Thursday, January 13, 2022

Just Hope for the Best

If you heard a strange noise coming from your car’s engine which won't go away, would you 1) take it to a mechanic, 2) wait until the noise increased to loud grinding and burning oil was coming from your tailpipe, or 3) just hope for the best?

If you've read my posts, you know where this analogy is going, but I'm taking you there anyway.

The first UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment was published in 1990. It was equivalent to the car’s engine noise. Something is going on. We think we know what it is but are still not completely sure.

The gist of the sixth report issued last August was equivalent to loud grinding and burning oil coming from the tailpipe. The problem is real, damage is happening and the longer we wait, the bigger the repair bill. I am not exaggerating. The 1,800 page report, written by 234 authors, and containing over 14,000 references, can be boiled down to these headline statements:

It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land . . . The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since [2014].

Last November, the 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) was held in Glasgow. Representatives of 200 countries, including 120 leaders attended. The purpose was to decide what to do next about what is now the climate crisis.

During COP26, over 270 climate scientists from academic and research institutions around the world wrote an open letter to the conference. The letter stated, in no uncertain terms “. . . that immediate, strong, rapid, sustained and large-scale actions are necessary . . . to hold global warming to well below 2 degrees C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C, and thereby limit future risk and need for adaptation over the next decades to centuries.”

Their words fell on deaf ears. The final conference agreement did not come even close to what those scientists recommended. It won't make a dent in current trends.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the agreements were inadequate, given the enormity of the problem detailed in the latest IPCC report. “It’s not enough” given that “we are in the fight of our lives.”

There were a lot of carefully crafted statements about countries doing their share, but with enough weasel words to make those commitments essentially meaningless. It contained vague promises to cut emissions, but countries either cannot or will not accurately determine their carbon emissions in the first place.

The tasks countries need to take on, like ending fossil fuel subsidies, getting rid of coal, and an extensive list of other actions, were missing. India and China changed the final language of the agreement so that coal use will be “phased down,” not “phased out.”  The U.S. declined to join a pledge to phase out coal. The agreement did not even mention oil and gas.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “COP26 [was] the moment humanity got real about climate change”. One climate science expert described Johnson’s assertion as “pure unadulterated [male bovine excrement].”

The way I see it, countries are still doing what they see as best for themselves in the short term. Nations trying to raise their standard of living see fossil fuels as the most expedient way to get the energy they need. For energy exporters like Russia and Saudi Arabia, fossil fuels get them the money they want.

After 30 years of increasingly detailed warnings, nations and businesses are still slow-walking this whole process, hoping for the best. But the best is not what’s happening.

During 2021, The U.S. experienced eighteen $1Billion plus weather-related disasters, totaling $99 billion in losses. According to Climate Central, “The average time between billion-dollar disasters . . . has dropped from 82 days in the 1980s to just 18 days on average in the last five years (2016-2020).

What is also troubling is that scientific predictions are being outpaced by reality. For example, an Antarctic ice shelf is holding back a Florida-sized glacier from flowing into the sea. A few months ago, its breakup was predicted to be decades away. It is now expected to breakup in 3 to 5 years as satellite photos show massive cracks appearing this year.

The ever-increasing frequency and intensity of weather disasters are the predictable and predicted result of a warming planet.

This planet’s leaders cannot say they were not warned. Regardless, they have made a consensus decision to accept the “future risk and need for adaptation over the next decades to centuries” on behalf of the rest of us.

This is our planet. Cherish it. Happy New Year.

Published in the Village News Online January 26th, 2022

A New Look at Nuclear Power

 James Hansen is probably the most well-known climatologist in the world. Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft and author of “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”. They both think that nuclear power is the surest path to “decarbonizing” electric power generation. Neither think that solar and wind technology will be sufficient to achieve that goal because of their intermittent nature. Many scientists and engineers disagree with that assertion, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I think nuclear power is a great idea, but I also think that in its current incarnation, nuclear power won't do the job. The majority of the world’s nuclear power plants are pressurized water reactors. They are expensive, take years to build, are complicated and labor intensive to maintain, and if something goes wrong, it can go very, very wrong. In short, they are money-losing propositions compared to natural gas and oil-fired power plants and in the last few years, commercial-scale wind and solar.

However, the recently passed $973 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains two provisions which focus on nuclear power.

First, it contains $6 billion for the Civil Nuclear Credit Program, which will provide 4 years of subsidies to nuclear plants that are economically uncompetitive and otherwise likely to shut down. It’s a tacit admission by the Federal Government that the nuclear power industry cannot survive on its own.

Second, the act contains $3.21 billion for small modular and advanced nuclear reactors (ANRs). Conceptually, ANRs will have the virtues of nuclear power, with many fewer of its vices.

ANRs by definition need to produce less waste, have more safety measures to prevent meltdowns in case cooling systems fail, and provide greater reliability. They need to use a modular design so they can be built, deployed and certified in less time. ANRs need to be smaller so that they can be used to power industrial facilities such as smelters and smaller communities, or combined to create large electric power generation facilities. Last they need to be more responsive to rapid changes in grid energy demand.

Startup companies such as NuScale, TerraPower, and X-energy have ANR designs on the drawing board. They are getting funding for construction of pilot plants via the infrastructure act and private investors (Bill Gates is backing TerraPower). Each company’s approach is different. I won't get into the nuts and bolts of their technology because this is a local newspaper, not an engineering journal.

NuScale and X-energy have already submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their reactors are small enough to be built in a factory. According to The Atlantic, NuScale, with US Government support, will soon install five reactors in Romania as well as one in Wyoming. TerraPower is going to build a pilot plant in Hanford Washington.

The ANRs I have discussed above are fission reactors. They split atoms of Uranium-235 to generate energy. But there is another type of reactor that falls into the ANR category – a fusion reactor. Unlike fission, fusion reactors fuse Deuterium (an isotope of Hydrogen) into Helium, the same process that powers the sun.

And therein lies the problem. Fusion requires maintaining a sustained temperature of over 100 million degrees C. Until recently, the only way to do that is at the center of a detonating nuclear bomb. Needless to say, the idea is to power a city, not blow it up.

Since I was a child, fusion power has always been 40 years away. The technology to safely create and contain such extreme temperatures was always beyond our engineering capability, but not anymore. The problem now is to get more energy out of the reactor than it takes to maintain the reaction.

Experiments to create sustained and controlled nuclear fusion have been so expensive that only governments can fund such endeavors. ITER, in France, is funded by 35 nations and costs $25 billion. The reactor weighs 23,000 metric tons and is 240 feet tall.

Seventeen private companies are attempting this feat on a much smaller scale. They have about $2.4 billion in funding, according to the journal Nature. The reactors have names like Mini-Tokomak, Colliding Beam, Magnetized Target, and Stellerator. Sizes range from a single family house to a large high school gymnasium.

Instead of 40 years away, the ever-shifting timeline to commercial fusion is now a 10 to 20 years away. It still doesn't mean we are close.

I’d like to see any of these technologies succeed, because current nuclear power technology, dating back to the late 1940s, is way past its expiration date from an engineering and economic perspective. It cannot meaningfully contribute to a decarbonized energy future. Maybe ANRs can.

The New Energy "Crisis"

About a year ago, I wrote that activists were dancing on the grave of the petroleum industry. Prices were so depressed that drilling had all but ceased. Smaller companies that specialized in fracking had gone belly up in job lots. Crude oil tankers were idling off the California coast because they couldn’t unload their cargos, in the same way container ships are today. I also said that it's not dead yet.

Over the last few months, the price of crude oil has gone up by 106%, natural gas by 58%, gasoline by 56%, and coal by 35%.

Ouch. Why is this happening?

There are many factors at play which will plague the energy markets for quite a while. It’s pretty much another Covid-inspired supply chain problem, seasoned with geopolitics, sprinkled with poor planning (of course), and leavened by bad weather worldwide.

Fossil fuels are commodities traded on the futures market. Prices shift based on expectations, and currently, markets expect that supply will outstrip demand for quite a while, perhaps another year, I suspect.

The petroleum industry is not dead, but it’s not running sprints either. It takes time to bring back idled drilling rigs and hook up wells to the infrastructure needed to bring oil and gas to market. Category 4 hurricanes which shut down oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico don’t help either.

Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic points out that natural gas has become the go-to fuel of choice. Over the last decade, countries integrated natural gas into the world’s energy system because it was cheap, reliable, and plentiful. Today, gas is none of these things because everyone wants it and wants it NOW.

First, Meyer observes that liquified natural gas (LNG) is now shipped around the world, so gas markets are not limited by pipeline transport and distribution systems. LNG is treated as a tradable commodity just like crude oil. As their economies recover, Europe and Asia are competing for the same limited supplies currently on LNG tankers, driving prices up.

 Russia is also making trouble by limiting the amount of gas it sends to Europe through its pipelines as part of its foreign policy.

Second, coal is still the king of power production throughout the world, but coal markets are as screwed up as other energy commodities. Bloomberg estimates that US coal production has dropped by 40% over the last six years due to the continued shift to natural gas. According to Reuters, China cannot get enough coal to run its power plants and is instituting blackouts. A trade dispute with Australia shut down that source. China is now buying coal from Europe and South Asia, which means those regions don’t have enough for their own needs.


Third, Meyers says that oil, the main transportation fuel, is also an alternative fuel for power plants. For some reason, like making more money, OPEC decided that maybe it’s not going to open its spigots as fast as needed to meet the rising demand, something it could do quite easily.

Fareed Zakaria, in a recent Washington Post column, discussed another problem contributing to this situation. Investment in fossil fuels has plummeted. Investment funds, large pension systems, and endowments have mostly turned away from them for environmental reasons or because they are a bad bet in the long run. As I wrote a year ago, even oil companies are writing off reserves. Existing Federal leases are either unused or have no takers. It’s hard to drill when no one will finance you.

Zakaria observed that at the moment there is nothing to fill the void left by a fossil-fuel energy sector disrupted by the pandemic and long-term investment decline. Grid-scale wind and solar energy are experiencing exponentially rapid growth. They contribute 12% of US annual energy production according to the US Energy Information Agency, but it’s not near enough right now. Zakaria wrote that “it would require a 2,500 percent increase in production and deployment to have wind and solar fully replace fossil fuels [worldwide], which is not going to happen in the next few years.”

 In my opinion, nuclear power cannot fill the gap either. The industry has been stagnant for decades. The years-long lead times to build very complex plants which have historically been uneconomic make it a poor choice.

 Natural gas has long been considered a transitional fuel because it’s much cleaner in all aspects than coal. The problem is that we never seriously started the transition away from gas to green energy. In the US, we’ve been patting ourselves on the back because we reduced our national carbon footprint by switching from coal to gas. How’s that working out for us today?

Winston Churchill said “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Now that an energy shortage has put us in a bind, perhaps we can hurry the transition along?

Alternative energy technologies cannot fill the void caused by this particular extraordinary and rapid convergence of events, but so what?

With high energy prices, now is the time to invest in scaling up alternative energy, making our electric distribution grids better at getting generated energy from source to consumer, as well as storing it. We have the technology. An analysis by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that this transition could be accomplished within a couple of decades in an affordable manner. It’s engineering, not wishful thinking.

This “energy crisis” is a crisis of poor planning and risk management on all levels. It’s also an opportunity. We probably won’t, but we could take advantage of it if we wanted to.