Climate change

August 31, 2009

Classifying ‘belief systems’ in sustainable energy and climate change

Filed under: Climate Change, Emissions Reduction, Renewable Energy — Barry Brook @ 6:01 pm

Below I reproduce a fascinating analysis, which attempts to classify people’s ‘belief systems’ in sustainable energy and climate change into four broad categories, types A, B, C, and D. (Note that this is only an excerpt from the introduction of a larger report that Gene is currently writing)

It is written by Dr Eugene Preston, who is a highly-experienced energy transmission systems consultant and member of IEEE. He also teaches classes at the University of Texas. Gene and I correspond regularly as participants of a sustainable energy email group (this particular group is rather special, in that it has a focus on a certain type of technology — no prizes for guessing which one). I reproduce the analysis below with Gene’s permission, and I hope he’ll be able to join in with the opinionated discussion that is likely to follow.

Each person has a belief system that strongly drives them to some vision of what our future should be. Gene says he’s type C (so am I). Which one are you? Is he missing any types of beliefs? How much overlap is there between the categories?


Belief Classifications

Eugene Preston (

There are many ideas floating around today about how we should develop our future energy supply. People’s opinions are strongly shaped by what they believe to be true. Here is one example of the beliefs that shape the opinions of how our energy future should be developed.


A. Belief: Nuclear proliferation is a greater concern than climate change.

1. The world’s greatest risk is from nuclear weapons, most likely from terrorists or a rogue nation. Nuclear power should not be expanded until non-proliferation of nuclear materials can be assured on a worldwide basis.

2. Climate change is a problem we must begin to deal with, although its severe effects will not be felt until later, possibly at the end of this century.

3. Coal is a plentiful energy supply the US does not have the luxury to ignore. Capture and storage of CO2 is a technical problem that must surely have a solution.

4. Oil imports must be significantly reduced because the US cannot sustain the outflow of dollars from the US to other countries. Worldwide oil production has not yet peaked.

5. New technology will emerge in battery storage and solar cell manufacture, which will make electric cars and roof top solar power economical and solve the above #4 problem.

Do you recognize these opinions are those of President Obama? The current US energy policies are strongly shaped by these beliefs. Some of these beliefs may be true and are likely to happen, some are too expensive to implement, and some will not be technologically realized. Note that at this point I didn’t say which ones will succeed and which ones will fail. You will be able to see which ones by the end of this report. A well-engineered system can handle the uncertainties and risks. However, I can say for certain, that the above beliefs do not adequately address all the things that we need to be addressing, to insure a safe, reliable, clean, and economical power and energy supply for both electricity and transportation, as well as address the environmental cleanup challenge and also provide new energies for things such as space exploration and additional clean water supplies for the future.

A slight change in beliefs will cause a huge shift in what you think the US energy policy should be. Here are the same bullet items from a person who is completely anti-nuclear.

B. Belief: Solar-wind-conservation and no nuclear is the solution to our energy needs.

1. The world’s greatest risk is from all forms of nuclear which should be completely banned.

2. Climate change is a severe problem and can be dealt with by switching to solar, wind, bio energy, battery storage, and a greater use of conservation.

3. Coal plants should be banned because they emit CO2, which is bad for the planet.

4. Oil imports will be eliminated when all transportation is electrified, or switches to natural gas, which the US has plentiful supplies of. Worldwide oil has probably peaked.

5. Solar cell costs are dropping, new battery technologies will soon be available, and all the renewable power sources make the non-renewable forms of power unnecessary.

This group differs from the A group in that coal and nuclear power are included in the A group but not in the B group, which are opposed to coal and nuclear power. I know many people who fall into the 100% solar-wind-conservation category. The current CEO of Austin Energy and some of my personal friends are type B persons. I think that most persons in the Sierra Club and the Repower America group as well as followers of Al Gore are mostly type B believers. The type B plan will be examined in this report as an engineering exercise at these three different levels: 1) the individual homeowner, 2) an electric utility, and 3) the entire US.

Now I will give you the beliefs of persons who are extremely concerned about the climate change problem. These are concerned scientists who are driven by a rather scary vision of the future.

C. Belief: Climate change is the Earth’s greatest threat which can lead to extinction.

1. The world’s greatest risk is not nuclear weapons or nuclear power because those problems will pale in comparison to the climate change problem. Nuclear power is the only power source that can supply enough power to reverse the climate changes. Using IFR technology, the US has a several hundred year supply of fuel already on hand in the form of high level nuclear waste, which the IFR plants can use as its primary fuel. To make a complete switch off fossil fuels in the US might require 400 new IFR plants.

2. Climate change is the worst nightmare ever encountered by humans and might lead to extinction of all life on the planet once thermal positive feedback mechanisms kick in.

3. Coal plants must be completely retired as well as all sources of CO2 emission (such as petrol cars). Possibly removal of CO2 from the atmosphere will be necessary to allow the oceans to become less acidic, which is currently causing a destruction of life in the oceans. CO2 sequestration is not going to be widely applicable because of the potential environmental damage as well as the implementation costs needed to capture the CO2.

4. Oil imports will not be a problem because there will be minimal use of fossil fuels.

5. Solar power, wind, and batteries may or may not develop, and it doesn’t matter whether they do or do not, because if they don’t, we can rely on nuclear power for all our needs.

The above beliefs are those of Dr James Hansen and an increasing number of scientists. US policy will slowly move toward C if the IPCC reports increasingly support these scientist’s predictions and neither the energy ideas in A or B prove to be complete climate change solutions.

There is one other group that I need to state because they represented the ideas of the previous administration and are still strongly supported by many persons in the US, especially the Senate.

D. Belief: Climate change caused by humans is fiction.

1. Nuclear power is an economical source of power and eventually a way will be found to handle the nuclear waste problem. Nuclear weapons proliferation is adequately addressed here in the US. Rogue countries and terrorists can be dealt with through international agencies, treaties, and rules. Additional nuclear power in the US should be dictated by the economics of the free market, not a socialized system such as the French nuclear program, i.e. the US government needs to stay out of the nuclear power building business.

2. Climate change caused by humans is fiction. The CO2 amounts are far too small to cause the claimed warming. We may be in a cooling trend. A new ice age is likely to form at any time. Climate change hysteria is causing us to make bad investments.

3. Coal power is the cheapest on the planet and should be developed to meet our energy needs, including energy for transportation, to ease the nation’s oil import problem. CO2 capture costs and cap and trade program will harm the US economy and are unnecessary.

4. Oil imports will be addressed by developing new oil supplies in the Gulf, off the east and west coasts, in Alaska, in the Arctic, and from Canada’s oil and tar sands. In total there is plenty of oil to continue our current lifestyles for decades. All we have to do is go get it.

5. Solar and wind power will make some advances, although they will supply only a small amount of energy compared to gas, coal, and nuclear power supplies already operating. The energy problem is solved for now by conventional methods. There are likely to be new energy solutions in the future that can be implemented when they are needed.

These beliefs are strongly held by many persons in the electric power industry. The US Senate report strongly supports the above ideas. Many of the persons living in my neighborhood are type D believers. I have many ham radio friends who are type D believers.

However, the entire set of beliefs in D crumbles if: 1) the earth continues to warm and certain things like the melting of Greenland’s ice continues at an annual accelerated rate, 2) the acidification of the oceans continues to increase, 3) IPCC reports increasingly show the effect humans are having on the planet, and most importantly, 4) the oceans begin rising more rapidly and at a predictable rate. I will examine the possibility of an accelerating rate of Greenland’s ice in this report and then you can make the call as to whether you want to continue to support the beliefs listed above (assuming you are currently a type D believer).


There are odd relationships in the above sets of beliefs. For example, those strongly believing in climate change (C) and strongly against climate change (D) both believe in developing more nuclear power, but for different reasons. However, their ideas diverge on the use of coal.

Climate change drives those opposed to nuclear power (A and B) into believing that wind and solar power will make a significant difference, however, the strongly anti nuclear and anti coal (B) split with the moderates (A) on the future need to have coal and nuclear power.



How effective will the cap and trade be at eliminating coal plants? I recently attended the Bureau of Economic Geology seminar at the University of Texas. A handout (that was in a handbag labeled as Clean Coal Technology Information by American Electric Power) stated that cap and trade in Europe had seen market values of 30 $/ton of CO2. A 1000 MW coal plant will produce about 3 million lbs per hour of CO2.

I verified that this rate of CO2 production is correct when one of my friends said it couldn’t possibly be that much. It is a good average taking all coal plants into account, new and old, small and large. Newer plants might have slightly less CO2 production. You also have to be careful about some CCS reports that show smaller amounts of CO2 capture. The are probably capturing only a part of their CO2 emissions.

Multiplying (30$/ton)(3e6lbs/h)/(2000lbs/ton) = 45000 $/hr …. then

($45000)/(1000MWh) = 45 $/MWh = 4.5 cents/kWh, which is a very high cost, higher than the bus bar cost of a new coal plant.

The cap and trade will show that coal is not the lowest cost base load generation. Nuclear will win that battle. However, power companies move slowly. It will take several decades for existing coal plants to be retired and new nuclear plants to be constructed if we follow the traditional utility planning practices. I do not think this will work if the type C beliefs are correct. Because there are many different beliefs, the IFR will develop slowly unless we can eliminate the beliefs of the categories A, B and D by showing they are in error and will ultimately lead to failure.


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