Do We Need Nuclear Power?

This post was inspired by a tweet by Chris Nelder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (paraphrasing) “at this point we’re not even sure if we need nuclear power”. Lets examine this comment.

This graph below was taken from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (reviews 2015 data).

BP world energy 2015

We can see that energy use steadily increases over the years and oil is the top supplier of energy.

The following shows CO2 emissions per energy sector (International Energy Agency data)

CO2 emissions sector

If we focus on electricity, we see it is fossil fuel dominated and oil contributes minimally to global electricity production. (International Energy Agency data)

IEA world electricity

The table below shows how much electricity some countries produced in 2014 and how many grams of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere per unit of electricity produced.

2014 electricity prod and CO2

A detailed breakdown of BP 2016 World Energy report shows on pages 130 – 132, we see of global electricity generated in 2015 1.05% – solar, 2.15% – geothermal & biomass, 3.5% – wind, 10.69% – nuclear, 16.4% – hydro and 66.2% – fossil fuels. These same pages also show which countries are the leaders in each of these electricity generation types.

As of this writing, human population is at approximately 7.4 billion and the United Nations expects it to be 9.7 billion by mid century. The graph below shows a breakdown of populations and energy use of regions of the globe.

world energy use

The above picture is taken from this article. The Center for Global Development has a post “More than a Lightbulb” that goes into more detail on the above graph and energy poverty.

Another factor to consider is the amount of raw materials required per unit of energy produced, the chart below is from chapter 10, page 390 of USA’s Department of Energy 2015 “Quadrennial Technology Review

quad raw materials

Some other factors to consider in energy generation are energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI), lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and levelized cost of energy.

The following chart is from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in conjunction with United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that shows grams of CO2 emitted for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced for various generation technologies.



lifecycle CO2 emissions according to IPCC

In December 2015,the Paris Climate Conference COP21 occurred. It was decided that a target was to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Almost all countries signed it and agreed to their own individual targets to  reduce CO2 emissions by X% by Y year. It is clear that these targets are not nearly aggressive enough to achieve the 1.5 degree Celsius target, and negative emissions seem necessary, as the following sites outline and by Kevin Anderson. Also this 12 minute video by Glen Peters of CICERO (Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo) is worth viewing.

In conclusion, referring to the information provided above, some questions that could be asked with regard to whether or not we need nuclear power are: Globally, should we be using more energy than we are today? Will we be using more energy in 10 years? 20 years? 30 years?, etc. Do we need to reduce our CO2 emissions and if so, how fast?


On Electricity Grids, Output Must Match Consumption At All Times

Decarbonizing electricity grids is critical to rapidly reducing carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel use. Globally, fossil fuels are the dominant form of electricity generation. Policies are being created to electrify transportation and heating, therefore, all the more reason to decarbonize electricity grids.

A challenge for electricity grid operations is the fact that supply must match demand at all times. I think of this somewhat like a bucket of water with holes in it, in which the water level must remain filled to the top constantly, and never overflow. However, the “holes” vary in size throughout any given day, smallest at times of least electricity demand (approx. 3AM) and largest at times of most electricity demand (approx. 6PM and also when air conditioning is at peak use). The electricity generation sources being analogous to water flowing into the bucket.

This is why flexible, or controllable, electricity generation sources are so critical, also referred to as dispatchability (load following is another similar term). Not enough electricity supply to match demand can cause brownouts or blackouts, too much and the electricity grid operator may be forced to “dump” the excess electricity generation to a neighboring electricity grid at a financial loss. Curtailment (reduce, or possibly completely eliminate, electricity generation for a time) is another option when there is excess electricity generation, but this generally costs the electricity operator to pay the specific generation source operator to do so.

The electricity grid operator in Ontario, Canada is experiencing such financial challenges as it deploys more non-dispatchable, intermittent, weather-dependent wind turbines.

Germany has regularly experienced similar financial challenges when weather-dependent renewables over produce in relation to electricity demand, for example early May 2016.

Another metric that requires serious consideration is capacity factor. For example, wind turbines may have a capacity factor of 35% (eg, a 100 megawatt (MW) wind farm, over an annual basis, may have an average output of 35MW). It seems high pressure systems are getting larger in size and lasting longer in duration (high pressure systems generally mean minimal wind). Today, if the wind is calm, that electricity generation gap is generally filled with natural gas (it is currently the most flexible and inexpensive dispatchable source, specifically in USA). What happens if a wind farm operates at 100 percent of its capacity? It depends on the demand at that time, its output could help meet demand or if demand is low, curtailment may be required. In the future, nuclear could be a zero-carbon source of dispatchable electricity generation. Nuclear is occasionally operated for load following in some parts of the world, for example, France and Germany.

California captures detailed data of their electricity grid operations. We see that the least amount of electricity consumed at any given time is about 18 gigawatts (GW). Therefore, they could likely support almost this amount in baseload generation capacity (the linked post to baseload also contains a brief discussion regarding storage).

An expert workshop was conducted in July 2015 and it outlined the challenges of decarbonizing an electricity grid, detailed here.

Armond Cohen, Executive Director of Clean Air Task Force, presented on the findings of this workshop (28 minute+ presentation), titled “Solving Climate: The Need for Zero Carbon On-Demand Power“.

As for handling changes (and increases throughout the day) in demand, perhaps a 40%renewables/40%nuclear/20%gas (and here) could be a solution.

Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012

Sir David MacKay 1967 – 2016

Sir David MacKay passed away this week. He made great contributions regarding climate change and energy.

He had much respect for math, science, engineering and the laws of physics, chemistry and thermodynamics. We would all do well, for the sake of the future of this planet and all its occupants, to hold as much respect for these as Dr. MacKay did. He also had a solid understanding, to say the least, of all of these.

His eminent book “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” should be required reading for anyone having influence or creating energy and climate change policies. (Some consider “Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open” a companion book).

Dr. MacKay also played a critical role in developing the Global Calculator “The Global Calculator is a flexible tool that allows you to explore thousands of options to help you gain your own insights into the world’s energy, land, food and climate systems”.

Dr. MacKay did a TED Talk entitled “A Reality Check on Renewables“.

Bill Gates wrote “Remembering David MacKay

I’m sure there are several other publications, blog posts, lectures, etc well worth the time to explore. I’ll include one more, from the University of Oxford and “The Secrets of Mathematics” series, a lecture entitled “Why Climate Change Action is Difficult and How We Can Make A Difference“. Sir David MacKay’s good friend, Mark Lynas, wrote a touching piece “What David MacKay taught me, and taught us all” and also conducted his last interview.

Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012

Sir David MacKay 1967 2016


On Replacing Coal and Nuclear plants in USA

Mark Jacobson (senior fellow Stanford University Precourt Institute for Energy and author of “The Solutions Project“, 100% renewable energy by 2050) claimed nuclear is being replaced by wind and solar, OnPoint podcast of December 3, 2015 (start listening at the 40:30  mark). He is likely referring to nameplate capacity, but not actual energy produced. When reviewing the USA’s Energy Information Administration stats and comparing electricity production for the entire years of 2014 and 2015, it is clear that when coal and nuclear are shut down, their production is replaced almost entirely by natural gas, which Josh Freed stated in that same podcast (39 minute mark).

This piece points out that wind and solar grew 20,659 MWh from the entire year of 2014 to the entire year of 2015. It does not mention that natural gas grew by 208,459 MWh during that same time period (although one can see that when viewing the graphics within the article).

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Mark Jacobson and Stanford U’s Precourt Institute for Energy

Mark Jacobson is the main author of “The Solutions Project”. It is a plan for all global energy to be produced from wind, water and solar by 2050 (no fossil fuels, no nuclear). The “Leap Manifesto” is based on his work.

Jacobson is a Senior Fellow of Stanford University’s Precourt Instiitute for Energy.

The Precourt Institute for Energy plays a major role in Stanford University’s “Natural Gas Initiative” . Information about Jay A. Precourt, who has an extensive background in the oil and gas industry at a senior executive level, is available here and here.

The co-chairs of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy support a mix of solutions, including nuclear (here).

It is puzzling to me that Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy plays a major role in the university’s “Natural Gas Initiative” when they have Mark Jacobson’s “The Solutions Project” right there in front of them.

Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012

Winning the War on Fossil Fuels (and Two Provinces Compared)

Coal is the top source of electricity generation around the world and it is set to grow. From a climate change perspective, this is obviously not good. Experts believe that coal should be the top priority as the fossil fuel to phase out.

In Ontario, it is prohibited to generate electricity via burning coal. In 2000, Ontario’s electricity generation mix was the following: nuclear 37%, coal/oil 29%, hydro 26%, natural gas 7% and renewables 1%. In 2015, the generation mix was Nuclear 60%, hydro 24%, gas/oil 10%, wind 6%, with biofuel and solar making up the rest. However, this has presented series financial issues, namely nuclear refurbishment and current grid operations. The Ontario electricity grid currently emits well under 100 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (CO2g-e/kwh). This is also sometimes referred to as carbon intensity per kilowatt-hour (CIPK).

The USA’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory provides CIPK for electricity sources. Hydro, nuclear, wind and solar are near zero, geothermal 25-57, natural gas 450-670 and coal 980.

Alberta plans to stop generating electricity from burning coal by 2030. Electricity generation is scheduled to be a mix of 30% renewable energy and 70% natural gas. In 2030, Alberta CIPK will be about 400.

The following are some 2014 CIPK global statistics (source: International Energy Agency): Canada 151, Sweden 12, France 69, Denmark 257, Germany, UK and USA 475+, Japan 551, China 734, India 926. Various live electricity grids throughout the world can be viewed here. The IEA provides detailed monthly reports of OECD countries electricity generation mix (Note: The IEA categorizes biomass as a “combustible fuel”, along with fossil fuels. Others label biomass as “renewable energy”. Some forms of biomass, which is essentially wood burning, can be worse for the climate than coal) .

Japan spent 60% more for fossil fuel imports in 2013 compared to 2010, an increase of $270 billion over three years. This reversed Japan’s trade surplus…” This situation in Japan was of course the result of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. Fukushima raises concerns, RationalWiki has a post “FAQ on radioactivity and nuclear technology”. Germany has spent approx 200 billion euros since 2000 to deploy renewable energy and decommission nuclear power. This has had minimal impact on CO2 emissions and fossil fuel use for generating electricity. Also of note is that residential electricity rates in Germany are almost twice as much as those in France. In California, 60% of in-state electricity is generated by burning natural gas, 33% of their electricity consumption is supplied by imports. The United Kingdom is converting some coal plants to biomass, which aids in achieving renewable energy targets (Nova Scotia has also used biomass to assist in reaching renewable energy targets).

This post focuses only on electricity generation (about 20% of global energy consumption) and does not discuss transportation, agricultural, industrial, residential and commercial energy use (almost exclusively fossil fuel generated), making the war on fossil fuels all the more daunting. All clean energy sources have their challenges. The following is a list of some organizations that support an “all of the above” approach to clean energy deployment: United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, USA Department of Energy, USA’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, International Energy Agency and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If climate change is of the utmost urgency, and rapid reduction of CO2 emissions and fossil fuel use is required, then all clean energy sources must be promoted, supported and given serious consideration.

Leap Manifesto or…..?

The following organizations and countries support renewable and nuclear energy:

United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (here)

Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (here)

USA Department of Energy (here)

USA National Renewable Energy Laboratory (here)

International Energy Agency (IEA) (here)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (here)

Clean Air Task Force (here)

United Kingdom’s Energy Research Partnership (here)

Third Way, in this 4 minute video, explains why “We Need A Mix

China (here)

India (here) (In June 2016, India ordered six 1.1 gigawatt Westinghouse nuclear power plants from USA)

Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy (here) (of which Mark Jacobson is a senior fellow and whose work the Leap Manifesto uses to justify their 100% renewable energy plan

(Interesting note, Stanford University chose not to divest from fossil fuels)

stanford not to divest

It is important to note that Mark Jacobson is a civil engineer and not an electrical engineer. Therefore it is critical to review posts by experts in electrical engineering and have extensive experience in this field, such as Willem Post and Timothy Maloney.

The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers have made presentations available to educate the public with regards to power, energy, electricity grids, etc.

David Gattie, engineering professor at University of Georgia, writes “Nuclear vs 100% Renewable Energy: An Unnecessary Battle

Why would one be in favour of the renewables-only “Leap Manifesto” instead of these other organizations and countries that support more broad-based solutions (according to the IEA “Nuclear power is the largest source of low-carbon electricity in OECD countries and second at global level”)?

Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012