As I anticipated, my post on Tesla’s new battery provoked some pretty hostile responses, most notably from pro-nuclear diehards. I’ve written plenty on this (use the search facility), so rather than repeat myself I’ll make an observation drawing on the previous post.
Ten years ago, solar PV was a faintly hopeful technologica prospect, making a minuscule contribution to electricity generation. Today, it’s a reality that is creating massive disruption for electricity utilities around the world. As I said in the previous post, the availability of even moderately cost-effective storage removes the last big obstacle (more on the economics soon)
By contrast, ten years ago, nuclear energy was a mature technology which seemed to be at the beginning of a renaissance. Today it’s further away, in almost every respect, than it was in 2005. Construction times have blown out, costs have turned out to be twice as high or more than expected, the operating record (thanks to Fukushima) is far worse, and the various new technologies (SMRs, Gen IV) have receded even further.
None of this means that the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables+storage is going to happen under current policy settings. But such a replacement is now clearly feasible, much faster, more reliably and at much lower cost, than attempting to reboot the failed nuclear renaissance.
Backing the nuclear horse was a reasonable choice in 2005. But it’s dead, and flogging it won’t revive it.
96 thoughts on “Flogging the dead horse of nuclear power”
That all noted, one has to say that the idea of getting a free lunch is always enticing. If nuclear power really were that ‘free lunch’ in energy generation (at least in the sense that its footprint was trivial and as a source, it was in practical term, inexhaustible) then you wouldn’t have to be a macho anti-environmental militarist nut to like it.
It’s a delusion of course, but a happy one.
That’s a big call saying that people like James Hansen and James Lovelock are irrational. There’s a couple of ways of looking at the renewable energy nirvana that some here expect
1) we got to where we are today on the back of very high yielding energy sources
That is coal, gas, oil, nuclear, hydro. Now some want to revert to diffuse and intermittent sources. If you store that energy in an electrochemical device like the Powerwall the energy return is even lower. This is the EROEI cliff theory which is so far not contradicted by empirical evidence.
2) we may have gotten too needy
Had we kept world population low say 2bn and invested heavily in wind and solar for decades our situation wouldn’t be so parlous. That is over dependence on fossil fuels which are both changing the climate and destined to run out. Some have big screen plasma TVs and others cook over fires stoked with cattle dung. We want a reasonable standard for everybody. Nuclear fission exploits the energy-mass equivalence in E = Mc^2 since tiny amounts of mass are lost when uranium atoms break apart. We’ve outgrown burning stuff in chemical reactions.
If for some reason renewable energy struggles to replace fossil fuel I think proponents must ask where their theories need some adjusting.
I don’t think anyone’s saying Hansen and Lovelock are irrational – neither of them boost nuclear to the exclusion of all other sources of energy, after all.
On the contrary, both Hansen and Lovelock are of the generation who were raised believing that nuclear energy was the fuel of the future. Hansen’s work on climate science has been extremely valuable, but that doesnl;t mean he know’s what he’s talking
The EROEI stuff is a red herring, as far as I’m concerned (I’ve had that discussion with you before). Once you account for the obvious errors and biases in most of the EROEI analyses, there’s no good reason to suppose that the EROEI of the major renewable energy technologies is significantly worse than fossil fuels or nuclear, even if the EROEI cliff conjecture is valid.
As for the “maybe it’s too late” theory, that’s not an argument for nuclear energy over renewables. Renewable energy installation is outpacing nuclear installation everywhere, even China.
Are you sure?
@David Irving (no relation)
I don’t see why Hansen’s and Lovelock’s views about nuclear and renewable energy should be regarded as particularly authoritative. Hansen is a top notch climate scientist, but he is no particular expert on energy technology or economics. And Lovelock is a brilliant inventor with some notable contributions to science under his belt (although his ‘Gaia’ hypothesis is overrated) but again, he has no particular expertise in energy.
FWIW, I agree with their views that opposing nuclear energy doesn’t achieve much – at this point in time, nuclear energy is clearly part of the solution to global warming – it’s a significant existing source of low-emissions power.
However, their own opposition to renewable energy is equally, if not more, counterproductive, and doesn’t appear to be based on anything substantial. Neither of them have presented convincing arguments against the viability of renewable energy, they have simply dismissed it and insisted that only nuclear can save us.
My comment at #52 above somehow got posted before I’d finished typing it. Sorry ’bout that.
CSIRO have installed a solar field in Cyprus, of all places, using technology that CSIRO scientists developed several years ago. While I’m very proud of their efforts, I hope the PM sits up and takes note, perhaps kicking $4 million bucks to them to set up a solar field or two in Australia, or even a manufacturing facility for exporting the technology. Field of dreams…
The Gaia hypothesis always makes me cringe inwardly…it feels way too much like one of those ideas which explains everything—and nothing at all. Perhaps there is some level of detail to it which does have good explanatory power, but so far I feel pretty sceptical of that.
Hansen’s opinions are perhaps more explicit and narrower in domain they apply to, and so should be given more analysis (in my opinion). With respect to his position on coal of stating we essentially have to leave virtually all of it in the ground, for the time being that statement is true; if technology shifts so far that we can use coal without emitting any GHGs, and do so at a price competitive with renewable energy systems, then presumably coal could come back into the fold as an energy source. On today’s technology, and with today’s constraints, it isn’t feasible to use coal in the way we do. I don’t agree with Hansen on some things, but on the broad brush strokes, I think he is pointing in the right direction.
As for nuclear power, it is muscle-man fuel, and the lads love it. The market, on the other hand, is less than tepid on nuclear power. Beta got creamed by VHS video, and now both are musty relics of history; perhaps nuclear power is treading the path of beta.
John, as you know I am not of the view that market tools alone will get us close to what we need, and I would suggest it will take some direct and savage regulation of the Australian rental market before Australia’s greedy landlords consent to fork out even a cent of their “hard”-earned to install something that is of no direct benefit to them. Similarly I can’t see major shipping companies doing anything near the work and investment required to become even carbon neutral, let alone invest in reconfiguring to renewable energy – if you look at the way the big shipping industry players work, they are little better than slavers in the way they treat their workers, and the flag of convenience system makes it possible for them to get away with terrible behavior on the high seas. Fuel efficiency is in their interests, but any other reconfiguration will only happen when they are forced to.
Also, I think as much as possible we are going to need policy responses that avoid using any form of bio-sources to produce carbon neutral fuels. Biodiesel, algal fuel oil, etc., even if they are developed to industrially and econcomically viable scale, are a dangerous distraction. If we can plant a hectare of land purely for purposes related to AGW, then that hectare should be planted as a carbon sink, not as a source of carbon neutral fuel. Similarly with algae – if we are going to grow algae it should not be used to produce fuel but to absorb CO2. Burning that CO2 again is a disaster – we should be burying it or storing it in some way.
Once all of the electricity generating, land transport and personal lifestyle parts of our economy have been rendered zero carbon, we will still have major emitters: agriculture (i.e. animals), cement, smelting and air travel. By 2050 we are going to need carbon sinks sufficient to cover all of that – which means a huge reversal in currrent land-clearing practices plus a significant reforestation of much of the globe. It is madness to be diverting any of that to e.g. produce biodiesel for big container ships that could be nuclear powered.
So I think that nuclear advocates should be focusing on that – use of nuclear in transport, and as a legacy clean generator to tide us over to the new era.
To clear up a common myth- the rate of reforestation has exceeded the rate of deforestation for some time although these things are happening in different locations.
see Nature Climate Change – “Recent reversal in loss of global terrestrial biomass” published online 30 March 2015
The desert ecologist Stefan Kröpelin has been saying this for the better part of a decade but was widely ignored until recently.
For those who follow biotech science, the first GM trees with increased carbon storage capacity were appproved for planting in Brazil a couple of months ago. One wonders just how further advanced we’d be with biotech solutions if the left wasn’t being so successfully whiteanted by Luddites.
The reported results are not so simplistic as you make out.
“Global total forest area was similar for 2003 and 2012, but there was a reduction in tropical forests and an increase in boreal and temperate forests.”
“The very different carbon structure of tropical and boreal forests plays a crucial role in increasing the global total forest carbon stock: tropical forests store 44% of total
carbon in aboveground biomass but boreal forests only 15%, with the remainder contained in living roots, litter and soil organic crabon.”
“We estimated trends in mean forest ABC and total forest carbon of + 0.10 and plus 1.19 PgCyr-1.” (Meaning it is acting as a carbon sink and possibly slightly increasing in that capacity).
Note the word “estimate”. It’s a close thing. Deforrestation might have peaked (temporarily orpermanently). However, taking measurement and estimation errors into account we probably can’t be definitively certain, at least not yet. This is one study. How closely has it been checked? Is it peer reviewed? Is the journal reputable? Just asking, I don’t know the answers to these questions myself.
if you aren’t aware that the Nature suite of publications are “peer reviewed” and generally considered “reputable” or that the preponderance of recent studies point in the same direction, I can’t see any point engaging with you. Obviously you have no interest in following the science.
From the “Nature” article:
My emphasis, but still….
Nobody can seriously argue that apples = oranges.
jt my point doesn’t depend on the balance of reforestation and deforestation, although obviously there’s a lot more flexibility in our carbon response if deforestation stops. My point is that the balance of forest growth needs to be devoted to drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, not to carbon neutral technologies like biodiesel, ethanol or wood-based fuels of any kind. The same with algal growth or any seaweed-based technology. I read recently that someone has found a way to make diesel from CO2, water and sunlight – this is great, but if it requires land that could instead be used for drawing down CO2 it shouldn’t be used (I don’t say it does or doesn’t, I don’t know enough about it).
It’s not enough for most parts of our economy to be carbon neutral if those parts are using land that could be used to offset carbon-intensive parts. Those parts need to be zero carbon, so that the land they might be using is instead set aside for reforestation to offset industries like smelting, cement and aviation.
You said that you think the green movement has been white-anting the response to AGW. If we want to maintain our global industrial economy then we need to start thinking about how to offset essential industries that can’t be made carbon zero. In the short- to medium-term this is going to mean moving beyond carbon neutral ideas in transport.
This is what I came across, in part, some weeks back.
If it substitutes for fossil diesel, then it’s a step forward, especially if the CO2 input sources come from those either unavoidable or at any rate much lower than coal (like the biogas facility). It would also be a good way of storing surplus intermittent output.
Thank you for your reply. I would still question, as Megan does too, the relative significance of these findings. It’s a curate’s egg at best. The news is only good in parts.
(1) The continued decline in tropical forests is bad news re species extinctions and biodiversity.
(2) How secure is the extra uptake of carbon in boreal forests and semi-arid biomes?
(3) What proportion of the world’s carbon sink is ABC (Aboveground Biomass Carbon)?
(4) What are the oceans doing? How are they performing as carbon sinks?
Finally, measured CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise. The apparent slight improvement in ABC is a slight glimmer of hope at best. It does not change what we have to do which is to de-carbonise the economy. I am not sure why you place such great emphasis on this, at present, marginal phenemenon. Perhaps your agenda is that everything is OK and there is no rush to decarbonise the economy. It certainly seems your agenda is to minimise the dangers of CO2 emissions and climate change.
Shorter Fran: Usenet was full of jerks, therefore nuclear power is the spawn of Satan.
“It certainly seems your agenda is to minimise the dangers of CO2 emissions and climate change.”
You have unusually poor comprehension skills. I’ve never said anything that minimises the dangers of climate change. If left unchecked, climate change will be very dangerous especially for the world’s poor who have limited capacities to adapt.
My point are (1) that addressing climate change is easy and require only minimalist policy as Prof Quiggin states and (2) the anti-modernity Ludditism of the green sector of the Left is a deadweight that is holding us back. Why aren’t we developing more super-effiecient GM carbon sucking trees for example.
Historically, the Left were champions of technology. Now I find myself surrounded by left wingers who vote Green, refuse to vaccinate their children; prefer naturopathy and homeopathy to conventional medicine; read astrological star charts instead of Karl Marx and John Quiggin; eat organic voodoo food and think conventional food is cursed by Gaia and the nauseating list just goes on and on ad infinitum.
Jt – don’t you think that institutionalised opposition to action on climate – the Luddite Right – has had a significant bearing? Myself, I think the only reason what ‘greenies’ think matters so much is because of the abysmal failures of mainstream politics to face up to the problem head on; they are appear to stand so tall because everyon else is too busy keeping heads down. Or, quietly, behind the scenes, working tirelessly to obstruct and compromise into ineffectualness the efforts of people who care, like ‘greenies’.
dd, if you’ve read many of Fran Barlow’s comments over the years, you ought to know she’s not anti-nuclear.
I call concern troll on jt. His agenda andessential mind-set is clearly right-wing necon. While pretending to be concerned about climate change he minimises it and minimises the measures needed to deal with it. He blames the left and green left for the problems they warned against and want to take concerted action against. He has nothing to say about the right-wing pro-coal, pro-oil luddites. He insinuates that taking due precaution before introducing new technology (GM) is “luddite” when we have many examples of unintended negative consquences from hastily introduced technology. In fact failing to take due precaution is luddite.
This jt is probably Mel. The same old neocon sock puppet. I recognise the style.
jt, who is sounding an awful lot like Mel, appears to be determined to pursue an off-topic debate about GM on this thread, for reasons known only to him(?)self. GM as an issue is only peripheral to global warming at best. It may well be that GM trees and GM crops will play a role in mitigating and adapting to climate change to a some extent, but the bulk of the effort will be achieved through the reduction of industrial emissions. Trying to divert the topic by baiting people into a debate over GM seems like trolling.
Kentucky police officers have a new suite of electric motorcycles, capable of 500km to the charge, and charge up for under $1 USD. The bikes are around $21k USD. Silent, fast, and long enough range to last a day or more of policing on a single charge.
CSIRO has installed a molten salt storage and heliostat as a solar field in Cyprus: it took only a few weeks to set it up.
Tesla cars are demonstrably high performance, far in excess of what is necessary for regular transport.
Origin Energy is looking at installing roof top solar and maintaining it, with their customers getting the electricity from it at reduced rates.
Solar power and electric vehicles are part of the overall energy marketplace now, and despite the Liberal party’s best efforts, they can’t put the Jini back in the bottle.
If nuclear power were to enter Australia as a serious effort at establishing itself as an energy supplier, how is it going to be economic without government subsidies? Even if coal is completely removed from electrical energy production, solar, wind, and gas are all becoming cheaper by the day, and more scalable too, in the case of solar and wind. If we end up with a nuclear power station, I reckon it would be purely symbolic gesturing from the political class, a statement for the international stage. Economics wouldn’t cut it.
Without a long running, cross partisan commitment to climate and emissions reductions a vanity nuclear project is the most that could be expected in Australia. It would probably be well away from the coal rich regions, ie not actually intended to displace fossil fuels – only to displace renewables. In the current political reality it would not be so much symbolic of a commitment to climate as divisive and diversionary, probably pushed along with a strong ‘stick it to greenies’ motivation.
Agreed, the political class would want nuclear power only for its potential role in making us a nuclear weapons state. Going down that path would provoke Indonesia into getting wepoans nukes. That would be a very bad idea. That said, Indonesia does already have an experimental reactor program with maybe some power generation reactors in the pipeline.
But nuclear power is a dead horse. The facts demonstrate that. J.Q, has laid out the economic argument well and a number of times.
Short memories seem to have forgotten two major developments; the fact that some big coal firms say they getting out in the next 20 years and the probable doubling of the east Australian gas price in the next 5 years. Neither development is contingent on the RET or carbon tax. Currently about half the opex of combined cycle gas plant is gas fuel cost. The probable increase will make nuclear competitive if you look at the predicted prices on BREE’s AETA report linked upthread.
Energy storage at Powerwall prices is too expensive for commercial operators. Since published estimates range from 15c to 35c per kwh call it 25c or or $250 per Mwh. A wind farm that has generation costs of say $80 per Mwh must then store it for another $250. The combined cost is ten times more than Latrobe Valley brown coal electricity at $32 a Mwh.
Non fossil interests would be helped with the re-introduction of a properly determined price on primary emissions, not the silliness in Direct Action. I fear all else is wishful thinking. It looks like our 2015 coal emissions will be higher than 2014 for whatever reasons. If it happens again for a few more years perhaps we should think harder about our assumptions.
Strangely enough, the BREE report also shows that the “probable increase” will also make wind, solar PV and solar thermal competitive as well, particularly wind (even taking into account the fact that the report has taken a conservative view of the potential cost declines for renewable energy, and has not factored in the insurance cost disadvantage of nuclear). I wonder why you didn’t mention that.
Yes, that is true. Without an effective emissions reduction policy framework, we are stuck with coal for some time, and will be unable to significantly reduce emissions. Of course, that is irrelevant to the question of the comparative prospects of renewables and nuclear, as I’m sure you’re aware.
Indeed you should.
“super-effiecient GM carbon sucking trees”??? That is hilarious! On so many levels!
Reminds me of that old joke where engineers and scientists spent $100b inventing a new device that collects solar energy, captures CO2, is self generating, can be used for heating and construction, reduces drought, regulates temperature and humidity and looks great in an urban environment. They named it the Total Renewable Energy Enterprise, or TREE for short.
Braziiam commercial foresters (in the south and planalto, not the Amazon) already plant hybrid (conventionally bred not GM) eucalyptus on an eight-year cycle. It goes into pulp for paper, so the carbon sequestration is quite short-term. Commercial forestry only becomes a net long-term sequestrator if the wood is harvested as timber and used in construction and furniture, with a 100-year lifespan. Laminated wood beams – they can even be prestressed – are a significant innovation here, as they allow wood-framed structures up to six storeys high, which covers most commercial and residential uses. The lamination allows for factory manufacture and standard sizes, like steel. Wood frames are lighter than steel or reinforced concrete, so you get a second carbon benefit from lighter foundations.
My Brazilian wife and I are supporting a small 1000-tree planting project in her home town in up-country Rio de Janeiro state. Native Mata Atlantica species suitable for timber, on a 40-year horizon. Why complicate such straightforward initiatives with GM?
> Why complicate such straightforward initiatives with GM?
“Because old technology doesn’t give scope for kickbacks” is a significant effect, at least.
@TM while the AETA report does exclude insurance in the US it is expected that $10-15 bn liability cover can be had for 0.1-0.2c a kwh. Hardly a crippling impost. The AETA report also appears to exclude renewable subsidies such as the LGC of around 4c per kwh, feed-in tariffs or the large grants which reduce cost of capital.
A glaring omission is tabled capacity factors for different technologies. Arid outback solar might produce 20% of its rated power on a year round basis and new wind sites with large turbines 30-40%. At night for solar and unpredictable times for wind they will produce no power which is why they need gas, hydro and now apparently coal for backup. Nukes should generate power at 90% of capacity on a year round basis and are a full replacement for coal, our highest emitting power source.
Hermit, it may be a fact that some coal companies say they will get out of coal in 20 years but that does not mean they won’t be spending the next 20 years lobbying tirelessly against policies intended to make that happen – and if their mines can be kept profitable beyond that they may be open to withdrawing a thought bubble intended to suggest they care. Those making that statement will have retired very rich before then and getting out of coal won’t happen on their watch.
In the meantime, in the presence of strong political support for their continuing coal operations, the timeline may better reflect an intention to mine as much of the most profitable reserves within that 20 years as possible without any genuine commitment or even desire to limit climate change.
I still think the greatest boost nuclear could get is the Conservative Right getting serious about climate – the withdrawal of their climate science denial justified ‘get out of having to deal with climate change free’ card to commerce and industry would spur that sector to stop saying they would prefer nuclear to renewables (but not over cheap coal), to saying they prefer nuclear to coal, and start to actually push for it. But I also think it’s too late – nuclear will struggle to gain the minimum threshold of support, even from a commerce and industry denied the Right’s climate denial inspired do nothing option.
The capacity factor doesn’t affect the levelised cost, so there was no need to include it.
You’re right that renewable subsidies were also left out. But the report still shows they are competitive with nuclear, so it hardly helps your argument. More Gish galloping.
TM without storage solar is not competitive with anything at night so perhaps sunny daytime costs aren’t the full story.
It’s odd the British Conservatives are not just pro-nuclear in lip service but also anti-coal in practice. They don’t seem to align that well with our LNP. The Brits will build 4-6 new reactors with the expensive Hinkley C to possibly be replaced with a cheaper Chinese design. If elections can be taken as a policy endorsement it seems Aussies don’t like carbon pricing but Brits support their version, the contract-for-difference. If the EU rules against c.f.d. I wonder if the Brits will continue with it anyway.
You seem to have changed from being a passionate advocate for nuclear power (even after Fukushima) to a very lukewarm fence sitter. Congratulations on your journey.
I am totally convinced that the next step forward in the provision of electrical services will be storage at the point of consumption (APC).
Properly configured it will provide a constant load to the energy source. If this source is located on site it will allow the energy needs to be supplied from this source. PV is a prime candidate, but we should all be aware that PV will not be able to supply significant energy for about 4 weeks per year at almost any latitude.
A number of consumers connected together the energy storage at the point of consumption will flatten the demand and open up the possibility for export to other consumers.
The consequences for the domestic and industrial consumers will be revolutionary and will require a re-think of the entire electricity supply system.
Let me get this right, one throwaway line mention of biotech as part of the mix of climate change solutions and Tim and Tom decide I’m probably a banned sockpuppet. You people need to adjust your tinfoil hats. I think I’ve made it cleat that I am pro-tech futurist on a left where pro-tech and futurism is now considered dangerous and radical.
BTW, battery innovator Elon Musk is behind SpaceX. SpaceX along with another futurist billionaire boy’s toy company, Planetary Resources, are paving the way for asteroid mining.
Just like Marx would have expected if he were still alive today, it is the capitalist innovation machine that is paving the way for our socialist post-scarcity future.
Climb on board comrades, we’re in for one helluva century ….
Coal’s charmed run for over a century here and two centuries in the old world may be coming to end. Not the digging up and burning so much as the benign PR. We’ve had reef dredging and dairy farms demolished. Now a property which was the subject of a book on organic farming methods is to make way for coal mining
Surely the day is fast approaching when enough is enough. However we need to be real about what can replace coal i.e. affordable all weathers around the clock power.
As the previous post mentioned, the combination of new renewables and storage fits the bill, especially with hydro as backup.
Pr Q your last statement seems hard to justify. Hydro while possibly the best backup for intermittent power is maxed out in Australia and facing an El Nino. I note the Burdekin hydro project which claims to be a victim of the RET is only 37 MW when eastern Australia needs a minimum 38,000 MW generation capacity according to AEMO.
One of your own links (Forbes.. Powerwall a toy for rich greens) gives a levelised cost figure for battery storage which is commercially unviable. In 2013 wind and solar gave us 4.4% of Australian electricity and since then the new build rate has nosedived. This explains why coal is not going away in Australia.
And I am guessing that in 1908 cars only transported 4% of the people and goods that horses transported. This proved why horses were never going away as our main form of tranport.
More in this vein. A baby is only 5% or less than the weight of an adult. This proves why a baby can never become an adult.
Hermit your figures are out.
renewable energy 2013 to 2014 were
Wind energy 3.93%
Bio fuel 1.02
solar hot water 1.12
For a total 16% renewable electricity (electricity equivalent)
A realistic aim: total replacement of Australia’s current electricity generation by (very) low emission technology within two decades. Not wishful thinking, its been done and can be replicated here. See excellent recent paper in PLoS ONE.