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Climate Hustle

As nuclear power plants close, states need to bet big on energy storage

Posted on 9 August 2016 by dana1981

Eric Daniel Fournier, Post Doctoral Researcher, Spatial Informatics, University of California, Los Angeles and Alex Ricklefs, Research Analyst in Sustainable Communities, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) recently started the process of shutting down the Diablo Canyon generation facility, the last active nuclear power plant in California. The power plant, located near Avila Beach on the central Californian coast, consists of two 1,100 megawatt (MW) reactors and produces 18,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity a year, about 8.5 percent of California’s electricity consumption in 2015. It has been, up until this point, the single largest electrical generation facility in the state.

Looming over the imminent closure of Diablo Canyon is California State legislative bill SB 350, or the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015. The act is a cornerstone of the state’s ongoing efforts to decarbonize its electricity grid by requiring utilities to include renewable sources for a portion of their electrical generation in future years. The mandate also requires utilities to run programs designed to double the efficiency of electricity and natural gas consumption.

But a number of significant unanswered questions remain about this ambitious energy policy, as the planned closing by 2025 of Diablo Canyon illustrates. Can utilities supply electricity around the clock using these alternative generation sources? And crucially, can energy storage technologies provide the power on demand that traditional generators have done?

Moving away from nuclear power

Nuclear power plants saw their heyday in the early 1970s and were praised for their ability to produce large amounts of electricity at a constant rate without the use of fossil fuels.

The Clinton Power Station in Illinois is one of a number of nuclear plants slated to be shut down largely because of poor economics. Nuclear Regulatory Comission, CC BY-NC-ND

However, due to negative opinion and costly renovations, we are now observing a trend whereby long-running nuclear power plants are shutting down and very few new plants are being scheduled for construction in the United States.

Utilities are moving toward renewable electricity generation, such as solar and wind, partially in response to market forces and partially in response to new regulations that require utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In California, in particular, the shift toward renewable energy for market and environmental reasons, along with the public’s negative perception of nuclear energy, has caused utilities to abandon nuclear power.

While opponents can view the shutdown of nuclear power plants as a health and environmental success, closing nuclear plants intensifies the challenges faced by utilities to meet electricity consumption demand while simultaneously reducing their carbon footprint. PG&E, for example, has pledged to increase renewable energy sources and energy efficiency efforts, but this alone will not help them supply their customers with electricity around the clock. What can be used to fill the sizable gap left by Diablo Canyon’s closing?

Solar power plants that use the sun’s heat to make electricity can store energy as molten salt. Department of Energy

Solar and wind energy sources are desirable as they produce carbon-free electricity without producing toxic and dangerous waste byproducts. However, they also suffer from the drawback of being able to produce electricity only intermittently throughout the day. Solar energy can be utilized only when the sun is out, and wind speeds vary unpredictably.

In order to meet customer electricity demand at all hours, energy storage technologies, alongside more renewable sources and increased energy efficiency, will be needed.

Enter energy storage

Energy storage has long been touted as the panacea for integrating renewable energy into the grid at large scale. Replacing the power generation left by Diablo Canyon’s closing will require expansive additions to wind and solar. However, more renewable energy generation will require more storage.

There are many different energy storage technologies currently available or in the process of commercialization, but each falls into one of four basic categories: chemical storage as in batteries, kinetic storage such as flywheels, thermal storage and magnetic storage.

The different technologies within each of these category can be characterized and compared in terms of their:

  • power rating: how much electrical current produced
  • energy capacity: how much energy can be stored or discharged, and
  • response time: the minimum amount of time needed to deliver energy.

The accompanying figures graphically compare each category of storage and how they perform on these characteristics.

With chemical storage, energy is contained in the chemical molecular structure of the storage media, such as lithium ion and lead-acid batteries. Eric Daniel Fournier

With kinetic storage, energy is stored in physical (i.e., potential) movement of a mechanical system, such as flywheels, compressed air, and pumped hydro(CAES: Compressed Air Energy Storage). Eric Daniel Fournier Thermal storage, typically utilized in concentrated solar power applications, stores energy in the form of heat, such as molten salt. (TES: Thermal Energy Storage) Eric Daniel Fournier

With magnetic storage, energy is temporarily magnetizing a conductive coil that is later discharged as an electric current, such as superconducting magnets. Eric Daniel Fournier

The key challenge that utilities are now faced with is how to integrate energy storage technologies for specific power delivery applications at specific locations.

This challenge is further complicated by the electric power transmission system and consumer behaviors that have evolved based on a energy supply system dominated by fossil fuels. Additionally, storage technologies are expensive and still developing, which makes fossil fuel generators look more economically beneficial in the short term.

Implementing storage technologies

Currently in California, energy storage is effectively provided by fossil fuel power plants. These natural gas and coal-powered plants provide steady “baseload” power and can ramp up generation to meet peaks in demand, which generally happen in the afternoon and early evening.

A single energy storage device cannot directly replace the capacity potential of these fossil fuel sources, which can generate high rates of power as long as needed.

The inability to perform a like-for-like replacement means that a more diversified portfolio strategy toward energy storage must be adopted in order to make a smooth transition to a lower carbon energy future. Such balanced energy storage portfolio would necessarily consist of some combination of:

  • short-duration energy storage systems that are capable of maintaining power quality by meeting localized spikes in peak demand and buffering short term supply fluctuations. These could include supercapacitors, batteries and flywheels that can supply bursts of power quickly.

  • Lower speed energy storage that can supply a lot of power and store a lot of energy. These systems, such as pumped hydro and thermal storage with concentrated solar power, are capable of shifting the seasonality of solar production and servicing the unique power requirements for large scale or sensitive power users in the commercial and industrial sectors.

This set of storage technologies would have to be linked up in a kind of chain, nested and tiered by end use, location and integration into the grid. Additionally, management systems will be needed to control how the storage technologies interact with the grid.

Ultracapacitors store energy as batteries do but deliver power differently – in quick bursts, making it potentially suitable for keeping the supply and demand of power in constant balance. Department of Energy

Currently without sufficient energy storage in place, utilities now use natural gas to fill in the gaps in electricity supply from renewable sources. Utilities use “peaker” plants, which are natural gas-fueled plants that can turn generation up or down to meet electricity demand, such as when solar output dips in the late afternoon and evening, while producing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

With natural gas consumption for electricity generation on the rise, would it be better to keep nuclear power while energy storage technologies mature? Although less polluting than coal, natural gas produces greenhouse gas emissions and has the potential to cause environmentally dangerous leaks, as seen in Aliso Canyon.

With nuclear, it is still not clear what to do with nuclear waste, and the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 highlights how catastrophically dangerous nuclear power plants can be.

Regardless of which situation you believe is best, it is clear that energy storage is the major limitation to achieving a carbon-free electricity grid.

California’s commitment to renewable energy sources has helped shift the state to using less fossil fuels and emitting less greenhouse gases. However, careful planning is needed to ensure that energy storage systems are installed to take over the baseline load duties currently held by natural gas and nuclear power, as renewables and energy efficiency may not be able to carry the burden.

 

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Comments

Comments 1 to 25:

  1. This is a good article, except that I don't really agree with the wording in this one sentence:

    "Currently in California, energy storage is effectively provided by fossil fuel power plants."

    A better way to put it might be that "Currently in California, there is insufficient energy storage available, and thus fossil fuel power plants are called upon to meet demand when sun/wind conditions are not favorable."

    The reason why I suggest the rewording is because a lot of people seem to think that somehow burning natural gas is not putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I see on numerous blogs claims that switching to natural gas is "green." I personally don't agree that switching from nuclear to natural gas is "green," and indeed it will considerably increase our carbon (and methane due to leaks) emissions into the atmosphere.

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  2. > the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 highlights how catastrophically dangerous nuclear power plants can be.

    The earthquake and tsunami killed 15,000 people, and the radiation from Fukushima killed zero. How much safer than zero deaths do you want nuclear to be?

    Meanwhile, the evacuation from Fukushima — which was not necessary under IAEA guidelines — killed 1600 people needlessly. Final score: radiation 0; fear of radiation, 1600. 

    At some point, we should hope that rationality overcomes irrationality.

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  3. The graphs in the writeup comparing various energy storage systems are useful. But the International Electrotechnical Commison seems to be a better source for them: see for example the two figures on page 31, for rated power, energy content and discharge time and page 32 for power density and energy density (in relation to volume) of Electrical Energy Storage technologies at  http://www.iec.ch/whitepaper/pdf/iecWP-energystorage-LR-en.pdf

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Link activated.

  4. Keithpickering,

    The primary reason for the decline of nuclear power is that it is by far the most expensive source of energy.  Current plants under construction are grossly overbudget and years behind schedule.  Currently operating nuclear plants with no mortgage cost more to generate electricity than new built wind and solar plants.  Existing nuclear plants are now asking for billions of dollars in subsidies because they are not economic.  The money would be better spent building wind and solar.  

    Nuclear plants need to own up for the people they killed and continue to displace in Japan.  When you claim that no-one was killed you take yourself out of the argument.  160,000 people were forced from their homes.  1600 died.  Radiation continues to be dumped in the ocean, damaging fisheries.  Own up to the damage nulcear caused.

    Utilities do not care about these numbers when they review nuclear, their primary concern is cost.  Nuclear is too expensive.  

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  5. michael sweet@4,

    Your precisely point, is the only one missing in the OP.

    OP concentrates on emissions, because nukes must be replaced by renewables rather than FF as to keep emissions no higher than they are now. But the reality is opposite (and sober at the same time): cheap renewables displace other, more expensive utilities. And nukes are the first to go (not gas and not even coal), which proves the point that they are economicly the worst source of energy. Good luck, nuke proponents - your opinions face the reality check herein.

    It's sad, because if emissions were really the top priority, as should be IMO, then coal rather that nuke should go first. Oh well, we'll have to wait a bit longer (maybe very long until it's too late) before coal start going away under economic incentives we witness here, meanwhile we're cooking hot future for our descendants...

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  6. michael sweet,

    The conventional method of determining electricity cost, LCOE, is designed for investment decisions, not policy decisions. The timeline for LCOE computation is an investor-driven 30 years. The problem is that some generation systems, like hydro and nuclear, last a lot longer than 30 years and have much greater social utility than the 30-year Wall Street timeline implies. From a policy standpoint, LCOE undervalues long-lifetime generators and overvalues short-lifetime generators (particularly wind, where enormous physical stresses on turbines sharply limit generator life).

    But climate change is a long-term problem, and we need to think long-term. So let's run the numbers. At Vogtle in Georgia, two AP1000 reactors are under construction with a currently estimated cost, including financing cost, of $15.7 billion. (Two other AP1000s in South Carolina are coming in cheaper.) Those reactors have a rated power output of 1117 MW each and a design lifetime of 60 years. With a capacity factor of 90% (typical for US nuclear plants) the lifetime electricity produced is 2 x 1117 x 60 x 8766 x .9 = 1.06 billion MWh — which is $14.7 per MWh (less than 2 cents per kWh, neglecting O&M).

    The world's largest PV generating station is Solar Star in California, completed at an overnight cost of $2 billion, with financing at 5.375% over 20 years, for a total capital cost including financing of $3.3 billion. Over the past 12 months Solar Star has produced 1.6 million MWh, so over its 25 year lifetime it can be expected to produce 40 million MWh, which is $82.5 per MWh.

    The largest wind farm on the Great Plains is Roscoe in Texas (Alta in California is larger, but it is dependent on specific and unusual geography), which cost $1 billion (apparently exclusive of financing) and produced 440,000 MWh in 2015. The average lifetime of wind turbines in Denmark is 22 years, so we can expect Roscoe to produce 9.7 million MWh in its lifetime for $103.3 per MWh.

    And then there's storage, which is the point of the OP. Electricity isn't just a product, it's a service, and a major part of that service is always-on 24/7 reliability. Providing that with wind and solar will not be easy, or cheap. Generation plus storage will always be more expensive than generation alone, and LCOE omits needed storage cost from the calculation for intermittant generators.

    The point is that when you look at things in the long term, nuclear is certainly no more expensive, and probably much less expensive, than wind or solar. Even with cost overruns. Yet we never hear anyone saying wind and solar are too expensive.

    Like the "nuclear is dangerous" myth, the "nuclear is expensive" myth was first pushed by fossil fuel interests, who knew where their competition lay. We don't have to take their word for it.

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  7. I am glad to see this new form of kinetic storage called "Rail Energy Storage" being implemented in a pilot program for CAISO.  Currently it is limited in scale and used for frequency modulation but it has significantly higher potential, is scalable, and can provide nearly unlimited total potential throughout mountaneous regions, as opposed to pumped hydro which requires significan water volumes and high-altitude storage siting.

    http://www.utilitydive.com/news/first-of-its-kind-rail-energy-storage-project-targets-role-in-caiso-ancilla/417817/

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  8. Who needs the always on base-load nowadays? Plants can install cogeneration, large consumers as a Google, GM buy there own renewable energy directly. Consumers can be fitted with Solar panels on roofs and backup batteries or get an EV, HEV, BEV to function as backup.

    And coal can be replaced by bio-coal, Refuse derived fuels.

    And NG can be replaced by reformed and gasified (agri)-residues + RDF.

    And excess or over-supply of wind, solar can go the way 'power to gas'; gas being a mix of Methane formed by CO2 + H2 and Hydrogen gas   

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  9. #8 Ger

    Sounds good on paper, but there is the issue of scale.  Also, don't think your alternatives will be too cheap to meter.  Some of what you propose will be really expensive.  Finally, renewables work great on clear windy days, but as always what about calm clear nights? 

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  10. Kiethpickering,

    It is difficult to respond to a Gish Gallop like yours.  I will address a few of the gross falsehoods but the majority will have to be let by.

    1) Nuclear plant life: At San Onofre power station, unit 1 ran from 1968-1992, 24 years not counting down time for maintenance.  Units 2 and three ran for 28 and 29 years not counting several years of down time.  Your claim of 60 year life for a nuclear power station is simply false.  Actual observed lifetime is 20-40 years.

    Current nuclear plants in the USA cannot operate at a profit just counting operation and maintenance costs.  The longer you count the costs the more money they lose.

    The Georgia plants are currently billing their customers for the finance costs, the plants would never have been started without customers being forced to finance this boondoggle.  Your costs "including financing costs" do not include the finance costs.

    You used cost figures from old solar and wind installations.  In wind and solar costs have fallen (unlike nuclear where the costs rise over time).  Current costs are much lower than your claims.

    The wind turbines in Denmark are not worn out.  They are being replaced by modern, larger units because the new units make more money (obviously the old units were built where the wind was best).  The old units are being refurbished and resold.  Your claim that the units have a 22 year working life is false.

    Jacobson et al have shown that renewable energy can reliably supply the entire power supply of the USA (they have plans for the entire world).  Can you provide a reference that suggests that nuclear can provide more than 10% of electricity alone?  How will nulcear power ever work in Syria and Iran (or all of Africa)?

    Current nuclear cannot survive without enormous subsidies, how could new build hope to compete?  So called "safe" generation III nuclear is proving to be unbuildable.  The Chinese are building generation II plants that have known safety defects.  Generation IV and V plants will not be designed before 2050.  

    \Gish Gallops like yours have destroyed my faith in nuclear engineers.  If you cannot support your technology without providing supportable data you should give up your argument.  Even Brave New Climate has few posts any more.  

    Realists understand that nuclear has failed.  It is too expensive.  (I do not even need to mention that it is also unsafe and there does not exist enough berrilium or uranium in the world to build all the units you propose).  

    The question is: What has  to be done to implement renewable energy according to a system similar to Jacobson's plan?  Nuclear is useless in a renewable energy system because the need is for peaking power, not baseload power.

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  11. Keithpickering @2 and 6.

    Nuclear power does obviously have some risks. I do largely agree about Fukushima not killing anybody directly with radiation and the longer term cancer risk is said to be low, but they got lucky as it was only a partial melt down. Chernobyl was more drastic and has had more severe health problems, and has required permanent evacuations and a one billion dollar containment enclosure over the old reactor.

    Nuclear is arguably cost effective in the long term, but disposing of the waste remains a big problem.

    But no energy source is perfect. Maybe it all comes down to costs and benefits and also what resources specific countries have.

    For example some countries have windy climates and excellent potential for wind power with some limited backup storage or gas fired power. Other countries dont have much wind, and would need massive backup gas power, or alternatively massively expensive battery storage, or vast numbers of wind farms at great expense to provide backup for days where half the country has no wind. In this case Nuclear might be a better option.

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  12. Nigelj,

    Read the Jacobson website.  They have renewable energy plans for all the countries in the world.  Nuclear and fossil fuel backup is not needed.  The power is cheaper than fossil fuel power.

    Please provide links to support your claim that some countries cannot use renewable energy as described by Jacobson.  Please provide a link to support your claim that nuclear is cost effective in the long term.

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  13. michael sweet:

    I think you missed that keithpickering's cost estimates in paragraph 2 of comment #6 explicitly said "neglecting O&M". It's not fair that you start to include them ;-).

    As for ongoing costs, I know that Ontario's nuclear program found that some maintenance items they thought would be low cost turned out to be much greater than planned. A key factor was that pressure tubes become brittle over time (discussion here) and need replacing, and this happened a lot faster than originally expected. A recent announcement for one plant has a $16 billion price tag on refurbishment. The article says:

    "OPG estimates it would need between 7.2 cents-to-8.1-cents-per-kilowatt-hour to recover the total cost of the refurbishment, below current averages of 9.2 cents-per-kwh, but more than privately-owned Bruce Power will be paid under a new contract.

    ...but that's probably just "O&M", so it doesn't count, right?

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  14. Michael, I am not sure you are right about observed lifetime. Bezau is still going after 47 years with no plans to shut it that I am aware of. I do agree though that most have not made it past 40.

    Keith - you seem to be saying that lives lost in evacuation dont count? How many would have died if the area had not been evacuated?

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  15. Michael Sweet @ 12

    Thanks for the Jacobson website link. 

    Firstly I live in New Zealand,  and we already use hydro, wind, and geothermal with some reasonably minimal gas backup. I'm all for renewable energy and support our system. Nuclear would be crazy for us, and ideally we should aim to get rid of the gas backup as well.

    I support renewable energy, but Im not going to be mindless and uncritical about it. I was just making the point that all countries are different, and that I didn't see a need to totally rule out nuclear in every situation.

    I clicked on spain on your map and the plan was for a lot of solar and wind. This could obviously work, anything is possible for a price, but they would have a lot of surplus generation in that wind power for cloudy days etc. But it can be done for a price.

    I would like to see their more detailed calculations on prices comparing renewables and fossil fuel options etc. I couldn't see anything on their website, and I'm not just going to take their word for it. Has their research been peer reviewed?

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  16. scaddenp@14.  From your comment  "Keith - you seem to be saying that lives lost in evacuation dont count? How many would have died if the area had not been evacuated?

    You seem to have completely missed the point  on the evacuation made by keithpickering @2 who said:

    "Meanwhile, the evacuation from Fukushima — which was not necessary under IAEA guidelines — killed 1600 people needlessly. Final score: radiation 0; fear of radiation 1600.  At some point, we should hope that rationality overcomes irrationality. (My bold)

    I thought his original comment addressed your point quite adequately.

    A general comment the topic of intermittent power supply from renewables. The recent experiences in South Australia indicate that, as yet, renewables are not capable of maintaining the  power supply required by  that State.  Somewhat embarrassingly  the State Government had to  ask the owner of  amothballed gas fired power station to tum supply back on.  The report on this in The Australian Financial Review on July 14 2016, is, unfortunately, paywalled.  The headline and opening paragraphs of the article are below

    South Australia intervenes in electricity market as prices hit $14,000MWh

    "Turmoil in South Australia's heavily wind-reliant electricity market has forced the state government to plead with the owner of a mothballed gas-fired power station to turn it back on.

    The emergency measures are needed to ease punishing costs for South Australian industry as National Electricity Market (NEM) prices in the state have frequently surged above $1000 a megawatt hour this month and at one point on Tuesday hit the $14,000MWh maximum price.

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  17. Haze @16

    South Australia gets 43% of its electricity from wind power, under ideal conditions. This is from "energy in south australia" on wikipedia and is backed up by a reference to the clean energy council. The rest of their power is from fossil fuels.

    Obviously if the wind isn't blowing, reliance will switch back to gas. This doesn't invalidate the use  of wind power. Wind power with gas backup is better than relying on a totally fossil fuelled grid. With a dispersed well designed wind grid, reliance on gas backup is fairly low.

    However it would be interesting to know how a totally wind powered system would go, with no fossil fuel backup. In other words, how much total wind power would be needed for days when parts of S Australia have no wind. In other words how much spare wind capacity the system would need. I recall some engineering article claiming its not as much as we might think, but cant remember the article. Maybe some expert knows.

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  18. Nigelj,

    This SkS article describes Jacobson's plan is some detail and has peer-reviewed links.  His analysis of the reliability of his plan was peer reviewed but I do not have time before work, I will post it later today.  If you follow the citations to Jacobson's work you will find hundreds of similar analysis for different areas.

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  19. Bob,

    That is just the "M".  The "O" is additional to that.  No money is set aside for decomissioning the plants.  I think we agree.

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  20. Haze,

    The basic plan for renewable energy systems (as described by Jacobson in the links above) is to build wind and PV solar for the bulk of energy supply.  Storage is then built.  The storage is more expensive than the wind and solar plants.  Jacobson (and others) find that the entire system cost is cheaper than fossil fuels.

    We are currently just starting to convert to renewable energy.  It is not economic to build the most expensive parts of the system first.  People build out the wind and solar first since that is cheapest.  Once those are in place energy storage will be constructed.  (A few facilities are being built as demonstration plants).  Storage options depend on the country.  Since gas peaking plants are already in place it makes the most sense currently to use those for storage, since there is no cost to build them. 

    It seems to me that it  is not fair to judge the performance of a renewable system when it is only partly constructed.  No-one proposes a wind only system for all power, storage is required.

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  21. Nigelj,

    Jacobson et al (2015) Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes won the Cozzarelli prize awarded "for outstanding scientific excellence and originality” to 6 out of ~3,000 papers published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  His simulations of the US power grid showed that renewable energy could provide 100% of all power (all power, not just all electricity) with high reliability.  While I am not expert and cannot assess Jacobson's work, it seems to me that he would not have won the Cozzarelli prize from the National Academy of Science if the paper was not solid work.

    Read the references to this paper and you will find out about peer reviewed work supporting renewable energy.  Jacobson 2008 identifies the most promising non-fossil power supplies.  It had 600 citations a year ago.  Some of the conclusions have modified because of technical developments (Jacobson 2015 is state of the art).  By contrast, virtually nothing is published in peer reviewed journals supporting nuclear.

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  22. Michael Sweet @ 18 and 21.

    Thank's for those details on the Jacobsen research. Its certainly very compelling and I'm convinced.

    I was wondering in my post above how a totally renewable grid caters for days with little wind  in parts of a country, and whether having a surplus of renewables power would be sufficient. It appears  Jacobsen have proposed a surplus of renewables, along with some storage,  but apparently not much surplus or storage is required. 

    We should also not let "perfection become the enemy of the good". No grid is going to be 100% reliable in all circumstances regardless of the power source. So long as reliability of renewables is high and this appears feasible if its properly done.

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  23. Recommended supplemental reading:

    Nuclear fuel plant under gun to improve safety in wake of uranium buildup, explosion concerns by Sammy Fretwell, The State (Columbia, SC), Aug 12, 2016 

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  24. Just discovered some bad news...

    According to Isentropics web site (cutting edge energy storage company) they were put in administration in January.

    In the months up to that month their published accounts indicate that they were running out of money and although their was some interest in more funding. None came forward.

    Wonder to what extent the political change in the UK had on their fortunes? Normally such a company would have plenty of financial support until they had a marketable product. However after the election and a collapse in the Labour vote the government made significant changes to it's energy policy, putting doubt in the minds of energy investors.

    More info here:

    https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/05077488/filing-history

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  25. Paul D

    From the Isentropic website:
    "Isentropic's facilities and operations are currently in the process of being taken over by the Sir Joseph Swan Centre for Energy Research based at Newcastle University."

    Hopefully the technology will get rebirthed, we need it.

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