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August 10, 2017 10:49 PM   Subscribe

Google is helping with Exploring Strategies To Decarbonize Electricity, having developed a visualizer to Understand Electricity Generation. One of the low carbon options is nuclear power ...

Is it true that To Slow Global Warming, We need Nuclear Power? And maybe climate change isn't all that bad? [and more]. With trumpundoing Obama's climate policies and move to subsidize coal power, what now? Well, in Europe, "coal pollution causes 22,300 premature deaths a year," [see death per terawatt hour]

The argument in favor of nuclear power centers around the demand for "baseload power," the minimum constant demand.

The World Nuclear Association provides information on The Economics of Nuclear Power and some claim "It goes completely against what most believe, but out of all major energy sources, nuclear is the safest." But after nuclear plant company Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy (and $13 billion in cost overruns) the future of two nuclear power plants in the US, and the US nuclear industry, is shakey. The enormous expenditures, too-big-to-fail mentality, culture of secrecy, and opaque operations allow several concering incidents of corruption [from 2012].

Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End?
Stewart Brand’s Strange Trip: Whole Earth to Nuclear Power - "When the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog embraces nuclear power, genetically engineered crops, and geoengineering schemes to cool the planet, you know things have changed in the environmental movement."

Can new nuclear powerplant technology change the cost calculations? Should nuclear plants get zero-carbon credits?

We're not going back - The coal truth: how a major energy source lost its power in Britain // U.S. coal-fired power plants scheduled to shut. Meanwhile, "Green groups’ report says move to cleaner energy in China and India is discouraging the building of coal-fired units" even as "China’s energy companies will make up nearly half of the new coal generation expected to go online in the next decade." Everything You Think You Know About Coal in China Is Wrong

But with the prices of wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy dropping, do we need nuclear power? Especially when we're Struggling With Japan’s Nuclear Waste, Six Years After Disaster. Stewart Brand’s nuclear enthusiasm falls short on facts and logic, especially with the spent fuel pool problem - specifically, is it a waste or a resource? And how do new nuclear plants fit into a nonproliferation framework? And can we really plan for 10,000 years? Or 100,000 and Into Eternity? Have we really run out of other options?

We Need An Energy Miracle[interview with Bill Gates]
But what we’re asking ourselves to do here is change energy—and that includes all of transport, all of electricity, all of household usage, and all of industrial usage. And those are all huge areas of usage. And somebody’ll say to you, “Well, hey, lighting, LED technology, is going to reduce energy consumption from lighting by over half.” That’s true; it’s a miracle, it’s fantastic. But unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in many of these other things, like making fertilizer or making electricity in a general sense. There’s opportunities to conserve that are really good. But the world is going to consume much more energy 30 years from now than it does today.
So about that molten salt power storage plan... we can roll that out anytime.
posted by the man of twists and turns (32 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
No mention of Thorium Fluoride molten salt reactors? Far safer, more sustainable, and they don't pose a proliferation risk.
posted by MikeWarot at 11:17 PM on August 10 [5 favorites]


Just going by the Wikipedia page, thorium fluoride molten salt reactors seem to still be more in the category of "more develoment needed". Whereas other forms of nuclear power are available now to scale up.

Excellent post, the man of twists and turns.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:15 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


As Amory Lovins has been consistently pointing out since 1976, the entire case for nuclear power is built on extrapolating growth in aggregate energy demand in some politically convenient market since some politically convenient point in the past, and arguing as if the resulting projection is in some way relevant, without ever actually establishing that this is the case.

The same kind of non-logic is especially strong when applied to discussions of "baseload" power. You will never see a nuclear advocate allowing any discussion of the fact that the minimum amount of power available via the present electricity grid is in fact artificially high, kept so via pricing structures that encourage off-peak consumption from generators that are too expensive to spin down overnight.

What energy policy should be about is ongoing analysis of how much of what kind of end uses energy is put to where and by whom, and ongoing investment in continuing to provide those end use services at least cost.

And in almost every case, it turns out that the least-cost response to both the rising prices of fossil fuels and the clear need to mitigate the side effects of burning those is improving point-of-use energy efficiency. Fossil fuels have cost so little for so long that there is a simply titanic amount of waste built into our present energy systems; waste that it is both easier and more profitable to eliminate than perpetuate, even without paying any attention at all to energy efficiency's beneficial externalities.

For all of the forty years since Soft Energy Paths was first published, the market has been moving very much along the lines it identified as being the most desirable: a ramping up of end-use efficiency and decentralized renewable generation to replace old centralized plant as it reaches end-of-life.

In particular, new centralized, non-mass-produced, expensive, vulnerable nuclear generators are fundamentally incompatible with a free energy market's most profitable development pathways. If this were not so, there would not need to be a nuclear lobby; the private sector would simply invest in nuclear plant as a matter of course. It's telling that nowhere in the world is it doing so. New nukes just don't get built unless somebody talks governments into funding them.
posted by flabdablet at 1:16 AM on August 11 [20 favorites]


Oh, this is relevant to my interests! My day job is IT support for the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Australia. One of the only people to get anywhere close to accurate on the uptake of solar power was Greenpeace (everyone else thought it'd be years before we get the kind of penetration we have in 2017), and some of this post is drawn from me talking to one of the people behind their reports, Sven Teske. As authors say, any mistakes are mine.

The problem with 'baseload power' is it assumes an environment where you can't meaningfully store generated power. That's not a problem any more; there's lots of ways to do it. It turns out storage, from batteries up to literally pumping water up a hill and then letting it turn a turbine as it drains, addresses sudden demand spikes (what's called the TV pickup problem, where everyone who was watching the same TV program in the UK turns on their electric kettles at once during a convenient break) much better than coal power does. That's the thing about coal power: it's not actually running all the time because if there's enough solar power driving down the price, it's actually more cost-effective to switch it off and let it get cold than to run it. This kind of blows a hole in the idea that baseload power is a thing: it suggests a world where coal plants are always on.

But this is about nuclear! So the problem with nuclear is that you've got the fuel problem, definitely, but also that they're much more dangerous than coal power to run past their intended lifetime, and businesses definitely will. In Australia, which has no nuclear regulation and no-one who can build it, starting up a new nuclear plant will take so long that we might as well jump straight to solar. In countries that do have an established nuclear infrastructure, the story is different, but a 100% renewable energy mix coincidentally requires a lot less work in these countries. It's really only countries like Australia and the US, where coal is a massive percentage of energy generation, that have a painful transition.

Australia, in particular, has a painful transition coming: all of our coal-fired generators are reaching the end of their life by 2030, and thus far the owners, who are mostly European, have no interest in extending their life. The conservative rural party, the Nationals, are trying to convince everyone else to build a new coal-fired plant but public sentiment is strongly in favour of renewables. Australian researchers lead the world in solar panel research, but this doesn't translate to the government wanting to back a champion.

We released a report last year detailing how Australia could transition to a 100% renewable energy mix, if you'd like to have a look, Metafilter.

We've also done a lot of research into energy efficiency and energy markets, but I haven't talked to those people quite as much and can't condense it down into a post without substantial inaccuracies or relate it to problems faced in other countries.
posted by Merus at 1:19 AM on August 11 [33 favorites]


Well, I've been living for the last ten years less than 10 miles due east of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, the last operating nuke plant in California. (Hey, it helps keep my rent very low in a pricey part of the state) And just a week ago, the local paper here in San Luis Obispo County had a front page story about San Onofre, the Nuclear Power Plant that shut down over 20 years ago but still hasn't had its spent nuclear fuel moved to permanent storage. Since Diablo Canyon is scheduled to shut down in 8 years, it's a relevant issue in this neighborhood too. Just because nuclear power is "going away", it doesn't mean it's really going to be "gone away".
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:45 AM on August 11 [4 favorites]


The awfulness of nuclear accidents, and the known inability (or demonstrated unwillingness, to be more charitable) of private industry to even plan for decomissioning and waste disposal, have always made me against nuclear power. That said: I wonder if it's the only politically viable option to stop burning dirt and hoping god will sort it all out.

That said: what do the French do with their waste? They've been almost totally nukes for a long time, no?
posted by pompomtom at 2:38 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]




The problem is not just waste. Cost issues are proving to be a big problem for nuclear and failure to deliver to schedule is also problematic. There are currently three new nuclear plants under construction in Europe.

In Finland, Olkiluoto 3's original commissioning date was in May 2009. The plant commissioning deadline has been postponed several times. By July 2012 operation was set to start in mid-2015. Some testing took place in 2016. The new plant is not currently operational. The initial construction contract fixed a price at €3bn. Current expected cost: €8.5bn. The contractor and generator are countersuing each other. The contractor has been broken up by the French Government.

France's Flamanville 3 plant was to come on line in 2012 at a cost of €3.3bn. EDF (the generator) has announced costs are now up to €10.5bn and generation might begin at the end of 2018,

The UK's Hinkley Point C was announced by the UK Government in 2008 with a projected costs of £2.8bn. The German power company E.on (wo were interested at the time) revised this estimate to £4.8bn the same year. By 2012 the London Times was citing a figure of £7.0bn. By 2017 EDF, who by then were contracting for the site were citing a figure of £19.6-£20.3bn. the EU has estimated total costs of £24.5bn. The plant capacity is 3.2GW, giving an installation cost of £7,600 per installed kW. An insanely high figure.

There are a number of contractual issues which have the potential to torpedo construction at Hinkley, most notably if Flamanville continues to be delayed. There is also an issue that EDF's share price fell badly in the last few years so that the total cost exceeds their total company value, with an assessment of the attendant risk leading their financial director to quit.

There is also a debate underway in the academic literature that nuclear may have negative learning costs. That is, that plants have tended to get more expensive rather than less with each iteration. See for example Grubler and Lovering et al.
posted by biffa at 5:16 AM on August 11 [8 favorites]


nuclear may have negative learning costs. That is, that plants have tended to get more expensive rather than less with each iteration

...which, if true, implies that the entire existing nuclear reactor fleet is loaded with even more "oh shit, it can do that?" failure modes than any of the operators will ever let on.
posted by flabdablet at 6:22 AM on August 11 [8 favorites]


It's more likely that the unpopularity of nuclear power just means there isn't a large enough pool of expertise to really "learn" - we probably have less institutional knowledge on how to run nuclear power plants than in the '60's.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:33 AM on August 11 [5 favorites]


Thanks Kirth.

So as I see it, fission plants are dangerous, and not financially viable when you include decomissioning, and that's excluding the waste. The waste can't be dealt with under any democracy that has localised aspect, because each locality will say "oh, fuck no" (and I would).

There's pebble bed and molten salts designs that may fix some of the accident danger, in the next, ooh let's say 20 years; by which time we'll have fusion, or possible rapture.

It's almost like coal and "clean coal". One exists, but basically sucks down the track, and the other is effectively fiction, no?
posted by pompomtom at 8:48 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


No mention of Thorium Fluoride molten salt reactors? Far safer, more sustainable, and they don't pose a proliferation risk.--MikeWarot

Show me a working, cost effective Thorium Fluoride molten salt reactor and I'm there. But there are none and people have been talking about this for decades.

Nuclear power is always described as clean, plentiful, and cheap, on paper. As a friend of mine like to say "Communism works too, in theory." In reality it has always been outrageously expensive and dangerous. We can debate about why that is and how to fix it, but until someone accomplishes this, I'd rather we spent our money on something proven.

Sure, spend research money on nuclear, fusion, and other promising technologies. But don't spend billions of tax dollars on 'production' nuclear plants using brand new, never proven technologies. If it is that good, let investors spend their money on it.
posted by eye of newt at 9:41 AM on August 11 [4 favorites]


private industry to even plan for decomissioning and waste disposal,

This is quite unfair, at least with regard to US nuclear plants. The government requires nuclear plant operator to put a small amount of their income (which adds up to a lot of money over 30-40 years running at an 80%+ capacity factor) into a decommissioning fund. Operators are not the issue when it comes to waste disposal, we are.

Every time the government has tried to make good on their word and provide the permanent storage they are supposed to be building with the money, we and our elected officials tell them to fuck off. I mean, we completely built Yucca Mountain and are now being forced to abandon it not because of any reasonable technical issues, but because of NIMBYism. So, operators end up spending a fair chunk of the decom funds on on site storage and security after the plant shuts down and all the spent fuel should already be off site.

Also, when you tie up construction funds for 5-10 years using baseless lawsuits to prevent construction of new nuclear plants, the increased finance charges alone add dramatically to the cost of building a plant. Even if we were perfect at it, costs are twice what they would otherwise be.

It's not too unlike how Republicans do everything in their power to make sure government can't work and then yell about how shitty government is. In both cases there are underlying issues and reasonable concerns that should be addressed, but they are blown out of any reasonable proportion by people who are more concerned by ideology than actually solving problems. (Not that our lack of experience building plants hasn't created enough problems of it's own in building new nuclear reactors)

All that said, big nuclear has a limited lifespan if we keep moving our power grid in the direction we've been moving it. We've lost the willingness to pay what is necessary to have a grid that uses relatively few large generators. Thankfully, solar and wind are helping to distribute generation around more so that less transmission is required (on average). It's not that this is really a good thing since extra capacity makes the whole grid more reliable, but our failure to invest in maintenance and upgrades is catching up with us. At the rate we're going, in 40 years we won't even be able to support point loads or point supplies that large. Modular small nukes could have helped with that, both for northern latitudes and for areas where there are loads like aluminum smelters that require large supplies of energy and can only tolerate limited intermittency. Sadly, they appear dead in the water. Oh well, there's still active geoengineering, although I expect that will be buried so deeply in lawsuits we'll just cook.

I never thought we'd build wind and solar as fast as we have, but it is so far from enough to even begin to mitigate climate change that we may as well be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Far more drastic action is required, and not just on the emissions side. Going to zero today would still leave millions upon millions of people homeless from sea level rise alone.

But hey, let's keep arguing like we can keep doing what we're doing for the next 20 years and still have a chance to prevent entire countries from disappearing. After all, it's worked well so far..look how far we've come with wind and solar!
posted by wierdo at 9:47 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


There's pebble bed and molten salts designs that may fix some of the accident danger, in the next, ooh let's say 20 years; by which time we'll have fusion reactors will be generally thought of as one of those fascinating but rather quaintly anachronistic engineering ideas left over from the 20th century, as obsolete as steam-powered locomotives.
posted by flabdablet at 9:49 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Nuclear plants are pretty much safe - as long as all the parts are built to specifications, and there is adequate staff who are well-trained, conscientious, and never cut any corners in either production or safety procedures.

The problem with nuclear power, unlike coal, unlike solar, unlike hydro, is that the processes are all complex enough that there's room for a lot of errors - and one error at the wrong time means a lot more problems later. This includes errors like "hey, we knew we needed long-term storage and we planned for it, but by the time we needed to actually use it, someone nixed those plans."

That is, they're relatively safe if someone's not doctoring the numbers from the start for a quick buck, and adjusting the safety margins before initial production even begins.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:51 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Every time the government has tried to make good on their word and provide the permanent storage they are supposed to be building with the money, we and our elected officials tell them to fuck off. I mean, we completely built Yucca Mountain and are now being forced to abandon it not because of any reasonable technical issues, but because of NIMBYism.

A large part of Engineers' Disease is a strong tendency to pretend that political considerations somehow don't count as a genuine design constraint.
posted by flabdablet at 9:55 AM on August 11 [10 favorites]


I guess what it is that makes me rant is when people talk and talk about the dangers of nuclear power while ignoring the even greater danger to many posed by climate change. Even given the standards of the old plants, we're better off as a species using them than not just in terms of how many people will suffer for us not being willing to go that route due to the fear of radiation. Fukushima is mostly habitable currently. Before I'm dead, I suspect it will be fully repopulated. The islands that are currently being swallowed by rising seas won't be habitable for far longer than that.
posted by wierdo at 9:58 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


People are never going to vote for - most especially, politicians are never going to support - measures that boil down to "this is better for the planet and for the species, but has a notably non-zero chance of turning my local community into glowing toxic slag."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:06 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Thorium Fluoride molten salt reactors?

Are you tired of waiting for nuclear fusion to live up to its promise? Feeling like wind power is full of hot air lately? Finding the solar bandwagon a bit too crowded with grinning newbies? Tired of every country you move to running out of rivers for hydroelectricity? Maybe it's time you considered picking a new team to support in the Internet Electricity Punditry games. Maybe it's time you took a look at LFTR!

It's got all the excitement and mystery that fusion used to have; it should be decades before that starts to wear thin. It's got the theoretical abundance of solar: Thorium is everywhere, just like sunlight! You'd only need to convert a few hundred square miles of the earth's surface into mines and nuclear waste dumps to power everything. You thought wave power was complicated? We're talking nuclear physics here, the details of which could provide nearly endless fuel for your Internet debates and arguments.

Go team LFTR!
posted by sfenders at 10:07 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


We've lost the willingness to pay what is necessary to have a grid that uses relatively few large generators.

We've also had enough experience with a system based on relatively few large generators to understand that the granularity of generator failures in such systems compared to the far smoother and in aggregate more predictable capacity loss due to failures in systems based on larger numbers of smaller generators of more diverse kinds makes the latter design far more resilient overall.

I guess what it is that makes me rant is when people talk and talk about the dangers of nuclear power while ignoring the even greater danger to many posed by climate change.

There's an unstated assumption in this line of reasoning, which is that a massive uptake of nuclear generation on the one hand is actually an alternative to climate change on the other.

In fact that assumption doesn't work. For any given amount of dollars spent on replacing fossil fuels with nukes, spending that same amount of dollars on replacing them with end-use efficiency and renewable generation plant of the kinds we're already mass producing right now (in that order) will yield greater emission reductions and yield them faster.

If we can't fix climate change with efficiency and renewables, we can't fix it with nukes either.
posted by flabdablet at 10:08 AM on August 11 [6 favorites]


There is no way that nuclear can replace enough fossil fuel energy fast enough to have any meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions. About 100 nuclear power plants provide about 20% of the nation's electricity. Using that number as a guide we'd have to build another 150 nuclear power plants in the next 50 or so years to have nuclear take up a majority of our energy needs. That's a commission rate of about 3 nuclear plants a year. To put that in perspective, from 2007 to 2021 in the US we will have commissioned 4 plants total.

Meanwhile, the price of wind and solar, especially solar, has dropped and continues to drop. The regulatory and safety burdens of solar are miniscule compared to nuclear OR fossil fuel plants. The real problem is that our energy network is based on relatively few generators providing power for large numbers of consumers. Unless extremely large, efficient power storage happens very soon, we may have to rethink how energy storage and distribution works altogether. That means moving toward a more distributed network where power is created and distributed locally. We may continue to need nuclear and fossil fuel plants to smooth out demand.

Point is, if we have the will and resources to make nuclear happen, we can make renewables happen faster, easier, and cheaper.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:57 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Decarbonizing electricity and even ground transportation globally tomorrow would not solve the problem. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced no matter what we do unless it involves generating enough excess energy to use some of it to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or otherwise mitigate the effects of past emissions.

That's why the "we need only build solar and wind and maybe some batteries" view gets me worked up. Solar and wind and storage make perfect sense for developing countries, microgrids, etc. They even make a lot of sense hooked up to the grid. We simply can't build them fast enough to do what needs to be done. We need to be building all of the above at a pace that far exceeds what we are presently doing.
posted by wierdo at 11:16 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Unless extremely large, efficient power storage happens very soon, we may have to rethink how energy storage and distribution works altogether.

That rethinking has been going on incrementally for fifty years, and is still going on, and shows no sign of being or becoming a bottleneck that could seriously crimp the ongoing uptake of distributed renewable generation.

We may continue to need nuclear and fossil fuel plants to smooth out demand.

Again I refer you to Lovins, who has repeatedly made the point that reliable energy availability is an attribute of the grid as a whole, not of individual generators attached to it; in fact, the presence of large point sources detracts from that reliability rather than enhancing it, due to the size of the disruptions caused when any one of those sources fails unexpectedly (as all of them have, and always will do).

And while it's perfectly true that any given intermittent source like a wind turbine or solar panel cannot even come close to matching the capacity factor of a large thermal plant, the overall lower capacity factor of the renewable options actually matters far less than one might assume at first; their increased aggregate reliability, and the predictability of their output (weather forecasting is a thing!) reduces the amount of spinning reserve (equivalent to a lower capacity factor for thermal plant as a whole) required to keep the grid reliable.

Solar and wind and storage ... can't build them fast enough to do what needs to be done. We need to be building all of the above at a pace that far exceeds what we are presently doing.

I completely agree with that. However, it's still not an argument for building nukes, which will deliver fewer end-use services, and deliver them later, than spending whatever the nukes would actually cost on end-use efficiency and renewable generation plant instead.
posted by flabdablet at 11:28 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Solar and wind and storage make perfect sense for developing countries, microgrids, etc.

Some developed countries are doing very well:
The Danish parliament wants the Scandinavian country to get at least half of its electric power from wind by 2020. According to the forecast, this target looks to be met. By 2030, the country hopes that 90% of the electricity and heating supply will come from renewable energy.--"Denmark breaks its own world record in wind energy"
posted by No Robots at 11:32 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


if we have the will and resources to make nuclear happen, we can make renewables happen faster, easier, and cheaper.

I frequently advise my greenie friends to hammer this line rather than banging on endlessly about how horribly unsafe nukes are.

Of course it's perfectly true that nuclear plant has both failure modes and operational necessities that are way way riskier than those associated with any form of renewable generation. However, most people are never going to live within sight of a nuke nor its supply chain, so it's pretty easy for folks who think of themselves as Hard Headed Practical Realists to dismiss arguments based on those risks as mere NIMBY pissing and moaning from the woolly hat and tie dyed T shirt faction.

The little ego bump obtained from doing that, plus the Ooh! Shiny! of whatever technological marvel is under consideration, then seems to shut down any ability to do cost/benefit reasoning properly.

Far better for the discussion to have started at cost/benefit in the first place.
posted by flabdablet at 11:56 AM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Even setting aside NIMBY and the lack of permanent spent-fuel disposal, nuclear power plant engineering, procurement and construction appears is so services-intensive that it lies irredeemably on the wrong side of Baumol's cost disease. It is quite reasonable to suggest that few if any nuclear power plants authorized in the past 50 years, at least in the US, would have been constructed if the authorizers knew what they were really going to cost. I haven't run the numbers myself, but I'd bet that the all-in costs of an emission-free coal plant (i.e., 100% scrubbing of sulphur, 100% impounding of carbon) even with the low EROI of that set-up, is orders of magnitude cheaper when you take into account depreciating the EPC and funding the spent-fuel storage.
posted by MattD at 12:30 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Human endeavors should plan for failure modes. The failure mode for a solar panel is? A wind turbine? Now, what are the failure modes for a nuke plant?

Don't worry pro-nukers. The militaries of the world will want to not have coal or oil powered ships. And so there will always be a design, operational and research need for fission. At least until Mr. Fusion is able to be powered by the peels from the Gros Michel banana.

Baseload power is needed to prevent, say thermal cycling replacement expense or deformation of a rotational load for some applications. Baseload power is not actually needed so you can personally have 24X7 lights. Consumers may expect 24x7 but if a choice is power flows that move in a cycle VS having none at all, I'll take having variable amounts and adjusting my life around the powerflow. Besides, a powerflow in flux is an actual reason for more IoT, although I still see no reason for the msalt device.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:54 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Impounding carbon while still having a useful coal power plant is a fantasy sold to people who have a shaky grasp of chemistry and thermodynamics.

Nuclear plants cost a ton, but at least they work. And I'm willing to suspect that even some of the more spectacular failures like Fukushima still cause less harm to humans than an equivalent amount of coal power would have generated.

The entire ecosphere has been so poisoned by mercury, a significant part coming from coal power, that the US government recommends that you not eat too much fish. That is only one of the downsides of coal power. Climate change threatens human existence itself. If we took the downsides of other power generation as seriously as we did nuclear, the entire planet would be an exclusion zone, not just Chernobyl.

That said, solar power is cheaper and quick to get online, so there is no reason we shouldn't be investing in it until every single roof is a solar panel. But that said, the level of industrial production required for that is going to cause a lot of heavy metal rich waste, and we need not kid ourselves that there's going to be a lot of mess to clean up there, too.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:00 PM on August 11 [3 favorites]


Meanwhile, the price of wind and solar, especially solar, has dropped and continues to drop.

Wind hits a a certain limit it can not drop below and has been close to that for some time. That is why there was federal grant research money for small wind in the 1970's and abandoned. People at DOE figured out PV had lower cost per watt as a potential VS mechanical moving objects. That is why 50kw and smaller wind has been rather flat in price per kWh VS solar going from $8 a watt for the 1st panels I bought and the $.50 or less I'm now looking to add.

And guess what systems are better maintained on a small scale...
posted by rough ashlar at 1:11 PM on August 11


We may continue to need nuclear and fossil fuel plants to smooth out demand.

Nuclear isn't going to smooth out anything. Its baseload and has no flexibility, Its a terrible fit for intermittent renewables at scale.

Wind hits a certain limit it can not drop below and has been close to that for some time. That is why there was federal grant research money for small wind in the 1970's and abandoned.

This misunderstands some of the fundamentals of wind. There is a limit on how much energy can be taken out of wind (~59%, the Betz limit) but there is no known limit on how cheap the tech can get. Giving an example from the 1970s is crazy, the amount of innovation since then has been stupendous. The bulk of funding of US R&D funding in the 70s went to larger scale tech but it was actually Danish R&D funding in that period that led to the dominant wind tech of today and success came directly from the smaller scale wind turbines. The first commercial wind turbine globally was 22kW and the 8MW machines we see today can be traced directly from there. Assumptions about the cost of solar or wind based on 1970s estimates are meaningless in the modern world.
posted by biffa at 5:27 PM on August 11 [4 favorites]


The DOE's approach to wind turbine research in the 1970s was pretty bloody awful, in part because it was run by NASA with a moonshot mentality: “Let's give millions to contractors like Boeing to build our first turbines as huge things!” Needless to say, they were technically impressive machines but hardly the sort of thing that would run for 20+ years in all weathers. They were hideously loud (one of the prototypes had blade tips running at a good fraction of the speed of sound) and all used the theoretically-pure, practically-awful two bladed configuration. While Denmark supported its farm equipment companies to build a slightly bigger turbine every year, all of them quiet enough to live near (if you were a part owner, that is), and almost all with three blades after repair crews had seen what a two-blader can do to a yaw gear.

But it's true that small wind turbines have been outclassed by solar. It's much harder to add (reliable) clever control systems like variable pitch to a small wind turbine than it is to add clever silicon to a rooftop installation. I mean, you can get a tiny MPPT Solar Charger board for $25. It allows you to maximize the energy you get from a small solar panel into a LiPo battery. That kind of optimization is almost impossible in mechanical systems.
posted by scruss at 7:13 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


In fairness it wasn't only US efforts to jump straight to large scale turbines that went astray. The same thing happened in Germany, Sweden and the UK, and even in Denmark, it was the Danish small-scale programme that eventually came through.
posted by biffa at 7:28 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


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