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Dead Industries Walking

By Bill Becker

"Dead Industries Walking"


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It has not been a good year so far for King Coal, Big Oil and whatever nickname we give to the nuclear energy industry.

Two weeks ago, TIME reported that nuclear plants in the southeastern U.S. may be forced to cut power production or temporarily shut down later this year because the year-long drought has left too little water to cool the reactors.

There already has been one drought-related shutdown in Alabama. And while officials aren’t yet predicting brownouts, utilities will be forced to buy expensive replacement power from other places, leading to “shockingly high electric bills for millions of southerners.”

Unfortunately, the southeast is precisely where the nuclear energy industry has been looking as the best location for new power plants, in part because they believe there is less public resistance there. We’ll see how the public feels when those “shockingly high electric bills” arrive in the mail.

The south’s problems are not unique. The Associated Press reports that 24 of the nation’s 104 nukes are in areas experiencing the most severe drought.

Then came an e-mail from the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell to his staff, predicting that the production of conventional oil supplies won’t be able to keep pace with world demand after 2015 — a mere seven years from now.

That’s very bad news for oil-dependent economies, including ours. Five of the last seven recessions in the U.S. economy have been preceded by big increases in the price of oil, and today’s oil prices are one of the factors being blamed for the economic slowdown and possible recession we’re experiencing now. The e-mail from Shell’s Jeroen van der Veer suggests that unless we figure out how to replace conventional oil or how to stop economic development and population growth around the world, high oil prices are here to stay. It’s the old law of supply and demand.

Next came word from the U.S. Department of Energy that it has cancelled plans to build the country’s first clean coal plant in Illinois. DOE cited economics — the cost to taxpayers has gone from $800 million when the project was announced five years ago to $1.33 billion today — and said it wasn’t ready to find the plant environmentally acceptable.

To make matters worse, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that three of the nation’s biggest investment banks are going to make it harder to build coal-fired power plants in the United States. Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and Morgan Stanley anticipate that the federal government will cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants before long. Investors don’t want to loan money to a new power plant whose debt could go bad under the additional expense of carbon allowances.

What does all this bad news mean? For those who have the courage to look, the end of the era of finite fuels is in sight. The end always was inevitable, of course. That’s what finite is all about. But I believe that oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy — let’s call them the Finite Four — are entering their end game.

Like prisoners on the way to the gallows, they’re bargaining desperately for a reprieve. Van der Veer recommends more effort to harvest unconventional oil from tar sands and more environmentally sensitive and harder-to-reach places. But tar sands, oil shale, liquid fuels from coal and other unconventional fossil fuels promise nothing but more problems. They are filthy. They accelerate global warming. They use a lot of energy and water.

And water may be their biggest problem of all. Water already is considered a global crisis by some experts, and it seems to be reaching that status in the United States. A new study shows that the water crisis already underway in the far West is due to global warming. Snow pack is the source for 75% of the West’s water — and snow pack is declining.

Fossil energy has a history of sucking up substantial water in the West. A study by Western Resource Advocates found that coal and gas-fired power plants withdrew more than 650 million gallons of water per day from seven dry western states in 2000 — Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — enough to take care of the water needs of at least 3.64 million people for a year.

The fossil industry’s thirst will get worse if it produces unconventional fuels. It takes four barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from tar sands and oil shale. Every gallon diverted to energy production is a gallon denied to cities, other industries and farms, including those that could grow energy crops to replace oil. Today in Colorado, Shell reportedly is buying up all the water rights it can in preparation for major oil shale production.

Meantime, renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar don’t cause or suffer from water problems and energy efficiency actually saves water. Western Resource Advocates has calculated that if the eight Western states mentioned above developed only a small part of their potential renewable resources, they could save nearly 120 million gallons of water each day. Faster adoption of energy efficiency measures in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming could save 25 billion gallons a year — 10% of current water consumption — by 2010, the organization says.

Declining supplies, rising prices, worsening water problems…it is time for the big, entrenched and troubled Finite Four to recognize that the end is near. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the well-known expert on dying, identified five stages through which patients pass when they discover they have a terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The Finite Four have entered Stage 3. Perhaps when they progress to State 5 — acceptance — they will grasp the new reality the world faces today: If they want life, they must end their own addiction to finite resources and join in a transition to sustainable, renewable energy.

– Bill B.

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18 Responses to Dead Industries Walking

  1. Earl Killian says:

    You might find this document useful as a reference on water in power plants:
    Note that Stirling dishes (one variety of Concentrated Solar Power) require minimal water (mirror washing only). Wind turbines don’t use water either. I am less sure about geothermal, but I think the closed-loop sort may be fairly water friendly.

    And of course, with efficiency we don’t need to build new power plants for years and years; instead we can start shutting them down. The 40 least efficient states use 82% electricity per capita than the 10 most efficient states. That’s a waste. Getting the 40 down to the level of the 10 would mean shutting plants, not building new ones in those 40 states (after all US population only increases by 40%, not 82%, by 2050).

  2. Sean says:

    A water shortage will not kill the nuclear effort. American nuclear power plants that are built alongside the atlantic ocean (for example) have been around for ~35 years, and these do not have any issues concerning a water shortage. They just take water from the ocean, heat it up about 20 degrees, and pump it right back into the ocean.

    It seems like if water shortages will be a big concern in decisions surrounding sites for future nuke plants, utilities will probably completely avoid the problem by building their new plants on a body of water.

  3. Joe says:

    That is perfect. Let’s put all our nukes along the ocean, so global warming can inundate them!

  4. Peter Foley says:

    Joe, The nuke plant in Alabama was off line only a few days. Nuke plants with evaporative cooling could be an integral part of any climate cooling strategy- the water vapour ‘emitted’ by operation could help lower regional temperature through increased cloud cover. Regarding the sea coast plant locations 3-4 feet above High tide would allow for over 100 years of operations at the present rate of sea level increase(2-3.3mm or 1/12th to 1/7th of an inch/year) The really paranoid could build a little mound 20-30 feet high under the plant.
    What is so horrible about power plants out West using a fraction(12,000 acre ft/day) of the local water to create the power that allows millions to live in an enviornment pre-industrail age that was almost uninhabitable. The West’s water crisis is just an artifact of poor government over promising the cheap water to its voters.
    I think you are worried oil-sands will come on line and lower oil prices to the 50$ Barrel and remove any pressure to migrate to dead end zero-sum(peak-oil) energy regime. Why do you hate your country so much that you encourage these irrational ideas that using natural resources to forward societies living standards is “bad”.
    There is no foreseeable shortage of fissil uranium for 70 to 100 years even without the use of breeder reactor style plants. How do you designate them as finite in the short term of the next 100 to 1000 years?
    Regarding coal, Dr Goebbels don’t believe your own PR. Coal built our present civilization and will be an important part of any growing society for the next two generations. Even if the AGW cult proves to be correct. Power plant delays will just penalize the customers of the utilities that are unable to build in a timely fashion needed infrastructure to maintain a growing economy (poor people can’t afford conservation). Either way we’ll need the plants no matter which way the cookie crumbles.

  5. Coal fired steam plants and hydro electric facilities are also effected by drought. Wind generators are effected by windless days, and there are a lot of those in the summer. Finally solar generators don’t work when it ios cloudy or at night. Solar and wind generators have average capacity factors of 20%. The average capacity factor for nuclear power plant is over 90%. Clearly even with droughts, nuclear power is a far better deal. The lights are going to come on with nuclear power. But only if it is daytime or the wind is blowing at night with renewables. Greens are just so dishonest. Joe you should be ashamed of yourself, selling this green snake oil.

  6. John Mashey says:

    If states would get their act together, and reward utilities for increasing efficiency, rather than just generating megawatts, there would be far less need for building coal power plants for a while.

    gives per capita electricity consumption by US state.

    From that chart, if every state above 10,000 KWh/person had gotten down to 10,000 [like UT, CO, NM, MI, not even like CA, RI, or NY’s 7-8,000), the US total would have gone from 3,660,969 to 2,256,118M KWh’s, a 39% reduction.

    Of course, states differ in their needs, but the most efficient states differ widely in climate & industry and density, so it isn’t just CA’s mild climate. The biggest difference is state PUC rules. if you ever get a chance to hear Peter Darbee, CEO of PG&E talk abotu this, don’t miss him.

  7. Earl Killian says:

    Peter Foley says “There is no foreseeable shortage of fissil uranium for 70 to 100 years.” but cites no data. The International Energy Agency regularly looks at Uranium supply issues and their data is a bit different than Mr. Foley suggests. At http://www.nea.fr/html/general/press/2006/redbook/red_book_questions_and_answers.pdf
    you will find tonnes divided into the categories “reasonably assured”, “inferred”, “prognosticated”, “speculative”, and “total” and grouped by recovery cost. Even using the total (which includes “speculative”) and the no cost constraint column one finds that powering 1500 1GW reactors on U235 with the once-thru fuel cycle gives only 48 years of supply. There are currently 439 reactors in operation, so 1500 is another 1100 or so. This is only a small fraction of the power plants expected to be built between now and 2030, so I conclude that there is only enough U235 for once-thru processing to make a quite modest contribution to energy needs, and then only if one goes with the “prognosticated” and “speculative” no-cost numbers from the IEA.

    Moreover, using some of the Uranium supplies that are prognosticated may have greenhouse gas emissions issues, as recovery of Uranium from low-grade ores (what is being prognosticated) requires a lot of energy. See for example

    Please note the IEA prognosticated and speculative numbers are generally higher than what others have used as citations here before. For example, the UIC (an Australian industry group), predicted in a paper cited in previous nuclear discussions in this blog that reserves would increase ten times for a doubling in price. What in fact happened? Prices went up by a factor of 5.7 to 8.4 and Australian reserves increased from 1.143 MMT to 2.307 MMT, which 2 times, not 10. Note also that 97% of Australia’s reserves are at the Olympic Dam mine, which has very low grade ore (0.029%). According to the UIC, this low grade ore is economically viable because the mine also produces copper, silver, and gold, which is fortuitous (and may not apply in other mines with low grade ores). Only 20% of the mine’s revenue is from U.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Charles Barton points out the intermittentcy of certain renewable energy solutions such as wind and solar. Charles needs to be reminded again that Thermal Energy Storage allows solar to operate more like baseload power. He claimed solar has 20% capacity factor, which is not true. The Kramer Junction concentrated solar power plant has in-operation percentages in the high nineties, which is better than nuclear plants (90% is good). He also left out geothermal, which naturally generates 24×7:

    Finally Denmark is now up to 20% wind energy and foresees going to 50% by 2025 without problem. Germany is targeting 20% from wind.

  9. Peter Foley says:

    Earl Killian, I sourced my info at Nuclearfac.ca . There is plenty of economically recoverable nuclear ores– any one stating otherwise is lying with malice aforethought. At six times the present price ~40$US/Kilo ~240$US/Kilo sea water and phosphate fertilizers can be processed to yield 300 X the current reserves. About 4000 Mtons.
    Please draw me the entropy charts of the bogus energy inputs used by perpetrators of the reports cited. How could any business spend that much money to produce a commodity that costs less then the inputs? The data violates the the laws of conservation of mass/energy. There would be heat plums above all uranium mines detectable from Mars.
    The paper’s premise reminds of the old Swedish joke about the two bachelor Swedes (Ole and Swen) farmers who were hauling hay from Iowa to Minnesota to sell in their old pick up. Ole says to Swen,”we are losing 90.00$ a load, 60.00$ on selling 60 bales @ 1.00$ less each then we paid and 30.00$ on gas.” Swen replies,”Well, we’ll just have to get a bigger truck.”
    Numbers in the report don’t map to reality–wouldn’t the fuel miners want claim all of the costs to lower their taxes? Just who is buying all this carbon that is used in uranium mining/processing?
    I’ve no idea why Australia hasn’t found any more ore deposits (I’d guess there is no economic incentives to find any more-Laws/regulations are interfering with the free market or cherry picking data points to support the agenda.). But Canada has a new lode that tests @8-30% yellow cake level- U3O8.
    The meme that we’re running out of nuke fuel is just an artifact of neo-Luddites misinformation campaign to slow or stop the timely building of needed nuclear power plants. How could any one or group that actually believes in the alleged AGW be against nuke power?
    Earl, where is the working economical thermal storage plant? If it is so practical form a corporation and build one. Start cashing in on the alleged AGW like Gore et AL.
    FYI Kramer Junction uses back up natural gas for cloudy days to achieve those Day time availability numbers. Availability = 90% / 2(day to night ratio)=45% actual. I’m not seeing any night time output figures–The junction system is not a stand alone power source.
    I’m betting the Germans and Danes are smart enough to have some good old fashioned carbon power around for the dog days of summer or the windless days at any other time.
    I just don’t understand John Mashey’s let’s return to the dark ages approach to energy production- I don’t believe in wasting energy but civilization’s growth depends on ever cheaper abundant power. He is more than welcome to practice his anti power religion but don’t force me to join the congregation or tithe.
    Furthermore what kind of socialist wants to pay a business to not sell a good? I’d like a check for not doing my job too.
    Pacific Power & Gas are buffaloing Californians out of billions with this con game aided and abetted by the state government.
    Why does Joe R hate his society so much?

  10. Earl Killian says:

    Peter Foley, if you are suggesting that the International Energy Agency “is lying with malice aforethought” then I am dropping this dialog here since there is no point.

  11. John Mashey says:

    Joe: regarding Earl & my comments about state PUCs & efficiency, can you point at a good, terse summary, state-by-state, of efficiency policies? Or ratings thereof? A one-pager like that might help local people agitate more for rules changes, without which, as Peter Darbee of PG&E says, don’t expect much to change.

    I’ve looked, but haven’t been able to frame a search good enough.

  12. Paul K says:

    From a February 6, 2008 Illinois press release by Brian Sterling:

    The Illinois Commerce Commission today approved Energy Efficiency, Demand Response Plans to reduce energy consumption. Demand response programs allow a utility to shut off electricity, or a large appliance, during the summer “peak” season, which reduces the need for a utility to buy expensive “peak” electricity. In return, a customer typically receives a fee or a credit on his or her electric bill. These plans were filed in response to a new law that requires four utilities to administer energy efficiency and demand response programs in Illinois. The new law requires the utilities to “ramp up” energy efficiency savings annually, meaning that in the first year, the utilities must decrease electric consumption by .2 percent, and, the energy efficiency savings requirement after that increases every year until June 1, 2015, when it “caps” at 2 percent. February 6, 2008. These programs also decrease the pollution caused by electric generation.

  13. Peter Foley says:

    Earl Killian, the data on the IEA paper doesn’t map to the prior art in uranium reserves(The IEA has an anti-nuke agenda). They are ignoring any technology increases in the mining/extraction industries. Furthermore they undiscover all of the thorium reserves–there is no market now so we won’t bother publishing the fact there is over a 100 years worth of Th available. How can such a common element as Uranium become exhausted in such a short time frame–even garden variety granite is a source. even if the price increases 100X its still economical to use.
    The first rule of intelligence is that the more a fact disagrees with your world view, the more important is your learning about it.
    Would you rather have the OECD’s agency mis-inform you by accident? I don’t known enough about the IEA to ‘autopsy’ why they are stretching the truth–Keep oil prices up, Hijacked by tree huggers, or a tough childhood, who cares they are fibbing. Even the IEA report admitted that phosphate extraction WOULD MORE THAN DOUBLE THE AMOUT OF AVAILIABLE URANIUM.
    The tin hat crowd might postulate the minimising the commonality fissile material to slow the proliferation of nukes.

    The PG&E scheme is unethetical on many levels, It punishes businesses/person who purchased energy saving devices prior to the current subsidy regime. It transfers(taxes)persons without any representation. It perverts the free market into a creature dependant a hand outs. It stops/slows development of non- included tech(any new tech or old that isn’t politically correct). Lowers the growth rate of the state depriving funds for every future year forever.– If subsidies for corn, sugar, cars, ethanol, or rice are bad why isn’t subsidising not doing something evil?
    Interruptible power is devolution of the power grid–a step backward in time. Will the capacity saved even pay for the equipment needed? The utility is just “farming” the government program.
    Again it all comes back to the premise that there is AGW. Let us prove carbon caused AGW before we destroy our economy with a probably unnecessary solution.

  14. John Mashey says:

    Thanks Earl, some good sources, just what I was looking for.

  15. Mark Goldes says:

    New Energy Source May Turn Cars into Cash Cows!
    cash cow: Slang. A steady dependable source of income

    Will a Breakthrough Technology Turn Your Future Car into a 100 kW Power Plant?

    A revolutionary breakthrough by Magnetic Power Inc., called GENIE™ (Generating Electricity by Nondestructive Interference of Energy) promises to make possible the elimination of the need for batteries of every variety. GENIE generators are expected to replace the need to plug-in a plug-in hybrid. Two kW is all the power that can be taken from a typical wall socket. A pair of 1 kW GENIE generators are expected to demonstrate a compact, inexpensive, capability to end the need to plug-in, prior to the end this year.

    If the development of GENIE generators is put on a 24/7 footing, it may be possible to provide 100 kW systems that will fit in the space of a typical gas tank, on a prototype basis in perhaps two years. If that occurs, since no fuel or battery recharge is required, automobile manufacturers may conclude that engines are likely to become obsolete. Consumer purchasing patterns could begin to reflect a new reality, with the market deciding most future cars must be totally electric, since they will never need any variety of fuel. Better yet, many cars might become cash cows!

    The economics are likely to prove compelling. Until now, car ownership has been an expense. Vehicle to Grid power (V2G), has been explored in a modest way for hybrids. Plug-in hybrids, equipped with a two way plug, can feed power to the local utility while parked. This is at least 90% of the time for the average vehicle. Professor Willet Kempton, at the University of Delaware, has stated the car’s owner could earn up to $4,000 every year.
    GENIE powered cars are expected to be capable of generating at least 75 kW and perhaps 100 kW in the volume of a typical fuel tank. In the case of luxury cars, trucks and buses, it seems 150 kW will prove practical. Technology already exists that, using inductive electronics, can wirelessly couple up to 150 kW to the grid from parked vehicles. No plug connection will be required.

    A large plug installed in a hybrid would provide, at most, perhaps 12 kW to the utility. If that 12 kW can annually pay the vehicle owner $4,000, imagine what the income might be with an inductively coupled 75 kW or larger GENIE generator. If the price per kW is the same as that used in the University of Delaware analysis, we could be considering payments totaling $25,000, or more, per year. With utility cooperation, the GENIE powered car can become a cash cow!

    Pacific Gas & Electric Co. stated that two million customers lost power during the recent California storms. GENIE powered cars will be able to wirelessly power the average home. Imagine the economic and human advantages!

    When a substantial number of vehicles powered by GENIE generators fill a parking garage, it will have become a multi-megawatt power plant.
    Doubtless, when millions of cars and trucks are selling power to the grid, the price per kilowatt paid will decline. However, it still seems likely that the cost of many vehicles might be paid for by utilities, as they purchase power whenever needed. The parked cars, trucks and buses, each become decentralized power plants – a rapid, cost-effective alternative to the many tough and costly challenges of constructing new coal burning and nuclear power generation facilities. Utilities and vehicle manufacturers have a unique opportunity to lead the nation and the world.

  16. Despite their allegeddecline due to water shortages, American Nuclear plants set a new all time record for their average capacity factor in 2007 of 91.9%. The problems with water shortages at nuclear plants have been desperately overblown by desperate and hysterical members of the “Green” anti nuclear cult.

  17. Peter Foley says:

    C. Barton, What little I have read about the water “shortages” are artifacts of NRC regs. Permits written to force shut down well before actually ‘running’ out of cooling water. Or the state of the intake pipe just not extending into the source deep enough. Every change to the plumbing requires a forest of paper to permit it. Hopefully here in the Mid-West we can get a couple plants in state for ethanol co generation(fossil carbon free bio-fuel)
    Mark Goldes, Any patent numbers, care to publish your history(any larceny arrests?) Show me the home(s) you live in that you’ve cashed in on the PURPA act? Aren’t you aware of the warp speed limit enacted on STAR TREK the NEXT generation? And at the rate of projected use we will run out zero point energy in less one million years so why even bother to develop the resource? Standard ‘green’ response. Contact me and we can swap sucker lists–just kidding. I’m giving your state’s Attorney General (Internet FBI agents) a heads up FYI. FOUR years of development and still no real support? Time to talk to Warren Buffet et Al.