Benjamin K. Sovacool
| The mightiest|
of them all
Benjamin K. Sovacool is an energy analyst at the Vermont Law School. One of his activities is the publishing of analyses which are good enough to pass peer review in journals focusing on "soft" fields, such as public policy or area studies, and have conclusions that make good soundbites for the anti-nuclear movement. However, upon closer examination, his papers often turn out to contain serious methodological errors. He is also a Huffington Post blogger, though as of February 2012 he published only one post.
 Notable publications
 Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey
Sovacool's most popular paper is Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey published in the journal Energy Policy in 2008. It is a survey of analyses done on this topic. The paper is a good example of Sovacool's modus operandi.
Sovacool found 103 papers estimating the greenhouse gas emissions for the nuclear fuel cycle. He then subjected them to a selection process which consisted of the following:
- He rejected 40 that were too old (published before 1997).
- He rejected 9 that were not published in English or were not open access, even though his own paper was not open access.
- He rejected 35 because of methodology. In most cases, this was due to relying either on unpublished data or on secondary sources (e.g. other analyses). Oddly, he also excluded a study that calculated very low emissions that relied on "published utility data", which did not meet his own criterion.
After all this, he was left with 19 studies that satisfied his criteria. He did not evaluate the soundness of methodology at all, or consider whether there was any peer review before publication, he just considered whether it was described in enough detail. He also did not remove superseded versions of the same analysis from the same authors. This led him to include 3 versions of the Leeuwen and Smith nonsense, as well as 3 different studies by Dones et al. Finally, to arrive at a "true" value of CO2 emissions, he calculated a mean of all results. He arrived at a value of 66 g/kWh, which he then compared to emissions from other sources, with each value selected from a single analysis.
This analysis has several obvious flaws:
- The selection process is faulty, as it leads to inclusion of widely debunked fiction, while rejecting studies based on real world measurements.
- The mean is used as the "true" value, despite the well known fact that a mean is far more sensitive to outliers, and a wiser choice would be the median.
- The emissions for other sources are not obtained using the same process, and therefore not comparable.
A better meta-analysis which used the median, investigated a larger corpus of literature and additionally excluded studies using the average economic intensity (AEI) method, which is known to produce bogus results for projects utilizing lots of high-value, low-energy labor (such as the construction and operation of nuclear power plants), came up with a median figure of 13 g/kWh lifecycle emissions for light water reactors.
 A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia
This publication makes many claims, but for now we will focus only on one specific item.
Sovacool uses the aforementioned emissions analysis to argue that renewable energy is "two to seven times more effective" at combating global warming than nuclear power, because the values he cited for wind are around 10 g/kWh, or around 6 times lower, than what he calculated for nuclear power. This is a mistake very similar to thinking that hydrogen has twice the lifting force of helium when used to fill a baloon, because helium is twice as dense. In fact helium is only around 8% less effective, because what matters for the lifting force is the difference of density between the gas and air, not the absolute value of density. Similarly, what really counts in the case of CO2 emissions is the change with respect to the sources replaced by new generation.
Nuclear power displaces other base load power, mainly coal. Wind displaces mainly natural gas and hydro: gas turbines and dams can vary output much quicker to respond to wind's variability, while coal power plants cannot. For the moment, we'll assume that only natural gas is displaced by wind and hydro is unchanged. Sovacool's article quotes the emissions for coal and gas as 960 g/kWh and 443 g/kWh, respectively. Generating 1 kWh from nuclear removes the need to generate 1 kWh from coal, saving 894 g of CO2. Generating 1 kWh from wind removes the need to generate 1 kWh from gas, saving 433 g of CO2. Therefore, nuclear is at least twice as effective at reducing emissions. If the existing grid is almost 100% natural gas, as is the case in some Arab countries, then each kWh from nuclear would save 367 g, while each kWh from wind would save 433 g. In this rather extreme scenario, nuclear would be 18% less effective per kWh than wind.
Even Sovacool's own numbers do not support his claim. Compounded with the fact that a better analysis produced a much lower number of 13 g/kWh, this contention is simply unsupported by evidence.
 See also
- ↑ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/benjamin-k-sovacool
- ↑ http://www.nirs.org/climate/background/sovacool_nuclear_ghg.pdf
- ↑ Quote: "These studies were "weighed" equally; that is, they were not adjusted in particular for their methodology, time of release within the past 10 years, or how rigorously they were peer reviewed or cited in the literature."
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Ethan S. Warner, Garvin A. Heath, Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Electricity Generation, Journal of Industrial Ecology 2012, 16(s1), pp. S73-S92
- ↑ Benjamin K. Sovacool, A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2010, 40(3), pp. 369-400
- ↑ Pacific Winds: The health and climate benefits of Altamont Pass wind power: "The clean, renewable power generation from the Altamont wind farms displaces natural gas generation..."
- ↑ American Wind Energy Association: Wind energy driving down consumer electric rates: "Since wind energy primarily displaces natural gas generated energy, reducing the quantity of natural gas purchases..."