Energy

Casting a Shadow on Solar Power

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William Tucker at the American Spectator wonders why the currently touted future of solar power looks suspiciously like its past, suggests shorting your new wave of hot "new age of energy" stocks, and makes a plug for nuclear.

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  1. You know nuclear has a shot in this country when Bonnie Raitt and other middle-age cranks from the looney fringe have to dust off their 30-year-old “No Nukes” playbooks.
    Go nuclear! Solar’s for pussies, anyway.

  2. Don’t forget wind, which you can do as long as it doesn’t interfer with Ted Kennedy’s sailing or Phil Donnahue’s view from Nantucket. We are really close to having workable electric cars. That and nuclear go a long way to not having to depend on oil. I think a lot people more afraid that nuclear will work and people will be able to continue their sinful consumptive lifestyles than they are of any energy shortage.

  3. My neighbor spent 80 grand on state of the art solar. It does run his house but contrary to popular opinion SCE does not have to buy the excess when the meter spins backwards.

    The other thing is this: It will take about 20-25 years to recover the cost of this system, even after taking into account the tax credits. The system is likely to be obsolete or broken long before then. Where, exactly, is the benefit?

  4. Isn’t there a very specific limit to the amount of energy you can possibly get, per square foot, from solar, even at 100% efficiency on a perfectly cloudless day?

    Isn’t it really really low? Seems lame to me.

  5. The system is likely to be obsolete or broken long before then. Where, exactly, is the benefit?

    From the continuously burning frisson of moral superiority he just bought.

  6. It will take about 20-25 years to recover the cost of this system, even after taking into account the tax credits.

    In other words, it would have been more efficient to put the money in a bank, and buy electricity from the grid with a small portion of the interest. Recovering the cost of the system means getting all the way back to zero.

  7. afraid that nuclear will work and people will be able to continue
    their sinful consumptive lifestyles
    They will take my internets when they pry them from my cold dead fingers! Fucking luddites.

  8. Standard home solar systems won’t pay back unless they’re subsidized (They can in So-Cal). But yes, the payback is actually just a break-even, no real return on investment.

    The standard panels do have a life expectancy of 20-30 years, but all the other components needed to run the system are about 5. Some states have planned to force the utility to buy the power when the meter spins backwards – I had understood that Cal. already had, so I’m surprised, TWC.

    One thing that’s interesting is that a number of silicon chip manufacturers are now moving to solar cells, but they are using a non-silicon material that is less efficient, but is much cheaper to manufacture and can be done in rolls. They keep claiming that in 5 years they’ll have the price per Kilowatt down to the same as coal. I’m just hoping they pull it off in 15. Should be easier as the overall price of coal goes up.

  9. I think a lot people more afraid that nuclear will work and people will be able to continue their sinful consumptive lifestyles than they are of any energy shortage.

    The ultimate test of this would be successful fusion reactors. No waste, no danger, fuel incredibly abundant, tremendous output.

    Any of the usual characters who came out to protest it would be unquestionable Luddites.

  10. I’m not afraid that nuclear power will work, I’m still curious when it will work without so much government hand holding.

  11. Brian Doherty,

    BTW, nuclear power as a world-wide energy source has a long history of dependence on the government.

  12. The nuke phobia is very strange and counterproductive.

    They need to come up with a new name for it, like how rapeseed oil is now canola oil.

    Centralized solar plants seem pretty goofy. Give them a while to come up with something more distributed: solar panels on every rooftop that look exactly like shingles etc.

  13. Where, exactly, is the benefit?
    Well, other than being able to run the AC at full blast during the next bout of rolling blackouts, not much I suspect. Solar has its place in the remote places that grid lines won’t see in the next 50 years. Other than that it is indeed a monetary sink and I am dubious of its environmental friendliness.

    Just what kind of energy and materials go into solar? I know that deep cycle lead acid batteries in an off the grid set up must be replaced every 4-7 years, plus all the normal maintenance of the system.

  14. I think a lot people more afraid that nuclear will work and people will be able to continue their sinful consumptive lifestyles than they are of any energy shortage.

    I think a lot of people are in denial that nuclear works and fear that people will be able to continue their sinful consumptive lifestyles. It is not rational thinking.

  15. Mith, I can’t prove SCE won’t buy the electricity, but this guy was really mad about it because he was under the impression that they would.

    Epi,

    From the continuously burning frisson of moral superiority he just bought.

    Surprisingly, this guy is not one of them. He has a ton of money and is a retired engineer. He did the solar thing kind of as a lark and for the smug satisfaction of being self sufficient.

  16. I think we should switch everything to politco-thermal power. Just the hot air coming out of Washington should be able to power the U.S. for a century or so.

  17. They keep claiming that in 5 years they’ll have the price per Kilowatt down to the same as coal.

    And controlled fusion is just 10 years away, still.

  18. It will take about 20-25 years to recover the cost of this system, even after taking into account the tax credits.

    This is simply not true. Once you add in the “smug,” the consumer surplus is quite high and a purchaser can recover his costs in 3-5 years.

  19. I think a lot of people are in denial that nuclear works…..

    If everyone who pretended to think globally actually did, they would realize that nuclear does work. The French proved that long ago. But they never had the luxury of cheap oil and you know what necessity is the mother of.

  20. Surprisingly, this guy is not one of them. He has a ton of money and is a retired engineer. He did the solar thing kind of as a lark and for the smug satisfaction of being self sufficient.

    Well, then I guess the benefit is being invited to Green cocktail parties and scoring with eco-harpies?

    However, being energy-independent is sort of cool, even if (in this case) financially stupid.

  21. They keep claiming that in 5 years they’ll have the price per Kilowatt down to the same as coal.

    I read an article in the late 1970’s or 1980’s in a well respected mag. Sanyo was on the verge of a photocell so efficient it would revolutionize the energy business. It was very, very close. Almost competitive at press time and the refined model would come to market within a year. I was excited and convinced.

  22. The Wine Commonsewer,

    So, would you be willing to go with the heavy government involvement that has characterized the French nuclear power industry?

  23. Well, then I guess the benefit is being invited to Green cocktail parties and scoring with eco-harpies?

    He’s a strange guy. Straight ahead, dyed-in-the-wool Republican (in the old sense of fiscal conservatism). Hates greenies and the Sierra Club. He built a gorgeous 6,000 square foot home that had to have cost at least 1.5 million to build and never landscaped it. Two acres of bare dirt.

  24. Syloson of Samos

    I agree with the government hand holding.

    Anyone remember WPPSS? Or “whoops” as it became known “affectionately” round these parts?

    http://www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=5482

    Nuclear doea work…but don’t think it would do so without government assistence.

    I grew up with an antique nuclear power plant in Eureka, California. It was shut down 30 odd years ago. It’s still a problem, though they may have finally removed the rods…which they hadn’t even a few years ago.

    It was closed down for amongst other reasons because it was situated on a fault (and acutally anywhere in the near vicinty would be bad to site one as that area is the convergence of the San Andreas fault and the small plates that create the Cascades…).

    So if the objection to solar is a bad return on investment, putting all your hopes on some free-market nuclear power industry is kind of the same thing..except it zings the “hippies”.

    Btw, visited the abandoned Satsop site..it was amazing..even though it was never finished..those cooling towers were huge..it was impressive.

  25. Two acres of bare dirt.

    Low maintenance. Engineers like low maintenance.

  26. SOS,

    would you be willing to go with the heavy government involvement that has characterized the French nuclear power industry?

    I’m not pointing to the French as a role model per se, I am pointing out that nuclear power is feasible and relatively safe while using the French as an example of a modern state that is heavily dependent upon nukes for power and has suffered little ill effect from it.

    That said, I’m a markets kind of guy…….

  27. “I think a lot people more afraid that nuclear will work and people will be able to continue their sinful consumptive lifestyles than they are of any energy shortage.”

    That is indeed the motivation for a lot of the activitists. That is why they they’ve tried to create a two-pronged argument to deliberatly force reduced consumption and lifestyles. They claim we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil (and gasoline – which is alos imported) for national security reasons but then start squawking about “global warming” and other environmental depredations when any mention is made of drilling for more oil in ANWAR or offshore or increasing the utilitzation of our coal reserves – which we’ve got plenty of.

    The fact is that there is no physical shortage of fossile fuels that can be utiitized, coal , oil shale, oil deposits offshore and in Alasksa that can be developed. And of course nuclear power as well.

    But the real objective is to force people into an alternative, reduced lifestyle that the earth-worshipping radicals view as less “sinfull” than the lifestyle that most people actually want to live.

  28. Solar energy may be inefficient and expensive at the moment, and I don’t know whether it gets any cheaper. What I’m looking for are high-density and relatively cheap capacitors: my dream is to get one and hook it up to my exercise bike on one end and as a backup power source to my servers on the other end, to bridge over the relatively frequent (2-4 monthly) power outages I get.

  29. “Mith, I can’t prove SCE won’t buy the electricity, but this guy was really mad about it because he was under the impression that they would.”

    SCE will accept the electricity back into the grid but they will not pay your for it (they legally don’t have to). That is, if you overproduce, your meter only runs backwards until you reach zero and then stops. Some states your meter keeps running into the negatives and you can receive a credit or refund.

  30. Solar energy may be inefficient and expensive at the moment, and I don’t know whether it gets any cheaper.

    Jozef–It’s been that way since the 70’s when it’s supporters started pimping it’s energy prowess.

    It’ll be cheap to operate real soon now.

  31. But [the French] never had the luxury of cheap oil and you know what necessity is the mother of.

    Why couldn’t the French buy their oil on the international market the same as everyone else?

    Which raises the question – why did the French goes so big into nuclear?

  32. RC, I have no idea why the Fr didn’t buy oil same as we do, but they never had any appreciable amount of domestic oil. I don’t pretend to fully understand the mechanics behind it, but there are reasons why gasoline is ten times costlier in Europe than here (and always has been). I suggest that is connected to the costs of getting the oil where it needs to be and that cost gave rise, in part, to the idea of nukes. Plus nukes don’t pollute unless they melt.

  33. Which raises the question – why did the French goes so big into nuclear?

    Balance of payments?

  34. Thanks Bob, that was the story as I heard it.

  35. The Wine commonsewer,

    Well, there isn’t a single country on the planet which has a large nuclear power industry that also doesn’t have significant hand-holding by the government at the same time. At least that I know of.

  36. R.C. Dean,

    Because the French government decided to go heavy into nuclear following the oil crisis. France has a long tradition of building large, government financed or at least government aided engineering projects like this, so part of the explanation is that fit nicely into an area which the French have a lot of experience with.

  37. Anytime I hear someone spouting the benefits of whatever “eco-friendly” invention (solar power, Toyota Prions, hydrogen, bio-diesel), it seems the numbers always focus on the output after the system is in place, never the inputs needed to get the system in place. So the Prion is cited as a Great Thing, but I never hear about the amount of energy used (all from fossil fuel, somewhere down the line) to make the thing in the first place. Given that processes are never 100% efficient, I would expect that something like the Prion is actually a net loser for the environment. Same thing with solar panels: their high cost is probably indicative of the energy requirements needed to make them, at which point if they are used less than their maximum lifetime that are probably once again a net drain on the environment over the “evil” fossil fuels.

    I somehow have the feeling that if I brought this up with environmental True Believers, all I’d get would be (at best) a blank stare or (more likely) downright hostility for questioning the Law of the (Goridean) Prophets…

  38. BTW, I would point out that in the West at least oil is no longer used in any significant way for power production – all nations switched to or increased some other electricity generating source (e.g., nuclear, natural gas, coal, wind*, etc.).

    *Denmark produces about 20% of its power via wind.

  39. I don’t pretend to fully understand the mechanics behind it, but there are reasons why gasoline is ten times costlier in Europe than here (and always has been).

    There was a nice article in the Economist about 3 years ago, with a breakdown in the cost of gas (or ‘petrol’, as they call it) in Britain.

    Off the top of my head, the breakdown was:
    15% extraction, refining and transport
    8% profit
    77% taxes.

  40. Some thoughts:

    1. If you thought oil was bad, look at what the price of uranium has done over the past 2 years. From $20 to $90 and it took a trip past $140 to get there. The price of this commodity is only going to increase as demand goes up, and it will.

    2. You gotta build the factory before you get the first can o’ peas. I read recently that a typical 1-1.5 GW nuclear plant has a capital cost of $3-4 Billion. Would the taxpayer get stuck with part of that bill? I would think so.

    3. The top three to producers of uranium are (in no particular order):

    Canada (meh)
    Africa (Oh, um?)
    Russia (Ah, jeez)

    From the standpoint of energy independence and not marrying energy policy to potentially unstable regimes, Nuclear is not ideal for the long term.

  41. TWC

    Marshall gets it right at 1:55pm.

    Most of the high price of gas in European countries is due to high taxes.

    It’s true that governments can control the price of domestic oil to make it “cheap” compared to the international ptice. Pierre Trudeau tried to use the 70s runup in oil prices to tax Canadian oil to pay for his proposed welfare state. Like most political schemes it didn’t work out all that well.

  42. I meant to add:

    France is not that unusual in not having domestic oil either.

    Think Japan. They were willing to go to war over it. (Before anyone jumps at me, I realize there were other issues too.)

  43. California requires that the utilities allow you to “bank” your excess power back onto the grid (ie meter running backwards). Then on night or cloudy days, you can recover your banked energy from the grid (meter going forward). However, at the end of the month (billing cycle), any excess power you didn’t consumed (meter is less than what it was at the beginning of the cycle) in that billing cycle, you will not get reimbursed for.

  44. I live in rural location, near the top of a hill, with nothing to the west of me but corn. So I have spent alot of time looking at wind generation, solar generation, and combined systems. As far as I can tell, there is no way to configure a system that has less than a 15-20 year time frame to just break even. Wind is closer to being a rational investment, but solar is still way too impractical.

  45. Isaac Bartram,

    France does have some domestic oil production, but it isn’t very significant. Anyway, it doesn’t have much in the way of domestic coal or natural gas production either and never has.

  46. If you thought oil was bad, look at what the price of uranium has done over the past 2 years. From $20 to $90 and it took a trip past $140 to get there.

    $140 per what? kW/h? g? cubic furlong? Units, man!

  47. how much nuclear can we build?

    I think the US uses something like 4 terawatts of energy. To get that much from nuclear you’d need to build 4000 new plants. That’s an awful lot, it’s hard to imagine where you’d put them all.

    Not that it couldn’t be done, and not that we have to make *all* our power nuclear. but realistically, what is the maximum amount of nuclear power we could expect to be supplied?

  48. What are these government subsidies for nuclear plants being refered to here? How much a percentage of it’s operations is it? I’m curious.

    And with some subsidized products you can also find high regulatory burdens and taxes. So any subsidies actually end up being a kind of wash for certain industries. Is this the case with nuclear?

  49. If you thought oil was bad, look at what the price of uranium has done over the past 2 years. From $20 to $90 and it took a trip past $140 to get there. The price of this commodity is only going to increase as demand goes up, and it will.

    According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

    Nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels.

    Fuel costs for nuclear plants are a minor proportion of total generating costs, (J sub D’s emphasis) though capital costs are greater than those for coal-fired plants.

    – In assessing the cost competitiveness of nuclear energy, decommissioning and waste disposal costs are taken into account.

    Let’s get to work, goddamit.

  50. “Which raises the question – why did the French goes so big into nuclear?”

    RC. I think national pride played a lot into it. It was after World War II and De Gaul was in charge. The French left NATO and became a nuclear power. I think they really wanted to show the world they still mattered and also to reduce their dependence on anyone else for energy. The subsidized the hell out of nuclear and created an almost paramilitary department to run the plants. The French plants and the service that runs them really are a great example of government efficiency and I say that without irony.

    It is funny people mention fusion. I honestly hope I live to see the day when fusion reactors are feasible. First, I would like to see it because it would be a miracle technology that would change the world for the better in about a million ways. Second, the see the screaming and gnashing of teeth that would go on in the luddite, environmentalist left. It would drive them nuts. They would no doubt invent bogus science to show that it wasn’t safe.

  51. 1) A web article mythbusting alternative energy claims
    2) A magazine cover story that complains about anti-god arguments.

    That (1) and (2) exist on the same webpage should provide enough irony for a matter-antimatter reaction capable of powering a warp drive (if we could only get dilithium crystals.)

    In Mr. Tucker’s article, he has a point about the square footage to power ratio of solar plants. But when he writes stuff like this:

    To get to 500 MW — the size of a small commercial plant

    it detracts from his argument because it seems he has no idea what he’s talking about. According to this PDF file, the *largest* plant on Oahu (which naturally has to produce all of its own electricity)is 500 MW.

  52. “I think a lot people more afraid that nuclear will work and people will be able to continue their sinful consumptive lifestyles than they are of any energy shortage”

    This is comparable to religious extremists.

    “We have to stop Abortions!”
    “We can greatly reduce abortions!”
    “…Go on?”
    “Well, by making birth control available over the counter, women will be able to avoid getting pregnant and can have all the sex they want!”
    “…No they just need to get right with Jesus!”
    “So in other words, you aren’t interested in reducing abortions, you are interested in reducing abortions YOUR way”
    “Right!”

    –Joey

  53. If we force ourselves to talk only about what technology can actually supply terawatts of power, we have fossil, nuke, and that is pretty much it. If you don’t like nuke and you don’t like fossil, I’m listening, but at some point I’m going to ask you what actual technology you are going to deploy to get us there instead.

    I just can’t see how current deployable renewables are going to be anything but marginal players even with subsidies.

  54. Two acres of bare dirt.

    Low maintenance. Engineers like low maintenance.

    It’s called maintaining a free zone of fire,
    Hmmm.. energy independent plus no landscaping. Maybe he is preparing for something.

    I see the primary benefit to the solar is having power when the grid goes down. But the kind of panel setup typically subsidized by the utility goes directly to the grid and do es not supply power when the grid is down. Preventing accidents when the power company is trying to repair the grid. Only the systems with a battery farm and an automatic transfer switch are appropriate for grid/independent operation.

  55. Drawnasunder:

    Isn’t there a very specific limit to the amount of energy you can possibly get, per square foot, from solar, even at 100% efficiency on a perfectly cloudless day?

    Yes, there are only so many “watts per square foot” produced by the sun.

    I’m a big fan of solar (photovoltaic) but alas, I’m not an environmentalist which means I don’t drink the koolaid. Solar isn’t going to be easy, and it won’t be cheap.

    However, I do believe that some technologies can be used to enhance the wattage. There have been some scattered reports of researchers using mirrors to direct more light to a given area, thus adding to the amount of energy a solar panel would normally claim from the straight rays of the sun.

    I believe that solar can enhance our ability to reduce our need for standard grid based electricity. Plus, there are other plusses about solar. Think of the sun as a power source that’s never off– during the day, at least. If you’re not home or asleep and therefore not using any major electricity aside from maintenance power (clocks, refrigerators, hotwater heaters) the sun will continue to charge batteries while your power usage is minimal. The downside being that solar won’t do anything for you at night. So no matter how you slice it, you have to be able to store enough energy to carry you through low or no-light periods. For those of us in the Northwest, we’ve got low-light periods that last about 6 months.

    My guess is solar will be a great enhancement, but not a complete solution.

  56. Only the systems with a battery farm and an automatic transfer switch are appropriate for grid/independent operation.

    Absolutely. Saw a nice, integrated power management solution that provides the automatic power switch, battery charge controllers, and inputs for both solar and wind systems for about $10K to support a mid-sized house. Of course, that excludes the batteries, solar panels, and wind generators 😉

  57. “My guess is solar will be a great enhancement, but not a complete solution.”

    Perhaps this has changed, but at least back in the 70s and 80s solar panels were really nasty things to produce and to dispose of. Perhaps that has changed. In theory it seems like we should plaster every roof with solar panels. What would it hurt? But then you have to wonder about the cost of doing that and the pollution associated with it.

  58. Meyer: US$ per pound of yummy, yummy, yellowcake.

    J sub D, re: fuel cost: My point is, at what point does fuel cost become significant and how far away from it are we now?

  59. Isn’t there a very specific limit to the amount of energy you can possibly get, per square foot, from solar, even at 100% efficiency on a perfectly cloudless day?

    Average solar flux (day & night, pole to equator) is about 340 watts per meter squared.

    If you wanted to get to 4 TW with solar and you had perfectly efficient conversion you’d need to capture 100 percent of solar flux from about 12,000 square km of area. That’s a little less than the size of Connecticut. That seems big. But put another way, it’s only about 10 percent of the area we’ve already covered for roads, parking lots, buildings, etc. in the US. That seems possible.

    That’s the upside. There’s plenty of solar energy there if someone can figure out how to capture it.

    The downside comes in figuring out how to capture it cheaply and efficiently. That may be a long way off.

  60. Mitsubishi 125 Watt, 12 Volt Solar Electric Panel (Black Frame). Size 59″ x 26.5″, 29 pounds. Price for 8 is about $4,600. A decent 1,000 watt sine-wave inverter is another $550.

    So more that $5K plus mounting and wiring to achieve 1 kilowatt.

    This is pretty typical of the state of the art.

    Note that this does not include any batteries, charge controllers, or automatic switches that would allow you to store excess electricity or to operate when the grid goes down.


  61. The other thing is this: It will take about 20-25 years to recover the cost of this system, even after taking into account the tax credits. The system is likely to be obsolete or broken long before then. Where, exactly, is the benefit?

    The problem is the state regs concerning power buyback. Each state, save a very small few, has made it so that individual power generation is near impossible because individuals can’t sell power back into the grid, even if they have a neighbor willing to buy it.

    If you want to make ROI on home power generation acceptable, break the state regs on power transmission.

  62. I know that deep cycle lead acid batteries in an off the grid set up must be replaced every 4-7 years, plus all the normal maintenance of the system.

    No one is using lead these days.

  63. John,

    Just to clue you in, De Gaulle had been out of power for roughly five years when France launched its major push to develop a nuclear power industry. Now De Gaulle was the major player involved in deciding to build the “Force de Frappe.” The major impetus for developing the industry was the 1973 oil crunch however; De Gaulle left power in 1968.

  64. “Think of the sun as a power source that’s never off– during the day, at least.”

    What about geo-thermal energy?

    It’s never off anytime – day or night.

  65. …suggests shorting your new wave of hot “new age of energy” stocks

    Interesting timing on this item, Brian. The solar stock I own – Suntech (STP) – went up 14% today. Another one I’m looking at – First Solar (FSRL) – went up 13%. I suspect there’s still plenty of money to be made on solar energy, even if it turns out to be a dud in the long run.

  66. J sub D,

    In assessing the cost competitiveness of nuclear energy, decommissioning and waste disposal costs are taken into account.

    Probably estimates of such are. The full cost of both are probably relatively unknown.

  67. http://www.windsun.com/Batteries/Battery_types.htm

    Even after over 100 years, the Lead-Acid battery is still the battery of choice for 99% of solar and backup power systems. With the better availability during the last few years of the new AGM batteries and the true deep-cycle batteries, we feel that there is little reason to use any other type.

  68. What about geo-thermal energy?

    Did you RTFA? He discusses it in there…

  69. California requires that the utilities allow you to “bank” your excess power back onto the grid (ie meter running backwards). . . .any excess power you didn’t consumed (meter is less than what it was at the beginning of the cycle) in that billing cycle, you will not get reimbursed for.

    Ah yes, my apologies. It has been a long time since I read about it. This is how it worked, it’s not a true buy back system.

    One thing the original article didn’t mention is that there are a number of companies actually working on solar technologies that are different than what’s been tried before:
    http://www.greenvolts.com/technology/
    http://www.enviromission.com.au/project/project.htm
    http://www.stirlingenergy.com/

    That last one has a lot of people arguing it will never work.

    Here’s two links to the thin film stuff that’s supposedly going to be “cheap” really soon. Any minute now…
    http://www.nanosolar.com/
    http://www.heliovolt.net/

    Here’s a whole ton of solar stuff from a general cheerleader for the industry, so take it with a grain of salt:
    http://blogs.business2.com/greenwombat/solar_energy/index.html

  70. Syloson of Samos,

    I stand corrected. My apologies. My knowledge of Gaulist France is clearly lacking.

  71. J sub D / -nm:

    I went to a talk given by the head of the US Navy’s nuke power program a few weeks ago. He commented that for the new generation of cruiser under development, the nuclear variant would be about 30%-40% more expensive in lifecycle costs at current ($80-100 pbbl) oil costs. He did say that if oil continues its upward trendline (from what base, I am not sure), then the lifecycle cost of the nuke option becomes cheaper.

    So, my estimate is that nuke/oil breakeven point is at approx $150/barrel

  72. I’m guessing the use of nuclear for propulsion is less efficient than nuclear for generating electricity (because no way is oil viable for large scale electric generation).

  73. I have a hard time taking this article seriously because the author makes his selective use of numbers obvious without even needing to look outside of the article.

    “The new tower in Spain — subsidized by the government, of course — has almost the same dimensions, occupying about one-fifth of a square mile to produce 11 MW. To get to 500 MW — the size of a small commercial plant — it would have to cover ten square miles.”
    “The largest geothermal plants produce 75 megawatts (about one-twelfth the size of a conventional plant).”

    So, a “conventional plant” produces almost twice as much energy as a “small commercial plant”. Where did he come up with this distinction, and more to the point why did he change the standard we were measuring against?

    And this, “California now produces 2 percent of its electricity from geothermal and this represents 90 percent of America’s capacity and 25 percent of the world’s”, is just absurd on its face. One quarter of the geothermal energy to be found on the planet Earth happens to be in in California, U.S.A. Sure. “So far no one has suggested attaching a power plant to Old Faithful.” This means it’s not a candidate, then? Tourism in an area automatically means it can never be used for anything else?

    I’m sure there’s more in this article but I stopped reading there.

  74. I live in rural location, near the top of a hill, with nothing to the west of me but corn. So I have spent alot of time looking at wind generation, solar generation, and combined systems. As far as I can tell, there is no way to configure a system that has less than a 15-20 year time frame to just break even. Wind is closer to being a rational investment, but solar is still way too impractical.

    Not without being allowed to sell it, anyway. Wind is a +ROI investment for the individual if they can sell it into the grid. The monopoly on the transmission lines must be broken.

  75. A single source solution is not going to be the answer.

    Each region and each individual user within that region may find a better solution.

    Nuclear has the disadvantage of being viable only as a large-scale centralized power source.

    Decentralized power-generation with increased efficiency designed into the average building will get us more bang for the buck than any centralized power solution.

    Increased efficiency has been the primary source of energy in the last 30 years. More widespread use of energy efficient design could reduce energy consumption without being a drag on growth in productive capacity.

    More on the topic
    http://www.rmi.org/

  76. In other words,

    Change the framing of the question away from “how do we produce enough energy to meet the need?” to “how do we meet the need with the least energy.”

    The Four Principles of Natural Capitalism (from RMI)

    1. Radically increase the productivity of resource use.
    2. Shift to biologically inspired production with closed loops, no waste, and no toxicity.
    3. Shift the business model away from the making and selling of “things” to providing the service that the “thing” delivers.
    4. Reinvest in natural and human capital.

  77. J sub D, re: fuel cost: My point is, at what point does fuel cost become significant and how far away from it are we now?

    I didn’t think I’d need to mention this.

    Breeder Reactors. Any questions?

  78. Probably estimates of such are. The full cost of both are probably relatively unknown.

    I’m sure they are estimates. As others have pointed out theFrench can provide decent numbers.

  79. Thinking a bit, maybe I’m wrong in my previous post. I really have no idea if the French have developed a long term nuclear waste disposal infrastructure.

    I hate it when I talk out of my ass!

  80. “In assessing the cost competitiveness of nuclear energy, decommissioning and waste disposal costs are taken into account.”

    Does the cost of competitiveness also include the cost of security to keep the yummy yellowcake out of the terrorists’ hands?

    CL

  81. I just had to look it up. Nuclear waste disposal in France is in the developmental stage. Go here for detailed info. You’ll have to hit Page Down a bit to get to the disposal section. They seem to have done most of the prelim work.

  82. I wonder if solar becomes more competitive if everyone starts driving electric cars? That is, if we were to shift our demand for gasoline to a demand for electricity, does that make the ROI on solar/wind more like 8-10 years instead of 20+? I know my electric bill is always around $35/month (I have natural gas heat/stove/hot-water). There’s no way I’d shell out several tens of thousands for a solar system.

    However, I pay about $200/month for gasoline to power our two cars. Saving $200/month might make the solar ROI much sooner (plus there would be no need for an inverter and the batteries would already be part of the car).

  83. Does the cost of competitiveness also include the cost of security to keep the yummy yellowcake out of the terrorists’ hands?

    What do you think terrorists could do with reacto fuel. I’d reckon they could possibly make a nuisance out of it.

  84. Make that reactor fuel vice reacto fuel. I need a new secretary.


  85. However, I pay about $200/month for gasoline to power our two cars. Saving $200/month might make the solar ROI much sooner (plus there would be no need for an inverter and the batteries would already be part of the car).

    Yes and No.

    No, because having the electric car doesn’t make the solar system more cost effective by itself. If you get an electric car and electricity is still cheaper from the grid, then the home solar option still won’t be any more cost effective. I think that’s what you were trying to say above.

    Yes, because as more and more people get electric cars, the demand for electricity will go up and the prices of the electricity will go up, until theoretically they hit parity with the costs of the home solar option. If this is what you were trying to say, then I apologize for just rewording it.

  86. Jozef | November 6, 2007, 1:30pm | #
    Solar energy may be inefficient and expensive at the moment, and I don’t know whether it gets any cheaper. What I’m looking for are high-density and relatively cheap capacitors: my dream is to get one and hook it up to my exercise bike on one end and as a backup power source to my servers on the other end, to bridge over the relatively frequent (2-4 monthly) power outages I get.

    You mean like this:

    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/905269/pedal_powered_television/#

  87. I went to a talk given by the head of the US Navy’s nuke power program a few weeks ago. He commented that for the new generation of cruiser under development, the nuclear variant would be about 30%-40% more expensive in lifecycle costs at current ($80-100 pbbl) oil costs. He did say that if oil continues its upward trendline (from what base, I am not sure), then the lifecycle cost of the nuke option becomes cheaper.

    So, my estimate is that nuke/oil breakeven point is at approx $150/barrel

    I think this is sort of a false analogy – it only applies to use of nuclear as a powerplant for a ship. Basically he’s saying that for a ship, it’s still cheaper to use gas than nuclear (though obviously the navy uses nuclear so there’s no refueling).

    So yes, $150 might be a break even for running a naval vessel, but that’s irrelevant to a large scale nuclear power plant. Oil is really only cost effective as a fuel in transportation issues where you need to carry the fuel around with you. Oil already is not cost effective to use for electricity generation in the US – that’s why it only accounts for a few percent of our total electricity generation a year.

  88. Mith-
    I understand what you and others are saying about the cost effectiveness of oil as a generating source and I’ll admit the $150 was pulled out of thin air.
    What I was trying to get at is as close to an apples to apples comparison as I could get when comparing the marginal costs of fossil to nuclear fuel, as was asked above. Since this is a comparison within two alternatives of a government run program, a lot of the confounding factors in the analysis, such a private/public, subsidy vs non subsidy, single large capacity vs distributed small capacity, peak loading vs continuous use, etc all cancel out because it for the pretty much the same builders, operators and end users in either case. (although the nuclear part of the Navy do have some discrete elements that separate it from the rest of the Navy at each phase of the process)

    And, if oil powered, or more precisely gas powered, is inefficient for static use, then I would think the differential would be even higher and make nuclear marginal costs that much higher.

    And, as an aside to the aside, the navy has been working on the development of all electric drive ships (and submarines). That is, the powerplant would only make electricity, and that in turn would power the engines, the catapults, the high powered phased array radars, and the frickin’ lasers strapped on top of the ill tempered seabass (or as its officially know, anti-ballistic missile defense). Nuclear power definitely does have logistical advantages if you have frequent high capacity demand and can go 10-20 years on a tank of “gas.”

  89. Holy Crap! There’s been a lot going on in this thread.

    J sub D: Just to be clear, does the nuke lifecycle cost become “cheaper” or more “cost effective”? I find it hard to believe it’s the former.

    First the article: “Yet Another Energy Revolution (Yawn)”

    The author makes some generalizations that seem a little weak. He suggests “…we’ve already been around the block once with thermally generated solar electricity…” suggesting “been there, done that, move along”. Well, that really doesn’t mean anything, does it? Just because some people took a crack at it in the eighties and ran into problems, does that mean the solution is junk, or were there details they didn’t anticipate? Is a cost-effective solution to keeping solar collectors clean totally out of reach? I’ll give you an automotive example I’m familiar with: anyone remember the 80’s Cadillac 8-6-4 multi-displacement system? In a word: GARBAGE! Yet here we are in 2007 and most of latest the pushrod V8’s now have multi-displacement tech that’s cheap and practical and works fairly well. The big problem then was the Caddy had and ECU with about as much processing power as my toaster. Though I think no amount of computing muscle could have made up for the fundamental shortcoming that it was an ’80’s Caddy…

    These guys seemed to have found a solution to the nasty-hot-fluid problem.
    http://www.stirlingenergy.com/

    He also suggests that “Because there is no Moore’s Law for solar power, the price of photovoltaic cells has not experienced the drops that are supposed to come with mass production…” Is this true? OK, they may not have seen the kinds of unit price drops and power increases as microprocessors or flash memory or hard drives, but there isn’t any other tech that I can think of that has either. But to imply that the technology hasn’t gotten (and won’t continue to get) cheaper and/or more efficient is a bit of a stretch.

    http://www.solarbuzz.com/StatsCosts.htm
    http://www.energy.gov/news/4503.htm

    I’m actually surprised the DOE announcement wasn’t bigger news. The MSM seemed to miss it altogether. Granted, commercial applications could be a decade away, but achieving PV efficiency that’s effectively double the best that’s on the market today is pretty significant.

    I will agree with the author of the article that large-scale base load power generation is probably out of reach at this point.

    Breeder reactors:

    http://chemed.chem.purdue.edu/genchem/topicreview/bp/ch23/fission.php
    “The advantage of breeder reactors is obvious–they mean a limitless supply of fuel for nuclear reactors. There are significant disadvantages, however. Breeder reactors are more expensive to build. They are also useless without a subsidiary industry to collect the fuel, process it, and ship the 239Pu to new reactors.

    It is the reprocessing of 239Pu that concerns most of the critics of breeder reactors. 239Pu is so dangerous as a carcinogen that the nuclear industry places a limit on exposure to this material that assumes workers inhale no more than 0.2 micrograms of plutonium over their lifetimes. There is also concern that the 239Pu produced by these reactors might be stolen and assembled into bombs by terrorist organizations.

    The fate of breeder reactors in the United States is linked to economic considerations. Because of the costs of building these reactors and safely reprocessing the 239Pu produced, the breeder reactor becomes economical only when the scarcity of uranium drives its price so high that the breeder reactor becomes cost effective by comparison. If nuclear energy is to play a dominant role in the generation of electrical energy in the 21st century, breeder reactors eventually may be essential.”

    Making the world secure for Plutonium, especially if you see a proliferation of breeder reactors is certainly possible, but it’s still no trivial thing. “More expensive to build” is almost a throwaway line so I looked further…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clinch_River_Breeder_Reactor_Project#Project_costs

    “One issue was continuing escalation in the cost of the project. In 1971 the Atomic Energy Commission estimated that the Clinch River project would cost about $400 million. Private industry promised to contribute the majority of the project cost ($257 million). By the following year, however, projected costs had jumped to nearly $700 million.[2] By 1981 $1 billion of public money had been spent on the project, and the estimated cost to completion had grown to $3.0-$3.2 billion, with another billion dollars needed for an associated spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility. [3] Before it was finally canceled in 1983, the General Accounting Office of the Congress estimated the total cost at $8 billion.[4]

    Another issue was the high cost of building and operating breeder reactors to produce electricity. In 1981, it was estimated that construction costs for a fast breeder reactor would be twice the cost of building a conventional light-water nuclear reactor of similar capacity. That same year it was estimated that the market price of mined, processed uranium, then $25 per pound, would have to increase to nearly $165 per pound in 1981 dollars before the breeder would become financially competitive with the conventional light-water nuclear reactor. United States electric utility companies, which did not receive the types of large government subsidies provided to utilities in some other countries, were reluctant to invest in such an expensive technology.”

    Hells Bells, man. GAO says “Eight Beeelion dollars”? Also, $165/lb Uranium in 1981 dollars is About $380/lb when adjusted for inflation. No where near the $140/lb peak that happened recently. It also begs the question: if the structural costs are that high, how much taxpayer subsidy is required to pull it off? Would that money be better used for something else? Given alternative technology, would there actually be a price where this technology is more feasible than wind/solar/renewables? It’s still kind of a shame that they spent all that cash with nothing to show for it. Supposedly India has a prototype fast breeder reactor coming online in 2010. I can’t find much info on it though.

    Also Nuclear: Water. You never hear about this in any of the pro or con arguments on Nukes. There are a lot of urban centers in North America that are really concerned about water supply right now. Coincidentally, this is a big issue in Alberta, where oil sands processing, along with the population boom, are giving them some genuine concerns over water supply.

    http://www.sciencealert.com.au/opinions/20072910-16508.html

    http://climateprogress.org/2007/10/30/the-achilles-heel-of-nuclear-power/

    “During the extreme heat of 2003 in France, 17 nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity or were turned off. Patrice Lambert de Diesbach, an energy analyst at CM-CIC Securities in Paris, said hot summers were the problem. “We are up against the maximum amount of hot water that can be released into rivers,” Diesbach said. “Unfortunately the situation is only going to get worse.””

    Interesting given all the talk about French le power nuu-cew-laer.

    Longest goddam post of my life.

    -nm

  90. Gp, Obs, and D-Slam-

    1) First, my main purpose on this thread was to counteract my perception of the peak oil people that western technological liberal democracy is doomed and will be replaced by a) Military/Fascist dictatorship, b)Theocratic/Oil Oligarch dictatorship c)Communist/Green dictatorship d)Post Apocalyptic Feudal Fiefdoms, or e)some combo of (a)-(d). If this is a strawman that does not apply to you, please accept my apologies. But, it seems from your posts above that some people like this do exist

    2)a) I am a nuclear/electrical engineer by training, so I do not have much knowledge of the oil business itself, so I will stipulate everything stated by D-slam in 10:56 as correct about how much oil their actually is, and how easy it is to process and maintain. I have already stated that I agree with the peak oil premise that the end of cheap and easy oil is probably over. Also, my equating to labor was not meant a rhetorical trick; it was trying (unsucessfully) of taking oil price increases in context with overall inflation and the current weakness of the US dollar. I would have used oz of gold, but am not much of a gold bug.
    b) But on your 10:56 post, you say it takes oil to get at other sources. True, as far as it goes. That is part of my larger point: right now oil is cheap and portable, just like donkeys and horses were cheap and portable to get the first veins of coal out of the ground a century and a half ago. As the technology changed, the motive forces for the process changed, and only as fast as the comparative economics (of the balance of the combined trio of human, animal, and machine labor) changed. Those electric tractors will come as soon as they are cheaper than diesels.
    c) I have no good answers on airplanes, (especially since I live on an island in the middle of the pacific), but western civilization did reach Hawaii (and overthow their monarchy) before its invention. We may just have to go back to trains, ships, and zepplins.

    3) On exponential growth: Well, at least for 1st world human beings, the natural growth rate is not only not exponential, its negative. Even pessimistic estimates by the UN have the world population leveling off sometime early next century at around 10 billion. I see no reason why the trend of improved education for women will reverse anytime soon. As for just about every other human endeavours, growth follows an S-curve, which just looks exponential after its start.

    4) Lastly, I wish to clarify that I do not believe this will be cost free. What I do believe, however, is that we can afford it. We have improved the average standard of living in the western world from less than a dollar a day in 1820 to something on the order of $30,000 at the beginning of this century. Just like a car will stall if starting from a standstill from a stop in 4th gear, we needed the oil to “prime the pump.” But now, that we’re rolling at 50-60 mph, we should be able to shift to 4, 5, or even 6th gear without wrecking the car. We will damage something, however, if we try to jam the shifter in reverse

    Thank you all for the debate on this issue.

  91. G*DD****T! That’s twice I’ve posted to the wrong thread. (although the peak oil/alternative power debate kinda do go hand in hand)
    *Kim Jong Il voice*
    “So solly”
    */Kim Jong Il voice*

  92. -nm,

    It’s not much help but I read ‘somewhere’ (a greenie site of sort I thinks) that to power a 2,500watt ‘heater’ (?) for one hour a coal plant would consume 4.5 gallons of water; whereas a nuclear plant would need 5.5 gallons of water,and for comparison wind power would need 0.005 gallons of water (this likely stems from the water used in the production and (de)construction of the wind turbine. None of these claims were supported

  93. gah BAD KITTEH!

    anyway, there are improvements in solarPV technology which make many of the counter arguments moot. Solar concentrators minimze the amount of silicon or other active material needed. One inventor devised bubbly silicon which helps capture and convert more light while using half the silicon otherwise used (square inchwise). While there might not be a ‘Moore’s Law’, there is certainly room for improvement being explored.

  94. Disclaimer.
    I own a few hundred paltry shares in PBW, a money market fund which tracks alternative energy, especially solar. (it’s gone up since I bought the shares, but not as as valuable as fossil energy stocks.)

  95. Disclaimer: My portfolio includes some Evergreen Solar. They and my money are making sweet, sweet love right now…

    Regarding the breeder reactor example, I realized after I posted that I basically did the same thing I criticized the author for doing in the article, by using an old (possibly out-of-date) example to make a point. There may be cost improvements or technology advances in the last 20 years that make it more feasable.

    I don’t know if I was over-tired or what, but I was googling every variation of “Breeder Reactor” I could think of to find a working example of a current breeder reactor project that is actually producing power somewhere, but no luck. If anyone else has more luck, please let us know.

    -nm

  96. “contrary to popular opinion SCE does not have to buy the excess when the meter spins backwards. ”

    TWC, you are wrong on this point. SCE is required to buy the energy generated by the system.

    You are right on every other point about solar though. It is a money sink.

  97. -nm:
    The BN-600 has been producing power in Beloiarsk, Russia since 1980. But while designed as a liquid-metal fast breeder, this reactor has always been operated on HEU instead of plutonium. The Russians are planning to complete the BN-800, a larger LMFBR which was begun in the 1980s. As a result, Russia is currently the world leader in breeder reactor development.

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