The Lure of Free Energy

By John Popovich – Re-Blogged From

The U.S. government tried to get private industry to process nuclear fuel but had a difficult time finding takers. Union Carbide made an offer that required government guarantees and big upfront cash. Maybe Union Carbide knew something about nuclear fuel processing cost since they were operating a government nuclear fuel processing plant in Tennessee which happened to be the biggest electricity user in the U.S. Other concerns about nuclear electricity cost include the fact that much of the nuclear fuel available today is a result of a scaling back in nuclear weapons by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and of course the processing waste and the plant closure cost.

Bill Gates and other smart people are funding research on backyard nuclear power plants. Backyard nukes sound interesting and have a long history. In the late 1940s and early 1950s nuclear power was seen to be an attractive source even at very small scale, including for automobiles and aircraft (NB36, XB70). The world’s most esteemed nuclear physicists pronounced the practicability of nuclear reactors for these purposes, and the U.S. government gave encouragement and big dollars to these efforts. Oil companies were assured this was going to happen and were eager to participate. General Atomics was Gulf and Shell spending big on “Atoms for Peace” and hiring the best scientific minds to insure success.

After the small scale nuke bubble collapsed, nuclear industrial parks became all the rage and it was deemed that big electric users such as aluminum and fertilizer makers would colocate with nuclear power plants and this would result in great cost reductions which would improve our economic well being. It’s not clear what happened.

The Rasmussen report was used to insure us that a Three Mile Island type incident would only happen every 500,000 reactor years. Then there was Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Nuclear power plants use heat from fission to produce steam to operate turbogenerators for electricity production. The 4MeV neutrons produced by fission are rough on materials and greatly increase the plant cost relative to other heat sources. Imagine dealing with the 14Mev neutrons from fusion.

Solar electricity from photovoltaics is said to be free once you pay for the system but the overall cost is greater than the grid supplied cost of fossil fuel generated electricity and this means that to get an equivalent usable amount of electrical energy from photovoltaics more fossil fuel energy is expended in the manufacture, installation, operation, and maintenance and as a consequence more pollutants are generated and our standard of living is reduced.

Photovoltaics are produced with low cost Asian labor and coal fired electricity and installed on the homes of the wealthy in the West, where the wealthy buy the politicians (the poor can’t afford to) who force the utilities to purchase the electricity from the photovoltaic arrays at high rates and pass the costs on to taxpayers and ratepayers, who are the victims of this scheme. It’s a Rolex on the roof with the blessing of sanctimony.

Germany is of course the most egregious offender in that the amount of annual solar radiation in Germany is so low, it really is “Put this where the sun don’t shine” .

Germany tries to create a pretty picture of their energy policy and has largely succeeded in fooling the public and pleasing the Greens. German electric costs have soared and are now more than twice U.S. electric cost and rising fast. The only help is that they are burning more coal. The ruler of Germany may have to please the Greens, buts it’s a fool’s play and will result in great economic harm.

Intermittent/inconsistent energy sources such as solar and wind do not allow a reduction in the number or size of power plants and in fact there is a requirement for rapid response power plants which are much costlier and much less efficient and because they are often idled they have longer payback periods. Solar and wind electric systems also produce shock loads on utility grids which are costly to accommodate. No one wants to be without electricity when the sun is blocked by a cloud.

If photovoltaic electricity were less costly than grid supplied electricity, photovoltaics would be used to make photovoltaics.

Much is forgotten and must be repeated. In the 1970s there was a Solarex Solar Breeder project and it got big government funding and a large number of adherents. Politicians loved the term “Solar Breeder” and were clueless about the economics.

In the 1970s there was a large power tower project in Barstow California called “Solar One”, and after several years it was revealed that the value of the electricity produced was less than the cost of cleaning the mirrors. How could smart people have deemed this a good way to generate electricity? In addition to sand accumulation, the windblown sand caused scratching of the mirrors glass surfaces and necessitated periodic replacement.

Siemens promoted photovoltaics in the late 19th century when they were 1% efficient and steam power plants were 3% efficient. Today photovoltaics are 20% efficient and combined cycle power plants are 60% efficient. Since the grid was much less prevalent in the late 19th century, photovoltaics might have represented a better investment in many areas.

Smart people in government agencies in the 1970s and 1980s funded solar water heaters that cost more in electricity to run the pumps and controls than the potential savings in water heating costs and these people never seemed to have the time or interest to study the situation. The initial cost of these solar water heating systems could be more than 100 times the annual “potential” savings. In Southern California the average home spent ~$80.00/year on natural gas for water heating and the solar water heating systems might save half of this or ~$40.00/year. The government rebate for solar could be $5500.00 for the maximum allowed system cost ($11,000.00) and of course smart people learned to get the maximum rebate on all systems. The active systems required costly maintenance and rarely operated more than a few years.

Smart people in the U.S. government decided to fund corn to ethanol with a cost to the economy of hundreds of billions of dollars. U.S. corn and cellulose to ethanol conversion plants consume large amounts of low cost natural gas and coal fired electricity to produce a fuel for which the federal government generates a market thru mandates.

If corn to ethanol made sense, ethanol would be used to fuel the process.

U.S. government energy experts knew when oil was $2/barrel and synfuels were $8/barrel that synfuels would make economic sense when oil cost $8/barrel and when oil got to $8/barrel they funded synfuels and were surprised that synfuels cost $32/barrel but they were never able to grasp the fact that it required 4 barrels of oil equivalent energy to manufacture a barrel of synfuels with 1 barrel of oil equivalent energy. The significance of this still cannot be grasped. It may be that the current energy secretary can grasp the situation but the purchase of corn state votes is deemed of greater importance. Nothing has to be real; it only has to be sold.

There is a studied unwillingness to see cost as the important metric-money is just a trading unit of energy.

If photovoltaic electricity was less costly than grid supplied electricity, photovoltaics would be used to make photovoltaics.


If corn to ethanol made sense, ethanol would be used to fuel the process.


If cellulose to ethanol made sense, cellulose would be used to fuel the process.

When you try to close the loop things become more obvious. Closing the loop is what might in the vernacular be called a “bullshit detector”. These schemes are adult analogs of the childhood idea of the motor powering the generator powering the motor in that they result in additional energy consumption rather that additional energy production, the difference is that they occur at great economic cost to society. These schemes often exploit price disparities in fuels and require huge subsidies and a studied ignorance to prevail.

It’s somehow very difficult to grasp the fact that a dollar is just a trading unit of energy and productivity is simply a measure of the ratio of human energy expended to useful energy returned.

I believe solar energy can and will be used to provide food, fuel, heat, and fresh water at costs much lower than present solutions, but I believe that this will primarily be accomplished by exploiting biological processes. Farmers have learned to use solar energy profitably; we can learn something from them.

Current photovoltaic systems are often the most economical choice when the cost to connect to the grid is high. Many applications have low power requirements and high grid connection cost. In these instances photovoltaic systems are competing on capital cost. To force taxpayers and ratepayers to support photovoltaic systems in grid connected locations is to waste money and energy. If taxpayer or ratepayer funds are to be used to support solar energy, they should be used where it is most effective and not as currently used. Governments could encourage the development of self-sufficient homes and businesses. We need to develop comprehensive solutions for grid independence. Storage is the “Hard Problem” and rulers are more apt to spend money where they can get votes.

Edison pictured a world with very localized power production where the reject heat from electric power production could be used and in fact Pearl Street, his first installation utilized what today we call combined heat and power (CHP). Independent residences could also benefit from the direct current (DC) provided by photovoltaics, rather than the alternating current (AC) supplied by the grid. The arguments for AC in Edison’s time were that it was easier to change the voltage to current ratio via inductors and long travel distances would be more economical at high voltage to current ratios (not a concern for grid independence or short travel distance), AC did not have to be polarized: now AC circuits have to be polarized, grounded and include ground fault circuit interrupters, and AC motors were more efficient: brushless DC motors now offer very high efficiency and much higher power density. Additional benefits of DC power production include: fundamentally reduced electrocution hazard and lower voltages can be used, many appliances now use DC and must convert grid supplied AC to DC where cost and efficiency of the convertors are significant issues, and there is also a wide range of 12 VDC products available due to its use in automobiles, motor homes, and boats.

It would be nice to think that there is careful study of the economics of energy conversion but it’s not clear where the evidence for that resides, instead there is ample evidence of the lack of careful study. An example that got worldwide attention and considerable funding was Google’s “Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal” Initiative (RE<C) and their focus on power towers. Maybe it was studiously forgotten that Solar One, the giant power tower at Barstow CA was found to cost more for mirror cleaning than the value of electricity delivered and yet Google promised to make electricity cheaper than coal in 5 years time and were a big funder in the Ivanpah power tower. Renewable Energy World picked the Ivanpah power tower as its “Project of the Year”. One has to wonder about the economic viability of the other candidates.

The diffuse nature of solar radiation requires that the cost per unit area for any system, including a 100% efficient system must be low.


Academics can be hired to measure all of the energy inputs and outputs and studiously miss the forest for the trees. Terms such as EROI are diversions to make less economic schemes seem more economic. It must be realized that cost is the measure of energy. If a solar energy system results in delivered electricity costs twice as much as a hydrocarbon energy system, it uses twice as much hydrocarbon energy to manufacture, install and operate and therefore is responsible for twice as much pollution. It’s a concept that hard to grasp by those whose income depends on pushing the idea that the expensive energy is cleaner rather than much dirtier.

Productivity is a measure of energy expended to useful energy returned. Money is just a means to effect this transaction. It’s easy to imagine animals hunting or tricking or stealing to get the most energetic foods while minimizing the energy expended. Biologists have documented this in studies of animal energetics e.g. “Bumblebee Economics” by Bernd Heinrich. The life of the bee and of the hive depend on it. It is more difficult to see ourselves in this light, and yet we can imagine that a farmer must get more energy from a crop than the energy invested in the crop and the salesman must consider how much energy he is willing to expend to gain a sale. It’s easy to see when we buy energy more directly at the gas station, it’s more difficult to see when the transaction is less direct but the same phenomena exist. The value of money and of goods and services are manipulated to gain as much energy as possible for the least expenditure of energy.

It seems that the right knows that “alternative energy” isn’t profitable and the left doesn’t realize that it has to be, otherwise more energy is required than returned.

Politicians everywhere have discovered that they can get votes by promising a green energy future. What’s important is votes and they are apt be out of office before the shit hits the fan.


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