Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat posted a must read blog titled Obama’s climate policy needs nuclear energy. At first I thought it was going to be a discussion about the recent Energy Information Administration’s analysis of the Waxman-Markey climate legislation that indicated that the only way that the targets could be met without vast energy cost increases would be to double America’s nuclear electricity production by 2030.
However, it was instead a perceptive report about an insightful talk given by Craig Piercy from the American Nuclear Society in Idaho Falls at the quarterly meeting of the Partnership for Science and Technology. Please go and read Dan’s report. Once you finish, come back as I focus on just one sentence for a bit more analysis.
Dan’s report has a lot of good and important information for anyone interested in working to help the public understand just how important fission can be in our struggle to meet future energy challenges. However, here is the quote from Craig Piercy, the Washington, DC, representative for the American Nuclear Society (ANS), that caught my eye:
The American public does not understand “baseload demand”.
Exactly. The word “baseload” is a term of art used mainly by people involved in the electrical power supply business. It is jargon. Sure, it is possible, with a LOT of effort, to teach members of the general public what that term means, but their initial reaction to the word is almost always initial confusion. The reaction is similar to that of hearing a foreign word in normal conversation – you might understand the meaning, but you have to do a mental translation into your own language. When people want to sell a complex product, they tend to be more successful if they can avoid jargon and do the translation into an understandable concept for the audience.
For example – when the methane industry wanted to figure out a way to capture market share from town gas produced by processing coal in rather nasty facilities located in most cities with gas lighting systems (I’m taking you back in history here), they decided that people might react favorably to the idea of bringing in their “natural gas” via pipeine. Instead of something that required a lot of work and would leave behind a mess for future generations – many town gas factories are now Superfund sites – they talked about using “natural” gas that came out of the ground ready to burn. (Sort of. The marketing material did not complicate matters by talking about the required processing plants at the production end of the pipelines.)
That choice of words has stood the test of time. It worked because it not only made the product seem friendlier to the general public, but because it spoke to the needs of the people who actually made the purchase decisions for the gas lighting systems. Those accounting types probably were not too concerned about the friendliness of the term, but they could quickly realize that something that came out of the ground “naturally” ready to burn would be cheaper than something that required a factory for processing and a landfill for waste disposal.
I have decided to borrow a concept that the cable television industry has spent a lot of money turning into common lingo. Instead of trying to teach people what “baseload” means and why baseload power plants are so important for the smooth functioning of the electrical power systems, I am going use the term “on demand” power.
People will get it when you tell them that nuclear energy is more valuable than wind and solar energy because it is available on demand. When people flip a switch to turn on a light, it is there. When the air conditioner compressor cycles on, it is there. When they push the button to open their garage door, it is there. When they want to send an email through a system totally dependent on high quality, reliable power with precise frequency control, it is there.
They do not even have to pay extra for that feature – power companies actually charge customers less for the output of the plants that run all of the time and more for what Ted Rockwell calls a “nuisance”, which is electricity that shows up only when the weather is favorable for its production. In many cases, that is exactly the time that people need power the least. Who needs the AC to kick on during a pleasant, breezy day? Where is the solar electricity to run your fireplace blower when your panels are under a foot of snow and you have not seen the sun in days? What good it is to imagine supplying all of the US’s energy needs by carpeting a square 92 miles on a side in Nevada when you live in the northeast United States and your favorite time to watch television is after sunset?
What Americans want from their electricity system it for it to be ready to supply them when and where they demand power. For about 100 years, that is exactly what they got, 99+% of the time in most developed parts of the country. I happen to have been gifted – almost as a birthright – with the opportunity to understand just how hard power company employees have had to work to supply “on demand” power and to understand all of the systems involved in the infrastructure. I do not want to bother most Americans with the details, but I want to share the idea that “on demand” electricity comes from “on demand” power sources. Nuclear energy qualifies; wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal do not. Power company decision makers like Jim Rogers and David Crane get it right away and will work hard to convince the political leaders in their states to continue supporting nuclear energy.
More importantly, they will convince their board members to allocate the resources required to build new nuclear power plants and stay the course as the rhetoric gets thick and the inevitable criticism continues.