Thursday, July 02, 2009

Coal? Nuclear? Excluded Middle? Pastry?

SEED Magazine has an interview with a number of experts in the electricity generation and environmental field to discuss the choice between coal and nuclear.

I agree most with Gwyneth Cravens, a full-on supporter of nuclear power. I consider the pollution generated by nuclear to be easily manageable, and fears about meltdowns and radioactive waste are so comically overblown as to be meaningless.

I wish she had at least mentioned an overhaul of the current coal industry, though. We have hundreds of coal-fired plants in the US, and stimulating advances in clean-coal technology, through tax breaks and direct government investment would pay huge dividends in pollution reduction. It's something that can be done now. Hopefully, we'll move away entirely from coal in the future, but we aren't now, and we must do something to make it more palatable to a green-conscious world.

K.J. Reddy comes up next, and he discusses clean coal, so I guess his advice combined with Ms. Cravens' is the best course of action. He makes the opposite mistake by not mentioning nuclear at all.

Edwin Lyman is one of those fear-mongering over-reactors I hate. He even manages to squeeze in some hating of "The Man" near the end of his section, where he accuses the evil government and special interests of hiding the "true" costs of coal and nuclear. And I'm disgusted that he pulled out the terrorist attack line. I thought that was restricted to Bush supporters. Unless he is a Bush supporter. And if he is, whoa. Just, whoa.

Benjamin Sovacool is one of the pie-in-the-sky dreamers, who I would argue has both feet squarely in fantasy. He calls both nuclear and coal "Faustian Bargains."

"Energy efficiency—getting more out of each unit of energy—means insulating our homes, retrofitting our businesses, changing light bulbs, purchasing more efficient appliances, streamlining industrial manufacturing processes, and driving cars with better fuel economy to get more bang out of each kilowatt-hour (kWh) or gallon of gasoline. Over the last 40 years, these efforts have saved more energy than any single source of existing electricity supply in the United States."

So his argument is to... retrofit the entire country from the ground up. Yes, that would be ideal. But all of this is only ideal if we assume that both nuclear and coal are not just equally bad, but just bad. I argue that nuclear isn't even bad.

...renewable power technologies as they exist in the market today could quite easily meet three times the country’s 2007 electricity needs. Last year in the United States, for example, wind turbines and landfill gas generators produced electricity far cheaper than the newest coal and natural gas plants. Hydroelectric dams, solar thermal plants, and geothermal facilities provided billions of kilowatt-hours of baseload electricity. Scientific studies have confirmed that the country has so far tapped an infinitesimally small portion of this resource base.

First off, I think he and his fantasy crew are the only people who think we could "easily" meet our power needs with renewables. I'll use the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Japan as an example. It produces 8.2G gigawatts of power. Using GE's largest wind turbine as a counter example, it

  • produces 3.6 megawatts per turbine

  • Each turbine requires 1 acre of land to operate, with five to ten turbine diameters separating each turbine.

  • The GE 3.6Gw turbine would thus require one-half to one kilometer between each turbine.

  • Placed on a grid, you could fit four turbines on one square kilometer, with one on each corner.

  • To match the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, we would need 2,278 turbines.

  • This would require a grid placement of 47km x 47km, or, 2209km^2. Over half the size of Rhode Island.

  • But wait! The diagonal in the grid isn't 1km, it's 1.414.

  • So we shift the rows alternating left and right and move them down, which reduces the separation between rows to .866km. So instead of 47x47, we have 41x47, or 1,927km/sq, which is still nearly half the size of Rhode Island.

  • This all assumes 100% efficiency of the turbines at all times.

  • The US consumed 3.35 terawatts of power in 2004. Assuming an increase in consumption from then, we can round the 930,555 turbines required in 2004 to an even million.

  • This results in an area of around 866,000 square kilometers. Or round-abouts twice the size of California.

  • Wind turbines operate at about 30% efficiency.

  • This means we would need three times the number of generators, or six times the area of California.

If we dedicate OVER ONE-QUARTER of the US to wind generation, we can power the US today. Mr. Sovacool is beyond wrong. The only renewable power capable of reaching the levels we need are hydroelectric dams, such as the Grand Coulee or Three Gorges Dam, the latter of which produces an eye-popping 22.5Gw.

Still, dam's are limited to where there's flowing water, and the dams themselves result in massive amounts of environmental damage. There are positives, certainly, but the good/bad combo could be said of nuclear and coal as well.

I argue that not only does nuclear have the fewest downsides, I see NO downsides to nuclear. We produce such a small amount of waste from fission, that if need be we could simply fire it into space. We will run out of uranium long before we run out of places to store the spent fuel. It produces almost no CO2. It's compact. It can be placed anywhere. It runs 24/7. It's expensive, surely, but we get what we pay for.

Hopefully we will reach his powertopia some time in the future, but we're certainly not there now, and we have to change what we have. Altering our entire infrastructure is not a solution. It's the end-goal of many different solutions. Simply talking about how great it will be adds nothing to the discussion. Shut up.

Wind Turbine Info (

No comments: