"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, September 16, 2005

Clean Energy, Virtually Unlimited: Anybody Want Some?

In his latest Scripps-Howard column, the acclaimed and vilified science writer Michael Fumento asks and answers the following question:

Why would an energy-craving nation (the U.S.) that also demands a pristine environment put the kibosh on a limitless form of power (nuclear energy) that produces no air pollution and no emissions environmentalists claim cause global warming?

Fumento's answer, and the correct one, is that the people of the United States have a superstitious fear of nuclear energy that is based on two incidents, neither of which was even a tiny fraction as damaging as the American media have potrayed them as being: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. These two incidents, both so widely publicized that they are known worldwide simply by their place names, have put a great fear of nuclear energy into the American mind, and Fumento's article explains exactly how little damage these two accidents did to the environment and how much damage they did to the use of nuclear power in the United States, the world's largest energy user.

Ironically, these two accidents did far more damage to the environment by turning the United States away from nuclear power and toward an increased use of fossil fuels in the supply of electrical energy.

13 comments:

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Talk about unintended consequences!

James Elliott said...

I agree. Turning away from nuclear power crippled our ability to create even more efficient and perhaps "cleaner" methods of disposing of nuclear waste. Imagine the foreign policy implications: We have smaller, more efficient, easy-to-construct nuclear plants that don't produce material that can be refined to weapons-grade. Here North Korea, have a few in exchange for scrapping your program!

Something similar happened in Santa Cruz county. A plant that creates concrete aggregate wanted to use old tires as fuel. Essentially, the tires are burned at such a high temperature that the resultant air pollution marks as among the cleaner sources of fuel. But, since they were burning tires, and this has a negative imagery, the Santa Cruz populace rose up in arms in protest. So now they still have a giant tire pile and the plant pollutes more than it would have. But at least they're not burning tires! Morons.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I've been thinking about this all week because of the "Peak Oil" brouhaha elsewhere on the blog. I don't understand the view that oil is irreplaceable in our energy economy. It seems to me that with some relatively minor readjustments, we could reconfigure our existing infrastructure to work with technologies we already have or could reasonably develop without big leaps: nuclear, coal, biofuels, and increased domestic production of oil and gas. I am working on the numbers right now, but as of now it doesn't seem that farfetched.

Oh, and the tires? Leave a giant pile of tires sitting around long enough, and something will catch fire. And it will burn, and burn, and burn, and burn, at relatively low temperatures, out in the open, spewing out the most obnoxious cloud of particulate hydrocarbon. For years. Like this. And it will serve Santa Cruz right, for being such nitwits.

James Elliott said...

Part of the problem with replacing oil is that all of the alternatives require oil at some point during their processing. This may not hold for nuclear power (it's been some time since my one class on nuclear physics, and that was about making bombs), but you can't drive your car on it unless it's an electric vehicle.

It's also a consumer need thing: You can't propel a tanker truck or even a consumer vehicle as far as it maybe needs to go if it's purely electric. Now, a brilliant interim measure would be to force a conversion to hybrid technology and THEN talk about alternative power sources, like hydrogen. But don't expect Big Auto or Big Oil to roll over and take that one lightly.

Of course, we can also thank Pete Domenici of New Mexico for screwing alternative fuels. He's cut funding to the National Ignition Facility (a long-term project that would benefit both nuclear arsenal testing AND clean energy) in order to get some short-term funds for Sandia and Los Alamos.

Kathy Hutchins said...

James, I wasn't proposing switching the transportation fleet to electric; that's why I mentioned biofuels. On the diesel end, at least, the switchover is a minor matter. Virtually all serious agriculture machinery is diesel already, and diesel engines can burn 100% biodiesel with no modifications. Right now, the efficiency ratio of biodiesel is 3.2 -- for every BTU you put in, you get 3.2 back. And that's using soybeans as the feedstock, which is done not because soybeans are the best thing to use, but to pay off the soybean farmers who are sick of the cornboys getting all the ethanol subsidies. Likewise, current gasoline engines can run on up to 85% ethanol, although you do have to do some tinkering. It's also possible to run existing IC engines on methane gas. (Back in the '70s, one of those eccentric British geezers modified his '53 Hillman to run on rotting chickensh*t.) In the case of biodiesel, you don't need petroleum at any stage of the process. Well, maybe manufacturing the agricultural machinery, I haven't looked at the industrial sector very carefully yet.

I'm not suggesting that this is something that should be pushed; I don't believe in "Peak Oil" but if it were true, the price of oil would go high enough for all these strategies to be economically attractive. I'm just saying that in prinicple we could move to fuels we already know how to produce, without much disruption to existing generation and transmission infrastructure.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Now, a brilliant interim measure would be to force a conversion to hybrid technology and THEN talk about alternative power sources, like hydrogen."

"Force"? James, I'm presented no option but to doubt your previously self-professed libertarian/anti-authoritarian credentials.

James Elliott said...

Force business. Business is evil and oppressive. Like Republicans.

Tlaloc said...

"I don't understand the view that oil is irreplaceable in our energy economy. It seems to me that with some relatively minor readjustments, we could reconfigure our existing infrastructure to work with technologies we already have or could reasonably develop without big leaps: nuclear, coal, biofuels, and increased domestic production of oil and gas."


Nuclear fuel is already also running out. Building new reactors is a waste besides being environmentally unconscionable. Coal is still the best reserve of energy we have but unlike oil it's not easy to transport (when was the last time you saw a coal pipeline). Biofuels are terribly inefficient in terms of energy generated per unit area and that's already allowing for the use of petroleum based fertilizers and tractor use. Increasing domestic production of oil and gas doesn't magically make more of either it just means we use up what we have left faster.

Tlaloc said...

"In the case of biodiesel, you don't need petroleum at any stage of the process."

Hell yes you need petroleum to produce biodiesel. Or have you found soybeans that plant themselves in neat rows for harvesting, fertilize themselves, produce their own pesticide, and then uproot themselves and walk off to the biodeisel plant to be converted into fuel? If you are talking about on a very small scale then yes you might be able to create a self sufficient energy ecology where biodiesel takes over all of these energy roles.

But you can only do that because of the energy generated by the absorption of sunlight through the photosynthesis of the plants. Hopefully you are well enough aware of thermodynamics to understand then that the total energy used cannot exceed the energy absorbed as sunlight by those plants. If you hear a small warning bell going off in your head thats because the same land area will much more efficiently produce power via solar panels and yet we know solar alone has no hope of replacing oil. The land area required would be astronomical.

The proof that solar would work better is simply to ask yourself how many steps each requires from generation to output and to know there is always an energy loss at every step. Solar goes straight from incident light to power output. Biodiesel requires planting, growth, harvesting, physical transport, processing. Every step is a loss, thats a 100% guarantee.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Solar goes straight from incident light to power output.

Aren't there transmission and storage losses whenever you're dealing with electricity (depending on whether its going onto the grid or into batteries)? Also, it's hardly kosher to debit the biofuel side with planting and harvesting costs without accounting on the solar side for the manufacture of the photovoltaic cells.

I admit when I was ruminating about the fuel substitution I was thinking small scale -- a rural co-op sort of situation. Not just in the context of the US, I've been thinking about third-world agriculture lately, and how much more vulnerable these ag sectors are to oil shocks than we are. I know the Brazilians are doing a ton of research on ethanol and biodiesel.

Do you know anything about proposals to refine biofuel from (a) saline-tolerant algae and (b) waste cellulose? I do realize (thought I made clear, but perhaps I was too vague) that biodiesel from soybeans is a political stunt, not an energy strategy.

Tlaloc said...

"Aren't there transmission and storage losses whenever you're dealing with electricity (depending on whether its going onto the grid or into batteries)?"

Sure but I also didn't include the costs for biodeisel energy once it was made into biodiesel, I only counted up to the point where it was effectively an energy commodity. Naturally energy loses from electrical transmission are much smaller than from physically carting around a tanker full of biodiesel.



"Also, it's hardly kosher to debit the biofuel side with planting and harvesting costs without accounting on the solar side for the manufacture of the photovoltaic cells."

Fair enough but the cells are made once (barring minor maintenance)where as the biodiesel requires annual replanting.



"I admit when I was ruminating about the fuel substitution I was thinking small scale -- a rural co-op sort of situation."

Again that may be doable and is certainly worth considering but it assumes we are willing to abandone our modern society. That's an assumption that not everyone is on board with as of yet.



"Do you know anything about proposals to refine biofuel from (a) saline-tolerant algae and (b) waste cellulose?"

I read a little about it. The waste cellulose is fine as a stop gap measure but it essentially relies on a system that has had such plentiful cheap energy that it could afford to waste it like crazy. Obviously when an energy crunch hits those supply streams may well die out.

Algea gives a much higher volume of diesel per acre than anything else currently (by a factor of 10x compared to soy beans as I recall). It may well be the best choice for a small scale economy based on biodiesel but again no matter how efficient you get you will never manage to get out more from Biodiesel than the solar incident energy for the area you use to cultivate.


My point has been thus: Alternative energy supplies are fine and a great idea when intelligently applied but none of them can possibly replace oil AT OUR CURRENT LEVEL OF USAGE. This ever growing appetite for energy to use must be curbed because it is simply unsustainable. I really wish we'd spent the last 30 years working on much more energy efficient standards for every appliance, every vehicle, every home. That combined with supplemental energy sources from solar, wind, biomass, hydro, etc. may have let us continue on in a lifestyle similar to what we've had up to now.

But we didn't.

We chose the path of short sighted self interest and blind faith in market solutions and now we're screwed. How many big cities do you think will be able to feed themselves once it becomes too costly to truck fod into them on a daily basis? For that matter how many farmers are now in a position to operate a subsistence level of farming without pesticides or oil driven farm equipment? To say nothing of monstrosities like terminator seeds.

We live at the top of a very tall and very narrow tower of energy flow. The bottom of it is all oil, gas and coal. The tower is so thermodynamically unstable that even a minor cruch of refining capacity has it swaying dangerously. A serious decline of oil and or gas and it will collapse.

Tlaloc said...

As a side note a few years ago I tried to sit down with one of the managers many levels above me to convince him that we should really be looking at making power efficiency a major design priority both in our product and in the toolsets we use from vendors. I was specifically trying to get the idea up to our SLRP (strategic Long Range Planning) meetings.

Naturally the idea didn't fly then, too much sand for one to bury their head into. Now the idea is starting to percolate within the company as possibly important. But of course we've lost years in the meantime and the lead time on semiconductor processes is quite long (and on building new fabs is even longer).

A pity because the company I work for really is pretty decent.

connie deady said...

Not sure why the focus on nuclear energy. The reality is that after the toppling of the Shah of Iran and the huge oil shortage, everyone dropped the ball on the energy issue.

When I worked for Jerry Brown in 1979-82 the California state vehicle fleet had a number of vehicles run on methanol. That technology has never been exploited.

After the initial crisis, we seem to have lost the national will to reduce our energy consumption or to seek out alternative, non-traditional means of creating energy.