Nuclear Renewables

Is Renewable Energy looking like a ‘new religion’?

Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He published a peer-reviewed book on low-carbon energy systems in 2012The Power Makers’ Challenge: and the need for Fission Energy

Firstly, what does renewable energy (RE) actually mean? Wikipedia says renewable energy refers to the provision of energy via renewable resources which are naturally replenished as fast as being used. RE resources include sunlight, wind, biomass, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat.

In “The myth of renewable energy” (Dawn Stover, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), Stover believes that “renewable energy” is a meaningless term with no established standards.

RE certainly needs to deliver energy that we can readily use – more than just the RE resources (sunlight, wind, etc.). These RE resources have to be converted into usable energy.  We need wind turbines, solar panels, farming equipment and generators for biomass, and water catchment and generators for hydro sources. Alas wind turbines and solar panels do not grow on trees.

Renewable energy converters require the use of steel, copper, concrete and rare earth elements plus all the land on which to build these converters. Wind farms and large scale solar plants require transmission lines to connect to the electricity grid. The materials used to make the energy converters and transmission lines are not naturally replenished so Stover is probably correct when she says “renewable energy” is a meaningless term. But let’s stick with the term for now because it is in the common vernacular.

But is RE looking like a ‘new religion’?

It certainly seems to have its gurus (definition: “an influential teacher or popular expert.” ). In the USA there is Amory Lovins – Chairman/Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute USA and Bill McKibben – Founder of  In Australia we have Mark Diesendorf from the University of N.S.W.  All seem convinced that 100% RE is the ultimate target for the future to replace all fossil fuel energy sources.

RE even has its own institutions, creeds and denominations, in the guise of Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, the Rocky Mountain Institute and, among many others. RE bibles have even been published such as Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution. Alas the sermons often contain a good dose of greenwashing.

But the RE religion also has its critics. David MacKay FRS is the Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge. MacKay has written a book titled “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” – available for free at MacKay’s website. More recently, MacKay presented a TEDx talk titled “How the Laws of Physics Constrain Our Sustainable Energy Options”.

In this TEDx talk, MacKay looks at the land use for RE resources.  He calculated the power density in watts per sq. metre for wind, solar, water and plants/biomass (see Figure 1). All RE resources are diffuse.

Figure 1 – Power density for various RE resources. Source MacKay TEDx talk 03-2012.

He then compares these power densities to the energy consumption per person and population density for countries around the world (see Figure 2). MacKay tells us that to use RE sources alone, you would need to consider the land use as “country” sized or at least a good part of the country. For example, to power the UK with RE alone would require about 25% of the total land area for the UK.

Figure 2 – Energy consumption and population density. Source MacKay TEDx talk 03-2012.

In comparison, MacKay estimates that the alternative low emission energy source, nuclear power, has a power density of about 1,000 W/m2. But within the RE religion, nuclear power is treated like Mephistopheles: demonised at every turn, despite it being one of the cleanest and safest sources of energy. Why do the 100% RE advocates demonise nuclear power when it has a land use 1/500th of the most efficient RE source?

Gaia has given us many energy sources, but the most land efficient sources are uranium and thorium because of their very high energy density – why are we not using them more often? Perhaps the renewable energy story was too good to be carefully fact-checked.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against renewable energy. I’m just concerned that RE devotees, who genuinely believe that we can supply all our energy needs from RE sources alone, consider carefully this excellent work from MacKay which suggests that using RE sources alone will not be the case for most countries. The laws of physics are against it.

Martin Nicholson

End-note from Barry Brook:

Of course, we should always try to be our hardest critics. Can the same be said of those who advocate for nuclear energy?

I would argue not, because in its environmentalist (not fundamentalist) form, a nuclear-friendly advocacy does not seem to meet any of the criteria Martin outlines above for religiosity. In this ‘doctrine’, no energy source is demonised — the argument is instead that all energy sources ought to be weighed fairly on their merits and demerits, on the basis of irreligious laws of nature (and market forces!). Gurus are lacking, at least those dedicated to the creed. Nor are there obvious counterpart advocacy institutions (or perhaps we count the WNA and or bibles (see Loftus et al. 2014 for a review of such global decarbonisation scenarios). But we do definitely have our denominations and bellum sacrum – witness the fast reactor vs thorium schism!

Let’s explore these issues in the comments…


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

144 replies on “Is Renewable Energy looking like a ‘new religion’?”

Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) use water in the reactor core at a pressure of approx 150 Bar
(according to Wikipedia). If the reactor core is compromised, highly radioactive material is released under high pressure with the possibility that large areas of land are contaminated.

LWRs simply don’t fail that way, and the “contamination” is minimal.  If there was any need to be concerned about milliSievert levels of exposure, every hot-spring spa in the world would have to be closed.

This isn’t an argument for not replacing LWR technology.  Large pressure vessels are expensive, and if you can do without them so much the better.  But LWRs are what we can buy today, so we should buy them.

Because Molten Salt Reactors (MSR) operate at 1 Bar, this issue does not exist for them.

The same is true of sodium-cooled reactors.  Pool-type reactors can’t even leak very easily.

The plan proposes to reduce the consumption of Petroleum by 50% by the use of Battery powered and other forms of electrified transport. ( I do not think that this is possible but lets not get too nit picky.)

It’s not only quite possible, I’m doing it.  My previous car averaged about 38 MPG, the one before that averaged maybe 22 and got about 26 on the highway.  My current PHEV is averaging 113 MPG despite a paucity of chargers.  I’ve cut my petroleum consumption between 66% and 80%, depending which you use for comparison.  Getting to a 50% cut with widespread charging infrastructure would be a piece of cake.


In relation to PWR’s vs MSR’s I am simply saying that if these reactors are equal in all other things that I would prefer a reactor that operates at one bar rather than 150 bar.

I personally have no objection to the immediate installation of the Westinghouse AP1000 in Australia particularly at Loy Yang power station. Loy Yang is a 3GW power station located near Melbourne Australia that burns 30 million tons of brown coal per year.
Despite all the rhetoric that goes on in Australia about climate change, CO2 emissions, carbon taxes, and pollution in general, there is no plan to replace this power station.

In relation to Petroleum Consumption I was refering to the ZCA2020 Stationary Energy Plan in which they assume a 50 percent reduction in both petrol (gas for Americans) and diesel consumption through the use of battery technology.
As over half the fuel burnt in Australia every year is Diesel Oil basically the fuel of our heavy transport fleet. It would require our passenger car fleet to use virtually no fuel at all. Battery technology is just not capable of doing this at the moment. I do hope that one day it does but it is a little way off I think.


Jens Stubbe — We agree about the definition of the capacity factor. The capacity of a generator cannot be higher than the availability of the energy to power it; the wind availability for wind generation. To avoid overusing the word availability”, it is probably better to using the term “reliability factor” for the operating condition of the generator.

The EIA estimates are for the United States but in any case the FIT for Vattenfall is so low that I suspect another source of funding is also made available. Irrespective of that, the FIT is still more than the EIA estimate for advanced nuclear.

I have no idea why you continue to claim that nuclear power must fall to less than US$10/MWh to be competitive with coal power (without a carbon tax). For example, “Power from the [Colstrip] plant has been among the most expensive electricity for NorthWestern Energy for several years now, according to data filed with the PSC. In fact, it’s twice as expensive as wind power.” from
Using the EIA estimates, that makes Colstrip coal power much more expensive than advanced nuclear power.

(Disclosure: my utility derives about 23% of electricity provided from Colstrip.)


David Benson

Nuclear is already competitive with coal and will undoubtedly stay competitive with coal provided you factor in the external cost.

The reason that nuclear is required to become less expensive than one US cent per kWh is that you can only build a sustainable future if it becomes possible to replace oil derived products with products based on Synfuel.

I suggest you read the excellent article by John Morgan and the equally compelling spreadsheet he provides and couple the information he provides with the oil extraction cost and oil refinery cost. Saudi Arabia has around 25% of the known reserves and very low cost production, which means to keep their oil underground you need very inexpensive electricity.

Besides nuclear also needs to stay competitive with other forms of low emission electricity generation.

I am not writing of nuclear just because of the negative construction learning curve because there are far better designs brewing as Nnadir has pointed out in his blog and many plants has experienced steady improvement in capacity factor. The present goal for the Korean nuclear industry is to reduce unplanned production stops form 0,8 times annually to 0,2 times annually, which reflects the careful attention to quality needed both for safety and prolonged lifetime as well as for high capacity factors.

Nuclear has a chance to catch up with wind but the window of opportunity will not stay open forever, so there is real pressure on the nuclear innovation teams.

The FIT that Vattenfall won the tender with is their own doing and as I explained there are several projects on the way in Denmark that plan to use the standard FIT for onshore, which is approximately 55% less than the FIT Vattenfall achieved.

Recently Siemens upgraded their 6MW offshore turbine to 7MW just by small changes to the generator and better blade technology.

Companies such as GE, Siemens, Vestas, Alstom, Areva, Samsung, Mitsubishi, Enercon, Gamesa and some Chinese all have offshore turbines.

The very expensive infrastructure including special harbors, special ships etc. is now in place in Northern Europe and the market is huge because a very large number of power plants are nearing their planned design life.

Due to the intermittency of wind power I think that despite the huge external cost of coal the European Utilities will only source offshore wind power if the cost is lower than known alternatives. 7 US cent over lifetime as is the case with Hornsrev 3 is too high and wind cannot indefinitely secure FIT as I suspect will also be the case with nuclear.

The lessons learned from the business is that aggressive upscaling is required to drive cost down and above all quality has to be improved because it is expensive to repair and do maintenance at sea.

Ps. Krieger Flak wind park has now been officially agreed and the tender process will now begin. It is a joint Swedish, Danish and German project and will secure that wind will produce slightly more than 50% of the Danish electricity consumption.


Hi Jenny Sommer

Not to discourage your enthusiasm about Kitegen but it is still a very immature technology and there is absolutely no reason to believe that they do not have to go through the same cycle of development as classic wind turbines has gone through.

Classic wind turbines are a really fast moving target to catch up with (58% LCOE drop in the last five years) and there are huge fundamental issues with flying wind catchers.

As for the capacity factor then classic wind turbines offshore are not far off from Kitegen performance and there are several technologies underway that combined with upscaling will close that gap further.

Makani owned by Google is probably a more well funded wind kite company with a slightly different approach. The logic is that at a 400 meter hub height the energy density is roughly 88% higher than at a 100 meter hub height. The negative list is very long and very difficult to design around. Should Makani and others however become technically successful then they have to focus upon becoming economically successful including building a track record so in that respect you are probably right to compare with Gen 4. Nuclear.

As for the materials use the energy needed to construct a wind farm is recovered a few month after the production starts and most of a offshore wind farm is reusable or recyclable.

As for your doubt about floating wind power you should check in on this homepage. where they combine wave power and wind power. The wave power system provides some energy and at the same time it stabilize the system and provide a safe harbor for the crew to land on and living accommodations. I have visited their pilot plant and I know they will launch a full scale test next year.

As for wind gas I rather prefer Synfuel. John Morgan have taught why it is feasible and Nnadir has explained the virtue of non polluting fuel that is not health hazardous. Further Synfuel fits right not the current supply chain and can make any engine CO2 neutral and reduce particle emissions to a negligible level.


Hi Jens,

Wind is an amazing field. It will be hard for any technology to keep up. Siemens recently did some detailed ecological review of its wind turbines. Turns out that that the actual EROEI (it takes into account materials, production, construction, operation, maintenance, dismantling, and recycling) of the surveyed onshore windfarms (2*20 turbines)is between 55-66. Offshore are a little below that figure. Floating turbines could turn that around probably. All power to them they can make them float.

Here is the development of the KiteGen so far.

Windturbines are great as they are and will not go away for decades but wouldn’t it be nice if there was a complementary technology that could boost the EROEI and get emissions down under 1g/kWh? Also operating it from a vehicle or dropping it off in some remote location would be a bonus. This could power military bases in a way a windturbine never could, easing fuel supply logistics and cost.
Here is a technology that could start it’s learning curve already from a higher level than windturbines. This machines are only made possible by today’s technology.
If today’s windturbines would have been around 50 years ago our whole situation would probably be different today.

The cost of windturbines would have to come down to around 10%-20% to match the economics of kites also. There is really a gain in losing the tower and the blades.

I do have my doubts about Makani but with Saul Griffith being an Australian citizen maybe Australia would be more enthusiastic about his approach :)
Makani does not use kites. There is a lot of mass in the air with Makani, they have to transmit power down the tether, the wing is very fast with extreme dynamic forces involved and will do a lot of damage hitting the ground.

“The logic is that at a 400 meter hub height the energy density is roughly 88% higher than at a 100 meter hub height.”
Wind power is proportional to velocity cubed. The operating hight will be between 600 and 2000m above ground station level. Also the area being sweeped by the whole of the fast moving kite is much greater than the effective area of a conventional turbine (mostly the fast moving tips).
With VAWT the power output drops about 10% for each 1000m owned to decreasing air density while the turbine is still at the same high above grounds.
There is a reason why turbines are getting bigger and taller but I doubt that they will ever reach 2000m (or even 400m) above ground level.

Nobody denies that there are technical challenges. Let’s built the full scale Stem and start ironing them out.

KiteGen is not particularly doing well in marketing I guess. Instead of giving away profits to NGOs I would cooperate with some outside players like RedBull, brand the kites and have RedBull take over the marketing, nobody is better at that :)
Let them built a kitepowered “Wavegarden” (you have to look that up for yourself…but it needs about 800kw to run the fun which makes it kinda expensive.)

Windgas (syngas) or liquid synfuel is both the same for me. Read that the “Sunfire” reactor yields 0.7kWh of liquid synfuel for each kWh of power. It seems a bit wastefull to convert good electricity into synfuel and burn it in wastefull ICE cars.
I’d rather have syngas for storage and electricity for mobility.
We could still use synfuel for aviation or Diesel generators aboard electric powered ships (just for augmenting the kite propulsion.)


Hi Jenny Sommer

Nothing great was never achieved without passion but to temper your enthusiasm I think you need to read this analysis.

You write “The cost of windturbines would have to come down to around 10%-20% to match the economics of kites also. There is really a gain in losing the tower and the blades.”

Are you suggesting that Kites at a point in time will deliver electricity at $0,003 to $0,006 per kWh under a 20 year PPA contract?

I think classic wind power has potential to meet a price point in that regime but would not imagine that it is feasible for Kite based wind power.

For an outlook towards the near term cost reduction prospect for wind you should look into the recent Fullenkamp report, which is commented in this article.

If Kitegen finally become able to pull it of technically it will be interesting to watch their race to become economically viable against tough competition.



Mike Barnard does have a strong opinion as always but physics is clearly not his stronghold.
I don’t get his rating chart either. Why does he rate potential for HAWT 5 and the KiteGen 2? He had a post on his blog (…not anymore) where Skysails got the most points. His guesses are as good as anyones.
If we go by his reasoning that it would have been done already if it was viable we can stop R&D on anything including gen4 nuclear.

Same goes for Craig Morris who has a beef with NTS x-wind for, in his opinion, badmouthing conventional HAWTs.
He is basically repeating Mike Barnards opinion.
I had an email conversation with Craig some days ago in which he claimed that the lower air density at higher altitudes would be a show stopper. Yet there are conventional wind turbines installed at altitudes over 2000m with hub heights of “only” 100m. Clearly Morris doesn’t have a clue about physics either.

I am more interested in academic papers and data.

If you go to page 14 of the KiteGen Dossier, right hand lower corner it says 6€/MWh.
Bold Dossier right but it illustrates the confidence.
After all this is what they set out for.

Can you explain how classical wind could meet that pricepoint? The hardware alone wouldn’t allow that I guess.

Anyways, lets see what KiteGen can come up with.
Getting Massimo Ippolito to write some new article with some insight would be great.
They also seem to have support from the Italian government. The KiteGen was featured at Italys EXPO Pavillion in Shanghai and there are some puplic hearings about KiteGen in Italian on Youtube.


Jens, that putdown is simply mean.

Your references are, in this article, primarily from industry sources and are biased accordingly. Few, if any, are from peer reviewed sources, yet you attack Jenny Sommer’s claims which, by the way, I do not accept either at this stage.

I could criticise Jenny S’s contribution along similar lines, but at least the Kitegen information was informative, if not compellingly persuasive.

Please justify your statement by reference to a peer reviewed publication which demonstrates that wind delivers power at $0.003 per kwh on a 20 year PPA contract, or retract it. Available LCOE figures from various sources tend to cluster around $0.05/Kwh outcomes for 2030, measured at the terminals, ie before transmission and other system costs and excluding costs of backup generation capacity.


Over the years one tends to become inured to the dozens of promises of prospective new technologies that are advanced with great enthusiasm by their respective backers, as if by glossy sales brochure. Most of them disappointingly turn to nothing more than wishful thinking and we later wonder why we ever thought they were possibilities.

But it’s a mistake to discount what we don’t really know. We have to keep our eyes open to possibilities, knowing that in each case the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Kite energy (yes it sounds compellingly persuasive) and Gen IV technologies stand alongside each other in this respect.


Chris, I have no opinion regarding kite energy, pending receipt of production-scale results and expert peer reviewed pricing and performance data. Others have stated that the land area required is huge: again I have no opinion.

However, I suggest that Gen IV is somewhat more robust than kite energy at this stage. That is purely a personal opinion. That is where I am at today.

Indeed, I wish them both and all other low- and no-carbon emitting energy sources well. Our little blue planet will need all the help it can get.


Thank you Singleton, I was agreeing with you, not trying to infer any negativity on your part. It seems almost bizarre that such contrasting technologies are put beside each other for comparison. There’s a chance that both may come to fruition, commercially speaking.


I was once a fan of flying wind turbines (a concept that is like Kitegen but doesn’t rely on tension*speed of a rope to deliver power) but I’ve noticed something:

NONE of these reasonably-testable schemes seems to have gone very far, despite years and no obvious technical barriers.

I’m also slightly wary of “miracle” renewables like Kitegen.  Do we really understand what the effects of adding resistance to airflow at higher altitudes will have?  These days I am all about watching for unpleasant surprises.

The nice thing about Kitegen is, if we stop using it, the effects go away.  You can’t say this about fossil fuels.


Hi Singleton

You got it wrong. Jenny Sommer assumed that HAWTS needs to be 80% to 90% cheaper. I was enquiring her opinion of whether Kitegen could become 80% to 90% cheaper than standard PPA’s for classic wind turbines.

I am not mean to Jenny and I do not consider her to be of that opinion either.

As of Barnards affiliation with wind industry I know nothing about it so your guess is as good as mine.

Many of the points he makes are I think valid.

As for the possibility of bring cost down for classic wind turbines I consider the following elements to be crucial to improve:
1. Scaling
2. Longer blades
3. Better aerodynamics
4. Better quality
5. Better financial models
6. Better maintenance procedures
7. Better wind park scale LIDAR systems
8. Standardized approval system
9. Standardized insurance system
10. Better siting algorithms

Combined they will increase the capacity factor, lifetime, PPA duration and lessen the administrative and financial costs.


Hi Jenny Sommer

You wrote “Can you explain how classical wind could meet that pricepoint? The hardware alone wouldn’t allow that I guess.”

Hardware needs to be slightly cheaper per installed MW but can still be more expensive per wind turbine and even per materials cost, and I consider hardware cost improvement as described in the article about the Fullenkamp article to be feasible. In my reply to Singleton you can see the elements that needs to be improved. There are actually far more small gains that can be added and a number of interesting patents that are expiring soon and a number of very interesting materials science developments that are about to enter the wind industry.

The huge advantages that classic wind turbines have over the Kitegen project are:
1. Proven track record
2. A large industry with many strong competing companies
3. Low interference with agriculture
4. Complete supply chain systems
5. Fast development cycles
6. 58% LCOE improvement over 5 years

If Kitegen can deliver on promise however they could be a formidable contribution to a cleaner future and the world would benefit hugely from cheaper energy and especially so if fossils once and for all can be competed out of the market place.



Your concern about stopping the wind has been suggested before and researched but with no conclusive argument that I know of. Classic wind turbines are far closer to the Betz limit than Kitegen can ever be so they stop wind far less than Kitegen does.


First, one question to all: Have any of you heard of Renewable Fischer Tropsch Synthesis fuels? A good starting point would be, and also there’s a project at Audi, eDiesel, making fuel by the kind of technology. Study this, think about it. It’s real engineering, and it works, and it can solve all the unsteadiness problems with renewable primary energy sources like sun and wind to give us a stable grid or network of microgrids and to supply all of our transport fuel needs “forever”.


The short answer is “Yes”. Cost is currently the issue, not mere engineering possibility. Only viable with either substantial subsidy or carbon tax.


Greg Horall – your link claims a system that “can solve all the unsteadiness problems with renewable” energy.

However, reading between the lines we realise that the variations in renewable energy supply are to be smoothed out by the use of shale gas. Shale gas!! Shale gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and the more we use it the more we emit it. It ends by explaining that by the time coal extraction stops in 2090, ongoing production of shale gas will save the day. Would you really support any future production of shale gas, especially considering that even the IPCC recommends zero carbon emissions by the end of this century?

Shale gas will not save the day for any system that purports to rescue the greenhouse. Your link is a rehash of one of the “hydrogen economy” pipe dreams of the 1980s, relying on the fallacy that there is a sustainable level for gas consumption.


I know of one reactor that had helium as the core coolant. Source: Private communication from Alex Gabbard of Oak Ridge National Lab. It was a meltdown proof reactor and was tested and proven meltdown proof in the worst possible scenario. It was graphite moderated. All materials were refractory materials so that the reactor vessel could get very hot to dissipate heat through the containment building in the worst case. It was a high temperature reactor capable of [if memory serves] 50% efficiency. In other words, the reactor vessel would radiate heat to the containment building. The containment building would get hot enough to dissipate heat to the external air, but not hot enough to weaken the containment building. ORNL actually tested it in this worst possible case. If all cooling is lost, the reactor turns itself off over a period of time by means of laws of physics.

Alex Gabbard recommended this reactor as the best option for the next generation. There is nothing the operator or anybody else can do to cause an unsafe condition, and it operates at high efficiency.


Venezuela, where 2/3 of its electricity comes from renewables… if it rains. Once again, the concept of 100% renewable power is shown up as a lie that only the credulous can believe. R.E. evangelists would be more widely believable if they costed a proportion of sit-in-the-dark into their visons. Perhaps they could reassure the faithful by invoking The Grim Reaper, choosing times of extreme weather for his appointments with the frail… in their thousands.


The lights went out in Venezuela, where 2/3 of its electricity comes from renewables… if it rains. Once again, the concept of 100% renewable power is shown up as a lie that only the credulous can believe. R.E. evangelists would be more widely believable if they costed a proportion of sit-in-the-dark into their visons. Perhaps they could reassure the faithful by invoking The Grim Reaper, choosing times of extreme weather for his appointments with the frail… in their thousands.


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