Town Square

Post a New Topic

Nuclear Power not Efficient Enough

Original post made by Richard on Mar 5, 2008

A recent study concludes that nuclear power is not efficient enough to replace fossil fuels. We have heard from nuclear cheerleaders like Greg who claim that nukes will solve all of our problems, but this study looks at the big picture and concludes otherwise. Here is a link to a summary:
Web Link

Here are a couple of excerpts from the article:
"Nuclear energy production must increase by more than 10 percent each year from 2010 to 2050 to meet all future energy demands and replace fossil fuels, but this is an unsustainable prospect. According to a report published in Inderscience's International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology such a large growth rate will require a major improvement in nuclear power efficiency otherwise each new power plant will simply cannibalize the energy produced by earlier nuclear power plants."


"However, it is the whole-of-life cycle analysis that Pearce has investigated that shows nuclear power is far from the "emission-free panacea" claimed by many of its proponents. Each stage of the nuclear-fuel cycle including power plant construction, mining/milling uranium ores, fuel conversion, enrichment (or de-enrichment of nuclear weapons), fabrication, operation, decommissioning, and for short- and long-term waste disposal contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, he explains."

I guess there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and that includes nukes.

Comments (39)

Posted by rw, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 5, 2008 at 9:31 am

Nuclear energy is the best, safest and only way to both meet the energy demands of 6 billion people in the world and help cure us of our addiction to foreign oil.

France and India have been using nuclear for decades with success. Technology and understanding of how to safely use nuclear has advanced considerably since Chernobyl. There are more deaths caused by use of coal and oil than nuclear.

Solar is also good, but the costs have to come down sufficiently enough so that even the poorest could afford it. Solar right now is too elitist.

Wind energy simply would devastate our landscapes. Who wants to go on a road trip and see giant windmills littering our green hills?

Use of ocean waves and water is another good source.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2008 at 10:36 am

Much of the expense of constructing a nuclear power plant is the friction of opposition. In nations where fools are acknowledged as such, nuclear is very competitive.

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2008 at 10:43 am

rw is totally correct.

If J Pearce has done his sums right, we and our children and grandchildren are in a pickle. Coal and nuclear are the only currently available options capable of generating the volume of energy needed to support a modern civilization for the next century. "Alternative" solutions, even if fully developed within environmental constraints, are far too limited to even begin to meet the demand.

I do take issue with his objections based on nuclear plant heat emissions. Waste heat is not unique to nuclear power, any electric generation scheme that begins with heat (nuclear, coal, natural gas, geothermal) will, by the immutable laws of thermodynamics and limitations of materials, waste about 2/3 of the heat energy it starts with. (Paradoxically, thermodynamics says nuclear plants are potentially more heat-efficient than competitors, since their reactors can generate higher temperatures than combustion furnaces or geothermal.) However, since all electrical energy generated quickly winds up as heat (except for the tiny fraction radiated into space by radio, TV, and radar transmitters), all electrical power sources are, for practical purposes, earth heaters.

However, the real culprit in global warming is the greenhouse gases that trap heat, and the major heat source by far is the sun. Human scale being much smaller than earth scale, heat from electrical power will always be an infinitesimal fraction of the solar heat input and therefore is a negligible factor in global warming.

Posted by R Wray, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 5, 2008 at 11:10 am

Grandchildren have usually done a pretty good job of taking care of themselves. They will only be in a pickle if they are not free to innovate.

Posted by Greg, a resident of Southgate
on Mar 5, 2008 at 11:14 am


That article, in the popular "scientific" press is a bit of a laugher. Here are some of the laughs:

1. Nuclear is not being asked to replace 100% of fossil fuels in the next 40 years. Nuclear, in the USA, is currently producing about 20% of our electricity. It is reasonable to ask nuclear to increase that percentage, incrementally, to keep up with demand, and to reduce, somewhat, our fossil fuel requirements.

2. The whole-life carbon footprint of nuclear plants, using the current grades of ores, is in the single digit range. (currently 3-5%, depending on the assumptions). This means that the same amount of electricity produced by coal, would generate about 25 times more CO2 (and that doesn't even take into consideration the mining of coal, which also produces copious amounts of CO2. There is, currently, no carbon-free whole-life footprint for ANY source of electrical generation, including solar and wind.

3. The notion that nuclear fission, used for electrical power generation, is heating up the earth is absurd. U-235 is already decaying and heating up the earth, as it always has been. When U-235 is removed from central New Mexico, this practice actually COOLS that part of the world. When the U-235 is used somewhere else, in a power plant, the area near that plant heats up. Net effect: ZERO! Energy is neither created nor destroyed, it is just transformed. Note that solar panels actually do increase the temperature of the earth, becasue they use photons that may have otherwise been reflected back out of our atmoshpere...instead they capture the photons to produce electrons, and give off infrared energy (heat).

4. The high initial capital costs for nukes is offset by the low cost of the fuel going forward. That is what makes nukes so attractive, from a financial perspective. That is one of the main reasons that there is so much interest in nukes worldwide. The other is national security. If a nation has its own source of uranium, or friendly neighbors/allies with it (like the USA), then it cannot be held hostage by hostile nations. CO2 reduction is another reason.

Richard, even your own article is somewhat favorable to nuclear power. It seems to be asking that the nuclear industry become more efficient, but it is not asking nukes to be banned...quite the opposite.

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2008 at 11:53 am

Comments on Greg's remarks:

1. If the US gets serious about CO2 reduction, its nuclear power fraction will almost certainly increase to much more than 20%. There is no feasible alternative.

3. Nuclear reactors produce far more thermal power than natural U235 decay. They work by fissioning U235, which per reaction produces much more energy than natural decay, at a vastly higher reaction rate. It is anlogous to the difference between heating your house with your water heater pilot light or a large oxy-acetylene furnace. Nevertheless, this thermal input is an infinitesimal fraction of the solar heat influx and does not contribute to global warming.

Posted by Greg, a resident of Southgate
on Mar 5, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Another Engineer,

Although you and I are in basic agreement on nculear power, for electricity generation, I have to disagree with your comments, especially point 2 (3).

If, as you say, the USA gets serious about CO2 reductions, nuclear will become a more important mix in our energy production. However, it is overcoming an irrational opposition over several decades. As much as I would like to agree with you about nukes making a major dent in CO2 emissions, after having provided for increased demand baseline ( a big achievement), even I cannot envision that. I actually have a modest goal: To increase awareness of the benefits of nukes, and to live to see a few dozen of them built in the USA, in my lifetime.

To your last point: " Nuclear reactors produce far more thermal power than natural U235 decay". Aside from frictional losses in moving mechanical parts, you are wrong. Yes, U-235 decay in concentrated arrays, like power plants, are localized, thus very hot, but there is just as much disseminated heat produced in the wild state (it just isn't noticed by the general public). Ask any deep hole boring engineer if the earth gets hotter the deeper he drills...due to radiation heat capture.

Nukes are the future, for many decades to come. I think we could both agree on that.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 5, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Reality check: we will not see nuclear power in California, or America, in your lifetimes, if ever.

What we WILL see is materials innovation - including an engineered confluence between nano- and bioengineered materials that helps to clean up our air.

We'll also see much progress made in the next decade on alternate fuel sources (not including corn-based ethanol, which is a scam perpetrated by large industrial corn growers to increase the value of their holdings)

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2008 at 1:25 pm

For the benefit of anyone else who might read this post, Greg misunderstands how power nuclear reactors work. They do not exploit the natural radioactive decay of the isotope Uranium 235. They set up a self-sustaining chain reaction which fissions the U235 nuclei into at least 2 "daughter" nuclei, releasing a huge amount of energy. That energy produces heat, which is used to make steam and generate electric power in the manner of a conventional power plant like the one at Moss Landing, California. Each fission reaction also produces, on average, two fast neutrons which shoot into other U235 nuclei to fission them, and on it goes until the U235 is used up.

Walt Disney's ca 1955(?) feature "Our Friend the Atom" illustrates this very entertainingly, using a room with its floor covered in cocked mousetraps with 2 ping-pong balls sitting on each. Someone tosses in a first ball, and whoosh.

Greg may be referring to radio-isotope thermal (electric) generators (RTGs), which use the heat from natural radioactive decay to directly generate electric power. However, RTGs commonly use more unstable nuclei than U235, like Plutonium, which yield more heat because they decay much more quickly. Their most famous use is to power deep-space missions like the Pioneers which left the solar system, and the Cassini Saturn orbiter, because solar panels are not practical in the dim sunlight so far from the sun. They are much smaller and considerably less efficient than power plants based on fission reactors.

Back to the nuclear reactor. Its fission reactions generate about 1000 times more heat per U235 nucleus than natural decay, and they produce it much faster.

Posted by rw, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 5, 2008 at 1:28 pm

I agree with you that ethanol is harmful to both the environment and to our pocket books.

Ethanol and biofuels have to go away. I believe we should sparingly use Earth to produce food to eat. To use the Earth to drive our cars is simply disastrous and will have disastrous consequences to global warming by way of clearing out rain forests so we can drive our cars.

Posted by Greg, a resident of Southgate
on Mar 5, 2008 at 1:31 pm

Mike has been snookered by Amory Lovins! No way it can happen without nukes! Not even close.

The truly sad thing is that we are all going to suffer, becasue the irrationals, like Mike, are stopping true progress towards a sufficient and abundant electrical supply. There are hopeful signs, though. A number of big name environmentalists have signed on to nukes.

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2008 at 1:32 pm

Mike - I admire your bedrock faith, but the presently conceivable "alternative" power sources will never make the grade. The prime energy sources they need simply don't exist in sufficient exploitable quantity. That's a limitation due to physics or, if you will, Mother Nature. Work the numbers yourself and see.

On the other hand, who could have anticipated nuclear energy, fission or fusion, even 75 years ago? Hold the faith for fusion or something else unheard of now.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 5, 2008 at 3:14 pm

" Hold the faith for fusion or something else unheard of now."

That's what I was pointing out in my last post. A friend who is prominent in the nanotech world sent me this the other night. That might get the "true believer" nukesters pointed in a more realistic and promising direction, relative to actual implementation of energy innovation, and forward sustainability of our place on earth.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 5, 2008 at 3:14 pm

here's the link
Web Link

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2008 at 6:20 pm

The cost of PV cells is not the ultimate limitation to solar power, it's the fact that the sun packs only 1 kilowatt into each square meter of sunlight at the earth when the sun shines -- which is less than half the time on average, very much less during many common meteorological circumstances -- and you can catch ony a fraction of it.

Posted by Engineer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2008 at 8:44 pm

"If 2 percent of the continental United States were covered with photovoltaic systems with a net efficiency of 10 percent, we would be able to supply all the U.S. energy needs," said Bulovic, the KDD Associate Professor of Communications and Technology in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "

Web Link

Translation: This is about 57000 square miles. Even if the 70% efficiency that Lovins talks about is achieved, that is still over 8000 square miles.

Since this would, it is claimed, take care of all our energy needs, we could then eliminate most of the others. Once that is done, what will happen when the sun is not shining?

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2008 at 9:10 pm

Like when the wind stops blowing in Texas?

By any chance, have you checked Bulovic's claims?

Posted by T, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2008 at 10:17 pm

"Once that is done, what will happen when the sun is not shining?"

Maybe they can utilize something like this?
Web Link

Posted by SkepticAl, a resident of Ventura
on Mar 5, 2008 at 11:19 pm

My brother followed his super-scientific but also tree-hugging nature boy interests and double majored Environmental Science and Physics in college. I remember him saying even back in the 80s that both schools had their contrasting orthodoxy on this issue. For what it's worth, he landed, maybe little uncomfortably, in the pro-nuclear camp.

Posted by SkepticAl, a resident of Ventura
on Mar 5, 2008 at 11:23 pm

Great link, T. But can anyone out there explain this to me?

"For their experiments, Chan grew the nanowires on a stainless steel substrate, providing an excellent electrical connection."

How do you grow wires?? And will that help with my hair?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2008 at 12:18 am

At the nano level, NOT growing wire is the problem sometimes.

Posted by SkepticAl, a resident of Ventura
on Mar 6, 2008 at 12:54 am

Okay, someone other than Walter...

Seriously, though, Walter, could you just answer if you know, how do wires "grow"?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2008 at 5:33 am

Ask the IC developers who had to fight this phenomenon

Posted by Engineer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2008 at 12:18 pm

Another Engineer,

I did not verify Bulovic's claims. However, here is my own back-of-the-envelope attempt. Please correct any mistakes.

Total energy used by the earth's population (as of 2004) = 15 TW (1.5 x 10^13 watts). (source: Web Link ). For discussion here, let me assume that the US uses 25% of the total, thus 3.8 TW.

The power density of the sun (perpendiclar plane) is about 1.4 KW/m^2 (source: Web Link )

There are approximately 2.8 x 10^6 square miles in the continental US. This translates into 7.3 x 12 m^2.

This yields 10.2 x 10^12 KW

2% of this is 2.0 x 10^11 KW (2.0 x 10^14 W), which is 200 TW.

At 10% efficiency of solar panels, this means that 20 TW are available (if 2% of the total land surface is covered with solar panels). Thus, only about 3.8/20 (.19 or 19% of the total 2% claimed by Bulovic ( or .38% of total land mass) is required to handle all of our energy needs. This still translates into into about 11,000 square miles of solar panels. This is a sqaure with sides of about 105 miles. If solar panel efficiencies go up, then the square miles go down.

This makes solar look better to me. Perhaps Bulovic was talking about a more limited area, like the American Southwest. Or maybe he was taking inefficiencies into account (no sun at night, weather issues, maintenance, etc.).

There remains the issue of storage at night, along with variabilities than can shut down grids.

As I have stated before, I have heard many promises before. We cannot live on hope alone, thus there needs to be proven approaches utilized in parallel with the promises.

Posted by T, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 6, 2008 at 2:02 pm

Sheer dumb luck, I stumbled across this article in today's New York Times.
Web Link

The reason I think it might be of interest to this forum is because it describes a solar thermal power plant (some already operational in the U.S. and other countries) that can produce energy for some number of hours after sunset. Solar thermal plants focus heat from the sun onto black liquid-filled tubes. Energy is then produced from steam. Excess heat can be stored for some number of hours after sunset. (I wish they'd supplied more detail on this point.) Solar thermal systems are not perfect, of course. They require a large expanse of real estate, and covering a large expanse of land with mirrors would create great hardship for local plant and animal life. Still, I think it's useful to know that there is at least one solar option that can function after sunset.

Posted by just thinking, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2008 at 3:45 pm

Serious questions -

What is the "carbon footprint" of the manufacting of solr panels?
Are toxins involved?
What is the source of the raw materials?
Are any petro-chemical products involved?
What is the ecological impart of solar panel "farms" covering acres of landscape?

Posted by Engineering, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2008 at 4:23 pm


Solar thermal is the current rage. Here is just one little item to consider:

"Imperceptibly, in the dusty wind of the high desert, 182,000 mirrors moved from east to west, tracking the sun across the sky."

What happens when dust storms coat the mirrors, and the efficiency falls off? How about strong winter storm that wreaks havoc on the collectors?

Add to that a variety of other confounding factors, including regulaotry burdens (those darn environmentalists, for example), elimination of subsidies, engineering problems (this happened before, with the Mojave Desert project), competing fuel costs, etc.

Even if all these problems can be solved, this does not eliminated the need for electrcity from midnight to 7 AM (when all those future plug-in automobiles will be charging up).

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 6, 2008 at 11:55 pm

Engineer and everyone else:

Here is my cut at the problem. It is incomplete, lacking important details, but it indicates the order of magnitude. Maybe I can fill in some of the omissions later. None of them will improve the outlook.

The DOE (Web Link) gives the 2006 US summer peak demand as 789,475 megawatts. A national PV system has to supply at least this amount. Given 1.4 kW/sq m incident solar flux, this requires a 564 million sq m collecting area. Assuming a 10% system efficiency, equinox noon at 40 degrees latitude, and accounting for night by doubling the generating capacity, we need a 14.7 billion sq m collecting area, or 5684 sq miles. (I know I can't justify the 4 significant figures, but I report them in case anyone wants to check my sums.) That's almost exactly the area of Connecticut (Web Link), which is 0.2% (note the decimal) of the 2,959,055 sq mi continental US dry land area (ibid.) Maybe Bulovic or his reporter overlooked the decimal when writing the article at Web Link, but there's also more to this story that increases the land real estate requirements. The actual installation would of course be dispersed, but at least this much total land is needed.

I haven't accounted for daily variations in the sun angle, which might be addressed by using solar tracking panels, a very costly and trouble-prone undertaking on this scale, or by installing double, triple, or quadruple the static panel count so that some collecting surface nearly faces the sun all day. Up goes the real estate. Seasonal sun angle variations are also omitted. They might be handled by doubling the panel count again, or by adjusting the panel tilt every month or two -- a huge task. Nor have I considered the added clear land required to avoid shadowing by adjacent panels, outages for repairs or maintenance, or (very big omission) degradations due to weather including snow/ice removal and clouds. Shade trees are taboo. Nor have I weighed storage options, their power losses, and costs (financial and environmental), which cannot be just waved off per the latest battery news. We will need lots of batteries, someplace to put them, and some environmentally acceptable way to dispose of huge numbers of them. Also, a roomful of charged batteries can suddenly become quite a bomb if something goes wrong.

The bottom line is obviously that national-scale PV can be done if (1) practical storage can be built to carry through the night and bad weather and (2) society is willing to invest the necessary considerable amount of valuable land.

We have a pretty good land use situation now with regard to electric generation, and I believe we will not be eager to give it up for the radical restructuring that PV power will require if there is an alternative. That is a strong argument in favor of nuclear.

Posted by Engineer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2008 at 1:32 pm

Another Engineer,

I quoted the number for total power, not just current electrical power. I did this, because I think there is a move to almost all-electrical, in order to avoid carbon-based fuels (e.g. plug-in vehicles). Thus, we have a bit of an apples vs oranges discussion going on here. Nevertheless, my numbers make your arguments even stronger, for nuclear energy.

Posted by T, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 7, 2008 at 3:27 pm

So, are we trying to decide upon the one "best" technology for delivering all of the power that will be needed by all of the inhabitants of this planet fifty years from now?

While I see the appeal of that approach -- it is simple and elegant and could yield a clean, tidy solution -- my own thoughts have leaned toward a multi-pronged implementation. My reasoning is that no one technology strikes me as being mature enough at this time to solve the overall problem gracefully, plus I feel that different technologies are better suited to different circumstances and -- due to the quantity and diversity of real esetate involved -- it might make better overall sense to customize and exploit strengths whenever possible.

So here is my question: Is a single-technology approach really the best way to proceed? I could be convinced if someone makes a compelling case. But until that question is answered in the positive, to me the burning questions will not focus upon which technology is "best", but rather upon which overall strategies the most sense.

Posted by rw, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 7, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Report on CNBC today saying some think oil could go up to $300 a barrel, which equals $9.00 a gallon.

Posted by Engineer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2008 at 3:42 pm


I think you know that I, also, support a mixed approach, with nothing left off the table. This is serious stuff. Promises are not products, but they may offer an insight to the future. In the meantime, we need to figure out how to live over the next several decades...unitl the perfect solution(s) arrives.

I have no doubt that solar, in its various forms, will be part of the mix, and a growing one. So will efficiency and conservation. Same for nuclear. Coal is dirty, but it will also be a (major) part of it. Don't forget oil and natural gas. There is just no free lunch, period. The ideal solution, IMO, is to accept all forms of energy, then let them sort out, as the market and even-handed regulations determine their fates.

Posted by Another Engineer, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 7, 2008 at 4:25 pm

Engineer: I realized what you were doing long after I posted my message, which I did after hours of trying to reconcile our demand numbers. I concur with your approach. Transportation will probably electrify, except for aircraft.

Both of us omitted the atmospheric attenuation of the solar constant, which reduces it from 1.4 kW/m^2 in space to about 1 kW/m^2 on the surface. Therefore we need 40% more solar panels, and my real estate needs grow from Connecticut to most of New Jersey, and still growing. (BTW, South Dakota is about 2% of the continental land area)

T: Also concur. My objective is to get people thinking in diversified directions instead of just following the popular solar gurus to their non-solution. We cannot afford the luxury of silly detours anymore.

I have not been a fan of nuclear, although I studied some nuclear engineering as an undergrad. Its wastes will burden many future generations for our sole benefit. Absent a compelling need, that seems highly immoral. But global warming may have supplied that necessity. Nuclear waste is manageable, and new reactor designs are much safer, so nuclear appears to be an acceptable stopgap until we find the right alternatives including, hopefully, a commitment to developing fusion. Else the world as we know it whimpers to an end.

Thanks for the soap box.

Posted by Engineer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Another Engineer,

We are in basic agreement on the numbers.

I sense that both of us see some serious energy issues in front of us all. However, I don't think most of the population sees this. I decided to enter this blog, becasue I saw some uninformed projections about electrifed, high speed trains between N. Cal. and S. Cal. The more I listen to some of these threads, I think the problem is deeper. There is a basic misunderstanding of the limitations of energy sources, and their problems.

Posted by SomeRealityPlease, a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 7, 2008 at 9:37 pm

"The high initial capital costs for nukes is offset by the low cost of the fuel going forward. That is what makes nukes so attractive, from a financial perspective."

If they were really that financially attractive, at least ONE would have been built somewhere in the US since TMI, no matter what the opposition.

The reality is that the capital costs are ENORMOUS. And the operating costs are not cheap either due to all the monitoring and control systems and redundency needed. And digging up & processing the uranium fuel can't be cheaper than digging up coal.

All in all, it's actually amazing to me that nukes haven't dropped in "market share" to coal & natural gas.

There only saving grace is the lack of CO2 emissions. But to get it, its going to cost us huge $$$ compared to coal & natural gas.

Posted by T, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 8, 2008 at 12:47 am

Engineer, yes, I already knew you support a mixed approach. And I agree with everything you just said -- except, if I may offer a slightly facetious comment, I'm not sure we'll ever find that "perfect solution".

Another Engineer, I appreciate hearing your perspective. I suppose there have been detours, as you said, but I cannot blame them on the popular solar gurus. In order to create detours of merit, the solar gurus would have needed more people listening to them and I don't think that has been the case. In fact, to my way of thinking, and let me state up front that it is only my opinion, I think the problem is quite the opposite. I think we (the general population) have been blind to the reality of our situation for too long because the average person has had little need to understand anything more about our power system than how to plug in an appliance or start up the car. And fuel prices have been artificially low for ages. Most people, I suspect, saw no signs of trouble until climate change was already being reported and they experienced sharply rising oil and fuel prices. What I am trying to say is that if more people had been listening to the solar gurus, I think we would have a better educated populace (at least regarding energy systems) and we'd be in a better position to move forward than we are now. But of course we need to work with the reality we have, and that's what we'll do.

Three of us have stated that we are open to a "diversity of directions" approach (if I may quote Another Engineer). Have either of you ever imagined what that mixed system might look like or tried to design it? I haven't, but I think it would make for an interesting discussion.

Posted by Engineer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 8, 2008 at 4:39 pm


You are right, there is no "perfect" system, but fusion comes pretty close. We are not there yet, probably not even close. Remember the "cold fusion" craze?

Just specualting here about ideal gap solutions (before fusion). I would offer the following: Solar/wind (daytime) + nuclear fission (at night). Back up with hydro, then natural gas, then coal (in that order). Overlay the entire system with improvements in end-use efficiencies (driven my market mechanisms, i.e. price of fuel(s))

Solar/wind has promise (as always). However, it needs a testosterone shot in the arm, in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Nuclear is a proven workhorse, and it is not the boogyman it is made out to be. Hydro is effective, but pretty much maxed out. NG is carbon-based, yet cleaner than coal. Coal is still king, in terms of readily extractable, national security, however is is dirty and dangerous.

Oil has to be taken into context here, because electricity will be supplanting it via plug-in vehicles. This 800 lb. gorilla is lurking around the corner, and very few people see it. Bascially, if oil prices continue to escalate, there could be a massive move to plug-ins. This move could crush the grid. Oil needs to be drilled off our coasts, and everywhere else in the U.S. I am not, at all, a conspiracy nut, but the perfect storm on energy is no fairy tale. Oil, like it or not, is crucial to the solution, if only to reduce the plug-in tsunami.

Posted by T, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 10, 2008 at 1:08 am

I did not come up with a better system design than the one you described. My basic design matches yours pretty well, but I did not go so far as to flesh out the details, such as prioritizing backup technology choices, like you did. Therefore it was good to see what you wrote.

Your prediction of a plug-in tsunami got me to thinking... is it possible that the increase in plug-ins might more closely resemble a wave than a tsunami? I am hopeful this will be the case because, although plug-in vehicles are likely to be a very popular option over the next few years, the number of plug-ins that actually make it onto the road is going to be limited, at least initially, by the production capabilities of the automobile manufacturers. So as the years pass, we will probably see a lot of plug-ins on the road but I don't think they will be a sudden, surprising force to be reckoned with. A second factor in my thinking is the fact that nighttime energy usage has historically been much, much lower than daytime (peak) energy production levels. Unless there is something I don't understand about our current power system, I'm thinking we already have enough capacity to generate the nighttime electricity needed to recharge plug-in vehicles. I could be mistaken since I haven't had the chance yet to look up the amount of electricity required to recharge a car. That would be a useful data point. I realize that burning coal in order to create the electricity required to recharge a plug-in vehicle may be less green than simply continuing to operate an existing gas-burning automobile. If your thought is that we should be generating enough green/renewable energy in the nighttime to recharge all the plug-ins, then obviously the challenge will be much greater. But it sounded like your main concern was the possibility that the grid could be crushed by an unexpected, overwhelming demand for energy... which makes me think of an earlier post stating that electrified trains (or other electrified mass transit) may one day be added to the mix. Should electrified mass transit and plug-in vehicles be added to the system concurrently, they just might create more demand than our current system is equipped to handle. Again, I don't have any numbers to prove or disprove this notion. The numbers sure would be helpful in determining whether greater energy production is required or if it might be possible to mitigate through efficiency improvements made elsewhere.

Posted by Engineer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2008 at 8:02 pm


I like your questions. They show that your are thinking about the problem in a serious way.

Let me state at the outset that electical generation is not a huge issue, plug-in tsunami or not, IF coal and nuclear are set loose do do what they can do. However, I have been making the argument that, if the CO2 (greenhouse) effect is to be taken into account, this largely eliminates coal and NG. Nuclear can also be eliminated, due to the climate of fear surrounding it. Remember, I am talking about electicity, not carbon-based transportation fuels, although they do have an indirect effect, as I mentioned in my previous post.

Just listening to the cable TV channels about future energy sources, with $5 filler-up rates for your plug-in, suggests to me that there is something surreal going on here. Yes, I do think think that there is about to be a plug-in tsunami, and the manufacturers will be able to keep up with demand, at least over a ten year period. It is more likely to be tsunami than a wave.

Given the above constraints, I don't see how it can happen. Maybe some other engineer, who has studied this perfect storm, can provide an answer, but I cannot.

If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Gourmet hot dogs, sausage food truck coming to the Peninsula
By Elena Kadvany | 6 comments | 2,691 views

Allowing Unauthorized Immigrants to Learn and Earn Legally Will Help the Economy
By Steve Levy | 31 comments | 2,129 views

College applications: round three
By Sally Torbey | 24 comments | 1,597 views

Is HBO's Silicon Valley Any Good?
By Anita Felicelli | 14 comments | 1,549 views

PAUSD Leadership Challenges
By Paul Losch | 14 comments | 1,091 views