Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Solving the Energy Crisis on all Fronts
Energy is the best indicator for a high standard of living.
The Current Energy Industry
The agents in play are:
Consumers (price-conscious): These are people who cannot afford to pay more for their energy needs, regardless of the reason. They must feed their families, with a bias toward low-cost energy.
Consumers (green-focused): These are people who are able to pay a little more to find a “better” energy source for them, focused on environment preservation. There is a weighted bias towards low greenhouse gas emissions.
Current Energy Agents: People who have a vested interest (almost always monetary or power-related) in keeping the current energy industry in place. This is everyone from a boardroom in an oil or gas company to engineers to miners or resource extractors. This crosses across all income levels.
Future Energy Agents: Have a weighted bias towards breaking the current industry, focusing on their type of energy system. For instance, a solar energy company will want the future of energy to be in their spot in the sun, while a wind energy company will want their breeze to run. While there is a focus on reducing carbon emissions, there are still separate factions supporting their solution.
A win for everyone:
For a system to be accepted into the world, there must either be a large net gain in resources for the adoptees or everyone in the system must benefit from it in some way. The former is best represented by Google, where a strong search algorithm provided quick, reliable information to the masses at a low barrier of entry (free, no coding knowledge required). Large, flashy solutions are advertised when a technology disrupts an entire industry. However, if something is a win for everyone playing the game, then there is no reason that the rule won’t be implemented. This win for everyone is what I see as the North Star, or the goal for an ideal solution.
Energy’s North Star:
At first glance, it seems impossible to overcome the cost of change while having an environmentally focused option. For the cost-conscious consumer, this can only happen if the option to get green energy is simple and worth it from a purely economic perspective. While this may exist in some places, the costs are comparable enough if considered purely from kWh to kWh, but costs quickly increase when batteries, transmission, and other necessities are used. Even if the costs appear to be comparable, the issues of not having control over the required supply create blackouts and other problems related to a lack of energy, which may turn people off to green energy. On the production side, it must be economically viable to switch to clean production of energy, which requires a large amount of capital. This isn’t worth it unless there’s a low cost barrier to entry. So, this solution must have a low barrier to entry, be environmentally friendly, be low cost for the consumer, and always have a consistent amount of energy available. Is there such a thing?
It seems that current fission energy may be the best solution here, through a consistent supply of fuel, very low carbon emissions, and cost. Nuclear power requires fuel, which can have a controlled supply at all times.
Being able to use this fuel at any time, without reliance on external situations, is very useful. Any item like solar, wind, tidal, or anything else that captures energy that isn’t controllable requires the use of batteries, which, at their current state in time, are not good for the environment. The byproducts of nuclear fuel differ from those of conventional hydrocarbon fuel. Oil, coal, and natural gas all break a large chain of carbon and hydrogen to eventually get carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases, which cause the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. When nuclear fuel is used, the vast majority can be reused, and the byproducts that can’t be recycled are simple solids that do not enter the atmosphere. Nuclear is on-par with wind energy in terms of carbon emissions.
The non-reusable material can be packaged with a number of safe materials to help reduce radiation. This is known as “dry cask storage,” which is a steel container with concrete layers to surround it.
In principle, storing solids in a concrete bunker mostly comes with construction costs, which should not be too high given the sheer amount of concrete used in the US (109 Metric Million Tons).
How Nuclear Power Works:
It becomes helpful to understand the power of nuclear energy if we can really understand how electricity is generated from this method.
There are two main parts to the system: the heating and cooling portion and the electricity generation portion. For the temperature portion, nuclear material is broken up through a fission reaction.
The breaking apart of the element itself releases a lot of energy, which is then converted into heat. This heat goes towards a pump, which then creates a vast amount of steam. This is the electric generation portion, where this steam pushes a turbine, which then ends up generating electricity. Every part of a nuclear reactor goes into either one of these two systems, whether it be in scale, safety, or cost. While the reaction requires some complicated energy physics and engineering, the turbine movement is something that already exists throughout the world.
Coal plants work in a very similar way, except the nuclear physics are swapped out for placing coal in a furnace. Coal pellets are fed into a furnace, which boils liquid water to turn it into steam. This steam then pushes a turbine, eventually generating electricity through a generator.
Aside from the energy-generating mechanism, everything else is the same. The cooling methods, turbines, and transformers used to turn the thermal energy into electricity do not change from place to place. The efficiency of each process may change, but that is due to general, as opposed to domain-specific, improvements in the technology. That said, the use of these turbines will continue to decline. Coal is quickly being replaced as an energy source due to both cost and carbon emissions, and there isn’t a global political incentive to push this specific energy industry (with the exception of municipalities that rely on coal mines).
With that, there lies a problem. Coal plants across the nation are shutting down, creating a lack of jobs, useless infrastructure, more expensive energy^, and a diminished local economy.
^ = at least visible in the short term
Is there a way we can create jobs, use less expensive energy, utilize good infrastructure, and improve the local economy given the technologies we already have?
Converting Retired Coal Plants to Nuclear Plants
If a large portion of both nuclear and coal plants can be connected to the same infrastructure, we may be able to convert one type to another. This solves all our concerns:
- Job creation? Any power plant requires a number of skilled workers to ensure safety and power generation, and nuclear energy is likely the best example of the need for highly skilled workers for safety.
- Less expensive energy? I’ll do a cost breakdown later, but this cost could be a fraction of what the current cost of energy is right now.
- Local economy? The influx of both cheap energy and high-income workers provides a large boost to the local economy to help develop schools, hospitals, and roads, among other things.
- Is this possible with current technology? Yes.
How can this happen?
With any project, an understanding of the criteria, feasibility, and timeline is necessary for success. The process of coal-to-nuclear (C2N) is no different. First, a site survey must happen at the coal plant to determine if such a plan is viable. These plants must have a dedicated cooling system, a high power generation capability (with a safe number being 1 GW), and a good location. This leaves around 180+ plants in the US alone, leaving, at the very least, a higher power production capability compared to the retired coal plants. With an additional 180+ plants, the number of nuclear power plants would triple. After a site survey, the power plant must switch from coal to nuclear. There are varying levels of re-usability in this platform, from a complete destruction of the plant to a full utilization of the steam cycle system.
If nothing can be re-used, but the site itself is good for a power plant location, then Option #1 is used. If the electrical generation can connect, then Option #2 is used. If the steam cycle mechanisms can be used, then either #3a or #3b (depending on the connectivity). Along with this, the power plant is cheaper as more items are re-used. At the very least, if some items could be re-used (at minimum option #1), 17–26% of the capital cost can be reduced, with the range going to 20–38% for option #3. In addition to capital cost reduction, the levelized cost of electricity (average cost of generation) may get reduced by 28–35%.
The True Cost of Nuclear Energy
While these percentages seem amazing, it doesn’t matter if the end result is still much too high for the country and the world to afford. This brings us to the question of the true cost of nuclear power. The cost of electricity in the US at this time in February 2023 is around 14 cents per kWh for households and 7 cents per kWh for industries. Nuclear power has never been seen as cheap and usually goes with the market price. That said, the Gordian Knot project, named for Alexander’s simple solution to an impossible problem, may have found the true cost of nuclear energy. A historical analysis of the energy market found that gasoline cost the consumer 25 cents a gallon, and major powers could purchase oil for less than a cent per liter. This ended up with a cost of 4–5 cents per kWh in current dollars for oil and gas. Nuclear power, if it could remain competitive, had to break this barrier. And break it did. Nuclear power remained competitive with coal across the 1960s, with a low of 2.7 cents/kWh (at current costs). Source
The reason it isn’t this cost anymore isn’t due to the maintenance cost of nuclear power generation itself, but due to the energy market. Coal became more expensive, and, with costs rising, the nuclear market decided to rise with it. If coal prices doubled, nuclear prices doubled, because it could. The populace would grumble about the costs of electricity, and the market continued to be dictated by coal while nuclear power plant owners lined their pockets. At this point, due to stronger efficiency and better building techniques, the cost of nuclear power should still remain in the 3 cents/kWh range at the high end. However, due to outside influences, the price of nuclear energy matches the external market, and the true cost is not revealed to the world.
Connecting C2N and Cheap Power
In the 1960s, if the cost of nuclear power could remain at 4–5 cents/kWh (in today’s money) without grumbling, the cost could remain similar today. Inflation and value would change drastically over time, but given that we have a current cost listed and the improvements in efficiency, we could say that the total levelized cost of electricity from nuclear could be at 5 cents/kWh today (conservatively). If we know that the most conservative estimate for saving on capital and levelized cost is 15% in order to re-use coal plants, this could bring the cost of electricity to 4.25 c/kWh at the high end. Doing the same math with optimistic estimates of 2.79 cents per kWh and a 35% cut in cost, this brings us down to 1.8 cents/kWh.
While C2N is certainly a novel idea that could work, there are still a number of issues. There are a number of groups that can be made here, but they boil down to two: technological and social.
If a survey doesn’t work well, portions are overlooked, or the recycling of the plant doesn’t work, then costs can quickly overrun. Any power plant also has a risk of mismanagement, no matter the energy source. As always, the risk of nuclear energy remains. That said, the technological portion consists of problems that have all been solved in a direct way (or at least, in some way directly), as these are problems that all power plants, and nuclear power plants, deal with. Surveying may bring some issues, but surveying is done across all industries, so there is precedent there.
Nuclear power has been the subject of political whims ever since the Manhattan Project, and this will not change anytime soon. With the connection between public and private, there will continue to be issues of corruption and price inflation. A form of competition must exist, and for that to happen, there must be a large enough incentive to get multiple agents in play. While there is certainly an economic incentive, there may be issues invisible to the common person that prevent entrance into this field for those who see the incentive and can act upon it.
If we go back to understanding the North Star solution, there has to be something that all parties find acceptable. In terms of demand, nuclear is a cheap, environmentally friendly solution that satisfies both cost-focused and green-focused consumers. In terms of supply, there is a slight issue. If both producer groups are set in their ways, then they aren’t able to see the value in the solution, and as a result, they may try to shut it down. That said, for those producers that adopt the solution, there lies immense value. Aside from the economic incentive, the consistent power supply gives green producers one reason, while 24/7 green energy gives status quo producers another. In any switch, there are going to be issues, and each portion of the plan will not happen perfectly. That said, if there could be a perfect solution, this is it. Consistent, cheap, and green energy for the world may bring about a new age of technology, with electricity being the backbone of the modern world. No longer will food need to be cooked with unsafe fuel, hospitals need to triage based on electric capability, and non-potable water still remain the norm. Extreme poverty may continue to go down at an exponential rate, and the world will continue to be a better place.