Who is the real Rodney Dangerfield of energy?
Rodney Dangerfield died almost 15 years ago but the legacy of “no respect” lives on in the minds of energy geeks looking to catch a headline. He may be best known for one-liners involving some form of “I don’t get no respect!” Proponents of different energy sources have used this tag line to relate to and ask the commons for more of what Rodney never got enough of for their favorite energy source. Why are proponents of energy sources eager for awareness by continuing to invoke this image?
Energy is a political subject and proponents of different fuels have highly curated narratives supporting their agendas. Strangely, the image above is the currency for a concept born in the depths of cognitive psychology called “media priming.” This is based on theories in psychological research examining how different presentations of almost identical decisions influence people's choices: “assumptions that how an issue is characterized in news reports can have an influence on how it is understood by audiences.1” Of all things, an association with Rodney Dangerfield’s mug and one-liner that ends up high on an internet search list is probably being used as a strategic attempt to sway public attitudes about different energy sources and fuels. It is a silly and less conspicuously political entrée into asking for more respect and popular support.
We’d like to add a little unsolicited and mostly transparent punditry to evaluate these claims as we see them in a sort of Rodney-Dangerfield-Final-Four-of-no-respect-in-energy (RDFFONRIE). The brackets look like this and include these sources because they all have public claims that they, like the man himself, “get no respect”:
Before the RDFFONRIE, here is a quick look at the claims of each energy source and some of their merits. We evaluated these based on their ability to deliver on the three pillars of energy policy: cheap, clean, and reliable, given their most salient (as we see them) positive and negative attributes2. A very fair question at this point is why did some technologies like solar, wind, geothermal or even coal not make the inaugural RDFFONRIE? They appear to either get too much respect or may appear to be clear losers on the criteria we use.
Nuclear contributes close to 20% of the nation’s electricity, and close to two-thirds of the low-emissions generation and does so as reliable “baseload” power. Both Illinois and New York recently approved nuclear to be compensated through zero emissions credit programs for its lack of GHG emissions. BUT despite this policy victory, the economics of nuclear are a solid loss. The most recent nuclear power plant to come on-line in the U.S. is Watts Bar 2, in eastern Tennessee. The plant came on-line in October 2016, after starting construction in January 1973 -- that's nearly 44 years. Of course, that includes a halt in construction that lasted 22 years, from 1985 until 2007. The last plant to come on-line before Watts Bar 2 was Watts Bar 1, which did come on-line 20 years sooner, in 1996. But that's still 23 years from start to finish. And what about the cost? When construction on Watts Bar 2 halted, $1.7B had already been invested. When construction started up again, it was estimated that an additional investment of $2.5B would be required to complete the plant. This was shockingly optimistic, as the total additional cost ended up being $4.7B, for a total construction cost of $6.4B, or $5.57/watt. Meanwhile, over at Vogtle (in Georgia, the only plant currently under construction), the current estimate of the final cost is $25B, or $11.19/watt. This compares extremely unfavorably to natural gas at about $0.89/W and solar at $2.43/W. Nuclear is reliable and clean -- but not cheap.
Natural gas has seen amazing advances in the past decade or so, and has unseated coal as the largest source of electric energy in the U.S., while being cheaper and easier to dispatch. Since natural gas supplies this electricity with a little less than half of the GHG emissions and drastically less air quality contaminants than coal, it’s proponents claim it “don’t get no respect” and should. The downside to increasing use of natural gas is that the extraction process and supply system have potentially large amounts of fugitive emissions in the form of methane. This is significant because methane has approximately 30X the GHG potential of CO2. So even single-digit percentage losses of natural gas from well-head to the turbine or home furnace could outweigh any GHG benefits from its replacement of coal combustion. Air pollution benefits aside, this research casts doubt on whether this natural gas replacement of coal actually ends up as net negative GHG.
And now for the RDFFONRIE. Although nuclear is clean and reliable it is far from cheap -- and that’s not even considering future costs. Natural gas is cheap and reliable but when considering leakage in supply systems a claim of clean on the GHG criteria is doubtful. Still, the future for natural gas in a grid where dispatchability will be paramount to pair well with more distributed sources like wind and solar is bright. Natural gas moves on!
Stay tuned for hydro versus energy efficiency!
1Scheufele, Dietram A., and David Tewksbury. "Framing, agenda setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models." Journal of communication 57, no. 1 (2006): 9-20... Available at: http://www.babylonconsult.ro/app/webroot/files/offer/519a152e33ff3.pdf
2We know there are many other attributes that can be covered here. Please disagree with any of our assumptions, inclusions, and anything we may have excluded.