Energy in the News: Leading the next wave of renewable energy

Robbins: Austin should lead the way for next wave of renewable energy

Paul Robbins – Special to the Austin American-Statesman, Sunday, May 13, 2018

Wind power and solar cells may seem like best friends to environmentalists, but in a very real sense, they are “fair weather friends.”

Most Austinites remember waking up to the bitterly cold morning of Jan. 17, when temperatures plummeted to 18 degrees. Austin’s utility hit a new winter demand record. When this occurred, Austin’s wind power operated at only 22 percent of its rated capacity, and its solar cells operated at only 1.5 percent of capacity.

Defenders of fossil fuels never fail to fault wind and solar cells as intermittent and not “dispatchable,” that is, these power sources cannot be turned on or off on demand. The many cities, states and countries trying to increase consumption of renewable energy confront this problem.

The city of Georgetown, just north of Austin, purchases 100 percent of its electricity from wind and solar cells. But it can only do this on paper. Its dispatchable balancing power came from the Texas grid known as ERCOT, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. In 2017, ERCOT received only 18 percent of its electricity from wind and solar.

RELATED: How Georgetown’s GOP mayor became a hero to climate change evangelists

Denmark, a clean energy champion, got 46 percent of its electricity from wind and solar cells in 2017. But the tiny country trades electricity every minute of the year with its neighbors in Germany, Norway and Sweden. The region collectively generates only 18 percent of its electricity from intermittent renewable power.

Some academics suggest that intermittent wind and solar can be woven together from different regions to form virtual dispatchability, with little or no conventional power needed. When one region is not producing power, another will. However, there is no place in the world where this has been done at scale. Even if it could be done, long distance transmission lines are expensive.

Some clean energy advocates believe electric batteries will create dispatchability. But at this point in time, they are not economic for daily storage in the mainstream United States. They are only economic for niche markets.

Austin has been a leader in clean energy for decades. We need to take the next step and develop dispatchable renewable options available for Texas.

Concentrating Solar Power, which has existed since the 1980s, uses mirrors or lenses to focus high-temperature heat to the top of a tower or the center of a trough to boil water or refrigerant to generate electricity. Just six-tenths of 1 percent of the land in Texas could provide all of its total 2017 electric consumption. Its onsite heat storage is relatively inexpensive compared to electric batteries.

ALSO READ: Austin’s energy goals laudable but counter to laws of physics

Compressed Air Energy Storage uses intermittent or low-cost power to produce compressed air in geologic formations like old gas wells. When stored energy is needed, the air is heated in a combustion turbine, which operates at greater efficiency due to increased pressure. This process still needs natural gas, albeit greatly reduced amounts of it. In the future, waste heat from the compression process itself might replace gas altogether.

Thermal Energy Storage uses intermittent or low-cost power to produce ice, cold water, or hot water in tanks inside or near buildings for later use. It is cost effective today for many large buildings and grocery stores. Austin has barely scratched the surface of its potential.

Concentrating Solar Power and Compressed Air Energy Storage have not been built in Texas. The first plants will be more expensive because they have not reached economies of scale. To mitigate costs, Austin should become the charter member of a partnership with other Texas cities and utilities to share the expense. Austin could also use funding from the utility’s GreenChoice program, which allows customers to voluntarily pay more to support renewable energy.

Thermal Storage could be mandated and incentivized for new large buildings and grocery stores when appropriate.

Real leaders in clean energy today are confronting dispatchability. If Austin wants to continue to lead in this field, we need to rise to this challenge.

Robbins is an environmental activist, consumer advocate, and editor of the Austin Environmental Directory .


Nuclear Power: Entertainment? Or Propaganda?

On April 29, the CBS Series “Madam Secretary” aired an episode advocating for the increased use of nuclear power to stop global warming.  I sent this letter in response.

Readers who agree are encouraged to send a letter of their own to the Network’s address listed just below.



To the Producers/Writers of Madam Secretary,

I viewed your episode “Thin Ice” on April 29 regarding energy policy and nuclear power.  My intelligence was insulted at the simplistic way you portrayed atomic power as a bridge-fuel to stop global warming.

Some of my basic protests are detailed below.  Overall, for a program that claims to be nuanced and policy driven, you surely failed based on your own standards.

Renewable Energy Potential Misstated 

Your script stated: “You need, like 12 billion solar roofs just to match the projected growth in energy consumption by 2050.”

Solar cell potential in the U.S. alone is 283,600 Terawatt Hours (Twh).  Rooftop PVs is a mere 800 Twh of this total.  There is also 82,100 Twh of potential wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower.

(See Anthony Lopez, et al, U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis, NREL/TP-6A20-51946, July 2012, Table ES-1, p. iv. Concentrating Solar Power potential is not detailed above because it might be redundant with PV potential, but there is 116,100 Twh of CSP potential, and its energy can be stored with existing technology.)

This is just the potential in the United States.  

This 365,700 Twh of renewable electricity potential compares to a little over 4,000 Twh of total electricity produced in the entire U.S. and less than 25,000 Twh of total electricity in the entire world in 2016.

(See BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017.)

There are some nuances.

  • Electric generation was 38% total U.S. energy used in 2017.  (See Energy Information Administration, Energy consumption by sector.)  Though some auto use will eventually switch from oil to electricity, it is unclear how much future fuel switching will actually occur.
  • A lot of the potential PV and wind will need storage to be usable, though Concentrating Solar Power, geothermal, biopower, and hydropower are dispatchable already.

Despite all this context, you still have given blatantly misleading information to your audience about the potential of renewables.

Most Energy Consumption Is Not For Electricity

About 62% of the energy use in the U.S. and internationally is not related to electricity.

(U.S. Statistics [2017] from Energy Information Administration, Energy consumption by sector.)

(International Statistics [2015] from International Energy Agency Energy Balance)

How is nuclear power going to prevent carbon emissions from this portion of the world’s energy use?

As stated above, a certain but undetermined percentage of autos can be converted to electricity.  But you are not going to see nuclear reactors or the electricity they provide in most planes, most ships, and industrial manufacturing process heat any time in the near future.

Nuclear Power provided only 13% of the world’s total electricity, and less than 5% of world’s total energy in 2015.

(International Statistics [2015] from International Energy Agency Energy Balance)

Unlike renewable energy, nuclear power production has actually decreased in the last decade.

(See BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017.)

Chernobyl Glossed Over 

Your script stated: People only died at Chernobyl because they didn’t have a containment dome.

To discount the largest disaster created by an electric plant in the world’s history as an anomaly is almost callous.  Chernobyl was built without containment to reduce costs.  Do you really think that poor countries that build nuclear plants will not find a way to cut corners?

Though the range of estimates of direct deaths and premature deaths from the accident is controversial, more conservative figures put it in the thousands or tens of thousands.  At least one estimate put it at over a million.

(See Ho, Mae Wan Chernobyl Deaths Top a Million Based on Real EvidenceScience in Society, May 24, 2012.)

About 1,600 square miles of land surrounding the former plant are quarantined due to radioactivity.

Though the full costs for medical expenses, evacuation of victims, and loss of land and economic activity will probably never be known, there are estimates of hundreds of billions of dollars.

(See Samet, Jonathon, and Joann Seo,The Financial Costs of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster, Green Cross Switzerland, 2016.)

The cost to entomb the reactor to protect the environment from further radiation exposure was over $2 billion Euros (about $2.5 billion U.S. dollars).  This does not include operation and maintenance of the containment structure for the next century.  Nor does it include the loss of the reactor and its replacement power.

Fukushima Entirely Ignored

The environmental and financial impacts of Fukushima are still unresolved.  The fact that you did not even acknowledge the accident shows blatant bias.

No excuses such as lack of containment can be made here,  This was a GE Mark 1 reactor with containment as part of the design.

After the disaster, Japan’s electricity actually turned more carbon intensive.  Almost all the country’s reactors were shut down for several years due to safety concerns.  Between 2010 and 2015, oil use for electric generation increased 20%, coal 13%, and gas 23%.  Nuclear generation decreased 97%.  Ultimately, electricity consumption fell by 20%.

(International Statistics [2015] from International Energy Agency Energy Balance – Japan)

The clean up cost, officially estimated at about $188 billion (2016 US  $), could rise to as much as $626 Billion.

SImilar to Chernobyl, there is an exclusion zone (143 square miles) that is considered too contaminated for humans to live in.

Fukushima also has direct links to the deaths and injuries of Americans.  About 400 military personnel serving aboard the USS Reagan on a humanitarian mission to aid the victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster are suing TEPCO, the utility that owns the Fukushima reactors, for health problems they believe were caused by radiation that they were not made aware of at the time of exposure.  At least 9 of the exposed people have died since their exposure, and at least 70 of the plaintiffs are ill.


Gunter, Linda, Injustice at Sea: the Irradiated Sailors of the USS Reagan, Counterpunch, March 7, 2018.

Levine, Gregg, 7 Years on, Sailors Exposed to Fukushima Radiation Seek Their Day in Court, The Nation, March 9, 2018.

Bruno, Bianca, Judge: Sailors’ Fukushima Radiation Case Doesn’t Belong in US, Courthouse News Service, January 5, 2018.

Exorbitant Cost

The Secretary might lose her zeal for nuclear power’s carbon-reduction abilities when she gets the bill.

In the U.S., two reactors under construction (at VC Summer in South Carolina) were just cancelled, despite generous federal subsidies, because their costs more than doubled.  Two others, also subsidized, (Vogtle in Georgia) will be completed, but have also experienced similar price increases.

A Finnish plant currently under construction, Oikiluoto-3, has experienced close to a 300% increase in its original estimate.

Even China, which has the world’s most aggressive nuclear building program, cheap labor, and an authoritarian government, has experienced an approximate 64% overrun at one of its first new plants.

Health Effects of U.S. Nuclear Power

Your script stated: Do you know how many Americans have died from nuclear power since World War II?!  Zero!  And that includes Three-Mile Island!

There actually have been several direct deaths that occurred at U.S. nuclear plants.  They are a small number compared to some other occupations, but your script exaggerated.

Much more importantly though, your script left out the long-term illnesses that have very likely led to death caused by Three-Mile Island and other nuclear plants.


Williamson, David, “Study suggests Three-Mile Island radiation may have injured people living near the reactor,” University of North Carolina,News, February 24, 1997.

Residents near TMI that were downwind at the time of the accident had lung cancer and leukemia rates 2 to 10 times higher than those upwind.

Sholtis, Brett, “Three Mile Island nuke accident linked to thyroid cancer,” USA Today, Updated 6:15 p.m. ET June 1, 2017.

Preliminary link proven between TMI accident and increased thyroid cancer in residents near the plant. 

Fairlie, Ian, “Nuclear power stations cause childhood leukemia – and here’s the proof,Ecologist, August 23, 2014.

37% increase in childhood leukemia for children living in proximity to European nuclear power plants.

Mangano, Joseph, et al, “Childhood Cancer Incidence Proximate to U.S. Nuclear Power Plants,” Archives of Environmental Health, Pages 74-82, August 7, 2010.

Excess cancer risk of children living within 30 miles of nuclear plants in Eastern U.S. is 12 to 20%.

Emery, Gene, “Possible Leukemia, Nuclear Plant Link Studied,” Reuters, October 19, 1989.

Huge increase in childhood leukemia documented near Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts.

And what about uranium miners?  Do they count?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) “Research on long-term exposure Uranium Miners,” Worker Health Study Summaries, 2000.

Lung disease 2 to 24 times than expected; deaths of white miners 50% higher than expected.

Alleged Climate Science Support

Your script stated: Most climate scientists see nuclear as the key transition technology until renewables become more efficient.

To be fair, it would be difficult for a TV program to footnote all its statements on the air (at least in real time).  However, my Internet search could not locate any survey or poll that you describe.

There are climate scientists that now endorse nuclear power. And I was able to locate a Pew Research survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014 showing a small survey of scientists that supported more nuclear power plants.  But this is of all scientists, not just climate experts.

I have several other criticisms that I may save for another letter, but I have to leave you with what I think Secretary Elizabeth McCord would say if she got to read my letter.

If her children had written your program’s script, she would have lectured them “Do your homework!”


Paul Robbins