Saturday, October 30, 2010

A candidate silver bullet

In his David J. Rose Lecture John Holdren voiced an oft repeated urban myth, that is there are no silver bullets in energy. Does the statement "there are no silver bullets," representative of good science, the sort of thing a Science Advisor should be telling the President, or is it a myth?

Some 11 years ago, Cato Institute scholar, Jerry Taylor, wrote a paper on Clinton Administration Energy Policy titled, Energy Efficiency No Silver Bullet for Global Warming. Taylor argued that the Clinton Administration Climate Change Technology Initiative was
little more than a sham. The CCTI is but a repackaging of failed programs that have littered the federal budget for 20 or more years. The program offers misleading and incomplete cost/benefit analyses, is obsessed with remedying market failures that do not in fact exist, projects emission reductions that are wildly implausible, asserts a correlation between energy efficiency and energy consumption that is demonstrably false, proposes counterproductive labeling and product standards, and misleads the public about the ability of such a program—even if it performs as advertised—to measurably affect global temperatures.

The CCTI is built on economic ignorance and political symbolism. Regardless of one’s position on the threat of global climate change, the CCTI is nothing but an empty and expensive political gesture.
That makes thing clear.

Taylor Commented,
More than half of the CCTI comprises ongoing R&D programs for energy efficien- cy and renewable energy. The Clinton administration is rather cavalier about pre- dicting the future of those speculative programs. Typical is the claim that “by 2010, DOE will help develop and commercialize fuel efficiency and alternative-fuel technologies that reduce oil consumption by nearly 1 million barrels per day and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 million metric tons.”9 The EIA, however, cautions rightly that predicting which technologies will be successful is highly speculative. A direct link cannot be established between levels of funding for research and development and specific improvements in the characteristics and availability of energy technologies. In addition, successful development of new technologies may not lead to immediate penetration in the marketplace. Low prices for fossil energy and conventional technologies; unfamiliarity with the benefits, use, and maintenance of new products; and uncertainties concerning the reliability and further development of new technologies are all factors that may slow technology penetration.1 0
The government’s track record of successful energy-related R&D projects hardly gives one confidence that the R&D component of the CCTI will prove as successful as the administration claims.
One of the few serious third-party evaluations of federal R&D programs—conducted for the Brookings Institution by economists Linda Cohen of the University of California at Irvine and Roger Noll of Stanford University—found that energy R&D has been an abject failure and a pork barrel for politi- cal gain. “The overriding lesson from the case studies is that the goal of economic efficiency—to cure market failures in privately sponsored commercial innovation—is so severely constrained by political forces that an effective, coherent national commercial R&D program has never been put in place.”1 1
Taylor in fact believes that the best energy policy is no energy policy, But it is a far cry from failed Clinton Administration policy on efficiency to a blanket statement that there is no silver bullet that can prevent global warming. This week the silver bullet problem again emerged in the Financial Times, which posted a story, Masdar: ‘No silver bullet’ for problems facing cleantech city.
Masdar City was meant to be the world’s first carbon neutral city. Based in Abu Dhabi, its creators envisioned a glittering city in the desert, entirely self-powered, and after the initial building stage, having no net effect on the world’s carbon emissions.
Maslar City CEO, Sultan al-Jaber, and the city’s director, Alan Frost both told the Financial Times,
Do you think that a silver bullet solution exists to help Masdar city achieve its goals today? Obviously it does not. If it did we would have seen Masdar city developed in a number of places around the world.
How do Sultan and Frost know that no "silver bullet" exist?

The Utah Statesman's Face book page carries an account of a speech delivered earlier this month by New York Times Correspondent, Matthew Wald. Wald repeated the
no silver bullet
formula, but then went on to offer some observations that were helpful in understanding what sort of silver bullets were being specified.
Wald said there are many renewable energy sources available that could be put to good use and the only thing holding them back is the market and simple economic principles like supply and demand.

Calling the energy crisis the nation and world are facing a “steep hill,” Wald said the people have to make the decision with their dollars to make a switch to alternative energy sources.

“This is a steep hill and it’s got to be climbed by market economics,” Wald said. “The government is just not big enough or powerful enough to subsidize massive amounts of electricity.”

Cost effectiveness plays a major role in the current energy crisis, Wald said, citing the use of gasoline and other carbon-emitting fuel sources as being more affordable and consistently available than renewable energy sources.
So the silver bullet has to go over in the market/ None of the currant post-carbon energy options are likely to do so, and as much as consumers love the idea of renewable energy, they are unlikely to buy renewable energy given its costs and limitations.

The question should be then, what other options do we have available, if renewables and conventional nuclear costs too much, and the other options emit CO2? if we have another option that can potentially work in the market, that option would be a possible "Silver Bullet."

What would that option have to look like? Well first it should be cost competitive with coal and natural gas. In fact it would be highly desirable for our silver bullet to cost less than the current cost of fossil fuel generated electricity from new generation units. "Not going to happen," you say. Maybe, but according to Wald's analysis, a switch to post-carbon generation sources is not going to happen until better deals are offered to consumers. The first product into the market that offers CO2 free energy coupled with reliability, scalability and low cost will be the "silver bullet."

Critics of the nuclear option offer the following complaints:
* Its too dangerous
* It leaves the problem of nuclear waste
* It creates a danger of nuclear proliferation and thus nuclear war.
* It is too expensive
* Nuclear power plants take too long to build
* We cannot build enough nuclear power plants fast enough
On Monday I heard a distinguished Japanese Scientist say that the nuclear critics are wrong. I heard him say that it is possible to build nuclear power plants that are
* Safe
* Solves the nuclear wast problem
* Is very unlikely to lead to nuclear proliferation or nuclear war
* Cost at least 30% less than conventional Nuclear Power Plants
* Can be rapidly built in factories
* Can be mass produced in factories
In short the scientist, Professor Kazio Furukawa of Japan, said that a candidate energy silver bullet does exist. It is a thorium fuel cycle Molten Salt Reactor. Dr Furukawa calls his silver bullet the Fuji Molten Salt Reactor. Now the interesting thing was that I was not in a bar when I heard Dr. Furukawa talk about his silver bullet, I was in a conference room at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. There were a couple of retired ORNL researchers in the same conference room, Uri Gat, and Dick Engel, and they both backed up what Dr. Furukawa had to say. Furthermore, I had heard a Canadian physicist, Dr. David LeBlanc make the claim that Molten Salt nuclear technology was the silver bullet, also at ORNL in May. No one, least of all Dr. LeBlanc was drinking when he made the claim, and no one at ORNL said to either Dr. Furukawa or Dr. LeBlanc, "Your crazy, there is no silver bullet."

These ideas are not new, and the conclusions of Dr. Furukawa and Dr. LeBlanc have been endorsed by other well informed observers who were acquainted with the facts. When Tammy L. Stoops wrote her thesis for her BS and MS in Nuclear Engineering at MIT, She consulted with Furukawa, Gat and Engel before writing her thesis. Her Thesis advisor, Professor Michael W. Golay wrote
The results of this investigation show that this molten salt breeder reactor concept is passively safe. The reactor power may be increased without bound, provided that an increase is made in reactor fuel salt volume, thereby reducing the decay power density. The ability of this concept to meet the desired characteristics for a global warming response is very powerful.
The only reason Golay did not proclaim this is the silver bullet was
The questions of economic performance are not considered in the work reported here.
In her thesis, Stoops argued
For the future of our planet, an alternate means of energy production must be developed to mitigate the effects of global warming. A nuclear system suitable for this use must be capable of large-scale power production, fuel breeding, hydrogen production, online fission product removal, and nuclear proliferation resistance.
She concluded,
With these (suggested) system augmentations, the degree of passive safety of the molten salt reactor system is enhanced. Capable of large-scale breeding, hydrogen production, active fission product removal, and resistance to nuclear proliferation, this safe reactor system meets all of the characteristics required in a global warming mitigation effort. Thus, the molten salt breeder reactor represents a viable and sustainable energy option to ensure the long-term protection of the global environment.
Clearly then if the thorium breeding molten salt reactor can be made economically viable, we have a silver bullet candidate. We will of course not be able to say that this is the silver bullet until we have the candidate in the market and actually delivering energy. Dr. Furukawa and others have vouched for the potentially superior economic performance of Molten Salt breeding reactors. This argument point to parsimonious use of materials, and diminished labor requirement per kW of electrical generation capacity. Given the fact that compelling reasons for rejecting this assessment have not yet emerged, we should at the very least consider the thorium breeding Molten Salt Reactor to be a candidate silver bullet. As a candidate silver bullet, it will face a number of significant tests before it can be said to have emerged in full blown silver bullet status. But given that we have a candidate silver bullet, the assertion that "there are no silver bullets" is wrong. We have a possible silver bullet, but we will need to know much more, before we can say with certainty that there either is or is not an energy silver bullet.


Jim Holm said...

Excellent post.

Do you think it is possible to come up with a LFTR that could match the Toshiba 4S-like BN-800 I am visualizing for nuclear repowering of existing coal burning power plants?


Jim Holm

Frank Kandrnal said...

"No Silver Bullet"? Well, what do you expect! There are nowadays some people walking on Earth who believe the Earth is flat or hollow. How can you then expect them to understand nuclear technology. Unfortunately, morons with such mentality penetrated into government and other leading positions and are the main threat to our existence.

Anonymous said...

Bill Gates' TWR and Per Peterson's PBAHTR at UC Berkeley have the goal of getting commercialized by 2020 with power that is cheaper than coal. They are viewed as a short term solution until the closed cycle LFTR can replace them. Gates is talking to the Chinese about building his reactor. Given our political climate it appears that we must find a partner country that can make things happen.

John Tjostem

donb said...

Maybe there is no silver bullet, but there are TWO silvery bullets - one is thorium and the other is uranium.

These bullets come in a whole range of sizes and types. There are multitudes of proposals for many more such bullets in yet more sizes and types.

Problem is, there are too many people earning a nice living from their black hydrocarbon bullets. Or there are the others who are afraid of anything they haven't coated with their own special shade of green paint.

Charles Barton said...

EP thank you for he offer. I will need your email address to issue an invitation.


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