Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 August 2009

Nuclear Corruption

This blog has several posts supporting massive investment in nuclear energy. Next to wind and solar power, it is the cleanest current off-the-shelf technology capable of widespread deployment. (Hydroelectric, geothermal and tidal power are necessarily local solutions.) In the medium term, it is the best alternative to coal for “baseline loads,” until we develop good batteries to store wind and solar power in a reliable, widely distributed nationwide power grid.

Nuclear power produces no air pollution and only a small amount of radioactive solid waste. Unlike coal, it does not pollute the local and regional atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, taint fish worldwide with mercury poisoning, or produce the largest burden of greenhouse gases of any fuel known to science. Whereas coal pollutes the Earth’s entire atmosphere and is the largest single contributor to climate change, America could sequester all of its nuclear waste under a single mountain. If it came to that, the fateful choice between nuclear power and coal would determine whether the next several generations live in a chemical purgatory or something resembling a pristine Earth.

Despite the irrational fears of fringe groups, nuclear power is safe. There is absolutely no risk that a nuclear power plant could become a nuclear bomb. Modern plant designs preclude meltdowns using only gravity, not sophisticated technology that can break down. And we can minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of diversion of nuclear fuel for terrorism with suitable precautions and plant design. France and South Korea have made 77% and 35% of their electricity, respectively, from the atom for decades, without nuclear mishap. Many other countries have similar records.

Yet there is a serious risk in nuclear power—one which has nothing to do with technology. It is not nuclear explosions, meltdowns, terrorism, or disposal of a relatively small volume of solid (and therefore non-dispersing) nuclear waste. It is corruption.

Last year’s tragic earthquake in Sichuan illustrates the problem. Scores of schoolchildren died from substandard construction of school buildings put up by corrupt contractors with the connivance of corrupt local officials. Little, if anything, was done to find and punish the individuals responsible and make examples of them. If the substandard buildings had been nuclear-plant containment vessels, the same earthquake might have affected hundreds of thousands.

Unfortunately, corruption seems endemic in China. Recently the Wall Street Journal reported [subscription required] that Kang Rixin, the head of the state-run China National Nuclear Corp. and a member of the Central Committee, is under investigation for corruption. That’s a terrifying thought, for China has eleven nuclear plants and is planning or building some twenty-three more.

The report did not state the nature of the alleged corruption. But if it involved cutting corners in plant siting, design or construction, the result could be more devastating to the Earth and its biosphere than nuclear-armed Kim and Ahmadinejad combined.

No nation is immune to corruption. During the last wave of nuclear plant construction, an American contractor skimped on the specifications for a nuclear power plant, building vertical supporting pillars father apart than the design specified. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission caught the “mistake” and forced the contractor to tear down the partially finished work and rebuild it to specifications.

This kind of thing happens in construction all the time. That’s why we have detailed contracts, supervising architects and engineers, and multiple layers of independent inspection and review for most buildings and all critical infrastructure.

There is no application for which those precautions are more important than nuclear power plants. In a previous post on this blog, I suggested that we could resolve nuclear-plant maintenance issues with a simple, common-sense rule: if something unexplained goes wrong, shut the plant down, find out what went wrong, and fix it. That seems like nothing more than common sense. But sometimes economic incentives vie with common sense and motivate stupidity or corruption. The trick is to arrange governing laws and practices to eliminate dangerous and perverse incentives and reinforce economic incentives to do the right thing.

Insofar as plant construction is concerned, four steps could help cure the corruption problem for nuclear power. Taken together, they flow from a simple, general rule: “don’t mess with nuclear power!” Do everything by the book, and let scientists and engineers who know what they are doing call the shots. Don’t tolerate the slightest deviation from best practices, let alone cutting corners.

The first step is to separate the job of promoting and selling nuclear power from the job of siting, designing and building plants. As compared to coal, nuclear power should sell itself. Only engineers and scientists who understand how nuclear plants work and appreciate the danger of sloppiness and cutting corners should be in charge of designing, building and running them. Promoters, marketers, investors, politicians and lawyers need not apply. Ideally, the smartest folk about nuclear matters—scientists and engineers in our national nuclear laboratories—should review and approve all siting plans and designs for nuclear power plants.

Second, safety and reliability should be the only (not just the primary) goal of operators, inspectors and regulators of nuclear power plants. Governing statutes, rules, and regulations should make that clear. If private industries run nuclear power plants, government-managed insurance should protect them and their investors against economic loss arising from technical problems that could not be foreseen. That way, there would be no economic incentive to cut corners if such problems appear. Problems that can be anticipated, such as corruption, we should expose and punish severely.

Both government regulators and private operators should have multiply redundant layers of oversight and inspection. They should include both independent private inspectors and government regulators. Private inspectors should have inspection and reporting as their only jobs and should be fired summarily for assuming any other or conflicting duties. Preventable problems, such as cutting of corners in construction, should receive quick and severe punishment, including economic sanctions, blackballing from all future nuclear work, and incarceration of responsible individuals.

Third, nuclear plant managers, including those who supervise plant construction, should be properly trained and certified. Ideally they should all have higher degrees in nuclear engineering. Before hiring, and periodically afterward, they should undergo rigorous testing and certification for substantive knowledge, currency in their field, aptitude and psychological fitness. The testing and certification processes should be no less rigorous than those we use for high-level military and intelligence officials, or for officers responsible for maintaining and operating our nuclear deterrent.

Finally, we should try to instill in nuclear managers and inspectors the spirit of an elite corps, analogous to special forces in our military. We should select them more carefully, pay them better, relieve them for the slightest transgression, and reward them better with recognition, publicity (when warranted) and honor, than any other comparable officials inside and outside government. Pride is a powerful motivator, and both government and private industry (under government mandate and encouragement) could use pride of place and achievement to combat corruption.

With these precautions, the greatest risk of nuclear power—the human failing of corruption—could be minimized, if not eliminated.

As for China, it should bring its investigation of Mr. Kang to a rapid and definite conclusion. If there is evidence of corruption in site selection, design or construction of nuclear plants it should relieve and incarcerate Kang. If evidence of his personal involvement in corruption (as distinguished from toleration or negligence) is clear, China might consider a public execution, like that held not long ago for the corrupt head of China’s regulatory agency for drugs. In the long run, corruption in nuclear plant siting, design or construction could kill or injure far more people than approving tainted medications.


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  • At Tue Jan 31, 01:15:00 PM EST, Blogger George Carty said…

    Isn't there another dangerous form of nuclear-related corruption? Namely, politicians who pursue anti-nuclear policies because of bribes from the fossil fuel (or on a few occasions, renewable energy) industries?

    Examples of this are the cancellation of the IFR during the Clinton administration, by an Energy Secretary with close links to Big Natural Gas (read "Big Oil") and former German Chancellor Gerhard's Schroeder's 2000 decision to phase out nuclear energy in Germany. Almost immediately after leaving office, Schroeder got a job with the Russian government gas monopoly Gazprom, making half a million euros a year.

    Of course, Angela Merkel -- who initially nixed the nuclear phase-out -- was forced to re-instate it by the post-Fukushima hysteria. And this time, Germany admits that phasing out nuclear will mean more fossil fuel power plants.

    I wonder if fear of nuclear energy in Germany was especially strong due to the actions of Stasi, KGB and now FSB spies? (And given how much gas there is in Sakhalin, I'd expect Japanese anti-nukes are also receiving significant Russian funding too...)

    After all, the major earners of hard currency for the Soviet Union and now Russia are fossil fuels (and weapons). Indeed, Saudi Sheikh Zaki Yamami's decision to massively increase oil production in the 1980s helped deal the death blow to the Soviet Empire, by severly reducing its oil and gas export income.

    To conclude, here's an anti-Greenpeace bumper sticker I designed.

  • At Tue Jan 31, 04:17:00 PM EST, Blogger George Carty said…

    Two more examples I forgot:

    * Three German environmentalist groups -- WWF Deutschland, Naturschutzbund Deutschland and BUND (the German division of Friends of the Earth) had between them received $10 million from a foundation whose sole sponsor is NordStream AG, a company majority-owned by Gazprom which is building a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.

    * Ed Markey, the most powerful anti-nuclear politician in the US Congress, has a major terminal in his district for importing Liquified Natural Gas.

  • At Thu Feb 02, 09:52:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George,

    I’m publishing your two comments despite not having the time to check their accuracy. They make an important point: that corruption affects all aspects of energy policy.

    The reasons are simple: our global economy won’t run without energy, so energy commands vast amounts of money, far more than illegal drugs. Where money sloshes about in great quantities, policy decisions often fail to reach their merits due to the Golden Rule (he who has the gold rules).

    But corruption by fossil-fuel interests has a much bigger impact on nuclear power in Europe than here in the US. France is the epicenter of nuclear-power research and usage, drawing over three-quarters of its electric power from nuclear. And Germany, spooked by its own role in World War II and the thought of what would have happened if Hitler had got the Bomb first, has an inveterate and entirely natural fear of such immense power in human hands.

    Here in the US the fossil fuel industry’s primary target is wind and solar power. The reason? Nuclear has been on hold here since the 1970s. So the battle over the proper place of expensive and relatively dangerous nuclear power, which doesn’t add to climate change or pollute our air, is taking place largely in Europe and Japan. (China has wisely decided to use all forms of power that work.)

    I’ve published your comments trusting that you checked your facts (as I will when I have time) and are not repeating unsupported allegations. That said, I’ll give you a bit of unsolicited writing advice: your speculation about the influence of former Soviet spy agencies in Germany only weakens the impact of the real facts you adduce. Those facts (if true) are powerful enough to raise doubt about the motives and effects of the anti-nuclear movement in Europe, and that should be enough.

    In any event, you should be careful about attributing evil motives to ambiguous behavior. Some ex-pols might go to work for natural gas companies after retiring from politics because they actually believe that source of energy is the best transition fuel to wind and solar power. That’s not far from my view, although I think nuclear power will inevitably play an important role as well.

    If you’ve read this blog with any diligence, you know that I am no fan of fossil fuels, especially oil. But I’ve invested in long-term call options on Exxon Mobil stock. I’ve done so because the people who run our planet seem hell bent on waiting until the last minute, when global oil prices will inevitably go through the roof, to find substitutes. I feel comfortable in taking advantage of what may be the most predictable global economic effect over the next decade in order to assure myself a high-quality nursing home in my dotage. The effect of my small investment on the global economy won’t even rise to noise level.

    So beware of attributing evil motives to people you don’t know. It’s much better (and more credible!) to point to self-evident effects, such as the prestige an ex-chancellor of Germany brings to what is essentially a self-interested lobby for one form of fossil fuels.

    [Comment continues below]

  • At Thu Feb 02, 09:54:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George [previous comment continues]:

    One last point. It is neither evil nor reprehensible for nations like Russia to exploit their natural resources to improve their people’s lot. That’s called capitalism. Free trade is a far better way to distribute natural resources and insure their best use than what we did during the last century: make total war over them.

    On leaving my teaching fellowship at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (which trained Putin) in 1993, I told my department chair that Russia would have to sell its natural resources aboard in order to bring its Communist-devastated industries up to global standards. My chair hemmed and hawed and protested stiffly. But that’s exactly what has happened.

    It’s bad when Russia uses its gas reserves to play politics, as it did and is doing in the Ukraine. But Russia’s leaders, who are far from stupid, are slowly learning the rules of capitalism. When you cut off supply of a commodity, even temporarily, all you do is raise prices, causing customers to look harder for substitutes and more reliable sources of supply. You end up cutting your own throat.

    The Saudis learned that lesson back in the seventies. They are now skillfully manipulating the price of oil so as to drain the West’s economies without killing the gooses that lay their golden eggs.

    In seizing on natural gas as a “solution” to this perfectly legal economic predation, the West is grasping at straws. Using publicly available figures, I have calculated that total US natural-gas reserves, including generous estimates of “fracked” gas, will last just sixteen years if we use gas to replace coal and oil and sell half abroad. That is hardly a long-term solution. It will work only if wind, solar and nuclear energy are ready to take up the slack when the gas runs out.

    I’ve been planning an essay on these points for some time, but so far have contented myself with publishing snippets in comments to on-line newspapers. Your comments here have motivated me to advance that work, which deserves far more prominence than buried comments on a two-year-old post.



  • At Sat Feb 04, 06:00:00 AM EST, Blogger George Carty said…

    I don't see any attacks by fossil fuel interests against renewable energy (point me to some YouTube clips of such ads if I'm wrong...)

    On the contrary, I would have expected that Big Oil would be very keen to encourage usage of unreliable wind and solar energy, knowing that these weather-dependent energy sources must have back-up, which (except in places with abundant hydroelectric capacity -- Denmark for example uses Norwegian hydroelectric for this purpose) can only practically be provided by natural gas.

    Take a look at this 2010 speech by Robert F Kennedy Jr to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, in which he points out that utility-scale "wind" and "solar" power plants are really gas power plants.

    I suspect the fossil fuel interests in the United States aren't attacking nuclear explicitly because they believe they have already won the war against nuclear power back in the '70s, when the AEC was replaced by the NRC.

    My source about NordStream AG funding German environmentalists is the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza -- here's a machine translation of the relevant article. I made a minor error though in my earlier post -- the 10 million is in fact euros, not dollars.

  • At Fri Feb 10, 03:59:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George,

    I’m going to answer this one quickly, because few readers are likely to find this thread in a two-year-old post on another subject.

    You need to expand your search beyond YouTube, beyond Europe (which is far more reasonable than North America on energy) and beyond the UK, where I presume you live.

    The right-wing assault on alternative energy is largely confined to North America, which (not coincidentally) grossly overuses oil compared to the rest of the world. You won’t find it on YouTube, except in the form of criticism of President Obama for allegedly holding back drilling for oil and gas (which this meme implicitly promotes as the better, cheaper energy sources). You will find it in print media like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

    These two decrepit relics of the golden age of American journalism have spent the last two years endlessly repeating the Big Lie that solar and wind energy are uneconomic.

    I have never seen any convincing arithmetic support for that proposition, let alone credible evidence from sources independent of the fossil fuel industries. Yet it survives as a persistent meme, just like the Big Lie that government caused the Crash of 2008.

    The fact is we don’t really know what wind and solar energy cost because we have too little experience with them. Their marginal costs are next to zero—for plant maintenance only—because the wind and sun are free. So by far the biggest component of cost is amortized capital expense, i.e., the cost of depreciating the power plants over their useful lifetimes.

    We don’t know enough about those lifetimes because: (1) they are long, and (2) in most cases windmills and solar voltaic and thermal plants as yet have insufficient in-service lives to estimate real lifetimes, and therefore amortized costs, with any statistical accuracy. That, however, doesn’t stop the fossil fuel industry and American utilities that primarily use coal and gas from making grossly high guesstimates of amortized capital costs in order to inflate the relative costs of alternative energy. Then the so-called “mainstream” print media reprint this propaganda as gospel. And of course none of the compared costs of fossil fuels include the huge (but hard to estimate) “external” costs of air, water and ground pollution, let alone global warming.

    From an engineering, scientific or economic view, the whole thing is a gigantic fraud on the North American public. Europe has largely escaped this informational deception because: (1) Europe is already heavily committed to alternative energy and (2) Europe taxes fossil fuels about twice as much as we do, in part to recoup their external social costs.

    So you’d have to be a Yank and read Yankee print media to understand how subtly and consistently they have propagandized for fossil fuels. That would probably be a waste of your time. Just count your blessings that you live in Europe and don’t have to contend with this particular assault on reason.



  • At Fri Feb 10, 04:36:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George,

    I forgot to address one important point about alternative energy: intermittency. Like fossil-fuel advocates, you seem to suggest that the only answer is natural gas.

    Of course there is also coal, the dirtiest fuel known to mankind, and nuclear power for so-called “baseload” electricity. These facts are well known and a grist for advocates of both coal and nuclear power.

    What is less well known is that technology has provided yet another solution to the intermittency problem: reliable storage of intermittent electrical energy in batteries.

    I have outlined this solution in an old post and won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that a Chevy Volt’s battery pack, which stores 40 kilowatt-hours of electrical power, would amply supply the average household’s electrical needs for two or three days, except for electrical space heating.

    These battery packs are now in real cars, with similar ones in the Leaf and the Electric Ford Focus to come. Low-loss, high-power solid state electronics to convert from direct current (battery power), to the AC power used in homes is available now, off the shelf.

    Converting to home storage of electricity would require some cultural changes and perhaps government mandates and/or subsidies. But the technology to solve the intermittency problem once and for all is at hand, right now, even without considering additional nuclear power or natural gas.



  • At Sat Feb 11, 06:31:00 AM EST, Blogger George Carty said…

    The United States (like almost all other net importers of oil) uses almost no oil for the purpose of generating electricity. Oil is used overwhelmingly in the transport sector.

    North America is particularly profligate in its use of oil, because of the preference for oversized cars (which is ultimately down to the legacy-costs problems faced by US car manufacturers which you've already written about), the relative unpopularity of diesel cars compared to Europe, and also the much lower density of suburban America compared to suburban Europe (which increases driving distances).

    These factors probably explain why organized global-warming skepticism is much stronger in North America than in Europe. In North America, climate activists could encourage people to change to more fuel-efficient cars, or perhaps to move to inner-city locations (which would reduce the amount of driving they need to do) -- both of which would substantially reduce Big Oil's revenues.

    By contrast, Europeans have much less scope to reduce their use of motor fuels, as they are already driving fuel-efficient vehicles (largely due to high fuel taxes). This means that what little Big Oil stands to lose due to climate activism can be made up by promoting the use of gas-fired power stations (on the grounds that they emit less CO2 than coal-fired power stations). That is, as long as the main alternative to gas is high-carbon coal rather than zero-carbon nuclear...

    If solar and wind power are economic, why are they only built in order to receive government subsidies or feed-in tariffs (or worse, to comply with government mandates)? And even the renewable energy industry itself doesn't really believe that they can produce more than 20% of our electricity needs. This means they can only be considered as a supplement to more conventional electricity generation, not as a substitute.

    Using wind or solar power to supplement natural gas makes sense, because gas-fired power stations can rapidly throttle up and down (as mechanically they are similar to aircraft jet engines) and also because gas has a high marginal cost. Using it to supplement coal makes less sense, both because coal has a lower marginal cost, and also because coal-fired power stations are steam engines and would need to maintain a good head of steam to power back up if the wind dropped or the sun was obscured by clouds. And using it to supplement nuclear makes even less sense, as uranium has an even lower marginal cost.

    Depleted Cranium: Fossil Fuel LOVES Renewables

    Atomic Insights: Wind & solar are not "intermittent"; they are unreliable, unpredictable, uncontrollable and worthless

  • At Sat Feb 11, 03:57:00 PM EST, Anonymous Chileric said…


    While I agree with much of what you say and applaud your call for more nuclear power plants, I would say that you are being a bit too kind to wind and solar. Look up electricity generation in Wikipedia and you will see that solar accounted for 0.064% of electricity generation in 2008. That's solar photo voltaic and solar thermal combined. I don't have any more recent figures, but that's going to be pretty close. Wind is somewhat better at 1.1%. So combine wind and solar and generously round up and you get less than 2% of world electricity generation. Both wind and solar have fundamental weaknesses. I could give you a hundred technical reasons but simple is best. The sun goes down every afternoon and some days the wind doesn't blow. As you point out, currently there isn't any good way of storing any excess energy from sunny, windy days to use on calm nights. Capacity factors reflect this. See the Wikipedia entry. Solar has a capacity factor of no more than 19% even in a sunny climate. Nuclear power typically has a capacity factor of over 90%. So if you build a 1000 MW nuclear plant you actually get 900 MW out of it. If you install 1000 MW of solar panels you get maybe 190 MW out of it and only during daylight hours of course. The capacity factor for wind is perhaps 30%.

    You mention the battery pack of an Chevy Volt being about to power a house for a few days, EXCEPT for heating. It is honest of you to note that omission. Many alternative energy advocates are less well informed and less honest than you are. My comment on this is that leaving out heating is fine if you live in Hawaii or some other warm place. I am originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, one of the coldest major cities on Earth. Leaving out heating would mean lots of frozen corpses.

    In my mind, the danger of wind and solar is the perception that they can actually power the world. They can't. Not even close at today's level of technology. Yet over and over again, I hear people say things like “We don't need coal or nuclear. We can just use renewables!” I assume you are an American. Ever heard of Cecil Adams and “The Straight Dope”? Check out the Straight Dope website and see what Cecil has to say about nuclear power and alternative energy. Cecil writes in a funny style but his analysis is pop on.

  • At Tue Feb 14, 11:43:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Chileric,

    I’m addressing your comment first (out of the latest tranche) because it is full of misleading information on crucial points of energy policy. Whether the errors come from Wikipedia or your interpretation of it, I don’t have time to determine.

    The most egregious error in your comment relates to the fraction of renewable energy in use today. Your numbers are four years out of date.

    That fact is vital because renewables are just reaching the exponential part of their growth curve. Even four years ago, that fact was apparent, at least for wind energy. See this post of mine [scan down to the table] and the source it cited. Or consider that China’s installed capacity of solar panels is expected to double this year, as reported here [second paragraph].

    It takes only eight years of doubling to go from 1% to 64%, all else being equal. So your comment mimics what people said about cars at the beginning of the twentieth century: “they’ll never amount to anything because there are so many more horses on the road.”

    The second most egregious error in your comment relates to “capacity factors,” a nonstandard term that I have never seen used the same way. For solar power, I think you are talking about efficiency ratios, meaning the proportion of solar energy in the sun’s rays actually converted to electricity. The number 19% is in the right ball park: both photovoltaic and thermal solar plants convert a relatively small proportion of the total solar energy falling on them into electricity.

    That number, however, is meaningless in comparing renewables and conventional sources of energy for two reasons. First, the amount of solar energy falling on earth is astronomically large compared to human needs. For example, a set of solar thermal power arrays [see paragraph before heading “Replacing Oil”] equivalent to one twenty-ninth the land area of Texas could have supplied all the US’ electrical power requirements for 2005-2006.

    Second, for photovoltaic systems the concept of efficiency ratios is inappropriate because electricity generation involves no moving parts, except for the mechanics that keep the cells or mirrors directed toward the sun. Efficiency ratios were developed for internal combustion engines, in order to reflect that fact that much of the energy in the fuel they burn is wasted as heat. (That’s the reason your car needs a cooling system and radiator: to dissipate the waste heat before it destroys the engine.)

    In solar and wind systems, there is no similar waste because the sun’s and wind’s power is free. You are not spending money extracting and refining fuel (and causing pollution in the process) only to waste it. So the concept of efficiency ratios has no economic relevance to those systems.

    [My response to your comment continues below.]

  • At Wed Feb 15, 12:01:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Response to Chileric's comment continued:

    The third error in your comment is a common one: mistaking the intermittency of wind and solar energy for an insuperable problem.

    In fact, intermittency is nothing that competent engineering cannot solve, using technology that is available off the shelf but not yet widely deployed. Since most nations on Earth (except France) use coal to generate more than 50% of their electricity, we can use intermittent solar and wind energy, right now, to replace power from coal and thereby limit burning of the world’s dirtiest fuel, kilowatt-hour for kilowatt hour. All we need to do so is pedestrian switching and control technology, which of course requires some capital investment and maybe some incentives for public utilities. Failure to use this off-the-shelf, available technology is a failure of imagination and public policy, not an insuperable engineering problem.

    As for heating homes, electricity is extremely inefficient for that purpose. Any engineer or architect with half a brain would much prefer to heat a home with coal or natural gas directly than to use the same coal or gas to generate electricity (with low efficiency) and then to transmit the power hundreds of miles (through lossy high-tension lines), only to use it to make a bit of metal glow with Ohmic heating.

    So you are setting up a straw man. No competent engineer designs modern buildings to heat with electricity, regardless of its source, right now. Nothing about that fact will change when we switch from today’s coal- and gas-derived electricity to tomorrow’s solar and wind power. Of all the means of generating electricity, including today’s conventional means, only nuclear power has the potential to provide electric heating of homes and industry at acceptable efficiency, cost and levels of pollution. Space heating is and should be considered a separate category of energy use.

    As for Wikipedia, I love it and use it, but only for non-controversial names and dates, or to double-check (or find) information from more authoritative sources. All that you have proven (assuming that you have not misinterpreted what you read) is that the same propaganda for fossil fuels that infects our mainstream media has found its way into Wikipedia, too.

    Engineering always involves tradeoffs. But there is no—repeat no—theoretical or practical impediment to generating a majority of the electricity for normal household and industrial use (besides space heating) with wind and solar power. Switching will require some capital investment, some imagination and vision on the part of industry and government, and perhaps some cultural changes in the home (like those Chevy Volt battery packs).

    But the people who say it can’t be done are simply wrong. Most of them are just trying to protect their investment in the status quo, just as buggy makers once tried to wish the automobile away.



  • At Wed Feb 15, 12:06:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    P.S. It takes only six years of doubling, not eight, to go from 1% to 64%, all else remaining the same. Sorry for the error in basic math.


  • At Wed Feb 15, 12:53:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George,

    Your comment of February 11 is a good one, except for the last two paragraphs. There I think you have fallen prey to the persistent propaganda of the fossil fuel industries.

    There are two Big Lies in energy today. The first, as I’ve outlined above, is that renewables (wind and solar) are uneconomic.

    The most charitable thing you can say about this assertion is that it is a bare claim, unsupported by credible, independent analysis, let alone careful peer-reviewed studies. Fossil-fuel advocates inflate their claimed cost of renewables by fudging (shortening) the useful lives of alternative power plants, thereby inflating renewables’ amortized capital cost---the largest component of their per-unit cost (since wind and sun are free). Fossil-fuel advocates also deflate the comparative real cost of fossil fuels by ignoring all external costs, for such things as climate change, acid rain, mercury pollution of seas and fish, pollution of rivers by strip mining, surface collapse, despoliation of wilderness, and now, with gas “fracking,” pollution of drinking-water sources. If all these so-called “external” costs were factored into the price of fossil-fuel energy, the equation would change considerably.

    The second Big Lie is related: that renewables require subsidies. This is not so much an outright lie as a half truth. Renewables do get subsidies today, but the reasons why are essential. They get subsidies because public utilities are: (1) captive to their fossil-fuel suppliers, either financially or philosophically, (2) reluctant to make capital investments that would increase their prices, (3) suspicious of and reluctant to adopt new technology, and (4) generally among the most sluggish and least innovative of industries (along with Detroit) in engineering innovation.

    Point (2) is quite important. It explains why it took strong government regulation in the northeastern US about thirty years to control acid rain, through the simple expedient of installing scrubbers in coal plants. It also explains why most of the US nuclear plants are, like the ones at Fukushima, forty years out of date and obsolete.

    The philosophy of power companies is simple, lazy and stupid: if something works, why invest good money in something better? But when they say “it works,” they ignore all the problems that are becoming increasingly clear (actually, smoggy) as world population rises.

    [Reply to your comment continues below.]

  • At Wed Feb 15, 01:12:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    [Reply to George Carty’s February 11 comment continues]:

    As for intermittency, it is an easily solvable engineering problem, not only for gas plants, but for coal ones, too. Wind and sun do not turn on and off like a switch, let alone in a large geographic region. Weather is largely predictable today, especially on the time frames needed to ramp up or wind down fossil-fuel electric plants, including coal.

    More important, the disappearance of wind and sun over large geographic regions is extremely rare, even for short times. People who don’t understand this point have never lived in the US Southwest.

    All it takes to reduce intermittency to easily manageable fluctuations is a grid system large enough to include multiple micro-climates. That means a large grid with systemic control—something well under way in the US, but something our fossil-fuel utilities have been dragging their heels on for decades.

    We need incentives and mandates because, like a herd of cats, they don’t understand the benefits of cooperation. They would rather pretend, despite universal regulation of power generation, transmission and rates, that they are making money individually, all by themselves, in an absolutely free market.

    This brings me to a related point. Every new form of energy has required government subsidies and incentives, including oil itself and especially nuclear power. The reason is that energy production is not really a matter of private enterprise in the traditional sense. It is a society-wide endeavor, from the mining in coal mountains or uranium deserts or drilling in the deep sea, through the vast network of roads, railroads and pipelines that bring fuel to rail or pipeline nodes and then to power plants, through the power lines that criss-cross our country, to the local power stations and overhead or underground wiring that serve individual homes and businesses. This gargantuan enterprise is necessarily an object of government management and regulation because there is no human endeavor, with the possible exception of air travel, that involves more people, more different kinds of enterprises, and more moving parts.

    My last point is simpler. Real, live, intelligent people don’t think renewables are uneconomic or worthless sinks of subsidies. One is T. Boone Pickens, a legendary swashbuckling good ol’ oil boy, who has invested billions in wind. Four years ago, he said he had the same feeling about wind as he had about “about the best oil field I ever found.” Among the others are the Chinese, who are going to double their already considerable investment in solar energy this year.

    The fossil fuel and utility industries are dragging their heels mightily for all the worst human reasons: greed, selfishness, laziness, backwardness, “not invented here” arrogance, and inertia. Please don’t fall for their rather transparent self-serving propaganda.

    Wind and sun are free, non-polluting, and the least dangerous forms of energy ever discovered by Man. They deserve a prominent place in any rational energy policy. If we in the English-speaking world don’t use them, China and Germany will.



  • At Wed Feb 15, 02:02:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    P.S. If you don’t believe my assertion that wind and sun are predictable today, just spend some time on weather.com. Pick any spot in the developed world, and it will give you forecasts of wind (strength and direction) and sun not only for today and tomorrow, but for ten days. Surely that’s enough time to fire a coal plant up.

    And who is responsible for all these forecasts, which require tens of thousands of daily field measurements and massive computer systems? A private firm presents them on the Web, but the data come, free of charge, from massive national and international systems built, maintained and run by—you guessed it!—despised government. In England, for example, some of the weather stations are hundreds of years old. This is just one more example, among many, of the complete detachment of right-wing anti-government ideology from reality.


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