Burning stuff is a grossly inefficient way to generate power.
Because this is so, the Roadmap proposes that we do much more than just clean up our electric power production, which now requires 39% of the primary energy we consume, mostly derived from burning fossil fuel.1
Primary energy refers to all the energy we use, not just electricity, and regardless of how it's produced. So even though electricity is only 15% of our consumer energy pie,2 it takes 39% of our primary energy pie (mostly derived from fossil fuel) to generate that 15%. The rest is lost as waste heat.
The Roadmap aims to reduce this inefficiency by producing all of our primary energy in the form of WWS-generated electricity. Which, in principle, is a great idea (the electricity part, not the WWS part.)
So the Roadmap is about a lot more than just keeping the lights on. It also
covers transportation, cooking, heating and cooling – anything that involves energy, including process heat (the high temperatures used to make steel, concrete, etc.)
With enough clean electricity, we can free ourselves from fossil fuel without immediately junking every vehicle we have and switching to EVs (electric vehicles):
Electricity, water and CO2 (captured from the atmosphere or smokestacks) can be used to synthesize carbon-neutral liquid fuels (synfuel), to get the full life cycle out of our existing fossil-fueled vehicles and their supporting infrastructure.
Today's carbon fuel infrastructure is more than just the drillers, refiners, and end-consumers. It also includes everything in between: Virtually all transport and shipping by air and sea, and the millions of fossil vehicles on the road, as well as the fuel storage, distribution, repair, parts and maintenance needed to service them. The trick is to exploit these assets as cleanly as we can.
If we had an abundance of cheap, clean energy, we could make synfuel for our fast-response gas turbines, the hot-rod power plants that respond to unforeseen peak loads on the grid. We may have to, if we're still using them to balance the grid when we finally run out of methane (natural gas.)
At our current rate of consumption, we'll run out of methane in less than a century. If we replace all of our coal power with methane power, it could happen in 50 years. Even quicker if we start exporting the stuff. And just as soon as we build a fleet of LNG tankers (liquefied natural gas), we will.
"There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew."3
– Marshall McLuhan
The task of our generation is to make an informed decision on the best way to get to a sustainable, zero-carbon world, and to act on that decision "with vigor!" as President John F. Kennedy used to say.
Unfortunately, making that decision entails wading through some rather science-y stuff. It also means shedding a lot of pre-conceptions, prejudice, and tribalism.
The "renewables vs. nuclear" divide has often been split along political lines, with lefties / greens all in for renewables while demonizing nuclear power.
That's gradually changing. In fact, many of the nuclear advocates and scientists we personally know are either centrists or left of center, and some are even social democrats. Very few of them could be considered right-wingers or free marketeers.
But regardless of your politics or ideology, there are two things to keep in mind:
We've tried to make our analysis as fair and painless as possible, because something this big and this important shouldn't be left to the Powers That Be. It's up to all of us
to make an informed decision.
For that to happen, the basic knowledge of what it takes to cleanly and adequately power the nation, and the world, should be conveyed in the most non-partisan and user-friendly way possible.
The Roadmap includes a few gigawatts of geothermal, tidal and wave power, but over 95% of its primary energy would come from:
In a separate critique,4 we detailed every aspect of the Roadmap – what it would take to fabricate, install, and maintain each type of WWS system for a 60-year period, which is today's conservative estimate for the lifespan of a nuclear reactor.
When reactors were first being licensed, 40 years was considered reasonable. But now, 40 years later, inspections have shown that reactor components can easily last 60 years, and with some standard refurbishment, 80 years and perhaps 100. But to be more than fair, we'll use 60 years as our benchmark.5
As we mentioned, most energy experts agree that a national renewables grid would need a tremendous amount of energy storage, fueled backup, or both.
The exact amount of each is in dispute, but adequate storage alone would likely require much more than the token 4 hrs mentioned above, and cost several trillion.
The Roadmap is unusual among WWS schemes in that it largely ignores mass storage, and completely ignores backup.
The $15.2 Trillion price for the bare-bones Roadmap also
leaves out the new transmission corridors required to connect its 50,000-plus wind and solar farms to the national grid.
This alone would kick up the price by an additional $0.5 Trillion or more, based on a rough average of 10 miles of
new connector lines per farm to link the facility to the main trunk line (the actual grid), at the lowball price of $1 Million a mile.6
Another thing left out of the Roadmap is a nationwide
HVDC (high voltage / direct current) transmission network. It's something that most renewables advocates agree would be a key element in a national WWS grid.
The intermittent spurts of energy produced by wind and solar can cause
serious frequency disturbances on the existing ac (alternating current) grid. And the greater wind and solar's penetration becomes, the greater those disturbances will be.
The counter-measures will likely be expensive, and they may not even work –we won't really know until we try them.
A direct-current grid would have none of these issues, and would greatly
reduce line loss as well – typically 5% of ac energy is lost over long-distance transmission.
An HVDC grid, in parallel with our ac grid, is actually quite feasible by running underground cables along existing state and federal rights-of-way, such as highways and railroads.7
A national HVDC grid could probably be built for $100–$200 Billion, which is nothing to sneeze at. But in the $15 Trillion grand scheme of things, it's chump change.
In contrast, deploying the right reactors would require virtually no new transmission corridors, since many of the reactors would simply replace our existing fossil plants.
And since most Generation IV reactors won't need water cooling, they could be sited virtually anywhere. That would eliminate many of our existing corridors, returning the land to the communities they run through.
Last point: Our prices are based on the latest industry and government figures, without tax breaks, rebates, or any other thumbs on the scale. Our focus is on what the Roadmap would cost the nation, not the subsidized homeowner.
With all that out of the way, here are the bottom lines up front:
Bare-bones cost: $15.2 Trillion
With 4 hrs of additional pumped hydro: $16.5 Trillion
(Onshore wind in blue, offshore wind
in purple, solar in yellow.)
Whichever reactors we use, a nuclear grid would be roughly 20–45% of the cost of the Roadmap, on less than 1% of the land, with 18 months of built-in storage – the fuel in each reactor.
If we go with small, factory-built reactors, a national nuclear buildout could be accomplished in 10 years.8 At the low end of the reactor price spread, the MSR, or Molten Salt Reactor, is our preferred technology.
It's also the safest.
The liquid-fuel, meltdown-proof, air-cooled MSR was co-invented by Alvin Weinberg, who previously developed the solid fuel, water-cooled, high-pressure Light Water Reactor (LWR).
Weinberg's LWR began operating in the 1950s, and when it powered the submarine USS Nautilus, both the sub and the reactor became global sensations. From then on, nearly every reactor on earth has been a variation of the basic LWR concept.
But Weinberg had an even better idea.
By the 1960s, he was telling Washington that the new MSR would be a much more efficient, and far safer, reactor. Except by that time, an entire global industry had been built around the LWR and nobody wanted to hear it.
It was the Cold War, and we wanted a reactor that could easily produce plutonium for bombs and electricity for power. The LWR can do both, but not the MSR. While it's the best reactor for making power, it's not a reactor for making bomb material.
So despite 17,000 hours of flawless testing at Oak Ridge
National Lab, the MSR was shelved in the 1970s and Weinberg was forced to retire.
He spent the rest of his life advocating for safe civilian power produced by the small, unpressurized, fuel-efficient MSR. Not only did it feature minimal waste, but it could also be configured to run on the "spent" fuel from his LWR design. (Nuclear waste is wasted fuel. But it's only waste if you don't use it.)
And best of all, MSRs can't have a meltdown – no matter what.
How do you melt a liquid?
If the unpressurized molten salt leaks out, it cools and solidifies like lava on the beach, with its radioactive particles held in a chemical lockdown.
And though the material would be highly radioactive, it wouldn't go anywhere. Visualize a spill from a concrete truck.
The mess would be measured in square meters, not square kilometers. We'd have a contaminated reactor building, not a contaminated countryside.
A Molten Salt Reactor solves the biggest drawback of nuclear power – contamination. It also solves the second biggest drawback – waste.
MSRs can utilize the residual energy in the "spent" fuel of other reactors. That unexploited energy is what makes nuclear "waste" such a long-lived problem.
Exploiting this energy reduces the storage timespan of the residual material to about 300 years.
After gathering dust for 45 years, MSR technology is finally being revived in the U.S., China, Canada, the EU, and elsewhere. Expect the first MSRs to be in commercial operation by the mid-2020s.
Specially designed Gen IV reactors will actually be able to breed (produce) more nuclear fuel than they use. Others will be able to run on spent fuel, and still others will use natural (unenriched) uranium as fuel. An abundance of cheap, clean and reliable carbon-free energy will be readily available.
Thorium, which you may have heard of, is a popular candidate for fueling MSR breeder reactors. A common and slightly radioactive mineral found all over the world, thorium transmutes to (turns into) uranium fuel inside a reactor's core.9
A promising first-generation MSR design by ThorCon proposes a fuel load of half uranium and half thorium.10 A second-generation dual-fluid MSR design called a LFTR ("lifter" – Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) will use an initial kick-start load of uranium, but from then on all refuels would be 100% thorium.11
Thorium requires no enrichment, and is easily isolated with simple, low-tech chemistry. There's plenty of the stuff, generously distributed all over the world – there is no Middle East of thorium. It's even in Miami's beach sand at 12 ppm (parts per million): A pickup truck of sand has enough thorium to power the city for a day.
Ironically, thorium is also found in the waste stream of the wind turbine industry. In the process of mining one tonne of neodymium for the generator of a single 5-MW wind turbine, the mine throws out one-half to three-quarters of a tonne of thorium.
That's enough fuel to power a U.S. city of 500,000 for one year. A 5-MW wind turbine might power a village of perhaps 1,000. If it's a windy day.
These advantages and more make nuclear a true renewable energy, with enough carbon-free fuel to power the entire planet, at our current rate of energy consumption, for literally thousands of years. Or until we figure out fusion; whichever comes first.
If you're convinced that nuclear power is off the table in any discussion of clean energy, here's a thought experiment that may give you another perspective:
Holding those ideas in mind, how attractive does wind and solar seem to
Particularly since everything in the foregoing list is true.
In our view, the interest in large-scale renewable
energy is the direct result of a misinformed aversion to nuclear power. In the absence of that hyper-inflated fear, renewables would never be seriously considered as a viable solution for powering the grid.
Instead of refining and improving the simple, clean, safe and compact technology of splitting atoms to release their stored energy, the Roadmap offers a complex, inefficient, sprawling and expensive Rube Goldberg scheme to power the nation.
Rube Goldberg was a wildly popular humorist of
the early 20th Century, whose syndicated newspaper cartoons depicted intricate, silly, and laughably inefficient contraptions to perform the tasks of modern life. Yove probably seen his work before. In this context, it's worth another look:13
We're happy to explain why, but the Roadmap is so complex and interwoven that we'll have to unpack it and show you all the pieces to get our point across.
The following chapters provide what we hope to be an easy and entertaining overview, not only of the Roadmap's major components, but equally important, the broader context in which the Roadmap should be considered.
As our analysis unfolds, you'll see that we give the Roadmap the best possible advantage at every turn. To cite one example: its solar estimates are based on the 134-watt PV panel available at the time (2013–2015), but we used the newest (2017) high-performance 160-watt panel, which is now favored by Dr. Jacobson.14
The only thing in the Roadmap we didn't use was its land estimate for solar farms. We think it's an error, and we'll explain how we came to that conclusion.
Since energy is the lifeblood of our modern world, the consequences of pursuing an unworkable strategy could be downright catastrophic. So this is important stuff.
As Michael Klare once said, "You don't know what bad times are until you don't have enough energy to run the machinery of civilization."15
On that cheery note, let's proceed.
And if it all becomes annoyingly intricate at times, don't blame us. The Roadmap calls for 1,515 GWs of new-build renewables16 on a whopping 131,200 square miles17 and millions of rooftops. But our "roadmap" for powering the nation is simple:
Since small, cheap, air-cooled and meltdown-proof MSRs could be installed anywhere, even in the harshest desert, our roadmap is entirely feasible. And most of our long-distance transmission corridors would become a thing of the past.
One standardized MSR per day could roll off the assembly line like a Learjet, be transported by ship, truck or rail, and installed wherever it's needed.18
We figure ten years tops for the entire buildout, with no need to import any raw material or equipment, and for much less money than we spent invading the Middle East to make the world safe for oil.
But first, let's explore the Roadmap, because the advantages of an all-nuclear grid can best be appreciated by a thorough examination of the alternative.
We tried to make our analysis as pleasant as possible, but at the end of the day there's no real shortcut for getting a handle on their far-ranging proposal.
We read the whole thing so you don't have to, but unless you absorb the salient points it'll always be Dr. Jacobson's word against ours.
We don't want that, he certainly doesn't, and neither should you.
Consumed to generate electricity = 38.52 Quads
Gross generation of electricity = 14.69 Q
Generation efficiency = 14.69 Q ÷ 38.52 Q = 0.38
0.38 × [39% of PRI NRG] = 15% of PRI NRG
Generic Aging Lessons Learned (GALL) report, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, frame 602, page × E1-2
See page 17, 4th paragraph:
“A big shipyard . . . could easily manufacture 100 one-GW-e ThorCons per year.”
So two big shipyards = 200 GWavg annually.
Therefore 1,515 GW ÷ 200 GW / year = 7.6 years.
See p. 307, Figure 3
See also Ibid. Chapter Two End Note #4. Critique.
Search for “Land Use Utility PV Solar”, then see 15th paragraph.
Also see internal FN 22.5.
Therefore: 1,591 GWs - [21.8 GW + 4.4 GW + 47.9 GW + 2.0GW] = 1,515 GWs
From Table 2, row 9:
2,326,000 MWp-ac ÷ 160 Wp-ac / m2 = 14.5e9 m2 of solar panels.
To calculate PV land area divide by packing factor PF = 0.40 (40%).
Obtain 36.3e9 m2 = 36,300 km2 land area; or 14,000 sq mi for utility PV solar farms.
Use the onshore wind farm density of 0.17 km2 / MW, derived in Chapter 1, end note #5.
Table 2, row 1: Wind capacity is 1,701,000 MW × 0.17 km2 / MW = 289,200 km2 land area; or 111,700 sq mi.
Combined PV & onshore wind = 14,000 + 111,700 = 125,700 sq mi for wind & PV solar.
Use the CSP land density of 0.039 km2 / MWp that describes the Andasol CSP farm in Spain (see Critique footnote No. 86).
In the Roadmap's Table 2, rows 10 and 11, CSP capacity = 227,300 + 136,400 = 363,700 MWp.
Multiply by 0.039 km2 / MW to obtain 14,200 km2, or 5,500 sq mi for utility CSP farms.
Total onshore wind and solar: 125,700 + 5,500 = 131,200 sq mi.