Renewables? Or Nuclear? Jacobson, Gates, on Energy Breakthroughs

May 17, 2016

This should stimulate a discussion.  No throwing food please.

This is another piece from my discussion with Dr. Mark Jacobson of Stanford, conducted in San Francisco in December. Here he gives his estimate of the relative value of renewables vs Nuclear power in solving climate change. I’ve intercut with a 2012 interview given by Bill Gates at a Wall Street Journal forum, which is still pretty current.  Gates is an investor in a “4th generation” nuclear technology, which he is sure will be ready some time in coming decades, if all goes well.  In a recent Scientific American piece, Gates confirmed that he is still backing the same tech, although the deadlines have slipped a couple years:

The idea, through a partnership with China or some other country, is: Can you get the pilot plant built, if everything went well, by 2024? And then have six years of operating experience where by 2030 you would say to the world, “Hey, build as many of these as you want. All new nuclear starts should be this and nuclear starts as a percentage of new or replacement energy should be very high.” That’s the possibility, but we’ve got to get the pilot plant built. We’ve got to get it approved. It has to work super well. The time frames can’t slip too dramatically. It’s a serious entrant and, from my potentially biased point of view, in the nuclear fission category I don’t know many other entrants that you look at and say, “Okay, if you go from paper to real, then this is a meaningful contribution to cheap energy, and to global warming as an incredible problem.”


Now is the time to support the 2016 Dark Snow Field campaign. More about that here.

Below, 2 more pieces from Jacobson, an overview of renewable potential, and his take on the impacts of natural gas.



Joe Romm at ClimateProgress:

In the first three months of 2016, the U.S. grid added 18 megawatts of new natural gas generating capacity. It added a whopping 1,291 megawatts (MW) of new renewables.

The renewables were primarily wind (707 MW) and solar (522 MW). We also added some biomass (33 MW) and hydropower (29 MW). The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) latest monthly “Energy Infrastructure Update” reports that no new capacity of coal, oil, or nuclear power were added in the first quarter of the year.

So the U.S. electric grid added more than 70 times as much renewable energy capacity as natural gas capacity from January to March.

It is increasingly clear that we don’t need to add significant amounts of any new grid capacity that isn’t renewable for the foreseeable future. In part that’s because demand for utility power generation has been flat for almost a decade — and should continue plateauing for quite some time — thanks to rapidly growing energy efficiency measures (and, to a much lesser extent, thanks to recent increases in rooftop solar).

We also know that renewable power — both new wind and solar — is now winning bids for new generation around the world without subsidies. Some bids are coming in at under four cents per kilowatt hour!

Studies from NOAA and others — and real-world examples around the globe, such as Germany — show that the U.S. can absorb vastly greater percentages of renewables than we currently have, just with existing technology. Yet NOAA’s research shows that, with nothing more than an improved national transmission system, “a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years.”


Now is the time to support the 2016 Dark Snow Field campaign. More about that here.


31 Responses to “Renewables? Or Nuclear? Jacobson, Gates, on Energy Breakthroughs”

  1. rsmurf Says:

    If anyone thinks bill gates is NOT doing this for MONEY ONLY i have a bridge to sell you!

    • Sir Charles Says:

      What does Bill Gates know about sustainable energy supply? He cannot even present a computer operating system that works.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Of course Bill Gates is in it for the money, as are Warren Buffett and all the rest of the billionaires. Gates is sitting on ~$80 billion dollars and devotes most of it to making more money rather than doing good. Just like the Koch brothers spending nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 election—they have $70+ billion between them and can afford to spend some to do evil. Two sides of the same coin.

      I’ll believe Gates cares when he gives all but $10 million of his fortune away for good causes. I’m sure many of us would be glad to offer him some free advice on how to survive with a lot less than $10 million in assets.

  2. The problem is not the fuel used to boil water, it is the GE steam turbine that is incurably inefficient and due for the technology scrap heap – along with the 5 lb. black phone you rent, typewriter, Polaroid film, 8 track and VCR, … Good riddance. After 100 years, the steam system still wastes 75% of the energy by lighting fossils on fire. Caveman fire technology is so primitive you would have thought choking on the exhaust fumes for 50,000 years would have taught homo sapiens (thinking man) something by now. Cough cough! The heat from a caveman’s wood fire would be absorbed by the cave’s rock ceiling to radiate long after the fire expired. I bet this is more efficient than “modern” steam engines.

  3. Canman Says:

    Renewable advocates are being shamelessly ingenuous when they tout the cost of and increase in new capacity without mentioning any numbers for generation. Mark Jacobson doesn’t even mention whether his price figures are for capacity. Here’s the figures I came up with for the increase in generation in 2015 over 2014 (GWh).

    Natural Gas ——————————————- 208,459
    Wind —————————————————— 9,272
    Solar (utility-scale + rooftop PV + thermal) ——- 11,387

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      What’s your point – that natural gas grew in 2015 (as coal plummeted)? Stop the presses!

      And Dr Jacobson is not being “shamelessly ingenuous” – his calculations are explicit and available to read for everyone who cares to, you jackass.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    Two quick points of interest:

    1) Dr Jacobson has changed the RE mix he advocates now from previous iterations. He now plans for a “tiny” bit (if I heard him right) of tidal/wave power, when some years ago he called for millions of installations. This points out not only the difficulty of development of that tech, but also how easily the gap can be made up with solar and wind.

    2) The next time you hear some naysayer complain about how much land needs to be devoted to RE, remember what Dr Jacobson said here – natural gas infrastructure alone takes up a land area the size of Maine and it pollutes like crazy. Plus, with the exception of concentrated solar, RE farms can be multi-use, with happily grazing animals or crops grown alongside pollution-free RE machines.

    • Canman Says:

      – natural gas infrastructure alone takes up a land area the size of Maine and it pollutes like crazy.

      That assertion sounds suspicious.

      • schwadevivre Says:

        H’mm so how many earthquakes are down to wind turbines and solar panels?

        How many pollutants find their way into ground water from solar and wind installations?

        How much carbon dioxide will be generated by oil and gas from shale?

        How many gas and oil leaks will there be from these “harmless” little wells?

        What is the density of these wells? Check this article in Wired

        How often will more fracking fluid have to be injected to keep the well open?

        How much land will be despoiled by the other infrastructure such as pipelines, compressors, service roads etc.

      • Sir Charles Says:

        That’s some fucked sheet indeed. When your fracking wells have poisoned water, land and atmosphere, and when they will have long been depleted, the wind turbines are still generating clean energy.

        • Where is all of the liquid fracking waste going to be stored? Deep well injection causes earthquakes. Drilling cuttings are radioactive. There is no permanent storage site for nuclear waste either. Nuclear power will never be “too cheap to meter.” Plutonium, a by-product of nuclear energy is used to make nuclear weapons and has a half life of 45,000 years. It’s toxic and radioactive. The methane extracted is radioactive with radon, whose half life is 8.3 days. It is not stored for 10 half lives or 80 days before being used in people’s homes and businesses. Breathing in radon causes cancer. Just ask the uranium miners families and the families of homes out west, who had them built on uranium mill tailings or with concrete containing those mill tailings from uranium mills. Burning it for cooking, heating and electric power adds to more green house gases and global warming. More fracking wells being drilled adds to more environmental destruction, cutting down trees, compressor pumping stations, leaks, explosions, and more diesel and other emissions. Why are all of these new and proposed pipelines ending up at ocean ports for export at LNG, liquefied natural gas? I thought we needed this fracked gas for our “energy independence”and as a” transition fuel” until renewable energy is ready. We have the technology and the resources to transition now to renewable energy without nuclear or fossil fuel. All we lack is the political will because the dirty, greedy fossil, nuclear and centralized electric utilities have bought off all of our elected leaders in Washington and the state houses. No, nuclear power and fracking for fossil fuel for energy are both too dangerous, too expensive and totally unnecessary for our energy needs.

        • Canman Says:

          “…, and when they will have long been depleted, the wind turbines are still generating clean energy.”

          If all those wind turbines don’t have a limited life, a lot of their components do. And there’s a huge number of them! If Lockheed Martin’s fusion pans out, they might all be made obsolete, just in time for the big lunar tritium rush.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        some conflict between cartoon and reality

    • Canman Says:

      I’ll have to admit that those cartoons may understate the effects of fracking. I understand used frack water has to be stored somewhere. But I also think the first one understates the number of wind turbines it takes to replace a single coal or gas plant.

      I drew the line at using this cartoon:

      I don’t think wind turbines kill grass.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        That was shamelessly ingenuous of you.

      • pendantry Says:

        I think you lack basic English comprehension skills. If you had actually ‘drawn the line at using that cartoon’… you wouldn’t have used it. Or is this what ‘shamelessly ingenuous’ (sic) means?

        • dumboldguy Says:

          I had similar thoughts and wondered what canman’s “game” was—-I suspect he may be a denier troll, and if so, there is no reason to attach a (sic) to “shamelessly ingenuous”—-ingenuous is what he’s pretending to be, and he is shameless in his duplicity.

          Peter’s posting of the aerial photos of fracking fields proves the point of what I was also thinking about the “where would you rather live ” cartoon. At 5 acres per fracking pad, there would be 640 of those pads (and the attendant roads and pipelines) in 5 square miles. Canman would have us believe that 87 turbines in the same five square miles (~17 per square mile) are more of a visual blight or more of a danger to the environment than the 128 per square mile fracking pads? LOL

          • pendantry Says:

            I used ‘sic’ as I was making reference to Canman’s earlier (mis)use of the phrase. I too smell denier troll… or I would not have been so blunt.

        • Canman Says:

          Oh, I see I somehow omitted the “dis” in disingenuous (most likely from not fully correcting after a cursor jump from my thumb hitting the touchpad). My sentence can actually be parsed as posted:

          Renewable advocates are being shamelessly ingenuous when they tout the cost of and increase in new capacity without mentioning any numbers for generation.

          “Ingenuous” means having a childlike innocence, trust and openness. It also implies lacking in sophistication or worldliness. I’d say that would apply to many renewable advocates like, say, Naomi Klein, who have no clue as to what the difference is between capacity and generation. But it would definitely not apply to Mark Jacobson.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Now you “shamelessly” libel Naomi Klein? Proving that you are indeed a disingenuous denier troll?

            And you want to argue over ingenuous versus disingenuous and you make ingenuous excuses about your thumb hitting the touchpad? LOL!!!

            Pendantry! Where are you? CANTman needs your attention!

            Go away, CANTman, and that’s not a typo but a more appropriate handle for you (CANT being “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk” to save you the trouble of looking it up).

      • Canman Says:

        I don’t think I was being disingenuous. I wasn’t using that cartoon to make its intended point. I was using it to make the point that such cartoons can make over exaggerations.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          So you don’t deny that you may have been “shamelessly ingenuous”?

          And you “don’t think” you were being disingenuous? I “DO think” that you are BS-ing us. There was NO good reason to post any of those disingenuous cartoons (unless you are a denier troll and are spreading denier propaganda).

        • pendantry Says:

          If true: may I suggest you read about the ‘Familiarity Backfire Effect’ as eloquently described in The Debunking Handbook.

          • miffedmax Says:

            Cartoons also ignore the fact that wind turbines are getting both smaller and more efficient, and are increasingly being located in offshore locations–again for purposes of efficiency. But surely someone who uses drawings of late 20th-Century style wind farms is really determined to present a fair and nuanced argument and not trolling at all.

  5. kap55 Says:

    False claim from MZJ: “nuclear emits 9 to 25 times more carbon per kWh than wind.” Truth: From NREL’s meta-study (and apparently MZJ doesn’t trust the NREL for data?) Nuclear 14, wind 12; or, from IPCC’s meta-study (apparently MZJ doesn’t trust the IPCC either?) nuclear 16, wind 12. Further, MZJ’s plans rely heavily on solar PV, which emits 20 (NREL) or 46 (IPCC). And Jacobson doesn’t have any problem with that. (All numbers in gCO2e/kWh.)

    The only way MZJ can get numbers like that is by cherry-picking individual studies with a deliberate anti-nuclear bias: exactly the same unscientific tatic we rightly rebuke when employed by climate deniers.

    False claim from MZJ: LCOE nuclear 12.5 c/kWh; wind 3.2 to 5c; Thin film PV 5-6c; cSi PV, 5.2-7c.
    Truth: LCOE (numbers from, respectively EIA, IEA(US data), OpenEI Transparent Cost Database): nuclear 9.5, 7.9, 8; wind onshore 7.4, 4.0, 7; wind offshore 19.7 10.2, 13; Solar PV 12.5, 7.8, 27.

    Once again, MZJ arrives at his data by cherry-picking a single source for LCOE (Lazard) instead of doing a larger literature search. In this context, it’s useful to note that the OpenEI transparent cost database contains dozens of LCOE studies, including Lazard, EIA, and IEA. And it’s also important to note that in every single study, nuclear comes in cheaper than offshore wind, which Jacobson relies upon extensively in his plans. So offshore wind is cheap enough, apparently, but even-cheaper nuclear is too expensive? That’s just plain nuts.

    Beyond that, there is a real question of whether LCOE is an appropriate cost metric in the first place. LCOE is designed as a tool for short-term investors, and ignores long-term social benefits. LCOE computations typically use a 30 year investment lifetime, but that unfairly advantages technologies that have shorter lifetimes than that (wind) while unfairly disadvantaging technologies that have longer lifetimes than that (hydro, nuclear). Dams and nuclear plants are going to provide low-carbon power for decades after their loans have been paid off, but that never ends up as part of LCOE. We would have to buy and build a wind farm two or three times over during the lifetime of a nuclear plant.

  6. Nuclear is US$150/MWh, AFTER subsidies. Wind is coming it at $37/MWh, solar around $50/MWh (a recent contract in Dubai was signed for $30/MWh–a year ago a similar contract was signed for twice that), CSP (concentrated solar power) which can deliver dispatchable power 24/7 is coming in at $10/MWh. And all these costs — except nuclear — are falling by 10% -20% per annum. Coal, ignoring the externalities of CO2 emissions and air pollution, is $80-$120 per MWh. ( )

    Renewables are already cheaper than coal, and will get cheaper still. Coal is finished. My guess is nuclear will never hack it, but if it does, that would be good news. In the mean time, we can build wind and solar farms and CSP plants right now. And we are, everywhere.

    Meanwhile, electric car sales are doubling every 18 months. Currently just 0.7% of global car sales, they will be 3% in 3 years, 12% in 6, and 50% in 9. Several European countries are looking to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2020 onwards. By the way, the world’s largest electric car company isn’t Tesla, it’s China’s BYD.

    One of the problems in this space is that costs are falling so rapidly that most ppl are way behind the curve, and are convinced that switching to renewables will push up costs and reduce growth. They’re wrong. Green electricity won’t cost us the earth.

  7. dumboldguy Says:

    SEVENTEEN responses to this post, and it’s been up for just one day! In contrast, the “Dark Snow Field Project 2016” and the “Snowball in Hell: Greenland Ice Sheet Record Thaw” posts have barely half that many comments, in spite of being up longer, AND the comments on those two threads have been mostly inanities.

    It frosts my rear end a bit to see all this navel gazing and “debate” about Jacobson’s hypotheticals and “projections” of the success of RE when we have what’s going on in the Arctic staring us right in the face. What will it take for us to stop BS-ing about the future maybe’s and instead focus on the real world in the here-and-now? Maybe the Arctic warming so much and so rapidly that the Methane Bomb starts to go off in 2016 and we can begin to kiss our rear ends goodbye?

    Did we miss the rather hard to miss “click here to support DARK SNOW” icon and the message below it?

    “Now is the time to support the 2016 Dark Snow Field campaign. More about that here”.

    Considering that we are getting little info from the arctic or the media (partly because a satellite has conveniently failed in this year of likely record ice melt, AND a presidential election like none we’ve ever had before is looming and covering it is better for ratings than talking about potential doom), it would behoove us to support people we can trust to report some truth back to us and send Peter and the other Dark Snow folks up there. Ante up folks!

    I’m also going to make a comment on the Dark Snow Project thread, if anyone cares.

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