Thoughts on meeting the Clean Energy target

By George Stanford

President Obama has declared “a bold but achievable goal of generating 80 percent of America’s electricity from clean sources by 2035.” How we are to get there is not spelled out, so there is room for speculation about just what the administration has in mind.

In searching for enlightenment, one might turn to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administra­tion (EIA), which projects energy supply and demand to 2035.  The EIA predicted in December 2010 that electricity consumption will grow “from 3,745 billion kilowatt-hours in 2009 to 4,880 billion kilowatt-hours in 2035 . . . , increasing at an average annual rate of 1.0 percent.”  Well and good, but the EIA is of no help on the clean energy front. The agency’s accompanying chart would seem to be seriously out of step with Obama’s 80-percent goal, because it foresees 68 percent coming from coal and natural gas in 2035.

But wait a minute—we haven’t yet discovered what constitutes a “clean source.”  For that, we can perhaps go to the U.S. Senate and look at “S.20—Clean Energy Standard Act of 2010”—a bill introduced last year but never voted on, which is probably just as well. Its definitions of “clean energy” could drive a person to drink. There are 13 categories of clean energy, labeled (A) through (L), many of them with definitions convoluted enough to curl your toes.  (If you feel up to it, brace yourself and read the bill.)

I will comment only on category (I), “qualified nuclear energy,” whose definition, while surprising, seems at first to be not at all complex. Here it is: “The term ‘qualified nuclear energy’ means energy from a nuclear generating unit placed in service on or after the date of enactment of this section.” In other words, the output of the 104 currently operating nuclear power plants in the United States would not qualify as clean according to the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2010—except some of it might, after all, because there is this added complexity: “incremental” nuclear energy from current plants does qualify as clean (with limitations I won’t go into, but you can read about them in the bill):

“(13) INCREMENTAL NUCLEAR PRODUCTION- The term `incremental nuclear production’ means the incremental quantity of energy generated by an existing nuclear facility over the average quantity of energy generated at the facility during the preceding 3-year period that is attributable to permanent efficiency improvements or capacity additions made on or after the date of enactment of this section.”

The point of all this is that there’s no telling what weird and wonderful national energy policy will emerge as the vector sum of the various political forces influencing the decision-making process.

From a simple-minded technical viewpoint, the president’s 80 percent target should mean that four-fifths of our electricity would be generated by nuclear and the non-nuclear renewables by 2035, with the remaining one-fifth from fossil fuels. Using the EIA’s numbers, we have average electricity consumption of 427 GW (in 2009) growing to 557 GW in 2035, of which 445 GW would be from carbon-free sources—mainly nuclear—and 111 GW from coal and gas (currently  about 340 GW).  Note that with today’s 100-odd GW of nuclear power excluded from the “clean” category as defined in S.20, the 80 percent goal leads to 545 GW from carbon-free sources and 11 GW from coal.

To me, even the first of those outcomes seems too unrealistic (politically, not technically) to be contemplated by President Obama or Energy Secretary Chu.  Presumably, then, their assumption is that large-scale carbon sequestration will become practical. Or maybe the creative souls who came up with the definitions in S.20 will work some more semantic magic. But few goals are cast in concrete, and most likely this one will be modified as time passes.

Let’s face it—the United States is constitutionally unable to formulate and implement a coherent, rational, long-term energy policy. As it becomes increasingly evident that nuclear fission is destined to supply the bulk of the world’s energy needs, our erstwhile international leadership in the development and deployment of the technology continues to recede.

We live in interesting times.


George Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, part of the team that developed the Integral Fast Reactor. He is now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety. He is the co-author of Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on meeting the Clean Energy target

  1. CaliforniaHal

    Lots of TALK, but no solutions …

    Here is a real unified solution to our energy security, also it meets many of the needs of global warming and the world economic problems. (now, that is a mouthful!)

    Yes! … a game changing technology!!?

    There is technology that was first demonstrated in 1952 and further developed in our US National Labs in the late 70’s and then vetted in Germany in the late 90’s that produces tremendous amounts of energy with no carbon emissions and no fission radioactive waste. At the time it was too big … today we need that size to meet the economics and world demand for energy.

    What is not generally known is that a safe practical way to harness the isotope’s of Hydrogen reaction was developed in the 1970’s but abandoned because it was only economically viable at a very large scale. The process is known as RF Accelerator Driven Heavy Ion Fusion. Such a fusion power system could produce about 100 GW (35 GWe) of energy rather than the 1 GW desired by the power industry, or heat to produce 500,000 barrels of synthetic oil and about 1+ GWe.

    The fusion of Deuterium and Tritium (“DT”) to form Helium and a neutron is a well-known reaction that yields prodigious amounts of energy. Though sufficient fuel is available in seawater to sustain the global energy demand for millennia, we still need an engine capable of running the reaction. As of 2009, the search for such an engine has been going on for 6 decades and common wisdom says it is still 5 decades away. NOT TRUE! The problem is that the search has been concentrated on the 1 GW regime (the size of a normal large power plant). But, with RF Accelerator Driven Heavy Ion Fusion, we have that engine capability currently.

    It needs capital to see it thru to production … not research. This is an excellent place to put some of the billions to work NOW. This is not Laser Fusion or Tokomak Fusion, neither of which will probably ever become commercial production units.

    For more information visit for a real education. See the Google Tech Talk on Heavy Ion Fusion Nov 2010.

    California Hal

    Nuclear is one or the other – don’t confuse the issue …
    Fission: the radioactive materials absorb neutrons and undergo fission – splitting, division, dividing, rupture, breaking, severance. Has long term radioactive waste. Antonym – fusion.
    Fusion: the process or result of joining two or more things together to form a single entity. Does not have long term radioactive waste.

    Letter to NAS – You missed one …

    One of the few people highly knowledgeable on RF Accelerated Heavy Ions is Dr. Robert J. Burke. He was one of the leaders in the exploration of Heavy Ion Fusion at Argonne National Lab back in the late 1970’s showing that RF Accelerators had the energy and repetition rate to complete the fusion process for energy production. The comments made that there were “no show stoppers”, “now that is exciting” and “the conservative approach” to fusion were generated about that same time by well know Fusion scientists.

    Dr. Burke has had a current letter in Physics Today, June 2010, expressing his interest in this technology, still.

    This topic was also supported by an early administrator of the DOE, C Martin Strickley, in Physics Today, October 2010.

    Dr. Burke’s institutional knowledge is invaluable and should be tapped for this important review of ICF.

    RF Accelerated Driven HIF is the only currently viable commercial application of fusion. No Carbon Dioxide generated and no fission radioactive waste. The Tritium generated is used in the fuel for the next pellet manufacturing. The research is there. RFAHIF is probably more ready to move forward than was rocket science when President Kennedy committed us to go to the moon back in the 60’s.

    Our national security is dependent upon a viable large new energy supply ASAP. RFAHIF is about the only near term large application doable in this decade.

    I look forward to your through review.

    Hal Helsley
    Retired Science/Technology Teacher and current
    Commissioner, LA County Regional Planning Commission

    (FYI from the web)

    Robert J. Burke has developed technologies regarding energy supply, the environment, and national security as a manager, physicist and engineer at Rockwell International, Westinghouse, and National Laboratories operated for the U.S. Department of Energy.

    The Hertz Foundation supported his graduate work in the field of plasma physics for fusion energy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1964-1972. At the Argonne National Laboratory, he conceived and developed the concept of the low-radiation and long-lived fusion chambers for the World Energy system in 1973, and led ANL’s Heavy Ion Fusion Team from 1976-80, drawing upon results of his studies of the total resource requirements and potential costs of a world energy system based on various fusion reactor configurations, 1972-1976 also at ANL.

    After the heavy ion fusion program in the USA was diverted in 1979 away from the accelerator technology on which it had been founded, he worked on the Fusion Materials Irradiation Testing Facility at the Hanford nuclear complex 1980-1985, adding specific experience in management of large projects with responsibilities including the safety analysis report, neutron irradiation test cell, lithium target system, and the accelerator. After the FMIT was rescinded, he proposed design improvements to increase its capabilities for advanced neutron scattering research and explored collaboration with the Julich Laboratory near Aachen, Germany in 1984-85.

    At the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International, he led teams and consortia developing applications of accelerator and laser technology to SDI, space propulsion, and environmental research from 1986 to 1996. He conceived the Integrated Transportation System concept in 1987 and the IBus vehicle in 1992. He is Chairman and President of ITS Bus Incorporated and lives part-time in Shanghai, China.

    He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Villanova and a Ph.D. in Applied Science from the University of California at Davis/Livermore.

  2. Joel Riddle

    One minor thing that I would like to point out based on my recent looks around the EIA website, copied and pasted directly from the Executive Summary of the early release of the Annual Energy Outlook:

    “Projections in the Annual Energy Outlook 2011 (AEO2011) Reference case focus on the factors that shape U.S. energy markets in the long term. Under the assumption that current laws and regulations will remain generally unchanged throughout the projections, the AEO2011 Reference case provides the basis for examination and discussion of energy market trends and the direction they may take in the future.”

    My emphasis added.

  3. Gene Preston

    Ok, yesterday I submitted these comments to our Texas PUC about how to fund 100 billion dollars of new solar and nuclear projects while protecting lower income people. No government or utility financing is used in this scheme.
    The ERCOT long range planning task force sent me comments saying that the number of participants was too large so we trimmed it down but the lower participation level still resulted in about 3000 MW nuclear and a little more solar. It would be well worth the effort to have rates that allow customers to by into and own their own nuclear power.

  4. Rod Adams

    @George – hmmm. I wonder if Exelon realizes that under the definition that you provided, restoring the 2200 MWe Zion Nuclear Power station to full operational status might represent the cheapest source of a massive quantity of qualified clean energy available today?

    Based on extensive correspondence with company representatives, the restoration project was once estimated to cost a bit less than $2 billion and that was before we got really good at steam generator replacements and had the experience of Browns Ferry’s restoration.

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