This is a rant to share a communication frustration and to ask for assistance in figuring out a better way to tell what I think is an important thought about energy. Not quite 70 years ago, a small group of really bright people spent a few months stacking graphite bricks and lumps of uranium dioxide on the floor of a room that had once been a squash court. Their mission was experimental validation of a theory that it was possible to directly convert an incredibly tiny quantity of mass into an almost unimaginably vast quantity of energy.
The theory to practice exercise was completed flawlessly. The stack behaved exactly as the really bright people had predicted; Fermi earned one more ‘A’ for his illustrious academic and practical career.
Within fifty years of that event, tens of thousands of other really bright, dedicated, and honest people had built an enterprise that was able to operate evolved versions of that “pile” at full power nearly every single hour of every single day. The fleet average for the more than 100 nuclear power plants operating in the United States today has been running at 90% or better for the past decade.
Most years, a list of the annual performance record for US reactors will include a dozen or more units that complete the entire year without ever reducing their output from 100%. In 2010, 17 of the 104 operating units produced 100% of their rated capacity. In fact, there were some curve breakers who were able to score some extra credit due to favorable cooling water conditions. Beaver Valley Unit 2, for example turned in a score of 106%.
By almost any grading standard in effect in the US, the average grade in the nuclear fleet is at least a B+. Some top notch performers are A+ students that can be depended upon to provide exactly the right answer to the most challenging questions asked. A few plants struggle; but even the ones that have bad years also have some good years.
In contrast, there are a whole bunch of derelicts who are trying to gain employment in a high paying, vital role as electrical power suppliers even thought their performance is similar to that of students that enjoy “sleeping in the back of the room”. Occasionally, there may be valuable gems of wisdom (figuratively speaking) emitting from often dozing wind turbines or solar panels, but by most grading systems they are complete failures, responding when called upon far less than 50% of the time. Many of those dozing power systems are actually disruptive – they demand to be allowed to spout answers to questions that are not being asked.
Admittedly, some of the very best of the dozers may be able to provide a partial answer more than 50% of the time, but when measured against their advertised potential, their score is incredibly disappointing.
I have admitted this before; unlike a certain former president who was a proud ‘C’ student who gained a position of responsibility through popularity, I was a curve breaking geek throughout my academic career. In all of the classes I ever took, the only time I ever received less than a B was when I received a C in handwriting in the third grade. (It is still a good thing that I can type.) I will admit to having experienced occasional frustration when watching far less capable students receive accolades and election to positions like class president.
Throughout my professional career, however, employers have generally recognized that dependably being able to answer hard questions has real value that should be rewarded. I cannot complain about the benefits of higher education and earning good grades in hard classes by being able to respond correctly when called upon.
However, it appears that the ‘F’ students in the power supply world have a whole host of gullible guidance counselors who promote them as having wonderful potential, despite the fact that they are fundamentally flawed. I am sorry if this is offensive to some, but there is no room in the mainstream power grid for power sources with special needs. They do not deserve extra attention or generous rewards for those rare times when they can come close to answering the vital call of supplying high quality (constant frequency and voltage) electricity to a modern society.
Every once in a while I will have a stubborn solar or wind advocate tell me that the nuclear ‘A’ students are not perfect and sometimes need assistance. They ask me why are those plants are any better than their “special ed” units who need “occasionally” assistance? My answer is there is a vast qualitative difference between a student who can answer nearly every question whenever they are not on a planned, excused absence and one who can almost never give a complete answer.
The electric power system should not reward “potential” that is rarely met; the real world requires performance. Failing to produce exactly as much power as required when it is required can be as deadly as cutting the wrong blood vessel in an operating room. It is not fair to reward derelict students and ask the stronger performers to keep carrying them along. Social promotion of power systems that can never pass a test is a ridiculous policy.
Update: After posting the above, I found a thought provoking article titled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. I am not sure, but I think that the author of that piece would have given my mom credit for being a figurative “Chinese mother,” though my mom thought that swimming was a sport worth as much effort as playing a violin or a piano. I am also pretty sure that the piece explains pretty well why China is going all out in its effort to get good at building nuclear power plants. That country has about 700 million Chinese mothers pushing hard for excellence.
Here is another related article. According to Bloomberg, nuclear power plants are not perfect because France Was Net Power Importer on More Days in 2010 Amid Cold. Perhaps that is because they stopped building new nuclear power plants for about 15 years and the demand has outrun the current supply. However, Bloomberg seems to think that it is worth mentioning that France has a tiny sliver of its power being produced by solar power systems.
The country raised production capacity by 3,100 megawatts last year by adding wind and thermal power capacity, RTE said.
France, which gets about three-quarters of its electricity from atomic plants, had 760 megawatts of solar power capacity at the end of last year, four times the level a year previously, according to the grid.
Would you care to make a guess how much actual energy that new capacity produced? I will not keep you guessing. Here is a table from the October 2010 International Energy Agency statistics:
What the table shows is that “Geoth./Wind/Solar/Other” expanded by an impressive 40% in the first 9 months of 2010 compared to the same period from the year before. Those sources combined still represent just 2% of the electricity produced in the country! There is no indication of the relationship between WHEN that power was produced and WHEN the country really needed it.