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Cheaper than fossil or nuclear? Only in wishful-thinking fantasy land

"It will ultimately be cheaper than sticking with fossil fuel or going nuclear," say the profs.

Hmm. Assuming that the price of sticking with fossil fuel is the end of the world, the first part of that sounds fair enough.

But cheaper than nuclear? Not by any reasonable use of the word cheap, no.

A modern nuclear powerplant can sustain more than three quarters of a million electro-European future citizens. If a seven-billion-strong human race lived at that standard, there'd be a need for approximately 10,000 such plants, which could be located anywhere. (There are already many more power stations than that in existence. We are talking about less infrastructure than now, not more.) There'd no longer be a need for any world-spanning supergrid or massive redundant backups or new transport routes across the Sahara, etc.

Indeed, there'd be rather less transportation than now - shipping energy about in the form of uranium doesn't require continental pipelines or colossal supertankers. Pleasingly for those who don't like being dependent on far-off lands or volatile markets for energy supplies - as we are now with oil or gas, and would be with equatorial sun-farms - you can stockpile fuel enough to run a nation for years in quite small facilities.

Our 150-person local neighbourhood, in that scenario, only needs to cough up for two ten-thousandths of a new powerplant every 30 years; about US$900 annually for a five-person household. Quadruple this figure to make a generous allowance for distribution and profit margins, waste management, running costs and (tiny compared to the others) fuel. Note that we made no such realistic provision in the case of the windmills and sun-farms.

Now your five-person energy bill is a bit more than a modern British household gas bill - forget about the 'leccy - and don't forget, that future bill includes fuelling your car and all the other energy you use outside the home: a worthwhile proportion of what you spend on bus or rail fares - no air fares because you probably don't fly any more as an electric future-person - manufactured goods, food, water etc. All those things are partly made of energy*.

Worried about the constant parade of nuclear "accidents" reported in the press? Read this. Worried about uranium running out, or the storing of the wastes? Use the waste again and again until it's gone - and then there are lots of plans for getting more fuel, all lying dormant at the moment as existing uranium reserves are more than adequate to meet demand.

But. Re-using waste, the only sensible way to run a big nuclear sector, means producing fuels that could be stolen and used to make weapons: that's why the USA refuses to do so now. A big stockpile of hazardous and horrendously expensive-to-manage wastes is seen as better to have than small stocks of weapons-grade fuel and hardly any waste at all. Fear of nuclear armageddon lies at the root of most objections to nuclear power, in fact. It's no coincidence that Greenpeace is called Greenpeace, or that several activists who are more green than peacenik have broken with the hard-greens over this issue.

Renewables simply aren't cheaper than fossil or nuclear. That, after all, is why we live in a fossil and nuclear powered world - big business would have done renewables on its own if it were cheaper to do so, and fringe academics would be calling for the widespread burning of oil. That's why Professor JC MacKay of Cambridge University, a researcher whose personal beliefs are very green (and indeed he is also more than a bit of a peacenik) but with a much more impressive hard-sciences background and rather more intellectual honesty than Jacobson and Delucci, says this when examining the all-electric future:

E stands for ‘economics’. On a level economic playing field with a strong price signal preventing the emission of CO2, we don’t get a diverse solution, we get an economically optimal solution that delivers the required power at the lowest cost. And when ‘clean coal’ and nuclear go head to head on price, it’s nuclear that wins... My final plan is a rough guess for what would happen in a liberated energy market with a strong carbon price [so putting ordinary fossil fuel out of the running].

This plan has a ten-fold increase in our nuclear power over 2007 levels. 110GW is roughly double France’s nuclear fleet. I included a little tide because I believe a well-designed tidal lagoon facility can compete with nuclear power.

There's no way in the world that Jacobson and Delucci can stand up their assertion that a renewables-powered electric world is cheaper than going nuclear, unless we make the same assumption as we just did with fossil fuel - that nuclear is evil and will destroy the world. It seems pretty plain that the two professors made that assumption about nuclear and fossil long ago, before they ever began their careers.

Their plan isn't science or engineering or even (spit) economics - it's just wishful thinking.

For shame, Scientific American. ®

*This last is also true of the future renewables bills, but they are so huge it hardly matters.

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