ISIS Report 27/01/09
LENRs Replacing Coal for Distributed Democratized Power
Low energy nuclear reactions have the potential to provide distributed power
generation with zero carbon emission and cheaper than coal Lewis
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Cost of grid electricity from today’s power sources
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
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).
Modern electricity grids require dispatchable power generation to insure availability
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.
Carbon-free LENR-based power sources competitive against coal-fired power
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.
Start up with small-scale LENR-based distributed power generation
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
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
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.
Follow with high-volume manufacturing and scale-up
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
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
Retrofit coal-fired power plants with scaled-up, carbon-free ‘green’ LENR
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
LENR distributed power generation systems could democratize access to low
cost green energy
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.
Empowering the powerless, improving the lives of billions 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
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
“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
The author declares his commercial interest as President and CEO of Lattice