Renewable Energy Pie

M-m-m-m. Energy Pie.

M-m-m-m. Energy Pie.


[Note: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that nuclear power is a low-carbon sources of energy — contrary to the what I believed when I wrote the post below in 2009. My belated thanks to David Walters who blogs at Left Atomics, whose comments below were spot on. And now, I think I’ll have a nice big helping of crow pie.]

Renewable energy is becoming as American as apple pie, and as any good chef knows, the quality of the finished products depends largely upon the ingredients used. So, what do Americans want in their energy pie this year? Well, in October, the Nielsen Company did a survey to find out. The results are interesting, partly because things look very different depending on how you slice the pie.


The study grouped a variety of energy sources under the heading, “Renewable and Carbon Neutral Sources.” [Emphasis added]

I don’t know why the phrase “carbon neutral” was included, but it appears to give nuclear power a chance to be included in the pie. Nuclear fuel isn’t renewable, but it also isn’t carbon neutral — unless you ignore carbon emissions that come from mining, transporting, and processing the uranium fuel, and disposing of the radioactive waste (for which there is currently no viable plan — but that’s another story).

Using all the Nielsen study data, here are the results presented in (what else?) a pie chart.

Chart #1

Pie Chart 1

Fine. Looks good. But, as I argued above, I really don’t think nuclear belongs in this pie under a reasonable definition of “carbon neutral.” Here’s what our pie would look like with the radioactive ingredient removed.

Chart #2

Pie sans Nukes

Renewable and Non-Nuclear Carbon Neutral Sources.

Not that much of a difference, given that only 6 percent of respondents said they preferred nuclear power in the first place. Still, the configuration has changed slightly.

But, I wondered: What is “no preference” doing in a list of energy pie ingredients? It’s a non-ingredient. If we yank it from our pie, here’s what we get:

Chart #3

Fresh from the oven

Now, this pie looks very different from the first one. It began as a kind of mish-mash of choices, with nothing in particular standing out. But in chart #3, solar power is the clear favorite. The solar portion of the pie is bigger than all the other choices combined.

Some will argue that I’ve cherry-picked (apple-picked?) my data to produce the final pie.


I picked which data to use. But then so did the Nielsen Company when they gathered it. My defense is simple: Every pie chart reflects the bias of the chef. I don’t believe that nuclear power is either renewable or carbon neutral, so out it went. I also think that we can learn more about the energy preferences of Americans if we remove from consideration those who don’t actually have a preference. Or, at least, have the two charts side-by-side.

That’s it from the Phoenix Sun kitchen. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

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8 thoughts on “Renewable Energy Pie

  1. Osha (I assume this is your name?) as Bill Woods pointed out, Storm van Leeuwen was wildly discredited and if you notice, few, if any, cite him and his team anymore.

    My sources, including British energy which is a state surface, the DofE etca are all widely regarded as objective sources. The two you cited are *professional* anti-nuclear activists.

    If you look at any set of objective studies, from universities, primarily, but other sources as well, no one seriously doesn’t consider nuclear to be low-carbon and in fact the worlds governments are generally in agreement about that. Just about at every level, ‘fossil’ use can be replaced with nuclear energy, from mining to lighting the guard shack at a spent fuel depository. Certainly reprocessing can be totally nuclearized so there is essentially zero-carbon from nuclear.

    Since the mining and transport of materials for wind is way higher than nuclear, would we consider this a net increase in carbon out put? of course. But this is statistically irrelevant as it is for carbon output of nuclear. What is not, as I noted previously, included is the amount of fossil fuel back up needed for wind and solar. Is this included in *any* of the studies you site? No.

    But I will take wind as it’s presented: low carbon at the point of production and minimal at the manufacturing level. Same as nuclear, essentially.

    Not that I want to give advice to anti-nuclear writers, but clearly the issues with nuclear are not over ‘carbon output’. I should recommend you continue along these lines, the people are far smarter than that. The real issues with nuclear as economic (financing it) and spent nuclear fuel (recycling, etc). You could have a serious discussion here if you focused on what is, not what is fantasy.

    • David, It’s time for me to move on, so rather than respond to the arguments you make above, I’ll be a gracious web-host and let you have the last word.

      Thanks for writing and taking part in the exchange. It’s been interesting, and I appreciate your efforts to fight global warming, even if we disagree on the means.


  2. First, the Dr. Steven Chu, our Energy Sec’ty has stated repeatedly: “Nuclear provides 70% of our carbon FREE generation…”. He uses the word ‘free’ only because most renewable advocates missue the term as well.

    The EIA of the DofE has a list of the carbon out put of all sources of energy, based on lifetime front end to back end cycle. The European energy agency has produced similar results. For one of *many* studies see:

    “Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis,” Paul J. Meier, University of Wisconsin-Madison, August 2002.

    Also, The British Energy listing of carbon life cycle output:

    And I could go on…

    This, as the majority of recent studies show, CO2 output equals that of wind, based on life cycle analysis. If your readers do *any* good search for this, they will find dozens of studies all of which put nuclear at or near that of wind.

    What NONE of the studies show is the massive required backup in terms of fossil fuel, most notably gas fired gas turbines but also coal because of the unreliability of renewables. If you added this, that is, in stead of simply comparing the lifecycle CO2 output of a single, say, wind turbine name plate capacity, to it’s availability, you’d have to raise that number to at least 4 or 5 given that one has to overbuild wind by this factor to get true faceplate capacity.

    There simply is no one in the industry: grid operations, manufacturing, environmental regulatory or climate change scientists who would back up YOUR unsubstantiated claim that nuclear is not low-carbon. I believe the burden of proof is on your.

    The problem is that your writing actually backs up the Glen Beck Know-Nothings because you fail to provide any evidence of your claims thus giving, on a silver platter to idiots like Beck, that renewable energy advocates don’t know what they are talking about with regards to energy. (I doubt HE could actually articulate this in any event but others of his ilk can).

    The EIA also has data on the material usage for building wind turbines vs that of nuclear. All the numbers I’ve seen *bar none* show that in terms of aluminum, steel and concrete wind uses from 4 to 10 times the amount than nuclear. Wind advocates don’t like to point this out, of course.

    • Thanks for providing your sources. They’re helpful in some respects, but they don’t do anything to bolster your original claim that “everyone” agrees that nuclear power is a low carbon source of energy. Clearly, the authors you cite share your view. They don’t speak for everyone, however. Even more important are the nuances and caveats they contain.

      First, I’ll just point to a couple of sources that disagree with the ones you site.

      Nuclear Power – The Energy Balance,” by Jan Williem van Leeuwen and Philip Smith.

      Nuclear Power and Climate Change,” Amory Lovins.

      Both of the complete citations you provided (Meier and the British Energy study) exclude a critical factor: the GHG emissions associated with spent fuel disposal. I didn’t see any reference to this omission in Meier (although I may have missed it). And the BE study refers to it obliquely, saying only “The final route of disposal for high level radioactive waste in the UK is currently under consideration.” Translation: “Since we haven’t solved the disposal issue, let’s just assume that whatever is done won’t emit GHGs.”

      Zero information does not equal zero emissions.

      In the US, the solution – burial at Yucca Mountain – was a massive project that emitted an unknown quantity of GHGs. Now that the Obama administration has rejected the Yucca Mountain solution, a new plan will have to be devised, and estimates for CO2 emissions are, of course, not factored into either of the studies cited.

      I don’t believe an objective source would claim carbon neutrality based on partial data. Then again, I’m not so sure the British Energy study you cite is objective.

      British Energy is one of the largest nuclear power companies in the UK, if not the largest, operating eight plants with a 9,000 MW capacity. They commissioned the study by AEA Technology, a private research company whose links to the nuclear industry has been a source of controversy in the UK.

      • ‘First, I’ll just point to a couple of sources that disagree with the ones you site.

        “Nuclear Power – The Energy Balance,” by Jan Williem van Leeuwen and Philip Smith.’


        ‘Information from this source shows that using data from Storm van Leeuwen & Smith one gets annual energy costs for three major uranium mines of 5 PJ for Ranger, 60 PJ for Olympic Dam (both in Australia) and 69 PJ for Rossing in Namibia. These mines report their energy use as 0.8 PJ, 5 PJ and 1 PJ respectively, with that at Olympic Dam including copper production (only about 20% of value of output is uranium). Rossing mines very low-grade ores, but its energy cost is overestimated sixty-fold or more by Storm van Leeuwen & Smith and the figure they predict is more than that for the whole country (c 50 PJ).’

        • I’m not surprised that the nuclear power association says Leeuwen & Smith have their numbers wrong. But I’m certainly not convinced on their say-so. Besides, the point I made was that there is disagreement on the “carbon-neutrality” of nuclear power, an observation that stands.

          The more important point is that nuclear power advocates claim carbon-neutrality while ignoring GHG emissions from disposing of spent fuel. Until there are rely data for that, it’s hard to take seriously the claims of any nuclear life-cycle analysis.

  3. Oh please, of course nuclear is as carbon neutral as any renewable. Especially if you include life time usage including the huge 10x material costs per MW for wind vs nuclear.

    It is considered “non/low carbon” by everyone in the energy business and arguing it is not makes you look foolish.

    And of course these pie charts based on nonsense questions are…useless. “What people prefer” is irrelevant to how you build a grid, address baseload power issues, etc.

    • First, thanks for illustrating my point that the pie can be sliced differently depending on who is wielding the knife.

      Oh please, of course nuclear is as carbon neutral as any renewable.

      You don’t provide any support for your claim. If you want to convince readers of this website – and they’re a pretty tech-savvy group – you’ll need to show the data you used to arrive at your conclusion. (“Oh please, of course” is not data.)

      Especially if you include life time usage including the huge 10x material costs per MW for wind vs nuclear.

      Good, I’m all for life-cycle analyses. If you look at my post above, that’s why I objected to including nuclear as a “carbon neutral” energy source in the first place. Its neutrality was based on ignoring everything that led up to or followed the moment of electrical generation.

      Especially if you include life time usage including the huge 10x material costs per MW for wind vs nuclear.

      I have a couple of problems with this claim. One is simply a repeat of my previous question: What is your source for your “10x material costs” figure?

      More important: it appears you changed the subject in mid-sentence. You’re arguing that nuclear power is carbon neutral based on…the huge material costs? Economic comparisons of various energy sources is a good topic, but it wasn’t the one you were addressing: carbon neutrality

      It is considered “non/low carbon” by everyone in the energy business and arguing it is not makes you look foolish.

      That’s a doozey of an unsubstantiated claim. Personally, I think you’ll have a hard time providing data proving that everyone in the energy business agrees on anything, but I’ll wait for your evidence.

      “What people prefer” is irrelevant to how you build a grid, address baseload power issues, etc.

      I know your blog is subtitled “A Left-Wing, Pro-Nuclear Energy Perspective,” but please – don’t give Glenn Beck and his ilk encouragement!

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