Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Nuclear discussion quote of the day.

with one comment

OK, I agree with the portion about how it is OK to stack solutions on top of each other on a graph, but I don’t understand at all why someone my age or younger would prefer small fossil fuel over any size low-GHG.

Please explain.

Karen Street

That’s from the comments thread accompanying Amory Lovins’ essay on GristMill,  in response to David Bradish’s debunking of Lovins’ claims posted at NEI Nuclear Notes.

I always considered this one of the most glaring problems with Lovins’s approach. How can small scale, decentralised or “micropower” generation possibly be preferable to nuclear energy when in practice, the overwhelming majority of the energy generated in such schemes is generated by burning dangerous petroleum fuel (natural gas, generally) and discharging the dangerous fossil fuel waste straight into the atmosphere?

Of course, if you’re really interested in decentralised “microgeneration”, and there are some reasons why some people might be interested in such technology, why not consider small scale, decentralised nuclear generation, like this, this or this?


Written by Luke Weston

June 20, 2008 at 11:33 pm

One Response

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  1. Decentralized micro-generation is popular because it fits current ideological notions about taking control back from big centralized systems and giving it back to the individual. This is such a attractive idea that people are prepared to suspend disbelief and logic that want it so bad. However any rational analysis quickly shows this is not posible.

    Starting with the technical issues let’s look at an important, albeit overused term: energy infrastructure. When most of us think of energy in our personal or working lives, we tend to think of a product delivered by pipe, wire or pump to the point where it can undergo final conversion to a consumable form. While almost all of us know that in most cases it didn’t start out in the same form that it was delivered, and that it was transported along a dedicated network, when there is talk about micropower generation often a tendency to limit the discussion to the supply end. This is myopic.

    The energy networks have an important property that cannot be ignored. They are there. Vast sums of money, time and material have been expended over the better part of the last century building these things and polishing the procedures to make them run. The only way we were able to afford these huge systems in the first place is that they grew slowly and the products that they moved were so inexpensive to produce that the consumer could absorb the cost of construction almost without noticing.

    Many of the proposals out there, some which are being seriously considered, involve retasking one or more of these systems, and in many instances this critical issue is breezed over in discussion. This is a mistake. These systems are huge and complex, with a bewildering number of control nodes and operate under protocols that been less designed then they have accumulated. They have not been built for two-way traffic, and even in cases where bi-directional flow is physically possible it is often achieved only by overriding system fail-safes, and potentially compromising product integrity. Refitting to allow for this, while certainly doable from the engineering standpoint, would be horrendously expensive, and in some cases would require that large chunks of the network go offline or isolate for extended periods of time and in most cases this factor alone makes conversion unfeasible.

    Thing is each node whether a gigawatt natural gas power station or a single solar photovoltaic panel needs to be controlled and the necessary number of combined control tasks multiply as devices multiply. requirement of implementing Flexible AC Transmission Systems (FACTS) technology increases the number of control parameters. Accurate information on the state of the network and coordination between local control centres and the generators is essential. However an inherent risk of interconnected networks is a domino effect – that is a system failure in one part of the network can quickly spread. Therefore the active network needs appropriate design standards, fast acting protection mechanisms and also automatic reconfiguration equipment to address potentially higher fault levels. On top of which most of the proposed systems require intelligent loads as well, adding to network complexity and cost. As I stated above these changes are not cheap or easy.

    The second overarching technical concern is reliability. We use energy in such a way that an unreliable source is often worse than no source at all. Many of our day-to-day behaviours are predicated on subliminally knowing that the juice will be right there, right now, when we throw the switch or turn the key. If you’re a backwoods camper, or stay in a country place off the grid, you make adjustments, but we cannot run our lives not knowing from moment to moment if power will be there. Yes, that’s the case in some third world urban pestholes, but those are not the conditions we are striving for.

    The only way to assure reliability is obviously, to have reliable reserves on hand at all times. Bluntly, safe, affordable, local high density, storage technologies are not yet ready for large-scale deployment. The practical systems available now are too costly and too dangerous both to the user and the environment to be in general use. As a consequence the only way to assure reliability at this point is a continuous supply.

    The unfortunate fact is that decentralized micro-generation just can’t overcome these obstacles.


    June 21, 2008 at 7:39 pm

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