Monday, July 31, 2006

"Supergrid" Powerlines For a Nuclear-Based Economy

This months Scientific American publishes an article discussing a new concept in power grids, which transport both electrical power and liquid hydrogen. This is a key enabling technology for the next century because it will allow massive increases in power transport AND even more important, the liquid hydrogen in the network allows excess power to be "stored" or buffered.

This technology would be perfect for a Nuclear + Wind/Solar based economy. It would solve the problem of "intermittent power" that plagues the wind/solar folks. Of course, it would also enable the expansion of nuclear energy, because it would allow the nuclear industry to keep building more reactors on the same existing sites. It's politically much more difficult to build a new nuclear site, but reletively easy to add more units to existing sites.

Scientific American: A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy

Cryogenic, superconducting conduits could be connected into a "SuperGrid" that would simultaneously deliver electrical power and hydrogen fuel.

One interesting point the article made: existing power lines are not only overtaxed, but the system is pretty much at it's limit.

By the way, the co-author of this paper is Chauncy Starr, the former head of the Electric Power Research Institute and one of the great leaders the nuclear industry. If he says it will work, it will work!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thought-Provoking Article on GNEP

The Bush administration has been working on a program called GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) which would have the result of re-introducing nuclear fuel reprocessing in the United States, and would set up a program to distribute fuel and collect used fuel from other nations.

Jenny Wang was kind enough to forward this article in Technology Review, in which Matthew Wald questions the value of GNEP.

It's an excellent article. After reading it a few times, I can't say I agree with him completely, but at the same time his points are quite valid. It's well worth some debate. In fact I believe that the GNEP program is currently soliciting comments from nuclear energy experts on the first draft plan, and so nothing is finalized yet.

Here's my take:

1. Carbon Sequestration

Wald talks about the "horse race" between carbon-sequestered coal, nuclear, and wind. But carbon sequestration is still extremely speculative. People talk about the "problem" of nuclear waste, but disposal of nuclear waste is a snap compared to carbon sequestration on any scale. It's a simple matter of density: one small pellet of nuclear waste, which is a very dense solid easy to vitrify in a form which is chemically inert, is equivalent to a mile-wide cloud of carbon dioxide gas which must be pumped somewhere and sealed, and which will leak and corrode the local ground. The idea of carbon sequestration in the ocean is even more bizarre (except for Iron Fertilization, a technique which might really work, but which is unsuitable for power-plant carbon sequestration).

Really, carbon sequestration is a stunningly difficult and unlikely engineering problem, and any researcher who claims otherwise is blowing smoke. Here's a nice post on carbon sequestration by Rod Adams

2. Wind

Regarding wind, we already have discussed at length it's problems. It's completely random and intermittent and essentially usesless for baseload power. On the other hand, wind works very well if you can back it up with a solid baseload generator like nuclear power. So wind, solar, and nuclear are really not competitors at all. They are collaborators. This view will slowly gain traction in the general public and will eventually be conventional wisdom.

3. Proliferation

He also worries about proliferation. Well folks, Pakistan got a bomb, North Korea got a bomb, and Iran is getting one. Hate to say it, but it's already too late. The bigger proliferation problem is the enormous flow of oil money into the middle-east and african nations, and the western world's unhealthy dependance on these nations. Energy security trumps proliferation, in my view.

4. Build What You Have

Wald suggests that the GNEP vision (which is essentially based on fast reactors) might hamper the current new build of commercial nuclear plants. That's a valid concern. It's crucial that we build the plants we have now. That's how all industries grow and what you have, tinker and improve it later after you've got a healthy cashflow and vendor/engineer infrastructure in place. In fact, I've been interviewing a lot of retired nuclear industry leaders lately, and they all make that point. "Build what you have now! Resist chasing the new designs, because then you'll never build anything!"

5. But Vision Is Important. Perhaps Crucial.

But you also can't stop researching new designs. We will need the fast reactor option in place in 20 or 30 years. That is a clear vision for the future of the planet and a vision which could serve the human race, and provide a clean energy civilization for the next century at least. That's a hell of an important vision.

In fact you might find that this vision -- of a healthy clean future for all of human civilization -- might be crucial to the future of nuclear power. As you've probably seen me talking about (endlessly) on this blog, I think we are at an important turning point for the human race. China and India between them are attemping to raise their 2 billion citizens, 1/3rd of the human race from poverty to dignity in the next few decades. That is an awesome moral crusade for the human race. Nuclear power could be the keystone of that effort, just as the Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric project of the 1930's was the keystone of the Rural Electrification projects of that time in the US.

Nuclear power could be seen as a symbol of an amazing future for human civilization. Nuclear power and Wind and Solar, as partners, could be even better. The question, what leader will step up to deliver this vision to the waiting public?

6. Nuclear Engineers Might be Too Cynical and Dry. Time to Spice it Up?

Many nuclear engineers are uncomfortable with this kind of talk. I don't blame them. Let's face it, it sounds like hype, and the nuclear industry got severly burned by this kind of hype in the 60s. Nuclear industry people prefer to be quiet and behind-the-scenes. They just want to build some reactors, get them licensed, start generating, and turn their reactors into enormous cash cows. Not a bad plan at all.

But you still have to have vision, because the public needs it. Dry, purely functional engineering just isn't quite enough in today's world. You need some flair, and some vision, and some sex appeal. If for no other reason, you need a little sex appeal if you want to attract students into your nuclear engineering degree programs, and develop your nuclear workforce.

7. In Conclusion.

So just like anything in life, there is a balance that needs to be struck. In this case the balance will lie between "build what you have now" and "plan new visions for the future". Hopefully the Bush administration and whatever administration takes power in 2008 will be able to make this balance.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Another Reason Celluostic Ethanol is a False Hope

Part of being a nuclear advocate is debunking the endless stream of poorly-thought-out energy "solutions" that pop up. For example, the latest ethanol craze.

Here is a great article in the Washington Post debunking ethanol.

But celluostic ethanol has an even bigger problems that aren't mentioned:

Celluostic agricultural waste is ALREADY being used to generate electricity. It's being burned in waste-burning plants to generate electricity. Sawdust (which is often cited as a source) has been burned to power the sawmills and surrounding communities for decades.

If we converted existing sources of ag waste to ethanol production, we'd experience a decrease in energy efficiency. Burning this waste in a typical power plant is actually pretty efficient. Something on the order of 25% or 30% efficient. The creation of ethanol would be much less efficient -- there's no way that a giant ethanol "cooking" plant full of cellulose-consuming bacteria will be anything better than 10% efficient converting the calories to useful energy.

Even if we do grow millions of additional tons of switchgrass or other energy crops, they're unlikely to become ethanol. They'll simply get burned to generate electricity. This will happen because burning them is the cheapest, easiest, and most profitable way to use the resource. The american midwest is full of coal and waste-burning plants who are hungry for green energy sources. These plants already exist, they are already running, and they will quickly, cheaply, and efficiently use up all the available energy crops.

Think of it this're a switchgrass-growing farmer. You can sell your crop to the local coal burning plant (which pays a much higher price, and which generates carbon abatement and pollution abatement credits when it burns your crop in place of coal). Or you could sell your switchgrass crop to the ethanol factory and get paid 1/2 the price. Who do you think you'll sell to?

Burning switchgrass instead of coal -- easy, cheap, already happening.

What's the point? There is very little net energy to be had in current agricultural waste, and any future growth of ag waste or energy crops will be best used for electrical production, not ethanol. Yes there are waste streams that can't be burned (amimal waste, etc) but these are reletively small. Celluostic ethanol will require a lot of new research, new technolgy, investments in new plants, and a lot of other complexity. Will it be worth it? Probably not.

Why do I care? In this and other pro-nuclear blogs, we've observed for years that in western society, especially american society, we've seen a rash of "energy sources" which are hyped to the public, many of which are technically unsound, yet the general public grabs onto them. It's a major obstacle to the logical development of real "green" energy sources like nuclear power.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Chinese Coal Burning -- The Environmental Disaster of the Century

Every time I read someone complain about the dangers of nuclear waste, it makes me wonder if they live on the same planet as I do. No offense, but really...

At this moment, China is burning billions of metric tons of coal, in plants that are absolutely pollution controls whatsoever. Consumption of coal is set to double within the next few years. Compared to this very real environmental disaster--a disaster that is happening right now, as you read this--the risks of nuclear waste are insignificant.

Coal Link 1

...Mr. Feickert concludes that China's expected push for coal could have serious consequences in environmental and energy issues worldwide. If the Chinese coal
consuming and industry production development is not assisted properly by the Western world, he fears that an "incipient oil price shock could become very real, even provoking a world recession". This rising coal consumption will inevitably lead to a drastic rise in CO2...

Coal Link 2
About 70% of China's energy comes from coal, and that share has been rising as the country has doubled its consumption of coal over the last four years. China passed the U.S. in 2002, and it now uses more coal than any other country ...

But boosting its use of coal is worsening China's already grim environmental record. The global atmosphere can't take this increase," says Janet Sawin, director of the worldwatch Institute's Energy & Climate Change Program. To cut pollution, China wants to produce more clean-burning coal, which Shenhua's Shendong mine does, and build more efficient and less-polluting power plants. It's also using more natural gas and building nuclear power plants, but those will make up only a tiny part of its energy usage for years to come...

A few important points:

-Wind, solar, and other renewables are "targeted" at 10% of Chinese energy, going forward, and I've seen some environmentalists call this a big win. I don't get it. 90% of the energy is still NOT renewables. Only 4% Nuclear. Only 8% Hydro. That leaves 70-80% of their energy in the hands of coal. The most filthy, polluting, ecosystem-degenerating type of pollutant.

-Hydroelectric has a very bad reputation in China simply because there are no hydro sites to be developed that don't involved the displacement of millions of subsistence farmers. So much for THAT renewable option.

-Talk about "conservation" is nice but irrelevant. China has a billion people who are already using tiny amounts of energy. Any growth of any kind will be huge. No amount of conservation can change that.

-Nuclear power is the only power source that could possibly make a dent in the ecological disaster of Chinese Coal.

If Green-minded people really care about the ecosystem, they should pool their money and immediately fund research into fast, inexpensive nuclear reactor construction techniques, and then take it to China.