Saturday, May 21, 2005


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
We have this comment from Tim Symonds from London:
Hi Yvonne and Dan, the debate in the UK is whether the present Labour government intends to build some more nuclear reactors, at least in part to keep down green house gas emissions. What is your response to the fact alternative enegery nowhere near meets more than a few percentage points of the electricity demands of an industrialised country like the UK?

Here is Dan's Reply:


You’ve touched on a couple of different areas here having to do with electrical generation. Let’s discuss nuclear first.

Nuclear reactors arouse such passionate opposition from so many quarters that it is difficult to have a rational discussion on these plants. The plants themselves produce no green house gases directly, though of course the residues of reaction are difficult to dispose of, and could, at least in some cases, be weaponized. One can debate the safety of nuclear power endlessly, and I generally refuse to enter into such discussions. What isn’t debatable is the cost of building the plants which is substantially more than is the case with coal or natural gas generating facilities or wind farms. Only if carbon credits are put in place does nuclear appear remotely attractive economically at present and that’s assuming rising prices for coal and natural gas.

Many observers of the nuclear power industry believe that it is at a crossroads, and that unless the public acceptance for the technology greatly increases globally, nuclear power is on the way out. Very few new facilities are under construction, and in the U.S. none has been built since the early seventies.

The economics of nuclear vary from country to country. In the U.S. nuclear plants are more attractive than in some other places in as much as nuclear fits rather neatly into the existing transmission grid—in other words, nuclear plants are more or less drop in replacements or augmentations for the existing network of fossil fuel fired plants. Wind farms, on the other hand, have to be installed in high wind regions and necessitate vast new transmission infrastructure builds. Solar is not economically viable for large scale generation at present so needn’t be discussed at all.

The virtue of nuclear is that it scales very well. Thousands of megawatts can be produced at single facility, and the bigger the plant the more economical it is to run. Wind, on the other hand, doesn’t scale at all, and vast tracts of land or offshore shallows must be reserved for the wind turbines in order to generate appreciable energy.

The U.K. happens to have good wind resources and among the very best ocean energy resources in the world. Most of the energy needs of the realm could be met with renewables without any nuclear expansion, and because the land mass is quite limited compared to that of the U.S., the requirements for new transmission capacity would be rather modest. Denmark already gets 20% of its electricity from wind alone, proving that heavy reliance on renewables is not infeasible.

What it is is expensive, at least in the short run. Replacing fossil fuel fired generators with wind, water, or solar powered plants is to redo the second industrial revolution involving electrification, and one doesn’t have the same dynamics which obtained in the early twentieth century when factory mass production in the U.S. and Britain soaked up electrical capacity as fast it could create and reward electrical utilities with high rates of return. Early electrification was driven by a very reasonable expectation of soaring profits which were in fact realized. Re-electrification pursued for environmental reasons or for reasons of national security does not tap into the profit motive in any very readily discernible way. True, electrical generation via wind power has been a reasonably profitable undertaking in Germany, but it’s not a bonanza, and nobody’s seriously talking about using wind as replacement technology. Frankly, it’s difficult to know how a transition to renewables would play out or if it is likely to occur at all. In respect to electrical generation as opposed to transportation, the coal resources of the world are entirely adequate to support business as usual well past the middle of this century. The real issue in my opinion is climate change not resource scarcity, at least not yet.
Dan Sweeney

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