We've already had an outstanding discussion on transportation, with lots of participation from the dKos community. I'm hopeful that we can have just as free wheeling and spirited a talk on the subject of electrical generation.
And if you thought I was wordy when it came to transport, you ain't seen nothing yet. Warning: Long post. Print it out and read it in bed long. Long enough that if you get through the whole thing, I'm awarding you an Associates Degree in Energy Policy from the Devil's Tower School of Moderately Useful Trivia.
Because you have to start somewhere
Before you can plot out a path to a better energy picture, you need a good understanding of where we are. On several posts, I've seen people make statements about how we can use solar to get out of foreign oil, or how most of our energy comes from natural gas. Here's the primer on America's Energy Picture. Feel free to make the high school filmstrip beep as you read along.
In 2001, the United States sucked up 3.7 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity. Any number involving "trillion" is hard to fathom, and it doesn't get any easier when you pair it with something as mind-numbingly non-obvious as the "kilowatt hour."
To make things a little more palatable, here's a list of numbers ranging from somewhat understandable, to impossibly huge. Energy consumed by one 100 watt light bulb: 100 watts (is anyone surprised?). Sunlight falling on one square meter: 100 watts. An electric stove on high: 10,000 watts. The average car traveling at 40mph: 10,000 watts. The amount of sunlight falling on the roof of the average home in the US: 10,000 watts. Total average US power consumption at any one moment, 100,000,000,000,000 watts. Total solar energy falling on the US, 10 followed by two more zeros than the amount of power we're using. Total power produced by the sun 10,000,000,0... oh the heck with it. 10 to the 27th watts.
Did that help you understand how much we use? No. Me, neither. Just understand that it's a lot.
Let's see how the US stacks up against the rest of the world. In 2001, the whole world consumed 14.8 trillion kilowatt hours (if you don't mind, I'm going to start using kwh). So the US made and used about a quarter of all the electricity on Earth. Makes you start to see why, when people are putting together things like the Kyoto Accord, the United States comes in for special scrutiny. Just for comparison, all of Central and South America cranked out about 800 kwh. All of Africa about 450. There are some other big dogs out there. China did about 1.5 trillion. Japan about a trillion even. Russia did about 0.850 trillion. Canada about 0.500 trillion. And in case you're looking for the little sippers from the energy cup, Montserrat tucked down 0.002 trillion kwh.
Now that you have a picture of how much juice we're drinking, here's what it's made of. In 2001, the US made 72% of its electricity from burning fossil fuels. The bulk of that was good old, dug out of the USA, coal. The rest was natural gas with just a trace of oil. When it comes to how we make electricity, oil could dry up tomorrow and it wouldn't make one whit of difference. The rest of our energy picture fills out with nuclear at 20%, hydroelectric at 6%, and darned near every other form of energy (meaning, most of the stuff that isn't trying to turn the planet into another Venus) coming in at 2%.
When you compare us to the rest of the world, the mix is pretty standard. Globally, 64% comes from burning various fossil trees and ancient bacterial burps (i.e. coal and natural gas), 17% from nuclear, 17% from hydro, and 2% from the rest. Countries that are big oil producers tend to burn more oil. Countries without tend to snack on coal. The US is a little heavy on the fossil fuels, which you might expect, seeing that we're loaded down with coal, and a little light on rivers suitable for hydro. I'm not sure I want to dam more rivers to change that balance. I'd rather see if we can't get some energy moved into that category that currently ends up getting as much respect in world figures as the Professor and Mary Ann did in the Gilligan's Island credits. That "the rest" includes solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, tidal, and wave power. I also want to see more work on the least sexy alternative: conservation.
If you want to see more detailed breakdowns of these numbers, check here for everything you'd want to know about world electrical production and consumption.
With the big numbers out of the way, it's time to dig into the details and see where we are with each of our energy sources.
Behold! The rock that burns
America is the Saudi Arabia of coal. Coal R Us. Most people in the east are familiar with the major coal field that runs through the Appalachians and leads to such fun as towns with ever burning fires down below. Then there's the high sulfur fields of the Illinoisan Basin that goes through Illinois (natch'), Indiana, and Western Kentucky. Those guys fuel the Midwest power plants that bring acid rain in the Northeast. There are large fields in Arizona and New Mexico. Oklahoma and Missouri. Colorado and Utah. Lignite reserves down along the Gulf. Smaller fields scattered from the Atlantic Coast to Alaska. And there's the new champ of coal production, the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.
Not everything that's on the list of coal reserves is something we can really get to. Some is too deep to be mined by any known technology. Some is too thin, or even too thick (there are limits to recoverable seam thickness in an underground mine). We also carry coal reserves in areas like the Karpowitz Plateau, an area that contains some of the cleanest burning, best quality coal found anywhere in the world. Darn near perfect coal. Only it happens to be under or near a couple of national parks. I vote that we leave that coal in the ground. Even so, we end up with a lot of coal.
The majority of electricity in the United States (52%) comes from coal. You may hate it, but that's the way it is.
Emissions from burning coal include: sulfur dioxide (SO2), the precursor of acid rain; Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), stand back, that's not laughing gas, and such fun particulate emissions as the mercury that heads straight for the canned tuna in your grocery store. And that's only scratching the surface. Let's not forget 80% of CO2. Coal contains almost every trace element you can name, and several you never heard of. Fun fact: burning coal releases more uranium into the atmosphere than processing and using uranium in nuclear plants. But, look at this graph and you'll see that coal is actually getting a lot better when it comes to throwing crap into our air. (Fun Fact: the graph is from the "Americans for Balanced Energy" site. If you want to see how stupid the coal industry can be, you only have to read the info on this site, which will tell you that global warming is nothing to worry about and coal is as cuddly as the Snuggles teddy bear. However, the graph comes from the government and appears to be unaltered.)
Part of the reason coal emissions are getting better is a change in the mix of what we burn. Increasingly, Midwestern plants are burning coal form Powder River Basin mines. This is because Powder River Basin coal is astoundingly cheap. $5 will get you a ton and leave you with some change. Compare that to $60, or even $100, for a ton of coal mined in the Appalachians. Powder River Coal is much lower sulfur than Midwestern coal. It has some weird trace elements, like selenium, but that stuff generally gets trapped at the plant. And that brings us to the other reason coal is getting better: better technologies for trapping emissions and filtering out particulates.
A modern coal burning power plant really is enormously less polluting than one built fifty years ago. And there's one good reason for it we made them clean up their act.
The tool here was the Clean Air Act, which set limits on emissions, especially emissions of SO2. That's the big reason people started turning to cleaner western coals and putting scrubbers on their smokestacks. Don't think for a second that the industry would have cleaned up the game by themselves. No matter what "balanced energy" and other organizations say, there's one reason and one reason only why coal is cleaner today. Why coal mines are literally 100 times safer today. Why reclamation is such a big part of the picture that surface mines spend more money reclaiming the land than they do mining the coal. That's because we passed laws and made them do it. Not one of these things was voluntary on their part.
During the first four years of our current mini-dark age, the Bush EPA pumped out regulations called "Clear Skies." This is part of their larger "name everything the exact opposite of what it does" initiative. Here's "Clear Skies" in a nutshell. When the Clean Air Act was passed, older coal-powered plants begged for their lives. They claimed that if they were to meet the requirements, it would cost them so much they would go out of business, and their customers would be either starved for electricity or faced with massive cost increases. After some bargaining, congress and the power companies came to an agreement. Older power plants were given an exemption from parts of the Clean Air Act so long as they did not increase capacity. The assumption was that, as demand grew, power companies would be forced to replace the old plants with new ones subject to the Clean Air Act, and everyone would be happy. Or they would expand capacity at the existing plants, which would bring that plant under the regulations of the act. That's not how it worked out. Many companies continued to nurse along these aging plants, supplementing their production with natural gas-powered "peaking" plants and sneaking in a few kilowatts of fresh production whenever the EPA wasn't looking. With Clear Skies, the Bush administration agreed to just stop keeping track of these guys and open the door to increasing production at the old plants. So now the producers aren't cheating when they crank up the old furnace and don't have to worry about being caught. Somehow, in Bush logic, this is supposed to make things better.
One more little set of coal factoids before we get to where we should set our policy objectives. The Clean Air Act has had one very unintended effect. It's nearly killed the mine workers union. A decade ago, the United Mine Workers Association was the home to almost all coal miners. But when the Clean Air Act put more emphasis on coal from the west, especially the Powder River Basin, companies saw the opportunity to shuck the union. They set up new companies to operate non-union mines in the west, often offering initial benefits packages that were better than what the UMWA was getting in the east. Then, with eastern mines shutting down and western mines picking up the slack, they began slotting more non-union operations into their eastern portfolio. Now you'll find non-union operations in areas of Western Kentucky, Illinois, and West Virginia that have been UMWA strongholds for the better part of a century. These new mines are weakening the union position, making miners more directly connected with the company, and breaking the strong ties between mine workers and the Democratic Party.
By now you're thinking "brother, I've seen your numbers and I've listened to you talk about the demon coal, but where is the revolution?" Trust me, comrade. I'm getting there.
So what is a Democrat to do about coal? Where does the black rock come into our energy platform?
1) Realize that coal is a big part of the picture and it's not going to fade overnight. Barring the discovering of working cold fusion, it's going to be decades, if not centuries, before we stop burning coal.
2) Get rid of Clear Skies and make the Clean Air Act applicable to all power plants, regardless of age. Increase regulation to cover new pollutants as we better understand their effect. Stop turning a blind eye to companies that break the law (which is almost all of them).
3) Move to protect union workers. Press coal companies on violations of regulations that allow organizing. Push for strict enforcement of rules on safety, training, and retirement benefits so that miners know the Democrats are on their side.
4) Make both "mountain top removal" and "valley fill" mining absolutely, and clearly illegal, with fines big enough to sink a battleship. There are alternative ways to get at coal, and with the prices companies are getting these days, there is no excuse for taking the "but it was cheaper to tear up the whole mountain" approach.
5) I know this one will be hard to swallow, but here it comes: support "Clean Coal Technology." Now, I can hear the chants of "there's no such thing as clean coal" starting already. True. But there's cleaner coal. There's carbon sequestration and fluidized bed reactions and near-zero-emissions technology ready to go into the next generation plants. All of that will not only reduce the pollutants we already track, it will also cut down on CO2. If we make this a religious thing and fight it just because it's coal and coal is evil, you might as well wrap a ribbon around West Virginia and hand it over for the next fifty years. And Kentucky (which was as blue as you can get not that long ago). And maybe Pennsylvania (though the production there is very limited these days). And besides that, it's stupid. When you figure out where we're going to get or save that fifty plus percent of our power now coming from coal, we can fight clean coal. Until then, isn't it better to push for cleaner plants than allow the old dirty ones to keep operating? Just because Republicans are supporting Clean Coal does not make it wrong to do so. And no, I did not drink the balancedenergy.org Kool-Aid. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and on this issue, the bozos are right.
I confess that I am tainted. I grew up in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, surrounded by acres of unreclaimed mines that looked like a slum section of the Moon. My grandfathers both worked in underground mines where they were paid in company scrip. My father-in-law was crushed in a mine accident that broke every rib, both legs, punctured his lungs, and left him on disability the rest of his life. I've worked in surface mines and underground mines east and west. I've seen the worst coal mining has to offer. And I've seen mining today. It's better. It's safer. It's cleaner. Hate me if you want to, but we need coal.
And, damn it, coal miners should be so solidly in the Democratic camp that they never look at a Republican except to spit. So there.
Friendly global warming
Gas gets good press. It's cleaner than coal. Natural gas is principally methane, with some ethane, propane... other things that end in "ane." So burning it produces little of the godawful particulate matter you can get with coal. There is still enough sulfur and other compounds that SO2 and NO2 can be a problem. If you're going to burn something buried for the last few million years, burning natural gas seems like the best of a bad lot.
But the US is not quite as blessed with natural gas reserves as we are the black stuff. In 2002, we consumed 22.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That's a pretty amazing number. So amazing that I had to sit down and calculate that it's enough natural gas to cover the country in a blanket of gas more than 4' thick (somebody check me, that doesn't sound possible). Now, I have some bad news and some good news and some bad news on our gas consumption. The bad news is the USGS puts our total reserves at 187 trillion cubic feet. Which means that if we keep burning at the current rate (and actually, it's going up year over year), we'll have to turn off the gas for good in less than a decade. The good news is that we discovered nearly as much new gas reserves last year as we used, so we stayed even. In fact, we've made gas discoveries for a decade that have more than replaced consumption. The other bad news is those new discoveries are declining, and we're eating into the reserves.
There are some potential massive new sources for natural gas. In particular there is the weird and wonderful world of deep sea gas hydrates. Gas hydrates are forms of hydrocarbons that occur in the temperature and pressure regimes of the deep ocean. It's almost like blankets of colorful underwater snow, only this snow is actually hydrocarbons held in solid state by the cold and extreme high pressure. Most gas hydrates are buried in sea floor sediments, but in some areas like the Gulf of Mexico, they boil up into exposed mounds, sheets, and dune fields. Most of these gas hydrates contain methane. Some of the hydrates can also contain Frank Hill's friend propane, and even stuff that, so help me, looks closed to refined gasoline.
The sea floor hydrates look like a possible source for vast amounts of natural gas. Pull this stuff up to the surface, and it fizzes (okay, sublimates if you want to be picky) into gas. There is lots of the stuff. More energy is tied up in sea floor gas hydrates than all the oil, coal, and natural gas reserves in the world. So if we can figure out how to harvest the sea snow, we're all set to continue our fossil fuel burning ways for centuries to come. Or until we greenhouse ourselves to the point where lead starts to melt, whichever comes first.
Only mining sea floor hydrates may not be easy. The first experimental plants to bubble this stuff into natural gas are just getting started, so it's not possible to say if it will account for significant production. Plus, there are a handful of scientists who think mining gas hydrates might just, whoops, kill all life on the planet. See, if we stir this muck too much, we might upset the pressure regime and cause it to start flashing into gas all on its own. And if we make Gaia burp, the atmosphere we have afterwards might be lacking a little thing called oxygen.
Honestly, the doomsday by gas scenario seems kind of remote, though there is some geologic evidence that such a scenario might account for one of the great extinction events that happened way back in the pre-dinosaur past. It's worth being cautious. In any case, I'm leaving gas hydrates out of my calculations for now.
If we counted on only domestic natural gas production, we would likely be out of gas in 15-20 years, even allowing for new reserves. Fortunately for those who like the even heat of a gas stove, Canada has major gas reserves and we pipe a lot across from them. That's convenient, but it's not the best position to be in, even with a partner as friendly as the Canucks. Canada has been plans to burn that gas in their own plants. Gas may be cleaner than coal, but it's going to have to make a pretty quick exit from our electric power supply if we want to keep it around for any of the other things that make it darn handy.
Over the last two decades, most of the new power plants built in the United States have been natural gas plants. Since we don't regulate CO2, natural gas plants are easy to fit under the Clean Air Act. Gas plants are also a lot cheaper to build. Plus, they come in more flexible sizes. If you're building a small plant in a local market, chances are you're going to go with gas.
A big part of the explosion in gas plants has been "peaking" plants. These are power plants that are not designed to work 24/365. Instead, they count on coal (or nuclear, or whatever else is powering the local grid) to carry the burden day in and day out. But should some mid-August afternoon arrive with 104 degree heat and everyone in the Greater Chicago Area kicks the air conditioner over to "Antarctic" at the same time, on comes the peaking plant to handle the increased load.
With gas, our positions have to span the paradox that gas is the best we can do when burning a fossil fuel, but it's still a fossil fuel. And it's also a fuel that could soon be on the "endangered resources" list. So how do we approach gas as a source for electricity?
1) We make it harder to get gas plants approved for "peaking." By allowing these plants to prop up aging coal-fired plants, we're allowing companies to keep the older, high-pollution plants in operation. If they had to increase their production by expanding full time production, they'd have to clean up the stinky old plants.
2) We keep a close eye on gas hydrate experiments. Odds of gas doomsday are about even with those of scientists who warned the first nuclear explosion could trigger a chain reaction and consume the planet. But hey, I would have been scared by those guys, too.
3) We press gas plants to use some of the same carbon sequestration techniques now being considered for coal. Natural gas produces just as much CO2 per BTU as coal, and we need to be just as stringent in getting that CO2 under control.
4) If your community hasn't already passed regulations outlawing outdoor gas lighting, get them to do so now. Gas lighting is probably the most ineffective use of natural gas possible, producing less than one tenth of one lumen per watt of energy. No matter how cheap gas is in your area, no matter what your electricity costs, I can promise you that you'd be better off burning a light bulb day and night than using gas for lighting. Stick a fluorescent bulb out there, and you'll beat gas about 400:1 when it comes to light per energy consumed.
Natural gas is much more valuable than coal when it comes to cooking, heating, and local energy production. Eventually, we want it out of the energy diet like every other fossil fuel. In the short term, we should work to see that it fills those niches where it's most needed, and doesn't allow the power companies to prop up aging coal or nuclear plants while drawing down our reserves of gas.
America's primary source of three-eyed fish
This is the tough one. You might think that coal and natural gas were tough, but when it comes to whether to be for or against something, nuclear is the hard one.
I know some of you are already preparing to burn me in cyber-effigy for even suggesting that nuclear might be less than purely dark side. And for the most part, I'm ready to help you light that fire. What else besides nuclear, and those Styrofoam containers from McDonald's, threatens to kill people for millenniums after we've all left the scene? But when the ice shelves breaking free at the poles are starting to be measured in the size of states (hey, is that new one the size of Jersey, or only as big as Vermont?), you have to wonder if dealing with containment of nuclear wastes might not be preferable to seeing ocean levels rise up to the third floor at Macy's.
As of right now, there are 104 commercial nuclear generating units licensed for operation in the United States. 69 of these are pressurized water reactors (PWRs). 35 are boiling water reactors (BWRs). I'll spare you the bloody minutiae, and tell you that you can go here to see diagrams and details that explain about each type. For those who are interested, Three Mile Island is of the pressurized water type. Chernobyl is a type of reactor known as a light-water RBMK. There are no such units in the United States.
You might have heard some of the "no nuclear plants have been built in the United States in blahdy-blah years" talk, but the picture is not quite as clear as you may think. Not only have many old plants received extensions that allow them to continue operating well past the dates where they were supposed to go off line, but several units have been "uprated" to allow for greater production. And there have even been some new operating units added at existing plants. The last new nuclear unit was added as recently as May 1996 (at the Watt's Bar TVA plant in Tennessee). The way the government regulates the industry has hidden much of the increase. We're in the weird position of having official "generating capacity" at around 100 billion kilowatts, while actual production is around 120 billion kilowatts. Between 1997 and 2004, the nuclear industry sneaked in a 20% increase in production. Surprise!
Note that, while nuclear energy has had to go "into the closet" in the United States to eek out some stealth increases, much of the world continues to add nuclear capacity. Europe (particularly France) and Asia (particularly Japan) have continued to add plants at a steady rate. Many countries point to unavailability of local fossil fuel resources, impending shortages of oil, and worries over global warming as reasons to increase nuclear capacity.
Okay, pop quiz: you're a rapidly expanding high-tech economy in South Asia with a population that's moving into the middle class and energy demands making a sharp jump as everybody gets on the "be like Mike" bandwagon. What do you do? If you answer this the way as the average president / junta boss / beloved dear undying leader, you get nuclear, that's what you do.
With nuclear, there are two concerns that make people sweat. One is that nuclear waste will kill us all long term and make our planet into an uninhabitable desert occupied only by glowing mutants and radioactive McRib containers. The other concern is that one of the plants will blow up and kill us all by next Tuesday.
Frankly, those are pretty damn big concerns. I mean, natural gas may be bad, but a gas plant in Cleveland isn't going to go boom and poison dairy cattle across Western Europe.
Taking the "China Syndrome" problem first, the answer is almost the same as it was for coal: get rid of the old plants. Older plants were built with all kinds of assumptions, many of them bad. Many of these plants are designed around "active safety." That is, if something in the plant becomes unstable, actions must be taken to shut down the disaster and put things back in, relatively, safe condition. That kind of system works out 99 times out of a hundred. Or even 999 times out of a thousand. And then someone tries to insert tab B into Slot Q and you get TMI or Chernobyl.
If we're to have nuclear plants, they have to be plants that are "passively safe." Plants where even George W. Bush could be left at the controls and you'd still have a plant in the morning.
A couple of different designs for passive plants were proposed more than twenty years ago. Westinghouse continues to tinker with its AP600 design, but there are more interesting new ideas on the table. The one that's getting the most attention is the Pebble-Bed Reactor. This kind of reactor uses little balls with uranium at the middle instead of the fuel rods in a traditional plant. It also differs in that the reactor is filled with helium gas to transfer heat instead of water or steam (making it suitable for the high temperature hydrogen production method mentioned today in the NYT). There are several things to like about the pebble-bed reactors when you compare them to the ones we have today. Because it's filled with helium, you can't have the superheated breakdowns possible where water flashes to steam, steam disassociates into hydrogen and oxygen, and things get real messy real fast. Helium is inert, so it won't react with the container or the fuel and, in theory at least, cannot become radioactive. The design of the Pebble-Bed means that, even if all the helium leaks away, or the reactor is subject to the W test, you can't go into an uncontrolled reaction. The fuel mix in a Pebble-Bed reactor is also designed so that more fuel gets used in the reaction, leaving less fissionable waste and spent fuel.
A company in South Africa came up with the Pebble-Bed reactor nearly a decade ago, so it's not surprising that the first reactors of this design are scheduled to appear there. So far, none of these reactors are scheduled for the US. If we have to have new nuclear capacity, and that's a big "if," Pebble-Bed seems like the most reasonable way to go.
But before you can talk about adding reactors, you have to deal with that second problem mentioned way back at this top of this section: nuclear waste. Where blowing up a plant is a nightmare scenario, waste is a certainty. Run a nuclear plant, even a pebble-bed design, and you will get waste. So what do we do about it?
One option is the one that got so much press in the last election cycle. In this plan, we pack our spent fuel and assorted waste into rail cars, ship it across country by various routes, and store it away in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Uh, yeah. The feasibility of this plan has been called into doubt at every stage. The perpetration for shipment is hazardous. Regular shipments of highly radioactive nuclear waste are subject to the normal chance of rail accident, and could be a dinner bell for terrorists. Even if you get the waste to Yucca, there's no guarantee that it'll stay there. For reasons ranging from geologic activity to human intervention, no site is truly secure.
Is that it then? How can you possibly run an industry where the waste product is untouchable for, roughly, ever?
What do those countries that depend heavily on nuclear do with stuff? The French Plan is beloved of the Yucca Mountain supporters. They ran a program with a couple of sites for storing low level waste. Low level waste is not the fuel rods themselves, but all the associated items that pick up a warm glow just from being around the cheery nuclear fire. It's the dosimeters worn by plant workers. It's the disposable paper coveralls and rubber gloves. Booties. Pocket protectors. A Pepsi can left in the wrong place. It's anything left close enough to the reactor for long enough to knock a few neutrons out of place. Anything that raises a click - and some things that don't, just to be on the safe side. To tell the truth, the low level waste is not that awful (hey, ow, don't hit me so hard!). Yes, it's radioactive. Yes, I wouldn't want to decorate my house. But it's not so radioactive that it's an eternal threat to mankind (not too comforting when you have to put it in those terms, is it?) Most nuclear waste falls into this category. Frankly, the best thing we can do with it is store it. It what France does, it's what everybody does. Rather than shipping someone's mildly irradiated sweat socks a thousand miles to be incarcerated in Nevada, it's probably better to have more regional storage facilities for this stuff. But should low level waste, and low level only, end up going to Yucca, it's unlikely to result in any serious threat to national health. (Not that being on hand for a local derailment would be any fun.)
In Japan, where Godzilla is looked on more as warning than campy comedy, they've got a program that tries to address the really nasty stuff. The spent fuel rods, old containment vessels, etc. The stuff considered highly radioactive waste. The Japanese plan is two-fold. You store the stuff on site for awhile until it drops a little of that "fresh from the oven" warmth. Then it's mixed with liquid glass and (or at least, will be, once Japan gets past their own version of the Yucca Mountain controversy) buried in steel containers. It's possible to imagine Really Bad Things happening. It's Japan, can you say "earthquake?" But this is the plan.
In fact, encasement in glass and geologic burial is the best plan anyone has been able to come up with. And it's still a bad plan. There are more exotic solutions, but personally I don't want to see radioactive waste being lofted into space, and I'm none too sure that those ocean trenches are going to take things down into the mantle any time soon. Some people have talked about a massive research effort to develop a system that destroys nuclear waste cleanly. And some people also believe in the tooth fairy.
If we continue to use nuclear power, long term storage is the devil we marry.
Some points for a nuclear plan:
1) Power companies should not be allowed to extend these things forever, especially as they approach the limits of on site storage for spent fuel. If we don't force these plants to close, we're going to be faced with our own little homegrown, two-pronged version of nuclear blackmail: look here, Mr. Government Man, I've got this nuclear waste and it has to go somewhere and if you make me close my little plant, why, folks around these parts will be plum out of that electricical. We have to stop if before it gets to that point. Power companies should be told in no uncertain terms that the plants have to be closed while they are still able to store their spent fuel on site. Any company that tries to keep a plant operating on the assumption that the government will relent and allow high level waste to be shipped elsewhere needs a good knock to the head.
2) Stop recertifying reactors which have passed their closure dates.
3) Any new plants or units added must be of a passive design. And excuse me but I don't want to be the guinea pig for a radically new design. This is one area of technology where I'm perfectly willing to let someone else go first.
In eighth grade, I went on a class trip to Oak Ridge back when the museum there was the Museum of Atomic Energy instead of the Museum of Alternate Energy. They had shells from Little Boy and Fat Man bombs. They had pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had ferrets with club feet and other interesting (to 8th grade boys) mutations because their parents had been used to clean out the glass tubes in early enrichment facilities. They had a machine that you could put in a dime, and it would come out irradiated enough to ruin photographic film. You got to take the dime home as a souvenir. They had a block of uranium so you could test its weight against a block of iron the same size.
We made a tour of a working reactor on that trip. I stood up on the open catwalk above the reactor pool, leaned over the railing, and marveled at how the water glowed from the Cherenkov Effect. Yes, folks, people out of the distant past were that stupid. I'm sure everything I was wearing that day would now be classed as low level waste. Heck, I should probably be classed as low-level waste. After reading this diary, many of you will likely agree.
When it comes to oil an energy generation, there's very little to say because there's very little oil burned for this purpose. What's left is a handful of small, old plants that haven't been switched over to some other fuel. When it comes to oil and power, the platform can be summed up pretty easily.
1) Don't do that.
This dam is your dam
If you've ever been to one of the major hydroelectric dams, there's no way you leave unimpressed. The scale of the engineering. The incredible, larger than life effort. The total ruination to ecosystems, drowning of thousands of acres, relocation of towns, and flooding of national treasures. That kind of stuff just has to move you.
The great American dams were products of another time. Hoover Dam went up in the height of the Great Depression. Grand Coulee was another monster combination of public works and electrification that was built in the same period. Following this period of massive dams, some only slightly smaller were built with the combined goal of generating power and providing recreational space.
There are large power-generating dams scattered across the United States, with some serious players both east and west. Grand Coulee in Washington cranks out by far the most juice at 6180 megawatts. Chief Joseph, practically next door, gets 2450. John Day down in Oregon is another one over 2000 megawatts. Some eastern big boys are in Virginia, New York, and Michigan. Tennessee, Colorado, Nevada, and California all have players in the top twenty.
These days, the United States doesn't seem to be considering adding much to the traditional hydroelectric capacity. To be a good candidate for hydro, you need a river with enough change in elevation that you can build a dam without flooding half a state and still get both sufficient reservoir capacity. In the United States, candidates are rare. You could dam some western rivers, but if you do, you're playing with the politics of not only ecology, but water rights, which have become religious wars throughout much of the west. In the east, there are some decent candidates in the Appalachians, but in much of the country, the question is not what new dams will go up, but which will come down.
Most controversial at the moment is the Glenn Canyon Dam, which filled the erstwhile canyon to produce Lake Powell. If you're a citizen of Page, Arizona, you're probably dependent on the herds of Jet Ski riders and house boaters that come to prowl the flooded paths of Lake Powell. If you're from anywhere else, you likely ache at the thought of the places that were flooded. The Sierra Club and several other organizations have swung into gear, arguing to bring the dam down and restore Glenn Canyon. With recent drought in the area drastically lowering the water levels in the lake and revealing some of the grandeur that's been drowned since the early 60's, momentum seems to be on the dam buster's side. Personally, I'm looking forward to a stroll through the Cathedral in the Desert.
So if we're not going to add new dams, that means hydro is dead. Right?
Not quite. There are other systems being considered. First, there's the completely submerged hydro turbine. This kind of system is best thought of as a windmill that happens to run underwater. It's been considered for use in wave and tidal systems (which we'll get to later), but with dams on the decline, it's a great candidate to get energy out of rivers without requiring that the river be turned into a lake. Better yet, these turbines could be used in small streams or drainage canals. Because water is 810 times denser than air (on average), there's a lot of energy in flowing water compared to wind. It may turn out that tossing a water turbine in that ditch behind your house is a better, quieter, less obtrusive way to produce energy on a local basis than putting a windmill in your yard.
Another odd idea worth mentioning here, if only because it doesn't seem to fit anywhere else, is hydroelectric storage. As you're probably aware, production on the electric grid doesn't really change to meet demand. During the day, the grid struggles to keep up. At night, there's usually considerable overcapacity. If we could store the extra energy from the night, we could burn less fuel in the day, making the overall system more efficient. One way to store that energy is to use the excess electricity at night to raise water to a higher elevation, then recapture energy during the day be releasing the water.
The idea has already been tried in a few places. One notable spot is Taum Sauk Mountain, Missouri. You might have been to Taum Sauk if you're one of those people who try to visit the highest points in each state. At 1,770 feet, it's the none-too-high highest spot for the show me state. Only it's a little more exotic that the relatively innocuous height might suggest. In the early 60's, Union Electric leveled the top of the mountain and put up a 4,350 acre reservoir on top. If you're standing up there, it looks like the world's biggest rain barrel. Then they bored a 20' tube down the center and out one side and mounted a whopping impeller turbine in the tube. At night, the turbine takes electricity from the grid and pumps water from a reservoir at the foot of the mountain to the tank on top. During the day, water falls down the tube, spins the turbine, and gives back some of the stored power. It's engineering on a massive scale -- a huge storage battery. Obviously, there are not a lot of sites you'd like to see capped with paired reservoirs, but there has been some consideration of other sites, especially paired with wind or solar power projects, as a way of evening out the energy production.
So what's our hydro future?
1) Support the removal of Glenn Canyon Dam and the draining of Lake Powell. I mean, did you look at those pictures of the place? I've been to Page many times. I know how dependent the town is on tourism. But believe me; more people will come to see the restored canyon than will show up to putter around on a lake surrounded by desert. This is one bit of electric production we can afford to lose.
2) Support development of submerged turbine technology as an alternative to dams. Submerged turbines have the potential to generate much more power than all the hydroelectric dams in the country. They're flexible, scalable, and suitable to a lot more locations. This tech is still early in the cycle, so there are several competing designs. If I was handing out grants for energy research and development, submerged turbines would be near the top of my list.
3) Consider hydro-storage systems as an augmentation to solar and wind systems. By storing energy, systems that are irregular, like wind, or cyclical, like solar, can give more steady production. But beware the ecological impact of these sites and make sure it's absolutely needed.
Pass the tanning butter, baby
Hey, are you relieved to be getting somewhere finally? We've left the realm of the current mix and are finally -- finally starting to get to some sources that don't involve wrecking either our air or our water. About time, huh?
Okay, here's another pop quiz: without looking, how many times more energy do we receive from the sun than we currently use. It's 100x. So, if we could harness 1% of all the energy falling everywhere in the country, or 100% of the energy falling on 1% of the country, we could do away with all other energy sources. You've probably seen other numbers, but that's the best I can manage by averaging out solar radiation (there is a 4x difference between incident light in a St. Louis winter compared to a Phoenix spring) and the hours of daylight. If anyone wants, I'll post my back-of-the-envelope calculations.
When it comes to figuring out the best way to tap solar power, there are almost too many possibilities to consider. I'm going for direct photoelectric conversion. In some ways, this seems best as it had essentially "no moving parts." Light goes in, electricity comes out. Of course, photovoltaic cells can contain rare earth elements and their manufacture can entail some nasty chemical processes. And, naturally, there are many different kinds of these cells. Nothing in solar is simple. Amorphous silicon cells are common, but very poor at converting. They'll probably never get much beyond the little cells in your pocket calculator. There are Cadmium Telluride cells (see what I mean about rare elements? When's the last time you saw a chunk of tellurium?). These cells reach nearly 9% effectiveness in converting power on a commercial basis, and hit 16% in the lab. Dendritic web cells promise near 30% conversion, but the current generation uses Gallium Arsenide as a semiconductor - talk about combining the worst of rare elements and noxious chemicals! Integrated thin film has a lot of advantages, in that it's flexible and can manage 11-17% efficiency. Unfortunately, you guessed it, this stuff depends on Copper Indium Diselenide. Not much of that lying around.
The two best bets for big solar photoelectric are probably multicrystalline silica and discrete cell. Discrete cell is based on technology not too different from that used in microprocessors. Extremely thin wafers are sliced from lab-grown silica crystals. Effectiveness can reach 24%, and large amounts of rare elements aren't required. Multicrystalline is a newer technology using big blocks of silica. It has managed 18% in the lab, and held on to 14% in small commercial products (like pads for recharging cell phones). So far, multicrystalline has proven to be cheaper and more stable.
So, let's take a number in the middle. 20%. That's better than any commercial product does today, but not quite as good as lab work suggests we could do. It seems a reasonable compromise. At 20% conversion, we'd have to cover 5% of the country in photo cells. Sounds kind of possible doesn't it? Only 5%? Until you stop and realize that's about 180,000 square miles glazed over with silica tiles, and probably an equal area in supporting gear. Some might suggest we pick a few red states and start the factories, but covering this kind of space is not really feasible - nor is it very ecologically desirable.
Even if you were to build your super solar array, you'd have to build a power grid capable of getting the juice from your massive energy farm to the rest of the country. Plus, since we can't convince the sun to shine all the time, you would need an equally massive storage system to hold power for the night. The giant, all in one spot, type of solar installation is just not feasible.
A better use for photovoltaic is in disseminated power production. You've already seen how solar can work to provide power to places that are off the grid (if not, look around the highway construction project nearest you and see how many signs are being powered by solar). Siemens, a large manufacturer of solar panels, has shipped 130 megawatts worth of solar panels to date, and sees an increase of 10-15% annually. That's just one company.
Solar can also go a long way toward providing the power to your house. Don't like the look of the big clunky photo panels on your roof? Companies like Uni-Solar are now offering photovoltaic shingles. These look just like regular roofing shingles, only they produce electricity. Go look. Pretty damn cool, huh? A system with only 50 shingles, covering an area of roof about 12x10, generates around 850 watts. If you did in the whole roof of a 80x20 house, you'd be good for almost 10,000 watts. I'm faced with replacing my roof soon, and I'm seriously considering going this way. Of course, there are the usual trade offs. First, it's dang pricey. If I actually put in photo shingles for every shingle on my roof, it would cost me roughly the purchase price of the house. And for that I'd barely get enough energy to provide all the heating, cooling, and lighting my home currently needs. But it sure would be neat. If I was in a somewhat milder climate, and if I got a little more sun, I could install one of these systems, add enough storage batteries, and start selling instead of buying. That would be sweet. Even where I am, a moderate solar shingle patch could make a serious dent in my electric bill.
Photovoltaic is not the only way solar can help on a site by site basis. Both passive and active solar heating can go a long way to reduce those heating and cooling needs - and those are the biggest parts of your home energy consumption. These same technologies can also be extended to offices. Check out this Mother Earth News article for how you can use a mix of solar technologies to completely eliminate your electric bill (warning, pdf file).
Between photoelectric and solar heating, there's a great chance to improve our use of solar power. This is really one area that is already growing quickly, but could still use a kick. A big chunk of funds and some regulatory help that would get the materials down to a reasonable cost would be an enormous help. Of all the technologies, solar is the one I came to with the least expectations, and the one I left feeling best about.
If you're in too big a hurry to wait for our landslide victory in 2006, check out the DSIRE database to see all the federal and state programs that will already support putting renewable energy into your home or business. And if you want to see where government and industry have already joined hands to push solar, check out the million solar roofs program, which aims to do just that by 2010. Right now, there are federal programs available to commercial interests, but very little outside of the EEM (discussed below) available for residential. That needs to change.
Where do we go on solar?
1) We go big. The potential of solar to lift a lot of homes and businesses right off the grid and contribute to the overall picture is real. With the right investments, I'm willing to bet that by 2016 (the end of my "ten year plan" that we put in when we take back congress in two years), photovoltaic solar can amount to 5-10% of our electric mix, and solar heating technologies can further remove another 10% of the current energy demand. That may not sound as sexy as spreading silicon over Oklahoma and Texas, then using them to power our iPods, but it's doable.
2) The government starts funding solar at a huge level. Every new federal office building started after 2010 should be required to get 20% of its power needs from solar. 30% for buildings constructed after 2015. A million solar roofs should be ten million, by extending the offers now available to commercial sites to residential.
3) EMM mortgages, discussed below, should replace and enhance the solar tax breaks that were offered in the past. Congressmen on the right like to harp on how the tax credits were there and almost no one took advantage of them. But that's like putting in a tax credit for hydrogen cars this year, and then complaining that it went unused next year. The credits were good for getting some startups in business, but only now are we finally getting the widespread available systems that make it really feasible to work solar into every house sold. Anything we can do to encourage solar - especially solar that avoids the trap of toxic, rare elements - should be done. Photovoltaic and solar heating really work. Pass it on.
Dude, why does your car smell like freedom fries?
When we think about biofuels, the first thing that comes to mind is replacing the oil in our cars with biodiesel, We covered that ground in the transportation talk, and it's important, but in this diary, I'm also chasing energy production from biomass.
Over the last four years, US energy from biomass has held steady at around 2 quadrillion Btu (thank the DOE for using a unit of energy so silly I'm not even going to the effort to convert it to something more reasonable. Quadrillion. Sheesh.) It sounds like a big number, and it is, but it's a little deceptive. Most of that value is simply people burning wood in their home stoves and fireplaces. A wood stove and electric blower is how I heat my house, at least until I get my new solar roof in place. When it comes to electricity, biomass currently contributes about 13% of the renewable electricity production in the US. Which puts it at about 0.2% of the overall picture. Don't expect much more.
Burning wood, and corn stubble, and garbage, and anything else you can get to burn, has its detractors. They point out that this burning releases pollutants, which is true. And that it releases CO2, which is sort of true, but not really comparable to burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 that's been locked out of the cycle for millions of years.
It's unlikely that biomass is going to rise up and become a major source of power in our electric plants, and truthfully, we probably don't want it to be. Short of denuding the countryside of plant life, there's not enough juice locked away in biomass. Here's the really scary numbers. We'd have to chop down 22% of all land plants just to make the energy we use in one year. And you can ask the citizens of Denver about the delights of wood stoves in areas where atmospheric circulation tends to stall.
Where biomass can help us most is probably in the area we mentioned first: transportation. That means biodiesel. It also means ethanol.
I know, ethanol has become a dirty word. There have been some studies trumpeted in the media saying that it takes more energy to make ethanol than you get back. And that ethanol takes up room that could be used for food crops. Frankly, those studies are pretty damn dubious. They make some very bad assumptions about what happens to the corn after the ethanol is made, about the environmental cost of corn production, about the availability of cropland, and about the real cost of making ethanol. First of all, ethanol is used in cars. It's not just energy production, it's energy storage. Just like gasoline. Just like batteries. Just like hydrogen. Just like biodiesel. So even if it's less than 100% efficient, the real measure is its effectiveness for moving cars. Further, most studies disagree with these conclusions and give ethanol a small net gain - even when you consider such things as energy used in pesticide production, fertilizer, transport to market, corn production, and conversion. If you consider that most of the corn is actually left over after conversion and typically goes on to be used as either animal food or in processed foods, ethanol makes a sizable "win." The best hydrogen system uses about 3.5x as much power as you can get back from the hydrogen. The best even on the drawing board uses 2x. Ethanol doesn't look so bad now, eh?
Ethanol has about 1/2 the energy per gallon as gasoline. Which sounds bad, but the mix of ethanol and gas has other benefits. In trying to sort the wheat from the chaff, my conclusion is that it costs about $1.20 to make a gallon of ethanol. With gas prices over $2, that price is getting more reasonable than ever. And don't think all the ethanol money is funding so-called red state welfare. The biggest producers are Iowa and Illinois, states we need in our column. Michigan and Minnesota are in the top five. Ohio and Wisconsin in the top ten.
Where do we go with biomass?
1) Expect that biomass will remain an important, but small, part of our electrical generation picture. Recapturing some of the energy from the garbage we produce is a good idea, but it's even better to stop making so much garbage.
2) Biodiesel and ethanol will both become more important as vehicle fuels. We should encourage programs that expand their development, and that look for economical, ecological, energy efficient ways to produce and distribute these fuels.
Can we hang 10? As in 10% percent of our electrical demand?
Most wave energy is really just wind energy in another form, molecules of air stroking molecules of water over thousand of miles of ocean. Of course, wind is just repackaged solar. But if you set on the beach for a few hours, watching waves pound over, and over, and over at the shore, it's easy to see that the water has grabbed onto a lot of go.
So how to we get it back? Some companies have already started to build wave power plants. Wavegen has a plant parked on an island off the coast Scotland, which is rated at 500kw, and another in the works. Scotland, by the way, already gets 12% of its electricity from the combination of waves, tides, and wind. They expect that number to be 18% by 2010. Darn thrifty of those Scots.
The tricky part of building a wave powered plant is making it able to get power from everyday, low energy waves. Make the turbines light enough to work on 4' swells, and they may be too fragile for a 20' storm surge. Make the plant big enough to generate power for a town, and you make take away that town's scenic coastline. If you look at where the ones have been built in England, they're in fairly remote areas with fairly heavy surf. Finding spots along the US coast for similar production may not be easy.
How much should we expect?
1) Encourage placement of wave energy plants along northern parts of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, where the wave energy is highest and the seafloor profiles support the current designs.
2) Work on designs that can better take advantage of the shallow, sloping seafloor found along the Gulf and more southern coasts.
3) Target deployment of commercial plants by 2015, with a goal of 2% electrical power from wave energy within a decade.
We got the breeze at our backs
This is one area where the US is actually keeping its finger in. Other countries are carrying the ball on solar, tidal, and wave power. Biodiesel is practically mainstream overseas. But on wind, we are at least in the game. And, unlike these other technologies, we actually have a home-grown wind industry that's making significant inroads outside our borders. About half the business of US wind power manufacturers was in selling plants to consumers outside the US. This is particularly true when looking at smaller wind turbines used in areas off grid, a part of the industry that's growing rapidly. If the US can continue to gain market share in wind power, this is not only a big improvement in our power picture, it makes for a lot of jobs.
The size of wind turbines has grown fantastically over the last decade. A 25-meter rotor was at the top end in 1990. The newest towers are 90 meters tall and the blades reach 135 meters (440 feet) above the ground. That is a big, big structure. Many of these new towers are rated at more than 1 megawatt. In favorable conditions, a tower that size could make more than 2.5 kwh a year - enough to supply 250 average homes.
That makes it sound pretty simple. Put up a million towers, and America is running on wind power.
Only that's, well first off it's a million towers. I mean, wow. And each one of those towers can be expected to cost about a million dollars. So we're talking a plan that would run about a million million dollars - also known as a trillion bucks. Sounds insurmountable, but divide it over a decade, and we're talking $100 billion a year. Still massive, but that's less than we're spending on Iraq. A ten year program that would move the bulk of our energy consumption to a non-polluting renewable power source for less than the annualized cost of the Fallujah Follies. Does that sound so bad?
Of course, it's not likely. Not every spot in the US is equally suitable for wind power. To even work, these commercial scale towers need wind that averages 13mph. And did you catch the size of those towers? A structure the size of a forty story building is not going to be welcomed in every neighborhood. They may non-polluting, but they're definitely not invisible, or silent.
However, even if we can't put wind everywhere, there's a lot the US which is suitable for wind power, especially along mountain ridges and in the plain states east of the Rockies. Anyone who's ever spent time in Eastern Wyoming knows what they call 13mph winds - calm. Another big possibility for wind power is offshore. There are regular wind cycles associated with the shore line, and in many areas the offshore wind is enough to have almost constant production. Pair these towers with the submerged water-powered turbines, and you could have a two in one device.
Practically everything you want to know about wind power, and almost every number I've used, comes from the good folks at the American Wind Energy Association. Check them out, especially if you think you might have some local site with potential.
Which way does the Democratic wind blow?
1) Gale force. A plan to replace all our power needs with wind over a decade is unrealistic, but we can take one big whopper of a bite. A $10 billion a year investment in wind power can put us on target to have 10% of our power coming from wind by 2016. That's five times as much as we get from all renewable sources now. Of all the technologies available to us, wind power is probably the most reliable and mature.
2) You folks on the shore better get used to the idea of seeing some big white towers on the horizon. When we're talking about cutting a massive amount of greenhouse gases, and making real strides in changing how we make power, we can't afford to be derailed by "not in my backyard" syndrome.