Friday, May 7, 2010

Nuclear Green in a Nut Shell

I among others have been challenged for taking advocacy positions instead of offering analyses, and listening to people who disagree with my views. Yet I and others, for example Barry Brook, are simply advocating positions we arrived at by analysis after talking to people who hold different views. I came to the conclusion that I advocate by asking how a post carbon grid would operate. I assumed that everything was on the table, but what the climate scientists were telling us we needed to get rid of 80% of our CO2 emissions. I did a brief sector by sector analysis of the energy economy, and determined that the most obvious place to start was the generation of electricity for the grid, the sources of space heat, and hot water, and the replacement of fossil fuels in transportation. Since I was not sure about the elimination of fossil fuels in other sectors. i decided that it would not be wise to assume that the sectors I was ignoring were good candidates for an 80% fossil fuel reduction. This included agriculture, the military, and air and water born transportation.

I concluded that the electrification of rail transportation was practical, and that electrical rail had good potential to replace long range trucking. I further concluded that solar systems could provide hot water in many parts of the country, and that there was good potential to use solar for space heating in some areas. I also noted that in much of the country, air conditioning was the rule in homes, offices and businesses. Although ground source heat pumps are efficient, they are expensive and also expensive to service. Air source hear pumps rely on a technology that is very similar to air conditioning, Replacement cycles for air conditioning systems are such that most of the cost of air source space heating conversion would be covered by the cost of replacing worn out air conditioning systems.

I had some doubts about biofuel replacements for fossil fuels, but I came to the conclusion that batteries and capacitors technology was evolving rapidly enough to replace fossil fuels in non rail surface transportation by 2050. Thus electrification offered a significant part of the solution, and thus it was very important that the decarbinization of the grid would approach 100% by 2050.

I then looked at efficiency, of which much was expected. I quickly discovered that there was a serious conceptual problem with the efficiency solution. Economists have known for 150 years about Jevons Paradox. Jevons a 19th century resource economists, had discovered that greater efficiency in the use of coal lead to more demand for coal. Other economists have noted that if efficiency does not always lead to an increase in energy demand, a rebound effect is quite robust. And thus in the absence of energy price increases efficiency cannot be counted on for big carbon use savings.

I noted that some other people were advocating a simplified lifestyle. Most people, i thought, would prefer to not adopt such a lifestyle. I concluded that the simple lifestyle was likely to lead to greater social conflict, a diminished quality of life, and a lower life expectancy. Some people were pointing to Cuba as a model for a low energy simplified society, but i felt that such a choice came with the cost of political and human rights for the Cuban people, and that most of the people of Cuba would prefer a high energy lifestyle if they could choose. The evidence for this was obvious, Cuba was a dictatorship. The communist party of Cuba maintained control of political power, and was prepared to use violence against anyone who objected.

Thus I felt that there was no alternative to replacing CO2 emitting electrical generation capacity with post carbon electrical sources. I had not ruled out renewables, but I felt that intermittency was a problem to be solved. I looked at the problem of intermittency, and asked renewable advocates what they would do when sun and wind failed. Use the grid for backup they answered. But I asked, I thought we wanted to get rid of carbon sources on the Grid. After they discovered I was not going to accept the Grid answer, they offered efficiency. When i brought up Jevons and rebounds, they turned to backups like batteries, pump storage, and Compressed air storage. I investigated all of these proposed back up technologies and found that they were all expensive and were inefficient to boot. Compressed air storage, required the of natural gas. A further renewable strategy is to create redundant solar and wind facilities, and link them with an expanded grid. The linked system is more likely to provide reliable electricity, than stand alone solar or wind units. However like energy storage backups, the redundancy plan turns out to be more expensive than conventional nuclear power systems. I did offer one novel renewable back up plan. Molten Salt Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors can be built with low prices and have attractive features that makes them useful in peak power.back up roles. LFTRs thus could provide reliable, relatively low cost backups for renewables. But, the LFTRs would be capable of operating full time. Thus it would be cheaper to remove the renewable electrical sources from the system and simply operate the LFTRs full time.

When I calculated the cost of renewables with backup, and compared it to the cost of nuclear power I reached the conclusion that nuclear power was cheaper. Renewable advocates rejected this conclusion. Nuclear has to be more expensive, they said. They complained about how unsafe reactors are. They pointed to the so called "problem of nuclear waste." They raised the issue of nuclear proliferation. They argued that we were running out of uranium.

But i was aware of a Generation IV nuclear technology that could answer all these issues. it was Molten Salt technology, and i knew about it, because my father had worked on it for 20 years. So I reviewed the evidence accumulated in Oak Ridge between 1950 and 1980. i reviewed the ORNL research, and looked at recent discussions. There seemed to be a strong case. Another Generation IV technology, the Integral Fast Reactor appear to also offer viable solutions to many unclear power issues, but is likely to be more expensive and more technologically challenging than MSRs, and objections may be raised on grounds of nuclear proliferation dangers. Generation III and even Generation II nuclear technology appear to be an acceptable bridge, but conventional nuclear technology does not solve all the problems that MSRs and IFRs will solve.

All of my conclusions have come by analysis. I have listened to the advocates of other viewpoints. My analysis points to the following conclusions:
1. Fossil Fuel are on their way out as energy sources.
2. Fossil fuel energy technology will have to be replaced.
3. Efficiency cannot be counted on to replace fossil fuels use.
4. Renewables require back up.
5. Renewables with fossil fuel back up will not meet 2050 carbon emission goals.
6. Renewables with energy storage back ups will be more expensive than nuclear.
7. Renewables with redundancy will be more expensive than nuclear.
8. Nuclear power is a less expensive and more reliable source of post carbon electricity than renewables.
9. Generation IV nuclear technology offers many attractive features, and could solve some or all of the objections now raised to nuclear power.

Since I first completed this analysis, I have reviewed its components on a number of occasions. My reviews continue to demonstrate that my analysis remains sound. During the last 3 years numerous studies related to components of my analysis have been published. These studies point to the same conclusions. Further, these studies have not received effective contradiction. This is the case for my original analysis. There is a growing body of evidence that the renewables paradigm has failed.

My advocacy is primarily based on reports of the findings of my analyses and the analyses offered by others. I believe that those who disagree with us need to offer strong reasons for doing so, or loose credibility. So far they have not done so,


Anonymous said...

Charles, Thanks for a great analysis of our energy options. Your post deserves a wider distribution. In the end I believe that a careful analysis backed up by facts will prevail.

John Tjostem

donb said...

Charles Barton wrote:
I among others have been challenged for taking advocacy positions instead of offering analyses, and listening to people who disagree with my views. Yet I and others, for example Barry Brook, are simply advocating positions we arrived at by analysis after talking to people who hold different views.

Advocacy is very useful. It provides a larger vision of what can be done. Arguing nuclear energy point-by-point with those opposed is useful and necessary, but sometimes gets stuck in details, and the overall vision can be lost.

Charles Barton also wrote:
Since I was not sure about the elimination of fossil fuels in other sectors, I decided that it would not be wise to assume that the sectors I was ignoring were good candidates for an 80% fossil fuel reduction. This included agriculture, the military, and air and water born transportation.

I think water born transportation is ripe for a significant reduction in the use of oil (I think Rod Adams would agree here). Though the number of large ships is relatively small, they burn huge quantities of oil. They are just the right place for small reactors.

Even the military is looking a nuclear (again!) for powering their bases.

Agriculture is a tougher nut to crack. The key here might be small scale ethanol from cellulose.

Only aviation is pretty much locked into hydrocarbon fuels. But with inexpensive nuclear energy, the fuel could be made from (say) biomass using nuclear process heat.

DocForesight said...

Charles, thanks for an excellent post. There is no reason to constantly analyze and take no advocacy position when the evidence is so clear and demonstrable.

With transportation fuels, since over 90% of our transportation fleet consumes petroleum products, replacing that with an equivalent non-carbon based source will not easily be accomplished.

As donb notes, Rod Adams' ship concept makes much sense.

What is your analysis of coal-to-liquid (pureoleum)?

Charles Barton said...

Doc, I have long argued that there are quite good reasons why fossilized hydrocarbons should not be used to produce energy, quite apart from issues about climate. It would be better to use the remaining stocks of coal, crude oil and natural gas as chemical industrial feed stock, than to burn them from energy, In addition there are serious health consequences from side effects of burning liquid hydrocarbons in transportation. The same goes for burning coal to generate electricity. Although the elimination of hydrocarbons as fuel looks difficult now, society will receive a considerable dividends, in terms of lower health care expenses, and in better health for many of its members.

DocForesight said...

Agreed that there are health and environmental consequences with burning hydrocarbons, what is the practical alternative?

I've visited the website of "Originoil" and wonder if that is what you foresee as a viable, non-foodstock source?

Charles Barton said...

Doc, I am suspicious of the EroEI of biofuels, and synthetic fuels, in addition to their hidden costs from added health expenses, and so on. Electrical rail transportation is viable now, and major improvements in Battery performance = cost reduction can be anticiapated within the next 10 years.

Alex P. said...

The pratical alternative to hydrocarbon fuels is electrification, both in the transportation (electric rails and electric vehicle and plug-ins) and space heating and conditioning with efficient heat pumps (air or ground source ones, depending on the conditions)

Alex P. said...

it's clear you don' t like systems like the integral fast reactor. Thus, what do you suggest to destroy current transuranics waste inventory, besides the fact to develop a thorium MSR breeder that don' t produce pratically any new TRUs ?

Charles Barton said...

My view is not just that electrification isthe alternative, but it is probably the preferred alternative.

Charles Barton said...

alex, while I feel that the LFTR represents the preferred technology, the IFR could do the job, if its costs can be kept at a reasonable level.

DocForesight said...

Charles, I'd like to see more electric rail here, too, especially mag-lev. The Chinese can do it and are expanding their rail lines with it. 'Course, that requires large amounts of reliable base-load.

On batteries, are you familiar with lithium-iron-phosphate technology? K2 Batteries in Henderson, NV is one company my partner and I are in communication with regarding some of our projects. Expensive but very good.

Sounds like you foresee the demise of internal combustion engines?


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