Sunday, November 1, 2009

What the Energy Horizon Will Look Like


Paul K. Haeder

Coal and Nuclear: Problem or Solution? E-2 Series, Energy

[Photo above -- Boy with silver caps because of rotting teath caused by chemicals in water from coal mining in USA's south.]

This E-Squared episode is long on two or three wonks discussing the benefits of a world wrapped around coal-fired electricity generating plants and nuclear reactors splitting atoms for our daily electricity needs. Here are a few topics broached in the film.

  • Pebble bed modular reactors
  • carbon capture and storage
  • gassification
  • permeability highways
  • mini-nuclear plants, modular style
  • FutureGen experimental coal carbon capture, carbon burial plant
  • 60 percent government, 40 percent private investments for Big Coal

In a time when carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are these huge looming issues of our time -- tied to global warming and what scientists see now as the only guard rail -- no more than 2 degrees Celsius warming for the planet, as the upper limit for global temperature increases in the next 50 years -- all sorts of designs and programs and solutions are coming forth as ways to look at using up the 600 years of coal the earth has without all the so-called emissions damage as the burned by-product. Many don't see the horizon as so full of blue sky as many of those in this E-Squared episode do.

E-2 tries to tackle this huge subject, but it's 24 minutes of superficiality and interesting asides and technological dreaming, at best. WE know that if the USA doesn't use it (coal, oil, tar sands, uranium, etc.) then China and India will, and as an argument, that's a global loser; many of us are betting on a better plan for global action to pull down carbon emissions.
There are so many other things tied to feedback loops when discussing the climate change predicament -- tundra and permafrost melt, ocean currents shutting down, black soot, albedo effect waning, nitrogen cycle out of whack, acidification of the oceans, air and chemical pollution and public health, water peaking, food crisis.

It seems apropos that one person interviewed continued with the mantra -- save federal handouts for carbon free energy industries, and give that money to seed wind and solar companies, and pump up the disadvantaged companies working on next generation, experimental planning and agricultural designs, projects that have an afterlife beyond just renewable and alternative energy and fuels.

Fifty percent of electricity in in this country comes from coal plants, and that likely won't end with a bunch of people hoping big coal jumps ship.

And one-fifth of electricity comes from nuclear plants. Again, that industry is taking off again, and is gaining the ear of many politicians.

Will it take 10,000 wind turbines to equal one nuclear generating plant? Is nuclear power safe? Up to $1 trillion is invested in coal plants in the USA and China. USA is 1/4 of the world's economy and we use 50 percent of the gasoline. Will we be the solution makers for solving the problems we've largely created?

Let's begin the conversation. Until then, read other spins and points of view on coal and nuclear. Here are some pretty insightful articles and points of view questioning the so-called power of coal and nuclear energy to fuel world economies and cut down on CO2.


Federal Energy Supply R&D Expenditures, 1948-19985
Energy R&D Program
Total Federal Expenditure (2003 dollars); percent of total

Nuclear Energy
$74 billion

Fossil Fuels
$30.9 billion

$14.6 billion

Energy Efficiency
$11.7 billion

Nuclear proliferation is related to the civil application of nuclear power in the following ways:

· Nuclear power makes widely and innocently available all the key ingredients of do-it-yourself bomb kits (fissile materials and the technologies, knowledge and skills to produce and process them; new reactor types are much worse)

· Without civil nuclear power, these ingredients would be harder to get, more conspicuous to try to get, and politically far costlier to be caught trying to get, because the reason for wanting them would be unambiguously military.

Biofuels hoax

As the global energy/climate crisis deepens, coal has become the starkest symbol and most telling measure of our predicament. Coal produces more carbon emissions than other energy sources - more than twice that of natural gas per unit of energy output. Consequently, coal-fired power plants are responsible for about one-third of US emissions of carbon dioxide. Despite this, we are mining and burning more coal than ever.

In summary, the extent of economically recoverable uranium, although somewhat uncertain, is clearly linked to exploration effort, technology, and economics but is inextricably linked to environmental costs such as energy, water, and chemicals consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and broader social issues. These crucial environmental aspects of resource extraction are only just beginning to be understood in the context of more complete life cycle analyses of the nuclear chain and other energy options. There still remains incomplete reporting however, especially in terms of data consistency among mines and site-specific data for numerous individual mines and mills, as well as the underlying factors controlling differences and variability. It is clear that there is a strong sensitivity of energy and water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to ore grade, and that ore grades are likely to continue to decline gradually in the medium- to long-term. These issues are critical to understand in the current debate over nuclear power, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change, especially with respect to ascribing sustainability to such activities as uranium mining and milling.

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