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Renewable Electricity is Our Only Viable Option

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First, a quick tutorial (details can be found in Chapter 1 of Simple Solutions for Planet Earth accessible through one of the boxes on the right):

1. In reference to producing electricity, there is really dirty coal (remember acid rain and the Clean Air Act?), dirty coal (what is largely the practice today) and clean coal (nothing has really worked yet, but give them time). Further, along two tracks, there is the "clean" system that mines for coal but attempts to remove the carbon dioxide from the stack gas and store it underground, and the longer term option, which I worked on more than three decades ago at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, called in-situ coal gasification (and oil shale retorting), where everything happens in-situ or in place. This technology was appearing to make a comeback when oil shot pass $100/barrel, but has been understandably quiet as of recent. You think we have a lot coal? Yes, we do, but we are also the Saudi Arabia of oil shale.

2. There are two types of nuclear power: fission (think Atomic Bomb), the currently utilized process, and fusion (Hydrogen Bomb and our Sun), the so-called cleaner and safer form, which in all pathways, seems to be a decade away from breakeven, as it has been since I worked on this concept in the 1970's. Thus, the engineering and economics are at least a generation away from commercialization, unless something like heavy ion fusion can suddenly gain credibility.

What will new nuclear and clean coal-fired electricity cost? If you go to traditional fossil and nuclear sources, you will see prices between 2 cents and 3 cents per kilowatt hour. So, as the average selling price of electricity today is 10 cents/kWh, why don't we just build more of these facilities? Well, for one, that's only from old facilities. Today, there are concerns about global warming and nuclear waste/terrorism. A whole new set of requirements needs to be met. Thus, it turns out that there will almost surely be a much bigger problem: Economics.

Consulting recent studies, projected electricity costs from new nuclear and coal plants seem to have jumped by a factor of at least three and as much as ten:

1. Joseph Romm earlier this month reported the cost of electricity from new nuclear facilities at from 25 cents to 30 cents / kWh, about triple the current price of electricity in the country, citing the study of Craig Severance.

2. Romm also said last summer that the California Public Utilities Commission placed the cost of power from new nuclear plants at 15.2 cents per kWh. They also put the cost of coal gasification with carbon capture and storage at 16.9 cents per kWh.

3. In mid-2007, a Keystone Center nuclear report, funded in part by the industry, estimated capital costs between $3600 to $4000/kW, including interest. The report noted that the production cost would be 8.3 to 11.1 cents/kWh. In December 2007. Retail electricity prices then averaged 8.9 cents/kWh, so there would be no profit.

4. In October 2007, Florida Power and Light, a leading nuclear utility, presented its detailed cost estimate for new power plants to the Florida Public Service Commission, concluding that two units totaling 2,200 megawatts would cost up to $8,000 per kilowatt, more than double that reported in the Keystone Report.

Why have these nuke costs escalated so much? Time (takes ten years from announcement to operation, and therefore, uncertainties about funding), fickle fuel fees for uranium, environmentalists and negative public sentiment, higher cost of materials and labor, waste storage nightmares, fear of terrorism, and more.

So from "too cheap to meter" to something anywhere from 9 cents/kWh to 30 cents/kWh, potential new nuclear power electricity rates now rest somewhere between solar photovoltaic and solar thermal electricity. Wind power is at half those costs, or even lower, and is sufficiently below the average cost of electricity to be on the cusp of being competitive with conventional coal.

Now, if global warming is real and coal-fired electricity with carbon capture/storage and new nuclear facilities are both in the conservative range of 15 cents/kWh, the solution becomes obvious: abandon building any new uranium/plutonium and coal power plants, and install as many wind farms and residential and utility-scale solar thermal systems as fast as possible. Also toss in geothermal energy into this mix. Assist in the promised coming of solar photovoltaics, and certainly, accelerate research into ocean thermal energy conversion, for this is the only baseload marine option of major promise. Offshore wind energy conversion systems are also beginning to show potential. I worry about wavepower, but there is hope for tidal and current power at a few choice sites.

If global warming is a true concern, economics alone can justify this renewable electricity pathway. If you disagree, let me hear of your better solution. In any case, the more difficult problems are associated with developing sustainable fuels/systems for ground and air transportation. Several of my earlier HuffPos have addressed this challenge.

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