We want to replace much more than 100% of current gas, coal, and oil with zero-carbon sources of electricity

Sunday, October 10th, 2021

Over the centuries, Matthew Yglesias reminds us, people have invented many different kinds of machines that help us do things and improve living standards:

But in a very general way, what most of these inventions do is let us substitute some form of power for human effort. And as long as we were totally ignoring the costs of burning coal and oil, this was a great mechanism for progress — you invent new ways to do things by burning coal and oil, so then you burn more coal and oil.

But since the mid-1970s we’ve been increasingly aware of the limits and problems with this model, and it’s put us on an energy diet. Now when we invent something cool, we often have to say “too bad the energy requirements are so high.”

But as Ryan Avent (from whom I borrowed that chart) and others have written, this is a backward way of looking at things. The turn toward conservation and efficiency was a necessary evil in an era when we couldn’t come up with a better way to deal with geopolitical instability linked to oil and pollution linked to all forms of fossil fuels.

Instead, we should raise our clean energy production ambitions. We don’t want to replace 100% of our current dirty energy — we want to generate vastly more energy than we are currently using and make it zero carbon.

What difference does it make in how you look at it?

In the “energy is a necessary evil” frame, we look at our current electricity needs and then ask, “How can we generate all that from zero-carbon sources?” In the alternate framing, you say that to the extent we can develop affordable, zero-carbon sources of electricity, we want to generate tons and tons of electricity. Ideally, we would want to replace much more than 100% of current gas, coal, and oil with zero-carbon sources of electricity and use that to literally power a bold new era of rapid economic growth.

I find that this vision tends not to be intuitively compelling to a lot of people who are accustomed to living in the efficiency era. But let’s just imagine a world with small modular nuclear reactors and advanced geothermal energy production — a world in which we have plenty of baseline power. As our ability to make batteries gets better and better, we can put them all in vehicles rather than using them to address intermittent renewables. Then when the sun shines or the wind blows, we have even more power that we can use for stuff that doesn’t need to be on all the time. It’s a world of energy abundance — Lewis Strauss’ dream of electricity that’s “too cheap to meter.”

Comments

  1. McChuck says:

    The only way forward is nuclear. But the Greenies won’t allow that, because their real cause isn’t “green” energy, it’s NO energy. Human misery and death is the actual goal. We are the carbon they want to eliminate.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    There is a significant faction of the Green movement that wants to reduce the human population to a few million paleolithic hunter-gatherers. No industry, no agriculture, no metals, no literacy…

    Fossil fuels account for 80% of all energy usage, and that percentage has not changed significantly for years and is not changing now. Increases in energy consumption are based on increases in fossil fuel use.

    There is no replacement for fossil fuels, not even nuclear. (Fusion is an illusion.) So if fossil fuels are eliminated, total energy consumption must fall radically, and humanity goes back to the Middle Ages. That means about 500 million people living in feudal economies. Again with limited kinds of industry, animal and human muscle powered everything, especially farming, and literacy for a tiny elite.

  3. Albion says:

    Around sixty years ago, or more, someone on the then only TV channel in the UK said on air that electricity would become so cheap “they will pay us to use it.”

    Somehow, that never seems to be the goal of energy production, so I am not holding my breath. Once you get into the ‘charge for use’ mode there is no reason to stop charging. “Too cheap to meter” will not stop the metering.

  4. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “The turn toward conservation and efficiency was a necessary evil…”

    That is the kind of statement only an Ivy League credential-holder would be ignorant enough to make.

    Maybe two centuries ago when Engineering was a new profession, one of the early English bridge-builder explained himself: “The engineer is the man who can do for One Pound Sterling what any fool could do for two.”

    The earliest humans must have been always thinking about how to do things better, how to get more food for less effort. And the pursuit of efficiency today leads us inevitably to the proven technology of Nuclear Fission.

    Well, not us — where “us” means the Western ruling credentialed Political Class — but “us” humans in Russia and China, where smart people are energetically expanding their nuclear power networks.

  5. David Foster says:

    There is plenty to be said in favor of nuclear, but it would not result in ‘electricity too cheap to meter’. The capital costs of these plants are pretty high, and these costs must be recovered via the electricity sold. A 2019 study by Sargent & Lundy, done for the EIA, put these costs at about $6000 per kw of capacity. Some of the statements recently made by GE-Hitachi about their new SMR product imply that they think they can do a lot better than that…even $3K/kw is nontrivial, hopefully you can make that up in fuel cost savings; the breakeven point of course depends on nat gas prices.

  6. Gavin Longmuir says:

    I could be wrong about this — but I thought “electricity too cheap to meter” meant simply what it said — not free, merely not metered & charged by the Kwh.

    This was analogous to the way the US local phone system used to run in the years before cell phones: there was a monthly charge for being connected to the phone network, but no additional charge for local calls. This contrasted with some European countries, where there was a separate charge for each local call (requiring lots of administrative costs).

    Of course, in those distant days, reading electric meters required sending a human meter reader to visit each location each month. Expensive! If the incremental cost of each Kwh fell to a low level, it would become more efficient simply to charge each home a fixed monthly amount.

    We should remember the people who talked about nuclear power electricity that would be “too cheap to meter” had no conception of the immense costs of overhead regulation which the Usual Suspects would impose on commercial nuclear power, in a sort of death by a thousand cuts. Someday, hopefully, we may choose to roll back that excessive regulatory burden.

  7. David Foster says:

    Gavin…fixed vs variable charges…would especially make sense for nuclear since the capital cost is such a big part of the total cost. Would need to be based on a selected peak for the home or business: if you sign up for a 10kw peak, then you need to stay under it at all times. (Maybe have a fairly high charge for anything used above the peak), but if your typical peak is 20kw, then sign up and pay for that.

  8. Sam J. says:

    I’m not against nuclear power, but David Foster said nuclear power costs “$6,000 per kW of capacity.”

    This is too high. Doing a random simple search you can get solar right now for $645.45/kW. So then we need batteries for storage. I just did a rough calculation on flywheels here,

    https://www.isegoria.net/2021/10/the-lithium-metal-battery-with-this-architecture-had-an-energy-density-of-560-whkg/comment-page-1/#comment-3446302

    I came up with 100 kW-hr, (larger Tesla model S battery), we get $1,666.66. Now, we don’t need this for a house. I’ve seen figures of 20 kW-hr need for a normal house so $333.332 and even if we triple the price we get $1,000. You can get MOSFETs to control the output from these flywheels for 200amp service for as an example

    20pcs IRF3205 IR MOSFET N-CHANNEL 55V/110A TO-220-US $8.63(from ebay)

    So get the cost of solar cells down a little and make some decent flywheels for batteries and you could crush the cost of electricity compared to nuke power.

    The key is to forget this big government lust for huge wind farms[bird killers that burst into flames], large solar farms and concentrate on research on solar, batteries, inverters and tax breaks for production of small solar systems for houses, out buildings, etc. and over time the tech will make this happen.

    You’re still going to need nukes for big chemical plants, commercial, etc but housing and transportation can go solar.

  9. Gavin Longmuir says:

    David F: “Would need to be based on a selected peak for the home or business”

    We certainly could do that today — analogous to the way we can choose to pay for a specified bandwidth for internet. Back in the days of “too cheap to meter” — when houses were smaller, AC units less common, hot tubs unknown — the range in electric power consumption among households was probably a lot less than today (even ignoring AlGore’s third mansion), making a fixed monthly charge easier to implement.

    The pervasive effect of Big Intrusive Government regulation on the electric supply system should not be ignored. The speculator who takes a subsidy to build a bird-whacker also gets paid an above-market rate for any electricity she produces, whether the market needs it at that time or not. In contrast, the utility which starts building a nuclear power plant is not allowed to recover costs until years later when the last bureaucrat signs off on the last piece of paper allowing the plant to start up. Different regulations would produce different results.

    As you note, relatively speaking, a gas-fired power plant has lower capital costs/higher fuel costs versus a nuclear plant which has higher capital costs/lower fuel costs. It is interesting to speculate what the power supply system would look like without the heavy hand of regulation on the scale.

    Of course, without Big Intrusive Government’s mandates & subsidies, we know that uncompetitive so-called “renewables” would be limited to niche uses.

  10. Wang Wei Lin says:

    There’s no such thing as a happy environmentalist. They are all in for green energy until the windmills and solar panels are in their backyard then they’ll bitch about mining the materials. When will they be happy? Maybe when everyone but them is shivering naked in the rain.

  11. Albion says:

    Interesting about the metering of power. In the UK there is a huge push to get people to install ‘smart meters’ that will show, any place you care to put it in the home, how much energy you are using. Of course, any electronic device that communicates via chip and wi-fi can work the reverse way and be controlled externally to cut down your ‘excess consumption’ automatically.

    In the same way metering then does not need humans knocking on doors for admittance; in the UK most meters now are positioned outside new houses. With ‘smart meters’ it can all be done remotely anyway. No big deal to transmit back that your heating is dialled down lower and the kettle isn’t working right now, so try again later.

    Interesting times where we now think all these power-holders are kind-hearted.

  12. David Foster says:

    Sam J., remember, a kW from nuclear and a kW from solar are two very different things in terms of the actual energy they will generate. A kW of installed nuclear capacity can generate 24 hours worth of full output, if needed, every day. A kW of solar will get you at best 5–6 equivalent hours every day. And there are seasonal as well as daily patterns in solar availability — and sometimes days on end, in snowstorms and heavy rains, for example, where little sun will be shining.

  13. VXXC says:

    We can get cheap energy by chaining Ivy Leaguers to bicycle generators and riding them they way they ride us for the rest of their days.

    We’d also finally get some use and satisfaction from them.

  14. Sam J. says:

    David Foster says, “Sam J., remember, a kW from nuclear and a kW from solar are two very different things in terms of the actual energy they will generate.”

    Why would you even say such a thing? Are you insinuating that I do not know the Sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day???

    Why do you think I go on so much about the cost of batteries if I in actuality think the Sun shines 24 hours a day?

    Earlier I said it could be possible to get 20kW hours of flywheel storage for $1,000 or maybe as low as $333. Solar you can get right now for $645.45/kW. If you only get power 6 hours a day it comes too $2,150 assuming you need 20kW hours a day power for a house. A high of $1,000 for batteries. For the hell of it you could add a small 1kW generator to that for less than $1,000. Compared to $6,000 base cost for nukes that’s a bargain and solar cells don’t blow up or melt down.

    I’ve said, constantly, I’m not against nuclear power but if nukes cost “…$6000 per kw of capacity…” and you can get solar and batteries cheaper then why have nukes? The present system for cooling nukes when they turn off is retarded and why the Fukushima plant blew up (if it wasn’t the Jews that did it). They have batteries that only last a little while, generators that only keep working as long as they can have more fuel delivered but neither of which will stay on long enough to keep the plant from being damaged from built up heat and possibly melting down.

    You don’t have to be a irrational tree hugger to realize the present system of nukes are flawed. It’s seems to me just as irrational to idolize nuclear power as some techno nirvana if we can just put solar cells on people houses and be done with it. The rest we can burn coal.

    Pressurized water reactors are used because that’s what the Jew Adm. Rickover paid for for the navies nuke sub program and they wanted to use the nukes we had to make bombs.

  15. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    The high capital costs of presently implemented nuclear installations is an artifact of artificial limitations imposed by the chief communists of the 20th century, the united states government, on anyone who might think of trying to implement nuclear technology.

    In general, the most economically valuable niches for using our friend, the atom, is in fact on small scales, not massive scales. A simple example being logistical capacity, which has ever been a primary limiting factor for productive development throughout history, the capitalization of nuclear powered transportation affording economies of scale only dreamed of heretofore.

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