Sunday, July 20, 2008

Amory Lovins: Expanding Nuclear Power Makes Climate Change Worse

Amory Lovins has a very intriguing proposal... Increase of Nuclear Power use would cause an increase in Global Warming. That's kind of a puzzler but it turns out he has an interesting analysis. And, to be real, Officialdom is presenting increased nuclear power as a method to solve some of the 'energy' problems the U.S. is facing. Not just Washington Officialdom but some head scratchers like Stewart Brand and other environmentalists have been suggesting nuclear power because it doesn't emit carbon. Since nuclear power doesn't emit carbon it's thought to be a safe energy source in terms of global warming. But of course nuclear power has tremendous problems with disposal of the left over nuclear material, and increased use of nuclear power would lead us to perhaps using nuclear weapons again.

Before Amory Lovins began talking they quoted President Bush, and Senators McCain and Obama, all talking about the need to invest in (or explore investing in) new nuclear power plants. This makes it appear that no matter who is chosen President this year, we will have Nuclear Power on the table for discussion, debate, and possible approval by Congress.

First point

electricity and oil have essentially nothing to do with each other, and anybody who thinks the contrary is really ignorant about energy. Less than two percent of our electricity is made from oil. Less than two percent of our oil makes electricity.

Yup.. there are very few nuclear powered vehicles. Except in the military, who have nuclear powered ships of various kinds. But there are a couple ways nuclear power could help offset the use of oil..

I looked into this a couple years ago -- Examining nukes to replace oil -- The electricity or heat from a nuclear reactor can be used to extract hydrogen from water, or can be used to drive a coal-to-liquids plant. Coal-to-liquids is specifically a curious technology in that it's a way to make a liquid fuel starting from what are essentially rocks (coal). The Germans used this technology during WWII to drive their war machine even though they had no indigenous oil supplies. There happens to be huge coal deposits in the U.S. and further the same technology can be used with tar sands and other very sludgy oil deposits, and there are large tar sands deposits in Canada (Alberta).

This means there are a couple ways to make liquid fuels by way of using nuclear power to drive the machines that do so.

President Bush was quoted discussing "You know, one of these days, people are going to be using battery technologies in their cars." ... uh, yeah, look at my driveway. Since nuclear power creates electricity the use of electric cars could be powered by nuclear reactors. In todays arrangement most vehicles are driven by liquid fuels (oil) but if most vehicles were driven by electricity the electricity could come from a wide range of sources. Solar panels, wind power, tidal power, biomass, and, uh, ah, nuclear power.

But let's move to his next point:-

The costs have just stood up on end lately. Wall Street Journal recently reported that they’re about two to four times the cost that the industry was talking about just a year ago. And the result of that is that if you buy more nuclear plants, you’re going to get about two to ten times less climate solution per dollar, and you’ll get it about twenty to forty times slower, than if you buy instead the cheaper, faster stuff that is walloping nuclear and coal and gas, all kinds of central plans, in the marketplace.

If you have 'n' dollars to put into climate change and environmental benefits don't you want the best return on investment? That's where Amory Lovins has been working for years.

It's cheaper to not build a power plant which isn't needed because efficiency improvements caused a decrease in what would have been the power demand. Amory Lovins invented this term negawatts which is power which isn't needed to be generated because of efficiency improvements.

Another thing he points at is how improvements in wind and solar power technology has made them far more economically attractive than nuclear power. Nuclear power plants have a very high cost to build (that is, to build safely) and wind/solar technology has been improving to the point where it's directly competitive with the usual technologies. The market is responding, as he points out, by investing in wind and solar power plants while ignoring investment in nuclear power plants. Wind/solar installations have increased at a huge rate while nuclear installations have been essentially flat.

He claims this is due to costs and the unwillingness of "Wall Street" to make investments in costly power systems. Uhm, that is probably true, that Wall Street isn't investing in nuclear power due to the costs, but isn't there also a moratorium in the U.S. against nuclear power? It might not be an explicit moratorium, but ever since 1978 when the Three Mile Island power plant almost melted down the U.S. public has been against building more nuclear power plants.

That's what the cost difference means.. if you spend dollars to build nuclear plants you'll get less power per dollar spent than if you instead use the dollars to build wind power plants.

The way this turns investments into nuclear power would increase global warming...? It's that because there are 'n' dollars and there is a certain sized problem to solve, the U.S. will solve that problem more slowly if we depend on nuclear power to solve it. Likewise if we use technologies like solar or wind power the problem would be solved more quickly than if we depended on nuclear power.

The core problem is the ever-increasing demand for power. The numbers I've seen indicate huge huge huge needs for massive investment in new power plants. If those investments are primarily in coal, well, that means burning a lot of coal and we've seen the result of that. The choice in technologies to invest in to provide that power will be with us for decades into the future. We must make this choice with the long view in mind.


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