Monday, June 13, 2011

Why don't we ditch nukes and coal?

June 10, 2011

From The Straight Dope

Dear Cecil:

[Concerning your April column on whether nuclear power is safe:] Nuclear power sucks. Coal power sucks more. Boggles my mind that we don't just ditch them both and use options we know are better.
— Randvek, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

Ah, a believer in alternative energy. You think if we build enough windmills, install enough solar panels, and distill enough ethanol from corn we'll be able to dispense with noxious energy sources such as coal and nuclear power. I admire this noble goal. One needs to ask, however, whether it's actually possible. Let's browse amongst the databases and see what we can find out.

Here's just the thing — a 2006 paper by MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera entitled "On the Future of Global Energy." Nocera's twofold ambition: one, to see how much energy the world is going to need by midcentury. Two, to figure out where we might get it. Glancing through this, Randvek, I have to be honest: things are looking a little grim.

The first thing we learn is that, according to UN experts, world population is expected to reach around nine billion people by midcentury and then stabilize. The stabilization part is good, if maybe surprising to those raised on scare talk about the population explosion. The bad part is that nine billion is two billion more than we've got now. Given that almost half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day as it is, you can appreciate that coming up with enough food, shelter, and yes, energy to keep everybody happy is going to present some challenges.

The second thing to understand is that we damn well better keep everybody happy. The projection that world population is going to stabilize is based on the observation that, as people become more urbanized and at least a little more prosperous, they have smaller families. That’s a worldwide trend. In Japan and much of Europe, in fact, the population is actually declining. The flip side is that if people remain impoverished villagers, they continue having big families and total world population keeps going up. In other words, a stable future is predicated on a modicum of global urban affluence. To the extent the world stays rural and poor, eventually much of it starves.

The third thing to understand is that the more affluent people become, the more energy they use. That doesn't necessarily mean U.S.-scale two-SUVs-and-a-vacation-home-type affluence. Most of the world would be content with, you know, running water and electric lights.

How much energy will that take? In 2002, Nocera points out, the global energy consumption rate was 13.5 terawatts. What will it be in 2050? If everybody were to burn through the juice at the current U.S. rate, Nocera calculates, we'd need 102 terawatts — seven times as much. Chances of our producing that: zero.

Instead, Nocera conservatively pegs annual global energy usage circa 2050 at between 28 terawatts — which assumes average consumption at the same rate as in present-day Poland — and 35 terawatts, roughly the rate now seen in Samoa. You may say: Samoa sounds like a lifestyle I could get used to. That’s sporting of you, but it still means we'll need about 15 to 20 more terawatts of energy than we're consuming right now.

Where will it come from? Nocera runs through some possibilities:

First, biomass. If we devote all the arable land on earth to energy production rather than food crops and presumably just don't eat, we could generate 7 to 10 terawatts.

Next, wind. If we build wind farms on 100 percent of the sufficiently windy land, we could produce 2.1 terawatts.

Third, hydroelectric. If we dam all the remaining rivers, we could come up with 0.7 to 2 additional terawatts.

Finally, nuclear. I know you don't like nukes, Randvek, but the professor's evident aim was to tote up all power sources that aren't net emitters of greenhouse gases. He thinks we could produce 8 terawatts by constructing 8,000 nuclear power plants, which would mean one new plant every two days for the next 40 years.

Total: around 18 to 22 terawatts. In other words, if we squeeze out every available watt of alternative energy on the planet, and build nukes at an impossibly aggressive rate, we'll barely keep up with the energy needed to support even a modest standard of living for the world's people.

In reality, we'll need to find additional energy somewhere. Nocera's solution is to push for a technological breakthrough in solar power, currently a relatively trivial contributor to the world energy mix. Good luck, seriously. Barring that, however, we're stuck with more coal, oil, and gas, and you know the problems with those.

My point isn't that the situation is hopeless, although it certainly gives one pause. All I'm saying is we need to dispense with the illusory notion of "alternative" energy, which suggests we'll get to be choosy about energy sources. Sorry, not going to happen. We'll have to use them all.

— Cecil Adams

Jun 13, 2011

Many at WEF feel nuclear energy is still relevant

By Zubaidah Nazeer

JAKARTA: Despite the horrors of the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima reactors in Japan, leaders attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia yesterday were loath to say 'no' to nuclear energy in Asia.

What is needed is just better technology and stricter regulation, said participants in one session of talks that included hedge fund managers, resource company chief executive officers (CEOs) and analysts.

Concerns over nuclear energy were raised after the crisis in Japan that saw the nuclear reactors exploding and engulfed in fire after the earthquake and tsunami in March.

However, many at the talks yesterday felt that energy from nuclear sources was necessary as a means of providing more power efficiently.
Ms Evita Legowo, director-general of oil and gas at the Energy and Mining Ministry in Indonesia, said that it would need only 0.02 tonnes of uranium versus 1,230 tonnes of oil to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

Some countries like France, which has a large population and energy needs, rely on nuclear power as a practical energy source.

Though the general sentiment was that nuclear energy was still relevant, many also felt it was a case of 'not in my backyard', said the talk's moderator, Mr John Foley, Asia bureau chief of Reuters' breaking news section.

Mr Choo Chiau Beng, CEO of Singapore's Keppel Corporation, noted that it would be difficult for Singapore to find a site for a nuclear plant because if a worst-case scenario happened, such as a nuclear reactor explosion, people would have nowhere to evacuate to.

'It's not a choice for Singapore,' he said.

Indonesia, which had broached the idea of going nuclear, took a cautious approach.

In a separate discussion marking the opening ceremony of the WEF, the CEO of its state oil and gas company Pertamina, Ms Karen Agustiawan, said the country would not consider nuclear energy in the next decade or two, but could look more closely at it after that.

She said Pertamina would look at tapping the diverse sources of energy in Indonesia first, such as renewable energy in the form of biofuels and geothermal energy.

'Focusing on looking at (other sources of energy) does not always mean the option of using nuclear. We are open to all options of energy sources,' she said.

[Currently, Singapore is using about 40 million MWh per year.  Our estimated full capacity is 86m MWh per year (9,800 MWh). However, Peak usage currently is 6,500 MWh.

Should the population rise to 6.5m or 30% increase over the current 5m, and assuming power usage rises proportionally, peak demand would rise to 8,500 MW which would still be within our current power generation capacity... IF we can still fuel the power generation plant - assuming natural gas and other fuel prices do not rise prohibitively, and assuming no worldwide moratorium on fossil fuel or carbon emission laws.]

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