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Why the Atom Is the Answer

SlovakiaIn response to Ron Bailey’s feature (CE March-April 2009) on electric cars and the battery technology that will be needed to make them  commercially appealing economically viable, Marc Goldberg, principal of SuMa Partners in Boca Raton, FL wrote to us with an excellent question: “Where will the electricity to power all this come from?” An …

SlovakiaIn response to Ron Bailey’s feature (CE March-April 2009) on electric cars and the battery technology that will be needed to make them  commercially appealing economically viable, Marc Goldberg, principal of SuMa Partners in Boca Raton, FL wrote to us with an excellent question: “Where will the electricity to power all this come from?” An excellent question. He and other respondents wonder whether the constant drumbeat about renewable energy such as wind, solar, bio, etc. wasn’t leading us down the path to another ethanol-like dead end.

Many business leaders are right to be concerned. Affordable energy is the life source for economic growth and a nation’s standard of living. The U.S. consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil per day, about a quarter of the world total. Almost 70 percent of the oil we use goes to transportation, so it makes sense to diversify and substitute  electricity for oil for  transportation use. Over the long term, the country will likely need to increase natural gas resources for electric power, particularly as this sector will be called upon to satisfy the nation’s growing demand for diversified power.

Going forward fuel diversity would seem to make sense. We will need multiple and redundant energy options. Electrification of transportation may represent a pathway out of dependence on foreign oil but it represents other challenges. Do we have enough electric generation capacity and what is going to fuel it once the demand for electricity goes up?

The hostility towards fossil fuels such as coal which supplies 48.5 percent of U.S. electricity generation is growing in Washington day by day. Recently I was in that city and had occasion to use its wonderful underground metro. Waiting at the Metro Center station platform one is surrounded by dozens of floor- to-ceiling billboards that normally carry advertisements, but here featured images of mythical creatures-a mermaid, a Roswell-like alien– each one holding what looked like a sizeable lump of coal. Turn the corner on the station platform and one is confronted by an even bigger billboard. It declares in giant bold type that “clean coal is a myth,” too. The growing propaganda, and not just inside the Beltway, against coal has made this  fuel the new tobacco. Coal is socially unacceptable by the lumpen intelligentsia. It never gets invited to Georgetown parties. It is never a guest on American Idol.

Renewable energy, by contrast, is on all the right dance cards. It is always welcome on “The View,” and is featured routinely on YouTube. It is a wonderful thing until one drills down to the realities of making it work. People who have had operational experience have proven what experts have known for some time: renewables are not only expensive they are also unreliable making them unfit as sources for base load power. Solar power almost never converts more than fourth of the energy it captures into electricity. Wind’s load factor-the electricity it produces per installed capacity rarely exceeds 20 percent. The fact that the sun doesn’t always shine and that the wind doesn’t always blow renders these darlings of the back-to-the-earth movement intermittent sources at best. In most cases plants that use these sources also maintain traditional power generators as back-up which sort of defeats the purpose of having green alternatives in the first place. According to the EIA, wind represents 1.3 percent of  electricity generated in the U.S. last year and that is with the wind of federal and state subsidies at its back.

Solar contributes less than one percent to the country’s power. The problem with solar is best summed up by “Terrestrial Energy” author William Tucker. Writing in “The American Spectator” he reckons “Sunup to sundown, the sun’s rays shed about 400 watts per square meter of ground in the U.S.. By theroretical limits, only 25 percent of this can be converted into electricity. This  means that solar electricity can light one 100-watt light bulb for every card table. Covering every square foot of every building in the country with solar panels would be enough to provide our indoor lighting-about 4 percent of our total electrical consumption-during the daytime.”

The only way to make up for the low density of solar energy flow is to use more land. Tucker points to a 2007 Rockefeller University study that calculated the amount of land that would be required to equal the output from fossil fuels using renewable energy. “Running a 1,000-megawatt electrical station-the standard size-for example would require 1,000 square miles of forest. A hydroelectric dam generating 1,000 MW usually backs up a reservoir of about 250 square miles.”  It turns out that no amount of technical skill or creative venture funding can overcome the fundamental laws of physics. Solar cells and windmills may be made cheaper but the land requirements needed to capture the energy in the first place will never be reduced. Perhaps this is why virtually all of the solar and wind power alternative energy stocks lost 80 percent of their share vale at the end of 2008 about twice the haircut  the market as a whole took.

So where does this leave us?

The one  source that has sufficient energy density to provide generous baseline power for electric generation is one that our President studiously avoids mentioning: Nuclear. Against all odds and invincible media prejudice it is undergoing a worldwide revival. There are 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. supplying almost 20 percent of our electricity. In countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium the reliance on nuclear as a percent of the total is at least two and half times that.  France, which has never allowed itself to succumb to anti-nuclear hysteria, depends on nuclear energy for over 76 percent of its power needs.

And the best part is that reliability has greatly improved. Nuclear reactors now run close to two years without interruption. They are the ultimate base-load source operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year. In 2007, the industry set an all-time capacity milestone-91.8 percent with 807 billion kilowatt-hours produced, while achieving an all-time low in production cost at 1.68 cents per kwh, besting the previous record of 1.72 cents in 2005. (The typical residential homeowner would pay 1.8 to 2.0 cents in a non peak season.)

And here’s the beauty of it; the level of CO2 emissions from a nuclear facility are exactly zero.

The only problem is that we have an administration that appears to be dogmatically betrothed to green energy sources that have already proved a failure in the marketplace. All the TARP money at Obama’s disposal cannot put the renewable energy Humpty Dumpty back together. Eventually he may have to yield to an energy choice already embraced by the world. (See table, “World Nuclear Power Generation and Capacity”)

World Nuclear Power Generation and Capacity

 

As of February 2009

2007

Country

Number of Nuclear Units

Nuclear Capacity (MW)

Nuclear Generation (BkWh)

Nuclear Fuel Share (Percent)

Argentina

2

935

6.7

6.2

Armenia

1

376

2.3

43.5

Belgium

7

5,824

45.9

54.0

Brazil

2

1,795

11.7

2.8

Bulgaria

2

1,906

13.7

32.1

Canada

18

12,578

88.2

14.7

China

11

8,438

59.3

1.9

Czech RP

6

3,634

24.6

30.2

Finland

4

2,696

22.5

28.9

France

59

63,260

420.1

76.8

Germany

17

20,470

133.2

27.3

Hungary

4

1,859

13.9

36.8

India

17

3,782

15.8

2.5

Japan

53

46,070

267.3

27.5

Korea Rep

20

17,647

136.6

35.3

Lithuania

1

1,185

9.1

64.4

Mexico

2

1,300

9.9

4.6

Netherlands

1

482

4.0

4.1

Pakistan

2

425

2.3

2.3

Romania

2

1,300

7.1

13.0

Russia

31

21,743

148.0

16.0

Slovakia

4

1,711

14.2

54.3

Slovenia

1

666

5.4

41.6

South Africa

2

1,800

12.6

5.5

Spain

8

7,450

52.7

17.4

Sweden     

10

8,958

64.3

46.1

Switzerland

5

3,238

26.5

40.0

Taiwan, China

6

4,921

39.0

19.3

U.K.

19

10,097

57.5

15.1

U.S.*

104

100,582

806.5

19.4

Ukraine

15

13,107

87.2

48.1

Total

436

370,235

2,608.0

14.2

 

 

 

 

 

* IAEA nuclear capacity and generation figures are slightly higher than EIA nuclear figures.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency and World Nuclear Association

http://www.iaea.org/programmes/a2/index.html

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html

Updated: 2/09

About JP Donlon

JP Donlon is the Editor-in-Chief of Chief Executive magazine.