Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scary Energy Scenarios:

My Real Fears on Halloween

From Wikimedia Commons
As I sit down to write this, I realize that I have been bombarded by more than the usual number of scary things this Halloween.  Of course, there are the ghosts and ghouls and goblins, the witches and werewolves, and the vampires and zombies.  But what haunts me more is the specter of an energy future resulting from decisions made on the basis of short-term profit, misinformation, and dogmatic ideologies.

So, it is not the eerie sounds emanating from the dark forest that scare me, or the creaky sounds from upstairs when I know that no one is there.  It is not the skeletons hanging from the trees and rattling in the wind. 

What really scares me is a future where we are less safe because our critical energy infrastructure is not being maintained or operated with the highest attention to safety.

What really scares me is a future where our energy and non-energy infrastructure is at risk because we failed to plan for changes in the environment, population, and emerging needs.
What really scares me is a future where I cannot get the energy I need because short-term pricing and market imperfections have caused valuable energy resources to shut down prematurely.  
What really scares me is a future where the air I breathe is dirtier because misguided attempts to manipulate the market by favoring particular technologies or handicapping others has resulted in more use of polluting sources to back up intermittent technologies.

What really scares me is a future where energy availability is restricted because not enough fuel is extracted, not enough power plants are built, and not enough transmission capacity exists because we did not find a way to balance local interests and societal needs. 

What really scares me is a future where the price of energy is pushed so high that that gulf between the haves and the have-nots becomes a chasm, and social unrest results.
What really scares me is a future where we become dependent on the whims of other regimes because we failed to develop our own resources or because we favored technologies that use materials that are scarce in our country.
What really scares me is a future where we have lost our voice on the international stage because we have taken too rigid and unrealistic a stand, or because we have failed to stay competitive in critical markets. 

What really scares me is a future where we are mired in the use of outdated technologies because we failed to invest in research and development.

What really scares me is a future where we do not realize our full potential in all areas because we are impoverished in the energy supplies that fuel advances in other areas, a better standard of living, and so much more.
These are my ghosts and goblins.  They pertain to all sources of energy and all parts of all the fuel cycles--fossil fuel extraction, gas pipelines, electricity transmission, nuclear power plants, windmills, rare earths, and more.  And, while Halloween will be over tomorrow, and the scary spiders and blow-up black cats and sheet-clad "ghosts" hanging from my neighbors' houses will be taken down in a few days, the things that trigger my energy fears, unfortunately, are not as easy to stuff back into boxes and store in the basement. 

I would like to think that common sense will ultimately prevail and that, in the very near future, we will exorcise the demons of shortsightedness, ignorance, and fanaticism when it comes to energy matters (as well as other matters).  Until then, I am scared.

Happy Halloween!


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Is Fusion Getting Closer?

And What If It Is?

The press has been abuzz lately about claims that fusion energy will soon be economically viable, and can become the go-to technology to meet a lot of our energy needs.  They point to some technological advances, particularly in the materials area, that certainly seem promising.

However, for those of us who have been around for--ahem--awhile, the arguments have a familiar ring.  Fusion has appeared to be just around the corner for a long time now.  For 30 years, I have been hearing that fusion is just 30 years away.  Maybe this time, it's really true.  It is probably just as wrong for me to dismiss a claim based on past failures as it is for others to ignore past failures altogether and promise success this time.  

More fundamentally, this news has gotten me to thinking about recent news items touting advances in other energy technologies, as well, and what it means for our energy planning.  The truth is that we are seeing advances, or the potential for advances, on many fronts.  Energy storage is getting cheaper, making renewables potentially more viable sometime in the future.  We are developing advanced nuclear power plant designs that will make nuclear power safer and more economical in the future. 

I could go on.  All of these claims are, at the moment, promises about concepts that are still in their early phases of development.  And in many of these cases, even a successful demonstration (such as achieving "break even" power production from fusion) is only one step in a long road to reliable, long-term operation. 

It all reminds me, once again, of Admiral Rickover's "paper reactors."  He noted that advanced concepts that are still on the drawing board are always reported to be fully developed, simple, cheap, flexible, etc.  However, once we start to build them, we run into problems, and end up with cost overruns and schedule delays while we solve all the problems we didn't think we had.  I know I've covered Rickover's statement before, and I will probably come back to it again one of these days, but it seems to me that it's one of the most profound statements that I've ever heard about advanced technologies and large-scale projects--that is, that there are a lot of stumbling blocks between the idea and the reality.

Surely, we will make progress on many of the technologies we are developing.  Despite past failures, maybe fusion will succeed spectacularly this time around and change the face of our energy supply.  Or maybe not this time, but another few decades down the road.  Maybe energy storage will get cheaper and make wind and solar energy more suitable for baseload.  Or maybe not this time.  Maybe the small modular reactors and other advanced fission reactor designs will indeed prove to be both safer and cheaper.  Or maybe not this time.  Maybe we will discover a reliable and cost-effective way to remove and sequester emissions from fossil-fired power plants.  Or maybe not this time.

Most likely, we will solve one problem, but discover other roadblocks.  For example, new materials may cause different kinds of problems in their mining, manufacture and use.  With luck, some of these areas will make progress, but others will stall, and it is impossible to determine today which will be the one that will edge ahead. 

The real point is, what should we do in light of this uncertainty?  We need more energy in many parts of the world and we need it today.  Heck, we need it yesterday.  We need to replace aging facilities.  We need to replace polluting facilities.  There are some people who think that we should just wait for the perfect technology that is just around the corner.  But Rickover's paper reactors should make us realize that the perfect solution is not really imminent, and will not be perfect.  It will most likely take longer to develop and implement new technologies than we think it will, and we will find that the new technologies have some drawbacks we didn't anticipate.

If that sounds full of despair, I don't intend it to be.  My point is that we have near-term needs that can't afford to wait.  They can be met only with present-day technologies.  A smart development program will take the best technologies that we have today to meet increased demands and to replace older technologies. 

Most likely, some of the technologies that are now under development will be available in the future, but we can't afford to wait.  And, what the best technology will be 30 years down the road...well, let's check in sometime in 2045 and see what's happened. 



Thursday, October 1, 2015

Energy by the Numbers:

A Comparison of Energy Sources

It's no secret that I like numbers.  Therefore, I was pleased to read, in the last few days, two reports that compared various energy sources--one in terms of fatalities, and the other, in terms of resource use.  These are two very different measures, but both are important ones, so I looked eagerly to see how the various energy sources compared.

The greatest concern that most people have, of course, is safety, so I looked first at an article by James Conca in Forbes called "How Deadly is your Kilowatt?"  In this article, Conca presents a table of the mortality rates worldwide for different energy sources (see below).  The results appear to cover all aspects of each fuel cycle.  They highlight the deaths from air pollution for coal, but they also talk about deaths from uranium mining accidents and from maintenance accidents for wind turbines.  They don't actually mention that they include deaths from coal mining, but presumably, if they included uranium mining, they included coal mining as well. 

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average           170,000    (50% global electricity)
Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)
Coal – U.S.                             15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)
Oil                                           36,000    (36% of energy,8% of elect)
Natural Gas                              4,000    (20% global electricity)
Biofuel/Biomass                     24,000    (21% global energy)
Solar (rooftop)                             440    (< 1% global electricity)
Wind                                            150    (~ 1% global electricity)
Hydro – global average            1,400    (15% global electricity)
Nuclear – global average*            90    (17%  global electricity)

* With Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Some of the results were no surprise to me--coal was the worst globally, while nuclear power was the best, even when worst-case estimates of Chernobyl deaths and Fukushima projections were included.  However the difference caught me by surprise--worldwide, coal had almost 2000 times more fatalities per kilowatt-hour than nuclear power!  There were some other revelations as well.  The extremely high global death rate from coal appears to be dominated by China, so when China and the US were separated out, deaths attributed to coal use in the US were actually less than deaths attributed to biofuel/biomass use. 

I should caution that, like all studies, there are confounding factors.  Some of the energy sources can be used for electricity production, but can also be used in other ways--direct heating, propulsion, etc.  Nevertheless, even if the numbers were adjusted to compare, for example, only electricity production, it is clear that nuclear power is substantially lower than most other energy sources in terms of fatalities. 

The other study I saw is part of the Department of Energy's Quadrennial Technology Review on energy technologies and research opportunities (Chapter 10: Concepts in Integrated Analysis, September 2015).  While the Forbes article talked about materials use, the DOE report has a good table (see below) that shows just how dramatically the materials usage varies from one energy technology to another.  Although we are not talking about scarcity issues for most of the materials listed in this table, we know that some of the materials are energy intensive to produce.  Concrete, which is the dominant material used to build the plants for most of these technologies, is particularly notable in this regard. 

This table doesn't show requirements for rare earths, which has been discussed a lot recently, particularly in the context of wind turbines.  However, the report does cover that separately.

These two studies do not tell the whole story, of course.  There are other measures that need to be considered, ranging from land use, to cost, to different pollutants, to non-fatal health effects.  And the potential for improvements in each technology could change some of the numbers significantly.

Still, seeing these two sets of numbers side-by-side within a couple of days of each other helped me confirm and quantify some facts that I have thought were true for a long time, and that are important to any discussion of energy technologies.