Monday, February 18, 2019

The loss of Diablo Canyon and the fallacy of "100% renewable replacement": Part One: The Stakes


California's last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is to be decommissioned in 2024 and 2025. This will, at a stroke, eliminate a fifth of California's carbon-free electricity.

Diablo's two reactors, which generate 180,000GWh of carbon-free electricity per year, could be licensed for another 20 years of operation, but the utility, PG&E, has decided not to pursue the renewal. California's anti-nuclear activists, naturally, are celebrating the impending shutdown of the last nuclear plant in the state, but have been less than honest in confronting the fact that from the perspective of preventing CO2 emissions, the premature loss of Diablo Canyon is tragedy, not a victory.

I should say at the outset that I am not one of the partisans of nuclear energy that dismisses renewable energy as impractical and rationalizes the challenges of the nuclear sector. Nuclear energy can be costly, controversial, and very, very slow, as I've written before. It's important, though, to separate the issues of manufacturing new nuclear power plants on the one hand versus maintaining existing nuclear power plants to the end of their safe operating life.

These are the major drawbacks/potential concerns with Nuclear Power, writ large:

1. Construction of the physical plant is expensive, sometimes very expensive. The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, a 3.2 GW project, is currently projected to cost approximately $25 billion to construct.

2. Construction of the physical plants is energy- and resource-intensive, and is responsible for the vast majority of life-cycle greenhouse emissions (which are small and comparable to those of wind energy, and somewhat better than solar energy.)

3. Construction of the physical plant takes years -- if it becomes embroiled in legal challenges and a target of activists, as is often the case, it's not unusual for it to take decades.

4. Current designs produce long-lived toxic waste, which can be stored indefinitely on site, but remains toxic for a long time.

(Accidents are not listed because while they are feared by the public they are incredibly rare and in terms of human health, not incredibly or even very dangerous. Nuclear energy is an extremely safe power source, and nuclear accidents are the shark attacks of environmental problems -- feared far out of proportion to the danger.)

What all of those drawbacks/concerns have in common is that they are over and done with on the day a nuclear plant enters service. They do not pertain to the question of keeping it in service at all.

Diablo Canyon is a finished product. It's greenhouse emissions going forward are negligible (tiny amounts related to the mining of uranium.) The costs of construction have already been paid. The waste will be stored on the site -- and must be kept safe for centuries -- and this will be true regardless of whether the plant shuts down tomorrow or runs for another 20 years.

Subtract those things and what we are left with is 180,000 GWh of clean electricity every year for the next 20 years. Over 20 years, 3.6 million GWh, or 3,600 TWh.

That is a stunning amount of clean energy to leave on the table. Generating it with natural gas -- currently 40% of California's electrical mix (see above) -- would generate CO2 equivalent emissions of 1.8 billion tons. Using a (very conservative, IMO) social cost of carbon of $40/ton, the damage of those emissions is $72 billion (dwarfing the most pessimistic estimates of the costs to relicense and run the plant for the next 20 years.)

Continuing to operate the existing nuclear station to the end of its operational life alongside rapidly growing wind and solar energy would speed the elimination of coal and gas from the energy mix and advert those emissions. Who, among those who care about the climate, would say no to that? Only people who hate and fear nuclear power, which as it turns out is a lot of people.

So how do people who purport to be serious about fighting global warming -- people who cheer when AOC proposes we get to net zero emissions in ten years -- rationalize this huge stride in the wrong direction? More to come…

Coming soon: Part Two, the fallacy of "100% renewable replacement"

Thursday, December 13, 2018

What a "Green New Deal" Should Include -- But Probably Wouldn't

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's revival of the idea of a "Green New Deal" in recent weeks seems to be getting a little traction, at least among the Washington press corp. It's difficult to say whether it is a good or a bad idea because, like the Paris Accords, it is big on atmosphere and light on specifics.

In general, the idea of a Green New Deal is for an economic stimulus package that accelerates our transition to a more ecologically sustainable society. One might build solar panels and windmills, aggressively retrofit current buildings for greater energy efficiency, or build a network of public charging stations for electric vehicles.

In general, anything that spends money (excuse me "creates jobs") and is environmentally friendly could be considered a potential candidate for inclusion in a "Green New Deal." I am quite skeptical that any such plan, even if it could be articulated and passed into law, would contain the elements that could make a real dent in anthropogenic global warming, water scarcity, habitat loss, or any of our other serious environmental problems.

Most obviously, in the midst of a record-breaking period of economic expansion, with unemployment under 4%, a financial stimulus is hardly what we need at the moment. Rather, this would be an excellent time to make some of the difficult structural changes -- such as a carbon tax, banning the burning of coal, sunsetting federal flood insurance -- that might be impossible politically to undertake during an economic downturn.

But staying with the premise -- spending, not taxing, new programs, not legal or regulatory changes -- there are still many good investments we could make.

Here are ten things that should, but most likely will not, be included in any serious "Green New Deal":

1. A nuclear build-out on federal lands.

A single nuclear complex can incorporate as many as eight reactors, while modern reactor designs generate over a gigawatt of electricity (1.1GW, in the case of the AP1000.)

Twenty such complexes, build on federal lands to minimize commercial and regulatory hurdles, would generate enough electricity to replace every coal-fired plant in the United States, with all the oil, wood, and biomass thrown in. TWENTY. With the waste able to be stored indefinitely at the site itself. Forty could replace every fossil fuel plant in America.

The major obstacles to a nuclear build-out -- something we critically need if we are to have our emissions peak any time in the next few decades -- are NIMBYism and the business case. The federal government building on federal land would be in a better position than a local utility to resist NIMBYism. With the benefit of #4 (see below) the plants need not be located anywhere near where the electricity is being consumed.

And while nuclear can get rather expensive (although dirt cheap in comparison with the ultimate cost of burning fossil fuels) an order for 160-320 identical Westinghouse AP1000s should allow for some economics of scale -- a "mass produced" unit in contradistinction to today's "artisanal" nuclear power designs.

2. Build desalinization plants.

The optimal method of freeing up water resources would be leaning on farmers -- who use 80% of the water -- to adopt more water-efficient methods. But that has proven politically difficult and, for the purposes of this exercise, we aren't regulating. The brute-force solution to water scarcity is to simply make more of the stuff.

Desalinization costs less than half a penny per gallon and we could eliminate our entire consumption of "wild" freshwater (see also #9, below) -- giving our aquifers a much-needed opportunity to recharge -- for less than a billion dollars per year.

3. Electrification of the national rail network.

Currently diesel railroad engines emit between 30-40 million tons of CO2 per year. That can be eliminated via electrified rail, a hundred-year-old technology already well-established all over the world.

4. A high voltage direct current electrical network.

Current AC lines lose current rapidly, resulting in heavy losses over distances over a few hundred miles. A backbone of HVDC lines would make a real national power market possible with the ability to send electricity from any source, to any consumer, coast to coast.

5. Rail-based mass transit in America's 100 largest cities.

While electric cars are making inroads, they are still vastly inferior to mass transit in terms of CO2 emissions. Even when charged from a clean grid, the production of battery-powered vehicles makes their life-cycle emissions -- while far better than a fossil-fuel-burning vehicle -- far from insignificant.

What the cities which get a significant percentage of their people out of cars and into mass transit all share is some sort of fixed-track infrastructure -- a subway, an elevated rail, a light rail system. Each of the top five performers (see graphic) have such a system, while most of the low performers do not.

6. Coastal adaptation (hardening vs planned retreat) for the first 5m of sea level rise.

Does anyone remember when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and during the approximately five minutes after in which we had a national conversation about the risks of climate change, and Lomborg came out and claimed hardening the coast would be much much cheaper than cutting emissions?

The numbers were wrong, the argument was a disgraceful mess, and to no one's surprise, once the heat died down deniers interest in actual, non-hypothetical adaptation vanished without a trace.

But the need is still there. The oceans are going to continue rising for centuries; that is about as close to an established fact as anything we can say about the future. And on past trends, we aren't going to abandon our economically and culturally central coastal cities. There's no time like the present to get in a Netherlands frame of mind.

7. Evacuated-air trains for long-distance travel.

American air travel is responsible for about 3% of our emissions -- a figure expected to double over the next 30 years. Americans drive 3.22 trillion miles per year, contributing to emissions from cars and trucks ten times those from aircraft.

One approach to this is fixing carbon from the atmosphere and using it to manufacture synthetic fossil fuels, including jet fuel. This is likely the best solution for international air travel. But domestically, a more ambitious solution would be high-speed ground transportation, using technologies with the potential to travel faster than airplanes without the cumbersome infrastructure of airports.

No one knows exactly what a system like that would cost, but at the price quoted for a proposed 560km hyperloop system ($7.5 billion) a nationwide system of 50,000km would cost around $700 billion. That's a lot of money (3.5% of the GDP) -- about what we spend annually on the military.

8. Retrofitting CCS on all remaining fossil fuel electricity generation.

We should not be burning fossil fuels to generate electricity at all, but the rules of this exercise forbid proposing regulations or Pigovian taxes. If, therefore, we must assume coal and gas plants will continue to exists, they must at a minimum capture their CO2 emissions and store them in a stable form.

9. Nationwide water network.

 Once we have abundant fresh water thanks to #1, we need a system to supply it to regions far from desalinization plants, via a system of pipelines.

Evacuated-air trains, a water network, a system of HVDC electric lines -- all of these require the same basic infrastructure layout: track/pipe/lines connecting our major cities (throw in an upgrade of our fiberoptic trunk lines, as well.)

This would require not only large amounts of money but also eminent domain along the course of the "pipes." It could be the Interstate Highway system of the 21st century.

10. Replacement of government-owned internal combustion engines (ICEs) with electric vehicles. 

The United States Post Office owns over 200,000 vehicles. The Border Patrol operates "over 10,000 SUVs and pick-up trucks." In total, the US government, excluding the military, owns or leases about a half a million fuel-burning vehicles. Virtually all of them could be replaced with electric vehicles. This wouldn't be cheap -- assigning a back-of-the-envelope cost of $100,000 per vehicle (an estimate that takes into account that in addition to cars the government owns many pickup trucks, semis, fire engines, and other potentially expensive vehicles) this might cost $50 billion. But it would powerfully demonstrate that the future is not in ICEs and would create the conditions not only for mass production of electric vehicles but for a massive expansion of fast-charging stations -- and a government purchasing such a fleet could chose the charging standard that would become the default.

None of these things are likely to happen any time soon, not simply because of the mismatch between what feels "green" to most people (solar panels, wind turbines, etc.) and things which, although they have great potential to protect the environment, do not (nuclear power, desalinization, an upgraded electrical grid.

There is also a related problem which extends beyond environmental issues -- thinking too small. Private enterprise can be a powerful force for good in human affairs, and efforts to replace it with tight government central planning have been disappointing. But where the government can add value is projects which are too big for any private actor to undertake. The interstate highway system, rural electrification, the postal service, K-12 public education -- these are success stories, both in the sense of generating wealth and in expanding opportunities. But by definition, that sort of thing isn't cheap.

But in recent decades, the right's crusade against "big government" has taken its toll, such that even on the left, small targeted anti-poverty, environmental, infrastructure programs are the rule, and large nation-shaping public investments are the exception.

There are many benefits to thinking small, but there are also things you will never accomplish with a $5 million grant for a needle exchange in LA or $10 million dollars for redevelopment grants in Minot, ND. The above proposals would cost trillions of dollars. But climate change is doing to cost us trillions and trillions of dollars one way or the other, whether we mitigate it or adaptive preemptively or just wait for the hammer-blows of crisis to fall.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

By 28pt margin, a record number of Americans acknowledge man-made global warming

Even as the Trump administration reverses what were modest (and frankly inadequate) efforts by the Obama administration to reduce GHG emissions, Americans by almost 2-to-1 are acknowledging climate change is real.

One wonders if perhaps the denialists' friend in the White House, rather than strengthening their movement, has undermined it by overusing and thus overexposing the techniques of climate deniers: politicization of basic facts, smearing journalists, trolling, whataboutism -- to a point at which the center is beginning to develop an immunity to these appeals.

It may be that the liars that hawk climate denial may come to rue the day they helped install in the White House's bully pulpit a denier so vain, petty, and self-obsessed he wastes his anti-reality spin cycles on lies as trivial as the size of his inauguration crowds.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Willis is about as wrong as usual

Willis wants us to know that carbon taxes, being regressive, are "cruel." So very, very cruel. This he will prove with data, because he is a Serious Person and not at all a shambolic dishonest embarrassment to the human species.

Immediately, however, we run into the problem that the numbers provided are not remotely plausible. All the numbers look far too high, but the figure on the bottom for thos making less than $20,000 a year is the standout. While poor Americans often spend more of their incomes on basic necessities like energy, the idea that they spend 40% of their income on energy is, frankly, utterly ludicrous.

To get here he cites a number of sources, fucking up in unknown ways to get answers that are wildly wrong:
Someone challenged me on this claim about energy taxes the other day, and I realized I believed it without ever checking it … bad Willis, no cookies. So of course, having had that thought I had to take a look.
The Energy Information Agency (EIA) collects data on this, with the exception of gasoline usage. I got the most recent data, for 2009. (Excel workbook). Gasoline usage figures are here from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Finally, income averages by tiers are available here from the Census Bureau.
While he laments the loss of his cookie, I would actually offer him two small cookies here. One, he is making an effort to check his intuitions against data. Two, the places he is going for data contain good reliable information: the EIA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau.

At that point Willis' cookie supply dries up, because he has mangled the data to get a grossly wrong answer. People who make less than $20,000 per year spend an average of $1,571 dollars a year on energy (slight more if you include gas). So Willis is asking us to accept that the average income of this group is $3,900 a year, and after spend almost half that on energy they are paying for housing, food, and clothes with $200 a month.

The sources Willis cites do not provide numbers for the average income of a household in a given income bracket. Possibly he was using the means as averages, although that would not explain his numbers by itself. The Social Security administration does provide averages, fortunately:

 If you plug those numbers in you get an average income, for those making less than $20,000 per year, of $8,124. That would make the energy costs in this bracket 19% (plus a couple percent for gas), which is quite high compared to expert estimates the very poor spend about 10% of their incomes on energy, but which is less than half the number Willis somehow obtained.

I don't spend as much time chasing the nonsense on WUWT as I used to, because so much of it is repetitive and deadly boring. It's also because those that want to be informed have a much clearer understanding of the workings of ideological alternative realities than was the case when I started this blog in 2010. For reasons I would never chose, the country and the world are much more familiar with the working of denialism than they were then.

This one caught my eye because Willis is trying to be good. He's looking up good sources. He's trying to test his intuitions against the facts.

He fails because he is still operating out of a denier mindset in which he expects to find something all the experts have missed. A simple google search should have altered him that the people who study energy poverty professionally put the cost of energy in the US to the poor at, at worst, 10-20%. He should then have tried hard to figure out where his calculations went wrong.

Willis has never learned how to manage a data set, which is to say, he's never learned the art of doing a little math as you go, checking the numbers against common sense, and circling back to recheck when the answers starting coming out weird. This is basic, habitual skepticism, and the scientists I know do it so adroitly it becomes invisible and almost unconscious, a reflex. Willis clearly doesn't know that he doesn't know how to do this. Despite gestures at an appropriate method of inquiry, the cruel cold talons of Dunning-Kruger still hold him firmly in its grasp.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The last day

January 20th, 2017, marks the last day we will see for a long time -- perhaps ever -- when our nation was worthy of respect. In the coming years our leadership in the world, our moral authority, our economic and military power will all decline under this corrupt, incompetent regime.

Nevertheless, I do not despair. We will have new elections in less than 2 years, another presidential election in four. It may be that the collection of pus known as the Republican party is coming to a head so that it can finally be incised and drained.

We live in a system designed to a great extent with corrupt and incompetent leaders and stupid voters in mind. The coming years will be a race between the implosion of the GOP and its efforts to undermine democracy and free elections to the point that that implosion does not matter. If honest people step to the fight and refuse to cower in fear, I think we are likely to win this race.

The prize, I hope, will not merely be the saving of our democracy but the disgrace and dissolution of what is laughably called the conservative movement in this country, which could bring with it the potential for real substantial policy on climate among other things.

The key principle is resistance. Tyrants dissolve democracies not due their minority of passionate supporters, but due to majorities which are frightened into silence and denied the knowledge of their own strength. Do not be silenced. Do not be afraid. It's time for them to be afraid. They've grabbed a job they can't do by making promises they can't keep and the bills will rapidly come due. Then the people are coming for them.

Say not the Struggle nought Availeth
Say not the struggle nought availeth,
     The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
     And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
     It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
     And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
     Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
     Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
     When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
     But westward, look, the land is bright.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

EnviroNews's Nuclear Nonsense

India has embarked on the construction of a mammoth 9.9GW nuclear complex, but not everyone is happy. Opining that "Dangerous Coastal Jaitapur Nuclear Power Mega-Plant Should Be Stopped," EnviroNews gifts us with this gem of misinformation:

This is wildly inaccurate. The estimate cost of this plant is $17 billion (of course we have to worry about cost overruns, but the author specifically claims this is true "No matter what the final cost ends up being.") The electricity it can be expected to generate, at a typical-for-nuclear capacity factor of 0.9, is 78 TWh/year. How much solar would it take (ignoring storage costs) to generate 78 TWh?

As it happens, India has recently constructed what is now the world's largest solar plant, a 648MW facility covering 10km^2, costing $679 million to build. At a capacity factor of 0.2, it will generate 1.1 TWh. You would need 71 of them, costing $48 billion, to generate the same amount of electricity.

But EnviroNews is not just angry about the cost, but the footprint. The cruel, cruel footprint:

2,400 acres sounds like quite a bit, and I in no way want to diminish the disruption and loss to those living on those lands. I can't speak to whether this was debated and agreed upon in a democratic way; India has a bad history of pushing people out of the way of its mega-projects, and not providing the compensation promised.

What I can speak to is the incredible hypocrisy of complaining about the footprint of nuclear power. That 2,400 acres? It's 10km^2. Haven't we seen 10km^2 in this post already? That's right, just one of the 71 solar plants required to replace this nuclear plant takes up that much room. If you replace these nuclear reactors with solar panels, a lot more people are going to be displaced.

There are other important factors not considered here, such as the 60-year operational lifespan of this design vs about 20-25 years for current solar designs. Such as the intermittent output of solar panels, requiring solar be held to a small share of the total electricity generated over a particular grid, or expensive storage be added.

I understand the people at EnviroNews are not pro-nuclear energy and are not likely to have a road-to-Damascus moment where they embrace it. But they could, at least, not completely cut loose from the facts whilst smearing it.

The reactor park is slated to engulf approximately 2,400 acres of land, and would destroy the encompassing villages of Varliwada, Niveli, Karel, Mithgavane and Madban. The government has offered to pay villagers for the land they will lose, but only 114 out of 2,375 families affected, have claimed any money — the rest have refused the compensation as an act of protest. -
Construction of Dangerous Coastal Jaitapur Nuclear Power Mega-Plant Should Be Stopped -