Saturday, August 26, 2017

Addressing Anti-Nuclear Myths: Part 1a

In this post I deal with LCoE (Levelised Cost of Electricity) reports.

As I stated in Part 1 of this series, LCoE reports are used extensively as ‘evidence’ of why a particular electricity generator type is an economically sound investment. It seems there’s an LCoE for each and every type that compares it favourably against all others.

But as we’ll see below, certain generator types are better candidates for accurate LCoE reports that others.

Part 1a: To LCoE or not to LCoE - that is the question

Firstly, every LCoE contains a list of assumptions and constraints. Because we live a dynamic, complex world things are rarely simple or apparent to everyone, and the people preparing the LCoE have to make assumptions to justify the data inputs. In a well-written and properly researched LCoE, these are based on peer-reviewed scientific papers and other real-world verifiable sources, and guesswork is kept to a minimum.

Even then, there’s no guarantee those assumptions will become reality over time. That’s simply the nature of modelling future events and conditions. It gets even more nebulous when you consider the importance of selecting the right peer-reviewed literature to use.

It’s a bit like nailing jelly (jello) to a tree.

Another key component in all LCoE calculations are projections. There are projections made to satisfy almost all aspects of cost calculations, such as fuel, compliance with regulation, maintenance, etc. These should be based on the assumptions and constraints already defined, and often bring rise to ever more assumptions and constraints based on those projections.

It’s no wonder they can get caught up in a constraint loop and lose objectivity.

Then along comes the media and other vested interests who analyse these reports and make further assertions on the effect of their findings on ordinary folk. This results in yet more layers of abstraction, confusion and misdirection.

However, it is possible to make a determination of the veracity of an LCoE based on the nature of the generator being evaluated. Current Renewables (with the possible exception of geothermal) all have one glaring feature that renders any Renewables LCoE unacceptably inaccurate from the get-go - they rely on and are dependent on the WEATHER.

LCoEs need to make projections of the yield of the generator they're evaluating, and this is where Renewables LCoEs inevitably FAIL.

There is no way to predict the weather in any given location with the accuracy needed for costing a Renewables generator plant. Period. As a result, there is no way to accurately predict the yield of electricity from that plant. Local weather conditions are notoriously unpredictable at any single point in time, which means energy yield is subsequently notoriously variable. This includes solar which is at the mercy of something as innocuous as a cloud, regardless of solar plant type.

Of course for every minute of lost yield there needs to be electricity available from another source to handle demand. If that energy source isn’t another Renewables plant with excess available yield, then it has to come from another source. Batteries are touted as a way to guarantee this availability. This is a fatally flawed option because batteries are NOT generators and so need to be charged by a generator themselves. If that generator is intermittent there is no way to predict the availability of sufficient battery charge. So the 'real' backup generator of choice is Gas. Any backup Gas usage profile would be as notoriously variable as the Renewables generator it’s backing up. As there is no way of accurately predetermining this profile, there go your LCoE calculations!

Every time I see a report of a town or city claiming they have or will soon 'go 100% Renewable for their electricity' I cringe. I cringe because I know they really mean they're sourcing their electricity from Renewables generators backed up by a dispatch-able source such as Gas. It's deception at its most damaging, and people need to read the fine print (often not present in media reports or industry spin).

The energy sources with the best operating profiles for LCoEs as accurate as required are the dispatch-able ones: Coal, Gas and Nuclear. Hydro and Geothermal are intermediate in their yield profiles and so are also better than other Renewables in this respect.

Coal, Gas and Nuclear have predictable fuel requirements the cost of which, with the probable exception of Gas right now, are relatively stable. Stable costs are supposed to mean better predictability and so more accurate LCoEs, but even here sometimes they don't.

This is painfully borne out by real-world experience. In the case of nuclear in USA and Europe, another set of assumptions have proven to be as unreliable as the weather. Man-made obstructions such as incompetence, public opinion, political will and market interference have taken their toll on new plant builds.

So even when the technology and yield curves are predictable, there are other assumptions that can derail LCoE reports. So why would you put any faith in an LCoE (or an electricity generator) with the additional uncontrollable variable of weather listed as an operational yield constraint?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Addressing Anti-Nuclear myths: Part 1

I’ve seen a lot of anti-nuclear sentiment over the years from people on FaceBook, Twitter and other social media forums, and they all seem to follow the same tired by-lines.

So I thought I’d begin a series of posts addressing these myths.

I have been criticised by people both for and against nuclear energy for the bluntness of these calculations. Please note this is not an attempt at an LCoE (Levelized Cost of Equity/Energy/Electricity - see? Even the acronym is nebulous), but rather a reflection on the kind of assessment most people make when they see headlines like 'Nuclear costs blowout to $25Billion'.

Even though a properly researched and detailed LCoE report is the best way to fully assess the cost of an energy source, people don't immediately consult their nearest LCoE report do they? No, they make a direct basic calculation in their head and conclude that nuclear is too expensive.

This post is designed to show that even at billion dollar levels the basic calculations they make don't necessarily prove nuclear is any more expensive than renewables.

I'm sure hardened critics will immediately Google for an LCoE that matches their basic assessment, and supporters will do the same. In my view, we need to get back to basics, or at least to a set of assumptions we can all agree on. Frankly, I'm sceptical of the accuracy of 'weighted average cost of capital' over a 90 year timeframe. Too many things can happen in 90 years. Even 30 years.

But if this article prompts you to deep-dive into the relative costs of energy sources, all power to you, but take note LCoEs are a dime-a-dozen and I haven't seen one yet that's truly independent, peer reviewed, and without unverifiable long-term assumptions or wide margins of error.

Part 1. Nuclear is too Expensive

Compared to what? Modern nuclear power plants are built to last - their expected lifespans are 80-100 years. Anti-nuclear people triumphantly tout costs like $24 Billion for Hinkeley C in the UK, and more than $25 Billion for Vogtle in the USA. These are very large numbers, true, but let’s break it down.

Hinkeley C’s NET capacity when completed is 3,200MW of electricity [1].
Vogtle’s additional NET capacity when completed is 2,234MW of electricity [2].

Energy yields from these plants is expected to be around 95% of that capacity 24 hours/day, year round and unaffected by weather.
No backup power sources or battery storage required.

Compare that with solar plants Ivanpah CSP and the proposed South Australian CSP plant ‘Aurora’.

Ivanpah’s NET capacity is just 277MW but can only actually produce 20.5% of that capacity [3]. Yet it cost a staggering $2.2 Billion to build.
Aurora’s NET capacity is a mere 150MW. It is expected to produce at 56% capacity, but its sister plant (Crescent Dunes in the USA - 110MW) has only been able to produce 16% of capacity[4]. The price tag for Aurora? $650 Million!

Both these plants are heavily reliant on backup gas generators (NOT included in the costs above) and their yield entirely depends on weather conditions and seasonal fluctuations. As a result they don’t (and can’t) live up to the hype. They also last around 25-30 years[5].

So, let’s do some maths:
There are 24 * 365.25 = 8766 hours per year where electricity is needed.
So to calculate MWh per year generation, we multiply capacity by hours by % capacity factor:
Hinkely C = 3,200 * 8766 * 95% = 26,648,640 MWh per year
Vogtle = 2234 * 8766 * 95% = 18,604,081.8 MWh per year
Ivanpah = 277 * 8766 * 20.5% = 497,777.31 MWh per year
Aurora = 150 * 8766 * 56% = 736,344 MWh per year

As you can see, I’ve taken an optimistic view of capacity factor in the case of Aurora, where we have no actual data.

So, let’s extrapolate that to a per MWh cost, which is $/(MWh per year * lifetime (years)). I’m taking the lifetime of a nuclear plant as 90 years (the median) and solar CSP as the maximum of 30 years:
Hinkley C = 24,000,000,000/(26,648,640 * 90) = $10 per MWh
Vogtle = 25,000,000,000/(18,604,081.8 * 90) = $14.93 per MWh
Ivanpah = 2,200,000,000/497,777.31 * 30) = $147.32 per MWh
Aurora = 650,000,000/(736,344 * 30) = $29.42 per MWh

Also note that the limited hours for actual generation for CSP (daylight hours) means that significant gas is needed to make up that capacity factor, and the costs here for CSP do NOT include that extra cost! Due to the relative small amount of fuel needed for the nuclear plants, for now I’m going to suggest fuel costs between the systems cancel each other out.

And remember, CSP plants will need to be completely replaced 3 times over the nuclear plant lifetimes.

So is nuclear more expensive? Absolutely not. In fact it’s far cheaper.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

If Only We Could Clone Enough Monkeys...

A new Renewable Energy solution for the world.

It seems the Renewables Energy debate has reached new levels of hype and hysteria recently, with arguments descending into assinine number crunching to justify titanic expenditure requirements.

"If we put 400 sq miles under solar panels in the middle of the Sahara...."
"It would only take 93,000 windmills on 39 windfarms 30 miles off the coast of...."
"We only need to re-cable 358,000 klms to upgrade the grid across the countries of...."

Holy crap. It's gotten so bad that I've come up with a new Renewable Energy designed with something for everyone:

Monkey Power

Here are some of the benefits:
  • It's renewable.
  • It's low-carbon (zero carbon during operation with methane storage).
  • It works 24/7/365.
  • It can replace coal *and* gasolene (put some monkeys in your car!)
  • It's more energy dense than wind or solar.
  • It doesn't need any additional grid requirements over that of solar or wind.
  • You can put the power stations anywhere. Only the survival of the monkeys need be considered.

In short, it covers all the Climate Change mitigation requirements - and does it better than solar or wind!

We only have a few things to do to get this up and running. I estimate we only need about 15 monkeys per person, with enough storage for 3 extras to allow for intermittency due to fatigue or death.

The choice of monkey species is important. It must be low-carbon, clone-friendly and strong enough to last at least 5 years to allow for growth of new monkeys to replace them.

Waste management is an issue. Monkey poo is pretty toxic, but we can recycle it to grow the renewable fuel - bananas.

We will need at least 20 bananas per day per monkey.

And we'd need one bicycle per monkey and 10% extra for maintenance repacements, etc.

So we're going to need the following basic materials (allowing for a world human population of around 9 billion):
  1. 135,000,000,000 operating monkeys
  2. 27,000,000,000 storage monkeys
  3. 9,900,000,000 bicycles
  4. 10,000,000,000 banana trees
  5. 9,900,000,000 bicycle generators
  6. 4,950,000,000 cubic metres of concrete (.5 per monkey station)
  7. 150 cloning labs (to grow 162,000,000,000 monkeys every 5 years)
  8. 500,000,000,000 square feet (11,478,420.5693297 acres) of fertile land under bananas (4 ft radius circle per tree)
Other considerations:
  • Best to site all power stations near the equator (but NOT on islands that may be underwater soon!).
  • Best to plant banana trees around the power stations to eliminate the need for transportation.
  • Grow a further 20% banana trees to allow for diseases.
  • Use straighter cavendish bananas. These may be packed more efficiently than bendy lady fingers.
  • Monkey poo processing should be done on site. We can't have this stuff moving around the country.
  • Methane from monkey 'gas excretions' can be used to provide lighting and power for the poo processors.

We should be able to get this up and running in under 10 years if we can get the co-operation of every country in the world and spend approximately 467.5 Trillion US Dollars.... OH SHIT - there's a problem! Bananas contain radioactivity!

Better scrap THIS idea, then!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Questions About Renewable Energy You Can (And Should) Ask

It seems that everyone around us is trying to convince us of the merits of various energy sources by quoting other people. Twitter is awash with tweets such as "What's the future of Wind Energy?" or "Can Solar meet the challenge?", and then go on to quote someone we don't know who lives in some far-away place, and who likely has their own agenda on energy, or may be paid to provide that report.

Can we verify that source? No, not really. We can Google the name in the hope we can get background information, but that rarely provides any real insight into the impartiality of the person, or their motives. Sometimes you get lucky, as I did with Jo Abbess, because she doesn't hide the fact that she's anti-nuclear, but mostly it's a closed book.

So we are largely left with our own values and judgements. How then, do we get the information we need to make an informed choice? In an earlier post I talked about using your own self-evident truths to evaluate what you read to sort out the crap from the credible. However the complexity of the science in some of these reports can make it very difficult to understand how the content applies against our yardsticks. Often the reports themselves are designed to hide the whole truth in favour of the author's intended message.

But there are some questions we can ask ourselves when reading about the leading renewable energy sources - Wind and Solar. Below I analyse some common basic questions and their current status. You will see there are questions still to be asked and answered:

  1. What happens when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine? The current solution is a combination of one or more of:
    1. Backup storage This means batteries of some sort - either current technology such as lead-acid, or it can mean molten salts, or flywheels, or pumped water. Basically this option relies on there being excess energy generated above demand to charge the batteries.
    2. Redundant windmills and panels This means build much more capacity than we expect to need (overbuild) so that we guarantee we have energy to spare to provide power to other areas where the wind isn't blowing. This option identifies the need for transmission lines (aka 'Smart Grid') connecting Wind Farms and Solar plants across the country (and possibly the world).
    3. Standby coal or gas generators This is the current popular option used by Germany and others - gas is more popular because it can be switched off and on more readily than coal. This (gas) option is also driving the message that we don't need base-load power generation at all.
  2. How many windmills and solar panels do we need? You will find that this question doesn't have a definite answer. Because we can't predict the weather, we can't predict accurately the amount of wind. With solar we can more accurately predict sunshine, though. What is certain is the answer to this question will be 'an extremely large number'. You will also find that, as populations and economies grow, we will be constantly building and maintaining more.
  3. Can solar and wind do it alone? Currently even the staunchest allies of renewable energy have to admit "no, they can't". There will always need to be an on-demand backup generator that uses a fuel that does not directly depend on the weather (such as gas).
  4. How much is enough backup? The current answer is 'it depends'. It depends on the wind or sunlight available. With solar (and to an extent wind) it also depends on the season. In both cases this will vary with the region, energy demand, and the already changing climate.
  5. How much will this cost? This question is never answered adequately, because:
    1. It's a huge figure. Redundancy and backup storage do not generate energy on their own but at least triple the cost of Wind and Solar installations. And then there's the backup (gas) generators, and the need to constantly build new plants to keep up with energy demand.
    2. It's a constantly moving target. When your energy source relies on the weather, every second of every day is a variable that needs to be factored into every aspect of these technologies. How many blackouts do you think you can live with?
  6. Isn't climate change all bunkum? Do we need to change at all? That question no longer has any meaning. Your government and governments around the world are already forcing change upon you. Windmills and solar panels are heavily subsidised using tax-payer funds and huge sums are being invested. So instead of focusing on the already hopelessly bogged down debate on climate change, take a look at whether your money is being wisely invested.

Here are some more questions I ask myself about energy:

  • How much am I willing to pay for my energy?
  • Why would I want weather-dependent energy when I can have reliable, 24/7, guaranteed energy when I want it?
  • What high-capacity, safe, proven clean energy sources are there that are ready now and can be built quickly?
  • Why should we replace our entire electricity grid when we can replace gas and coal power stations directly with new, clean, non-emitting power stations that use what we already have?

So, if your opinion is that renewable energy systems such as solar and wind will solve all our energy and climate change problems, look again. There are serious questions that these technologies will never address. Relying on energy sources that rely on the weather is a self-evident and very expensive folly.

Take a good, long look at nuclear power. Don't just stop at Chernobyl or the 40-year old Fukushima plant (although if you scratch below the surface you may be quite surprised at the real story).

Investigate the new nuclear plant designs and see how the technology has evolved. If you want to see the future of nuclear, take a look at the liquid core designs at the cusp of commercialisation, such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor or the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor.

And finally, take a good look at what option will ultimately cost you the least.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Response to Helen Caldicot

When I read this blog entry and the snide comments about Barry Brook provided by one of the commenters, I'm afraid I just had to respond.  I don't expect this response to be made visible because it rebuffs Helen's entire propaganda scheme, so I'm putting it here:

First, the blog entry is here:

Now my comment:
I find it ironic that a blog called IF YOU LOVE THIS PLANET, would be so against nuclear power. If you love this planet, you should be finding solutions to global warming that work, not spreading fear about the only energy source with a chance to achieve that goal.

The message espoused by Helen Caldicot and others is naive in the extreme, and hasn’t been implemented because it’s unworkable in reality. Helen Caldicot’s views are outdated, misleading, and misguided.

How long are we going to wait for crackpot schemes to fail before we actually do something positive to combat global warming? Regardless of your feelings on nuclear power, it has proven itself many times over to be the safest of the energy sources, and the most abundant.

Barry Brook was one of you. He was staunch anti-nuclear all his life - until he realized renewables cannot work, and actually took the time to investigate all aspects of nuclear power. He recognizes that current reactors are old and need replacing, but he also recognizes that new designs are as safe as any energy source today.

It’s time for the people who LOVE THIS PLANET to start behaving like people who want to keep the biodiversity, the climate and the environment that means so much to us all.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Little Bit of Clarity

Over the past few months I have been accused on Twitter for being something that I'm not.

I have been accused of being pro-nuclear, anti-solar, anti-renewables, and absurdly, a paid member of the nuclear industry PR team!  I am none of these.

So I thought I would clarify my position on nuclear power, renewables and thorium, so that anyone who is inclined to believe the rantings of some individuals on the #Thorium Twitter thread may be directed here to correct their views on me.

My views are most accurately described as anti fossil fuel.  I am not against renewables, just deeply sceptical, and I am not pro-nuclear (per se).  Rather I see nuclear power as the best (only) alternative we have to fossil fuel burning.  And further, I see liquid core nuclear reactors as the ultimate power source for all of us.  Liquid core reactors are the definition of safe nuclear power, and are embodied in the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).

I see the burning of fossil fuel as a dirty, dangerous and unnecessary source of electrical power. It causes thousands of deaths every year and pollutes our air, water and land. The burning of coal is particularly obscene. Huge amounts of the stuff are mined and burned with little regard for the pollutants they release and lives they risk, both animal and human.  It is an outdated and obsolete technology we no longer need.

The world has since embraced the idea of so-called "renewable" energy.  Gigantic sums of money, time and effort have been expended in harnessing the sun and wind in the hope it can offset fossil fuels.  Unfortunately, after more than a decade of concentrated effort, these endeavours have actually accelerated the adoption and use of fossil fuels, rather than displaced them.  I was relieved to learn Japan will be re-starting reactors soon.  I expect Germany will follow.

And behind all of this activity is the ongoing debate on climate change. For me, the climate change debate is largely moot.  It serves only to show how selfish people are and how inept we are at working together for the common good.  Whether we are facing catastrophic climate change or not, I still want to see the burning of fossil fuel for energy stopped, and stopped soon.

Which brings me to the only energy source that makes sense - Nuclear power.  When I started looking into this more than a year and a half ago, I knew little of nuclear power.  It was an obscure, secretive energy source that seemed to be little used in the world. I was only really aware of it as the source of propulsion in the submarine stories I love to read and watch.

I only really started to take an interest when I heard of thorium.  Ironically it was that hoax story on thorium cars that peaked my curiosity.  Research on thorium led me to reactors, which led me to the history of nuclear power, and finally to radiation and the fear around it.  It has been a fascinating and illuminating journey.

I have read six books on nuclear power, reactors and radiation, and attended three international seminars on thorium and nuclear power.  I have also read numerous research papers, blogs, and critiques from both pro- and anti-nuclear sources, and I have had many debates on Twitter.  I have come to believe that the dangers posed by radiation are so overstated as to be absurd.  Some of the statements on radiation effects I have read are criminal, and have caused many more deaths through fear and panic than the radiation itself.

I have also come to believe that the dangers posed by nuclear reactors also very overstated and laced with the same fear that radiation invokes.  The nuclear event at Fukushima not only polarised the world's opinion of nuclear technology, it also also polarised the anti-nuclear community.  Significant numbers of people who were anti-nuclear all their lives have started to rethink their positions.

I don't hate anti-nuclear people.  In fact some of my best friends have clear anti-nuclear positions.  I find, however, that anti-nuclear sentiment is deeply rooted in a general ignorance of how nuclear power is made and the reactor technology it uses.  They don't realise that more than 440 reactors have been running for up to 50 years without significant problems, and they don't know the difference between a nuclear reactor and a nuclear weapon.

Most people simply haven't taken the time and effort to properly consider it - just like me a couple of years ago.  Well, I'm in this to change that as much as I can.

If you have any questions, please tweet me - MattRobinson65

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The biggest threat of all to the Renewable Energy industry

I have spent a lot of time exploring the pros and cons of all the various energy options being considered around the world, and of the risks and benefits of each, and I have come to the conclusion that there is a very large elephant in the room that no one really speaks of.  It's as if no one wants to admit to it's existence for fear it may actually be there.

But it is there, and it's a monster.

It's not whether renewable energy sources can provide adequate 24hr power to keep our economies going.

It's not whether the climate change science is true.

It's not even whether fossil fuels are responsible for climate change.

The elephant in the room is the prospect of safe nuclear power.

It's absolutely terrifying.  The thought that the billions (trillions) of dollars spent on fossil and renewable energy will be wasted, and the reputations of countless renewables advocates and government policy makers trashed, is simply too much to bear.

Unfortunately for all those people, safe, reliable, abundant nuclear energy is coming.  Whether it's China, or India, or the UK, or Russia, or Iran, or even the USA, someone is going to crack it.  It's going to happen before fusion - a long time before fusion, and when it happens, every windmill, solar panel, tidal engine, coal station, gas pipeline and fracking well faces complete obsolescence.

No matter what people say, energy density is king, and whomever has the densest energy source will hold the keys to the kingdom.  It is a simple, unassailable fact.

Not only is safe nuclear energy coming, it's going to be modular and portable.  It's going to be self-contained, manufactured.  It's not going to need water for cooling. It can be placed underground, inside a mountain, at the bottom of the ocean, anywhere where it's needed, and out of the way.

It's going to run largely unattended, be walk-away safe and proliferation safe. Even if broken open, it won't spread radiation. The fuel will self-seal.

And it will run for centuries.

And finally, it has already been engineered and tested.  It only needs commercialisation. It will likely take the form of a liquid-fueled reactor like the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) or the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR).

So be afraid.  Be very afraid.  It's something we all need to be aware of and ready for.  Our governments need to be taking notice, because this particular technology race is going to be the global game-changer of this century.

Regardless of your prejudices, your advocacies and your particular favourite renewable, you and your governments should be making sure of your place at this table.  Even if you hate nuclear with a passion, you won't be able to ignore it.  If you do, someone else will hold the keys to your future.