Our Civilization’s Essence

The image mostly speaks for itself, but there are a few things I’d like to call attention to in conjunction with it:

(1) In a very nontrivial sense, this chart is the story of our civilization.

(2) Notice the amount of energy it takes to generate electricity vs. the amount of energy we derive from electricity, as well as the energy our cars waste!

(3) I would like to see the sciences taught from the elementary level in terms of energy as a common currency and basic component of reality instead of as this magical thing that we feed our cars and depend on the Middle East for. When most twelve-year-olds hear the word “energy” they think of something like this instead of the above chart and what it all means.

(4) Using an incandescent bulb wastes something like 99% of the energy generated to keep it running. For every hundred units of coal burned to light up your home with incandescent radiation, the energy from only one unit of coal is actually converted to light. This is kind of ridiculous.

(5) In addition to climate change due to the greenhouse effect, ocean acidification is another potential 2012-style problem on the horizon for the human race. If the ocean becomes slightly more acidic, shells made of calcium carbonate will dissolve and there will be far-reaching implications for the rest of the food chain. It’s crazy to think that something that took hundreds of millions of years to develop and that all of life on earth depends on could be wiped out in a relative blink of an eye by something we don’t even use.

 

 

EDIT: 3/23/2012 2:42 P.M.:

Commenter James B Franks provides a more recent version of the graphic:

Our Civilization's Essence

As Franks notes, it does seem like little has changed. However, some differences between this chart and the last:

(1) The ratio of energy used to  energy lost has improved slightly, probably as a result of more efficient cars and consumer/industrial devices.

(2) The category “Nonfuel” has disappeared from the chart for some reason. I assume “Nonfuel” refers to plastics, etc., but wouldn’t these be counted under “Industrial”, “Commercial”, etc. along with other goods that require energy to produce? Does anyone know what the category “Nonfuel” truly refers to and why it is missing in the 2009 chart (largely accounting for the difference in total estimated energy use)?

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118 thoughts on “Our Civilization’s Essence

  1. The amount of waste is staggering.

    Personally, I would like to see more in the way of hydroelectric.
    There are issues of species depletion that need to be addressed through proper management.

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    • From what I understand, there is not a river in North America left to dam it, put in a hydroelectric power plant.  There’s plenty of growth potential in tidal and ‘micro-hydro’ – e.g. impellers in streams, creeks, brooks, runs, etc – but the technology, low energy density, and transmission losses (as in the graphic above) are limiting these now.

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        • I understand that, I was saying you can’t dam the Tennessee river *again* .  But per Mr.Cain’s graph below, I had the wrong impression of what was left; there’s still at least 7 or 8 states (mostly out West, but including TN) that still have enough potential to power a flux capacitor.

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      • This figure, from the DOE, suggests that there are significant amounts of conventional hydro left to develop.  As with most of renewable energy sources, the best of the resources are in the West.  If you add small and micro hydro potential, the amount of undeveloped resource goes up by a lot, particularly in the West.  Undeveloped hydro (big and small) is a significant resource relative to regional demand in the states of the Western Interconnect.  In the Eastern, undeveloped hydro is very small compared to the size of the problems they face over the next 25 years.

        Potential conventional hydropower

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        • The problem with hydro is that it *is* an ecosystem.  The environmental impact of hydro is huge.

          That doesn’t make all of the impact *negative*, mind you, but proper stewardship of hydro requires long term planning and investment.  We’re not great at either.

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            • This of course is always a problem because the knee-jerk reaction of the environmental corp is “don’t touch that!”

              And of course you’ll never learn how not to screw up the ecosystem without tampering with it and seeing what happens and figuring out how to undo the damage you did and then seeing what new damage you cause and cycling down.

              Of course, the environmental corp sees all damage as catastrophic.  And the anti-environmental corp sees all the husbandry as paying scientists to waste government money.

              I seriously want to pound heads in this problem space.  The concerned citizens on both ends make me ranty Pat in my head.

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        • I know they put up a new hydro unit outside of Farmington, NM, not that long ago; seven years maybe.
          They were talking about building a unit on the Colorado, but I’m not sure if this is the one or if it was some sort of compromise.

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      • Actually there is a lot of hydro potential on the Main Stem Mississippi River and the Ohio. There are dams and locks on both the upper Mississippi and the Ohio, but due to the proximity of coal to the river hydro generation has not been economic. However now there are a couple of plants basically run of river type (i.e. the river is allowed to run thru the generators instead of just flowing over the top of the dam).  Here is a link to some of the projects on the Ohio:

        http://amppartners.org/generation-assets/hydroelectric/

        Studies are also going on on using submerged turbines on the Mississippi below Cairo. Note that again this takes a different sort of thinking than a traditional hydro plant, and does have serious competion with coal barged down the river as well.

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  2. How much of #2 is stuff like Carnot, though? And I’d be curious how they are defining ‘waste’ in the residential/commercial.  Leaky windows?  Vampire power supplies?  Taking a 20 minute shower vice a 10 minute one?

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    • To answer the question, a coal fired power plant runs about 35% efficient due to Carnot cycle issues (Basically you can only make steam so hot before it becomes impossible to find materials that will stand the heat). However a gas turbine combined cycle plant runs up to 60% in the newest models as the high temp in the combustion chamber increases the Carnot efficency. (Nuclear is worse than coal due to material limitations inside the reactor, i.e. the temp of the output steam is less).

      Also some of the residential waste is due to incandescent light bulbs.

      Transport is also inefficient as the figure notes with about a 20% ratio, however it could be improved by moving trucks to rail, as steel on steel (and fewer stops) is bettern than rubber on pavement in terms of friction.

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      • It doesn’t strike me as particularly meaningful to say that nuclear energy is worse than coal in terms of efficiency. There’s the heat loss, sure, but that’s academic. What really matters are the material inputs and pollution per unit of usable energy.

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          • Yo, yo, Mr. Kolohe:  Let’s backtrack on this Carnot Cycle thang, por favor.  Waste measured in degrees Kelvin from absolute zero?  What do these figures mean?  Most everything’s a waste compared to absolute zero.

            We’re getting a ~40% efficiency after burning oil and gas and atomic nuclei and coal and windmilling and damming rivers and shit and sending it all through power lines when not gassing up our SUVs and cooking burgers on Kingsford charcoal and typing to each other on these computers over the internet and I need another cold beer, thank you mister can I have one please?

            What an essence!  What a civilization, Mr. Carr!  This rocks.  Thx for the Rube Goldberg/Larry Livermore graphics and all:  The glass is 40% full, and full of ambrosia.  Anybody who doesn’t see that would be an ingrate and a humbug.

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            • Officious old BlaiseP horns in to explain the obvious.

              The most useful element is hydrogen.   It forms a bond with carbon.  In a long-chain hydrocarbon, we see a conga line of carbon atoms, each capable of taking two hydrogen atoms along for the dance, one in each arm, three hydrogens if the carbon atom is at the start or end of the conga line.   If every such arm is filled, we call this a saturated hydrocarbon.   There are many curious variants of this arrangement: isobutane has four carbons with one in the center and three around it.

              Breaking hydrogen bonds is easy:  apply a little heat and a saturated hydrocarbon like lard will melt.   We can go the other way and make corn oil into margarine by hydrogenating it.

              Oxygenating, that is to say, burning a hydrocarbon will snatch away all those little hydrogen cuties off the arms of the carbons.   Every time you can break such a hydrogen bond, you get energy.   But most of the energy thus created emerges in the form of heat.  This we call an exothermic reaction.

              Thermodynamics sorts out these reactions into Work and Heat.   Gasoline burns, pushes the piston with what we call Pressure Work.   The rest of the reaction just heats up the cylinder.   There’s also the matter of friction in the cylinder.  Though simple mechanics looks at the Work part, there’s always Heat involved.

              Turns out you can’t get Just Work out of any system.  Heat is itself a product of Work.   Something to do with entropy.   If you use heat to run a process, like converting water to steam, you’ll get work, but analysis of the process as a stable system is governed by the laws of thermodynamics.   In the case of burning hydrocarbons to do work, we get heat as an unwanted result, unless of course you’re running the heater in your car.  First law of thermodynamics.

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                • 100% is a theoretical, like absolute zero. It’s used as a set point in an equation.

                  Before I go on, I wrote a post about the high-fructose corn syrup controversy a few days back; oddly enough, informed by my experience as a brewer and bodybuilder. I knew those two would meet up someday.
                  At any rate, I was never really clear as to the distinction between a hydrocarbon and a carbohydrate.

                  Reading a flame:
                  The blue at the base is the carbon burning. It’s heavy and doesn’t travel very far. It sucks up all the oxygen so that the hydrogen can’t burn.
                  The red at the top is hydrogen. It has to travel outside of the carbon area to burn.
                  Yellow is incomplete combustion. Green is contaminants within the flame.

                  My grandfather was the superintendent of a refinery while I was growing up. I remember him taking me out with him before I had even started kindergarten.
                  But I can tell from reading the flame when they’re burning off the H2S from the flare.

                  I’ve worked on some of the cutting edge Japanese designed super-critical units. These things have zero particulate emissions.
                  I worked on a gasification system last year. This one used Selexol to produce syngas.
                  Those are the two systems we have to remove carbon from emissions: post-combustion or pre-combustion.
                  There are two other gasification systems going up that I know of, one in Indiana and one in West Virginia; and perhaps two others of which I am uncertain of the permitting in Indiana and Illinois.
                  But it looks to me like the gasification systems will likely be the preferred method in not-so-future times.

                  When I was out at Kennedy Space Center, I was working out close to the hydrogen tank there. Not near, but close.
                  This thing looks like a water tower for a fairly good-sized town.
                  The thing itself isn’t menacing.
                  But knowing how explosive what’s in there is has a way of putting the fear of God in you.

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                • A 100% efficient transmission line wouldn’t lose any current over the hundreds of miles it has to travel from the power plant to your wall socket.  That loss is waste. Better to generate your power as close to home as possible to lose as little as possible in transmission.

                  There is a way around this problem:  use superconducting materials to transmit the power.   The struggle now is to find superconductors which operate at high enough temperatures to be practical.   There’s where this Absolute Zero business starts entering the picture: most of our current superconducting materials only operate in the deep freeze.   Like gravity, we really don’t understand superconductivity as well as we’d like.  Something to do with eliminating magnetic fields seems to be part of it.

                  A 100% efficient internal combustion simply isn’t possible, as I’ve said, because oxidizing anything produces heat as a byproduct.   Most of the tech in an auto engine is related to handling that waste heat.  But when we consider how much better MPG we’re getting with modern engines, that’s a measure of efficiency, that is to say, the ratio of Pressure Work to Heat and lowering the related inefficiencies along the way down the drive train.   If you ever find yourself in a car slowly leaking coolant, one tactic is to roll down your windows and turn on your car heater full blast.   It’s a radiator system, again… radiating heat, dissipating heat energy.   Ever see those NASCAR racers power into a corner, their brake pads glowing?   Conservation of energy:  slowing the car down requires friction, hence heat and light.   Incandescent light bulbs,  plenty of light, yes, but plenty of heat, too.

                  Though perfect efficiency is impossible, it’s pointless to deny the need for efficiency, which brings us round to everyone’s favorite atom:  hydrogen.   It’s really just a proton and an electron.   Put hydrogen into a fuel cell and we can get current out of it.   We do need to add oxygen to the reaction but we get H20 out of the reaction.  Distilled water.   We’ve been using fuel cells on orbit for a good long while, since it’s a dandy source of drinking water, very expensive to haul up.

                  But those tricksy guys at NASA who have to deal with closed systems all the day long have another big problem on orbit, the build-up of carbon dioxide.   They can convert a good deal of it back to oxygen but they get methane as a by-product.   So this is what they’ve done with it.   Will has done a fine job of laying out the rudiments of oxidation chemistry but this little microwave plasma reactor is a decided improvement on retrieving everyone’s favorite atom.

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            • ” Most everything’s a waste compared to absolute zero”

              yes, entropy’s a bitch that way.  It’s about the graphs here    The area under the graph is waste, and a fundamental & unavoidable law of thermodynamics.  You can reduce the percentage of the waste by either lowering the bottom line of the square (but which is almost solely determined by the environment you’re operating in) or by raising the top line of the square (which is an engineering problem, a metallurgical problem mostly, but also puts limits on your applications).  Every actual heat engine, of course, deviates from that ideal model, and internal combustion automobile engines most of all, but the basic principle of Carnot efficiency (as a theoretical maximum efficiency still hold)  And internal combustion automobile engines are among the worst of all, due to the relatively small difference between operating temperature and rejection temperature.  But as you say, they have other advantages.

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        • Yah, PatC, that’s my reservation on point-of-use solar.  Right now the fed gov’t is subsidizing the hell out of installations, but what when the panels break, wear out, or the roof underneath them goes to hell?

          Me, I think we’re flushing more billions on “unsustainable renewables.”  [A first coinage?]

          [Me, I got exc sun but also live on a hill with occasional 70+ mph winds.  Do they have solar windmills?]

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  3. Ok, I will bite….

    What is the point? Are you pointing out the ingenuity of humanity considering the relentless forces of thermodynamics? Are you suggesting how much more power humanity will be capable of as we address the lower hanging fruit of inefficiency? Or something else?

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    • By my reading the point was utterly clear — the reality of this thing, energy, is very different from the popular conception of it.

      That’s valuable in itself, because it brings into the public sphere questions about thermodynamics, inefficiency, and everything related to them.  How one can have a discussion of energy policy without these ideas is (or should be) mysterious.

       

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      • How one can have a discussion of energy policy without these ideas is (or should be) mysterious.

        Fairly explicable.

        Most people don’t understand thermodynamics.  Heck, most people don’t even take Physics.

        Everybody thinks they understand $4.00 a gallon for gas.

        Our national conversations are usually driven by what politicians think everybody thinks they understand.

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    • Okay, people, let’s get it together.

      Here is the new lexicon for civilized conversation at this forum:

      Environmentalist:  enviro-nazi
      Liberal:  libtard
      Libertarian:  market Stalin
      Right-wing:  tea bagger
      Feminist:  bull dyke

      Comments not using these terms will be referred to Tod for disciplinary action.

      Scott:  job well done!

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        • The people holding up nuclear in this country are called “politicians”.  On the national stage, nobody has done a goddamn thing about nuclear since Three Mile.

          Because in order to make it happen, you have to deal with lawsuits from state and local governments, because nobody wants Yucca in their backyard.

          As much as I despair over the U.S. populaces’ paranoia about nuclear power, there’s really no way to make it happen without eminent domaining and rolling over local and state governments.  Nobody is going to do that at the federal level.

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          • Nuclear power’s problem is a lot larger than the regulatory hurdles and the NIMBYs.   It’s got Numbers Problems.

            Let’s say Wizbang Labs came up with the perfect energy solution, say it ran on stupidity, the most abundant element in our our solar system by far.   But each Wizbang Converter cost a billion dollars to install.   Oh, I’ll grant you, we could generate a bazillion watts of power but that’s only after it’s built.

            The only way Wizbang Inc.  could make the Stupidity Converter economically viable would be to follow one of two routes:

            1.   Many Mini-Converters

            2.  Get the Gummint involved.

            Neither is a terribly palatable option. But one is economically viable.

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            • Why wouldn’t someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet just build one (or finance the building of it… though it would be funny to see Buffet with a hard hat on)?

              More importantly, why do we presume that those are the only two solutions?  One billion dollars isn’t so prohibitively expensive that there isn’t enough private money to fund it.  But when folks see everyone else getting a handout, they hold out until they get one two.  You see the exact same thing with sports stadiums.  Once the first one secured a bogus public financing plan, no one was going to build their own stadium without the same.

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              • You’ve inadvertently hit the nail on the head.  Here’s where we get into the real numbers.   For projects above a certain size, there are only a limited number of entities willing to fund them.   Oh, below a certain size, funding’s available, but once you’ve reached a certain threshold, it’s exceedingly difficult to find investors with deep enough pockets to fund it.

                The US Navy has perfectly acceptable nuclear power plants in its carriers and subs capable of powering a small city.   They’ve got certain advantages, what with their ability to run for decades without being refueled.   We’ve got thousands of graduates from the Naval Reactor School with the training to run them.   The Navy could also provide the security required.   They’re efficient enough to the point where the Navy will never build another big vessel not powered by such a reactor.

                So in this case, we’ve had the tech for decades.   Why haven’t we used this sort of reactor for commercial applications?   Because they’re not powerful enough to power a large city.    Scaling problems.  Cost per watt is still too high.   No getting around the problem at our current state of technology.   We’ve thrown umpty-ump billion at the problem and still haven’t beat it.

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              • Interesting question, isn’t it?

                Why has the Free Market not rushed in to build nuclear power plants?

                God knows the libtards and environazies haven’t stopped mountaintop destruction or fracking or half a dozen other environnmental atrocities so it can’t be that.

                 

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                • Why has the Free Market not rushed in to build nuclear power plants?

                  In cases where private energy firms have tried they’ve run into intense legal and political pressure.  That’s not the only reason, but it’s a significant one.

                  Wind power is now running into the same problem.

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                  • In parts of the country where generation and local power distribution are split, the economics of a nuclear plant just don’t work. Consider that the current new builds are in areas with a traditional unified model of electric service. Assume you are a retail distribution of electricity: You goal is to deliver power at the lowest cost possible. A generator comes to you to offer power from a new nuclear plant, but they can’t tell you want the power will cost in many years when the plant comes on line, do you buy the pig in the poke?  Likewise if you are in the generation business without contracts for some demand who in their right mind would loan you money for the plant?  In essence we can thank Enron for killing nuclear power in large parts of the country. Consider that a large part of the stranded costs that are being paid off to the legacy utility companies are for old nuclear plants.

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                • God is laffing at the Frackers and all who support them.   For the Almighty doth ever answer the prayers of the stupid, literally and immediately.    They are nothing but so many annoying children at the malt shop, making annoying noises as they attempt to suck the last few drops out of the bottom of their drinks.

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                • There’s a credibility issue around the regulatory environment.

                  Nuclear reactors have high fixed but low variable cost, it takes a lot of money to build one, but little money to run it per kWh.  That means that the profitability of a reactor depends crucially on how long the reactor can run.  That means it matters a lot to the private sector whether the regulators will freak out 15 years down the road and demand the reactor be shut down, or scaled back or be forced to pay more for some reason.

                  The kicker is that the regulators of today can’t guarantee this won’t happen because they have no control over what regulators 15 years from now will be doing.  This leaves nuclear reactors a risky proposition.

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                  • The kicker is that the regulators of today can’t guarantee this won’t happen because they have no control over what regulators 15 years from now will be doing.  This leaves nuclear reactors a risky proposition.

                    Sure they can.  You pay for the construction of the facility with tax money and then lease it to the operator for its 30 year depreciation cost.  If you shut it down early, it costs the taxpayer something but the company not so much.  If you run it past its operable life, either the company operating it has to certify that it is safe (and take on the liability if they’re wrong), or the taxpayer actually gets revenue.

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            • But each Wizbang Converter cost a billion dollars to install.

              We have to consider the reasons for that. A considerable part of the cost comes from overcoming the regulatory and legal-battles.  Another part of the cost has traditionally come from each one being individually designed (in contrast to the French’s standardized model). Another part has come from the insistence on building only full-size city-scale reactors instead of mini ones.  We could also shift to thorium reactors, which are much safer, and consequently much cheaper.

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              • Mind you there may be something to be said for just letting the Indians and Chinese develop commercial thorium reactors and then just buy them from them. If you don’t think carbon is gonna end the world in a decade I can almost see the reason to it.

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                    • Hope that’s not snark.   Look, a thorium reactor is sorta like an internal combustion engine, it needs a starter motor.   There are two routes, both are exceedingly troublesome.    And once you’ve got a thorium reactor lit, it starts generating even more troublesome byproducts.   Furthermore, its fuel can’t be recycled effectively at present time.

                      If you compared a thorium reactor to a wood fire, you’re only burning the bark off the log.   Some of these problems can be overcome, but thorium isn’t ready for prime time yet and won’t be for many years until these problems have been overcome.

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                    • BlaiseP, if I’ve ever given you cause to think I would snark at you I apologize humbly.

                      Nuclear is a fascination of mine; as close to magic in this real world as anything I’ve seen. It’s the power of the stars, the piston driving the universe and I find it endlessly interesting. But I suck at math.

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                  • Blaise, I’m not interested in starting a full blown battle on this, but I have to say, as respectfully as possible, I just can’t take your word on this. Not only do you not demonstrate that you actually have the requisite expertise, but you contradict yourself, saying both that thorium is a dead-end and that it may be viable in the future.

                    When you consider the prospects for vastly increased safety and the ability to reuse our current nuclear waste stockpiles, the cost-benefit analysis for thorium is dramatically affected (although I won’t make a pretense of certainty about the final balance).

                    But I’m with North on this one.  It may be cheaper to buy them from China.  Not that I don’t want to keep investing in high level research of all kinds in the U.S., but perhaps there’s an issue of comparative advantage–if not economically, at least politically.

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                    • (hands up) far be it from me to get into a big tussle over this.   I once thought thorium was a fine solution until my brother in law (the submarine guy, 2 PhDs, one in nuclear physics the other in thermodynamics) said what I’ve said.

                      Sure, go ahead, check it out for yourself.   There’s no good reason to take my word for it on some third-hand opinion.   India seems to think they can make a go of it.   Maybe they can.   But I seriously doubt it.

                      The chemistry of a thorium reactor does produce some rum byproducts and its fuel must be manufactured at high temperatures.   I do know it’s extremely difficult to recycle its fuel.   Let someone else solve this problem:  if the Chinese and Indians can make this work.   I’ve just got one word for y’all when it comes to this sort of thing.

                      Bhopal.

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            • [I]t ran on stupidity, the most abundant element in our our solar system by far.

              You may well have the perpetual motion machine halfway engineered.

              There might be some stupidity loss in transferring this energy into work.

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        • To my knowledge, the TVA just built another nuke, and there are two more going up in Georgia.
          Most power plants of any type are caught in litigation for three years at various stages of the EPC these days.

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            • Big news here is two old coal burners coming down.
              “Environmentalists” are upset because they believe this was done as retaliation to some regulatory scheme.
              It was done because those things are on their last legs and it’s not economically feasible to retrofit them.
              They would never get the efficiency out of it as they would a super-critical unit.
              And they can’t just switch it over to those steam conditions.

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  4. Roger wisely points out the Carnot Cycle problem:  burning the hydrocarbons is terribly wasteful but it’s still the most economically-viable proposition until more-efficient technology emerges from the labs.   In many cases, it has.

    Back when petroleum was first being refined, the lightest fractions (from which we make gasoline) were just flared off:  they were just too dangerous.   That’s how it got its name:  “gasoline” was those condensed fractions in the cracking tower.   We couldn’t use those fractions until metallurgy had advanced (along with radiators and cooling technology and storage facilities) to the point where burning those explosive fractions was really possible.   But once that metallurgical hurdle was overcome, both the automobile and the aircraft engine appear almost immediately.

    Fuel cells can run quite nicely on hydrocarbons.   Take CH4, methane, nice tidy little molecule, life forces produce it, four hydrogen bonds, break those and you’re in the energy business.   The trick is to overcome the sunk costs.   A Bloom Box is still pretty expensive but any technology costs drop when they’re produced in volume.   Lots of other such technologies out there.

    The problem isn’t the tech.  It’s the infrastructure.   I have every reason to believe we’ll overcome these hurdles.  Why?   Because I see the hundreds of little projects, it’s rather like how life itself evolved.   Look at the Cambrian Explosion for a parallel:  life put out feelers in thousands of directions, some of them totally bizarre.   Most of them failed.   We’ll prune down these projects to a handful of working solutions and our children and grandchildren will look back on the Age of the Internal Combustion Engine with pity and horror.

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    • “The problem isn’t the tech.  It’s the infrastructure.” – Well said. There are definitely real gains to be made in terms of currently available technologies, but the real sources of waste are infrastructure-related.

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      • Look at the solar numbers.

        .01 to electrical generation, .1 to residential.

        Now explain to me why it is… when the grid eats 60% of the power in transmission… we’re building huge solar plants out in the middle of the desert instead of giving people a bigger incentive to put panels on their roof?

        Point of use generation is hugely more efficient.  It’s one reason why natural gas is so kickass among the hydrocarbons, it’s not terribly hard to distribute it to households without a lot of loss.

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        • This is my question… how many buildings/homes could be energy independent with solar panels on their roofs?  I understand there are a ton of variables but, generally speaking, how efficient are solar panels?  I’m considering getting them on my home but don’t know what the long-term cost efficiency is.

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          • They’ve gotten a TON better (one of the problems is that they get dirty). You done an energy audit yet? The cheap way to fix things is to start with insulation et alia. (can you tell I just got back from a seminar? I went with someone who welched on speaking, which was fun.)

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            • We haven’t.  Only bought the home a few months back.  I’m sure there are things we can do to cut energy.  But part of my point is… we don’t necessarily want to.  We have two flat screens, a full fridge plus two smaller fridges (beer fridge in the basement and a wine chiller), central air, desktop computer, etc.  There are more energy efficient choices for all of these things but, frankly, they don’t appeal to us.  The little bit of reading I’ve done says that solar panels work if you are already a low-energy-usage home, at which point you are probably cheaper to just buy off the grid.

              I’m fully aware of being penny-wise and pound-foolish and that the savings with solar panels is generally long term.  But are those realized yet or just theoretical?  Do they take into account maintenance, repairs, and replacement?  Do they mean I have to get up on the roof after a snow storm or when the leaves fall to keep them clear?  Will we have to give up certain amenities we’d rather not?

              Yes, I realize this last bit sounds incredibly like white-people-problems griping.

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              • our house leaks like a sieve. our first step is gonna be to reinsulate the basement. We also use “feigned glass” instead of window blinds on the bathroom, which means little need to turn on lights durign the daytime, — a bright bathroom, and privacy!

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                • I had a guest once who bitched up a storm about how he couldn’t stand those “damn CFL flickery-flick bus-station things”.

                  After he left, my wife asked whether he knew that every lightbulb in our house that wasn’t on a dimmer was a CFL bulb.

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          • I thought the problem with solar panels was twofold: the photovoltaic stuff is actually pretty chemically toxic and the rare earths used for making them are quite limited.

            Also there are a great deal of places where solar panels on the roof aren’t going to provide that much power. Though certainly CA and the US south in general are not one of those places.

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          • This highly depends on where you live.  If you live in Seattle, it is probably never going to be revenue neutral.

            On the other hand, if you live in Los Angeles, most places in Texas or Florida or Nevada or… well, anything south of the Mason-Dixon line that doesn’t have a lot of marine cover for most of the day, they’re now revenue positive well, well before they reach EOL.

            I have neighbor who has a small set of panels installed 4 years ago that delivers power to the grid all day long.  Pasadena didn’t (last time I checked) pay you for contributing back to the grid, but if I could afford to spend the $15K to put the panels up, I’d break even in about 8 years and everything after that would be gravy.

            You need to sync it up with your roof, which is a hassle.  You don’t want to put 30 year panels on a roof that only has 10 years of life left on it.

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            • Does that include all costs related to maintenance and repair?  How much maintenance do they require (as mentioned above, do I have to clear them of snow and leaves (which probably isn’t a problem in most areas where their is enough sunlight to make them worthwhile)?  And why does power go back to the grid?  Couldn’t it be stored and used once the panels die out?  Or sold to a neighbor?

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              • Does that include all costs related to maintenance and repair?  

                Yes.  Solar panels require almost no back-end maintenance.  They fail about as often as say, your main power panel… so once every longer-than-you-own-them.

                How much maintenance do they require (as mentioned above, do I have to clear them of snow and leaves (which probably isn’t a problem in most areas where their is enough sunlight to make them worthwhile)?

                Hardly any.  If you have a tree that drops that many leaves on your house, you should get up there once or twice a month during the fall season anyway and blow them off with a leaf blower, just to save wear and tear on your eaves.

                 And why does power go back to the grid?  Couldn’t it be stored and used once the panels die out?  Or sold to a neighbor?

                This part is a little complicated.

                By default, they have to connect to the grid because the grid has to power your house.  If you’re using less power than the panels are generating (typical unless you have a stay-at-home presence), you have to either store it or feed it back to the grid.  You can get your own facility-style backup battery and store the power, yes, but that adds to the capital cost of the facility and then you have a honkin’ huge battery on site, which some people don’t like (it can also represent a chemical hazard in a fire, etc.)  It *does* give you an advantage in that you typically then don’t draw *any* power at night, and you’re more or less functionally independent of the grid which can be a real plus, say, here in Southern California if there’s ever an earthquake and the grid goes down (provided your battery doesn’t fall over.)  Many power companies will in fact pay you for what you feed back into the grid (some are legally required to do so), but many also will not, and there’s reasonable excuses for this, since your power generation isn’t necessarily reliable and thus it can be difficult for them to include it in their revenue projections and whatnot.

                You cannot (in most locales) sell power to your neighbor.  This would make you a power company, and there are a pile of regulations about the size of a ’57 Buick that you don’t want to deal with.

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            • IN Texas we have a thing called hail that trashes roofs (where I live it happens about every 8 years or so). Now if you put solar up, do you get to replace the panels every 8 years when the hailstorm takes them down. (Had a storm monday night that put down 1.75 inch hail nearby) That sort of trashes the economics of solar power.

               

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            • Yah, PatC, that’s my reservation on point-of-use solar.  Right now the fed gov’t is subsidizing the hell out of installations, but what when the panels break, wear out, or the roof underneath them goes to hell?  Me, I think we’re flushing more billions on “unsustainable renewables.”  [A first coinage?]

              [Me, I got exc sun but also live on a hill with occasional 70+ mph winds.  Do they have solar windmills?]

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          • “…how many buildings/homes could be energy independent with solar panels on their roofs?”

            Start by defining “independent”.  Completely disconnected from external sources?  Heating/cooling and domestic hot water? What kind of lifestyle do you want to support?  How many power “outages” are you willing to tolerate, and how often?

            The typical US suburban household consumes 30 kWh of electricity daily.  Outside of the Southwest, assume an average daily solar insolence of 5 kWh per meter2 per day. Assume a (probably generous) conversion efficiency for panels and inverter of 20%, so you get an average of 1 kWh per meter2 of panel per day. Call it ten 8-foot by 4-foot panels to produce the power — many houses would be hard-pressed to find enough roof space. You need to time-shift the energy, since peak sunshine doesn’t correspond well to peak household consumption. If you’re going to be independent of the grid that implies batteries, where the charge/discharge cycle may be 80% efficient, which means adding two more panels to compensate. Going to heat the house with solar electricity in the winter instead of fuel oil or natural gas (or alternatively, run A/C in the summer)? Heat pumps are getting better, and ground-sourced heat pumps can be quite good, but that’s not included in the 30 kWh hour figure, so you need still more panels. Do you live in an area with periods of heavy overcast? Bigger racks of batteries required to provide enough storage to carry you over those periods, plus enough more panels to generate surplus power on the sunny days in anticipation of the cloudy ones.

            Grid-tied solar power is much simpler, but then you’re energy neutral at best, not energy independent — the fossil-fuel-fired power plants are what’s going to carry you over those long, cold winter nights in the middle of a week of bad weather.  The typical US household in a high-rise apartment complex consumes less electricity, but has a whole lot less roof space per household.  Bottom line is that relatively few homes are going to be energy independent based on solar panels they can mount locally.

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        • “…when the grid eats 60% of the power in transmission…”

          Transmission losses in the US grid run about 7%.  The big problems with panels on the roofs of houses are: (1) every house has to have an inverter, and and the tie-in equipment to safely connect that inverter to the grid; and (2) the homeowner (and subsequent owners) are committed to maintenance of their little power plant forever.  For me, business plans like SunEdison make more sense.  In the US, SunEdison builds and operates modest solar installations at business customers’ locations who have enough space to put in a sizable number of panels.  For example, in the city where I live, they built and operate a 6.5 acre “plant” on city-owned land adjacent to the water treatment plant.  The city buys the total output at a price lower than they can currently get from the local utility.  One inverter, one set of grid tie-in equipment.  20.9 MW total in panels mounted on the roofs of about 100 Kohls stores in California and other sunny states — big, flat roofs, easy to install and service, one inverter and tie-in per store.  Every suburban supermarket with the same sort of big flat roof is a candidate.

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          • Hrm; I was ballparking, but I see Electricity Generation as creating 38.19 Exajoules in the updated diagram, with 12.08 usable and 26.10 going to the rejected energy bucket.

            My use of “grid” is undoubtedly inaccurate; I was talking about the entire distribution system, your figures are probably talking about just the long distance lines?  Still, that’s an overall 68% loss (not 60%).  If only 7% loss is attributable to the long distance lines, there’s a lot of other inefficiencies between the electricity generating equipment and the end use that aren’t attributable to “the grid”.

            Some of those, granted, you’re not going to do away with even with local generation of power.  But I suspect the actual energy efficiency gained by point-of-use generation is probably somewhere well upside of 7%.

            That said, the Sun Edison idea is an awesome one.

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            • No, the 7% is power plant to final consumer; transformers are highly tuned for efficiency and there’s little resistive loss in the wires.  The big source of “waste” is simple Carnot-cycle heat-engine thermodynamics.  Burning sh*t to make steam to spin a turbine is just really inefficient; several people have discussed the details up-thread.  The current best practice is integrated cycle natural gas plants, where the gas is first burned and expanded through one turbine, then the hot exhaust gas is used to boil water to get steam to spin a second turbine — about 60% thermal efficiency, but they’re relatively rare (however, I do live down the road from such a plant with 1 GW total capacity).

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              • That can’t possibly be it.
                That’s called a “co-gen,” and it’s the method that the Germans have developed for use in their power plants.
                Practically all generators have two or more HRSG’s these days where high pressure steam is recirculated to smaller generators.

                The 100% is an engineering setpoint that can be determined by the makeup and atomic mass of the molecules of the fuel.
                Combustion will never be 100%. There will always be losses to slagging. Cooling the bearings on the generator is a loss. At each step of the process, every time energy is converted to work, there is a loss involved. They add up down the line.
                It should be noted that a not insignificant portion of those losses are to produce work other than power generation, such as plant operations (water treatment and the like), emissions reductions (and the corresponding manufacture of by-products), etc.
                A modern power plant produces more commercial products than power.

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                • Hey, it’s the standard number, relatively unchanged for decades, from the EIA or any number of other sources: on the near order of two-thirds of the thermal energy released for electricity generation in the US, from all sources (coal, natural gas, nuclear, petroleum, biomass), is dumped into either the atmosphere or bodies of water as “waste heat”.  Commercial and industrial cogeneration accounts for less than 10% of total power produced; very few commercial power plants are located where district heating or other useful applications of low-grade heat are feasible; HRSGs are only practical where the exhaust gases from the first stage are hot enough to be useful, which is currently restricted to gas turbines using either natural gas or syngas from coal/biomass gasification, with input temperatures to the gas turbine in the range of 900-1400 °C and outputs in the range of 450-650 °C.

                  Point me to a coal-fired plant, or an existing nuclear plant, or a non-turbine gas-fired plant, with a documented HRSG stage.

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  5. The problem isn’t the tech.  It’s the infrastructure.   I have every reason to believe we’ll overcome these hurdles.  Why?   Because I see the hundreds of little projects, it’s rather like how life itself evolved

    Yeah, but… but… but….

    Solyndra!

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    • Let’s take the Solyndra problem apart at the seams.   This is a classic case of Fanboi Syndrome, as was much of Tesla’s work:  superb technology mismanaged into oblivion.   Tesla and Solyndra both burned through other people’s money like a forest fire.   Westinghouse made a great fortune on his work, but only because he managed the manufacture and marketing.

      The moral of this tale is clear:  never trust the inventor to manage his invention past the loading dock of his laboratory.

       

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      • My understanding was that the spike in commodities that was going on this time last year was what made Solyndra an attractive investment, and it was pretty much the bottom dropping out of that market that led to their downfall.

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        • I paid close attention to Solyndra early on.  I looked at the numbers and didn’t like Solyndra when it was starting up.   I really wanted to invest in it.   But Solyndra was ramping up too fast.   Their QC was terrible.   Even offered to work with Solyndra on QC, their manufacturing people gave me the stiff arm — who the hell are you to tell us, the mighty Solyndra, friend of the great and powerful, how to do QC.

          Well, gosh, I just might know a thing or three about this, seeing as how I was part and parcel of QC on cell phones and wireless and spent a good long while at Bell Labs, where they did take me seriously. You’re going to crash and burn on your QC.

          Oh well.

          They were lying to themselves and lying to everyone else.   They burned through their investment capital and imploded.

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          • I’ve seen a lot of falsification of documents in QC.
            Like the weld inspector that inspected over 600 welds in two weeks.

            I’ve also seen stuff like a 150 lb. gasket going into a 300 lb. flange on the pup off a fuel tank in an EPA listed cleanup site.
            Inspections are a very important part of the process, but there will always be a substantial economic incentive to by-pass that in some way.

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            • No doubt.   Learned an awful lot about QC and process control from the Japanese, who learned it from W Edwards Deming, a prophet with no honour in his own country but who found followers in the islands of Japan.

              Fail at least five percent of everything.   If you can’t do that, your QC isn’t working.   If the line’s routinely failing more that 10%, shut it down immediately and start failure analysis.  And don’t lie to yourself about failure.   It’s just a gap in process control, isolate it, bridge it and get the line up again.

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          • Yeah, the Labs were always serious about QC sorts of things.  My first exposure to the mindset was as a pretty new MTS, attending a meeting about a proposed new device to be used in the network (back in the Bell System days).  At some point a grizzled old veteran got up and asked how various performance measures were going to be collected and analyzed.  The speaker hemmed and hawed, and finally admitted that they didn’t have a monitor/measurement plan.  The old guy announced, “If you’re not measuring it, you’re just guessing.  This is Bell Labs.  We don’t guess.” and walked out.  Much of the rest of my career amidst the various pieces of the old Bell System was doing one-off test and measurement solutions so we didn’t have to guess.

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      • As I said, Fanboi Syndrome.   When it comes to ROI, there is no better investment than a political donation, viz.  Rangers’ Stadium.

        Look at all the wild promises Tesla made.   I’ve been around a whole lotta startups, been burned by two of them.   Wild promises, stock options, oh what a sucker I was.

        Solyndra was a bipartisan problem, made even worse by the current Fanbois in charge of doling out Fedrul Largesse.

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  6. When petroleum is used to make plastics, it forms the actual physical material of the plastics. It’s not really using energy in the same way that you need energy to smelt metal ore (or, for that matter, the energy you do need to melt and shape plastics). It’s more like making a chair out of wood; do you count the combustion energy of the wood? Notably, petroleum used to make plastics doesn’t release GHG the way it would if you burned it.

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