How to Power the Future

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154 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    Hoping Will will post this as part of his weekly news dump, as it’s contra to his last one.

    2) You do realize we almost lost Detroit because of nuclear powered subs? Nuclear Powered Jets lost us Quehana. Saxton lost tons of babies (born and unborn). And we were nowhere near close to Armageddon on Fukishima. Had the spent fuel caught, we would have been in serious trouble. As it is, Japan’s agriculture is severely impacted (as is America’s). Fission may be proven, but it has come at a cost, and one that we seem unwilling to bear. May I suggest fusion? That at least doesn’t make russia into a powerbroker.


    4) How the heck did you not mention geothermal? 😉

    5) GE says that that flyash spill was not likely to harm humans, despite the fishkill. I can cite sources on how many humans were harmed as a result of TMI. (note: yes, indeedy, I am shifting the ground of debate).Report

    • Kim in reply to Kim says:

      There is an actual argument for why not nuclear, contained in my 5) above… It’s a lot easier for a gov’t/corp to hide deaths/illnesses if they’re far from the proximate cause.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kim says:

      1) Improvements in efficiency will continue to drive down CO2, because the fewer dead dinosaurs we have to burn, the better, no matter what.

      2) There were a lot of mis-steps with nuclear back in the 50s & 60s while we learned about it. I suspect once we’ve got fusion figured out (some significant amount of time from now) we will have some major mis-steps with that as well. The thing is, we’ve learned a lot from those early mis-steps, we should not be so quick to say never to fission.

      3) I like vertical turbines, since they are omni-directional and have a much smaller foot print. However, they are not as efficient as the big bladed axial turbines. Still, they do fit my ideal of urban turbines.

      4) OMG! How did I miss that! Thanks for mentioning it. Geothermal is another awesome small/local scale resource, although one rather limited to where it can affordably be implemented. Still, where ever possible, a plant should exist. The big problem with residential geothermal is installation cost/hassle & the cost of failure of the buried system. I’m not sure if those issues have been adequately addressed by the manufacturers yet. Such systems are not as common here in the PNW, because open air heat pumps work fine since we just don’t get that cold.

      5) GE lies. TMI? Too much information?Report

    • George Turner in reply to Kim says:

      I always wondered what actually happened in Detroit. From the modern photos it’s obvious that it suffered some kind of devastating disaster of Biblical proportions.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Kim says:

      “You do realize we almost lost Detroit because of nuclear powered subs? Nuclear Powered Jets lost us Quehana”

      What the heck are you talking about?Report

  2. George Turner says:

    Somehow you skipped liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR), one of my favorites! China has announced that they’ll be pursing the technologies at full speed, probably because the LFTR folks made such compelling arguments in their many tech talks and lectures on Youtube.

    Anyway, I think wind turbines can play a role, with good siting and more robust and mature designs (Many of the early wind farms stand rusting as stark monuments to failure). There are many areas where they make little sense as investments, such as parts of the Southeast where they’d see little wind during the years between windmill toppling hurricanes.

    When talking about energy infrastructure, freak weather events are something that needs to be factored in. Most conventional energy supplies are quite immune to nature’s usual assaults, aside from nuclear plants hit by Earthquakes and tidal waves – and the periodic temporary shutdowns of offshore drilling during hurricanes, because most of our power stations are small and tough, operating on high-density energy sources. Taking advantage of low-density power sources like wind and solar, while keeping costs low, necessarily mean the construction of large, fairly fragile installations. I was was an investor thinking about a new solar PV system with a 15-year payback, and noticed that it was being sited in an area where the period between thunderstorms producing baseball-sized hail was five or ten years, I’d hold on to my wallet.

    The other issue with large solar PV installations, as they become more common, is how long it will take illegal aliens to figure out that showing in the middle of the night with a couple trucks and some tools, to load up as many cells as possible before the cops can get there, is far far more lucrative than stealing copper power lines. Not only do they get free electricity from then on, but they can sell the stolen installations to the same homeowners that hired them for lawn care. The power companies not only lose their investment, they spend the next 10-years having to pay for the electricity being put on the grid by their own stolen cells. I’m sure at some point an executive will look out upon some missing acres of panels and sigh, “Somewhere in Central Mexico, another village is about to go independent from the grid.” A socialist revolutionary would call it “seizing the means of production.”Report

    • Kim in reply to George Turner says:

      Most conventional energy supplies are quite immune to nature’s usual assaults
      ConEd is now not a conventional energy supply?Report

    • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

      Well, yes, they are, other than the power lines leading out. When was the last time you heard of a conventional plant being shut down for a year because of a thunder storm? About the only way to shut one down is with cruise missiles and smart bombs (as we did in the Gulf War). We’ve tried conventional bombing of coal stockpiles, and planners finally realized that when you bomb a coal yard, you’re just rearranging all the little coal piles.

      In contrast, when a solar PV installation gets pounded into debris by grapefruit size hail, you have to shovel up all the components and put them in a land fill as if you’d never built it in the first place. However the switching equipment would still be good, and that’s a big part of the cost.

      One of the other problems with solar PV is that even if the cells were absolutely free, the frames, siting, installation, operations, and maintenance costs would keep the electricity at or above six or seven cents per kWh in the South West, and twelve or so cents a kWh further north.Report

  3. Chris says:

    I’m looking forward to Cain commenting on this one! Me, I got nothin’. I know about as much about energy as I know about Aboriginal Tasmanian dance.Report

  4. Kazzy says:

    Dan Brown he of “The Da Vinci Code” and other silliness, made a good point in one of the books (I think “Angels and Demons”), basically saying that we rushed into nuclear before we could demonstrate the safety and rushed into wind/solar before we could demonstrate effectiveness. So even if one or both improves on its weaknesses, both have developed a certain perception that is hard to get people to move off.Report

    • morat20 in reply to Kazzy says:

      I’ve been pretty happy with solar the last decade. With one thing or another, the field is starting to mature and really explore it’s potential.

      Living in Houston gives one, I suppose, a certain desire for solar. Mostly because it’s so freakin’ hot and WHY CAN’T WE USE THAT BURNING SUNLIGHT TO GIVE US SHADE AND POWER OUR AC!

      Seriously, every time I get into a car that’s been left in a parking lot I think “God, I can’t wait until solar is cheap enough to COVER THIS STUPID PARKING LOT and give my car some shade. And also green something something renewable energy”.

      But yeah, solar’s got a sorta hippy vibe to it and like everything else when it rolled out it was twitchy, expensive, fragile, and not even remotely mature.

      But I’m starting to see panels more and more — it’s not taking off residentially, but the cities — and even power companies — around here seem keen to build it into lots of stuff. I see it powering everything from portable radar machines — the ones that tell you how fast you’re going and blink red at you if you’re speeding to being basically built into school zone lights, street lights, and a lot of other little powered dealies like that.Report

      • Kim in reply to morat20 says:

        Solar’s about double the cost of other stuff. It’s not bad, truly.

        Solar Thermal (get rid of the water heater) is actually pretty decent… for Houston.Report

      • morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        Nah, PV’s are almost down to 2 dollars a watt, installed. And trending lower.

        it’s pricier here in the US, mostly because we lack any sizeable installation base or expertise. Germany reaps some pretty nice dividends, for instance, just because they’ve made a big push so there’s lots of companies and lots of installers so “putting in PV panels” is closer to adding a new roof in terms of “how hard is it to find a company to do it and skilled workers”.

        Down here in Houston, there’s maybe 6 or 7 companies tops that handle PV setup and install.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to morat20 says:

        Really the issue with PV is the fragile nature of the cells. A good hail storm, hurricane, near miss of a tornado, or even a solid thunderstorm can turn it all into so much trash.

        I’m hoping materials like Gorilla Glass will improve the durability of such installations such that adverse weather can be effectively shrugged off.Report

      • George Turner in reply to morat20 says:

        Texas is a place where you might justify added costs just for hail protection, perhaps designing your parking lot installation to both track seasonal sun angle and flip upside down in the event of a hailstorm. Long connecting links hooked to a threaded drive rod would do it, and you could use almost anything on the bottom of the panels for protection, even thick plastic or thin concrete.

        SiO2 coated panels are damaged by 1-inch hail, and panels with acrylic sheets are damaged by 2-inch hail, and Texas does get hit with serious hail damage, occasionally up to grapefruit size.

        Fortunately most of the solar PV installations are the Southeast, where the frequency and severity of such events is much less, but in the Northeast and other regions it is an issue (Lot’s of solar homeowners post dramatic pictures on the Internet).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to morat20 says:


        My region simply won’t work for solar. Not now, at least. Not enough sun, too many days with snow cover, etc. I have no objection to it otherwise. If it worked for us and we could afford the capital costs, I’d have no issue adopting it.

        Unless the cells get really efficient, you’re always going to have an issue in more northern (or southern, on the flip side) regions. Texas, the southwest, and Cali should be fine. New York? Possibly never. And I can’t imagine an efficient way to transfer the energy from the south to the north, but I could be wrong on that.Report

      • greginak in reply to morat20 says:

        Kazzy, i’m not sure about that. Germany has made major strides in using solar. The weather in Germany, especially nothern germany, is no worse that NY state.Report

      • morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        Kazzy: Germany. Seriously. Munich is 7 degrees further north than New York, and trust me nobody talks about all the super sunny weather germany gets.

        People think you need to live in the Sahara for PV’s to be worth it. Really, really not the case. Especially since roof-top PV is a peak-load offsetter, not a base-load provider.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to morat20 says:


        I’d love to be wrong about it. Are they using the same tech?

        There is also a difference between rooftop arrays and other sorts. My hometown in northern NJ recently put solar panel arrays over all of the parking lots that belonged to the DOE. This was a good amount of space. Instant shade and free (well, freeish) power. But there is nothing that really casts shade on the parking lots. Maybe some trees along the periphery but most of the arrays are centered anyway. Many houses have enough tree cover that you’re not even going to maximize the existing daylight hours.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to morat20 says:


        Thanks. So does Germany use it for peak-load offsetting only also?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to morat20 says:

        … but in the Sahara, lemme tell you, people are going to solar in a big way. It’s completely changing the Sahel region of Africa. You’ll see a Tuareg tent and right there on the tent pole is a solar panel, powering a little fan and a ghetto blaster.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to morat20 says:

        Germany. Seriously. Munich is 7 degrees further north than New York, and trust me nobody talks about all the super sunny weather germany gets.

        Well, except for Fox News.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to morat20 says:

        As was stated elsewhere, the expense of residential PV is not the cells themselves, it’s all the other equipment & maintenance you need that jacks the price up to where you need 15-20 years before you break even.Report

      • dexter in reply to morat20 says:

        Morat, I had never thought about putting solar panels over large parking lots. That is a great idea. I live in BR so know what it you are dealing with on an August day. One of my friend’s Bic blew up on his dash one time.
        We could have shade, no rain, and energy with a smaller carbon footprint. I wonder how much electricity we could get if all the parking lots in America were so covered. It would also cut down on the hydrocarbons leaching into the soil and oceans.Report

      • morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        Germany, IIRC, uses it for a LOT. Their PV capacity is insane. Like several times what the US has installed.

        PV is good because, by and large, demand and PV production peak more or less together. I think they use a lot of hydro and some geothermal for base-load.

        Germany made a decision, oh, a few decades back to go heavy renewable and avoid nuclear all together — not replace any aging plants. A few elections back, there was a push to reverse that that was rather loudly shouted down. (As I understand it, from a native German who may or may not be biased, while that push was often characterized as ‘Germans realize they can’t do it without nuclear even though they clear are”, it was more “owners of big power plants realize their main plants are shuttering from age and aren’t going to be replace, panicked at the lost income, and lobbied to get them replaced since renewable is pretty decentralized).

        The biggest problem with PV is storage, which is why making PV plants is difficult (you end up either pumping a lot of water uphill or trying exotic things like molten salt) and even then it’s doable. But slapping PV panels willy-nilly does a LOT for energy problems, simply because it throws power into the grid at peak load times AND does so in a decentralized way,meaning less strain on the grid than regular production.

        PV panels actually DO work with cloudy skies, and even a bit during rainfall. There’s still light, after all! They’re just most efficient in full sunlight, obviously.

        As to energy payback times and costs — ten years ago, solar was something like 10 to 12 a watt installed. Now it’s 2 to 4, and the price keeps dropping. They’re becoming cheap, very cheap.

        And some of the new ones? Wow. Residential stuff still peaks at high teens, low 20s for efficiency, but Sharp just put out a production 44% model (it’s for satellites. You can’t afford to put that on your house!) and any new methods and stuff will filter out.

        Projections are below a dollar a watt (installed at your house price!) by 2017, and a dollar a watt is basically “this will pay for itself without a single tax credit” numbers.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to morat20 says:

        We’re juuuust on the edge of making carbon nanotube technology practical for solar panels. Curiously, one of the best sources for carbon nano is coal fired plants and carbon nanotubes can help sequester the pollution. Whoda thunk?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to morat20 says:

        In Germany, it’s not so much the summers as the springtime.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to morat20 says:


        Now that is cool. I love Carbon Nanotubes & Graphene – so much potential in those materials.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to morat20 says:

        I’m an incurable tech optimist. Always have been. The very first thing I ever saw on television, coming out of Africa, was the Apollo 11 moon landing in a hotel room in New York City. Everything on television since has been a letdown — with the possible exception of David Attenborough and Nova.

        Carbon is the most amazing atom. Well, iron is also a wonderful atom, too. In combination, we mastered steel and that bit o’ wisdom propelled mankind forward as nothing else had since the invention of fire. Now we’re coming around to mastery of carbon itself — and that may propel us even farther.Report

      • Kim in reply to morat20 says:

        Used to be a tech optimist. Too many brushes with “end of the world”…
        Now I’m a tech cynic.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to morat20 says:

        I’m so tired of your schtick, Kimmi. I measure the world from the ground up. Life is improving for most of the world’s people and it if isn’t improving for everyone, maybe you could do something about it. Since you don’t, preferring to wander around annoying the bullpiss out of people like me who are trying to do something about it, it’s hardly surprising you’d be all down on tech’s role in improving people’s lives.

        I can’t adequately express my contempt. I’m a man of many words in many languages and from among all of them I cannot find a fit phrase to encompass your glib effeteness.Report

      • Kim in reply to morat20 says:

        I’m far from the smartest person I know, and certainly not
        the wisest. That said, I do fund considerable work. You’d
        like a lot of it, I’m sure.Report

    • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

      We rushed into coal before we could demonstrate the safety.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        I think coal can be fixed, and pronto. It’s just stupid, the way we allow all those useful gasses to go up the smokestack. Long ago, before the internal combustion engine came along, the refiners used to flare off the more explosive fractions, the “gasoline”. Too dangerous, you see.

        There’s no good reason for how inefficiently we’re using hydrocarbons. We are getting better about it, though. Even the worst pollutants, the sulphur and heavy metals, have markets.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kim says:

        Blaise is right on that, stack capture isn’t new, and it’s not THAT expensive. It’s just more expensive to retrofit a plant than power companies want to pay without tax payer subsidies. I’ve even seen plans for coal plants with no stacks, even the CO2 is fed into Algae tanks to produce bio-fuel for the peak-load turbines (or to sell).Report

      • George Turner in reply to Kim says:

        Some British recently developed a really wonderful mercury scrubber where you just bubble the still hot combustion cases through liquid tin (which is kept molten by the hot combustion gases). The mercury and tin then form an amalgam (like a dentist uses) and periodically you separate it to get your tin back. It comes out much smaller, cheaper, and easier than the massive downstream water scrubbing systems.

        Ohio state has just invented (or re-purposed) a process where you mix the coal with porous pellets of iron rust at moderately high temperatures (but below open combustion temperatures). The coal reduces the pellets to porous iron particles and pure CO2 (the sulfur, mercury just stay in the coal ash). The newly formed iron is trivial to separate from the ash because it’s dense and magnetic. That step is just iron smelting.

        Then the iron pellets are moved to a connected furnace where they are burned (much like oxy-cutting), which is basically a highly exothermic rusting reaction. All that reaction consumes is oxygen from the atmosphere, and the iron and iron rust remain solids, so the only exhaust is slightly oxygen depleted air. The heat from that reaction is used to boil steam to drive turbines, and the waste heat is used to heat the first reaction, which of course re-uses the pellets of iron-rust formed in the second reaction.

        The iron/iron-oxide pellets go round and round, the mercury and sulfur stay with the ash, and it ends up being cheaper than trying to scrub the exhaust of conventional coal combustion. The efficiency penalty isn’t very large, either. Almost any metal that undergoes a carbon-reduction and oxidation reaction will also work, such as copper.

        What might be even more interesting is if there’s a good way to oxidize the iron pellets remotely, using them as a convenient, emission-free, rechargeable fuel source, side-stepping the large efficiency losses inherent in burning the pellets in a steam plant to produce electricity.

        So they’re just transferring coal’s chemical energy into iron, altering the reaction process to reduce unwanted emissions.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        That’s fascinating, George. The chemistry is so obvious. I remain optimistic, though all around me, I must contend with the Liberal Woe Is Us crowd, wandering around with their heads in their hands and the whole combination up their asses.

        Conversely, on the Conservative side of the fence, you must deal with the Oh These Coal Emissions aren’t a Problem, Folks crowd. Not sure who should be more annoyed by their fellow travellers, you or me. This much is for certain: we’re pumping valuable chemicals up these stacks for no good reason and many bad ones.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

      …and rushed into wind/solar before we could demonstrate effectiveness.

      Granted some federal subsidies, but Xcel Energy says that it is now buying wind power with long-term contracts at prices lower than Xcel’s own costs to generate using natural gas. Colorado is a peculiar case in that the Front Range is isolated enough that we’re not part of an RTO or ISO market — for practical purposes, Xcel is the market. So they take all the power the wind farms can produce, and if there’s an unexpected shortfall, use their own spinning reserve to make up the difference.

      This will change if some of the planned long-distance transmission for the Western Interconnect gets built, because it will give the wind farms an alternate customer (although the evidence in some other markets suggests that the best deal for a wind-farm owner is a contract like they’re getting with Xcel, rather than a market). Phil Anshutz is looking to build a 725-mile HVDC transmission line from Cheyenne to some point in the LA/Las Vegas/Phoenix triangle to sell power into those markets.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I hope we can work out some mechanism to transmit power more effectively over longer distances. The current technologies mean we’re losing a substantial fraction of useful power on the line itself. Maybe we need to generate power closer to the places which use it rather than attempting these vast interconnections.

        Which isn’t to say we don’t need a better grid! We do. The current topology is a mess. Considered from another perspective, its a national security problem, a huge vulnerability.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Agreed, I should have said something about upgrading the grid/Smart Grids. Maybe Michael Cain can make a post about that?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Michael? Will you write a post on this subject? Sure wish you would. None of us know as much about this as you do.Report

      • I hope we can work out some mechanism to transmit power more effectively over longer distances.

        Modern HVDC systems are pretty efficient, at about 3% loss per thousand kilometers. A linear relationship, so 3% loss for a 1,000 km link, 6% for 2,000 km, etc. Essentially the same loss for both aerial and underwater systems; HVAC losses are much higher for underwater than for aerial. Probably not going to get more than marginal improvement on that 3% without room-temperature superconductors — I don’t even want to think about the costs of cooling a 1,000 km link to liquid nitrogen temperature. Hotter than room temperature, actually; aerial plant hanging in the desert sunshine in the Southwest gets hot.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Is HVDC making much difference these days? Isn’t most of the transmission of power still done with 3 phase AC? Which begs the question — do we need a better grid — it’s so tiresome and aggravating, this grandiose country of ours patting itself on the back acting like it’s the most-advanced nation in the world — and we’re still hobbling around with this third-world power grid.Report

      • Is HVDC making much difference these days?

        Globally, quite a bit. It works best in a point-to-point situation, or connecting a small number of points. Eg, Path 65 (the Pacific DC Intertie) connects from one point on the Columbia River to just north of LA and can carry 3.1 GW. It’s especially attractive if the route goes under water. US examples of that include the Cross Sound Cable delivering power from Connecticut to Long Island, and the Neptune Cable that runs from NJ to Long Island under the Lower NY Bay. Multiple long links (800-1000 miles) officially proposed in the Western Interconnect, at least one of those with an environmental impact statement on the route to be finished soon. The ones that are most likely to be built IMO have one end in the LA/Las Vegas/Phoenix triangle. I anticipate that eventually they’ll build a system to interconnect those so that they can be used to ship power all over the West.Report

      • Lyle in reply to Michael Cain says:

        We have the mechanism its called DC transmission, such as the Northwest Southwest Intertie between The Dalles Or, and Sylmar,Ca. This solves several problems, the line losses are lower, there is not requirement that the grids at the end be synchronized, and the problems of reactive power and the capacitance of the line are removed because the power only flows one way. It is also used to interconnect the 3 grids in the US, and is proposed as the core of the Clovis NM Grid intertie project.Report

      • Michael? Will you write a post on this subject [smart grids]?

        Probably. Most likely two posts — one on the bulk transfer backbone side, one on the retail distribution side. I need to think some more about how I want to approach those.Report

  5. morat20 says:

    Hm. I think there’s a knock against nuclear you’re not considering. (No, not NIMBYISM).

    I mean, consider this: The American public, by and large, has no problem with nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers but does seem to be deeply nervous about fission plants. (yes, there are some anti-nuke folks who also agitate against nuclear powered subs, but we’re talking mainstream).

    So why is that? Why does the American public seem to trust the [higher powered/more complex/more likely to have problems] cutting edge military engines but not actual power plants, running lower temperatures and with more room and ability to add in safety measures?

    My speculation on that is “corner cutting”. You look at nuclear power plants — disasters and scares and near disasters — and you seem a common theme of “We never thought”. Corners were cut — maybe safety, maybe site assessment, maybe to drop costs — and it almost caused a serious (and as noted above, costly) screwup. For all the knocks on the military, however, people by and large expect the Navy will NOT be cutting costs on safety, design, or operation of nuclear power plants.

    Poking around at lots of people who much, much, MUCH prefer “anything but fission, please” and what I find (anecdotal, of course) isn’t that they don’t think fission can be safe. They simply don’t trust the people running it.

    High costs, low trust.

    Economically? Well, at least in America nuclear has been subsidized out the wazoo for decades. (Not even COUNTING the fact that the US Navy effectively pays for a ton of R&D and training, year after year). Research, operation, construction — I haven’t seen numbers in a few years, but I’d be shocked if nuclear power (which should be a stable, developed field after 30 or 40 years) was even remotely competitive.Report

    • Kim in reply to morat20 says:

      I just want fusion. If we got the Navy to pay for the specs, why can’t we build the damn prototype?Report

      • morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        It’s economically unworkable so far. I *think* they’ve finally got a few models that are vaguely self-sustaining, in the sense that technically they put out more power than it takes to start them. But not for very long.

        It’d be nice, though. The waste from that is a lot cleaner — containment walls and such would only be radioactive for decades, for instance. 🙂

        There’s a couple of places working on a sort of cold fusion micro-setup, wherein fusion is induced in carbon lattices through super-high frequency vibration. NASA, for one. The projected power output is low (we’re talking powering a small neighborhood at best per unit, not a city) and right now all they seem to be able to do is blow up parts of the lab and melt windows. 🙂Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kim says:

        The problem with fusion is temperature & materials. Fusion generates plasma at temperatures so hot that the containment vessel will melt in seconds should the plasma make contact with the walls while containing a sustained reaction. The workaround is to contain the fusion reaction is a swirling magnetic field so that the plasma never touches the walls of the containment vessel.

        That magnetic field is massive, needs a lot of power to generate it, more power than the fusion reaction can produce (although I hear about bottles that are now producing net positive, but it’s measured in KW).

        Advances in superconducting materials & magnetic generation will move this along, but it takes time.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        I have a feeling we’re going about fusion the wrong way. I can’t say what the right way is. This much I do know, we’re trying to generate a perfectly spherical magnetic field around the detonating particles. Magnetic fields aren’t spherical. We can detonate hydrogen bombs via implosion, thus containing the fusion moment — I can’t quite put my finger on why the current approaches are wrong but this I can say, when a solution gets this complex, it’s on the wrong track.

        It took a long time for Edison and his people to work through all the potential solutions for a light bulb filament. Edison’s genius was to devise a commercially viable solution: he didn’t invent the light bulb. That’s where fusion has kinda lost its way. The current experiments are too unwieldy and too damned complicated. There is a better way and someone’s going to find it.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kim says:

        Actually Blaise, the best fusion reactors so far are not round at all, they are torus, or even better, twisted torus (my Alma Matter had all three).

        Still, those damn fields are expensive to make.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        The problem is the ratio of plasma pressure to magnetic pressure. The more we learn about our own star, the Sun, the better our fusion designs will become.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        I doubt it. Sure, learning how the Sun does it in more detail is nice, but we know the basic mechanics. Engineering it without stuffing it at the bottom of a star is the hard part.

        I dunno, if artificial gravity was developed then maybe — you could fix the whole thing by just generating a giant honking gravity well in the middle of some plasma and letting it fuse.

        I think laser ignition sorta tries something similar. I find the lattice systems kind of neat, and they’re nothing like the Sun’s fusion process — but then again, that’s still airy “what ifs” in labs.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        I’m with Da Vinci. When your ass is in a sling, designing a system, go back to nature for first principles:

        Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Kim says:

        The more we learn about our own star, the Sun, the better our fusion designs will become.

        Except that the sun achieves containment and compression sufficient for ignition as the result of gravity, not magnetic fields. Lots of things would be easier if we could efficiently generate arbitrary gravitational fields without having to resort to mass.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        Lots of things would be easier if we could efficiently generate arbitrary gravitational fields without having to resort to mass.

        The awesome would be endless. Endless.

        There’s a handful of technologies that would be completely transformative, and artificial gravity is one. True nanotech would be a second.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

        Yes, yes. I know. I’m not talking about how the sun operates fusion, obviously that’s gravity. I’m looking at how the sun’s magnetic system operates. All these huge magnetic loops in the sun, crossing over each other, shorting out, blurting out these enormous coronal mass ejections. We can get (pinches fingers together) thiiisss close to containment, then the whole thing goes kablooie with a massive X-ray discharge.

        It’s the instabilities we can learn from. The inner sun rotates at a different speed than the outside, which is how our own planet generates a magnetic field, too. But the sun’s magnetic lines, while not seen directly, can easily be observed in the plasma loops.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to morat20 says:

      I think the point at which nuclear becomes price-competitive is when we start taxing the hell out of coal and natural gas, or we limit production of them, or we start running out of them.

      I really hope that solar (and wind) is going to be the solution to all of this. I’m less inclined to bet on it, though. Or hold nuclear back on the basis that we won’t need it. I’m fine if we stabilize subsidies, though, so that nuclear doesn’t have any untoward advantages.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to morat20 says:

      This is exactly my problem with nuclear power: that the plant would be built and run by the same bozos who think that (and I am not making this up) it’s a good idea to cut costs by laying off the people who trim trees away from power lines. And if they hadn’t had to pay for the fire damage, plus fines for negligence, plus rehire them back, it would still have been criminally irresponsible.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Luddite. Stupid environmentalist tree-hugger. You’re KILLING the planet you’re trying to save, you NIMBY jerk.

        I suppose for the tiny group of “NO NUKES EVER” crowd chanting against RTG in satellites or nuclear submarines, there has to be a group of pro-nuclear idiots who can’t understand why anyone, ever, would think nuclear power wasn’t always the best solution.

        Like I said: The history of nuclear power has been one of incredible expense, high subsidies, corner cutting on safety, and a lot of lying and statements of “We didn’t consider” or “No one could have planned” when things went bad.

        It’s not spooky invisible death rays so much as “I don’t trust those chuckleheads not to run the thing at 105% after building it on a fault line out of substandard materials, then when the whole thing goes pear shaped, tell me to my face it’s all fine even when my Geiger counter is going nuts”Report

    • Rod Engelsman in reply to morat20 says:

      I knew some folks in the nuclear Navy when I served. First off, it’s practically an entirely separate branch of the Navy. There are Electricians and there are Nuclear Electricians; Machinist Mates (mechanics, basically) and then there are Nuclear Machinist Mates, etc.

      There’s a reason why the Navy has such a good track record. Military discipline. Everything you could possibly do to the plant in routine operation and maintenance has a detailed written procedure and YOU WILL have the procedure book open when performing that operation. Similarly, every adjustment or maintenance operation is documented to a fair-thee-well and woe unto the sailor that tries to skimp on a jot or tittle.

      The question is: Is that kind of discipline and attention to detail achievable in the civilian world? Over the lifetime of a plant? Given corporate bean-counters fretting over cost?

      The fact that a majority of the techs working in civilian plants got their training in the Navy helps a lot but it’s expensive and “corporate” tends to complain about that sort of thing.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rod Engelsman says:

        Meh. Let the Navy run ’em then.
        Call it a national security issue…Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Rod Engelsman says:

        This is pretty much it. I have faith in nuclear power if it’s run with naval vessel safety margins. As long as the companies that run them don’t bitch when we insist on procedures that are more stringent than strictly necessary under their preferred risk model, I’m totally on board. The problem is that those extra “unnecessary” procedures are waste, and the first thing a healthy market does is start trimming away at waste.

        I suppose could make it a little more like a US Navy operation by making the owners and operators live inside the plant with the doors locked from the outside. Those safety checklists would write themselves.Report

  6. Michael Cain says:

    Start from the fact that the US has three power grids, not one unified grid, and consider that different regions need different solutions.

    In the Western Interconnect, water to cool thermal power plants is a scarce resource. Air cooling is possible, but reduces overall efficiency significantly. The proposed Blue Castle nuclear project, whose primary customers will be in Southern California, had to go to eastern Utah in order to find enough uncommitted water to provide cooling (and is one of several projects that depend on major new transmission capacity being built from Wyoming to California). Renewable resources are abundant in the Western area. Wind, PV solar, and hydro all have the advantage that they don’t need cooling. Space is not an issue, particularly. Drive the eastern 20% of Colorado or Wyoming, and much of the Great Basin: tens of thousands of square miles of empty, much of it with good-to-excellent wind or solar, not all that far from major demand centers.

    At the same time, the Western is now down to six (of 102 total in the US) commercial power reactors. The people of Washington would dearly like to get rid of their reactor (part of the Hanover Nuclear Reservation). Given an alternative, I suspect that California would vote to shut down the Diablo Canyon units when their current licenses expire in the mid-2020s — renewals are on hold while new seismic studies are being done. In another 15 years, the Western could easily be down to three reactors, replacing the capacity largely with renewables. Water consumed by the Palo Verde reactors in Arizona will be in issue in the future — the supply is treated sewage water, with the original source from underground aquifers, which are being drained at a brisk pace.

    I can easily envision a future where the Eastern Interconnect has a large nuclear component and the Western has little or no nuclear. In that situation, I’ll cheerfully take to the bulwarks to keep the spent fuel storage and/or reprocessing in the East.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

      There is a lot of room for ST or convection towers out west, & if CA hadn’t given up the farm to environmentalists so long ago, there would be tons of such out there.

      But one only has to look at high speed rail in CA to see why they can’t do anything.Report

      • …if CA hadn’t given up the farm to environmentalists so long ago, there would be tons of such out there.

        Perhaps less than one immediately thinks. Start with 45% of the state is owned by the feds; land use policy is very largely set by the feds, and the East Coast easily outvotes California on what that policy should be. Large parts of the state are mountainous and unsuitable (this is one of my favorite maps). Large parts are farther north and get a lot less sunlight suitable for concentrated use (shown here, for example). Much of the flat area is enormously productive farmland. The farming issue is complicated by water law — quit using it as farmland for a period and you may never get back the rights to the necessary water. Space for 37 million people to live takes out a bite.

        The federal land holding issue applies across much/most of the Southwest. A huge amount of the land that is best suited for commercial-scale concentrating solar is owned by the feds. There are also problems with siting transmission lines to connect desert solar power to the grid, as some federal land classifications preclude such construction. A lovely 5,000 acre privately-owned site is much less attractive if federal wilderness area classifications around it means the transmission line has to loop a couple hundred miles out of the way.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        OMG I love that map!Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Then how come all I ever hear about these large solar projects are how much trouble they are to build because on environmental lawsuits?Report

      • morat20 in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I dunno? Crappy news? Most solar plants run more into the problems of storage. If your PV panels don’t work at night, no big — you draw from the grid, and a reduced amount anyways (because you’re asleep).

        Power plants, though — some places it’s easier to store power than others (pumping water uphill is viable in some places, not others). There’s an interesting proposal in California to use rail cars full of, well, junk. Put electric motors on them, when you have excess power run them uphill (mild grade, made 3 degrees, a few hundred yards). Then at night, let them roll back. Not the most efficient — I think I read they were losing 20% or more of the energy — but cheap to setup and hard to break. Stuff moved uphill is stuff moved uphill. The energy is there, stored, even if the wheel falls off or the motor breaks.

        Anyways, solar’s not the best for large-scale energy generation, at least not now. In SOME places it makes sense, but it’s a better micro-producer. Unless you’re beaming it from space, which has some different upsides and downsides.

        Part of the problem with discussing energy is that some people seem to prefer a “one big single solution” (FUSION! BUILD A THOUSAND FISSION PLANTS!) and seem to get confused by a solution that is a mix of generation methods.

        Me? I think the future is a lot more decentralization — more rooftop PV, wind where applicable — trying to make generating peak loads ‘local’, with larger plants (solar, tidal, hydro, geothermal, large scale wind, natural gas, fission, whatever) generating mostly base load.

        I suppose it’s human nature to look for a silver bullet, but I suspect the future is more…pragmatic. Build solar where solar works. Built wind where wind works, etc. Look to improve the grid — less energy loss, more reliability — as well as try to remove the load (generate more power on rooftops and buildings).Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I’ve seen storage ideas that range from massive flywheels to molten salts to pumping water to pressurizing massive natural (caves, old oil wells, old mines, etc.) or man-made (just saw one that was a 30m concrete ball on the ocean floor) chambers with air or water. Honestly, they are all good ideas, since the energy from wind/solar is effectively free and any energy produced that is not used or captured is wasted.

        Sure, the storage method has a 20% loss. So what, the alternative is a 100% loss.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Lots of people think the desert is a wasteland. It’s not. We don’t have very much actual desert in the USA, anyway and what passes for desert can be easily screwed up. The current paradigm is basically to pave the desert landscape in solar panels and run big power lines to where the power will be used. It’s unworkable at several different levels.

        Doesn’t have to be that way, though. My years around solar have taught me a few general rules of thumb.

        1. The only place solar is viable is a long way from the power grid. That’s where solar comes into its own.

        2. Solar’s big limitation is power storage. I’ve used deep cycle truck/marine batteries but they need to be topped off with distilled water. Not much, but the batteries have to be monitored and I’ve had to go out and deal with the consequences of people not doing the upkeep. Sick of those chumps, too. Told them at the time I would never come out to fix it again. Still angry with them.

        3. Solar is unreliable. Even in the Sahel it’s not entirely reliable. The panels have to be swept clean with a soft brush. Keeping anything dust-free during harmattan is impossible.

        4. Initial cost outlays are still a problem and installation requires some technical skills. Until there’s some scheme for instalment payments, the people who need the power lack the capital to purchase a unit, do the wiring, learn to distil the water, it’s not the sort of thing you can expect some poor farmer to install and manage on his own.Report

      • zic in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Massive Fly Wheels.

        So steampunk. My kid wants to put one in the basement.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Well, the other issue with solar, as I’ve mentioned in passing, is that it’s essentially a free power generator that’s stuck out in the boonies, unguarded, for long periods of time, and it’s useful to anybody, especially poor folks.

        Generators (Honda, Caterpillar, Onan, Briggs & Stratton, Kohler) tend to grow legs and walk about a day after you turn your back on them, either headed to some farm house or down to Mexico. I suspect solar will eventually suffer from the same problem. It might be wise to go ahead and build them with a GPS chipset and satellite interface so you can find the location of your solar cells as soon as they’re powered back up.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Start with one of these: VelkessReport

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        George – Another reason ST is better than PV – “Yea!, you stole a mirror, good job!”Report

      • zic in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist, the Velkess seems very impressive, but it’s not pretty enough; such a thing should look like a work of art, no?

        What would it sound like? a giant clock? Very high and low metal sounds? Mostly silent?Report

      • morat20 in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I see PV being used rurally, sure — but a lot more urban and suburban, especially once the cost crosses a dollar a watt.

        Of course, what’ll be fun is when power companies start REALLY having problems with the feed-in requirements many states have. While they often are required to purchase power at a discounted rate from customers who generate it, it’ll be interesting to see what happens when too many customers are feeding in during peak demand.

        Will they raise prices — and make PV systems more desirable? Lobby for changes to the law (probably — I suspect they’ll want the fed back power for free, or even charge you a ‘disposal’ fee for it)…..

        Like I said, I already see municipal authorities here using PV more and more. I suspect businesses, with longer time-frames and a mindset more set towards up-front costs and ROI, will be next.

        Houses will be last, sadly — unless more cities follow Berkeley’s pattern or solar leasing becomes more popular. (Berkeley has a nifty program — you want solar? The City will assess your house, recommend a size of system, and then install it — and handle maintenance and repair. They get really good rates for loans, after all. Then your property is tagged with a very small extra tax to pay for it. The power is yours, the money you make if you sell back into the system is yours, and if you sell the house the tax stays with the house– so you don’t need to raise your asking price by 10 or 20 grand).Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        You very much want it silent. Noisy flywheels tend to convert stored kinetic energy into unrestrained kinetic energy in a not-so-friendly way.

        If your flywheel is ticking, it needs to spin down for a bearing check.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        That Berkeley system sounds pretty cool. I wonder what the ROI on that for the city is?Report

      • morat20 in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Probably not much, if anything. For the city, it’s win-win. They take out a bond at 2%, get to pump up their PR as “green” (and get lots of tax credits and progress towards renewable goals and whatnot), and either directly — or contract out — some desirable jobs (installation and maintenance of solar panels and the like), and it’s funded out of what amounts to a dedicated tax.

        They don’t get any of the power resale, but the dedicated tax on houses will repay the bond and they can probably fund the program (and the jobs) indefinitely. They’re not in it for ROI — they want the jobs, the tax breaks, and the other incidentals. As long as it covers the bond and then pays for itself, it’s golden.

        The private version of this is solar leasing, wherein you DO get the free panels AND the reduced electricity bills, but the private company gets any money for sold-back electricity and the tax credits and the like.Report

      • Then how come all I ever hear about these large solar projects are how much trouble they are to build because on environmental lawsuits?

        Because every commercial power plant has to have an environmental impact statement before it can be built. Under the rules, the assumptions and conclusions of the EIS can be challenged in court after all the rest of the process has been followed (eg, public hearings). Drag things out long enough and you can file a new lawsuit asserting that this EIS may be valid, but is too old and things have changed. For various reasons this situation is even more exaggerated if the plant site is on federal lands.

        The strategy here, assuming you oppose new power plants on general principle, is to take advantage of the big weakness in the business model. Even without court cases, the investors in a new plant don’t get any return on their money for a long time. It takes years to build most types of power plants, and until they’re up and running and selling electricity, there’s zero revenue. If investors are faced with an uncertain but possibly lengthy delay before there’s any revenue, they’ll take their money elsewhere. That’s one of the factors that lead to the creation of big vertically-integrated rate-regulated utilities. If the cost of the new plant goes into the rate base before it’s built (which it does, it’s a billion-dollar asset even if it’s not running yet), the utility can begin collecting revenue to pay for it now, rather than when it goes on line.

        Example. When the federal government opened up the generating game, the expectation (by the experts) was that many different kinds of power plant would be built. But essentially everyone who built new plants built the same kind of natural-gas fired turbine plant. Because it was the one kind of plant that could get get built in a developed area (uncontested EIS), it could be built quickly, and the capital costs were relatively low. So you had revenue years earlier than you would if you built coal, or nuclear, or proposed a big new dam. The fuel was expensive, but since you could pick and choose when you would run the plant, you could make a tidy profit running only when daily or hourly electricity prices were high, or when natural gas prices were abnormally low. (At least one of Enron’s scams in California was possible because they could manipulate the supply and prices of natural gas.)Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I would think some EPA rule changes would streamline a lot of it then? Something very much under the purview of a president, correct?Report

      • I would think some EPA rule changes would streamline a lot of it then? Something very much under the purview of a president, correct?

        The process itself is spelled out in statute, and we all know how things can drag out once it reaches the courts. Consider how long it is taking for the EPA to actually issue an acceptable rule on power plant pollution that crosses state lines.

        The 2005 Energy Policy Act did some streamlining for transmission. FERC now has authority to designate national interest electric transmission corridors where there is a critical need, and within those corridors can issue federal permits if the states are dragging their feet. Two areas have been designated, one for the Mid-Atlantic problem area and one for Southern California. The Act also required federal agencies to get their act together and review transmission lines that will cross federal land in a timely fashion, which seems to be happening. Historically in the West, permitting for long transmission lines could involve several federal agencies working at cross purposes.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I defer to you, as you are obviously much more dialed into the where’s and why’s of it all than I.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Let me add in the Texas grid wind is quite competitive because it allows one to grow cotton or graze cattle on the land, as the turbines are spaced a good distance apart. In fact the farmers near Roscoe Tx saw their neighbors getting essentially free money for 5% of their land, and pushed to get turbines installed. Note that both in the Texas wind belt and Easter NM there is little scenery to spoil as it is basically rolling to flat country. As stated the cattle don’t care if there are turbines overhead the grass is still as good or bad as it would otherwise be, the same for cotton. (All be it one might have to reorganize the irrigation systems to avoid the turbines). I invite folks to drive on Tx 70 south of Sweetwater and TX153 a bit further south, you drive right thru the wind farms. Wind is an ideal complement to solar it blows stronger at night and the winter in Tx when solar is weakest. Solar is best on sunny summer afternoons, when Tx in general has its peak load.
      Actually to see land that is little used except for oil drive around Midland and Odessa, TxReport

  7. Dan Miller says:

    I personally don’t have a problem with nuclear at all–if it’s cost-effective it’s absolutely an option we should build out. But given the huge costs of new plants, and the disastrous impacts of accidents there (and the resulting high cost of insurance, which is generally provided by the taxpayer since no power company could afford the insurance bill without subsidies), I don’t think it will ever be cost-competitive with solar and wind. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but I bet I won’t be.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Dan Miller says:

      The levelized costs of nuclear power are presently much lower than that of solar. The only question is whether or not solar costs will fall into competitiveness. (Wind power is cheap, though I am not sure about scalability.)

      Whether nuclear is the answer or not, I don’t know. Like you, I take a wait-and-see approach.If we can get what we want from solar at a reasonable production cost, that would be ideal. I just don’t want to bank on it.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

        Until we’ve come to terms with a standardised reactor, a point I’ve made before, we can’t achieve economies of scale in making these reactors.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Will Truman says:

        As the liquid thorium people point out, our current reactors have safety grafted on at great expense instead of being inherent in the technology.

        The rods have to remain solid and viable at high temperatures, and the zirconium cladding is expensive. Then the rods have to remain continually submerged in water, which loves to boil off or form a hydrogen explosion, and that water is kept at high pressure, so the reactor vessel has to be made of very thick, high quality steel, as does all the piping and plumbing. To keep the whole thing from melting down or blowing its lid, we add on more and more safety features, backups, pack the whole thing in another containment building, and inspect, inspect, inspect. The dangerous, short half-life reaction products remain stuck in the solid rods, so an accident in the reactor vessel can potentially liberate years worth of full power breakdown products.

        In contrast, molten salt reactors are run at atmospheric pressure, so you can essentially use a large cook pot for the reactor vessel. They put a drain in the bottom and keep the drain plugged with solid reaction salts by keeping a continuous spray of cold water on the drain. Stop the cold water and the plug warms up and the reactor core gravity dumps into passively cooled storage chambers in the floor.

        When they ran a test reactor at Oak Ridge back in the 1960’s, they would just kill the plug cooling Friday afternoon, the core would dump into the floor and sit over the weekend, and then they’d re-melt the salts (with electric heating elements) and pump them back into the reactor on Monday to start another work week.

        And, since the core is liquid, the dangerous reaction products continually boil out, which both avoids the issues of reactor poisoning (mostly from xenon which sucks up neutrons like a sponge, and which led to Chernobyl) and having years worth of such products remaining in the core. Instead they’re continuously pumped to a separate storage facility. There are also only about 1% as many nasty breakdown products to deal with as a conventional uranium reactor.

        As the thorium proponents point out, thorium is cheaper, simpler, inherently much, much safer, cleaner, and more efficient. The only reason we stayed with the uranium designs for commercial reactors is that “atoms for peace” was really a program to use commercial reactors to make fuel for our nuclear weapon’s programs, and the thorium cycle doesn’t produce any plutonium and doesn’t need U-235.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

        For every silver lining, there’s a little dark cloud. Thorium produces long-lived waste products. Maybe some clever boffin will work out how to recycle them.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Dan Miller says:

      If we are stuck with BWRs & PWRs, yes, nuclear has a hard time being competitive.

      But Pebble Beds, Traveling Wave, & other reactor designs hold a lot of promise.

      Problem is, the US doesn’t want anyone trying to test out an industrial scale unit in the US.

      Again, if we can’t get something built, we can not work out the bugs.Report

      • North in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Someone else will do it. China, India, there’re some places that desperately need power, are worried about pollution and don’t automatically crap their depends when someone says nuclear.

        That said, the west could probably do it much faster/better if we’d get unpuckered about the entire field. Fat chance, maybe after the boomers die off.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Dan Miller says:

      The removal of vertical integration in the electric industry (DE-regulation) has resulted in the economics of Nuclear Plants in non integrated areas no longer working. There are 3 players in the electric system only two of whom would be involved. (the distribution company just moves whatever energy it needs to). There are the retailers who compete on price and price alone. Their goal is to provide the lowest price to the customer, because customers can switch on a couple of days notice. The retailers sign contracts with the generators for energy and ancillary services. Generators build and operate plants that make the energy. Assume a generator has an idea to build a nuclear plant, they need to get signed contracts from the retailers to get loans to build the plant. But as a retailer you don’t know exactly when the plant will come on line or how much the power will cost (the history of plant construction shows lots of delays and cost overruns). Further a contract for power in the future would have to have a pretty hefty cancellation penalty to get loans (as well as the retailer having a very strong balance sheet as well, as chapter 11 cancels such contracts). So the generators have a difficult time getting the financing they need. The retailers would prefer contracts for energy that are more certain, such as that by a combined cycle gas plant, which are built like cookie cutters.
      Now in the remaining vertically integrated regulated states recall that the power company gets a return of X percent on its investment, so a cost overrun is paid for by the rate payers directly. Essentially the point of the removal of the vertical integration was to prevent this cram down. Today in the US the only nuclear plants under contstruction are in states that retain the vertical integration. In Tx several plants have been proposed but abandoned due to the non vertically integrated nature of the industry. (And in addition the municipal utilities in Tx which do remain partly vertically integrates such as San Antonios power authority, (CPS)were forced by political forces to not buy into the pig in a poke of South Texas units #3 and #4. These were abandoned before construction started after the March 11 earthquake in Japan, because Tepco was one of the partners, and they obviously were then bankrupt.Report

  8. alkali says:

    Three thoughts:

    1) I don’t like nuclear given the risks, but given the greater urgency of climate change we’re going to have to do more of it.

    2) With regard to “environmentalist”opposition to wind/solar/etc. installations, some of that is genuine and some of that is people adopting environmentalist language as a cover for NIMBY sentiments. An easy way to distinguish the one from the other is by critically examining the objections to see if they have actual merit. (Wait, that’s not easy. Crap.)

    3) The main takeaway of MRS’s post ought not to be that this particular energy technology will be useful and this other one won’t, but rather that there are a lot of possibilities with various benefits and drawbacks. The “which is best? which will work? what’s most efficient?” questions would sort out in due course if we adopted a carbon tax or cap and trade, or at least stopped actively subsidizing fossil fuel.Report

  9. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Any thoughts on the Convection Towers? Or the Urban Greenhouses?Report

  10. zic says:

    MRS, nice piece, thank you. I have a lot of link reading before I comment too much.

    On tidal/wave power, I’m pretty fascinated by the floating wind-turbine test going on in the Gulf of Maine. These wind turbines can be towed into dock for maintenance (drastically lowering the costs of maintenance). They can be moved to other locations, so can be moved if they interfere with migratory animal populations or shipping, etc. They are far cheaper to build.

    But they’re still focused on central generation at high capacity instead of dispersed, localized generation; and that seems an important habit to develop. Lot of waste in transmission.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:

      Offshore wind is, to me, an odd duck, despite the good winds across open water. Even being able to float the turbine back to shore, you still have the headache of doing that, plus the fact that saltwater is corrosive and you have deal with an object with a very high center of gravity that can be destroyed by a good tropical depression. If we are going to float turbines out to sea (& all the headaches that engenders), have them be tidal turbines. The current design being installed in the Straits of Juan de Fuca is storm proof, and if it needs fixing, the turbine rises out of the water.

      There will always be a need for base power, but yes, we would do well to offset as much power generation to smaller installations as we can.

      But I think Michael Cain can tell you that the grid system needs a lot of work before that becomes efficient/effective.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I’m no physicist, or whatever discipline is relevant, but can’t the high center of gravity problem be offset pretty easily with a simple counterweight? Not a free solution, of course, but not really expensive, I wouldn’t think. The amount of concrete I’m traveling on on interstate 80 right now dwarves what would, I would think, be necessary.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Yes, you can build a floating tower with a counterweight that will keep the tower stable under normal operating conditions, and then some. But that is added cost & complexity for not a large gain in power production versus a land based tower.

        However, if you sink the turbine… Water is about 1000 times as dense as air, so a turbine being turned by the flow of water is capable of delivering a massive amount of torque (this is one reason why Hydroelectric is so nice, you can spin massive generators). If we are going to spend the money to have a structure out at sea to produce power, we should really try to use the fluid with a lot more energy potential in it.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

      But they’re still focused on central generation at high capacity instead of dispersed, localized generation; and that seems an important habit to develop. Lot of waste in transmission.

      The figure that’s usually tossed around for average transmission and distribution loss in the grid is 7%. Until very recently, the efficiencies of large-scale generation were sufficient to offset that, as well as the cost of the grid. A 1.5 MW wind turbine on an 80-meter tower produces quite a lot more kWh per dollar invested than any rooftop turbine — not only is the generator more efficient, but the wind resource is much better at 80 meters. Particularly with the grid a sunk cost, wind farms are the economic answer in that particular case.

      The big reason the grid’s not going to go away are cities. While lots of environmentalists like to use the kWh per person figure to justify their position that we all ought to move to dense cities, the kWh per square kilometer is more important. Cities are not going to harvest enough local renewables to meet their needs. The surrounding suburbs, maybe, although see the wind argument in the previous paragraph. Most other renewables are a “where they are” deal, eg, the canyon suitable for a hydro dam is where it is. Large efficient plants are not something people like in town, so as cities have expanded new power plants have been pushed farther away (and in some cases cities have simply pushed the transmission system farther to reach cheap power, eg, Quebec hydro for New York and a Utah coal plant for Los Angeles). It is not surprising that the two places that show up in the US congestion studies as serious problems are the two largest groupings of population and commercial activity — Southern California, and the East Coast from Washington, DC to NYC and then up the Hudson valley.Report

      • Lyle in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Relating to the grid and storage. Pumped storage is the best proven technology for energy storage, which does require an area to be fairly wet, and have an elevation range. So areas around Lake Superior, as well as into the Eastern Mountains are good candidates for this type of storage. It would sort of be short stopping the energy so it is stored nearer to the consumer than where it was produced. (Note that some nuclear plants today have pumped storage because the load varies by time of day but you like the nuclear plant to run at a constant output, so for low load hours you pump the water uphill, and let it run downhill for high load hours). Of course in terms of efficiency, the colder the condenser water the more efficient the generator, so should we put nuclear plants in Labrador, and connect them to the Quebec grid, or around James Bay?Report

  11. Dale Forguson says:

    American manufacturing is part of a world market and is faced with higher labor/benefit costs and higher regulatory costs than virtually any other country. using taxes to force U.S. producers to use a less cost effective fuel is the economic equivalent of putting a tariff on goods made here for consumption here. We might just as easily offer a tax incentive to corporations to move manufacturing overseas.

    I agree that we need to find ways to make alternate energy sources more cost effective but not by adding additional taxes to the existing energy infrastructure. That actually inhibits the incentive to innovate in emerging energy fields.Report

  12. zic says:

    I’ve been meaning to ask about this, and this seems like a good place.

    There’s some controversy over Smart Meters here in Maine. As always, the folks who are concerned about health. But here, it’s a controversy over cost.

    From the linked story:
    Back in 2010, when CMP was seeking state approval for its controversial Advanced Metering Infrastructure – or Smart Meter – project, the company told the Public Utilities Commission that it expected savings of $25 million over 20 years.

    But earlier this month, the company revised that estimate – significantly. “It would appear, at this point, that that amount has been reduced by CMP to $99 million in net costs,” says Maine PUC Administrative Director Harry Lanphear.

    Lanphear says that means that the estimated savings to ratepayers have disappeared, and turned into a cost of tens of millions of dollars. He says that’s why his office is recommending that the full commission order an audit of CMP’s management of the program, to find out what happened – and, says Lanphear, to determine how to respond to CMP’s pending request for a rate hike of more than 8 percent.

    All that’s happened thus far, that I know of, is the recommendation for an audit; I’ve not heard that one has begun.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kim says:

      In a nutshell, complex systems are complex – modeling them even more so.

      Numerically, computationally, we are still figuring out how to get computer simulations of systems we understand extremely well to line up with experimental results. Climate simulations are orders of magnitude more complex (& our understanding of the systems is still maturing) than flow in a wind tunnel or tow tank.

      Honest researchers know what they are up against, and when you read their papers, they articulate considerable caveats to their predictions. Essentially along the lines of, “If I have properly accounted for every thing, this is what should happen.”

      Dishonest ones need to check their egos at the lab door.

      Science reporters, on the other hand, are in it for the story, and the more sensational, the better. So even when a given researcher releases the results of their latest model with pages of caveats, the reporter will treat lightly the cautions (if not ignore them outright) & spend their effort on the results.Report

      • greginak in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Your points about models are reasonable. But a part that is left out is that the basic physics of the Greenhouse Effect are pretty simple and well understood. The idea of AGW isn’t just based on models, but also on observations which have validated some models and on well understood physics.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        The basic physics aren’t that well understood. Assuming no feedbacks of any kind, and no changes to clouds or water vapor, a doubling of CO2 should produce about a 1.2 C rise in temperatures, maybe. Among other things, that figure assumes that the surface of the Earth has no thermal mass, and that convection is unchanged, etc.

        Judith Curry had a post about the uncertainties of even “the certain” part of what we know.Report

      • greginak in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Umm George, you just agreed with me. The basics of the greenhouse affect are well understood. You just said some increase in a known greenhouse gas will lead to a temp increase. Thanks phzicks. The questions are about the amount of warming and the various details. That the system is also complex is not much of point since its forking obvious and known by all involved.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        There are all sorts of models. Some weather models only work well within a 72 hour window of predictability. Others work on two week bases. The global warming models operate on longer periods, often decades. Several are based on dendrochronological tree ring data, others on mud deposition.

        We do have a good idea what global warming will do. We’ve got the data from the last big global warming, the Holocene Megathermal. And as with the HM, we’re seeing increasing rainfall in the Sahel. The Sahara Desert will retreat considerably with global warming — but Europe will cool considerably. The American high plains will become a desert. The Amazon will begin to dry out, too.

        The basic physics are very well understood. We have the ice cores, the mud cores, everything we need to point out what’s going to happen. Tectonics haven’t changed all that much. We know how this will go down. It will be a nightmare.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Historical data from temperatures/cores/etc. lets us build the statistical model that we use to suss out what is probably going on, and it gives us a way to see if a model can potentially predict something (start your model to run 2000 years ago & see if it reaches a result consistent with today). The statistical methods used are sometimes questionable, but generally they are accurate.

        Physics tells us how to build the predictor models. The basic model is pretty straightforward to build. The tricky bit is we don’t have a real solid understanding of the feedbacks. How much heat can the oceans store? The earth? What all effects cloud formation to increase the albedo of the earth. How much does solar activity impact the climate? Etc. We are guessing at how much sensitivity the system has to the feedbacks, and the historical data tells us little about what feedbacks were in play & how much when the climate was changing in the past.

        Finally, the father into the future we cast our models, the less accurate they become, because of random events (volcanic eruptions, etc.).

        That all said, the real quibble is not the end result, but the timing.Report

  13. wardsmith says:

    MRS I completely agree re the flawed climate models and have said so here (and elsewhere) for years. That I’ll eventually be proven totally correct won’t matter, those who vigorously disagreed, called me names and otherwise demeaned themselves will demonstrate total amnesia at that time or will simply claim their hyperbole was caused by “the consensus” doing their thinking for them. Fixating on CO2 as if it is the /only/ driver of climate is a fool’s errand, but climate “scientists” will gladly continue on that errand as long as there are bigger fools to foot the bill.

    In your tech of the future you left out fuel cells. I’ve seen some impressive gains there and turned a local researcher on to a patentable improvement that could enable wide spread deployment of home fuel cells a reality. The problem with fuel cells is “poisoning” of the ion exchange membrane due to impurities in the fuel source. There is a way around this that is relatively easy and should halve the cost of the equipment.Report

  14. Will H. says:

    I’m kinda disappointed that you didn’t discuss geothermal at least a little bit– the most promising technology of all, IMHO.
    Adaptation of building materials didn’t make the list either. There are pipes that can move light from outside to the interior of buildings and such. Typically, the bigger the structure, the more sense it makes to do.

    One thing I’ve never understood about nuclear is this:
    Why exactly is it that Shaw needs to see my credit report in order to get a red badge?
    Crazy stuff there.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Will H. says:

      Again, post long enough. I touched on topics that I’d seen recently. If people really like this type of post, I can do more like it.Report

  15. North says:

    This was a splended post MRS, really well done. Your bit on nuclear power was a balm of pretty good sense for me. I’d also like to add that I feel enormously smarter just from reading the comment thread. Holy Mother of God(ess?) the commentariate around here are smart!

    I don’t have much to add but one observation: in the discussion of a lot of these plants, especially nuclear, space intensive wind or solar there’s always the cost component that raised. I’ve noticed that a very large amount of this cost is a regulatory one that is being inflated by “environmentalists” (or NIMBY’s) using (arguably abusing) the process to massively obstruct these projects. The sentiment seems to view these costs as being as immutable as natural physics and that makes me rather sad. I suspect a day will come when environmentalists view this ludditism with a great deal of regret because it badly undercuts their arguements (especialls on the AGW front).Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to North says:

      Thank you! I had fun writing it.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to North says:

      I agree with North 100%, for the record. This was a great post and I couldn’t even disagree with it.

      From what I understand, each American nuclear plant requires a new blueprint, built for its own particular unique (as we are all unique) part of the world… which means that a blueprint that worked in this part of Kansas (no matter how flat) would not work in that part of Utah (even if it were also fairly flat). New ground, new plant, new plans.

      Something as simple as allowing two sites to resemble each other would help. Maybe not “considerably” but “more than nothing”.Report

  16. DBrown says:

    I am impressed you have a Ph. D. in one of the hard sciences or mathematics – if not, you are not going to write anything on climate modeling that is little more than utter nonsense – so instead, maybe, write an article on how the Higg’s really doesn’t exist by using your great non-mathematical insight – surely you can write just as good an article on particle physics using your amazing insight that no one else in the world appears to possess… or maybe you should write that entropy as described using Statistical Thermodynamics is too simple (those damn log functions are just too strange to really be correct); again, those poor physicist are so handicapped by mere knowledge of, well, physics. Or maybe you can show that Fermat’s last theorem wasn’t really proven … there are just so many advance topics that so need an amateur’s opinion on that experts in these field have just been too stupid to realize. Since you alone have the only real non-scientific based insight into reality that mere experts have failed to see the world really needs help in those other areas that normally, only experts in the field can address… .

    Back to the issue of nuclear power. Your failure to point out that the Canadian reactor design – the Candu – is the best reactor design that actually works and IS COST effective is an unbelievable over sight that demonstrates you have done no real study on that subject, much less can handle the vastly complex mathematical approach required to address climate models. I don’t know what you normally write about but relative to nuclear power systems stay away from that area, as well – your ignorance on that topic appears serious.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to DBrown says:

      Does the “D” in DBrown stand for douchebag? Inquiring minds want to knowReport

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to DBrown says:

      Candu is a modified PWR, which I mentioned. So what exactly is your problem?

      I hold a Master’s in Engineering Mechanics & I’ve extensively studied, used, and currently develop Computational Fluid Dynamics software for use in commercial & government facilities. Climate models are, at their core, a combination of statistical & computational physics models, primarily CFD type models.

      So I am intimately familiar not only with the methods & algorithms used to model fluid & heat flow throughout a dynamic fluid system, I am also very much aware of the limitations of those models, the expected accuracy of those models, & the sensitivity of such models across the simulation time & space.

      But my biggest critique of climate modeling is not the methods, or algorithms, or limitations, it is that we are still discovering all the ways that the fluid dynamic system we live in can store & release heat, as well as the ways it can naturally toss a wrench into the works (such as gas hydrate beds – be a hell of a thing if a few of them suddenly became gaseous, & we’ve only really known about them for 20 years or so). Until we know all those sources, & sinks, & feedbacks, & can model each accurately, we are merely guessing, in some cases using values & algorithms that we think model the highly complex systems that make up our little mudball.

      That is NOT to say we should not do climate research & climate modeling. We most certainly should, and do more of it, it’s the only way we’ll learn the limitations & how to improve upon them. It would just be nice if the media wasn’t so eager to spread tales of doom every time someone publishes the results of a new climate model.

      PS Thank you for being the Class A dick in this whole discussion. Bravo! I think you get a prize from the admins.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        But my biggest critique of climate modeling is not the methods, or algorithms, or limitations, it is that we are still discovering all the ways that the fluid dynamic system we live in can store & release heat, as well as the ways it can naturally toss a wrench into the works (such as gas hydrate beds – be a hell of a thing if a few of them suddenly became gaseous, & we’ve only really known about them for 20 years or so). Until we know all those sources, & sinks, & feedbacks, & can model each accurately, we are merely guessing, in some cases using values & algorithms that we think model the highly complex systems that make up our little mudball.

        I wouldn’t call it “merely” guessing, but this is a much better assessment of the weakness of mathematical modeling, in general, than what you usually see on the posts around here regarding AGW.

        Unlike Ward, above, my worry isn’t that the models are too liberal in their assumptions, it’s that they’re too conservative. But that really *is* conjecture.Report

      • Rod Engelsman in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        First, I haven’t said so yet, but I enjoyed your post immensely. I have a degree in Mech. Engg. so this sort of thing is right up my alley. And DBrown is a douche.

        Second, critics of climate modeling and climate science in general are like people walking into a conversation late, being ignorant of the background of the discussion, and then throwing spitballs at the knowledgeable participants.

        I’ve been mulling over a GP on the subject of exactly why any rational person should “believe” in the reality of global warming. How once you have a grasp of the basic physics involved, the only way to avoid global warming when we’re pouring fossil CO2 into the atmosphere is to literally hope for a miracle. Yes, the climate system–atmosphere, oceans, continental mass, biosphere, etc.–presents a bewilderingly complex array of feedback mechanisms but some of those mechanisms are negative while many are positive. The miracle you have to hope for is that the negative feedbacks will precisely balance and counteract the positive ones and that we end up with a condition of at least approximate homeostasis, that the climate patterns will remain more or less what we have experienced in the past few centuries. Not because there is any magical or cosmically “right” temperature or climate condition, but because we have 7+ billion people living and working who have arranged the patterns of their lives and civilizations around a particular pattern of global climate; where it’s hot and where it’s cold, and where it’s dry and where it’s rainy and when and how much.

        The climate models aren’t about “proving” global warming; that’s a given. The models are a humble and almost desperate attempt to get some handle on the hideously complex problem of what we can expect a warmer world to look like. So that maybe if we’re smart (NOT a given) we can start to prepare and adjust.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Ok, yes, they are generally very well informed guesses & assumptions, but they are still guesses & assumptions. My worry is not that they are too liberal or too conservative, but that they aren’t being always adjusted when new data appears (any given climate model has a lot of guesses & assumptions & it’s a lot to expect the writer of every model to know every bit of new data that might affect their assumptions).

        I also worry that the authors of climate models are NOT software developers & are not using developers to go over their code for accuracy, etc. I haven’t reviewed any climate models for about 10 years, but the ones I did review back in the day were a horrid, confusing mess of code with lots of magic numbers that lacked any kind of commenting or documentation to explain the source of the magic numbers. Hopefully the field has begun imposing a bit more rigor in that regard.


        Like I said, it’s happening, it’s just the timing & the details that are being argued about. I get annoyed that the media & certain “rockstar” researchers are so hyperbolic about it all, because such hyperbole is a great way to scare people, then piss them off & cause a loss of trust in the scientific process when they recognize the dearmongering.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Scientists have an institutional bias towards conservatism. They report the mean, and then they report “what happens if we try to fix this National Security disaster”

      • Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I know a climatologist (well, he doesn’t write papers. He’s a computer scientist by trade [well, when he’s not doing “odd jobs”], and gets other people to write the actual papers).

        He’s a damn good designer, and you’ve used his work (ahem. how do I know that? because some of the stuff he’s written has been that influential).

        What concerns him is that every time we seem to discover a new feedback loop, it’s always runaway positive feedback (Arctic Cyclone, this year). We always seem to be too conservative…

        If someone’s gotta spread tales of doom, please, please, please look at the actual data! It’s alarming enough, dangnabit, even without the models. (doesn’t take much to know that methane makes the earth hotter).

        One really ought to build into all climate models the “oh, shit, we didn’t even consider that”… because it’s come up, and relatively frequently. [Models are now predicting more snow for the American NE for the next fifty years or so, apparently our winters were too cold for max snowfall].Report

      • Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        comment in moderation.Report