Energy: the fundamental unseriousness of Gordon Brown

The Guardian reports this morning on a private report to Gordon Brown that suggests that Britain should oppose binding target for renewable energies in Europe (20% of all energy by 2020, as agreed earlier this year at this spring's EU Summit). The Guardian flags the juicy political bits ("work with Poland and other governments sceptical about climate change to "help persuade" German chancellor Angela Merkel and others to set lower renewable targets", "a potentially significant cost in terms of reduced climate change leadership"), but also provides some of the apparent underlying reasons provided, which are worth commenting upon:

  • it undermines the carbon-trading scheme which "allows wealthy governments to pay others to reduce emissions";
  • it costs too much money (£4 billion a year to get to 9% by 2020);
  • it does not help push for new nuclear plants as it "reduces the incentives to invest in other carbon technologies like nuclear power";

Let's say it plainly: each of these arguments is stupid, short-sighted and, quite simply, false. Let me take you through them in turn (under the fold).

"it undermines the carbon-trading scheme"

Well, it "undermines it" if the only goal of the ETS (European Trading Scheme) was to allow 'rich countries' to avoid actually doing anything about carbon emissions. That report seems to provide a major insight in how some people treat climate change (and peak oil): they are grudgingly admitting that something should be done, but are adamant that it should not be them - thus their goal is to set a price, as low as possible, to be able to pass on their "something to be done" to someone else while not changing a thing about how they live, burn oil and spew carbon.

There is a real case for emissions trading, in that it can indeed make it possible for investors to come up with the smartest and cheapest ways to lower carbon emissions, and get credit for it - and get those that are emitting carbon, but find it difficult to do so, to pay for it. It costs pretty much the same to install a solar panel in Spain or in Denmark, but the gain will be much larger in Spain, so it is not unreasonable to focus efforts in the solar sector in Spain rather than in Denmark, and trading rights and obligations between countries is indeed a way to do that. Overall, for a given target for emissions reductions, trading can make the overall cost (or effort) smaller by focusing it on the easiest gains. In that perspective, setting a 20% globally for Europe, and not the same target for each individual country, can be acceptable.

But if the goal is explicitly to do as little as possible, as is hinted in the leaked memo, one can expect that the political strategy will be to set up the trading mechanism, and then lobby within that system to make the cost of non-compliance as low as possible, while keeping it fully legal and letting participants able to claim the moral high ground: "we" reduced emissions by x...

Thus, the level of the carbon emission reduction target has no incidence on the effectiveness of the trading scheme, as the goal is totally separate from the instrument. What that memo states is that the higher (and individualised) target levels will make it impossible for Britain to get away with doing little while pretending to be virtuous.

it costs too much money

Wind, the technology that offers the best prospects for large scale energy generation at reasonable cost at this point in time, still requires some subsidies to be profitable in the current environment. In the short term, it is already cheaper than power generated from gas-fired plants (the break-even is around 6-8c/kWh/4-5p/kWh, or $50/bl of oil), but as its cost is essentially constant over a very long time (mainly the repayment of the initial capital investment), investing in wind today requires that prices for oil and gas be above such levels constantly for the next 15 years, which is not yet a bet that investors and their bankers are willing to make (we're getting there, though). So a basic level of support is indeed still required - but it can be reduced over time, provided that it is made in a way that never compromises the viability of the support scheme (Spain has done this very well).

And, of course, counting "cost" only as the upfront spending needed to support investment without counting the avoided cost of the alternatives (carbon emissions, coal mining pollution, not to mention the security of supply issue for gas that so worries our politicians nowadays) is profoundly dishonest, but on par for people that refuse to see "costs" other than expressed in money terms - and spend all their time trying to reduce those that would fall on them by artificial means.

Additionally, there are two underestimated sources of value for society of renewable energy: (i) the first one is the cap on power prices provided: the cost of wind or other renewables is set for the next 15 years and will NOT change. At a time of rapidly rising oil&gas prices, such guarantee should have a very real value; (ii) the second effect, noted in some studies is that as the short term cost of renewables is essentially zero, the displace more expensive power sources whenever they are used, thus lowering the marginal cost of electricity and thus market prices. So every kWh of wind power produced actually lowers prices for consumers - and the overall savings can be significant.

So the claim that renewables claim money is made on very narrow grounds and, on a society-wide basis, is fundamentally false.

it does not help push for new nuclear

This has to be the silliest argument of all. I know that many opponents of nuclear argue that wind (together with energy savings) could provide enough power on its own, but most proponents of nuclear retort that wind cannot, rather than should not, replace nukes. In any case, that debate, which makes sense about the very long term, is of no incidence when we're talking about providing 20% of energy from renewables. That still leaves 80% of energy (and a significant chunk of power generation) to be provided by other sources. In particular, the vast majority of power generation in most countries is provided by burning coal and gas. It can be argued (as nuclear proponents indeed do) that nuclear is the only large scale technology that can replace coal on the scale it exists today, for regular always-on baseload power. Coal is the actual "enemy" of nuclear generation, because it exists, it is de facto subsidized as its externalities are still poorly taken into account and thus appears cheap, and it is a lot easier to get built than nuclear (easier permitting process, smaller investment sizes, lots of vested interests). The development of wind is essentially irrelevant to what will happen to nuclear.

The objections to nuclear are only occasionally that the money would be better spent on wind - rather, they are about the fact that issues like waste, catastrophic accident insurance, safety and industry regulation have not been properly addressed, and that transparency is seen as weak.

Everything points towards the absolute compatibility of pro-wind and pro-nuke policies for those that want to pursue both, and attempt to ram through nuclear power plants by killing renewables should be seen as what it is: narrow-minded, unaccountable and stupid (and probably corrupt) decision-making which confirms the suspicions aired about the industry.

Altogether, that leaked memo shows that our politicians still do not see climate change as a real issue - they see it as a political game: people care about it, so noise needs to be made about it, but actual policy making still is, so far, totally cut off from the underlying reality.

It's worrying enough to think about the kind of shock that will be needed for them to actually care about the issue (New Orleans was not enough in the US, will the price be as high in Europe?) - but it's even more worrying to know that, when the shock does come, the response will not be to finally go for what would make sense, but to look for scapegoats, internal (greens, PC do-gooders) and external (Iran, Russia, China, etc... take your pick), because it will be so much easier than facing up to reality.

Speaking of nuclear:

British Energy shares slide on output concerns

Shares in British Energy dived 8 per cent yesterday as problems at two of its nuclear power stations threatened to slash output a year after boiler cracks forced two of its other plants to close all winter.

British Energy shares led the FTSE 100 index down after the UK's biggest power generator said it had shut two more reactors after finding an "issue related to a wire winding" in the boiler closure unit at its Hartlepool-1 plant.

The weekend closures left almost half of British Energy's nuclear reactors offline yesterday morning and revived memories of its Hinkley Point and Hunterston nuclear power stations being closed throughout last winter.

Brown should pray for a warm winter...

Speaking of market mechanisms: an Op-Ed in yesterday's FT:

Energy liberalisation leads to higher prices

(...) what is liberalisation expected to achieve? A more competitive and transparent market and thereby lower prices is the stock reply. A possible relationship between liberalised markets and security of supply has been a more recent emphasis.

Such aspirations could be dismissed on the grounds that the gas and electricity industries are inherently unsuitable industries for competition. Here, though, I would like to challenge them by drawing attention to the impact of liberalisation on the three main cost components that make up the prices paid by households (...) the wholesale cost of gas and electricity, the cost of transmission and distribution and the cost of supply (billing and marketing).


First, as should be anticipated, liberalisation increases aggregate supply costs for domestic customers (increased marketing costs, duplicated billing infrastructure, switching costs etc). Second, the level of these costs can be unrelated to the actual cost of supply as energy companies defend or increase their downstream profit margins. Third, while supply costs for gas and electricity should not be too different (the billing process is the same), in 2006 they were only £16 for gas, but jumped to £88 for electricity - providing a clear indication that a squeeze on gas supply margins brought about by the rising wholesale cost of UK gas was compensated for at the expense of electricity customers.

Full liberalisation in electricity and gas has either not got off the ground or has died a death elsewhere in the world. Through its impact on wholesale pricing and on supply costs and margins it is likely to result in both higher and more arbitrary prices, as well as making a lottery of investment incentives. But the European Commission presses on regardless at the expense of addressing more urgent energy problems. Somewhat ironically, its efforts are mainly sustained by the UK.

On wholesale markets, the author has this to add:

The impact of liberalisation on wholesale costs is problematic in that short-term markets increasingly price electricity or gas delivered under long-term contracts. Such indexation to short-term markets (for example to month-ahead or day-ahead prices) is wrongly seen as a virtuous indicator of liberalisation, when in fact these markets establish a volatile flexibility premium as buyers and sellers seek to balance their positions when delivery day approaches and options increasingly diminish.
To counterpose them with "old-fashioned" long-term contracts and allow them to set a price for baseload supplies contracted for perhaps years in advance of a delivery day is therefore misplaced - such long-term supplies are more appropriately indexed to a wider basket of commodities, including alternative fuels, in order to reflect the different risk profile they offer. This is not a trivial matter: gas indexation has ruined otherwise viable businesses in the UK and made long-term investment decisions hazardous.

(Note - investment banks and traders love volatility - it's a great source of profits for them. In essence, deregulation has forced utilities to outsource volatility management - with the added twist that they pay more for it than before...)

Can Gordon Brown be as ignorant of the world oil supply situation as he appears to be, or has it been agreed at the highest level of OECD governments to play dumb, in the hope (or expectation?) that the markets will send a sufficently strong (but not catastrophic) signal that a wave of just-in-time innovation and investment acheives a relatively smooth transition to alternative energy ?

I suspect that the powers-that-be may think they are being rather clever in NOT taking any mitigation steps.
"Look, no hands !" they seem to saying.
Such people no doubt view the typical TOD-er is a naiv babe in arms who has no grasp of the wonders of modern economics.

Gordon Brown has close family connections to the nuclear industry. His younger brother Andrew Brown works for EDF Energy, the UK subsidiary of EDF, which operates nuclear power stations in France, and which is one of the leading companies pushing for a nuclear rebuild programme in the UK. Andrew Brown was appointed as EDF Energy's Head of Press on 13 September 2004. Previously, he worked for the lobbying company Weber Shandwick

Gordon Brown has the soul of an accountant.

They, and their self-important kin, the economists, really do believe that because they put a number in a spreadsheet things magically appear. They've never had to deal with reality, instead they deal with man-made numbers - usually trying to play tricks to make the numbers dance to their liking. The real world is immune to their charms, and like the spurned suitor they react badly by trying to block it out.

All the while he is in charge we will have substantial attempts to maintain the status quo on all fronts. Nothing new will happen that doesn't lead to a new tax.

I once had two job interviews in one day. The first, the shortest interview I've ever had, was for a maths programmer in nuclear fusion research. I couldn't answer the first question. Great place to visit, very friendly. Lunch was a sandwich at your computer desk sitting in a very tatty chair. We were surrounded by millions if not billions of $ worth of experimental kit.
The second interview was with an insurance company. Full hospitality suite with free booze, everyone in suits, lots of group sessions to see who would fit with the corporate personality profile. Later we were shown the office we would be working in. After two years we would be given a plusher chair and sit next to somebody vaguely important...

I tried to explain in my interiew that the difference between science and economics, was that one tried to fit the rules to reality, and the other tried to fit reality to the rules. I didn't get that job either.

A true scientist must love truth.

Economist is better off loving power (and proxies of it, like money).

This is another fundamental difference.

To go into economics is to love power and to yield power, and truth can always be bent.

To go into pure science (again), is to have very little or specific domain limited power, but to truly understand how things work.

No wonder the two don't mix so well :)

On Financial Times Website now:

I think it will disappear behind a paywall soon

Efforts to build a new generation of nuclear power plants are under threat from staff shortages, Whitehall disputes over investment in renewables and how to deal with nuclear waste, according to leaked documents from the government department overseeing the programme.

The problems could mean “any nuclear programme would have to be put on hold from April 2008” – the government’s planned start date – according to documents seen by the Financial Times. The documents form a “script” that John Hutton, business secretary, will present to Gordon Brown.

Carbon -Coventry UK

The US isn't the only nation that has failed to educate its youth in the skills that will be in great demand in the future. Nice to know that the EU also suffers from globalization. It still amazes me how the things we could do in the 1960s and 70s is beyond our reach today.

I do not agree that the information provided in the story necessarily demonstrates that Brown is unserious about addressing climate change. His government may believe that setting too high a target for renewables compared to nuclear might actually impare how much can really be accomplished to mitigate global warming.

I think the best way to mitigate global warming is to build nuclear, wind and solar as fast as possible. There is some mix of these which will provide the best possible result. This mix does not necessarily include 20% renewables if that slows down how much they build up nuclear. The other objections to nuclear (all of which I believe can be adequately addressed) do not bear on how effectively it can displace coal in the current power grid, which needs to be the main goal in order to reduce global warming.

While I am a regular and vocal opponent of Nuclear on this site, I have generally chosen to put more of my energy into advocating for the sources I DO want instead of working against those I oppose (at least when the discussion has reached the 'vicious circle' stage).

I'm not sure I understand, however, the connection you've tried to make as far as Investment in Windpower subverting simultaneous efforts to develop Nuclear Energy. Is it just that 'there are only so many new-source dollars available, and too many are being given to wind'? I don't know if I can buy that. I'm watching these stories of renewed interest in Nuclear, and I'm sure there is some heavy investment there, but I also wonder how wary the Energy Investors are about payback, as construction costs shoot up, delays turn projects into double their initial projections, and probably most importantly, the return time is so slow for Reactors, where Cogen and Wind are up and running in a few months to a couple years.. Amory Lovins has argued that the intrinsically poor economics of Nuclear is what has done the real damage to its growth, and unless the glowing promises of big technology advances or a great reduction in construction costs and lead-times comes true, is unlikely to gain much advantage as we continue forward.

PDF - File
"Figs. 1–2 (pp. 2–3) show that in 2004, when U.S. windpower additions were artificially depressed, decentralized low- and no-carbon generation worldwide nonetheless outpaced nuclear power by nearly sixfold in annual capacity additions and nearly threefold in annual output additions, and was pulling away rapidly. This occurred at a substantial scale, four times that of U.S. nuclear power—adding 28 GW to the 2003 global decentralized-generation base of ~383 GW— and was achieved despite nuclear power’s generally higher subsidies per kWh (with modest exceptions, notably in Germany) and its far easier access to the grid. This speed disparity, probably more than doubled by efficient use (pp. 3–4), reflects the decentralized competitors’ basic
advantages, such as short lead times, modularity, economies of mass production, usually mild siting issues (excepting such pathological cases as Cape Cod wind), and the inherently greater speed of technologies that are deployable by many and diverse market actors without needing complex regulatory processes, challengingly large enterprises, or unique institutions. As either nuclear power or its decentralized supply- and demand-side competitors grow, it’s hard to imagine how this balance of speed could ever shift in favor of nuclear power—the quintessentially big, long-lead-time, delay-prone, lumpy, complex, and contentious technology, and one that a single major accident or terrorist attack could scuttle virtually everywhere." p.11

Appropriately,Lovins does also mention the relationship he sees between Nuclear Proponents and Carbon Taxing, to tie this back in with Gordon Brown's stellar leadership move..

"Standard studies compare a new nuclear plant only with a central power plant burning coal or natural gas. They conclude that new nuclear plants’ marked disadvantage in total cost might be overcome if their construction became far cheaper, or if construction and operation were even more heavily subsidized, or if carbon were heavily taxed, or if (as nuclear advocates prefer) all of these changes occurred. But those central thermal power plants are all the wrong competitors. None of them can compete with windpower (and some other renewables), let alone with two far cheaper resources: cogeneration of heat and power, and efficient use of electricity." (Top of P.7)

But back to the initial point.. Why does investment in Windpower, assuming it is a smart investment, SUBvert investments in Nuclear, if the same assumption can be made for it?

Bob Fiske

in 2004, when U.S. windpower additions were artificially depressed, decentralized low- and no-carbon generation worldwide nonetheless outpaced nuclear power by nearly sixfold in annual capacity additions and nearly threefold in annual output additions

Be careful with the data cherry picking. In the period 1997 -2005 US nuclear added 152 billion kilowatt hours/year of actual generation compared to 15 for Wind and that is without adding any new plants.

Another thing to keep in mind is that nuclear generation is more valuable for global warming mitigation than is wind or solar. Nuclear directly displaces coal generation (the primary GW problem) while wind and solar do not. Nuclear could displace all dirty generation or at least 80% with the remaining 20% from sources that are relatively clean and dispatchable, like hydro or gas (while we still have it).

The problem for wind and solar is that the currently electricity system is demand driven with significant variable demand depending on time of day, time of year and the weather. Wind and solar are at best weakly coordinated with periods of high demand and their output often goes to zero. Without viable storage (whose cost is counted in the cost of generation), there is a limited market for such variable power and it is not clear that it is as high as 20%. I am not convinced that people would put up with a Bagdad model (long, regular periods without power) if they knew that we could have gone with nuclear instead and preserved the current always available characteristics of the system.

Nuclear does have long lead times but we could start a big build up that builds thousands of reactors in 50 years. That is consistent with the expected decline in fossil fuels. It is the time to get started that is the issue. Regarding cost, the oil industry is expecting to need $20 trillion between now and 2030 chasing their hopeless targets. That would buy about 7,000 reactors.

Look, I support wind and solar. We should build them as fast as we can consistent with our ability to use them in a market that is plausible. But I think they max out far before we solve the problem. Contrary to the title of this article, I think that those who do not favor a big nuclear build up are not serious about global warming mitigation.

It is impressive the gains nuclear made without adding new plants.

A problem I see is that the levels of subsidy for nuclear are fuzzy.

How can the subsidy playing field be leveled?

If govts. were to offer a $0.04 / kWh (but no other subsidies) for solar, wind and nuclear, a lot of wind would be built, a lot of solar thermal, but no nuclear.

Nuclear needs subsidies for construction, insurance against catastrophic accidents, R/D, and maybe mining.

Although it is unlikely to happen, I think it would be nice to equalize the subsidies. Each year, for example, wind, solar and nuclear would each an equal amount of money.

This could be used to subsidize the construction of nuclear reactors, nuclear reactor R/D, or anything the nuclear subsidy distribution committee felt would be worthwhile.

Meanwhile, the solar and wind distribution committees would decide how to allocate the funding: operational per kWh subsidies, R/D, construction loan guarantees, or whatever.

If any of the power generation approaches was innately less economic, it would naturally fall behind.

Although it is unlikely to happen, I think it would be nice to equalize the subsidies.

Why? The objective is to transition from fossil fuels while reducing green house gases, isn't it? It is not to distributes the public spoils. We should do what it takes to build the mix that best serves society, right?

Right, we want to build the mix that best serves society.

The obvious approach which I mentioned first would do that, giving a per kWh subsidy that is the same for each energy source.

The most cost effective and efficient sources of energy would win.

However, nuclear would lose out, because even with a generous per kWh subsidy, private money would still not build any plants.

The second suggestion was a possible way around that problem.

However, nuclear would lose out, because even with a generous per kWh subsidy, private money would still not build any plants.

Then giving every source the same subsidy would not necessarily achieve our objective of building the mix that best serves society.

The most cost effective and efficient sources of energy would win.

I think it is more complicated than that. We have to decide, Do we want a system where production meets demand or do we want to tolerate shortages and ration? If we want the kind of system that we have now and we want to reduce global warming as much as possible, how do we do that? If we just leave it all to a free market, can we be assured that all the costs like waste cleanup and living with shortages will really be reflected in the market over the long term?

In a free market, the most cost effective solutions generally win. In this case we are discussing using govt. subsidies to "augment" or "distort" the free market.

While some purists oppose all subsidies on principal, they can be a valuable tool to accelerate the development of useful technologies.

It sounds like you are assuming that using only per kWh subsides will result in shortages and rationing, or that unless nuclear power receives more substantial subsidies we will have shortages.

I am not convinced that this would be true, as I think that microgeneration, renewables, conservation, and energy storage advances will work together keep the system robust.

Why do you feel there be shortages and rationing if nuclear does not receive substantial subsidies?

Why do you feel there be shortages and rationing if nuclear does not receive substantial subsidies?

Because, as you said earlier, this might result in nuclear not being built. If we were to rely only on wind and solar and have no baseload generation and dispatchable reserve as we have now then we would be building a system that has chronic shortages by design. At night, when the wind is not blowing, you get no power. The assumption seems to be that we can fit up to 20% intermittent power into the current system without effecting its power on demand characteristic. I am not sure that is true and instead advocate the we build nuclear, wind and solar as fast as we can and see what mix works best. I suspect that wind and solar will max out long before nuclear because nuclear can do baseload and completely eliminate coal plants while wind and solar cannot.

Pumped hydro storage can convert wind and solar to dispatchable reserves at a penny or two per kwh.
And of course, plenty of onshore and offshore locations have wind at night (you have obviously never been to Wyoming, Colorado or the Aleutians).

Pumped hydro storage can convert wind and solar to dispatchable reserves

OK, but then it still only displaces the other dispatchable reserves (gas and hydro) and not the coal baseload, which runs as the same level no matter what. That does not really help mitigate climate change. To displace the coal baseload, you need a nuke. And you have to count the cost of building the pumped storage, the cost of its operation (electricity to pump the water up hill) and the energy lost in the process into the cost of wind and solar operations, which limit their operating attractiveness. But it is still a good idea.

If you build enough wind generation, and enough pumped storage / interconnection to back it up, then it's obvious that you can shut coal generation down. A simple carbon tax provides the necessary market signal.

Perhaps, but all the wind generation along with pumped storage would be pretty expensive to build and operate. How much additional capacity would you have to build into it to cover a prolonged wind drought? With global warming, today's wind patterns might change in unpredictable ways and we might badly miscalculate how bad the wind droughts could be. Might it not be better to build nukes to take out all the coal and build your part to supplement/displace the existing dispatchable reserve gas, keeping enough gas to cover the wind drought?

Without major subsidies, it does seem unlikely any new nuclear plants will be built.

However, much can change in the 13 years before 2020 when the first of the new nuclear plants would come on line. To justify these subsidies for nuclear, we need to gamble that superior technologies will not be available in 2020.

This is the main reason private investment does not like nuclear.

A subsidy that does not require such a long term gamble is a per kWh subsidy for power generated. Private investment can fund wind and solar plants that come online 12 to 24 months after the decision to go foward, maximizing the changes that the plant will give the anticipated return on investment (factoring in the subsidy or carbon tax).

Your point is that neither wind nor solar is a direct replacement for existing generation is obviously true. The decision to apply present-day funding to nuclear vs. other promising technologies would ideally be made based on careful analysis of probabilities.

I can think of several emerging technologies would work with wind and solar in a practical system, that could be quite mature by 2020.

Lithium batteries
Solar thermal plants with thermal storage
Flywheel storage
Flow batteries
Coal gasification with carbon sequesterization via terra pretta
Organic material gasification with carbon sequesterization via terra pretta
High efficiency LED lighting

The real killer is energy efficiency. Already, I have a cloths washer that uses 0.15 kWh per load, lighting is making great strides, and organic LED flat panels use miniscule amounts of power. With high degrees of efficiency, the storage required for household power is semi-affordable even now.

If the money needed to subsidize nuclear plant R/D and construction was put into the above technologies, I would be very surprised if they did not provide a robust power system. Even without heavy subsidies, they should do very well.

I won't deny that Lovins' assessment overlooks expansion of existing sites' capacity, but that is, of course also an outgrowth of the burden of getting new plants initiated.

This is a rough week to make claims that nuclear is going to be our steady and constant source of baseload power.. It is as long as it works. India's 'above-ground-factors' are different from England's and US's, but it still leaves many reactors dark..

The idea of the 'Baghdad Model' is cute. It's a battle-torn city amid a mismanaged oil-war, BUT it still gets lots of Sun every day. I wouldn't expect residents to refuse an offer to get panels on their roofs, so they at least have a guarantee of some 10 hours every day. Can you imagine trying to get an investor to back a couple reactors for that city? Of course, the priorities that govern the use of US Tax dollars there probably means there are some underway already, but how much will you have to pay the drivers to get the fuel to the site? To say you support wind and solar, but compare those alternatives to Baghdad is diversionary at best.

"Nuclear directly displaces coal generation (the primary GW problem) while wind and solar do not." Of course they do, unless you have to interject the provision that the only real power is steady-perpetual power, a fantasy we're stuck in after 4-5 generations of cheap oil. This argument that says 'we have a demand model, and so must bend over backwards to maintain a demand model' is basically a euphemism for 'Our lifestyle is not negotiable.' We are accustomed to eating cake.. the solution for the future is not to assume that we have to create a perpetual cake industry. Our diet is central to the energy problem, and nuclear tries to promise that it can keep us 'in cake'. Clean cake, cheap cake, reliable cake.

"I think that those who do not favor a big nuclear build up are not serious about global warming mitigation." Just because I say no to Strychnine, doesn't mean I'll say yes to Arsenic. Coal and Nuclear are both bad roads to take. If Nuclear can fix their potholes- their complexity, their emissions, their insurance and other externalities.. maybe I'll take that ride. We'll see. But the claims of being the only clean and viable alternative to coal is another unconvincing promise. I don't buy it.

We are accustomed to eating cake.. the solution for the future is not to assume that we have to create a perpetual cake industry.

Translation: "We are accustomed to having power on demand. the solution for the future is not to assume that we have to create a perpetual power on demand industry." At least you are facing up to it. But why is that a good solution? And why is that a better solution than what I am proposing.

'At least you are facing up to it.'

I've never been rosy on that point. I've stated it openly here any number of times. WE CANNOT RELY ON ANY SOURCE PROVIDING US A PERPETUAL MOTION MACHINE. Nothing out there will be enough. We have to figure out how to function with FAR less. (And I think we can.. but it will be no picnic getting there)

Petroleum has led us down the garden path, and I don't believe we can count on another adjoining be-pathed garden to hop onto when this one winds down. I accept that there will be new nukes.. but as mighty as they seem, but I don't think they'll pull the load, I think they depend on the oil infrastructure far too heavily (roads, concrete, fuel supply) to weather the coming decades with any reliability.. between technical complexity, political complexity and financial, err, complexity.. there are just too many BIG pieces that are just waiting to fall apart. That's why I have far more trust in a massively parallel system of smaller generators. We know what some of them are already.. one of the biggest being Lovins' 'Negawatts', which is the power we can figure out how NOT to use.

Nuke will be out there in the mix.. and yet I don't trust it to stay there for us, Safe, long-term, affordable. I am glad there are people working the problems, as others are working out other sources. Maybe they'll pull it off.

Bob Fiske

Another thing to keep in mind is that nuclear generation is more valuable for global warming mitigation than is wind or solar. Nuclear directly displaces coal generation (the primary GW problem) while wind and solar do not.

Each kWh of wind (as opposed to each MW of wind) directly goes to reduce the need for coal production of the same kWh - and it's only when you burn coal that you generate CO2, so the goal should not be to replace MWs, but to replace kWh - and wind is a perfectly good solution to do so.

But you cannot eliminate the need for any coal plants with wind and solar because they often go to 0 kWh production. And I am not sure you can throttle back a coal plant.

You can create a market where wind and solar can dump kWhs on the market when they are intermittently running, to the economic disadvantage of the sources like coal and nuclear that can supply to demand. But in a rational world, those surplus kWhs would not be priced the same as the ones needed to fill shortages. Above a certain percentage for wind and solar, disadvantaging the sources of generation that have to be counted on to respond to demand is crazy. Unless you want a system with chronic shortages where you have to ration supply (probably by price).

Thermal solar energy can be cheaply stored for months if the storage system is large enough. It is just a matter of some pipes and a pile of sand or a vertical shaft drilled deep into the ground if the water table is deep enough.

Above a certain percentage for wind and solar, disadvantaging the sources of generation that have to be counted on to respond to demand is crazy.

Maybe we should worry about that when we get there, not when we're still wondering if 20% is achievable?

I expect that given the number of gas-fired power plants around, there's a lot of flexibility to play with in the system. And making coal "economically disadvantaged" is pretty much the whole point, I'd say, given how much it pollutes and spews carbon...

Maybe we should worry about that when we get there, not when we're still wondering if 20% is achievable?

Agreed. You are the one favoring the hard 20% target. I am saying let's build the mix that will produce the best result.

And making coal "economically disadvantaged" is pretty much the whole point, I'd say, given how much it pollutes and spews carbon...

Yes, but should we also be doing that with nuclear?

I am not sure you can throttle back a coal plant.

It is quite possible, at least for some classes of plant.

you cannot eliminate the need for any coal plants with wind and solar because they often go to 0 kWh production.

You're making several conceptual mistakes here.

  • The issue isn't the number of plants, it's the amount of coal burned.  The less those plants are in use, the better.
  • The lower the utilization of a coal plant goes the easier it is to replace it with natural gas, or hydroelectric, or some new technology like direct-carbon fuel cells, or even batteries.

Nuclear is a direct one-for-one replacement of baseload coal plants.  If you absolutely have to have some generation that goes 24/7, nukes displace coal without compromise.

The issue isn't the number of plants, it's the amount of coal burned. The less those plants are in use, the better.

Yes but unless they can eliminate a plant, it is likely to be run at full capacity because it has the lowest marginal cost for a source that can serve as base load. I am talking about eliminating plants in a whole region.

The lower the utilization of a coal plant goes the easier it is to replace it with natural gas, or hydroelectric, or some new technology like direct-carbon fuel cells, or even batteries.

They are not going to substitute gas for coal if they have a choice because gas is much more expensive. Same is true of batteries. They might run hydro as base load as I assume they do in the Pacific Northwest but not where hydro is in limited supply as it is in most places. If they have the coal plants, they are almost certain to run them at full capacity as much of the time as they can. That's why using nuclear to displace old or needed coal plants is such an effective way to limit global warming.

unless they can eliminate a plant, it is likely to be run at full capacity because it has the lowest marginal cost for a source that can serve as base load.

There are quite a few (small, old, highly-polluting) coal plants in the US which are used largely for peaking.  Neighbors of some of these plants have tried to get them shut down for years, without success.

They are not going to substitute gas for coal if they have a choice because gas is much more expensive.

Fuel is not the only expense.  Maintenance (gas turbines are much cheaper than old coal plants) and emissions permits can also be costly and/or limiting.  Add in the cost of carbon taxes or the value of tradeable quotas (plus the fact that modern gas turbines can have efficiency 50% greater than old coal plants), and gas looks better for everything but base load.

The way the power plants added the extra power without adding extra plants was to up the U235 content of the reactor fuel and add extra boron (a burnable poison) to the coolant water. This meant that they could shut down the reactor (to refuel the reactor) less frequently and keep it generating electricty more of the time.
So they increased U235 consumption by 100% to increase electricity output by 10 percent, or some such. I suppose I could go to Terman library at Stanford, look at some back issues of Nuclear News, and tell you to two significant figures what happened to U235 consumption per kilowatt vs what happened to downtime as a percentage of uptime over the last 10 years.
But the point is, they can't double the fissile load in the fuel rods again because they built the reactors for a low fissile load and they are bumping up against safety limits already. Burning nitromethane in a car is one thing. Burning nitroglycerine is something else.

You imply that the uranium consumption per kWh has gone up roughly 80%.  Do you have any data to support that?

Thorium light-water breeding has been shown to be able to maintain the fissile load over time, and even increase it slightly (Shippingport).  The power level of fuel rods has been limited by heat transfer out of the fuel pellets, but a new hollow-pellet design is relaxing that limit and allowing greater power out of the same reactor system.  If you combine the two, you could get a reactor which runs at higher power and goes a decade or more on a load of fuel.

As others have said, Lovins likes his cherry picking.. he is very good at picking numbers that support his case, which is not the same as making an objective case per se.

As far as wind vs. nuclear goes, we see - repeatedly - claims made there is no need for new nuclear plants because we can do the same job with wind/solar/efficiency/etc; it is very much the Green movement that is making this a contest. And of course, if they got their way, the net effect would be to pluck all of the low hanging renewable/efficiency fruit whilst making zero impression on CO2 emissions..


Why the WWF opposes Nuclear power is particularly strange to me, considering the wildlife impact of windpower and hydropower.. but there you go.

"if they got their way, the net effect would be to pluck all of the low hanging renewable/efficiency fruit whilst making zero impression on CO2 emissions." Exactly. Completely unserious about mitigating global warming.

Here is the article:
The main point of Gordon Brown's logic is that carbon emissions continue to rise, despite efforts to increase renewable energy. 20% by 2020 is too little, too late. Drastic action needs to be taken now, and only nuclear and carbon-capture fossil have the mussle to do this.
Brown is trying to convince nations like Poland, which are skepticle of climate change, that that other 80% of their electricity (and not all energy used is electric, by the way) will push the planet beyond the limit. Nuclear is the answer to peak oil and climate change. And it is sustainable assuming breeder reactors.

Can you give some figures on the sustainability of nuclear assuming breeder reactors? Preferably based on actual performance - some have been in service- and taking fast wearing out of thr reacteor vessels (fast neutrons do that) in account. I've seen figures for a rise in efficiency ranging factor 2 to a factor 65 compared to a 'once thrugh' uranium cycle. If it's a factor 2 you're not going to be sustainable.

The experiment fast nuclear reactors were sodium cooled because they started off as submarine reactor prototypes. Gas cooled fast reactors are neutronically and thermally more efficient, but have lower output per cubic foot, making them unsuitable for submarines.
Gas cooled fast reactors have about 140 to 1 increase in effiency burning uranium because they 'breed' U238 (the common isotope of U) to Pu239. The neutron capture in poisons like cladding and coolant is very low in gas cooled fast reactors.
Liquid metal cooled fast reactors have higher absorbtion in the coolant and cladding. They reprocess the nuclear fuel to reduce absorbtion by the waste product isotopes enough to make up for that, but it's too expensive to be commercial.
Both reactors can use Th232 to make U233, but you need to reprocess the fuel even more often if you are using a liquid metal fast reactor. Gas cooled fast reactors don't care because the poison absorbtion is not so much of a problem.
It's all a much more complicated situation. No one is making liquid metal or gas cooled fast reactors commercially about now. They can be built if we have to.

If you want a breeder reactor, you're much better off using molten salt reactors than these rube goldberg machines that are all geared up for criticality excursions with all the headaches of fuel fabrication.

Many reactors are liquid-metal sodium cooled like the Super Phenix, but this is not "salt," sodium-chloride. Pure sodium is a metal.

Er, duh.

Liquid metal fast breeder reactors (using lead-bismuth eutectic or sodium) are great for making lots of plutonium fast, but if you want a good breeder reactor regime you use a thermal reactor regime with thorium. The ideal salt is a eutectic of lithium and beryllium fluorides.

Fluid fuel reactors are far superior for breeding regimes. If you have to reprocess, you might as well strip out the neutron poisons as they form, reduce the fissile load, and avoid all the fuel fabrication nonsense.

The concept was tested with the airborne reactor in the 1950s and later at ORNL with the MSBR experiment.

Thanks alot, you know your stuff! Spread the word so that we get ourselves off dirty fossil fuels before its too late!

wkwillis does a pretty good job talking about how they're vastly more efficient, as U-238 is 140 times as abundant as U-235, and you can use thorium. You can also afford to extract difficult to refine uranium with a positive EROEI when you use it so efficiently:
Thus far, these reactors haven't been popular choices because fuel costs haven't risen to levels justifying their construction, but it could happen in the decades to come.

Just the fact that U-238 is 140 times as abundant as U-235 does not make the breeder cycle 140 times as efficient. You will have to have a reasonable level of U-235 enrichment in the fuel stock in order to get the neccesary neutron flux, you wil have to reprocess, and long term safety of any high neutron flux reactor is suspect -> shorter lifetimes and higher matarial tolerances. Neutron flux is also a problem with Thorium reactors (with the added problem of very difficult reprocessing) and Nuclear Fusion. I haven't seen a breakthrough in material technology yet to solve that problem. That's why Cohen's facts do not mean there is no long term problem with energy, and high energy solutions to other human problems are not acceptable.

Indeed, the ITER project is currently leading the way in developing even better, more resistent materials capable of withstanding high temperatures and neutron flux. This is also being done for generation-IV, helium gas-cooled Fast breeder reactors. However, they still produce more energy than they use, it would just be less efficient to have to make repairs every few years. So we could still do it with curent technology, even assuming no technological advances.

However, Sodium-cooled fast reactors have existed since the `70s. The Super-Phenix was the first such large-scale implementation:
Cohen doesn't argue efficiency of 140, but by a factor of 100. Still pretty good. And this is `70s technology we're talking about. They'll be even better in the future, i.e. gas cooled breeders.

All these problems are addressed just by using fluid fuel reactors, such as the liquid fluoride thorium breeder reactor. The highest flux is in a fluid salt thats immune to neutron damage

And yes with a fluid fuel reactor you really can get 1GW/year from only 1 ton of thorium or uranium, compared to 200 tons of uranium for a light water reactor regime.

Even with LWR regimes alone we still have millinea of U235 avaliable; Whats 1 trillion tons divided by 20000 reactors * 200 tons per year.

If I have my chronology right Blair will be remembered by history as being at the helm when the UK went from a net oil exporter to importer. History may be even less kind to Brown. I'll add a couple of points;

ETS flaws..a major fix may be auctioning rather than granting permits and also stringent tightening of 'clean development' offsets. A claimed offset has to create a proveable immediate net emission cut or it is disallowed. Goodbye carbon credit fraudsters. Thankfully ETS steers clear of overhyped tree planting credits.

wind displaces fossil..I've seen graphs of generation growth in actual (not nameplate) output that suggest otherwise. Recent practice seems to be wind is for show and coal/gas is for dependable output. I'll change my mind when they throw the switch on a new wind farm and dynamite a coal station at the same time.

Wind power production displaces power from the generation unit that has the highest variable cost at the time of the production. This cost is called the marginal cost of the market at that moment. Variable cost tells you how much it costs to use the plant to produce electricity. This is largely determined by fuel costs, but is also influenced by required workforce and wear and tear that can be attributed to using the plant. It does not include capital costs or fixed costs of power plants, because these have been already paid or need to be paid anyway. Variable cost is the cost that the producers bid into the power market. If the clearing price is higher than their variable cost, they will get more than what they pay when they run the plant. If the clearing price is lower, they won't produce.

Wind power has a very low variable cost, since 'fuel' is free and there's nobody at the plant. Therefore it is essentially always used when there's wind available. On the other hand coal and natural gas power plants have a high variable cost and are often the plants that determine the marginal cost. Therefore each MWh of wind produced will usually replace one of those two power production forms. You don't need to dynamite fossil fuel power plants in order to reduce their fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

Coal burning power plants (and nuclear power plants to an even greater extent) are not turned on and off if you can help it. They are full of metal tubes that expand and contract with changes in temperature. This makes them leak. So people don't turn them on and off if they can help it. A high pressure steam line is not something you want to have blow a gasket if you can help it.
Forget nukes as far as turning things on and off. It can take days to get one of them up and running again.
So people turn off gas turbines and hydroelectric facilities first. Then they start heating lakes with giant electric water heaters or something. Turn of steam plants with great caution and when you are planning to do maintenance anyway.

Right. So the baseload (coal and nuclear) runs at the same output no matter what because they have low marginal costs and cannot be throttled back. They are expected to provide supply up to the level of the lowest annual demand. The dispatchable reserve (my term, I do not know what the power companies call it) which is provided by gas and hydro, can quickly ramp up to supply for the year's variable demand. This covers higher loads during the day vs night and when lots of AC is running in hot climates. This is what wind and solar displaces. That's why nuclear is so much more valuable than wind and solar for mitigating global warming. One reactor can directly take out two or three coal plants which is the key to reducing CO2. Wind and solar displacing gas does not help much (although it does save money) and them displacing hydro does not help at all.

Interesting. Do you have a reference validating this. But if everyone is charging just variable cost, how do they pay for their capital costs?


Great thinking in your article. I largely agree, but there's a link between wind and nuclear that you didn't acknowledge. Maybe you touched upon it, but I'll try to expand. If energy penetration of wind is below 20%, it is probably not much of an issue (except for the fact that wind power reduces prices at electricity markets, which will reduce the revenue of all power producers; in other words division of surplus is tilted more towards consumers). However, when going above that there will be more and more time periods where wind will be replacing the lowest marginal cost baseload power, which usually is nuclear. The power output from modern nuclear power plants can be brought down without undue costs or safety issues, but this will lower the utilization factor of nuke plants. Nuclear is very capital intensive and nuclear economics are sensitive to reduced full load hours. Therefore, in a power system where there's lots of wind, the relative competitiveness of nuclear is reduced against coal and natural gas power plants. Pumped hydro power or other forms of energy storage (electricity, heat, cool) can help this situation, but periods of lower cost will still be a problem for the payback of the capital costs.

So what would stop the nuclear power plants from having wind pricing and non wind pricing? Lower the price when they have to compete with the turbines so they do not jeopardize their investment but then raise it again when the air is still? In any sensible market the price would go down when there is an oversupply and then up again when there is a shortage.

This does not happen now since they do not allow that type of pricing. In fact in parts of the US the electricity distributors have to take the wind power even if they do not need it. But that’s because wind’s market share in the US is down around 1%. If its share got over 20%, they would have to have a more sensible market. Wind would not have much market power since they could rarely sell into shortage.

The market, Nuclear plants always bid £0/kW for all the power they supply.

They make money because someone else has to supply the extra power needed above what these nuclear plants can supply. The nuclear plants receive the same price for their power (for which they bid to charge nothing) as the other suppliers bid.

To clarify:

Imagine there are 2 power plants, one Nuclear and one coal. The Nuclear plant can spply 1000MW maximum, the coal plant can supply up to another 500MW. This gives a total capacity of 1500 MW.

Now imagine the total demand for power is 1100 MW

The nuclear plant bids in the market to supply 1000 MW for free, absolutely nothing.

The coal plant bid 0.01 £/KW for the extra 100 MW required.

The result:

The coal plant sells 100 MW at 0.01 £/kW and the Nuclear plant sells 1000 MW also for 0.01 £/kW even though it bid nothing.

Richard C

Nuclear will not bid 0 £/kW if they are being economically rational, which power companies usually are. They do have fuel costs they have to cover. If all nuclear power plants in France bid 0 €/kW, how would you know which one to bring down when the consumption + exports is less than their nuclear capacity.

In the hypothetical case you outline (I don't believe it's ever happened, nor is it likely to) : Since there's only one operator, they would take down the plant that they can usefully do some maintenance on ahead of schedule. Market pricing is of no use whatsoever in this decision.

The example of the UK market demonstrates the same thing. Nuclear has to run as baseload, and will always run unless they are stopped for maintenance or incident.

The idiocy of having nuclear generation in private hands is illustrated by the share price drop of the UK operator. If they ran into serious trouble, their share price would crash, they would be unable to undertake remedial investments, and they would be bailed out by the taxpayer yet again... What is the advantage of private ownership here, sorry I seem to have forgotten it?

Publicly owned power companies do rational choices as well. If it's cheaper for them to buy the power from the market than to run their own unit which has higher operating costs than the market price, they'll buy the power from the market. Wind is dispatched before nuclear because it's cheaper to operate and that's it.

The cost. Nuclear power plants won't bid less than wind power plant, because they cost more to operate. To simplify: wind is free, uranium is not. Capital costs don't matter once the plants are built.

I am talking about minute by minute changes in the price, like on the stock market. Uranium is not free but it is only about 1% of costs. You could lower the price below cost when there is a surplus (ie the wind is blowing) and recover that loss once the wind goes down or demand goes up. The reason you would do this is to starve the wind competitors to maintain market share.

The cost of uranium went up recently (over the last ten years). It was 1% of cost and is now more like 5% of cost. Still, I suppose I am being anal by calling you on it. Maybe I shouldn't post so much today.

I think the spot price for Uranium went up (but is down again about 50% from its recent high) but that most Uranium now consumed is still under long term contract and I read recently the the average price for it is about $35/lb. The fuel costs for operations might be about 4% but that includes enrichment and fuel rod fabrication costs, which are quite high. I think the Uranium cost is still in the 1-2% range.

Here is a link showing Uranium as 26% of fuel costs: The Economics of Nuclear Power

First I think that its reasonable to assume that some sort of PV solar cell will be available around the time that wind becomes very important. This helps a lot on the generation issue. But the real problem seems to be load balancing and storage not generation.

Also of course we are very wasteful of electricity so the load problems we have now can probably be solved by changing how we use electricity. PV/Air Conditioning is a natural combination for example.

I hope everybody keeps in mind a system- been around a long time, that will actually work:

1) Solar thermal power generation in the deserts of the world

2) Long distance HVDC transmission

3) Pumped hydro storage at both ends of the transmission line

This scales to any size we would ever need, and the technology is proven already. Pay for it by stopping doing wasteful, stupid stuff we do now that is killing the only planet we have.

The only problem with this is the pumped hydro storage. Not enough sites where there is suitable geography. I really think adaptive demand is the future, we are going to have to get used to only using electricity when it is available.

I would like to see a lot more work done in this area. I like the idea of Dynamic Demand and also plug in electric cars with a vehicle-to-grid capability. Broadly speaking, the grid is dumb at the moment and could benefit from more dynamic decision making built in.

I'm not sold on the whole 'Car Battery as Storage' concept - if I plug my half-empty car in overnight and find it drained in the morning when I want to go to work the next day, that would be the last time I allowed it..

If there was a limiter as to how much charge could be taken.. I suspect that almost everyone would set it to 'none' or 'very little'. Battery range is the #1 problem for EVs - these proposals magnify it.

Ironically, I've always seen central demand management as easier; there processes such as:

- Aluminium electrolysis
- Methanol manifacture from wood/paper/cardboard/CO2
- FT-synthesis from coal (If you don't worry about CO2)

the second two of which would be major transport fuel generators; all of which could fairly easily be adapted to soak up excess electricty.

I quite like the idea of dynamic demand even on a domestic level, but it does mean a lot of work.

Can anyone tell me why geothermal energy is mentioned so rarely on threads such as these concerning electric power generation and (local) heat generation? Clearly there are limits to certain types like dry steam and flash, but the potential of the binary approach seems massive (the entry for "Geothermal power" in wiki indicates this too). A temperature of only 92 degrees °C is required for the facility in Riem near Munich. Seems to me such systems should be possible in many places - especially in Europe and North America. Am I missing something. To me geothermal power seems at least as attractive as wind and solar - especially considering it can provide base loads.

Geothermal power plants that produce electricity from low grade heat are still just experimental plants and their economics are not yet competitive enough. It's unknown whether they'll ever get there. I don't unfortunately have any good information about the cost prospectives. High grade heat is available only in selected locations.

There are other methods of storage and of managing demand more intelligently than we do currently. These are explored in outline in the Zero Carbon Britain report.

Pumped hydro only needs two reservoirs at different levels, ground and up, or ground and down. Both work just as well. Down can be supplied anywhere by way of a hole. We know how to dig big, deep, cheap, holes.

I've been wondering how much potential pumped energy is available in those tank-farms over there in South Portland. Brings to mind the thought that while there's oil in them, THAT could be pumped up and run down as well.. you'd need a big hole, though.

Anyone following Flywheels lately? I know Kevembuannga mentioned them a few times, while I was advocating for 'Pumped SUV's', holding deadweights in a lift-structure for storage.. (I know.. it's impractical... but very simple, and 'theoretically' cheap!)


JohnK, if I understand your argument, it's that nukes and wind start to compete when their total exceeds the power requirements when those requirements are at their minimum (3 AM on a balmy night). Demand varies quite a bit over the day and with the seasons, so there's capacity being taken on- and off-line all the time to compensate. We'll always use the cheapest marginal power first -- wind if available, then nukes, then coal, with gas last. Coal and gas can get away with less than full duty-cycle because their capital costs are low compared to their fuel costs.

Fundamentally, the best solutions would be power storage and/or variable pricing to encourage energy-intensive industries to run at night.


However, when going above that there will be more and more time periods where wind will be replacing the lowest marginal cost baseload power, which usually is nuclear.

Given the current production mix, the only country where this is remotely likely in the medium term is France - and only if you consider the French market in isolation.

If you look at the European market, where nuclear provides about 20-30% of capacity (depending on what are you consider), you'd need wind to be providing more than 70% of necessary demand for sustained periods for this to be a problem.

It seems unlikely to me.

You are right that it'll take considerable amount of wind before nuclear starts to get displaced. Let's assume that wind has the same capacity as average consumption. In this case wind would be producing around 25% of the electricity. Wind on large scale gets reasonable amount of hours above 60% of it's nominal capacity. If wind is producing at 60% and nuclear around 30% they are together producing around 90% of the average consumption in the system. Consumption might have a variation of +-20% around the average. Therefore one would likely see some periods where some nuclear capacity is brought down due to wind when energy penetration of wind is at 25% and nuclear is at 30%. All the periods when nuclear is on the margin will erode the profitability of nuclear (and wind, if it relies on the market price), since nuclear has a low marginal cost compared to coal and gas.

Personally I think we'll see 25% energy penetration of wind sooner than most people think in quite a few power systems. It might be that 25% is not a problem yet, but going above 30% could start to affect nuclear economics. This certainly depends on the system as this was a very rough sketch based on 30% nuclear.

Further complication is that nuclear is usually not used for ancillary services and these might need to be provided by coal or gas plants that are running on partial load.

John, your scenario is nutty. Nobody will ever take a nuclear reactor down in this scenario. It is cheaper for the operator to leave it running and give the power away. In your scenario, all gas generation and all hydro would already be shut down (and spilling water over the dams if they happen to be full), and then they would start feathering windmills.

Spot pricing is perverse and, I think, a stupid mechanism for balancing electricity supply and demand. Especially if it's driving investment decisions. But it can't force engineers to make stupid decisions about their plant. If nuclear and wind bid each other down to a selling price of zero for a few hours a year (this is presuming that there is no pumped storage or that it is already full), then it's not an economic disaster for either operator.

However, for optimal results, it's obvious that some strategic planning is required. And sadly, the market is not a very good strategic planner...

If the UK government believes that the UK needs more nuclear power, they should stop trying to prod and manipulate the private sector into building it, they should bloody well build it themselves. And if they are genuinely worried that wind and nuclear will one day regularly exceed demand, they should bloody well build pumped storage on a large scale.

The economic benefits of long-term security and price stability for electricity ought to be pretty compelling, surely. Recent history indicates that the market can't provide that.

Spot on comment.

Economists do seem to think that narrow economic rationality can trump physical reality.

Demand matching seems to be catching on. In the case of aluminium smelters it used to be that a sweetheart deal was worked out with the utility to help justify the scale of a new hydro or coal plant. Now those forms of generation are getting tougher the thinking seems to be to cut big customers loose. Let them build their own generators so the utility has a base of more flexible clients.

If the 20% wind penetration rule is binding that means that at the limit additional windpower does not have low marginal cost. You have to replicate that increment 4X with fuel burn generation or whatever.

Back to Gordon Brown; I'd rather be dependent on Australia-Canada uranium than piped gas, LNG or 3rd rate coal fields.

If the 20% wind penetration rule is binding that means that at the limit additional windpower does not have low marginal cost. You have to replicate that increment 4X with fuel burn generation or whatever.

All current studies point towards the fact that wind can go to 20% of power generation (in kWh) at almost no cost to the network, and to 40% with some tweaking and more focused investment.

The marginal cost of wind will always be, structurally, zero, because any output increase from wind is purely linked to wind blowing on an existing turbine, which costs nothing. Investment costs (and thus levelised costs) may be impacted in various ways, but this has no incidence on marginal cost.

I suspect that 40% counts on having a lot of dispatchable reserve, especially gas and hydro, which will not long be available. Hydro dries up, at least in places like out here in California, because the mountain snow packs are disappearing and without them and with our highly seasonal precipitation, most of the runoff will have to be released without generating any power from it. Without the dispatchable reserve component, the wind component would max out a lot lower if we are to avoid shortages.

The Government is like a rabbit in the headlights, immobile, confused and fearful. Their immediate threat is economic and their non immediate threats are Climate Change and Energy availability. Therefore, in their minds, the less immediate problems can be manipulated so as to ease pressure on the more immediate problem, the Economy. In reality, the Government has little chance of doing anything about any of the increasingly threatening problems and will eventually fail to mitigate any of them. Anyone believing that the Government will do anything other than fail will be severely disappointed IMO.

Unfortunately, in a situation of overshoot as the UK finds itself, the default response is to increase its carrying capacity. Something it has been successfully doing for several centuries through colonisation, empire, globalisation, etc. But now, the phantom carrying capacity created via economic means is in danger of failing and Government will have to replace the loss via other means. The UKs involvement in Iraq and the Middle East is probably the initial steps towards securing physical control rather than economic over important resources.

So, the eventual mitigation effort against economic, climate and energy chaos? Probably a military response by acquiring additional carrying capacity through physical control of necessary resources, including food production.

Where could the UK successfully flex its muscle in the World without getting a bloody nose? Somewhere with sufficient scope and resources to fulfil its carrying capacity needs? Probably Africa.

I'd expect to see more money devoted to the military than any attempt at making Britain self-sufficient in renewable energy. The Government aren't so much in denial as following a different set of options which aren't immediately apparent to those watching with the wrong set of assumptions in mind.

Triumvirate of collapse - Economy, Ecosystem, Energy

In answer to some of the very valid points that you raise about the UK as it goes beyond it's carrying capacity in a peak oil - climate chaos world, back in 2006 the then UK Defense Secretary John Reid outlined how climate change and dwindling natural resources (code for Peak Oil) were combining to increase the likelihood of violent conflict over land, water and energy because Climate change will make scarce resources, clean water, viable agricultural land even scarcer and this will make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely.

And where will Britain look? Next door of course. Ireland, as it had previously done in the past for resources. This scenario has been explored in this article here:
How Long Before Britain Occupies All of Ireland Again due to Climate Chaos and Peak Oil?

In reality British history has been the story of trying to control and put some distance between themselves and the Irish problem. Realistically, why do you think they partitioned it in the first place? As my geography teacher used to say " let's move on the rest of europe". It's resource poor and too much trouble to be worth the effort.

Now if you want to take some very hypothetical future where Britain decides it wants to rearm and attack someone, why would they bother with Ireland? Simply head in the other direction and take over France. Resources, land, loads of nuclear power stations already built, etc. Much much more appealing.

Ireland is in much the same position as Canada - if push comes to shove they'll do as their told and in consequence will be left alone.

Britain will need Ireland in the post Peak Oil world because as food prices go up and climate chaos affects other regions where they import food from, then Ireland which is relatively low density especially compared to the UK, and agriculturally is very productive, then this resources alone would be important to Britain. It can be argued that they could just buy that from Ireland, but as the situation becomes more severe and tense, they would clearly want to go further and actually control it.

Compared to say their other neighbour France which has you rightly point out has lots of resources, but you do not account for the fact that France has a large population similar to Britain and is just as strong, so it would be foolish for Britain to meddle there, especially for far less effort they could get some resources but not all next door in Ireland.

As to the British history putting distance between itself and Ireland that has only being really in the period of cheap energy, but in the previous times, they extracted a lot from Ireland and were good at it. For example after they took over Scotland, they sent many Scots to Ireland to plantations in Northern Ireland where there, they become staunch supports of the UK to this day. Thus there is no reason why Ireland for Britain in the years ahead is not a good place to offload some of its surplus population to ease the pressure.

Isn't a large proportion of the British population Irish? Wouldn't a lot of people with Irish ancestors prefer to move to Ireland if the food got short in Britain?

Now that's just plain perverse!
Or is it poetic justice?

pardoSorry guys but i think we made a tactical error saying Peak oil had already occurred.If KSA actually increases production we will loose alot of credibility. IT WILL PUT US A STEP CLOSER TO A "HARD LANDING" We made a decision on to short a time frame!

The whole MANMANDE global warming this is just a fraud. It's being pushed by the politicians .. to empower them. Their solution is a one world government and a global tax.

Why don't you learn some science before you post next time. Maybe post some science links next time, instead of claiming idiotic crap along with a link that doesn't prove your assertions.

Also, as you may notice, this isn't some run of the mill web-forum, where you can spout any crazy non-backed conspiracy theory and get a warm welcome. If you have proof, show it (minor hint: opinions are not proof).

Oh sorry, I wasn't supposed to feed the trolls.

My mistake. Sorry!

While Dukey's post was off-topic, I think he was just being sarcastic. I sometimes get so irritated with these anti-science nutjobs that I'm tempted to post something similar. I mean, surely nobody can take that seriously?

You're probably right and my parody detector was set way too high :)

Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister, said Britain would source up to 15% of its power from renewables by 2020, but that did not mean it was backing away from the EU-wide target of 20% by the same date.

The targets were announced after the Guardian reported yesterday that ministers were planning to water down climate change pledges and were seeking lower renewables targets before binding commitments are framed in December.

Mr Wicks said yesterday that the Brussels deal did not specify that all EU members had to meet the 20% level, as long as it was achieved across Europe as a whole.

"We're negotiating with the European commission, but it's got to be a considerable figure," he told BBC's Newsnight. "It's got to be somewhere between 10% and 15%."

So that's confirmed then. Someone else can make the reductions. Oh well never mind.

That's really sad, because the UK is ideally situated to be Europe's wind powerhouse. Mostly offshore.

I think Brown is an idiot, and the sooner the Conservatives win the better... (never thought I'd say that!)

I like the concept of national specialization :
Spain for solar (and transmission link to North African solar)
France for nuclear (perhaps also the central Euro countries with Soviet nuclear tech, which will need expensive management forever in any case... put some new modern reactors on the existing sites)
UK for wind, perhaps sea gen also
Germany for R&D...

Add lots of North Sea wind farms with connectors to both sides, connect Iceland to the North of Scotland. Lots of hydro in Northern Europe and plenty wind in the Agean Sea. CSP in Northern Africa and the Middle East. A large grid system will have peaks over different times and different areas and hopefully better reliability.

I often wonder, what makes us think that professional shrewd politicians from any major party actually want to carry out the things that they claim in their campaign speeches? I think everybody knows the basic politician mottos: get elected, re-elected, re-elected and consolidate power, power power.

Where in that equation does pushing forward painful, expensive and hard-to-sell changes increase their re-election likelihood or consolidation of power?

I'm sorry if I sound a little unfair, but people in UK/US should the least expect any dramatic changes, regardless of which _major_ party is in power.

Historically dramatic changes in UK/USA have only come about in the face of extreme hardship (war or other catastrophe), I fail to see how this time would be any different.

Collective enlightenment doesn't rank very high on my likely scenarios list.

I think Schlesinger said it the best:

"Cassandra has never been a appropriate role model for politicians. You do not ask the public to make sacrifices...

There is not going to be a turn around until there is a public support, and the public has to got be frightened... a serious crisis, which persuades that indeed the wolf is at the door."

I think ordinary people need to start forming collectives and building wind power themselves, if wind power is what they want.

Examples are much stronger incentive to politicians than hopes/wishes from a fairly silent minority.

A cost of £4 billion?
Whether this figure is correct or not, and I strongly suspect they would save money by reducing emissions and consumption, the government completely ignore the fact that so far since just the start of September they have given the Northern Rock bank which is in trouble £16 billion already and this could rise further to as much as £40 billion. See for example the article:

And I wonder what they have spent on Iraq so far? Probably a hell of a lot more. The same goes for the USA, the line is preached is that nothing can be done for the environment if it is going to cost any money, but if it is for war, then there is no limit.

What the government and the spin-masters rely on and because they have made it so, is that the public is not very informed and will just see the figure of 4 billion and think it is a lot and yet not put it in context. And one thing for certain is that their PR handlers won't either because then the public would see through their deceptions.

Additionally, there are two underestimated sources of value for society of renewable energy: (i) the first one is the cap on power prices provided: the cost of wind or other renewables is set for the next 15 years and will NOT change.

Isn't price set by supply and demand? If demand goes up, wouldn't the price of wind power go up also?

The cost of wind consists of two things:

- Operations and maintenance of the turbines, which is very low (say 0.5c/kWh)
- Repayment of initial investment. This usually consists of (i) a 'hard' cost - repayment of debt that was incurred to make the investment. The way deals are structured, that cost is fixed: there is a set repayment schedule, and fixed rate interest payments, and therefore fully known; (ii) a 'soft' cost, which is remuneration of capital, but comes only if revenue is sufficient. With a typical wind farm, debt/equity is between 70/30 and 90/10, and the debt component will usually be 3-4c/kWh.

So the cost a wind farm needs to cover is 4c/kWh over its average production, and any expectation of higher prices than that will allow for profit to be made. Different investors will make different assumptions on prices and requisite returns, but that cost is not a "compuslory" one.

So the maximum cost of a wind kWh for a new wind farm is perfectly known today for the next 15 years.

Yes. Cost is what you need to pay to get your production. Price is what you get when you sell your production. Price is always subject to the laws of supply and demand, but cost is not if one does not need to buy inputs for the production after the initial investment. Usually there is a fuel price and other things, but not so with wind.

[Brown would] "work with Poland and other governments sceptical about climate change to "help persuade" German chancellor Angela Merkel and others to set lower renewable targets"

Luckily, history marches on... the bone-headed Kaczinski government has bitten the dust. The new Euro-friendly centre right Polish government are unlikely to be climate sceptics... the only one Brown will find will be the Czech, Klaus (who has no coastline to worry about!)

We have a struggling manufacturing industry in this country, but a huge histroy of making massive changes in engineering, steam engine railway being a prime example. We are in a situation where we are facing increasing environmental & political problems from use of fossil fuels whilst at the same time losing large areas of industry. Several technologies can provide many jobs and put us on hte path to a sustainable future, namely wind power and rail travel. There is a large European industry for co generation schemes also. Our farming industry is having problem after problem, there is lots of potential for growing biomass for electricity production. We should get our ship yards building marine energy devices, Marine Current Turbines and Wave Dragon stand out as impressive technologies. There is going to be a world wide energy revolution, the UK can lead on renewables, coal gasification and many new technologies but we need some clear leadership adn joined up thinking coming from the government. Building a couple of million passive houses wouldnt be a bad plan either. A simple multistory low energy housing building, which can be housing, a hospital, a barracks, a prison or more likley a nursing home. Another large scale pumped hydro project would be pretty useful too, but not sure where it could go.

Large-scale pumped hydro : surely there must be some prime sites in Scotland?

Yes marine energy devices in the shipyards... and bring the troops home.

It's just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we'll be shipbuilding

Well I ask you
The boy said, "Dad they're going to take me to task
But I'll be back by Christmas"
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed
in the result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls


While I appreciate your endorsement of additional nuclear power, I don't think you've accurately summarized the nuclear proponents' criticism of massive investments in wind and other renewables.

I'd make two explicit arguments against wind and renewables.

First, it is a misuse of capital that could be more productively invested in nuclear power. In other words, society gets more GW-hrs for its billions from nuclear than from renewables.

Second, market/grid penetration of renewables will not displace investments in nuclear and other controllable electric capacity. Given a mandate to serve all customers at all times with electricity, a grid must have power-generating capacity available as spinning and hot standby reserves. Build more wind and you can't slack on investing in coal and nuclear. Note E.On's Boxer Day 2005 experience and the California 2006 heat wave as spectacular examples.

An implicit argument is that the GW advocates are demogoging the issue and that's always a red flag of chicanery.

I will grant that small wind additions can offset fuel consumption from the most inefficient fossil generators and can make economic sense but that penetration is in the order of 2 to 5% of peak load (my estimate and highly grid-dependent).

Life's a compromise and I'd be more than happy with increasing nuclear's market share from 20% today to 40% by 2050.