Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Personal Hero falls for 100% RE myths, why Bill Nye? Why?

I've been a big fan of Bill Nye for a long time. He was one of the people who encouraged me to go and do the calculations required before deriving some conclusions. Right now he's making a 100% RE claim and I wonder if he has thought it through, and/or how he reached this conclusion. I think it is baloney...

I'm still a big fan, so I won't rough Bill Nye up, I would love to know how he derived these conclusions, based on what evidence, or what studies.

Now there's two parts in this claim :
  1. We can make the US (Caveat : nearly) 100% renewable by 2050 (if we wanted to)
  2. We can make US ground transportation carbon neutral electrifying it by 2030
I agree on part 2, electrifying ground transportation is feasible, the electric vehicle is already becoming a force to be reckoned with. Even though the sum-total market share is pretty small, the materials used are pretty ubiquitous (Battery Chemistry being the limiting factor) and there are multiple ways of achieving electrification :
  1. You can introduce smaller, short-range, BEV's
  2. You can easily electrify all mass-transit
  3. You can convert ICE vehicles into electrically driven vehicles
The other claim is more nuanced though. American electricity consumption has been quite stable for years now. The US consumes equivalent to about 24.000 TWh each year.

About 7000 TWh of the annual energy consumption in the US is from transportation. If you are able to electrify all ground-transportation you can cut about 50 to 65% (See my Tesla 90KWh vs 14KM/L Gasoline car calculations) of all ground transportation consumption. So you would be able to cut 4550 TWh (optimum scenario), which means that you'll be left with about 19.000 TWh to "decarbonize". This is an optimal figure, omitting diesel, hybrids, and other more economic transportation methods.
World-production of Wind Turbines and PV Panels is about 50GW's each year. Suppose we can double these numbers : 100GW Each. If we are able to achieve this we would be adding 482 TWh of annual production to the mix each year. The problem rises after the economic / practical lifespans of the first generations start to come to an end. Suppose this is a mean time of 20 years. You'd have to figured out how to double the production again by that time. Otherwise you'd be stuck at  around 10.000 TWh, that's about 9.000 short of the target number.
Why is it hard to ramp up the production figures of wind-turbines and solar panels? Even though most materials used in renewables are quite ubiquitous, some vital parts of them are not. We're talking about materials like Neodymium, Silver, Titanium, Copper, tellurium, Selenium and lot's of other materials that are limited by production. Why? Because they might be ubiquitous in the crust of the earth, they are however either scattered all over the place, or hard to find, or deeper in the earth, etc. etc.

We're now mining goldilocks deposits, and also consider that despite us mining goldilocks deposits, stuff like neodymium or titanium or tellurium are still hard to come by. Assuming that we're going to ramp up denuding the earth to get these deposits required to create these wind turbines and solar panels, it is still a tall order to envision us doubling / tripling the production values.
Suppose we remain limited to 482 TWh of world-wide added annual generation capacity, we'd be able to make the US 100% renewable it would take 45 years (that's 11 years longer than Bill Nye proposes). Also you have to remember that this is World Production rate, which means that the US would be usurping all panels and all turbines produced all over the world. This would mean that the rest of the world would be perpetuating their reliance on combustion.
Bill, my question is this : Why aren't you talking about a completely safe, viable and fully scalable solution : Gen III and Gen IV nuclear energy? Why are you occupying yourself with this push for renewable energy, while you know that deep-space exploration for instance is impossible without RTG. With the notion that nuclear propulsion might be the answer to several space-related quests. While you know that nuclear medicine is a boon for humanity. Without it we wouldn't have scanners, organ-function scans, certain cancer treatments, etc.
Why this narrow-minded push for RE?

Something to think about, there are breakthroughs in the nuclear world that will render a lot of the push for RE ineffective / obsolete. If you build 60 1000MW nuclear reactors in a year you achieve the same thing, with far less materials required. 100 GW of wind = 40.000 Wind Turbines weighing  roughly 1.3 million Kilo's each...

Think about the Molten Salt Reactors, Pebble Bed Reactors, Fast Breeder Reactors, Think about ITER (still a long way ahead) and the recent success of the Wendelstein 7-X.
Consider these start-ups that are making real progress, they are going to build nuclear reactors at a fraction of the [materials] costs / with efficiencies of 90% and up and passive safety systems that make these units what they call "walk-away safe". 
Or consider Bill Gates's Terrapower : www.terrapower.com

As you know energy density matters. The benefit of using the highest energy density possible means that in the long run you are using far less materials to get X generation in contrast to RE.

Did you know that there's enough steel in a 2,5 MW wind-turbine to build a 600MW nuclear reactor that delivers 90% of its nameplate capacity, in contrast to the 30% of the wind-turbine.
Also note that current CANDU and AP1000 reactors are perfectly safe, China builds them in a timeframe of 3 to 4 years and has multiple dozens in production as we speak. Russia is exporting it's nuclear designs like gangbusters, but the US is trailing behind while there's a push for RE, despite the fact that they have great potential, excellent designs, and real talent in terms of ushering in a new nuclear renaissance. You could be a flag-bearer for this movement, and I think that you, as an empiricist, a sceptic (where's the scepticism on RE though?), an engineer by trait, should be!!! These people deserve positive endorsement from a real Science-Guy like yourself.

I am absolutely confident that RE is going to play a small part in our plight against Anthropogenic Climate Change, I foresee a bigger role for Nuclear Energy though, especially as a new nuclear age is dawning. One that is far more optimistic and less ominous than the last one. Just think of the dream-combination of nuclear energy and BEV's. Completely carbon neutral transportation on a grand scale, delivered by a reliable, robust and plentiful energy source.

Remind yourself of the limited expansion capabilities of RE, the limited curvature of it's additions. If we're going to ignore nuclear energy in this matter, we'll be going into a ring against a formidable prize fighter, while taping both our hands behind our backs, and limping on one leg... It doesn't pack the punch required to knock fossil fuels out of the picture.

I am optimistic that we can avert the catastrophic effects from our emissions, but we have to abandon the idea that going "all renewable" and committing to just that is enough. I submit to you that it is not, and I even think it is very unwise to do so. Simply listen to some people who have given this a lot of thought :


One tip : Don't mention Germany, they are disqualifying as the major businesscase for 100% renewable as they are forced to keep their reactors running and have expanded on burning wood (yes most of it is wood) and lignite. Let's hope France is not going to make the same mistake...


  1. I've long advocated for nuclear as being the way forward. Also, locally for a low-heat combustion plant to deal with our stinky landfills. I'm not sold on EVs though. Their limited range makes them a non-starter for me. I can drive from my home to the very top of the UK in ten hours, fuel up and come right back. An electric vehicle would have to make two stops at least, each way, with another to recharge at John O'Groats (assuming there's a charge point to be had up there.) I also don't trust any vehicle which I can't hear coming.