Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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A Few Thoughts On Nuclear Power After The Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami & Nuclear Disasters

The quickest way I can say this is the following: I’m not a proponent of nuclear power, for almost any problem because it carries too many problems in itself that other power sources do not.

Some climate activists have been pushing for more nuclear power as one tool of many to address global warming.  Citing no carbon or methane emissions, the power is claimed to be “clean”.   While the power might be cleaner than fossil fuels (no mercury or nitrous oxides, etc.), the fuel is most certainly not clean.  In fact, nuclear fuel is the most toxic substances to any living thing that you can find.  Radiation is not good for animals.  Period.  It doesn’t make sense to me to use the most toxic substances we can find and/or manufacture and use them to boil water to generate power.

Especially when cleaner forms of energy are available via solar, wind, geothermal and biomass sources.  Nuclear fuel requires mining, as does solar PV components – so that’s more or less a wash in my mind.  Talk about solar thermal and I think a distinct advantage appears for the renewable energy source.  I’ve heard some pundits whine about all the lost birds due to wind arrays.  Isn’t it interesting those same pundits don’t ever propose destroying skyscrapers or killing every domestic cat – those two bird killers currently and for decades have killed millions of birds annually.  It’s a nonsensical argument.  Combine wind and solar on nearly any measurable stretch of land where people reside and the potential to generate many times today’s current, extravagantly wasteful energy usage is there for the taking.  Add in geothermal to heat and cool buildings and biomass to help power transportation and there is absolutely no need for nuclear power.

After all, how many solar cells have exploded or melted down in the past 50 years?  How many wind farm mining accidents have taken workers lives?  How many biomass spills have ruined entire ecosystems for decades?  How many geothermal systems have increased mortality rates, respiratory problem rates, etc.?  How many trillions of dollars will we have to spend protecting solar or wind power lines?  How many corrupt, totalitarian regimes will we keep propped up to ensure a steady flow of biomass and geothermal energy to our shores?  How many greedy, overpaid dirty energy corporate bosses will we funnel our hard-earned money to instead of producing energy where it’s needed and producing even more in places nobody wants to live or work?

Nobody should have to struggle through one of the strongest earthquakes on record, followed by a tsunami that has wiped entire towns off the earth, that followed by an escalating nuclear disaster.  The Japanese people are enduring hardships I wouldn’t wish on people I loathe.  Of all the things I truly do hope come out of this triple disaster, I hope the Japanese take a hard, fact-based look at where they get their power from and how they use it.  Nuclear disasters last longer than earthquakes and tsunamis.  Is that risk worth being able to boil some water?

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2010: A Good Year For U.S. Solar Market

Good news on the solar industry front:

Solar electric installations reached 956 megawatts in the United States last year, including 878 MW of photovoltaic (PV) systems. More than 17 gigawatts of PV were installed globally.

Moreover, the U.S. solar market sector grew by 67% in 2010.  Unfortunately, as a result of our still immature renewable energy policies, the U.S. installed a smaller proportion of solar systems with respect to the rest of the world in 2010 than was the case in 2009: 5%, down from 6.5%.

Still, that 878MW  is 878MW more that is installed and generating power than there was in 2009.  Will it be enough to make a difference about global warming?

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Obama White House To Install Solar On White House

It won’t solve the global warming crisis by itself, but it’s encouraging to see the White House do something tangible to reduce their impact on the climate.

[Update]: I didn’t want to slam the President on this relatively good piece of news, but after giving the overall situation more thought, I think Paul Rosenberg has a good point.  Obama’s White House refused to put up’s solar panel just a short time before making this announcement.  Why the sudden change of heart?  Is it because Obama thinks this is all a big game?

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Utilities Test Adding Renewables To Dirty Power Plants

One of the ways in which we will transition from dirty energy sources to clean energy sources is by first modifying the dirty energy infrastructure to accommodate clean energy infrastructure – the addition of renewable energy parts to dirty energy plants.  Case in point: the world’s 2nd largest solar plant is being added onto the U.S.’s largest fossil fuel plant.

Across 500 acres north of West Palm Beach, the FPL Group utility is assembling a life-size Erector Set of 190,000 shimmering mirrors and thousands of steel pylons that stretch as far as the eye can see. When it is completed by the end of the year, this vast project will be the world’s second-largest solar plant.

But that is not its real novelty. The solar array is being grafted onto the back of the nation’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, fired by natural gas. It is an experiment in whether conventional power generation can be married with renewable power in a way that lowers costs and spares the environment.

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Morocco To Invest $9 Billion To Install 200MW of Solar Power

As much good as America’s new President has already done, in a very short time, on energy and climate issues, the rest of the world, developed and developing countries alike, continue to surge forward toward 21st century energy technologies.  Morocco announced this week that they are prepared to invest $9 Billion to install 200MW of solar power in their deserts by 2020.  And:

The nation is vying with Algeria, Tunisia and Libya for 400 billion euros ($596 billion) of investments in solar-energy systems over the coming decades as the EU seeks to trim emissions from coal and natural gas power plants by importing clean power from the Sahara.

This announcement comes as part of plans with Germany to develop desalinization plants and electricity generators for the country.

[h/t Climate Progress]

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New Solar and Wind Energy Infrastructure

I’m sure there are more stories out there than just the two I’m going to profile here.  These happened to catch my eye and I wanted to pass along the news.

A new series of concentrated solar thermal power farms are being planned in southern California.  If the plan goes through, 1300MW of electricity will be produced.  Put another way, 3.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year will be generated by the series of plants.  That’s enough to power 845,000 homes (according to the article, that’s more homes than are in San Francisco!).  Solar thermal power concentrates the sun’s rays to create steam in a boiler and spin a turbine.  It gets at part of the original problems with solar energy: the lack of capacity to store energy for later use.  Constructed properly, solar thermal plants should be able to store energy in the form of heat for hours after the sun has set.  Current technologies allow for heat to be used four to six hours after collection.  With additional research, power collected during the day should be able to be stored and used throughout the night.  That will help keep electricity rates down for consumers.  It won’t be subject to the kind of excessive speculation that plagued the oil and natural gas markets last year, for instance.

Another challenge facing renewable energy utilization is the best areas to collect the power are typically far away from the areas that want the power.  To deal with that, new transmission lines will have to be built across the country.  Those lines will need to carry power generated from solar plants (like the ones described above) as well as power from wind plants.  A new wind power transmission plan seeks to address the latter.  Excellent wind resources exist in the northern Plains of the U.S.  Major users nearby include the Chicago area in Illinois.  The new plan would seek to deliver 12,000MW of wind energy from the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa to Chicago.  How much power is 12,000MW?  Well, it’s almost 10x as big as the CSP plants being planned for California, which means it could power about 8 million homes.  It would cost $10 to $12 billion to build the transmission lines.  Sound like a lot of money?  It could be described that way.  Let me add some additional context:

But in fact the study found that “increasing wind’s share to 20 percent of U.S. power production would yield annual net savings of $12 billion annually by 2024 based on wind’s low production cost compared to the fossil plants the turbines would replace.

So it would not only be good for the planet (by reducing future GHG emissions), but it would be cheaper to operate than our current fossil-fuel burning approach?  That’s a win-win.

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Total CO2-equivalence of Electricity Sources – Renewables Are Best

An in-depth study conducted by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson found that wind and concentrated solar power (CSP) generated electricity have the lowest lifecycle CO2-equivalent emissions of various energy sources.  The highest?  Coal-Carbon Capture and Sequestration (Coal-CCS) and nuclear.  Also included in the study were estimates of  “opportunity cost CO2e emissions”.  The opportunity cost arises by developing less-efficient energy sources (nuclear, coal-ccs).

The time necessary between planning and operation of different energy plants unsurprisingly skewed toward renewables: wind, tidal, wave, solar-photovoltaic, CSP and ethanol plants typically come on-line within 2-5 years.  That makes their inclusion into the country’s energy portfolio very appealing.  Coal takes 6-11 years (no large-scale CCS project has come on-line yet) and nuclear takes 10-19 years.

So aside from a shorter time between planning a plant and having the plant become operational for renewables, is there another good reason to develop those sources rather than non-renewables?  Absolutely.  Wind over land can provide more than 3 times the amount of energy globally than what is used today globally.  Solar over land can provide more than 24 times the amount of energy globally than what is used today globally.  Combined, 29 times as much wind and solar power is available than is currently used.  That completely debunks a major talking-point used by the fossil-fuel industry: there isn’t enough renewable energy to power our current way of life, so fossil fuels have to be used.  Wrong.  The only choice for out future are renewable energy sources.  There is no other reasonable message from this study.

The study does a very good job of pitting every energy source against each other through multiple evaluations.  By some standards, wind is the best.  Others indicate CSP, or wind and tidal energy.  When every evalution is combined into a final analysis though, wind and CSP come out on top.  More importantly, renewables are clearly shown to be the preferential energy sources in our future.  They are less costly in many respects than any of the competing fossil fuels.  No more public tax dollars should be spent on coal, natural gas, oil or nuclear.  Those industries are mature and their true costs to society are not factored into their usage.

We can no longer promote burning fossil fuels over developing renewable energy resources.  The climate system is changing rapidly before our eyes – in many cases heading towards abrupt changes that are irreversible in any time-frame humans deal with.  We must change our habits and our approaches today.

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The Renewable Energy Finance Act of Colorado

From a press release sent out Monday by CO State Sen. Morgan Carroll’s office:

The 2009 legislative session will open tomorrow at 10:00 with an onslaught of new bills.  Among them will be the Renewable Energy Finance Act of 2009 introduced by Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) and Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder).

Colorado has been described as the Saudi Arabia of Solar and Wind, yet average homeowners can scarcely afford to participate.

This bill facilitates four different financing options that allow monthly payments:

1.  3rd party lease agreements;
2.  bank loans;
3.  credit union;
4.  mortgage

These loans or payment plans can be used for:

1.   solar;
2.   geothermal;
3.   wind or
4.   energy efficiency upgrades

for residences or businesses.

This measure will bring investment capitol to Colorado, make alternative energy upgrades more affordable for hundreds of thousands of people and create new jobs.

“Access to renewable energy should not just be for the rich.  We can create many good-paying jobs and finally give access to the renewable revolution to thousands of energy-conscious Coloradans.”, said Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora).

It’s good to see this bill being announced at the beginning of the 2009 legislative session.  Sen. Carroll is one of the best progressive legislators I’m aware of; it’s encouraging to see Rep. Levy of Boulder join this effort.  Coloradans want and need to install renewable energy infrastructure.  It pays for itself over a reasonable time frame and every ton of CO2 we don’t pollute into the atmosphere is a little less forcing of our climate.  The biggest problem has been the up-front costs of purchasing renewable energy systems.  If Colorado can make that hurdle a little easier to get over, everybody benefits.  This effort will end up expanding the renewable energy industry, which will create good paying jobs – exactly what needs to happen in the awful recession we’re facing.

Democrats control both houses of the Colorado state legislature – so this bill should be passed.  I expect Gov. Bill Ritter to sign it – this fits neatly into his New Energy Economy project.  More details to come as the bill becomes available and makes its way through the process.

Sen. Carroll asked for input in this SquareState diary.

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Pickens and Schultz: Wind, Natural Gas and Climate Change

So T. Boone Pickens has a new commercial about his grand plan to save us from foreign oil. Wind power is his leading pitch, which given the source should worry all of us. What he’s not touting too loudly in his commercials is the switch from oil to natural gas. And there are reasons he’s not proudly trumpeting that part of it. He’s one more ultra-rich conservative who is trying to make even more money off the rest of us and is too cowardly to fully explain everything up front publicly. Sure, he keeps pointing folks toward his plan on his website. How many people are going to check it out though? What he’s selling on-air and what his plan actually includes are too close to two different things to sell me on it.

Today, Ed Schultz talked extensively about the commercial and the subject. It sounded to me like Ed is ready to take Pickens’ proposal and run with it. His stance is founded from the thought that weaning ourselves off of foreign oil is worth implementing Pickens’ plan. I can respect Ed for having his opinion, but I’m going to share why I think it’s misguided. Here’s the main thrust: are we overly dependent on foreign oil? Yes. Is that the biggest problem facing us this century? Not by a long shot. Climate change easily dwarfs whatever discomfort we’re currently feeling with the price of gas. We currently have the choice to adjust to higher gas prices. Climate change will leave us with an decreasing list of choices to make. And the longer we wait before we tackle it with everything we’ve got, the more expensive in financial and sociological terms it will be.

The wind energy portion of Pickens’ plan is a good idea. Everybody should be climbing on the bandwagon to increase renewable energy development, in both large and small projects. Of course, the larger the better.

It’s the natural gas portion of his plan that makes absolutely no sense. Why would we shift natural gas from electricity generation to transportation? There are two huge problems with the concept. One, natural gas is burned with 3-4X more efficiency in electricity generation than it would in vehicles. Using natural gas for transportation would just waste most of it (80-85%). Based on this then, natural gas should replace dirtier kinds of electricity generation. Coal is the dirtiest form currently used. A moratorium on new coal plants should be implemented nationally. Any plants that are new or would replace a coal plant should produce fewer dangerous emissions. Natural gas is a positive step in that direction. It’s not the final destination by any means, but it would help lower the rate of CO2 emissions going into the climate system in the short- to medium-term future.

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