A Global report card for renewables

Figure 1: The growth of renewables over the last few years [Source: REN 2012]

Figure 1: The growth of renewables over the last few years [Source: REN 2012]

Its that time of year (or it was just before I started writing this) when we lecturers get all the results, have our autumn exam board meetings and as it were, “rank and yank” students (decide whose done enough to pass, progress, graduate with a degree….and whose been loafing around campus and needs to be thrown off the course!). So I thought it would be useful to issue a report card for global renewables output and compare it to where we need to be and how well the industry is performing next to fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

What’s up with them?

I’m prompted to do this due to the repeatedly bad press that renewable gets in certain quarters, who tend to cling to various half-baked myths and flawed analysis. They’ve even got James Hansen and George Monbiot fooled. A good example of this is the graph below and its accompanying article produced by Bjorg Lomborg from the denier site watts-up-with-that.

Figure 2: The supposed global capacity of renewables [Source: Bjorn Lomborg, 2013]

Figure 2: The supposed global capacity of renewables
[Source: Bjorn Lomborg, 2013]

Now the sharper reader will notice how the renewable capacity reported by Bjorn is at odds with the values from the REN 2013 report, or indeed the figures presented by the IEA Energy Outlook 2012. This in part might be due to the fact that renewables break down into two flavours, the older traditional types (e.g. biomass, hydro, etc.) and the newer types such as solar, wind power, geothermal, etc. Bjorn seems to account for traditional renewables at the start of his graph but seemingly “forgets” about them in the middle.

Figure 3: Traditional Renewables v’s modern renwewables [Source: REN 2013]

Figure 3: Traditional Renewables v’s modern renwewables [Source: REN 2013]

Again this is typical of the sort of sloppy analysis we see from deniers. As Peter Sinclair from Climatecrocks illustrates, they have a tendency to “cherry pick” and selectively edit graphs to suit whatever point they are trying to make…such as cherry picking trends as regards arctic ice sheets.

Figure 4: How deniers “interpret” data [Source: Climatecrocks.com]

Figure 4: How deniers “interpret” data [Source: Climatecrocks.com]

Of course, Bjorn Lomborg seems to forget that if we apply his methodology to many other energy sources (this time without “loosing” half the amount in the middle!) the results aren’t exactly encouraging. Let us for example plot a graph of the amount of the world’s energy we can expect to get from fossil fuels over a time period of 5,000 years in the past and 5,000 years into the future.

The results is of course Hubbert’s famous bell curve plot from the 1950’s. This shows that fossil fuels, even if we take the most optimistic view as regards when global peak oil will be reached, the fossil fuel age will be but a brief blip in the course of human history. A temporary fad our civilisation went through.

And nuclear power? Currently it supplies 2756 TWh’s worth of electricity (IEA, 2012), out of the worlds total final consumption of 8677 mtoe (IEA, 2012), or 101,231 TWh’s (so nuclear represents 3.3% of total final energy consumption). Plotting its growth over the decades (Bjorn Lomborg style!) we end up with the trend shown in figure 6. Projecting nuclear powers influence into the future we can project two scenarios, one with shows slight growth and another (business as usual scenario). I’ll explain later where these two graphs come from.

Figure 6: Nuclear power, share of global energy, 1800 to 2035 [Based on IEA data]

Figure 6: Nuclear power, share of global energy, 1800 to 2035
[Based on IEA data]

State of play for renewables

But getting away from such silliness, how well have renewables actually been doing? Well as figure 1 & table 1 both show, remarkably well. Worldwide a total of 159 GW’s of newly install capacity (115 GW’s electrical and 43 GW’s heat) was added during the last reported year (between 2011 and 2012).

Table 1: Growth in Renewables in 2012 [Source: REN, 2013]

Table 1: Growth in Renewables in 2012 [Source: REN, 2013]

Now critics will immediately jump up and down and start whinging about renewables and their low capacity factors. To resolve this issue, in table 2 below I’ve included a calculation for estimated TWh/yr generated by the relevant renewable source and the growth in TWh/yr capacity. And just to counter the possibly that 2012 was a one off fluke, I’ve gone back through IEA Key World Energy Statistics (KWES, 2011 & 2012) and REN reports (2010 – 2013) and put together a composite table of figures going back to 2009.

Table 2: Growth in Renewables, 2009 to 2012 in TWh’s [Sources: REN Reports (2010-2013) and IEA KWES (2011-2012)]

Table 2: Growth in Renewables, 2009 to 2012 in TWh’s
[Sources: REN Reports (2010-2013) and IEA KWES (2011-2012)]

I would note that since I’ve drawn from multiple sources, I’d treat the figures above with a pinch of salt (its always risky to cross compare data from different data sets, so best to consider this just a crude estimate). Also some of the numbers (any which are right justified and in italics) are estimated. For example, if I’ve been unable to dig up a reliable TWh figure, I can estimate the TWh/yr, based on the average capacity factors for that energy source.

Inevitably the figures for biomass are probably the least reliable. As noted earlier, getting reliable figures for biomass is problematic. The energy output from Biofuels and ethanol is estimated based on average Calorific values. I was able to dig up TWh figures for power output for most years (again, REN 2010-2013 reports), but was unable to do this for TWh of heat, so this is estimated on the assumption of an average capacity factor of 57% (why? the length of the average winter heating season in Western countries is about 5,000 hours 5000/8736 = 0.57, which is also about break even time for CHP units).

Also note that the data in tables 1 and table 2 only includes “modern biomass” and not “traditional biomass”. Again in part this is due to question marks as to how “sustainable” traditional biomass is, along with the difficult in collating statistics (as most of this is people in villages in the developing world collecting firewood and the bean counters don’t exactly go around counting logs!). That said, I have a reliable figure of 34 EJ worth of biomass (World Energy Outlook, 2007) based heat energy consumption in 2008 (which works out at approximately 9,444 TWh’s) and some 46 EJ (World Energy Outlook, 2011) worth of it (equal to 12,877 TWh’s) in 2012, implying a growth rate of 26% over 4 years.

Figure 7: Traditional v’s modern biomass [REN, 2013]

Figure 7: Traditional v’s modern biomass [REN, 2013]

So we can see from this that the 159 GW’s installed in 2012 amounts to 366 TWh/yr of newly installed renewables capacity. And if anything, 2012 was a particularly bad year. The 4 year average is actually higher at 466 TWh/yr. I would argue this might be due to a transition within renewables from traditional sources such as biomass, to more modern renewable sources, such as PV or wind power.

Figure 8: 2011 to 2007, four year averaged growth rate in terms of installed GW’s [Source: REN 2013]

Figure 8: 2011 to 2007, four year averaged growth rate in terms of installed GW’s
[Source: REN 2013]

Oddly enough hydroelectric is still showing growth. I’ve been hearing for years that hydroelectricity was “all used up” and yet it continues to grow, 3.1% last year and was 30% of all added capacity. I suspect this is probably down to the fact that developing countries are still adding hydroelectric capacity (both for flood protection and irrigation purposes as well as electricity). Also there’s still growth in Western countries, as we’re beginning to discover the benefits of micro-hydro. Inevitably yes, the day will dawn when growth from hydro ceases, but clearly the other renewable sources can take up the slack and will soon probably be outpacing hydroelectricity.

The solar industry is starting to show a clear trend, with PV winning out over CSP. While CSP is growing slightly faster, the installed capacity of PV is now much higher and with an installation rate now at 29 GW/yr (and growing) its not far off becoming a significant player. However it is solar thermal (e.g. roof top collectors for hot water) that is still the world’s largest source of solar energy, both by the installed capacity and TWh’s.

Wind power continues to grow and mature, slightly exceeding the installed TWh/yr capacity of hydroelectricity in 2012. This is hardly surprising given falling costs and increased productivity within the industry. Of course there’s only so much wind power than can be installed before a need for more energy storage will eventually become pressing, although as I previously discussed the Portuguese have done rather well out of a combination of wind and hydroelectric/pumped storage.

Report Card I: Doing well but most do better!

However, before we start pulling out the victory cigars and congratulating ourselves on a job well done, I suspect the report card for renewables would have to read “doing well, student clearly applying himself, but must do better!

I recall estimating sometime ago that in order to offset peak oil or put the world on a path away from dangerous climate change we’d need to bring online between 1,500-1,000 TWh/yr, or about 2-4 times the current install rate of renewables. And that neglects issues such as cycle efficiencies and the “bunkering” of fuel. The bulk of the renewables capacity considered above (63% of it to be exact) outputs in the form of electricity, but electricity is (according to the IEA, 2012) only 17% of global final energy consumption. The rest is a combination of transport fuels and heat. Now while some of the renewables discussed do produce such energy, the rest, if they could be grown to a suitable capacity, would need to be transferred from one form to another. So in truth we’d probably need at least a 5-6 fold increase in the rate of renewables output.

Figure 9: Production line for wind turbines [Source: Acciona and treehugger.com http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/wind-turbine-makers-lobby-us-for-green-energy-mandates.html ]

Figure 9: Production line for wind turbines [Source: Acciona and treehugger.com]

It is, I would argue, entirely speculative as to whether renewables can be produced at such a rate. Certainly renewable sources such as wind turbines and solar panels lend themselves very well towards mass production. Indeed this is one of the reasons why growth of both of these sources has taken off in recent years. But the sorts of numbers we’re talking about are a very tall order and the longer we dither the larger that number gets.

State of play for nuclear

It would be convenient perhaps to contrast and compare the performance of renewables with that for nuclear. Even the IEA (who tend to be pro-nuclear) and the IAEA reports have over the last few years been running out of positive things to say about nuclear energy, at least as far as things grounded in facts rather than wild speculation.

Figure 10: Nuclear power, installed capacity 1996 – 2012 [Source: IAEA, 2013 http://www.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/WorldTrendNuclearPowerCapacity.aspx ]

Figure 10: Nuclear power, installed capacity 1996 – 2012 [Source: IEA, 2011]

As figure 10 shows nuclear energy has been stuck in the doldrums for sometime, with very little if any credible growth. According to the IAEA’s Prospects report (2012) while there was a brief jump of +4 GW/yr between 2009 and 2010, this was cancelled out by a -7 GW/yr drop the following year. The IAEA’s 2012 report speculates that nuclear energy capacity could grow from 370 GW to 501 GW’s by 2030.

We’ll pick apart the probability of this in a moment, but firstly it should be noted that this works out as an average growth rate of 6.65 GW/yr (about 6% the present install rate of renewables!). Assuming a capacity factor of 80.5% (according to IAEA statistics for 2010, note that should anyone accuse me of being mean the average nuclear plant capacity factor was 72.2% in 2012, so if anything I’m being kind) this works out at an install rate of about 40 TWh/yr….barely 11% of the current install rate for renewables, even when we evaluate it on a TWh basis. Indeed this IAEA project suggests than nuclear will be outpaced by both solar PV (estimated 53.5 TWh/yr) and wind power (103 TWh/yr, 2.5 times higher!).

And even this 6.65 GW/yr growth in nuclear generating capacity represents a pretty tall order. The average age of the world’s nuclear reactor fleet, again based on IAEA data, is 27.8 years. If we assume an average 50 year service life, this means that between now and 2030 118 GW’s (31% of current installed capacity) worth of nuclear reactors will be decommissioned, 210 GW’s (56% of current installed capacity) if we assume an average 45 year service life (currently no reactors older than 44 years are in commercial operation). Factor in this “turn over” and we now need to install reactors at a rate of between 15 GW/yr and 20 GW/yr to achieve this IAEA forecast.

Figure 11: Age of world reactors as determined by first grid connection [Source: IAEA, 2013 http://www.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/OperationalByAge.aspx ]

Figure 11: Age of world reactors as determined by first grid connection [Source: IAEA, 2013]

What are the chances of this? In reality, probably slim. As noted, the rate of nuclear roll out has been flat for sometime, as newly installed capacity is barely able to match the rate at which reactors are being retired. For example in 2011 seven reactors were installed, but thirteen were retired. Although the IAEA puts this down to Fukushima, they also admit that Fukushima has led to a further slow down in recent years in the number of reactor projects being started. And given the “baby boomer” problem for nuclear (the fact that nearly half of all reactors will retire within the next two decades), means this trend can only accelerate.

And aside from Fukushima the nuclear industry has been beset by a number of problems. While modern reactors are probably a good deal safer than the likes of the ageing Fukushima reactors, modern plants are proving to be much more expensive to build. Recent revelations in the UK, where the government essentially forced the industry to come clean about its expected costs, have revealed that the overnight costs of nuclear exceeds that of wind power. They are also taking a lot longer to install, as events in Finland show, again hardly a surprise given the increased complexity of the designs enforced by accidents at Chernobyl, TMI and Fukushima but also inevitably a consequence of the fact that there are a number of bottle necks in the nuclear supply chain, as I described in a prior post (here).

So all in all I would argue that this 6.65 GW/yr and replacement of existing capacity is just about within the limits of optimistic probability. But even this would require a significant level of commitment by industry, governments, corporations and the general public towards nuclear energy…and perhaps a certain element of luck….none of which is guaranteed! Furthermore, as noted, even in this scenario nuclear can deliver only 11% of the future growth to be expected from renewables and barely 3% of the capacity we need to offset dangerous climate change.

And least pro-nuclear people argue I’m being overly pessimistic here, the more probable scenario (current trends continue) is a long slide to obscurity where the install rate lags well behind the shutdown rate. The worst case scenario is that someone in a position of authority does there sums and realises that they can get more bangs for their bucks with renewables and government’s start turning off the life support.

Report card II: Quit making stuff up!

I used to be pro-nuclear. What drove me away from nuclear energy however was the industries habit of making wild outlandish promises which it has consistently failed to deliver on.

In the UK under Thatcher the nuclear industry promised at least a dozen new power stations, many of them multiple reactor units. In the end only one single reactor unit, Sizewell B was delivered. This was despite considerable skulduggery by the Tories to clear the path for their little darling (such as killing off wave energy research and the proposed Severn Barrage). Ironically, the NFFO (Non fossil fuel Obligation) the Tories slush fund for nuclear proved to be the kernel of the UK’s renewable revolution, largely due to the inability of the industry to deliver any serious growth in capacity, while the renewables industry stepped up to the plate.

More recently history repeated itself. The Tory/Lib dem government cancelled the proposed tidal energy project in the Severn, again blaming costs and environmental factors, ignoring the fact that technology has changed from a barrage in favour of tidal stream turbines and lagoons (indeed there is a proposal to build a large array of tidal stream turbines up in the Pentland Forth and a tidal lagoon in Swansea, demonstrating that such ideas are potentially viable). This was in part justified by the claim that nuclear was cheaper. Of course the nuclear industry has since let slip that this isn’t so.

Since then the Horizon deal has collapsed and EDF’s plans in Somerset hang in the balance. Of the 12 reactors promised, I would argue that its probable only 3-4 will actually be delivered at a substantially higher cost than originally pitched and probably much too late to close any “energy gap”….a gap caused by the failure of the nuclear industry to deliver along with their efforts to backstab rival industries.

And let’s not even begin to bring up the two whitest of white elephants in the nuclear industries closet, fast reactors and reprocessing. Both were originally sold as the panacea to all of the industry’s woes and that both would be commercially viable after a “small” cash injection from governments…..a couple of decades later, a radioactive spill or two (only a few tons of Plutonium!), many tens of billions of taxpayers cash and neither project has delivered a lot…other than lots of nuclear waste, the bill for disposing of which is being met by the taxpayer.

Consequently the report card for the nuclear industry would be to suggest that little darling Johnny needs to stop daydreaming in class and quit concocting outlandish fantasies, as he’s being disruptive to the other students. And the government need to stop the sort of helicopter parenting that the nuclear industry has enjoyed since its inception. After 40 years it’s kind of time for the nuclear industry to grow up and move out of the hotel of mum and dad.

Report Card III: Caught selling snake oil in class

Of course, we need to cut the nuclear industry some slack here. They’ve fallen in with a bad crowd. The gang who hang out and smoke behind the bike shed sorts, namely the fossil fuel industry. As I described in a prior post and as discussed by Jo Abbess, they’ve been engaging in a snake oil sales pitch of monumental proportions. They claim that there’s hundreds of year’s worth of shale gas under the US or the UK….actually its more like 10-22 year’s worth of reserves (courtesy of EIA estimates) in the US and 1.5 years (of present gas consumption) in the UK. Shale gas output in the US has already plateaued and while its difficult to be specific, the balance of probability is that both tight oil and shale gas output will peak sometime within the next decade within the US.

Figure 5, Past and projected future production of tight oil [Credit: Hughes etal (2013) http://www.postcarbon.org/drill-baby-drill/ ]

Figure 12: Past and projected future production of tight oil [Credit: Hughes, 2013]

While unconventional fossil fuel resources have succeeded in delaying the inevitable date of peak oil, they have probably only done so for a few years or a decade at most. Indeed many commentators would argue that the economic slow down has probably been the key factor that has driven down energy prices over recent years.

Worse still, unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands or shale oil has a much heavier carbon footprint than conventional fossil fuels and this has likely increased the carbon intensity of many industries at a time when the world can ill afford it. And the more carbon we pump into the atmosphere now, the more rapid will be the rate at which we need to switch to low carbon sources in the future.

Figure 6, GHG emissions by oil production method [Credit: Pershing & Kelly (ND), University of Utah http://www.ices.utah.edu/leftnavid3subleftnavid9subpage9 ]

Figure 13: GHG emissions by oil production method
[Credit: Pershing & Kelly (ND), University of Utah]

In many respects the fossil industry reminds me of this chancer I had for a student once, who never did any work, was always making up stuff (always had an excuse for being late with a coursework or missing a class), was very good at getting deferrals for stuff, etc. Once I caught him and one of his mates copying a lab report off another student….problem was the guy he copied off of didn’t have a clue. After award all three a mark of zero I left a comment at the bottom, suggesting that next time he thought of copying, try copying of someone who knows what he’s talking about!

Balancing it all – a failing class

Adding it all up, renewables are growing strongly, but not nearly by enough. Whether or not output can be raised sufficiently is difficult to say. Not least because, it’s not a simple matter of slapping up wind turbines and solar panels. Much of the world’s energy use is in the form of heat and transportation fuels, with significant seasonal variations in demand.

Thus there is a need to square the circle using energy storage, or by matching supply to demand (e.g. solar thermal is a useful match for hot water demand in many countries, solar PV tends to perform best when its sunny, exactly when air-con based demand peaks).

Unfortunately, anyone looking on the renewable industries short comings to argue the case for nuclear is barking up the wrong tree. Any form of growth in the nuclear industry in future is unlikely and even if some growth is possible, its barely a fraction of what level of growth renewables are already achieving, even when accessed on a TWh basis. In short, belief in the (don’t laugh) “nuclear renaissance” is starting to resemble belief in the tooth fairy

….and belief in shale gas is taking on the dimensions of myth and legend! It is being sold as the snake oil cure to all ills, even though the evidence suggests otherwise. The danger is, that unconventional fossil fuels are allowing certain people (notably those who hang out at watt’s-up-with-that) to put their fingers in their ears and start going “nah, nah, nah, not listening!”. However, when the inevitable happens, and these sources peak, the resulting “cold turkey” period will be all the more severe. As the 2005 Hirsch report spells out any transition away from fossil fuels would take at least 20 years (which I regard as a somewhat optimistic estimate!).

Ultimately this will probably mean cutting energy consumption to close the gap. Now while ideally I’d prefer to see modest cuts that don’t involve any serious curbing of people’s lifestyles, achieved by for example making homes more energy efficient or improved fuel economy of vehicles. However, present policies raise the risks of setting us on a course to a future where, having backed the wrong horses (nuclear and unconventional fossil fuels), we’ll face a yawning gap between the energy that can be met from renewables and dwindling fossil fuels and what we need to sustain this project we call civilisation.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in clean energy, climate change, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, nuclear, Passivhaus, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, sustainability, Tar Sands, technology, transport. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Global report card for renewables

  1. neilrieck says:

    I am assuming the brown “geothermal” line in figure #1 only relates to the production of electricity but there is another form of “geothermal technology” which acts to use electricity more efficiently. I am referring to ground-source heat pumps which have COPs (coefficient of performance) of 4-5 (e.g. for every watt of electrical energy consumed, they will provide you with the equivalent heat provided by a 4-5 watts of electrical heat). Cooling is even better. On a hot day, traditional air conditioners need to pump ambient indoor 22C degree heat into outside 30C degree air while a ground-source (er, sink) technology will have an easier job moving the same heat into 5-10C degree earth).

    p.s. I don’t work in this industry; but I did do some consulting work for Waterfurnace ( http://www.waterfurnace.com ) 20 years ago.

    • daryan12 says:

      I don’t think geothermal heat is included in the above figures, but will need to read the small print of the REN report again to confirm.

      Indeed, it is important we don’t obsess about electricity, heating and cooling, are important too. Indeed in most countries more energy is spent on heating and cooling than on electricity (20% electricity in the UK, v’s about 35% used for heating). And of course cooling systems and electric heaters tend by themselves to be a major source of seasonal energy demand.

      Heat pumps tend to be a bit like marmite, some love them others hate them. The problem is that in many practical situations getting a COP higher than 4 can be a struggle (they average about 3 or less in most UK installations). And given how much of the electricity comes from Fossil fuels, if the COP drifts below 3.3, once you account for losses in the power station, a good condensing boiler works out better from a carbon footprint point of view. And of course solar collectors tied to an absorption chiller unit can also be used to provide cooling loads.

      I tend to take a middle of the road view. Heat pumps have their place, particularly in situations where you can guarantee a good COP (e.g. a newly built/refurb’ed, well insulated house with underfloor heating or air-con heating/cooling) and a steady stream of low carbon electricity (roof top solar panel). I read about this Scottish community which is off the NG grid, who have coupled air-source heat pumps to locally produced wind energy to provide winter heating to homes. But like any technology, they have their limits.

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  3. a couple of decades later, a radioactive spill or two (only a few tons of Plutonium!)

    Your source actually says an estimated 160 kg of Pu, all recovered back to the primary containment.  It concludes “No radioactive material leaked to the environment and no one was injured.”

    Why all the hysteria over an equipment failure?  If it concerned a leak of a toxic chemical in any other industry, you’d never have heard about it.  The only reason this got written up anywhere is because certain people with media power relentlessly push, push, push the narrative that Nuclear Is Evil.  So much so, that “nuclear magnetic resonance” had to be given the euphemism “magnetic resonance imaging” (MRI) so patients wouldn’t freak out about harmless diagnostic tests!

    And nuclear power? Currently it supplies 2756 TWh’s worth of electricity (IEA, 2012), out of the worlds total final consumption of 8677 mtoe (IEA, 2012), or 101,231 TWh’s (so nuclear represents 3.3% of total final energy consumption).

    You’re comparing ELECTRICITY (after conversion losses) with TOTAL CONSUMPTION, probably of raw fossil fuels.  That counts the nuclear-fired electricity coming out, but the coal and gas going IN.  Dodgy accounting much?

    If you multiply the nuclear contribution by 3 to get raw thermal input for an apples/apples comparison, its share jumps to around 10%.  Note that this is DESPITE decades of vicious political attacks, propaganda and outright legal prohibition of nuclear energy in many nations.  If wind and solar had to endure the same you’d have to get a permit to buy PV-powered yard lights, which of course would not exist in the first place.

    What could nuclear energy do for us if we got sensible about it?  I doubt we’ll know during my lifetime, but there is no question that it could do far more.  Australia alone could switch from being its own best customer for coal to its own best customer for uranium.  Reactors cooled by molten metals or salts can supply higher temperature industrial process heat.  TRISO fuel has been tested to 1800°C without significant leakage of radionuclides.  It only takes 700-800°C to gasify small organic molecules in supercritical water, which can make renewable feedstocks for fuels and chemicals.  Most ground transport can just be electrified, eliminating the issue of fuel altogether.

    Eliminate the fuels, eliminate the carbon.  Making fuels and chemicals from biomass and nuclear process heat can even be a carbon-negative enterprise; the CO2 byproduct of processing can be reacted chemically with suitable minerals and never released to the atmosphere.  If renewables aren’t moving fast enough to do the job—and you say they aren’t—it’s time to look at things you find politically unappetizing.  But just because something tastes bad doesn’t mean it’s not good for you.  It’s time for Greens to do the metaphorical equivalent of eating their brussels sprouts.

    • daryan12 says:

      THORP leak
      The blase attitude with which you dismiss this leak at THORP is precisely why so few of the public take nuclear power seriously or believe a word out of its lobbyists mouth. THORP was the whitest of white nuclear elephants. Even my pro-nuclear friends wouldn’t try to defend it (or fast reactors) as they know such is to defend the undefensible. While initially billed as a “commercial” plant that would be revenue raising, it instead swallowed up billions of taxpayers money, has spend most of its life offline for maintenance, which is probably just as well as when it was actually put into use it turns out that tens of billions worth of hardware didn’t work properly. The Japanese even sent stuff back that had been processed thro the plant when they realised BNFL had been faking records and not performing proper checks. The leak in question was not detected and they only found out about it because of some bean counter going thro the records and realising a pile of PU was missing. The IAEA and many other (pro-nuclear) bodies were utterly scathing in their analysis about this incident, and for good reason, as it undermined the credibility of the entire industry.

      TFC
      Using TFC (total final energy consumption, i.e. the useful energy actually used by the customer) is a perfectly valid way of looking at energy statistics, particularly given that the bulk of this article involves Nuclear and Renewables and both output the bulk of their energy in the form of electricity, plus the fuel costs for both are either very low or completely free. Now I have seen some rather dishonest members of the nuclear lobby trying to take the TPES figures for nuclear (i.e. include the 2/3’s of energy from the reactors we throw away as saturated steam and hot water) and compare it to TFC figures for FF’s or renewables, however this won’t be accurate or appropriate (and again, its such “creative accounting” that has many doubting anything the nuclear lobby says). Indeed far from portraying nuclear in a negative light, I would argue the opposite, particularly when you consider the poorer relative efficiency of some renewable systems (e.g. 10-20% efficiency for solar PV or CSP, trad biomass is closer to 15-25%).

      TRISO
      I’m familiar with this idea and personally I’d argue that nuclear companies should be looking at gas cooled reactors as an alternative to LWR’s. However as I discussed in a prior post all the evidence is that such reactors would be even more expensive to build, slower to build (at least initially as the industry re-tools) and harder to decommission. Hence why the industry isn’t interested. And as for high temperatures, similar temperatures can be achieved via CSP, but the technical factors imposed (i.e. building everything out of exotic nickel or Titanium alloys) makes it prohibitively expensive at present.

      Electric cars
      I happen to agree that electric cars are a potentially good idea, and I’ve discussed such ideas on this blog before (here and here). However I’d make two points. Firstly the issue of batteries and ranges, at present batteries cannot provide a like for like replacement of petrol, particularly as some users (traveling salesmen, long distance lorry drivers, etc.) have usage cycles that would never really work with an electric car.

      Secondly, there the issue of where is all the electricity going to come from. You’ll probably say nuclear, but you don’t seem to consider the implications of that, e.g. if at 17:30 half the country gets home and plugs a few million cars into the grid all at the same time, where’s the power going to come from? Then there’s seasonal variation, fuel consumption tends to rise in the summer (just when many countries struggle to meet electricity demand due to air-con demand). The only solution would be to build in mass redundancy into the system (e.g. hundreds of nuclear plants with very low capacity factors (some peaking power plants have cap factors as low as 15%) and thus relatively high electricity costs) or some means of energy storage and smart grid technology, much as is proposed with renewables. But of course that would come with the same disadvantages and costs such a system would imply.

      • The blase attitude with which you dismiss this leak at THORP is precisely why so few of the public take nuclear power seriously or believe a word out of its lobbyists mouth.

        So questioning hysteria is now being “blasé”?  You think the comparison to chemical spills is not apt?  Then, pray tell, how do you calibrate your response?  Saying “anything nuclear is deadly” verges on outright paranoia.

        The tank was over a sump, with steam ejectors to empty it if something spilled.  The remedy for the equipment failure was there in the plant design from the beginning.  Despite the human stupidity, the designers saw to it that there was nobody hurt and no consequences beyond the site.  Why aren’t you fussing over a real problem, like the cost of fixing the leak and the original design flaws?

        Maybe the plant design is so bad as to be unusable.  Well, scrap it.  It’s not like billions aren’t wasted regularly on other government projects, especially failed software development efforts.

        Even my pro-nuclear friends wouldn’t try to defend it (or fast reactors) as they know such is to defend the undefensible.

        I suspect that they wouldn’t try to defend fast reactors to you, because they know how hardened your position is.  I’m sure there are some who won’t even let conversation drift to subjects nuclear in your presence.

        when it was actually put into use it turns out that tens of billions worth of hardware didn’t work properly.

        Okay, fine:  one British Purex-type reprocessing plant is screwed up.  What does this have to do with anything else that shares no features with it, such as the electrolytic “pyroprocessing” system designed for the Integral Fast Reactor?  If you say “everything”, you have to explain why many failed software projects worth billions haven’t taken out the entire Internet, including the WordPress servers which host this blog.

        Using TFC (total final energy consumption, i.e. the useful energy actually used by the customer) is a perfectly valid way of looking at energy statistics

        Not when the quality of that energy varies so widely.  One kWh of electricity can be turned into e.g. 5 kWh of space heat using a heat pump.  Do you count that as 1 kWh, or 5 kWh?  If you are counting carbon emissions or emissions avoided, the only legitimate measure is the thermal input or equivalent input for the same output.  That puts nuclear up at about 10% of world energy consumption.

        particularly given that the bulk of this article involves Nuclear and Renewables and both output the bulk of their energy in the form of electricity, plus the fuel costs for both are either very low or completely free.

        But you were talking world total energy consumption, not just electric generation.  That’s what “3%” was about.

        The EIA reports equivalent fuel consumption for wind and PV generation, based on the average of fossil-fired plants.  It also reports generation in standard units, billions of kWh.  The UK sites I’ve read list everything as “MTO(e)”, millions of tons of oil-equivalent, with no conversion factors and no footnotes.  The purpose appears to be to obfuscate; it certainly stopped me from doing any worthwhile analysis.

        Firstly the issue of batteries and ranges, at present batteries cannot provide a like for like replacement of petrol, particularly as some users (traveling salesmen, long distance lorry drivers, etc.) have usage cycles that would never really work with an electric car.

        The life-cycle of such vehicles is short enough that we can afford to take several design generations to get where we need to go, and what works for some users doesn’t have to work for anyone else.  People who don’t drive long distances can use EVs today.  Right now, plug-in hybrids can eliminate 75% of fuel consumption over standard ICEVs (comparing different drivetrains for the Ford Fusion) while retaining the ability to drive long, uninterrupted legs.  Diesels will do for those who drive such trips almost exclusively.  Batteries can be expected to continue their slow but steady improvement.  That’s enough to cut 80% of LDV liquid fuel consumption.  The USA is already putting 10% ethanol in its fuel, so getting the remainder from non-fossil sources looks feasible so long as non-biomass energy supplies e.g. the process heat.

        Concepts like the Bladerunner dual-mode transport (on electrified rail) could conceivably convert even long-distance goods transport completely to electric.  There are multiple power-from-the-road schemes (inductive and capacitive) which have the potential to do the same for passenger vehicles and light trucks even without advances in batteries.  That would pretty much de-carbonize the whole kit and kaboodle, and eliminate the air emissions in the bargain.

        there the issue of where is all the electricity going to come from. You’ll probably say nuclear, but you don’t seem to consider the implications of that, e.g. if at 17:30 half the country gets home and plugs a few million cars into the grid all at the same time, where’s the power going to come from?

        Where’s it going to come from in the all-RE scenario, where it’s dark when people get home and the winds might not come up in a big way for a couple of days?

        If you say “storage”, nuclear gets better use out of it because you can rely on the off-peak power every night and every weekend.  Also, people coming home at 5:30 PM often aren’t going out again.  Their cars can wait to charge, and get a better rate.  Being able to schedule half a TWH of demand every night would make a grid operator’s job a whole lot easier.  That eliminates most of the need for storage outside the car… so long as you’ve got that power available every night.  If not, it’s going to co$t you.

        Once the average car is an EV with a Tesla-class battery, most of this problem disappears.  Being able to go several days without charging, and using the car’s charger as a “load of convenience”, generation can just run at its best pace most of the time and let the vehicle fleet do the load-levelling.

        Then there’s seasonal variation, fuel consumption tends to rise in the summer (just when many countries struggle to meet electricity demand due to air-con demand). The only solution would be to build in mass redundancy into the system

        Air conditioning is actually the easiest case to handle.  You bury the equivalent of a small swimming pool, wrapped in foam insulation and laced with refrigerant coils.  A/C has traditionally been specced in “tons”, the equivalent of melting one ton of ice per day.  Three by three by ten meters is about 90 short tons of ice, enough to get through most summers without having to make more.  You could make ice in the spring, or even in the winter.  This was first done several decades ago; it was called ACES, the Annual Cycle Energy System.

        Another possibility is to use solar-driven absorption chillers for A/C, with some ice storage for hot-but-cloudy conditions.  Worse comes to worst, stored bio-methane could step in for AWOL sunshine and drive the chillers.  Spent gas wells are cheap storage and aren’t going to go away in anyone’s scenario.

      • daryan12 says:

        The difference between the likes of you and the colleagues or other bloggers online I speak of is that while pro-nuclear:
        A) They aren’t batsh&t crazy
        B) They live in the real world
        Indeed some of them work in the nuclear industry (or nuclear power is related to their main area of research). They are quite happy to advocate nuclear energy and engage in an informed debate, but ultimately the want a nuclear energy policy that has some change of working. In part because they know they are the guys in the trenches who will likely have to implement it.

        Pursuing mad cap schemes and repeating the mistakes of the past (definition of madness, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome) is not something they advocate as they realise that public patience on nuclear energy is limited and another nuclear boondoogle waste of public money (would you so casually write off THORP if it had blown a tens of billions of money on renewables?) could easily be the end of the industry, much as happened in Germany.

        PUREX v’s PYRO-Processing
        About the only difference he could see between PUREX and pyro-processing is that we know what can go wrong with the PUREX, while Pyro is completely theoretical and not as technically mature. In short it looks like a good idea more due to “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome and not much else.

        TPES v’s TFC
        You clearly don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. I don’t see how you could have difficulty looking up either set of stats or understanding why I present them as I do, other than the obvious – you don’t understand how energy systems work. Something that is supported by you’re failure to understand what an “mtoe” is (which stands for “millions of tons of oil equivalent”, its not MTO(e)).
        You claim not to be unable to find sets of data that give TFC? Well here’s the stats from the IEA:
        http://www.iea.org/sankey/#?c=World&s=Balance
        http://www.iea.org/sankey/#?c=United%20Kingdom&s=Balance

        And here’s the DUKES stats for the UK. Both give TPES figures and TFC’s and break it down by consumption pathways, etc. It’s not exactly rocket science!

        One assumes your problem is that you keep sticking your fingers in your ears or covering your eyes when the threat of seeing or hearing anything that would contradict you’re little fantasies appears.

        Heat pumps
        So overinflating energy stats by 3 fold wasn’t good enough for you so you want to multiply by 5, why don’t you just make it 33 and then you can go around claiming 100% of the world’s energy is nuclear?

        And since we’re talking about heat pumps, you are aware that the COP you get is dependant on the temperature difference. The way most UK homes are heated you’d struggle to get a COP of more than 2. Not bad performance if its coupled to a wind turbine or a dam, but if its tied to a thermal power station (nuclear or gas fired) this could work out as having a lower overall efficiency than a condensing boiler (2×0.33 = 66% v’s 80-90%) or a CHP unit (70-85%, one nuclear supporter once proposed to me the whacky idea of building a reactor right bang in the middle of London and using it as a CHP plant, while I can’t fault him on a technical level, I doubt its going to be sellable on a political level).

        As I discuss (here) heat pumps have their place, but they are not some sort of magical perpetual motion device…..

        Energy storage
        …..No more than nuclear reactors are a magical device that will magically grow & function due to the scattering of pixie dust!
        As I point out in the article above the growth rate of nuclear is currently non existent and the most probable growth rate we can realistically envisage is a tiny fraction of what’s needed, never mind the small detail that nuclear power is increasingly proving to be more expensive than renewables (notably onshore wind) particularly for the sorts of energy loads that we would use to charge batteries or energy storage systems.
        There may be some roles for nuclear to play on the grid related to energy storage (as I speculate here) but they are limited, not least by a availability of reactors in the future.

        EV’s
        I’ve just recently started working with a low carbon vehicle research unit and the long and short of it is if EV’s worked as brilliantly as the rosy propaganda you hear from TESLA was true, we’d be the first to start shouting it, but its not…the truth is a little more “complicated” much like everything else in the world of engineering (Then again, if everything was as easy to implement as the rosy propaganda suggested, the world won’t need engineers!).

        Part of the problem is that, the energy consumption of a vehicle varies due to a variety of factors such as driver behaviour, weather, types of driving (motorway, heavy traffic, hilly, etc.). Also customers (in particular a number of fleet vehicle operators whom we are working with) often have very specific vehicle requirements that currently electric vehicles can struggle to match.

        There is a role for the electric car yes, indeed I’ve long argued the problem isn’t the technology, but our peculiar habits of having to own a car that spends 90% of its life rusting by the road side not in use, as I discuss here. But its far from a silver bullet solution.

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