Saturday, January 30, 2010

Not Ready for Prime Time Blue Ribbon Commission

I am not sure whether I should be discourage or encouraged by Energy Secretary Chu's Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Blogger "uvdiv" has a negative assessment of many of the panel members, and many panel members are far less distinguished and gifted than could have been hoped. I had hoped for a energy panel chaired by Joe Biden, with members of the charisma and ability of Richard Feynman. In addition the panel reports to Secretary Chu, and not to the President. All of this suggests that the Mr. Obama does not yet know what he is doing.

In 2008, I several times suggested that a new Obama administration would need a Blue Ribbon Commission on energy. In a July 12, 2008 post titled T. Boone Pickens and a viable energy plan, After a discussion of the problem of renewables backup, and suggested that reactors would probably be the best renewables backups, i then wrote,
There is, however, a problem for renewables in the back up reactor approach. Why use reactors to back up renewables, when the very reliable reactors can do the whole job on their own? It would be cheaper, and perhaps far cheaper to build the entire system using only nuclear power. This is, I believe what a blue ribbon panel of wise people will conclude in response to President Obama's charge to come up with a solution to our energy issues shortly after January 20, next year.
I elaborated my ideas in two October 2008 posts titled, Focus I: Energy Decision Making and
Focus II: Vision. In the first post I wrote,
During the next few years our society faces basic choices on its energy future. The decisions have been long deferred. The decision making process should be finished by the end of the next administration, and implementation should be underway. The decision making process should be public, and should bring the best minds in the country to the table to share in the decision making process.

The decision making process should begin by identifying potentially valuable candidate technologies for resolution of components of the energy crisis. These technologies would include solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal and other technologies for electrical generation; electrical and liquid fuels for transportation; solar, nuclear and other sources of process heat for Industry; and solar and electrical technologies for heating and cooling, In some cases the decision might not involve exclusive use of one technology. Air transportation would be impossible without liquid fuel, and without a carbon neutral liquid fuel technology we will simply loose the ability to achieve transportation through the air.

The decisions related to electricity generation will be perhaps the most important, because potentially up to 80% of the energy in a post carbon society will be transmitted through electrical lines. Decisions cannot be left to the market. The market, while providing efficient mechanisms to determine price, and product choice, is poorly equipped to make strategic choices for the future. Decision makers have to basically anticipate future markets. That involves informed guesses, something the market regards as speculation. Markets like to gamble only if there is a great deal of money potentially to be made on bets. There is far too much at risk, and too much uncertainty about the energy future at the moment for most investors to feel comfortable about the risks involved in future energy investments. In the case of solar and wind generated electricity, this has led to the demand for government subsidies, both for the construction of generating facilities, and in tax linked support of revenue produced from energy generation.

The stake in the decision making process is such that wrong decisions could easily lead to the misspending of tens, or hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps even trillions of dollars of tax payer, rate payer, and investor money, without the production of a satisfactory electrical system. Impossible you say. Well just pay careful attention to where the decision making process is today. Mark my word, if the decision making process is not improved, it will lead to very unsatisfactory outcome.

We cannot hope to reach a proper decision without a Judicious determination of facts, and there are at present a lot of of enemies of facts in the environment. Enemies of facts include people who are selling flawed ideas and flawed products. Fact finding needs to be turned over to people who are skilled in determining facts, and this would certainly include nobel prize winning scientists. Others who are somehow representative of the general public need to included among the fact finders, and the fact finding process needs to be open to the public. The fact finders need a first rate staff, and the ability to commission research.

The fact finders need to be aided by skilled politicians who have ascended to the rank of statesmen. My father observed one such politician while attending a hearing of Project Independence in 1974. "I was most impressed," my father wrote. "He is young, intelligent, and highly articulate." Such a figure, if he were still around 34 years later, might well prove a valuable asset to the fact finders, perhaps as chairman of a fact finding commission. And if the politician, by now an elder statesman, were to hold high political office, so much the better. The name of the young politician who so impressed my father was Joseph Biden.

Any group of fact finders would need to carefully separate fact from hype before reaching its decision. As I have demonstrated on Nuclear Green there is a lot of hype in our current discussion of energy options. In fact the hype to information ratio in any discussion of renewable electrical sources is astonishingly high.

During a discussion with wind advocate on The Oil Drum Wind advocate "Jerome a Paris"acknowledged that a basic assumption of wind advocates was an electrical grid to which a very large number of fossil fuel burning electrical generators were attached, which would pick up the slack when the wind does not blow. In this view the function of wind is to partially and temporarily defer fossil fuel burning rather than replace it.

It might be added that solar power also partially defers rather than replaces fossil fuel use. Nuclear reactors can replace fossil fuel fuel burning facilities.

Thus the choice between nuclear power and renewables is a choice between an approach designed to stop emitting CO2 in the generation of electricity, or to decrease the burning of carbon based fuels. This is a choice of fundamental importance and should be the focus of an important decision about energy.
My second post focused on what I called contagious visions, and the sort of people who can inspire them:
Focus on a resolution of the energy crisis must include a viable vision of the alternative energy future. That vision must be not only sharable but contagious. It is my assumption that the next president should and probable will set up "Blue Ribbon" fact finding commission to go about determining energy goals and steps required to accomplish preferred goals. The fact finders must possess the ability to go beyond facts and deal in the realm of human vision.

In order to motivate and coordinate the acts of millions of people over more than a generation, long range goals have to achieve a legitimacy. Such legitimate shared goals ought to be considered a vision, and the legitimacy of the vision ought to be understood to rest on a rational faith. A fact finding commission must seek "evidence of things unseen", since the future can only exist in vision, tangible reality only emerges through goal directed effort by groups of human beings. We live then in a time when the human ability to envision a future, emerges as our most important tool for the survival of the present form of American Society.

We are fortunate that we are about to install a national leader who is a gifted visionary, who possess exceptional talents for identifying viable collective goals, sharing a contagious vision of those goals, and implementing routes to the realization of those goals.

I assume that a figure of Barack Obama's astuteness would wish for a "fact finding commission" to sort out competing visions of the future. The function of the blue ribbon fact finders would be both to separate viable visions that will bring the American people to where they want to be from vision that are impractical or which would be deemed to yield unsatisfactory results.

Above all else the blue ribbon fact finders must not simply identify a vision but must begin the contagion process without which the vision will not be realized. They must also provide political leadership with political cover. There will be no doubt political opposition to the vision and the steps that will be taken to realize it. The first line of defense will be, "this is what the experts recommend". Because they are on the front line and ultimately exemplars, members of the blue ribbon commission must be selected for their courage, as well as their intelligence, capacity for rational thought, and vision. They will be exemplars for a nation and for the world, because it is anticipated that they will set a path on which all people will be traveling for the next 40 years.

It would be very nice to find a group of Richard Feynmans to set on the blue ribbon commission, people who are gifted visionaries, who have great respect for facts, and who have to the ability to ferret out the critical facts.

I don't know how to do this on a small scale in a practical way, but I do know that computing machines are very large; they fill rooms. Why can't we make them very small, make them of little wires, little elements---and by little, I mean little. For instance, the wires should be 10 or 100 atoms in diameter, and the circuits should be a few thousand angstroms across. Everybody who has analyzed the logical theory of computers has come to the conclusion that the possibilities of computers are very interesting---if they could be made to be more complicated by several orders of magnitude. If they had millions of times as many elements, they could make judgments. They would have time to calculate what is the best way to make the calculation that they are about to make. They could select the method of analysis which, from their experience, is better than the one that we would give to them. And in many other ways, they would have new qualitative features. . . .

But there is plenty of room to make them smaller. There is nothing that I can see in the physical laws that says the computer elements cannot be made enormously smaller than they are now. In fact, there may be certain advantages.
This then is a man of courage, intelligence, discernment and vision.
By the standard I sat out in October 2008, Secretary Chu's Blue Ribbon Commission and its mandate falls far short, but then it is perhaps not yet the right time. We need a couple of very hot years, supper 1998's, to bring the lesson home, and we need far greater awareness of the limitations of renewables, and of the desperateness of our situation. We need a President who is aware of all this, and who has some idea how to move the country and the world toward a a successful resolution of what can only be described as a great crises that threatens both the national and human future.


DocForesight said...

Charles, would you term this "vision rooted in reality"? By that I mean, having a sober judgement of what we know and have experience with now rather than conjuring phenomenal ideas that are unproven. Example: space-based solar arrays beaming power to earth for distribution.

We know current-generation nuclear power works. Advanced technologies stand on the shoulders of what works rather than creating something new from scratch. If we are in an energy crisis, then time demands we use what is at hand. I liken this to the approach Jim Holm uses at -- off-the-shelf construction.

Charles Barton said...

Doc, not always off the shelf, but process that have been proven in the Lab, that can easily be scaled up. This is the case for the LFTR, which requires ordinary science to develop.

LarryD said...

1998 was a spike, depending on multiple 1998-type years back to back, or even close together, is stragically unsound.

Right now, the economic arguments have the most weight, and waste mangement issues are never irrelevant.

DocForesight said...

Thank you Charles. I guess that is what I was getting to without the awareness of how far along the development path LFTR is.

I've been to the Thorium Forum and haven't yet found an answer to the question of the cost of development of a prototype, then the cost of commercial production volume reactors. Is it there and I'm just not looking in the right place?

Charles Barton said...

Doc, i have indexed LFTR cost discussions. I have attempted several approaches. ORNL attempted to estimate the cost of MSR development in the early 1970's, by listing the known developmental tasks and estimating the cost of completing each. While this might be a good starting point, it should be pointed out that some of those tasks have been already completed, while other tasks, for example the development of closed cycle turbin generators have been added. One approach to estimating developmental costs would be to use a standard inflation formula on ORNL cost estimates. This yields an estimate of up to 5 billion dollars. Another approach would be to base n estimate on the cost of a similar developmental task. I picked he development of the Airbus -380 aircraft is a manufactured object of similar complexity. Itr costs close to $15 billion to develop. i must say that i
have been far more willing to make developmental cost estimates than anyone else.

DocForesight said...

Thanks again. It helps to keep the various projects in perspective. I believe the IEA has compiled a cost comparison chart with an "all things considered" breakdown for coal, gas, nuclear, wind, solar and biomass. I don't know if any one has made a comparison just with nuclear only as a subset and using the same parameters of R&D, construction, fuel costs, etc.


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