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.


Sounds like Power Grid
on steroids.


"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."

Well, to be a true "sim" game you'd also have to include the costs of multi-million dollar out of court settlements to muzzle those injured in a meltdown; the costs of massive multi-million dollar unscientific PR campaigns launched every 15 years or so by nuclear lobbyists and right-wing zealots to improve their "image" all while conditions of their plants deteriorate due to lack of investment (i.e. Davis-Besse, http://toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071005/OPINION01/71005003); the social and capital costs of creating bunk "safety" studies like the "Rasmussen Report" (http://gadfly.igc.org/essays2/rasumussen.htm), etc...



Looks like this site changed hands already


"Looks like this site changed hands already"

What the HELL does that even mean?


How about human power? Walking, biking,etc. It doesnt make any emissions. (Besides some CO2 emitted from breathing)

Rod Adams

Perceptions can be changed by subtle numerical inaccuracies. As the original post pointed out, the BP (company formerly known as British Petroleum) spokesperson was a little loose in her statement that electricity generation produced twice as much CO2 as all forms of transportation combined. (The real comparison in the US is 40% electricity, 33% from transportation.)

The game itself is also loose with numbers. According to the numbers provided (which I assume are accurate) the cost per unit of electrical power for coal is 6 simoleons, for solar is 30 simoleons and for nuclear is 20 simoleons. The ratios between those numbers would make one think that the cost difference between coal and nuclear is almost a no brainer and that solar is only slightly more expensive than nuclear.

The real world has much different ratios. On a production cost basis, nuclear power wins over coal by about 37% according to 2006 figures (average Us nuclear plant generation cost is 1.72 cents per kilowatt hour; coal is 2.37 cents per kilowatt hour). On a capital cost basis, a new coal fired power plant would be about half the cost of a new nuclear plant if it is allowed to spew uncontrolled CO2. For new capacity, there are a number of locations in the US where nuclear power has an economic advantage on lifecycle costs. (Coal is much more expensive to transport than uranium, so location costs vary considerably.)

Of course solar is cheaper than both once you have a plant, but the ratio of capital costs per unit of power actually produced is much worse than the game implies, especially if you remove tax credits from the cost computations. Per unit of peak capacity, an industrial scale solar plant costs about as much as a nuclear plant, but the nuclear plant will produce about 4-5 times as much electricity each year.

BP - a company that makes about 99% of its profits from selling fossil fuels is not a particularly unbiased provider of energy facts. If you listen to its commercials, see its billboards, or read its numerous ads in top magazines, you would think that BP stands for Beyond Petroleum and that the company is more focused on alternative energy. Even when you look at its capital budget, which indicates its future direction, you will find that about 98% of the investment is going towards oil exploration and development.



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


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


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


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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