Monday, February 4, 2008

The Academic Approach to Anti-Nuclearism

For a long time there's been a belief among anti-nukes that you can prove anything if you write enough. You just have to beat science with statistical analysis and smother it with paper.

This came up again on another blog, which uses a lot of scientific language but is dedicated to the proposition that the laws of nature can be over-ridden if they're inconvenient.

In this case, the writer of the article is determined to show that part-time energy sources can provide full-time power, if you just do enough mathematical manipulations.

First he cites "Supplying Baseload Power and Reducing Transmission Requirements by Interconnecting Wind Farms" by Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson, which argues that if enough wind turbines are interconnected they can provide base-load power. According to the authors, the part of the average output that can be considered 87.5% reliable is between 33% and 47%, depending on how many wind turbines are interconnected. However, the area they studied, centered on the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, has the most reliable winds in the US and their results don't translate to the country as a whole. Even so, they show that wind farms would have to be oversized by a factor of at least 2. They elect to call it base load, but that's not appropriate. It only can be base load if there is also some form of load-following power.

That's a problem. Without fossil fuel and nuclear energy, load following is limited to whatever hydro and pumped storage can be made available, and at most that can only be a few percent.

The article writer also cites "Improving the Technical, Environmental and Social Performance of Wind Energy Systems Using Biomass-Based Energy Storage" by Paul Denholm, which recognizes that problem and suggests using biofuels for backup. But there are a couple of problems here. One is that nowhere does he consider the fuel required to grow the biomass and convert it into biofuel. Currently, it takes up to a gallon of fuel to produce a gallon of fuel, and certainly a big part of a gallon. It seems unlikely that it will ever take no fuel to produce a gallon of fuel. In the absence of better information, his study has to be considered extremely optimistic.

His optimistic estimate is that it would take 6.9 hectares or .0266 sq mi to produce biofuels that would generate 1000 MWH per year. The US uses 4 billion MWH/year, so the area required would be 106,400 square miles, out of 650,000 square miles of arable land. Suppose wind energy allows us to reduce that in half, which would require a half-million 1.5 MW wind turbines (rotor height = 450 feet!); we still need 53,000 square miles. Since we're using almost all the arable land for food and fiber, it's not clear where the 53,000 square miles will come from. Also, to farm land of this magnitude means using less-productive land. He assumes 11.3 tonnes/hectare yields, which would require prime Iowa land, so the land areas would be much greater and very likely would require irrigation, for which water will not be available. That's enough trouble already, but consider that the need for motor fuels will vastly outweigh the need for bio-electricity, because there is another, better, way to generate electricity but no alternative way to produce non-fossil motor fuels.

So we're still where we've always been. Wind energy doesn't work without a backup, and biofuels won't provide the backup.

As we explained in an earlier article, nuclear energy allows solar and wind to play their maximum part in providing electricity. Further, it allows them to contribute efficiently to the production of hydrogen, by taking some load off the nuclear plants. This is the kind of solution that will minimize global warming. Trying to paper over the limitations of renewable sources with scientific-looking obfuscations, if it's successful, can only keep the world on its present reckless path to self-destruction.

But anti-nukes don't get this. They believe you can change reality by manipulating data. You want windmills to turn when there's no wind? No problem. Just crank out fifteen pages of equations, tables, diagrams, and charts and they'll turn themselves!

No comments: