California Dreaming

A study commissioned by the California legislature has just reported that, in order to achieve the state's aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions by 2050, the golden state will need to more than triple the percentage of electrical power it gets from nuclear energy. In the January 6, 2012, issue of the journal Science a paper outlining the report's findings was published and they may be a bit unsettling for deep green Californian ecologists. It finds that technically feasible levels of energy efficiency and decarbonizing the state's energy supply alone are not good enough. The answer? Here is a hint—electric vehicles powered by expanded nuclear energy.

California has long led the US and the world in efforts to curb emissions and improved energy efficiency. California has set an eventual target of reducing 2050 emissions 80% below the 1990 level. This possibly misguided effort is based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emissions reduction projections that would stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), a level that the IPCC claims would reduce the likelihood of dangerous global warming. Regardless of the motivation, the oh so green California legislature has boldly set caps on future GHG emissions. Quoting from the article, entitled “The Technology Path to Deep Greenhouse Gas Emissions Cuts by 2050: The Pivotal Role of Electricity”:

California is the world’s sixth largest economy and 12th largest emitter of GHGs. Its per capita GDP and GHG emissions are similar to those of Japan and western Europe, and its policy and technology choices have broad relevance nationally and globally. California’s Assembly Bill 32 (AB32) requires the state to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a reduction of 30% relative to business-as-usual assumptions.

In the most general terms here are the findings: widespread electrification of transportation and other sectors is required; and decarbonized electricity would become the dominant form of energy supply, posing challenges and opportunities for economic growth and climate policy. An all electric world run on clean sources of electrical generation—the green dream. The catch? “This transformation demands technologies that are not yet commercialized,” the authors state. In other words, much of the technology needed is either experimental or nonexistent.

The team, led by James H. Williams, of Energy and Environmental Economics and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, describe their methodology this way: “We analyzed the infrastructure and technology path required to meet California’s goal of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels, using detailed modeling of infrastructure stocks, resource constraints, and electricity system operability.”

This being California, one has to worry about just what steps the study included, but not to worry. “We did not assume explicit life-style changes (e.g., vegetarianism, bicycle transportation), which could have a substantial effect on mitigation requirements and costs,” the authors state. A visual summary of the predicted impact by category can be seen in the figure below, taken from the report.

Emission reduction wedges for California in 2050.

Measures grouped into seven “wedges” reduce emissions from 875 Mt CO2e in the 2050 baseline case to 85 Mt CO2e in the mitigation case. The top three contributions are from energy efficiency (EE) (28%), electricity decarbonization (27%), and electrification of direct fuel uses (16%). The three main steps needed to achieve this near miraculous reduction in GHG emissions are given as:

  • EE had to improve by at least 1.3% year−1 over 40 years.

  • The electricity supply had to be nearly decarbonized, with 2050 emissions intensity less than 0.025 kg CO2e/kWh.

  • Most existing direct fuel uses had to be electrified, with electricity constituting 55% of end-use energy in 2050 versus 15% today.

Those of you who have read our book, The Energy Gap will find this a bit familiar. Our conclusion was that, in the future, efficiency would rise and the roads would be taken over by electric/hybrid vehicles that got much of their energy from expanded nuclear plants. Seems we could have saved the state of California a significant amount of money if they had only bought a copy of TEG.

There have been other studies which claim that California could meet all of its future energy needs with just wind and solar power, and maybe a few composting toilets. Here is what the study's authors had to say about running the whole state on renewable energy:

Some studies suggest that 100% of future electricity requirements could be met by renewable energy, but our analysis found this level of penetration to be infeasible for California . We found a maximum of 74% renewable energy penetration despite California’s large endowment of renewable resources, even assuming perfect renewable generation forecasting, breakthroughs in storage technology, replacement of steam generation with fast-response gas generation, and a major shift in load curves by smart charging of vehicles. Using historical solar and wind resource profiles in California and surrounding states, the electricity system required 26% nonrenewable generation from nuclear, natural gas, and hydroelectricity, plus high storage capacity to maintain operability.

Buried in the article's table 1 are numbers that tell the true story: while other conventional fuels drop between now and 2050, most fossil fuels going to zero, nuclear power rises from 3% today to 11% in 2050. And that is a “best case” estimate from a green perspective. Reality will more than likely require continued natural gas for peak demand generation and more nuclear for baseload as it becomes evident that unreliable generation by wind and solar just don't get the job done. Looks like a green California is a nuclear California.

You might want to rethink that ordinance.

At the same time that the need for more nuclear power is being demonstrated by California ecologists, the Obama administration continues to prove that they are worse than clueless when it comes to energy policy. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed new regulations removing a large area of the southwestern US from prospecting for uranium. Members of the congressional delegations from Utah and Arizona issued the following statement denouncing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision to withdraw approximately 1 million acres of federal land in northern Arizona from uranium mining:

“Today's announcement by the Interior Department shows how much this Administration just doesn't get it,” said Senator Orrin Hatch. “Mining this land poses no environmental threat and is expected to create thousands of jobs, but the Administration continues to pander to extremist environmentalists who oppose one of the cleanest sources of energy we have. I wish I could say today's announcement comes as a surprise but sadly it's just another sign that the Obama Administration is one of the most anti-American energy presidencies in history.”

One last thing from the Science article, for those outspoken critics of hybrid cars like the much maligned Chevy Volt. According to Williams et al.: “The most important finding of this research is that, after other emission reduction measures were employed to the maximum feasible extent, there was no alternative to widespread switching of direct fuel uses (e.g., gasoline in cars) to electricity in order to achieve the reduction target.”

As I have said before, the age of the electric automotive drivetrain is upon us. Simply put, a vehicle with an all electric drivetrain can be powered by anything—wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear, hydrogen, even improved batteries. Just plug-in and any source of electricity will work. This is why first attempts at production serial hybrids like the Volt are important: auto manufacturers need to learn how to build high quality, cost effective electric cars. Sure the Volt leaves a lot to be desired, but the next model will be better.

Critics, like the terminally opinionated Neil Cavuto on FOX, seem to understand neither engineering nor business when they attack the Volt. When the first (rather bad) Japanese cars arrived in America they were ridiculed and made fun of; now Japanese brands are arguably among the best in the world. And do any of you fans of big ol' American iron recall the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto? They were Detroit's first attempt to build true compact cars—and they sucked. But eventually both GM and Ford learned to build world class small cars, just as they will learn to build great electric/hybrids. Assuming, of course, that public ridicule from airhead news anchors doesn't scare them into delaying efforts to develop such cars—that will only give the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese the chance to dominate the market without facing American competition. So put a sock in it, Neil.

The Chevy Volt and arch nemesis Neil Cavuto.

I'm all for using natural gas in power plants, it is the cleanest burning fossil fuel and the US has discovered that it has an abundance of the stuff. Building the Keystone Pipeline from Canada makes good sense as well, we will continue to need oil for decades, and even when we stop burning the petroleum products in cars and trucks it will be needed as feedstock for the chemical industry. But just because we have discovered a surfeit of fossil fuel for the present, it does not change the fact that world demand will continue to rise, reserves will be depleted and the price of oil will rise until it becomes uneconomical. Changing road transport to electrical power—severing the link between fossil fuels and cars—will take a half a century or more. The time to start is now.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.


Another thing the anti-nuke nuts don't get is that MORE energy will be required for a green economy. Why? Because a truly environmentally friendly economy needs desalinized water/urine recycling (to replace current aquifer and stream resources and thus prevent sinkholes and destroyed fisheries - a truly REAL environmental problem), effective toxic waste disposal, and extensive recycling, especially plasma conversion and electric arc furnace mini-mills for the recycling of steel and aluminum. All of these are EXTREMELY energy intensive. Anyone who tells you that energy conservation and enviornmental safety are COMPATIBLE is a FOOL.

Environmental safety

The most environmentally safe way to proceed--electric vehicles powered by nuclear energy--is the best way to conserve all other forms of energy. Since fast reactors can make more fuel than they use, especially when used with thorium, the result is a net gain in usable energy.

The recharging issue

I continue to be an electric car skeptic. The recharging time for a gasoline powered car is roughly five minutes. The amount of energy transferred in this operation will take a family of four and all their luggage 400 miles. Without doing the math, I’m guessing it would take more than 40 hours to transfer enough energy to an electric car to take it 400 miles – and I’m afraid the size and weight of the battery which will store 400 miles of energy would make the passengers and baggage a problem. I’m also worried about the makeup of the batteries. Where do you mine materials? How dirty is the manufacturing process? How well can the batteries be recycled? Again without doing the math, it seems to me that building ½ of a billion high tech batteries that will hold even 100 miles of energy would be a serious environmental issue.
Internal combustion engines running on gas – natural gas and eventually hydrogen generated from nuclear power seem like a more promising path.

Getting a charge

The energy density of batteries is rapidly improving and many of the new batteries use fairly benign materials. Do you remember when there was a “crisis” over getting enough platinum for use in catalytic converters? There are also experimental batteries that can be recharged in the same amount of time as a typical fill up. All of the detractions you mention are matters of technology and technology has a way of surprising even the experts—particularly when there is a great deal of money to be made.

I do like the idea of getting hydrogen from nuclear plants. Nukes are most efficient when running flat out and during the overnight hours they could shift from generating electricity to making hydrogen. Of course, hydrogen has a whole raft of problems of its own. There is no free lunch and what technologies will come to dominate the future of transportation remains unknown. Regardless, the future should be quite exciting on the automotive front.

new nuclear is doubly good for california

building new high temperature nuclear plants would attack 2 problems california has, need of clean energy and clean water. and if done right, the "waste" salt slurry from desalination could be processed into road salts at the very least.

pure EV's are simply not viable yet but that should not be taken as a reason to stop developing them as i as well see all electrics one day in the not too distant future being the primary means of transportation on the ground and sea. I still think it will be a long time though for all electric aircraft. I'd really like to see nuclear power extend to other large ships outside of the navy as well.

good to see you back and posting after the long holiday break.

being back

Thanks, it is good to be back.

Electric Cars

I have been in favor of electric vehicles for many years; since the 1970's. The problem we have for massive deployment of them in our economy is that we don't have the electrical grid capacity to handle it. This would represent moving quite a bit of our overall energy consumption from liquid fuels to electricity. Our grid can barely handle the electrical demand now. To nearly double the demand on the system would require a massive increase in our distribution and interconnection infrastructure.

One sort of project I would get behind would be a national rail electrification program. That could be done now, be powered with nuclear generated electricity, and serve as the lever for upgrading the backbone of the grid. The benefit of this would be to provide a coast to coast transportation mode for freight and passengers that is immune to disruption of oil supplies.

Such a project could lay the groundwork for upgrading the rest of the distribution grid to handle the extra loads. There are some drawbacks, though. Electric power has a tendency to be disrupted in many parts of the country, sometimes for weeks at a time. Many parts of the country experience winter temperatures so cold that the vehicle range is greatly reduced. I would still want a liquid fueled vehicle for use when traveling long distances, travel in very cold weather, and travel when electric power has been disrupted. Having a liquid fueled vehicle still offers some major security and independence. One thing I have also noticed is that policy recommendations coming out of most governments often seem to be thought up by someone who has lived in an urban area all their life. The concept of people who might live 40 miles from the nearest store in places where winter temperatures regularly reach -20F or colder don't seem to occur to them. Same for people whose winter commute might take place in complete darkness both ways (requiring headlamp and heater use).

I live in a city of about 1 million people. If only half of those people were to drive electric cars, our grid here would melt as they all started plugging their vehicles in as they arrive home from work. It already melts during the hottest days of summer with "rolling blackouts" happening rather frequently when temperatures get very hot. California has neither the generation capacity nor the distribution capacity for large scale adoption of electric transportation. It also doesn't have the interconnection capacity to being the power in from elsewhere.


Until battery technology improves hybrids make more sense, since they have petroleum powerplants on board. This eliminates battery range anxiety. In the long run, batteries will improve and prices drop. Remember that the internal combustion engine has been under continual development for more than a century by a number of companies with very deep pockets. It will take time for electrics to catch up. As for cold weather, NASA has launched many a spacecraft with batteries that function under much more extreme conditions. It is true that old fashioned lead-acid batteries do perform much worse at low temperatures, newer designs include heating to keep the chemical reactions at peak efficiency.

I live in rural Arkansas, not an urban area, and I am all for affordable electrics. A vehicle with a dependable 40 mile range would get me to and from work on normal days without using any gasoline thus helping our balance of trade, and since much of my electricity comes from the nuclear power plant just up the road I would not be polluting as much either. By the way, trains are among the most efficient modes of transporting goods, not much benefit to messing with them first. If you want to clear the air in congested city areas go for the trucks, buses and cars (which makes opposition to plug-ins by city dwellers like Mr Cavuto even more puzzling).

We addressed the grid will melt down myth in The Energy Gap. The normal recharge time for plug-ins is overnight, when demand is generally low. There may be some problems with cooling on some low duty cycle transformers, but it will take many years for the problem to manifest, plenty of time to upgrade the grid as the electric fleet grows. We are talking about changes that will take place over half a century, not overnight.

Other articles

Good points. Those who are long time readers know that I have blogged about hybrids, electric vehicles and nuclear energy before. A couple of columns you might wish to read are “I Sing the Auto Electric” and “Plugging In To Hybrid Happiness.” For information on some non-automotive hybrids see “(Hybrid) Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”

Hybrids can help

But they are used inefficiently. For example, on open highway driving they get no better mileage than something like a VW TDI Jetta. California made a major mistake in allowing hybrids in the carpool lanes on its freeways. A hybrid's major advantage in energy savings is in the congested, stop-and-go traffic of the non-carpool lanes. If energy conservation is your goal, you should allow tractor trailers and other large vehicles in the "car pool" lanes. Those are the vehicles that require the most energy in stop and go traffic. Instead, we are in a situation where the vehicles that are least efficient in congested traffic are forced into congestion and the vehicles most efficient under such conditions are placed in the condition where their advantage disappears.

Politicians can do some silly things sometimes.

Hybrids on the Highway

While it is true that the ability to capture the energy that is normally lost to friction during braking boosts the city mileage of hybrids, battery technology is rapidly advancing. Also note that prior to being able to plug in a hybrid all of the energy used to move the vehicle had to come from fossil fuel. Even using the energy from current model batteries can help hold down oil imports—models from high end marks are using that energy as an electric assist to boost performance, allowing the use of smaller IC engines. Today's hybrids are far from perfect, but they continue to get better. The day will come when they will seem normal.

But for what reason?

Really. For what reason do we even need hybrids? Or electrics for that matter. Unless they are charged by nuclear power, they are less efficient than a gasoline vehicle. An electric is a coal fired vehicle. California has two nuclear plants and there is a move afoot right now to put a ballot initiative on the November ballot to close them. The US oil production is currently increasing. Natural gas is cheaper than it has been since I have been alive. At this point they have reached the point of diminishing returns with automotive technology in that ever smaller improvements take ever greater expense to accomplish. The environmental cost of electrics and hybrids is enormous when you look at what goes into manufacturing and disposing of all of those batteries. They are overall much less friendly to the environment and are less efficient than a conventional vehicle overall. If they would simply add a very small battery and electric assist motor to a conventional car, the impact would be amazing. All most cars need is a little boost from a dead stop. That could be charged by regenerative braking.

If I generate X number of watts of power in the firebox of a coal power plant, I get a loss when I convert water to steam and run it through the turbine (not to mention what's lost up the stack as heat). Then I get a loss through every mile of line it passes through and every transformer. I get a loss at the charger and finally losses at the motor and through the drive train. Burning the fuel right inside that car's engine is pretty darned efficient. I can transport petroleum and its products much longer distances than I can transport electricity.

Converting to electric doesn't reduce pollution one iota, in fact, it could likely increase it because there is no way we can basically double the demand on the electrical grid AND do it without coal/oil/gas generated power. If they are talking about 30 percent of our power generated by renewables at some point in the future, what they are really saying is that we need to generate what amounts to 60% of today's electrical consumption if they are going to massively scale electric cars.

The whole thing is nonsense without nuclear power. It is an impossible pipe dream.


Back when gas was $4.50 a gallon, I tried to build an EV recharging business. It was a pretty good business proposal, UNTIL gas fell to $1.50 a gallon. I figured it would save people money, but the reality is that in between EV's, desalinization/urine recycling, general recycling, toxic waste disposal, and all the other requirements of a green, environmentally friendly society, the idea of reducing the amount of electricity used is not just not desirable, it is impossible. Frankly, I'm a lot more scared of what we're doing to our aquifers and streams and rivers with traditional water pumping then I am of "Global Warming" and all that other eco-puritan nonsense, and this Wind and Solar red herring is going to prevent us from solving that much bigger problem that could really destroy biodiversity in a big way in the next 10-20 years.

Politicians are dumb

Why are the Politicians dealing with these things? The free-market can work out economic externalities. Senator Orrin Hatch doesn't know the first thing about anything. He's been in Washington for 36 years. Here he says he'd blow up a computer without due process:

He's dealt with lobbyists- benefited "green industry" that ended up going bankrupt. He's a part of our Gov. picking winners and losers in the marketplace and it's completely immoral.


In case you hadn't noticed, politicians are at the root of many, if not most, of the world's problems. Salazar was a senator before he became a minion of the Obama administration so it is only fitting to quote one set of pols complaining about the actions of others.