Thursday, September 17, 2015

Resource Issues and Energy Supply:

What it Means for Our Energy Future

Initially, this is going to look like another article on renewable energy in a blog that is supposed to be about nuclear issues.  But bear with me, this is actually about an article on the resource issues associated with renewable energy that has sparked some broader thoughts. 

The article (which is a few months old, but I only recently saw) starts off listing some of the same issues regarding renewable energy that many, including yours truly, have commented on.  It says that people assume that the wind and the sun are free and limitless, but they need more land, and lots of raw materials:

  • Wind turbine towers are constructed from steel manufactured in a blast furnace from mined iron ore and modified coal (coke). Turbine blades are composed of oil-derived resins and glass fibre. The nacelle encloses a magnet containing about one third of a tonne of the rare earth metals, neodymium and dysprosium.
The article goes on to talk about the waste generated in mining and processing rare earths, the cement needed to build towers for wind turbines, the coal needed to process silicon solar collectors, and the greenhouse gases other than CO2 generated in the manufacturing process.

So far, I'm with the author.  I have seen reports on all these effects before, and have commented on them myself.  I believe they are true and that they should be a concern to everyone who is interested in our energy future.  (Which should be just about everyone, in one way or another.)

However, the article ends in a single paragraph, that says, by contrast, that there is plenty of uranium and thorium for nuclear reactors, and that, anyway, the future is in fusion.  That is quite a leap.

That got me thinking about a comment I received on a recent post that took issue with me for supporting an "all of the above" scenario because of the added cost.  Addressing that comment fully is a subject for a future discussion, but suffice it to say that the "all of the above" scenario basically arises from the fact that no one energy source can solve all problems and meet all needs.  

The reality is that the author of the article I read didn't treat all resources equally.  You can find other authors who dismiss nuclear fission because the uranium and thorium resources are ultimately limited.  And fusion is not yet a realistic option.

The reality is that all energy resources have some limitations.  It may be true that there is more thorium than rare earths, but I doubt that either resource has been fully identified and explored.  It may be true that mining rare earths generates by-products, but so does mining anything. 

Also neglected in the article is any discussion of whether some of these downsides can be ameliorated.  I always got annoyed when people who opposed nuclear power talked about the coal needed to supply the power to operate gaseous diffusion enrichment plants.  Not only did they grossly exaggerate the amount of energy needed, they never considered that we could move away from using coal for this purpose.  That may be a moot point now, but the same point applies to the issue of coal use for manufacturing solar collectors.

My point is that there is no simplistic answer.  "Renewables bad, nuclear fission and fusion good," is no better than "Nuclear and coal bad, renewables good."  Both views are short-sighted.  They fail to address the benefits and short-comings of all technologies equally, and they fail to consider how current practices might be improved for all technologies, and in some cases--or alternatively, they wave away any concerns by assuming advances that have not yet been demonstrated.

Unfortunately, complexity makes things difficult.  There are no simple answers, no brief soundbites, no quick solutions.  But our energy future depends on understanding and addressing the complexities.  


1 comment:

  1. The dishonesy of Green-leaning "analysts", claiming different CO2 emissions for the nuclear cycle depending on where the power for enrichment (now down in the noise at about 0.1% net) putatively comes from rather than the net effect, is breathtaking.

    Also, Blogger's habit of unrecoverably erasing a comment when one logs in is obscene.