Energy and Water


by Sam Carana

Nuclear versus Wind power

Which alternative is the cheapest depends on how costs are calculated. There are many things that should be factored into a comparison of the cost of alternatives such as nuclear reactors, conventional power plants, wind-farms, water turbine and solar power solutions. Cost-wise, we can think of the following:
1. Building the facility (including installation, construction, land acquisition, commissioning, etc).
2. Maintaining the facility, lifespan of the plant, fixing it in case of damage, rebuilding or updating it, decommissioning and dismantling old parts, etc.
3. Staff required to operate and maintain the facility, etc.
4. Some cost is now carried by government, but that doesn't mean it comes for free. Cost should be calculated and incorporated in each alternative to work out their total cost. We can think of costs like:
- Fueling the facility with coal, petrol, nuclear rods, or whatever is required to make it run. This includes the cost of shipping coal, building ports, etc. In the case of uranium there is the acquisition cost as well as the need to political lobbying to ensure ongoing supply;
- Educational cost. In the case of uranium, specialized staff is required to enrich it at the plant. There's also an ongoing need for impact assessment, planning, dealing with emergencies, etc, all of which calls for the availability of specialized studies at universities;
- Distributing the power, typically through the electrical grid;
- Environmental costs include waste management, including cooling of facilities, measures needed to deal with operational pollution and rehabilitating of the site after dismantling. In the case of nuclear power plants it's hard to clean a site from radioactivity; and
- Security, which is increasingly recognized as important and costly, requiring ongoing vigilance, patrols and monitoring, etc. This also includes the cost of patrolling ships carrying oil, dealing with waste, such as how to safely store nuclear waste without terrorists getting their hands on it to make weapons, etc.  

Typically, studies that make cost comparisons do not include the cost of all these items. To get a picture of the full cost, we'll have to work out the cost of, say, maintenance of the electrical grid. If every house or office could put enough solar panels on their roofs for their own electrical power requirements, then we wouldn't need no electrical grid at all. Calculating in the savings in such areas could make a huge difference for alternatives such as solar power.  

Finally, we need not only compare prices for today, but we need to predict price estimates for the future. To do so, we need to take into account technological trends, specifically the rapid price falls and efficiency gains in solar panels, batteries, computers and TV-sets. The latter two need ever less power, due to more efficient chips, use of LCD-screens instead of CRT-screens. Such trends make solar panels ever more attractive.

We need to see a lot of different technologies at work, at small scale, to evaluate what works best. Many such technologies can be applied in the home setting, e.g. solar panels, catching rainwater in tanks, recycling water down in the backyard, etc. Some of the more exotic solutions are capturing the energy of lightning and storing this in flywheels.

These are all alternatives to the current centralized solution of a single electrical grid, water supply, sewage and storm-water system. To encourage such alternatives, the current system could offer financial incentives. People who return more power into the electrical grid than they consume could get paid for that. Similarly, people could add to the water supply and get paid. People could take storm-water, etc. Eventually, we could all become both suppliers and consumers of a patchwork of competing systems.  

At the same time, there are many technologies that we should continue to discuss in places like this, encouraging people to start with practical trials.

You may have heard about "heat pumps". Rather than drilling pipes deep down into the earth to capture the heat down there, another such idea is to exploit temperature differences in the sea. The deeper you go down into the ocean, the colder it gets. At the lowest points, the temperature is near freezing point. Create a small floating island, from where you sink a pipe down for a few hundred metres. Then, pump up the cold water with a solar-powered pump and release the water all around back into the sea from a little tower of, say, two metres high. As the cold water falls down into the sea, the evaporation will act as an air-conditioner. Furthermore, condensation around the top of the pipe will drip down and can be captured in containers, to be sold as fresh water.

This harvesting of clean, potable water could go a long way to pay for such projects. Such projects appear to have the added beneficial effect of reducing warming of the atmosphere. But do they really reduce overall global warming? Don't they simply move energy from one place to another, with no change to the overall situation?

To reduce overall global warming, we need to either deflect some of the incoming sunlight away from earth or we need to store some of the energy, e.g. in trees.

One of the big questions is whether we can and should commercialize and rationalize the initiatives that add to or subtract from global warming. Should people get credits for planting trees in their gardens? Should people loose credits for, say, burning wood in an open fire? Should there be one giant tax system imposed on all activities on earth, or not? Personally, I don't think a Big Brother approach will work, but what are the alternatives? [source]

Wind turbines look pretty good, especially when working in combination with solar and hydro-power serving power grids that are interconnected and also  overlapping (i.e. competing with each other), and that see any connection as both a potential supplier and customer. This will allow market forces to establish the (floating) price of the moment for supply or consumption of energy to and from each of these grids. Nuclear power should be rejected for the many associated dangers. For more on the latter. see the thread at:  

Furthermore, nuclear power requires access to uranium and huge technical skills. There are only a handful of consortia in the world capable of building nuclear plants. Operating the plants requires a continuous supply of skilled staff over many years. The simplicity of wind turbines makes them look ever more attractive in this regard.

Costwise, wind power is also looking increasingly attractive compared to nuclear power plants. Many cost elements of nuclear power have until now been under-estimated, specifically the cost of security, litigation, waste disposal, safety, cleaning, and staff training. In the past, many cost elements, such as developing and building nuclear power plants, building up and sustaining the technical know-how and ensuring there is competent staff to run the plant, have been partly hidden in scientific and military projects that aimed to give a country access to nuclear weapons. The link between nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons has long been a hidden argument to choose nuclear power for countries that aspired more military power.

But increasingly, the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons starts to count against nuclear power plants. Concern for proliferation of nuclear weapons has increased since 9/11, as people worry more about terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons to hold the world at ransom. Furthermore, there is increasing concern that nuclear power plants become targets for terrorists or that terrorists could hijack nuclear waste to create a 'dirty' bomb.

Most western countries have ruled out nuclear power, partly for its links with nuclear weapons. The countries with the most nuclear power plants are the US, France and Japan, and they have ever less interest in nuclear weapons, as modern weapons such as guided missiles with conventional explosives can take out enemy targets with pin-point accuracy, without the massive death of people and destruction of infrastructure that comes with nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of wind power is that it's clean, renewable energy that doesn't add to the greenhouse effect or to global warming, unlike nuclear power and burning fossil fuel. While nuclear power doesn't come with the emissions of greenhouse gasses that make burning of coal, gas and oil unattractive, the radio-active waste of nuclear plants is polluting in a much more insidious way. Furthermore, nuclear plants add heat that causes global warming, while alternatives like solar, hydro, geothermal and wind power merely re-use energy that was already there. As concern for global warming and climate change increases, the latter argument adds further weight to wind power.

Wind power is looking increasingly attractive, but as discussed before, we should look at many alternatives in smaller-scale projects, rather than to put all our eggs into one massive, centralized system. [source]

Wind power is best used in combination with other sources of energy. In many places, especially where there is plenty of sunshine, solar power is an excellent compliment, since the sun shines most during the day when there's more demand than at night, while wind power can continue to generate electricity at night. Wave power is also interesting, for its continuity. Most economic is hydro-power, i.e. dams that create lakes in rivers, as they can supply both potable water and electricity on demand. To avoid that the water level gets too low, two lakes could be created at different levels, i.e. the lower lake further downstream. At times of peak demand, energy is generated by letting the water flow down from each lake. At times of low levels of water, the water can be pumped back from the lower lake into the upper lake, using the (excess) electricity generated by the wind turbines at off-peak times, say at windy nights. The greater the upper lake, the easier it will be to spread things out to ensure continuity in supply of both water and electricity. Water levels could further be kept high by dropping salt and ice on nearby clouds from small airplanes, to induce rain. I earlier discussed this in more detail at:

Anyway, the conclusion is that we should have multiple sources that generate electricity into the power grid. The one source that's hard to combine with other soucres is nuclear power. Nuclear plants may appear to provide all required electricity, so they are typically set up as the sole source for a power grid. The problem with a nuclear plant is that it is so expensive that planners are prone to set it up as the sole supplier. Since nuclear plants are so expensive to build, operate and maintain, and since they require a long-term commitment, it unlikely that alternative sources are planned next to it on the same power grid. As I said above, the cost of nuclear plants was often underestimated in the past, which is part of the reason why wind power is now looking increasingly attractive, compared to nuclear power.

So, it makes sense to connect multiple suppliers of energy to a power grid. A nuclear plant may have to be shut down for maintenance from time to time or may for some other reason (e.g. security) experience black-outs. Apart from using multiple sources, we also need to look at interconnection of different power grids. Interconnected power grids can help each other out in times of peaks and trouble. Instead of seeing a power grid as a distribution network with a single plant that distributes energy to consumers, we should look at the power grid more like an interactive network. We should look at anyone who is connected to the grid as both a potential supplier and consumer. So, if you consume energy, you pay the going rate for that moment. If you put energy into the network, you get paid the going rate for that moment.

Example 1: At night (i.e. low demand) when there's a lot of wind blowing (plenty of supply if wind turbines are connected), any supplier will not be paid a lot. The grid merely makes a margin on top of the price it pays for supply, so consumers will also benefit from low rates, which will encourage people to, say, heat up their how-water tanks at night.

Example 2: During times of peak demand, there may happen to be little wind. In that case, it makes sense to use hydro power, as discussed above. But if it's sunny, there may be plenty of people who have an oversupply of electricity from their solar panels or other alternative means of generating electricity that they can "sell back" into the grid.

In the end, market forces can run things in the most efficient way, which will result in the best prices for every participant. Those who find things still too expensive can always climb onto their push-bike to generate the electricity for their LCD screens at no cost.

In conclusion, wind power is only one piece of the puzzle, but if you see it as I described above, i.e. in combination with hydro power and water supply, it's a pretty large piece of the puzzle. Furthermore, the market forces approach is important and is more effective than a single plan that is prone to be too centralized and bureaucratic. I'm convinced that the outcome of a market-driven energy policy will be power grids with a multitude of suppliers providing input.

A final piece of the puzzle is litigation. To tackle all kinds of environmental problems, we need is better litigation. Anyone who feels harmed should be able to sue whoever they feel are responsible for inflicting damage. That way, everyone will take better care without need for any bureaucratic plans to be imposed from above. The problem is that currently the biggest polluters are indemnified by government. Lifting that indemnity is all that's needed to get the ball rolling, in the same way that happened in regard to tobacco. I'm convinced that, if the indemnity is lifted, investors will quickly withdraw any funding from nuclear power projects and instead invest on projects like wind farms, which appear a safe, clean and simple way to generate electricity without the numerous problems associated with nuclear power. As I said in the above post, it seems that many investors have already drawn that conclusion, and wind power is experiencing massive growth, in sharp contrast with nuclear power. [source]

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