Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Why it is unreasonable to discard nuclear energy in "Apollonian Energy Programmes"

We are seeing a lot of herculean propositions lately, most of them involve building gargantuan amounts of "WWS" energy producers. WWS is a rebranding of the term Renewable. I guess they have found out that they aren't really renewable, so rebranding is in order. WWS stands for Wind, Water and Sun energy. I agree on the premise that it is absolutely imperative to change the paradigms in energy generation and consumption, as I've already argued ad nauseam, there are going to be massive shifts in the energy sector. Paradigm shifts in terms energy sources used for transportation, the added requirement for mass-desalination and the looming depletion of fossil fuels. We have to engage in these immensely large scale operations in order to cancel out the negative effects of Anthropogenic Climate Change.

A reminder for people who do not know what the Apollo Project was, it looked like this :

Despite being a cold-war project, it's achievements resonated within the human race, so calling anything an "Apollo Programme" will cause some affectionate responses. It was one of the most amazing feats of human ingenuity of its day.

Since it resonates with a lot of people who are conscious about our current state of affairs it is not surprising that these kinds of roadmaps and ideas keep popping up. I have some beef with these roadmaps, since they paint an ideological and less pragmatic course of action and also suggest and suppose that inefficiency is a good way to save the Earth, if you have been reading this blog, you know I am going to disagree with this notion.

This is the actual paper : A global Apollo programme to combat global climate change

Let's start with the Apollo Programme.
I agree with the first chapter, all in all we have to stop carbon emissions drastically if we want to keep carbon concentrations at a reasonably safe level.
 Source : Apollo Programme PDF
There is no contention here, we simply have to bend the curve down again. Otherwise we will precipitate mass famines and eventually extinction.
The next figure shows the projected carbon emissions in Gigatonnes on a timescale from 1990 tot 2035.
Source : Apollo Programme PDF
Up until now I can't find anything to disagree on, the notion that carbon emissions need to be mitigated seriously is correct. I think both sides of the aisle agree on that.
In chapter two (2. THE DANGEROUS SHORTFALL IN RD&D) we bump into an interesting table.
  Source : Apollo Programme PDF
Whilst I am happy to see that nuclear fission has one of the biggest RD&D budgets, I agree with the writers of the "Apollo Programme" that RD&D overall is too low. I am a firm advocate of increased research and development budgets for  Solar & Wind, Vehicles, Nuclear Fission, Nuclear Fusion and Energy efficiency. Boot "Carbon capture and storage" and "Bioenergy" (if by this is meant Biomass...)
There are a couple of nuances though.
  • Storage capability should be limited to transportation. We are going to need all the excess energy to desalinate water. We are going to need far more generating capacity than we can store anyway. Grid storage is a terrible waste, especially if we are talking conversion. More on this later on.
  • Vehicle RD&D has to be increased enormously since we will be running out of oil within a couple of decades. The use of hydrogen should be limited to airplane transportation. More on this alter as well.
  • Solar and Wind can be improved, be it marginal, we have to mitigate the use of rare-earth materials and manufacturing emissions and wastestreams, we have to create a complete cradle-to-cradle principle for these energy sources and make sure that mass implementation remains curtailed. The lifecycle is too short and the materials footprint simply is too big compared to their energy density for them to be of real value in a large context.
  • Carbon Capture is a ridiculous idea, if you want to capture carbon, you're forced to engage in natural solutions. Everything we do in an energy context releases carbon dioxide and other emissions that cannot be curtailed indefinitely. Rather than seeking a technical (energy intense) solution, we could actually cultivate bamboo to capture carbon and turn it into building materials. Areas used for Palm Oil (Indonesia), Cattle Cultivation (brazil), Sugar Cane Cultivation (Brazil) can easily be returned to nature, making sure that it can grow back it's capacity to store carbon and restore the hydrological cycle.

The first sentence of chapter three (3. SOLAR ELECTRICITY) is rather striking and shows us the true intent of the writers of the "Apollo Programme".

"The proposed Programme has ONE AIM ONLY - to develop renewable energy supplies that are cheaper than those from fossil fuels."
Am I to believe that this is the grand plan that will save our ecosystem? The cute thing is that they rather not touch nuclear energy, at least up until now, they don't give any reason why. It simply isn't there other than a footnote for some RD&D comparison and that's it. Let's hope that this is not "it".
"There are already very important examples of this, such as hydropower and geothermal energy, but these are often limited due to geography, environmental concerns and financing difficulties, and they don’t scale across the planet."
Where geothermal and hydro are indeed limited, there are other completely independent technologies that can also be scaled across the planet, regardless of wind, sun, geothermal, moon or whatever feedstock you require in an energy capturing capacity : Nuclear Fission and Fusion 
"Wind and solar are already competitive in some parts of the world, but intermittency reduces extensive use."
And this is exactly why people are trying to find "storage solutions". Ask yourself if you are willing to accept the ramifications of these large scale energy storage solutions. And if you are prepared to fuel this inefficient process, where you stack loss upon loss, while energy conservation is one of your spearheads, how do you square inefficient energy storage with energy conservation, while it simply is energy loss altogether. 
"Solar in particular is competitive for the thousands of villages in India and Africa which are off-grid."
No objection here, I think the people from the developing and emerging countries all deserve energy in one way or another. Look for instance at the sewage recycler championed by Bill Gates, this would be an excellent solution for rural off-grid areas.
"At present most renewable energy in most parts of the world, however, are more expensive than energy from fossil fuels, and it only becomes economic due to subsidies or feed-in tariffs. But eventually these subsidies have to stop. So we are looking for the technologies with the greatest potential for falls in cost year after year, on a global scale."
Then I would seriously advise you to look into the Molten Salt Reactor developments. Start off by reading Robert Hargraves's "Thorium : energy cheaper than coal". Coal arguably is the cheapest form of energy, and yet there is a nuclear technology that offers a significant gain in safety, waste issues, fuel efficiency and costs.
Molten Salt Reactors are that good, they are scalable, they can be mass produced, and implemented on a grand scale. There are several designs that do not require vast amounts of water in contrast to contemporary nuclear power plants. The lifecycles of these reactors vastly outstrip the lifecycles of solar and wind in particular, they provide base load, no need for energy storage. As a matter of fact, the residual heat from these reactors can be used to desalinate water. Since our planet's fresh water recourses are depleting, this seems to be an essential feature that we should embrace. 
Let's have a look at the multitude of very promising start-ups that have designs that fit your bill ["So we are looking for the technologies with the greatest potential for falls in cost year after year, on a global scale."] :
Isn't it bloody time that you start acknowledging that there are actual solutions to our modern day problems. Solutions that are clean, effective, safe and cheap! I think it is high time that we include this new nuclear power in these mass scale "solutions". I won't call any of them a solution unless they incorporate the development and implementation of new nuclear energies such as Molten Salt Reactors and a multitude of Nuclear Fusion methods. Let's be honest about it, ITER isn't the only contender in the fusion field.
The funny thing is that the people who have conceived this "Apollo Programme" have not given any substantiation, have not provided any analysis regarding the total sum of energy required and what the scope of the problems exactly is. I can't seem to find any total sum energy consumption prognoses, no capacity factors, no divisions per unit of consumption, etc.. The assumption that if we go all-in on solar we can save the world isn't going to cut it...
It's a rather shallow proposal without any sense of realism. If this is the way of thinking that is adopted by legislative people, I'll have to teach my kids how to survive in a post apocalyptic/mass extinct world.
The authors of the "Apollo Programme" might surprise me later on, so let's forge ahead, shall we?
Chapter 4 (4. ELECTRICITY STORAGE) is the one that makes my blood curl.
"But a major problem with solar and wind energy is intermittency. The timing of solar flux may be easier to forecast than of wind, but at night time there is no light. Thus, if renewable energy were to supply base load electricity, it would have to be stored and some of it would need to be stored for some months to meet the peak demand in winter. "
what's this? Storing energy for months? In the meanwhile fields are running dry and other anthropogenic activities are grinding to a standstill. So basically we are conceding that you need a large surplus in order to capture enough energy and convert it for moments when electricity demand is high but production is low.
They distinguish five time-frames that require a storage solution, in my eyes renewable energy is blatantly showing it's Achilles-heel. And then they postulate ways in which we can store energy :
  • Batteries : Batteries aren't such a stupid idea if you want to use them to store energy for transportation. Yet imagine using batteries to store energy to make up for base load issues. This is an incredibly fallible idea. What about the sum total waste produced for this form of "backup" energy storage? Mind you, electrifying transportation alone is going to be a tall order, let alone expecting renewables to fuel transportation AND lulls in energy production.
  • Thermal Storage : I've no idea what this is supposed to mean.
  • Pumped Hydro : Pumped hydro is very limited, this is a simple geological constraint. Also it doesn't last for prolonged periods, it only produces energy for a very short time.
  • Capacitors : How many capacitors would we need? Millions? Billions? Another immense mining, purifying and manufacturing process with loads of waste streams attached to it.
  • Compressed air : With efficiencies between 70 and 25% this isn't really an ideal solution. What kind of volume of air are we talking about, how much pressure? What are the fault tolerances? What is the MTBF?
  • Flywheel : May lose 20 to 50% energy in two hours in a friction environment and can have up to 85% efficiency in a frictionless/magnetic bearing scenario. How much energy do we want to store and how much materials are required to do this?
  • Hydrogen : The coupe de grace! The pinnacle of inefficiency! Like I said earlier, how do we square the need for energy providence with the incredibly wasteful process of energy conversion for storage purposes. Let's have a look at the hydrogen cycle :
    • AC/DC Conversion / 95% efficient
    • Electrolysis / 75% efficient
    • Compression / 90% efficient

      What we do next is very important, we can go the fuel cell route or the reformation route.
    • We steam reform Hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide into Methane (very slight energy gain)
    • We burn methane to drive a couple of turbines / 40% efficient.
    • A total loss of roughly 65~75% of the total energy value you began with.
    • The Fuel cell cycle is slightly more efficient, but requires vast amounts of specialized manufacturing of very intricate fuel cells.
What can we make of this? With losses up to 75% it is required of us to build a vastly inefficient network of energy-to-gas conversion systems, to build facilities that burn methane only a fraction of the time and expect that to be more preferable over reliable base load providing nuclear energy? It's kinda dumb... What's even dumber is that there are many companies trying to make this into a commercial product. You know what they'll leave out in the sales pitch right? Imagine us using either Methane or Hydrogen from this process to propel our cars... We'll lose even more energy.
Further on we find this picture
  Source : Apollo Programme PDF
Each arrow represents a loss of energy, the more arrows between the source of energy and the end-user the more energy will be lost. I'd smack the blocks "hydrogen", "storage of hydrogen", "storage of electricity" and the arrow "Fuel cell" out of the equation since they are far to wasteful. If energy providence is what we preach, we should start practising it.
In Chapter 5 (5.PRIORITIES FOR RD&D) we see what the "Apollo Programme" entails.
We can break it down quite easily
  1. The Generation of Electricity
    The only thing mentioned here is that they intend to prioritize PV technology and nothing else.
  2. The storage of electricity
    They want this to be the focus of their programme, they actually want governments to invest heavily in electricity storage. 
  3. The storage of Hydrogen
    No big mystery here...
  4. Smart grids
    The basic acknowledgment is that renewables cause grid instability and are unable to provide base load on their own, therefore a new "smart grid" should be contrived in order to combat these deficiencies.
The "Apollo Programme" in a sense defeats itself entirely by trying to convince governments to invest in inefficiency. They advertise and advocate storage components in order to mitigate the issues of the inefficiency of renewable energy, in particular solar power. Since none of the other energy sources are included in their PDF. It is a rather narrow sighted horse...
Finally we reach the final chapter (6. THE GLOBAL APOLLO PROGRAMME).
I'll skip the boring parts and go straight to the juicy parts...
"The whole world faces a massive challenge, which only science and technology can solve. We urge the Heads of Government to agree on a Global Apollo Programme by the Paris meeting in 2015. The Programme should begin immediately after that. By harnessing the power of the sun and wind in time, we have a good chance of preserving life on earth as we know it. Unlike fossil fuel, they produce no pollution, and no miners get killed."
And all the materials for these trillions of PV panels get magicked into being? No mining required? No hazardous waste products from manufacturing? No emissions for massive mining activities? I'm being sarcastic, sorry boys! Of course I agree with you that we are in deep trouble, but the technologies you are advocating aren't green at all, and the idea that no miners will be killed during the excavation of millions of tons of bauxite, iron ore, and silica is quite a bold statement, which cannot be backed up by evidence.
Let's face it, you don't produce a trillion solar panels without a single trace of mining or chemical waste. The processes required to produce PV panels are incredibly dirty.

I wonder what the concrete footprint of the Topaz 550MW / 9 million PV panels energy plant is : 300.000 cubic yards of concrete are required to create a base for 9 million PV panels. 551.000 metric tons of concrete.

Let's look at the materials footprint of an utility scale PV plant... Looky there! Non zinc coated steel, zinc coated steel, aluminum, copper, concrete and wood.
The PV panels are .72m2 there are 9 million of them : so there's 6.480.000 m2 of panels.
  • 405.000 Kg non zinc coated steel
  • 869.616 Kg aluminum for mounting
  • 242.352 Kg aluminum for cabling
  • 5.701.104 Kg Copper for cabling
Guess that the "no mining required" fairy tale just exploded... And I didn't even have to go into the nitty gritty of PV panel production. You guys do know that 550MW isn't a lot right?
"Unlike nuclear fission, they produce no radioactive waste."
Oh there it is! In the final chapter the "nuclear waste" ghost rears it's head. I actually do understand something about "spent fuel". A. It's volume is significantly less than the sheer amount of contaminated water and sludge produced during PV manufacturing. Secondly, if you open the "Transatomic Power" link I've shared earlier, you'll see that we have an excellent design for recycling this waste. There's at least seven decades worth of energy for the entire civilization in "nuclear waste".

I would urge you to reconsider your last remark and rewrite your proposal to include nuclear energy, since it will be able to provide stable, safe and plenty of energy, required to fuel humanities energy needs without any harmful emissions.
What would the authors of the "Apollo Programma" have to say about this bit of news?

These are the steps that are going to make a profound difference in the long run. If we are to decommission coal plants, we can easily supplant them for nuclear power plants. It's a double edged sword, you create high yield, zero emission energy generation on a one-for-one basis.
Let's see which people worked on this Programme :
Sir David King
Former U.K. Government Chief Scientific Adviser.
Lord John Browne
Executive Chairman at L1 Energy. Former President of the Royal Academyof Engineering and former CEO, BP.
Lord Richard Layard
Director of Wellbeing Programme, LSE Centre for Economic Performance. Emeritus Professor of Economics.
Lord Gus O’Donnell
Chairman, Frontier Economics. Former UK Cabinet Secretary.
Lord Martin Rees
Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics.
Lord Nicholas Stern
IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, LSE. Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
Lord Adair Turner
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of New Economic Thinking. Former Chairman of the Financial Services Authority and of the Committee on Climate Change.
This "Global Apollo Programme" has been written by very highly esteemed people. Let me show you some very simple graphics. Just let it sink in and who knows you might actually learn something...
Let's dispense with the "storage" shall we?
How's that for Energy Conservation?

Source : REUTERS/Matthew Travis/Zero-G News


  1. I think thermal storage is stored in molten salts at plants which capture solar power as heat (reflecting mirrors). Known as CSP.

  2. Of course how could I forget! Thanks Mark!

  3. Mathijs,
    I believe there is a place for thermal storage - to handle the few hours evening peak in the peak demand season. If the power source is a high temperature source (like a molten salt reactor for example) then the round trip efficiency is high and the capital costs are modest. I expect the capital costs for a 2 hour storage will be significantly less than the costs for any electricity generator or electricity consumer.

    More generally, in order for supply to match demand we must either adjust the supply or the demand. We should compare the capital costs per kwhr generated to the capital costs per kwhr consumed in order to idle the least amount of capital. If we can hit our cost targets (it is looking good) then it will be more economical to idle the nuclear power plants than to idle the desal plants.

    Lars Jorgensen ThorCon Power

    1. Lars,

      Thank you for your remark. I imagine that we could use thermal storage in an intermediate sense. It could also serve as emergency power for a limited time. The storage capacity of molten salts and other thermal solutions is excellent. I always try to keep money out of the equation because other people (like Robert) are far better suited to address those questions than I am, but I love to talk shop : efficiency, technique, etc. !

      Good luck with your developments, I'm eagerly following your progress!