Monday, December 8, 2008

Can America Decarbonize Electricity by 2030?

Vaclav Smil has a very significant voice in the current discussion of energy. Smil is very intelligent and knowledgeable, and beyond that his intellect is wide ranging and probing. Smil falls like Alvin Weinberg into the catigory of resource optimists that the Neo-Malthusian Club of Rome cult calls a Cornucopian.

Smil, however, does not understand the potential of the nuclear future or the virtually unlimited nature of the thorium resource. Smil tells us,
nuclear power’s contribution is constrained by limited fissionable material.
Like others who make such pronouncements, Smil failed to look carefully at the facts. Smil is a technophile, and a believer in progress and science. Thus his failure to accord the nuclear option its full due stems more from incomplete information than from ideology. Smil completely rejects Hooverization as the solution to energy shortages.

Smil's eminance as an energy expert is growing, and for that reason his latest essay, "Moore’s Curse and the Great Energy Delusion" is bound to attract attention. True Smil's essay seem
more directed at Al Gore's wildly exaggerated belief that complete transition from fossil fuels in electrical generation to renewables is possible by 2020.

In 2007 the country had about 870 gigawatts (GW) of electricity-generating capacity in fossil-fueled and nuclear stations, the two nonrenewable forms of generation that Gore wants to replace in their entirety. On average,these thermal power stations are at work about 50 percent of the time and hence they generated about 3.8 PWh (that is, 3.8 x 1015 watt-hours) of electricity in 2007. In contrast, wind turbines work on average only about 23 percent of the time, which means that even with all the requisite new high-voltage interconnections, slightly more than two units of wind-generating capacity would be needed to replace a unit in coal, gas, oil, and nuclear plants. And even if such an enormous capacity addition—in excess of 1,000 GW—could be accomplished in a single decade (since the year 2000, actual additions in all plants have averaged less than 30 GW/year!), the financial cost would be enormous: it would mean writing off the entire fossil-fuel and nuclear generation industry, an enterprise whose power plants alone have a replacement value of at least $1.5 trillion (assuming at least $1,700/installed kW), and spending at least $2.5 trillion to build the new capacity.

But because those new plants would have to be in areas that are not currently linked with high-voltage (HV)transmission lines to major consumption centers (wind from the Great Plains to the East and West coasts,photovoltaic solar from the Southwest to the rest of the country), that proposal would also require a rewiring of the country. Limited transmission capacity to move electricity eastward and westward from what is to be the new power center in the Southwest, Texas, and the Midwest is already delaying new wind projects even as wind generates less than 1 percent of all electricity. The United States has about 165,000 miles of HV lines, and at least 40,000 additional miles of new high-capacity lines would be needed to rewire the nation, at a cost of close to $100 billion. And the costs are bound to escalate, because the regulatory approval process required before beginning a new line construction can take many years. To think that the United States can install in 10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct is delusional.

And energy transitions from established prime movers to new converters also take place across time spans measured in decades, not in a decade. Steam engines, whose large-scale commercial diffusion began with James Watt’s improved design introduced during the 1770s, remained important into the middle of the 20th century. There is no more convincing example of their endurance than the case of Liberty ships, the “ships that won the war” as they carried American materiel and troops to Europe and Asia between 1942 and 1945. Rudolf Diesel began to develop his highly efficient internal combustion engine in 1892 and his prototype engine was ready by 1897. The first small ship engines were installed on river-going vessels in 1903, and the first oceangoing ship with Diesel engines was launched in 1911. By 1939 a quarter of the world’s merchant fleet was propelled by these engines and virtually every new freighter had them. But nearly 3,000 Liberty ships were still powered by oil-fired steam engines. And steam locomotives disappeared from American railroads only by the late 1950s, while in China and India they were indispensable even during the 1980s.

Smil continues on with his recitation of of the time lag between the advent of a technology and is penetration into society. This was a 20th century pattern, and even in the 20th century there were exceptions. For example within 12 years of the Wright Brothers first powered flight, thousands of aircraft were being built. The circumstances of this rapid adoption was the out brake of World War I, and the subsequent discovery of the military usefulness of air craft.

Nuclear technology is not new. It has been subjected siince 1942 to wide scale scientific investigation, and there are something over 400 reactors in operation world wide. In the United States from the 1970's onward, both the construction of power reactors and the research and development of new reactor technologies were increasingly deferred, never the less, the commercial electricity has been generated in the United States for almost half a century, and far mor advanced reactor designs were explored in the United State before that moment. It is clear then that nuclear power has not followed typical development patterns and that this occurred for a variety of reasons. If the penetration of nuclear power into the American Economy has not followed typical patterns in the past, there is no reason to expect that this would be the case in the future.

Smil directs his critic primarily to Al Gore's plan to transform American electrical generation technology by 2020 by the use of renewable generating systems. The major flaw of the Gore plan from my prospective is the intermittency of renewable generation systems, and the lack of low carbon backups technology for renewables. The Gore plan also would have required an enormous and quite expensive expansion of the electrical grid, since you have to string wires out to West Texas and the Nevada desert to collect electricity from the generating facilities that mothernature forces you to locate there. Then there is the matter of cost, renewables are not exactly cheap, and to get 24 hour a day electricity from renewables is going to be oh so expensive. Al Gores's renewables system would not cut the mustard on electrical demand. You should expect rolling blackouts on any day when there is high electrical demand.

So do not need to talk about the historic pattern of new technology penetration to raise substantial objections to the Gore plan. Quite asside from that, none of the technologies involved are new, and an argument can be made that both solar and wind have conformed to the historical pattern and pro-renewables spin merchants argue that both wind and solar are poised to take off. Of course the same spin merchants also claim that without enormous subsidies, solar and wind will falter and come crashing to the earth.

Finally we come to the case of nuclear, which certainly has been around long enough and has penetrated the electrcal market sufficiently to conform to the pattern. Nuclear could certainly become the technology of choice if it were not so expensive, although I should hasten to add, not as expensive as renewables. I have noted that Smil also complains that there is not enough nuclear fuel. The nuclear fuel argument is quite weak, however. There is something around 120 trillion tons of thorium in the earths crust. The average concentration of thorium in crustal rock is 10 parts per million. If you dug up a ton of rock with a 10 PPM concentration extracted the thorium from it, and ran the thorium you got through a Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactor, you would get about the same amount of energy you would get from 30 tons of coal. What is more current mining techniques require a whole lot less energy to mine the thorium that mining the thorium would take. You don't need to remove all of those rocks from the ground. In the late 1960's the USAEC set out to determine how much thorium could be recovered if the market price were set at $500 a pound. Their answer was an astonishing 3 billion tons. Three billion tons of thorium, used as LFTR fuel could provide the United States with all of the energy it cuurrently consumes for several million years.

Unfortunately Vaclav Smil does not even have a clue. Smil does not seem to be aware that thorium exists. But how, you ask, can we build all the reactors we would need by 2030 while not running up enormous expenses. The answer is what I call the Grand Nuclear plan. Many people have contributed to this plan, so I won't take credit for it, and the advocates of this plan should one day put together a manifesto, that would lay out our program. Here is a brief summery of the Plan:

We need a crash development program for the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor as soon as possible.

The development should aim at developing a small - perhaps 100 MWe - Liquid Flkuoride Thorium Reactor.

The reactor should be small enough to be transportable br rail, barge or truck.

Build the reactors in large numbers in factories. Used advanced technology during the manufacture to save money, when ever possible.

Build many reactors quickly, ship them out quickly, set them up quickly.

Recycle coal fired power plants for use as reactor sites.

Cluster the LFTRs so that eacgh cluster produces about what the old coal fired power station produced.

Use the old grid connection facilities to hook the nuclear cluster up to the grid.

Don't stop building until the job is done.

Extract Thorium from already mined sources, or from ore coming out of the ground already.

Use Plutonium from "nuclear waste" as "start up charges" for the LFTRs. If you requite more fissile material go to weapons Pu-239 and U-235 stockpiles. If that is not enough start breaking down nuclear weapons for their fissile content.

That, Professor Smil, is how we can decarbonize electricity by 2030.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Remove the moderator, substitute chlorine for fluorine and feed it uranium and you don't even need to dig a single hole for a few centuries.

There's nearly 450,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in the US, waiting in three storage yards, pretty much three parking lots.


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