Amory Lovins popularized the idea of Distributed electrical generation as a foil to the emerging nuclear power industry. Lovins argued that what was needed was not large nuclear generation facilities, but small localized generating facilities that drew their power from nature. Such facilities, Lovins maintained, would be low cost and more reliable than large generating facilities such as nuclear plants. Unfortunately, Lovins did not subject his ideas to rigorous examination. Had he done so, he would have discovered that his idea of distributive electrical generation would break down when applied to the problem of producing the energy required to keep the American economy going.
Lovins’ long term plan required the production of much of America’s energy through the use of solar and wind resources, but solar and wind resources cannot be harvested reliably twenty-four hours a day 365 days a year. Part of Lovings’ justification for his distributive approach was the desirability of local as opposed to long distance electrical generation sources. Distance sources required long distance high voltage power lines to transmit electricity from the generators to the consumers. This is what happens with nuclear power although Lovins’ readers could envision solar cells on the roofs of their homes feeding electricity to refrigerators, light bulbs and dishwashers.
In fact, solar cells only provide electricity a few hours a day. If electricity is to be made available only on a few hours a day basis from local solar cells, it will have to be stored in batteries during periods of peak sunshine. The batteries then discharge electricity at night or when the sun is rising in the morning or going down in the afternoon. This means that a lot of cells have to be devoted to generating electricity for the batteries. Extensive and intensive control systems have to manage the flow of the electricity from the batteries to the dishwasher or to the heater at night.
Similar complications would arise with the use of wind. In most parts of the country there are days when the wind simply does not blow or blows at a very low speed while on other days the wind blows so hard that wind generators have to be shut down in order to prevent them spinning out of control. Again, extensive battery back up systems are required. There are parts of the country where very little electricity is produced by wind, but where there is a high demand for electricity. This is especially the case over much of the country during the summer time. Unfortunately electricity demand tends to peak for the year during hot summer days, just when wind turbines grind to a halt. One solution to the problem is to move the turbines to places where wind is more reliable, for example, the great plains of the north and south west. Large investments in giant wind generating facilities covering hundreds of square miles have occurred in these areas. Electricity gathered from large wind facilities to a central station and then dispatched over long distance high voltage power lines to cities a thousand miles away.
Solar power is most collectible in the desert southwest of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Although the sun still does not shine at night in these localities, in order to take advantage of the generating potential of the southwestern desert areas, solar generated electricity is gathered at dispatch facilities and transmitted long distances as far as the east coast in the renewable concept.
These solar and wind schemes cannot be described as distributive, they seem quite the opposite of what Amory Lovins seems to mean when he discussed distributive generation facilities. In one respect, Amory Lovins is quite correct, it is highly desirable to place electrical generators close to the location of electrical consumers. This insight would seem to support the distributive model, but as we have seen the distributive model does not work with renewable electrical resources. Lovins assumed that the distributive model would not work with nuclear energy, but when I began to analyze the potential of small Molten Salt Reactors, I realized that they had considerable potential to fulfill the requirements of distributive energy.
Traditional reactors have been large and produced over 1000 MW of electricity. The large size of these reactors and their reliability makes them excellent base load electricity sources. The down side is that large reactors may be providing electricity to distant consumers. High voltage lines are not 100% reliable. Every now and then the electrical grid goes down over major portions of the country. This causes major disruptions of energy for hours at a time. Facilities such as hospitals that require 24 hour a day reliability backup their electrical sources with on site diesel powered generators that are started up if the grid goes down.
It is likely that in the future electrical use will extend to energy fields that are currently powered by fossil fuels. This would create even grater demand on a grid system. In addition, the likelihood that backup fossil fuels, such as diesel fuels, might not be available in a world stressed by global warming. Thus, means have to be found to increase electrical reliability and to cope with the consequences of grid failure. One approach might be to scrap or at least limit the gird and use small reactors capable of generating electricity on demand locally. Thus, paradoxically, nuclear power could serve as a basis for a distributive electrical system that would be far more feasible than a renewable based system.