Thursday, February 13, 2014

Energy Reform: is there political will to organize a forced retreat from fossil fuels? What does that mean? … by gimleteye

Sir Gerald Stern called climate change, "the biggest market failure in history". In her latest book, "The Sixth Extinction", New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert details the rapid impacts of climate change on species and biodiversity, concluding that the we have triggered an epochal event.

Public attitudes to climate change have finally come around from the Fox News campaigns of denial. According to a new Sierra Club poll:

• Two-in-three U.S. voters say the issue of climate disruption is a serious problem.

• The majority of voters (56%) believe that the government already limits the amount of carbon pollution that power plants can release, which the government currently does not.

• When presented with President Obama’s climate plan and the proposed Environmental Protection Agency limits on carbon pollution from power plants, seven-in-ten Americans favor the EPA putting limits on the amount of carbon pollution that power plants can release.

We are as addicted to cheap energy as we are to sugar.

Here's a brief explanation from an engineer friend:
"Coal is all carbon. “C” combine with O2 to make CO2. All the energy in burning coal comes from that reaction. C weighs 12 (see periodic table) O2 is 2 x 16. So for every 12 pounds of coal you burn, it makes 12+2x16 or 44 pounds of CO2. 
Now natural gas is CH4. The C still makes CO2 in the above reaction. But the H4 burns with an O2 to make 2 x H2O, commonly known as steam. So we go from 12+4 (CH4) to 44 (CO2) + 4+32 (2x H2O). In other words 16 pounds of CH4 becomes 44 pounds of CO2 and 36 pounds of water. 
The energy is roughly proportional to the output (hot flue gas) from the reactions. So if we assume a pound of coal stack fumes has as much energy as a pound of gas stack fumes (a very rough approximation, but good enough), we find that for every 100 pounds of coal fumes we have 100 pounds of CO2. For every 100 pounds of gas fumes, we produce 100x44/(44+36)=55 pounds of CO2 and 45 pounds of H2O or steam. The steam looks dramatic on a winter day, but it is benign. 
So natural gas (and oil which is also roughly CH4) produce 45% less CO2. Better but not perfect. Cutting 45% out of our greenhouse emissions would be a big win for sure. If we burn uranium, we get zero CO2."
So, if we were serious about climate change we would be embracing nuclear power, or at least, putting a massive effort into a new generation of nuclear power plants that are far different from the old technologies operating today.

The billion dollar costs tied to very long, multi year planning horizons for new nuclear -- like FPL's Turkey Point -- commit electric utilities to a morass of conflicting purposes through which the only clear logic is executive compensation.

Then, too, nuclear power has been crushed by Fukishima's examples -- not to mention Chernobyl where lies by power companies and governments create massive uncertainties.

According to the Sierra Club poll: By nearly a 2-to-1 margin, voters think the country should be investing more in clean energy sources and energy efficiency rather than in fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas (61% clean energy vs. 33% traditional sources). A majority of voters (51%) “strongly" prefers investing in clean energy. Support is even higher among African-American voters (77%) and Latino voters (71%).

But utilities' profit models derive from industrial scale power, not technologies geared to individual consumers and home production of energy, whether electric bicycles, solar or windmills that only produce 25 percent of the time.

A strong majority of voters (58%) favor the U.S. setting national goals to move away from coal and other fossil fuels and replace them with clean, renewable sources by the year 2030 - this includes 57% who favor moving "entirely away from coal," and 59% who favor moving entirely away from “fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.” Easier said, than done.

In the US, fracking for natural gas has been a boon to the economy and a disaster for the environment. In Florida, the state legislature is speeding past geological problems in service of growth of natural gas in the state. As my engineer friend says, "There is no free lunch."
Sustainable energy sources come with significant problems to national economies. Writer Robert Bryce recently recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the European Union and the German government that "... announced separately that they were both rolling back aggressive subsidies and mandates for renewable energy. The reason: staggering costs. Spain has racked up some $35 billion in debt—known as the "tariff deficit"—thanks to excessive renewable-energy subsidies. In Germany, renewable-energy subsidies are now costing German consumers and industry about $32 billion a year. The costs have become so onerous that on Jan. 21 Germany's economy and energy minister Sigmar Gabriel told energy conference attendees in Berlin that his country is risking "dramatic deindustrialization" if it doesn't reduce energy costs. In December, the Center for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank, reported that European steelmakers are paying twice as much for electricity and four times as much for natural gas as their U.S. competitors. In Denmark, that wonderland for wind-energy enthusiasts, residential electricity now costs about 41 cents per kilowatt-hour, more than three times the U.S. average rate."

New nuclear -- perhaps new technology using depleted uranium or thermonuclear fusion -- is the only energy source that can deliver carbon-less, on-demand and industrial scale power that civilization demands. Although the United States is already spending many billions on new energy technologies, it may not be enough.

What we may need is a military-scale deployment to reduce carbon emissions or risk being overtaken by military-scale contingencies for civil order. Period. Given the escalating versions of weather-related chaos all over the globe, this grim scenario can no longer be claimed as the realm of science fiction. Who else noticed that nightly news images of a quiet virtually abandoned Atlanta due to the ice storm yesterday closely resembled the opening sequences of the TV series, "The Walking Dead"? When it comes to confronting climate change, we are our own zombies.

Unless we all want civilization to rapidly contract, we need a plan. The Obama administration's "all of the above" to energy reform is not a plan. Fracking the hell out of the United States is not a plan. The Keystone Pipeline is a plan, but it is a bad plan. Removing coal from mountain tops is a bad plan. Building new nuclear based on old technology at sea level, when it is certain the plants and rate base will be dismantled by sea level rise in South Florida, is not a plan.

And although there are trillions of dollars at stake, what really is at stake?  Our survivability through the "Sixth Extinction". Do we care enough today, to ensure we don't have to find out what that means tomorrow?


Anonymous said...

You are so right and I think the public is ready. Yesterday the news reported that Florida was the only state in America that was not experiencing snow. We have got to pull the science people together to begin working on it; we have to develop land use policies that help us to adapt; and we may have to reorder our entire way of life. Some areas of the country have been going from one snow storm after another snow storm since December. And soon, we may get snowed in too. And already we are beginning to go underwater. Something different is happening in our world, and we must deal with it.

Anonymous said...

There is something about human nature that we are not interested in expert warnings. Let us look at Atlanta for example. The forecasters had warned a week ahead of time that snow was coming there, as it got closer they pinpointed exactly how much snow and where it would come. Still thousands of people were caught on the roads, children had to sleep in schools, and people had to find shelter any place they could. Now one week later, another forecast warning, and repeat situation in NC. I hate to tell you, but it will be the same way with this. And many people will perish because we failed to listen and act.

Anonymous said...

NIF is getting closer to fusion ignition every day:

Anonymous said...

We are starting to make fuels from atmospheric CO2 capture using green algae or cyanobacteria. It's a scalable, carbon-neutral process. Even better, it doesn't create nuclear waste that explodes periodically, contaminating the planet for the next million years.