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An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Archive for the ‘alternative energy’ Category

Lovins and Caldicott: Hypercars and Hyperbole

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Rod Adams over at Atomic Insights recently considered an interesting question – Who is more dangerous, Amory Lovins or Helen Caldicott? An interesting question.

Adams says that “Caldicott energizes and adds emotional fervor for people who have little understanding of the way the world work; Lovins gets entry into board rooms and government conference rooms where real money gets moved around.”

I think this statement is absolutely true. Whilst Helen Caldicott’s claims about nuclear power absolutely infuriate and annoys me, as well as many other people who look favourably upon nuclear energy because they’ve looked at it in a rational, sensible way, informed about the science and the technology, I think that Dr. Caldicott isn’t as dangerous, fortunately, as you may think.

I have spoken with people who are vehemently anti nuclear energy, and they’ve told me that they they cannot take Caldicott seriously, and that the anti-nuclear movement, at least that part of it which is somewhat rational, would be a lot better off without Caldicott as one of the high-profile public faces of this movement.

First and foremost, many regard Lovins as something of a shill for American corporations – Although there’s a lot of negative things we can say about Caldicott, nobody ever accused her of being a “shill”.

“Our thesis rests on a different perception. Our attempt to rethink focuses not on marginal reforms but on basic assumptions. In fact, the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing……For fundamental reasons which we shall describe, nuclear power is not commercially viable, and questions of how to regulate an inexorably expanding world nuclear regime are moot.”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

“De facto moratoria on reactor ordering exist today in the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, and probably the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Canada.

Nuclear power has been indefinitely deferred or abandoned in Austria, Denmark, Norway, Iran, China, Australia and New Zealand…”

— Amory Lovins, 1980.

The fact is, in 1980, Lovins got it wrong.

Scientists, sometimes, get it wrong. Carl Sagan, when he claimed that oil fires during the Gulf War would induce a worldwide ecological catastrophe, akin to a “nuclear winter”, got it wrong. When Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki claimed that CCS and geosequestration of Australia’s CO2 emissions from energy generation would require the sequestration of one cubic kilometer of carbon dioxide a day, and is absolutely unfeasable, he got it wrong. If somebody asked Lovins about his 1980 publication, he will most likely admit that he got it wrong.

However, I’m fairly confident that Amory Lovins knows that tritiated water is not H3O, and he knows the difference between the neutron-absorbing control rods and the moderator of a nuclear reactor.

In 1976 Amory Lovins coined the term “soft path” to describe an alternative future where efficiency and appropriate renewable energy sources steadily replace a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels.

The “hard energy path”, as described by Lovins, with which the “soft path” contrasts is based on the assumption that the more energy we use the better off we are. It involves inefficient liquid-fuel automotive transport, as well as giant, centralized electricity-generating facilities, burning fossil fuels or harnessing nuclear fission. The hard path is not simply a matter of energy sources, though, because it is greatly augmented and complicated by wastage and loss of electricity and other common, directly usable forms of energy.

The “soft energy path” assumes that energy is but a means to social ends, and is not an end in itself. Soft energy paths involve efficient use of energy, diversity of energy production methods (matched in scale and quality to end uses), and special reliance on co-generation and “soft technologies” such as solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, etc.

Now, quoth the good Dr. Caldicott:

“Nuclear power is often referred to behind closed doors in the U.S. Department of Energy as “hard” energy whereas wind power, solar power, hydropower, and geothermal energy are referred to as “soft” energy pathways.

Clearly the same psychosexual language used by the Pentagon generals to describe various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear war has been translocated into the nuclear power vocabulary of some very powerful and influential men in the electricity generating field.”

I’ve heard that Lovins used to talk about the risks of nuclear proliferation as a key argument against the use of nuclear energy, however, I haven’t read these particular arguments – unfortunately, I haven’t yet read any of Lovins’s books.

“If you go to the December 2005 issue of Nuclear Engineering International, you’ll find a paper called `Mighty Mice’ that summarizes an economic analysis. What that analysis shows from the best empirical data available last year, is if you spent 10 cents (U.S.) to make and deliver a new nuclear kilowatt-hour — notice I said deliver, so that’s at your meter — you can displace 1 kilowatt-hour of coal power. That’s what Patrick is talking about. And it might seem like a good idea until you look at the competitors.”

“Given the relative cost and financial risk of Canadian or U.S. nuclear, you have to have a very restrictive set of options or strange idea of economics to conclude a nuclear plant makes any sense. So I don’t know how they could have reached that conclusion, unless it’s ideological or designed just to support the nuclear industry.”

Today, from my reading, for the most part, Lovins never seems to say that nuclear energy is bad. Lovins does not rant on about waste, meltdowns, proliferation, terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, or anything of the sort that Caldicott does.

Lovins just says that conservation, distributed generation, solar, wind and so forth can do a better, cheaper, job of meeting our energy needs in a clean way.

I support the clean, “soft” technologies promoted by Lovins, and I think that there’s certainly a place for them in the energy mix of the future. But I do not believe that it would be easier or cheaper for these energy systems to meet all our energy needs than it would be for nuclear energy to be a key contributor in an energy mix that will meet all our energy needs.

Even Lovins’s HyperHouse uses a little bit of electricity off the grid, and a little bit of fossil fuel. We can have a world completely free of the need to burn fossil fuels, and this should be the number one aim.

Whilst Lovins does have real influence in the boardrooms of industry and commerce and the halls of government, and this is a potential dangerous mixture, if Lovins is pushing flawed science, or no science at all. However, from my knowledge of Lovins, he, at the very least, knows how to use the Scientific Method. I’ll give him the benefit of my finite reading and experience and reading of Lovins’s works, and say this: Dr. Lovins is a scientist. A shill, perhaps, but a scientist none the less. Caldicott is no shill, but no scientist, no way, and never was.

Now, I’d buy a hydrogen Hypercar. I’d love a hydrogen Hypercar. I first got excited about hydrogen hypercars when I read an article about the design, engineering and electronics that went into General Motors’s HyWire, actually. (OK, it’s not the genuine Lovins HyperCar, but let’s expand the definition to include all modern designs for advanced Hydrogen-powered wheels.) Whilst I’d be quite happy to see the hydrogen produced from solar energy, or wind energy, or from clever hydrogen-producing algae, I’d be equally as happy, more happy in fact, to see the hydrogen produced from the cleanest large-scale energy system we have proven at the moment – and that is nuclear energy.

The following is taken from the visitor’s guide to Lovins’s Snowmass HyperHouse:

“Above the decking is a three-eighths-of-an-inch (1-cm) base layer of Freon-filled polyurethane foam; a polyethylene vapor barrier sealed at its edges to the wall insulation; and, depending on location, another four to eight inches (10–20 cm) of polyurethane.”

Freon!? My goodness! Won’t somebody please think of the atmosphere!

I wonder how much Potassium-40 is being consumed each year from Lovins’s HyperBanana crops, anyway?

Anyway, in conclusion: Amory Lovins is the “more dangerous”, probably, of the two. Shilling for industry is nothing to be proud of, if Lovins is somewhat guilty of that, but it’s still Lovins who I have more respect for, of the two.

I’ll leave you with a quote from NNadir, who certainly has a few interesting things to say about Lovins – and a few interesting things to say about just about everything else.

“I measure time in billions of tons of carbon dioxide. People started investing in Amory Lovins’ ideas 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide ago.”


Wind turbines: Running some numbers.

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I recently came across the website of EcoTricity, a firm in the UK who are quite proud of a number of wind turbines they’re building. (Thanks to Atomic Insights for the tip on this story.)

If we look at some of their construction photos, we are reminded that in practice, every construction project of this sort involves vehicles powered by fossil fuels, raw materials such as concrete, Aluminium and steel, all produced using various energy inputs, many of which come from fossil fuels.

In fact, wind turbine energy is associated with whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of around 20g CO2 equivalent per kWh of electrical output – this is not zero, but like the other clean alternatives, it’s clearly far better than coal-fired electricity, for example, which is the most common and the most polluting electrical energy source, with a whole-of-life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions profile of about 1000g CO2-eq./kWh.

This latest turbine installation – the company’s biggest to date – was built in August this year, and consists of three massive turbines with a nameplate capacity of 2 MW a piece. We are told that this corresponds to 15 million units of actual generated capacity, but unfortunately, they seem to have neglected to tell us exactly what this unit is.

These 2MW nameplate turbines have a hub height of 78 m and a rotor diameter of 82 m.

It is claimed that this project will save the emissions of 15,408 tons of potentially dangerous CO2 annually. Sounds good.

However, if we assume that this wind energy can directly displace the same amount of coal-generated electricity, that these energy systems have whole-of-life-cycle emissions characteristics as I noted above, and assume that the wind turbines have a capacity factor of say 20%, then a simple calculation of the generating capacity required to displace that amount of GHG emissions seems to indicate that 6MW of installed capacity just isn’t enough, and that 9MW of capacity is actually required.

I’m not an expert on engineering wind energy, and finding the best site, and so forth, but I think a capacity factor reaching 30% – which is what they’d need to have, unless the coal capacity they’re displacing is really, really inefficient, would be extremely difficult to attain.

I wonder where the discrepancy arises?

To further put the scale of such a project in context, these three turbines, operating with say a 20% capacity factor, generate around 1.2MW of electricity – three thousand such turbines will generate 1.2 GW. This sort of power output can be achieved by one single modern nuclear power reactor, with a capacity factor of say 92%, with a nameplate capacity of 1.3 GW. Today’s nuclear generating plants, with two or more units on site, typically generate far in excess of that.

Written by Luke Weston

October 8, 2007 at 12:39 pm

Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for US Energy Policy

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The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Nuclear Policy Research Institute have just released the Executive Summary of Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. It is a report that will be published in October 2007 detailing recommendations on how the U.S. can meet future energy demand while eliminating carbon-intensive fossil fuels, as well as eliminating nuclear energy.

Figure 2 on page 9 of the summary details how the US electric grid will be configured by 2050 without fossil or nuclear power.
Solar PV and solar thermal are assumed to generate 40-45% of the electricity supply.

How much solar capacity would be needed to provide 40-45% of the electricity supply?

If solar is to provide 1,824,000 GWh to meet this demand – 45% of current generation capacity – the US would need 1095 GW (1,824,000 GWh / (8760 hours in a year * 19% capacity factor) = 1095 GW).

So the US would need to build more solar capacity than the total current capacity of all the generating capacity in the country just to provide less than half the electricity just at current level of demand.
Ignoring the growth in electricity demand, to build 1095 GW of solar by 2050 the U.S. would need to build roughly 26 GW of solar capacity each year… 500 MW per week.

If this is all from photovoltaic cells, and assuming you can get, say, 170 W per square meter of photovoltaics, you have to build… about 3 square kilometres of photovoltaic panels per week .

IEER claims, for comparison, that 2500 GW of nuclear capacity would need to be built worldwide by 2050 to make a difference to CO2 emissions, and they’re quick to point out that that corresponds to about one nuclear reactor per week. Of course, a nation such as the US does in fact have the capacity to build more than one reactor at a time.

If it takes, say, 150 weeks to build a nuclear power reactor, then 150 need to be built at once in order to meet this rate of construction. Sounds like quite a challenge, but no less so than building PV modules a square kilometer at a time.

Yes, we have better photovoltaic technologies in the pipepine today, that are far cheaper to build, a bit more efficient, and so forth. Sliver cells, which reduce the cost of cell materials greatly, Titanium Dioxide photoelectrochemical devices, and so forth. Whilst in some cases they offer significant increases in efficiency, they still have a low capacity factor, and they still don’t work in the dark.

Don’t get me wrong, I think solar energy is great, and I support its use, and I support research and development – and government money for same – into improving it.

But it’s important to understand what the limitations are. The most fundamental limitations to solar energy are not that that clever physics and engineering of the cells can ever get us around.

Proponents of solar cells say that the key is to do away with large, centralized generation – install solar energy on site, on every building and home.

But in reality, what’s the difference? The electricity demand is the same, except for the relatively small losses over long transmission lines. With the same cell technology, the same amount of cells are needed to meet the same electricity demand.

We often hear the ideas for large-scale pumped hydroelectric storage and so forth, but are there practical alternatives for smaller-scale energy storage systems for the homes and buildings? Electricity storage systems are the key to making large-scale solar energy workable – We’re gonna need something better than a basement full of Lead-acid cells. Hydroelectric pumped storage is all well and good, it’s proven on a large scale, but it only works with large, centralized capacity, and it only works if your country has enough spare water to support expanded Hydroelectricity. Here in Australia, for example, expanded hydroelectricity is really not an option.

Vanadium redox flow cells? Perhaps. Molten-salt thermal storage? Perhaps. Hydrogen? Perhaps.

In future, technologies will develop, and some of these technologies will continue to prove themselves on a large scale.

But today, the set of well-proven workable technologies is limited. Nuclear is one of those. Can we afford to gamble the future on the large-scale adoption of unproven technologies today? No, we can’t , but at the same time, we can’t gamble on ignoring research and development into these potentially promising energy technologies, either.

Written by Luke Weston

August 7, 2007 at 7:25 am