The True Cost of Renewable Energy

The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Tyyr » Mon Jan 10, 2011 3:30 pm

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Straight from the department of energy, what a powerplant is going to cost you in dollars per megawatthour. Long story short, build nukes.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Nickswitz » Mon Jan 10, 2011 3:35 pm

Geothermal and Biomass both are very efficient and about the same price as nuclear, so that's not too bad.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Mikey » Mon Jan 10, 2011 3:43 pm

That chart, though, doesn't show startup capital or consider availability. Geothermal is great but geographically limited, and biomass at this point is still going to engender considerably more capital outlay to make significant contributions than nukes.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Tyyr » Mon Jan 10, 2011 3:51 pm

No, they're very good technologies, the problem is that both are limited. Geothermal requires access to heat deep in the earth either by locating on a vent or drilling your own wells. Either way you're not generating huge amounts of electricity off of it. Biomass is pretty decent as well but there are a lot of issues. I've spent the last year studying it in depth in Florida for my powerplant.

Biomass has multiple issues.
1) Fuel availability - Even with managed timber reserves there is only so much wood in the country and you can only chop it down so fast and burn it. The average pine tree (a popular option here in Florida for biomass) takes 7 to 10 years to reach maturity and be ready to be cut down to burn. That means you can only cut down about 1/6th to 1/9th of your timber per year in order for it to be sustainable and "green". Even with Florida's timber reserves if no other logging land is opened in Florida and our excess capacity focused on biomass we can only support about 250 to 300 MW of generation off what we've got.

2) Energy Crops - Energy crops are a nice idea but fraught with issues. Namely that the best energy crops are also listed as invasive species. Arundo Donax has been considered for Florida but the DEP is very concerned about it escaping containment. We've got enough problems with snakes and other nasties in the Everglades, they don't want it being choked with psycho bamboo too. Other energy crops are possible but yields and prices are big sources of concern as is the fact that you have to start a tree farm a decade before you can sell anything. Until the DEP and in the larger sense EPA clears faster energy crops like arundo it's not likely to go anywhere.

3) Regulatory - A lot of people don't like biomass because it's questionable whether or not its really "green". The theory is nice but there are questions as to whether or not it is net carbon neutral. As such biomass isn't considered "green" in many places and has some PR issues. "WHAT? You want to cut down trees to help global warming?!" On top of that biomass has the potential to displace coal in some coal burning power plants (what I've been researching). However because of the hate-on the DEP and EPA has for coal getting co-firing of biomass to count towards a renewable portfolio standard isn't easy.

4) Lack of Infrastructure - Unlike coal there's no real infrastructure for moving large quantities of biomass long distances. Paper mills, sawmills, chipmills, they are almost all built very close to the trees they use so no one has invested in large scale transportation of biomass. This either necessitates getting lucky and having a source near a rail line or transportation hub that can reach where you want to build the plant, or you have to build your biomass plant near the wood source, which is almost always way out in the boonies which results in reduced power delivery.

5) Size - In terms of economy of scale biomass loses out pretty badly. Between the technologies to burn it, bubbling fluidized bed combustion, and the amount of fuel needed, most biomass plants don't get much over 50 to 100 MW in size. Some larger ones are being considered but next to a 1,300MW coal fired boiler or a 1,000MW nuke it's hard to compete and biomass is expensive to land.

6) Growth - A lot of the value right now with biomass is the fuel is cheap. The wood market in the US is depressed right now meaning wood is cheap. A lot of loggers are almost out of business and its a buyer's market. If biomass gains traction as renewable energy that is going to shift in a hurry. With the low amount of fuel available and the high demand prices will go up fast. This is the same with other sources of biomass such as municipal solid waste. Right now the stuff is either in no demand or waste. Once you start using it to make electricity it becomes a commodity.

Not trying to be a downer, I like the idea conceptually, it's just not the energy future. It's a good stop gap technology but not something to bet the farm on in the long run.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Tyyr » Mon Jan 10, 2011 3:55 pm

Mikey wrote:That chart, though, doesn't show startup capital or consider availability. Geothermal is great but geographically limited, and biomass at this point is still going to engender considerably more capital outlay to make significant contributions than nukes.

Actually the chart specifically lists capital costs. As for the limits it's part of a larger paper I'm reading about the DOE's outlook on renewables which calls out most of the issues with these styles of generation. It's a high level paper so they really only touch on the issues but its something anyone interested in the energy future of the country should read.

The whole issue that they point out is while renewables will grow for a variety of reasons, mainly PR and government mandate, there is a serious upper limit on what you can really expect out of them long term and the costs will be significant.

Naturally this will all be ignored by those in power.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Mikey » Mon Jan 10, 2011 5:15 pm

The lack of infrastructure is pretty much what I was getting at when I mentioned the necessary capital outlay, not merely the cost of plants. The main problem with biomass that I see is, as you say, an individual plant doesn't really add much to the grid - the secondary effect of this is that any appreciable contribution by biomass energy production would require a very sizable harvest of whatever is used. That sort of reaping is both guaranteed to set the suit-happy enviro-nuts into a litigious tizzy, AND be beyond most modern replenishment protocols.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Tyyr » Mon Jan 10, 2011 6:56 pm

That's something I didn't care for with the chart, I personally think they are vastly understating the transmission costs for wind especially. Solar is up in the air. Sometimes you can land it right in the middle of the population, sometimes you can't. Wind is almost always remote and distributed.

One thing this chart also doesn't capture is the O&M costs that wind and solar can add into the grid as a whole. Baseloaded units, capacity factors rated at 85% or greater, are easy to integrate into the grid. Fluctuating resources like wind and solar can play merry hell with the grid and result in having to swing other units on the grid doing a lot of damage to them. That's a hidden cost that is only now starting to show up.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Captain Picard's Hair » Wed Jan 12, 2011 11:50 pm

Solar thermal plants seem particularly wasteful since they take up a lot of space with those mirrors just to be so costly too (not sure if the amount of land taken up is accounted for in those numbers).

I seem to recall hearing that the NRC is finally considering plans to open new nuclear plants after decades, so there might be progress at last. But the fear response after three mile island (an example of safety measures succeeding as much as anything else, and an event with few or no measurable health effects) was certainly way out of whack. Most people might not know either than Chernobyl was 1) a crazy design that would never be approved in the States and 2) that the operators of Chernobyl were tempting fate by attempting a crazy and highly dangerous experiment on a live reactor ... big surprise it went horribly wrong.

Is there any way to scare people off wind or solar? Tornado vortexes sucking people to their death or exploding solar panels (or is this just bad sci-fi)? The tornado thing is crazy but people are stupid, right? :P
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Tyyr » Thu Jan 13, 2011 12:32 pm

Solar thermal really isn't any more wasteful than Solar PV in terms of land area. It's not tremendous in terms of energy output but it's not that bad.

Nukes are easier to make happen but the economy has put a lot of nuclear projects that had been progressing on hold as electricity demand stopped climbing. There were two new plants planned for Florida but FPL canceled theirs due to tapering off of demand. Progress Energy is continuing on though with Levy county which will be a pair of 1,000MW nukes.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Mikey » Thu Jan 13, 2011 2:07 pm

I hope something similar happens here. NJ gets more than half of its electricity from nuclear, with three nuke plants in the state. The one near me - the oldest operating nuke plant in the country - is a 619 MW plant and had the ASLB and NRC renew its license until 2029, but is shuttering in 2019 rather than install cooling towers (or risk exposing more tritium leaks.)
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Captain Picard's Hair » Thu Jan 13, 2011 2:26 pm

Tyyr wrote:Solar thermal really isn't any more wasteful than Solar PV in terms of land area. It's not tremendous in terms of energy output but it's not that bad.

Nukes are easier to make happen but the economy has put a lot of nuclear projects that had been progressing on hold as electricity demand stopped climbing. There were two new plants planned for Florida but FPL canceled theirs due to tapering off of demand. Progress Energy is continuing on though with Levy county which will be a pair of 1,000MW nukes.


Yeah, I'd figured my info wasn't as current as yours; no surprise the economy would kill the plants. For the green crowd, the downturn artificially, but only temporarily also, caps emissions and cuts growth thereof. Perhaps some more Nukes will pop up once the economy starts to improve? I guess the more recent image I had in my head was of huge sprawling arrays of mirrors in a solar thermal plant but then again large scale PV implementations aren't individual panels strapped to roofs either.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Atekimogus » Fri Jan 14, 2011 11:59 am

Tyyr wrote:Straight from the department of energy, what a powerplant is going to cost you in dollars per megawatthour. Long story short, build nukes.


Well if monetary costs are your only deciding factor you might be right. On the other hand there is quite a reason why nukes are not considered a renewable form of energy, meaning that at some point we will also run out of fissionable material. And even if this were not the case you would still need to find a more satisfactory solution for the storage of the nuclear waste than we have at the moment.

My hope is still that we will soon find better alternatives and I also think it won't be any one kind of renewable energy but a combination of everything available.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Mikey » Fri Jan 14, 2011 12:32 pm

The most popular current nuclear generation isn't renewable, but the technology is extant to build fast reactors, which can cleanly "burn" the strontium-laced waste of typical reactors.
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Tyyr » Fri Jan 14, 2011 1:16 pm

Atekimogus wrote:
Tyyr wrote:Straight from the department of energy, what a powerplant is going to cost you in dollars per megawatthour. Long story short, build nukes.


Well if monetary costs are your only deciding factor you might be right. On the other hand there is quite a reason why nukes are not considered a renewable form of energy, meaning that at some point we will also run out of fissionable material. And even if this were not the case you would still need to find a more satisfactory solution for the storage of the nuclear waste than we have at the moment.

My hope is still that we will soon find better alternatives and I also think it won't be any one kind of renewable energy but a combination of everything available.

Total recoverable uranium reserves are between 3.3 and 5.4 million tons with more potential energy than all the fossil fuels on the planet combined. That's just uranium. If you stopped all consumption of fossil fuels today and replaced those energy needs with nukes we've got enough uranium alone to keep us going for centuries. Never mind other technologies utilizing strontium, thorium, or breeder reactors. I strongly suspect that we'll get a handle on that whole fusion thing or some other energy technology between now and then.

As for the waste, reprocess the spent fuel and dispose of the resultant low level waste in a place like Yucca mountain. Nuclear waste isn't a significant problem. The only reason its a bone of contention are environmental scare mongers.

And as a matter of fact cost is the only factor that really counts. My company has done multiple studies with our customers to find out their feelings on green power. One of the questions we asked was how much would they be willing to pay over what they currently do for their electricity for totally green power. You know the answer? $0.00. They weren't even willing to pay a 1% premium for green power. Not even 1% over their current rates. Right now the consumers are being insulated from the real costs of green power by it being paid by everyone in their taxes. If green power goes large scale you won't be able to do that. People will have to pay the cost right up front in their electricity bills and they'll go batshit insane. So why bother? You've got a technology that is amongst the lowest cost per megawatt/hour of any option. It releases no CO2 into the atmosphere, no mercury, nickle, sulfur dixoide, nitrous oxides, nothing. The verified fuel reserves for it will comfortably last two centuries if it completely supplants fossil fuels. Why are you dicking around with anything else?
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Re: The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Postby Tsukiyumi » Fri Jan 14, 2011 2:00 pm

Tyyr wrote: My company has done multiple studies with our customers to find out their feelings on green power. One of the questions we asked was how much would they be willing to pay over what they currently do for their electricity for totally green power. You know the answer? $0.00. They weren't even willing to pay a 1% premium for green power. Not even 1% over their current rates.


Yeah, no sh*t. We're already being charged exorbitant fees for it; no one wants to have to drop their insurance or take out a second mortgage to pay the f*cking light bill. Our taxes should cover it; why the hell else are we paying them?
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