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An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Tue Dec 08, 2009 6:19 am

I will call him "Gaston." We have been discussiong energy issues and politics via facebook and that venue has some limitations so I would like to respond to him here. It would be unfair for me to post his comments out of context but we are discussing how transitioning to electic power (nuclear specifically) could help us become less dependent upon fossil fuels. He has graciously given me his plan. Below is my response.

Gaston,

I can not claim to be from Missouri but I have always had a good time when visiting and have adopted a “Show Me” attitude to our political parties. I do not trust either of them.

As far as who is willing to actually do what, we need to look at what state governments are doing. I have been following developments of offshore wind in Maine (Dem government and help from a very Republican private citizen Matt Simmons).

Maine Wind Project

This is a news story on the very first installment on a much larger plan. If you would like I can find an interview with Simmons talking about the larger project. It is by far the most ambitious I have ever heard and it is being done in a Blue state with the support of Red money. That is something I can believe in because I can see it and it is not partisan.

Likewise if we look at where wind farms have been built (as a proxy for where there is political will and public/private money) we will see that while they cross red, blue and purple states they are absent in the South East, the heart of the modern Republican party.

Image

To be fair, I will add that the South East is a pretty poor place to try to make wind power.

Image

But there is the problem that we tend to discount what we cannot see and that is why I am skeptical about the southeast supporting wind in the rest of the nation and the SouthEast is important to any Republican candidate. This is not to say that I think wind is the only solution; I am only trying to talk to why I do not trust either party. One is, at least, trapped in its rhetoric. Other than John McCain’s nuclear proposal I am hard pressed to remember any time a national candidate has made it an issue. Perhaps you can point me to more? I know the heritage foundation has supported the idea but that is not the same thing as communicating and selling it to the public.

I must confess that I have more faith in local initiatives than I do national ones. That is not saying much, however.

But to the heart of your argument, what I call the French solution articulated another way. I was surprised and heartened at the place you give to the national government. I must confess that I did not expect such a statist solution. I think it would provide many of the things that we need to move forward. I will only point out some places that I think it might need further explanation or expansion. As I close I may allow myself to become a little more pessimistic, and you will see why I think we have already wasted too much time for even the best of plans pull us out of the situation we find ourselves in.

1)How to pay for the funding of nuclear plants. Does the government cut a check or how do you see the funding working. At ~9 billion a pop this is not a small matter but neither is it insurmountable.

2)Will the libertarians really buy into support mandated transitioning? This seems like a pretty big pill to swallow. What kind of public education is required to get them to buy into the idea? Will this be "government seizing the electrical grid."

3)Cash for electric cars: sounds good. I know some people who would lead the way in buying them. We do have a problem with battery technology however. Today’s technology uses a lot of rare earth metals. They are rare. They pretty much come from Chinaand China is moving toward limiting their export at some level I believe we would need to move toward the electrification and diversification of how we move people. More electric trains and trollies etc…

4)Then there is the cultural problem. This is not a small cultural shift for America. Who will tell us that the way we commute must change? It would have more weight if it came from a Republican and I would support him or her if they carried the torch (heck, I will write a check for them and I have never written a check to a pol in my life) but I am not hopeful when I hear the grassroots ridicule of Carter and his MEOW speech and wool sweater.

5)We would also have a real problem in Jevon’s paradoxso as we move away from gasoline as a transportation fuel it might become cheaper (this depends on if we get ahead of the depletion curve). In other words the more successful we are the more we might undermine our own success. This is one thing that has made it difficult for Picken’s planI love a powerful engine. Many other Americans do as well. If we are to avoid a whipsaw of public opinion I would suggest we need to set a minimum price on transportation uses of oil (gasoline and diesel) which is artificially and painfully high. If it could move up over time, that would be even better. It is not enough that we make electric cheaper but there must be an expectation that petroleum will continue to be more expensive.

6)The grid will need to be upgraded and hardened. Not only will we need additional capacity to move all of those electrons we will also but we will be even more dependent upon those electrons. The absence of transmission lines is what killed (or at least paused) Picken’s ambitious plan. The grid as it stands is a very soft target to Mother Nature, human error and malicious attack. It already needs a lot of investment and the more we depend upon it the more vital that investment becomes. That will also need to be paid for. We will need to figure out who and how.

Honestly, I do not expect either party to act soon enough or fast enough to deal with the problem in a systematic, thought out manner. There will be a lot of flailing and blaming whenever the reality of depletion becomes undeniable. Cantrell has shown us the worse edge of what we can expect at a depletion rate of 25 - 30%. Saudi practices are closely guarded secret so at least you and I have no way of knowing how they have managed their fields and what kind of depletion rate to expect. I will not reiterate its finding but the Hirsch Report deals with the need to start early to avoid major dislocations if we are to mitigate peak oil. It is too late to start early.

Image

Frankly, owing to the volume that we import even a slow depletion would be devestating. At five years from ground breaking to electricty generation we can not afford to get behind the curve of depletion. Assuming a middle of the road depletion (or optimistic) rate of 6% we would be at 73.4% of peak supply before the first reactor came on line. And the building would have to be done at a time of great economic contraction caused by the decreased supply so you can see why I am pessimistic. On paper I think your plan could work at least if we had started even a decade ago. The problem is we don't even have plans to start tomorrow.
Last edited by wisconsin_cur on Tue Dec 08, 2009 6:25 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby FoolYap on Tue Dec 08, 2009 10:24 am

People like your friend will not be happy when their electric rates continue to rise, and the cost of gasoline continues to squeeze their budgets. I suspect the usual goats will be trotted out to blame: "Eco-nazis", "Algore", "high taxes", "speculators", and so forth.

America has largely, so far as I can tell by what I hear people around me saying, already dismissed $4-$5 gasoline as a fluke, an artificial spike caused by evil commodities speculators. This current relative slump in prices for gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, etc should be viewed as the perfect time to spend money on efficiencies: Insulate the house, downsize the car, etc. Except for people in forums like these, I know almost no one doing that, and those doing it have always been interested in wringing more efficiency (read: reducing their recurring costs) out of their budgets, as opposed to being worried that we're headed back to high prices for fuels.

I see the next couple of decades as likely to be a time of real pain. I'm not sure we'll react well to it, and do what's needed, rather than complain and agitate uselessly.

--Steve
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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Tue Dec 08, 2009 11:16 am

To be fair, Gaston has never posted here and I would not infer too much of his position from my response. I am sure I would make a mess of it if I tried to lay out his position and I do not feel right publishing it here.

He has been helpful to me in the past, helpful in pointing out that perhaps I did not know as much as I thought I knew; so I am careful not to sell him short, even though we disagree on this issue at this moment. As the future unfolds, no doubt people will be upset, not understand, scapegoat and otherwise muck up the process; I have argued that point many times myself.

But what is true of populations need not be true of individuals. that is why we often try to educate on peak oil even after some bad experiences, especially those pre 2008 experiences when denial was the most thick. "They" will probably not react in time. "This person," however, might begin to make "other arrangements."

So I hear what you're saying Steve and I agree with it. If Gaston pops in, however, I would not automatically assume it is true of him.
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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby FoolYap on Tue Dec 08, 2009 12:30 pm

wisconsin_cur wrote:So I hear what you're saying Steve and I agree with it. If Gaston pops in, however, I would not automatically assume it is true of him.


No worries; I don't get angry over people denying what appears to be going down in any case. I just wish people were better informed.

No, strike that. I really wish people were more willing to inform themselves. It's not like the information's not out there. Most people don't look for any of it. I'm sometimes astounded at how much information is freely available to us moderns, and how few people avail themselves of any of it.

--Steve
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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby TWilliam on Tue Dec 08, 2009 12:50 pm

I get the impression that a good deal of your dialog with 'Gaston' revolves around nuclear generation build-out. I'm not up to digging for it, but I seem to recall that back in the early days of PO the wholesale nuke option was examined pretty closely and was found to be untenable due to the fact that widescale adoption would result in 'peak uranium' in a very short period of time - like a couple decades or so if memory serves...
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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Tue Dec 08, 2009 6:37 pm

I recalled that also (or reading is somewhere) but decided to leave it as an assumption; "even if the supply of Uranium is ample..." if only because I just had some doubt given breeder reactors or some such... I figured I took up enough space as it was...
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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby FoolYap on Tue Dec 08, 2009 6:43 pm

TWilliam wrote:I get the impression that a good deal of your dialog with 'Gaston' revolves around nuclear generation build-out. I'm not up to digging for it, but I seem to recall that back in the early days of PO the wholesale nuke option was examined pretty closely and was found to be untenable due to the fact that widescale adoption would result in 'peak uranium' in a very short period of time - like a couple decades or so if memory serves...


I've read favorable things said of thorium as an alternate fuel. I think the reactor technology is somewhat proven, though apparently not recently in commercial operation. It's a more plentiful fuel than uranium. So, Peak Radioactives may be somewhat more distant than you fear.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium wrote:Thorium, as well as uranium and plutonium, can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. Although not fissile itself, 232Th will absorb slow neutrons to produce 233U, which is fissile. Hence, like 238U, it is fertile. Theoretically thorium is a more suitable fuel source than uranium. It is at least 4-5 times more abundant in nature than all of uranium isotopes combined and is fairly evenly spread around Earth, with many countries having large supplies of it. Also, preparation of thorium fuel does not require a difficult and expensive enrichment process. The thorium fuel cycle mainly creates Uranium-233 which can be used for making nuclear weapons, and since there are no neutrons from spontaneous fission of U-233, U-233 can be used easily in a gun-type nuclear bomb[14]. In 1977 a light-water reactor at the Shippingport Atomic Power Station was used to establish a Th232-U233 fuel cycle. The reactor worked untill its decommissioning in 1982.[15][16][17] Thorium can be and has been used to power nuclear energy plants using both the modified traditional Generation III reactor design and prototype Generation IV reactor designs.


Albeit, that says nothing about whether it's feasible to build enough reactors (even assuming we could start today) quickly enough to offset the fossil fuel depletion curves.

--Steve
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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby FoolYap on Tue Dec 08, 2009 6:43 pm

TWilliam wrote:I get the impression that a good deal of your dialog with 'Gaston' revolves around nuclear generation build-out. I'm not up to digging for it, but I seem to recall that back in the early days of PO the wholesale nuke option was examined pretty closely and was found to be untenable due to the fact that widescale adoption would result in 'peak uranium' in a very short period of time - like a couple decades or so if memory serves...


I've read favorable things said of thorium as an alternate fuel. I think the reactor technology is somewhat proven, though apparently not recently in commercial operation. It's a more plentiful fuel than uranium. So, Peak Radioactives may be somewhat more distant than you fear.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium wrote:Thorium, as well as uranium and plutonium, can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor. Although not fissile itself, 232Th will absorb slow neutrons to produce 233U, which is fissile. Hence, like 238U, it is fertile. Theoretically thorium is a more suitable fuel source than uranium. It is at least 4-5 times more abundant in nature than all of uranium isotopes combined and is fairly evenly spread around Earth, with many countries having large supplies of it. Also, preparation of thorium fuel does not require a difficult and expensive enrichment process. The thorium fuel cycle mainly creates Uranium-233 which can be used for making nuclear weapons, and since there are no neutrons from spontaneous fission of U-233, U-233 can be used easily in a gun-type nuclear bomb[14]. In 1977 a light-water reactor at the Shippingport Atomic Power Station was used to establish a Th232-U233 fuel cycle. The reactor worked untill its decommissioning in 1982.[15][16][17] Thorium can be and has been used to power nuclear energy plants using both the modified traditional Generation III reactor design and prototype Generation IV reactor designs.


Albeit, that says nothing about whether it's feasible to build enough reactors (even assuming we could start today) quickly enough to offset the fossil fuel depletion curves.

--Steve
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Re: An open letter to my friend

Permanent Linkby Gaston on Tue Dec 08, 2009 7:14 pm

Hmmm....

First, congratulations on a rather well-done site. Second, I apologize ahead of time for not following-up to responses to this post, I simply came as an invite to read responses to a post on another site.

I'll do the best that I can here:

1.) New nuclear plants can be funded the same way toll roads are funded: a small user fee for the duration of time it takes to pay off the government subsidy/loan. I see no relevant political ideology that would feel slighted by this arrangement.

2.) "The libertarians" is broad-brushed. If you refer specifically to the problematic Fiscal Libertarians in the US GOP, they will likely need to be assured that private sector involvement, investment, and profit will be at the forefront of the plans. In a sense, the government already has seized the electrical grid, and I do not see steering the fuels used in developing electricity in the same way I would see the nationalization of the energy industry - and I am right-of-center.

3.) Battery technology has improved faster than (I believe) any other technology relevant to the energy conversation, especially when it comes to recycling of the metals used in even the older technologies. Vehicles, as opposed to burnt energy, will also be considerably more finite in number. Electric trains and trollies won't be as much on an issue here in the U.S. as will electric semi trucks.

4.) The cultural problem: This will be an issue with any change. However, we've done pretty well requiring cars to get emissions checks regularly, and making folks buy more environmentally-friendly formulations of gasoline. We've also made requirements of appliance providers, et al. I think the difference is time of transition, and compatability with the free market. As an example, if we were told tomorrow that every car on the road has to be 50 MPGs or better by the end of 2011, it would simply not happen. However, if we were told that buying a vehicle 50 MPGs better than our current vehicle would result in a tax credit of 60% of the car's purchase price, we'd buy them in spades. Look at the success of the short-lived "Cash for Clunkers" program - yes, it was flawed, but a more serious application of the idea would also bring patrons.

5.) Gasoline prices, at least in the U.S., have not had the elastic effect one would want from a price increase, even a drastic one. Without an alternative to tap at a cheaper price to make gasoline comparatively uneconomical, it will only make the poor poorer. Raise the price drastically, by all means - do it in the name of supply and demand; but not until there is another option reasonably avaiable to all.

6.) The grid is an infrastructure problem under any circumstance, with any power supply or fuel. It is, however, like roads, an actual infrastructure problem and can be addressed in the same way. I would suggest a move of price that reduces the tax money from this utility (mostly allocated for other projects), replaced instead with an increased infrastructure fee to make-up the difference. At worst, like roads sometimes, some funding may need to come from government coffers for infrastructure. Funding necessary infrastructure is viewed differently on the right from funding, say, Day Care or ACORN.

Finally, I agree that getting things done seems to be a low priority, which is why I am skeptical of many of the "peak <insert noun> is coming in February!" alarmism. Take Copenhagen - do the would-be Plutocrats with their 1,200 limos and 140 private jets act like they REALLY believe private jets and CO2 emissions are going to fry the planet inside of a generation? Not from my standpoint. If our politicians REALLY believe we're going to run dry of black gold in short order, where are their electric cars (Congress), simple and green homes (Al Gore), and relentless demand for funding new energy supplies of all stripes?

From a right-of-center perspective, let me tell you: we see a great deal of push for Socialism in as many ways as possible, as quickly as possible - but very few follow-throughs on funding for modern technology nuclear plants (Argonne National Lab down here as well as Exelon nuclear have made tremendous strides with nuclear renewability and great strides in Pyrochemistry), new technologies, or alternative fuels. We also see a deliberate effort to thwart discovery and tapping of oil reserves - a strange effort if supplies are currently on the brink. We look at it this way: if you have a well of water, and you think the well of water is going to dry up someday, you go out and try to find a new source of water. In the meanwhile, however, you drink from your well. Just consider the well "energy." Yes, fossil fuel supplies are by definition finite; but as we transition to new technologies, we should still tap the avaiable current well(s), and even find new ones.

So think of skepticism this way: actions speak louder than words. Whether it's the Copenhagen Plutocrats adding the CO2 emission into the air of several small countries, the messianic environmental figure (Al Gore) consuming the Carbon credits of 30 households in his luxury palace, the peak-oil-came-in-1976 folks doing everything legislatively and legally possible to thrwart the tapping of current reserves and discovery of new reserves, or the multitudes of Ted-Kennedy-esque energy moralists demanding no wind farm be built within eyesight of their castles, we are unconvinced that by their actions we should take their alarmist rhetoric seriously.

I also have a fair amount of optimism on technology. 100 years ago, oil was not the primary energy commodity is is now in such abundance. Nuclear power was basically unheard of, and solar power wasn't even a catch-phrase yet. 20 years ago, nobody really knew what a hydbrid car was. I suspect that 100 years from now, our primary energy sources are going to be considerably different, and more efficient. I cannot imagine coal and oil being the major blood in our energy veins in 2110.

Kudos on your site, once again!
Again, I apologize if this winds-up being my only post........
Gaston
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