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On Do We Need a Smart Grid, A Strong Grid, Or Less Grid?

Stephen - who the heck said I was talking about a "wholesale smart grid"? This whole conversation started out with a post about a reconsideration of the potential of small nuclear power plants by a long-time anti-nuclear activist who has written a book about individuals who have been experimenting with living off grid.


January 24, 2010    View Comment    

On Do We Need a Smart Grid, A Strong Grid, Or Less Grid?

Stephen - one more try. I see things from a customer point of view, not from the view of the corporate suppliers.

With electricity, a customer that has reliable electricity cannot tell whether that electricity is supplied from a reliable, but isolated local generator or from a complex grid with lots of network connections.

The same statement cannot be made about a person on a computer. It is a completely different experience to be on one connected to a world wide network compared to being on an isolated machine without any network.

If that does not make sense to you, let me try a banana analogy. I grew up in a place where we could grow bananas in our back yard. We had enough trees so that there was almost always a fresh bunch of bananas on our kitchen counter. Those bananas were the little "lady finger" variety - some of the best tasting bananas ever.

Now I buy bananas that come to me from a very complex transportation and processing network. In this case, the bananas are less tasty than the ones that we used to grow, so they are less "valuable" to me. They gained no intrinsic value by the transportation - it just happens to be the low cost way for the supplier to get them to me when I want them. If it was possible for me to grow bananas in my yard like it was when I was a child, that would be my choice because the heavily transported product is not "more valuable".

BTW - I maintain that our current nuclear plants already produce electricity that is "too cheap to meter". It could be sold in the same way as unlimited internet access. The supplying utility could charge a flat monthly fee and make at least as much money as it does under the current metered use model because it costs almost exactly as much to own a nuclear plant as it does to operate it to produce power. 

Too cheap to meter never ever meant "free" except to people who cannot either speak or write the English language.

http://www.atomicinsights.com/AI_03-09-05.html
January 23, 2010    View Comment    

On Gates says, "Innovate!"

@Wilmot

I am also encouraged by Gates's attention to the sector, particularly because he is putting his own money into the fray by investing in what he has determined to be some of the most promising technology.

The company that he funded with Nathan Myhrvold, Intellectual Ventures, has recently spun out one of the companies that it started. That new company is named TerraPower. It is developing a concept called a traveling wave reactor. 

http://www.intellectualventures.com/docs/terrappower/IV_Introducing%20TWR_3_6_09.pdf

Essentially, it fissions actinide fuel in the same way as a well built fire, using kindling (fissile material) to get started and then consuming the large logs (fertile material) to keep the system running for a long time.

The big difference is that actinides are about 10 million times as energy dense as wood, so the "fire" lasts for decades on a single charge.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast 
January 23, 2010    View Comment    

On Do We Need a Smart Grid, A Strong Grid, Or Less Grid?

Stephen:

There is a difference between what vendors do to reduce costs and the value that customers get from the products that they buy. 

Information is a product that can increase in value the more it is shared and the more it moves across networks.

Electricity is a product whose value is not dependent upon how many nodes it passes through or how far it travels. 

Again, generators and vendors can sometimes save money by moving electricity rather than moving fuel and they can sometimes make money by moving electricity from a low cost area to a high price area. (There is a big difference between the accounting terms of PRICE and COST.)


January 23, 2010    View Comment    

On The Dirty Air Dem Revealed: Katrina-Ravaged Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu

Moving past the name calling, it should be obvious why Louisiana elects politicians that are interested in maintaining emissions laws that do not discourage the use of fossil fuels. Petroleum (oil and natural gas) is a major part of the economy for the entire Gulf coast. The area's off shore production represents about 1/3 of the domestically produced petroleum and the on-shore processing component of the industry is also a large source of employment and corporate income.

Going back to Joe Romm's partisan name calling and lack of participation in the TEC discussions - it is simply routine behavior from a man who is far more concerned about winning elections for his narrowly defined team than in making decisions that are good for the country and the world's human population.
January 23, 2010    View Comment    

On Do We Need a Smart Grid, A Strong Grid, Or Less Grid?

@Stephen challenging my statement that electricity does not gain value by being shared over long distances:

"In that case why are the electricity networks connected now?  There must be some value in it or else no-one would do it.  If what you said in this statement was even remotely true then the electricity grid would consist of isolated networks with no interconnectors.

Unfortunately reality contradicts this statement.  Do you have an explanation for this?"

Sure. Please read carefully what I wrote. There is no increase in value for the product - electricity - when it is shared. There is often a reduction in COST for the producer / distributor. 

Transporting electricity over a wire is generally cheaper than transporting fuel over other transportation networks. It is also true that concentrations of customers often prefer not to deal with the ugly parts of electricity production (large plants, huge piles of fuel, tall smokestacks dumping waste into the local atmosphere) so they push the production to a place where wires are the only method of transportation back to the customers.

The very first motivation for transporting electricity over long distances - selling motive power produced by a natural fluid flow in a geographically unique area to a large urban customer base that was not located near the fluid flow - was a case where moving electricity over wires was the the only way to get the electric power product to the customers.

If, on the other hand, it is possible to move fuel very cheaply and use it in pollution-free generators, it is often cheaper to put the fuel into generators close to the customer and produce the electricity locally. There is a quantifiable COST to moving electricity over a wire, both to pay for the capital and maintenance costs of the wire transportation network and because the wires charge a physical "toll" in the form of some amount of loss during the transportation.

If solar systems (panels, inverters, storage systems, etc.) were really cheap to install and could provide dependable electricity, people could generate power locally at a lower delivered cost than buying electricity delivered to them via a wire, assuming a system where the real cost of transporting that electricity is included.

If a series-produced, reasonably-priced generator uses an energy dense, emission-free fuel that rarely needs replacing, it can be placed near customers. If it is a well designed, reliable system, it might only need a rare backup that can be provided by using a couple of parallel generators with slightly more total capacity than needed for normal peak loads. 

I can envision a reliable, affordable electricity system of isolated local grids with few interconnections and only rare transmission lines that happen to connect areas with abundant fuel or falling water with urban areas. I can imagine that future because I know there are very reliable local generation and distribution systems operating today on ships and submarines. 

Combustion powered ships do not qualify because they are still tied to a fuel delivery network, but nuclear powered ships and submarines have fuel supplies that last for decades. Their cores essentially capital equipment that occasionally needs repair or replacement; the ships do not depend on consumables like hydrocarbon fuel.
January 23, 2010    View Comment    

On Do We Need a Smart Grid, A Strong Grid, Or Less Grid?

Steven - there is a difference between information and electricity. I recognize the value of sharing information and did so even in 1985. There is a reason that I was sending email back then - I was studying for an MS in communications systems. I also started my first web site in 1995.

The difference with electricity is that it does not gain any value by being shared. There is no advantage to electricity that is generated hundreds of miles away compared to electricity generated within just a few feet.

It is a product that does not need large networks.
January 22, 2010    View Comment    

On Next generation nuclear leadership

I wonder where I fall, since I am not yet "over" 50, but exactly 50. 

I fully agree in the importance of a safety culture, but believe that sometimes nukes forget that there is also a risk imposed on society when we take that to such an extreme that it results in costs that no one is willing to bear. Since no one in a developed society will forgo the use of electricity for very long either, excessive caution and cost imposition inevitably results in burning something to produce heat and power rather than fissioning something.

For long term safety and security, that is a poor option, especially if the choice gets made over and over again. 

As a former submarine engineer officer, I learned just how important it was to operate my plant safely and to carefully train my work force to do the same. HOWEVER, it was never far from our minds and always part of our training that there comes a time when keeping the reactor safety as the PRIME directive could result in a very "safe" reactor sitting at the bottom of the ocean with the rest of the ship. In a submarine, power is extremely important and can result in the difference between getting to the surface and not getting there.

The analogy is not completely applicable to land based plants, especially in the short run, but if a safety culture is so adamant that it results in costs so high that no one wants to build any new plants, our society could eventually perish as fossil fuels get more scarce and as pollution continues to build up in the environment.

The key to a mature outlook on this is balance - nuclear plant safety is very high on the list of priorities, but it has to be somewhat lower than the safety of the overall human society.
January 22, 2010    View Comment    

On Natural gas vehicles: Still a bad idea

I like the idea of putting actions that will attack the big drivers of CO2 on the top of the action list.

Would you support an effort to deploy electricity generating technology that has a 50 year history of being able to be a one for one replacement for both coal and natural gas fired baseload power plants? How much more would you support that technology when you find out that it replaces the source of more than 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions with machinery that emits NO greenhouse gas during operation and about the same amount as a wind turbine power system over its entire life cycle?

That is the big driver that I want to attack first. The second is when we work to replace the oil powered engines on board ships. Commercial ocean shipping currently produces about 6% of the world's CO2 and more than half of its SOX emissions. Again, this is a proven application with a history dating back to the mid 1950s.

Of course, there is no mystery which fuel source has these characteristics.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
January 21, 2010    View Comment    

On Oil Industry Meme Detected - 100 Years Is a Long Time; 2060 Would Be a Great Time For Rapid Nuclear Energy Development

Geoff - from a technical point of view, the following is absolutely correct and is probably the way that most engineers employed in both nuclear and oil think:

"The more oil saved in heavy-duty applications that nuclear can serve, the more oil available for other purposes.  Add to that the potential of nuclear process heat for enhanced oil recovery and oil sands/shale extraction, and you've got a great way to turn nuclear electrons into liquid fuel molecules that can go anywhere."

I have been dealing with traders, investors and businessmen far too long. They would  not think about "oil saved" but about sales not made. They do not like "oil available for other purposes" - they worry about overcapacity and competition.

Here is a quote that provides some food for thought from a recent entry on the Financial Times blog 

http://blogs.ft.com/energy-source/2010/01/12/chevrons-bad-news-is-not-dimming-hopes-for-future/

"But whether Chevron’s actual results see a major rise depends on how commodities do. According to Fitch Ratings’ 2010 outlook for the global oil & gas sector, the oil & gas industry is stable as the rally in crude oil prices from the lows experienced during the first quarter of 2009 continue to provide considerable support to industry activity levels and financial profiles. It does note, however, that the key risk for upstream companies and integrateds in 2010 relates to the potential for weaker oil prices during the year. No matter how much production Chevron, or anyone else, has, if they are not getting a good price for it, investors will not be happy."
January 14, 2010    View Comment    

On Oil Industry Meme Detected - 100 Years Is a Long Time; 2060 Would Be a Great Time For Rapid Nuclear Energy Development

Geoff - if the off shore wind turbines had the potential to produce several thousand megawatts reliably and at a marginal cost that can allow high cash flow, I doubt that even the "rich and influential folks" would be able to stop the project. That is especially true if the project had far less visible impact than 350 foot tall turbines with blades that are longer than football fields.

I still cannot figure out why people talk about Cape Wind as if it is just about the view; off shore may seem like nobody's backyard to land lubbers, but the Kennedy's and some of their neighbors have always sailed and fished in the waters. The imposition is very real. There is also some indication that low frequency noises from off-shore turbines disturb wild life. Some fisheries off of the coast of Sweden have reported significant impacts from local turbines.

You were a businessman and a fuel trader. Do you really think that decision makers spend much of their time worrying about what will happen in 20 years when there are tens of billions in annual profits to be made in the meantime?

You focus on vehicle fuel, which is certainly an important product. However, even in the car crazy US a bit less than half of the petroleum produced and imported ends up begin consumed as motor gasoline. The rest is a diffuse mix of other products, at least some of which could be replaced by fission heat. 

There are still a lot of places in the world where oil is a primary electrical generation fuel. Of course, there is also that LNG that the majors are investing tens of billions in developing - though it CAN be used in vehicles, I bet that a lot of it will be burned to generate electrical power.
January 13, 2010    View Comment    

On Oil Industry Meme Detected - 100 Years Is a Long Time; 2060 Would Be a Great Time For Rapid Nuclear Energy Development

Geoff - we have already built more than 100 nukes in the United States. We know what kind of physical resources and labor are required. The big challenge for that construction process is the external impacts of legal and political challenges. Of course, those sometimes affect oil projects as well, but some extraction, transportation and refining processes simply too freaking hard from a physical resources point of view. 

I think you are selling fission short with regard to its fungibility with other heat sources. From many perspectives, heavy metal fission is a more capable heat source than hydrocarbon combustion.

Fission is well proven as a transportation heat source on board some very demanding platforms (subs, carriers, ice breakers, Arctic ore carriers). It is a great source of district heat (as is done in Switzerland) and as the electricity supply for heat pumps. It can supply transportation needs via electricity supply for rail roads and subways, and it competes with many grades of oil as the heat for industrial processes.

In the US electricity market OIL might be a niche supplier - unless you are in Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam, or on Long Island - but natural gas certainly is no niche supplier. It has a 20% market share and the consumption of gas in electrical power plants represents about 1/3 of the gas market (about 7 TCF per year compared to a total market of 20 TCF). Around the globe, natural gas and LNG compete head on with nuclear in the electricity market.

I am really confused with your comment about storage and portability. A guy with a backpack can carry as much energy value of uranium as a supertanker.  When compared to the storage limitations on natural gas . . . 

A 1000 MWe nuclear plant only needs 20 tons of manufactured fuel per year. You can put that on a single over-the-road truck. A nuclear plant operator can store as much fuel on site as desired; it does not take up much space and does not cost very much compared to the value of the energy produced. (A ton of commercial nuclear fuel costs less than $2 million and can produce 15,000 MW-days of electricity - that's a fuel cost of about $5 per megawatt-hour.) 

WRT portability - the restrictions there are legal, not physical. NASA has developed trashcan sized reactors. The US Army built tiny little plants for Greenland, Alaska, Antarctica, and Wyoming.

Oil will remain a very useful commodity. I just know enough about the way that supply and demand works in that market to believe that the price will fall low enough to make it not worth the effort to try to recover some of the very remote and difficult oil. I see demand falling considerably below 80 million barrels per day as customers are offered cleaner, cheaper, more reliable sources for many needs that are currently supplied by oil and natural gas. What do you think the price would be if the world oil market dropped to 60 or 40 million barrels of oil per day?

Sorry if that disrupts some existing business models. The writing has been on the wall for 60 years and the people who run oil/gas (most majors are at least 50/50 in each product) companies are smart enough to read.
January 12, 2010    View Comment