Energy transitions: is everything different this time?

The debate about whether transition to low-carbon energy would be faster or slower than previous energy transitions somewhat misses the point. The real problem is whether this time everything is different and whether the low-carbon energy revolution will be complete enough – and for that question, history suggests some very sobering answers.

Last week, the estimable David Roberts a.k.a. @drvox wrote an interesting and optimistic article arguing that while previous energy transitions have been protracted affairs, the current clean-energy transition might be faster. I advise all of you to read the piece, and in general whatever Mr. Roberts writes: in response to critics such as energy polymath Vaclav Smil, who point to historical record and argue that energy transitions tend to take decades, he makes some very good points about factors that truly could help speed up the clean-energy revolution. Moreover, broadly similar sentiments are very common in energy discussions. Typically, they are expressed by energy and climate optimists, particularly those who argue that the necessary energy revolution required to stave off the worst effects of climate change while bringing reliable energy to billions now without can be achieved using only renewable energy technologies.

In fact, in my experience such techno-optimism is a major factor underpinning the renewable only-optimists’ positions. Furthermore, optimism about the coming energy revolution (any day now! Prepare your green banners and save roofspace for solar PV kits!) serves as a major fig-leaf that allows states to fail to act more forcefully on climate: if a revolution is about to happen anyway, then the technological rabbit-from-hat miracle will solve this thorny issue without anyone having to ask difficult questions about, for example, whether we humans and other Earthly life exist here for the purposes of financial economy or whether it should be the other way around.

The question, “can the clean-energy revolution deliver”, is therefore of some importance. Mr. Roberts argues it could: energy transitions have been slow but they don’t have to be. In his view, energy technologies are now developing far more rapidly than before.

He ascribes this development speed to energy technologies becoming smaller and for information replacing hardware in both the design and use of energy resources. According to him, there are now energy options at all levels, ranging from kilowatt-sized home power plants to gigawatt-scale industrial facilities, and this enables innovation to be spread across dozens or hundreds of parties instead of handful of utilities. As a result, smaller technologies iterate and improve faster.

At the same time, better design tools and improved understanding of materials and technology enable energy system designers to design more efficient or cheaper energy technologies, while software revolution drives the development of the system as a whole and enables novel approaches, such as the aggregated use of multiple distributed batteries as one “super battery” able to meet demands that individual, distributed batteries cannot.

All these arguments are familiar to most people who’ve followed the energy debate closely enough, and all of them are true enough. The problem is that we’ve been here before, yet the energy transitions have nevertheless been slow and incomplete affairs.

That damnable S-curve strikes again

One of the major findings in the study of technology has been that practically all technologies go through somewhat similar lifecycles. Initial discoveries – in the words of noted technology economist Brian Arthur1, the “harnessing of a phenomena” for the first time – that in theory enable a particular technology to be contemplated are generally followed by a long period of quiescence as the embryonic technology is confined to lab benches and minds of visionaries. Improvement is slow, but it happens; and once technology either improves enough or the environment changes sufficiently that alternatives become uncompetitive enough, some first users begin to tepidly introduce the technology in specific niches where its benefits outweigh its inevitable drawbacks. In some cases, such niche adoption fosters the further development of technology, and the improvements may result to technology being applicable to other niches. The process continues (a technologist hopes), and, sometimes, it triggers a take-off when suddenly the technology is being tested for just about every imaginable use, just to see whether it might be profitable to use in such settings. At the same time, the number of adopters tends to grow dramatically, driving what for a while seems like an exponential growth curve.

Basic S-curve.png

Figure 1: Idealized S-curve, showing initial slow adoption, followed by a period of nearly exponential growth and a plateau. One should note that at every point of the curve, one can find experts using a ruler to make forecasts about the technology’s future prospects.

However, every technology seen so far has also eventually reached a plateau of slow and steady growth – or no growth worth mentioning. Simultaneously, the profligate variety of competing designs and different use cases tends to get pruned to one or few so-called “dominant designs” and dominant use cases. The interesting experimentation more or less dies out, the industry consolidates, and innovation slows down. A major reason for this seems to be that benefits from innovating follow the law of diminishing returns: in the initial stages of technology life cycle, improvement opportunities abound and are fairly easy to grasp. But as the technology matures, smaller and smaller improvements are wrung out with greater and greater expenditure. This is the nutshell, highly condensed and simplified version of what is known as the logistic S-curve theory, named after the languid “S” shape of the curve that plots technology adoption over time. As an example, I shall use what today is seen as antiquated, almost laughable technology in some circles: nuclear power.

From unlimited promise to unlimited disappointment

The first real patents for nuclear reactors for energy generation date from the Manhattan Project, from about 1944 and 1945. Even earlier, visionaries had envisioned a future powered by radioactive rays of radium or similar compounds, and during the war, the U.S. authorities actively investigated several science fiction writers on suspicion that they had learned about the details of the then-secret Manhattan Project. However, the harnessing of fission for energy generating purposes really begun with the submarine reactors of mid-1950s. In submarines, the budding technology had found a niche uniquely suited for it: a small power plant that could deliver humongous amounts of energy – enough to even wrest breathable oxygen from seawater – from a tiny fuel source while emitting no noxious gases was precisely what was needed for a true submarine, compared to primitive “under-water boats” that had to surface regularly to charge their batteries and refresh their air supplies. The development program paid for by the U.S. and Soviet navies greatly accelerated the chosen technology in particular: the light water reactor.

Meanwhile, largely due to Cold War propaganda pressures, president Eisenhower had announced the Atoms for Peace program in 1953, promising the war-weary, frightened and divided world to forge the atomic swords of Armageddon into nuclear ploughshares of prosperity and cheap energy for all. In the heady years that followed the Atoms for Peace initiative and the first Geneva nuclear conference in 1955, newfangled atomic energy was all the rage. Scientists and popular press alike poured out suggestions for potential applications of this seemingly miraculous energy source and painted heady visions of a world where want itself would be eliminated by the unlimited power liberated from uranium or thorium. Both were seen to hold large potential: even the Finnish Agrarian Party, a party not known even today for innovativeness, discussed the potential of thorium and uranium in their 1962 party program.

city of future.jpg

Figure 2. “City of Future” from a Finnish weekly magazine Seura, mid-1950s. Powered by a single underground atomic power station in the exact center of the circular city. (Thanks to Esko Pettay for this gem.)

Technological explosion reminiscent of the Cambrian explosion in biology followed: by one count, there were nearly one thousand potential reactor or power source designs, and in 1955, about hundred of these were thought to hold technical or economic promise2. The designs ranged from small radiothermal generators producing some kilowatts to large power stations envisaged to produce perhaps 200 or even 400 megawatts of electricity, while numerous solutions for space heating, industrial and process heat were also proposed. These were investigated using the state of the art tools and knowledge of the day, including massive use of electronic computers and extremely novel methods for analyzing materials. Few popular accounts of atomic energy development were complete without mention of the wondrous “scientificity” and unsurpassed rationality of the development process, and laboratory tools featured prominently in almost every pictorial account.

nuclear researcher from Los Alamos.jpg

Figure 3. Typical illustration in atomic power articles: Nuclear physicist unlocking the secrets of the atom with state of the art R&D equipment, which I just have to assume goes “Ping”. From the same Seura article as the previous image.

Even though the number of potential designs dwindled as investigations proceeded, even ten years later, in 1965, there were about ten potential reactor designs and a huge diversity of suppliers. For example, the directory of nuclear equipment suppliers attached to July 1965 issue of EuroNuclear periodical (p. IG-14) listed five suppliers for complete commercial or prototype fast reactors for power production, 13 for complete multi-purpose reactors, and 29 for complete electric power plants – in addition to numerous others offering prototypes, research reactors, laboratory equipment, processing plants, and less than complete deliveries.

For countries large and small, being a part of this energy revolution was more than just a practical matter. Even for Finland, barely out of the privations of the war and rationing, much of its energy supply still reliant on horses (yes, really!) and very much what we’d euphemistically call a “developing country” these days, taking part in the “atomic era” was as much a matter of national pride as it was a decision about energy policy. Finland, cautioned learned observers, would be left behind, if it did not partake in this miraculous wonder energy source of the future. After all, nuclear energy in its various forms was to be the power source that would bring cheap electricity to faraway places, not presently served by power grids of any sort, and enable poor countries to “leapfrog” the suddenly antiquated systems of yesteryear.3

All this may sound eerily familiar. I’m working with a group of researchers on the history of nuclear power, and my research seeks to compare the energy rhetoric of the atomic era to the rhetoric now used with renewable energy. My preliminary analysis suggests that similarities are, frankly, astounding, as are the energy scenarios proposed. Suffice to say that key questions in many scenarios up to late 1970s were how many nuclear power stations would be built to cover the entire energy demand by the year 2000, not whether they would or should be built. By the way, we’re still collecting material – if you know of some good sources, please get in touch!

Detailing the sorry saga of nuclear energy that followed in reality is beyond the scope of this blog post, but to recap the most important issue (those more interested are directed to e.g. R. Cowan’s classic 1990 study4), by 1970 the light water reactor had more or less won the race already. Originally developed for shipboard use, it had a number of shortcomings compared to other potential civilian designs. But it had a major advantage: it was available and subsidized by the state. Furthermore, thanks to the Bomb, there was an existing supply line for uranium, whereas thorium aficionados would have had to build their own. These advantages, and the speed with which countries all over the world rushed to the technology, practically ensured that light water reactor became the dominant design it is even today. Innovation slowed down, and nuclear physics courses no longer drew the crowds they used to. Industry consolidated, and today the serious suppliers for nuclear power reactors could be counted with fingers of one (mutated) hand. Practically every design they offer is a variation of the light water reactor, even though there are some promising signs of innovation perhaps beginning to happen again.

Amidst all this, the growth of nuclear energy flatlined. At one point, it had grown almost explosively – in fact, faster than what the renewables even combined have so far achieved in similar time periods. In absolute terms, the transition was extremely rapid. During that period of expansion, there was no shortage of very serious and genuine experts who boldly proclaimed that the growth observed so far would continue into far future. According to some, by the year 2000, even oil wells would be shuttered because the energy they’d produce simply could not compete.

first 50 years of energy transitions, EJ

Figure 4a. First 50 years of energy transitions in absolute terms (exajoules generated per year).

 

Energy transitions in history.png

Figure 4b. Past energy transitions, as share of total energy consumption. Data for both figures from Smil (2010), with thanks to Dr. Aki Suokko. Finnish readers in particular should check out his excellent blog on energy, economy and the environment, Palautekytkentöjä.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

I won’t skirt further around the obvious issue: there are some extremely striking similarities between what happened with nuclear power and what is now happening with renewables. Some of the more notable ones include

  • A great and popular enthusiasm for “wonder energy” of future
  • Extremely positive outlook for its future prospects and rosy promises of a future exclusively powered by this one source alone
  • An interlocking set of intellectual, political and commercial interests that helped reinforce the faith in this energy solution
  • The use of state of the art design and development tools and the top experts of the day; at one point, working in nuclear physics was the prestigious career for the scientifically minded
  • An explosion of potential designs, followed by narrowing down based on technological and economic criteria and technical experience (how many different designs for large wind turbines there are these days?)
  • A major growth spurt in size to capture economies of scale (again, visible in wind turbines, and very likely going to be visible in solar energy as well – witness Ivanpah for example)
  • A consolidation in the industry (happening or already happened with wind turbines, may be happening with PV panels and batteries as “fab labs” are extremely expensive facilities)
  • Diminishing returns for innovation (probably already happened with wind turbines)

Thus armed, one could construct a perfectly valid counterargument to the points raised by mr. Roberts and other energy optimists: when compared to contemporary alternatives, almost all the features that are now supposed to speed up the clean energy revolution were also present during early phases of the nuclear era. Granted, software was less of a business back then; but nuclear plants did co-evolve with the broader electricity system and made use of some fairly advanced stuff back in the day. For example, the first large-scale energy storage systems were pioneered with nuclear power!

It is also true that nuclear power had its unique challenges, although the extent to which this affected decision-making is less clear. On the other hand, variable renewables do suffer from certain drawbacks that nuclear power didn’t have. Their production is inherently variable yet largely autocorrelated (that is, solar panels all produce during day and none produce during night; similar problem applies, to less extent, to wind turbines, as weather patterns can cover large areas). This makes profitable grid integration more and more difficult as renewable penetration increases. Their energy density is low, meaning that large areas need to be appropriated for their use (even though dual use is often a possibility), and, arguably, they can still be fairly expensive.

Furthermore, more positive analysts generally tend to overlook the fact that developments in grid flexibility and energy storage do not necessarily help variable renewables alone.

Given that large-scale energy storage systems have been pioneered and successfully used precisely in the context stable, dispatchable baseload power sources, the silent yet extremely common assumption that development of storage systems will usher a renewable revolution is somewhat puzzling. In fact, as one recent study5 noted, large-scale, scalable energy storage could potentially increase emissions in the U.S. for example. Why? Because cheap storage would allow dispatchable baseload plants to store their excess production when electricity is cheap, and sell it when it’s expensive, thus boosting profitability. At the same time, because the marginal cost of variable renewable production is so low, the periods when these sources actually produce energy would be precisely those periods when the price paid for electricity would be very low. Similar impacts would be seen if demand flexibility changes the demand curve sufficiently.

I’m tempted to think that the source of confusion here is the fact that large-scale storage, demand flexibility or likely a mixture of both are most probably necessary but not sufficient conditions for truly large-scale (that is, the scale we need for climate mitigation) renewable adoption. Since the true renewable revolution is likely to require such developments, many optimists have become confused and think that if such developments happen, then renewable revolution must also happen. But there are no guarantees this is indeed the case. It is also perfectly possibly – perhaps even too likely – that such developments will help baseload plants too, perhaps even to the extent that the relative competitive situation between variable renewables and fossil fuel baseload does not change unduly.

And this is one of the major blind spots in today’s rather ahistorical energy discourse: too many people seem to ignore the fact that all technologies are developing simultaneously.

Humans are very prone to suffering from what is known as “availability bias:” we give more weight to information and events we’ve observed personally. Proponents of a given type of technology tend to follow news about developments in that technology, and more or less ignore news from other sectors. In such a setting, it is easy to become convinced that competing technologies are standing still while one’s favorite technology is developing in leaps and bounds. But in reality, the same types of advanced design tools, materials, and software Mr. Roberts touts as unique to today’s clean energy revolution are being applied to fossil fuel technologies as well. While it’s probably true that fossil technologies are far more mature and innovation there is harder, the precariousness of the competitive edge of renewables may mean that not much innovation is needed to, essentially, maintain the status quo.

This, I believe, was one of the mistakes made by energy optimists of the 1960s. Enamored as they were with nuclear technology, they failed to notice that other technologies were developing as well. Similarly, I believe that developments in other energy technologies were a major reason why renewable revolution did not start from the 1930s or even earlier, even though – for example – wind power was studied seriously back then.

For example, the first megawatt-scale wind turbine was built in 1941. One book in my collection, dating from 1963, expertly discusses the pros and cons of wind and solar power projects; the issues about e.g. variability were the same back then, and only by updating the language somewhat, the discussion could be easily recycled to cover current renewable energy discussion. And the first mention of humanity being “soon” powered “from the unlimited rays of the Sun” I’ve been able to locate is from a 1913 article about large-scale experimental solar power project. Some other forecasts, and actual reality, were recently collated by analyst Michael Cembalest, working for J.P. Morgan:

US RE shares of primary energy and projections

Figure 5. The share of US primary energy from renewable sources, and some notable forecasts. Data from EIA, listed authors, JPMAM, compiled and image by Michael Cembalest and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (2016)

What remains to be seen is the outcome the different drivers and pressures will ultimately produce. Will the renewable revolution exceed all prior energy transformations by truly supplanting, not just adding to, existing energy sources? Or will it follow the path so far followed by every other energy transition and reach a plateau long before supplying even the majority of world’s energy needs? Since we absolutely must quit fossil fuels fairly soon, this is what scares me far more than the rapidity or slowness of the the revolution. Most developed countries absolutely must have a fairly clean energy system by 2050, mere 34 years from today. Even if the renewable revolution well exceeds more pessimistic estimates and reaches a 50% share of total energy consumption by that time, it is not enough. And history shows that energy transitions tend to stall sooner.

(As an aside, I heartily recommend everyone to watch this lecture by esteemed prof. Kevin Anderson, detailing why most climate/energy forecasts are in fact hopelessly and systematically optimistic.)

In fact, one thing I wonder about nuclear history is whether a slower energy transition might have been a good thing: perhaps we wouldn’t have become locked in to state-subsidized light water reactors only, and perhaps some of the problems caused by the rush to this technology, including insufficient safety measures and distrust and resistance-breeding arrogance nuclear boosters exhibited towards the revolution’s doubters, might have been avoided.

Past history does not guarantee future performance, and it is possible that the optimists are right: perhaps there is something entirely different about renewable energy technologies or about the socio-political-economic environment where they are being built. But “this time is different” has been the mantra of the overconfident throughout the recorded history, sufficiently so that there is an excellent book by that title. That book explores the reasons why people don’t seem to learn the lessons of eight centuries of history and repeat follies that predictably lead to economic disasters and disappointments.

As one review of the book noted, “this time is different” are the four most dangerous words in finance. Only time will tell whether the same will apply to energy transitions.

References


  1. Arthur, B. W. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves. New York: Free Press.
  2. Särkikoski, T. (2011). Rauhan atomi, sodan koodi: Suomalaisen atomivoimaratkaisun teknopolitiikka 1955-1970. (The technopolitics of Finnish atomic power decision.) PhD thesis published in Historical Studies from the University of Helsinki XXV, Helsinki.
  3. Särkikoski, T. (2011). Rauhan atomi, sodan koodi: Suomalaisen atomivoimaratkaisun teknopolitiikka 1955-1970. (The technopolitics of Finnish atomic power decision.) PhD thesis published in Historical Studies from the University of Helsinki XXV, Helsinki.
  4. Cowan, R. (1990). Nuclear Power Reactors: A Study in Technological Lock-in. The Journal of Economic History, 50(03), 541. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700037153
  5. Hittinger, E. S., & Azevedo, I. M. L. (2015). Bulk Energy Storage Increases United States Electricity System Emissions. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(5), 3203–3210. http://doi.org/10.1021/es505027p.

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About J. M. Korhonen

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20 Responses to Energy transitions: is everything different this time?

  1. Very interesting article, again!

    But your argument seems quite a bit of a stretch to me. While renewables could well follow an S-curve like nuclear has, the reasons will be almost all very different, in my opinion. Some commentary on some of the things you wrote.

    – On the initial popular enthousiasm, it should be noted that the enthousiasm for nuclear among scientists was almost unanimous, whereas todays enthusiasm for renewables among scientists is lacklustre at best. And of the few scientists who shout their enthusiasm for renewables (only) from the rooftops, most (perhaps all) appear to have a second-agenda.

    – On the historical choice for the light water reactor technology, IIRC at least one reason for this strategic technology choice was it’s suitability only for the once-through fuel cycle. Fossil fuel interests at the time agreed to support this once-through concept by way of cutting their losses, correctly inferring that competing with once-through nuclear would be feasible, while competing with breeder reactors would be that much harder.

    – On the S-curve of nuclear: all countries who initially adopted nuclear were solidly on their way to becoming developed countries, and one feature of becoming a developed country is the flattening of electricity demand. The S-curve for nuclear in those countries was more a feature of the S-curve of their electricity demand than anything else. And of course we know that in the USA, the growth of nuclear was certainly held back by many factors not impacting the renewables industry, such as the deal made by US utilities to avoid direct competition between coal and nuclear powerplant new builds.

    – On the S-curve for (intermittent) renewables, it will be clear that intermittency all but ensures the S-curve trajectory will be followed, and at a far lower market penetration than nuclear. The renewables S-curve frankly is initiated purely through subsidisation (which explains completely how renewables can grow exponentially even in stagnant electricity markets such as that of Germany), and it will end purely due to the physical limitations defined by intermittency.

    Summarising, while I would agree that (intermittent) renewables capacity is indeed likely to exhibit an S-curve, the factors causing that shape to emerge for both technologies couldn’t be more different, in my view. Therefore, while I like this article a lot due to its historical content and fresh perspective, I think your attempt to find similarities between the nuclear S-curve and the (predictable) renewables S-curve is far-fetched.

    P.S. I know that Rod Adams (whom I assume you have heard of) has already done much investigative work on the history of nuclear, including the behind-the-scenes events which influenced nuclear’s (non)development. If I were you I would certainly contact him about this history and/or sift through his voluminous reporting about it on his weblog http://atomicinsights.com/

    • Thanks!

      Of course, history never repeats itself (although sometimes it rhymes), and the analogues are not even meant to be perfect. I’m most interested in the rhetorical analogues and the thinking that led many very reasonable people to genuinely believe that even oil might be obsolete by the year 2000, and that shows in the article (and probably in the research if it proceeds).

      However, I’m not entirely convinced whether the situations were, as a whole, so very different as you maintain. There were many experts who doubted whether the atomic revolution would be as simple as it seemed to be, and the first mentions I’ve been able to locate where solar power, for example, is said to make atomic plants soon obsolete are from early 1950s – well before any nuclear plants were even built. From what I’ve been able to gather, much of this resistance came from sociologists and the like (William Ogburn’s group being an example I’ve found), but physicists too joined in fairly soon.

      But in a manner extremely reminiscent of energy discourse today, these doubters were by and large out-shouted by the optimists and optimistic visions dominating the press. The public was more ambivalent, pretty much as it is today (in my opinion, of course): the new energy source was greeted with some enthusiasm and there were very vocal boosters of technology, but for the majority, what mattered was that they got electricity reasonably cheaply.

      It was only in the 1970s when the critics started publishing works critical of nuclear technology and industry when the anti-nuclear views began to gain traction (although the former did not cause the latter). These works are extremely similar to renewable critiques that have began to appear lately, and as an author of some of this critique, I actually sympathize a lot with those doomsayers. (There is, in fact, one direct quote from a book criticizing nuclear energy: “An interlocking set of intellectual, political and commercial interests that helped reinforce the faith”, originally from Bupp and Derlan 1978).

      Technical details are of course important, and as I mentioned, renewables face some unique challenges in this regard. But so too did nuclear, and it is actually fairly hard to objectively judge which ones are more difficult to solve or pose greater problems for deployment. For example, I do not believe the intermittency issue is such a bugbear that some claim it to be, although it does make large-scale integration more difficult. However, I’ve heard of reputable though private calculations where similar problems would start affecting large-scale nuclear deployment fairly soon, as well, and other economic problems of building nuclear in today’s market are well known. That is the reason why my opinion is that we need a flexible grid with enough storage nevertheless, and once we have that, we can fit in nuclear too.

      The claims about subsidies could well be levelled against nuclear too, and while fossil fuel interests did play a role, I would be careful when using them to explain the events. By most accounts I’ve read, including some internal memorandums, most fossil fuel producers and users may have been frightened for a while, but realized fairly soon that nuclear, too, would have its inherent limitations, and while it would supplant fossil fuels in some areas, it alone and absent very strong anti-fossil fuel governmental policy (which was not forthcoming, except perhaps briefly after the 1973 oil crisis) could not seriously threaten their status in the world of 1960s to 1980s. An example of this is the recorded meeting (documented by Yergin in The Prize) between U.S. envoy and Saudi royal family after the 1973 embargo: the Americans threatened to “unleash nuclear” unless oil supplies were increased. By all accounts, the Saudis were not perturbed in the least by the threat. Furthermore, for many power producers, the question whether to build a nuclear or a coal plant was ultimately very simple one of economics. I’m familiar with Rod Adams’s work but I’m somewhat concerned about whether he presents a balanced view of the issue.

      By the way, such considerations lead me to believe that today the important issue is to begin campaigns that actually seek to reduce and eliminate fossil fuel use – I cannot see any real hope of success for policies that seek to simply subsidize alternatives or promote them otherwise. Subsidies have been necessary to get the industry off the ground, and are likely to be necessary for a while longer, but unless they are accompanied with policies that actually seek to reduce fossil fuel use, they will not deliver what’s needed. (Exhibit A: Diablo Canyon deal.)

      I agree with you however that the precise factors shaping the S-curves are likely to be quite different. This is only to be expected, since technologies are very different in many particulars. However, I believe – and I think we agree – that the real problem is where the S-curve of renewables peaks, and that there are many reasons to be afraid that the curve won’t carry much beyond the records set by nuclear energy revolution. I may be somewhat more optimistic than you are, but as I noted, even if renewables exceed all prior examples and peak at 50% of energy generation, we’re still screwed.

      • The French government accounting office calculated the subsidised cost of nuclear in that country a number of times and found total cost of French nuclear to be less than $50/MWh (though it has been rising in recent years). Nuclear subsidies are insignificant compared to renewables subsidies and cannot credibly be put into the same league, not by a long shot.

        The only physical limitation in nuclear is the once-though cycle, which is inherent only in light water reactors. Breeder reactors don’t have this limitation. The intermittence of renewables is a limitation of a different order, impossible to solve. Again, the limitations affecting intermittent renewables are very different than those affecting nuclear.

        It’s clear why the Saudi’s weren’t afraid of US nuclear posturing. The production cost of their oil was (and is) so cheap, and the utility of stable liquid fuel for transport so decisive, that nothing can compete with it, even if nuclear is the cheapest source of electricity. But that was a long time ago. I’ve done the calculations and there’s no reason to doubt that nuclear powered synfuel could compete with $100 oil. While Saudi oil will remain much cheaper to produce than $100 for a long time to come, the marginal barrel in the global oil market might well already be more expensive to produce, implying that nuclear powered synfuel is already a competitive option for the marginal barrel and will increasingly be so, even without a carbon price. New nuclear plants can last up to 100 years, pushing down the fleet-averaged price per kWh, even at current (very) high initial cost. There is a lot of room for cost-cutting as the nuclear renaissance gains traction. The fleet-averaged nuclear electric kWh can credibly fall toward 2 ct/kWh. 100$ oil amounts to about 6 ct/kWh. Optimized nuclear powered synfuel could come in at about 3 to 5 ct/kWh, ultimately, making the elimination of crude oil from the global economy relatively easy (as compared to being practically unthinkable when all we have is intermittent RE)

        Finally, I’m sure you’ve considered that an RE plateau at 50% would not merely screw us through not being enough to address greenhouse emissions, it would further screw us through its effect on electricity market structure. An electric grid hosting 50% intermittent RE will seriously disadvantage efficient baseload plant. This doesn’t just mean nuclear will be that much harder to finance, but fossil fuel w/CCS and biomass (w/CCS) too, each of which – it is already clear – will be needed to address global warming. So cruel irony is that the higher the S-curve for renewables tends to become, the greater the certainty that we will be screwed, and then some. Every GW of solar or wind added means an additional increment in the misery of global warming impacts that is to come. The earlier intermittent RE peaks and crests, the better.

      • True, on absolute terms and on per megawatt basis nuclear subsidies have been lower than renewable subsidies. But there are two caveats.

        First, we are still in the early stages of the renewables’ S-curve. If there is broader, mostly unsubsidized take-off, which I believe is entirely possible for solar PV at least (and for wind power too, maybe), then in 50 years time the total subsidy amount paid for RE may come down to far more acceptable numbers. Had we been counting the cost of nuclear in 1960s, I think the cost per megawatt would have been fairly high – although precise comparisons are very difficult, because electricity markets worked very differently, and because –

        Second, society as a whole is far wealthier these days, and we can afford higher subsidies for renewable energy sources. One look at how many billions were found almost instantly to prop up failing banks in 2008 tells me to doubt seriously whether the clean energy transition is really stalling because of lack of money as such. This does not mean costs are a non-issue, but I would hesitate using them as the key argument.

        Otherwise I tend to largely agree with you, although I’m perhaps a bit less sanguine about the prospects of nuclear.

  2. Solar and wind have gotten cheaper, though it’s hard to see further cost reductions absent as yet unexpected technological breakthroughs.

    Subsidies for intermittent renewables come in two forms, of course. There’s the direct subsidy intended to reduce the investment cost, and that subsidy is falling and already has fallen to zero in some places. But there’s also the indirect, hidden subsidy which flows from the way our electricity markets and energy tax systems are set up. For example, in the Netherland’s, household consumers pay hefty electricity consumption taxes, which they don’t have to pay when they install rooftop solar. That’s why household rooftop solar is currently the most expensive renewable energy in The Netherlands even while it is competitive without (direct) subsidy.

    Then there’s of course the other indirect subsidy for renewables which is the lack of a capacity market, meaning that stable generators don’t get paid for providing grid stability, which in effect subsidises intermittent renewables that depend on the stability offered free of charge by the stable generators.

    I’m confident you know all of this already, but what I’m unsure about is why you don’t appear to find a categorical difference between the kind of subsidies which helped grow nuclear power way back when, versus the kind of subsidies which help grow renewables today. There is a great chasm of difference between the two types, is my opinion, all resulting ultimately from the fact that nuclear is stable while intermittent RE is … well … intermittent!

    By the way I agree that developed countries could likely shoulder the inherently high cost of 100% RE. Years ago I did some back-of-the-envelope work and I figure an electricity cost of up to 200 €/MWh or even €500/MWh could arguably be absorbed (by a developed country), but not in developing countries, and its the developing countries who will ultimately decide the trajectory of CO2 emissions. If they have to choose between €200/MWh (minimum) 100%RE or €50/MWh fossils, then they’ll be forced (by internal politics) to go for the fossils at least throughout the next half century or until they reach developed world status (or if the developed world decides to subsidise the developing world’s 100% RE, which would cost tens of trillions annually and likely won’t happen). That’s pretty much why I think it’s crucial that €50/MWh nuclear is available to prevent those countries from having to choose fossils and dooming the climate. And to set a good example, developed countries also need to choose nuclear. Eating one’s own dogfood.

    When talking about prospects, there is the political and the technical aspect I suppose. Technically, the prospects for nuclear are excellent and always have been. And the technical prospects for 100% RE are dire, and always will be. Politically it’s a very different story. Politically, 100%RE might ultimately win out, and nuclear might never succeed beyond the modest role it has now.

    • “I’m confident you know all of this already, but what I’m unsure about is why you don’t appear to find a categorical difference between the kind of subsidies which helped grow nuclear power way back when, versus the kind of subsidies which help grow renewables today. There is a great chasm of difference between the two types, is my opinion, all resulting ultimately from the fact that nuclear is stable while intermittent RE is … well … intermittent!”

      That’s because I have much trouble finding objective measurements that would really tell me that there is a categorical difference between the difficulty of techno-economic-political problems faced by the two energy sources. True, renewables suffer greatly from intermittency and relatively high cost. But nuclear suffers from e.g.

      – public perception problem
      – waste management problem (solvable, yes, but in many countries as of yet unsolved)
      – weapons proliferation problem (not as big as some claim, but it does exist)
      – requirement for stable, non-corruptible institutions over long time periods
      – cost escalation
      – project management problems

      All these are solvable, I believe. But they can nevertheless put serious dampers on nuclear expansion – and have done so already.

      Now, the conclusion too many draw from these problems is that nuclear is no-go. This, in my opinion, is just as wrong as to look at the serious problems facing renewable expansion and conclude that renewables are no-go.

      I firmly believe that the best shot we have for decarbonizing our energy system is advocating for both renewables and nuclear power, and for other solutions as well. Efficiency and demand reduction, as well as criticism and deconstruction of growth assumptions inherent in current economic system, are important tools as well.

      • I agree with the general thrust of your analysis and viewpoint, but I can’t shake off the impression that advocating for “Renewables and nuclear power” runs the risk of being seen as inherently absurd. After all: if you have nuclear, then renewables become almost pointless, while without nuclear, renewables will not be enough, so logically you would just drop the renewables entirely and focus on nuclear. Renewables are a fifth wheel on the wagon. How do we call someone who advocates for five wheels on a wagon? Can we take such a person seriously?

        I suppose there is one possibility for realistically advocating for renewables and nuclear, and that is if one specifies that supporting renewables is useful because it *might* ultimately lead to a *new* type of renewable technology which *can* be as useful as nuclear. But what one is really doing then is advocating for nuclear *implementation* and renewables *R&D*. That is in fact pretty close to my personal position on nuclear and renewables.

        The world has at this moment IIRC committed about 1000 billion dollars during the last few decades to investment for *implementing* renewables. In my view that 1000 billion would have been far better spent on renewables R&D. I think the current fleet of renewables are at permanent risk of being abandoned during the next few decades, leaving nothing but scrap, just like the earlier (far smaller) buildouts. All of the investments in factories and technologies currently implemented will have done nothing but form the basis of a huge self-deception. But we will see. I suppose it’s entirely possible that the current paradigm of “temporary subsidization of RE to support technological development until RE can stand on it’s own feet” manages to morph to a new paradigm of “permanent subsidisation because RE can’t stand on its own feet but that’s ok”. Of course, this second paradigm is harder to sell politically. Society is usually quite good at making a temporary sacrifice to help a technology become competitive, but societies tend to be very bad at permanently subsidising a technology that cannot be competitive.

        Ultimately – in 200 years time for example – I think that renewables *will* provide most of our power and nuclear will be less and less necessary. But that depends on a lot of things happening in those 200 years:

        – global HVDC transmission grid?
        – global government?
        – breakthrough in storage? (Won’t ever happen in my opinion, but maybe ……….)

      • Joris, even if fully nuclear system might be better in some aspects, there’s still the bottleneck of deployment. Ramping up nuclear industry to deliver even 30% of world’s energy by 2050 will be a significant challenge in its own right, even if widespread opposition slackens. We simply should not gamble everything on one set of solutions.

        Another thing: there is only so much that can be done at laboratory scale. While more R&D is necessary, so too are large-scale experiments that are only possible with deployment. I therefore think that a large part of renewable subsidies should be counted as R&D support – after all, it supports the deployment of large-scale, true to life intermittent energy systems, and provides a “coral reef” for the ecosystem of necessary R&D and services to develop around.

  3. actinideage says:

    Perhaps this time *is* different.

    At least until well-funded environmental groups formulate similar strategies as those discussed in this link for the intervening, delay and intractable opposition to new renewable and storage technologies.

    http://atomicinsights.com/anti-nuclear-movement-strategy-circa-april-1991/

    • Good find. One of the things that worry me greatly about 100% RE proponents is that they apparently genuinely believe that there will be no local opposition to RE projects. At least, they make no allowances for that in any of the plans I’ve seen.

      Yet it’s already well known that RE and auxiliary projects (like power lines) have stumbled into serious resistance, some of it quite well-founded in fact. One cannot help but wonder what is in store once “renewable revolution” really begins and the “windustrial sprawl” for example becomes truly apparent.

      Such friction is only rarely if ever allowed in more optimistic scenarios, and may be enough on its own to derail them. The situation is only exacerbated by the ham-fisted approach many RE developers have been adopting towards those who disagree with the overall greatness of their projects. I’ve mentioned this issue – that RE advocates are making the exact same mistakes nuclear advocates made in the 1970s – to e.g. Finnish wind power association, but while they even might be concerned about public opposition, there’s very little they can do about individual projects unfortunately.

  4. Ikemeister says:

    Interesting discussions! One aspect I haven’t seen mentioned here is that the renewables time frame should actually be tracked from at least 100 years back. Back then wind and solar was going to power the world! What’s changed between then and now? Certainly there have been many significant technological advances in each case but the 100% dream isn’t close to being realized … other than in the minds of proponents such as Lovins and Jacobson. I’d argue that there have been a few mini-S-curves stemming from significant technological advances and unless the storage dilemma is solved, there’s no way that intermittent renewables can progress much further. Witness the many wind farm failures in European countries as soon as subsidies are removed.

    • Yeah, locating the start points for each “revolution” is obviously a matter of fine judgment. Fairly often, somewhat arbitrary criteria such as “provides 1% of energy supply” are used as a startpoint.

      You’re right in that in reality there are many mini-S-curves. Compounded, these generally tend to produce what we call “the” S-curve (even though its shape may sometimes differ). This is all somewhat subjective because even defining what counts as one technology and what doesn’t is sometimes fairly difficult.

  5. Great discussion guys. My humble take is current RE can’t scale and current Nuclear is facing societal acceptance in most developed, democratic markets. Current RE is of course a joke , it is merely ‘ free fuel ‘ when the weather decides and , as Joris says, not power generation . R&D is clearly critical and we simply haven’t been investing in energy research since the 1970’s. The ITER fusion project in France, a glittering white elephant, is the only serious government-funded energy research project worldwide.

    I think we are all agreed of the crucial role of nuclear.

    My sense is that we are close to a critical turning point. I know that , for example in my own country (Ireland) we are rapidly approaching a point where the limitations of RE + gas will be become ever more obvious. My hope is that independent scientific voices wil be listened to ( ie the environmental protection agency , the grid operator , etc ) and we will start a discussion about a real solution that entails a key role for nuclear.

    ” Ireland considers advanced nuclear crucial in the fight against climate change, air pollution and for energy security ” would be a very powerful message to the world

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