Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Grid and Solar Power:

Getting the Incentives Right

One of the biggest problems in the energy industry today seems to be setting the incentives to achieve what we'd like to the maximum extent possible without introducing other problems.  I just found an interesting article on some incentives for solar power that are having unintended consequences, so will focus on that.  The problem is really broader than just solar energy, but the article provides a good case study for how good intentions can produce suboptimal results. 

The New York Times just published an article called, appropriately, "How Grid Efficiency Went South."  The article covers some of the same ground we've been hearing a lot about recently, namely, the negative pricing that nuclear plants have suffered in some markets when demand is low and renewable energy sources are producing too much electricity.

More interestingly, though, the article points to another problem I had not seem discussed before--namely, that the rules for buying solar power that is input to the grid by private solar collectors create an incentive that results in less total energy production than could be generated.  Namely, the incentives create a discrepancy between what is best for the owners of the solar panels and what is best for the overall energy supply.  Most solar panels, the article explains, are oriented to the south so they catch the maximum amount of solar energy as the sun transits from the southeast to the southwest during the course of the day.  That generates the most energy, and therefore, earns the owners the most money.

Sounds good, right?  Well, maybe not so much.  The article points out that the greatest demand is often in the afternoon, when the sun has heated the world up and more air conditioning is needed.  By then, the sun is hitting solar panels at an oblique angle, and they are generating less electricity.  To maximize production, the panels should be oriented in a more westerly direction, so they have more output when the demand is higher.  However, that would result in a somewhat lower total generation, and under current pricing rules, a somewhat smaller income for the owner.

(The article did not address seasonal variations.  In winter, the demand for heating would be less in the afternoon when the atmosphere has heated up.  However, most home heating is supplied by natural gas or oil.  Therefore, the heating season is probably not really relevant in this case.)

One can't blame the owner of the solar panel for wanting to maximize his or her return.  The problem is that the incentive plan that was set up was too simplistic.  More is usually better.  It is also simpler.  But it doesn't produce the maximum value overall.  There are, of course, solutions to this problem.  Just as electricity use can be priced according to the demand levels, so too, can electricity supply.  Of course, the transition will not please those who have already installed their solar panels. 

While this is a solar issue, it demonstrates some of the complexities we seem to keep missing when we put new rules in place.  In a broader sense, it relates to the issues we discuss for nuclear power because the same kinds of short-sighted policies apply in other areas that do affect nuclear power.  The negative pricing that I mentioned above is one such policy, but there are others as well that we have addressed in past blogs and will continue to address in the future.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Water and Energy:


                       A Close Connection

Several recent items brought home for me the very close linkage between water and energy.  In particular, one study suggests that coal and nuclear power plants are vulnerable to climate change.  The study predicts that rising temperatures could exacerbate the problems we have seen in recent years with plants having to shut down because cooling water temperatures were too high.  Specifically, they predict that electricity production could be reduced by between 4 and 16 percent between the years 2030 and 2060 due to increasing temperatures.

The authors of the study drew the conclusion that this might mean that electricity production might have to shift from coal and nuclear plants to natural gas plants, which use less water.  They appeared to jump to this conclusion without considering other options, including the use of cooling towers and the use of advanced nuclear technologies that don't rely on water for cooling.  I have seen other suggestions that more plants in the future could be sited in coastal areas, thus having access to the oceans, which would not heat up the way confined bodies of water can.

Of course, I have to agree that each of these solutions faces challenges, but so does the greatly increased use of natural gas.  The point is that there is a potential concern in the future and we need to begin to think about ways to address it.

What was even more interesting to me, however, was another article that crossed my desk, this one saying that water is also an issue for some renewables.  The article reports that solar thermal farms that are more "financeable" also potentially use billions of gallons of water.  Since some of these projects are being sited in desert areas, that could become a significant problem.  They mention one project in Nevada that would require about 20 percent of the area's water supply.

Once again, this is not a dire projection of doom and gloom.  The article identified solar technologies that use less water.  These include a technology that places mirrors on towers, producing high-temperature steam, and using a dry cooling method.  They indicated that photovoltaics require water "only" to clean the panels.  However, I understand even that can be significant, as dust can reduce the output of a photovoltaic array significantly.  Further, they say that photovoltaic arrays are typically more expensive and less efficient than solar thermal farms.  For photovoltaics as well, research continues on ways to improve the efficiency and to clean the panels without water.

While the article didn't mention it, wind produces electricity without the need for cooling water.  But as I've indicated in other posts, there are other issues associated with wind.  Therefore, wind has a role in the energy mix, but as with every technology, there are tradeoffs.  

The point of this discussion is not to conclude that we have no options.  The point is to recognize the issues associated with the water needed to produce electricity and the possible trends, and to assure that growing constraints are considered as new technologies are developed. 

On a larger scale, of course, water and energy are linked at a more fundamental level.  Just as it takes a lot of water to produce electricity from most sources, it also takes a lot of energy to produce clean water, more so in places where water for human consumption needs to be extracted from seawater. 

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Wine and Radioactive Decay:

An Interesting Mix

I had not expected for find a wine-related topic to blog about again in a nuclear forum (an early blog of mine reported on the effects of red wine in helping protect against radioactivity), but I have just found yet another connection between nuclear science and wine.  A technical paper reports on the work of a nuclear center in the Bordeaux region of France (the Centre d'Etudes Nucleaires de Bordeaux-Gradignan, or CENBG) in using measurements of gamma decay to date wine.  Although this work seems far removed from their main mission, which was to measure the mass of the neutrino, I guess it was only natural for a nuclear research center in the middle of one of the most famous wine regions in the world to try to apply their tools to the main industry of the area.

The paper notes that wine contains very small, but measurable, amounts of cesium 137 from weapons testing.  Thus, the amounts of the isotope in wines can be used to determine the vintage of fine wines and to protect against fraudulent claims about the vintage.  For example, a 1930 vintage wine should not contain cesium 137.  Since the gamma radiation from the decay of cesium 137 passes through glass bottles, the test is has the additional advantage that it is a nondestructive one and doesn't require tampering with expensive, old vintage wines.  (The article emphasizes that the amounts of cesium 137 in the wine are negligible, so wine lovers need not worry on that account either.)

The authors of the study point to other possible applications in the future.  The gamma spectrometer used is very sensitive and may be able to detect a range of isotopes.  Since soils in different regions vary in composition, the distribution of isotopes in a given bottle of wine may be able to identify whether it is from Bordeaux or Burgundy--or Napa Valley.  However, the paper concludes that the work has not yet been done to validate this concept.

It sounds like an area of research that I would enjoy--in more ways than one!

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Science and Policymaking, Part III:

What We All Need to Know about the Public

The astute reader of the last two blogposts (on policymakers and on scientists) will notice that the missing link in this story is the public.  Sure enough, there is a 3rd article on what both scientists and policymakers need to know about the public.  This one has only 12 points.  Again, I offer the headings for the 12 points and leave the interested read to pursue the explanations in the original article:

1. There is no such thing as ‘the public’

2. People are perfectly capable of understanding complex issues and technologies

3. People want to be able to participate in decisions around policy involving science and technology

4. People are not ‘anti-science’ or ‘anti-technology’

5. People can be experts too

6. People may ask questions which do not occur to experts

7. People are not necessarily interested in science and technology per se

8. People know that policy-makers and scientists are human

9. It is important for policy-makers and scientists to be clear about when they are telling and when they are listening

10. Public deliberation can help reduce the risks that proposed policy will fail

11. Re 10 above, public deliberation can also help give confidence to policy-makers

12. There are many different and valid ways of engaging people

As I read through this last group, I was struck by one point that made me shake my head and say, "Well, I know some people who are anti-science."  (Actually, I don't think I know of anyone in my immediate circle, but I do know they exist.)  This made me realize that the whole set of points in all three articles lumps people together too much.  We can all identify people who are anti-science as well as people who are pro-science, so perhaps a lot of these should read "Not all people are anti-science," etc.  The first of these lists, on what scientists need to know about policymakers, did say that policymakers are not a homogeneous group, but they didn't carry over this caveat into the other lists.  So, yes, I could tweak all of these, and I offer this to you with the caveat that none of these 3 groups are homogeneous, but I still think there is a lot of food for thought for all of us in these lists.

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Science and Policymaking, Part II:

What Policymakers Need to Know about Scientists

In my previous post, I excerpted 20 points from an article in The Guardian that tried to give scientists advice on what they needed to know about policy-making in order to be more effective in working with policymakers.  That article was actually inspired by an earlier article in The Guardian that tried to explain scientists to policymakers.  So, although I know most of this audience consists of scientists and engineers, I thought you might find it interesting to see how others explain our work.  Once again, I present only the bullet points (complete with the original spelling) and urge the reader to go to the original article for further explanations.

With that, here are the recommended 20 things policymakers should know about scientists:

1. Differences and chance cause variation

2. No measurement is exact

3. Bias is rife

4. Bigger is usually better for sample size

5. Correlation does not imply causation

6. Regression to the mean can mislead

7. Extrapolating beyond the data is risky

8. Beware the base-rate fallacy

9. Controls are important

10. Randomisation avoids bias

11. Seek replication, not pseudoreplication

12. Scientists are human

13. Significance is significant

14. Separate no effect from non-significance

15. Effect size matters

16. Data can be dredged or cherry picked

17. Extreme measurements may mislead

18. Study relevance limits generalisations

19. Feelings influence risk perception

20. Dependencies change the risks 

Once again, the comments provide some different perspectives, and perhaps my own list would be a little different.  But overall, I think most of the points are valid, and they should provide food for thought for all of us.

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Science and Policymaking, Part I:

What Scientists Need to Know about Policymakers

I was just pointed to a rich mother lode today--a trio of articles on what the various actors in science and technology policy need to know about each other.  Since I am a scientist and engineer who has worked in the policy area for a long time, the articles struck a chord and I wanted to share them here.  I suspect my audience is mostly other scientists and engineers, so I'll start with an article on what scientists should know about policy-making

Note that these articles were published by a British publication, The Guardian, so a few of the particulars pertain to the British government system.  However, the points the author makes are largely valid for any democratic government.  A few details may need to be changed, but the overall points apply.  Also, I'm sure we can all quibble about the details, and some of the commenters to the original article have taken issue with the relative importance of different issues, the order, whether some duplicate or contradict others, etc.  You can read the comments and draw your own conclusions.  I personally found that most of the points resonated, and perhaps will provide food for thought to others as we all continue to struggle with the interface between science and policy.  I perhaps thought the 20 points enunciated in The Guardian article could have been boiled down to a smaller set of points, but that is a small quibble.

I will highlight here the 20 points the original article in The Guardian makes about what scientists need to know about policy-making.  For the detailed discussion of each of the points, as well as for the comments, please see the original article.  In subsequent blogs, I will highlight the other Guardian articles, which provide similar thoughts on the other participants in policy-making.

1. Making policy is really difficult

2. No policy will ever be perfect

3. Policy makers can be expert too

4. Policy makers are not a homogenous group

5. Policy makers are people too

6. Policy decisions are subject to extensive scrutiny

7. Starting policies from scratch is very rarely an option

8. There is more to policy than scientific evidence

9. Economics and law are top dogs in policy advice

10. Public opinion matters

11. Policy makers do understand uncertainty

12. Parliament and government are different

13. Policy and politics are not the same thing

14. The UK has a brilliant science advisory system

15. Policy and science operate on different timescales

16. There is no such thing as a policy cycle

17. The art of making policy is a developing science

18. 'Science policy' isn't a thing

19. Policy makers aren't interested in science per se

20. 'We need more research' is the wrong answer

I will be interested in how the experience of others supports or contradicts these points, either in the US or elsewhere, but overall, I think most of these points are useful to keep in mind for those of us who engage with policy-makers.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Nuclear Waste:

A New Path Forward?

I was just wrapping up a post a couple of weeks ago and reflecting on how, most of the time, people don't want new infrastructure, be it a windmill or a factory, and yet they don't want to lose infrastructure either, even if other people consider that infrastructure dirty and polluting.

I was thinking specifically of coal mines, which arguably have often damaged the landscape and affected the health and safety of their workers, but I also recall cases where people fought to save industries in their communities, even when the industries spew pollution over the local residents.  I was toying with introducing a new acronym to the world to highlight the fact that there is a counter to NIMBY.  I thought of something like Keep Our Old Pollution Spewing Industries, or KOOPSI, and was envisioning sayings, like "oopsis follow KOOPSIs" or "KOOPSIs lead to oopsies."   

But I knew even as I was thinking about this that it was too simplistic.  If there is a KOOPSI attitude, there are certainly exceptions.  Witness people who have continued to argue against nuclear power plants in a region, even when they have operated safely for decades, and brought jobs and prosperity to their host communities.  So, I held off from publishing my whimsical new addition to the world of acronyms.

So, imagine my surprise, just after I hit the publish button, of opening a message in my mailbox that led me to an article about Loving County, a county in Texas that is thinking of offering to take the nation's high-level radioactive waste!

Of course, this is only an initial thought by a few people.  It doesn't mean we've solved the country's HLW problem.  It doesn't even have the full backing of the 95 residents of the county, and it seems to be for storage, not permanent disposal.  But the most interesting fact in the article was that there might be other sparsely populated counties in the deserts of the Southwest that see some benefits to the jobs and funds that would come with such an enterprise. 

But it just shows that, just as there are exceptions to KOOPSI, there are also exceptions to NIMBY.  In the end, in most cases, it boils down to jobs and the local economy.  That should surprise no one.  But if the old adage that the exception proves the rule is true, if we accept NIMBY, we have to accept KOOPSI, too, so I hearby introduce this new acronym to the world.

On a more serious note, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future recognized that the problem with Yucca Mountain is that it did not have the support of the local community from the outset, and any new process had to start with inviting interested communities.  The possible offer from Loving County, Texas seems like the first small step in that direction. 

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