Tag Archives: sustainable energy

Nuclear is Not the Answer


James Hansen is the climate scientist who first loudly and persistently proclaimed a risk to society of global warming and the consequent climate change and acidification of the oceans. Recently he and a few others suggested that a vigorous expansion of nuclear power is the only option for producing enough power to completely replace fossil fuels for energy production.

To achieve this goal would require the construction worldwide of over one hundred reactors a year, every year till 2050. As the United States uses something like twenty percent of the world’s energy, our share of the nuclear construction would be about 20 to 25 reactors every year. Conservatively that would be close to 700 nuclear reactors. Based on population that would mean about 7 new reactors in Arkansas alone.

This is a construction rate far, far beyond the heyday of reactor construction in the 1970s. It is just not going to happen for several reasons. Hansen has blamed environmental concerns for blocking the expansion of the nuclear power industry and there may be some truth to this. Past catastrophic nuclear reactor failures loom over the industry. And the seemingly intractable, politically at least, problem of permanent storage of high level nuclear wastes. The best we have come up with so far is on site storage in concrete containers – essentially the radioactive spent fuel rods are placed in casks standing around in parking lots adjacent to the reactors.

Environmental concerns are not the real issue, it is that nuclear power can’t compete economically. The extremely long planning and construction time make essentially impossible to stay on budget. The Union of Concerned Scientists report that the cost for the planning, construction, and licensing has gone from an estimated 2 billion dollars in 2002 to an astounding 9 billion in 2009.

Meanwhile the carbon free competition – efficiency, wind, and solar PV have see an opposite cost curve. For comparison, the cost of a 2 megawatt wind turbine is about 3 million dollars. For an equivalent amount of power produced by a nuclear reactor, the cost is a little over a billion dollars. For large scale commercial solar photovoltaic arrays the cost is about 2.5 billion dollars. Most importantly the cost curves for sustainable energy are downward whereas for nuclear they are upward.

The fuel costs for nuclear power are now relatively modest, but in a scenario with 700 nuclear reactors requiring Uranium, the cost will be substantially greater. Most likely fuel reprocessing will be necessary to produce new fuel but also to deal with the waste stream from all these reactors. Reprocessing fuel will add to costs and increase the risk of additional handling of radioactive material. Both accidents at reprocessing plants as occurred to at Kerr-McGee facility in Oklahoma, or the possibility of diversion to terrorists as weapons.

The future may see some expansion of nuclear reactors, as they serve an important function for baseload power, but something will have to be done to control costs. Savings via deregulation is a non starter. In fact increased regulation may save money. Standardized designs and construction methods may be able to contain costs somewhat. Additional subsidization of the nuclear industry via taxpayer backed insurance is a must. When it comes to the nuclear industry; capitalism, meet socialism.

Solar Based Solar Energy

A major drawback of most if not all sustainable sources of energy is the matter of intermittency. Power can’t be generated by wind turbines if the wind doesn’t blow, and solar panels don’t generate power when the sun doesn’t shine.

There are three ways to deal with this. One is to simply expect to use power when it is available. This is impractical for homes or hospitals or industries where power is necessary 24/7, but it is conceivable that certain industries could run their industrial processes when power is available. Sources such as wind and solar are intermittent, but reliably so. A major problem with this strategy is that expensive equipment can’t be used for sizable amounts of time, making the industry less efficient and therefore less competitive.

The obvious solution is energy storage for leveling the availability of power, and there are a number of different strategies. Pairing energy sources to level access to power may be possible in some cases. In some areas the wind blows more at night. This could be combined with daytime solar PV. Actually this is already occurring to some degree via our electrical grid that utilizes both wind and solar inputs.

The holy grail of sustainable but intermittent energy is inexpensive grid scale battery storage. This is a major forefront of sustainable energy research today. Some Japanese researchers are taking another tack however. What if you could find a place to put solar panels where the sun always shines, with no shadows or clouds, just sunlight 24/7. No problem, just head out into space about 20,000 miles. Solar panels are already hard at work powering hundreds, even thousands of satellites and of course the international space station.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has a 25 year plan to develop gigawatt scale solar panels in space and then beam that energy back to earth. For perspective the average nuclear power plant produces a little less than a gigawatt. The two reactors at Arkansas Nuclear one combined output is about 1.8 Gigawatts.

This will be a BIG project. To produce that kind of power requires an array of solar panels that weigh on the order of 10,000 tonnes and covers an area of a couple square miles, but this is the easy part. Getting that power back to earth is the really tricky part of the plan. The idea is to beam the power back from space via microwaves. Satellites in geosynchronous orbit would point a sending device towards an earthbound antenna which would absorb the microwave power, then convert it to electrical energy that could be sent to grid along with all the other energy sources.

We use microwave ovens to heat up cold cup of coffee, but in this application the power is sent only a few inches, not tens of thousands of miles. Microwaves are sent long distances in the form of radar, but the relative power level is extremely low. To beam relevant amounts of power tens of thousands of miles is the real challenge.

So far testing has only involved sending kilowatts of energy over a fraction of that distance. Stay tuned.

RIP David Bowie 1947-2016

National Security is More than Bombs

The focus of a previous Republican debate was national security. To a man (or woman) the only concern was for the security that comes from a bullet or battleship. Their strategies involved variations on sending our troops to die in Syria, greater involvement of the Arab nation’s troops, increased drone attacks and a strangely abundant call for carpet bombing.

Other kinds of security may come to mind on a national scale, food security is a biggie, and avoidance of floods and droughts, and disease vectors such as insect born infections, and epidemics, and heat waves and on and on from global warming and climate change. Bullets and battleships won’t help here, just the opposite. Instead of fighting we must work on agreeing so we can reach solutions.

Back to national security of the bombing kind. Last July the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report outlining possible threats to national security that could involve the military. “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries…”

When the British exited the Indian subcontinent they partitioned the area into India and East and West Pakistan, based strictly on religious grounds. Later east Pakistan became Bangladesh. It is a small but populous, low-lying country. A predominantly Muslim country adjacent to a predominantly Hindu India. What happens when rising sea levels push 150 or so million Muslims “upslope” into Hindu India? The capital of Bangladesh is not coastal but still is just 4 meters above sea level. Even without forcing migration across borders, population concentration can cause strife.

Hardly any place on earth is immune from threats that could turn into military conflict. The melting of Arctic sea ice will bring several major nations into proximity in the area. Some of the area has ill-defined borders which when covered with ice weren’t much of an issue. Now those issues along with the seas are heating up.

Access to fresh water will surely become a flash point in the future. The high latitudes and low latitudes are predicted to get wetter, but the mid latitudes drier. There are already over a billion people with limited access to potable water and this may only get worse with global warming.

The DoD report emphasizes that the threat is real and requires planning to be prepared for the future. “The ability of the United States and other countries to cope with the risks and implications of climate change requires monitoring, analysis and integration of those risks into existing overall risk management measures, as appropriate for each combatant command, they added.”

A recurring theme in science fiction novels and movies has been the coming together of otherwise warring nations to fight a common enemy – space aliens. Will global warming be the threat not from space but from within which will bind us together as a world community? An important step was taken recently in Paris with a much heralded agreement among all nations. The meeting of world leaders has resulted in an international resolve to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Private Sector must be the Answer

In Al Gore’s award winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth” he used the old saw to depict a real problem with global warming. If you put a frog in hot water it will immediately jump out. Put a frog in cold water but very slowly warm it up and the frog will stay until it is too late and be boiled alive.

That is a nice analogy for the dilemma we face with with global warming. The process is slow. Another analogy would be to call it glacially slow, but glaciers are moving, and melting, at a fairly rapid pace these days. Humans and a number of animals evolved to react to rapidly occurring threats – the snap of a twig in the brush, the glint of light from an eye, and we are ready to fight or flee.

Global warming is a decades to centuries change that threatens us now, and many just don’t see the threat, a threat not to us individually, but to our future. Some are so insensitive to the risk that even if they believe it to be true, won’t react because it doesn’t matter to them personally. If the majority of us hold this opinion, we are doomed as a species.

Some governments are beginning to react with policies that favor carbon free energy strategies, but the steps are often small and can be more costly than simple business as usual burning of fossil fuels. Hey, it’s on face value cheaper and we know how it works.

On a more hopeful note is the fact that technology got us into this problem, but technology and the private sector, hold the potential to get us out. Obviously we need to stop burning fossil fuels, especially coal and oil. Natural Gas, essentially methane, is does not produce as much pollution as the others, but ultimately its use must be curtailed also.

There two ways to replace the fossil fuels, use less through efficiency and replace energy production with non-carbon sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Of the three, wind is the most developed. We currently get about 4 % of our electric energy production from wind, entirely land based. The potential for off shore wind, especially on the east coast affords considerable potential but currently is more expensive to exploit than wind resources in the midwest. Currently the cost of wind generated power is as cheap as that from a modern coal fired plant. And the costs continue to decline, the opposite of the cost for producing power from coal.

Solar Photovoltaic systems (solar panels) are sprouting up everywhere, especially since the price has dropped by half in just the last few years. Not only are homeowners adding panels to their roofs but utility scale systems are being installed. Entergy recently announced that they intend to build a 500 acre solar farm near Stuttgart. For perspective, a square mile covers 640 acres.

Until the intermittent energy sources of wind and solar penetrate to about 30% of total production, no additional back up power is needed. Essentially there is enough existing reserve power to keep the lights on after dark when the wind isn’t blowing. Beyond that, battery backup will be needed. Development and deployment of utility scale battery production will surely follow the demand.

Upcoming Paris Talks

Next month, world leaders from over 190 countries, and scientists that represent governments and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will meet again, this time in Paris, to try to address the issue of global warming. This is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. Fully 80% of the global economy runs on the energy produced from burning fossil fuels which releases Carbon Dioxide. The CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a blanket trapping heat which results in warming the planet.

The answer is simple and clear, but the solution is anything but. The answer is to stop burning carbon as an energy source. How that is achieved is the crux of the problem. Some say that if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to solve the climate problem. To be honest that was an easy goal to achieve. First and foremost we did it essentially alone. The global warming challenge requires the cooperation of every country on the planet, something which has never happened before.

Our putting a man on the moon also didn’t require any special source of energy or concern for the wastes produced therefrom. To solve the global warming crisis will require a combination of drastic reductions in burning fossil fuels, massive improvements in energy efficiency to reduce demand and an expansion of sustainable non-carbon energy sources over an extremely short time scale, unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Some steps have been initiated in a few countries, most notably Western Europe, where several countries have moved aggressively to deploy wind and solar. On a good day Denmark can get 100 % of its electrical energy needs from wind. Germany is not particularly well situated for solar power yet in 2014 they produced over 6% of the electrical energy from solar PV panels. Even China is reacting. Their current 5-year plan has a goal of over 11% of energy needs from renewable sources. That’s some of the good news, the bad news is that it is not nearly enough.

If the countries could agree to reduce carbon emissions by 20% from the current scenario, over the next 50 years, it will only push back the time it takes to double the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 10 years – from 2065 to 2075. Some countries such as those in western Europe have both the technological acumen and the political will to achieve that kind of a goal. Others like the US have the technology but as yet have not expressed the political will to take on the task. And finally much of the rest of the world has neither.

So where does that leave us? Eventually the planet with run out of energetically available fossil fuels, but it doesn’t look like curtailing their use will happen any time soon. Adapting to “a new world order” of the climate variety seems inevitable. If there is one thing we humans do well is adapt. As a species we are very young, but have come out of Africa and covered the globe, occupying every conceivable niche. From the frozen tundra to desiccated wastes of deserts. From lowland swamps to the tops of mountain ranges.

We will pull our cities back from the submerging coasts, and adapt our crops to the hotter regimen. But what about the rest of the biosphere? I suspect we will be adapting to a more biologically barren world.

Energy Subsidies

A significant argument against sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar is that they are not cost competitive with fossil fuels without significant subsidies in the form of tax breaks. It is true that there are various subsidies that favor clean energy. Wind energy producers get a production tax credit and purchasers of solar energy production equipment get a purchase tax credit. There are even purchase credits for buying hybrid vehicles because of their greater energy efficiency.

The argument of course is that sustainable energy sources are the future and giving them a leg up with the competition moves us more in the direction of where we know the future is. Of equal importance is that these clean energy sources don’t contribute to the release of pollutants that impact our health and the stability of the planet’s climate.

If a level playing field is desired however, consideration must be made of the subsidies afforded the fossil fuel industries. And they are significant. Tax deductions abound.

Tax deductions to the oil and gas industry are given to lower the cost of intangible drilling costs. These deductions are for the costs associated with the development of the drilling site. The costs cannot be recovered if the well produces no oil or gas. The purpose was to lower the risk to investors and constitutes a considerable subsidy to wildcatters. Basically the tax payers take the risk but the oil and gas companies take the profits.

The depletion allowance is an especially sweet deal. It is a tax deduction based on the idea that exploiting a finite resource is costly because it goes away. The more successful one is at production, the less one has left to produce. This subsidizes the oil, gas, and coal industries by hastening the exploitation of limited resources. Tax payers assist the industry in profiting from exploiting a resource. Keep in mind that there is no depletion associated with extraction of energy from wind and solar resources.

Tax deductions for accelerated write-off of the expenses are afforded to the oil and gas industries, with respect to the costs of exploration for these resources. Tax payer money is used to assist these industries to find the resources from which they profit.

The arguments in favor of this corporate socialism is that if we lower the costs of exploration for and production of the energy sources, then we all benefit from lower costs; that is, the purchase prices for the fuels. This is more of the old trickle down economics.

The subsidies cited above are for tangible, direct costs. There are other costs born by taxpayers known as externalities. These include but are not limited to health care costs to individuals, insurers, and federal and state programs to help ameliorate these health costs. There also are indirect costs born by taxpayers for environmental degradation. Abandoned coal mines and spoils, polluted drill sites, and structural damage due to hydraulic fracturing all create costs born by tax payers. Finally there are near incalculable costs due to global climate change.

If we are to remove subsidies from clean, sustainable energy sources we need to do the same for those non-renewable, dirty industries. Then and only then will we truly level the playing field.

Wind Turbines and Bird Kills

The Environmental Protection Agency will complete work on a rule soon which requires a collective 30 % reduction in carbon emissions from power plants over the next couple of decades. Essentially coal fired power plants will need to be shut down across the country. The best guess besides greater efficiency is that the power lost will be replaced to a large degree by utility scale wind turbines.

No problem, as there is a huge potential for energy generation. Just the wind in the plains has the potential of providing several times as much electrical energy as is consumed nationwide. Add off- shore wind and the factor is some 10 times what is used!

There are downsides however. The wind is intermittent, so additional sources of power need to be available when the wind doesn’t blow, but up to a penetration of about 30 % of the market it is doable without additional committed reserves.

But what about the birds, bird kills that is? Estimates are all over the map from a few tens of thousands to over a million a year. A recent review of over a hundred studies suggests that about 500,000 birds are killed by wind turbines annually. Currently wind turbines produce 4.4 % of the electrical energy consumed in the US. If we expect to ramp up energy production from wind turbines to 30 % of the market, then we should expect about 3.4 million bird kills a year. That is a lot of birds. How many bird deaths is too many? What activities should be limited based on how many deaths? Should we not expand the use of wind for electric generation?

Interestingly, bird deaths from wind turbines are a pittance compared to other anthropogenic factors. You can’t have too many communication towers right? We want lots of cell phone access and clear digital TV programming. These towers currently kill over 6 million birds a year. Give up your cell phone and you will save 12 times as many birds as wind turbines kill.

One solution would be to abandon electricity. No electricity means we don’t need the wind turbines. This would save 30 million bird deaths a year, due to electrocution from and collision with transmission and distribution lines. Um, maybe we ought to keep the lights on as the wind turbines aren’t really the problem.

We could save oodles on fuel if we didn’t drive cars. This would have the added benefit reducing global warming by lower carbon emissions. It would also save 200 million birds a year due to collisions.

Like the view out the window of your home or office? Board them up and save 600 million birds a year. By now you should see that those wind turbines are relatively benign compared to so many other man made structures. But all these put together pale in comparison to one single factor – cats. Between house pets and feral animals they kill an estimated 2.5 billion birds a year. That’s billion with a B. Our house pets and their escaped brethren kill 5,000 times as many birds as do our wind turbines, and I don’t think anybody is talking about eliminating the pets.

tesla battery

Batteries for the Future – Now

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times (about food) gave a hat tip to the Sierra Club and their Beyond Coal campaign – an effort to close all coal fired power plants by 2030. The point of the piece was the necessity of activism and organizing around a particular issue.

Since the inception of the program in 2010, no new coal plants have been built and 188 closed or planned to close in the near term. Currently just of under 40% of the electric generation capacity in the United States comes from burning coal, but the number is falling – replaced by natural gas plants and a mix of wind and solar.

As long as intermittent energy, wind and solar, constitute a small fraction of the total electric supply, grid operators can balance the load as needed by reducing power from the coal plants. But what about when the coal plants are gone? What do we do when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing?

There is no doubt that there is enough solar in the Southwestern US or wind the Midwest to power the nation, but storage and transmission is a controlling factor to the use of these clean sources of energy. Tea party types are resisting transmission lines on the basis of property rights and governments in conservative states are making small scale renewable energy less attractive to protect their power companies’ turf.

When one thinks of energy storage, explicitly electrical energy, batteries are it. Enter Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and builder of the Tesla Electric car. More important than the electric car are the batteries that power them, at least that is what Mr. Musk thinks. He has recently gone into the battery market, not only for his cars, but for stationary applications. He introduced a 10 kWh battery that can be used for a myriad of applications.

For a home owner this means “behind the meter” storage. Obviously off the grid folks rely on batteries but even grid-tied homes can utilize storage for weathering storms when the grid goes down. Folks with grid-tied renewable energy systems can utilize storage. Some power companies have time of use metering, that is the cost of power varies as to when it is used. If a home owner has a storage capacity, S/he can chose to sell power back to the grid when the price is higher. Even without a renewable energy supply, home owners with storage can charge batteries during the night when rates are lower, then sell power back to the grid during the day, making a profit in the exchange.

Utility scale storage can be beneficial right now. Battery storage can be added incrementally to defer transmission and distribution line upgrades as demand grows. Batteries can be used to back up temporary shortages due to short term power plant outages. Not to get too far down in the weeds on these issues, suffice it to say the Batteries will play a huge part in the future of clean energy supplies.

This something we should all strive for. We will get away from burning stuff for power, and batteries will make this more practical.


Opposition to Transmission Line

Pope County Quorum Court opposes clean air, stable climate!

Recently the quorum court voted unanimously to oppose the construction of Plains and Clean Line’s High Voltage Direct Current transmission line. The HVDC line has been proposed to run from Guymon, Oklahoma to Memphis, Tennessee. If built it will move 3,500 MegaWatts of wind generated electricity from the Midwest to Arkansas and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power grids.

The resolution reads in part “If this power line is built, it will be an enduring eyesore to Arkansas and Pope County, affecting the natural beauty of this area and damaging property values with little positive effect…”

This proposed transmission line is an eyesore compared to what? The welter of transmission lines emanating from Arkansas Nuclear One? Or would it be an eyesore compared to the transmission lines coming from the powerhouse at the Lake Dardanelle Dam. Maybe it is an eyesore compared to the transmission line running from the half a dozen or so other power plants in Arkansas.

Power lines, be they large transmission lines or the smaller distribution lines are a fact of life. Literally hundreds of miles of transmission and distributions lines, owned by both private (Entergy) and co-op (Arkansas Valley Electric) corporations, criss-cross the county already.

It has been suggested that we could free ourselves of these and future electric grid improvement “eyesores” by the utilization of underground cables. That is certainly an option, but a very expensive one. Installation costs for underground transmission lines can be 8 to 10 times that of overhead lines. Although buried cables are less likely to fail due to weather events for example, when they do fail repair times are greatly extended. Repairing or replacing buried cables can require days or weeks rather than hours.

Another option would be distributed electrical energy sources such as roof-top solar PV to avoid the need for large transmission lines but even here there is a need for a wide area distribution grid. Roof-top solar is also much more expensive than utility scale wind power. Many states including Arkansas, are enacting legislation to make roof top solar even more expensive.

Another point in the quorum court resolution is that the line will provide “little positive benefit.” People that appreciate clean air and a more stable climate might quibble with the little part of the resolution. The proposed line will carry the power equivalent of five or six coal fired boilers. That could mean millions of tons of coal not burned every year. Just for perspective, those interminably long coal trains that snarl traffic as they pass through Russellville carry tens of thousands of tons of coal every day from Wyoming strip mines to one power plant in Redfield Arkansas.

The real irony of the quorum court vote is the simple fact that each and everyone of the JPs gets electricity to his or her home via the grid. That means many folks “upstream” have to suffer eyesores and devaluation of their property to keep the lights and big screen TVs powered up in the JPs’ homes. A similar resolution was passed by the Johnson County Quorum Court. Hypocrisy much?

US Oil Booms, But

About 2013, for the first time in over 20 years, the gap between our consumption and production began narrowing, rather than widening.  There are two reasons for this. Production is up due to the fracking boom and of equal importance consumption is down due to the poor economy.  That is good as a snapshot but means little for the future.

As the economy slowly recovers our usage will rise.   At the same time the fracking boom has a limited lifetime. A University of Texas study showed that production of natural gas from three of the largest shale plays; Fayetteville, Haynesville, and Barnett have already peaked. Similar performance is expected in oil from shale fracking. In a few short years we should be back on our inevitible decline in production. Without reduction in consumption we will resume an upward trend on importing oil, currently about a third of what we use.

The danger is fourfold: exporting dollars to buy energy weakens our economy, enriches the economy of some unsavory producers such as Iran and Russia, threatens a stable environment, and impairs our health.

To a large degree all transportation and big chunk of the U.S. Economy is powered from crude oil. The oil is turned into gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil and a myriad of derivative products such as plastic. Currently we are consuming about 18 million barrels of oil per day, yet we only produce about 12 million. That constitutes an energy deficit of about 7 million barrels of oil per day. Even with the price falling to near 50 dollars a bbl, this creates a trade deficit of over an eigth of a trillion dollars a year. An eigth of a trillion dollars a year that flies out of our economy on an annual basis. An eigth of a trillion dollars that is not flipped in our economy to provide jobs or buy groceries.

The oil comes from friendly and not so friendly countries. Canada is our number one supplier, some might say “pusher” at about two and a half million barrels per day. The members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, provide about 5 million barrels of oil per day. Iran is a charter member of OPEC and benefits greatly if indirectly from our purchase of oil on the global market. This is not a pretty picture – our dollars going to support a rogue theocracy bent on developing nuclear weapons and their support for global terrorism. Although we are currently a net exporter of natural gas, this won’t last when the shale plays are exhausted.

We even import uranium to fuel nuclear reactors. The import export balance is negative to the tune of several billion dollars a year. Generally we import low grade Uranium ore and export enriched nuclear fuel. Regardless we are operating at a net dollar loss.

The only fuel that we don’t have to import is coal; however, as society becomes more aware of the risks of damage to human health and the environment, it will become less useful in our economy.

There is no easy answer to this bleeding of cash from our economy. We will not drill our way out of the problem because the oil and gas are just not here. We must adopt energy from clean indigenous sources as the only long term, sustainable answer. The bonus for home produced sustainable energy is the money stays home and cascades through the economy.