Low energy nuclear reactions have the potential to provide distributed power generation with zero carbon emission and cheaper than coal Lewis Larsen
Today, in a world with little or no imposition of carbon emission taxes by major governments, coal remains the least expensive, most abundant primary source of energy. It is also perhaps the dirtiest energy source from an environmental perspective, which is why carbon capture and storage technology has been much touted to make coal ‘clean’  (see Carbon Capture and Storage A False Solution, SiS 39). Natural gas, though much cleaner than coal, costs substantially more.
Proponents claim that nuclear power is only ~10 percent more expensive than coal; though that is disputed by critics who point out that the ‘true’ cost of nuclear power is actually much higher when proper cost accounting is done , which includes both upstream (mining, extraction and enrichment of uranium fuel) and downstream (waste disposal, cleanup and decommissioning) processes. Nevertheless, everyone agrees that nuclear power is more expensive than coal; the only question is by exactly how much.
In fortunate areas where the wind blows with enough force and regularity, wind power is presently almost cost-competitive with nuclear and coal power generation, however the accounting is done.
At the moment, solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is a long way from being cost-competitive with any of the other alternatives. That having been said, a combination of technological improvements and mass production of solar panels will probably drastically reduce the cost of solar PV power generation in the near future  (see Solar Power to the Masses, SiS 39).
Like wind power, energy from the sun intrinsically fluctuates; the sun does not shine with the same ground-level intensity every day, and not at all at night. Furthermore, current electrical energy storage technologies are too expensive and too limited in capacity to provide rapid response to changes in grid electricity demand when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing, in the absence of other ‘dispatchable’ sources of grid-connected power generation such as coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plants.
Modern electricity grids require a substantial percentage of online power generation that is dispatchable at very short notice. As economically feasible grid-capacity electricity storage technologies do not exist (nor are they anywhere on the horizon), today’s grids cannot possibly operate at accustomed levels of greater than 99 percent availability with only wind and solar energy sources. Therefore, grid-connected sources of readily dispatchable power generation will still be needed for the foreseeable future.
In  (Safe, Less Costly Nuclear Decommissioning and More, SiS 41) I suggested that dispatchable Gen-4 Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor and LENR-based subcritical reactors would be considerably less expensive than today’s Gen-2 Light Water Reactors. Perhaps more importantly, LENR-based fission or green non-fission reactors could someday provide significantly cheaper electricity than coal-fired power generation plants.
As green non-fission LENR reactors could generate electricity more cheaply than LENR-based subcritical fission reactors; the former, if successfully developed, would most likely be able to compete directly against coal-fired power generation on market forces alone, with or without carbon taxes being imposed by the government.
Another factor favouring LENR-based power generation is that the cost of coal-fired power generation is likely to rise significantly, due to efforts devoted to reducing carbon emissions from burning coal.
For many years, large R&D efforts have been dedicated to ‘advanced clean coal’ technologies, with some success. Current-generation coal-fired power plants being built today are much cleaner than those built 20 years ago. However, today’s environmentally friendlier coal plants are also much more expensive to license and build because of legally mandated installation of anti-pollution technologies. In addition, there have been recent accelerated R&D efforts to integrate ‘advanced clean coal’ technologies with even more costly CO2 capture and sequestration capabilities .
As a result of incorporating new, progressively more expensive improvements to further ‘clean up’ coal plant emissions, future construction and operating costs of purportedly ‘greener’ coal-fired power generation plants are likely to increase substantially in many countries. If economically significant carbon emissions taxes are also imposed to further ‘level the playing field’, there may be a historic opportunity for alternative carbon-free energy technologies like LENRs, wind, and solar PVs to compete very effectively with coal as low-cost primary energy sources.
Green LENRs have intrinsic energy densities thousands of times larger than any chemical power source such as coal, natural gas, gasoline, or diesel fuel. But even with the gigantic energy density advantages, LENR technologies will probably not be able to immediately compete with coal-fired grid power generation systems that have been optimized for decades.
In fact, LENRs will probably first enter the commercial market as small-scale, integrated battery-like portable power sources and small backup power generation systems for residential homes or remote facilities; with electrical outputs ranging from under 100 W to 1 – 5 kW. Those market entry points are more advantageous for LENRs because the market price for electricity in portable and small backup power systems ranges from tens to hundreds of dollars per kWh, compared to $0.05 to $0.10/ kWh for grid electrical power coming from a wall socket.
Small-scale LENR systems might seem to be light years away from competing with 500 – 1 000 MW coal-fired behemoths. But please recall the history of personal computers versus mainframes. When PCs were first introduced 30 years ago, mainframe computer manufacturers regarded them as toys; information processing ‘jokes’ of little consequence. Less than 10 years later, mainframe companies weren’t laughing any more. Today, except for a handful of survivors like IBM, most mainframe and minicomputer ‘dinosaurs’ have disappeared. In fact, most of today’s ‘mainframes’ actually contain internal arrays of commodity PC microprocessors.
Google, arguably one of the largest consumers of computational power on the planet today, does not even use mainframes; it processes vast amounts of information with thousands upon thousands of low-cost PCs ‘lashed together’ by special software.
PCs and microprocessors won their long market battle with mainframes using a strategy of ultra high-volume manufacturing that drastically decreased the cost of distributed (as opposed to centralized) computation. PCs democratized human access to distributed computational power; LENRs can potentially do the same for energy.
Using a similar business strategy that combines high-volume manufacturing, aggressive pricing and distributed generation, the economic costs of electric power generation with coal and with LENRs could potentially converge in the very near future. LENR technologies would then begin competing directly with ‘king coal’ as a primary energy source.
Similar to advanced lithium batteries, ‘green’ portable LENR heat sources that use non-fissile/fertile target fuels (such as lithium, or low cost metals like nickel and titanium) could be fabricated in very high volumes using advanced nanotech manufacturing processes. Importantly, such high volume production would enable LENR power generation technologies to leverage the ‘experience curve effect’  to dramatically reduce costs over time, as proven so successfully in the cases of personal computers, microprocessors, memory chips, cellphones, and small electronic devices like iPods.
As pointed out in  Portable and Distributed Power Generation from LENRs (SiS 41), LENR heat sources are intrinsically upwardly scalable via straightforward increases in working area and/or volume, choice of target fuel(s), and selected integrated energy conversion subsystem. This implies that almost all of the many cost and technological improvements that might be developed for portable and small backup power generation applications could readily be scaled-up and rapidly applied to the development of much more powerful LENR-based heat sources and power generation systems based on different types of target fuels (including fissile isotopes) and energy conversion technologies.
If LENRs can successfully compete against chemical battery power generation technologies and deeply penetrate high volume markets for portable power sources and small stationary systems, green LENR-based systems with much larger power outputs could follow rapidly, further lowering costs. Multi-megawatt LENR heat sources with lithium target fuel could be used with large boilers for many applications.
While entirely new types of large, totally green (no fissile or fertile target fuels) LENR-based power plants could be designed and built from scratch, it would make greater economic sense and be much more capital-efficient to leverage the global power industry’s huge, growing investment in coal-fired power generation infrastructure as much as possible.
Not surprisingly, the energy heart of a coal-fired power generation system is its boilers , where coal is burned to create heat that makes hot steam that is in turn used to spin a steam turbine that makes electricity. Analogous to retrofitting new LENR-based cores in existing fission power plants, boilers in coal-fired power plants could simply be retrofitted with green LENR-based boilers with lithium as target fuel, for example. This could eliminate carbon emissions from retrofitted plants while continuing to supply low-cost electricity to regional grids all over the world.
This objective could be accomplished at reasonable economic cost either by adapting existing proven designs for coal-fired plants and then constructing brand new ‘ground up’ plants based on such altered designs; or by retrofitting LENR-based boilers to pre-existing coal power generation facilities. The second alternative may be more financially attractive and capital-efficient for the power generation industry. It would permit the bulk of fixed capital investment in infrastructure surrounding coal-fired power generation (land, licensing, buildings, steam turbine electrical generators, monitoring and control systems, etc.) to be financially protected and fully utilized with minimal economic and technological disruption. Similar to heat sources in nuclear power plants, boilers alone comprise a small percentage of the total economic cost of coal-fired power generation.
At system power outputs of just 5 - 10 kW, green LENR-based distributed power generation systems could potentially satisfy the requirements of most urban and rural households and smaller businesses worldwide.
If such a future scenario is realised, nowhere near as many new, large fossil-fired and/or non-LENR fission generation systems would have to be built to supply low-cost electricity to regional grids serving urban and many rural areas. In that case, grid-based centralized power generation could be displaced by large numbers of much smaller, distributed systems. A bold vision of the future of distributed power generation, ‘Micropower: the Next Electrical Era,’ was published by the Worldwatch Institute eight years ago . A similar vision was proposed more recently in  Which Energy? (ISIS Report); and in  Perfect Power: How the Microgrid Revolution will Unleash Cleaner, Greener, and More Abundant Energy.
At electrical outputs of just 50 - 200 kW, LENR-based systems could begin to power vehicles, breaking the stranglehold of oil on transportation, and giving new-found ‘energy sovereignty’ to many countries.
Although they could very likely be designed and built, megawatt LENR systems are not needed to change the world for the better. High-volume manufacturing of 5 kW - 200 kW LENR-based distributed stationary and mobile systems could potentially do an even better job by democratizing access to low-cost green energy for consumers worldwide.
Today, there are an estimated 1.6 billion people living in mostly rural areas of the world that have no access to electricity via grids or other means. With LENRs, this situation could potentially be rectified in less than 20 years.
Deployment of low-cost, LENR-based distributed power generation systems in rural areas currently without electricity would eliminate the massive capital investments needed for expanding existing power grids to serve such areas. It would free up scarce global financial resources for better use in improving rural citizens’ quality of life, healthcare, and educational opportunities.
As Thomas Friedman writes in his new book , Hot, Flat, and Crowded:
“… we have not found that magic bullet – that form of energy production that will give us abundant, clean, reliable cheap electrons. All the advances we have made so far in wind, solar, geothermal, solar thermal, hydrogen, and cellulosic ethanol are incremental, and there has been no breakthrough in any other energy source. Incremental breakthroughs are all we’ve had, but exponential is what we desperately need.
“No single solution will defuse more of the Energy-Climate Era’s problems at once than the invention of a source of abundant, clean, reliable, and cheap electrons. Give me abundant clean, reliable, and cheap electrons, and I will give you a world that can continue to grow without triggering unmanageable climate change ... I will eliminate any reason to drill in Mother Nature’s environmental cathedrals … and I will enable millions of the earth’s poor to get connected, to refrigerate their medicines, to educate their women, and to light up their nights.”
The author declares his commercial interest as President and CEO of Lattice Energy LLC.
Article first published 27/01/09
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