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Out Of Big Oil And Into Big Nuke

The oil gusher in the Gulf is bad. It’s turning people away from fossil fuel, which could be good. If it turned the powers-that-be to clean, sustainable energy, that would be very good.

But here’s what I bet will happen.

Once the weeping and gnashing of teeth has subsided to a numbed realization that we need to do something next, that’s when the real problems will start. That’s when the nuclear lobby will be back.

[Well, that didn’t take long. That was written around May 15th. This was on Marketwatch, May 21st.: “Nuclear Option Back on the Table.” ]

They’ll say we need energy, lots of energy, which we can get only from a large, serious energy source, like nuclear. So let’s go over just a few points related to getting energy from nuclear reactors. (I’m repeating myself. There’s a lot more information and links in those long posts.)

By 2050, North America is projected to need some 7.8 terawatts (pdf) of total primary energy under a business-as-usual scenario. The pro-nuclear argument is that it will provide for business as usual without the sacrifices required by trying to make do with renewable, sustainable, distributed energy which can only provide a fraction of what’s needed.

Take them at their word. Let’s say the weak sisters can’t provide more than about 25% of the projected amount. (I’m setting it higher than pro-nuke scenarios usually do out of kindness. Why it’s a kindness will be clear in a moment.)

Since nuclear plants don’t safely last longer than their operating life of 30 years, if that, all the ones needed in 2050 will have to be built between now and then.

We have forty years (or 2080 weeks) in which to build 75% of 7.8 TW, which is 5,850 gigawatts of capacity. The large reactors built now are on the order of 1GW, The number of fully operational 1GW reactors needed to provide 75% of energy in four decades is 5850.

So about one fully operational 1GW reactor has to be completed every day, except Sundays, starting five months ago. If there are technological breakthroughs so that, say, 5GW commercial reactors can be built, then only a bit more than one per week needs to be finished.

That doesn’t include permitting or siting. Just physical construction. With no delays, large reactors take about five years to build, so there would need to be hundreds of reactors under construction at any one time.

Keep firmly in mind that it is renewable, distributed energy that is unrealistic.

Think about it. You’d need about 21,000 square miles of photovoltaic panels to generate 7.8TWh of power per year at the insolation near Chicago or New England, where it’s 0.3kWh per square foot per day, using 12% efficient solar panels. That’s a square 145 miles on each side. The built-up area in the US is about 125,000 square miles (and some of that’s in Arizona and California, not Chicago). So, worst case, if 15% of built-up areas is roofs, parking lots, windows, and roadways which could have photovoltaics installed, then 100% of US energy needs would be met. That’s without using wind, geothermal, tidal, or any other clean energy. That could be added. Production of photovoltaic materials would have to be ramped up to where the stuff could just roll off the presses. There’s also the fact that you and I can install PV panels if we put our minds to it. You and I aren’t ever going to be installing nukes. That takes rare and highly trained experts, so it’s a much more serious option.

Moving right along, the next item is construction time and costs for nuclear reactors. Costs are in the billions and time to completion in years, so the business risks are immense.

Note: these aren’t the risks of operation. Liability for those is limited by the Price Andersen Act, which makes the taxpayer the insurer of last resort for the nuclear power industry. In current terms, if they lose too much money, you bail them out.

Companies normally carry insurance for projects with business risks too large for them to absorb, but the professional actuaries at insurance companies consider the business risks of reactors (not the radiation risks, just the business risks during construction) to be too large. So, once again, the taxpayers step in to provide guarantees so that construction can go ahead.

For instance, Obama recently tripled the Federal loan guarantees from $18 billion to $54 billion. The guarantees are intended to cover about 80% of costs, so suddenly instead of only being able to build three nukes, we can build thirteen or so. That’s about two weeks’ worth of the necessary number of reactors if nukes are the solution to the end of oil.

It’s a start. And this way that $54 billion can’t be wasted on funding efficiency retrofits of old buildings or a cash for clunkers program.

The third point about using nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels, is that nuclear fuel is a limited nonrenewable resource. If reactors operated on the scale I’m talking about, the practically recoverable uranium would be depleted in a matter of decades.

(New designs don’t change that equation. Commercial fusion energy, or mining seawater or asteroids are not practical solutions on the necessary timescales. Breeder reactors, sometimes called renewable nuclear energy, solve energy problems the same way decapitation solves brain cancer. So-called advanced designs that share the dubious features of breeders, like fast neutron fluxes and exotic coolants, are just more attempts to sell people on the same failed pig in a new poke.)

Insofar as nuclear energy is a real world option, it is not renewable and its fuel would be gone in decades if it was a major energy source.

So. Nukes can’t be built fast enough to replace oil. They’re uninsurable. Uranium is a depletable resource. None of that even considers the usual roster of health, environmental, and waste problems. So, why do nukes ever come up? How can it be that anyone wastes valuable brain cells on such a total loss of an option?

Well, there’s a lot of money to be made for a few people in any big construction project. Highway money pork is nothing compared nuke pork. Roads to nowhere have been built for the pork of it, and nukes will be, too, if the recipients have much to say about it. (One day after I wrote that, I came across this report from January 31st:

Rather than try to propose a similar project that, like Yucca, might take decade [sic] of grueling planning only to be shot down at the end, the administration’s solution is to commission a panel of experts that includes academics, politicians and businessmen like Exelon CEO John Rowe.

The panel will consider fixes like making some easy changes to waste handling laws, but will doubtless also look at some ideas that have gotten little play in the U.S., like breeder reactors that can reprocess old waste into new, usable fuel. [Emphasis added]

The other good thing is that reactors keep the energy monopoly right where it is now. Backyard mini-nukes get, ahem, glowing reviews full of that old time optimism, but it’s not an option many people would choose for their kids’ playground. So there aren’t any real worries about any of that distributed energy, profit-draining hokum. That makes this nonrenewable polluting energy source a real solution to the problems caused by the other nonrenewable polluting energy source.

Get ready for the serious, correctly dressed people telling you so.

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I told you so: negawatts work

Not only have I told you so, repeatedly, but so did everybody else who’s capable of coming up with four when adding two plus two, going right back to Amory Lovins and the DFHs.

US’ best source of carbon-free energy is efficiency. Not just the US of course. The laws of physics are the same all over the planet.

The McKinsey report [pdf] arrived at [its] figures by performing a fairly simple economic analysis: what measures, if rolled out on a large scale starting in the near future, would have a positive return on investment by 2020. Those are fairly conservative conditions, since many efficiency projects require a substantial up-front investment that’s only paid back gradually; time horizons longer than a decade aren’t uncommon when it comes to payback. Nevertheless, the numbers were staggering. $520 billion worth of investments would produce a total of $1.2 trillion in savings by 2020. Presumably, the numbers would look even better later into the century.

At 2020, we’d be avoiding using that 9.1 quadrillion BTUs. That would be enough to knock 23 percent off the expected demand, dropping it below the current national usage. It’s worth pointing out that there’s a bit of a multiplier effect of efficiency efforts, as well—by not producing the energy in the first place, all the losses that occur during generation and transport never come into play. The net result would be over a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions avoided as well.

As far as the National Academies is concerned, the McKinsey report might just as well have been a chapter in its own publication. “The deployment of existing energy-efficiency technologies,” it has concluded, “is the nearest-term and lowest-cost option for moderating our nation’s demand for energy, especially over the next decade.” [emphasis added]

So could we now get with the program and stop chasing more pollution with less power? Crap like “clean coal” and nukes. And, environmentally less appalling but socially more so: food-sourced biofuels. Here’s yet one more repeat of what’s wrong with them.

“Clean” coal produces all the same destruction and pollution — and energy costs! — during mining as dirty coal. And another not-so-minor data point: the industrial-scale process to do it has not been invented yet (pdf, eg p. 31).

Nuclear energy: Produces pollution, environmental destruction, and uses energy during mining. Uranium is a finite resource. A finite resource. It will . . . wait for it . . . run out. (Am I frustrated that some people don’t get this yet? Yes, I’m frustrated.) It will run out in about a century if used to produce most of our energy. It takes time to build plants. One plant would have to be built every six weeks, starting yesterday, going on until the uranium runs out, to produce most of our energy. Nuclear energy creates radioactive waste. We have no viable method of dealing with current waste, forget the amount of waste that would be generated by a bigger nuclear program. Decommissioning costs are huge and underfunded. Companies are mothballing old plants to delay the day of reckoning when people are presented with the price tag. All that money spent on nuclear energy to get a fraction of the power needed cannot be spent on real solutions.

Biofuel produced from corn and other food sources: Destruction of habitat to grow monocultures of energy crops (a problem with any biofuel not generated from waste). Increased food prices in a world where around one billion people are living on around one dollar a day. That leads to even worse mass starvation than we already have. That leads to even more mass migration, social dislocation, riots, and wars. Just in case I’m not being clear, this is Not Good.

Now that we have yet more studies all saying the same thing, how about we all get on the same page and DO THE OBVIOUS!

energy, efficiency, NAS, McKinsey

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Krugman on target AGAIN

He’s lucky he’s got tenure. With his track record, he’d be drummed out of economics otherwise. I mean, this is the field which, in all seriousness, avers that we’ll never run out of oil. And they’re right. If oil costs $10,000 a gallon, people will go to any lengths to extract or make another few drops of the stuff. It’s the law of supply and demand. The fact that it has zero practical application at those levels doesn’t enter into it. For economists. So I’m sure a group that believes in fairy stories — the Rational Economic Man is another good one — would get rid of Krugman in a second if they could, him and his big flat feet clumping around insisting on reality.

What brought this on? Another brilliant op-ed An Affordable Salvation and the earlier post on his blog: Anti-green economics.

Clearly, opposition to doing something about climate change has fallen back to a new position: claims that attempting to limit greenhouse gas emissions would be incredibly costly. Yet the most careful studies, like the big MIT study of Congressional proposals, find only modest costs.

I have to jump in to boggle a bit. Let’s even pretend to grant that measures against global warming are “incredibly costly.” That only matters if the alternative is less costly. However, any study that looks at the price of doing nothing concludes that the expense is enormous, bigger than doing something by an order of magnitude. Case in point is the Stern 2006 review of the economics of climate change. (Wikipedia has a simple summary.) His estimate is that 1% of global GDP is the cost of averting “the worst effects” of climate change. The cost of doing nothing is likely to be around 20% of GDP. As time goes by, both estimates grow bigger, and the probable cost of doing nothing grows bigger faster. So, the obvious choice is to . . . do nothing? Hello?

Krugman goes on to demolish the economic argument against government regulations to help save the planet, but my favorite part is this:

Opponents of a policy change generally believe that market economies are wonderful things, able to adapt to just about anything — anything, that is, except a government policy that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Limits on the world supply of oil, land, water — no problem. Limits on the amount of CO2 we can emit — total disaster.

Funny how that is.

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Geoengineering: a cure worse than the disease

The global warming news is grim. Just two recent headlines: Acid oceans need urgent action and Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. If you follow anybody’s writing on the topic (e.g. mine 2005 and 2007) you know all too much about the grimness. But where we make our mistake, you and me, is assuming that once the slower people finally recognize the facts, they’ll want to stop poisoning the planet.

Ha.

Now that they’re finally noticing that we’re headed to a hot place in a handbasket, they have a better answer. Geoengineering! We’re so good at controlling planetary processes, the best thing to do is mess with them!

Here, just for kicks, are some of the bright ideas, ranging in light level from black hole to guttering-candle-in-the-darkness. (To be fair to some of the scientists involved, they’re perfectly aware that the best of these are stopgaps, not solutions.) Read more »

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Really new batteries

Your Blogscientist has been falling down on the job. A few days ago I saw plenty of headlines about new nanoscale batteries. Everything’s nano-whatnot these days. I figured I’d read about it later. No doubt somebody had an extra 5% improved energy yield or something.

Turns out, no, this is really new. A team at MIT has genetically engineered bacteriophages — a kind of virus that normally attacks bacteria — to assemble batteries. Put them in a soup with the right ingredients and they pull out what they need to assemble anodes, cathodes, and, in short, batteries. (Abstract of Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences article.)

the three authors, Yet-Ming Chiang, Angela Belcher and Paula Hammond, in the lab
From left, MIT professors Yet-Ming Chiang, Angela Belcher and Paula Hammond. The three have authored a paper detailing their virus-based method of creating and installing microbatteries by stamping them onto a variety of surfaces. Photo / Donna Coveney

It’s lab bench work at this point, but as Belcher says,

“[R]ight now the thing is trying to make the best material possible, and if we get a really great material, then we have to think about how do you scale it.”

Scaling up means laptop batteries, car batteries, and — shoot for the stars, any damn fool can hit the ground — electromagnetic rail gun spaceship launching batteries.

Technorati Tags: batteries, nanoscale, virus, Belcher, Hammond, Chiang, MIT

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Photovoltaics: (some more) depressing news

Photovoltaics do take energy to make and use toxic elements that can cause nasty pollution unless they’re contained. We knew that. But what I didn’t really bother to think about is that those same rare elements that are toxic are also, well, rare. We’re using them like they’re not rare. So . . . doh! . . . they’ll run out soon. Meaning soon. Times like “five years” and “2017” come out of the number-crunchers.

From New Scientist, reporting on Gordon, Bertram, and Graedel’s recent paper (abstract, pdf).

It’s not just the world’s platinum that is being used up at an alarming rate. The same goes for many other rare metals such as indium, which is being consumed in unprecedented quantities for making LCDs for flat-screen TVs, and the tantalum needed to make compact electronic devices like cellphones. . . . Even reserves of such commonplace elements as zinc, copper, nickel . . . will run out in the not-too-distant future. . . . [T]he metal gallium, which along with indium is used to make indium gallium arsenide . . . is the semiconducting material at the heart of a new generation of solar cells . . . . Reserves of both metals are disputed, but . . . René Kleijn, a chemist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, . . . estimates gallium and indium will probably contribute to less than 1 per cent of all future solar cells – a limitation imposed purely by a lack of raw material.

Iridium is the material that blankets the planet in a thin layer, left over from the asteroid strike that bothered the dinosaurs. Some of the other elements are found in sand in nano-quantities. However, grinding up the whole planet to make solar panels doesn’t seem like a much better idea than turning it inside out to burn it.

Time to get extremely serious about organic (in the sense of carbon-based) photovoltaics. It’s complicated, though. To begin with, organic molecules break down easily. And then, as Terry Pratchett might say, it’s quantum. However, plants do it. Bacteria do it. You’re not going to tell me we’re stupider than plants, are you? (Don’t answer that.)

Technorati Tags: solar power, photovoltaic, PV, gallium, resources, shortage, Graedel

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Sneaky, nasty, nationwide attack on solar power

Time to go all King-Arthur-and-Knights and do something about this. What, I have no idea. It’s such an arcane bureaucratic maneuver, I don’t know which levers apply. Those who do know, please comment or contact me and I’ll update the post. I saw this on Slashdot.

“The US Bureau of Land Management, overwhelmed by applications for large-scale solar energy plants, has declared a two-year freeze on applications for new projects until it completes an extensive environmental impact study. The study will produce ‘a single set of environmental criteria to weigh future solar proposals, which will ultimately speed the application process.’ The freeze means that current applications will continue to be processed — plants producing enough electricity for 20 million average American homes — but no new applications will be accepted until the study is complete. Solar power companies are worried that this will harm the industry just as it is poised for explosive growth. Some note that gas and oil projects are booming in the southwestern states most favorable to solar development. Another threat looming over the solar industry is that federal tax credits must be renewed in Congress, else they will expire this year.”

This has all the signs of studying solar power to death. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that this ruling follows a golf game among BLM honchos and oil execs. Or some damn thing. I mean, these are the same people who have to be sued because they let Federal lands turn into deserts and superfund sites. Since when has the BLM been so concerned about the environment that it seeks to prevent damage?

Technorati Tags: BLM, solar power, FUD

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We’re doomed

Your Blogscientist is depressed. It may be necessary to take what I say with some salt, or sugar, or something. What brought this on is a longish article I read on zfacts.com, Peak Oil or Liquid Coal?

I was always under the general impression that oil ruled because, with all the subsidies it gets, it’s the cheapest and most convenient fuel around. Numbers periodically floated out saying that solar would be competitive at $70 per barrel oil, or $100, or some astronomical sum. Well, we’re there. Any day now, I figured, people would wake up from their mass hypnosis and realize that everybody except Big Oil wins when we start moving to solar and conservation.

Then I saw this on zfacts:

[Coal gasification] could produce gasoline for the equivalent of about $55 per barrel of oil. This has not yet happened because investors are afraid the price of oil will fall back below $55 as soon as they build a coal-to-gasoline plant.

Fifty-five dollars? Sure, that means current subsidies have to stay in place, but how much do you want to bet they will if it gives people a chance at $55 barrel oil? Also, Big Oil wins, which is way more important than everybody winning.

So now I’m convinced that too many people will race to hell down a path made of coal gas. They’ll do it as soon as the reality of peak oil penetrates through their ivory skulls and into that air space they use for brains. Once coal-to-gas infrastructure starts being built, we’ll have another whole wall of vested interests blocking off a real solution. And who cares if the planet fries? That’s tomorrow. … Until it’s today. And then we’ll have disasters to worry about. Namby-pamby hippy stuff like solar energy won’t even be on the map.

When has a crowd of people ever done anything different when they could do the same old thing at the same–or less–cost?

So I say we’re doomed.

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