In this podcast the Fairewinds Crew interviews University of Vermont graduates Sam Ghazey, Jon Liebherr, Grayson Webb, and Brandon Welch, about their internship with Fairewinds Energy Education and the project they completed, entitled Nuclear Energy: An Analysis of Total Carbon Emissions and Total Cost of Ownership versus Renewable Technologies. The concept for this project was developed following a presentation by Fairewinds chief engineer Arnie Gundersen at Northwestern University in April, 2015 that took an economic perspective in the comparison of nuclear energy to the escalation in renewable technological capacity. Forbes Magazine featured the presentation in an article entitled: Has Tesla just Killed Nuclear Power?, which has had more than 528,000 views. Read More about the back-story here. Listen
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MG: Hi. Welcome to the Fairewinds Energy Education podcast hosted by the Fairewinds crew. I’m Maggie Gundersen, and I’m here today to welcome you to the show. Today we have a really special podcast that we’re doing on nuclear energy, and on the analysis of total carbon emissions and total cost of ownership versus renewable technologies. Today we are joined by University of Vermont graduates who were interns for us in the Fall of 2015, to do this particular study. And we have issued an amazing paper with them and we’re very thankful for their research. We’re joined today by Brandon Welsh, Grayson Webb, Sam Gazy and John Liebhar, and of course we have our Fairewinds crew with us: Chief Engineer, Arnie Gundersen, and of course, Caroline Philips, our program administrator and newsletter maven. So thank you all for joining us today. So let’s begin with how the idea originated. And for that, I’m going to turn it over to Arnie Gundersen.
AG: If you’ve been following the Fairewinds website for about a year, you might remember that I gave a speech at Northwestern University in April of 2015 and it was covered by Forbes Magazine. The title of the story was Has Tesla Just Killed Nuclear Power? And it’s had over a half a million people have read that speech, which I think an indication of how hungry the people on the web are for accurate information about alternatives in nuclear power. But anyway, when I started developing that, I was working with Amory Lovins and Michael Schneider and gosh, it must have taken me about a week to analyze everything to come up with a 20-minute speech. And I didn’t feel like I had enough information. So living in a college town with wonderful, smart seniors, I was able to go to the University of Vermont and ask for help to get some more information to beef up that speech even more.
MG: My initial question is why did you all decide you wanted to do this project with Fairewinds Energy Education?
I: Starting off in our class, it seemed like out of all of the projects that we were to choose from in our senior capstone class, this was the project that would have the most impact and push us to use our brains in the best way.
CP: A follow-up question to that is what were your initial impressions when you were first coming in? What did you think you were going to find? Did you think anything? Did you not have any expectations? Or if you did, what were they?
I: I’m Brandon. And initially coming into it, I thought it was going to be – and it was – a really intense research project. But the way I initially approached it is I thought it was just going to be crunching numbers all day and not actually delving into the social, cultural and the issues that are actually behind nuclear energy and the lack of people supporting renewables. So when we actually got into the information and saw that renewables are a real way of developing the future and finding a new way to change the grid, I changed my opinion from supporting nuclear energy to, now I’m on the fence about it, and the data is convincing me to back renewables more than nuclear.
G: I’m Grayson, and like Brandon, I just kind of thought we were going to be doing an intensive research project. I picked the project because I thought it was going to be hard, and I wanted to push myself and not just pick an easy project to cruise through for senior year. And I was really pleased to find that this project was so engaging and had us thinking on a different level and we were able to get involved with so many great people. And like Brandon, I also – I wasn’t sure about nuclear going into and so I was very interested in learning more about the differences between the two energy options – renewable or nuclear. I went from kind of being on the fence about it, not really being sure which option was best. I’ve grown up in Vermont so I was witness to the whole Vermont Yankee incidents and leakages and so I didn’t really know what to think. But now I’m a pretty firm believer that renewable energy can handle all the load that nuclear can in a much safer way.
S: I’m Sam. I definitely would piggyback off of Brandon’s point when I first saw the kind of proposal for this project, I thought I would just be kind of doing number crunching and helping a little bit with some economic analysis. But when we actually arrived and Arnie presented us with his idea and whatnot, what first struck me was that he had given this thesis and he said nobody had really empirically proved it before, and that was kind of a shock to me. But then when he really started showing us a lot of the data and the past research that he’s done, it became evident that this was something that hadn’t been done yet and needed to be done, frankly, if we were to make the case for renewable energy in the future versus nuclear energy. And then when he came out and basically said we want you all to compile this research for us and put it into a report, I just felt very empowered. I kind of anticipated just being a worker bee, but the extent that they actually trusted us to do the research and write the report, that was very amazing and it certainly gave me confidence professionally, especially for abilities. And it was certainly something that I became very much more excited to be a part of right off the bat, and jumping into everything taught me a great, great deal about how to do full analyses. Before, our working classrooms were always limited to one aspect of the entire cycle of something like an energy facility. But this project gave us the whole scope of things and how to understand in a very much more holistic sense rather than the minute, biological details of it. That was really fantastic.
J: This is John. And coming into this project, I hadn’t really ever thought about energy systems before, and I didn’t really have a solid opinion on nuclear power and whether I liked it or not, and this project was definitely a formative experience to getting opinions on the entire industry. And like the other guys said, I came in thinking that this was going to be a lot about economics and number crunching. But what it seemed to turn out to be to me was demystifying the data that everyone has put out there on the internet and around in multiple sources. Because we weren’t just looking at the numbers. We were looking at whose numbers they were. And if they were from a certain source, they could be magnitudes different than another person’s source, and we had to take that completely into consideration because we could have had different, different data if we had used biased sources instead of the unbiased sources that we tried to keep.
AG: (7:40) What I found exciting was that we used nuclear industry data. We found the World Association of Nuclear, WANU and used their information. We’ve used an investment bank, Lazard, but it wasn’t like we were cherry picking the low-hanging fruit that’s in the renewables community. We actually were able to dig in and get source material from the nuclear and the investment banking business.
MG: What’s exciting for me is that I’m normally the final writer on everything, and this is a really well-written research project. We didn’t direct you on the research. You did the research, you wrote the paper and when I finally got to read the final product, I was really stunned and just very excited by what it showed, because we didn’t know what we’d find going into this ourselves.
CP: While doing the research from the research portion through analysis, what were some of the greatest obstacles that you guys faced? And did you experience sort of one big oh, aha! This is it! Moment?
I: One of the toughest data points to find was for the renewable energy for maintenance costs. Just because the technologies that we’re using today just are drastically different from the ones that are aging on the field. And so we weren’t able to really find good points for that.
I: One of the biggest aha moments was when we got our biggest chunk of data from the Lazard Investment Bank, which was an entire report on basically all kinds of energy production and their costs and basically anything to do with them in terms of money. It was a cram-packed report that was very unbiased because basically what Lazard is, is investment bank and they just want to know who they need to put their money in. And that just fundamentally has no bias.
AG: The piece of data that had the biggest variability in this whole analysis is nobody knows exactly how much carbon dioxide we’re throwing up into the atmosphere. We were off with low readings of 35,000 million tons and high readings of 50,000 million tons. And at the same time the Paris accords were going down about trying to limit CO2. So here we as politicians trying to limit CO2, but at the same time, there is extraordinary variability in exactly how much CO2 we’re trying to limit. So here are the politicians of the world making decisions about limiting carbon dioxide but when you look at the hard data, nobody really knows how much carbon dioxide we’re throwing up into the atmosphere yearly.
I: (10:34) I think that the hardest thing is with the data that Arnie was talking about with the total carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, everything is a prediction. And we were also looking at the predictions of the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere 50 years from now. And nobody has a good idea. It’s all very hypothetical and it just depends on what model they use. And so getting a solid number from that is hard and we just have to choose which one we think is from the best source.
CP: We’ve sort of beaten around the bush a little bit, but it would be great if one of you all could sort of summarize what your overall results and findings are.
I: So the result of culmination of research that we did over the total of the semester, essentially we found that it would take 2,891 nuclear reactors in order to sustain the amount of energy that we need in the future up until 2050. And in order to create renewable energy sources that could achieve that same amount of energy production until 2050, we found that a total cost for nuclear reactors would be $22.6 trillion U.S. dollars. And for wind power, it would only be $9.93 trillion and for solar, it would be $17 trillion U.S. Dollars. And this is factoring in the lifecycle cost and the capacity factor, which a lot of people don’t consider. For wind, you only have it running about 25 percent of the time because wind speeds vary, wind direction varies. For solar, you have about a 45 percent capacity factor because the sun doesn’t shine all the time. And for nuclear, it’s running at about 90 to 95 percent of the time. But even accounting for these factors, we still see that wind is about half the price and solar is about 70 percent of the price of maintaining the amount of energy that we need in the future compared to nuclear up until 2050.
I: And with new technology such as Tesla’s power wall, we can increase the capacity factor for both wind and solar, making nuclear’s price skyrocket about solar and wind because that will just be a way to store the energy made when it’s being made. So there’s no limit to what can be done.
I: A lot of people have concerns about the recyclability of lithium ion and other battery technologies. But with Elon Musk’s Gigafactory that is releasing next year, he actually has a lithium ion recycling portion of the factory, so like you were saying John, with the power wall and the power stacks they’re creating, when those go bad after so many recharges, they can actually take them in, recycle them and then reuse them, and they can be used again. So lithium ion technology shouldn’t really be a factor holding back solar and wind storage.
MG; Thank you both, Brandon and John. That’s really interesting to me, especially the lithium ion issue, because lithium is a resource that’s very precious in this world and a lot of environmentalists are concerned that there won’t be enough to do this project for batteries and storage. So I think that knowing about the renewability of the lithium ion batteries by Tesla is an amazing thing. I wasn’t even aware of that until you just said it right now, Brandon. So thank you.
I: Tesla’s Gigafactory is actually going to be placed in Nevada, which has the largest abundance of lithium in the world. That’s also going to be another factor in the creation of batteries in the future.
MG: That brings me to the question of mining. When you all did this report, did you factor in any of the nuclear costs of mining or the decommissioning costs, which are what’s called economically externalities?
I: Well, we didn’t factor in any of the kind of extraction costs for either nuclear nor renewable energy in that regard, but to our understanding, especially if you were to include the decommissioning costs and extend that towards the storage of depleted uranium rods, we’d have kind of a baseline understanding that it would be a marginally larger cost on the nuclear side relative to renewable energy. So it was kind of a no-brainer. If we were to include that, it would only inflate the cost of nuclear to a larger degree, and so it was not something that we felt like was essential to the argument in that regard, simply because our argument still holds water pretty credibly without that aspect.
CP: So you guys in this paper really focused on the economics of nuclear in comparing that to renewables. Scientists right now are really concerned about CO2 emissions and although that wasn’t the basis of your report, it’d be wonderful if you could share what you sort of discovered regarding economics and their relationship to CO2 emissions and our earth’s need to reduce CO2 emissions. I: Because nuclear, solar and wind all have around the same CO2 emissions for their lifecycle and for running costs, we looked up how many nuclear plants it would take to get a 20 percent CO2 emissions for the entire world. And then from that, we looked at how many megawatts of power those reactors would make, and then that turned out to be a decent amount of power. So then we looked at how much money it would take to make that same amount of power with nuclear, solar and wind. And what we finally got was that it would take $22.6 trillion to make nuclear work for a 20 percent reduction of CO2 emissions. $17 trillion for solar and just $9.9 trillion for wind. So that’s a pretty strong conclusion against nuclear.
CP: So just to clarify, you looked at reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent and comparing the costs of the amount of nuclear power and construction of nuclear power plants that would be necessary to make that 20 percent CO2 emission decline. You looked at that amount of money – how much was it? Can you repeat that number again?
I: $22.6 trillion.
CP: Okay. And you compared that to looking at a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from solar?
I: Well, we looked at how much money it would cost to make the same amount of power that nuclear would be making with a 20 percent decrease in solar –
CP: And how much was that?
I: And so to make that 2,483,000 megawatt difference, it’s $17 trillion for solar and then $9.9 trillion for wind.
CP: And did you guys look at all at the timeline for how long it takes to construct a nuclear power plant versus to construct a solar field or a wind-power field.
I: So solar and wind I think each maybe take, including planning and construction and permitting, it takes around 4 years to build utility-sized project. Whereas nuclear can take around 10 years and it can take up to 5 to get it all planned and permitted and then they won’t even start breaking ground until halfway through that. So it takes much longer to build a nuke than it does to start building renewable energies. And when we’re talking about CO2 reduction, I mean we’re past 400 parts per million right now. We need to start making reductions right now. So the technology that can get on the ground and up and running faster is vital.
I: And it’s not even necessarily just the build time that we have to be concerned about. It’s the actual maintenance of the reactors. With a solar field or a wind field, once you install it, you have to go in and maintain all the mechanical properties of it, but with a nuclear reactor, you’re basically containing a bomb, so that nearby cities and people aren’t affected by nuclear radiation if there’s leaking or any other problems occurring there. So even just the actual maintenance and safety risk that you have to account for are drastically lower with renewable energies versus nuclear energy.
CP: Thank you, Brendan. That’s an interesting point. I hear a lot of people talk about small modular reactors and the issues with small modular reactors – there hasn’t been one built that’s really been a successful small modular reactor yet, but apart from that, they’re promoted as a way to decentralize nuclear. But as you just said – that’s a great point – nuclear is always very centralized as small reactors would still need the safety protocol and the safety waste storage of a large reactor that would still remain an issue. And as students of environment science and studies, what do you think of the time-and-cost comparison between small modular renewables versus these small modular reactors?
I: (20:40) Well, I think that brings up the question of what kind of energy system that we want and kind of the future of the grid in regards to a centralized versus a distributive model of energy production. And I think the argument that modular nuclear plants make as far as means to be a decentralized power system is – you have to consider it relative to what else is out there as far as production, and when compared to things such as wind, especially even back yard wind, or solar panels that can easily be established just on a residential rooftop. So when trying to make the argument that these small, modular nuclear power plants are a decentralized form of energy production, it’s a little bit of a stretch, especially compared to residential rooftop solar and backyard wind and whatnot. And so if we want to – if we’re concerned about the effects of potential, even natural destruction we’ve even seen with past Hurricane Irene in Vermont itself. If we had had Vermont Yankee just a little further north in that case and that were on a different river than the one it was on, there could have been some serious, serious destruction to that, which could have opened up the floodgates to nuclear radiation throughout the state and throughout even the Northeast. And so compare that to if that were just a small solar field producing the same amount of electricity, it would have very drastic effects both environmentally, on human health and whatnot. So when we want to think about an energy system that’s resilient, resiliency comes in the form of distribution, not centralization. Because you do not want to maximize exposure within certain areas. You want to distribute your exposure, just like a good financial portfolio. So it’s certainly something that you would need to consider when trying to make the argument that if we’re trying to push for a distributive system, is nuclear the way to go? And is that going to protect us in the long run, especially as we see the increased environmental effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather patterns and whatnot.
CP: You all are recent graduates, roughly 21, 22 years old. I’m curious if you could share with the Fairewinds audience your experience having been University of Vermont students in the Rubenstein School Environmental Programs. If you can share what your fellow classmates who are entering the energy field, what energy fields are they going into? From your schooling, did you discuss nuclear power? Did you discuss alternative energies? And if you did, was there an emphasis on any particular one? And sort of what was your experience in college with the environmental energy sort of movement as we know that we need to steer away from fossil fuels?
I: I think there’s a lot to be said for what inspires students to study what they study. And I think the vision that has been instilled into us of a renewable energy future is a lot more promising that any other; particularly a petroleum-based future, which we’re already experiencing, or a nuclear-based future. And I think a lot of it is due to the fact that renewable energy we have the issue of climate change, and renewable energy is just the most clear solution towards hedging the potential damage that that will cause on us. And so I think there’s a lot more that is (a) yet to be explored with renewable energy because it’s also a relatively new field; but (b) there’s a lot more that will be provided to us, not just in an academic sense, but almost in a security sense that if we have enough people finding the solution towards power storage or finding a solution towards high costs or whatnot within the renewable field, that will only yield greater benefits outside of potentially high incomes for the students that discover that stuff. It ensures that there are future generations for us to continue to inhabit this planet. And so I think that yields a lot more inspiration, like I said, for students and particularly in regards to nuclear energy. I mean I can certainly say I know one or two petroleum engineer students, and they’re not at UVM. I went to high school with them. But aside from that, everyone else that I know is studying renewable energy and nobody that I know is studying nuclear, just because of kind of the factors that I previously mentioned.
I: (25:21) Also, I think that the culture just even outside of the energy field or people who are trying to go into the energy field at colleges, is really going towards the green movement and kind of people who are looking towards making their lives a lot easier on the earth. And people who I know who are in the UVM Business School, some people who are in the Engineering School have all voiced opinions on how they want to be environmentally conscious with their job and with their life. And I think that that’s just kind of the culture that we’re moving towards.
I: Yeah, John, I definitely agree with you that the culture is moving towards a green movement. And it’s not only a social or a cultural thing, but it’s an economical factor. Like recently the Rockefeller family just announced that they’re actually completely divesting from oil, which is what made them the trillions and trillions of dollars they’ve made over the past few decades. And just that alone shows it’s not sustainable to stay in the oil and fossil fuel industry. I mean it’s the Rockefellers, Dubai, the Saudi Arabia investment funds – they’re all getting out of fossil fuels and moving towards renewables. And that shows that it’s not only a socially green movement, but it’s a economical movement. And if the economics are there, that’s where the social constructs are going to move to, because people always need money. And if something is more inexpensive and more effect, that’s the direction that I think our society is going to move into.
CP: That’s an interesting point, Brendan, and I have to ask where’s nuclear in that equation? You talk about the economics of fossil fuel, people divesting from fossil fuels and embracing renewables. Where’s nuclear in that equation?
I: From our time with this project, I definitely know that nuclear is still a force to be reckoned with and a lot of people are for it and a lot of people are against it. But when we went and talked to UVM Professor Jennie Stevens about our project and where to get sources and stuff, she had the general mindset that nuclear was a done deal and it’s on the way out. And I feel like that is slightly the thinking of most people in the academic world.
CP: So Brendan, you discussed the divestment of the Rockefellers from fossil fuels recently. We’ve seen large investments from companies like Google, Apple, Disney in renewable energy. The big investors of nuclear power is the government. Government subsidies are a major factor when it comes to nuclear. We see Entergy Corporation, a private LLC, buying nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants, but it’s heavily subsidized by the government. So as a follow-up question, I have to ask where’s the nuclear fall into this discussion on an academic standpoint of renewables and fossil fuels? And have you spoken to any professors about it?
I: Well, actually for this project we went and talked to UVM Professor Jennie Stevens and I can’t say that it’s a consensus for the entire academic community, but when we talked to her, it seemed like she thought that nuclear is really on its way out. And what we were hypothesizing in our report was kind of already happening. From what I have learned doing the project and being part of Fairewinds, it’s definitely not completely on its way out, because there’s definitely a lot of people that are still proponents for nuclear energy. But from what we’ve heard from her, it seems like some people think that nuclear is already one foot out the door.
MG: Your discussion is especially interesting to me because of some work Caroline has been doing here at Fairewinds with another researcher from UVM that we have with us this summer. And you all talked about, there would be a necessity of 2,891 nuclear reactors to make this 20 percent goal. You mentioned that earlier. Yet Caroline and Ben uncovered a real discrepancy on how many nuclear engineers are coming out and how many people, for example, are studying environmental.
AG: There’s a thing called an elevator speech. Imagine yourself getting on an elevator with the next president of the United States and you’ve got one floor to make your point before he or she gets off. And so in one floor on the elevator, what would you tell the next president of the United States about this study we just completed?
I: The installation of nuclear technology takes twice as long and costs twice as much as wind power. So it’d be more effective both economically and time wise to install wind over nuclear energy.
I: After reviewing data of total life cost analysis of nuclear and renewable energies and the construction time, nuclear energy is almost twice as expensive as wind.
I: We have a short time window to address the issues of climate change and we only have so much money to be able to do so while also retaining other parts of our economy. So in regard to trying to combat the issues of climate change effectively, if we want to do it in the shortest amount of time and use the least amount of money, then renewable energy is definitely the way to go versus nuclear energy.
I: (31:24) So we have looked at the numbers, and when it comes to capacity factor and total cost of energies, we’ve looked at three different energies: Nuclear, wind and solar. And it comes down to nuclear being a lot more money than both of the other renewable energies, and that just leads to one conclusion, that it’s illogical to invest in anything else except for renewable energies.
MG: I want to thank all of you for joining us today. And most importantly, for spending a whole term with us doing this project, undertaking the challenge. And I know that I want to hold in reserve that sometime next year, we can get in contact with you all, either together here or via phone or Skype so that we can have another discussion and see where things are happening at that time. So Brandon, Grayson, Sam, John, I want to thank you for joining the Fairewinds crew today and for the whole term you were with us. Fairewinds listeners, we’ll keep you informed.