VAT on duty (2009):3.88
Carbon tax (2013):2.28
VAT on electricity (2012):0.75
Total tax32.81
Subsidies (2013):11.25
Tax - subsidy21.56

Some assumptions:

  • 27.30% = percentage of carbon in CO2
  • UK carbon tax = £18/tonne of carbon.
  • Fossil fuel subsidies represent 0.45% of GDP (BBC)
  • UK GDP ~ £2500 bn.
  • 75% of UK electricity is generated from fossil fuels
  • VAT on electricity is 5%, payable only by domestic users.

2013 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions & estimated carbon taxes

(MtCO2)C tax (bn)
Other solid fuel10.20.050
PS: I have little idea how the BBC work out that fossil fuels are subsidised to the tune of 0.45% of GDP. A big part of the subsidy seems to be for taxes which we don't pay! What will the bureaucratic newspeak machine tell us next: that the UK subsidise the labour market by X% because British workers don't pay 100% income tax?
In the UK, for example, value added tax (VAT) on gas and electricity is 5% rather than the 20% charged on most other goods
Let's remember that energy is both the master commodity, and a major factor in determining labour productivity. Energy taxes are a direct tax on the whole economy and upon future productivity increases. [see: How did we British get our empire?]


Sunday, 5 October 2014

Ian Fairlie Fukushima Speech

I'm posting this here because Dr. Ian Fairlie represents himself as a serious scientist. There are numerous wrong statements below.

  • What kind of scientist calls the rest of the scientific community: IAEA, WHO and UNSCEAR - denialists?
  • After reactor shutdown, there were no criticalities
  • A criticality is not the same as a explosion
  • Zirconium alloy cladding in fuel ponds did not catch fire

Chernobyl Congress (IPPNW conference) Berlin. 9 April 2011, Ian Fairlie speech

Good morning,

I'm going to deviate a little bit from my talk this morning, partly because I've just been told I've got 10 minutes and partly because I don't want to over-egg the cake. I think most of you have got the message that Chernobyl was far more serious and ... ... ...

I come from Britain. I would like to pay tribute to Germany. I feel glad to be back in a same country, in many ways. I noticed, in the last few weeks, that you have had some lander elections in Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg, where the reigning pro-nuclear party were kicked out and the greens and SDP were put in. Congratulations [makes clenched-fist salute, followed by audience cheers]

What's actually happening is that we have a nuclear government in Britain, who are nuclear diehards, who are denying what's going on at Fukushima. Interestingly, they put up a chief scientist who has said: "nuclear melt downs - don't worry, don't worry", he said. At the same time, the British government were sending 20 charter jets to Tokyo to take out all British nationals. Well, I have a phrase about that and it's this: "don't believe a word what the government says, believe what it does", always, always. What's happening right now in Britain is that the government is planning full steam ahead to build nuclear power stations, to be built by your wonderful German companies RWE and EON. And I say to the government, no no, no no, don't send us your nuclear power companies send us you green politicians instead. Because we could do with them in Britain, we really could. Anyway that's the politics of it over with, a wee bit.

I know I'm moving away from this, what I'm supposed to talk about. But, to me, Fukushima is more important. Basically we've been overtaken by events. And when this [conference] was organized, Fukushima hadn't happened. So I'm going to spend my remaining 5 minutes talking about a little bit about what I know about Fukushima. I've cleared this with the chair, she said fine. I get about 100 emails a day concerning Fukushima. It's almost information overload. But I'm going to give you the basic bits of information that I see gleaning, coming from this.

I think that Fukushima is already more serious than Chernobyl, already. And it's going to last for a long time. Already IAEA and Japanese Tepco officials are saying that we have to look to the long term on this they said. 3 to 4 years that the accident is going to continue. Their words not mine. 3 to 4 years. [feigned laughter] That's crazy. Chernobyl was over and done with in 10 days in terms of emissions from the reactor. 10 days. Well here we are and we're all of 35 days in and counting.

What I see in there, in 4 of the reactors and their fuels ponds. That's reactors 1, 2, 3, and 4. Fukushima Daiichi. There are meltdowns in at least 2 of the reactors. And by meltdowns that means that the fuel has already gone through the reactor vessel, and has probably gone through the containment vessel too, and into the building floor and it's only a matter of time before it goes into the soil. We have already seen fuel cladding fires in the fuel ponds. In other words, each of the 4 stricken reactors. I'm not talking about reactors 5 and 6. We'll leave them to one side. They are clad in zirconium and what's happening is that the fuel ponds have, in at least, 2 cases 3 and 4, the fuel ponds, the water has drained out, exposing the fuel and the cladding has caught on fire. The cladding is made of zirconium and it reacts with air spontaneously. And you have fires. When the fuel starts burning you have direct ejection of fission products and activation products straight into the atmosphere, and that's what has been happening there. That's why the radioactivity contaminates the surrounding area.

In addition to that it's even worse. There have been a number of scientists looking at the official data reckon that there have been criticality ...

Criticality means that when the configuration of the fissile material comes together enough for a sudden flash or explosion and release of vast numbers of neutrons which is the reason why there have been sudden huge increases in radiation exposing nuclear workers. The poor nuclear workers there. Criticality, we don't think that happened at Chernobyl. We're not sure but we don't think it did whereas it seems to be happening at Fukushima. In addition that there's been thousands of gallons (liters) of radioactive water discharged into the sea. There's been huge amounts of air emissions to the point whereby, in children's playgrounds and schools about 60 to 70 kilometres away we seeing annual doses - hourly doses (which if you worked it up to an annual dose) would be 250 mSv per year. That's ghastly. This is in children's playgrounds. The situation in Japan is, I think, is probably as worse if not worse than Chernobyl right now, but it's going to get worse, I think. Many people have said that it's going to get worse than better.

Already in Tokyo, the population of 30 million, in the greater population area, the situation is very dire. Most young women of child-bearing age have gone. Have fled to the south, and south-west of the country. The car manufacturing companies cannot continue to work because their workers, who are following their wives, have moved to the south west of the country. It's not admitted, apparently, but according to anecdotal ... the big car companies have all closed down. This is serious. We're coming to a situation of societal breakdown, in many ways. I feel very, very vexed and sorry for the Japanese society. They deserve better than this.

Yet what do we see in our countries around the world. Our British government is venal. It refuses to learn about what's going on here. It has announced an enquiry into the matter but it still says that does not matter. Not matter what the enquiry says we are still going to go ahead with the nuclear power program in Britain. Well, as the previous speaker said, do these people think that we are crazy. Who are stupid here. Is it the politicians who are stupid rather than our electorates? I'm very angry about this. And all I can say to you is that I hope that in Britain, we have some local elections coming up and national elections in Wales and Scotland coming up. I hope the government get their comeuppance as they are sadly due it. I'll just finish off by saying that I have hope for the future. I hope that we will learn from the sad, sad, events at Chernobyl, and now that they have been reinforced by the even worse events in Fukushima, politicians will actually wake up and realize that the nuclear technology is a failed technology and that we should abandon it. Not just in Germany but throughout the world. There is one green-lining, or shall I say silver-lining to this and that is that despite what the IAEA and the WHO and UNSCEAR have said in their denials of the effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima there is a silver-lining and it's this that tens of thousands, seventy or eighty thousand people throughout the world in about 1000 organizations have organized themselves into Chernobyl children's projects. CCPs. And what they do is, they organize holidays and healthcare for the children in the affected areas. My heart goes out to them. I help them free of charge. I think that what they are doing is wonderful. I think their actions are a silent rebuke to the official pro-nuclear organizations in this world.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

"240 people died as a consequence of the Windscale accident"

I looked into the claim that "240 people died as a consequence of the Windscale fire". I couldn't find any evidence for it.

John Garland said: "The reassessments showed that there was roughly twice the amount than was initially assessed."

This would have also impacted the numbers of cancers that the accident would have caused, said the authors.

Previously, it was thought that the radiation would have eventually led to about 200 cases of cancer, but the new contamination figures suggest it could have caused about 240.

The claim of 240 was made by Rebecca Morelle, a BBC journalist (ref 1). If John Garland made that claim it must've been in ref 2 (unavailable online)

The radioactive fallout at Fukushima Daiichi was 1000 times that of Windscale. No one died from radiation at Fukushima Daiichi. 240 excess cancer deaths due to Windscale looks like a made up number to me. 'Made up', as in extrapolated from a mathematical model. That model being LNT (linear no-threshold) extrapolated to zero. The 240 figure is also reported in a physics newsletter (ref 3). Given the truth of the LNT model is entirely open to dispute, the 240 estimate must also be disputed. 0 looks like a more likely figure to me. LNT is only controversial when it extrapolated to zero. At low radiation levels: there's weak evidence to support LNT, and strong evidence to refute it.

Ref 4 gives a good description of that cause of the fire.

  1. BBC news, Rebecca Morelle
  2. Atmospheric emissions from the Windscale accident of October 1957, Atmos. Environ. 41 3904–20; Garland J A and Wakeford R 2007 DOI: 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2006.12.049
  3. Institute of Physics, Environment Physics Group, Newsletter, Nov 2007
  4. The Windscale reactor accident -- 50 years on, 2007 J. Radiol. Prot. 27 211, doi:10.1088/0952-4746/27/3/E02

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Electricity Dispatch | capacity credit | firm rating

Another copied PatLogan post
PatLogan Viridis

Wind most certainly isn't the back-up.

Anyone who's ever worked around grid management will tell you that the suitability of a generating technology as a back-up source is a function of it's ability to be "dispatched" (i.e. called on) on demand.

Not least because if a back up can't be called on reliably when needed, you need a back-up for the back-up.

The measure of dispatchability is "capacity credit" or "firm rating" (the latter is the UK term). It basically says that if I've got "n" megawatts of that technology, what proportion of it am I 90% likely to be able to rely on if needed.

For conventional technologies (CCGT, hydro, nuclear, coal) it's basically the lifetime availability of the plant, so around the 90-95% mark.

For variable renewables, it's never higher than the capacity factor. Onshore wind's capacity factor tends to be about 27% in the UK. Firm rating (depending on the site) is typically 8-14%. Solar's capacity factor in Germany is about 9%, suggesting a firm rating of 5-6%

If I've got 10,000MW of solar, it means I can rely on it to provide 50-60MW operating as a back-up.

Here's a thought. If I came to you and sold you car insurance that had a 6% of paying off whem you needed it, would you buy it?

WilliamAshbless: This doesn't make sense. The UK has ~ 10.5GWe of wind 'capacity'. Wind has been delivering an average of about 5% of rated capacity for an entire week now. Sometimes ,last week, it's dropped well below even 5% [e.g. it was 4% earlier this morning]

PatLogan: It's a probability based number, William - the basic definition (although it tends to get more complicated in applications) is what proportion of rated (i.e. nameplate) power am I 90% likely to get if the plant is called on in any given half-hourly period.

So yes, there will be periods when available capacity is below that, just as there'll be others when it's higher. 90% of the time, I'd be able to get that amount or higher.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Possible new UK nuclear builds (by PatLogan) ~ 17.7GWe

Another PatLogan repost from the Guardian CiF



at the moment, we've got three consortia (and probably a fourth) each putting up several hundred millions to buy the rights to develop one or more of the UK licensed sites.

  • EdF:CGNPC:CNNPC:Areva for Sizewell and Hinkley Point ( in the ratio 51:20:20:9. Each site is 2x1600MW EPR
  • Hitachi (100%) for Wylfa and Oldbury. Each site is 2x 1300MW ABWR
  • Toshiba (60%) and GdF-Suez (40%) for Moorside The site is 3x1100MW AP1000
  • and it's looking increasingly likely that a CNNPC:CGNPC consortium is buying Bradwell to build at least 2x1400MW CAP1400

you were saying?



Actual demand for electricity in 2012 was 35.8GW on average, and 57.49GW at its peak. Planned new nuclear reactor builds will generate 15.525GWe, with a possible addition of 3GWe more (at Bradwell). By 2024 all other nuclear plants apart from Sizewell B should've closed. Add Sizewell B at 1198 MW. Apply a 90% capacity factor, the UK could expect 17.008 GWe of nuclear electricity by the late 2020s.

ConsortiumSiteLocaleType#Capacity (MWe gross)Start
EDF EnergynHinkley Point CSomersetEPR2165033002015
EDF EnergynSizewell CSuffolkEPR2165033002017
HorizonWylfa NewyddWalesABWR2138027602019
NuGenerationMoorsideCumbriaAP1000 3113534052020
HorizonOldbury BGlosABWR2138027602025

Current nuclear power gross capacity is up to 9190 MWe, with 490 MWe (Wylfa) due to close before the end of 2015.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Another copied PatLogan post : Does Geothermal make sense in the UK?


No, I stated that 75% of ELECTRICITY comes from conventional hydro - which it does, and leaves geothermal generation as a minority contributor to a small overall total volume of generation. After al, your original question was about

drilling down deep enough to hit hot rock in order to power the steam turbines in a power station

You do understand the difference between total energy use and electricity usage, don't you?

So, let me explain the difference between the sorts of conditions that you need for generating power from geothermal, as opposed to just getting hot water.

Power station steam needs to be hot and dry - and chemically pure. If you have droplets of water in it the blades of the turbine get eroded, and if you've chemicals like sulphur in there, you'll get etching and corrosion. That latter means it's generally a very good idea not to take water/steam direct from the heat source, but to pass it through heat exchanger - which means a loss of temperature of some tens of degrees.

The minimum temperature you'll realistically get way with at the turbine inlet is maybe 200C (otherwise you get those droplets) - and ideally 250C+

Even in Iceland the number of sites with that sort of conditions is limited. But Iceland's geologically very unusual - sitting on the North Atlantic Ridge, with all it's volcanic activity

In the UK, the general temperature lapse rate is about 25C/Km. That is, to get 250C temperatures, you need maybe a 10Km bore. That's deep - a lot more than is routine in oil and gas exploration - but not infeasible.

More than that, you need to transfer a lot of heat from the rocks to whatever's the working fluid. That means you need much more surface area than you get from just the bore walls.

So, when this was tried at Cambourne School of Mines, they came up with a system where you drilled two bores some metres apart (one for the fluid to go down, one for it to come up). They then needed to "frack" between the two - the idea being the fractures give a path for the fluid to flow through and pick up heat on the way. When Cambourne did it, they used explosives - you can't use water at pressure as in fracking for gas, as the rocks are too hot.

They found a number of problems; first the cost of drilling. Second, the crack systems run in all directions from the bottom of the bore, and a lot of the fluid gets lost. Third, the amount of energy to pump the fluid through the crack system is high. Fourth, the crack system tends to close up, through a mixture of plasticity in the hot rock, and chemicals leached from the rock tend to deposit in restrictions in the cracks and blocking the flow.

End result, it's a phenomenally expensive way of getting small amounts of power. At current costs, it'd be north of even tidal/wave which gets CfD support of £305/MWh.

As to "Are you a woman ?"

One of the brightest people on my BSc course was a female. She finished up as technology director for one of the world's biggest bulk chemical manufacturers.

I suspect she's got the edge on you for clarity of thought and brains....

PatLogan - Comparing Solar vs Nuclear (EPR) costs


Perhaps you should note that the original Feed-in Tariff of 42p/KwH has be halved.

It has. and strangely enough, I the wake of that the rate of new installations has collapsed.

The strike price for the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point is over 3-times that.

You'r a factor of ten out. £92.5/MWh is for 1000 KWh, not 100. So the price is 9.2p/KWh. So, the solar cost is about 3 1/3 x the Hinkley price. Of course, the solar price omits the costs of either sles torage or back-up generation. Solar requires 100% back-up; nuclear about 10-15%

They take the form of tax breaks

In fact, even larger tax allowances apply to renewables. Investment in renewables schemes attracts "Enterprise Investment Allowances" for individual investors at 30%. From the corporate perspective, all capital expenditure in renewables generation falls under "Enhanced Capital Allowances" - a far more generous regime that applies to any other form of generation, or for investments in oil and gas. In fact it allows capital investment to be charged against tax at up to 100% in the first year.

relief from liability for cosequent environmental and health issues

Similarly, intermittent renewables are exempt from penalties under the "Balancing and Settlement" code - i.e. from the costs they impose on the rest of the system.

PatLogan: Guesstimate for gas-fired CCS project

Another post copied from Guardian CiF comments by PatLogan

Hard to say exactly; there aren't any gas-fired CCS projects I'm aware of. But we can do some "rule of thumb" guesstimates.

Probably the best approach is to look at an IGCC (a coal gasification based generation technology) CCS plant. Probably the furthest advanced example is the Kemper County plant in the US.

An IGCC plant is basically made of three components: a coal gasification unit (which makes the coal into CH4), a gas reformer (which converts the CH4 into separate streams of H2 and CO2) and a CCGT gas turbine optimised to burn hydrogen. The H2 from the reformer goes to the turbine, the CO2 to sequestration.

Were you to use gas, obviously the gasification stage would be redundant. The reforming stage would still be required.

Kemper's costing about $5.5Bn for a 580MW plant which can capture about 65% of the carbon content of the coal. In the US a CCGT unit without CCS would typically come in at about $800-1Bn/GW.

So, crudely scaling Kemper to 1GW gives us $9.5Bn/GW, of which something like $1.2bn will be for the adapted CCGT.

That gives us $8.3Bn for the "balance of plant". If we crudely assume that's split half and half between the reformer and the gasifier, and that as this is "FOAK" (First Of A Kind) plant that costs double what a series build unit would cost. we get about $2.1Bn for a series built reformer capable of supplying a 1GW unit.

That has the whole system coming in at about $3.1Bn - 3 to 3 1/2 times the cost of a standard CCGT. for a comparison, that's not dissimilar to the cost of an AP1000 PWR unit.

The system also absorbs some of the output of the plant - we'll assume about 20% for a gas fired CCS CCGT. That equates to a 25% increase in fuel usage.

The underlying cost of power from a CCGT is usually about 80% fuel and 20% fixed (operations, capital and finance). In the UK gas can currently produce at breakeven at about £60/MWh.

So, gas cost is about £48/MWh at the moment, and other costs about £12.

On the basis of the above, you'd expect gas costs per MWh of output to rise to about £60/MWh, and other costs to rise to about £42/MWh - giving a total of £102/MWh.

Which is somewhat more than the Hinkley C strike price, or that for new onshore wind. But it's predicated on a few key assumptions/omissions

1 - that the technology can be matured to a stage where series build cost reductions can be reached.

2 - that gas prices stay where they are.

3 - that there's no carbon cost - I'd expect a system like the above to outperform Kemper in terms of carbon capture, but not to approach 100% - I'd guess in the 80-90% range, giving CO2 output of 45-90g/KWh. It'd be a small contribution, though.

4 - I've not the faintest idea of the costs of the sequestration system - compression, piping and disposal in geological formations. I'd be staggered if it came in under £5/MWh, surprised at £10, though.

So, not easy to develop, and certainly not cheap!

Comparing wind and nuclear raw material costs (repost of Guardian CiF PatLogan post)


There are some really interesting comparisons around materials usage between wind and nuclear.


A typical 2.5MW land-based turbine uses about 390 tonnes of steel and 1100 tonnes of concrete (that's ignoring access roads) It's got a 20-25 year operational life, and (in the UK) will average about a 27% capacity factor.

Output over life is

(2.5*25*0.27) = 16.875 MW-years.

So that's 23.1 tonnes of steel per MW-year and 65.2 tonnes of concrete per MW-year.

A 1620MW EPR (the most resource intensive of the UK new-build designs) . That's got a 60 year design life, at a capacity factor of 90%.


(1620*60*0.9) = 87,480 MW-years

It uses 205,000 cubic metres of concrete (at about 2.4 tonnes/cubic metre 492,000 tonnes- ) and 71,000 tonnes of steel.

That's 5.6 tonnes of concrete per MW-year, and 0.81 tonnes of steel per MW-year

In other words, the wind option uses about 13 times as much concrete, and 28 times as much steel per unit of output over life.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Business for Britain

Business for Britain, produced a report called Energy policy and the EU - How a better deal could bring down the cost of energy and save jobs. Since 2003 the cost of UK retail electricity has more than doubled: from 4p/kWh in 2004 to 10p/kWh today [page 14]. BfB blame much of the price rise on EU regulation. Gas prices have seen similar price rises. A further 33% increase is projected by 2030. These price rises will cripple UK industry, especially energy intensive industry such as steel, chemicals, ceramics, glass and aluminium. We will not be able to compete with India, China or the USA which have the lowest world-wide electricity prices. EU regulation is the main reason for the price rises. By regulation BfB mean EU mandated carbon taxes and such. Page 21 has a cost breakdown where they factor the contribution from 12 regulatory sources. Some of these regulations may have reduced costs but most have increased costs dramatically. 2 regulations leading to highest cost increases are:

  • EU Renewable Energy Directive
  • EU Climate and Energy package

The immediate effect of these regulations has been a forced phase out older cheap coal-burning electricity plants and price increases as energy companies raised prices to cover future investment. Wind-farms and domestic solar panels are subsidized and energy markets deformed to ensure that wind suppliers benefit even when they generate no electricity. Coal and gas generated electricity has also risen in price because such generators must be kept on standby (burning fuel) just in case they're needed; because wind is intermittent. Money from price increases has been invested in unworkable alternative zero-carbon energy sources. The money Britain has invested in solar and wind generation has been a total waste.

There's no doubt in my mind that BfB have a point. We never needed to increase prices as far as we've done. A small carbon tax could've generated a few billion sterling per year and the funds invested in R&D for Gen IV reactor designs such as the IFR and molten salt reactors. The overriding weakness of the BfB document is in offering no alternative pathway for a European energy future. The phrase "global-warming" is only mentioned once in their report - when referencing another document. They conclude that energy prices must come down (by deregulation) but don't have a policy to tackle global warming and ocean acidification.

I have no problem with a carbon taxes provided they are not too high and the money is invested in R&D for low cost zero-carbon energy. Let's consider the technologies we could be investing R&D in:

  • fuel-cells
  • energy storage
  • synthetic fuels
  • CCS
  • biomass
  • biofuels
  • onshore wind
  • offshore wind
  • solar CSP
  • solar PV
  • tidal
  • wave
  • geothermal
  • hydroelectric
  • Gen IV fission breeders
  • Gen IV fission converters
  • Gen III+ fission reactors
  • Fusion
  • Electrical transmission

There are a lot of potential R&D pathways. We should realistically concentrate on those which can lead to real benefits:

  • fuel-cells
  • synthetic fuels
  • Gen IV fission breeders
  • Gen IV fission converters
  • Electrical transmission

Here's my rationale:

  • fuel-cells: have be shown to work for many liquid fuels and give much greater efficiencies than the internal combustion engine
  • synthetic fuels: If we want to decarbonise, we must move away from petrol and diesel driven vehicles. Ammonia has been used in the past as a vehicle fuel and it could be in future, especially in a fuel cell.
  • Gen IV fission: Only Gen IV nuclear reactors with closed fuel cycles have the scope to reduce electricity costs by any worthwhile amount and satisfy the public's need for safety. Transatomic Power calculate a price of 6¢/kWh; about what we were paying 10 years ago before these recent EU-mandated price increases. [see: slide 11]. It's been argued that nuclear power is risky. I argue that the risks are exaggerated by 3 or 4 orders of magnitude by anti-nukes. For example the LNT theory upon which our regulators and governments base their rules are fraudulent - literally. [see: Ed Calabrese - Researching Dose Response: blog | 1½ hour podcast (ignore the 30 second jingle). Also see my previous post on LNT: Linear no-threshold, LNT, evidence, contra-evidence and links]
  • Electrical transmission: This is probably an ongoing area for R&D. Transmission line power losses are huge.

I have good reasons for rejecting R&D in all the other technologies

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Should other nations follow Germany's lead on promoting solar power?

Copied from: Should other nations follow Germany's lead on promoting solar power? (to archive for future reference). Written by Ryan Carlyle
Ryan Carlyle, BSChE, Subsea Hydraulics Engineer
Votes by Erik Madsen (Ph.D. candidate in Economic Analysis and Policy...), Jorge Ferrando (Ph. D. in Economics from Sorbonne University), Mark Pawelek, Jackson Dugong Miley, Francis Chen, B Bipin Kumar, Steve Carnagua, James R. Cahall, Phil Jones, Jae Won Joh, Robert J. Kolker, Marc Bodnick, Razvan Baba, Valtteri Ahonen, Jake Merchant, Orin Hite, James Page, Claire J. Vannette, Jeremy Miles, Jeff Darcy, (view all)

The answer is the most forceful possible no.

Solar power itself is a good thing, but Germany's pro-renewables policy has been a disaster. It has the absurd distinction of completing the trifecta of bad energy policy:
  1. Bad for consumers
  2. Bad for producers
  3. Bad for the environment (yes, really; I'll explain)
Pretty much the only people who benefit are affluent home-owners and solar panel installation companies. A rising tide of opposition and resentment is growing among the German press and public.

I was shocked to find out how useless, costly, and counter-productive their world-renowned energy policy has turned out. This is a serious problem for Germany, but an even greater problem for the rest of the world which hopes to follow in their footsteps. The first grand experiment in renewable energy is a catastrophe! The vast scale of the failure has only started to become clear over the past year or so. So I can forgive renewables advocates for not realizing it yet -- but it's time for the green movement to do a 180 on this.

Some awful statistics before I get into the details:
  • Germany is widely considered the global leader in solar power, with over a third of the world's nameplate (peak) solar power capacity. [1] Germany has over twice as much solar capacity per capita as sunny, subsidy-rich, high-energy-cost California. (That doesn't sound bad, but keep going.)
  • Germany's residential electricity cost is about $0.34/kWh, one of the highest rates in the world. About $0.07/kWh goes directly to subsidizing renewables, which is actually higher than the wholesale electricity price in Europe. (This means they could simply buy zero-carbon power from France and Denmark for less than they spend to subsidize their own.) More than 300,000 households per year are seeing their electricity shut off because they cannot afford the bills. Many people are blaming high residential prices on business exemptions, but eliminating them would save households less than 1 euro per month on average. Billing rates are predicted by the government to rise another 40% by 2020. [2]
  • Germany's utilities and taxpayers are losing vast sums of money due to excessive feed-in tariffs and grid management problems. The environment minister says the cost will be one trillion euros (~$1.35 trillion) over the next two decades if the program is not radically scaled back. This doesn't even include the hundreds of billions it has already cost to date. [3] Siemens, a major supplier of renewable energy equipment, estimated in 2011 that the direct lifetime cost of Energiewende through 2050 will be $4.5 trillion, which means it will cost about 2.5% of Germany's GDP for 50 years straight. [4] That doesn't include economic damage from high energy prices, which is difficult to quantify but appears to be significant.
  • Here's the truly dismaying part: the latest numbers show Germany's carbon output and global warming impact is actually increasing [5] despite flat economic output and declining population, because of ill-planned "renewables first" market mechanisms. This regime is paradoxically forcing the growth of dirty coal power. Photovoltaic solar has a fundamental flaw for large-scale generation in the absence of electricity storage -- it only works for about 5-10 hours a day. Electricity must be produced at the exact same time it's used. [29] The more daytime summer solar capacity Germany builds, the more coal power they need for nights and winters as cleaner power sources are forced offline. [6] This happens because excessive daytime solar power production makes base-load nuclear plants impossible to operate, and makes load-following natural gas plants uneconomical to run. Large-scale PV solar power is unmanageable without equally-large-scale grid storage, but even pumped-storage hydroelectricity facilities are being driven out of business by the severe grid fluctuations. They can't run steadily enough to operate at a profit. [2,7] Coal is the only non-subsidized power source that doesn't hemorrhage money now. [8] The result is that utilities must choose between coal, blackouts, or bankruptcy. Which means much more pollution.

So it sucks on pretty much every possible level. If you're convinced by these facts, feel free to stop reading now, throw me an upvote, and go on about your day. This is going to get long -- I haven't even explained the half of it yet. There are lots of inter-related issues here, and the more you get into them, the worse the picture gets.

Issue 1: Wrong place, wrong tech to start the green revolution

Renewables advocates constantly hold up Germany as an example of how large-scale rooftop solar power is viable. But the problem is, Germany's emphasis on solar power is bad policy. I'm pretty sure other countries can do solar better, but that isn't saying much because German solar is just awful. To be blunt, it's a stupid place for politicians to push solar panels. I was there all last week for a work meeting and I didn't see the sun the entire time. From talking to the locals, it's overcast for about a third of the year in the region near Hanover where I was staying. Their solar resource is simply bad, nearly the worst of any well-populated region in the world:

Annual Solar Irradiance

Between the northern latitude, the grey weather, and the Alps blocking much of the diffused morning sunlight from the south, Germany is a terrible place for solar power. When you put the US side-by-side on the same scale, you realize that Germany has the same solar power potential as dismal Alaska, even worse than rain-soaked Seattle:

Solar Radiation Map

I look at this and ask, "what on earth are they thinking?" They couldn't have picked a worse generation technology for their climate.

But most people seem to look at it and say, "if Germany is investing so much in solar power, then it's obvious the US should build solar panels too." I insist we examine the contrapositive: if solar power is only taking off slowly in the US, even with significant subsidies/incentives and one of the world's best solar resources, then the Germans should be building even less solar capacity. It's clear their market must be severely distorted for them to pursue such a sub-optimal energy policy.

You're welcome to disagree with my thought process here, but the simplest proof can be seen in the capacity factor, which is the percent of the nameplate capacity that is actually generated over the course of a year. The existence of nighttime means solar capacity factors must be less than 50%, and when you add clouds, dawn, dusk, dust, and non-optimal installations, 18% is the average capacity factor for panels in the continental US. [9] In contrast, Germany's total solar capacity factor in 2011 was under 9%! [1]

German residential solar panel installations today cost about $2.25/watt capacity, [10] versus a hair over $5/watt in the US. [11] (Numbers vary over a considerable range. Most of this is labor/permitting costs.) But German panels generate less than half as much actual power over time. So when you normalize the panel install cost by capacity factor, US and German solar power generation are already at cost parity. The payback periods for solar investments are about the same in California and Germany. This is surprising to most solar advocates, who tend to blame higher costs for the low uptake rates in the US. But system economics alone do not explain disparities in installation rates.

So why does Germany have 16 times as much nameplate panel capacity per capita as the US? [12] Yes, permitting is much easier there, but that's mostly captured by the $/watt costs since installation companies usually pull the permits. And I don't think the German people are that much more pro-environment than the rest of the world. There's no good reason for the disparity that I can find -- it ought to swing the opposite way. Solar just isn't a good power source for a cold, dark country that has minimal daytime air conditioning load. Solar in Phoenix, Arizona makes sense, but not in Frankfurt. The only conclusion I can come to is that Germany's solar power boom is being driven entirely by political distortions. The growth of solar is not economically justified, nor can it continue without massive political interference in power markets.

Many people are surprised to hear that Germany only gets a tiny 2.0% of its total energy / 4.6% of its electricity from solar power (in 2012). [5,13] All the headlines about new records on peak summer days make it seem more like 50%. Despite all the cost and pain and distortions, PV solar has turned out to be a very ineffective way of generating large amounts of energy. They could have generated at least four times as much carbon-free power via new nuclear plants for the same cost. [14] (Nuclear would have been a better option for a lot of reasons. I'll get to that later.)

With subsidies for new solar systems phasing out over the next 5 years, solar growth has already started to decline. The installation rate peaked and is now dropping. [13, 15] Despite falling panel and installation costs, the majority of new German solar projects are expected to stop when subsidies end. They're already on the downward side of the technology uptake bell curve:

(Data after 2008 from [14], prior to 2008 from Wikipedia)

If you pay close attention, all the pro-solar advocates are still using charts with data that stops after 2011. That's because 2011 was the last year solar was growing exponentially. Using data through July 2013 and official predictions for the rest of this year, it's now clear that solar is not on an exponential growth curve. It's actually on an S-curve like pretty much every other technology, ever. Limitless exponential growth doesn't exist in the physical world. [13]

Also note the huge gap on that graph between the actual generation and the nameplate capacity. That's where the miserable capacity factor comes in. (I think this is the source of a lot of misplaced optimism about solar's growth rate.) Green media outlets only report solar power either in peak capacity or as percent of consumption on sunny summer days. Both of these measurements must be divided by about 10 to get the true output throughout the year.

In reality, solar is scaling up much slower than conventional energy sources scaled up in the past, despite solar receiving more government support. This graph shows the growth rate of recent energy transitions in the first 10 years after each source reached grid scale (1% of total supply):


I think this chart is the best way to make an apples-to-apples comparison of uptake rates. Only about a quarter of the "renewables" line is due to solar (the majority is biomass, wind, and trash incineration). So the true solar growth rate from 2001-2011 is only 1/4th as fast as nuclear from 1974-1984, and 1/6th as fast as natural gas from 1965-1975. [13]

When a new energy source is genuinely better than the old energy sources, it grows fast. Solar is failing to do so. Yet it's had every advantage the government could provide.

What this all implies is that without government intervention, PV solar can't be a significant source of grid power. The economics of German solar have only made sense up til now because they tax the hell out of all types of energy (even other renewables), and then use the proceeds to subsidize solar panels. Utilities are forced to buy distributed solar power at rates several times the electricity's market value, causing massive losses. The German Renewable Energy Act directly caused utility losses of EUR 540 million in August 2013 alone. [16] It's a shocking amount of money changing hands. When you strip away the well-intentioned facade of environmentalism, this is little more than a forced cash transfer scheme. It's taking from utilities (who are losing money hand over fist on grid management and pre-existing conventional generation capacity) and from everyone who doesn't have rooftop panels, and shoveling it into the pockets of everyone who owns or installs panels. Which means it's both a massive market distortion and a regressive tax on the poor.

This explains why per-capita solar uptake is so high in Germany. The government has engineered a well-intentioned but harmful redistribution system where everyone without solar panels is giving money to people who have them. This is a tax on anyone who doesn't have a south-facing roof, or who can't afford the up-front cost, or rents their residence, etc. People on fixed incomes (eg welfare recipients and the elderly) have been hardest hit because the government has made a negligible effort to increase payments to compensate for skyrocketing energy prices. The poor are literally living in the dark to try to keep their energy bills low. Energiewende is clearly bad for social equality. But Germany's politicians seem to have a gentleman's agreement to avoid criticizing it in public, particularly since Merkel did an about-face on nuclear power in 2011. [17]

Issue 2: Supply Variability

One major problem with all this solar-boosting, ironically, is oversupply. It's mind-boggling to me that a generation technology that provides less than 5% of a country's electricity supply can be responsible for harmful excess electricity production, but it's true. On sunny summer afternoons, Germany actually exports power at a loss compared to generation costs: EUR 0.056/kWh average electricity export sale price in 2012, [18] vs EUR 0.165/kWh average lifetime cost for all German solar installed from 2000 to 2011. [14] (This is optimistically assuming a 40 year system life and 10% capacity factor -- reality is probably over EUR 0.20/kWh.) German utilities often have to pay heavy industry and neighboring countries to burn unnecessary power. On sunny summer days, businesses are firing up empty kilns and furnaces, and are getting paid to throw energy away.

You can argue that this excess summer solar generation is free, but it's not -- not only is this peak summer output included in the lifetime cost math, but excess solar power actually forces conventional power plants to shut down, thereby lowering the capacity factor of coal & gas plants. Yes, this means large-scale solar adoption makes non-solar power more expensive per kWh, too! On net, excess solar generation is a significant drag on electricity economics. You're paying for the same power generation equipment twice -- once in peak conventional capacity for cloudy days, and again in peak solar capacity for sunny days -- and then exporting the overage for a pittance.

Why would they bother exporting at a loss? Because the feed-in-tariff laws don't allow utilities to shut off net-metered rooftop solar. Utilities are forced by law to pay residential consumers an above-market price for power that isn't needed. Meanwhile, Germany's fossil-burning neighbors benefit from artificially-low EU energy market prices. This discourages them from building cleaner power themselves. It's just a wasteful, distorted energy policy.

Remember, electricity must be used in the same moment it's generated. [29] The technology for grid-scale electricity storage does not yet exist, and nothing in the development pipeline is within two orders of magnitude of being cheap enough to scale up. Pumped-hydro storage is great on a small scale, but all the good sites are already in use in both Europe and the US. The only plan on the table for grid-scale storage is to use electric car batteries as buffers while they're charging. But that still won't provide anywhere near enough capacity to smooth solar's rapidly-changing output. [19] And if people plug in their cars as soon as they get home from work and the sun goes down, the problem could get even worse. California's regulators have recently acknowledged that the generation profile at sundown is the biggest hurdle to the growth of solar power. The classic illustration is the "duck chart" (shaped like a duck) that shows how solar forces conventional power plants to ramp up at an enormous rate when the sun stops shining in the evening:


People often complain about wind power being unreliable, but when you get enough wind turbines spread over a large enough area, the variability averages out. The wind is always blowing somewhere. This means distributed wind power is fairly reliable at the grid level. But all solar panels on a power grid produce power at the same time, meaning night-time under-supply and day-time over-supply. This happens every single day, forever. At least in warm countries, peak air conditioning load roughly coincides with peak solar output. But Germany doesn't use much air conditioning. It's just a grid management nightmare. The rate of "extreme incidents" in Germany's power grid frequency/voltage has increased by three orders of magnitude since Energiewende started. [20]

The severe output swings have even reached the point where Germany's grid physically cannot operate without relying on neighboring countries to soak up the variability. The ramp-down of solar output in the evening happens faster than the rest of Germany's generation capacity can ramp-up. (Massive power plants can't change output very quickly.) Which either means blackouts as people get home from work, or using non-solar-powered neighbors as buffers. Here's one day's generation profile for German solar power, showing how net electricity imports/exports are forced to oscillate back and forth to smooth out the swings in production:


If Germany's neighbors also had as many solar panels, they would all be trying to export and import at the same time, and the system would fall apart. The maximum capacity of the entire EU grid to utilize solar power is therefore much lower than the level reached by individual countries like Germany and Spain.

Solar boosters often say people need to shift their energy consumption habits to match generation, instead of making generation match consumption. That's feasible, to an extent -- perhaps 20% of power consumption can be time-shifted, mostly by rescheduling large consumers currently operating at night like aluminum electrosmelters. But modern civilization revolves around a particular work/sleep schedule, and you can't honestly expect to change that. People aren't going to give up cooking and TV in the evening, or wait three hours after the sun goes down to turn on the lights. And weekends have radically different consumption profiles from weekdays.

It all adds up. PV solar output doesn't properly sync up with power demand. That severely limits the maximum percentage of our electricity needs it can provide. Germany hit that limit at about 4%. They are now finding out what happens when you try to push further.

Issue 3: Displacing the wrong kinds of power

You may have noticed in the daily generation chart above how wind power is throttled back when the sun comes out. Residential solar has legal right-of-way over utility-scale wind. A lot of the power generation that solar is displacing is actually other renewables. Most of the rest is displacing natural gas and nuclear power. Coal power is growing rapidly. [6,8]

Here's what the weekly generation profile is predicted to look like in 2020:

Notice the saw-tooth shape of the big grey "conventional" (coal/gas) category. What all this solar is doing is eating into is daytime base load generation, which seems good for displacing fossil fuels, but in the long run it's doing the opposite.

The majority of electricity worldwide comes from coal and nuclear base load plants. They are big, efficient, and cheap. But base load generation is extremely difficult and expensive to throttle up and down every day. To simplify the issue a bit, you cannot ramp nuclear plants as fast as solar swings up and down every day. It takes several days to shut down and restart a nuclear plant, and nuclear plants outside France are not designed to be throttled back, so nuclear cannot be paired with the daily oscillations of PV solar. Supply is unable to match demand. You end up with both gaps and overages.

Most people think Germany is decommissioning its nuclear fleet because of the Fukushima accident, but the Germans didn't really have a choice. They are being forced to stop using nuclear power by all the variability in solar output. That's a big, big problem -- Germany gets four times more electricity from nuclear than solar, so the math doesn't add up. The generation time-profile is wrong, and the total power output from solar is too low. They have to replace nuclear plants with something else.

The normal way to handle variable power demand is via natural gas "peaker" plants. But Germany has minimal domestic natural gas resources and load-following gas plants are very expensive to operate, so what they're doing is building more coal plants, and re-opening old ones. [6,8,22] It's expensive and inefficient, but you can run a coal plant all night and then throttle it back when the sun comes up. It has better load-following capabilities than nuclear (although worse than gas). The German Green Party has been fighting nuclear power since the 1970s, and has finally won. Nuclear is out, and coal is in.

If you're a regular follower of my writing, you'll know what a terrible idea this is. [23] Replacing nuclear power with coal power is unquestionably the most scientifically-illiterate, ass-backwards, and deadly mistake that any group of environmentalists has ever made. It's unbelievable how much cleaner and safer nuclear power is than coal power. The Fukushima meltdown was pretty much a "worst case scenario" -- one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, the largest tsunami to ever hit Japan, seven reactor meltdowns and three hydrogen explosions -- and not a single person has died from radiation poisoning. [24] The expected lifetime increase in cancer rates due to the released radiation is somewhere between zero and a number too small to measure. [25] Even spectacular nuclear disasters are barely harmful to the public. Studies are now showing that the stress from the evacuation has killed more people than would have been killed by radiation if everyone had just stayed in place. [26,27]

In comparison, coal power kills about a million people per year, fills the oceans with mercury and arsenic, releases more carbon dioxide than any other human activity, and is arguably one of the greatest environmental evils of the industrialized world. [23]

This is counter-intuitive, but second-order effects are enormously important. Expansion of photovoltaic solar power past 1-2% of total electricity demand means less nuclear, and more coal. The amount of damage this does completely overwhelms the environmental benefit from the solar panels themselves. You have to avoid building so much solar power that it destabilizes and eliminates other clean power sources. When you get to the "duck chart" stage, things start to get bad. Otherwise you'll end up worse off than when you started, as Germany has found out to its dismay.

So that all sucks a lot. German solar power is hurting people and the planet. But there's more.

Issue 4: The kicker

The category for "biomass" power you see in all these charts is actually firewood being burned in coal plants. 38% of Germany's "renewable energy" comes from chopping down forests and importing wood from other countries. [28] Effing firewood, like we're back in the Middle Ages or something. Due to overzealous renewables targets, and a quirk in the EU carbon pricing system that considers firewood carbon-neutral, Europe is chopping down forests at an alarming rate to burn them as "renewable biomass." The environmental movement has spent most of the last 200 years of industrialization trying to fight deforestation, and that noble goal has been reversed in an instant by bogus carbon emission calculations.

In the very long run, over 100 years or so, firewood is close to carbon neutral because you can regrow the trees and they absorb CO2 as they grow. Unfortunately, using firewood for fuel destroys a living carbon sink and releases all its carbon to the atmosphere right now. When you consider that you're destroying a carbon sink as well as releasing stored carbon, firewood is actually much worse than coal for many decades thereafter. [28] The next few decades is humanity's most critical time for reducing carbon emissions, so this policy is mind-boggling lunacy.

Germany is so focused on meeting renewables targets that it is willing to trample the environment to get there. They've managed to make renewables unsustainable! It's tragicomic.

To summarize: Energiewende is the worst possible example of how to implement an energy transition. The overzealous push for the wrong generation technology has hurt citizens, businesses, and the environment all at the same time.

I want to make it clear that I'm not saying we should abandon solar. It should definitely be part of our generation mix. Due a mix of bad climate and bad policy, Germany ran into problems at a very low solar penetration, and other countries will be able to reach higher penetrations. But even if we ignore cost, there is still a maximum practical limit to solar power based on the realities of grid management.
  • You can't build more PV solar than the rest of the grid can ramp up/down to accept. The necessary grid storage for large-scale solar power is a "maybe someday" technology, not something viable today. Calls for 50% of power to come from solar in our lifetimes are a fantasy, and we need to be realistic about that.
  • You can't force utilities to buy unneeded power just because it's renewable. The energy and materials to build the excess capacity just goes to waste. That is the opposite of green.
We have to learn those lessons. We can't sweep this failure under the rug.

Every time a renewables advocate holds Germany up as a shining beacon, they set back the credibility of the environmental movement. It's unsupported by reality and I think even gives ammunition to the enemy. We have to stop praising Germany's Energiesheiße and figure out better ways to implement renewables. Other models should work better. They have to -- the future of the world depends on it.

[1] Solar power by country
[2] Germany's Energy Poverty: How Electricity Became a Luxury Good - SPIEGEL ONLINE
[3] German 'green revolution' may cost 1 trillion euros - minister
[4] Global Warming Targets and Capital Costs of Germany's 'Energiewende'
[5] Germany's 'Energiewende' - the story so far
[6] Germany: Coal Power Expanding, Green Energy Stagnating
[7] Merkel's Blackout: German Energy Plan Plagued by Lack of Progress - SPIEGEL ONLINE
[8] Merkel’s Green Shift Backfires as German Pollution Jumps
[9] Capacity factor, Price per watt
[10] German Solar Installations Coming In at $2.24 per Watt Installed, US at $4.44
[11] It Keeps Getting Cheaper To Install Solar Panels In The U.S.
[12] Germany Breaks Monthly Solar Generation Record, ~6.5 Times More Than US Best
[13] Germany and Renewables Market Changes (source link in original article is broken, here is an updated link:http://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp...)
[14] Cost of German Solar Is Four Times Finnish Nuclear  -- Olkiluoto Nuclear Plant, Plagued by Budget Overruns, Still Beats Germany’s Energiewende
[15] 313 MWp German PV Capacity Added in July 2013 - 34.5 GWp Total
[16] EEG Account: 5,907 GWh of Renewable Energy in August Sold for EUR 37.75 at Expenses of EUR 399.52 per MWh - EUR 540 Million Deficit
[17] Germany will dilute - not abandon - its Energiewende plan
[18] German power exports more valuable than its imports
[19] Ryan Carlyle's answer to Solar Energy: How large would an array of solar panels have to be to power the continental US? How much would such an array cost to build? And what are the major engineering obstacles to powering the US this way?
[20] Electricity demand response shows promise in Germany
[21] Energiewende in Germany and Solar Energy
[22] Problems with Renewables and the Markets
[23] Ryan Carlyle's answer to Society: What are some policies that would improve millions of lives, but people still oppose?
[24] Stephen Frantz's answer to Nuclear Energy: What is a nuclear supporter's response to the Fukushima disaster?
[25] Fukushima Cancer Fears Are Absurd
[26] Evacuation ‘Fukushima’ deadlier then radiation
[27] Was It Better to Stay at Fukushima or Flee?
[28] The fuel of the future
[29] Fowl Play: how the utility industry’s ability to outsmart a duck will define the power grid of the 21st century
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