Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reform management of the energy sector: yes, to nuclear ... by gimleteye

The planet is sick. Ok. That may be attributing a filter to nature that adapts on timelines that are measured in millions of years. Whatever you call it, the convulsion in the climate we triggered is now known as the new geologic age, the Anthropocene. That's for us. The culprit is greenhouse gases we untrapped from hundreds of millions of years of dormancy. Scientists believe that even if we altered our energy source today -- away from fossil fuels -- any return to the climate we have known is far in the future. We are on the cusp.

This is part of saying: I've made a turn-about on nuclear power. The writer, Robert Bryce, explains why: there is no other power source that can quickly and efficiently deliver grid scale power and replace fossil fuels.

But I mistrust the corporations that comprise our energy sector because, like FPL, they have shown such extraordinary bad faith with the public on a wide range of issues, not just nuclear.

Humans are poor long-term managers. Have you noticed? Our attention span evolved to fit the scroll bar at the bottom of cable news programming. While the question whether civilization survives climate changes remains in the future, one future result can be answered based on past performance: corporations are incapable of the required transformation of energy production and consumption in the United States.

On this point my views diverge sharply from my GOP friends: the mismanagement of the energy sector is not due to the inefficiency of government, it is the result of corporate influence and greed. Of course Democrats are capable of the same. And have done the same. And government has proven itself easily captured by bureaucratic inertia.

For example, nuclear power at sea level, where the rate base will be impacted by sea level rise, is an economic and environmental disaster. FPL and the government have already colluded to obscure the damage to the underground aquifer beneath Homestead that its existing nuclear reactors caused. That is how FPL mobilizes the money we pay the corporation now -- its income -- , to keep our lights and air conditioning turned on in South Florida.

The failure to manage energy production to protect the climate that sustains us illustrates the massive failure of the free market. What option is there but to strengthen the role of science and government? Why isn't this question -- the appropriate management of nuclear power to replace fossil fuels -- part of the national energy debate? My recommendation would be to take the nation's top venture capitalists, put them in a room with the best nuclear engineers, scientists, public policy experts and utility industry economists, and propose a new national energy policy to serve the public interest.

For nuclear to work quickly, the playing field needs to be level, and everything needs to be on the table, including nationalization of certain sectors of the energy economy.

Read Robert Bryce's article here, in Energy Tribune or click 'read more'.

Renewable Energy’s Incurable Scale Problem
By Robert Bryce
Energy Tribune
Posted on Jul. 13, 2012

It’s summer. It’s hot. And once again, we are hearing from the usual suspects that we must change our entire way of living. Repent, they say. Carbon dioxide emissions are killing Mother Earth. Give up hydrocarbons and embrace renewable energy.

Doing so, we’re assured, will result in a gentler climate and myriad other benefits, including scads of “green” jobs. Sounds easy, no?

Alas, no matter how much they may wish it to be so, the proponents of alternatives -- and better yet, “clean” energy -- cannot overcome the problem of scale. A simple bit of math shows that even with the rapid expansion that solar and wind-energy capacity have had in the past few years, those two sources cannot even meet incremental global demand for electricity, much less make a dent in the world’s insatiable thirst for coal, oil, and natural gas. Indeed, had any of the myriad advocates for renewable energy bothered to use a simple calculator, they would see that their favored sources simply cannot provide the vast scale of energy needed by the world’s 7 billion inhabitants, at a price that can be afforded.

Consider this: between 1985 and 2011, global electricity generation increased by about 450 terawatt-hours per year. That’s the equivalent of adding about one Brazil (which used 485 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2010) to the electricity sector every year. And the International Energy Agency expects global electricity use to continue growing by about one Brazil per year through 2035.

How much solar would be needed to produce 450 terawatt-hours per year? Well, Germany has more installed solar-energy capacity that any other country, with some 25,000 megawatts of installed photovoltaic panels. In 2011, those panels produced 18 terawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in global electricity demand, the world would have to install about 25 times as much photovoltaic capacity as Germany’s total installed base, and it would have to do so every year.

Let me repeat that: just to meet the world’s increasing demand for electricity -- while not displacing any existing electricity-production facilities -- the world would have to install about 25 times as much photovoltaic capacity as what now exists in Germany. And it would have to achieve that daunting task every year.

The scale problem is equally obvious when it comes to wind. In fact, wind-energy’s scale problems are even more thorny because wind energy requires so much land.

At the end of 2011, the U.S. had 47,000 megawatts of installed wind-energy capacity. (Only China, with 62,000 megawatts, had more capacity.) In 2011, all of the wind turbines in the U.S. produced about 120 terawatt-hours of electricity. Thus, just to keep pace with the growth in global electricity demand by using wind energy, we would have to install about 3.75 times the current installed wind capacity in the U.S. every year. That means that global wind-energy capacity would have to increase by about 176,000 megawatts each and every year.

That would be an enormous challenge given that between 2010 and 2011, global wind-energy capacity increased by just 41,000 megawatts. That’s a record increase, and one that advocates of renewable energy are quick to laud. But those same advocates refuse to acknowledge the energy sprawl inherent in wind energy nor will they admit the growing backlash against the wind industry.

Let’s consider the extent of the energy sprawl if the wind-energy sector were to supply that 450 terawatt-hours per year of incremental electricity demand.

The power density of wind energy is roughly two watts per square meter or about five megawatts per square mile. That means that by the end of 2011, the U.S. had covered a land area of about 9,400 square miles with wind turbines, a land area just slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. Therefore, just to keep up with the growth in global electricity demand by using wind energy alone, the global wind industry will need to cover a land area of some 35,000 square miles -- about the size of Indiana --- with wind turbines. And it will have to do so every year.

That metric’s still hard to grasp, so let me put it another way: in order to merely keep up with the pace of growth of global electricity use, the wind industry would have to cover 96 square miles every day, with wind turbines. That’s an area about the size of four Manhattans.

Glib economists might suggest that such a feat could be achieved, but that ignores another key question: Where will we put all those turbines? That’s a touchy question given that the backlash against the wind-energy sector is global and it’s growing. Europe alone has more than 500 anti-wind groups. That backlash was typified by a move made last month by the Lincolnshire County Council, which imposed a rule prohibiting construction of large-scale wind projects within a 1.5-kilometer radius of any residences. The county council’s leader, Martin Hill, told a local newspaper that “enough is enough…Not only are these things spoiling our beautiful countryside for future generations, they could also seriously damage our tourism industry, who wants to spend their holiday looking at a 400-foot turbine?” Hill went on, “People enjoy living in Lincolnshire because we have a great way of life, not because the landscape’s blighted by wind farms.”

The point of this essay is not to argue about climate change. When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, I’m a resolute agnostic. You can insist that carbon dioxide is good. You can insist that it’s bad. I don’t care. I routinely read both sides in the climate debate, which has devolved into a vituperative morass of name-calling and vitriolic tribal warfare that pits the “deniers” against the “catastrophists.”

The key question isn’t your tribal affiliation. Instead the essential issues are these: If you believe that carbon dioxide is bad, how can we meet the world’s soaring demand for transportation fuels, and more particularly, for electricity? And can we do so while phasing out coal, the energy source which remains the cheapest, most abundant, most reliable choice for electricity production?

The answers to those questions, are obvious and interconnected. I have long advocated N2N, that is, natural gas to nuclear. Choosing those sources offers the best “no regrets” strategy. Supporting N2N doesn’t require membership in a CO2 tribe. Instead, it only requires understanding that for more than two centuries, the people of the world have been steadily moving toward fuels that contain less carbon and toward power systems that have high power density.

During combustion, natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal. And thanks to the domestic abundance of natural gas, the US, according to the International Energy Agency, has, over the past five years, cut its carbon dioxide emissions faster than any other country on the planet. Better yet, as we are now finding out, natural gas is not only abundant in the Earth’s crust, it is super-abundant. The shale revolution, which has unlocked galaxies of natural gas in the US, is only part of the story. Over the past few years, huge conventional fields of natural gas have been discovered in Israel, Australia, Africa, Mexico, and elsewhere. That abundance of gas is great news as it should allow more people access to more energy.

With regard to nuclear, my stance is simple: if you are anti- carbon dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout. And no energy source can compare to nuclear when it comes to power density. The core of a nuclear reactor has a power density that is measured in hundreds of megawatts per square meter. That allows nuclear facilities to have a very small footprint, the opposite of energy sprawl.

Fortunately, some of America’s leading environmentalists are recognizing that nuclear must be a major part of the energy mix. Last month, I attended a conference in California that was sponsored by the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, a group founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are leading critics of the big environmental groups and they’ve also become staunch advocates for nuclear energy.

On the opening night of the conference, filmmaker Robert Stone showed a segment from his upcoming documentary, Pandora’s Promise. The film explains why nuclear energy, which Stone calls “mankind’s most feared and controversial technological discovery” is now being “passionately embraced by many of those who once led the charge against it.” Among the people featured in the film is Stewart Brand, the longtime environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand, who attended the Breakthrough conference, tells Stone that for years you had to be anti-nuclear if you were to call yourself an environmentalist. Now, with the threat of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, Brand said the question has been turned around. “Can you be an environmentalist and not be pro-nuclear?”

While N2N remains an obvious pathway as we go forward, the key issue, when it comes to carbon dioxide is coal. Between 2001 and 2010, U.S. coal consumption fell by 5 percent. But over that same time period, global coal consumption soared by 47 percent, or the equivalent of 23 million barrels of oil per day. Put another way, over the past decade or so, global coal consumption increased by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas, and nuclear combined.

For countries ranging from China and India to Vietnam and Germany, coal continues to present a compelling value for electricity production because deposits of the fuel are abundant, widely dispersed, easily mined, and are not controlled by any OPEC-like cartels. Combine those facts with the world’s soaring demand for electricity – recall that it’s growing by about one Brazil per year – and it’s readily apparent that coal won’t go away any time soon. Indeed, between 2010 and 2011 alone, global coal consumption increased by about 3.9 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Put another way, in one year, global coal demand increased by an amount that’s nearly equal to the entire energy demand of the United Kingdom.

So where does that leave us, particularly if we are concerned about carbon dioxide emissions? Well, the obvious answer is that we need to find an energy source that is cheaper – a lot cheaper – than coal. And we must deploy it quickly. But keep in mind that even if such an energy source is found, energy transitions happen very slowly.

In a recent essay, Vaclav Smil, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on energy and power systems, points out that our existing energy infrastructure depends on coal, oil, and natural gas. In fact, those three sources now combine to provide about 215 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or about 87 percent of global energy demand. That infrastructure “constitutes the costliest and most extensive set of installations, networks, and machines that the world has ever built, one that has taken generations and tens of trillions of dollars to put in place.” Smil goes on saying it is “impossible to displace this supersystem in a decade or two – or five, for that matter.”

So the next time you hear someone from the Sierra Club or Greenpeace, or any of the other groups on the Green/Left who are insisting that we need to quit using fossil fuels immediately, do them – and yourself -- a favor: buy them a calculator.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


Malagodi said...

Mr. Brice's incurable desire problem.

It's too bad that Mr. Brice chooses to call out Greenpeace and the Sierra Club as the irrational radicals in this debate. They're not. There are plenty of others who are, but it's not Greenpeace or Sierra. They're the rational ones.

Maybe I missed it, but I don't recall Greenpeace or Sierra demanding the immediate abolition of fossil fuels and a return to a mythical pre-industrial paradise. What they have called for is a rational policy of systematically reducing fossil fuels in favor of rational alternatives that do not kill us or the planet.

From there, one may argue whether or not nuclear power makes economic sense, where it is environmentally logical (if anywhere) and how it should be deployed and managed, and so forth. As the technology stands today, it would be to my mind the least desirable of all alternatives to fossil fuels, and given it's inherent inflexibility because of construction, waste, and ultimate deconstruction, it is hard to imagine deploying new, very expensive and highly centralized nuclear power plants anywhere.

But we can have those arguments only in the context of a coherent discussion of energy policy that is free of selfish energy interests. It must be a scientific debate, not a political one. This simply doesn't exist. Part of the reason it doesn't exist, and can't exist at this point is because the future is so uncertain. The environmental future is uncertain, the economy and validity of nation-states as governing bodies is uncertain, and the very nature of future industrialism, if we can even call it that, is uncertain.

What is clear is that the old paradigm of industrialism - more production, more consumption, more need in a closed loop of wealth generation- that this as the basis of society and economy cannot continue.

Mr. Brice, and the rest of us, want our cake and we want to keep eating it too. In the end, it is not so much how we transfer energy from one form to another in order to make use of it, it is a question of why. Until now, the why has been, if we strip away the hypocrisy, to enrich ourselves; to become as kings and queens or even as gods. Once the fundamentals of existence are met, we just keep going, accumulating and hoarding up treasure for no reason other than what some call greed, but which I prefer to look at as infantile insecurity and fear.

There are many real needs to be met in the world, outside of the pleasure dome of American values. President Aristide of Haiti said it very well in charting out the hoped-for future of his people; "to move from misery to poverty with dignity." There is much wisdom there for all of us.

Mr. Brice is correct that renewables alone cannot satisfy our current wants. Let us ask ourselves then "what is it that we want?".

Anonymous said...

Clean and renewable energy sources provide plenty of energy. The real reason they are being criticized is because they aren't as profitable and cannot be monopolized by the big powerful energy companies. The real problem is the globalized "free market economy" in which all political and economic decisions are made by a tiny international elite. We would be using much more clean and renewable energy sources if there was much greater public investment in such sources and the government wasn't subsidizing the big dirty energy companies. Instead governments are being used as protection rackets to maintain the control of the international bankers and international energy companies.

Anonymous said...

Carbon dioxide isn't whats harming the environment. GMOs, Chemtrails, and water, air, and land pollution from toxic chemicals is what is harming the environment. And don't forget the harmful radiation from the nuclear disaster in Japan and the poisoning of the Gulf Of Mexico from the oil gusher and the toxic chemicals used to clean it up as well.

Anonymous said...

The fraud of carbon dioxide as the reason for global warming and climate change is being used by the global elites as an excuse to increase the use of nuclear power, biomass, and biofuels as well as creating carbon trading markets through cap and trade legislation granting polluters a license to pollute and imposing carbon taxes which do nothing to actually reduce carbon dioxide but instead are used by the elites to redistribute the wealth of the 99% to themselves.

Anonymous said...

50 Years he, well how long was it til the horse and donkey disappeared from city streets?
Where there is a will, there is a future. For starters, heating water in Florida other then by the sun is moronic. My neighborhood had all solar hot water heaters before WW2. I'm one of the few with a working set left. Pres Carter had it right with his foresight, lesser minds took over since.
Transportation can , will and must get more efficient, besides reducing miles traveled and or shipped. The digital revolution affords us to do more with a fraction of energy consumed.
When I traveled the world in my 20ies I recognized right away the pollution and waste befalling the Earth if all underdeveloped country's people wanted to live like I was accustomed in my youth. Mind you, I thought of myself then having grown up poor.
So really, its all relative. How much devastation are we willing to leaf behind, and for what?