Clean Energy

Nuclear Power? What’s the Alternative?


Glad you asked. It turns out that the alternative energy market is the new gold rush of the 21st century. That’s the good news.

In the wake of Italy’s overwhelming rejection of high-risk atomic power, Reuters tells us:

“Enel Green Power, Italy’s biggest renewable company, was up 2.9 percent and K.R.Energy was up 14 percent. Kerself was up 11.6 percent, Pramac up 11.5 percent and Ergycap up 12 percent.” (Reuters, June 13, 2011)

We even have a new solar power tower design that can continue generating electricity through the night. Located in Seville, Spain this 19.9 MW plant by Torresol Energy is the first solar plant able to store enough heat to continue feeding the turbines after dark.

One glance at the project summons memories of the mid 1970s, and particularly the cover of the October 1975 issue of Popular Science. Lo and behold, this exact “Solar Power Tower” was featured at newsstands everywhere 36 years ago. For trivia buffs, James Bond’s nemesis The Man With the Golden Gun also built a solar power tower of sorts back in 1974.

The Power Tower needs no high technology yet to be developed. It simply bounces light from mirrors — lots of mirrors, synchonized to follow the sun. Not rocket science, not waiting for nanotechnology or advances in space travel. Mirrors.

I offer that America’s energy problems are primarily political and not technological at all. Clean, safe and decentralized technologies have been fought and brought to a standstill because large, dirty, centrally-controlled, deep-pocketed interests don’t like competition.

The buzzword / acronym to watch for is “Concentrated Solar Power” (CSP).

Look to the Parabola

A less grandiose solar station design employs mirrors shaped like troughs that can focus the energy on a pipe located at the proper focal distance. A Boulder City Nevada installation by Acciona takes up 400 acres and generates 64 MW.

“The plant employs 760 parabolic concentrators with more than 182,000 mirrors that concentrate the sun’s rays onto more than 18,240 receiver tubes. Fluid that heats up to 735°F flows through these tubes and is used to produce steam that drives a conventional turbine, which is connected to a generator that produces electricity.” (Acciona website)

An Israeli company called ZenithSolar has a breakthrough photovoltaic collector scheme. Each sun-tracker looks something like a satellite dish, and features “two 11 square meter semi-parabolic optical mirror collectors.” It then focuses the sun beams onto both a PV and a heat collector to get more energy out of the sunlight. The company claims “up to 75% efficiency” and wants to power entire cities with large arrays of these devices.

But what about your rooftop?

Efficiency advances in solar collectors and the new solar roof shingles continue at a steady pace, but what’s holding it back?

Again, the political situation has corporations at an advantage over individual homeowners. Most places (such as my native California) will let you sell some energy back to the grid. The meter will run backwards, up to a point. You aren’t allowed to make a profit however.

A homeowner with a windmill and solar array cannot become a profitable energy seller, unlike utilities and some private energy corporations.

What is the reasoning behind this?

It seems illustrative of a captured regulatory system designed to keep the little fish from competing effectively against the big fish. Why aren’t people simply encouraged to produce as much electricity as they can, thereby reducing the burden on (polluting) utility companies? The fact that they aren’t is a form of market manipulation in favor of large interests at the expense of individuals.

What about small to medium-sized businesses with large flat rooftops?

I tried to find the answer to that question, but good luck navigating the labyrinth at PG&E’s website. Each locale and each energy company treats the little fish differently, with all sorts of come and go temporary “programs” that are not only confusing but discourage long-term investments.

A recent push for “Net Energy Metering” in California has provided some token opportunities and good public relations, but it’s highly limited in scope. A “cap” of five percent of the “utility’s aggregate peak energy demand” limits the competition from small suppliers.

These problems are structural political issues more so than technological limitations. If everyone had been allowed to enter the much touted “market” then the alternative energy sector would be much larger today than it currently is. The costs of R&D and mass-producing the energy collectors would drop far below what we see even now.

Many of the companies at the leading edge of clean renewable technologies are not American. The jobs will be created elsewhere. The rewards will be accumulated overseas.

And the bad news…

Still Obama clings to his big nuclear plant subsidy scheme, his Department of Energy having the brass cojones to label nuclear “clean energy.” In the wake of Fukushima, the DOE continues to claim:

“With the significant energy and environmental challenges facing the nation in this new century, the benefits of clean and safe nuclear energy are increasingly apparent.”

I suppose the people at the Department of Energy are too busy to read a newspaper. Not clean. Not safe. Change your absurd web page please and the absurd policies that accompany it.

Nuclear industry flaks will tirelessly argue their case, usually based on dollars per kilowatt hour with cooked numbers that ignore most of nuclear’s real costs and damage to society. One wonders how their calculus is faring over in Japan these days.

Closer to your home, AP reports three quarters of all American nuclear plants leak radioactive water from old rusty pipes. Often water containminated with Tritium leaks down into groundwater. Representative Edward Markey(D) said, “There would be no warning because no one ever checks the integrity of these underground pipes.”

Tell us something we don’t know.

I’ve read a pro-nuclear defense of Tritium, as it’s the stuff inside your watch that makes it glow. Allegedly safe then, except trapping it in a metal and glass box and ingesting it are two completely different things.

I’m quite tired of the nuclear industry’s position that we have no choice but to be exposed to their radiation. We aren’t supposed to complain, nor to stop them from poisoning us and our children further. We’re supposed to be grateful, apparently, that the doses aren’t immediately lethal. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that we have a say in the matter as well.

That’s quite a bit to digest, and perhaps we’ll tackle wind, tide generation, fuel cells and geothermal heat mining another day. Cold fusion? Is that for real? A whole host of inventions, proposals, implementations and outside the box ponderings awaits.

Part 2:

Heat Mining, Hot Dry Rock, Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS)

The earth contains near unlimited energy, enough to power civilizations for thousands of years, and more.  It’s right below your feet, if you drill down far enough.

Scientists at Los Alamos have drilled down far enough, which is about a mile give or take.  The technology works, and has been proven feasible since the late 1970s.  Did you know this?  Does anyone talk about “Hot Dry Rock” geothermal heat mining now renamed Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS)?

Credit to fellow Counterpuncher Karl Grossman and his Environews for investigating Hot Dry Rock and bringing it to my attention on

MIT scientists led a panel that studied “The Future of Geothermal Energy” in 2005.  They wrote a comprehensive report, and it’s available online.  You’ll be pleased to know a few of their findings:

“EGS methods have been tested at a number of sites around the world and have been improving steadily.

…In fact, many attributes of geothermal energy, namely its widespread distribution, baseload dispatchability without storage, small footprint, and low emissions, are desirable for reaching a sustainable energy future for the United States.

…Most  of  the  key  technical requirements  to  make  EGS  work  economically  over  a  wide  area  of  the  country  are  in  effect,  with remaining  goals  easily  within  reach.”
The Future of Geothermal Energy (PDF, 14.1 MB)

The original test site at Fenton Hill New Mexico employed two pipes.  One fed water down into the rock.  The second retrieved the high pressure steam.  Based on their tests, the engineers found that having two, or perhaps more, of the retrieval pipes, instead of just one would increase efficiency dramatically.

“This three-well configuration, at least for the example of Fenton Hill, would provide at least four times the thermal power output (Brown, 1994)”

So Where’s the Investment?

Significant investment is nowhere in sight in the United States.

“In  the  short  term,    funding  levels  and  government  policies  and  incentives  have  not favored growth of U.S. geothermal capacity from conventional, highgrade hydrothermal resources.”

The problem is once again clearly political rather than technological.  The heat mining works.

“The system” does not.

“Because of this lack of  support,  EGS  technology  development  and  demonstration  recently  has  advanced  only  outside  the United  States  with  accompanying limited  technology  transfer.”

Folks, this study is hosted on the Department of Energy’s own website.  The scientists blatantly cry out for more investment to exploit this near infinite non-polluting energy source.

An Australian company Geodynamics is building a 50MW EGS system that should be operating in 2012.  Then they are going to scale it up with nine more identical plants for a total of 500MW produced at the site by 2016.

Now, the method is not completely without its drawbacks.  These drawbacks are centered locally to the drilling, and they are in the form of tremors, mild earthquakes.  It is not these drawbacks that account for the starved funding however.

Research is required to make the technology more cost-effective so it can compete with the polluting and dangerous technologies.

If the nuclear industry had to operate without the Price Anderson Act of 1957, and buy insurance on the market like everyone else, it would close up shop immediately, especially given the realities at Fukushima.  In a sense atomic power has been rammed down our throats (sometimes literally) by policies that exempt it from full accountability and the real costs of doing business.  Many suspect that is because the reactors produce militarily useful by-products like plutonium and the so-called “depleted” uranium.

Can EGS Save the World?

A large expermintal/commercial project in Basel Switzerland ran into some trouble back in December of 2006. The day after it began injecting the water down to create an underground reservoir, tremors began increasing in intensity.  They stopped the injection.

“A few hours later, a magnitude-3.4 event rattled the local population, causing fear and anger, and receiving international media attention.” (Nature 462, December 2009 Online)

Minor damage to some surrounding structures halted the project indefinitely. This was a major setback.

I certainly wouldn’t drill an EGS reservoir beneath a population center.  But clearly that doesn’t rule it out everywhere, as the MIT report stressed unequivocally.

“Based  on  the  analysis  of  experienced  researchers,  it  is  important  to  emphasize  that  while  further advances  are  needed,  none  of  the  known  technical  and  economic  barriers  limiting  widespread development of EGS as a domestic energy source are considered to be insurmountable.”

I guess the question that matters is: who’s in charge?  Who’s making these decisions on our behalf?  The investment in this technology to date has been chump change, a few million here and there.

This June, the Department of Energy announced $70M for FY2012 geothermal R&D, as if that were a large sum.  It is in fact less than the budget of the “average” Hollywood studio release, you know mindless entertainment.

We’re talking about research to tap a limitless source of energy that is clean, without CO2 emissions and proven feasible since the 1970s.  It’s also widely dispersed over the globe and not limited to particular regions.

Put in perspective, a single nuclear plant can cost upwards of $10 Bn ($10,000,000,000) to build and then it must be maintained, safeguarded and its waste secured for millions of years into the future.  It is then a magnet for terrorists who wish to inflict high casualties, and, uh, “terror.”  It is vulnerable to natural disasters as well as intentional sabotage and the all too common stupidity.  Radioisotopes leak out during normal operations and have been linked to childhood Leukemia “clusters” and suspected of causing other maladies near the plants.

Obama’s White House is on record as pushing $36,000,000,000 to force new construction of dangerous nuclear plants, vs. $70,000,000 to support Geothermal.  Put that through the calculator and nuclear enjoys 514 times more support than EGS by Obama and DOE Secretary Chu.

The verdict is that all the talk about clean renewable energy is just that: change you can’t believe a word of.

Part 3:

Wind Power

In October 2009 Scientific American (SA) magazine hosted an investigation to “Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables.”  They decided that it was indeed feasible, and they suggested a mix of technologies to accomplish that goal.

“Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations…” (Scientific American)

Repeatedly the first option listed was wind.  Wind power has a long and successful history and is quite widespread in some parts of the world generating about 20% of Denmark’s electricity right now.  The US has significant wind potential and many regions where the wind blows almost continuously.  As the Danes have shown, placing turbines just offshore is extremely viable.

Polls of Americans consistently show broad support for wind and other clean renewables, even before Fukushima.  A N. Carolina poll showed 80% favoring wind farm construction and 83% supporting solar farms (AP, March 1 2010, Elon poll shows support for wind, solar energy).

The call for a federal Renewable Energy Standard  (RES) of 25% by 2025 won a 77% approval rate from 600 likely voters in a poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, March 2010.

People seem to understand that investing in alternative energy means jobs and security.

Global Wind Leader: Denmark

The nation of Denmark also controls about one third of the world’s wind turbine market.  Their R and D was pushed extensively in the early days by government subsidies.

“Energy taxes were channeled into research centers… It also mandated that utilities purchase wind energy at a preferential price — thus guaranteeing investors a customer base.” (TIME, Feb 25, 2009)

Currently Denmark simply exports excess wind generated power to its neighbors when winds are high, and then buys back from them when winds die down.

“Nuclear Power?  No Thanks.”

That headline helped ban nuclear plant construction in 1980.  Volunteers of Denmark’s “OOA” delivered pamphlets to every household.  Their decisive grassroots victory succeeded in forcing the turn toward renewables like wind.  Denmark’s example shows that this is the cornerstone of changing a government’s energy policy.  The citizens must rise up and demand a change in the law, a change in the tax structure, a change in the incentives.

The Danish government has actually promoted cooperatives where people invest together in community wind turbine projects.  This idea has led to the installation of over 5,000 grass roots turbines.  The concept then spread to Germany and the Netherlands.  People are encouraged to invest and can even profit from their local wind power.

“…households may invest more than their own consumption plus 50%. However, revenues from any amount over this limit are taxed.” (, Paul Gipe)

Scientific American tried to look past political barriers and naively suggested we could reach 100% capacity from renewables as early as 2030.  In a perfect world perhaps.

I recall Donald Rumsfeld’s unilateral ban on wind farms (2006) under the bogus “national security” pretext that they interfered with military radar.

Certainly Al Qaeda would exploit the wind farms in their next attack leaving the US Air Force completely vulnerable and exposed.  With Rumsfeld’s due diligence (where was he during the actual 9/11 attacks, btw?) humanity was saved from the convergence of clean, safe renewable power and international terrorism.

Policy Shortfalls

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports some important progress in harnessing the nation’s wind resources:

“…clean, affordable, homegrown power to the equivalent of over 10 million homes, and employing 75,000 people across all states.” (AWEA website)

This manufacturer’s association does call out some specific government policy problems:

“The U.S. wind industry has endured a boom-bust cycle of development over the past decade, though, as a result of the lack of long-term, predictable federal policies.”

Short-term struggles in Washington create a climate that discourages long-term energy investment.  It’s time the nation grew up and realized we’re in it for the long haul.

Getting to the meat and gristle of the problem, AWEA says:

“Wind  energy’s  primary  incentive,  the  PTC [production tax credit],  has  been  allowed  to  expire  multiple times, including in 1999, 2001 and 2003, causing a market drop of  73  to  93%;  and  has  been  consistently  reinstated  for  only  one  or  two year  terms.” (AWEA, The Reality of U.S. Energy Incentives)

I have repeatedly stressed that the problem is political, not technical.  Wind energy works pretty well.  Government in Washington not so much.  Everyone gives lip service to the predicament modern societies find themselves, but too few will stand up to the entrenched energy interests (fossil fuel, coal, nuke) who put us here.

The SA editors proposed some much needed policy changes, which we aren’t really seeing enough of today.  The strongest language used was “misguided” in reference to the ethanol bio-fuel subsidies.  Bio-fuels don’t solve the problem but instead help delay the needed overhaul of the system.  SA suggests legislators resist the onslaught of lobbying by entrenched interests.

Take the Power Back

A single DIY inventor named Mark Maynard designed his own wind turbine, just for fun.  Because his inexpensive 2kw unit worked so well he became “inundated” with inquiries after a photo appeared in the local newspaper.  The lightweight turbine, utilizing “uncommon aerodynamic principles” spins in low wind as well as high.

Result, Maynard moved up to a 5kw version of the same design, and larger, as recounted in an award winning short film detailing his efforts.  The video won a runner up prize on the Scientific American sponsored World Changing Ideas Video contest.

Maynard has gone into business, and his website now promotes another good idea, the small power co-op.  This is of course reminiscent of the Danish community cooperatives.

I did notice that Maynard’s state of Massachusetts allowed “net metering,” but again the amount of energy permitted from little fish was “capped” at a 1% maximum of the utility company’s peak demand. California now allows 5%, and some places have instituted as little as 0.1% in what appears to be a joke and clearly not what the country actually needs.

In this world of high competition for energy, why are we allowing any “caps” on clean, renewable energy generation at all?  I find the idea of capping the small competitors at a token level offensive, counterproductive and perhaps plain old un-American.  These legislators need to be taken to task, their market manipulation thrown into the historical waste basket.

I have not heard a single argument on the necessity of “capping” the small individual energy producers.  How is this even legal?

Wind is a proven resource and comes in at a competitive price, even right now.  Costs are falling steadily.  The Scientific American prediction is that:

“(By) 2020 and beyond wind, wave and hydro are expected to be 4¢/kWh or less.”

Why on earth would anyone risk their entire region to a nuclear plant?  It’s patently insane, even on economic grounds.  A 2009 MIT study (Future of nuclear power) estimated the real cost of nuclear at “8.4¢ /kWe-h.”  Double!

Even that may end up being a fairy tale. Time Magazine estimated:

“…new nuclear energy is on track to cost 15¢ to 20¢ per kilowatt-hour. And no nuclear plant has ever been completed on budget.” (TIME, Dec. 31 2008, Nuclear’s Comeback)

Try telling that to the true believers, though. Or better yet, let your legislators know that you’ve taken an interest in which kinds of energy get assistance from the state, and which kinds do not.

SA also looked at nuclear, and found it not such a low emissions option at all.

“Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.”

This doesn’t even bring into consideration the laundry list of other drawbacks surrounding atomic power.

If America isn’t too bloated and corrupt to survive it must turn in this direction as quickly as possible.  It’s time everyone got on the same page about energy.  There are better ways of producing it, and that’s the fight that matters.

Fear of oil scarcity has driven the wars on the Middle East.  It has put diplomats in bed with dictators for more than half a century.  It drives US global hegemony under Obama just as much as his predecessors.  Energy policy is central and concerns us all.

They want “consumers” not competitors.
By empowering the small fish, we render the large fish irrelevant.  That is the crux of this ongoing war to limit the scale of alternative energy production.

Even alternative production has been guided toward large centralized manifestations, and not toward small community-oriented empowerment.  The policies favor central control over individual freedom.  Demand these policies change across the board.

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