Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dan M and the Dream Era of Confusion

Dan M and the Dream Era of Confusion

We are like people waking from a dream. We as human beings possess the tools to distinguish fantasy and illusion from reality, but our reality detecting tools are not yet sufficiently engaged.

The January 2008 edition of Scientific American published “A Solar Grand Plan: By 2050 solar power could end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and slash greenhouse gas emissions,” by Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis.

This proposal called for the creation of a highly centralized solar power system that could provide 69% of American power by 2050. The power generating array would be located in the desert Southwest. Overnight power would be stored underground. The energy recovery system would involve the burning of natural gas. Power from the 8500 square miles array PV array would be shipped east by a 400 billion dollar high tech power transmission line.

Let us call this proposal the dream. There are other dreams, of course. Advocates of wind power, also think a highly centralized wind generating system, also an using extremely expensive, high tech grid system could solve the American energy problem, by 2050.

The “Solar Grand Plan” did generate a great deal of comment, and those comment in the Scientific American Community section. The entire comment section should be required reading for anyone who is thinking seriously about energy solutions. My attention was drawn to comments by Dan M, who is has clearly awaken, and is acutely aware of the differentiation of the real future and dreams. Dan M. also has a blog. In his blog, Dan not only punctures the solar dream ballon, but he also delivers a devastating critique of land use requirements for wind generated electricity.

Dan also attacks what he calls "the Captain Picard syndrome." Dan observes, "[the Captain Picard syndrome] is the belief that all they need to do is determine a desirable goal, provide leadership and funding, tell the geeks “make it so” and it should happen. If it doesn’t, its an indication of incompetence or malfeasance on the part of the tech. guys."

Dan is quite obviously a serious thinker on energy issues, a thinker who is able to cut through the lack of cogent analysis, that lies at the heart of our current energy future discussion. Every one of Dan’s comments could be read profitably in their entirety, but here is a selection of excerpts:

“if we look at the history of estimations of the cost and timeframe for large, government sponsored dedicated programs, we find a less than thrilling record.

The space shuttle was supposed to drop lift price by a factor of 100; it didn’t even cut them in half. The space station was supposed to cost 10% of what it cost, and do more. Supersonic travel was to be the wave of the future, and the US was going to fall far behind by not funding it. The Japanese were going to leave us in the dust, partially because their government funded the fifth generation computer development and ours stayed, for the most part, out of the market. Commercial fusion was just 30 years away, (and still is. :).” - Dan M.

“If you look at the history of predictions of future technology, you will see many more misses than hits. Most new ideas are wrong; most new technology is too expensive, has limited application, or Nature’s siding with the hidden flaw is just too much to overcome.”

"I think that the foundation of our disagreement is that I don’t think that we now know the best path, or the true cost of various paths." = Dan M.

“As mentioned in the thread referenced below, the variation in exposure to natural radiation as a function of locality gives a good reference point for this. The average person in Denver receives about 1040 millirem of radiation from radon, compared to about 200 for the average American. Radon, by the nature of the exposure, should primarily be responsible for lung cancer. If the linear hypothesis were true, then there should be a significant excess of lung cancers in Denver over the national average, especially for non-smokers. Yet, we do not see this obvious smoking gun.”

“So, if one compares apples to apples, one would argue that nuclear power is far safer than bicycles, cell phones, ladders, tricycles, etc. We do not ban these items because people might die as a result of their use. If global warming is a real, significant problem, then I can’t see how one could argue that we should eschew nuclear power because it is possible that someone might die due to an accident, while we accept children dying at far far higher rates from other accidents.”

“I realize that the argument has always been “what if we have a catastrophe?” My answer is that we had one, and less than 100 people died. Far fewer than die every month from more mundane accidents.” – Dan M.

“As for nuclear power, the anti-nuclear movement has succeeded in adding tremendous costs to nuclear power in the US. The fact that other countries are planning/building nuclear power plants without the massive (in terms of the total cost/price) subsidies that are given to wind power and solar power throughout the world indicates that nuclear power is more than cost competitive with wind and solar on a level playing field.” – Dan M.


James Mason wrote:

>Also, Dan M. tries to downplay the severity of the Chernobyl accident

Hmm…I tried to give the best analysis of the data that I could. I would be open to additional data and/or other analysis. Having been a Radiation Safety Officer, I’m rather familiar with the data on low level exposure. Heck, it is in my self interest to do so, since my job exposes me to low level radiation.

Dr. Mason, I try hard to understand and respond to critiques of my analysis. Unfortunately, a one sentence dismissal of my analysis gives me next to nothing to work with. For example, do you think that radiation levels that exist in Denver are dangerous? Are they so dangerous that we need to plan to abandon Denver? If not, wouldn’t it be reasonable for me to use Denver as a baseline, since we cannot find any radiation based increase in illnesses from living there (even though the linear model indicates that there should be a > 6 sigma signal?

I tried to find the best sources I could for analyzing the damage to due Chernobyl. The official study group seems to be the best to me? Do you think other groups provide better analysis? If so, why?

>but federal hearings held about what if the 9/11 terrorists had decided to attack the Indian Point >reactors just north of NYC.

OK, hearings were held. Where are the proceedings? Who testified?

>Evidence suggests that the planes would have penetrated the reactor containment
>shells and possibly have triggered a meltdown.

I looked for analysis on the web

>I live on Long Island and we cannot be evacuated in a timely manner.

OK, you are probably 50+ miles from the plant. If you are, a Chernobyl type event would involve sheltering in place for a couple of days, and then very low levels of exposure….well as long as you don’t have a severe iodine deficiency. If you do, you would need to take iodine fairly quickly.

>And what about long-term displacement of people caused by the Chernobyl accident.

According to the WHO, most of health problems found in the general public was due to over-reaction by individuals and governments(2). Thyroid cancer was a problem for children, but less than 20 deaths were caused by it. Still, the WHO considers the evacuation of 120k people a reasonable precaution.

This isn’t a good thing, but it’s certainly not without precedent in the US. The permanent relocation from New Orleans is far higher than this….and this is just a low risk, not a near certainty, like the devastation of New York City from a CAT-4 hurricane (even without global warming, it is probable).

Indeed, I’d argue that the terrorists chose the right targets to cause damage. The risk to life and property from the WTC attack was higher than from a nuclear plant attack. We were _lucky_ that the terrorists attacked as early as they did. If the first hit on the WTC was 2 hours later, it would have been full. The normal occupation is 50k, and it took 8 hours to empty the building after the first WTC terrorist attack. A 30k death toll from a 10AM coordinated attack would be a reasonable guess.

Hitting a reactor containment building at high speed would be extremely difficult. It is a small target and one cannot just fly on a level to hit it. It is very unlikely that the wings would penetrate the concrete containment vessel, given the fact that a 30 ton fighter plane crashing into a wall similar to the first containment vessel didn’t penetrate. If you are interested, we can discuss this in detail, but I fear that you are not interested in probabilistic assessments.

>What would have been the long-term impact on NYC in terms of displaced
>people if the Indian Point nuclear plant had been attacked and a meltdown
>triggered (it is unimaginable).

It depends on whether people respond to real or imagined risk. Let us use Chernobyl as an extreme model. There was no containment, the reactor vented to the open air. Even a breached containment would restrict dispersion better than a massive burn into the open air. If this happened at Indian Point, using Chernobyl as a model, no one would be evacuated.

I’m basing my analysis on the Chernobyl Study Group 20 year publication on this issue.(3), as well as my earlier analysis of low exposure danger.

As an aside, if you look at the danger from a dirty radioactive bomb, it is almost all terror, and very little direct danger. People who happily move to Denver and get exposed to 1300 millirem a year would still be afraid of walking into an area where the exposure rate is elevated by 30 millrem/year.

>There is zero chance of anything like this occurring with the Grand Solar Plan.

This argument works if and only if the Grand Solar Plan is as proven an energy program as nuclear power is. I’ve seen scores of plans that are not nearly as ambitious, and they always take longer and cost more when they work. Most of these plans don’t work at all, they are just very well sold. As I said elsewhere, I’ll place your plan in the good category, but I think it extremely imprudent to believe that you can be the singular exception to the general rule of projects.

Finally, it appears to me that you eschew numerical analysis. Looking through your arguments, they seem to be predominantly non-quantitative arguments. For example, you discuss a possible meltdown without giving the probability. If I am wrong, I’d be happy to give my analysis in detail, with proper references.” – Dan M.

“Dr. Mason,

I have a question about your understanding of economics. I look at the leading role that fossil fuels have played in supplying energy since coal replaced water power as the primary industrial energy source in the late 18th and early 19th century. The reason for this seems clear to me; fossil fuels have provided a cheap, compact, portable energy source. Oil, in particular, had tremendous advantages, because it can be harnessed by directly tapping the energy of quick explosive burning pushing pistons instead of requiring steam to push the pistons.

These underlying economics provide a basis for governmental decisions. They cannot be overturned by governmental decisions. For example, when FDR cut off oil exports to Japan in 1941, they were forced into a decision to either pull back or attack…and they chose the latter. They needed the oil, and the government was not powerful enough to stop this.

Second, the price of oil is only marginally controllable by producers and consumers of the product. The drastic drop of oil prices to levels (in inflation adjusted dollars) unseen since the early years of the Great Depression was a boon to the consumer and devastating to the oil industry. It resulted in the 3rd 50% layoff I had seen in the oil patch. Even though the impact around the world was otherwise minimal, the burst of the Asian bubble in the last half of the 1990s pulled the rug from under oil prices.

The price rises were also unstoppable by the consumers, no matter how much they wanted prices to fall. Windfall profit taxes can be instituted against western companies that profited from the price rise, but short of invading oil producing countries, there is no way to actually force the price down as long as the market forces are pushing it up. Even with a >5x increase in prices, world oil consumption has continued to rise. This will continue until other alternatives are cheaper.

And, of course, if consumption does decrease (as it did in the mid 80s) prices will fall nearly as fast as they rise. Both the supply and demand for oil have been demonstrated to be rather inelastic.

Given this situation, the economic security of the world is dependent on an uninterrupted supply of oil. And, as the lone superpower with the ability to project significant force, the US is in the position where it has to ensure this supply. If the US doesn’t, no-one will.

This is part of the cost of oil being critical to the world economy. But, it isn’t a subsidy in the way that ethanol, solar and wind are subsidized. The US government pays a third of the cost of wind power in order to promote its use. If the US didn’t do this, wind farms would not be expanding as they are. If the US didn’t subsidize ethanol, a third of the corn crop would not go to ethanol. If the US decided that it would no longer assure world trade, oil would not simply fade away. The US’s defense spending is a reaction to the importance of oil, not a means of encouraging the use of oil. Even if it were the latter, it would only represent 3% of the total cost of oil; which is on the order of the week to week market volatility.

Government projects, prudently done, can nudge the economy and provide a backbone for it. The sponsorship of infrastructure, from the Erie canal, to transcontinental railroads, to the National Defense Highway System are good examples of this. Fiscal policy is needed to counter depressions; that is clear to me.

But it is also clear that planned economies have, with no exceptions that I can think of devastating failures. The Soviet Union is a classic example. The difference between the planned and market economies in China and India are other large scale examples. Smaller examples also exist, from the British Coal Board, to the Concord, to the Japanese 5th generation computer project in the ‘80s, to the French layoff prohibitions, to the ethanol subsidy abound.

By training, I’m a research scientist. I do data analysis for a living, my bias is always to look at the data first to make empirical predictions from patterns I’ve seen in the past. Looking at these data, I conclude that governmental planning is not a good way to determine how the economy will unfold over the next 50 years.

In addition, it should be self evident that even if the US were to choose to go to solar power, no matter what the cost, this will not change the use of coal by China. China has now surpassed the US in greenhouse gas production (as of 2006). If current trends (from 2000 to 2006) continue, China should produce more greenhouse gasses than the US and Western Europe combined by 2011. It will produce more than twice that produced by the US and Europe combined by 2017. And, according to statements from China, they are willing to pay lip service to environmental concerns, but still plan to massively increase their coal production.(1) They will be more than happy to achieve a dominant role in the production of solar panels, but will not be interested in more than PR boutique use of solar energy until it makes economic sense for them.

Finally, I’ve been around proposed grand projects for >25 years now. The best ones take longer and cost more. The worst ones are all smoke and mirrors. I am placing the plan y’all are proposing in the first category, not the second. Still, there are significant warning signs that need to be heeded.

The first is that a 50% subsidy is considered simply not enough. Wind power is expanding like nobody’s business with this magnitude of a subsidy. I see windmill blades on the freeway on a regular basis.

Yet, you seem to argue that solar prices will only fall if the US government spends 400 billion as seed money. This is a far greater investment than wind needs. This indicates to me that y’all think the price drop will not be a natural market function that results from improved efficiencies.

Further, this 400 billion is not the total cost. It is simply seed money. If total prices are only $1.00 per watt of installed power (which would be significantly less than $1.00 per watt for the solar installations themselves) , the plan calls for about a 14 trillion investment. If total prices are higher, say $2.00, the plan would call for a 28 trillion dollar investment. While I can understand how a 14 trillion investment over 90 or so years is feasible with the government paying far less than a tithe of this money, a 28 trillion investment would be a very different situation. The government would have to pay the excess cost, which a back of the envelope

Let’s just say the US government cowboys up and pays this money, somehow. This would slow the increase in the amount of greenhouse gasses put into the atmosphere every year, but more would still be put in every year. Only if fossil fuels are not the clear cheap alternative will this trend stop.

Predicting market prices and the cost of technology 20 years hence has proven near impossible for just about everyone who as tried over the past 50 years (with the exception that with enough predictions, someone has to be right by random chance). Given this, it seems foolish to me to believe that, in this case, we have the one exception to this rule. In this one case, for the first time ever, the government can pick the future of technology.

If global warming is a significant problem, as I believe, counting on unprecedented good fortune to counter it is not prudent, IMHO.

Now, this is not saying that solar power will not be worthwhile. I don’t think _I_ can make this type of prediction any more than I think the authors can. What I can do is look at what has succeeded in the past, and how government has helped in this.

The first and most important is funding basic research. I don’t know what will come of it, but I do know that the more we have known about the fundamentals, the more innovations we have had.

The second is changing the ground rules to better reflect the total cost of utilizing fossil fuels into the price. Thus, a carbon tax makes sense.

The third is a long term (but temporary one hopes) price support for energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gasses. This is the most problematic, because it edges towards planned economies. But, if one offers the same support for sequestering, the distortions towards inefficient practices and technology should be minimized…as long as the nation is diligent in keeping it from being diverted into focused pork barrel projects, like ethanol.”

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