Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Risks and Future Energy

My principle concern is the risks related to various forms of post carbon energy technology.  I assume that there are unacceptable risks related to continued use of fossil fuel energy technology.  There are people who regard carbon based fuels as acceptable, but their argument treats carbon based fuels as entailing no risks, or, so little risk, that risk consequences can easily be managed.  These arguments must be classified as metaphysical, since they are not subjected to any scientific tests before being pronounced true beyond all doubts.

Most critics of the climate change hypothesis simply fail to establish scientific tests for their views. They believe that they have shown the work of scientists whose findings affirm that global climate change   exists and is being caused by massive carbon use by our society. The critics suggest that the scientists have made errors in their research, in their handling of the data, and in the implications they draw from their findings. In no case have the critics developed a test that demonstrates the merits of their contentions. Rather they base their entire case on allegations that scientists have made mistakes and therefore catastrophic climate change is impossible. It is my contention that these critics have failed to perform good science. This failure leaves humanity at risk. In many respects the argument against anthropromorpic climate change are profit driven rather than science driven. The continued insistence that climate change cannot damage the human prospects is dangerous and potentially disastrous.

If we are to confront the dangers we face while maintaining our humanity, we must quickly move forward with a program that will replace carbon based energy with post carbon based energy. Nuclear Green has for the last six years examined the alternative energy sources that have been proposed for the post carbon era. My proposals have not been intended to argue for my personal biases. My first duty is to seek logical tests for my assumptions and proceed to examine the various options by rational means and common sense. My most recent series of posts on wind costs is based on common sense logically applied to the claims of wind energy.

Common sense teaches us that wind does not blow constantly; that sometimes it does not blow at all, sometimes it blows lightly, sometimes it blows with more power and sometimes wind blows so strongly as to be dangerous. When wind is light, it carries less energy than a heavy breeze. When wind is too strong, it may be impossible to harness it's energy. Different locales have different wind patterns. Some areas have little wind and the wind they have may not be sufficient to produce power. Some areas have irregular winds that cannot be counted on to produce power consistently over time. The time of the day may influence the amount of power in the wind and the season of the year may influence it as well. Because it varies, wind carries with it many costs if it is to be used as an energy source. I have discussed these costs in three previous posts. The cost of wind represents risks.

We may not know how much future wind installations will cost and indeed how much the electricity they produce will cost, but it is very likely that a reliable wind driven system will be extremely expensive to build.  We could estimate a range of cost, but this would be unrealistic because we do not have enough experience with comprehensive wind systems to judge the cost risks. However we could make some judgements about the cost of a comprehensive wind driven system and the cost of a nuclear system. It is my contention that a common sense, rational approach that takes into account the factors that I have indicated would lead the conclusion that a comprehensive nuclear power system would be both more reliable than a wind system and significantly less expensive. In terms of safety, we would find  that a nuclear based system would be safer than a wind based system, although they would both be highly safe.

The nuclear power system that we have today is, in terms of human casualties per accident, the safest energy system.  In terms of danger, natural gas and coal and oil based energy systems are far more dangerous than nuclear power, if we judge danger on the basis of casualties per accident. In truth, there has never been a commercial reactor accident in the United States that has killed anyone. On the other hand, there have been fatal accidents in connection with the operation of wind turbines. There are certainly dangers in the operation of solar energy systems and there have been causalities. The same is turn for hydroelectric systems. Thus nuclear power turns out to have less risks of human causalities than so called clean power.

Solar energy requires a large and expensive backup system. Concentrated solar generated electricity requires a lot of water. This is another form of risk since the water for solar power generation would be demanded in desert areas where water for human habitation and agriculture represents competing demands. The risks may not be balanced and major problems would arise were one risk to outweigh the others. It is very unlikely, without a major breakthrough, that non-nuclear technology can produce a satisfactory solution to the problem of carbon free energy. Nuclear technology could produce such a solution, but society has to decide what will be the limits of its' safety demands on nuclear technology. If society places unrealistic safety expectations on nuclear technology, it may not be possible to solve the energy problem. By unrealistic, I mean demands that go beyond the feasible. However, this does not mean unsafe. This will have drastic consequences for the future of human society. Consequences that cannot be resolved merely by turning to efficiency.

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