Not In MY Backyard (NIMBY)

We have an energy problem.  At the end of the day, no energy source is free.  We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs.  We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace.  We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low.  In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.

Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce.  Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:

“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”

In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men.  Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England.  In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay.  More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country.  Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines).  In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.

Does anyone else see this?  We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there.  Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized.  The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe.  Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive.  Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.

If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there.  We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future.  We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future.  People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet.  People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so.  People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland.  Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts.  NIMBY is simply not sustainable.  If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.

What do we need?  We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon.   Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today.  We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890.  If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.


Coal, climate change, and our energy future

This Monday morning, I have one thing on my mind: coal.  Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons is ringing through the air:

“I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”

Why am I thinking about coal, you might ask?  It is not just Ford’s sweet voice.  In the December issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows examines efforts in China and the United States to create “clean coal.” To many environmentalists, that is a dangerous oxymoron.  You probably saw this ad, filmed by the Coen Brothers:

That ad was in response to ads like this, from General Electric:

Well, on one hand you have folks that say clean coal is impossible.  On the other hand you have General Electric saying that “coal is looking more beautiful every day.”  Who is right?  Well Fallows’ article gets to the heart of that question.  He identifies some of the basic math that makes coal inescapably part of our immediate energy future:

“Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source. The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”—and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much.”

An article today in the New York Times shows that China’s hunger for coal has now resulted in coal imports from Australia, the United States, Indonesia, Canada, Columbia, and South Africa; new mines are even being planned in Washington State.  Fallows interviewed Ming Sung, a geologist who worked in the United States for many years for the Department of Energy and Shell Oil, and now works in China for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force:

“People without a technical background think, ‘Coal is dirty! It’s bad, but will you turn off your refrigerator for 30 years while we work on renewables? Turn off the computer? Or ask people in China to do that? Unless you will, you can’t get rid of coal for decades. As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.”

Sung’s Clean Air Task Force is working to create partnerships between American and Chinese businesses to develop new technologies like underground coal gasification (UCG).  Here is a description of  UCG from the CATF:

“UCG processes coal where it lies, eliminating the environmental hazards of mining. In the process, coal is converted into a syngas through partial oxidation, creating the same reactions as surface gasifiers. The syngas generates “feedstocks” for several products, including electric power, chemicals, liquid fuels, hydrogen, and synthetic natural gas.  UCG allows for extensive pollution control and costs less to construct and operate than equivalent plants using surface gasifiers. The process has the potential to greatly enhance energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic competitiveness.”

In the United States, only one UCG plant is being constructed, the Texas Clean Energy Project, in Odessa, Texas.  However, in China, the development is occurring much faster.  In fact, development in all areas of energy research is occurring much faster:

‘In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,” a U.S. government official who works in China said. “Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese. “You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,” the official added. “The energy demand is going like this”—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—“and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.”’

So lets go back to the beginning.  How do we create a sustainable future, with sustainable energy consumption?  There are a lot of perspectives out there; I see them every day.  I happen have faith in the potential of nuclear power, whereas some of my colleagues would sooner eradicate nuclear power and rely on solar and wind.  The geologists and businessmen in Fallows’ article believe that coal is inescapably part of our future.  Who is right?

In part, I suppose, it depends on how you envision energy consumption developing, globally.  Coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and oil provide the majority of our energy today.  To stop using them, and rely exclusively on wind, solar, geothermal, and other developing clean energy possibilities, will require us to consume energy locally instead of systemically, and it will require us to reduce the scale of our consumption significantly.  More importantly, to get there, it will require time, energy, and financial investments on a significant scale.  Additionally, it will require a sea change in the way we live.  Alternatively, the people in Fallows’ article look for a game changing technology that will create a ‘clean coal.’  Similar to those efforts, Bill Gates and others are looking to the  next generation technology of Travelling Wave Reactors (TWR), which promise to produce almost zero waste with lower costs, a significant progression from 1960s nuclear energy technology.  The big problem in following either path seriously is that like our political gridlocks, we face ideological inflexibility in developing climate solutions.  Fallows identifies the problem we face in America:

“But China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct. The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.  The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will. “The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems. “No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else,” Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official who now writes the blog Climate Progress, told me. “It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.” The Chinese system as a whole has great weaknesses as well as great strengths. Its challenges, as I have reported so often in these pages, make the threats facing America look trivial by comparison. But its response to the energy challenge—including its commitment to dealing with the dirty, unavoidable reality of coal—reveals a seriousness about facing big problems that America now appears to lack.”

The reality is that we need to look to everything: we need to reduce our energy consumption, become more efficient, increase the development of wind and solar, and pursue new technologies like UCG and TWR.  With growing energy consumption globally, with the coming age of electric vehicles, we will need to have all of the solutions we can get our hands on.  There is no one Holy Grail here.  We need strict environmentalists to work with climate change denialists, and everyone in between, to increase investment in new technology, to increase efficiencies, to guard precious resources like rare earth metals, and to reduce the throughput of energy and resources in our economy.  We need to get over our disagreements and find common ground, pronto.  Clean coal?  I am willing to embrace the possibility.


Power to Save the World

Nuclear power was never an emotional issue for me.  Personally, I know the general theory of nuclear reactions, and have friends in the Nuclear Navy, an institution I always respected and valued.  I grew up near Harrisburg, PA, where the Three Mile Island Reaction #2 melted down.  So, you could say I was aware of both nuclear power’s advantages and dangers.

Nuclear power is, as always, in the news.  Last year Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant in Vernon, VT, discovered an underground leak of tritium, a low-level byproduct of nuclear plants.  Tritium did not get into drinking water or the Connecticut River, but it was close.  I go to school near the plant, and when I heard about the tritium leaks, I did not understand what tritium was, but assumed that it was bad.  However, when I looked over some of the critical data being used by environmentalists to oppose the extension of the plant license beyond 2012, I could not make heads or tails of it.  It looked bad.  Entergy Corp., based in Louisiana, did not seem to be running the 38-year-old plant in a safe manner.

Recently I read environmentalist icon Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist’s Manifesto, and I was struck by his unflinching support of Nuclear power.  Brand is best known as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was designed to market goods and tools to counter-cultural, back-to-the land people in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Brand’s new book begins with an update: “We are gods and we HAVE to get used to it.”  Nuclear power is one of the tools that he prescribes to battle the big problem of our day, anthropogenic-induced global warming.  Brand says of nuclear power, like other technologies that environmentalists often fear, that “those who know the most fear the least.”

Well, despite my background, I felt that I had a lot to learn about nuclear power.  Brand recommended a book by journalist Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.  My trimester break, which ends Friday, seemed the perfect opportunity to take Brand’s challenge.   Cravens is a novelist and a journalist, and she tells the story of nuclear power in a very clear and persuasive manner.  She grew up in Albuquerque, near the home of the atomic bomb.  In the 1980s she was an anti-nuclear protestor, and helped prevent a Long Island nuclear plant from opening.  However, she met a man that helped change her mind about nuclear power.

Cravens follows Rip Anderson around the world of nuclear power.  Anderson is a scientist with Sandia National Laboratories, and an environmentalist.  He is a world-renowned nuclear safety expert, so impressive that the Soviet government selected him to head a team of scientists examining Chernobyl after the meltdown there.  The book follows the journey of nuclear power, from old uranium mines in New Mexico, to working plants in the Carolinas, to the Yucca Mountain National Repository and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).  I encourage everyone to read this book.

Like many environmentalists I am an advocate of alternative energy like wind, solar, and hydropower.  However, only nuclear power can replace coal, because only nuclear can provide reliable baseload.  In fact, compared to nuclear power, coal is much more dangerous.  You wouldn’t think it, but coal, which provides over half of our electricity in the United States, exposes people to more low-level radiation than a nuclear plant; a 1000-megawatt coal plant freely disperses 27 metric tons each year, in fact.  On top of that, coal plants are the leading polluter of mercury.  Coal plants are not regulated like nuclear plants are, and that is why I would much rather live near a nuclear plant than a coal plant.

Cravens debunks misconceptions about radiation, waste, terrorism and safety.  It was heartening to know that after living through the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the design of the plant made up for poorly trained operators and prevented any harm to Pennsylvanians.  Next generation nuclear plants also offer great technological advantages that will help to make nuclear power even more safe and efficient.

Much controversy in nuclear power revolves around a hypothesis known as Linear Non Threshold (LNT).  It is the assumption that the known health effects from high doses of radiation “may also be occurring at the same rate – or perhaps even a higher rate, in the low-dose realm.”  In other words, this hypothesis states that radiation affects humans in a linear fashion, to the lowest possible dose.  However, of a recent survey of 1,737 Department of Energy scientists, only 36% subscribe to this hypothesis.  The majority believes that below a certain threshold, radiation does not affect the body.  However, LNT underlies regulations about the management of nuclear plants and nuclear waste facilities.  Low-dose radiation studies, which Anderson and many others in the industry advocate, may occur soon.  Those studies will tell us a lot about the future of nuclear energy.

Just learning about all the naturally occurring background radiation gave me a lot of perspective.  Now, when I look over the information about the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee, it no longer gives me pause.  Sure, Vermont Yankee is an aging plant, and Entergy Corp. could have been more forthcoming with information about the plant, but that does not mean that a coal plant would be preferable to Vermont Yankee.  This book deserves your attention.