Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wherein I settle the renewables/nuclear "are expensive" squabble for all time

Lizard (2014) (h/t wikipedia)

The US consumes approximately 4 billion MWh per year. Our GDP is currently about $18 trillion. So if you pay $50/MWh (good wind, unfiltered coal, unfiltered gas) your cost for that is $200 billion annually, or 1.1% of the GDP.

If you pay $100/MWh (nuclear, solar) your cost is 2.2% of GDP.

If you pay $150/MWh (offshore wind, gas with CCS, rooftop solar) your cost is 3.3% of the GDP.

The cost of intermittency is pretty minor:

Apologies for smallness, original here. Bottom line: at a 30% level of penetration, you can add about $30/MWh to the cost of wind or solar, or about 0.7% of the GDP.

In other words, the costs of ALL of the alternatives under discussion are minor. We can do what we want to do. Very high levels of penetration of intermittent sources like wind or solar poses special problems, but we are a long way from having those problems today (1.)

Arguing whether nuclear is cheap or expensive, or what the costs of waste disposal will be, or what the cost is to back up wind or solar, or whether the costs of PV systems will continue to fall, misses the point entirely. We have multiple affordable low-carbon options, and the question is not which is best -- we will learn more about that as we build and operate the plants, and different sources will be optimal for different communities in different circumstances.

The point is that we need to do something, and we have both the technology and the resources to solve this aspect of the global warming problem in the next ten to twenty years. In many ways, this is the easy part -- the electrical grid (easier to green than transportation, land use, or industrial CO2 release) in the richest country in the world. The fact that it is so easy and yet we haven't done it yet underscores that it is political will, not technology or money, that are lacking.


1. I am optimistic about synthetic fuels, as I explore here. To quote myself:
Conventional batteries continue to get better and cheaper, but right now their capacity is orders of magnitude below what would be needed to store, say two or three weeks of energy.

However we do have a large amount of energy storage in the form of fossil fuels: liquid, solid, and gas. This form of storage is stable on geological time scales and extremely energy dense. Unlike many of the alternatives, including chemical batteries, capicators, pumped hydro storage, or molten sodium, the infrastructure to store and release hydrocarbon energy is simple and cheap -- in the case of petroleum, it can be as simple as a barrel or a hole in the ground. . . .

Start with a conventional gas plant equipped with carbon capture technology (assuming we ever get serious about perfecting and deploying that technology.) Then, rather than put the CO2 in the ground, feed it into a synthetic natural gas plant and use a clean energy source to turn the CO2 back into gas. Burn, capture, and un-burn as needed in a closed cycle that doesn't release CO2 into the atmosphere.
Regardless of how cleverly we deploy storage and smart grids, we will meet our emissions goal much faster with nuclear than without it, which is why I remain a strong supporter of retaining and building out the nuclear power sector, despite the irritating epistemic closure on the value of renewables and general hippie-punching tendencies of nuclear power's more fervent advocates.

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