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19 December 2008

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Cieran

Harper:

We need hundreds of nuclear power plants over the next decades

Why do we need hundreds of nuclear power plants? (please note that my question is indeed a question, i.e., I'm curious and don't know your sense of what the answer is).

For example:

Is this another way of saying "we need a lot more baseload electrical generating capacity", or "we need baseload electrical supplies that don't produce greenhouse gases" or somesuch?

Or is there some other aspect of electricity produced by nuclear sources that requires the use of the word "need" in your assertion?

"Need" generally refers to the demand side for a resource, and considerations of how electricity is generated reside on the supply side -- and one of the most important features of electricity as an energy source is that we can generally decouple demand and supply in a way that is difficult or impossible for other energy sources.

Hence the question. Thanks in advance for your answer...

zanzibar

Harper/Cieran

I believe you are both on to something. I am convinced that the US needs a 21st century infrastructure to compete effectively. I believe electricity generation and transmission would play a significant role in making this new infrastructure. One way we can make a significant dent in the utilization of fossil fuels for transportation is to substitute electricity and mass transit. A revived urbanization around mass transit could be one of the choices. Telecommuting would mean much more electricity consumption as gigantic server farms propel the new Google's. The other "movement" we need, IMO, is truly becoming much more "locavores" consuming fresh seasonal foods which means no grapes in winter!

Financially I believe instead of plugging losses made by sophisticated private investors wether it is Cerberus or CALPERS or JP Morgan Chase we should insure that entrepreneurs and innovators that want to build the new productive capacities here in the USA and provide employment to fellow Americans have access to risk capital and the support infrastructure to incubate and commercialize their businesses. We need a multi-generational vision for our economy and society and leadership and statesmen that will direct our focus and attention towards attaining that vision. Ultimately, until we as citizens exert our sovereignty and actively participate in our common good and governance we cannot expect that much change will transpire. The elites will only feather their own nests and work to consolidate even more power and wealth while selling our nations assets and our people down the river.

fairhavenhorn

The problem for the Big Three is not that they make large cars. It is that they are still committed to a failing business model. There have been repeated bailouts, tax deals, and subsidies given to them (a few mentioned already in comments). These have sustained their commitment to a failing model, rather than encouraged them to adapt.

The failing model is the "build to lease". For decades they have made cars that are optimized for leasing. They still provide almost all of the corporate fleets and rental fleets. This reflects their superiority in that business model.

The lease purchaser looks at cost of ownership for the first three years. This includes financial items, like tax credits, depreciation, interest payments, and operational items like maintenance, gasoline, etc. The big three cars do very well against the japanese and transplant makers. (Honda being a primarily US manufacturer for US customers, I consider it a transplant.)

The transplants have chosen the "build for owners" strategy. Rather than make money on financing, they make money from long term owners. Their design emphasizes minimum cost of ownership over the life of the car. The financial elements are the same, but over a 10 year life, the results are rather different. The Japanese and transplants are superior cost of ownership over 10 years.

Even before the current crisis, there was a gradual shift of buyers from lease orientation to ownership orientation. Also, the steady design improvements from the ownership side were making gradual inroads in the leasing comparison. The big three were hurting in that competition because they have not been able to make improvements as fast as the Japanese and transplants.

The current crisis has made the massive use of credit far less practical. That hurts the leasing buyers much more than the ownership buyers. This will push the big three into failure. I do not expect them to adapt in time. It's the same kind of thing that you see in a military that has trained and equipped for the wrong kind of warfare. They have immense difficulty changing.

This does not mean that the big car goes away. It means that the big car becomes a specialty model line. A specialty model line cannot sustain companies the size of the big three.

Cieran

Zanzibar:

Good points, but consider this:

One way we can make a significant dent in the utilization of fossil fuels for transportation is to substitute electricity and mass transit.

Leaving aside the issue of mass transit, it's currently infeasible to substitute electricity for carbon fuels in transportation. Either the base technology simply doesn't exist (e.g., airplanes) or the supporting technology doesn't either (e.g., energy storage for electric cars).

If we solve the energy storage problem with a scalable solution that isn't thermodynamically wasteful, then we've also solved the problem of relying on renewable sources such as wind (the biggest problem with most renewables is that they require storage to handle the cases when the sun isn't shining, or the wind isn't blowing, or somesuch).

So it's storage that's the key. Without it, we can't replace crude oil transportation fuels with electricity, so the idea of building nuclear power plants to reduce our dependence on foreign oil just doesn't add up. And if we develop good storage technology, then we likely don't need nuclear energy, as we may do just fine with renewables.

Now it may turn out that we need nuclear energy anyway, e.g., the storage needed to make electric cars work in practice turns out to be so thermodynamically inefficient that we'll need vast amounts of electricity to throw at the storage problem, and nuclear power plants are ideal for this running-full-tilt baseload situation (neglecting the drawbacks of this technology for the sake of discussion here).

But we don't yet know whether the best long-term storage techniques will be efficient or inefficient, so we don't yet know what kind of energy infrastructure we'll need to make this work. And that's why gaining the general outlines of the storage technology is the necessary first step for figuring out how to handle our transportation energy needs.

And by the way, there's plenty of examples where a useful technology turns out to be a terrible idea from the standpoint of thermodynamics. Every steam-powered electrical generation plant is a thermodynamic travesty, as the majority of the heat energy used is wasted as entropy. But if we have plenty of heat energy to begin with (e.g., nuclear fission), then even with the substantial inefficiencies the overall technology works just fine, i.e., it's highly likely to be the power source that's running your computer and mine!

David Habakkuk

Cieran,

It seems then that it is extremely difficult for the U.S., or indeed other countries, to plan a rational strategy to assure energy security until questions to do with the possibilities of thermodynamically efficient storage are sorted out.

Accordingly, it becomes a central priority to find thermodynamically efficient means of storage as soon as possible, if they can be found; or to ascertain that possibilities of finding them are too remote to provide a basis for energy planning, if that indeed turns out to be the case.

So a crucial question then becomes that of what are the best strategies to sort the matter out as soon as possible.

This seems to me in part a question about appropriate form of public/private sector collaboration. But it may also be a question about appropriate forms of international collaboration.

After all, there are enormously strong common interests in energy importing countries in finding substitutes for hydrocarbons -- and many heads may be better than one.

raidz

We should have been looking into more efficient ways to run our automobiles for years! These big business jerks know that if we use renewable energy they will be out of the picture.

Cieran

David Habakkuk:

Thanks for the insightful comments. I agree completely, and especially with your last sentence.

This moment in history provides a singular opportunity to get energy policies right for perhaps the first time in history, because both supplier and consumer nations desperately need some stability in energy markets, and because the usual corporate malarkey that "markets will regulate themselves" that has been so successfully used to thwart energy strategy in the past are temporarily held in disrepute.

So there is a window of opportunity for making progress, if humanity has the brains to take advantage of it. And many heads are indeed better than one. If those collective brains could solve this problem, then it's likely other important solutions might follow, since energy resources are intimately connected to other problems on the world stage.

Hope springs eternal, and on a Merry Christmas Day, too...

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