Sunday, November 15, 2009
The last month has been bad for the struggle against climate change. The Pew Research Center's recent poll shows that Americans are almost evenly divided between those who think it's a very serious threat, those who think it's a somewhat serious threat, and those who don't think it is a serious threat.
APEC nations announced they would not sign enforceable limits on greenhouse-gas emissions at the Copenhagen meeting coming up in December.
And now we have Al Gore's much-anticipated new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.
His first book was supposed to show the science about global warming and climate change, but he got the science wrong and thereby gave ammunition to the denialists. The best-known mistake was the graph that showed the correlation between global average temperature and CO2 concentration over the last 400,000 years. What he may have failed to notice, and certainly didn't point out, was that the temperature changes preceded the CO2 changes by hundreds of years, which contradicted his thesis.
So expectations weren't high when he published this new book, which deals with the solutions. And we were neither disappointed nor pleasantly surprised.
He covers all the important points in the subject. Some of the information no doubt is accurate and valuable. Unfortunately, it's poorly referenced so readers can't distinguish between solid information and his own opinions.
And we see grating inconsistencies. Our interest here is mainly in nuclear energy as an important part of the solution. He shrugs it off, saying only that a very great investment is needed to implement it.
His solution? Besides the usual exhortations to practice efficiency and conservation, he gives us only the usual tired nostrums: wind, solar, and geothermal energy. As we have shown here to the point of tedium, the investment required for wind and solar energy is higher than that for nuclear, and geothermal could at most provide only a few per cent of our electricity requirements. By his logic, nuclear should be at the top of the list of solutions; sadly, his information doesn't carry him to the right and obvious conclusion.
He does get credit for at least considering the problem of intermittency. Here again, alas, he falls down. He proposes that plug-in hybrid car batteries will solve the problem of storing enough energy to get the country through periods of low energy production from wind and solar.
We happen to know how much electricity has to be stored. As we calculated here, the US would have to store between 141 and 386 billion KWH, depending on how much comes from solar and how much from wind, based on current consumption rates. But Toyota's intended battery has a storage capacity of 202 volts x 13 amp-hours, or 2.6 KWH. Each battery costs around $10,000. The number of plug-in batteries required would be 54 billion to 148 billion, in a country with 306 million people. Or, if every person owned one battery and used it only for energy storage, the combined capacity would be only 0.2% to 0.56% of what's needed. For the storage to provide 5% of the amount needed would require technological improvements that aren't even on the horizon.
Ironies abound in the second half of the book. He points out the undeniable fact that the most effective way to limit population growth is to promote economic security in poor countries. "The most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive," he quotes Julius K. Nyerere, Tanzania's first Prime Minister and President. But he wants to limit their energy sources to the most expensive and unachievable ones.
He offers us this crucial conclusion: "The only meaningful and effective solutions to the climate crisis involve massive changes in human behavior and thinking." That clearly is true, and it's too bad he doesn't apply it to his own attitudes about nuclear energy.
He refers to the confusion over climate change mentioned at the beginning of this article. He blames the confusion on self-interested political groups that spread misinformation about the subject. They didn't have to prove they were right, they just had to create doubt about the truth. He quotes climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer: "What they've done is try to take scientific understanding and put it on the same level with political opinion." Why can't he grasp the fact that the same thing happened to nuclear energy?
As was the case for the first book, Mr. Gore's errors fortify the arguments of those who oppose his program. For some time, they've been pointing out that if the situation is as dire as he makes it out to be then he should be calling for massive nuclear construction. His demands for solutions that are more popular but less effective undermine his credibility and, it follows, his argument.
So that's the deal on his book. Certainly some of the information has to be good, but it's not referenceable. The pictures are good. If your public library has it, you definitely should read it.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
------UPDATE: EATING WORDS-------
When you're wrong you should say you're wrong. In the article shown below in its original form I complained that President Obama was offering only symbolic gestures in dealing with the important problem of greenhouse-gas emissions. Today, May 19, 2009, he announced important changes in the rules governing CO2 emissions from vehicles. Some plans were in place to limit emissions in 2020, a time so far off in the future as to be meaningless. Under the new rules, auto manufacturers will have to start meeting new fuel efficiency standards beginning in 2012. The rules will be tightened yearly until 2016, when passenger cars will have to achieve 39 mpg and light trucks 30 mpg.
One could protest that the changes are too little and too late. For onlookers who are concerned about the headlong rush to habitat destruction in which humans are engaged, the plan seems over-solicitous of auto executives. But it clearly isn't a symbolic gesture.
I still think that Jon Wellinghoff's comment, discussed in the article below, is cause for alarm. Since the President faces political constraints most of us can't appreciate, though, I suppose we should respect his judgment and look for continuing reforms to the country's energy and environmental policies.
I haven't added articles for a long time because anything I said would be repetitious. But something has changed so maybe it's right to do another.
When President Obama was running for the office he holds now, he spoke against cynicism. "The era of Scooter Libby justice, and Brownie incompetence, and the Karl Rove politics of fear and cynicism will be over." Spartanburg, SC | November 03, 2007 He promised us.
Soon after taking office, he barred former lobbyists from working for agencies they had lobbied within the past two years and required them to recuse themselves from issues they had handled during that time and barred officials of his administration from lobbying their former colleagues "for as long as I am president." New York Times, January 21, 2009. Pres. Obama set the rule at two years because he isn't one to limit his options.
So how does Pres. Obama deal with the important problem of energy and global warming? He appoints Jon Wellinghoff to be head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Chairman Wellinghoff is a lawyer who has made a career of lobbying on behalf of consumer and anti-nuclear political groups. Before joining FERC, he was Nevada’s Consumer Advocate for Customers of Public Utilities. Prior to that, while a lawyer in private practice, he was the primary author of the Nevada Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) Act. He spent over thirty years lobbying on behalf of renewable-energy businesses. FERC
So we see the rule against lobbyists only applies to lobbyists who didn't support Candidate Obama. It's okay, though, because of the two-year rule.
What about cynicism? Here's what Chairman Wellinghoff has to say about nuclear energy: "We may not need any, ever." His solution: "Natural gas is going to be there for a while, because it's going to be there to get us through this transition that's going to take 30 or more years." New York Times, April 22, 2009
What this means is that cynicism has taken over energy policy in the Obama administration. Maybe the President and the Chairman are right. The problem of global warming is so daunting, perhaps even insurmountable, that there's no point in trying to solve it. Political considerations preclude ignoring it, especially since it faces us every day in the news, so the only response left is symbolic gestures. We'll put up some wind turbines and solar panels. We'll sprinkle money around university research labs to pretend we take new-age gimmicks seriously. Mainly, we'll follow T. Boone Pickens's plan to burn natural gas until it's all gone.
Obviously, cynicism is no substitute for policy. But it doesn't matter, because the destructive effects of global warming will hit after Pres. Obama retires. See how that works?
Monday, November 24, 2008
The page can be found here.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
In ordinary conversations about renewable energy, the issue of energy storage is often overlooked. Renewable sources generate energy on their own schedules, not customers' schedules. The difference must be met either by backup energy supplies or by energy storage. This article describes some storage calculations in the absence of fossil-fired or nuclear sources. The calculations can be downloaded from here.
This is a plot of electricity generation for the US. This writer doesn't have data for any other countries and wouldn't presume to offer advice if he did.
For the rest of this analysis, the average generation for the years 2003-2007 will constitute the model year.
First, compare the demand curve with the availability of wind energy. Wind energy is approximately proportional to the cube of wind speed. Density is also a factor, and there is considerable mismatch at very high and very low wind speeds, but those differences won't change the conclusions. This analysis is based on wind-speed cubed.
The data show wind speeds for 265 cities. We have deleted cities with low winds or high differences between high-wind and low-wind months. We also have deleted Alaska cities, owing to their unique characteristics and their separation from the US power grid. 244 cities are left.[NOAA]
Clearly, wind energy doesn't match electricity demand well. Next, compare electricity generation with solar potential. Cities with poor solar characteristics were deleted from the data, leaving 221 out of 238.[NREL]
So we see that solar energy matches the electricity demand somewhat better. For our first cut we shall calculate the maximum amount of solar energy that can be generated and used within a month, and we find that 80.6% of the yearly demand can be met with solar energy on these terms. Now we can consider the remaining demand after all that solar energy is accounted for.
Now we can compare the remaining demand with available wind energy.
The calculations show that 200 billion KWH of storage is required.
We can do the same calculations for other shares of supply from solar energy, with the results shown here:
Our calculations show that the storage requirement ranges from 141 to 386 billion KWH.
There is no way to store that amount of energy. In fact, we'll have to devise a fictional example to illustrate the problem.
Imagine that a lake exists, named Upper Lake Fead, which is equal in size to Lake Mead. Lower Lake Fead is the same size and is located at the bottom of Foover Dam, which is identical to Hoover Dam. However, all the water in Upper Lake Fead can drain through the water turbines.Lake Volume = 30,000,000 acre-feet
Average head at dam = 520 feet
If the efficiency were 100%, then
Energy = volume x pressure = volume x head x weight-density
= 30,000,000 acre-feet x 43560 sq-ft/acre x 520 feet x 62.4 lb/cu-ft
= 4.24 x 10^16 ft-lb
= 16 billion KWH
We'll set the turbine efficiency at 85% and account for pump inefficiency by upsizing where necessary. Thus, Upper Lake Fead is good for 13.6 billion KWH.
So we have calculated that the US would need between 10 and 28 Foover Dams, each with Upper and Lower Lake Feads, depending on how much electricity is generated with solar energy. There are, in fact, no Foover Dams and no locations for building any.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
For example, the International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency determined the costs as follows:
Cost per MWH in US Dollars
The University of Chicago compared several detailed calculations with a range of discount rates and summarized the results thus:
Cost per MWH in US Dollars
|Nuclear (assuming old designs)||65-77|
|Nuclear (assuming new designs)||36-55|
|Nuclear (assuming advanced-fuel designs)||57-64|
A question that immediately presents itself is, why do the two studies give different numbers? The answer is that every study depends on assumptions, such as interest rates and fuel costs. Both these factors, and other factors such as taxes, pollution controls, and equipment lifetimes vary in time and place. This introduces an opportunity to do mischief, since a motivated commentator can pick-and-choose results to bolster his intended conclusion. These numbers only have significance if they're calculated on equal terms and only if they're read relatively, not absolutely.
A common argument being made now is that nuclear construction costs have risen so fast they have rendered nuclear plants too expensive to build. This argument is anchored on a report about some calculations made by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) that allegedly show a cost increase of 185% between 2000 and 2007. Imagine, an almost tripling of costs in seven years! However, CERA doesn't publish the results in a public forum; nor does it show the calculations so they can be verified. Indeed, there's no way even to know what methods it used.
It is true, though, that costs have risen strongly since China and India began their notable advances in material progress. These cost rises apply to all kinds of construction and, in particular, apply to alternative energy sources.
Here is some information on the cost of windpower construction, which has doubled:
And some data (Oct. 28, 2008) on solar-electric construction. It has essentially held constant, but at US$4700 per KW rated power or over US$20,000 per average KW, it still is hopelessly expensive. What this shows is that the pressure on material prices has kept solar energy from getting cheaper.
Finally, here is some information from Power Engineering International on nuclear construction costs, which shows a cost increase of 125%, not much different from the increase for windpower.
What all these numbers show is what energy analysts have been telling us right along. Nuclear energy is as cost-effective as any non-fossil energy source, even ignoring the intermittency problem of part-time energy sources. But if intermittency is considered, then the comparison widens. There aren't any practical ways to overcome intermittency, as shown here. But if there were some way, the economic and environmental costs would drive the total cost out of sight.
As the world grapples with this issue, one other point has to be considered. A new generation of nuclear power plants is being born. These new plants use passive safety systems so the active systems can be simpler, thereby reducing costs. Furthermore, they operate at higher efficiencies, lowering fuel costs. As shown in the University of Chicago data, these improvements make nuclear energy cheaper than any alternative other than coal.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The point that needs to be understood is that proven reserves are only a fraction of the resources that really exist. For example, the world has less than a three-years' supply of oil if only proven reserves are considered. No one really believes the world will run out of oil in three years. In comparison, projected resources show over 600 years' supply of oil, maybe a thousand years' supply of coal, and 30,000 years' supply of nuclear fuel. Even if all the world's electricity comes from nuclear energy and the rate of electricity use triples, nuclear fuel will last over a thousand years. Renewable energy and energy efficiency can stretch the supply longer. A thousand years should be enough time to develop other solutions, such as fusion energy and energy storage.
The best available information from the most authoritative sources can be found here.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
What to do, what to do.
I would give money to my allies. All the groups that support renewable energy also support me. It's a simple fact of nature that renewable energy sources generate little or no power for hours or even days at a time and what they do generate is unpredictable. Furthermore, there's no way to save enough energy to hold people over from one power episode to the next. Anyone who does arithmetic can see that for himself. Some examples of the arithmetic can be seen here. That means backup energy supplies always have to be standing by when renewable energy sources are in operation.
In the short run, renewables will displace a few percent of my coal sales. But the economics of renewables make them unacceptable. That's because the backup energy sources required cost almost as much to hold in readiness as they do to operate. The result is that energy consumers pay for the same energy twice: once for the renewable energy and again for the backup. When people catch on to that their support for renewable energy will vanish.
There's also a second benefit. The political groups that pose as defenders of the environment ought to be pursuing me as Public Enemy Number 1. Even in the US, thousands of people die every month from coal pollution, as shown here. Worldwide, the deaths run into the hundreds of thousands every year, to say nothing of debilitating diseases, heavy-metal poisoning, and ocean pollution. But if I fund the political groups then they'll never make more than token objections. What they will do is attack my only competition with hammer and tongs. All the groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth will fall over themselves making up lurid and fantastic warnings against nuclear energy. All because of their infatuation with renewable energy.
That's enough, but for a few dollars more I can hire "consultants" who pretend to be scientists. They'll write articles and publish them in popular magazines that don't believe in peer review. They'll probably get away with it because most editors can't tell science from cotton candy. And in the remote chance some of these fake scientists are unmasked, most people won't hear about it anyway because journalists hate to admit they were wrong.
Yeah, that's the ticket!
Sunday, July 6, 2008
The same surprise came from the Rasmussen poll for July 2, 2008. 52% disagreed with Senator Harry Reid's observation that "Coal makes us sick."
Health experts have been telling us for decades that coal pollution isn't just making us sick, it's killing us. The most authoritative study done, the Abt report, confirms what studies have been showing for decades, that thousands of Americans die every month because of burning coal to generate electricity.
How is it possible that something this important is unknown to most Americans? Clearly, the news media haven't been doing their job. Commentators have complained for as long as I can remember that the news media only cover novel and photogenic stories.
Let's take the accident at Three Mile Island. It received saturation coverage. Ever since, it's been known as The Worst Nuclear Accident in American History. Any time nuclear energy is mentioned in the news, the public is reminded of this stellar fact. What the news stories never mention is that no harm came to anyone because of the accident. See the Kemeny Report for details. Well, the owners of the plant lost big time, but that's not what we're talking about here.
As one would expect, misinformation flowed in to fill the information vacuum. Irresponsible political groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and their many imitators have fed the appetites of news media for lurid and frightening what-if scenarios. The fact that these scenarios are based on fantasy and not on reality doesn't bother media reporters in the slightest. The misinformation gets stories published and that's all that matters.
Why don't the political groups campaign against coal, since it truly is dangerous? That's more complicated. Greater coal consumption is the inevitable consequence of less nuclear energy. If they publicized the facts about coal, they'd have to admit they were wrong about nuclear energy. We can, however, note with new-found respect that the Sierra Club is intervening to stop the construction of new coal-fired plants. It will be interesting to observe whether or not the Sierra Club breaks ranks with less-credible political groups. Will the Sierra Club ever show the moral courage of environmental heavyweights like James Lovelock and Hugh Montefiore and reverse its position on nuclear energy?
In the meantime, what can be done to overcome the information deficit? The Nuclear Energy Institute does a valiant job of informing the public where it can, even sending spokespersons to public meetings. Anything NEI says, though, will naturally be discounted since its job is to promote a particular viewpoint. One might wonder if spending its budget on a race car really is effective at promoting nuclear energy, but the alternative would be sending out video documentaries no one would watch. One has to hope NEI knows what it's doing.
For the rest of us, the best we can do is inform ourselves as well as possible so we can offer good information whenever the subject comes up around us. This blog is an effort in that direction, as are the blogs recommended in the sidebar. Since the other side is working hard at spreading confusion and misinformation, we just have to hope readers can tell the difference. If people knew the truth about coal, the support for nuclear energy would be much higher than 67%.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
A visitor generously suggested ways to improve the accuracy of this article and its present version was written after receiving his comments.
For as long as I can remember, anti-nukes have been claiming that the Price-Anderson Act protects nuclear power plants from liability. The plants are so dangerous, they claim, utilities won't accept responsibility for them.
The facts are very much different. A copy of the law can be found here.
I should say at the outset that I am not an attorney and therefore am not qualified to interpret law or court decisions. That said, when anti-nukes claim that the law protects utilities from liability, they conveniently leave out the fact that the liability limits only apply to federal courts, not to state courts. But don't take my word for it. Here is an excerpt from the US Supreme Court decision in the case of SILKWOOD v. KERR-McGEE CORP., decided January 11, 1984. [source]
"In sum, it is clear that in enacting and amending the Price-Anderson Act, Congress assumed that state-law remedies, in whatever form they might take, were available to those injured by nuclear incidents. This was so even though it was well aware of the NRC’s exclusive authority to regulate safety matters. No doubt there is tension between the conclusion that safety regulation is the exclusive concern of the federal law and the conclusion that a State may nevertheless award damages based on its own law of liability. But as we understand what was done over the years in the legislation concerning nuclear energy, Congress intended to stand by both concepts and to tolerate whatever tension there was between them. We can do no less. It may be that the award of damages based on the state law of negligence or strict liability is regulatory in the sense that a nuclear plant will be threatened with damages liability if it does not conform to state standards, but that regulatory consequence was something that Congress was quite willing to accept."
On the other hand, even this decision accepts the popular view that the original purpose of Price-Anderson was to encourage companies to enter a new field. Since the field is no longer new, one could ask why the law continues to exist. I think the answer lies in the other benefits. One benefit is that it clarifies the US Government’s responsibilities. Every aspect of nuclear energy, including design, construction, and operation, is supervised by the Federal Government. In the case of an accident, and in the absence of legislation, the Government very likely would find itself in the position of defendant. The act clarifies this point: the Government would only be on the hook after all other coverages, from commercial insurance and owners’ assets, have been paid out. A second benefit is that victims of an accident could recover their damages without suing. Under liability law, they would have to determine who was at fault and prove it in court. The process would take years and, even if they won, they’d lose because lawyers would take most of the money. Under Price-Anderson, they’d only have to show they had taken losses and they’d be compensated.
As it is, Price-Anderson is a requirement for anyone doing nuclear work. It doesn’t limit victims’ ability to recover damages. What it does is to guarantee that money will be there to pay them.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Mr. Gore says (to Mr. Hastert):
You mentioned nuclear. I am sure that will come up again. I
am not an absolutist in being opposed to nuclear. I think it is
likely to play some role. I don't think it is going to play a
major role. But I think it will play some additional role, and
I think the reason it is going to be limited is mainly the
costs. They are so expensive, and they take so long to build,
and at present, they only come in one size: extra large. And
people don't want to make that kind of investment on an
uncertain market for energy demand.
Heck, Al, renewables cost more to build than nuclear plants. Look at this. If we're going to replace all the fossil-fired plants in the US, do you really think size is going to be a problem?
(To Mr. Inglis)
I think that decentralization is the wave of the future.
And also on liquid fuels for road transport, by the way, and
the next generation ethanol the enzymatic hydrolysis stuff that
is coming on line. But on your core choice, I am not opposed to
nuclear. I have deep questions about it. I am concerned about
it. I used to be enthusiastic about it. Back when I represented
Congressman Gordon's district, TVA had 21 nuclear power plants
under construction. And then later, I had represented Oak Ridge
where we were immune to the effects of nuclear radiation so I
was very enthusiastic about it.
But 19 of those 21 plants were canceled. And I am sure Bart
gets the same questions I used to get about whether those
partly finished cooling towers might be used for a grain silo.
But people are upset still that they have to pay for them and
not be able to get any electricity for them.
And I think the stoppage of the nuclear industry was really
less due to 3-mile island and Chernobyl and environmental
concerns and more due to the fact that after the OPEC oil
crisis of 1973 and 1979, the projection for electricity demand
went from 7 percent annualized compounded down to 1 percent.
You're right on that one, Al. Growth of just about everything died when Jimmy Carter was president. Then natural gas drove out all its competition. Clean and cheap; what else could anyone want?
(To Mr. Upton)
I don't recognize the quote that you used as one
of mine. I am not saying it wasn't, but I don't really agree
with the way that was phrased.
[Quote from Nuclear Energy Information Resource Center: "I do not
support any increased reliance on nuclear energy; moreover, I
have disagreed with those who have classified nuclear energy as
clean or renewable."]
Yeah, you can't trust anything anti-nukes say.
I am not a reflexive opponent of nuclear power,
Congressman. I am just a skeptic about nuclear power's
viability in the marketplace. I think that if we let the market
allow the most competitive forms to surface, what we will see
is decentralized generation, widely distributed, we will see an
emphasis on conservation and efficiency and renewable energy.
But where nuclear power is concerned I have expressed my views,
previously, I am not a reflexive opponent, I think there will
be some new nuclear power plants.
But you mention China. Look at their 5-year plan right now.
You are right, they plan 55 new coal fired power plants per
year. Only three nuclear plants per year. Now why? They don't
have any opposition that they can't overcome pretty easily from
Beijing. But they see the same problems just in practical terms
that a lot of our utilities see. These things are expensive and
complicated. They take a long time and the fragility of the
operating regime has already been seen. I have been to
Chernobyl. I have been to Three Mile Island and I don't want to
exaggerate those problems.
I think that we can come up with solutions for the dangers
of operator error. I think we can come up with solutions for
long term storage of waste. I don't think Yucca Mountain is it.
And I think if you don't skate past the real scientific
evidence of what they found at Yucca Mountain. What they found
on the geology there makes it simply wrong to put stuff that is
going to need to be contained for tens of thousands of years in
a place that is really not appropriate for it. Now that is my
reading of what the geological survey has said about that. But
I am not opposed to it as a category.
I don't think any of this is wrong, Al. But nobody has suggested an easier way to stave off global warming. Maybe we could ride bicycles and starve like the Chinese did fifty years ago, but I'm guessing that's not going to catch on. If we leave it up to the market to decide we'll just keep on using coal because nothing is cheaper; not nuclear or renewable energy and not even conservation. So to beat global warming we have to start building renewable energy sources and nuclear plants because that's the only way we can grow our construction capacity. The other choice is sitting on our hands and watching the habitat melt away. What do you think?