They really do want us back in caves

Posted in Energy, Society at 13:53 by RjZ

Have you heard about Earth Hour? Started by the World Wildlife Fund (a charity I actually donate to; and by ‘actually’ here I want to emphasize that I don’t donate to many charities), the idea is that this Saturday, 29th of March, people, businesses, organizations, and governments will turn off the lights from 8:00 to 9:00 in the evening.

I get the leadership and solidarity this is intended to show. Everyone who turns out the lights and joins the WWF will be telling governments and policy makers at businesses and civic organizations that we care about the effects of our energy consumption and we acknowledge we can do something about it.

It’s too bad most people won’t get that.

Many, and for all I know the designers of this action, might be fooled into believing that this has some other purpose. Say, showing how much power can be saved if we all just turned off the lights, for example. A horrible plan. Power plant operators are already concerned that extremist environmentalists want us to crawl back in caves and live by candle light. Even if Earth Hour action could show savings (it won’t!), they’re doing more to justify the fears of people who actually keep our lights on then they are to become agents for change.

Utility owners and policy makers are exactly the ones WWF are trying to convince, but unless extremist environmentalists, who apparently really do think we should return to a pre-industrial agrarian state, are willing to live that way; that is, go off the grid, give up their cars, computers, airplane rides, and all other advancements, like, say, healthcare, they come off as a bit disingenuous.

In fact, it’s terribly easy for the rest of us to turn the light switch off for an hour. During that time of honorable sacrifice we know we can just turn it right back on; we’re not giving up on anything. Meanwhlie, India, China, and the rest of the developing world are getting fed up with the attitude in the West. They want a chance to grow, with the same access to cheap energy, and by cheap, we often mean polluting, that we got to use and all we can do is tell people to turn of their lights.

Sadly, the hour of savings will hardly amount to more than a few megawatts and that people might think otherwise shows a lack of understanding of one of the world’s most incredible industrial inventions—the grid. Let’s have a look. What will happen when everyone turns off the lights at the same time? Unfortunately all the solar plants will already be idle as it’ll be night time. Wind is most steady at dawn and dusk (but this is dependent on many factors) and will not likely have a significant effect (as if we got any significant power from wind and solar today anyway….) Base-load power like nuclear and coal will keep burning away during this lack of demand. That, folks, is how the grid works. You can’t just turn off the overwhelming majority of power in a few minutes. Extra power just flows into the grid and if it’s not used then it will end up heating up transformers and being wasted anyway. There are no giant batteries to store up the extra power. The majority of power doesn’t cycle with demand; fortunately the grid is large enough to simply soak up the extra energy of most short-term changes in demand.

If enough people actually turn off their lights to have a significant demand effect, the power providers will have to respond in some way. Their first choice will be to turn off peaking power sources like oil and gas. Except, most of these will already be off because this isn’t peak demand time anyway, but there could be some actual savings there. Much of the hoped for energy savings will be lost due to inefficiencies of ramping them off and then back up again when demand returns, but these peak power sources are at least intended to respond to changes in demand so it’s not too big a deal.

If WWF gets a huge turn-out and demand really drops, then maybe a coal plant will actually go off-line. That would be really bad news. For that hour of CO2 saved during the coal plant outage, it will take it hours to even days to turn back on. During which all those peaking power sources will be running to take up the slack, drinking foreign oil the whole time.

In the 70s, the peak power season used to be December. Today the peak is during summer. What’s the difference? Air-conditioning units. Before AC on every home, power providers could actually measure the spike in power demand from all the Christmas lights. Now, in spite of the extra lights (have you seen the Joneses keeping up with the Smiths on who can put up the most lights? I sure have) Christmas barely registers above the noise for demand. Come summer, though, and all those AC units raise demand to pay for new power plants. The point is, turning off the lights for an hour won’t even rise above the noise.

At least we’ll have the solidarity. And maybe a romantic candle light dinner or two.

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We need a breakthrough

Posted in Energy, Society at 13:05 by RjZ

Yesterday’s post was supposed to be about the changes in budget travel, but it was really about what happens when the developing world develops. The simple fact is that it’s usually great for individuals to have more cars and cellphones and food and fashion choices, but we’ve got to face that it’s not necessarily so great for trees and bunnies and the earth. As we humans take up more and more space, use more and more resources, and consume more and more energy, we’ll surely race towards a point where our status quo of cars and coal-plants will take too great a toll.

It doesn’t seem too far-fetch to suggest that we’re seeing the results today. And so, we sit in our comfortable homes wondering how the Chinese are going to fix the pollution in Beijing before the Olympics start. In this article a diplomat laments that as a Chinese he is being asked to give up what Europeans and U.S. Americans were never asked to give up. He’s asked to somehow develop his economy without coal and oil. How can we reasonably expect him to make do with a quarter of the CO2 output that we enjoy but still have enough power to produce the wealth and comfort we enjoy?

In Chennai, India, I saw window mounted air-conditioners blocking the view of nearly every apartment dweller, and who can blame them…it’s hot there! But those a/c units also consume plenty of electricity, supplied in Chennai, the same way we get it in the U.S., by burning things in power plants and producing CO2. A/C units are a bit like cars; how low their price can go is limited by the chunks of metal it takes to make them, not simply by the market’s ability to afford them. Despite the high cost, they’re popular in Chennai because the standard of living has increased so much in the past decade.

The correlation is obvious: high standard of living means high levels of energy consumption and since we don’t have many ways to produce large amounts of energy that don’t also make abundant amounts of CO2, expect the problem to get worse before it get’s better. Note: before everyone starts commenting about solar and wind, I said ‘large amounts of energy.’ Also note: comment anyway!

There may be a way out though, although probably no one knows what it is yet. If we’re lucky, along with all the new cars and cellphones that the better standard of living is bringing India, China and the developing world, people will have greater access to communication, information and education. All it takes is one really smart person to come up with the technological break-through that’s escaped us so far. It’s likely that such genius is one in a billion, but very soon, perhaps we’ll have a billion people working on it.

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Fossil Food

Posted in Energy, Reviews at 17:16 by RjZ

I’ve only just begun reading a book handed to me: Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan but it looks like such promising blog fodder that I figured I’d start writing about it even before I finished. (I’m on page 47 now–I’ve got a little while.)


Today’s news; the Federal Reserve Chairman, Berneke released today that inflation would remain at bay with the exception of food and fuel prices which are rising. Are these connected? In more ways than we realize. Only a century ago, yield for an acre of corn was nearly 20 times less than it is today. To what do we owe this increase in production? In part it’s due to scientific advancement and hybridization which has enabled corn to be harvested more easily and be grown in tighter and tighter spaces. But even rich Iowa soil wouldn’t be able to support such an increase in natural production without a little help.

Naturally, energy to grow corn comes from the sun. The sun powers the photosynthesis that produces the stalk, leaves, silk, cob and kernels. The sun powers the the bacteria that live on the soybean roots and combine nitrogen in the air with water in complex chemical reaction to make amino acids. Bacteria don’t live long though so their nitrogen enriches the soil that the corn to grow in the next time it’s planted. Unfortunately, soybeans can only foster so many bacteria per area of soil and only so much nitrogen is removed from the air, combined with hydrogen and made useful to the plants.

That’s where fossil fuels come in. Fossil fuels are essentially old dead plants and animals. Millenia long, dinosaurs and ferns lived and died and were buried and crushed by the weight of new soil, ferns and dinosaurs. Today we uncover these remnants as coal, oil and natural gas, but really, it’s stored up solar energy. And this stored up energy, for example as natural gas, can be used to create high temperatures and pressures that create usable nitrogen, which we usually just call fertilizer. Bacteria use enzymes and biological processes to create this fertilizer at lower temperatures and pressures, but our method is quicker.

Unfortunately, our method may be quicker, but there is loads of demand for that fuel, so it isn’t cheap. And as it get’s scarcer it won’t be getting any cheaper. Even Iowa soil can only provide so much nourishment for Iowa corn on its own. Add some super concentrated sun in the form of natural gas to create fertilizer and suddenly 2 million subsidized farmers can feed a nation of 250 million.

The beauty of physics is that one really only need to memorize a few laws and everything else follows. In this case, it’s conservation of energy. We can grow more food per acre, but the energy to do so has to come from somewhere. According to Pollen it takes about 50 gallons of oil per acre of corn, or about two calories of fuel for every calorie of food. Doesn’t it seem ironic, then, that we’re considering growing corn 50 gallons per acre, to plant, grow, harvest and deliver, in order to make ethanol to power our cars?

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BBC News: ‘Time to act’ on nuclear waste

Posted in , Energy, Society at 10:09 by RjZ

The United Kingdom has just noticed that it doesn’t have a satisfactory plan for dealing with nuclear waste. For over 30 years they have been producing this deadly poisonous hazardous waste from power plants with no effective way to keep it out of harm’s way. It’s about time they started doing something about it!

Just look at the numbers:

High-level waste – 2,000 cubic metres
Intermediate-level waste – 350,000 cubic metres
Low-level waste – 30,000 cubic metres
Spent fuel – 10,000 cubic metres
Plutonium – 4,300 cubic metres
Uranium – 75,000 cubic metres

All together that’s 471,300 cubic meters of waste in 30 years. This chunk of waste has to be transferred to an, as yet not completed, underground facility that will likely cost more £10 billion to build.

Concerned yet?

This block of waste, and we’re including all of its hazardous packaging material, is 77 meters on a side. 30 years of waste would be an impressive block that would cover a Wrigley field in Chicago almost a 179 feet high (54.5 m). That’s six feet per year. The underground facility that must be built to house all this waste and whatever else produced for 65 years in the future. £10 billion ain’t cheap, but it’s about £105 million / year and that barely even shows up on budgets like the U.S. where we’ve spent more than $50 billion per year on the Iraq war (more than 250 times as much).

These aren’t tiny numbers. I don’t have an extra £105 million this year, nor a backyard with a six foot deep lake that’s the size of Wrigley field, but this is the nation’s entire nuclear output, all packaged up and ready to go. Compare this to the volumes of coal being consumed by a single coal plant (about 105 coal cars per day.) Maybe we shouldn’t be that worried about it after all.

Nuclear waste, by its sheer volume alone is vastly more manageable than fossil fuel for a nation’s energy needs. We’re spending $50 billion per year to rid Iraq of terrorism while we continue to be our own greatest threat.

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An IGCC primer — What to do with CO2

Posted in Energy, Society at 17:10 by RjZ

In President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union speech, he said, “To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.” I thought I’d give a lay persons view of what this “zero-emission coal-fired power plant” actually is.

There may be other ways to do this, but in general, when politicians speak about zero-emission from coal, they’re talking about integrated gasification, combined cycle (IGCC) power plants. The whole process by which we get energy out of coal without any emissions at all is complex. There’s lot’s to do, and the details and infrastructure are definitely not completed. The U.S. is a leader in the commercialization of this technology, which is mostly led by GE.

Energy from coal

The first thing is to understand how we typically extract energy from coal. Coal is compressed plants, which are basically stored up solar energy from centuries and millennia. When we burn coal, we break down the hydrocarbon bonds, and the energy released in this reaction heats up steam in tubes lining the coal furnace. The steam then turns a turbine, and this rotating kinetic energy is converted to electricity and sent to the grid for you and me to power our computers and read this blog. A modern coal plant is about 40% efficient, by the way, which, it turns out, is very, very good. The very best solar cells are about 38%, and the photovoltaic kind that normal humans, who are not flying into space, can afford are around 17% (That’s from NREL, but I can’t find the original link)

The key point is that energy is stored in hydrogen-carbon bonds in coal.

Clean it before you burn it

Unfortunately, the black lumps we dig out the ground and call “coal” aren’t strictly hydrocarbons. After being buried for so long, the dried-up plants get mixed up with all manner of dirt. While we’re trying to get energy from the hydrogen-carbon bonds, these trace elements–for example, sulfur–get burnt up, and they form things like SO2 which causes smog and acid rain. There is mercury in there, and even radioactive elements too.

So one strategy, instead of just burning the coal, is to refine it first, like we do with crude oil. This refining process has been around for more than 50 years, but it’s finally becoming commercially feasible to do it for energy generation. The process, gasification, combines a slurry of coal powder with steam at high temperatures and pressures. The result is a thick slurry of everything that isn’t a hydrocarbon pouring out the bottom, and something called synthetic gas, or syngas, coming off the top. (I’m over-simplifying, but not too much…) Syngas is CO+H2. It’s very clean to burn; the result is water and CO2. An IGCC plant burns this syngas in a combustion turbine, which is essentially a jet engine, strapped to the ground. The kinetic energy from the rapidly turning jet engine turbine is converted to electricity and sent to the grid (of course, so that you can read this blog…).

Refining coal actually produces a lot of extra heat. This extra heat is used to produce steam which turns a steam turbine. This way, little of the energy from coal-gasification is wasted. That’s the “combined cycle” part of the process.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas!

We cleaned the coal before burning it, so there were no pollutants. We’ve got turbines turning, so we’re producing energy. Looks like everyone is happy. Not so fast. Burning syngas is clean, but as in any hydrocarbon combustion process, one of the end products is CO2. CO2 isn’t poisonous, and plants enjoy it plenty (They’ll combine it with water and solar energy to make new hydrocarbons.) but, alas, it traps more light than our atmosphere would normally do, if we’d stop fooling with it. Furthermore, loads of scientists now agree that too much CO2 in the air causes the planet to warm up like we’re in a giant greenhouse. So once we’re done commercializing IGCC, we’ve still got to figure out what to do with all the CO2.

It’s important to note here that Mr. Bush and many environmentalists have one thing in common: they all seem to think that because a fuel is renewable, like fuel from corn, that it’s good. Using bio-fuels is no answer to greenhouse gas production. Whether we get energy from burning plant products such as methanol or really old plant products such as coal, we still get CO2 as a by-product. Lots of it! The biggest difference between coal and methanol is that we don’t have to plant the coal.

What to do with the CO2

There’s really no good idea about what to do with all that CO2. Please don’t be disappointed when I tell you what the greatest minds on the planet think we should do with it. It does have a fancy name, though. Maybe that will make us feel better; it’s called CO2 sequestration. Basically we, um, bury it. We pump the CO2 into deep holes in the ground. We don’t know where all these holes are, but we know that we can use it to pump out oil, for example, and then just cap it off. We also think we can pump out huge underground cavities where there is water. We don’t actually know where all these giant aquifers are (because oil companies have spent more time looking for oil than for water, the greedy bastards), but I am sure we can find a few.

So somehow you’ve got to build your IGCC plant near one of these places to put the CO2, or you’ll have to build a pipeline to get it there. And we’ll have to be sure that these things stay tightly capped off, because if the CO2 leaks out, it won’t kill anybody right away, but the planet will warm up and bake just as sure as if we had never tried to get rid of the by-product in the first place. I’ll be honest, I am skeptical about CO2 sequestration. We can do it–we’ll have to–but we better not stop investing in other technology.

Coal-burning cars

It’s good news that we can burn coal and have zero emissions. It’s good news, because as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we have loads of coal in the United States. Amazingly, the syngas that is made in an IGCC plant can even be turned into diesel fuel to power cars, trains and airplanes! Yes, we can even power our existing transportation fleet with coal. The U.S. would be completely independent of foreign oil if we did that! (I should mention that using syngas for transportation does produce CO2, but it still beats being held over a barrel (pun intended) by a government that hates us.)

Except for one problem: we don’t have any IGCC plants right now. (That’s not strictly true, we have a few test plants, about five or so, and nobody is really doing CO2 sequestration yet.) That means we have to build them. Building a power plant isn’t free. Furthermore, IGCC plants aren’t any more efficient than other coal-fired power plants, so not only will we have to build a lot of them, but we won’t be getting any more energy out of each one, so the cost per kilowatt is going to have to go up-up-up. I don’t recall Mr. Bush mentioning this when he said we’ll invest in research.

Research is well and good, but will we and the U.S. or even world economy be able to pay for this zero-emission coal? I think we’ll have to, because the cost of cleaning up after all the hurricanes and floods caused by continued global warming will make up for it anyway, but we should be prepared for this drag on economic growth.

GE has much more information about IGCC, as does the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Check out the EIA. It’s quite a resource. After all, it’s your tax dollars at work!

Where we’re going to get enough energy to keep the lights on is often a very complex issue. Let’s make sure that these important decisions aren’t made, well, in the dark!

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Salazar supports nuclear power, sort of

Posted in , Energy at 10:26 by RjZ

In his letter to President Bush, Democratic senator from Colorado Ken Salazar recommends nuclear power for U.S. energy independence.

10. Nuclear Power:
Promote responsible energy technologies that do not contribute to global warming and that do so without compromising safety or security. Nuclear power plants provide roughly 20% of America’s electricity. As our country moves forward with nuclear power, we must ensure that these plants have
the ability to withstand acts of terrorism, and we must ensure that nuclear power technologies do not make it easier for terrorists or nations to acquire material needed to make nuclear weapons. Finally, we must continue to work on providing safe, permanent storage for the resulting radioactive waste.

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but it is a sensible one.

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A new energy policy-Give us the money instead

Posted in Energy, Society at 8:58 by RjZ

I promise to get off this topic of energy policy soon. I really do have other things to talk about but here’s one more just the same.

During a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado I asked if current policy actually maintains that the hydrogen economy for fuel cells really has any merit. It seemed to me that hydrogen gas stations just wasn’t going to work for dozens of different reasons. (Did you know that the flame from a burning hydrogen leak is completely invisible? Well it is until the high temperature flame burns right through your pants and your leg….) I was surprised to learn about a model that does make sense though. NREL pointed out that if consumers generated their own power, at home, they could store it in hydrogen fuel cells for cars (or other applications) and remove all (or at least most) of the distribution problems associated with hydrogen.

Let’s suppose it costs around $10,000 for enough solar panels to power your home. You’re off the grid now and occasionally even selling energy back to the utility but your payback on this investment in savings is more than 10 years, even at current energy prices. Aside from Ed Begley Jr. few of us are committed enough to afford this kind of investment. But what if we could?

According to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) of all 27.8 out of 40.3 exajoules (69%) of power for residential, commercial and industrial use is lost energy. Open this link (it’s a great graph) U.S. Energy Flow Trends –2002 in a separate window and follow along. That loss is due to inefficiencies in energy distribution from inductive storage to resistance along the power lines. More than two thirds of our electric power is thrown away, the majority of which as a result of moving it from the power plant to your home. If we saved just over 76% of this power lost we could stop using coal completely. Coal is used almost exclusively in electric power generation and we could eliminate coal just by reducing loss (not consumption, just loss!) Putting solar panels or a wind generator on your property eliminates all that distribution loss for the energy you consume.

Democratizing energy distribution has other advantages as well. Obviously emissions decrease, but also security risks. I’ve been to power plants and I can assure you it would be extremely easy for terrorists to cause major disruptions to power generation without even flying an airplane into a building. Democratized energy is more robust in exactly the same way the internet is. Knock out one server and the others take up the slack. Centralized power distribution is easily threatened.

Meanwhile on 8 August, 2005, President Bush signed the Energy Bill of 2005 into law. “Of the $14.5 billion tax package, renewable energy and energy efficiency received only $4.5 billion while fossil fuels received $5.6 billion and nuclear power received $1.3 billion.” The law supports renewable energy and has other small victories but overwhelmingly supports the status quo energy policy. Suppose we took just half of that $4.5 billion and instead of offering subsidies to power plants and oil companies we offered loans (not even a subsidy, just a loan that has to be paid back) to individuals who put solar or other zero emission energy generation on their homes. The loan has to be paid back in, say, 10 years.

Clearly, only the wealthy and upper middle class have houses big enough to start installing new solar panels, but what if, thanks to this government loan, a mere half a million people did so. I know I would. I know friends of mine would. I don’t mind paying for solar panels, but $10K is just too big a pill especially for a house I may not live in forever. I may never even see the payback. With the loan I can afford it now and my return on investment starts happening immediately. Do you think the price of solar panels and installation would remain so high? Imagine the boost to the economy from this new industry selling, installing, and servicing wind generators and solar panels on single family dwellings. Every one of those installations reduces emissions not only from their consumption, but also from the two thirds loss thanks to distribution. Every one of those installations increases security in the U.S. Costs of solar and wind plummet and it becomes affordable for commercial and less well-to-do customers. And, in ten years all those loans are paid back.

We won’t eliminate distribution or distribution losses completely. We will still need power plants. There will still be plenty of homes and apartment complexes that won’t be served well by solar or wind. But suddenly asking everyone in Iowa to move away to make room for the wind generators isn’t necessary to achieve the goals of increasing zero emission power in our mix. As I’ve noted before, renewable energy (even the emission producing kinds) currently make up only around 1% of the U.S. energy sources. If we were to double the amount of solar and wind farms we still would barely make a dent. But by democratizing energy production, our impact is greatly improved and the only cost is some ugly roofs (which I think will be seen as cool really quickly) and the government giving up it’s attachment to the status quo.

I’d love to have solar panels on my home. It’s time the government stopped subsidizing business (or, as in my proposal only reduced it’s subsidies) and enable an actual, grass roots shift in energy generation and distribution. It’ll be cheaper for all of us in the long run.

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Nuclear Explosion at Montreal

Posted in , Energy at 16:18 by RjZ

I missed a week and have plenty on my mind to post, but in the meantime here is still more fuel for the lively discussion on nuclear power that’s taken place here.TCS: Tech Central Station – TCS COP 11 Coverage: Nuclear Explosion at Montreal
Or maybe you’re bored of that and I better get to writing something else.

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Is conservation the answer?

Posted in Energy, Society at 23:51 by RjZ

In a recent post I argued that we should take another look at nuclear energy, at the very least in the mid-term until alternative energy sources become more reasonable economic alternatives. I was not surprised that comments on that post reacted so strongly to the bad, bad word: nuclear (or should I say newcular) One solution suggested (if half-heartedly) was conservation.

I am a big fan of conserving as anyone who has visited my home in the winter without a sweater will certainly attest. I feel that conservation, especially conservation that doesn’t impede our economy is the only wise choice. Still, I began to doubt that conservation is an effective solution to our energy problems.

According to EarthTrends energy consumption, per capita in North America is nearly flat from 1999 to 2001 at 7,539.0 kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person per year in 1999, 8,090.5 in 2000 and 7,928.5 in 2001. (That’s all the data their free database let me collect though. Earth Trends is part of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

National Atlas.gov had data for this graph from 1960 to 2001 which agrees well with the WRI. Again, consumption is trending down right now and hasn’t been increasing as much as you’d imagine from all those huge cars on the streets.

Pre capital Btus

How is this possible? One thing’s for sure. What’s not happening is people turning off their Christmas lights or wearing sweaters in their homes, let alone driving around in little Geo Metros. Instead, all those big companies that people love to hate have been driven to produce more efficient cars and lights and electronics because, fortunately, there’s a market for it. Conservation is definitely a good thing, it’s even driving part of our economy. That’s good news. A modern mid-size SUV, for example, gets about the same gas mileage as my ‘81 Honda Civic used to and I am fairly certain it has lower emissions of SO2 and NOx as well. I am typing this on a laptop that uses about as much energy as an incandescent bulb and the light in this room is a compact fluorescent that uses about a fifth of the energy of the incandescent bulb it replaces. LCDs use energy than CRTs and my refrigerator and clothes washer all use less than their counterparts of 20 years ago.

Lucky for us we have all those companies, because I don’t think it’s realistic for us to actually turn off those lights and put on sweaters. And as long as that’s not the case, it’s probably equally unrealistic for us to claim that conservation is more than just part of the solution to global warming and pollution put out by all those fossil power plants. I wish it weren’t so, but it doesn’t look like conservation alone will remove that bad “newcular” word from our list of solutions any time soon.

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Keep the lights on

Posted in Energy, Society at 20:20 by RjZ

“They’d have over 300 engineers where here you only see maybe 30,” said the forty plus year veteran of the power industry comparing a nuclear power plant to the coal-fired plant I was visiting. I asked him why there are so many. Isn’t the plant automated much like this one I wanted to know? “To fill out all the forms,” he answered. He felt that all the regulations were a big part of why we don’t have more nuclear power. I can’t speak to how many bureaucratic forms engineers were filling out but I can see why many of them might be necessary.

Nuclear power isn’t without risk to be sure, but neither is coal, oil, or as environmentalists recently complained [more here], wind power. Somehow public misinformation about the dangers of nuclear power, perhaps combined with overwhelming legislation has doomed this relatively clean energy source in the U.S.

Here are some things most of us don’t think about when we consider our choices for power. Oil is used to generate electricity. Well, it was used to generate electricity when it was less than $30 a barrel. Burning oil to turn generators produces relatively little pollution (surprisingly!) but it does release plenty of green house gases. Environmental regulations in the U.S. drove many utilities to build new power plants that could burn oil and, in a pinch, coal and the majority of these are either idle or burning coal exclusively right now because oil is just too expensive. The story for natural gas is about the same.

The U.S. has been described as the Saudi Arabia of coal. It’s true. We have tons of the stuff, more than any other nation and while it’s frequently high in sulfur (which produces smog causing pollutants such as SOx) equipment exists to minimize this problem. The U.S. consumed over a billion short tons of coal in 2003. A single, average sized, coal fired power plant consumes about one train load of coal per day. We’ve all waited for a typical 105 car coal train to cross in front of us on the road. One whole train goes into a power plant full and leaves empty every single day! All that coal is burnt up each day and turned into two things: ash and CO2. Ash is frequently used in cement production or, as often as not, simply dumped near the coal plant. CO2 meanwhile is released into the atmosphere. Coal is responsible for 53% of the U.S. 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. and for about 4.4 billion pounds of CO2 will be released into the air for 2005. (More, you say, than we even consumed in coal? different years. See this link for loads of info.)

Hydro-electric can hardly be considered environmentally friendly these days when we consider the damage to the landscape, destroyed fisheries and rivers that many dams of caused. Fact is, there aren’t really many more places for us to dam up these days and while Lake Powell is a load of fun for many people it was also an environmental disaster for the area.

Renewables? I mentioned wind-power above but there’s also geo-thermal, wave power and solar power. Currently renewable make up less than 1% of the U.S. power consumption. Probably the biggest reason for this is that it’s expensive! According to a Stirling Energy Systems “Photovoltaic technology is generally not abundant enough or cost-effective enough to meet any large scale demands.” Other solar energy is in the 10¢ per KW range. Coal meanwhile is in the 2 – 5¢ range. Of course we’re not paying for the environmental impact of coal–yet!

I used to drive by San Onofre nuclear power plant in southern California quite frequently. The power plant has been in operation for 38 years but they do not have an agreement to transport nuclear waste off site. Where do they put it? Essentially in the basement. It’s a special basement, surrounded by 2 inches of stainless steel and several feet of reinforced concrete, but it’s still the basement. 38 years and they have all of their waste on site. How is this possible? Because nuclear power plants produce about 1 cubic foot of waste per year. Oh, it’s nasty stuff, no doubt about it, but there just isn’t very much of it. The plant itself is hardened so that a 747 could fly right into it without damaging it. (You can question that if you want, but it was designed with this in mind at least.)

A long list of accidents at nuclear power plants would be dwarfed by the same listing at coal-plants but virtually none of these released nuclear material into the broader environment. The worst nuclear accident in the U.S. was three-mile island. This human-error was contained but that part of the plant was destroyed. Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants release literally billions of tons of CO2 into the environment (and a sizable amount of nuclear isotopes as well just because they’re naturally occurring in the coal) ever year.

The U.S. is 18th in nuclear power generation. With all this power being generated world-wide by nuclear power (16% of the world’s power) you’d think we’d be hearing about accidents every day.

Nuclear power has risks and I don’t need to write a treatise on this subject here. But other power sources are simply too expensive (today) or obviously risky to our environment and yet we continue to use them.

Our choice is clear. We must continue to invest in alternative energy sources and carefully consider their advantages and disadvantages before assuming we have the end-all solution. In the mean time we should reconsider nuclear power in the U.S. and start investing new plants now. Well, that’s not true, we do have another choice–turn off the lights and move back into caves.

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