Bring in the Solar Batteries

By Russell Lowes, Rincon Group Energy Subcommittee Chair, April 2, 2017

Have you ever wanted to get off the electricity grid? You might have a number of reasons to do so. What about saving money? The economic breakeven may be here sooner than you think. There’s an interesting and eye-opening thing you can do with energy usage and cost numbers (step 4, below) to make your own cost estimates.

Let’s say that you have decided there are four things you want to do at your house. One, you want to reduce your energy use. Two, you want to buy solar. Three, you want to buy a battery system to back up your solar when the sun is not shining. Four, you want to go off the electricity grid.

This is how the process of battery-backed solar might work in the near future. However, you can get started with step 1 & 2 right now, and later with steps 3 & 4.

1) Reducing Energy Consumption

  • Let’s say you use 575 kilowatt hours (kWhe) of energy per month, a typical usage rate in southern Arizona;
  • 200 kWhe is a typical reduction per month by using energy efficiency techniques like insulating shades for your windows, weatherization, insulation for your attic, or getting a an evaporative cooler “piggyback system” added to your air conditioning system.

This translates into:

  • Your usage has been 575 kWhe X 11¢/kWhe, a typical energy cost in So. AZ, which equals $63.25 plus basic service charge, and other charges per month, going down to:
  • Your new usage, with a 200 kWhe reduction, would be 375 X 11¢/kWhe, or $41.25/month + other base utility charges.
  • If you were to leave it at that and not do the next steps, you savings would be $22.00/month, $264/year, $5280/20 years.

2) Adding Solar to Your House

Now that you have reduced your energy consumption, when you add solar, you won’t have to buy as many panels. Instead of paying for maybe 5.6 kilowatts of capacity (the average used by the National Renewable Energy Lab, at, you now would buy around 3.9 kWe.

Your new solar panel array would deliver energy at about 7.0¢ per kilowatt-hour to your home, plus financing, so maybe 8.5¢.

Solar Prices Continuing to Fall

Solar Prices Continuing to Fall “NREL Report Shows U.S. Solar Photovoltaic Costs Continuing to Fall in 2016” September 28, 2016 *
Solar Prices Continuing to Fall “NREL Report Shows U.S. Solar Photovoltaic Costs Continuing to Fall in 2016” September 28, 2016 *

3) Adding Battery Backup to Your Rooftop Solar

Batteries are the big unknown in this process. Costs are falling quickly, and there is a goal by the industry to bring them down to 14¢/kWhe, when combined with solar. This is a bit more costly, when compared to the roughly 11¢ average cost of electricity by the utilities of southern Arizona. However, you only have to get a portion of your energy from batteries, and with lower solar costs here in the Southwest, the deal gets sweeter. For example, you can get 35% of your energy needs met with energy efficiency, from step 1 above, and 45% from solar, from step 2, and 20% from battery energy, from step 3, well that leads us to that point I opened with. . .

4) Going Off-Grid . . . “There’s an interesting and eye-opening thing you can do with energy usage and cost numbers.”

First, you have to boost the number of solar panels a bit to power the batteries, so your cost of solar would go up from 8.5¢ to roughly 10¢/solar kWhe, fully financed. Let’s project that future battery costs are 20¢/kWhe, fully financed.

Take a look at the following table and if you copy these values and formulas onto a spreadsheet (or ask me for a copy at, you can change the percentages in column D, and as long as the total equals 100% at the bottom of that column, all the figures will automatically and accurately update! Likewise, if you change any of the projected costs/kWhe in column E, the spreadsheet will auto-self-adjust. But, you math wizards out there already knew that!

This has been about the process of going off the grid, but there are reasons to stay on the grid. The main one is so you can share your electrons with others so they don’t have to use coal, gas or nuclear energy from the grid. However, if the utilities resist the solar revolution, we may not have much choice. If the utilities keep fighting solar rooftop and keep putting onerous charges on our bills, the best choice for you and your family, and for you and your business, might be to go off-grid.


*A side note about the above NREL chart: One interesting thing about the residential-size solar (rooftop solar) versus centralized utility scale is that with rooftop there is much less non-power-generation cost. With centralized solar there are new transmission requirements, more distribution costs, land acquisition costs, switch yard and substation and a myriad of other costs that are not required, as much, as with rooftop solar. Right now, rooftop solar is cheaper when you consider these non-generation costs. I believe that rooftop solar will widen the gap of cost benefit over large utility-scale centralized solar in coming years.


Hansen is Wrong about Nuclear Power

Nuclear is a drain on our ability to deal with climate solutions, energy needs.

Dr. James Hansen is dead wrong. He is wrong about nuclear energy being able to make a contribution to solving global warming. He has little or no grasp of the economics of nuclear energy, and that leads him to mistakenly support this doomed option.

Let’s just forget for a moment a key negative aspect of nuclear energy. Let’s assume that there is no greenhouse gas from the nuclear fuel cycle, even though the two lifecycle meta-studies done so far both peg the number at approximately sixty-five grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, more than six times that of wind energy.

Let’s focus instead on costs of new reactors in the U.S., which make them infeasible to solve energy and global warming problems. The newer round of reactors Dr. Hansen would like to see are very similar to the last group of reactors finished in the 1980s in at least one aspect – economics. These reactors require giant nuclear steam supply systems, oversized condensers, large plant footprints, huge reactor containment buildings and an insane level of complexity compared to the other options – and even more complexity and construction material than the last round of reactors.

There have been recent proposals for smaller reactors. The U.S. nuclear program started out small and chose to go with larger reactors to reduce cost per kilowatt. The small reactors would just spread out the radioactive waste, relative cost and complexity issues over a wider ground.

Simply put, the nation, and the planet, can neither gain traction against global warming nor solve its energy problems practically and cost effectively, with nuclear energy. The nation and the world would in fact be set back by the extreme additional cost, compared to a better planned energy strategy. That alternative strategy includes solar, wind, energy efficiency, storage and energy management technologies, plus a rapid phase-down of fossil and nuclear energy.

Let’s just forget that an accident like the one at Fukushima can endanger an entire nation’s nuclear energy program. This is where Japan switched from nuclear to mandated energy cut-backs and massive increases in fossil energy use. It is five years later and things still are not back to normal. However, the Japanese have amplified their renewable energy program.

The last significant round of U.S. nuclear construction was completed in 1987. The average reactor was completed for around 3,100 dollars per kilowatt of capacity. See Brice Smith, Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change, found at

That comes to 6,211 dollars per kilowatt of capacity, in 2015 dollars. See

***Editor’s note: Dr. James Hansen, the renowned climate change scientist, has said that nuclear power is essential to combat climate change. A number of environmentalists disagree including Lowes and Mainland.***

“This lower-cost clean energy blend would not

only produce less greenhouse gas, but also save

$92 billion/year.” –Russell Lowes


Let’s just forget about other issues like national security, and the likelihood that centralized nuclear plants remain vulnerable not only to terrorism and foreign attack but also natural disasters, accidents and operator error. Let’s ignore the Fukushima disaster as well as the damage that some U.S. nukes have already shown in tornados and hurricanes, plus the creeping onset of sea-level rise and storm surges. Let’s also put aside the problem of disposing of long-lived radioactive waste, which is enormously expensive, technologically intractable and probably insoluble.

We’ll just continue on with what 6,211 dollars per kW would cost for one reactor. If we ran this out from this year to 2023, at four percent inflation, the cost per kW would equal 8,173 dollars.

One of us, Russell Lowes, has been accurately projecting nuclear costs since the 1970s (only four percent off on Palo Verde reactors projected in 1978 for 1986 completion). He has come up with twenty-seven reactor construction cost factors, perhaps the most varied list of factors compiled for nuclear construction costs.

The estimate is that the reactors of the early 2020s will cost about twenty percent more in real dollars than the reactors finished in the last big wave of the mid-late 1980s. This considers factors that would make reactors cheaper than in the inflation-adjusted cost of the past, like labor cost declines in America. And it also takes into consideration factors that would increase the costs, like material cost increases, and increases in plant robustness requiring more cement, copper, steel, etc.

If an average U.S. reactor in the future is 1,350 megawatts of capacity, this average nuclear reactor would cost 9,808 dollars per kW in 2023. That’s 13.2 billion dollars per reactor.


“When you put a dollar into nuclear, that dollar

would cause only four kWh to be delivered to

ratepayers, versus seven for wind.” –Edward Mainland


Assume a higher than average thirty-year capitalization cost, say fourteen percent instead of twelve percent for a typical large fossil plant, due to increased risk (per the Standard and Poor’s ratings agency). The cost per kilowatt-hour just for construction, for an eighty-five percent plant output average, would be 13.8 cents per kWh over forty years.

This would be upped by operation and maintenance costs. See Keystone Report, “Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding,” page 42. Add 4.3 cents per kWh for operations and maintenance, plus transmission and distribution of say 7 cents, to deliver the average cost of nuclear energy to 25.1 cents per kWh.

This compares to solar power purchase agreements of 7.5 cents for production, 13.5 cents delivered, with prices continuing to improve. It compares with wind at 3.5 cents, 10.5 cents delivered, and energy efficiency at 3.5 cents. It compares to rooftop solar at about 12 cents delivered with net metering, including on-site transmission and distribution.

Let’s put this on a larger scale. The U.S. spends about one trillion dollars on all energy each year. If it were to build, say, a hundred nuclear reactors, the cost would be about 1.325 trillion dollars for construction. With the interest, operation and maintenance, etc., this would cost ratepayers in the U.S. about 173 billion dollars per year.

This 173 billion dollars is almost half our current annual electricity outlay in the U.S. The equivalent energy produced from solar and wind, and saved from energy efficiency improvements, per kWh, is shown in Table 1.

The 11.8 cent average cost for energy received and saved in the Table 1 energy mix would translate to 81 billion dollars per year, compared to the nuclear option of a hundred plants at 173 billion dollars per year. By the way, this lower-cost clean energy blend would not only produce less greenhouse gas, but also would save 92 billion dollars per year.

We have only a limited amount of dollars to put into energy. When you put a dollar into nukes, you get about four kWh. When you put that dollar into centralized solar, you get about seven kWh. Rooftop solar gets you about eight kWh. Wind delivers about nine kWh. Energy efficiency delivers twenty-nine kWh saved for every dollar spent.

The U.S. has limited capital resources for energy. They shouldn’t be wasted. When you put a dollar into nuclear energy, instead of putting the same dollar into one of the cheaper options, for example wind energy, that dollar would cause only four kWh to be delivered to ratepayers, versus seven for wind. This creates a deficit of three kWh, that now needs to be recovered from this mismanaged dollar.

As Amory Lovins said, “If you buy more nuclear plants you’re going to get about two to ten times less climate solution per dollar and you’ll get it about 20 times slower than if you buy instead the cheaper faster stuff.”

Nuclear energy is plainly a boondoggle, one that is made even more expensive when you consider its subsidy costs, compared to the other options covered here. It would be one thing for James Hansen and others to consider nuclear energy if it gave you extra value, compared to the other options. Instead, it is a financial drain on our ability to deal with climate solutions and energy needs. It is time to nuke the nuclear option.

Russell Lowes is the primary author of the book, “Energy Options for the Southwest, Nuclear and Coal Power.” This was used by citizens creating initiatives at California electric municipalities to cancel Units 4 and 5 at the Palo Verde nuclear plant. Lowes projected a cost of $6.1 billion for the nuclear plant, west of Phoenix, compared to the industry projection of $2.8 billion. The plant came within four percent, at $5.9 billion, perhaps the most accurate projection for a nuclear plant in the U.S. Lowes testified before the Arizona Corporation Commission, as an expert witness on the economics of power plants. Today he heads, and is the Energy Subcommittee Chairman for the Southern Arizona Sierra Club Rincon Group.

Edward Mainland is co-founder of Sustainable Novato and currently Secretary of Sustainable Marin, both volunteer groups in Marin County, California that promote long-term community sustainability and local self-reliance. He has been Senior Conservation Fellow at the International Program at national Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco, and co-chair of California State Sierra Club’s Energy-Climate Committee.

Printed with permission of Public Utilities Fortnightly. See more at:


Solar Under Siege | Alert: Three Arizona Electric Utilities Trying to Stop Solar Energy Rooftop Installations

UNS Electric, Inc., is the first of three utilities in Arizona to file a rate case to kill off the booming residential and business solar industry.  The utilities, UNS, Tucson Electric Power and Arizona Public Service, are undertaking a coordinated effort to increase rates, increase basic fees and wipe out family-owned solar energy rooftop installations. They hope to achieve this by implementing a new rate structure for consumers that includes three nasty components. These tactics are particularly detrimental to families and businesses in Arizona.  UNS is the first to propose it, but if the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) approves UNS’s proposal, the other two utilities are sure to follow.  The ACC is the regulatory commission for Arizona energy utilities.

First, UNS Electric wants to virtually eliminate a long-standing Arizona policy to put solar on parity with other energy options. This policy, called “net metering,” has been adopted by almost all states in the U.S.  Now UNS wants to reverse it in Arizona. Currently under this policy, your electric utility pays you the same rate for the excess solar electricity that you produce as you pay to buy energy from the grid when you need it. In other words, under the current system, if you have solar panels, the utility buys and sells energy from and to you at the same retail rate. UNS Electric wants to cut what they pay you in half. And then they would turnaround and sell the power that they buy from you to your neighbors for twice the price.
    Second, UNS  wants to increase the basic fee from $10 to $15 per month. This is bad in so many ways. It means a much bigger (50% bigger) portion of your bill would be beyond your control. When you reduce energy consumption, a move better for your pocketbook and for the planet, the fee would not go down. When you put solar on your house, which is better for your pocketbook and better for the planet, your fee would not go down. It is a disincentive to using your energy more wisely. And, because UNS gets the vast majority of their energy from coal and gas, it is a penalty to families that do the right thing by reducing their coal and gas-produced energy.
Finally, UNS wants to implement a demand charge for residential customers—something that no other major Arizona utility has imposed on residential users and is typically only used for commercial customers who are better able to control and track their usage. The “demand charge” would be a rate (cost per kilowatt-hour) calculation that would be assessed by UNS, and without notice to the customer, based on each customer’s highest energy peak usage over the worst 15 minute period in each month. So if your overall usage for a given month is lower than usual, if during that same month someone ran a number of appliances while the A/C was on over a 15 minute period, the cost per kilowatt-hour for the entire month would go up based on those brief 15 minutes. This would happen even if your peak was of no consequence to UNS.
    Not only have TEP and APS intervened in the UNS rate case on the side of UNS, all three companies have recently put forth the supposition that rooftop solar energy installed by one family is the cause of increased costs to other families. UNS and the other two utilities have been throwing out this concept, without referring to the other alternatives. Statements of costs of solar rooftop without comparing it to the other options are meaningless in the bigger picture. Energy costs for most other UNS options are much more expensive to these families without the participation of rooftop solar.
    If for example, UNS purchases solar energy at a large centralized solar facility, the cost per kilowatt-hour is currently about 6¢ for production, and going down each year, plus 6¢ for transmission and distribution, totaling 12¢/kilowatt-hour. This is after taking out about 2¢ from subsidies. New gas plants are about 13¢/ kilowatt-hour, with a likelihood of increasing fuel costs. This gas plant price is also is after subsidies are subtracted. New coal plants are about the same cost per kilowatt-hour.
    When UNS buys solar, or for that matter, gas or coal, the cost of construction is entirely passed on to the ratepayers, which includes families with and without solar. With utility solar, all ratepayers pay all the utility-solar-plant land acquisition costs, the environmental permit costs, the siting costs, equipment maintenance costs, increased transmission and distribution (T&D) costs, grounds cost, insurance, switch yard costs and more.  
    When a family or business decides to go rooftop solar, there are also system costs. However, instead of passing on these costs to other families, that solar family pays all the construction cost, all the interest costs, all of the other costs except a small portion of the normal transmission and distribution cost. The non-solar family would only pay a small added transmission and distribution cost. But this cost is very small compared to centralized plant T&D costs. The rooftop solar energy does not have to be transported on long-distance high voltage transmission lines. Rooftop solar largely uses existing lines. Under the UNS proposal, rooftop solar gets sold locally by UNS at a virtually 100% profit over a time span that is in an instant, not even the normal measurement of a year for return – that is price-gouging.
    In sum, the non-solar family pays much less for system expansion when the neighbor next door expands the system by 5 kilowatts, for example, compared to when the utility expands the system by that same 5 kilowatt of capacity.  Thus, the message that the Arizona utilities are crafting, that rooftop solar is costly, is false.  The much higher costs are with the other options of utility power plant construction and acquisition.  Moreover, solar energy offers substantial environmental benefits.  However, even without addressing these important advantages, solar rooftop costs less to all families, families with and without rooftop solar energy, than the alternative utility power plant expansion.
    I am hoping that many many ratepayers will submit comments to the ACC on this rate case. Please look over the action section below and at the URL in this section.


TAKE ACTION to keep the solar rooftop option thriving in Arizona! Send your comments to the ACC to the Sierra Club Chapter Director, Sandy Bahr (, as she has offered to get the 13 copies of our testimonies to the Arizona Corporation Commission, so that they will be a permanent part of the “docket,” or rate hearing case. Put at the top of your comments:
Regarding: UNS Electric Rate Case Docket # E-04204A-15-0142
You might address it with something like: “Dear Chairman Little and Members of the Arizona Corporation Commission:”
You can also find out more and comment at the Sierra Club’s

It is Time to Nuke the Nuclear Option!

Nuclear Electricity Makes No Sense.

By Russell Lowes, 11/18/2014

The Obama administration is already doing all it can realistically do. Despite its “all-of-the-above” façade, it favors nuclear power. To start with, the Energy Department is essentially a nuclear department. Professor Moniz is [was] Secretary because of his nuclear ties. DOE’s national laboratories are basically nuclear labs. It organizes international nuclear R&D groupings to encourage worldwide commitment to nuclear power. The Obama administration has created an inter-departmental Team USA, including State and Commerce, specifically to encourage domestic nuclear industry by promoting nuclear exports. The White House dedicates a staffer to this task. Secretary Moniz emphasizes his commitment to “jumpstart” the U.S. nuclear power industry. DOE subsidizes new domestic nuclear plants through loan guarantees. The nuclear Navy provides government-trained operating personnel. And to facilitate the licensing of new plants, and extend licenses for existing ones, the administration’s appointments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have ensured that it remains industry-friendly.

–Victor Galinsky, ex-NRC Commissioner, National Journal, February 2014

We keep hearing from certain people that nukes are essential to solve energy and global warming problems. They say that nuclear energy is carbon-free, or some say low-carbon. They are neither. They say that nuclear is low-cost. They say building another round of nuclear reactors is essential for the U.S. and the world. It is neither low-cost nor essential. To build more megawatts of nuclear energy would be a mega-distraction.

Such an emphasis would weaken our response and ability to stem future climate chaos. I will take on the mission here of showing how the horrendous costs of nuclear energy makes this source an unpractical one. It is especially unpractical now, during our quest to truly course-correct on climate change.

The bottom line is that electricity generated from new nuclear reactors is about 24 cents per kilowatt-hour. About this 24 cents per kilowatt-hour:

1)    This is double the electricity price for the U.S. on average .

2)    The cost of 24¢ for nuclear electricity is more than twice the 10¢ cost of solar electricity in Arizona, about twice the national average for solar.

3)    It is more than twice the cost of wind-generated and delivered electricity.

4)    Most important, nuclear electricity is 8 times the 3¢ national average cost of energy efficiency.

5)    It is about twice the cost of new coal and gas-generated electricity.

You might ask, well how do we know how expensive a reactor will be? We have nuclear plants scattered across the nation, so how much did these plants cost in the last round?

First, I have been using empirical analysis of the cost of nuclear energy since 1977. We used regression analysis in a book released in 1979. This book was instrumental in convincing investors to pull out of the Palo Verde Generating Station Units 4 & 5, America's largest nuclear plant, west of Phoenix. Our analysis projected the cost of the Palo Verde to be $6.1 billion in 1986 actual completion dollars. The managing utility company, Arizona Public Service Co. (APS), projected $2.8 billion at the same time, and they never waivering on its projection until construction was well under way. 

That down-graded plant of 3 reactors was finished for $5.9 billion. The APS projection was overrun in costs by 111%, while our projection was slightly over the final cost by less than 4%. Of all the reactor projections done across the land that we could find, ours was the most accurate nuclear reactor projection in the nation.

We used empirical approach to costing reactors, with regression and other modeling techniques. Apparently APS used the tried and true method of sales pitch estimation.

So how do we jump from then, when the final reactor at PVNGS was completed in 1986 to now? The method I use is four-fold.

1)    First, find out what the average cost of the last rush of reactors, which happened around 1987;

2)    Then apply general inflation to that cost to bring it up to today’s cost;

3)    Third, apply a projected inflation to the year that a new reactor might be completed; and

4)    Finally, weigh a series of factors that might increase or decrease this figure.

For step 1, a low/conservative estimate on reactor average cost for 1988 was $3100 per kilowatt of net plant size.

Putting that $3100 into 1987 dollars at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards inflation calculator yields $6105 per kilowatt of electrical capacity in 2013 dollars.

For Step 3, I project a common 4% inflation rate through 2022, the first year it is likely for the next small group of reactors in the U.S. to be completed. This yields a completion cost in 2022 of $8689/kWe.

For Step 4, I have come up with a survey of 27 reactor construction cost factors. This is the most varied and numerous list of items I have seen, so far, from all my reading on reactor costs. I estimate that the reactors of the early 2020s will cost about 20% more than the reactors finished in the last big wave of the mid-late 1980s.

In this 4th step, I have considered factors that would make nukes cheaper than in the real (inflation adjusted) dollars of the past, like labor cost declines in America. I have also taken into consideration factors that would increase the costs like certain material cost increases, and increases in plant robustness requiring more cement, copper, steel, etc.

After comparing the changing conditions since the time the last reactors were completed, I have come to what I consider a fairly accurate projection.  It probably won’t be as accurate as our PVNGS <4% accuracy level, but I am fairly sure it will be in the ball park.

After going through this process, the final figure I project for the next round of nukes built in 2022 is $9149/kilowatt of plant size. This is in sharp contrast to most sales pitches from utilities today, where they project more like $4000 per kWe. It would be good to remember that the average overrun was 220% in the last round. They sell these plants by unrealistically lowballing the construction cost.

What does that come out to in cost per kilowatt-hour? Just like with solar and wind, you can break this down to the kilowatt-hour of electrical capacity (kWe) level, and then apply production time (hours) to it to get kilowatt-hours of electricity delivered (kWhe). You can also multiply these kWe units to the typical sizes of the wind turbines, solar panels, or coal or nuclear plants.

Here are the calculations.

This is what it would cost roughly, to install 100 reactors in the U.S., a figure being brought up from time to time by members of Congress.


X 1,350,000 kWe plant size

= $12.351 billion

X 100 reactors occasionally proposed

= $1.2351 trillion total construction cost for 100 reactors

X 14% loan payback per year (capitalization rate)

= $172.9 billion per year for 30 years

X 30 years

= $5.187 trillion paid just for construction and loan and tax expenses, not counting fuel or operation & maintenance, nor transmission and distribution.

That $172.9 billion/year will cost the average person in the U.S. (assuming an average of 350 million people into the future):

$494/person/year for 30 years if we have a 350 million population, or

$988/taxpayer/year if we have 175 million taxpayers.


So, how do we get to cost per kilowatt-hour? For each kilowatt of plant capacity, you can calculate the cost to construct, the capital cost and then calculate the electricity the plant produces over a typical 40 years (before major costs of renovation add to the equation). Then simply divide the capitalization cost by the kWhe. Here we go (simply). . .


Cost Portion of the Equation:


X 14% capitalization rate =

$1,281 in capital cost/year

X 30 years

= $38,426 capital payback over 30 years for each kWe of size – This is just the total capital cost over 30 years.


Electrical Output Portion of the Equation:

1 kWhe

X 8766 hours/year on average

X 85% average capacity factor (electrical performance) over the life of the reactor

X 40 years

= 298,044 kWhe over 40 years – THIS is the e output over 40 years. Note that the capital payback is 30 years and the plant runs for a projected 40 years (before major capital upgrade, if it runs longer).


The Final Capital Cost/kWhe Calculation:

$38,426 Capital cost over 30 years per kilowatt of installed electrical capacity

/ 298,044 kWhe e output over 40 years

= 12.9¢ per kilowatt-hour of electricity.


There was a multi-disciplinary report put together by the nuclear industry, along with governmental and non-governmental entities called the Keystone Report.

This report projected fuel and operations and maintenance costs at:

4.3¢ per kWhe for fuel and O&M. That, plus. . .

+ 12.9¢ capitalization cost

= 17.2¢ production cost (pre transmission & distribution)

+ 7.0¢ per kWhe for transmission & distribution

= 24.2¢ per kilowatt-hour to your meter


What are the implications of such a high cost to your household, and to the larger society, the U.S. in this case?

I’ll leave that up to your imagination, as you ponder that solar is currently less than half the cost, while it continues its cost plunge, energy efficiency is about one eighth the cost and wind is also about half the cost. Getting back to Victor Galinsky’s quote from the beginning, the only way in which nuclear energy can compete in the market is in a skewed way, with the U.S. Government favoring it all the way along. That in fact is how nukes have gotten as far as they have. It’s time to nuke the nuclear option!

America has saved more energy than you might think. YOU are saving more energy than you might think.

Saving Energy Comes in Many Forms
“Saving Energy Series, Part I”

by Russell Lowes, April 2, 2011

In 1973, at the height of the OPEC Oil Embargo, America was coming to grips with the concept of limited oil reserves. During that year, all companies, citizens and governments in the U.S. used a total of 77 quads of energy—that is, 77 quadrillion British thermal Units (Btu).(1) 

Thirty-eight years later, the country’s annual consumption is 98 quads,(2) only 27% more than in 1973.

“Wait a minute,” you might ask, “our economy has expanded much more than that, right”?  You would be right. Our economy expanded from $4.93 trillion to about $13.19 trillion. These figures are in 2000 dollars with the inflation adjusted out.(3) Yet, all of the energy that we use as Americans — living in houses, driving everywhere, producing goods and services, governing our nation, states, counties and cities — adds up to just 96 quads, just 27% more than almost 4 decades ago.

That means that we had a 267% increase in economic output, an increase that is radically more than the 27% energy growth.  When you factor in our conversion from a medium manufacturing country in 1973 to a lighter manufacturing country today (manufacturing uses more energy than services) the energy equivalency needs to be adjusted downward. However, still, our improvement in energy consumed per dollar of economic output since 1973 is undeniably impressive.

This is illustrated by the table below.

So how did we do that? How did we increase our economic activity with so little energy expansion? We did so by saving energy. Saving energy falls into two categories: energy conservation through cutbacks in the use of energy, and what I will call energy efficiency, through improving the way goods and services are produced.  This article and the table above, address only energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency includes producing more services like delivering packages around the country for less energy. It also includes producing more goods for the same buck, like reducing the plastic and metal in a radio that performs the same function.

How Are YOU Saving Energy Through Energy Efficiency?

In all likelihood, you are contributing to this increased energy efficiency.  You may not even know that you are buying something that has been manufactured in a way that has improved in efficiency. 

Take the clothes you are wearing. Since 1973, that first year of increased energy awareness in the U.S., clothing has been dyed using more effective technologies, like using electrostatic adherence techniques. That has allowed manufacturers to use less dye, which means producing less dye and reducing all the energy that used to go into manufacturing. You may not have even known it.

On the other hand, if you have changed the type of light bulbs you use, you probably do know that compact florescent lights save about 75% of the energy that old-fashioned incandescent bulbs use. These CFLs have improved in recent years to give better lighting.  For example, the U.S. Government Energy Star-rated CFLs now start out with the same amount of light almost the instant you turn them on, the amount of mercury has been reduced, the light spectrum has improved, and the annoying hum has been eliminated.

Even some power plants have contributed to our energy efficiency gains.  These power plants have increased their thermal efficiency, which means that for every 100 units of heat they produce, they now convert more of that heat to electricity.  That reduces the need to produce so much heat (raw energy production) and pump so much water to cool these plants, which uses a tremendous amount of energy.

With that in mind, below is a graphic of the energy efficiency categories that will be helping America reduce its energy use per dollar of economic activity, or per average item bought. This is a projection of what might happen between now and 2020. The point of presenting this is to show the vast array of efficiency techniques that we both have been using and are still improving upon.

The improvement in energy efficiency since 1973 has saved more energy than all the additional energy expansion since that year. This will continue on into the future, and negate the need for additional power plants and oil consumption for transportation and more.

Above table: McKinsey Report finds that U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020, by investing $520 billion in improvements. Kate Galbraith, “McKinsey Report Cites $1.2 Trillion in Potential Savings from Energy Efficiency,” New York Times, July 29, 2009,


(1)    U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration,…/All_25th_Anniversary.xls and
(2)    Data360,

Beating the Heat: Evaporative Coolers vs. Refrigeration

by Roy Emrick and Russell Lowes, May 3, 2010

An earlier version of this article appeared in the April-June 2010 Sierra Club Rincon Group Newsletter.

Which cooling system is best for energy use? Which is best for water use? Which is best for reducing CO2 output of electrical plants?

For several years, a business columnist at the Arizona Daily Star regularly berated evaporative coolers as water wasters and outmoded technology. He said refrigeration was the way to go in the modern world. Many readers disagreed with him but they gave only qualitative arguments. We decided to see if we could find some quantitative data to compare the two systems. We put together our data on our own rooftop systems. One of us (Roy) has had only evaporative coolers since he came to Tucson in 1960. The second author (Russell) has a combined evap/air conditioner/heat pump unit.

Russell’s combo “piggyback” evap cooler/A/C Heatpump system                           Photo by Russell Lowes

Although evaporative coolers used to be the standard cooling device for Tucson homes, they are less common today, so a brief description of how they work is in order. You’ve probably noticed that even on a very hot summer day, when you come out of swimming pool you find yourself shivering. This is because it takes energy to evaporate water (or any liquid for that matter). This energy, called the latent heat of evaporation, comes from your body and cools it. The evap cooler uses the same principle. It is a box with a tank of water, pads of aspen fiber, corrugated paper, or composite (MasterCool), a pump to distribute water to wet the pads, and a blower fan to pull air in through the pads and force it into your house. The air is  cooled as it flows through the pads by the evaporating water. On a hot, dry summer day, this method of cooling is very effective; however, because less water evaporates when the air is more humid, these coolers are admittedly not as effective during the humid monsoon season.

Also, as you probably know, Tucson’s water contains lots of dissolved minerals. These minerals precipitate out on the cooler pads eventually making them useless. To combat this problem, the more modern coolers have pumps that empty out the water tank every eight or twelve hours of operation, thereby purging the salty water. This is good for cooler pad life but uses more water. Because this latter type of cooler is more  common today, we included the use of this pump in our experiment.

Refrigeration or “air conditioning” systems are based on the Joule-Thomson effect: a gas cools when it expands. For example, when you let air out of a tire, it is cool. Here a mechanical pump compresses a gas (usually Freon), which warms it. It then goes through a copper coil where air cools it until it condenses. The resulting liquid then flows through a small opening and expands, causing it to cool, and chill your house.

In the table above, we summarize the energy and water consumption of the two types of coolers. Since our electric bills are usually the first concern, we start there. Our data in column 2 are taken from a number of research papers. There is an amazing spread of water usage, almost a factor of ten, in usage for similar houses, so we have used mid-range values that would apply to Tucson. The $0.113/kWh (kilowatt hours)used in Column 3 for calculating the energy cost comes from dividing Roy’s last July bill of $42.91 by the 380 kWh used.

Next we determined the cost of the water used by the evap cooler. Tucson water has a lower rate ($1.39/ccf) for less than 15 ccf (hundred cubic feet – 748 gallons) and much more ($5.14/ccf) for over 15 ccf. We assumed that folks would use some amount of water that fell into the higher category, so estimated $3/ccf as a reasonable average. This results in the total cost for the two systems in Column 9.

The trickier part was figuring the total water usage, Columns 4, 6 and 9. It may come as a surprise, but air conditioning or heat pump refrigeration is not a water-free process. Water—lots of it— is used in the generation of electricity. You may have noted clouds of steam coming from the cooling towers at power plants. Much of the cooling water is recycled, but even so about 0.5 gallon of water is used to generate one kWh of electrical energy at the Tucson Electric power plants.

Hydropower is even more water consumptive, as a huge amount of water evaporates from the reservoir behind the power dam. Lakes Meade and Powell lose almost a million acre feet per year and although some of this must be budgeted to irrigation, recreation, and flood control, at least 4 gallons/kWh could be attributed to hydropower. Nuclear power is even more water intensive than coal plants. Since we are on the Western Power Grid, it is difficult to say what fraction of our local power comes from which source. Once again, we used an average, and calculated 0.8gal/kWh as a reasonable estimate.

There are also indirect water consumption and environmental factors associated with electricity that must be taken into account. Electricity production uses water in the coal and uranium mining process. Extraction of water at these mines often devastates the local environment around the mines. Another area of environmental impact is that of CO2 production. We address this in the last column of the Table. Here you can see that the evap uses so much less electricity that the CO2 impact is 75% lower than refrigeration.

The Table reflects these assumptions on energy and water consumption. It also compares the total energy and water consumption for a typical home in the Southwestern deserts. Depending on the assumptions, the results are quite variable. For example, if you predict that the energy costs per kilowatt-hour in this area are going to increase, which many energy analysts project, then the evap cooler gains favor. If you plan to buy a super-efficient A/C, then this option gains favor. We did assume a high efficiency A/C, but there are even higher efficiency units becoming available.

There are also other factors not considered in this analysis. For example, some people do better, health-wise, with an evaporative cooler, while others do better with A/C. All air contains bacteria, mold and fungi. These microorganisms can even be beneficial for your health, but some people have problems with the very dry air an A/C produces, while others have problems with the moister air an evap produces. To most people it does not seem to make that much difference, except that in the driest conditions, many people say they like the moisture of the evap for their skin, hair and overall health.

Ultimately, the data seem to suggest that environmentally evaporative is the better choice, but using A/C during the most humid times, and using the evap the rest of the time is still a responsible option. Perhaps the most important lesson is not to use either unnecessarily – turn down the thermostat. That didn’t used to be an option for the old evaportative coolers—they were either on or off—with a high or low option. The modern evaps, however, offer affordable thermostats which pre-wet your pads, turn the system on and off like an A/C thermostat, and allow you to program the hours of startup and shutdown. These thermostats let you further reduce your water and energy consumption.

As for initial cost of system, and of repairs, refrigeration systems are much higher in cost than evaps. Evaps take more maintenance, but the routine maintenance is significantly lower in cost than the infrequent maintenance needs for refrigeration units.

What Can Homeownders Do to Reduce Energy and Water Consumption in Cooling Their Homes and Businesses?

Homeowners have several options if they want to reduce energy and water consumption and still cool their
homes during our hot summer months. If you are willing, like Roy, to weather the humidity, then the lowest cost option is the good ol’ evaporative cooler. If you aren’t quite that tough, you can do what Russell has done and install a “piggyback” unit, or cooler/heat-pump-A/C combo. This allows you to use the evaporative cooler during the drier months of April through June and September through October. It also allows you to use the evap during the drier parts of the days July through August. However, when the humidity increases and evap is no longer cooling efficiently, you can turn it off and the A/C on. If you do get a piggyback,

it is important to get a “barometric damper” which swings freely to open to whichever system you turn on. These allow you to not do anything but shut one system off and the other on. If you have a piggyback, you never want to run both systems at once (see picture of piggyback).

Home insulation is also important, especially with refrigeration. Some of the wide variations in experimental results for cooler energy use are no doubt due to the quality of the insulation of the house. Finally, note that in this article we are discussing retrofitting existing buildings. If you are building new, there are many ways to reduce your heating costs to nearly zero and greatly lower your refrigeration or evap consumption. But, that is another story—or at least another article!


For evaporative cooler water use:

Public Service of New Mexico, PNM, has a study at

MM Karpiscak, et. al, Evaporative Cooler Water Use in Phoenix, Journal AWWA, Vol. 90, Issue 4, April 1998, pp. 121-130, at: (for a fee)

For general info on how evaps work:

For water consumption at coal mines:
Black Mesa Project Final EIS, Vol. I Report, DOI FES 08-49, OSM-EIS-33, p. 11, November 2008