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Germany sets new solar-power record (reuters.com)
269 points by siavosh on May 26, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 219 comments

It really peeves me that there can be so little outcry (close to zero) and such immediate government action to shutdown nuclear plants when it's proven damn near impossible to get people to shut down coal plants. It's absurd. Coal is guaranteed to have costly negative health and environmental impacts on surrounding areas, while nuclear merely has the risk. I am glad something is being replaced by solar, but it is extremely aggravating that coal isn't getting the same treatment as nuclear.

The main difference is in my opinion the visible action - reaction relationship. If a nuclear power plant blows up, the whole area is going to look for years to come like a scene from a apocalyptic movie, while with coal plants you might have just people to "cough a bit more".

The only thing I do not get is why energy companies are not forced to carry more extensive insurance policies to the long term damages/risks they cause. Pushing this through all the way should provide enough incentives to move towards renewables.

> The main difference is in my opinion the visible action - reaction relationship. If a nuclear power plant blows up, the whole area is going to look for years to come like a scene from a apocalyptic movie, while with coal plants you might have just people to "cough a bit more".

Not really. Nuclear disasters are bad for the environment, but considerably less bad than say... Building a city somewhere.


And "cough a bit more" is probably the understatement of a day. Those fuckers even create more radioactive waste (which won't get collected) when they work as intended, than nuclear plants when they break down. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is...)

You are on track with the insurance policy. Though it's pretty safe to assume, that real costs of coal and carbon-based fuels are not calculated very well for insurance purposes either.

The end-point of unstoppable climate-change could potentially render the entire earth inhabitable via the Venus-effect. Even most apocalyptic local consequences are pretty minor compared to those.

Those fuckers even create more radioactive waste (which won't get collected) when they work as intended, than nuclear plants when they break down.

How about reading your own linked article before making a fool of yourself with claims like that? It says coal plants create more radioactive waste than a nuclear plant that has not broken down.

It's true for common failure modes. Three Mile Island, for example, did leak less radioactive waste than a correctly working coal plant.

The problem is that it's so politically difficult to build new nuclear plants so that old ones can be retired, that we're still using poorly designed plants from the 1960s that are already past their design lifetime. And then people are surprised that they're problematic.

The reason we're still using the old plants is because even wind power is cheaper per watt hour than a modern nuclear plant.

Finland is building one at the moment. At $4.1 billion it's now 50% over budget.

Your numbers are incorrect. The cost for nuclear is cheaper than oil and gas, and only somewhat more expensive than coal, when factoring in the full lifecycle costs.

And Finland's reactor is remarkably cheap, if it only cost $4.1B. I believe typical plants cost closer to $10B. Nuclear plants are not cheap to build.

The cost for nuclear is cheaper than oil and gas

That's a lie.

The equation breaks down when you factor in any of the following:

A) Waste handling and disposal

B) Reactor upgrades and replacement on a sane schedule (i.e. more frequently than the current ~35 years)

C) Hardening against deliberate attacks such as airplanes


D) A single catastrophic event due to continued negligence of B and C

The nuclear industry operates on the premise of being able to push the cost for all of the above upon society at some indefinite point in the future (cf. Fukushima). You may or may not agree with that approach (i.e. you could argue "it's worth it"), but let's not drink their kool-aid please.

If you didn't factor those in, then the cost would be almost nothing, even when compared to coal. Almost all the cost of nuclear power is in the construction and decommissioning.

When you factor those in, it becomes more expensive than coal, and slightly cheaper than oil or gas.

Also, airplanes pack very little punch compared to other things like internal steam buildup that plants are already hardened against. In a properly designed plant, you get airplane tolerance effectively for free.

When you factor those in, it becomes more expensive than coal, and slightly cheaper than oil or gas.

And that magic knowledge you take from... where?

Last time I checked there was no solution to the waste issue; we simply have no idea what to do with it in the long term. Meanwhile in most countries the transport and "temporary" storage of the waste are conveniently paid for by the tax-payer.

Last time I checked most reactors are destined to be running for 40 years. Except when, like in USA and France, they decide to extend that to 60 years. So much for replacing ancient reactors with safer designs.

Last time I checked most reactors were not hardened against deliberate attacks. And Fukushima was supposed to be one of the few specially hardened sites - we have seen how that went.

In a properly designed plant, you get airplane tolerance effectively for free.


> And that magic knowledge you take from... where?

Studying the viability of, of all things, solar power, and comparing the costs of various competing technologies. (The school I studied at is quite involved in solar research. It's price needs to drop by a significant factor before it becomes competitive, but it's on the way.)

> Bullshit

To borrow your words: "And that magic knowledge you take from... where?"

When you design a reactor to take the rather substantial internal steam explosions (and the associated water hammer) that might happen in a complete failure scenario, you end up with quite a solid building.

Okay the reactor core MIGHT sill be contained but you still probably have a huge fire, inaccessible critical machinery and tons of damage to other essential equipment surrounding the reactor, like coolant valves. Besides, if you avoid the reinforced reactor and take out, say the control room or a cooling tower you can cause enough damage to shut down the power plant for some years.

Right. You can cause a good deal of power loss and property damage. It would be costly.

>but considerably less bad than say... Building a city somewhere.

Living densely is one of the most sustainable things humans can do.

Nothing benefits from a nuclear disaster.

>Not really. Nuclear disasters are bad for the environment, but considerably less bad than say... Building a city somewhere.

Only you have to built a city to house people, whereas you don't have to build a nuclear reactor to give them energy, there are other options. Next argument?

>And "cough a bit more" is probably the understatement of a day. Those fuckers even create more radioactive waste (which won't get collected) when they work as intended, than nuclear plants when they break down.

Not so. The article you link to says the researchers found comparable or slightly higher levels to that of a nuclear factory in normal operation. And it goes on to say:

McBride and his co-authors estimated that individuals living near coal-fired installations are exposed to a maximum of 1.9 millirems of fly ash radiation yearly. To put these numbers in perspective, the average person encounters 360 millirems of annual "background radiation" from natural and man-made sources, including substances in Earth's crust, cosmic rays, residue from nuclear tests and smoke detectors.

Quite quaint. Not at all what happens in a nuclear plant accident.

A lot of geek people like to support nuclear plants because they think it's the pro-science thing to do ("oh, those ignorant masses, they are afraid of science"), and will twist the facts as fast as any bible-yielding evolution-denier to do so.

Well, nuclear plants are not science: they are technology, that is applied science.

Unlike, say, math, technology is not perfect: it's shaped by private interests, it's prone to human error (from the design to the development, to the operation stage), and it can also do a lot of bad shit, from blowing up people a la Challenger to Chernobyl.

That's for a single coal power plant many areas have dozens of them near coal rich areas. Also, they dump most of this stuff in the upper atmosphere so the majority of pollution ends up more than a thousand miles from the actual plant. Is it a big deal? probably not. Sure, statistically speaking radiation exposure from coal power plants has probably killed more people than from nuclear accidents. But, impossible to track who specifically was killed which limits their liability.

PS: Of course this is also because the nuclear industry has killed so few people.

The reason is that the costs of a failure of a nuclear power station are such that no insurance company would take on such a risk on commercial basis and even if they did, no energy company would be able/willing to pay the premiums.

It all works only because government(s) get their bombs, energy companies in cahoots with the government get their unrealistically low 'production costs' and the suckers taxpayers pay for any accidents and cleanups, whose costs are therefore never included in the accounting when making the comparisons.

German electors still have some say in the matter and they did their sums.

> The reason is that the costs of a failure of a nuclear power station are such that no insurance company would take on such a risk on commercial basis and even if they did, no energy company would be able/willing to pay the premiums.

I'm not sure how you can assert this to be true. Because it is a rare event, the premiums won't be that obscene, particularly if the carrier isn't carrying related policies.

The expense of a nuclear plant failure is most certainly high but, for example, can't match the impact of say Katrina (and while no insurance company was carrying all the impact of Katrina, several of them bore far more than the costs of pretty of completely destroying an entire major city, which is more than any nuclear power plant failure).

Certainly the money to be made from producing that much energy that cheaply outweighs the insurance costs.

Ironically, I'd argue this is part of the problem with nuclear energy. If left completely unregulated, I could see that a typical nuclear power station would be built with quite spare safety precautions, with the expectation that it likely would fail within a certain period of time, with an insurance policy in place to cover the expenses when that occurs.

It is demonstrably true that no insurance company is willing to take on the full risk of insuring a nuclear power plant against disaster.

The reason for this is that insurance companies aren't gamblers - they don't like insuring against minutely-likely but stratospherically-high-cost events, even if they can charge a premium that gives them a positive expected value. That's because they have to factor in that with such a high payout, there is a risk of destroying their business altogether. You can't capitalise on the positive expected value over 1000 years if you went bankrupt in year 3, even if that was just due to "bad luck".

This is just like the understanding that poker players have, that you need a considerably larger bankroll than the stakes you are playing in order to ride out "variance", as it's known.

Insurance companies understand risk.

It's worth noting that it is common practice for potential large claims capable of sinking a single insurer to be distributed over the wider market.

Other than that, you make a good point, and history bares it out. Insurance companies aren't gamblers, they aren't willing to support minutely-likely but stratospherically-high-cost events, even if they can see high profit margines. Bottom line: they really understand risk.


Note that the $441 billion was just for a small division inside of AIG. The bigger divisions are obviously capable of handling more.


It turns out that Fukushima was 'insured' but the insurers won't be paying anything. It is all excluded, see?

To prove your assertions, you need to come up with an example where a major nuclear disaster was actually cleaned up at the insurers expense. Till then, I stand by my statements.

How many nuclear power plants are their in the world? How many have had failures from "earthquake shock, fire following earthquake and tsunami"? How many failures have occurred for other reasons? From that standpoint it is hard to argue that the premiums would have been significantly different without that clause. I'd also point out that such a clause is hardly unusual in the insurance business. You'll see the like on all kinds of property and liability policies.

To prove your assertions, you'd need to come up with a nuclear reactor which was constructed in an unregulated environment. ;-)

Look, I'm not making claims one way or another. I'm simply suggesting that your claim doesn't seem very credible once one has applied some very simple logic. I could be missing something, but I think you ought to have some evidence to back up such an extraordinary claim. As someone else pointed out, your typical coal operation ought to have a higher incident rate and cost, which means it ought to be even more expensive...

Realistically, you can calculate the costs without coming up with your silly example. It is sufficient to simply add up the costs needed to cover the disaster, and then look at the premiums paid for covering similar sized disasters with similar rates of occurrence, making your best effort to extrapolate over any gaps.

Alternatively, speak with an actuarial who works in the business and they can extrapolate what the premiums would be. In a truly unregulated market, I'd imagine the incident rate would be higher and the recovery costs a bit lower, so it might be hard to get a real cost, but go for the costs in the existing regulated market. I have a hard time imagining they'd be prohibitive, but I'd be intrigued if you proved otherwise.

How many nuclear power plants are their in the world?

436 plus 63 in construction (as of 2010).

It is sufficient to simply add up the costs needed to cover the disaster

The total cost for the Chernobyl incident was estimated at $235 billion[1] in 2006 and the figure only keeps growing.

Since 2007 they're building a new sarcophagus (because the old one is falling apart). The costs were estimated at another $1.4 billion for that alone. But they're late already, and well, you know how it goes.

In contrast Hurricane Katrina was a bargain at $150 billion dollars [2].

The Fukushima incident is estimated to cost $257 billion dollars [3] and that's probably a little optimistic.

and then look at the premiums paid for covering similar sized disasters with similar rates of occurrence

See, here is your problem. At these scales there is no coverage and no reference; these are disasters of national scale. For Katrina the insurance industry paid $41 billion dollars [2], guess who carried the rest.

And the real question is: What happens when some confused individuals somehow manage to smuggle nail-clippers onto passenger planes and then fly them into multiple reactors, in densely populated areas, at the same time?

What is the insurance premium on that?

[1] http://www.greenfacts.org/en/chernobyl/l-3/5-social-economic...

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_effects_of_Hurricane_K...

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/06/japan-nuclear-cost...

> And the real question is: What happens when some confused individuals somehow manage to smuggle nail-clippers onto passenger planes and then fly them into multiple reactors, in densely populated areas, at the same time?

It's worth noting that the US military has at times very deliberately attacked nuclear facilities with armaments much more deadly than nail-clippers or a passenger plane that you might obtain from them. The damages are not the stuff of legend.

"Probably not much" to answer your real question:


The US government has done the test, granted an F4 isn't a passenger jet but it probably has similar kinetic energy to a smaller passenger plane as it was going rather fast.

probably has similar kinetic energy to a smaller passenger plane

The most widely used passenger plane is the Boeing 737.

F4 Phantom empty weight: 29,500 lbs

Boeing 737 empty weight: 62,000 lbs

The average operating weight difference is probably quite a bit larger. You know, fuel, baggage, passengers.

You may want to review those videos from 9/11 to see what a passenger plane does to a building. You may also want to listen to the narrative of your video: The wall in your video is a specially hardened wall. Your reactors are not equipped with such walls because that would be cost prohibitive. And even these hardened walls are unlikely to withstand a passenger plane (ever wondered why the US government selected such a small plane for your video?).

I listened. Kinetic energy is the mass times the square of the velocity. F4's go way faster than 737's. Thus kinetic energy is comprable between the two.

On the second point: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Containment_building

"The containment building itself is typically an airtight steel structure enclosing the reactor normally sealed off from the outside atmosphere. The steel is either free-standing or attached to the concrete missile shield. In the United States, the design and thickness of the containment and the missile shield are governed by federal regulations (10 CFR 50.55a), and must be strong enough to withstand the impact of a fully loaded passenger airliner without rupture.[3][not in citation given]"

It's also not my nuclear reactor. My power comes from hydroelectric thank you very much.

F4's go way faster than 737

The Phantom was crashed into the wall at 500 MPH

The cruising speed of a Boeing 737 is 485 MPH[1].

Also I'll ask you a very simple question: Why did the US Government not use a passenger plane for that video-demonstration, which would undoubtedly be a much more realistic scenario?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_737

737's don't go that fast at sea level. Air is too dense. An f4 could probably go 2-3x as fast as a 737 at any altitude. I'm too lazy to look up the specific values.

As to why they used an f4? Probably a heck of a lot cheaper than a 737 at the time.

Sometimes the government isn't out to screw you you know...

An f4 could probably go

But it didn't in the video.

As to why they used an f4? Probably a heck of a lot cheaper than a 737 at the time.

It would seem like there are plenty of scrapped 737s available[1] to carry out such a test. I'm too lazy to look up prices on these things, but I'd be very surprised if those were significantly more expensive than a scrapped Phantom.

[1] http://airchive.com/html/scrapped/ardmore-graveyard

> * Why did the US Government not use a passenger plane for that video-demonstration, which would undoubtedly be a much more realistic scenario?*

Because retired jets that are going to be scrapped are easier to obtain from the military.

Also we're not only talking about the main reactor housing. Much more radioactive material resides in spent fuel pools which might not be as well protected as the reactor, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spent_fuel_pool#Risks

Actually, most of the damage came from the burning of the fuel. It's worth noting that most nuclear plants have very different construction and design that make them far more resilient in the face of such a disaster... like significant portions being designed to operate continuously at high temperatures...

It's worth noting that most nuclear plants have very different construction and design that make them far more resilient in the face of such a disaster

We've seen how these designs fare in the face of an earthquake and flood.

We're both arguing on the grounds of mere guessing here, but my guess would be that a plane crash might very well cause similar disruptions.

Also if I was a terrorist plotting such an event, I might just fly two planes into the same reactor - because, why not?

The question is not about how such an event is executed but how likely it is. I hope we can agree that a dedicated team of individuals will find a way to cause a catastrophic event in these facilities.

And that's precisely the problem; Nuclear plants require something that we can't provide: Perfection.

We may be able to keep the nominal failure rate at the level that we've seen (Chernobyl, Fukushima). But all economic calculations that these plants have going for them are immediately invalidated when you start considering a single successful deliberate attack.

A dedicated group of individuals capable of harnessing a number of planes in the air simultaneously and get them on a trajectory to a nuclear plant, with an impact exceeding a military bombing attack...

...can probably just build a bomb on their own just fine.

Nuclear power plants don't require perfection. There are minute possibilities of terrible disasters with almost any facility. Nuclear plants do have some particularly disconcerting problems that seem fairly obvious and must be mitigated against, but I think we can allow for the fact that with or without a nuclear plant, bad shit can happen, and actually without said plant, bad shit will happen.

Bhopal didn't have a nuclear power plant, just a measly ol' pesticide plant.

...can probably just build a bomb on their own just fine.

Building a bomb with effects comparable to a reactor meltdown requires significant resources. Running a few planes into a building requires - plane tickets.

You do remember that 9/11 thing, do you?

There are minute possibilities of terrible disasters with almost any facility

You pull every last ridiculous straw, don't you?

Yes, other bad things happen, too. If you think long and hard then you might grasp the difference in magnitude.

Hint: Chernobyl is estimated to have caused 250.000 deaths. 1700 square miles of land have been rendered permanently inhabitable. The numbers for Fukushima are still outstanding.

Thank you. The final figures for Chernobyl and Fukushima will no doubt be higher. Not to mention the cost of people dying of cancer. Nevertheless, let's just take these figures for now.

They work out at well over a billion per commissioned plant. It is hardly a low risk, is it?

Okay, a few problems with these numbers:

Estimates of Chernobyl's costs have been exacerbated by a number of factors, not the least of which was a number of ridiculous things that were done to cover up the mess.

The $150 billion Katrina estimate is ignoring a number of factors including things like... loss of life, which you know, tends to impact the costs of things.

Just the Federal government has spent >$100 billion and nobody in the area even tries to pretend that they've restored it to its previous state or undone the economic harm. Insurance companies, as you said, have paid $41 billion, so there you're at $141 billion and you've barely scratched the surface as compared to the things factored in to that $235 and $257 billion figures.

But let's cast all that aside. Let's assume the cost is 2-3x Katrina. The incident rate is obviously not that high (there's a reason basically all nuclear plant failures trace back to a design from the 60's), but I'm sure you can plug that in.

There is a pretty handy Wikipedia page with details for Nuclear Plant disasters: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_and_radiation_accidents...

Now, I haven't done the math for how many aggregate plant-years of operation we've had, but let's say your average plant has been in operation for 10 years (which is definitely low-balling it in the US, but the mere fact we run these old nuclear power plants is exactly why they are so much more likely to have problems). That's 4360 plant-years. The Wikipedia page has 20+ incidents listed, but that includes a lot of cases that are tiny compared to the disasters you are thinking in terms of (and of course, ironically, anyone who is insuring these things will tell you that those smaller incidents are the primary drivers of the costs in an insurance policy). I count 5 cases throughout history with costs >$1 billion. That works out to a very exaggerated rate of one incident every 972 plant-years.

So, with all those "tie your hand behind your back" factors, a premium of $50 million/year would cover costs very well and leave the insurer rolling profit margins that'll probably create a congressional investigation. That's a lot of money, but compared to the economic output of a power plant, isn't prohibitive.

Realistically though, newer reactor designs, particularly post-3 mile island, have a much lower incident rate than their predecessors and much better mechanisms for containing damage. If insurers were driving the design of plants, it'd probably be even lower (or costs would drop). Most insurers would probably also adjust their premiums based on the age of plants, which at some point would make it more cost effective to build a new one than to keep operating an old one. They'd also reduce costs by establishing rules that would limit their liability in circumstances where the failure was due to some other party not managing their responsibilities.

I'm curious what the real numbers are, but you can see that even being grossly unfair, insurance costs for disasters are not going to make nuclear plants economically non-viable.

You're ignoring the elephant in the room that I mentioned in my last paragraph: We have no idea what the worst-case looks like. We only know it will be beyond imagination.

Please do your math again, and now factor in 3 simultaneous meltdowns in USA reactors, due to plane hits.

Yes, this is exceedingly unlikely. I'd say about as unlikely as passenger planes deliberately crashing into the WTC.

> We have no idea what the worst-case looks like.

It looks like the Fukushima meltdowns, which with better reactors design would have been manageable.

If you want to get worked up about risks, do the math on meteor and comet impacts. There is a reason that American defense planners are blasé about nuclear reactors and worked up about extraterrestrial impactors. It's only a matter of time before we lose a city to a meteor. That's lose, not temporarily evacuate or have an unfortunate increase in cancer rates.

It looks like the Fukushima meltdowns, which with better reactors design would have been manageable.

Perhaps. An energy shield (like in starwars!) would also make them safe. But we don't have these things. Most reactors are over 20 years old[1] and not going to be replaced with better designs any time soon.

If you want to get worked up about risks, do the math on meteor and comet impacts

We can't do anything about meteors and comets. But we can get rid of nuclear plants.

[1] http://www.euronuclear.org/info/encyclopedia/images/npp-ww-a...

Newer designs are not used because the environmentalists would rather have political power than electrical power. We have the know-how to design standardized reactors and build them by the hundreds, but not the will.

The meteor problem is even easier to solve. We need to build observation telescopes, lots of them. We then use off-the-shelf rockets to paycheck off-the-shelf nuclear bomb interceptors mounted on almost-off-the-shelf delivery platforms.

Yes, why use simple cheap solar panels that can easily be replaced if we can over engineer everything to the nth degree? Thank you for illuminating the core difficulty of too much centralisation: mounting problems and mounting costs.

Looking at Fukushima, it is not the terrorists and the meteors that frighten me the most. It is the simple combination of the everyday events like earthquakes, with corruption, inefficiency, cost-cutting and the culture of secrecy that fosters and supports it all. These are the real but invisible dangers that you cannot shoot down from your robotic space platforms.

Newer designs are not used because the environmentalists would rather have political power than electrical power.

Wait a minute. Last I checked it was not "environmentalists" running these facilities?

Also, nobody would turn against a design that can be proven safe. The problem is: that design doesn't exist.

The meteor problem is even easier to solve.

Your naivety is somewhat amusing. It seems you are watching too many bad hollywood movies.

Covering up the Chernobyl mess? What makes you think covering up Fukushima has cost a lot? I mean, yeah the nuclear industry has a lot of free PR drones in IT for some reason, but still, it's gotta be pretty costly to run the kind of shit they did.

The problem is that being insured reduces incentives to not make a mistake. Nuclear companies are already often better at covering things up (look at Tepco, and Chernobyl for extreme cases, but also the ongoing poor disclosure in the uk). Thats why insurance wont happen, not some actuarial issues about probability.

If you think the government isn't in cahoots with coal and solar, I have bad news for you.

If /only/ the US government were as cozy with solar as it is with coal. http://solyndrabuilding.businesscatalyst.com/index.html

The US is just starting a trade war with China over solar where they are putting a 31% tariff on Chinese panels, which will hugely increase the cost of solar in the US.


If a nuclear power plant blows up, the whole area is going to look for years to come like a scene from a apocalyptic movie

Chernobyl is actually a wildlife wonderland now people can't live in the area. Animals don't deem to have a problem living in highly radioactive environments. They have more immediate issues than getting cancer. But for humans a nuclear meltdown is bad news.

So its not through environment that suffers on the whole, more that it is no longer suitable for humans.

But yes, the result of a nuclear disaster is much more dramatic in the short term, making it scarier than the same amount of damage that a coal powerplant dripfeeds.

> Chernobyl is actually a wildlife wonderland

"Not scientifically justified".


> But scientists who assessed the 1986 disaster's impact on birds said the ecological effects were "considerably greater than previously assumed".


> "Many people come here expecting to see a lunar landscape, so when they see trees, and birds and a few mammals, they're surprised.

> "They think, 'ah well maybe it's not so bad'.

> "But what we're finding is that there is a significant impact on both the population and the biodiversity - the number of species - in the zone. And it's directly proportional to the level of contamination."

(But the article mentions that this is a polarised debate, and that this is only one side.)

Chernobyl Birds are Small Brained


Insects in decline


Agreed. I visited Chernobyl two years ago, and in all of Europe I've never seen a place so verdant, and teeming with wildlife. The canal especially had many large fish.

Friend of mine studied mice in a nuclear disaster zone. Basically, mice adapted and there was no statistical difference compared to a control population (outside the zone).

What about Thorium based Molten Salt reactors. According to this article, they are potentially safe.


Coal is probably cheaper. Nuclear is very capital intensive, costs are usually more than estimated. Maintenance also regularly goes over budget and schedule.

Solar is increasingly cost-competitive. In my city there is at least one per block for the parking payment stations - it's cheaper than connecting them to the grid, even in the middle of the city.

As the costs of solar go down and we know we can close down plants, the political focus will shift to coal. I can't wait.

In the US, utilities are switching over from coal to natural gas for electricity, on account of advances in fracking which make gas dirt cheap. (Some trucking firms are also trying to switch to LNG fuel, as diesel remains expensive). Combined with this anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe, this places the US in the hilariously ironic position of reducing carbon dioxide emissions more than Europe even though they never bothered to make that an explicit priority.


To be fair, let's take a look at the 2008 data [1]

                            US           EU-27
    CO2 emission         ~5.46·10^9 t  ~4.18·10^9 t
    population           ~304·10^6     ~498·10^6
    emission per capita  ~180 t        ~83.9 t
I do not see the US catching up any time soon...

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dio...

That is a pretty interesting number. I wonder what the industrial breakdown of those emissions are?

The analysis in that Economist opinion piece is rather poor, and reads more like an industry booster piece than a review of current knowledge about the process and impacts of fracking.

A study was released late last year by the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) [1] which found that a switch to natural gas would increase warming over the next few decades, as outlined in NCAR's report [2].

It acknowledges something the shale gas industry studiously avoids in calculating figures for its green credentials pitches: fugitive emissions. A significant amount of methane leakage occurs in the fracking process and piping of gases.

When you add in the input-intensive activity of multiple well constructions, fracking, pipeline construction, and fugitive emissions the 'green' story of shale gas doesn't add up.

The dismissal of fracking-triggered earthquakes is also odd, considering a US company (Cuadrilla) was forced to stop fracking in the UK after two seismic events occurred [3], a recent report by the UK was focused on mitigating fracking-related seismic events [4], and Cuadrilla released a report [5] which concluded "it is highly probable" hydraulic fracking triggered a number of tremors.

When you factor in the unavoidable well contamination of underground aquifers (as pressure differences inevitably lead to aquifer water filling the fracked area over time) the shale gas 'bonanza' seems anything but.

[1] http://www.springerlink.com/content/b430681263425q64/?MUD=MP

[2] https://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/news/5292/switching-coal-nat...

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jun/01/blackpool-earthquak...

[4] http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/news/pn12_047/pn12_047...

[5] http://www.cuadrillaresources.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02...

As I've stated before; solar and windpower are inadequate to provide for the power requirements of the western world. Oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear will be required if we want to maintain our current standard of living, nevermind the requirements imposed by developing countries.

Now you may be fine with cutting your energy requirements in half; bully for you. But don't be surprised if this isn't a popular idea for the rest of the world.

That you've said it before isn't a very compelling argument. Just sayin'.

Reducing requirements by half isn't that big a deal. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_energy_con...

There's huge variation. We can support a better standard of living with much less energy.

Solar and windpower are currently inadequate, but that doesn't always have to be the case, especially if we can develop grid-scale liquid metal batteries like this:


Here's a link I've posted before displaying the current amount of energy produced by the various sources. The amount of land that we'd have to devote to solar to make a meaningful contribution would be unsustainable.


I'm not sure, I've often seen maps with areas required to power the world with solar* and while they are big, they aren't impossible, especially if done smartly (big solar farms in deserts connected via HCDC transmission lines, but also solar PV and solar water heaters on rooftops close to users).

* http://www.landartgenerator.org/blagi/wp-content/uploads/200...

Coal is probably cheaper

Keep in mind that there are different types of coal, and choice normally depends on what is locally available / cheapest in volume. IIRC there's a lot of dirty lignite (Braunkohle) in Germany.

The current German government relies on a coalition involving some left wing union backed candidates in mining areas and the greens.

In US terms imagine you had to keep voters in Berkley and Pennsylvania happy

What exactly are you talking about here? The federal government is supplied by CDU (conservatives) and FDP (neo-liberals), and they do have the majority in parliament (see http://www.bundestag.de/bundestag/plenum/bilder/sitzverteilu...). However, the FDP lost a lot of votes in recent state elections (but has somewhat recovered during the last one).

Are you talking about the Bundesrat (upper house), where SPD (social democrats), Grüne (greens) and Linke (leftists) are present (you can look at the current allocation of votes at http://www.bundesrat.de/cln_235/nn_8328/DE/struktur/stimmenv...)?

It's even worse - Angela Merkel responded in parliament that missing nuclear power plants will be replaces with NEW power plants on fossil fuel.

The problem with photovoltaic is that it needs 100% backup in traditional power plants.

There's not only photovoltaic but also wind turbines, water turbines, burning agricultural waste, and various means of storage to spread the harvest into weak times (though all of that has lots of potential for optimization, it's here now - sometimes for over 30 years).

Combined, this allows various providers in Germany to sell energy without resorting to fossil or nuclear fuel, right now.

The bad part (for big Energy Co.s and their buddy Angela Merkel) is that this way of doing things is too decentralized for the old oligopoly to keep an inherent edge over new entrants on the market.

Building and operating a nuclear plant (or even a coal plant, in highly regulated Germany) can't be pulled off by just anybody. Setting up solar or wind power, and scaling up over time is possible even on a much more limited budget.

The problem with iPhone batteries is they need 100% backup in recharging stations.

350.org and others are working on it -- help them!

Nuclear plants also have guaranteed nuclear waste and Germany has no place to store these.

People severely overestimate the volume of nuclear waste produced by a plant. Storing it is more of a political problem than a technical one.

They told us this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schacht_Asse_II would be safe, too.

>It's absurd. Coal is guaranteed to have costly negative health and environmental impacts on surrounding areas, while nuclear merely has the risk.

Yes, but it has a much larger risk: the risk of tens or hundred of thousands of people getting radiation poisoning, and the region becoming inhabitable for years.

Plus it creates nuclear waste, that is not mere pollution, but extremely toxic for thousands or years. Not to mention the consequences to be had with a nuclear plant in the hands of the wrong people (terrorists and such). With a coal plant, not that many...

For a hundred thousand years.

However, the longer it lasts, the lower the intensity of radiation produced.

You can't even safely assume that we will have political stability over the next couple of hundred years. Whether it takes a thousand or a million years either period is so long that is is insane to believe it could ever be stored securely.

20GW is nowhere near 20 plants at full capacity, it's 20 reactors, and is probably more of an average.

Reactors range from 400MWe to 1600MWe, and plants generally have 2 to 6 reactors with 2 outliers at respectively 7 (Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Japan) and 8 (Bruce in Canada, although it's only running 6 reactors right now). The 10 biggest nuclear plants all have more than 4GW installed capacity.

FWIW, France has a total of 20 active plants grouping 57 reactors. The installed capacity is almost 62GWe.

the average capacity of a nuclear plant in Germany is 1.2GW, it's relatively close. I'm pretty certain that the plant in Essenbach with two units represents Germany's nuclear plant power range, i.e. unit 1 is c. 900MW and unit 2 1.4GW.

Don't forget that the amount of power lost due to cooling systems, mining, fuel transport and refining of fissionable materials should be considered as it's a considerable chunk of that output.

1. It it most "considerable chunk" 2. We don't pick solar panels in the forest either.

The same can be said for the cost of manufacturing and delivering solar panels.

No. The costs for the lifestyle of a solar panel are considerably less than nuclear rods.

Color me curious- what sort of lifestyles do solar panels and nuclear rods lead?

I'm guessing he meant lifetime, it's next to "lifestyle" on android's suggest list.

Thanks. Yes, that's what I meant.

Solar panels need to be cleaned and at the end of their lifespan, several years if not decades, need to be replaced. I dont know about nuclear rods, but they do require security and safety measures.

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/07/should-you-spring-cle... indicates that solar panels mounted flat do indeed need to be cleaned, but panels mounted at a sufficient angle will be rinsed off adequately by the rain and do not seem to benefit measurably from manual cleaning.

Average soiling loss for tilted installations is around 5%, but it can vary quite a bit with location and rainfall patterns, so it is occasionally worth manually cleaning them.

Plus they must be first made of silicon and rare metals and then deconstructed, both in a very toxic and energy consuming processes. Nuclear waste on the other hand is not only coming form nuclear plants but also from medicine, industry (mostly food disinfection) and science -- shutting down all nuclear plants won't make this issue disappear.

Here you can see the list of nuclear power plants in Germany:


The remaining plants have mostly only one reactor of around 1.4 GWe.

Front page of TED.com


See 9:16. He arranges the power consumption of countries by per person per sq m. And renewables can sit on same scale, and his estimate for PV solar is about 20% of land mass of Germany needs to be covered.

This is one of the many problems of the renewables debate - apples and oranges. The Germans have done an incredible and positive thing. Massively upped the feed into the electric grid from solar PV. And electrical consumption is where nuclear plants feed - so the two methods are direct competitors.

But electrical consumption is only about 1/3 of goal energy budget of western countries, rest is evenly split between transport and heating and about 5% for everything else like rocket launches.

So 50% of about 30% says that "Germany has 15% of it's total energy from renewables, will need to increase that by 7fold, give everyone an electric car and heating that uses electricity and not ....

Yes it's a great step forward. But really, we are going to have to change our lifestyles beyond belief to meet even 80% energy use from renewables. Forget driving to supermarkets to pick up refrigerated milk and tomatoes flown in from Africa.

Watch the talk - his book is very good too.

Something doesn't add up though. From those calculations, it would seem that 3% of Germany's land mass is "covered". I strongly suspect that isn't the case.

Figures I heard on German television suggest 0,06% of Germany's area covered.

Okay, so his estimates are off by 50x... ;-)

This is a deceptive headline. The solar plants produced that much power during a few hours. The article is light on details (and makes a few basic errors) but at a bare minimum we can know that the average amount of power over an entire day was far less for these solar plants than these peak power figures, probably about 1/5th as much. Whereas nuclear plants keep producing all day long.

This is great propaganda for the solar power industry but it does little to change the fact that solar power doesn't produce power when it's needed and storing energy is extremely expensive. This is not an indication that solar power is ready for prime time, to serve as base load power generation, it's just an indication that if you build enough PV panels you can get a lot of power for a few hours on a sunny day, which is something we've always known.

Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four percent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone.

Despite the discussions in Germany about the high costs of PV for consumers, this still shows something remarkably: a (in general) not so sunny country in the northern hemisphere installed approximately half of the solar power capacity of the world. It's not easy, and even in Germany there are huge challenges lying ahead, but especially industrialized countries should take this as a sign to accelerate their own renewable energy strategies.

The 4% overall vs. 50% of these few hours illustrates the fundamental problem. Societies don't need electricity "for a few midday hours" on very clear, sunny days at a time of year where the sun is "in" the hemisphere. They need it more or less consistently all the time. Let's see how much electricity this massive investment is producing on a cloudy day in December.

I don't see a 'fundamental' problem here at all. Yes, place the German solar panels in a region where the sun is shining more intensely and constantly over the whole year and you get a lot more power out of it. And IMHO _that_ is the problem: nations with these areas haven't installed this capacity, and effectively Germany is significantly responsible for the massive decline in the cost of PV.

So the question is: why hasn't a country with more and more intense sunlight hasn't done it? And why aren't they scaling up massively now, with the price of PV much much lower than when Germany decided to do it?

That's a great question. Take the US as an example, since it has plenty of sunshine.

Nowadays investment in renewable energies is politically risky after the Solyndra failure, after the DOE gave Solyndra over half a billion dollars of loan guarantees.

After the dramatic failure of its own renewable energy initiative, it began attacking other countries' initiatives to expand solar use. For example: "The U.S. yesterday imposed tariffs of as much as 250 percent on Chinese-made solar cells to aid domestic manufacturers beset by foreign competition, though critics said the decision may end up raising prices and hurting the U.S. renewable energy industry." [1]

It's a sad state when the US government--presiding over one of the sunniest and advanced nations in the world--will not only refuse to sponsor domestic initiatives to bolster renewable energy development, but also punish countries that do.

[1] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/05/18/1092726/-250-Tariff...

I honestly don't think tariffs on Chinese solar panels is a bad thing. China devalues it's dollar, it's people & it's environment already. Plus they've stolen some US "green tech"[1]. I don't think they are playing on a level field.

[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-15/china-corporate-esp...

That depends on whose perspective you're looking from. From the US solar manufacturer's perspective, of course it's not a bad thing, since it stifles competition.

But from the perspective of people in the US who want solar panels, or Chinese producers of solar panels, it definitely is a bad thing.

Also, the link you supplied doesn't mention a word about solar--so punishing solar companies in order to "get back at" wind companies just doesn't make sense. Moreover, it isn't the case anymore that the Yuan is unambiguously undervalued. Many things are more expensive in China (in exchange-weighted nominal terms) than in the US, such as cars, electronics, etc. Also, in terms of the current account surplus, it is considered "normal" now [1].

[1] http://www.economist.com/node/21553041

Not everyone wants the cheapest thing possible without caring who made it or how it was made.

Tariffs are not to punish China because they stole wind tech, that is something that should be properly resolved in Chinese courts, but somehow I doubt that the US company is going to find proper restitution there. It's just an illustration of how unfriendly China can be to US competition. Copy tech & then go home & hide behind a convoluted & foreigner unfriendly court system.

The central Chinese government will do what it thinks is best for itself. This may involve squashing human rights, lax worker safety, destroying their environment, manipulating markets with currency(regardless of where the Yuan is right now) or raw materials. China is not above doing what it takes to benefit it's own manufacturers. I don't see why the US should not investigate benefiting it's own manufacturers as well. You could say that people will suffer because they won't get super cheap solar panels made under questionable circumstances, but honestly more people need to look beyond the price tag & at the "true costs".

One problem with the general lower standards argument is that it is so open ended. Based on that, the world could quickly slip into outright protectionism hurting everyone along the way. Sweden could slap massive tariffs on US goods based on low social and environmental standards or even currency manipulation for instance. Measured by purchasing power, the US dollar is about as undervalued relative to the Swedish Krona (and many other currencies) as the Yuan is relative to the US dollar.

Also, we have been importing commodities from brutal dictatorships for decades or even centuries in order to fuel our economies without ever complaining about low standards. Now that these countries start competing with us we're suddenly up in arms.

But ethical issues aside, such tariffs just make very little practical sense. Helping US and German panel manufacturers and at the same time hurting installers, equipment makers and consumers isn't going to help. Surely, the Chinese will retaliate.

Effectively, the Chinese and the Germans are subsidising everyone elses cheap clean energy. Let's just use it!

I don't disagree that the US government should and tries to do what's best for itself (to the extent possible within the constructs of the political system...).

I'm just saying that I believe it's not in its interests ultimately to levy such a heavy tariff on solar panels, regardless of where they're from. You may disagree on this, as many will disagree with China's policies.

I'd love to get cheap, subsidized solar panels--better if it's not subsidized by my own taxes. I just think levying a punitive tariff goes against even the spirit of self interest.

But why tax the US consumer too, which is what tariffs do? Why not sales subsidies for US manufacturers, say?

also, half of the pv capacity of the world is only 4% of the power needs for germany.

growing > 50% CAGR in the last 5 years. Don't write it off just yet :)

let's not forget that renewable sources are not only solar panels, e.g. the US produces energy comparable to germany from wind (given populations) and the same has always been popular in, say, netherland or denmark. Or, Italy produces about 7% of the consumed energy from hydro alone, and I believe norway has about 99% of the energy produced from hydroelectric plants.

That's a very good insight that I didn't consider, it's as if Maine had achieved the highest level of PV usage in the US.

In fact, most of Germany gets less sunlight than most of Maine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Insolation.png

Germany also has a lot of installed wind power which works at nights too. Plus new re-pumping hydro plants, which can be used to store the surplus energy of such peak solar output. So, with such diversification, the nuclear plants really are not necessary.

Plus with modern international energy trade, you get averaging benefits. I.e. when it is cloudy in your country, it may well be sunny in one of your neighbouring countries, so you can do instantaneous energy swaps like that, reducing the need for storage.

Sadly the nuclear plants in Germany, which provide 20% of the electricity, can not be replaced by renewables but only by coal and gas power plants.

Why not? Does not this directly contradict your statement? > Germany became a world leader in renewable energy and the country gets about 20 percent of its overall annual electricity from those sources.

1. Current renewable power sources need adjusting power (is that how it translates to English?) when it's not shining or windy. 2. Current distribution networks for electricity do not work well enough to transport large quantities of electricity for long distances. 3. Due to getting rid of nuclear, 90% of new electricity production built to Germany before 2020 will be from fossil fuels. (http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2012/05/germany_returns_to_c...) That is what "the global leader" can achieve. And the fossil fuel plant's are not going to be closed any faster than nuclear plants. Those investments are for the next 60 years, and it's likely that there will be more if/when cleantech can't really deliver out all the things we need.

And that's a pretty good result btw, truly a world champion -level achievement. Meanwhile, Japan's nuclear phaseout is done with 99,999478% in fossils. (The bloomberg links are down where they were calculated before, but should be googlable with "Japan's Use of Oil May Surge by 300000 Barrels a Day" & "Japan Will Use More Coal During Maintenance, Deutsche Bank Says".

Yes, you can get rid of nuclear, but for all intents and purposes, it has always resulted with more dinosaur burning, not less. And that's pretty bad.

Even with all flaws, nuclear is a lot cheaper economically and environmentally as an insurance option than what Germany and most global economies are currently pursuing.

Much what you write is wrong.

I live in Northern Germany and the days where it is not windy aren't that much. During the next two decades you will see massive investments in offshore wind parks. Winds on the North Sea are very strong and steady.

Current distribution networks are being upgraded. You'll see more of that in the next decades. We'll have a HVDC grid around the north sea. Connecting the wind parks, pumped hydro and the consumers.

90% from new electricity from fossil in the next years? That won't happen. The market for new fossil fuel plants is currently dead in Germany. To make that happen, the market would need to be restructured.

New fossil plants are also not that bad, since the new combined heat power plants are extremely efficient. There are new gas power plants which have a combined efficiency of 90%.

Japan's phase out is also not only done with fossils. Much of that is done with reduced consumption.

The German plans for its electricity production look forward to 2050, where around 80% of the electricity production will be from renewable energy. That's 38 years away, but it directs the policies and the investments. Nuclear then will be long gone.

Nuclear is also extremely expensive. Not cheap. The private sector is not willing to invest into it, without massive subsidies. Nuclear is getting more expensive, not cheaper. The whole area of safety is underdeveloped. The storage of nuclear waste is not solved. The public pays for accidents (see Japan, where Tepco gets more and more money from the government). Acceptance of the technology is going down. The nuclear industry had many costly adventures: reprocessing plants, breeders, thorium reactors, ... Many old reactors need to be replaced or upgraded.

Nuclear in its current form is no option. It generates huge centralized energy monopolies and it hasn't solved its core problems (waste, safety, security, ...).

Current distribution networks for electricity do not work well enough to transport large quantities of electricity for long distances.

In my opinion, this is the main issue that needs to be solved. Currently, we have centralized power plants with constant output, which distribute energy over medium ranges.

Decentralized energy production with fluctuating output doesn't play well with the existing network. However, that's not an unsurmountable problem - it's just not profitable as long as fission and fossil fuels are acceptable alternatives.

Don't worry. As Germany reduces its use of nuclear power, it'll just import more nuclear generated electricity from France.

Oh really. In winter everyone in France turns on their electric heater and in the summer the rivers run dry and EDF has to shut down plants due to insufficient cooling...

Why not?

Because there's too much fluctuation in solar output in Germany.

What is needed to make renewable enery viable in Europe (mainly solar, wind, waves) are better energy storage mechanisms and integration of national grids.

Total world energy consumption is about 16 Terawatts. The article reports Germany's solar production peaked at 22 Gigawatts. That's over 0.1% of humanity's use, from a single country covering a land area smaller than California. We have just begun to exploit solar PV power generation.

> [...] from a single country covering a land area smaller than California.

To be more precise: From a single, cloudy and relatively cold country. California isn't really the right comparison.

Apparently it was very sunny that day, and cool temps actually help PV efficiency IIRC.

Yes but we are still a month away from the longest day, so the chances are that this record will be broken again, soon.

To be even more precise: during a period of only a few hours during an extremely sunny day.

"22 gigawatts of electricity per hour" ?? WTF? As soon as I read that the credibilty of the whole post went waaay down...

But anyway, very cool.

It's not uncommon for people in the energy business to say "gigawatts" as short hand for "gigawatt hours". In that context this sort of makes sense. At their peak (likely when the sun was just right and the clouds were parted over most of Germany), it produced 22 gigawatt hours in a one hour time period. Without the implied "gigawatt hour", saying it just hit "22 gigawatts" isn't really that impressive, because that could just be a momentary spike. Being able to sustain it, even for an hour, is impressive.

They didn't say "gigawatt hours". They said "gigawatts per hour", which would be a rate of change of power generation. For example, if the sun came up and in 6 minutes your solar power station went from producing 0 to producing 2.2 gigawatts, that would be an increase of 22 gigawatts per hour. I strongly suspect that the author of the article is just ignorant.

Yes. Gigawatt hours would be meaningless. I'm saying that the "gigawatts" was a short form of "gigawatt hours", which means what they were talking about was "gigawatt hours per hour", which is really just average gigawatts over an hour, but that is quite meaningful as compared to straight up gigawatt.

It clearly carries a certain meaning, the same meaning as if a news story referred to "the country of Africa" or "Pablo Picasso, a well-known classical composer": its meaning is that the person who uttered it is too innocent of reality to be a reliable source of information on the topic.

...or too familiar with industry jargon to realize that they aren't being clear to a wider audience.

Like I said, it isn't unusual for people to say "gigawatts" and actually mean "gigawatt hours" when it comes to the power business.

Journalists routinely confuse energy and power units. Occasionally I write to one of them about it; maybe I'll write to this guy since his email address is readily available.

But yeah, if you look for it you'll see this in maybe 70 or 80% of news stories about power generation.

Maybe they meant gigawatts-hour, a unit of energy, although a bizarre one to use in any case.

Why is it a bizarre unit? I'm billed for my electricity use in kW/h.

No, you're billed in kWh.

In SI, energy is measured in joules, and power is measured in watts. One watt is one joule per second. It's indirect to say "watt-hour", because in effect you're saying joules per second times hours when you could have just said joules.

That's true. I just think of kilowatt-hours as a single unit, like Joule. That way it's no more bizarre than saying Newtons instead of kg m/s^2

I emailed Erik Kirschbaum about his "22 gigawatts of electricity per hour" statement. I received a "was deleted without being read" response.

You know what makes me happy? Germany's Solar Power. Germany's Political system. I personally believe this country is on the best path possible over all other countries even being an American my self. They are by far the most advanced politically than any other country I know, and that helps them advance it other areas of the country.

I applaud them!

I agree. It is very beneficial for the healthy outlook of any large and powerful country to badly lose a major war on its own territory. However, I don't really expect any Brits or Americans to even understand what I am talking about.

Although many of the Fukushima stories may have been sensationalist I welcomed them. Because in a way nuclear energy generation is also a status quo industry and an idea, although less so than coal. But we needed something to nudge people into wanting solar power, even over nuclear. The more demand there is for it, the more research will be made for it, and new ways will be found to make solar more efficient and cheaper.

We already hear about such new discoveries every few months now. Imagine if many more countries and Government were committed to solar energy and would make the solar industry boom because of it. We're still very early in this, and the potential is enormous.

What's wrong with nuclear?

Concentration on solar is great but has some sub-optimalities. Concentration on an energy industry that could also provide materials for a cold war arms race was clearly a bad idea.

Why aren't people working on thorium reactors?

Concentration on solar is a media myth - maybe because, next to wind mills, photovoltaics is the most visible generator, and unlike wind mills (quite expensive, lots of space needed), pretty much every house owner could invest a relatively modest amount to put PV on their roof.

IMHO the success story isn't solar, it's lots of tools (PV, wind, water, burning waste, storage) building an energy market with many participants where for nuclear, a few large corporations can control it all.

That's what's happening in Germany, and the Big Four definitely don't like that. It's not all roses, but I prefer the situation now over the several decades of subsidies + no liability for an industry club of 4.

Why aren't people working on thorium reactors?

Wikipedia lists current projects in the US (~2015), India (~2013) and China (~?).

The reason for India's interest in the technology should be obvious, and it's quite probable that we'll see further development on that front.

What is wrong with nuclear is that it has not turned out to be cost effective relative other options. The Economist, which has had a strong pro-nuclear stance for decades recently changed its mind.

"Whether it comes to benefit from carbon pricing or not, nuclear power would be more competitive if it were cheaper. Yet despite generous government research-and-development programmes stretching back decades, this does not look likely." http://www.economist.com/node/21549936

And the special report on that: http://www.economist.com/node/21549098

Interesting. Are you saying that the technology for thorium reactors wouldn't be so closely related to weapons technology?

In fact, that's one of the advantages of thorium reactors and fuel cycles.


Thorium can't, as far as I know, be used for bombs. Unlike plutonium or uranium.

And there you have the real answer why it is not used and why uranium/plutonium is. It has very little to do with the economics and safety of energy production.

It can still make a nasty mess, though.

> Imagine if many more countries and Government were committed to solar energy and would make the solar industry boom because of it. We're still very early in this, and the potential is enormous.

Here's one possibility: Sunny countries will begin to make a lot of money generating solar power and selling it to cloudy countries. North Africa, for example, could easily support all of Europe's electricity needs if we find some way to keep sand off the solar panels. But all of that money goes into the pockets of African and Middle Eastern autocrats, and the world enters a new era where everyone tries to grab the sunniest parts of the world ... umm ... wait a second, those are the same areas where we're currently killing people for oil. tl;dr: History repeats itself.

But on the flip side, solar energy would allow humanity to make good use of some of the most barren parcels of real estate in the world. Instead of using fertile fields to produce biofuel, we could use those fields to produce actual food and leave power generation to places like Arizona.

If we find some way to keep sand off the solar panels, and some way to efficiently transport it across the Mediterranean. That's certainly not impossible, but the technology for things like long-distance seafloor superconducting cables is even less mature than solar power plants.

It'd be way cool to see all of that come together In The Future, but in the near-term, surplus solar power in Africa is not going to help Europe, unless they use it indirectly by using solar electricity to synthesize oil or something.

> long-distance seafloor superconducting cables

The strait of Gibraltar is only 14km across. So maybe not all of Europe, but Spain could easily connect with African grids even with conventional equipment.


700MW, 580km long: world's longest submarine power cable... Between HVDC stations at Eemshaven in the Netherlands and Feda in Denmark.


Hang on a second, storage is the limiting factor here. If we had cheap, dense, efficient storage, the rest would work itself out.

And the other way round: If the grid was large enough we would not need storage. It seems reasonable to try to improve both the grid and storage.

You know, you're right. I had previously thought that was infeasible due to transmission losses, but I ran the numbers (which I should have done before posting the above), and it would only require a worst case of 50% losses, and ~4000 of today's HVDC cables going around the world. And probably quite a bit better, since that assumes that half the world is getting its power from the other half all the time.

I still think everyone owning an electric car for storage is probably a more realistic plan, but it's definitely not impossible to create a world energy grid and run the world even just from solar.

Your comment is exactly right; a blend is what's needed. Though in the case of solar, a blend still requires very long, very high capacity HDVC cables.

On the other hand, Tesla is busy getting luxury car buyers to help subsidize the capital investment in building storage on a bigger scale, and nobody has figured out how to get luxury car buyers to subsidize grid improvements.

In the long term, since the grid is a monopoly that is not eager to drop its price, whereas solar and batteries are likely to keep dropping in price, in part due to competition and in part due to appealing to early adopters, I expect that a few decades from now, the typical homeowner will use mostly solar and batteries instead of paying the monopolies' higher prices.

I find that a reasonable expectation, but it will not make any difference in the ability of European homeowners to benefit form Africa's surplus of sunlight. Storage only helps when you have a sufficiently high average power in one spot, and just need to spread out the peaks and valleys in production. Fantastic storage does not help if you can't gather enough energy to store in the first place. That may not turn out to be a problem for the average European homeowner if photovoltaics get good enough, but it is the problem that kijin was addressing by suggesting sunny countries sell power to cloudy countries.

One might use excellent storage technology to, e.g., charge batteries in the Sahara and ship them to Switzerland (or, more realistically, synthesize oil in the Sahara and ship it Switzerland), but that's just a slightly more indirect way of addressing the problem of transportation- moving the energy from the place where it can be produced to the place where it is needed to be used.

There are already plans for making Africa the power generator of Europe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desertec

Nuclear doesn't play nice with big solar and wind because nuclear plants don't want to turn on and off rapidly. See http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/why-baseload... an many others.

There are types of nuclear plants that can load-follow much more easily, but it's not a design goal right now. The cost of nuclear energy is almost entirely construction and red tape; once you have a nuclear plant, the marginal cost of producing another megawatt-hour is so low that you want to run them as close to 100% as you can.

If more of our electricity came from nuclear, load-following would become more of a design priority. Or we would build some highly adjustable loads that can take a bunch of excess power when it's there, like aluminum smelting or electric car charging.

Decommission is brutally expensive too.

That's budgeted as part of the (still remarkably low) operating costs. In the US at least, anybody operating a nuclear plant has to pay a certain amount yearly into a fund for its eventual decommissioning. (The same sort of situation applies to insurance, in case anybody was wondering.)

It's weird and may relate to different Things being measured, but UK decommissioning seems to be vastly more expensive than US decommissioning. Judging by news coverage anyway.

Edited for spelling.

There are many ways to store leftover capacity so that nuclear plants can operate all the time even when combined with renewable sources. For example, you could use leftover capacity to drive pumped storage plants. Pump storage plants operate at 70-87% efficiency [1] and can produce gigawatts of power on demand (in fact, within seconds). They are effectively the largest batteries in the world.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricit...

What's the net capacity of pumped storage though?

Other problems: you require a pretty significant hydrological infrastructure for PS: upper and catchment resevoirs, and a sufficient gradient to provide a net energy differential.

The logistics make multi-purpose use of PS systems (vs. typical flood-control or irrigation reservoirs) somewhat problematic as water levels may fluctuate dramatically over a brief period of time, and spillways/headways constitute a significant flash-flood drowning risk unless access-controlled.

Still, yes, pretty efficient energy storage systems overall.

There are already solutions for load balancing power. And these load balancing solutions for nuclear actually would be the same ones you'd need for wind and solar.

At night, Germany's solar power equals 0 nuclear plants.

Wrong. The energy from solar power can be stored in water reservoirs and that water can be used at night to generate power.

That's true. Fortunately: (1) it's always sunny somewhere (2) we are increasing our ability to store power (3) industrialized countries use less power at night.

His point is that if one depends too heavily on solar, there are times when they'll have no access to power. How does one transport solar power from Japan to Germany?

You don't. Instead you add wind and storage and quick-cycling natural gas.

You put mirrors in space.

But seriously, solar power generation by huge space stations that beam the power down to earth, then use mirrors to feed it where it is needed.

I think it's been shown that it's infeasible. You'd lose too much power in the beaming process, or you'd have a death ray beam that destroys anything that flies between it... you could increase the area, but then you'd need a collector dish the size of montana.

The best idea might be something like in the movie Moon where the power is stored chemically, then shipped back to earth.

We actually already have energy-storage technology (in your macbook, too!) - it's just terribly inefficient.

I think the most common technology in use today at powerplant-scale is the "Pumped-storage hydroelectricity plant". You basically pump water uphill when you have energy - and let it flow downhill again, through your energy-producing turbines, when you need it back.

Either way, there is tons of research in this area (e.g. SmartGrid). It seems like a problem that we will solve eventually.

Energy-storage technology isn't inefficient. Energy-storage technology is expensive.

"Efficiency in general describes the extent to which time or effort is well used for the intended task or purpose."

Comparatively high cost is the main factor why it is still be considered less efficient although that is slowly changing.

If you go on to the next paragraph in the wikipedia article you copy-pasted without citation, you'll see "The term "efficient" is very much confused and misused with the term "effective". In general, efficiency is a measurable concept, quantitatively determined by the ratio of output to input. "Effectiveness", is a relatively vague, non-quantitative concept, mainly concerned with achieving objectives."

Your post consists almost entirely of factual errors:

You'd lose too much power in the beaming process


"Rectenna conversion efficiencies exceeding 95% have been realized."

Here's another experiment that achieved 84% efficiency. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space-based_solar_power#Microwa...

you'd have a death ray beam that destroys anything that flies between it


A bird flying above a rectenna on actually proposed designs would feel warmer and keep flying.

but then you'd need a collector dish the size of montana.

There are no collector >dishes< involved, as far as I know, rectennas don't need a parabolic reflector. Parabolic dishes add directionality, but increasing the effective aperture is a better design for power receiving. Proposed collector area is typically on the order of one or a few squares mile, which compares favorably to the footprint of existing power generation schemes.

The best idea might be something like in the movie Moon where the power is stored chemically, then shipped back to earth.

The power wasn't stored >chemically< in the movie.

somewhere... I'm living at north of NRW, and this spring wasn't sunny at all - only last week was sunny here, while 3 first week of May were rainy :-(

Actually at night it equals 10 :)

At night the demand for electricity is significantly lower.

Germany is developing the whole range of renewable energy including new storage options.

Not just solar.

This is not a fair argument. When a nuclear reactor is being inspected, re-stocked, checked, repaired, refurbished, its output equals zero solar panels.

Fukushima's output has been equal to zero solar panels for over a year, despite its incomparably greater cost.

The amount of time a nuclear reactor is offline for inspection, refueling, repair, etc is far less than the amount of time it is dark.

But nuclear plants burn fuel at night when nobody needs the energy. Pumped-storage hydroelectricity is needed for both.

The sun burned fuel for billions of years well there was no one around whatsoever.

When it by earthquake/tsunami I know which plant I'd prefer to be near. The pacific rim would not seem ideal for nuclear power.



Most of those things are by-design made to be sturdy as fuck. And so far, no-one has died from Fuku-radiation?

Japan has 50 reactors. That's an investment of more than 100 billion dollars.

Currently none of those is operating. Several of them will stay shutdown.

The clean up of Fukushima is costly.

That's a huge economic loss.

OTOH most of the other power plants (i.e. non-nuclear) are running.

Are you joking? The area is unsafe, and it seems it will be for a fair while. Guess you don't know anyone who has been evacuated.

You need not even postulate any terrorist scenarios to realise that the nuclear plant risks are frighteningly real.

There are some 50 reactors in the US of the same vintage and design as Fukushima, including the spent fuel rods storage right next to the reactors.

Nuclear reactors produce very large amounts of heat concentrated in a small volume. Thus when the cooling system stops working, for whatever reasons, the core is going to melt down, guaranteed.

Despite the secrecy of TEPCO and their friends in government, many people now believe that the cooling failed the moment the earthquake struck. Mostly due to the poor state and maintenance of the cooling pipes. The backup diesel generators to run the cooling circuits (again the same as in the US), with known shaft/bearings problems, packed up within minutes. After that, there is nothing anyone can do, as we had seen. The tsunami probably provided just a creditable scapegoat excuse.

Kind of meh that the HN commentary is 'blah blah nuclear blah blah.' There are, IMHO, other aspects to this that are actually interesting: The effectiveness of subsidy in spurring a tech sector; the importance of cultural values; concrete rebuttal to the 'energy incident per solid angle crowd'; etc.

Critics also complain growing levels of solar power make the national grid more less stable due to fluctuations in output.

DaniFong, I hope your company Light Sail Energy has some deals with Germany in the works for your energy storage product.

This is impressive, but I would guess that this was an especially sunny day. I'd like to see what the average output is.


This is in German, but the only source i could find. It says PV produced 3% of the procuced energy in 2011. It is said the capacity grew about 30% since q4 2011, but the stats seem to be pending.


In 2010 604,0 TWh where consumed [1], so that would be 604,0 TWh * 3% / 8760 h = 2 GW as a conservative estimate. But note the stats are all a bit out of date.

[1] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedarf_an_elektrischer_Energie...


As the graph says 612 TWh where produced, so 612 TWh * 0.03 / 8760h = 2 GW.

I wonder if the nuclear plant will become the new unit of measure for popular discussions of energy production in a similar way that the Library of Congress is a unit of measure for data.

What's really impressive here is that Germany of all places is producing this much solar energy. One would better predict a sunnier climate as the place to do this. It's great work, but I can imagine that maintaining base-load is is still a difficult thing for the Germans. Anybody know how they are handling storage for distribution during winter months/nighttime/inclement weather conditions?

The real insight for me is the success of the feed in tariff program. These reward suppliers at higher than market rates for feeding electricity back into the grid. E.g. You get paid retail prices, where you really should only get wholesale, which excludes transmission costs.

For personal generation a well designed feed in tarrif should provide incentive to build solar panels/wind turbines on your roof etc. A million households producing a little power each makes it a lot easier to get to sustainability.

Yes, the FIT is great if a) you're a solar equipment provider that can't compete with other energy technologies or b) if you're a energy provider that has hitched its wagon to solar energy, and can't compete with other technologies on a cost basis.

For consumers, it's not so great. Germany has some of the highest electricity prices before the FIT, and the FIT just makes it worse.

What is the "GW per hour" referenced several times in the article? Do they just mean GW or do they mean Gigawatt Hours?

They mean gigawatts of power, at some specific time. Germany has about 24.8 GW [1] of installed solar capacity, which recently peaked about 22 GW of actual power. The time-average is about 2.1 GW as of last year [1] (as 18 TWh/year), because solar panels in Germany only yield about 10-12% of their capacity averaged over the day and year. [a] So this is about the same as a (one) large nuclear reactor in electricity generated, but not peak power.

Incidentally it's cost about €100 billion [2] to build this, at taxpayer expense. (Though this a future-spending figure: the subsidies aren't paid at the time a power plant is built, but deferred over 20 years -- the present value is somewhat lower). The specific subsidy rates are listed here [3] (they're set by the year the plant is installed).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Germany

[2] http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/inflated-incenti...

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_incentives_for_photov...

[a] Note that the installed capacity increased a lot over 2011, so you can't do simple comparisons like dividing 2.1/24.8 -- a lot of the capacity wasn't installed at the beginning of the year, and was at the end. But see the example capacity factors in the power plant table in [1]

>€100 billion [2] to build this, at taxpayer expense.

At energy consumers expense to be precise. 100 billion € sound scary, but it's just adds another 8,2% to the incredibly expensive German electricity bill.


They mean GW. Many news articles on this subject show irritating ignorance of energy/power and the correct use of units :(

GW per hour would be the rate of change of power generation, which is obviously incorrect given the context :)

I suppose they could correctly say "GWh per hour", but it's simpler to just say "GW".

It's relatively easy to produce 22GWh for a couple hours each year. Try doing it 8,760 hours straight.

According to Reuters, solar provided 18TWh in 2011 (up 60% from 2010) which was 3% of total power output.

How many energy was consumed building this thing? and in what time will this power plant produce same amount of energy?

About 1 to 2 years. Highly variable by technology.

There is a persistent myth that solar panels take more energy to fabricate than they produce in their lifetime. It is shown false with minimal effort (consider if the entire cost of a panel was energy. no labor, not capital equipment overhead, no raw materials… they still have payback periods shorter than their lifetimes).

For the newest, most efficient panels, it's about 5 years.

Where do you get this number from?

I don't have a number, but the exotics that are used in space applications may never pay back their production energy. But it takes a lot of extension cords to reach geosynchronous orbit.

Can't tell you that, but here's an interesting article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparisons_of_life-cycle_green...

Basically, Greenhouse gas emission including construction, material acquisition, maintenance etc. per kWh im g CO2: Solar: 32 Nuclear: 66 (which assumes that enrichment is done with conventional energy)\ Coal: 960

This page [0] discusses this question. It's in German but the Google translation is not bad. The energy required to produce both solar and wind energy has decreased significantly in recent years.

Solar power in Germany (the page claims) takes between 15 - 100 months to generate as much energy as producing them takes. I assume 100 is for old panels, and with modern (=more efficiently produced) panels it's more like 15. Wind power takes just 3 - 23 months to establish this "energy payback".

The page has more detailed figures and sources.

[0] http://www.volker-quaschning.de/datserv/kev/index.php

That's a pointless metric. Not all energy is created equal, if you will.

> 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour

I'm cringing.

Weather is a factor here, for example this lasted for a very long period for us humans - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Ice_Age

But then technology advances so fast, so it might be the right stuff.

Why downvoted? I'm not against it, just noting that weather affects such technology much more than other.

Anyone else have a sudden urge to play Power Grid?

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