Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


April 5, 2010

Cape Wind Attacked By Its Own Proponents

Category: Climate Change,Conservation,Policy,Technology – Tom Harrison – 10:32 pm

I am beginning to think Jane Fonda is going to reincarnate (sorry, is she still with us?) and create a sequel to The China Syndrome called The Cape Windrome or something. Today the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended that Cape Wind not be approved. Because what, the waves of yesteryear are going to be different? Come on, let’s get a little real, please?

The single most infuriating example of how the United States is sometimes able to undermine even the simplest, most obvious options is being played out in the great saga of Cape Wind. A small array of wind turbines is planned for Cape Cod Bay, generating a substantial amount of power, efficiently, locally and cleanly. But it represents change, and change is bad. Right?

Herman Melville wrote about whaling in Nantucket, so it’s historical, right? I live in Massachusetts, the closest one can get to history here in the US of A, and am happy to visit Old North Church, and other great landmarks of our country’s history. I am thrilled by the vistas I can see from my beloved White Mountains in New Hampshire. I generally support the idea that there are buildings, landmarks and places that should be preserved.

It occurs to me, however, that if we take this dictum too far, we may find ourselves simply obstructing progress. I think this is the case with the Cape Wind project. Several environmental groups I support even equivocated and tried to prevent Cape Wind from happening. It’s simply absurd. (Fortunately, they have all come around).

As a boy, I spent time sailing in that neck of the woods … or should I say waves. I’m a big fan of natural beauty, but look, open sea is pretty much open sea. Really, go a few miles out on a boat and trust me, you’ll be glad to see anything other than the next wave on the horizon. There’s no “there” there. It’s water.

And now, I will lose a few of my beloved readers. For now, I am going to make an analogy to nuclear power.

In the 70’s and 80’s we got hysterical about nuclear power. Our fear of change turned out to be irrational … or so would the lengthy history of nuclear power in the US and the world suggest. Yes, I am including the non-event at Three Mile Island, as well as the very real events at Chernobyl. I am also considering large masses of spent fuel that we haven’t quite figured out what to do with. As it turns out, nuclear power is a comparatively good way to generate electricity. Instead, we built more “safe” coal burning plants.

Oops.

As it turns out far more people die as a result of burning coal than from nuclear power plants. And that’s just because of the many toxins emitted from the burning, as well as all of the nasty stuff that happens as mountaintops are stripped to reveal and destroy huge seams of coal. Actually, some of the most egregious issues with coal have been mitigated … mainly by not burning so much of it.

But no matter how much you scrub the detritus of burnt coal, you cannot escape what will turn out to be the far, far more damaging element of coal burning: CO2 and other GHG’s. Climate change will make our little distraction with cancer and mercury poisoning look quaint. Unchecked, climate change has begun to rock our world. So burning coal seems like a particularly bad thing to do. Can you think of any ways to stop it?

Yet when we shut down, delay or otherwise prevent projects like a nuclear plan from proceeding, for whatever noble reason, we are simply failing to be sensible.

And remember, I’m just making a comparison here, since I actually am not talking about nuclear power. What we fail to realize, in our discourses is that failure to act on any given new option is simply an endorsement (yes, endorsement) of the way we do things now. Do we think burning coal, or even … anything we burn … is even remotely sustainable? Nope.

Compared to wind, nuclear power sucks. Compared to coal, nuclear power is a godsend. We have a rather huge and growing problem with climate change — perhaps you have heard about it. While nuclear is a pointless avenue to follow now (just as is drilling for more oil), if it’s an alternative to coal, by all means.

But when we obstruct the building of simple, quiet, effective, safe and some would say beautiful technologies like wind in order to “preserve”, I think we have failed to understand the larger and longer context of preservation. My business partner, Peter, is struggling to preserve a house in Maine whose fate is decrepitude (it’s going to fall down) and facing the challenges of preservation forces. In both cases, we’re facing pure dogma: thou shalt not change.

I support preservation of our great places and resources. But please, let’s not forget that one way of preserving something is to prevent its eventual demise by other forces.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Tom,

    I know this comment is a little off-topic, but if you’ll permit, I’d like to point out that we do know what to do with that nuclear waste. You put it in an IFR and extract the remaining energy from it, leaving low-level waste that is safe after only 300 years.

    That’s not science-fiction either. The US was nicely on track to comercialise these reactors when Jimmy Carter canceled the program, probably after lobbying by the fossil-fuel industry. If he hadn’t, nobody now would even be talking about nuclear waste.

    Comment by Tony Wildish — April 6, 2010 @ 11:41 am

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  3. Very interesting perspective. I am floored by the opponents of the Cape Wind project. Now the Wampanoags are complaining that this will disturb ancient burial grounds that are currently under Nantucket Sound. (Apparently this area was dry several thousand years ago and was used as burial sites.) I am very empathetic of this concern, but there has to be a realistic balance struck when it comes to the survival of the species as against the spirits of those who lived long ago. The oil spill in the Gulf is simply intolerable. The faster we can shift to alternative energy, especially wind and solar, the sooner we can begin to take a completely different attitude toward the foreign countries that hold us hostage both politically and economically.

    I had not considered nuclear in the trade off with coal. I have no way of verifying your conclusions, so I’ll assume they are correct. That said, I’m not quite sure how you are able to sweep Chernobyl and TMI under the rug so quickly. While problems may be rare, the consequences are utterly catastrophic. Look at the BP drilling platform to find a current event that was believed to be an event that would never occur.

    In the time it takes to ramp up the infrastructure to build a single nuke, which takes years, I think we could have substantial infrastructure built in wind and solar — provide some hefty tax incentives for residences and businesses to use their rooftops and you will cut our dependence on foreign oil in a huge way in a much shorter time with little environmental down side.

    My point is, I think it is too easy for our political leaders to lose sight of a more easily achievable and more environmentally responsible goal. However, to do so, they need to stop worrying about their campaign contributions from the oil and nuclear industries.

    Comment by Michael Kraft — May 14, 2010 @ 9:26 am

  4. Hi Mike,

    Chernobyl didn’t even have a containment dome, and should never have been built. Comparing it to modern designs is like comparing the Hindenberg to a modern airliner.

    In fact many nuclear reactor designs are even safer than that comparison implies. Planes still crash, but there are designs of nuclear reactor that cannot possibly melt down, because the laws of physics prevent it. They aren’t just theoretical either, they’ve been built. A meltdown-proof reactor has actually been demonstrated, just a few short weeks before Chernobyl went up in smoke in fact.

    TMI? Nobody died, nobody got hurt. There is no actual evidence of any adverse health effects. If it hadn’t happened 12 days after The China Syndrome was released, there would probably have been much less panic over it.

    Nuclear power kills far less people than other ‘baseload’ sources, and is far less dangerous. Oil rigs and gas power stations blow up all the time, nuclear plants simply don’t.

    Nuclear power plants can also be built fast, if the political willpower is there.

    That same link gives an idea of the amount of raw materials that wind, solar, and nuclear require for their construction. If you were to consider powering the entire US with wind, for example, you’d need the entire steel production of the US for 2-3 years to provide the raw material.

    Wind and solar are not the easy way out they appear to be.

    Comment by Tony Wildish — May 14, 2010 @ 10:46 am

  5. Tony,

    I was hesitant to mention nuclear — it’s just one of those things that Americans have been conditioned to think is evil. Even while we pump oil (or just let it drain, uncontrolled into the sea!), burn coal and all. This has nothing to do with rationality, which is kind of a shame.

    As a disciple of Amory Lovins, I am strongly disinclined towards any highly concentrated, large, and centralized electricity generating source (like coal, gas, nuclear, and even the solar concentrators) — they represent our failure to understand that the power grid should operate like the Internet — a broadly decentralized nodes of small sources of “power” that can plug in anywhere. It’s good for security, reliability, and efficiency. The economies of scale expected by large generating plants are often offset in transmission costs, maintenance and other.

    In the end, I think the main issue with nuclear in the US is that there will be such a hue and cry when a new plant is being sited, it will take years to make happen. If it happens with Cape Wind, an utterly no-brainer and excellent idea where the main concerns were aesthetic, I can only imagine what nuclear will bring.

    Good lord, will we ever un-bury ourselves from repeatedly shooting ourselves in the foot?

    Comment by Tom Harrison — May 14, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  6. Hi Tom,

    I think the grid-as-internet argument is a bit contrived.

    For one thing, the grid already does work like that! That’s why power stations can be taken down for maintenance without the lights going out.

    For another, the transmission costs for diffuse, distributed power are far higher than for centralised sources. You need a lot more cable to start with. A lot more.

    On the other hand, it’s quite feasible to replace a coal-plant with a nuclear plant in-situ, and eliminate it’s emissions completely without the need to rebuild the grid at all.

    I do agree about the NIMBYs though. It’s sad that we’re too busy worrying about our own patch today to bother doing anything to save the planet tomorrow.

    Comment by Tony Wildish — May 14, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

  7. Tony —

    Not to pick a fight, but I don’t think the idea is contrived at all. Yes, the grid is interconnected, and parts can be taken offline, but it is not self balancing. The reason we had a blackout in the Northeast US a few years back was that someone failed to say they were taking a plant offline for maintenance — no automated signaling or routing happened and the system cascaded to failure.

    In a truly decentralized network, you need far less cable. Solar PV on the roof of my house serves me. A small wind farm for the town, a medium one for a county, etc. In this scenario, power is routed directly to the nearest demand. Anyone can buy from the grid or sell to the grid. All the switching and balancing (and billing) is what isn’t part of the US grid now — it’s all “push” from a small number of generating plants, with no smarts.

    Huge wind farms in remote places are what most people think of, and this can be part of the solution, too, still adding to the total number of sources, and variability of sources that we need to contend with.

    All said, I completely agree that replacing a coal plant with nukes is a far better option, and very practical for many reasons. Changing infrastructure is hard.

    I think all of these things need to get dealt with.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — May 14, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

  8. Tom,

    I’m not trying to pick a fight either, I enjoy the discussion on your blog too much for that.

    Solar PV on the roofs of houses could indeed contribute to private generation, and wind farms for towns and counties. But such sources are inherently unreliable, and will not remove the need for the existing grid.

    Only a few months ago, a snowstorm covered 1/3 of the US for several days. PV and wind would have contributed nothing at all during that time, and it’s inconceivable that we could build enough spare solar+wind capacity elsewhere to cover the deficit. The amount of overbuild and extra storage needed would be vastly more expensive than simply providing decent baseload.

    That’s where you’d need a lot more cable, in trying to cope with worst-case scenarios of shipping electricity half-way across the US. You may not need it often, but if you don’t have it when you need it, people may die.

    If transport and industry are ever properly electrified too, to reduce their fossil fuel consumption, the problem is only exacerbated.

    Renewables may be fine for small-scale stuff, but they just don’t scale up to the needs of a nation.

    Comment by Tony Wildish — May 15, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  9. Tony —

    I think there are really two things we’re talking about here.

    The first is whether existing technology and infrastructure can be scaled up to meet expected demand in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable level. Assumptions include limitations of current technologies, political bickering, and the real and important issue of lack of sufficiently visible incentives.

    The second is whether renewable energy sources are sufficiently large, storable, and distributable to meet the needs of our society.

    To the first point, I certainly concur that in today’s world, we don’t have all the pieces in place to magically replace all our fossil fuels with renewable sources and still maintain energy growth rates, etc. Stuff needs to happen, and some of it is rather large stuff. Things like this take time, perhaps decades to accomplish. By far the most immediate opportunity is to improve the efficiency of our usage of energy.

    To the second point, there is certainly plenty of energy to be had from wind, sun and other sustainable sources. Any technical hurdles we have fall into the category of finding cost-effective incremental improvements, with some obvious and expected efficiency breakthroughs (there are at least 5 different processes in development that provide at least a doubling of PV efficiency, and several are not mutually exclusive). To be sure, some problems are harder than others — one might think airplanes would be the last of vehicles using non-liquid fuels, for example.

    So I think I am not really disagreeing with your points. What I am saying is different: we need to focus our efforts on finding a path to the second, sustainable energy future. To get there, we’ll need some immediate attention on our current energy problems, mainly to deal with climate change, but also security related issues. Nuclear may seems to be a clear winner on that front — it’s well understood technology, proven, safe, and clean and fits perfectly into our existing infrastructure — as you say, replace coal with nuclear.

    But we also need to have a longer-term vision and recognition that in some number of decades, we will have had our hand forced (one way or the other) to dramatically reduce our use of coal (and natural gas and oil). Will this take more cable? Most likely — we have about 1/2 of what we should in place right now just assuming business as usual. And all signs point to electricity as the primary method of delivery, not coal trains, tanker ships and pipelines.

    But in the next several decades, one hopes that we can evolve our energy usage and delivery systems to be a more local affair, based mainly on sources like wind and sun, and others potentially including nuclear. It is viable, but just not running at scale now. I don’t think this has any more complicated reason than lack of will, and therefore lack of money.

    The main technical challenge is likely to be storage (not capture, not transmission) — battery-like devices not made of nickel, lithium and other rare and poisonous metals, but that can store massive amounts of energy, discharge it quickly, and do it without a huge environmental impact. Plenty of solutions are being developed, some simple, some impressive, but most only facing the problem of not having had enough time (or money) to be deployed at scale.

    If our mental energy is on short-term solutions that are entirely technically feasible now, we’ll fail to solve the much larger looming problems. A good discussion of this at http://www.getreallist.com/can-renewables-replace-fossil-fuels.html.

    Tom

    Comment by Tom Harrison — May 15, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

  10. Tom,

    I think that’s a fair assessment. Where we disagree, then, is in the need for renewable sources to deliver a large fraction of our energy in the future, be it all lots of ‘small’ facilities delivering locally or as some larger grid that can move it all around.

    I simply don’t see the need for that. Nuclear power can be built in large chunks or small enough to fit into a submarine, so can deliver at all sorts of scales to suit all sorts of needs. The technology is already proven, so if the political and regulatory hurdles could be removed, the US could deploy nuclear power at large scale with relatively little effort.

    Of course, as someone once said, ‘if’ is the biggest word in the English language!

    Comment by Tony Wildish — May 17, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

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