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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Federal Loan Guarantees for Inefficient Energy

Federal loan guarantees may be doing more to harm the development of efficient alternative energy than aid it, by funding inefficient and/or obsolete forms of power generation.

At first blush, the $8 Billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power development sound like good news for the nuclear power industry, now experiencing a shaky revival after 30 years of pariah status. However, the nuclear plants now being planned are Generation III light-water reactors, mostly AP-1000s. While these plants are a vast improvement on older plants built in the industry's infancy, they still will employ a nuclear technology based on uranium, and that are tremendously costly and time-consuming to build, requiring massive structures that must be constructed on-site from the ground up, requiring hundreds of different, expensive skill sets. Most of all, they employ a technology that is being rendered obsolete by the development of many other nuclear technologies, which are intrinsically much safer and generate far less waste, or almost none at all, and can be built at a much lower cost relative to the amount of power generated while extending the fuel cycle for many decades or even centuries. However, too many people have a massive stake in the current obsolete nuclear industry, from building contractors and organized labor, to equipment manufacturers, all of whom will realize handsome profits from the construction of plants costing $8 billion and up to build, and they are working hand-in-glove with the principal nuclear regulatory authority, the sclerotic NRC, to retard the development and deployment of the many new and vastly more advanced, efficient, and safe nuclear technologies. In the absence of regulatory reform, it will be for nimble, flexible, hungry countries like India, that are not hamstrung by existing technologies and their lobbyists, to develop the most modern and efficient techniques such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, while the United States continues to commit massive portions of its rapidly shrinking wealth to obsolete 20th century industries like automobiles, suburban house-building, and light-water reactors.

At least these nuclear plants will produce the quantities of reliable, on-demand electricity our economy requires,and they will do it with minimal carbon emissions, which is rather more than can be said for the wind and solar pipe dreams being given loan guarantees. $1.37 B in loan guarantees have been granted for the construction of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, to be built in California, and which will generate 392 Megawatts of electricity. The plant will not be able to stand alone, but will require a gas-powered assist in the mornings and during overcast weather.

As Charles Barton at Nuclear Green points out: "If you factor out the gas assist, you get actual low CO2 emission solar thermal power out of this thing for a mere $15,0000 per available kW, which is only THREE TIMES what it would cost to put in a nuke plant, if you assumed that Lester Brown is correct when he cites the Areva plant in Finland as the true "tombstone" poster plant that will kill the nuclear renaissance because it costs $5000 per available kW after the cost overruns are included It would take about 11.7 of these Brightsource "392 MW" nameplate 123 MW actually available on average projects to equal the output of the far too expensive for Lester Brown to consider using Areva Finland nuke. Lester touts solar thermal, so, let's see, for a mere $16 billion or so, you could cover 75 square miles of places the Sierra Club, et al, say they don't want to see covered and use generating stations like these instead.

Given that solar and wind are in themselves not only the costliest forms of power generation but are intermittent and unreliable, and therefore dependent upon gas and coal backups, it's difficult to consider them truly renewable, and they would certainly raise the cost of electricity out of the reach of many poor consumers. The requirement for a fossil fuel backup effectively cancels out any environmental benefit to be derived from solar and wind, especially in consideration of the steep environmental costs of gas drilling, which releases more radiation into the environment than uranium mining and nuclear fission, and coal mining, the environmental devastation of which is well-documented. Moreover, the materials used to manufacture the components of these systems, and their  massive land requirements, give them an ecological footprint equal at least, and probably exceeding vastly, that of a large nuclear plant capable of supplying a major city with large amounts of reliable, on-demand power necessary to run our civilization.

The Department of Energy and the various government loan programs are not working to assure us of reliable, cheap energy going forward nearly so much as they are obstructing the development of future energy sources in favor of entrenched constituencies, namely the current fossil fuel and old-style nuclear power industries, and the environmentalist lobby, while disguising the true costs of the programs involved. Regulatory reform, with the goal of streamlining the licensing process for proven technologies and less obstruction for newer, more efficient technologies, in combination with more mass production of designs and components, would reduce costs substantially and make it possible to get plants online more quickly.

2 comments:

consultant said...

There is a line in the first RoboCop movie, where the head of a weapons company says something like, who cares if the weapon works, we have deals for parts and maintenance worth billions.

All of these people and systems are set up to live off the fat. We'll continue to do this stuff until we can't.

Major forces (peak oil, Palin becoming Presdident, etc.) will shut us down, or, as happens so often, new players will out compete the super power and knock them off their pedestal.

Nudge said...

Consultant wrote:

“There is a line in the first RoboCop movie, where the head of a weapons company says something like, who cares if the weapon works, we have deals for parts and maintenance worth billions.

All of these people and systems are set up to live off the fat.”

Precisely.

A society is not a diverse collection of people in cutthroat competition with each other, but is instead a diverse collection of people working toward mutually-beneficial ends.

Our failure to understand this will be an expensive lesson indeed.