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.
Apparently, Bill Gates is putting some of his vast fortune behind innovative nuclear reactors that by design lower cost and increase safety. The Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) is a design based on the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), successfully tested at the Argonne National Laboratory more than two decades ago. The beauty of the IFR and the TWR is that after the enriched uranium is consumed in the reactor, any waste plutonium is also consumed in the reactor process. The TWR is designed to run for a decade or more without being refueled, and produce almost zero waste. These new reactors run at a much higher temperature, and use liquid sodium as a coolant, rather than water. These reactors could make a big difference, but they need financial support to mature. Bill Gates is looking for a breakthrough “energy miracle:”
“To have the kind of reliable energy we expect, and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon, we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough. I certainly don’t want the government to only pick a few paths, because our probability of success is much higher if we’re pursuing many, many paths. Think about all the people who are getting up every day and working on solutions that may seem kind of delusional even though the odds against them are higher than they realize. The world needs all these people trying things out and believing in them. In IT, there were tons of dead ends — but there was enough of a success rate to have an unbelievable impact.”
The problem surrounding nuclear energy going forward is that people are afraid of nuclear power, but they don’t really understand it. Bill Gates, like Stewart Brand, is an energy realist. Brand, after reading Gwyneth Cravens‘ seminal work Power to Save the World, became a big supporter of nuclear power as one of the important pieces in our carbon-free energy future. The TWR is a key part of that future, described in depth in Cravens’ work. Gates’ support is a major boost, as opponents of nuclear power refuse to put money behind developing new technology.
Opponents make their assumptions based on old reactor technology and the mistaken Linear Non Threshold (LNT) hypothesis. LNT assumes that radiation effects the body in a linear manner through all levels of radiation; however, only 36% of 1,737 Department of Energy scientists subscribe to this hypothesis (in a recent survey). LNT underlies all regulations on nuclear safety, and is basically safety overkill.
This is exciting news. If you don’t understand nuclear reactors, and get all your information about nuclear power from opponents, take a look at Gwyneth Cravens’ Power to Save the world. Nuclear power can be a big part of our low-carbon energy future, if we give it a chance and continue to invest in new technology.