UNL Switches Over to Biodiesel and Ethanol
Renault’s New Clio III: Up to 53.5 MPG

RMI: Co-gen and Renewables, Yes; Nuclear, No


Countering the growing orthodoxy that a wide-spread resurgence in nuclear power is essential to address both energy needs and climate changes concerns, Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder and CEO Amory Lovins charges that not only do new nuclear plants deliver electricity at far higher cost than distributed co-generation  and many renewables (not to mention plain end-use efficiency), but that co-generation and renewables have more installed capacity than nuclear, produce 92% as much electricity, and are growing 5.9 times faster and accelerating.  (Chart at right, Click to enlarge.)

By the end of 2004, these decentralized, non-nuclear competitors’ global installed capacity totaled ~411 GW—12% more capacity than global nuclear plants’ 366 GW...Thus the “minor” alternative sources actually overtook nuclear’s global capacity in 2003, rivaled its 2004 and will match its 2005 output, and should exceed its 2010 output by 43%. They already dwarf its annual  growth.

Official and industry forecasts indicate they’ll add 177 times as much capacity in 2010 as dwindling nuclear power will... So the big question about nuclear “revival” isn’t just who’d pay for such a turkey, but also...why bother? Why keep on distorting markets and biasing choices to divert scarce resources from the winners to the loser—a far slower, costlier, harder, and riskier niche product—and paying a premium to incur its many problems? Nuclear advocates try to reverse the burden of proof by claiming it's the portfolio of non-nuclear alternatives that has an unacceptably greater risk of non-adoption, but actual market behavior suggests otherwise.

—Amory Lovins


Lovins’s 411 GW of capacity includes about 266 GW (65%) of mostly gas-fired decentralized co-generation, 47 GW of wind, 47 GW of small hydro, 37 GW biomass/waste, 10 GW geothermal, and 4 GW photovoltaics.

Although distributed co-generation refers to combined heat and power applications, presumably some of the emerging systems for the co-generation of power, heat and synthetic fuel would fit in this category as well.)

The world’s nuclear plant vendors have never made money, and their few billion dollars’ dwindling annual revenue hardly qualifies them any more as a serious global business. In contrast, the renewable power industry earns ~$23 billion a year by adding ~12 GW of capacity every year: in 2004, 8 GW of wind, 3 GW of geothermal/small hydro/biomass/wastes, and 1 GW of photovoltaics (69% of nuclear’s 2004 new construction starts, which PVs should surpass this year).

PV and windpower markets, respectively doubling about every two and three years, are expected to make renewable power a $35-billion business within eight years. And distributed fossil-fueled co-generation of heat and power added a further 15 GW in 2004; it does release carbon, but ~30% less than the separate boilers and power plants it replaces, or up to ~80% less with fuel-switching.

Reliance on conventional natural-gas fired solutions may also prove more economically challenging in the future, given the need for increased imports (including a sizeable bump in Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)) in the face of declining US gasfields and increasing demand.

Co-generation systems using coal gasification (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle-style solutions—earlier post) may end up filling in some of the gap—but those would not be de-centralized, distributed co-generation solutions.

I read many slick nuclear polemics and sweeping qualitative claims, but see no analysis backing up their key assertions, such as alternatives’ being small and slow, which the market contradicts. It’s no good claiming we need all options. We have only so much money. The more urgent you think it is to protect the climate, the more important it is to spend each dollar to best effect by choosing the fastest and cheapest options—those that will displace most carbon soonest.

In short, I’m unmoved by nuclear theology. In God we trust; all others bring data. Show me the numbers.

—Amory Lovins




A couple of problems. First a lot of that co-gen is fossil based and has a finite time line. Second a new niche market eventually gets filled and growth slows. It's a bit like fixing up the cracks in a wall; it doesn't necessarily mean the wall can take a heavier load. It is interesting to note that both RMI and MIT have taken a set against nuclear and have to keep justifying their position.

Neal S.

I think that RMI makes a good point and would rather see dollars spent on renewables than on nuclear, especially considering the maitenance of a nuclear plant and its spent fuel rods.

In terms of building new power plants, I'm fascinated by the Solar Tower that is going to be built in Australia (http://www.brynmawr.edu/geology/206/gruenstein2.htm) and would welcome one in my back yard instead of a conventional power plant.


Not only are there gona be alot more nuke plants but alot more coal plants as well. They are a done deal.


This type of argument reinforces the unfounded belief of 99% of men, women and children, that is: "nuclear is evil". Chances of a second Chernobyl: non-existant. In 20 years most renewables should be competitive. We dont have 20 years to wait.


What Aussie said... and you can't accuse me of not being pro-cogeneration.

Gas is peaking now.  Oil is peaking sometime between now and 2025.  We are going to need cogeneration now, but we are also going to need solar, wind, biomass, refuse-derived fuel... and nuclear.

richard schumacher

Lovins' complaint that nuclear has been too expensive to be profitable is puzzling; does he expect that saving the Earth from global warming will be cheap? Saving the Earth is part of the profit!

The raw fact is that at the end of this Century there will be nine billion people, most of them wanting a Western standard of living. Providing them with one at the energy efficiency that Europe manages now (about twice that of the U.S.) will require energy sources roughly 15 times greater than we have today. Co-generation and renewables are all to the good but they can't get close to meeting that need, and meeting it with fossil fuels would be ruinous.


Stanford recently published an estimate of world-wide wind power potential.  It came out to 72 terawatts.  That's 8 kilowatts per capita for 9 billion people, and all of it would be electricity (pure work).

The USA uses about 12 kW/capita raw energy input, of which perhaps 4 kW can be converted to work.  Britain uses about 6 kW/capita.

And that's just wind.  If we get quantum-dot photovoltaics at even 50% efficiency and every hundred-square-meter bungalow can crank out 50 kW on sunny days, we are going to have an embarrassment of riches.

I see just one problem, which is that the technology is a couple of decades behind where we need to be to start relying on this in the short term.  Nuclear is a bridge, no less and no more.


An anonymous blogger, above, states that "both RMI and MIT...have to keep justifying their position." If someone on either side of this debate - nuclear or non-nuclear - states an opinion, calling it "justifying a position" is just putting a spin on things. Respond with verifiable data, please!

I'd also like some verifiable data from wintermane, who states; "Chances of a second Chernobyl: non-existant" (that's wintermane's spelling, not mine). Without verifiable facts, the statement is empty of usable information.

Please note that I am, at present, on neither side of this issue. However, if you believe that your opinion is based on fact, and you don't reference your sources, you cannot expect anyone to take you seriously. Anyone can make up an opinion, and quoting someone else's opinion does not qualify as providing data.


distantbody posted that not me I just posted that nuke and coal plants being built in the near future was a done deal already.

Personaly I expect nuke plants to expand slowly and coal plants to expand by about 50-100 plants max here in america. I expect the rest of the energy will be made up from various other power sources.

Stephen Gloor

Gas does not have to peak. We can make as much as we need from solar thermal plants. Wind and electricity producing Solar can produce the daytime peak load without the need for nuclear or clean coal.

I wrote a small post on how Australia could do it at


Jack, rather than me give a bunch of links you should google words like 'energy' and 'nuclear'. To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem you could try cutting your use of fuel and electricity by 50%. If you can do it then ask whether a billion affluent consumers are prepared to do the same. I think you will conclude like wintermane that use of both coal and nukes will increase, not decrease. This will speed warming and may or may not lead to nuclear incidents. Organisations that say otherwise or push pie-in-the-sky solutions lack credibility. That's my opinion; time will tell if that's how facts turn out.


I cut my use of electricity by 1/3 some years ago; had I been in a position to make capital improvements I could easily have hit the 1/2 mark.  I cut my petroleum consumption by about 1/3 last year; I was limited by the technology of the vehicles actually available for purchase (rather than on long back-order), else I could have hit the 1/2 mark there also.

It's doable.  It would be far more doable (like, a 3/4 reduction during winter) if a few well-established technologies were integrated into vehicles, homes and businesses; for a look at how much an integrated system might save, check my numbers.

richard schumacher

The problems with wind and Solar are of course location, reliability and availability: many good wind and Solar sites are far from users, wind does not blow constantly, and the Sun does not shine constantly (except in orbit). The delivery networks and storage systems needed to make renewables useable will be more expensive than the generation facilities. Quantum dots for PV are right up there with room-temperature superconductors: really great ideas. Call us when you have a product.

Nuclear is a bridge, true, a bridge we can start building right now. Without that bridge we cannot get from where we are to a world with plentiful clean energy.


When did MIT take a position against nuclear?


I'm all for nuclear. Provided, that is, that they get no federal subsidies. None. No guaranteeing of bonds. No funding their spent fuel cleanup and transportation. No funding their connection to the grid. No funding their inspections. Nada. No funding their shut-down at life's end.

Of course, I also take this stance for all fossil fuels. Also, I take a different approach (subsidies A-OK) for renewable fuels.

A poster above pointed about the intermittant nature of solar and wind, which is a valid concern. There are some ways to mitigate the problem, such as variable flow hydro-dams, but it is a legit problem. Nuclear has an "equal but opposite" problem. You simply don't adjust the output for nuclear if you can at all help it. Nuclear provides baseline power, and fossil fuel plants are used to adjust the total amount of power on the grid. For this reason, just as one can't produce too much of the power needs with intermittent power, one can't produce too much power with nuclear. In fact, roughly speaking, the maximum amount of nuclear power you should be producing is the minimum power need for the grid, ie the deepest valley in immediate demand.

There are a few other problems, too. It takes many years to get through the planning and beurocracy of a nuclear plant. Many years. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, just that a nuclear plan does nothing to meet short term needs. Of course, there's the NIMBYism to overcome as well.

I'd gladly trade 10GW of new nuclear power for removing the dirtiest 10GW of coal power, that's for sure. Alas, that's not an allowable trade.


I've tracked back two links I thought concerned no-nukes and MIT. It turns out the main one was from another major league university, which I'd better not name. Therefore I retract my claim that some faculty within MIT was anti-nuclear. Sorry.


Forecast figures are highly questionable, paticularly when tey spike exponentially for no apparent reason (as is the case wit these #s). Nuclear's decline is mostly due to inability to get permission to make new plants, and the old plants becomming obsolte/diminished capacity. They also overlook the potential of high-energy nuclear reactors as a source for hydrogen, and many other factors.

RMI's claim overlooks too much for the sake of thier bias.

The largest problem with Nuclear is: What to do with the spent fuel? But with projections putting the first fusion power plant at 2040, I think we can find some way to deal with the spent fuel rods for the next ~40 years, we have for the past 40.

We should continue to alternatives, and co-generation, and the whole ball of wax... but not disreguard nuclear just because "it is scary"... running out of oil while still dependant is more scary.

The comments to this entry are closed.