Comments on: Why I Still Support Nuclear Energy, Even after Fukushima, WSJ, April 23 & 24, 2011

If this is your first visit to the site, please see the Welcome above.

Click to read the original article, Why I still Support Nuclear Power – Even after Fukushima, by William Tucker.

Part II – Future Energy Sources

Based on excerpts from the Book (Draft) We Can Give our Grandchildren a Better World

To recap, Part I covered why we will need new, better sources of energy.  Standard of living and Gross Domestic Product are directly related to energy production. This installment of the series will look at several sources and potential sources of energy.  The series will conclude with why nuclear is still a good gamble.

I live in Eastern Washington where we are blessed with an abundance of power: hydroelectric, nuclear, coal, and wind farms.  Even solar is  “off the drawing boards”.  They are all good, and as I said, we need to pursue them all in the short- to mid-term to provide a better world for our Grandchildren.  These will give them time for developing the power sources of the future.

Short-Term (0-10 years) and Mid-Term (10 to 20 years) Proposals

Hydroelectric power is as “green” and renewable as an energy source can be.  Rain and snow fall, water flows downhill, whether or not  it runs through a turbine to produce electricity, and ultimately evaporates, either before or after it reaches the ocean, to reform clouds and fall again. However  hydroelectric power is not going to be part of expanding our energy supply because essentially all of the good sites have been taken. I’m including Hyrdo in the short-term discussion, because there are some Ultra-Pro-Fish folks who keep lobbying to remove the dams and return the rivers to their natural state.  In the short-term, the need to keep all the hydro power we have far outweighs the potential gain in fish runs (returning salmon and steelhead).  Further, there have been some record runs in recent years which indicate dams are not the problem; other factors are.

First case: adding new electrical generation capacity via “burning something” – Here’s an “inconvenient truth” (credit to Al Gore for popularizing this useful term) for those concerned with green house gasses.  We know the biggest contributor is CO2.  So there is no such thing as “clean combustion” (i.e. no CO2 produced) unless one burns pure hydrogen gas.  All other fuels (coal, natural gas, garbage, etc) include carbon in their make-up and therefore produce CO2 during combustion.  This is a scientific fact.  I’m not saying I necessarily oppose burning a fuel to power vehicles or make electricity, just that greenhouses gas will be produced.  So when people talk about “clean coal” or describe one of the many garbage burning power plants as “clean” they need to be clear and accurate and define “clean” as scrubbing the impurities like sulfates and other particulates out of the stack emissions, but not CO2.  (See long-term solutions below.)

Next new (additional capacity) source – solar energy.  Confession time: when I started researching the facts and figures on solar energy, I expected to make the case that solar energy panels (photovoltaics) could not produce enough electricity cost-effectively to be a significant contributor to our energy supply.  They were politically correct for people with money to burn, but not practical financially for most of us. What I found is that personal solar power can be a viable part of the energy solution if we recognize where it makes sense and where it doesn’t.  (The following is a well-kept secret, please don’t tell anyone, or they’ll want to move here.  Eastern Washington State gets about 300 days of sunshine. We have a great climate and an excellent place for solar power..and outdoor fun).

Here’s the math: according to the US Energy Administration, in 2009 the average US residential electric utility customer used 910 kWh per month, 30 kWh per day.  We get an average of 12 hours of sunshine per day: 8 hours in the Winter, 16 hours in the Summer.  If we discount the first and last hours of the day because the sun is low in the sky, we get an average of 10 good hours per day.  We need our system to produce 3,000 watts (3 kW -rate of electric power production – like miles per hour) to get 30 kWh per day (3 kW x 10 hrs).  If we assume: 1) a typical 1,500 to 2,000 sq. ft. ranch-style home 2) with a peaked roof of approximately 200 to 270 sq. meters (m2-yes I switched from feet to meters – for easy math later)  and 3) half of the roof is favorably oriented to catch the sun; we have 100 to 135 m2 of roof for solar panels.  Per the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Resources Laboratory the average house in the US receives 3 to 4 kWh of solar energy per m2 per day, or 300 to 500 kWh per day solar on the favorably oriented part of our roof  (100 m2 x 3 kWh per m2 to 135 m2 x 4 kWh per m2).

Commercially produced photovoltaics are about 10% efficient at converting solar energy to electricity (laboratory models reach about 33%).  So our roof can produce approximately 30 to 50 kWh per day of electricity, meeting the average US Residential customer usage.  That’s the good news.  Here’s one more piece of good news, before we look at the flip side.  We get the most solar energy during the hot summer days when we need our air conditioners, excellent match between peak supply and peak demand.

The flip side is that we get no solar energy during the other peak demand, cold winter nights.   It is also not going to be a help in big city high-rise apartments, because there is minimal roof area, and southern facing wall, per resident.  Also areas of the country that are frequently cloudy would have reduced capacity.  Last but not lease is cost.  According to Science Daily, US Department of Energy, Berkley National Laboratory, the cost of commercial solar panels is approximately $7.60 per watt or $20,000 to $30,000 for our typical house.  This is significant for the average homeowner, but not necessarily prohibitive.  If energy costs $0.11 per kWh (U.S. Energy Information Administration), the pay-back time for the investment is approximately 20 years. (Note: these calculations do not include: cost of interest, cost of maintenance, or any savings from energy rebates.)  For comparison Jason Morgan, Home Solar Panel Cost Analysis, calculates a cost of $50,000 for a typical home, which shows the wide variation in costs.

To close out this discussion of solar energy, we cannot expect solar energy to be the end-all save-all, Edison light bulb-type invention.  We cannot place that big a bet on our Grandchildren’s future.  Further, residential energy is only 20% of our total energy usage.  However, present technology residential solar could make a worthwhile contribution to our future energy needs, particularly in the short- to mid-term.

The final near- & mid-term energy source I’ll discuss is wind-driven electrical turbines.  According to Wikipedia, February 15, 2011 Wind power is providing approximately 2% of world wide electric usage. While the wind is free (and in some areas relatively constant) the installed price of a home-sized unit is not cheap, ($30,000 to $50,000 according to, similar or solar.  The land needs for a wind farm, 0.25 acres for the pedestal plus acreage devoted to access roads etc. can be minimized, and the land between the turbines can be used for agriculture. The biggest shortcoming of wind power is that in a good location, turbines only operate at 35% capacity – average.  The good news is that according to Wind Energy Resources Atlas of the United States, the strongest winds are during the winter, which dove-tails with Solar which is at its peak in summer.

The technological breakthrough that would make solar and wind power much more useful is better batteries, particularly enhancing the practicality of all-electric cars.  While it is realistic to anticipate one or more breakthroughs in battery technology (see long-term potentials below) again I do not want to bet our grandchildren’s future that it will happen soon.  Additionally it is important that we recognize an increase in electric cars would greatly increase the demand for electricity generation.  One last thought, there is a potential good match-up of electric car charging cycle with solar power operation cycle, particularly if we use our electric car as a commuter vehicle, and a day-long charge covers the round trip, i.e. drive to work, plug it in, let it charge all day, drive home with enough charge left to return to work (& charging station).

Before we leave the subject of affordable and abundant energy, let’s look at bio-fuel.  Certainly bio-fuels produced from waste products are a plus and consistent with the maximizing the value of our resources, though it doesn’t reduce carbon dioxide.   Using food sources like corn needs to be considered very carefully.  The October 2007 issue of National Geographic presented an in-depth look at biofuels, where and how it makes economic sense and where it doesn’t.  In Brazil 85% of the cars are Flex fuel cars that can run on gas, ethanol, or mix. “Sugarcane, not engine technology is the real key to Brazil’s ethanol boom….Unlike corn, in which the starch in the kernel has to be broken down to sugars with expensive enzymes before it can be fermented, the entire sugarcane stalk is already 20% sugar – and it starts to ferment almost as soon as it’s cut. Cane yields 600 to 800 gallons of ethanol per acre, more than twice as much as corn.”  Corn also takes a considerable amount of fossil fuel to produce.  Every 1 unit of fossil fuel input produces only 1.3 units of corn ethanol energy output.  For sugarcane produced ethanol, 1 unit of fossil fuel input yields 8 units of output.  Cane ethanol is not a free ride though when one considers the deforestation and the greenhouse gasses released when the fields are burned just before harvest. “If alcohol is now considered a ‘clean’ fuel, the process for making it is very dirty,” says Marcelo Pedroso Goulart, a prosecutor for the Public Ministry of São Paulo. “Especially the burning of the cane and the exploitation of the cane workers.”

The Article goes on to state, “A recent [2007] UN report concludes that although the potential benefits are large, the biofuels boom could reduce food security and drive up food prices in a world where 25,000 people die of hunger every day, most under age five.”  An AP report released February, 2011 stated, “Americans should brace for higher food prices this year now that demand for corn has pushed U.S. supplies to their lowest point in 15 years.” The release goes on to state that the United States will have just 5 percent of the 2010 harvest left in August 2011 when the next harvest starts.  What if 2011 is a bad year?  By the time this book is published we’ll know.  Additionally, when the price of corn goes up, it produces a ripple effect across most foods because it is used as feed for cattle, hogs, and chickens and an ingredient in a variety of other food products.

Another possible biofuel is biodiesel based on plant oils.  Again though, these are presently food plants like soybeans and canola. While food plants are a poor choice, other non-edible plant materials, stalks, leaves, sawdust, and algae could yield a variety of biofuels.  The potential for these plant materials to supply a significant amount of biofuel is huge, the challenge is finding a way to do it economically.

Long-Term Innovations and Solutions (15 years +)

I recently watched the Nova© series on new and innovative materials.  There are some fantastic potential inventions in the laboratories right now. In the area of energy there are super batteries, fuel cells, and even artificial photosynthesis.  The May 2011, Scientific American includes an article, “7 Radical Energy Solutions”. “The failure rate may be 90 percent, but if any one of these exotic technologies succeeds it could significantly improve energy security and efficiency…The projects we profile here are leading examples of the payoffs [from increased research funding] that are possible-if, of course, the inventors manage to overcome daunting hurdles  to bringing practical, mass-produced and affordable technologies to fruition.”  Included in these seven are:

  • – Fusion-triggered fission, which can be fueled by spent fuel from standard nuclear reactors, producing energy and helping solve the nuclear waste problem.
  • –  Solar Gasoline, which would use solar energy to produce hydrogen from steam or CO from CO2, another “two-fer”, energy and reduction (recycling) of carbon dioxide.
  • –  Quantum Photovoltaics, which would double the theoretical efficiency of photovoltaics from 30 % to 60 %.
  • – Heat engines and Shock-wave engines, both of which would increase the efficiency of internal combustion engines.
  • – Ionic liquid (a type of salt) which could strip the CO2 from coal plant exhaust.
  • – Magnetic air conditioners which would be much more energy efficient than present technology.

It is important to emphasize these are potential future solutions.  The devil is always in the details going from theory and bench-scale to practical application of technology.  If we are going to bet our Grandchildren’s future we need to put most of our short-term money on “sure things” while funding basic science, research, and development to sprout and grow the seeds of future innovation.

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