Monday, August 16, 2010

Barry Brook has Reason to Celebrate

Barry Brook, a Professor of Climate Science at the University of Adelaide. has a double reason to celebrate. First Barry has been named South Australian Science Educator of the year. Secondly, Barry's blog, Brave New Climate has just had its second birthday. In those two years Barry has created a major voice on energy issues. has an interesting history From August 2008 until November 2008 Barry, who is a climate scientist, wrote about climate. , but in late November 2008 Barry began writing a series of posts discussion Dr. James Hanson's Letter to Barack Obama, regarding the urgency of fighting climate change. In his third Hanson post, Barry mentioned reading a draft of Tom Blees' “Prescription for the Planet,” na book in which Blees argues the case in support of the Integral Fast Reactor. Barry was by no means a nuclear supporter at that point. He observed,
I can’t seem to agree fully with either the anti-nukes or Blees. Some of the anti-nukes are friends, concerned about climate change, and clearly good people. Yet I suspect that their ‘success’ (in blocking nuclear R&D) is actually making things more dangerous for all of us and for the planet. It seems that, instead of knee-jerk reaction against anything nuclear, we need hard-headed evaluation of how to get rid of long-lived nuclear waste and minimize dangers of proliferation and nuclear accidents. Fourth generation nuclear power seems to have the potential to solve the waste problem and minimize the others. In any case, we should not have bailed out of research on fast reactors. (BTW, Blees points out that coal-fired power plants are exposing the population to more than 100 times more radioactive material than nuclear power plants – some of it spewed out the smokestacks, but much of it in slag heaps of coal ash. See re the effect of this waste on Native Americans in the Southwest, as well as ‘Burning the Future’, above, re the Appalachians.)

I don’t agree with Blees’ dismissal of the conclusion of most energy experts that there is no ‘silver bullet’; they argue that we need a mix of technologies. Blees sees a ‘depleted uranium bullet’ that could easily provide all of our needs for electrical energy for hundreds of years. His argument is fine for pointing out that existing nuclear material contains an enormous amount of energy (if we extract it all, rather than leaving >99% in a very long-lived waste heap), but I still think that we need a range of energy sources. Renewable energies and nuclear power are compatible: they both need, or benefit from, a low-loss grid, as it is more acceptable to site nuclear plants away from population centers, and nuclear energy provides base-load power, complementing intermittent renewables.

BTW, nuclear plants being proposed for construction now in the U.S. are 3rd generation (the ones in operation are mostly 2nd generation). The 3rd generation reactors are simplified (fewer valves, pumps and tanks), but they are still thermal pressurized reactors that require (multiple) emergency cooling systems. France is about to replace its aging 2nd generation reactors with the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR); a prototype is now being built in Finland. According to Blees, OECD ranks EPR as the cheapest electric energy source, cheaper than pulverized coal – that evaluation doubtless presumes use of a standard design, a la the French procedure for its 2nd generation reactors. The prototype in Finland, according to reports, is running behind schedule and over budget – that was also true in the prior generation, yet the eventual standard French reactors have been economical. Current efforts to start construction of 3rd generation nuclear plants in the U.S., so far, do not seem to have achieved a standard design or to have avoided project delays (partly due to public opposition) that drive up costs.

Blees argues that the 4th generation technology basically exists, that the design will be simplified, especially due to the absence of a need for emergency cooling systems. He foresees a standard modular construction of the reactor per se, smaller than earlier generations, which can be built at the factory, shipped to the site, and dropped in the prepared excavation. His cost estimates have this nuclear power yielding cheaper electricity than any of the competition. The system is designed to eliminate long-lived nuclear ‘waste’ and minimize proliferation dangers. There is enough fuel available without further uranium mining to handle electricity needs for several centuries, for whatever fraction of electricity needs cannot be covered by renewable energies. If these claims are anywhere close to being correct, we could phase out use of fossil fuels for electricity generation over the next few decades.
In December 2008, Barry discussed the work of Dr Ted Trainer, a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of New South Wales in Sidney. Trainer is a Neo-Malthusian, who believes in resource insufficiency. Amory Lovins' book Natural Capitalism is a starting point of Trainers argument, Trainer argues,
The dominant conventional assumption is that industrial-affluent-consumer societies can be made sustainable by technical advances which dramatically reduce resource use and environmental impacts per unit of output, and thereby avoid any need to abandon the present commitments to affluent living standards and economic growth. Two influential supporters of this general position are discussed, viz., Julian Simon and Amory Lovins. Most attention is given to the latter's assumptions regarding energy, which it is concluded are seriously mistaken. This critical discussion reaffirms the limits to growth perspective. It is concluded that sustainability can only be achieved by radical change to a fundamentally different society, identified as The Simpler Way*.

Since the publication of The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al. (1972) discussion of the global situation has been divided into two camps. The dominant and conventional position has been that industrial-affluent-consumer society can continue without major change in its fundamental goals and operating principles, such as its commitments to high material living standards, the market system, private enterprise, globalisation and economic growth. Within this position it is usually acknowledged that there are formidable problems, especially ecological deterioration, but it is assumed that these can be dealt with adequately by technical advance, tougher legislation and the normal adjustments of the market place.
Lovins is on the continued affluence side. Trainer found that the claims of Lovins and his associates did not stand up to careful scrutiny.

In a book titled "Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society," Trainer offered a long and carefully reasoned attack on the claims of renewable advocates. There is little doubt that Trainer's attack on renewables has had a significant impact on Barry's thinking on Renewables, and on the content of Brave New Climate since December 2008. Brave New Climate has included numerous attacks on renewables claims during the last two years. Many of those posts were written by Peter Lang. According to Barry,
Peter is a retired geologist and engineer with 40 years experience on a wide range of energy projects throughout the world, including managing energy R&D and providing policy advice for government and opposition. His experience includes: coal, oil, gas, hydro, geothermal, nuclear power plants, nuclear waste disposal, and a wide range of energy end use management projects.
Ted Trainer contributed post, and Tom Blees contributed two case studies of the problems of renewable implementation in Europe.

Barry has offered a number of posts critiquing the case for renewables. Quite appart from the number of posts critiquing renewables Barry has offered, two characteristics stand out. The first is the uniformly excellent technical quality of the posts on Renewables. The posts are well researched, and the analysis of the material is very good. Beyond the excellent quality of the research, both the number and quality of the comments are noteworthy. A recent post on the Zero Carbon Australia 2020, report has drawn to date 560 comments. Many of the comments are well researched, and/or well reasoned. The quality of Brave New Climate comments is far higher than the quality of comments on Energy Collective posts.

The ZCA 2020 post and discussion has been followed up by a Martin Nicholson-Peter Lang post which summarizes the ZCA2020 discussion and systematically lays out the case against both the assumptions and the conclusions of the report. The usual spirited discussion followed. During the discussion, Peter Lang took "Francis" to task,

You say:

It remains clear that, contrary to its presentation, the ZCA Plan is aspirational

“Aspirational” is not the word I would choose to describe the ZCA plan. Words that come to my mind a re:

deep green religion
gullible (like Uni of Melbourne and the academics for endorsing it).

I say fraudulent because of the many false and misleading statements throughout, eg

1. the plan is based only on commercially available, costed technologies

2. base load solar power exists now

3. Discount rate used in analyses of 1.4%

4. risk rate for a very safe investment (no one would invest in this scheme; it is extremely high risk)

5. All domestic ship and air transport would be converted to electric rail (in ten years!!!). Just think bout what that would mean in terms of electric rail lines being run all over the country to every town where there is an airport or airfield. The rail lines at $15 million per kilometer. None of that cost is included in the plan.

6. all bus travel would be moved to electric trains (in 10 years!!)

7. half the road transport and road freight would be moved to electric vehicles and electric trains ( in 10 years!!!!)

And to think that people swallow this sort of complete and utter nonsense. Francis, please find a more appropriate word than “aspirational” to describe the ZCA report..
Peter Lang also added this quote from Vaclav Smil in what he described as a reality check today,
Indeed, the entire history of Western modernization can be seen as a quest for higher efficiencies as generations of engineers have spent their professional lives wringing additional returns from their contraptions and as entire nations, guided by that famously invisible hand, have been relentlessly following the path of reduced waste and higher productivity. But the outcome is indisputable: global energy consumption is far higher than the rate of population growth and the need to satisfy not just basic existential needs but also a modicum of comfort and affluence.
If my reader wonders why I point to Lang's comments in a discussions of Barry Brook's blog, I would point out that it is Barry who has given the stage to Lang, and who, by all evidence, is pleased to allow Lang to say what he does. For this Barry should be commended.
The critique of renewables in Brave New Climate, to which Peter Land has contributed so much, has devastated the case for renewables. The posts and discussion have demonstrated that the arguments for the future of energy lying with renewables simply are not plausible. Barry has repeatedly offered advocates of renewable energy the opportunity to test Ted Trainer's thesis. Over and over again renewables supporters have been unable to demonstrate that renewable energy sources can sustain a consumer society. Following a Debate with Australian Renewables advocate Mark Mark Diesendorf, Barry, in a BNC comment condemned Diesendorf’s "intellectually bankrupt" reliance on appeals to authority, offered a quote from Karl Popper,
Today, the appeal to the authority of experts is sometimes excused by the immensity of our specialized knowledge. And it is sometimes defended by philosophical theories that speak of science and rationality in terms of specializations, experts, and authority. But in my view, the appeal to the authority of experts should be neither excused nor defended. It should, on the contrary, be recognized for what it is – an intellectual fashion – and it should be attacked by a frank acknowledgement of how little we know, and how much that little is due to people who have worked in many fields at the same time. And it should also be attacked by the recognition that the orthodoxy produced by intellectual fashions, specialization, and the appeal to authorities is the death of knowledge, and that the growth of knowledge depends entirely upon disagreement.
Barry's work has been to use facts and sound reasoning to critique the intellectual fashion on energy. This is the case whether or not Barry, Peter Lang or some other colleague is the author of a particular post. Given the high technical and intellectual quality of the debate on renewable energy on Brave New Climate, Barry should be praised for offering a significant contribution to our understanding of the major limitations of renewable energy.

Although I have had my disagreements with Barry, I view his contributions to the current discussion on energy as important. In many respects Barry's approach to those issues and his views resemble mine.

(I intend to follow up this post in the near future with a discussion of Barry's views on Nuclear Energy.)

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