The Arctic is Utterly and Unavoidably Doomed — and Conservatives Were Right All Along

~by Robert Greer

Before I attempt to argue these apparently-contradictory things, let me point to an astonishing fact few people seem to be aware of: In June 2012, there was less than half as much sea ice (by volume) in the Arctic Circle as a mere ten years prior, and the downward trend has been rapidly accelerating.

I’ll let that sink in a bit.

“That can’t be right,” you might say.  “The amount of ice up there is highly volatile, and couldn’t it all just be a temporary phase?”  This line of thinking, while reassuring, is unfortunately incorrect.  Over the past two decades (i.e, about two solar cycles), the ice has not fluctuated between patternless highs and lows, but instead has shown a consistently accelerating decline.  Climate skeptics ritually decry the prognostications of climate scientists as alarmist, but when it comes to the Arctic, scientists actually underestimate the problem: Recent observations of Arctic sea ice have undercut all but the very most dire projections.

So how bad is the ice situation, really?  I’ll be blunt: The Arctic could be ice-free by this October.  I don’t say this as an attempt to guilt skeptics into action with a scaremongering figure, nor is it a possible but remote outcome hyped beyond reasonableness.  Following the best-fit trend lines of the Arctic ice loss leads to an ice-free Arctic in the unimaginably-distant summer of, uh, three years from now.

So why do I say the Arctic could be ice-free three months from now?  Because there are many reasons to believe the ice loss will outstrip the three-year naive extrapolation.  First, ice melt begets more melt, because open ocean reflects only around 10% as much energy as does ice and snow.  (Some scientists cite this as a major reason for the accelerating ice loss.) Second, there’s a record-low amount of snow cover in the terrestrial northern latitudes, which means that the Arctic region will reflect a lot less heat into space than in the years upon which the trend is based.  Finally (and perhaps most dramatically), the thicker multi-year ice which has survived at least one summer and is therefore more compacted and difficult to melt, has almost completely frittered away.  These are among the reasons that Peter Wadhams, a climate scientist at Cambridge, has pegged the date for complete melt for next summer.

Mercifully, melting sea ice in the Arctic doesn’t directly affect sea levels (except nearly-imperceptibly) because the frozen water was already in the ocean.  However, an ice-free Arctic would nevertheless be catastrophic for several reasons.  There’s the already-mentioned problem of increased absorption of solar energy. Another is that there are hundreds of millions of tons of hydrocarbons in the northern latitudes that are currently being stabilized by the low temperatures in the Arctic from the ice.  Remove the ice cap, and those hydrocarbons will bubble away into greenhouse gases quite quickly.  (This process has actually already started in earnest.)  Worse, the greenhouse gas released by this process, methane, heats up the atmosphere about thirty times faster than does carbon dioxide.  Yeah: thirty.

The prospect of a significant sea level rise in the near future is very real.  Once the Arctic melts, the Earth will absorb a significantly higher amount of energy every year, and the increased methane in the atmosphere will heat the globe rapidly.  The Greenland ice sheet is already showing adramatic loss of reflectivity, which would happen before a collapse.  Moreover, increased solar absorption from an ice-free North Pole could destabilize the West Antarctic ice sheet, which scientists have already said may collapse at any time.  A major event in either ice cap could raise the sea level by ten to twelve feet — enough to flood Manhattan, Corpus Christi, much of the California coast, and nearly all of Florida.

So… what do we do?

It should go without saying that it won’t be enough to simply curb emissions (although there are plenty of other reasons to do so, such as to reduce the acidification of our oceans).  This year, the Arctic system is expected to absorb more energy from decreased reflectivity of the snow coveralone than will be used by the entire global economy.  We could ban carbon emissions entirely and the Arctic would probably melt despite our efforts.  Kyoto and other protocols simply cannot save us.

How about climate engineering?  We could blast trillions of reflective particles into the air, which would theoretically reflect enough energy back into space to save us from baking ourselves.  Nifty solution, right?

Unfortunately, climate engineering would be a terrible idea for several reasons.  Only forty years ago, reflective particles in the atmosphere were exactly what scientists were trying to avoid: At the time, the fear was not global warming from greenhouse forcing, but rather global cooling from nuclear fallout or aerosols.  So if we pump reflective particles into the atmosphere, it’ll be difficult if not impossible to tell if we’re overcorrecting — and we won’t know for sure that the stuff we’re using won’t mess up the environment through some other mechanism.  If we’re ignorant enough of the climate’s workings to fail to anticipate the melt of an entire ice cap more than a few years away, then our understanding of the climate clearly can’t be a reliable basis for radical climate engineering.  Climate engineering therefore suffers from a fundamental epistemic problem.

In the face of such an insoluble worries, conservatism offers a wiser set of prescriptions: skepticism of centralized action, restraint, and personal responsibility.  Instead of forcing the planet to fit our liking (which would very likely only create more drastic externalities), we should adapt to its new state and await the globe’s self-corrective measures.

I do not prescribe here the oil company propaganda that we should continue to rely on a hydrocarbon economy; adapting to a warmer world would require a fairly drastic reorganization of priorities.  We should immediately draw up plans to relocate or evacuate people in low-lying coastal regions if sea rise begins to accelerate or if the West Antarctic ice sheet fractures.  We should also strive to live off of fewer food resources, because rapid climate change could reduce farm yields and access to drinking water dramatically.

During the hydrocarbon age, our economy has run on souls: a slurry of dead diatoms and dimetrodons.  So it makes a certain cosmic-economic sense that the best way to atone for destroying the planet would be to switch, not only to renewable energy, but also to a diet comprised of more plants — which, holding other aspects constant, requires far less farmland and water than meat.  Personal actions like these are not as sexy as the Jerry Bruckheimer climate engineering fixes, but they’re more robustly and less subject to fatal paradigmatic error.

We are an integral part of our environment.   If we must change our environment to avoid apocalyptic effects on our way of life, perhaps the most natural conclusion is that we should start with the part of the environment we know best: ourselves.

(Image: Central Arctic Ocean, 7/11/12.  Image maintained by NOAA)

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575 thoughts on “The Arctic is Utterly and Unavoidably Doomed — and Conservatives Were Right All Along

    • Mars is melting too, but we’re not supposed to talk about that. This is ALL about CO2 according the AGW crowd and it doesn’t matter how often their models are wrong, they will continue to cry the sky is falling as long as the public is stupid enough to keep funding them.

      My friend from college works at JPL He brought the solar system’s planets heating to management’s attention years ago. He was told in no uncertain terms to drop it. They’ve systematically defunded the research and even merely collecting the data. He hates what they’re doing but wants to make it to retirement intact. I despise the cancerous sore on true science that “climate science” has become.

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      • I’m glad you’ve brought the conspiracy to our attention. Thousands of climate scientists, either mustache-twirling villians enlisted in an eco-conspiracy of terror — or incompetent morons who forgot to think about the sun.

        I’m not sure there’s an eyeroll big enough for your position. I’m afraid I might sprain my eyes trying.

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          • Yep, there isn’t a consensus among scientists; in fact, there is a growing controversy over whether Galileo was wrong-
            http://digitaljournal.com/article/310901

            The Commie-dems* are furiously spinning, trying to shout down and drown out the growing objections to Secular Progressive Heliocentrism (SPH)

            Turns out, there are scientists who take issue with the Lamestream Media’s insistence on the now-discredited SPH; so really, we should teach the controversy, and let people make up there own minds as to whether the earth revolves around the sun, or vice versa.

            Now, as for that so-called “Round Earth” theory…

            *Look, in Mr. Cheek’s absence, someone has to hold up his end of the argument, fer cryinoutloud.

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              • I used to argue with Creationists. It got old, real quick. But I was young and bored.

                I always found Hoyle an interesting fellow. Always a go-to guy for the Old Earth Creationists, although the young-earth ones were always happy to grab him out of the closet if the Big Bang came up.

                He’s an excellent example of a scientist whose big idea didn’t pan out, and instead of letting it go, doubled-down and spent decades trying to force it to work. And now he’s best remembered by people who think the universe is 7000 years old.

                His work was about things that happened 13 billion years ago, and the people that talk approvingly about his work most often think the world is 7000 years old. Because he says the Big Bang is wrong.

                Hollywood shows us the loaners, the outsiders who get it right — against the establishment. Because that’s a good story. Lone wolf overturns the old ways, brings in the new. Beats the man!

                It’s also, you know, kinda rare. But “scientist who defies conventional wisdom is wrong” is, well, not a very good story. Nor is “scientist offers small tweak to conventional wisdom, maybe adds a new facet. Scientists mull it over. Many are convinced. Some want more tests. Will report back in two years”.

                But it’s how reality is. :)

                The sad thing? Apparently this is infecting the justice system. Too many CSI-style shows have jurors believing some crazy stuff about what forensics can do, and confusing “we can’t do that because that’s fiction” with “we can’t show you this proof you are asking, because we are wrong. This is the second Act of CSI, wherein we chase the wrong suspect. Save us juror!”.

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          • There must be more than 20 climate scientists; Hell, there are at least that many people on any given blog post speaking with confident assurance on the hockey stick graph, temperature norming, jet stream patterns and ocean currents.

            If there were only 20 actual climate scientists, well, then that would suggest that these people are speaking out their ass.

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          • Did it even occur to you, for a split second, to take a second and google it real quickly, before making that statement?

            Did it not even enter your MIND that “twenty” is a ridiculously low number for what is a very, very large and important field of study? One that, even if AGW wasn’t an issue, directly relates to agriculture and weather — just to name two rather important issues?

            Apparently it didn’t. On this issue, you are so at odds with reality that you can make a claim that is utterly laughable “There’s about 20, and they don’t all agree”, and it doesn’t even occur to you that you might be just a wee bit wrong.

            Jesus, the IPCC alone involved thousands of scientists in one role or another.

            And you know what? I have no doubt that even though your estimate is off by orders of magnitude, that your statement there is on the lines of telling astronomers to shut up about what causes supernova because “The sun revolves around the Earth, you guys are so wrong about everything” — you won’t even for a second stop and think “Wait, how did I get that so dang wrong? I mean, I’m like bizarro world wrong on a simple fact.”

            You certainly won’t question whatever dodgy source gave you THAT number.

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    • Nope, you’re not.

      http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2012/06/sea-ice-tracking-at-record-low-levels/

      On the other hand, if I’m interpreting this correctly:

      http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2012/07/rapid-sea-ice-retreat-in-june/

      and extrapolating what this will likely mean for the later cycle based on previous years:

      http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2011/09/arctic-sea-ice-nears-minimum-extent/

      even if we beat out 2007, the worst will be that we will dip below 4.1 million kilometers. We might even touch 4 million kilometers. However, the claim of an ice-free arctic by October of this year seems alarmist especially if September is where the ice starts expanding.

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  1. Roger, the 3 to 4% number you found is a two dimensional measurement of the Arctic sea ice. Ice has three dimensions. Thickness is a very important measurement and should not be ignored.

    Here, let me copy down the link that you should check. It will show you what is happening when we do a complete measurement of the ice.

    http://www.ecology.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Piomas-Arctic-Ice-Volume.gif

    Think about what only a two dimensional measurement doesn’t tell you. I’ve got a small pond outside my window that freezes of 100% every winter. Several times each winter, because the ice never gets thick enough to withstand a few above freezing days.

    Most likely we’ll see great (two dimensional) areas of the Arctic Ocean covered with ice for many winters to come. But when we loose enough thickness then we’ll see the Arctic Ocean become ice free during summers.

    No joke….

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  2. Okay – so let’s say these predictions are correct (I am not smart enough to assess them). What is the earth going to look like in 10 years? Do winters go away? This summer has been the hottest in KY since 1936. Should I expect more of the same? Or is any of the science in The Day After Tomorrow accurate?

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    • Current thinking is that as we warm the Arctic we will see longer periods of heat and longer periods of cold. The hot times will be some hotter and the cold periods some warmer.

      That means more extreme heat waves like we’ve seen this year with “Summer in March” and the heat wave that’s been cooking most of the nation.

      The extra heat is causing the atmosphere to hold more moisture, until conditions are right for rain or snow. So more of the “100 year” and “500 year” floods like we’ve been having. More Snowmaggedons. It will still get cold enough to snow in most of the places where it has snowed before, but there will often be higher amounts falling.

      More droughts, like what Texas just went through. Crop and cattle operations will be hurt. Food prices will rise. (Remember how this spring’s early heat caused a lot of the fruit trees to bloom and then when it turned cold again a lot of the blossoms froze? We lost at least 10% of the year’s crop.)

      All in all, the weather will most likely get more extreme. We’ll have more weather related deaths. Property and infrastructure damage will increase. We’ll spend more tax money cleaning up messes and face higher insurance costs.

      Let’s put aside the liberal/conservative stuff and talk smart business.

      A smart business person would look at a situation that is likely to cause them some significant losses down the road and get busy trying to prevent those losses. That, IMO, is what we should be doing. Acting like smart business people.

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        • Sorry, don’t know that program.

          Think about it this way.

          First, there is a distribution of daily temperatures from cold to hot. They might plot out something like our friend the bell curve. That curve is getting shifted to the right, to the hot side. We’ll see hotter hot days (we’re setting new high temperature records at a very high rate), but we’ll still see some cold days (we’re setting few new low temperature records).

          Second, we’ll have longer “strings” of hot days and cold days. Heat spells, rather than hanging around for 3-4 days will hang around for longer periods, letting the heat build and stressing us out. We may see longer strings of cold weather, I just don’t know about that bit.

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          • This just hit the news…

            “The United States Department of Agriculture has declared natural disaster areas in more than 1,000 counties and 26 drought-stricken states, making it the largest natural disaster in America ever.

            The declaration—which covers roughly half of the country—gives farmers and ranchers devastated by drought access to federal aid, including low-interest emergency loans.”

            http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/us-natural-disaster-area-drought-150130308.html

            Drought = less food production = higher food prices at the grocery store and at restaurants.

            More federal aid going to ranchers and farmers to help them pull through. Another drain on the budget.

            Prevention. We need to practice prevention.

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            • Your own example shows that we haven’t and we won’t start practicing prevention until it’s no longer definable as prevention strictly speaking. That is, we won’t start practicing comprehensive and systematic prevention until we’re preventing more of something that even the wardsmiths of the world – or most of them – are no longer bothering to argue against, or are too embarrassed or afraid to argue against, while their counterparts in the real world are too embarrassed or afraid to campaign and fight against.

              Our system and the world system such as it is are designed that way – to block comprehensive, systematic, sovereignty-infringing, inconvenient and costly action until the consensus for it is more or less overwhelming, and consensus of this type is unlikely to arise until externally motivated. This would be true not just because it will take external and concrete events to convince people, but because it will likely take fear to motivate people to fight and defeat likely violent resistance from the un-convinced.

              Seems to me the only two alternatives are 1) you’re wrong, and the effects won’t really be very dramatic, so no big whoops and never mind, or 2) a miraculous change of human consciousness and human nature globally.

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              • There are some uttely critical clashes on the matter. If I was a third world country on the way up out of starvation and poverty and some western yuppies landed in jets and informed me I had to shut down the power plant or else the world would end I’d reach for a gun too.

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                • I don’t think 3rd world countries would be the main impediment to coping with the ecological problem by the time it became a disaster for the 1st world, though China and India do serve as convenient excuses in the meantime. If it wasn’t them, it’d be something else, I suspect.

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                  • True, technically 3rd world countries aren’t the problem but for the purpose of my argument I’d define 3rd world countries as being countries that wish/need to use environmentally dirty industries and methods to advance their economies into modern levels in which case both China and India would count.

                    In either case absolutely they make a good excuse but the point is salient. If you enact regulation in modern economies and maintain free trade then the GDP will simply move to non-modern economies (and pollute even more than if it’d remained in the modern one). If you try and cut back on free trade in the name of the environment the non-modern economies can (rightly) demand to know why they must pay for the modern nations history of pollution. And of course you usher in trade wars and stop global economic development in its tracks and start setting the stage for problems that humans would find considerably more worrisome than global warming.

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                    • Since my belief is that nothing very significant will happen until and unless it’s “too late” (in a way this is NOT an unreasonable way for mass human societies to operate), I can assess the mechanism you describe as an aspect of the normal process of externalization operating in a theoretically post-external or closed global environment. It should help to impede efforts to think through actually effective and implementable “prevention.”

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                    • I don’t think it’s non-viable as much an unimplemented.
                      The systems for power plants are far above what is commonly implemented in the US.
                      Rail produces less carbon emissions than air travel, but I don’t see people crying out for better rail service.

                      I think the issue with 3rd world nations is one of a lag time of implementing technology.
                      Reducing that lag time appears feasible, though it would come with a cost.

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                    • Most Americans haven’t experienced “better rail service”.

                      I had the opportunity to ride HSR in France this spring. I’m now a big fan of HSR. I’d much rather take HSR for moderate length trips than fly.

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                • I can see that, but that is not what is happening.

                  The undeveloped countries are leap-frogging to renewables just like they jumped from (essentially) no phones to cell phones. I travel a bit in less developed countries. I was amazed to see how fast cell phones showed up in places like Thailand and India while they were still rare in the US. We had land lines, going to a cell was redundant. Other countries had few land lines, going cell was cheaper than stringing wire.

                  Same thing is happening with renewables. Indonesia and a couple African countries are installing a lot of geothermal. India is putting wind and solar in places where their grids haven’t served (or have greatly under served).

                  India will shut down it’s coal plants and diesel generators, not because some jet-flying yuppie gets on their case but because renewables are cheaper than transporting coal and diesel.

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                  • And if renewables get to that level great but as far as I’ve seen they haven’t yet reached the point where they’re better than fossil fuel for providing energy. It’s when we try forcing underdeveloped economies to be ecological that the questions of the morality of it come up.

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                  • I was amazed to see how fast cell phones showed up in places like Thailand and India while they were still rare in the US.

                    When I was in Dubai, I was delighted to see hand-cart jockeys–one of the most menial and least modern of jobs–sitting on their carts during slow periods and texting on their cell phones.

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              • “Seems to me the only two alternatives are 1) you’re wrong, and the effects won’t really be very dramatic, so no big whoops and never mind, or 2) a miraculous change of human consciousness and human nature globally.”

                I’m going with 2b.

                Another good dose of pain (some more heat waves, some more massive floods, some more droughts, and some “Dang, what’s a derecho and why did one just wipe me out?” and we’ll get serious.

                We could get ourselves totally off fossil fuels in 20 years if we were the “world’s most efficient pump” (a scared guy with a bucket on a sinking boat).

                http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-path-to-sustainable-energy-by-2030

                I doubt we’ll move that fast, but with the way wind and solar prices are dropping and considering how low tech they are to install I think we’ll start moving fast.

                Fast enough to save ourselves? That we won’t know until many years down the road….

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                • I meant “the only two alternatives other than being forced to act by actual disruption of business as usual.” So we can number them 1) there is no real problem 2) harmonic convergence unprecedented in human history, 3) only after it may be “too late” in critical respects.

                  What I’m suggesting is that people who are convinced that crisis is coming within a relatively short time frame might want to prepare for #3 in its various dimensions rather than focus on measures that are either un-serious or extremely unlikely to be adopted, though I recognize that proposing prevention that “would have worked” and that seems almost doable can still serve a function.

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      • “A smart business person would look at a situation that is likely to cause them some significant losses down the road and get busy trying to prevent those losses. ”

        A really smart businessperson would multiple those losses by the percentage chance of occurrence, then compare that number to the cost of mitigation. If the latter is larger than the former, then it’s not smart to spend the money on mitigation.

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        • That is correct.

          So, here’s my take. The probability that we’re going to essentially ruin the planet for human existence as we know is is higher than 90% if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate.

          Cost of switching to renewables = A trillion dollars up to a few trillion dollars*.

          The cost of wrecking the planet > Many, many, many trillions of dollars.

          Many, many, many trillions * 0.9 > a few trillion dollars.

          *Do remember that all the existing fossil fuel infrastructure that we have now will wear out over the next 1 to 50 years. We will be replacing it anyway. We can replace with renewables for the same amount or less. The extra cost of mitigation is mostly to get the process moving faster.

          My trillions are obviously ‘back of the envelope’ numbers….

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          • So it comes down to wreck the economy now or wreck the planet later?

            (Tried looking for some figures on what it would cost to transition but all the figures fall into either “All the jobs that are created will bring in so much money that there will be no economic pain whatsoever” or “The green economy will have us living in mud huts and eating dirt.” style of rhetoric.)

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            • I really can’t see how we could possibly “wreck” the economy.

              We would be spending money offshore for solar and wind since we’ve let much of our in-country manufacturer wither. That would be a cost. On the other hand we spend about a billion dollars a day for imported oil and that would be money saved.

              I’d guess a balance of trade balance, or close to. Remember, that billion per day continues to be savings long after we’ve made the switch.

              Additionally, we replace a portion of the generation infrastructure every year. Coal plants, nuclear reactors, cars – all that wears out and gets replaced. So as long as the replacement costs are somewhat similar a hunk of the changeover costs nothing additional.

              What have we spent on three oil wars? Aren’t we up around $9 trillion? Need to credit changeover with the future savings of not fighting another oil war. We could save hundreds of billions more by being able to pull some or all of our military presence out of the Middle East. We might even save some on Homeland Security if we got out of certain countries.

              Then, let’s look at rooftop solar. Right now in parts of the US PV solar has reached grid parity for retail users. You can put panels on your roof and pay for them out of electricity bill savings. Then after the system is paid off in a few years you will get to enjoy many years (30+) of free electricity. That sort of smart investing hardly wrecks either the country or personal budget.

              I just can’t see “wreck the economy” as being a possibility.

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              • Fair enough but the cost to replace an oil/gas/coal is a lot larger than you’re making it out to be.

                I looked into solar when I got my townhome (was mostly looking for a portable generator as my homeowner’s wouldn’t allow me to mount panels so the best I could do was either the “soft” panels or that largish briefcase sized thing that I saw once but have never found again.) and it is not as cost-effective as you make it out to be.

                Looking at my electric bill for the year, my peak electric use was during January at an average of 18KWH per day and my low is 11 kwh so, to completely power my home, I have to be able to produce 18KWH. For argument’s sake, we’ll say that my city will buy excess electricity and that I average out at 15 KWH. Having taken a look through businesses that install in the Springs, I’m going with AC Solar because they give me figures for the Federal Tax Credit and the Solar Rebate.

                Cost of a 21 KWH on-grid system=29548.00
                Solar Rebate (1.50 per watt)=(7560.00)
                Federal Tax Credit (30%)=(6596.00)
                Final Price=15392.00

                So, presuming that my utilities company pays back a rate that is comparable with my rate including access charges, they’d be paying me $15 on average and I’d be saving $60 for a net of $75 per month. I have an electric water heater so no real savings on gas.

                This gives me a total of 900 per year. In order to pay off the initial investment, I would have to live in this house and have no mishaps with the panels for 17.1 years.

                Yes, the life expectancy is 20-40 years but how many people live in the same place for 20-40 years. I have never lived in one place for 17.1 years much less half-all my life. Given the job market in the Springs, having to live in this house for three years to avoid paying back the first time homebuyers credit has been an issue. Given that the housing market is still feh, I’d have a hard time adding the remaining cost of the solar panels into my asking price for selling my home.

                Currently, rooftop solar does not pay off in a “few years” even with rebates and it is certainly not on parity in my part of the country. I looked at Solarworld because they have their map which brags about how much their systems save in various parts of the country. Even with the assumed annual increase of 6%, none of them could fully power my home and, even in the sunniest parts of the country, the lowest payback rate is 7 years.

                This is presuming that I have 30K to drop on a new system. Sure, I’d get a lot of it back (at the speed of most government refunds) but that doesn’t make the initial outlay any less daunting. I don’t know how much you make but I can’t afford to drop 30k. It is also not smart money to get into a payment plan that jacks the total cost up 1.5 to twice the initial payment.

                I like solar. I really do. I think it is the eventual way of the future if only because it is, in essence, free energy with minimal to no damage to the environment. If I had a full house with a porch, I might dabble in small solar generators (although a lot of panels don’t generate enough to run a 170 watt Xbox360 very long) but, as of now, solar simply isn’t a cost-effective alternative to the current utilities setup.

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                • I think you failed to divide your system size needs by the average daily solar hours for your area. You average 15kWh per day and I don’t see where you live, so let’s use a conservative 4.5 hour average for the moderately sunny parts of the lower 48. You need about a 3.3kW system.

                  Here’s a solar insolation map.
                  http://www.wholesalesolar.com/Information-SolarFolder/SunHoursUSMap.html

                  First quarter 2011 US average installed price was $4.44/W. The 30% federal discount drops that to 3.11/W. Your solar rebate ($1.50/W) brings the price to $1.61/W.

                  I took those numbers and plugged them into a LCOE (levelized cost of energy) calculator. Looking at a 20 year financing at 6%, 4.5 solar hours your cost of electricity over the 20 years would be $0.087/kWh. That would be a fixed number for the 20 years.

                  Assuming your cost of electricity is the nation average of $0.12/kWh and inflation over the next 20 years is 3% the average cost of purchasing power would be $0.157/kWh.

                  Solar would cut the price of power by 45%.

                  Here’s the LCOE calculator.

                  http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/tech_lcoe.html

                  I’ll let you take issue with my use of the word “few”. I’ll let you calculate payback time. Most payback times I’ve seen are less than ten years and ten vs. thirty to forty at least approaches few in my book.

                  As for not staying in your home long term, that seems to not be an issue. We’ve got only one large scale study of which I’m aware. (Just found a second while looking for details.)

                  “The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently released an analysis that found solar panels add between 3 percent and 4 percent to the value of a home. That result is consistent with a study released in April by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory which found that solar photovoltaic (PV) panels have a “sizeable effect” on home prices.”

                  “The authors calculated that, on average, solar Photovoltaic (PV) panels could add about $5.50 per watt to a home’s resale value. This means that the owner of a typical solar home with a 3.1-kilowatt pv system stands to make an extra $17,000 above the cost of a comparable, non-solar home.”

                  http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-20088646-54/econ-101-solar-panels-increase-home-values/

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                  • Fair enough. I’ve plugged in the solar zone 3 (Colorado Springs) into the calculations.

                    Once again, I’m going with AC Solar’s figure for the 5.04 KW system but I will plug in the 5 hour of daylight figure instead of their estimated figure.

                    http://www.acsolar.com/alternative-energy-systems/on-grid-alternative-energy-systems

                    Cost of a 5.04 (25.20 KWH) on-grid system=29548.00
                    Solar Rebate (1.50 per watt)=(9064.75)
                    Federal Tax Credit (30%)=(6596.00)
                    Final Price=13887.25

                    Average savings per month:
                    $60+$36 (once again, I’m doing a slightly higher price that includes access charges as part of what they’d pay back.)
                    $96 total per month.
                    $1152 savings per year.

                    Break even point: 12.05 years

                    This is without financing. A 20 year loan of $30000 at 6% has a total cost of $51583.04. If you refinanced after 5 monthes (Took 4-6 months for people to get their first time homebuyers so I presume Federal Rebate would work the same) under the same standard loan conditions:
                    327.91 applied to principal during 5 monthes.
                    29672.09 principal left
                    (9064.75) solar rebate
                    (6596.00) federal tax credit
                    14011.34 new Principal
                    Total cost of new loan at 20 years and 6% Interest
                    24091.58
                    cost of earlier 5 month payments: 1074.65
                    Total cost of panels with financing: 25166.23

                    http://www.ajdesigner.com/fl_loan/loan.php

                    This is why I wanted to go with straight cost as financing makes things more depressing.

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                    • OK, let me do this and then I’ll turn off my subscription to this discussion. It’s too hard to find comments when the number is so high and responding by email isn’t working for me.

                      A daily average of 15kWh and a 5 hour solar day means that you need a 3kW system.

                      3kW * $5.04/W = $15,120 (3,000 * $5.04)
                      $15,120 – (3,000 * $1.50) = $10,620 (reducing by rebate)
                      $10,620 * 0.7 = $7,434 (allowing for 30% tax rebate)

                      $7,434 financed for 20 years at 6% = $53.26 payments.

                      I think you say you’re paying $60 per month now? But that does not include rising costs over the years. You would be locking in your monthly electricity bill at $53.26.

                      I posted a bunch of stuff about how installed solar systems are shown to be adding more to the selling price of homes than what they cost.

                      Here’s one study – http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/21/study-finds-solar-panels-increase-home-values/

                      There’s a more recent which builds on these findings. Just google a bit. I’m out of here.

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                    • Your math is off. The 5.04 is the KW for the system. It is not a price per watt. Link is up there as to the system prices and what the figures mean.

                      I’m honestly not sure what your math is trying to show me but you aren’t working with the actual price of the system.

                      No, it doesn’t include rising costs. I’ve already said as much. Math that uses predictions is, at best, fuzzy math and, at worst, outright lies. Yes, I believe the price will go up but that doesn’t matter to the here and now.

                      I have googled a bit. At this point, you’re ducking the question. I’ve actually skewed my equations to favor going solar and the math is still working out to 12.05 years in Colorado Springs as the breakeven point. The 3-4% (Presuming my homeowner’s association didn’t forbid such things) would only add 3600-4800 to my townhome plus that’s in San Diego. Colorado Springs housing is 52% as expensive as San Diego housing so that figure declines to $2513-$3351 and that’s without CNN Money’s report that housing in San Diego is, on average, 28% overvalued.

                      I could go on but the thing is that you’re doing the exact thing that has allowed the AGW crowd to flourish. You’re skipping key facts (price of the system, both upfront and financing) in favor of fuzzy math figures that favor your point of view. I’ve given you my figures and laid them out as to what they mean and your counters do not address such figures.

                      To argue solar effectively, you have to prove to the guy who is looking at AC Solar’s prices and saying “That’s a lot of money to put down” and prove to them that this figure will pay off within a reasonable amount of time. Going into unrelated “per watt” calculations convinces noone because they’ll say “I’m only saving 3 cents a watt. Hell, I’ll just go with my utilities rather than pay that much upfront or add another financing charge to my home payment.”

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            • That is a dishonest “quote”.

              Here is what I posted – “So, here’s my take. The probability that we’re going to essentially ruin the planet for human existence as we know is is higher than 90% if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate.”

              You edited out the part that stated that 90% was my personal estimate.

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                  • See that part earlier where I said that a Smart Business Person would ask for hard numbers before making a decision?

                    I’m asking if you have hard numbers, and you do not. You have “gut feelings” and “opinions” and “instinct” and “my take”. You bring that to a Smart Business Person and he’ll tell you to get bent.

                    I mean, let’s just be aware, here, that you’re rolling out actual numbers and using those to say that it’s stupid to not do something, and when I asked if you had a source for those numbers you called me dishonest.

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                    • You want hard numbers for my opinion?

                      OK, at least 97% of all climate scientists agree that the planet is warming and that humans are the critical cause.

                      Would you like links to global temperature? To Arctic sea ice volume loss? To the physics of CO2? Those are the things on which I base my opinion.

                      BTW, I did not call you dishonest. I demonstrated that you dishonestly represented what I posted.

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                    • But you don’t have anything like hard numbers for your probability of ruining the planet for human existence. “the planet is warming and humans are the cause” is a far cry from being equal to “ruining the planet for human existence.”

                      This gets back to the issue of scientific certainty. While some aspects of AGW are certain, this kind if claim absolutely is not, and you’re asking for drastic costly action based not on certain science but on your mere opinion.

                      Can you see why some of us might be just a little bu hesitant?

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                    • This is why I get tired of fixating on global warming, as the single issue of environmental sustainability. As if, absent global warming, everything else we do is just fine.

                      “But you don’t have anything like hard numbers for your probability of ruining the planet for human existence. ”

                      Are you seriously trying to assert that our industrial processes are not ruining the planet for human existence?

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                    • Liberty,

                      Yes, I am seriously asserting that. I think we can do great harm that causes substantial decline in the human population, but I don’t think human existence is threatened. Our entire history demonstrates tharpt we’re an impressively adaptable species. I find it hard to believe that a precise that colonized environments ranging from the arctics to the Mohave to the tropics is going to be wiped out by a few degrees rise in temperature; even if the consequences are severe enough that Kansas is a barren desert and Florida disappears.

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  3. Robert, are you using the definition of conservative v.1?

    Conservative v.2, the one we now have operating isn’t interested in drawing up plans to relocate or evacuate people in low-lying coastal regions if sea rise begins to accelerate. In this version of conservatism it’s every man for himself and let the rich pick the bones of those who don’t make it.

    Old time conservatives used to value the community. That attitude is no longer operative. Conservatism is no longer about conserving, it’s about personal greed (with a fair amount of hate of others thrown in).

    Now, I’m applauding you for figuring out that ice has three dimensions and a very critical dimension is declining at an alarming rate, but take your understanding further please. Learn what it will mean if we simply relocate to higher ground and await the globe’s self-corrective measures.

    It will be a long, long, long wait and a very, very nasty condition in which we try to hang on. Check around and see what the planet would be like with a 12 degree C warmup.

    It’s not enough to depend on individuals changing their behavior. Far too many of us are short-sighted. Far too many of us are too greedy. What we are facing is not unlike seeing a very powerful nation gearing up to invade us. We can’t defend ourselves, our planet, with the disorganized action of the few. We’ve got to get everyone on board.

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    • We can’t defend ourselves, our planet, with the disorganized action of the few. We’ve got to get everyone on board.

      You’re probably right about that, but let me ask you a simple question with a difficult answer – how? Every anti-climate change measure that has been implemented so far anywhere in the world has been a joke and the reason for that is that no one is prepared to pay the massive cost of actually fixing this problem.

      The reason I tend to be sympathetic to geoenginnering is that it may be able to buy us a little time. I think the only viable solutions here are technological, until we can make abandoning carbon less expensive it will be politically impossible to actually do it.

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      • I don’t see that every anti-climate change measure has been a joke. The US hasn’t done a lot but other parts of the world are charging ahead with installing renewable energy and decreasing their fossil fuel use.

        Think about the issue, put on your smart business britches. Robert’s telling you that we’re looking at relocating all our coastal infrastructure (many of our major cities) to higher ground if we let Greenland melt out on us.

        The most likely way to avoid those trillions and trillions and trillions of dollar expenses is to spend some billions installing wind, solar, geothermal, etc. generation and getting off fossil fuels. I don’t remember the estimates offhand, but from a business perspective doesn’t it make sense to invest a billion to save a trillion? Or invest a billion to save a few billion?

        I’d be more sympathetic to geo-engineering if we had a good, workable plan. So far I know of only three.

        We can paint a lot of roofs white, install light/white shingles. This will help, but it’s not enough.

        We can blast lots of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the air. That’s what we did right after WWII when we greatly cranked up our rate of burning coal and created a cooling period sometimes referred to as the Global Dimming. But SO2 doesn’t stay up there, it comes down as acid rain which ruins forests and lakes and damages human health.

        We can put mirrors into orbit and reflect some sunlight away. But that would be a very expensive undertaking from what I’ve read. It would be a lot cheaper to just install renewables.

        Perhaps science will come up with a good way to engineer our way out of this mess, but then science may not. I don’t think we can risk waiting to see if scientists figure out a different solution. We need to get cracking and install renewables.

        (We’re going to run out of coal and oil anyway. Won’t hurt us to drastically cut our usage early.)

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        • The rest of the world’s efforts may look impressive but in practice the impact is tiny. Very few countries even came close to meeting their Kyoto-prescribed goals. Those – like the UK – that came close, did so mainly by switching power generation from coal to gas. Countries like China, Australia and Canada that would have suffered any impact from trying to meet goals imply ignored them or refused to sign up.

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        • I don’t see that every anti-climate change measure has been a joke. The US hasn’t done a lot but other parts of the world are charging ahead with installing renewable energy and decreasing their fossil fuel use.

          I’ve seen a few (heavily subsidised) renewable schemes, but I’m not aware of any genuine reductions in CO2 that aren’t just a product of the economic cycle (you’d expect CO2 output to fall in a recession, but it will come back again when the economy recovers).

          The most likely way to avoid those trillions and trillions and trillions of dollar expenses is to spend some billions installing wind, solar, geothermal, etc. generation and getting off fossil fuels. I don’t remember the estimates offhand, but from a business perspective doesn’t it make sense to invest a billion to save a trillion? Or invest a billion to save a few billion?

          Ah, if only it were that simple. The trouble is that you’re modelling the entire world as if it were one decision-making entity, when that’s not a good picture of how decisions are made. It might make sense to spend a billion to save a trillion, but it makes even more sense to get someone else to spend a billion to save you a trillion. Climate change can only be solved by altruistic coordinated action among sovereign governments, in an environment where self-interested calculation is the norm. Every country has an incentive to hang back and let everyone else pay the price for fixing climate change, and in an environment like that no one ends up doing anything.

          Perhaps science will come up with a good way to engineer our way out of this mess, but then science may not. I don’t think we can risk waiting to see if scientists figure out a different solution. We need to get cracking and install renewables.

          Until renewables are cheaper that’s not going to happen. At this point government effort should be focused on ways of making carbon-zero energy cheaper (without actually subsiding it, as that’s not a sustainable solution). If that happens quickly, great. If not, then we may need geoengineering as a backstop, though I’m not disputing any of the problems you raise with using geoengineering.

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          • If you will look at the data you’ll see that most (close to all) developed countries are moving forward with renewable energy. No one is moving fast enough, but all changes tend to start slow and then accelerate.

            The under developed world may, in fact, move to renewables faster than developed countries. They have very little fossil fuel capacity to “abandon”.

            People in far from the grid often rely on kerosene for home lighting. New programs are bringing them “pay as you use” micro solar systems which give them much better quality light and the ability to charge a cell phone for less than the weekly cost of kerosene.

            Up a step at the village/small town level, many local grids are run with diesel generators. Those people pay more per kWh for their electricity than just about anywhere else in the world. Solar/wind/storage is a bargain for them.

            China and India are moving to renewables on their “big grids” because the cost of coal has become very high. The coal itself is fairly cheap, but it takes a lot of expensive oil to get coal either from their own mines or from foreign countries to the places they want to generate power.

            We’re going slow in the US largely because we have some very rich people who are in the coal business funding efforts to slow renewables. That should not be new news for you.

            The price of solar is falling very fast. Solar panels are now under $1/Watt and on the way to half that in the next few years. Once we get installed solar prices down to about what Germans pay (~$2.50/W) from our ~$4.50/W people are going to install solar like gangbusters. Coal, while it can mess with renewable subsidies, will not be able to stop individual installations.

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            • If you will look at the data you’ll see that most (close to all) developed countries are moving forward with renewable energy. No one is moving fast enough, but all changes tend to start slow and then accelerate.

              My understanding is that they’re only progressing with substantial subsidies, which is a problem because you can only subsidise power generation while it remains a sideshow. The main event has to compete with fossil fuels unsubsidised.

              The price of solar is falling very fast. Solar panels are now under $1/Watt and on the way to half that in the next few years. Once we get installed solar prices down to about what Germans pay (~$2.50/W) from our ~$4.50/W people are going to install solar like gangbusters. Coal, while it can mess with renewable subsidies, will not be able to stop individual installations.

              This is very good news, if trends continue (always a dangerous thing to assume of course), then we’ll reach a point where the political problems become moot and fossil fuels will become mostly obsolete on their own. I imagine fossil fuels will remain popular for some applications (such as aviation fuel) for quite some time, but as long as consumption drops sufficiently that doesn’t really matter.

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            • Also, with China, I got into the whole industrial pollution argument thing which prompted me to look up ye olde science links. Unfortunately, I don’t have all the links but, doing a quick Google, I’ve come up with this chart from the Guardian which kind of illustrates the point.

              http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2011/02/10/CarbonWeb.pdf

              China, regardless of what changes they’re making, had been increasing their output by the same amount as Canada’s total output per year from 2005-2008 and then they accelerated.

              Now, I realize that there are other factors going into this and I can’t be arsed to make this a research project but I don’t think you’re going to see China becoma a “clean” energy nation…or even reverse the rate of pollutants that they spit into the air for many years to come.

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              • China is producing a lot of pollutants. Of course much less per person than the US, so it depends on how you pitch your argument.

                China is also being very aggressive about cleaning up their act. China has passed the US in terms of installed wind. A couple years back they set a 2015 goal of having 5GW of installed solar. The recently cranked that goal up to 21GW ( 1GW of thermal solar).

                China has also announced that they are capping the amount of coal that can be burned per year starting in 2015. That has put industries on notice that they have to change their focus to renewable energy if they want to expand.

                China has been building some coal plants but they have been ‘state of the art’/efficient plants and they have shut down around 9,000 dirty coal plants.

                It’s extremely unlikely that China will ever get as dirty – per person – as are the US and Canada. And I expect they’ll soon have more renewables – per person – than the US.

                We should have, by now, learned to not sell China short. They’re busy eating our lunch and eyeing our dinner….

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                • China is producing much less per person and you could also argue that, since a lot of their energy is spent producing products for export, it’s actually even lower than the total/per person figures would have you believe. However, if you go off per person figures, then Australia per person is currently 111% dirtier than the U.S. and, when you start getting into really low population regions such as the Virgin Islands or Gibraltar, you really get into the multipliers.

                  To an extent, per person is just a way to shift blame and has little to do with what I’m saying. China isn’t going to give up their manufacturing base anytime soon and, as we’re seeing with them cornering the Rare Earths market and selling manufactured goods instead of exporting raw materials, their power needs aren’t going to go down either.

                  Plus, China’s cap in 2015 is going to be 4.1 billion tons and they’ve said that it is a target but not a hard cap. Their current usage is 3.48 billion tons.

                  I stand by my statement. It’s going to be years before their emissions start declining much less before they become a “green” nation.

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                  • It seems to me that not to divide total emissions by population numbers is a way to shift blame away from countries such as the US.

                    We’ve got different numbers for China’s coal cap/target.

                    “China, the world’s biggest user and producer of coal, will limit domestic output and consumption of the commodity in the five years through 2015 to reduce pollution and curb reliance on the fuel.

                    Production and demand will be restricted to about 3.9 billion metric tons a year by 2015, according to a five-year plan for the coal industry released by the National Energy Administration at a briefing in Beijing today.”

                    http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-03-22/china-to-restrict-coal-demand-output-to-3-dot-9-billion-tons

                    Obviously we’ll have to wait to see what actually happens to China’s emissions but I think they will start falling soon. Capping coal, installing lots of wind and solar, building dams, building nuclear reactors – all that cuts emissions.

                    Add to that the fact that we’re starting to see Chinese citizens begin to put pressure on the government to clean up the environment. The Chinese have moved past the point where life was a daily struggle to provide themselves food. Now they have the luxury of working to improve other aspects of their lives.

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          • Dynamical systems get in trouble and they can’t be rescued. This isn’t a car engine where you might retorque a few bolts. No remedial measures can possibly put all that ice back onto the glaciers.

            No, we’re in for about nine million years of this. That’s my guess. Even if we shut down every fossil fuel engine and power plant in the world, the oceans will continue to warm because water is darker than ice. Enough carbon precipitate has fallen on the ice to absorb infrared and melt it.

            At this point, there’s no stopping this. The theta has already crossed the margins of cyclic stability. The top is wobbling and there’s no speeding it up to try to get it spinning correctly again. The Triassic was sorta like what we’re about to see in future, inland deserts, some life along the coast. The reptiles will do pretty well.

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    • Little evidence I’ve seen indicates an ability to act ahead of incurred damage. If and when the catastrophe is well under way, when we’re taking casualties, here and now among “us” and therefore perceive the threat to be real, then and only then will we “get everyone on board.” If history is any guide, and assuming the eco-catastrophical projections are more or less correct, the relief from the burdens a peculiar model of freedom will be seen very positively by most participants, and subjective tendencies in that regard will be strongly reinforced. After however many years of collective action – typified by what today’s so-called conservatives call socialism, statism, totalitarianism, etc., names for those ideas whose deprecation also defines the system whose limits have palpably and destructively been demonstrated – if a new steady-state has been secured, then overcompensation in the other direction might become possible again.

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  4. Curious, if immediate switching to a reliable non-fossil fuel power source is advisable why advocate for renewables (a young and unreliable power source which generally provides no base load power*) instead of nuclear?

    *except hydro which we’re pretty much built out on.

    Other than that an interesting post, kudos.

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    • One reason, nuclear is more expensive than renewables. Don’t get mislead by the price of power from plants built many years ago. Current estimates for power from new nuclear plants runs from $0.15 to $0.25/kWh. Wind is about $0.06/kWh. Geothermal is under $0.10/kWh. Solar is about $0.15/kWh and dropping fast.

      Second reason, it takes far too long to build reactors. Wind farms are built in less than two years, some in less than one year. Large solar arrays are installed in weeks.

      Third, we don’t have enough sites for nuclear. Reactors need cooling water and they need receptive communities.

      Fourth, we don’t have enough trained and experienced nuclear engineers, technicians, and construction experts. It would take a decade or so to produce a new generation.

      The intermittent nature of wind and solar is not a problem. Our grids could accept up to 25% (Eastern grid) to 35% (Western grid) wind and solar as the grid now exists. We’ve got enough dispatchable supply (natural gas, hydro) to allow large increases in renewables before we need any more storage. (We built a lot of storage when we built nuclear, back then.)

      We’re now in the 4% – 5% range for wind, solar and geothermal on the grid. Coal is down to 32%. There’s plenty of room to install solar and shut down coal.

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      • But you can’t carry the base load for major metropolitan areas off of solar and wind because their power output is intermittent. The only non-fossil-fuel options are solar thermal and nuclear. Solar thermal is cheaper and all-round bettter but it requires infrastructure to be created in desert areas with adequate all-round sunshine.

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        • Simon, solar thermal relies on liquid salt as I understand it (mostly for transmission and storage of the heat energy). If we assume practical liquid salt tech then yes solar thermal becomes feasible but nuclear reactors with liquid salt reactors become downright magical. A nuclear reactor with a liquid salt system could be run at essentially normal pressure (no super pressure containers and zero risk of explosive escaping radiological contaminants) and could be fuelled continuously (no down time, less wear on the equipment) plus they’d be pretty much accident proof (you have a reactor breach the salt just turns into a block rather then evaporating or running around all over the place).

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        • Certainly you can Simon. Every single generation method is intermittent. Nothing runs 24/365. We engineer around that by having storage, dispatchable supply and load shifting.

          Renewables would in the short term rely on dispatchable natural gas but as the cost of storage falls we would switch to storage.

          BTW, South Australia took down all their fossil fuel generation this month. They have gone 100% fossil fuel free.

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            • And those two Virginia reactors that went off line following the earthquake? Brown’s Ferry that went down because an engineer set the guts on fire with a candle? Davis-Bessie that went down for years (?) because a hidden leak almost melted through the containment dome? Humboldt Bay that was discovered to be sitting on top of a earthquake fault? Indian Point when the cooling tower collapsed? There are more.

              And there was Three Mile Island.

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              • Yes, the utter canard of Three Mile Island. The big bad pre Fukushima western disaster. What was the butchers bill on that again? Oh yeah like 4 employees got almost the maximum federally permitted radiation exposure, no documented direct fatalities and no concrete slam dunk evidence of heightened cancer incidences.

                I mean people are human and mistakes have been made but the nuclear record isn’t bad. The worst we have now is Fukushima and that took a fifty year old reactor getting hit by a tidal wave and a historic earthquake to cause. Coal kills more people in mine collapses in a year than nuclear has killed in its entire history and until renewable energy does some serious scaling up we have to run the power grid on something other than unicorn farts.

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                  • Yes, James very true, they were trying to salvage a workable reactor out of the incidentt poor saps. It bears repeating and emphasizing that this was a fifty year old reactor. Modern reactors are built with passively safe systems. If something goes sideways the reactions fail and the reactor goes dormant, no booms or explosions or runaway reactions.

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                    • This topic seems to have really tapped into your area of expertise, North. I haven’t seen you this active in a debate in a long long time.

                      And I didn’t know you were such an anti-environmental earth-hating conservative! ;)

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                    • On this score, I’m an anti-environmental earth hater too. My nephew works in the public-private renewable-technology nexus and the news on those emerging technologies is that they aren’t. Emerging, that is. From what I’ve been able to figure out on my own I have to agree with him. Nuclear is the way to go. At this point in time, given the parameters of the problem, it seems to me that it’s the only way to go.

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                    • I got to be honest, North, some of this stuff you guys are saying is making me skeptical. I don’t really have a dog in the fight. Most of our power here is hydroelectric because we live under an escarpment. I’ve lived in France where most of the power is nuclear. I’m okay with whatever. But, I dunno… saying that what happened in Japan would have been averted if they’d only handled it better sounds a little too good to be true.

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                    • Rufus,

                      This is not an area of expertise for me, but I co-taught an Atomic Weapons and Power class last year. I handled the politics and cold war stuff, and my chemist colleague handled the science stuff. As my colleague explained it to me, Fukushima’s initial problem was the loss of backup power due to the tsunami, which put it into meltdown mode, but they had the capability of flooding the reactors with sea water and that would have cooled them and prevented meltdown. They didn’t because they were worried about the cost of losing the reactors–essentially they were caught up in crisis mode with a focus on the wrong one of the different possible bad outcomes. But the solution to meltdown, had they set aside their concerns about costs, was actually very simple. (In their case, because of their proximity to the ocean.)

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                    • I don’t doubt what North says, but it just reinforces my major qualm about nuclear. While the technology can be used safely, too often the people making safety decision are going to be penny-wise, pound-foolish, irresponsible assholes. Not that it’s unique to nuclear: the Deepwater Horizon horror was caused by the same sort of calculation, that ignoring safety issues because of pressure to get the well online. The Exxon Valdez disaster was a result of the policy of under-staffing tankers, again to save money at the expense of safety. But the possible risks of nuclear accidents are even larger, and I have no faith that that that will be reflected in more care.

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                    • Rufus, Mike your reactions and concerns are perfectly reasonable but it bears emphasizing that the major flaw of the reactor was simply that when things went sideways its default state was to get messy. Modern nuclear reactors are designed to be passively safe. What this means is that maintaining a nuclear reaction requires that perfect conditions and that when those conditions fail the result is the reaction fails and the reactor goes inert. If it simplifies it imagine the old reactors as a candle on a bale of hay. If the candle tips over there’s risk that the whole bale of hay lights up. Modern reactors replace the bale of hay with a block of ice; your candle falls over and puts itself out instead.

                      James, nuclear is a hobby-passion of mine (and I’ve finally hit a lull in work); it’s the closest thing that this fiction lover can imagine to magic. It comes up infrequently so I do like chatting about it. Also I’ve found that when it comes to AGW discussions you can very rapidly figure out how serious the person is about AGW by bringing up nuclear. If they do the equivalent of standing on a chair and holding their skirts up then it’s clear they don’t consider AGW as serious as they let on. But I don’t think nuclear is necessarily conservative or even libertarian. Lord knows I think that nuclear, while viable, must always be firmly regulated.

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                    • I[‘m not at all up-to-date on nuclear technology, and I’m sure that what you describe has little if anything in common with the old use of neutron-absorbing cadmium rods to damp the reaction. Still, my analogy is a fail-safe reactor melting down because that secondary backup system wasn’t fully provisioned because have you seen the price of cadmium these days?

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                    • Mike first off thanks for giving me the excuse to talk about this subject a bit more. I understand your confusion so let me try and elaborate a bit.

                      When thinking about old traditional nuclear reactors what you’re concerned about makes perfect sense. You have a big nuclear pile and left to its own devices the fissile materials natural inclination is to react and heat up and go critical. It is prevented from doing this by cadmium rods and cooling systems among other safety measures that are used to hold it back from doing what it’s naturally inclined to do (which is react and react more the hotter and more neutron rich the reaction is becoming). These reactors are considered “actively safe” in that they are under control and non dangerous as long as systems are actively working to hold them back. Of course as you posit in your scenario if some greedy or stupid idiot tries to cut corners on backup systems or safety systems the reactor is at a risk of going critical, breaching containment and contaminating the surrounding countryside.

                      Modern reactors on the other hand employ what is called passive safe designs in that the reactor and the reaction inside it produces a critical reaction where a failure of control systems results in the reaction going non-critical. Pebble bed reactors, for instance, become less reactive the hotter the fuel gets so if our hypothetical idiot fishes the control systems then when the reaction gets out of control it smothers itself rather than going critical and presenting a risk of breach.

                      Think of it like an eager dog on a leash (old style nuclear reactors) versus a passive donkey with a carrot (modern reactors). In this scenario the leash and the harness/carrot are the control systems. If your owner gets a cut rate leash and it busts on the dog then that dog runs hog wild, chases the cat, craps over everything and chews up your shoes. If the owner gets a cut rate harness then the donkey eats its carrot and then stands around swishing its tail at flies doing no useful work but doing no harm either. With passive nuclear design cheapness or idiocy results in damage only to the nuclear plant itself rather than to the countryside it is in. Because this passive safety is built into the very way that the modern plant functions, the very nature of its nuclear reaction, there’s no way for an idiot to accidentally cause a disaster (and very few to no ways for a malevolent actor to cause a disaster either).

                      Does that help at all?

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                    • Yes Mike, I can’t agree with you emphatically enough. As far as I know nobody has ever advocated for some kind of pure unregulated reactor industry (not even libertarians do as far as I know, the potential externalities blow the lid off it ever being able to operate independent of input and monitoring from most of the state it’s located in*).

                      The point of passive systems is precisely that; that if Scrooge Mcduck or Kleetus Mcidiot throws the wrong switch (or if Hurricane Disaster lands on it) whether out of money mad greed or drunken incompetence all they end up with is that the reactor turns off and sits there.

                      *Though now that I think about it I’ve never read much written about nuclear power from a libertarian perspective and that’s very much not intended as a gotcha, I’d honestly think it’d be quite interesting (Jason, James if anything hops out in your minds let me know).

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                    • The point of passive systems is precisely that; that if Scrooge Mcduck or Kleetus Mcidiot throws the wrong switch (or if Hurricane Disaster lands on it) whether out of money mad greed or drunken incompetence all they end up with is that the reactor turns off and sits there.

                      I don’t think we’re disagreeing, but I still want to emphasize that the issue that worries me isn’t throwing the wrong switch, it’s that when that expensive monitoring computer needs replacing, they use a refurbished PC AT.

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                    • Yeah I don’t think we’re disagreeing. With the modern passively safe reaction if they install the cut rate PC AT into their nuclear puppy instead of crapping radioactive junk all over the county it turns itself into a brick.

                      Old reactors fishup= regional calamity.
                      New reactotrs fishup= calamity for the plant owners but noone else.

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                    • Off the top of my head I’m not familiar with any libertarian writing on nuclear power. I’m sure there’s some out there, and I’d guess it’s pro-nuclear, but beyond that I’d hesitate to guess at details.

                      I’m with North, the potential externalities make un-regulated nuclear power a non-starter for at least this libertarian. I’m all for close government monitoring of uranium, from mining to buying and shipping, too, since I rather think terrorists might make use of it otherwise.

                      But I think North’s point is worth emphasizing; that modern designs make the consequences of bad operation non-disastrous; e.g., the cost is automatically internalized. That’s pretty cool, and that’s a perfect outcome of a regulatory scheme.

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                    • DD, yeah that’s about a third of the problem. The other third is governmental instincts towards ass covering and the final third is an institutional environmentalism that simply can’t/won’t change course from the issues they fought in their golden youthful years.

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                • Quehana Natural Area. UNINHABITABLE.
                  Saxton’s children wiped out.
                  And never forget DETROIT — the city we almost lost.

                  Nuclear is not your friend. and nuclear has been covered up to boot.

                  Coal’s deadlier, sure… but don’t whitewash.

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          • South Australia took down all their fossil fuel generation this month. They have gone 100% fossil fuel free.

            Citation? I can’t find a news article verifying this, and Wikipedia’s page on Australian energy policy says South Australia hopes to be at 33% renewables by 2020.

            Please don’t tell me you’re a troll and just making stuff up, Bob.

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      • I’m skeptical about questions of expense. There’s a not insignificant amount of that expense that’s associated with regulation and litigation both of which are legacies of administrations and attitudes that viewed nuclear with ideological hostility.

        With regards to time, again, reactors take a while sure but they also take up much less space. I’ll note that we have several examples of countries that run either almost their entire (France) or a significant fraction (Japan, the US, Canada) of their power grid off nuclear power. Could you present me with an example of a modern economy that runs entirely or near entirely off renewable power sources?

        Sites are once again a bit of a distraction. There’re plenty of sites with cooling water (assuming of course that water is required) and as for hostility, that’s mainly a product of an organized campaign of disinformation by the same forces that now advocate non-carbon power. Renewables have the same site problems that nuclear has to a degree. Nimby’s don’t like windmills in their back yards or spoiling their view, environmentalists don’t like solar farms ruining fragile desert ecosystems and no one like geothermal related earthquakes or tidal coastal erosion or hydro flooding and migratory river species issues.

        Engineers and technicians aren’t very persuasive. We don’t have a worlds worth of wind farm techs or solar engineers on hand. The point of deciding to move our generation in one direction or another early on is that the technicians and engineers come about along with the industry.

        I’m all for a super effective smart grid that’d allow storage and movement of power across large distances and across great variances of demand but again we need to remind ourselves that such a grid doesn’t currently exist.

        I’m sympathetic to renewable power sources, they obviously are important but I’m still puzzled by your emphasis of them and your disregard for fission. From where I sit renewable power represents a potential for considerable useful power generation sometime in the future. Nuclear power on the other hand is a significant power generation source right now and that’s with decades old outmoded generators. Heck, solar power’s utility, to my knowledge, pretty much is dependant on mastering liquid salt energy storage but of course if you get the kinks out of liquid salt then nuclear goes from practical to downright economical power generation. Factor in the potential advances for nuclear like thorium, fuel recycling or passively safe modern reactor design and I don’t see how anyone who’s genuinely concerned about global warming can write it off.

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        • Here’s a list of countries which get at least 60% of their power from hydro. On the list are several who get 100% from hydro.

          http://k.lenz.name/LB/?p=6525

          Now, I realize that you want a list of countries that get 100% from wind/solar but there are none yet. These are emerging technologies. We didn’t move from ledger books to computers, from film to digital overnight.

          As for your nuclear country list, France is ramping up solar and wind. Japan, as you probably know, shut down all its reactors following the earthquake and has restarted only two. Japan is installing solar and getting ready for offshore wind. If they make it through this summer with only two reactors I wouldn’t be surprised to see those two shut down in the fall and not restarted.

          Whether the community resistance to nuclear is organized, rational or irrational, it doesn’t matter. The resistance is there and almost no communities outside the reddest of red states will tolerate a reactor in their midst.

          Wind techs are trained in six month junior college sessions. In fact, many students have been getting hired before completing the full coursework. Solar, that’s nothing but common construction skills. Pour concrete footings, bolt together racks and bolt on panels, wire it up. (I’ve done three solar installations myself – it’s pretty easy.)

          Environmentalists are concerned about solar and wind siting. They don’t want the most beautiful and the most ecologically sensitive places spoiled. That’s why a major study of available lands was made and several million acres identified as the best places to site.

          No one wants a wind turbine in their back yard. (If you’re getting several thousand dollars a year for leasing the land you might tolerate one.) Early on there were some inappropriate site selections. I think that’s not happening any longer.

          The smart grid and the “big grid” are being built. We have some HVDC (high voltage direct current) lines being built today. One to bring wind from the Plains to Chicago. One to carry Kansas wind to St. Louis and that part of the country. One to move Oklahoma wind to East Tennessee. One to tie Wyoming wind to the Pacific Intertie and Intermountain Intertie. When that one is complete we’ll have tied the excellent hydro of the Pacific Northwest to the excellent solar of SoCal to the excellent wind of Wyoming and surrounding states in a “loop” running from Seattle to San Diego to Utah to Wyoming and back to Seattle.

          It’s not clear how everything will play out. Pretty clearly nuclear is not going to be a major component. The price is just too high and it promises to get higher. The wildcard here is grid storage batteries. There are some new very promising technologies and if even one of them proves out then we’re looking at a future of cheap, clean abundant electricity.

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          • Once we can see some countries running modern economies mostly on wind and solar I am sure my own skepticism will abate.

            If renewables become as cost effective and easy to implement as your sunny predictions suggest then the transition to them will be swift, volontary and easy and will require little to no intervention from governmental organizations to make happen (and the business interests in favor of such a shift would easily overwhelm any ability of fossil fuel companies to prevent it).

            Now me, I remain skeptical. Smart grids, cheap renewables and especially sufficient battery technology all are in work but not yet working as far as I’ve seen.

            If, however, renewables are not as cheap or as easy to use as you imply or the technologies to implement them don’t materialize. Well there’s nuclear and I feel that the environmental movements’ blase dismissal of it badly undercuts their arguement that global warming is a serious issue. They do a classic two step about it:

            Environmentalists-Global warming is a serious problem, a shift to renewables must occurr and governments should move to force this.

            Opponents- but people don’t want to pay more for energy or have renewable power sources near them.

            Environmentalists- Sacrifices have to be made, the fact that it’s expensive and people don’t like it don’t matter. We’re trying to save the planet here.

            Opponents- Okay what about nuclear power. It doesn’t produce any carbon.

            Environmentalists- *turning pale* Oh no, nuclear is expensive and people don’t like having it near them.

            Opponents- … … …

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            • nuclear is short term. so long as we keep that in mind, throw it in. multiprong solutions work better, dammit!
              (physicist by training. not that I’m the one winning bets with Hawking, mind–that’d be a very good friend of mine.)

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              • By what measure my dear lady? There’re proven uranium reserves for decades even at highly elevated use levels. Recycling extends that much much further and there is a lot of unproven uranium out there (no commercial incentive to find it). Add in thorium and you could run the planet on nuclear for centuries. By what definition is it short term?

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                  • Fusion is, in my mind, at the same level as massive solar thermal and other widely deployed renewable schema, floating out there in theory but not yet employes.

                    Still using just proven tech and near proven tech there’s nuclear fuel for the long term. Add in deuterium from ocean water (somewhat more theoretical but less pie in the sky than fusion) and we’re talking about indefinite fuel (or at least until we start collecting it from space).

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                    • we have prototype specs for a fusion reactor. quadruple the expected cost to build, and we’ll have a working fusion reactor.

                      200 years for fission is fine — but with increasing use of it, we might be talking something like 20 years — which is all well and good! But don’t talk like we’ve actually got 200 years of supply for “the entire world’s energy” because we don’t.

                      Me? I like green roofs, swamp coolers, solar hot water heaters — cheap, simple and easy. Better insulation.

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                    • No no, I meant it when I said centuries and that is at elevated use assuming that nuclear was shouldering a much large % of world generating capacity. There is a lot of uranium out there there’s an even bigger amount of it out there but not yet surveyed (no money in uranium right now) and again I must reemphasize that reprocessing turns most of the “waste” we currently produce right back into fuel.

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      • Doesn’t really cover it.
        It takes about three years to build a new reactor. There are more coming online. The discontinued one at Watts Bar is up and running now, and there will be work later this year on the damaged one at Crystal River. Plant Voegle will be finished soon. Not sure about the status of the Kewaunee plant; that might have been scaled back.

        There’s a big solar plant going up in Arizona now, and it’s likely to be 1 1/2 years of work.

        I don’t think coal is the problem. The problem is the older technologies in use.
        Like removing the lead from gasoline years ago, we can remove the carbon from coal.

        Coal is really dirt cheap right now, and there are a lot of mines that have been laying off. I talked to a lady from Kentucky earlier this week, and she told me that one mine had laid off 500 workers.

        We’ve got plenty of qualified people to build and run more nukes, and the capacity to train more. It doesn’t take much. A few extra safety courses.
        Not sure why they don’t build more. I think water would be more of an issue, and the transportation of waste. Disposing of the waste is one thing, but they have to transport it there as well.

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        • No one in the west builds a reactor in three years. The two under construction currently in Europe are taking a decade or more. Watts Bar is not up and running. Completion has been delayed and budget overruns announced.

          Coal is not a problem. Shipping costs are the problem. The price of oil drives up the price of delivered coal. Coal jobs in the US are declining because we are burning less coal. A few years back the US grid was fed by coal with a 57% share. Last year coal’s contribution fell to 36% and this year it is running about 32%.

          We have no carbon sequestering technology that “works”. We can capture part of the CO2 but doing so drives the price of coal-produced electricity above what the market will pay.

          I don’t know where you got your information about having qualified people to build reactors. That’s not what the big companies that own reactors have said. And we have no long term solution for nuclear waste.

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          • There were two in Georgia that were built in three years; one in Savannah, one in Augusta.
            It takes three years of litigation to build anything these days.

            A lot of those mines in Wyoming are owned by the railroads.
            The problem is natural gas is so cheap this year. Coal started rising about a month ago when it got warmer.
            The data I’ve seen tells me we’re burning more coal. Stating the matter as a percentage of power production confuses the issue.

            Carbon sequestration is an incomplete, non-viable, and now obsolete technology. There is no need for sequestration with gasification.
            Of course, the catalyst makes a big difference. At the Duke Energy project in Edwardsport, Ind. they were using Selexol. At the Waltonville plant in Illinois, they were planning on Rectisol, which was pretty much made obsolete by Selexol.
            I went to Edwardsport as something of a specialist in emissions systems, having previous experience at ERGS in Wisconsin and CBEC-4 in Iowa. And I’ve worked on the control systems for a gas-fired plant in Missouri as well (that one isn’t there anymore). Not unusual, because I was working on similar control systems at Kennedy Space Center years ago. It doesn’t matter to me what it goes to.

            I wouldn’t listen to what the people at Shaw tell you. I was offered a job at the nuke in Turkey Creek earlier this week. Turned it down, because I want to go out to a refinery.
            I could easily have the names of 20 qualified men by 9am tomorrow.
            More often than not, it’s the people that are running the work that make those sites unfavorable. Some are better than others. A lot of brother-in-lawing going on.

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            • When were those “three year” reactors built?

              BTW, Vogtle won’t be on line “soon”. They’re years from completion and already running over budget. They just experience a setback when some components were incorrectly fabricated.

              It takes a few years to clear the regulatory process in order to get started. And then it takes a few years to build. If nothing else, the cheap price of natural gas has pretty much killed the nuclear industry. Any reactors that get built will only happen if the companies can push cost and risk off on their customers. And there aren’t many states where people will allow that sort of stuff to happen.

              In 2011 the US generated 1734265 thousand MWhs of electricity. 15840 thousand MWhs were supplied by coal. That’s 42.2%. Working from a few years back coal supplied 50.8% in 2003 followed by 49.8%, 49.6%, 49.0%, 48.5%, 48.2%, 44.4% and 44.8% in 2010. 42.2% last year, 36% first quarter 2012 and about 32% for the first half of 2012.

              (I think I made an error further back in saying 36% for 2011. It was 36% for the first quarter of 2012.)

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        • “Plant Voegle will be finished soon.”

          Well, for some definition of “soon”. Vogtle 3 is scheduled to come on line in 2016, Vogtle 4 in 2017. Those estimates assume that the lawsuits recently filed will be resolved quickly. Over the next 25-30 years, the large majority of the 104 US reactors will reach 60 years of age. Just personal opinion extrapolating the reported condition of many of the reactors after 40 years and the political trends, but it seems unlikely that the existing fleet will be allowed to run past 60 years. In which case 20% of the Eastern Interconnects generating capacity needs to be replaced with something in the next 25-30 years. Whether that’s imposed conservation, demand destruction by price, new reactors, whatever — I would bet that big chunks of the Eastern Interconnect will have problems keeping the lights on affordably and reliably in 25 years.

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          • Is there a technical delay, or a litigation delay?

            I submit to you that a government decree that no nuclear power plant may be delayed in construction or operation by legal action would be less intrusive, more effective, less costly, and more popular than any amount of carbon-restriction legislation.

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    • BTW, we have something like 80,000 existing dams in the US. We use about 2,500 for power production.

      Based on a study of existing dams on federal land we should expect 10% of existing dams to be potential power producers. We’ve got a lot of hydro that can be harvested from existing dams if we decide that’s needed. A number of existing dams are currently being retrofitted with turbines and turned into producers.

      Baseload is an outmoded term. We don’t need massive power plants cranking along 24/365, we need to be able to supply electricity when it’s needed. We could use wind when the wind is blowing, solar when the Sun is shining, and fill in the other times with stored power, hydro, or dispatchable gas.

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      • That’s great but aren’t those dams being used for irrigation and isn’t there a trade off between irrigation and power generation.

        On the other hand I’m all for greater power through hydro. A lot of irrigation is used to do idiotic thinks like growing strawberries in deserts. Lets scrap agricultural subsidies, import the strawberries from Latin america (I’m sure they would appreciate the cash crop) and use the dams for power!

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        • Some are irrigation. Those dams can be converted to pump-up storage by installing a hybrid pump/turbine and a “few days” reservoir below the main dam.

          Some are transportation, such as on the upper ends of our major rivers. Turbines are being installed in the dam locks.

          Some are flood control. We can make power as the water is released later in the year to get ready for the rainy season.

          There’s also a lot of ‘run of the river’ potential. Taking some of the water out of a stream, putting it into a feedstock, spinning a turbine further down the hill, and returning the water to the river.

          Then there’s putting turbines directly into rivers, which is being done. It’s the same sort of technology as tidal harvesting. And we’ve got that great big rich Gulf Stream off our southeast coast that packs an incredible amount of energy.

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            • Nothing that generates power for 7 billion people is going to be terribly eco-friendly. Even supposing you could get all that from geothermal, you’d still have power generation lines running all over hell and gone.

              One of the problems I have with the environmental movement is that there is no sense of priority; it’s save everything that’s endangered right now. This is clearly idiotically unsustainable given how fast species are going extinct on a yearly basis.

              If we want to keep the body alive, we’re going to have to perform some serious emergency amputations.

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            • I’ve been talking about existing, not new dams.

              In my perfect world we would pull down all the dams, but I don’t see that as possible short term.

              Now, don’t in any way make this into a defense of dams but because of extensive stream restoration (and possibly some help from a volcano) we’re having a heck of a good salmon year here in the PNW. Nothing like in the days before dams, but incredibly better than what was happening.

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                • Here’s an example of what we’re seeing…

                  “Since Bonneville Dam outside Portland was built in 1938, there have been plenty of times there weren’t 38,000 sockeye salmon swimming over the fish ladders in a whole year. But on Monday that many passed the Columbia River dam, and another 41,000 swam over the dam on Wednesday — a rate of nearly 30 a minute. That bought the total so far to 290,000.

                  According to the story, more than 400,000 salmon are expected to return this year, and what’s more, almost all of them are wild salmon, born in the region’s rivers instead of a hatchery. Biologists credit favorable ocean conditions and improved habitat in the area’s rivers as the reason for the upswing in numbers.”

                  http://www.fieldandstream.com/blogs/field-notes/2012/06/record-numbers-wild-sockeye-salmon-counted-pacific-northwest

                  I’m not saying that all the runs are doing that well, haven’t checked them all out. I can say that we’ve brought a lot more fish back into the Eel River over the last couple of years thanks to stream and flow restoration.

                  Dams are coming down on the Klamath with will greatly increase spawning grounds and then those numbers should climb.

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      • If baseload is an outmoded term, what do you call the constant load on the power grid? It has to be supplied somehow. If the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining is everyone just supposed to wait for the lights to come back on?

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        • There is no constant load on the power grid. Loads come and go. Supply comes and goes. The job of grid managers is to match demand and supply.

          Utilities are moving away from using the term “baseload” because it tends to restrict thinking to generation methods which have very high capacity ratings.

          High capacity is not necessarily a good thing. We built over 20GW of pump-up and CAES storage when we built our reactors ‘back then’ because the grid had no use for the late night, off-peak power that those reactors produced. We supply shifted.

          In the future grid we will use more dispatchable supply (hydro, etc.) and storage along with cheaper renewables and get by just fine without those big dirty, expensive plants rumbling along in the background.

          You can get more details here…

          http://peakenergy.blogspot.com/2012/04/why-baseload-power-is-doomed.html

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      • Bob:

        First of all, welcome to the blog. I’ve gone around this maypole myself a few times and AGW is one of the intractable discussion topics with some of the contributors around here. Just a head’s up on that score.

        “We could use wind when the wind is blowing, solar when the Sun is shining, and fill in the other times with stored power, hydro, or dispatchable gas.”

        The problem I see with a completely dynamic power grid such as you describe here is that such a structure would be incredibly brittle unless it was massively over-engineered. Baseline power generation can certainly be provided by dynamic sources during times of relative stability.

        During a regional-wide disaster such as a hurricane or an earthquake, the thing would fall to pieces and it would be exceedingly difficult to get any part of it working again in any timely fashion. Well, unless you go back to the “over-engineered” part.

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        • We have very large standby generation and load canceling plans in place now in order to make the current grid work.

          A couple of years ago we suddenly lost a couple of nuclear reactors with no advance notice on the east coast when an earthquake hit. The one that damaged the Washington Monument. Just this year we lost a California reactor when it was discovered that Homer had been in charge of supplying new parts. We loose reactors off the grid when summer temperatures get too hot to use streams for cooling. Coal plants go down for maintenance and repair.

          The ebb and flow of wind and solar is much less dramatic than a nuclear reactor or coal plant suddenly going off line. Wind and sun are fairly predictable, especially over the short term. And neither the wind nor sun suddenly shut off across the entire grid. Systems move over the landscape, clouds move across the sky.

          Obviously it won’t be a simple thing to replace fossil fuels, but it’s doable. And easier than rebuilding all our coastal cities up higher.

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          • > The ebb and flow of wind and solar is much less
            > dramatic than a nuclear reactor or coal plant
            > suddenly going off line.

            Yes, but it’s a different kind of drama, particularly when the grid, as it stands, is currently built to occasionally lose one big source without falling over (although we will probably have brownouts and rolling blackouts this summer if they don’t get San Onofre back online, which it sounds like they won’t).

            But load distribution over the grid is a huge engineering problem in and of itself. The grid is a monster.

            Now, granted, in places like Southern California with its near-omnipresent sunshine, I don’t understand why solar panels on the roof are still such a relatively rare sight. You can throw up a very decentralized grid pretty easy here because during our times of biggest power consumption (summer) is also where we have the greatest capability of local power generation (sun’s a shinin’ on the rooftops).

            But that’s a much different problem from, say, Seattle. Or even New York. There you’d have to have a much more dynamic set of power generation capabilities, and stitching them all together would be an enormous problem, because most of them would not be colocated with use, so you still need to have a very large grid distribution system.

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            • It’s quite likely that the grid will spread it’s wings and become less local because widely shared generation, backup generation, and storage makes financial sense. Moving surplus power from one region to another makes financial sense. There will be more decentralized generation as rooftops gain solar panels and factories find that they can make electricity from their waste heat, etc. My take is that the grid will get both larger and ‘smaller’.

              Right now we’re seeing transmission lines being built to move wind power from the Plains to Chicago, from Oklahoma to East Tennessee, etc. The new HVDC line being developed to take Wyoming wind power to SoCal will also carry SoCal solar electricity to Wyoming.

              The grid is getting more responsive. This just got published today…

              “Down in Chattanooga, Tennessee, another unexpected storm blew through town just days after the derechos hit the other states. For EPB Chattanooga, the municipal utility that serves 170,000 customers, it was the first storm where it got to see its smart grid investment work in tandem to cut the amount of power outages at least in half.

              “This was the first one [during which] we had this magnitude of automation, and it made a difference in the way we ran the storm, especially the first night,” said Jim Glass, manager of smart grid development at EPB Chattanooga.

              EPB still saw about 30,000 customers lose power, but there are an estimated 50,000 more that would have lost power if it wasn’t for the utility’s 1,200 S&C IntelliRupter automated switches that have been put on the distribution grid since early 2011. The utility also boasts one of the fastest internet pipelines in the world and a full rollout of smart meters.”

              http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/epb-chattanooga-cuts-outages-in-half-after-recent-storm/

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              • You’ve hinted at, but avoided, the blunt truth that the US runs three power grids — Eastern, Western, and Texas interconnects — with minimal power transfers between them. Each has quite different characteristics from the others. The Western uses far less electricity per capita than the others; in very round numbers, one-third of the Eastern use and one-half of Texas. The Western gets about 30% of its power from renewables (including conventional hydro), 30% from NG, 30% from coal, 10% from nuclear. Texas starts with 50% from NG. The usual “national” figures that are tossed around of about 50% from coal, 20% from nuclear, 20% from NG, and 10% from renewables are dominated by the Eastern Interconnect figures.

                The the Western and Texas Interconnects are relatively rich in unexploited renewable resources relative to the East. NREL published a study recently about meeting a large fraction of national demand for electricity with renewables. My take on it is that the prediction that the East can manage is based on three “then a miracle happens” assumption. They require large exports of power from the West to the East; they require massive offshore wind be built along the Atlantic Coast; and they assume that the Midwest will be able to divert large amounts of its farm production into biomass to burn in power plants. I’m a skeptic — I think it unlikely that *any* of the three will occur.

                I’ve advised my adult children that they have to be crazy to move farther east than Denver.

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                • Haven’t avoided anything, just haven’t written everything I know. You left out the Hawaiian grid, the Alaskan grid, the Puerto Rican grid, …. ;o)

                  Plans are underway to connect the three major US grids (WECC, Eastern and ERCO). Two east/west HVDC lines are being studded/planed, a northern and a mid-country route. There’s a very interesting concept under way call Tres Amigas which would link all three grids together in New Mexico (they get really close to each other there) using super conducting lines.

                  http://www.tresamigasllc.com/about-overview.php

                  The tossed around 2011 number for coal was 42.2%. This year coal was 36% for the first quarter and below 32% (IIRC) for the first six months. Might be the second quarter was below 32%.

                  Actually, I think the Eastern grid has a higher biomass potential than does the Midwest ag portion.

                  Here’s the bottom line. Absolutely none of the generation operating today is “permanent”. We are extending some nuclear plants to 60 years. The best won’t go much further than that. Coal plants wear out and are rebuilt/replaced. Turbines in dams wear out and dams silt in. We will replace every single piece of generation hardware with something new. The only questions are “with what?” and “how fast?”.

                  I’m arguing that we are almost certainly facing a tragic future if we do not get fossil fuels off our grids and off our roads.

                  Accept that possible future and both questions are addressed. Replace with non-fossil fuel energy and do it quickly.

                  —-

                  (I’d advise your children to locate along the northern Pacific coast, some distance above sea level. Use the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean and avoid the areas where thermal fed storms are likely to become more intense. Also the PNW has plenty of water and not expected to experience droughts.)

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                  • “I’m arguing that we are almost certainly facing a tragic future if we do not get fossil fuels off our grids…”

                    I’m not disagreeing with that. I’m just saying that the states of the Eastern Interconnect have an enormously more difficult problem doing so than the rest of the country. It’s a bigger problem in absolute terms — much more electricity generated/consumed per capita than the other regions. It’s a bigger problem in relative terms — a much higher percentage of power generated from coal, the worst of the fossil fuels. And it’s a bigger problem in terms of the lack of alternatives — generally lower quality renewables, smaller renewable resources relative to the amount of power needed, and the best of their renewables at this time (wind) are located far from the major population center (East Coast states at 118M people).

                    I know I’m out approaching the lunatic fringe on this topic, but I believe that at some point the East will demand that Texas and the West pony up big bucks to help solve the Eastern problem (where bucks may not be money, but may mean attempting to build massive renewable plants and the necessary transmission to power the East), and Texas and the West will tell the East to go pound sand. I expect… interesting political repercussions.

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                    • Texas and California are very likely to unite on that score.

                      Every California representative: “Hey, remember all that political hay you made off of making fun of us trying to follow the Kyoto protocol at a cost of our taxpayers’ money? Go fund your own goddamn power generation replacement project”.

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                • I’d note, in peril of becoming one note on this, that the north east has one thing in relative plenty: bodies and sources of water that could support nuclear plants and a dearth of common natural disasters that’d threaten them (earthquakes, tsunamis).

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                  • This actually brings up a good point. If the west is covered by way of renewables, what if Cain is right about the east? What are they going to do? Not only do they seem to have a particular aversion to nuclear, but they also seem to be prone to NIMBY arguments regarding wind power. Are there a lot of dams out there for hydro that I am unfamiliar with? Is there enough sun to take care of it? Or are they going to be reliant on the west as Cain believes? What will the west ask for? Will the east be willing to give it?

                    It seems inherently problematic (or unstable) to me to have so much of our population on one side of the country, while the other side develops so much of our power.

                    It brings up a lot of questions (ones that nuclear would seem to be the answer to, but even in the face of ecological armageddon, is declared too dangerous).

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                    • The East buys hydro from Canada. We’ve already got lines running up to the Bay of Fundy area and there’s a heck of a tidal source that’s being developed there. There’s also tidal along the East Coast, some is installed now on a test basis.

                      West Virginia has very significant geothermal potential.

                      And, if necessary I’m sure the Midwest would be very glad to sell some wind-generated eastward.

                      There’s likely to be little to no resistance to off-shore, out-of-sight wind and that endeavor is underway. Google boys are paying for some of the transmission lines in order to get things cooking.

                      On top of all that, all the area has an average of 4.5 solar hours per day, compare to LA’s 5.5 hours. Solar is significant, just a bit more seasonal. (Of course the wind tends to blow harder in the winter.)

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                    • Bob, I’ve seen the tidal source operating in the Bay of Fundy; it doesn’t even power the community it sits next to and any further development is on hold because of the huge impacts tidal berms have on erosion (underwater turbines are a consideration but there are no practical ones. Salt water is ~bad~ for machinery).

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                    • Trumwill, my own cynical opinion: nuclear opposition is driven not by the larger population so much as by a dedicated environmental lobby making effective use of existing regulations and litigation state of affairs (and much of this was laid down during a time when nuclear was in the ideological doghouse and before AGW was a concern so nuclear was considered unnecessary as compared to fossil fuels).

                      Assuming that Bob’s renewables don’t pan out the way he presents them (which I consider likely; if the renewables were as viable as he asserts then there’d be no need for large scale government intervention to add prices to carbon and subsidize renewable energy which the environmental movement advocates for) then at some point the options are going to be nuclear or cutting back on power use.

                      When given the choice between accepting a handful of nuclear plants across the region (and remember a relative handful is all it takes, those plants take up very little space and crank out a ton of power) I have no doubt that the blocks that environmentalist maintain would be swept out of the way. Opposition to nuclear is very wide but not enormously deep and much of it is vague and based on impression and hearsay rather than concrete facts.

                      Oddly enough I even think that Fukushima will have a salutary effect on the industry in the long run. Not only does it firmly emphasize the importance of passively safe modern designs but the contamination caused by Fukushima has occurred in the densely populated landscape of Japan. In Ukraine it was easier to essentially write off the land and stay out of it; in Japan there’s intense pressure for land use. This means that we’re going to see a very detailed accounting of exactly what the actual extent and effect of this contamination is on the livability of the area and we’re going to see one of the worlds very inventive and advanced nations turning their brain trust loose on the problem of decontamination.

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                    • North, I’ve long thought that a lot of people really underestimate our need for energy. I don’t mean underestimating how much energy we need, but our need for whatever energy we have grown accustomed to.

                      People act like Peak Oil, if it’s true and imminent, means that we will just have to make due with renewables (again, can’t have nuclear, cause that’s dangerous). Actually, it means we’re going to strip-mine Utah to dust, forget about ANWR, double down on deep sea drilling, and so on. The less oil we have, the less people will actually care about the environment.

                      Granted, if renewables really can do what Bob says, this becomes a non-issue because we’ll have the energy we need. Like you, I’m skeptical. I truly hope he’s right, though.

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                    • Energy is more often an ideological question; the math seldom seems up to date.

                      Jerry Taylor, Cato: ““When the day comes that the electricity from solar or nuclear power plants is worth more than the costs associated with generating it, I will be as happy as the next Greenpeace member (in the case of the former) or MIT graduate (in the case of the latter) to support either technology.””

                      Graph, cost per kWh 2016:

                      http://media.reason.com/mc/jtaylor/veronuke2.jpg?h=316&w=419

                      Solar, last place. Nuclear, lots of upfront costs. Natural gas—#1.

                      Frack, baby, frack.

                      http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-01/fracking-boom-could-finally-cap-myth-of-peak-oil-peter-orszag.html

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                    • I’m with you 100% Trumwill. Another annoying conceit people often maintain is that one day the oil will just be gone; you drive up to the pump but nothing is there. In reality of the end of oil will come gradually through a steady but relentless increase in cost. The depletion of oil will naturally come to an end as people first cut back and then eventually stop using this increasingly expensive fuel.

                      And yes, environmentalism especially underestimates our need for the level of energy use we like. In particular they think that with just a little regulation people will significantly cut down on their energy use instead of using energy sources environmentalists disapprove of. I can say with enormous confidence that if the choices are triple your energy prices, going without air-conditioning in the summer or building a nuclear plant that some people say is scary that nuke plant is gonna go in fast.

                      And Tom, is have no serious objections to fracking so long as the companies that are doing it are forced to pay for (or preferably pay to prevent) any long term damage they do to the areas they frack (water table poisoning, leaks, ground settling etc).

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                    • “And yes, environmentalism especially underestimates our need for the level of energy use we like.”

                      I think you’re way off base with this statement. The environmental movement is very aware of how much energy people would like (notice I used the word “like”) to use and how to provide that demand with renewable energy.

                      ” In particular they think that with just a little regulation people will significantly cut down on their energy use instead of using energy sources environmentalists disapprove of.”

                      But that’s what a little regulation does. California put efficiency regulations into effect years ago and kept its per resident electricity usage almost flat since the 1970s while other states have greatly increased their per capita use.

                      Look at the ‘efficient light bulb’ standards. About 11% of our residential and 15% of our commercial electricity usage is used for lighting. Moving from incandescent to LED lighting cuts electricity per lumen by 75% or more. One simple piece of regulation drops energy consumption by something around 10%. (And it saves people money as well.)

                      “I can say with enormous confidence that if the choices are triple your energy prices, going without air-conditioning in the summer or building a nuclear plant that some people say is scary that nuke plant is gonna go in fast.”

                      You argument breaks down if you look at the cost of new nuclear power ($0.15/kWh or greater) vs. the cost of renewable energy (less than $0.15/kWh). The choice you present isn’t a real world choice.

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                    • Bob, your quoted costs for renewable just doesn’t seem to be in keeping with what I’ve read elsewhere. They don’t seem realistic to me nor have you really gotten into questions of materials. As I understand it both wind power and solar power (note that tidal and geothermal generally just don’t exist as power sources right now) both have huge bottlenecks in materials like rare earths and lithium that have not been addressed. If we’re going to replace entire economies with these power sources where’re the materials going to come from. The ultimate problem with your assertions about renewables is that if they are as easily cost effective and easy as you posit then they should be going in everywhere right now with no government encouragement necessary at all. Instead solar companies are struggling to keep their doors open.

                      Also you’re careful to emphasize “new” nuclear power since of course the older plants once they’ve been paid off generally become cash generators. Nuclear plants have long life spans and even when you include shut down and clean up costs they make considerable economic sense in their lifetime. I’ll note also that the majority of your argument against nuclear appears to be “nuclear is uneconomical because environmentalists don’t like it and use regulation and litigation to make it uneconomical” to which I can only retort that if AGW is as serious as you think it is then maybe the environmentalist knee jerk opposition to nuclear should be reconsidered.

                      And I’ll not in passing that citing California, pretty much the only state in the union where there’ve been recent rolling power blackouts, as a paragon of regulatory environmentalism is pretty much a fast way to get everyone in their right minds to run for the exits. I’m entirely happy with how much renewable (read hydro) works in the northwest but the fact is that most of this country and the world is not graced with large proportions of land that’s vertical with water flowing over it.

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                    • @North: I’m a big nuclear supporter but you are kind of trying to get it both ways–saying that Fukushima was an outlier due to age *and* that older nuclear plants are cash generators. If we have to continually turn over plants to avoid future Fukushimas then the plants will never have a chance to get old.

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                    • Density, that’s a perfectly valid objection and one I’ll plead blog format on it rather than actual conflicting points.

                      All nuclear plants are frontloaded on their costs. They are capital intensive to establish and extremely cheap to fuel once they’re up and running. So once a nuclear plant (any nuclear plant) is running the longer it runs the cheaper it overall becomes.

                      Yes the older plants lack the passive automatic safety systems that modern plants possess.
                      So when you’re dealing specifically with old plants there’s a definite balance concern: the longer they run the more problematic they become safety wise but the longer they run the more cash they make off the entire initial investment.

                      With nuclear plants in general, however, I feel it’d be fair to factor in that modern plants are simply exponentially in terms of safety and for plants built to modern standards that conflict between length of running time and safety isn’t the same. With an old plant if you run it too long at some point you have a risk of environmental calamity. With a new plant if you run it too long at some point you’re going to be putting more money in on maintenance than you get out in energy and at some point an accident may happen and the plant will turn into a brick and be more expensive to decommission. The risks between old and new plants are very different (better).

                      Does that help?

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    • Hi North,

      Good question. In keeping with the general theme of my post, I’d argue that solar is better preferable because we should use processes that have shown their value for a long time. Although nuclear power plants have been around longer than solar ones, getting energy from the sun has a longer pedigree in the natural world. It’ll be easier to learn from the advances and mistakes plants and algae have made over the past three billion years than to rely on a power source that has only been around a half-century.

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  5. Global warming is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

    We also know with certainty that we are destroying the air soil and water in a thousand different ways; everything from destroying thebarrier islands that protect the Gulf Coast from hurricanes, to sucking the underground aquifers dry that feed the grain fields, to overfishing the seas and countless other ways in which our political and industrial organization is making life very ugly and grim.

    But what makes it most aggravatiing is how unnecessary it is; its a foolish trope to pose everything as a dilemma between unemployment and pollution, or hunger and habitat destruction. Most of the most destructive practices are being done only by benefit of massive taxpayer subsidies and rent-seeking.

    The fact is, sustainable industrial practices are not only possible, but actually being done all over the world.

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      • And tax breaks for the oil and coal industries, and mining fee giveaways of public land…the list is pretty long.
        And even simple things like- why do we provide free or nearly free trash disposal in most cities?
        What if people had to carry their own trash to the landfill, or pay open market rates? How would people come to view the massive amounts of overpackaging and disposable consumer items?

        Why are auto related transportation systems like freeways given away for free, but trains and busses are required to charge?
        What if we flipped that- it cost a toll every time you got on the freeway, but the trains were free?

        And so on. Most of what we view as the inevitable invisible hand is actually the result of decades of intervention and conscious results-oriented policy.

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        • Unfortunately rather than trying to get rid of rents for tax and oil companies we’re mainly trying to set up rents for renewable companies instead. The provision of free trash disposal is, again, very much a product of our liberal inclinations (I count myself as a liberal incidentally).
          Certainly if people had to pay open rates or carry the trash themselves there’d be a change (though in the latter case illegal dumping would become a massive problem).

          I’ll note that freeways are paid for using tax revenues (as are large portions of train and busses tolls*). Unfortunately the democratic fact is there’re more dedicated users of roads right now than there’ll ever be users of trains and public transit. Flipping the equation is a political recepie for the political exile of environmentalism and everything that even sounds like it.

          *and nearly all of their initial establishment costs.

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        • mining fee giveaways of public land…

          The government makes quite a bit of money from mining on public lands.

          And even simple things like- why do we provide free or nearly free trash disposal in most cities?

          To prevent illegal dumping. The town where I sometimes work has quite reasonable disposal fees, but have to have “dumping amnesty” periods simply because too much illegal dumping was going on.

          You might be able to tax it at the point of purchase, though. I’d have to think about that. But our current method isn’t “conscious results-oriented policy.”

          Why are auto related transportation systems like freeways given away for free,

          Subsidized, but not free. There’s a reason that we’re as reliant as we are on gasoline taxes when it comes to freeway construction. The percentage coming from gas taxes and tolls has been going down, but it was still a majority. I can’t find the similar statistics for how much mass transit is subsidized by fares, but I think it’s less than half. I’m amenable to saying that we should raise the gas taxes and tolls so that it does pay for it all, but I’ve been informed that gasoline taxes are regressive. So, too, would tolls be I would imagine.

          its a foolish trope to pose everything as a dilemma between unemployment and pollution, or hunger and habitat destruction.

          Have you tried explaining that to the Louisianans who were going apoplectic when Obama stopped the offshore drilling that screwed up their water? They saw the pros and cons pretty clearly and made a choice. Maybe the wrong one, but of course it wasn’t my job on the line for the public good.

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          • It’s often presented as a war between drivers and transit riders. While driving to work (transit’s not a realistic alternative these days, though I do carpool) I think about all the people on BART who aren’t on the Bay Bridge, and wish there were more of them.

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            • I don’t know the area enough to get the reference, but isn’t it well-established that everyone likes mass transit for others?

              Truthfully, I would have loved the opportunity to take the bus at any of my jobs. It was, unfortunately, never there or wildly inefficient. In my own sprawling home city, I have difficulty imagining how we could put one together that would have been workable. (Where I live now, we have no taxis, so public transportation is out of the question, though bike-riding is possible!).

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              • I spent some time in France this spring and made a point of riding their high speed rail system some while I was there. I am in love with HSR.

                It’s as fast or faster than air travel for moderate distance trips. Stations are ‘city center’, not out in the boonies. No need to show up two hours early to get your junk fondled. Lots of legroom. You can get up and walk around whenever you wish, no buckling in for turbulence.

                And you can look out the window and see the countryside as you zoom along.

                The SkyTrain in Bangkok is wonderful. You zip along in a comfortable carriage above the packed city streets.

                Delhi’s new subway is a miracle for anyone who’s spend hours in a cycle rickshaw trying to go a modest distance on those streets. Paris’s Metro is old, but so, so good. As is London’s.

                Good mass transit systems. People use them.

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              • isn’t it well-established that everyone likes mass transit for others?

                To the point of being glad to pay for it?

                I’d much rather be able to nap or read instead of driving, but currently it would involve too many transfers between different systems.

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        • Liberty,

          I’m mostly in agreement with you, but inthink you hit a sidetrack when you talk about garbage fees. It’s always crucial to think about how people will actually respond, not how you want them to respond. Jack up fees on garbage and one of the predictable responses is people dumping their garbage wherever convenient. Down hillsides and in streams is, unfortunately, real convenient.

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          • In East Baton Rouge Parish you get charged a fee each month for garbage, recycling and general stuff like everything from limbs to old stoves that comes with your water bill. Even with that we get people who think it is a good idea to toss and incredible amount of stuff out their car windows or back of their truck.
            I maintain the lawn for my wife’s studio that is very small and sometimes it takes me longer to pick up the trash from the bugger kings and wally’s world type stores than it does to mow and weed eat the lawn.
            People remind me of seagulls. We foul our own nest.

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                • A bit from my personal diary.

                  Mamou LA. C says I’ve been talking about Mamou the whole trip. It’s as if I’ve never left. We stumble in for the last few seconds of the Cajun music at Fred’s Lounge and over to the Hotel Cazan to see squeezebox prodigy Mary Tweedel and the Cajun Mixers. She’s been playing every musical thing she can get her hands on since the age of six.

                  Rain pours down on the truck as we push on to Lafayette. A wet world of rice farms and Brangus cattle.

                  Lafayette LA. Dinner at Fezzo’s. No oysters, but a big crowd. The sky is low, no more rain. A two year old boy screams with laughter as he is horsed into the open jaws of a bronze alligator.

                  Getting ready for a dance at Whiskey River Landing.

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          • James and Will-
            All subsidies are done for very good reasons; for instance, some cities have public skate parks to prevent kids from loitering and thrashing on park benchs.
            And if public trash fees were raised, I am sure there would be some increase in litering and dumping; but the behavior of the public re: disposable items would change the same way that changing free parking on a street creates an increase in parking in alleys or driveways to skirt the meters.

            The bigger point is to push back against the notion that the world around us was the result of impartial forces, conducted without any thumbs on the scale.
            Our industrial organization, how we make things, how we live, how we transport ourselves- all these things were the result of decades of artificial manipulation of the marketplace.

            In the original post here, the author calls for a coordinated action (by government presumably); The most common criticism of that notion is that government shouldn’t be making such decisions; I think its important to point out that it always has.

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            • What you say is true, though whether it’s useful depends on perspective. Confronted with evidence that we’re subsidizing roads, one can just as easily respond that the solution to this distortion is not another distortion, but rather to fix the first distortion. Or if we need the initial distortion, say because we want to prevent illegal dumping, then the solution may well be a disposal tax. All of which you may *completely* agree with. I might in this case, but not in that case.

              It’s less useful, however, in cases where the government responds to a distortion here with a ban there (banning, as opposed to taxing, plastic bags for instance), or alternately a counter-distortion that is poorly targeted (CAFE comes to mind).

              My main concern with combating global warming is that the solutions are going to be poorly targeted. Quite a few of the solutions are things that they would support even if the problem they are advanced as a solution to didn’t exist. My preference is that we tax the externalities as best we can (fuel taxes, whatever) and then let people make their own choices with these things in mind. I always get the sense that those advocating solutions to global warming already have the correct choices that people should make in mind (that, for instance, even if it reduced carbon output, employers moving to the suburbs rather than people moving to the city would be considered an unacceptable or at least undesirable outcome).

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              • “Confronted with evidence that we’re subsidizing roads, one can just as easily respond that the solution to this distortion is not another distortion, but rather to fix the first distortion.”

                Look at the mix of traffic on I-80 across Wyoming and Nebraska. I made that trip recently, and my crude estimate was that tractor-trailer traffic was at least 20% of the vehicles. Almost none of it carrying loads that will originate or terminate in either state. Road surface damage is a fourth-power law with respect to axle weight, so for practical purposes, the truck traffic transiting those states is doing *all* of the damage to the road. A surprising fraction of the truck traffic is vehicles operated by a handful of companies (for example, one encounters a staggering number of CR England refrigerated trucks — scheduled 72-hour delivery from California to the East Coast is a big draw). I have no idea how to correct the distortion that exists there.

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                • CR England is based in SLC, so that’s why you see a lot of them on that corridor.

                  If I’m reading you correctly, the situation wrt to trucks isn’t as distorted as you might think. Some years ago the states all got together and set up a system for rationalizing fuel taxes. It’s called IFTA. Basically, the trucking companies have to keep track of a) their fuel purchases, including fuel taxes paid at the pump, and b) miles driven in each state.

                  Each quarter you figure total up your miles driven, total fuel purchased, and the same thing for each state you drive in. Then you basically pretend that you had to purchase the pro-rate share of your fuel in each state you drove in instead of where you actually purchased it. Since each state has different fuel tax rates that can mean that you end up owing or getting a refund. You send that in to the state (with or without a check) and then the states have some mechanism for totaling it all up and figuring out which state owes who how much to equalize it all up. It sounds like a PITA, but once you figure it out it’s just a spreadsheet sort of thing that’s fairly straightforward.

                  So, for instance, you could be based in Kansas and purchase all your fuel there, while actually operating in all the surrounding states. After you send in your report, Kansas cuts a check to all the surrounding states to account for the miles driven in those states. So even if I don’t actually purchase fuel in a particular state, if I use the roads I still end up paying their fuel tax, at their rate, as if I had.

                  The upshot is that for commercial vehicles the fuel tax works a lot more like a road-use tax. And while we care about where fuel is more or less expensive we don’t really care about which state has higher or lower fuel taxes when making decisions about where to fuel.

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