A Better Plan for Energy Security?

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17 Responses

  1. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    This might be an interesting book for a group reading.Report

  2. Avatar North says:

    Perhaps, but frankly I’d say that the low carbon future for America is more likely to be electrical cars and a nuclear based energy grid. Bill Gates is investing heavily in travelling wave reactor design and if (more like when, the principles all work on chalkboard and computer modeling) that technology comes online our nuclear waste stockpiles will simply become more nuclear fuel for a new breed of 0% proliferation or accident risk nuclear power reactors.Report

    • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to North says:

      Bill Gates is wrong about “energy miracles”

      Doesn’t directly address traveling wave reactors, but covers the much more important “big picture”. IMHO.

      Traveling wave reactors aren’t going to solve our energy problems. Again, IMHO.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

        Yes well, setting aside that I disagree very with him on nuclear feasibility, imaginary solar plants that don’t work aren’t going to help mitigate climate change nor are carbon pricing or government efficiency dictats that can never get enacted. Obama has just barely managed to get through HCR in the teeth of a moderately negative position from the public. I’m skeptical that he’s going to try and tackle a far more complex and controversial subject with even worse fundamentals and less upsides. He has some elections to win. So I’m more interested in at least theoretically possible developments rather than the ones that exist in the fevered imaginations of climateprogress.Report

        • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to North says:

          Couldn’t disagree more with this:

          He has some elections to win.

          That statement leads to disastrous results in the medium/long term. (IMHO)

          But, that aside, there are certainly differing camps on what is feasible or theoretically possible developments. Romm is a lot smarter than I am on these issues, and he certainly has his own biases. I’m curious, who or what are you basing your opinion that traveling wave reactors can be scaled up to the level needed (other than Bill Gates’ investments)?

          I’ve been reading and contributing to The Oil Drum for several years (that’s really my passion, not politics). If you want to understand the issues around energy, I think this is one of the (if not THE) best places for analysis and discussion.

          My opinion is that there are no miracle technologies that will replace fossil fuel energy in the short or medium term (<15 years). In the long-term, it is pointless to discuss because there won't be enough fossil fuels left.

          Our access to inexpensive energy is a thing of the past. Nothing will bring it back. We need to get used to having less energy at our disposal, not hoping for a technology miracle.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

            I can sympathize with your passion and principles even if I disagree with some of the particulars. Thanks for the site reference I’ll be happy to review it.

            While I am reasonably convinced by the arguments that AGW exists I am deeply skeptical about the projections of its impact and the timescale about its impact. I don’t feel that the climate control proponents have done a very good job selling it to a skeptical public. So I lack that same urgency that Romm has about speed of deployment.

            That Romm talks about burying “nuclear waste” which is almost as valuable a fuel as the “nuclear fuel” that goes into reactors in the first place suggests to me that he’s not taking that particular field of energy production seriously or that he’s bought into completely unrealistic danger and proliferation concerns that are leftovers from the Chernobyl era. I noticed that he also attributes a full wedge in his projections to biomass fuel. Now perhaps he considers rolling government created famines to be superior to rolling environmentally created ones but I don’t and until there’s some serious advances cellulose conversion using biomass that doesn’t require using up arable land that’s what we’re in for if we start pushing biomass again.

            I’m puzzled by your concerns about fossil fuel availability as well. We’re going to run out in 15 years? That seems severely unlikely. The idea that we’re going to run out of inexpensive energy is similarly far fetched. Setting aside coal there are plenty of other power sources that can provide inexpensive energy; nuclear certainly being a significant one of them.

            Look the crux of the matter is that I am severely skeptical that the great masses will allow themselves to be starved for energy over issues of global warming. Not without some much more unambiguous signs (and as I understand it once AGW starts producing those kinds of things it’s too late). The developing world will not let itself be trapped in poverty over climate concerns. The first world simply won’t let their economies be crippled by the same.Report

            • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to North says:

              AGW and the availability of inexpensive, liquid energy are different issues, even though there are areas of interaction between them.

              First, we will NOT run out of fossil fuels in 15 years.

              Second, my comment focuses on the availability of inexpensive fossil fuels. The most important of these right now is oil (you can’t run your car on coal or nuclear or solar or wind). The important theory is called peak oil – which means that the production of oil will peak at some point and then decline (meaning that we will never pump more oil out of the ground each year after that point). This doesn’t mean that we run out of oil; it means that we run out of inexpensive oil, and there is a lot of evidence that we have already reached the peak in production.

              We don’t need to run out of oil for us to start feeling the effects of peak oil, since many things could be said to be made out of oil. Most of our food relies very heavily on oil, as an example. As we are less able to pump oil out of the ground, oil prices rise, which causes the price of almost everything else to rise. Demand is destroyed in the process. This results in less energy being available for everyone.

              As for AGW, the danger is not doing enough and not doing it quickly enough. The timescales are very large, the downsides are potentially huge (perhaps catastrophic). Nuclear has several problems: build-time, cost, and availability of fuel. It sounds strange, but we’re also running out of nuclear fuel. Breeder reactors (and other technologies) can reuse some spent nuclear fuel, but we’re talking about replacing a substantial portion of our energy needs with nuclear. I don’t see it happening quickly enough, and I don’t see the development and deployment of electric vehicles being fast enough (though I am a huge proponent of electric vehicles). For me, I don’t think it has anything to do with safety, but it does have everything to do with “above ground factors” (as they say in the oil biz).

              Biomass is a red herring, and it always bothers me that Romm takes it more seriously than it should be. But, as I said previously, we all have our biases.

              As for Romm and the need for speedy deployment, I’m much more in agreement with him. The arctic and antarctic areas are already changing faster than the worst-case models from the IPCC, as are other areas of the globe. We dither at our peril.

              At the end of the day, we will be starved for energy, but not because of AGW. The world will do nothing – NOTHING – about it until it is much too late to do anything about it. I think Copenhagen showed this very clearly. And, because we won’t really do anything about it, we will allow the climate system to continue changing, and some of it will change in ways that we haven’t even thought about.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

                Well if they can hammer out the kinks in batteries we will be able to heave Nuclear, Solar or Wind into the cars. Your point on peak oil is certainly pertinent but I think that economically it’ll not be as bad as the doomsayers predict. At some price level the demand for fossil fuel powered cars just implodes and once electrical vehicles step in and fill that need the demand for fossil fuels will plunge which will allow far more reasonable prices for industrial uses for fuel like farming and industry.

                Now nuclear is very complicated but we’re not in any danger of running out of fuel. If we get over our tendency to faint whenever someone talks about reprocessing or breeder reactors then we’ll have conventional fuel for the foreseeable future. If we go with thorium reactors will have fuel for millennia and virtually no waste. Again since I’m not as worried about speed of deployment that isn’t as much of a concern for me but for environmentalists who are worried about that it begs the question as to why they have such knee jerk hostility to the entire field? It’s the one power category that we could take huge steps to implementing right now with zero resistance from naysayers. Obama’s actually been doing some good work in this area.

                It’s truly a delight to agree with you on biomass.

                I agree with you about the likelihood of taking action on AGW. I just disagree on the idea that we’ll be starved for energy. There’s a lot of energy resources we’ll be able to harness and we’ll undoubtedly figure out how once the need to do so is upon us. The six billion dollar question is what AGW fallout will occur and when while we figure it all out.Report

              • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to North says:

                Batteries: there are problems with this, due to the scarcity of lithium and other necessary elements. Again, the real issue is scalability – do you have any idea of the amount of raw materials necessary to replace a significant portion of ICE-vehicles with battery-vehicles?

                Oil demand and electric vehicles replacing them at some price level: see above about the problems with electric vehicles. Additionally, the theory of peak oil states that we produce less and less oil each year (the downslope of the curve). This means that there is demand destruction each year, and that the price of energy increases. We barely have enough electric capacity now. It takes 20-30 years to build a new nuclear power plant. How will enough electric capacity be created in a short enough timeframe to allow us to power our transportation fleet with electricity?

                Nuclear fuel: there is evidence of peak uranium having occurred in the 80’s, and an alternative bit of evidence that uranium production will peak in the 30’s. There is a lot of evidence that we do NOT have enough nuclear fuel. There is also the issue of EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). The early days of oil development had an EROEI of 100:1. Biomass has a negative EROEI, which is why I think it is foolhardy. All energy sources have an EROEI, even nuclear.

                An additional issue is ELM (Export Land Model), from one of the main contributors on The Oil Drum. The theory is that a nation that exports oil, and has increasing internal demand, will find that its exports decline much faster than the production decline (Mexico is going through this right now). Additional “above ground factors”, such as wanting to hold on to the oil they have, could contribute even more to the downslope of energy available.

                There is a lot of information out there about this from people who are much smarter than I am. The price-spike in oil already shows that energy shortages are happening and will continue. Our current global recession has destroyed demand and bought us some time, but it’s not enough time to replace our infrastructure that relies almost completely on ICE and liquid fossil fuels. I’d rather be safe than sorry in regards to what we do to limit the negative consequences.

                And, be careful of believing in technology miracles (like nuclear). We didn’t stop using wood as our energy source because we ran out; we stopped using wood because we found an energy source with a higher EROEI – coal (it has a higher exergy). We didn’t stop using coal because we ran out; we stopped using coal (as primary source) because we discovered an energy source with a higher EROEI – oil (it has higher exergy than coal, is liquid, and can be easily used in ICE). But now, we think that we’ll just come up with some other energy source to replace the one we’re running out of. We’ve never done this (as a species), and I have strong doubts that we can do this – especially while the clock is ticking down.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

            Oh and on the elections thing… well political facts are political facts. We can run a strong intervention AGW politician. They’ll be even more ineffective as they are sitting out of power than a milquetoast AGW would be in power, especially if the opponent they loose to thinks AGW is bunk.Report

            • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to North says:

              The problem I have with the sentiment in the election thing is that this excuse has been used by countless politicians for a countless number of years. Most of the time, we don’t get any significant changes after waiting for them to “win the elections”.

              I understand your point. It’s used by politicians and parties all the time. In fact, I would say it is boilerplate politician-speak. It sounds good and logical, but it doesn’t have any meaning beyond – “Well, I’m better than the other guy/gal!” (IMHO)Report

              • Avatar North in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

                Yes, definitely, it’s commonly used and a bit of a trope. And yet, the assorted green parties and movements are for the most part up on concrete blocks around the world. Out of power and removed from influence they’re as ineffectual as they are ideologically pure.

                Thanks for chatting on the subject by the way, I learned quite a bit.Report

              • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to North says:

                I understand your point and agree with it (you can’t do anything if you don’t have some power to do something). I just think that excuse is used too often, and we end up not getting much after the election.

                Thanks, also, for the chat. I’m encouraged that you’re interested. Energy is an important issue that is rarely discussed beyond how much gas costs.Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I have a fondness for trains. My inherent Henry Clay whigishness like big infrastruture projects. I would like the see a substantial increase in the excise taxes on retail gasoline and diesel as well on the barrel head (but won’t due to the current political landscape and promises/self-preservation instinct of the current – and any other – adminstration)
    Nonetheless this:
    This plan, fleshed out in the book Moving Minds, would create a national transportation network that provides reliable, efficient and mostly train-based public transportation to all Americans
    strikes me as *exactly* what we had in 1910 at the precipice of the automobile age. It clearly wasn’t a utopia. (and of course ironically(?) the ‘pro-railroad’ and ‘anti-railroad’ – note scare quotes – political landscape is pretty much a 180 of what it is today)Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Just as the Cold War brought about the National Defense Interstate Highway Act
    And while there’s no doubt that the interstates were a direct and substantial contribution to late twentieth century American prosperity (esp the raising of living standards in rural areas) I would question Interstate highways contribution to acutally winning the Cold War.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Kolohe says:

      Well Kolohe, I’m no expert on the cold war but I’d say that rising prosperity and living standards were pretty much the primary weapon that resulted in the west winning the Cold War.Report

  5. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    I want to say that public-transportation (hopefully, electric-powered) is one of the easy wins in our energy future. Thanks to Mr. Schmitz for focusing on the real issue (reducing dependence on oil) and discussing public transportation as a good potential solution.Report