Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Energy Diversity:

A Discussion on Capitol Hill

A few days ago, I was privileged to participate in a briefing on Capitol Hill on the subject of "the role of nuclear power in a diverse energy portfolio."  The meeting took place on a snowy Washington morning, with the worst of the storm arriving right during the rush hour.  As I passed one car that had spun out and was teetering on an embankment on the side of the road--and this was not even on a high-speed highway--I wondered about whether I was going to have any audience once I got there.

I needn't have worried.  I don't know whether it was the topic, the continental breakfast, or workaholic Washington, but over 60 people showed up.  The meeting was co-hosted by the Global America Business Institute (GABI) and the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI).  Lee Terry, a Congressman from Nebraska and Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, opened the proceedings.  Rep. Terry pointed out that his Subcommittee deals with a variety of energy resources and he was convinced we needed them all.

The first speaker was Dr. Pete Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and the US Department of Energy (DOE).  He gave an excellent overview of the extensive and varied work of the Office of Nuclear Energy.  The briefing was packed with information on the different programs of the Office.  I will not try to capture his remarks in detail here, but the DOE/NE website has summaries of the various programs run by that office.  Pete not only spoke about their technical work, such as the work on advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies, but also spoke about the international cooperation activities of that office and their support of university activities.  On a more general level, he emphasized that "no credible study" has shown that we can meet all our energy needs with renewables, and he noted his concerns about the marketplace signals leading to shortsighted decisions.

I followed up with some thoughts on why we need energy diversity.  Knowing that analogies can be faulty, it was with some trepidation that I offered an analogy between human nutrition and our energy "diet," so I was gratified to see some vigorous nods from people in the audience as I laid out my case.  I noted that humans have a variety of nutritional needs, but many, if not most, foods that can help us meet these needs also have some negatives:  meat supplies protein, but also contains cholesterol (which itself is both a good and bad nutritional element); red wine has health benefits, but too much alcohol is bad; fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, but a lot of fish has mercury (not a natural characteristic, to be sure, but something we need to deal with in dietary space just the same); I don't know of any "bad" elements in most fruits and vegetables, but those alone can't meet all our nutritional needs.

Likewise, I ticked off some (although I am sure not all) of the characteristics we need in our energy supply, likening them to "nutrients":  a supply that is adequate, affordable, reliable, secure, safe, clean, and able to meet both baseload and peaking demands.  I then noted the various types of "dietary" downsides that had to be considered:  cost, air pollution, water pollution, wastes, land use, water use, accidents, ecological risks, etc., and emphasized that these factors had to be considered, not only for the fuel (mining, fabrication, and disposal) and the fuel "burning" for each technology, but also for essential non-fuel materials and other requirements for each technology (such as fabrication of photvoltaics for solar power and mining of rare earths for wind power). 

A few days before my talk, a colleague and fellow blogger, Michele Kearney, had passed on to me a presentation Prof. Richard Lester, head of the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Department, had made at last month's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago, addressing the role of nuclear energy in a diverse energy portfolio.  I liked one paragraph so much that I quoted it in its entirety, and I repeat it here:

Can we do this [note:  he had been talking about the needs our energy supply must meet] without nuclear?  The answer cannot be 'proved' in a mathematical sense.  But it's a matter of basic common sense that when you have a very difficult task like this, the more options that are available, the more likely you are to succeed.  And, if any option is taken off the table, the chances of failing will increase.  That's especially because no two low-carbon options are alike.  Solar, wind, geothermal, and  nuclear each have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Given the enormously varied nature of the energy system, this diversity is an asset.  And the value of this diversity is all the greater because, in energy, there are always surprises.  So, while it's an interesting exercise to think about whether a single option--e.g., wind or solar [note:  I might add, even wind and solar]--could do the trick, no serious strategy would advocate putting all our eggs in a single basket, especially given the magnitude of the stakes.
Richard Lester, "Can we solve the energy problem without nuclear power?" AAAS Symposium at the 2014 AAAS Conference, Chicago, February 15, 2014.

Finally, I picked up on Pete's theme about the misguided marketplace signals, both in the natural short-term nature of markets, and in the signals given by renewable energy mandates, and ended with the hope that there would be some moves to redefine the mandates to include all low-carbon energy sources, and to make other changes to help avoid some of the recent problems we have seen in the energy markets.

The meeting ended with a short, but lively Q&A session that may contain some nuggets for a future blog, and when the formal meeting concluded, some of us hung around for a while sharing more thoughts on this issue.  Fortunately, by the time I left Capitol Hill, the sun had come out, and getting home was easy.



  1. I think it's amusing that nuclear power advocates have this PC fixation that nuclear energy must always be part of a "mix" while other energy forms don't share this liberal notion. Since when do gas or solar or coal advocates ever include nuclear when espousing their concept of a "mix"? Since when in the pre-2000's was it such an important PC catch phrase when oil and coal long hawked that they could do it all and bonkers with any "mix"? What's so non-PC and selfish about nuclear energy shouting that it too can "do it all" instead of being diluted into a razor sliver of a pie as the token part of a "mix"?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. Indeed, James.  The variability of "renewables" is just a form of UNreliability, which is another word for INsecurity.

    France is proof that nuclear can "do it all", with one of the cleanest and most reliable grids on earth.  Adding "renewables" would make the grid less reliable and less useful.  If those "renewables" require combustion-based generators handle their variability, they would even make the French grid dirtier.

  3. Agreed times 2. And for those who think that France is a fluke, consider Ontario. It's not as totally nuclear, but it also illustrates how more nuclear leads to cleaner electricity at lower prices.

    And in both locales, when politicians force wind into the mix, the reliability goes down, the cleanliness goes down, and the price goes up.

  4. A friend's wife is a nurse practitioner who was preparing a presentation for a seminar when she had to find a picture of that "food pyramid". She looked on the internet and grabbed a standard looking pyramid. Only after the presentation did she notice that the pyramid, identical in basicaly every way with the one we all know, was actually from the department of agriculture for the purposes of teaching ranchers how to fatten cattle for staughter.