A Coal/Nuclear/Solar Energy Faceoff That Is Almost Real

Seth Schiesel wrote a fascinating piece in the Times about a new collaboration between game maker Electronic Arts and the energy company BP in designing the latest version of E.A.’s SimCity computer game. In case you don’t know, SimCity “focuses on building and managing a modern metropolis.” As Schiesel tells us, “coping with environmental pollution has long been part of the series.”

That’s where BP comes in: helping to design game choices for generating electricity, which means considering cost, capacity, public response, and various externalities such as pollution.

So while designing your city, you choose between coal-fired plants, solar power, and nuclear power:

For instance, for most players the most economically efficient way to power their virtual cities may be with coal plants, which produce 500 units of electricity and cost 3,000 simoleons, the game’s currency, to build. Coal plants, however, produce large amounts of pollution, which can lead to natural disasters like droughts, and they also reduce the happiness of the city’s nearby citizens, which in turn causes them to produce less tax revenue.

On the other hand, a solar farm in the game has no negative side effects and also costs 3,000 simoleons but produces only 100 units of electricity, a mere fifth of the coal plant’s output. (A nuclear plant costs a whopping 30,000 simoleons, produces 1,500 units of power and zero emissions, but reduces the happiness of nearby citizens nonetheless.)

I don’t know how much a nuclear plant reduces happiness, but as we wrote recently, that number may be falling, whatever it is.

To me, the most interesting part of Schiesel’s article concerns the issue that prompted us to write the nuclear article linked above: for all the attention paid to transportation emissions in this country, it is the generation of electricity that should probably be at the top of any carbon-reducing agenda:

“We want people to understand the climate issue a bit better and understand that there are twice as many greenhouse emissions from generating electricity than from all forms of transport combined,” [Carol] Battershell [a BP vice president for alternative energy] said in an interview.

If you want to be skeptical, you’d say, “Well, of course it serves BP well to point to electricity as a bigger villain than transportation” — and you might also note, as Schiesel does, that “relatively clean systems like wind farms, natural gas plants and solar farms are branded with the BP logo [in SimCity], while the dirty options like coal are not.”

Furthermore, Ms. Battershell — and boy oh boy, is that an aptonym or what? — seems to be considerably overstating her argument, at least for the U.S. According to the Energy Information Administration data found here, electricity produces about 40 percent of our energy-related CO2 emissions versus the 33 percent produced by the transportation sector.

Still, it will be interesting to see if SimCity users can help lead the charge to recognize that a few fewer coal-burning plants would probably do away with as many emissions as a few million Priuses.

On a broader scale, it will be interesting to see how the millions of people who spend time in SimCity, Second Life, and other virtual worlds contribute to solving real-world problems. Experimenting virtually with the costs and benefits of different energy sources is a great start.

Along the same lines, it is encouraging to see that the Wii — its shortages notwithstanding — is being put to use helping elderly and handicapped people engage in physical activities that they otherwise wouldn’t.


Sloan

I wonder if the younger generation is more amenable to nuclear power (plants) because of the Simpsons

Publius

Who wouldn't want to dine on a 3-eyed fish?

zoe

But in real life people do object to living near wind farms or solar farms.

Dan

I hope that everyone will use solar-powered PCs to play Sim City! :P

Drew R. Winter

Although the cost and public disapproval of the nuclear plant is accurate, it should also run the risk of a meltdown leading to a slight increase in cancer rates, massive pollution in the event of a release of radioactive waste, and environmental degradation from uranium mining.

Still...sounds like fun in a Sim City. (Emphasis on Sim)

jonathan hopper

Interesting. I have often thought that giving people the real life budget, or other political issues, in simulator format would lead to more intelligent voting.

Does simcity include tax breaks (or other incentives) for Priuses and such? Otherwise it isn't much of a comparison.

Do they have initial cities based on current real cities? i wonder how accurate it would be. Make a model of...New York, as it currently is, and try to fix the traffic problems (or whatever, I have no knowledge of NY traffic at all.)

DGSaunders

I think the younger generation may be more open to nuclear power in large part b/c 1) we haven't really lived with any of the disasters (nor ever truly feared destruction at the hands of nuclear power) and 2) we were educated about nuclear power at a time when the dangers and benefits were much better understood, thereby reducing the fear that necessarily goes with the unknown.

Hopefully by the time my grandchildren roll around everything will be run on Tokamak reactors anyway.

Victor

Maybe this will remind people that electric cars aren't zero emissions. The electricity from the power plant comes mostly from coal and oil so you're destroying the environment anyway. Other fuels like hydrogen power and ethanol take more energy (again, mostly fossil fuels) to create than they produce. It's great if you're trying to help the environment, but stop leaving out those facts.

jsn

We took a look at the game on the BP web page and were very disappointed that there was very little about improving energy efficiency. Of course energy efficiency is boring and it reduces profits for energy companies.

GoodPoint

Number 9 is exactly right. Energy efficiency is like a fourth fuel source. The best part--it has NO EMISSIONS and is 100% CLEAN. Also The only cost per se would be in terms of R&D.

Rocky

I'm curious to know if the versions of SimCity released in Europe are programmed so that the virtual citizens are more accepting of nuclear power.

zoe

In regard to #9:

My mother loves to talk about the 1970s energy crisis and how the Long Island Lighting Company asked its users to reduce their electric consumption. Turned out the users were so good at that that LILC raised their rates in return.

@ #6:

They do have models of real cities that you can work with. Their problems are incredibly difficult to fix and, for me at least, this is the toughest portion of the game. Also, though you can't set tax cuts that specifically, you can opt to have ordinances like Office Paper Reduction, Clean Air Act, Emissions Reductions, etc. The Sims really like these, but they can be very expensive to enable. They can also negatively impact your commercial and industrial businesses.

mathking

Energy efficiency is the easiest way we have to make a dent in emissions right now. We use way more power than we need to. The best evidence for this is how much less energy per person is used in California than in the rest of the country. (Almost half as much)

One of the biggest problems with energy efficiency is the fact that engineers don't think like economists. Some friends of mine just had their parents build a retirement home. The architect talked them out of putting in geothermal heating and cooling because the system would not pay for itself in the 10 to 12 years they expected to be in the house. But there were two big problems with this reasoning. The first is the assumption of constant energy costs. The second (and more fundamental) is that the architect was not considering the value added to the capital asset (the home) by the geothermal system. Because geothermal systems are much cheaper to put in when the house is built and energy costs are rising, geothermal systems in the midwest tend to immediately add at least as much to the value of the home as their cost.

As for nuclear power, I would certainly rather live near a nuclear plant than a coal fired power plant. But I would rather not live near either. One often glossed over problem with nuclear power is that is extremely expensive. Nuclear power is more expensive per kilowatt hour than any other type of power and has more subsidies than any other type of power. It is true we could cut some of this cost if we cut back on the safety and security requirements. But who thinks that is likely or even advisable? (Who will want to live by the nuclear plant with lower safety standards whose security will be easily breached by terrorists?)

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Ken

If you are interested in playing an energy game I suggest you try this web-site - www.willyoujoinus.com. It gives you a chance to use all kinds of energy sources and is free.

Steve

I don't understand what's new about this. SimCity has always worked this way, dating at least back to the mid-90s. You could always select between coal power (cheap but polluting), nuclear (very expensive), and alternatives like wind and water power. I guess the only new thing about this is that BP got into the act...

Mike S

mathking, I don't argue that energy efficiency is key. I would argue that it may not be possible for everyone to be as efficient as Californians, though. I recently moved to California from Pennsylvania, and it is immediately evident why my bills are so much less. I never need to use the A/C in the summer and the heater in the winter. Heating and cooling use the most energy in homes, and I predict it is the reason Pennsylvanians cannot be as efficient in energy consumption.

Simcity 4 is even more interesting because you can build multiple cities in a region and share resources for a price (i.e. San Diego can sell power and water to LA)

David

As #12 said, simply using less is the quickest way to have an impact, i.e. in one or two days as apposed to years, (efficiency). But that is not a long term solution since users get lazy and complacent. In the mentioned case they needed to pay for more expensive oil and build up infrastructure (switch from Oil to coal/nuclear power generation), i.e. new equipment. Both running up costs.

Regarding #13,

Energy efficiency is a long term process that has the “Law of Diminishing Returns” and the “Product Cycle” to contend with. As mentioned above, not wasting is the quickest. Question is if my definition of “waste” is the same as yours… And should I be able to impose my definition on you…

As for California, it is a special case that likes to think they are better… I would like to see the details of the comparison, does it include the climatic, population density… differences between California and the rest of the states. Does that study include the energy consumed by the goods consumed in California?...
Ahh California, In the middle 90s few remember that California was shutting down the nuclear and coal plants and not allowing new generation to be built. Then with deregulation they froze the price for power yet required the power companies to buy on the spot market. And other things… this put all the ingredients on the table for Enrons to abuse the “market” that California created…

Also, I don't see why engineers are to blame for an Architect's direction. On his friend's friend's friend's parents house… Engineers and Architects are very different professions, but they both work with numbers like economists, ah maybe I can see how they got confused.

Also Engineers do think like economies, we were the first bean counters when you really get down to it… Opps I let it slip I am an engineer, also the worst kind, I work in the power generation energy industry for the past 20 some years…

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East Coast Phil

There's an online Flash game called ElectroCity (www.electrocity.co.nz) that's all about figuring out how to build a town, come up with the power to run it, and not do too much harm to the environment. It has also caused some controversy over the question of whether it is propaganda cover for its sponsor or not.

The game includes several energy efficiency measures to cut down on your city's consumption.

Paul

Does anyone see the irony in playing a game about energy consumption - on a 400W computer?

Mike

It's probably important to note that SimCity is a GAME. It is specifically designed so that no one power option is superior to the others in all ways - otherwise, why would you build anything else? And the game has built-in incentives for scale, such that "better" power plants that are cleaner and more efficient can only be built when the city has grown to a size such that it can afford them. This rewards and encourages cultivating a larger city, as it should, because it's a game, and that's the point.

There are many parallels, to be sure, but the options in the game are artificially balanced to a degree that I'm sure life is not - even in a truly free market for electricity incorporating political and environmental factors.