Rumble Royale: Can the U.S. Grid Work With 100% Renewables?

Four Days in 2055: Dynamic heat and power supply in the mid-century wind, water and sunlight-fuelled Continental U.S. simulated by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson. Credit: ASU/PNAS

A battle royale between competing visions for the future of energy blew open today on the pages of a venerable science journal. The conflict pits 21 climate and power system experts against Stanford University civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacobson and his vision of a world fuelled 100 percent by renewable solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy. The criticism of his “wind, water and sun” solution and an unapologetic rebuttal from Jacobson and three Stanford colleagues appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The critics enumerate what they view as invalid modeling tools, modeling errors, and “implausible and inadequately supported assumptions” in a projection of the mid-century U.S. energy supply that Jacobson and his coauthors published in PNAS in 2015. “The scenarios of [that paper] can, at best, be described as a poorly executed exploration of an interesting hypothesis,” write the experts, led by Christopher Clack, CEO of power grid modeling firm Vibrant Clean Energy.

Clack says their primary goal is accurate science, the better to equip policymakers for critical decisions: “We’re trying to be scientific about the process and honest about how difficult it could be to move forward.”

The text and statements by Clack’s coauthors question Jacobson’s evaluation of competing energy technologies, and specifically his rejection of two non-renewable energy options: fossil fuel power plants equipped to capture their own carbon dioxide pollution and nuclear reactors.

Jacobson calls Clack’s attack, “the most egregious case of scientific fraud I have encountered in the literature to date.”

In fact, while both sides claim to be objectively weighing the energy options, the arguments and backgrounds of the protagonists belie well-informed affinities for various energy sources (and informed biases against others). As sociologists of science would say, their choice of data and their reading of it reflects hunches, values, and priorities.

Consider Clack’s coauthor Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Caldeira’s press release broadcasting their critique argues that removing carbon dioxide from the U.S. power supply is a massive job demanding the biggest tool box possible: “When you call a plumber to fix a leak, you want her to arrive with a full toolbox and not leave most of her tools at home,” says Caldeira.

The same document then abandons this technology-agnostic tone to call out nuclear energy and carbon capture as technologies that “solving the climate problem will depend on.” And Caldeira has appealed for deploying a new generation of nuclear reactors which he and other nuclear boosters such as former NASA scientist Jim Hansen say are needed because renewables “cannot scale up fast enough.” Continue reading

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Startup Time for Fukushima’s Frozen Wall. Here’s Why it Should Work.

Readying refrigeration lines at Fukushima to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Readying refrigeration lines to create a 30-meter-deep frozen barrier against groundwater

Japan’s TEPCO is about to flip the switch on the infamous ‘ice wall’ intended to divert flowing groundwater around its crippled reactors at Fukushima and thus help stem the contamination of fresh groundwater at the site. The widely mischaracterized and maligned installation—which is a barrier of frozen soil rather than a wall of ice—has every chance of delivering the hoped for results, say radiation cleanup experts at U.S. national laboratories and feedback from initial system tests.

“The frozen barrier is going to work,” predicts Brian Looney, senior advisory engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and co-author of an independent assessment of TEPCO’s frozen barrier. The report, produced in collaboration with researchers at Looney’s lab and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was completed in February but only released late last month; it found the system’s design to be sound and within the bounds of prior practice. Continue reading

Glimmers of Hope in Japan or Wishful Thinking?

For those looking for hope amidst the nuclear threat afflicting post-Tsunami Japan, there are some glimmers of possibly positive developments to report from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex:

  • Japanese authorities say that water canons and aerial water drops from helicopters may have stabilized reactor 3 and its fuel pool (video below). Of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors this was viewed as the most dangerous Continue reading

Spent Nuclear Fuel Biting Back at Fukushima

An explosion earlier today at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could indicate that the primary containment vessels protecting two of its reactors have now been breached. And yet, stunningly, that was not the day’s worst news. Instead concern increasingly focused on the plant’s highly radioactive spent fuel rods, stored in cooling pools above the reactors.

Damage sustained from last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami as well as subsequent fires and hydrogen explosions have critically limited plant operator Tokyo Electric Power’s ability to maintain cooling in several of the plants’ pools or even to replace water that is evaporating or boiling away. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko told a Senate panel this afternoon that one of the pools was empty and that heating of the fuel bundles could thus melt them down—an outcome that could spread radioactive elements far beyond the site. Continue reading

China Close to Firing Up a Fast Reactor

Russian nuclear energy holding company Rosatom reported yesterday that a subsidiary had completed construction of an experimental nuclear reactor in Beijing. At 25 megawatts the reactor’s power output is small, but it sends a big message about where nuclear technology may be heading — especially after the Obama Administration’s effective cancellation last month of plans to store U.S. spent nuclear fuel at an underground repository below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor is so-named because the neutrons produced in its core are not ‘moderated’ with water like those that generate heat in nearly all commercial nuclear reactors. The faster neutrons can burn down nuclear waste and even generate new fuel, promising a solution to the thorny problem of waste storage as well as energy independence.

Continue reading

Naughty Editor Reveals Hidden Reports on Energy

Cranes over Erdos Inner Mongolia 2006 Peter FairleyOver the last month Carbon-Nation went quiet as its editor made noise elsewhere on the web. He should have kept you linked in. Bad editor! Here’s what you missed:

“Cheap Cashmere Sweaters”: A Connect the Dots photo feature on MSN Green tracking cashmere’s environmental footprints –carbon and otherwise– back to the desertified steppes of Central Asia. Bottom line message: The price of that cashmere sweater looks good now, but the cost to the environment will bite you in the end.

Two for IEEE Spectrum Online:

“Power Transmission Without the Power Electronics”: During their low-resolution beginnings digital music and photography delivered a jarring rendition of sounds and images. Today, digital devices used to control electricity flows are making a similar mess on power grids.

“Electric-Car Maker Touts 10-Minute Fill-Up”: Altair Nanotechnologies’ lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles charge up fast. Very fast. One of its 35 kilowatt-hour packs, capable of propelling an EV pickup truck for 160 kilometers, can fully charge in just 10 minutes-a feat that would be downright dangerous with most lithium batteries. But will such rapid-charging prove practical on the street?

And a troika for MIT’s Technology Review website:

“Prospecting for Power”: The ultra-sensitive detection of traces of helium rising from the Earth’s mantle may hold the key to sniffing out sites of hidden geothermal energy.

“Cleaner Nuclear Power?”: Senators representing several Western states are promoting thorium. They say it’s a cleaner-burning fuel for nuclear-power plants, with the potential to cut high-level nuclear-waste volumes in half. Some nuclear watchdogs agree.

“Carbon Capture Moves Ahead”: Carbon offsets marketer Blue Source is building the business case for carbon-capture and storage systems by storing CO2 in oil wells.

Ground-breaking Report Faults Quake Planning at Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mtn with artist's rendition of warning monument for future generations.jpgTo consider nuclear power as a solution to climate change one must confront the legacy of high-level radioactive waste that is building up at power plants across the U.S. and Canada. This week the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed yet again how difficult it will be for regulators to bury the high-level waste problem while ensuring that waste remains safe for millenia to come.

The Review-Journal’s story on developments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s planned waste repositor at Yucca Mountain, Nevada — “Yucca fault line might spring surprise” — reveals that the site’s initial design would place a waste handling area atop a fault line capable of producing a magnitude 6+ earthquake. No wonder that the state of Nevada is fighting to block the repository’s construction, and that even the DOE concedes the repository won’t open for another decade.

Such risks and delays are one reason why the Bush Administration is pursuing nuclear waste reprocessing, in which the components of high-level nuclear waste are separated and reused. As I revealed in my Spectrum story on France’s nuclear waste reprocessing experience — “Nuclear Wasteland” — there are serious problems with this approach as well.

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