I am a technological optimist. Given enough
time and the proper institutions, e.g., property rights, free
markets, human beings can innovate around just about any problem,
and create more wealth to boot. But do those conditions exist for
the massive rollout of solar and wind energy that some policymakers
and activists are demanding be done in response to their concerns
about climate change?
An article, “Power
Struggle: Green Energy versus a grid that’s not ready,” in
today’s Los Angeles Times looks into the problem of
integrating the highly variable sources of renewable power into the
electrical grid. As one power engineer asserted to me years ago,
electricity is the only product that must be delivered to millions
of customers as soon as it’s produced and in the exact amounts that
they want. As the Times reports:
Nobody can say for certain when the wind will blow or the sun
will shine. A field of solar panels might be cranking out huge
amounts of energy one minute and a tiny amount the next if a thick
cloud arrives. In many cases, renewable sources exist where
transmission lines don’t.
“The grid is not built for renewable,” said Trieu Mai, senior
analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The frailty imperils lofty goals for greenhouse gas reductions.
Concerned state and federal officials are spending billions of
dollars in ratepayer and taxpayer money in an effort to hasten
technological breakthroughs needed for the grid to keep up with the
demands of clean energy.
How much money? The article cites a study suggesting as much as
$1 trillion must be spent by 2030 to enable the grid to manage
fickle renewable energy supplies. One paradox is that renewables
can overload the grid forcing operators to dump power. As the
Officials at the California Independent System Operator, which
manages the grid in California, say renewable energy producers are
making the juggling act increasingly complex.
“We’re getting to the point where we will have to pay people not
to produce power,” said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, a system
operator board member.
If federal and state governments insist on subsidizing
low-carbon electrical power generation (and I am against all such
subsidies), why not subsidize power sources that provide stable,
rather than whimsical, supplies? Like, say, nuclear power? Perhaps
small modular reactors
traveling wave reactors.
As I have explained elsewhere, I am attracted to the development
fluoride thorium reactors because I think them “technically
One innovative approach to using nuclear energy to produce
electricity safely is to develop thorium reactors. Thorium is a
naturally occurring radioactive element, which, unlike certain
isotopes of uranium, cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction.
However, thorium can be doped with enough uranium or plutonium to
sustain such a reaction.
Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) have a lot to recommend
them with regard to safety. Fueled by a molten mixture of thorium
and uranium dissolved in fluoride salts of lithium and beryllium at
atmospheric pressure, LFTRs cannot melt down (strictly speaking the
fuel is already melted).
Because LFTRs operate at atmospheric pressure, they are less
likely than conventional pressurized reactors to spew radioactive
elements if an accident occurs. In addition, an increase in
operating temperature slows down the nuclear chain reaction,
inherently stabilizing the reactor. And LFTRs are designed with a
salt plug at the bottom that melts if reactor temperatures somehow
do rise too high, draining reactor fluid into a containment vessel
where it essentially freezes.
It is estimated that 83 percent of LFTR waste products are safe
within 10 years, while the remainder needs to be stored for 300
years. Another advantage is that LFTRs can use plutonium and
nuclear waste as fuel, transmuting them into much less radioactive
and harmful elements, thus eliminating the need for waste storage
lasting up to 10,000 years.
Finally, with regard to subsidies, in my
fourth dispatch from the Warsaw climate change conference, I
argued that cutting hundreds of billions in subsidies for fossil
fuels and agriculture would help protect the climate from whatever
damage increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases
from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/12/03/electricity-blackouts-could-result-from