I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can't give up just yet
Now I sit up here
- Joni Mitchell, For the Roses (1972)
I'm not surprised that the Concorde flights were shut down. There were few things in life as useless as flying to Europe on that British French Supersonic Transport plane. It was great flying back from Europe on the Concorde, since there was a sense of arriving before you left, but basically flying to Europe was a real waste.
Think about it. You left New York in the early afternoon in this little aircraft and you raced into the darkness. There was nothing especially remarkable about the flight itself. On some level it was about as interesting as being on a bus, except of course there was reasonably good food and a choice of very nice wines.
There was a little indicator in the front of the cabin that digitally read out the speed of the aircraft in Mach units and the pilot came on and told everyone in French and in English when you broke the sound barrier but without the read out and the announcement, you really wouldn't know that. If you glanced occasionally at the speed indicator, you saw that most of the time the plane accelerated, then it reached cruising speed, a little over Mach 2, cruised for what seemed like 15 minutes and then began to decelerate until you landed.
A few hours after leaving you arrived in France but for your body it was still afternoon. The problem with that, of course, was that in the city where you arrived, it was close to midnight. Everything was shutting down even if you weren't.
The first time I flew on that plane - it was also my first time in France - I had already exhausted all of my reading materials by the time I landed. When I got to my hotel room in Paris, I tried the television, but my comprehension of spoken French was even worse back then than it is now. There were English language stations but there is definitely an upper limit to how much football (soccer) you can watch on Sky TV; and twenty minutes of CNN International is about as appealing as spending two days with a crazy relative suffering from an unfortunate mixture of echolalia, dementia, and Tourette's syndrome.
Rein a faire.
Somehow or another I survived, I guess. I'm still here.
The deal with the Concorde in those days was that Air France was giving you a free upgrade one way if you were an American and paid for a full business class ticket. The reason, as I understand it, was that the Concorde, its prestige aside, was an economic failure. There was no other way to fill the seats other than to give stupid American business class customers free upgrades. Given the risk of being wide awake and bored out of one's mind at midnight far away from home, I can see why the tickets didn't sell at full Concorde fare price. I certainly would never have dreamed of paying full Concorde fare which was some zillions of dollars even at a favorable exchange rate. At the time, I was working in a line of work where prestige was important and it's not like I could have told my boss that I refused to fly the Concorde, but hey, look - let's get real - I ate it up. The Americans who took advantage of this promotion - and I did it a few times - got to walk around telling everyone what big shots they were because they flew to Concorde. I still walk around telling everyone what a big deal I was because I flew on the Concorde.
But to tell you the truth, the nicest way to travel to France was to take a slower plane, business class or higher, late at night. You eat dinner, have a drink, put on the eyeshades - pop a soporific if you have one - sleep a few hours, wake up for breakfast, land, get through customs and go right to your business day. At midnight all hints of jet lag are gone. These are the kinds of things you learn to do.
Times were good. We did good business and I felt perfectly legitimate thinking that it would be next to impossible to fly to Europe in coach. I thought I was a valuable man. Pour le diner, je prends l'hommard s'il vous plait madame.
Later I got to fly to India in coach from Newark, Lufthansa through Frankfort. This happened when Lufthansa (oh the nerve) screwed up on the upgrade certificate for which I cashed in a few zillion miles. Actually the mismanaged upgrade improved me. I have no religious faith, but if I had such faith, I would have probably felt like that was God speaking to me, flying coach to India. I cannot recommend anything more for someone who is passing through one's life in a kind of stupor than traveling to India and seeing it from as low a perspective as is possible.
One look at the slums of Mumbai is enough to inform anyone who has not deliberately turned off his or her eyesight on what luxury is all about. Nothing was the same ever again. It would have been terrible if I had arrived there after sucking down wine from fifty dollar bottles.
Pour le diner, je prends la boue et aussi, les insectes.
Valuable men and women are somewhat rarer than is generally supposed, even among valuable men and women.
This is a diary about nuclear energy. All of my diaries are about nuclear energy more or less. So probably this would be a good point to say something about energy in India.
In India there are people who climb the polls and tap into live wires to steal (or some might say liberate) electricity. I am told that occasionally people are electrocuted in this business. Someone takes the body and someone else climbs the pole.
Here in New Jersey, I push the button on this computer and it comes on. If it doesn't come on, I get pissed off. Imagine that. I feel angry if denied the luxury of turning on the computer - something that gives me powers that even Julius Caesar couldn't imagine. It's pretty much the same thing with the light switch and the toaster oven and the water heater. I would never dream of taking a cold shower. If I want baked Somosas, I can whip them out of the electric freezer and into the electric toaster oven. I've been that way my whole life.
I've seen Mumbai too. I didn't just walk through it with my eyes turned off. I saw it.
I live in a country where for more than a century there has been an infrastructure to do this, to flip switches and demonstrate awesome powers that few in the preceding centuries could even imagine. In order to build this infrastructure, it was necessary for the United States (and other countries building such infrastructure) to import (among other things) a lot of rubber from places like
the Congo "Free" State, which was the private property of Leopold II.
The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.The use of rubber in electrical insulation during the initial construction of what would become the world's electricity infrastructure made Leopold II a very rich man.
In theory, each right hand proved a murder. In practice, soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die.
When I first heard the story of the severed hands, I heard it in a slightly different way than reported in the Wikipedia telling. The way I heard it was that the soldiers wanted fresh meat rather than canned meat, but bullets were expensive since they had to be imported from Belgium. So when soldiers cut off the hands of live people they were seeking to account for bullets that they had actually used for shooting water buffalo for meat. You could get in big trouble, the way I heard it, for shooting a water buffalo, especially when you were expected to shoot people. If you produced a hand - even the hand of a live person - you could prove that you could use the hand to prove that you had shot a person and not a water buffalo.
Plus ca change.
Of course it wasn't just electrical insulation that accounted for the rubber market. Modern technology had a lot of call for the products sold in rubber markets, tires and raincoats and toy balls and stuff like that, stuff that everybody needs.
The electrical infrastructure, how I love it! I really do, even though I know all about it. I know all about coal for instance. I bitch all the time about coal, but I would be very surprised to learn that the practices of the modern coal industry are in any way as bad as the practices of the rubber industry were just a century ago. I think. I hope.
I really liked flying on the Concorde coming back from Europe. When you would fly coming back from Paris you would chase the daylight. At mid day at maximum altitude and maximum velocity if you looked out the window you could really see the curvature of the earth, for real. That was as close to outer space as most people get.
The Concorde was an economic failure ultimately not because it impacted the earth's ozone layer every time it flew, but also because it was extremely wasteful with respect to fuel and expensive to maintain. I'm sure I knew about all these drawbacks back then in my jet setting executive days. I probably put all of that out of my mind. I thought of myself as a valuable man.
Sometimes I feel really curious about why people love so much to look at photographs of solar cells and windmills. There's something so...so...outdoorsy about it, I think. That's where people would like to think there electricity comes from, just like people would like to think that their choice sirloin filet mignon comes from a sparkling kitchen at Ruth Christ's Steakhouse and not from some manure filled feedlot that drains into some robotic slaughterhouse operated by unfortunate illegal immigrants from Honduras.
I love my infrastructure. I think I need it. Rubber, a wonderful biopolymer made it all possible.
I live in New Jersey. More than 50% of the electricity generated in New Jersey is generated by nuclear power but some of it isn't. Some of my electricity, a relative small portion, is generated by burning coal. I bitch all the time about coal. Coal. Coal. As of 2005, the latest year for which I have figures at my fingertips, 20% of the electricity was generated by coal. There is no reason to assume the figure is different today. Some of the electricity I am using to write this comes from coal. Also here in New Jersey, I bet we import electricity from coal burning plants in Pennsylvania.
Of course the situation is much worse elsewhere. Probably if coal were banned tomorrow we'd still have electricity here in New Jersey, at least for a part of the day, but there are many states in this country, say like Utah or West Virginia or Kentucky where the lights would more or less go out all the time. I'll bet if that were to happen a lot of people would be mad.
Having electricity is like having a whole bunch of slaves working for you without the whips. It would be hard to live without these invisible slaves. I think. Let me meander a bit more, as it is my wont to do. On the subject slaves, here's what Abraham Lincoln said about slaves when, near its end, he sought to summarize the causes of the American Civil War:
These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest.(Speaking of Civil War, did you know that in 1977 Ralph Nader predicted that if all the nuclear power plants in the United States were not shut down in five years there would be another civil war?)
Many Americans who held slaves, Thomas Jefferson for instance, knew deep down that slavery was a criminal wrong. Still Jefferson never manumitted his slaves with the possible exception of those who were his children - and he only freed his children after they had lived as slaves for a long time. He stole all of the fruits of their labor and, as we now know from DNA evidence, almost certainly used one of his slaves - his late wife's half sister it turns out - for sexual gratification. Historians have said all sorts of terrible things about the slave, one going so far as to suggest that the slave, Sally Hemmings, was like a prostitute who "came on" to Jefferson. Blame the victim. Sally Hemmings was 14 years old when she went to Paris with Jefferson when he served as United States Ambassador to France. (There is a plaque on the Champs Elysee where Jefferson lived - Hemmings is not mentioned.) When Sally Hemmings wasn't serving Jefferson sexually she was cleaning out his chamber pots. He owned her. She had no power. She was compelled to do whatever Jefferson ordered her to do. Today I think we all realize that it would have been better for Jefferson's historical reputation if he had acted on his moral sense rather than his personal and fiscal comfort with respect to slavery and its fruits.
About the coal plants. They constitute a peculiar and powerful interest. They exist. If the United States decided to shut them down in the next five years the lights would go out and a lot of power companies would fail financially and otherwise. This would make for a lot of pissed off people.
I come here saying that fossil fuels must be banned. Get real, you say, get real.
There are very few Americans who would agree to turn off their power in the next five years or even in the next ten years or even twenty years from now. There are zero politicians in this country who would dare even to propose such a thing. The problem with this is that our power in this country mostly comes from coal. Some of our politicians - and some of them are Democrats - who argue that we should use more coal not only to generate power but to make synthetic oil. Barack Obama says this for instance. (I'm starting to like him less and less.) I say I think coal and oil should be banned.
I drive in cars.
A few years ago, Al Gore was running around the country saying that we may have ten years to act on climate change. Al Gore is now undergoing a period of rising expectations wherein people are beginning to regard him as being oracular. People now seem to believe that things are true just because Al Gore says them. However I think Al Gore can be wrong on occasion. For instance when he said a few years ago that "we may have only ten years to act," I think he was not making an accurate statement. I suspect that we had ten years left to act fifteen years ago, but not now. It might already be too late and the ten years business might have been a lot of wishful thinking, sort of like the idea that a bunch of tax credits are going to put a zillion solar roofs on buildings in New Jersey and California and solve all of the world's climate change problems.
If you are reading a NNadir diary for the first time, you may not know how smug I am. I act like I know all the answers. I can be pretty glib about it too. Among the glib things I say, I often seem to imply that it would be easy to ban coal. "Ban coal!!!" I scream all of the time as if just saying it would be enough.
In the opening of this piece, I quoted the rock poet Joni Mitchell who in this case was singing a song that was critical of the rock star life that she was herself living in 1972. Of course, she could have become a nun at any time, just as NNadir could shut down his computer that is partially powered by coal. We guess we seem ungrateful with our teeth sunk in the hand that brings us things we really can't give up just yet.
Let's get real: I would howl like a baby if my power went out right now because someone decided we had to shut down every coal plant in North America right away. I don't want to be impoverished like some guy in Mumbai. God forbid. Also trillions of dollars in investment - represented by the coal plants themselves - would need to be destroyed. Who is going to pay for this? NNadir? As it happens I don't have trillions of dollars.
I have a lot of sympathy for the people I saw in Mumbai and on the road between Mumbai and Hyderabad and along side the tracks. But let me tell you something about sympathy. It is a basic human emotion that is a little self absorbed, because on a very deep level it works like this: "What if that were me?" One of the simplest ways to make lots of people in the United States into the financial equivalents of the people who live in the slums of Mumbai would be to turn off the electricity.
Another of the smug things I do is to ridicule all of the options to address climate change that are not nuclear power. I claim, for instance, that Jesus, Joseph and Mary could not make solar electricity produce a single exajoule per year (of the 470 exajoules of world energy demand) within ten years. I wouldn't mind being proved being wrong, I say, but even if by some miracle comparable with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, solar energy did produce an exajoule, there would still be almost 500 exajoules to go that would not be produced by solar energy. I say that it would be thrilling if wind energy could produce as much energy as hydroelectricity (10 exajoules) in the next twenty years but that on the other hand I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for it to happen.
But if you really want to see me ridicule something, try out my remarks on sequestration.
Over the last several years I have been visiting a book in a certain library near here. The name of the book is Carbon Dioxide Chemistry: Environmental Issues. (Ed. Jan Paul Pradier and Claire Marie Pradier, Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 1994.) Here you can read about the thermodynamics of the hydrogenation of carbon dioxide to give methanol, for instance and discover that the Gibbs free energy of this reaction is - 9.1 kJ/mol, meaning that if you put a bunch of hydrogen and a bunch of carbon dioxide in a vessel and went away for a long time, maybe a few million years, when you came back, most of the carbon dioxide would be converted to methanol. If you don't want to wait for millions of years, you can add a catalyst, say one containing ruthenium supported on a mixture lanthanum oxide and nickel.
Don't do this at home. It generates a lot of heat, this reaction, and you might start a fire.
The book has a section all about how to capture carbon dioxide from flue gas from natural gas plants and coal plants, the kind of plants that people won't shut if they have to turn off their lights. There is a whole section on a bunch of really cool sterically hindered alkanolamines that are said to work better than good old fashioned monoethanolamine (MEA) for capturing carbon dioxide from coal and gas plants that would otherwise dump this dangerous fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere in unrestricted quantities. If you don't know what I am talking about when I say "sterically hindered alkanolamines" don't worry your sweet head about it. I have only a slightly better insight into the matter than you do. Although I know in general what an alkanolamine is, the particular alkanolamines in question are proprietary, meaning that they are a big secret held by the Mitsubishi Corporation and their smug corporate pals over at the Kansai Power Company. The Exxon company also has proprietary alkanolamines for removing carbon dioxide.
They've known about this stuff for more than ten years over at the Kansai Power Company and they've even built two pilot plants that use it, one at Osaka and one at Hiroshima to test these ideas out.
You've heard of Hiroshima, haven't you?
The plant at Osaka captures two metric tons of carbon dioxide per day. The plant at Hiroshima captures one metric ton per day. For comparison purposes, the amount of carbon dioxide released as dangerous fossil fuel waste on a planetary scale is about 74 million tons per day.
The Carbon Capture Pilot Plants in Japan. Note that these pilots have been operating for a long time and no one has built industrial scale versions of them. That should tell you something.
The theory is that after you remove this carbon dioxide from the flue gas, then you heat it to regenerate the carbon dioxide. Then you pump the carbon dioxide into a pressure vessel to liquefy it, and pipe it somewhere where someone finds a theoretical permanent repository. It sounds like a lot of work and it is. Because it is work, it involves more energy, meaning that you have to burn about a third as much more coal than you would have burned in the face place, more mining and more shipping costs and more shipping fuel.
Another company that published a nice long scientific article in this wonderful book that I visit is Exxon, as I've already mentioned. The article can be found in the book edited by the Pradiers referenced above on page 205. The article is entitled "Sterically Hindered Amines for Acid Gas Absorption," and the authors include some Exxon scientists named Sartori, Ho, Thaler, Chludzinski and Wilbur. Acid gases? Well yes, carbon dioxide is an acid which is why the pH of our oceans is dropping (and thus threatening most crustaceans) because of the dumping of dangerous fossil fuel waste into our atmosphere (where it interacts with our oceans every time a wave crashes.) Exxon says it has a wonderful product that was used (as of the writing of the article) in 31 industrial plants around the world.
"Let me get this straight," you say, "Exxon is funding research into materials designed to remove carbon dioxide from waste streams. Let me get this straighter. Isn't Exxon involved in a scientific doubt manufacturing game with respect to climate change that is reminiscent of the tobacco industries game of a generation ago?"
Well let's be clear on something from the get go. Yes Exxon sells chemical products for stripping carbon dioxide from waste streams. Presumably they make money at it too. But their reason for doing this is commercial. They have to remove carbon dioxide from natural gas because there is always some carbon dioxide found in natural gas. Thus even if you bribe lots of people - including those in high places in government - to deny the reality of global climate change, you still need to know how to separate carbon dioxide from various product and waste streams. Moreover you can always hope to sell the carbon dioxide to people who want it for various purposes.
As it happens Exxon sometimes buys carbon dioxide. They inject it into the earth to push oil out of the ground in some places, especially places where there's oil and not much water. In a spectacular bit of marketing, rebranding, and painting lipstick on a pig, and a dollop of circular reasoning thrown in, this scheme to push more fossil fuels out of the ground, some people like to represent that this scheme is called "carbon sequestration." I don't buy it. The best way to sequester carbon, I say, is to leave it in the ground in the first place.
I am so glib.
The Exxon carbon dioxide removal product is called Flexsorb. The Mitsubishi/Kansai carbon dioxide removal product is called KM CDR.
I've scanned the science behind the Exxon product and their writings about the stability of carbamates and the formation of bicarbonate salts and second order rate constants for amine - carbon dioxide interactions. It's good science, first rate. Of course, there are some among us who might be inclined to deny this science by considering the source, but if we are interested in separating carbon dioxide for say our favorite fantasies like say, sequestration, that would be a mistake. The stability of sterically hindered amine carbonate salts is not determined by whether the particular amine is present in an Exxon lab or whether the amine is in the laboratory of some good liberal (low paid) graduate student's laboratory. The stability is determined by the physical chemistry and nothing else.
These products are commercial.
A correspondent in my recent diary, The Nuclear Shill Apologizes kind of challenged me to use the same criteria that I use for wind and solar power when I engage in all my hand waving about the reduction of carbon dioxide to make motor fuels, like methanol and DME, including economics. (You can also reduce carbon dioxide and hydrogen to make gasoline - but I don't want to go there.)
As it happens - and this is true whether one is a capitalist pig tooling around on supersonic aircraft while waiting for the distribution of his Concorde Class Toiletries Kit, or a mother in Mali feeding her baby mud in the hope that there will be some nutritional value in any bugs and grubs it might contain - the economics of processes have real impact. So this is a legitimate challenge, especially because I say that all my nuclear shilling is about morality. To my mind we cannot address the needs of a Mali mother unless we have something to give her.
Anyway, my correspondent was right. I need to address economics. I'm not all that smart of course, and I think I have as much right to hand waving and appeal to "we need more research" blah blah blah as anyone else, but let me make a stab at this:
Here is a claim produced at a scientific meeting held a few years ago, describing a process called the Carnol Process which can be used to produce methanol from hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
At $18/bbl, oil, 90% refining gasoline yield and $10/bbl for refining cost, gasoline costs 0.78/gal, and methanol being 30% more efficient than gasoline, competes with gasoline at 0.57/gal methanol. Currently, the market for methanol is depressed because of over supply due to removal of mandatory requirements for MTBE oxygenation of gasoline.What is really amazing and amusing about this claim about economics is that it is based on costs of fossil fuels that are very much lower than costs today. This scientific meeting took place in 2000 and it is widely reported that it is now 2007.
In terms of the cost of reduction of CO2 from power plants, with $2?MSCF natural gas and a 0.555/gal methanol income the CO2 reduction cost is zero. At $3MCSF natural gas and 0.45/gasl income from methanol, the CO2 reduction or disposal cost is $47.70/ton CO2, which is less than the maximum estimated for ocean disposal. More interesting, without any credit for CO2 disposal from the power plant, methanol at 0.55/gal can compete with gasoline at 0.76/gas ($18/bbl oil) when natural gas is $2/MSCF. Any sale of elemental carbon reduces the cost for reducing CO2 emissions.
Source: M. Steinberg (Brookhaven National Laboratories) CO2 mitigation and Fuel Production. Chapter 2 in CO2 Conversion and Utilization, Chunshan Song, Anne Gaffney, Kaoru Fujimoto Eds, ACS Symposium Series 809, American Chemical Society, Washington, pg 34.
What's all this talk, though, about the price of natural gas? Well, as it turns out, right now, in spite of all the huge optimism about wind and solar and (in my case) nuclear energy, almost all of the world's hydrogen is made from natural gas.
What gives? Sigh... Sigh...
Here's some more stuff from that scientific meeting, which is all about something called DMC, dimethyl carbonate, a liquid that has certain utility as a fuel but is now made from extremely toxic compounds like the war gas phosgene and the extremely toxic methylating agent dimethyl sulfate.
There are some routes of DMC synthesis from CO2. The reaction of alcohols with urea is one potential route to carbonates: 2 CH3OH + (NH2)2CO = NH3 + (CH3O)2CO
Ammonia is recycled to produce urea by reaction with CO2.
Ref: Keiichi Tomishige et al, "Selective Conversion of Carbon Dioxide and Methanol to Dimethyl carbonate Using Phosphoric Acid-Modified Zirconia Catalysts." Chapter 5 in CO2 Conversion and Utilization, Chunshan Song, Anne Gaffney, Kaoru Fujimoto Eds, ACS Symposium Series 809, American Chemical Society, Washington, pg 72.
There is another synthesis route of DMC using carbon dioxide with ethylene oxide.
OK, enough techno babble. If this stuff is so great, why then aren't all of our problems solved?
Part of the reason is of course that people like to have a sure thing when they invest. Sure oil prices are high now, and sure there is public agitation to do something - something, anything - about climate change. But can people be sure it will work and that the conditions of profitability will prevail for a very long time. Further, everybody wants quick and painless profits that provide immediate gratification. God forbid that anyone do anything that takes a time and effort and hard work. That's not the way we do things now.
I say this often: "A conservative is a person who thinks nothing should be done for the first time."
I am not sure that a conservative person would have ever thrown much effort into nuclear technology. The entire concept was once just an egghead theory after all. The man who bet billions on the possibility of nuclear technology was not a conservative. He was, instead, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was a brave act to commit so much to what was just a theory. Of course, he did this in conditions of war and for warlike purposes, but the development of nuclear fission could still prove to be the greatest tool for peace that was ever invented.
There are a lot of reasons to do things the way you have always done them. One is laziness, another is fear, and a third is an unwillingness to invest in the future and a fourth is an unwillingness to believe in the possibilities.
It follows that people who change the way things are done must be dynamic, courageous, and willing to invest. With respect to investment the issue has something to do with the long term.
Caring about the long term, I say, is a signature liberal approach. Keeping things exactly the same is a conservative approach. Conservatives want everyone to believe that we can do things the same way forever. Liberals say we need new approaches.
That's the difference.
Anyway, the science of separating carbon dioxide from various streams (and there are ways, maybe, that we could consider the air to be such a stream) is well known. We understand that it is feasible but that it requires an energy investment. The reduction of carbon dioxide to give methanol - which can be used as a motor fuel - is also well known. Reducing carbon dioxide involves (in most schemes) hydrogen.
I say that the most promising way to make hydrogen is using nuclear energy. Some people get really, really, really mad when I say that, apoplectic really. They scream, "Nuclear shill! Nuclear shill!" They imply all sorts of things, like that I am not a liberal, for instance. Of course, it is - at least in my mind - something more of a liberal conceit to give two shits about that mother in Mali, I say. You can believe me or not. Consider the source..
I wanted some clarity on this nuclear shill issue, so as I described in a previous diary, a little over two weeks ago, I let the nuclear industry buy me lunch. They also gave me some very nice trade show trinkets and a wonderful golf shirt, even though I don't play golf and even though I have a huge pile of trade show trinkets from oodles of trade shows.
I also have a Concorde travel kit in my sock draw. It's probably a collector's item now. Maybe I could sell it on Ebay and get some money for it. I have actually flown the Concorde to go to a trade show. Because Air France gave me a travel kit - a trinket - I am now a Concorde shill. Thus anything I say about supersonic aircraft has to be considered in that light. Consider the source.
I hope the nuclear industry likes me, because I like them. They are in my imagination, the key to getting us out of this awful mess.
I had a gay friend one time who was telling me about the representations by the right wing that the reason he was gay involved a choice on his part. "Yeah right," he said, "I chose to have everyone hate me." This calls into question whether someone would choose to point out the importance and positive attributes of nuclear energy. It's lucky for me that I'm so arrogant and so mean, or else I might get personally depressed by all of this. There are lots of people who will question your motives if you support the expansion of nuclear energy. No one should support nuclear energy, people say, even if I prove in a zillion different ways if it's superior by a zillion percent to the choice to use coal and oil and natural gas. Why do these people say this then? Because they can. If you support nuclear energy as much as I do, people will call you names. You can bet on it.
Now it's time to cut to the chase and make some statements that are more general. Here are the points I am trying to make.
1. There is no reason to build new coal plants. It should be policy of governments around the world to indicate that there is going to be a carbon tax and that this tax is going to be commensurate with the external cost of climate change, a cost that is huge. Crap like they're trying to pull in Germany by saying that new coal plants will be exempt from consideration on this score needs to be reversed.
2. The taxes collected in these schemes should be directed taxes. The revenue should not be employed to fund the Iraq war, build bridges to nowhere, stabilize Social Security, build missile defense systems, or provide health care. All of the money should be directed to the creation of a safer energy infrastructure. (We will probably be pleasantly surprised to learn that a safer energy infrastructure will coincidently have benefits in unexpected areas like the need for war machinery and health care funding.)
3. Some of the money should be directed back to the utilities to pay for retrofitting their existing coal and gas plants to capture carbon dioxide.
I need to make a technical point here. We hear all about coal gasification, like it's some novel idea. Hardly. Coal is gasified when you burn it and the gas generated is carbon dioxide. All this crap about heating coal with steam to make hydrogen is window dressing. There is no reason to build IGCC anything. We want for the long term to move away from coal. One gas stream is enough.
4. Additional research into carbon dioxide capture should be strongly funded by the carbon tax, not with some vast sequestration fantasy in mind, but with an eye to providing carbon dioxide for industrial use. The main industrial use of carbon dioxide should be to provide carriers for the manufacture of fluid fuels like DME.
5. Carbon dioxide capture should be used for existing gas plants as well. The plan will be to fuel these plants with DME, meaning that they will be converted from primary energy conversion devices to energy storage devices available to meet peak loads and spinning reserve requirements.
6. Every coal plant that wears out should be replaced with a nuclear plant. As opposed to "grandfathering," a system of graduated emissions standards should be put in place that is consistent and across the board. We might say that a plant that now is allowed to release a million tons of carbon dioxide today will be required to meet a standard of only 500,000 tons five or ten years from now. If the plant can be retrofitted to meet this standard, subsidies from the carbon tax might be used to pay for such equipment. However if for some technical reason the plant cannot meet this standard, it should be shut. The size of these allowances should be tied to the observed external cost of climate change (costs that are likely to be huge) and the market for carbon dioxide.
7. The new infrastructure for industrializing carbon dioxide reduction to make fluid fuels - the oil phase out carbon dioxide - should be subsidized by funds from the carbon tax.
8. Now for an important point. The program for the capture of carbon dioxide will induce an thermodynamic penalty. If you capture carbon dioxide, you simply will need to consume energy, making less of the energy you produce available for sale. Thus the carbon dioxide capture will reduce this capacity. It is very, very, very important that this capacity not be filled simply by burning larger amounts of coal. The shortfall that will inevitably result from the use of this technology should come from new climate change free sources. This is the point where everyone rushes in saying "solar, wind, geothermal, etc, etc." I don't believe that any of these sources will be able to produce the exajoule quantities required, and therefore it is important to include realistic metrics in units of dollars per unit of energy and capacity utilization.
9. Now for the hydrogen. We must insist - again through the mechanism of a carbon tax - that hydrogen be produced through carbon free means. This leaves out all of the Fisher-Tropsch coal based stuff immediately. This means that we stop making hydrogen from natural gas. The only acceptable means of making hydrogen in my view are from electricity, electrolysis, and from thermochemical systems - almost certainly nuclear but I personally would have no problem with solar thermal systems - although it is unlikely that there will be sufficient water where there is sufficient sun. The reformation of waste or excess biomass with carbon dioxide as an oxidant certainly has appeal - the necessary heat could be provided by nuclear or renewable means depending on cost.
Some people march around here acting as if subsidies are some kind of crime. There's all sorts of balderdash about "nuclear subsidies" flying around in the public imagination for instance, and mostly they are somewhat disconnected from the realities. The biggest subsidies there are those that provided to fossil fuel, and the currency is not just monetary - although the financial cost is overwhelming. Fossil fuels are subsidized with flesh, your health, your sons and daughters, your future. Nuclear energy is a highly successful enterprise that has incurred very little external cost in relative terms. Thus it is not the case that nuclear subsidies are too large. On the contrary they are too small. They give a huge return on investment and thus they are worthy of expansion, not contraction.
Thermochemical hydrogen, for instance, the subject of much research around the world is not a slam dunk. To some extent talking about it now is hand waving, but it is important that this technology be fully funded to the maximum extent to take advantage of recent improvements in materials science. It will work, but the details need to be tested and fully evaluated. Once they are so tested and evaluated the infrastructure for their use must be constructed, and I for one have no problem with using public funds to do this.
In the meantime, electrolysis works. Indeed, depending on the cost of the electrolysis equipment - and thus the need for capacity utilization - one could use energy infrastructure (and renewables are OK with me if they are reasonably priced) to do something useful with off peak generating capacity that would not otherwise be utilized.
10. And now for the hard part. Everybody, and I do mean everybody, will need to pay more for energy. A carbon tax will hit everybody who uses carbon. We may wish to represent that the carbon users are big bad jet setting executives flying themselves around on the Concorde or (these days) private corporate jets but this is a dodge. You use carbon. I use carbon. We must face what that carbon costs. This is just a reality. It is our responsibility to do this to show our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, mine, yours, everybody’s, that we were worthy ancestors, worthy of their respect, worthy of their family pride, where the family is the whole human race. Building a sustainable future is a family values issue.
One may argue fine points, whether a carbon tax is regressive, for instance. But we should so overwhelm ourselves in details that we find ourselves unable to act. There are, I'm sure, reasonable means - perhaps not perfect means - of managing these questions. The ideal should not prevent the outstanding.
We must recognize however that the pain of carbon taxes is likely to be short term. Money spent this way is not quite the same as money spent on war, since war builds nothing. The money we pay now will be an investment and we might expect great returns. The expenditure will create jobs and more importantly wealth, the kind of wealth that will allow us to do the good and great things to which we should aspire, to create vision, to create justice, to create opportunity, to build great international parks, to fund the arts, to create a community where science thrives, to live in a world where health is possible, and where humanity and life itself might reasonably prevail.