Climate change

May 26, 2010

Learning the truth about energy

I note that the scalability and cost of solar thermal technologies, and its viability compared to nuclear power, has been a hot topic lately . While it is good to see this sort of ongoing discussion, I’d like to take a brief moment to offer a couple of anchor points for the debate.

The first is an excellent document produced by Ted Rockwell, called the Nuclear Energy Facts Report (download 45 page PDF here). It covers a range of facts on nuclear and renewable energy, including section E: Key facts about solar-energy for the American electric power grid (pg 20 – 25). I urge commentators to read this report — or at the very least the solar thermal section — if they wish to comment intelligently on what is known and demonstrated, rather than surmised or conjectured.

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In a recent email to a list in which I participate, Ted explained the purpose and justification of his report:

“This is the latest edition of the Nuclear Energy Facts Report. The Facts Report itself contains only facts that manifest in the physical world; no opinions, conclusions, recommendations, or attempts at consensus-building. But we have found it helpful to precede the Facts Report with some explanatory material on energy production, and conclude with some comments on the historical context. As always, we welcome input from readers. This is not intended to be public relations document for the general public, but an interactive reference document, for people who work in, or report on, the energy production field. THE CURRENT EDITION OF THIS REPORT WILL ALWAYS BE AVAILABLE AT: http://learningaboutenergy.com

I have found useful for focusing discourse on nuclear energy.  There are no factual changes since the previous edition; just effort to clarify some of the wording.  It is not a public relations report, but is for science writers, policy makers, teachers and staffers. A number of colleagues I respect have found that using the Report does in fact significantly facilitate constructive discussion.

The first step is to get agreement that nuclear energy is not above or beyond the rules and understanding of today’s science. Alvin Weinberg dubbed nuclear technology “a Faustian Bargain,” implying that the science and engineering used in ordinary life cannot be quite good enough for nuclear. But our understanding of fission and radiation results from a century of well-funded, world-wide research.  We understand it better than many other potential contaminants such as chemical, neurotoxicological, biological or viral threats.

Yet we base policy on the mistaken idea that nuclear hazards are magnitudes more threatening than any other type of hazard, and even that human-made radiation is somehow more dangerous than the identical radiation we receive from the earth’s “natural” radioactivity.  It’s a fact that neither nuclear instruments nor the human body can tell the difference.  The false distinction between “natural” and human-made radiation has led to absurd situations, such as major lawsuits granted for contaminating the earth with dirt, when digging for oil.

The Facts Report includes only facts that manifest, or could realistically manifest, in the physical world.  It’s a fact that some people think radiation is too dangerous to accept, so long as it’s possible to avoid it.  But it’s also a fact that a large majority of Americans tell pollsters they favor using nuclear energy as a significant part of our energy mix. Many people believe that we are making the earth increasingly radioactive.  But it’s a fact that the earth is actually getting less radioactive each day, because our production of radioactivity cannot keep up with the natural decay of the earth’s radioactivity.

Because the Report does not reach any conclusions, make any recommendations, or attempt to achieve a consensus, it can properly emphasize contradictions among these facts, rather than trying to gloss them over.  That is the most direct way to facilitate resolution of the contradictions.

It is not reasonable to demand a “solution to the radioactive waste problem” unless we can define what problem we are trying to solve. There is no evidence that radioactivity from the nuclear enterprise has caused any harm to people or the environment.  In fact, there is evidence that it has not, and most probably will not, cause any real-world harm.  Unless we can define the problem in realistic terms,  how can we know that any “solution” has had any effect?  Applying extreme solutions in response to “perceived problems,” has proved ineffective over several decades.  The public has reasonably concluded that the perceived problems must be severe indeed, to warrant such measures as Yucca Mountain.

One can object that particular statements of fact in the Report are outdated, or otherwise inaccurate.  If we’re shown better, supportable facts, they will replace the criticized ones.  Or one can argue that our facts have been “cherry picked,” or that certain facts have been left out that should be included.  That too can be fixed.  If every fact included gets replaced by a better one, I will feel vindicated, not repudiated, because that is the purpose of the document: to consider the facts.

If the facts can be made clear enough, not only to the arguers, but also to the by-standers, it should become easier to overcome some of the fear-generated myths, and engage in more rational discussion.  I urge recipients to try it, and to make their own contributions toward making the facts as clear and accurate and up-to-date as possible.  Thus, the Report can have a long life as a useful, working document.”

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In a similar vein, I thoroughly recommend you crack open a beer (or brew a jug of coffee — whatever’s your poison), and take a few hours to look over Don Lutz’s site called The Truth About Energy. Amongst the long list of topics Don tackles, he has a section on desert-based solar plants with a lot of interesting discussion on real-world installations (operating and proposed). The rest of the site is similarly populated with real-world numbers on capacity factors, some philosophising on the motivations of environmentalists, and coverage of a whole host of other issues. Don is not afraid to say it as he sees it, so don’t go there if your ‘green sensibilities’ are easily offended. But then again, if you’re one of those folks, you’ve probably long given up on reading us here!

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Finally, I’d like to remind readers of a posting last year by IEEE transmission consultant Gene Preston, concerning the feasibility of a range of microgrid solar systems. It worth reading this for a reality check, if you hold the opinion that distributed, small-scale electricity is a viable and cost-effective option for low-carbon power generation. Read Key concepts for reliable, small-scale low-carbon energy grids to understand the types of issues involved with such setups, and the practicality of various scenarios that are often proposed (by well-meaning people who usually haven’t really thought the matter through).

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