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By Russ Finley on May 21, 2016 with 6 responses

Challenging The “Does Nuclear Really Help The Integration Of Renewables?” Strawman Argument

Photo courtesy of tracie7779 via Flickr

What’s with the green parrots you may be asking? A parrot repeats what it hears without understanding what it’s saying. And by “green” I’m referring to people who, like myself, consider themselves to be environmentalists (whatever exactly that means). To the left of the green parrots is a screenshot of the “shares” from a guest post on the Clean Technica website, which has at least 99 parrots sitting on their wire.

It all started when an apparent shale gas enthusiast (Nick Grealy) wrote a 1,100 word article at his blog about the use of shale gas in France which contained the following rather cryptic throwaway sentence:

French nuclear exports help Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain accelerate their renewable uptake.

The above sentence was latched upon by a renewable energy enthusiast (Craig Morris) who used it to create a strawman argument that he then wrapped an article around at his blog, which, in turn, was posted at Clean Technica as an expert guest contribution:

The narrative that Grealy falls prey to is that nuclear can be ramped up as need be. This alleged flexibility is held to be crucial in backing up solar and wind power.

Riiight, the narrative. I don’t know what the shale gas enthusiast meant with that one sentence, assuming he knew what it meant, but he certainly did not say “that nuclear can be ramped up as need be” to back up solar and wind power, and if that’s what he meant, then it’s likely that’s what he would have said.

The renewable energy/antinuclear enthusiast then proceeds to present a bunch of snapshots of French and German energy flow charts to support his “French nuclear therefore does not facilitate the integration of wind and solar in neighboring countries” strawman argument.

He notices a clear pattern for the one day he chose to analyze, which is that France tends to export in the middle of the night and late evening. He then draws the following conclusions:

First, France clearly prefers to sell electricity at low prices at times of low demand rather than ramp down its nuclear plants.

That’s a very common practice for baseload power stations, not just nuclear (Germany also uses baseload, see graph below), although some French reactors are capable of operating in load-following mode. Importing French nuclear is not a bad low carbon option for grid partners which still need power at night when solar output is zip, and depending on weather, may also have little wind.

Second, the German power fleet has enough flexibility in comparison to ramp down rather than sell at low prices – and then ramp up again as prices increase at times of high demand.

Now, raise your hand if you’re wondering how Germany gets its wind and solar to ramp up and down. That’s right, even the Germans don’t claim they can control when the wind blows and the sun shines. They have two primary methods to match demand; vary fossil fuel output and do like France–export. See curves below.

He also notes that he could not find daily output from Germany. Unlike France, which allows downloads of years worth of energy data at fine increments, Germany limits data to monthly or weekly snapshots and no ability to download it to spreadsheets for analysis. Reminds me a little of the Volkswagen emissions reduction strategy.

From Bloomberg:

To adapt to volatile supply and demand, RWE invested as much as $735 million on technology for its lignite plants that allow the units to change output by 30 megawatts within a minute. The coal-fired generators were originally built to run 24 hours a day.

RWE’s lignite generators, which have a total capacity of 10,291 megawatts, are flexible enough to cut or increase output by 5,000 megawatts on a sunny day, when power from solar panels floods the grid or supply vanishes as skies turn cloudy, according to Ulrich Hartmann, an executive board member at RWE’s generation unit.

“Back in the days, our lignite plants were inflexible, produced power around the clock and were always earning money,” Hartmann in Bergheim, Germany, said in a July 9 interview. “Now they are as flexible as gas plants.”

And finally, he concluded that French nuclear “clogs up the grid and reduces flexibility.”  Look at the chart below. Germany also uses baseload, mostly from brown coal (the worst kind). And to make matters worse, note that this flexibility needed to balance wind and solar is coming almost entirely from hard coal and natural gas.

Which also explains why Germany hasn’t reduced emissions for the last five or so years when they began taking their nuclear offline. Imagine if the brown coal were replaced with nuclear. He next notes that Germany was a net exporter of electricity for 23 out of 24 hours:

Without the 9 GW of exports, the German conventional power fleet would be pushed down to 30 GW – hence the tremendous exports.

In other words, rather than further reduce fossil fuel combustion, they export its emissions to their neighbors. And look at who they imported the most electricity from that week:

The “narrative” often used by renewable energy/antinuclear enthusiasts is that France and Germany are at war again, but this time it’s an energy war–nuclear verses renewables. In reality, they are closely cooperating grid partners sharing their strengths and weaknesses for mutual benefit.

I don’t advise anyone dropping in to comment at Clean Technica. If a bunch of pronuclear comments appear they assume it’s a coordinated attack from the nuclear industry and start banning people. There’s a “Moderator” who, instead of having the “Mod” identifier next to his name, has the “Top Commenter” identifier. Appearing to be just another renewable energy enthusiast, he patrols comments under antinuclear energy posts, engages, bates, and then “surprise,” bans pronuclear commenters like myself.

I can only imagine how many pronuclear commenters have been banned over the years. In fact, their official comment policy makes it clear that pronuclear comment is not welcome. Censorship is their prerogative of course, but maybe they should stick to promoting renewable energy and stop posting antinuclear energy gibberish like this if they don’t want to hear feedback.

  1. By Russ Finley on May 22, 2016 at 1:05 am

    Renewable energy enthusiasts created an argument years ago that baseload power was not compatible with wind and solar and would therefore have to go. It’s obsolete. What they really meant was that you can’t maximize the use of wind and solar if you have a lot of conventional baseload power …which is correct. But when did the maximization of wind and solar become the goal? Isn’t the goal to decarbonize our grids?

    If your baseload comes from a low carbon source, like say, hydro, why would you want to maximize wind and solar at its expense just because it is providing baseload? Where I live roughly 95% of our electricity comes from hydro. There is no move afoot to shut it down so we can have more wind and solar. So, in reality, they were trying to create an excuse to get rid of nuclear which is primarily used for baseload.

    So, how does nuclear baseload make it easier to integrate intermittent and nondispatchable energy sources into a low carbon grid? It reduces how much wind and solar you need to decarbonize your grid. You can see how this does not sit well with the enthusiasts.

    France proved that you can rapidly and cost effectively decarbonize a grid with nuclear. But times change. Solar panels were invented and wind turbine technology is reaching its apex. So France commissioned a study to try to determine what their future grid should look like. It’s going to incorporate more wind and solar, and keep about 50% nuclear, which strikes me as being very sensible. Rather than spend money to maintain older nuclear stations, that money will go to more wind and solar.Their energy curves will probably look a lot like the German curves but with less wind and solar, nuclear replacing brown coal, and natural gas replacing hard coal.

    All grids (with the rare exceptions like where I live) are still stuck with using fossil fuels to rapidly change output to match changing demand. This is where appropriate amounts of wind and solar can help.

    Imagine powering your home with a gas generator that can change its output to match demand and it always runs because your house always uses some power. Now, put a solar panel on your home. When the sun shines, your generator slows down and saves fuel. Your solar panels are essentially fuel savings devices. As long as the cost of the panels do not exceed the cost of fuel savings you’re golden. Adding too many panels would simply increase cost. Before climate change reared its ugly head, there was little incentive to bother with fuel savings devices that were at the whim of the weather. Times change.

    • By Forrest on May 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

      You post of the crux of the solar wind problem and solution. It will take a ramp up of renewable power and best in class supporting power. To rate the most sensible and cost efficient path forward. Your middle of the road approach is to my thinking the goal, with much engineering and construction to make it possible. To me, taking down the entire coal sector is pointless as the thought that wind and solar can do it all. We need to exploit the advantages and strengths of each power source and fuel supply. Coal has very solid advantages as does nuclear. Given it is best to gradual phase out the most polluting or aged of the team and replace with best in class. Maybe do what you haven’t posted of the French methodology to maximize usefulness of renewable power. That would be to offload as much power from the grid as possible. To utilize natural gas to the max for thermal needs of households that utilize the energy source at +90% efficiency vs low grid efficiency. That and utilize biomass for the same. I think it might be a waste for biomass to fuel a power generation boiler with such low efficiency. This approach will maximize low polluting equipment on grid percentage of power.

  2. By Sam Gilman on May 22, 2016 at 6:18 am

    That particular website you mention is essentially churnalism: it just reproduces PR for certain greenwashed industries. (Their coverage of Volkswagen post-scandal is verges on apologism, while they once published the most extraordinary fluff piece comparing Baotou in China, site of some of the most intensive rare earths mining (including that which supports green tech) and a “hell on earth” (BBC) as some kind of Silicon Valley duplicate rising from the sands.

    For a long while I was puzzled by why solar got so much more free PR than wind power, even though wind is cheaper, scales faster, and is easier to integrate. Then I realised that, of course, solar panels are private consumer goods. It seems as if corporate marketing interfering with the debate on climate change mitigation.

    It manifests itself as ideological commitment to going off grid as if that is a goal in itself: a set of specific “green” goods rather than a strategy for fighting climate change: batteries (rather than other forms of collective storage which are cheaper, more scalable and far readier now), electric cars instead of fuel cell vehicles – because you can charge them with your solar panels and your car can act as storage. It is, as you say, an extremist stance. The language is all about which technology is “winning”, which one is “killing”.

    Strangely little is about decarbonisation. Very little is about the big picture, and when they try doing big picture stuff they seem to be all at sea. “Storage” seems to be the standard glib answer. (The moderator you mention struggles with basic concepts like dispatchibility and capacity factor. Engaging him is like being subject to a weird passive-aggressive Gish gallop where you have to discover his misconceptions one after the other for yourself.)

    • By Forrest on May 22, 2016 at 8:45 am

      I’ve noticed that as well. I caulk it up to Mother Earth magazine romance. The mentality is a dream where one can easily construct homes, power, and food and need not fret over a hard work career. Just a fantasy, but based upon a foundation truth that most rural folks such as myself and grew up with and support. Yes, much cost reduction and income potential in forestry, wood heat, diy projects, gardening and all the rest. It’s only limited by your imagination and ability. There are a few that make a living upon back yard farming, for example. But, it takes maximum hard work and talent. Also, it’s not lucrative. Mainly subsistence living and most of the income is gaming all the gov’t free money support. But, I’ve enjoyed many a PBS show entertainment where in folks eat local and walk to neighbors with wine glass in hand within a glorious human event of sharing and praising. My guess if they could go off grid with power, construct a super insulated cabin, and do some gardening, wine making, and work at McDonald’s for $15/hr why bother with a career? Just game all gov’t free money and your good to go. They DO all dream of a solar panel on the roof powering their car and household for peanuts and glorious daisies sprouting about with thankful wildlife.

  3. By Forrest on May 23, 2016 at 7:17 am

    I scaled your graph, looks like solar output about 6 hrs daily production schedule. That’s not good or dependable. Notice how wind and solar are absent on peak demand. Early morning not much wind or solar and early evening solar gone and wind diminishes. It looks to me these two power sources can’t displace any power generation capacity. As you post, they can offset some daily power generation if the dispatchable power can handle the quick ramp up and down to coordinate steady supply. I hear often the comment that wind and solar can do it all, if we could store power. Well, that has always been the keystone of maximizing efficiency upon any power source. A bulwark path forward for maximum renewable power would be a scenario wherein wind and solar produced hydrogen for either fuel cell power production at point of use wherein high efficient CHP devices would maximize the value or in stand alone power production for typical grid. Remote power production probably is best utilized for highly valuable hydrogen gas production as storage of hydrogen is much easier or not required with pipeline. Pipeline is much cheaper transport and very cheap to install as compared to fragile grid with hyper expensive install.

  4. By Russ Finley on July 3, 2016 at 11:42 am

    …just wanted to share another example of how parroting what you hear but don’t understand can get you into trouble.

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