The Ergosphere
Saturday, April 15, 2006

Conservation is not the whole of security

Quoth Amory Lovins (via Odograph):

Since the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the United States has gotten more new energy from efficiency than from all net expansions of domestic energy supplies put together."

That's all well and good, Mr. Lovins, but Britain and Japan have done even better than we have... and did you notice that they are even more vulnerable to disruptions in their energy supplies than we are?  And that this is due to their lack of domestic resources?

Efficiency is essential, but it does not by itself yield energy (and national) security.  In math lingo, it is necessary but not sufficient.  We need energy supplies on which we can rely, and efficiency is just one way of keeping ourself away from dependence on the unreliable.

This refusal to even talk about energy supplies is part and parcel of Lovins' position against nuclear power.  His token nods to ethanol and hydrogen (from what source?) are mere obfuscation.  He's hoping that if he doesn't talk about it, both it and the need for it (or something else that fills the same need) will go away.

He's wrong.

Yes, it's true that we can go a long way with "negawatts".  CF bulbs and hybrid cars are great ways to slash the need for electricity and petroleum, but no off-grid homeowner has ever conserved all the way to energy independence.  At some point you have to set up the wind turbine, hang the PV panels, or lay the pipe for the hydro generator.  You can insulate the heck out of the building (look to these guys for ideas and even kits), but something - even if it's only the people and equipment inside, or the sunshine through the windows - has to generate the heat to keep it warm in the winter.

Sooner or later you've gotta make something.  Ignoring or even downplaying that part of the picture is a critical, perhaps fatal, error.

Good morning (and Happy Easter to those who celebrate it).

I guess I don't mind there being different people out there pushing different, positive, adgendas. I might even think that "efficiency" should be one of my primary goals ... while other people choose other plans to champion.

Maybe that's because, as I look around my world, efficiency still seems to be the most easily attainable contribution to the total energy solution. We have multiple energy sources. Here in California we have a lot of diveristy in our electrical energy sources (including a nuke). Here, at least, the biggest imbalance seems to be in consumption.

Mainly we have crazy-big cars and 4x4s driving on smooth paved (snowless) streets.
Yeah, well when was the last time you grew bananas in the Colorado Rockies? Huh? Huh?

P.S. Happy Spring
To repeat David Roberts comment to the Gristmill, a blogful of leafy green commentary,
Nuclear? No alternatives?

"A new paradigm (is) pairing aggressive energy efficiency and conservation (easily the cheapest "source" of energy) with distributed small-scale sources appropriate to regional context, and smart grids."

"People say it will take too long to scale this up and implement appropriate policy. But, a new generation of nuclear plants will take a minimum of 10 years to get going. What could efficiency plus renewables do in 10 years, with comparable public subsidies and aggressive political support? We know they couldn't address the energy shortfall? How?"

"Let's ask the market. Investment money is streaming into small-scale, distributed power, but the nuclear industry is utterly moribund. If it were revived, it would be a Frankenstein, entirely sustained by government largess. Mining uranium is an environmental nightmare; building the plants is prohibitively costly; the risks are all but uninsurable. What we're talking about is creating a(nother) huge, centralized, politically connected energy cartel forever seeking to increase its take... We need more of those?"

"Do not accept the oft-repeated canard that we cannot fundamentally change our energy situation, that we must simply plug one massive, unsavory power cartel in to replace another. We can build better vehicles, better cities, better infrastructure. We can drive less, consume less, and change our food system to reduce freight distances. We can shift policy to internalize industry externalities. We can tax carbon. And we can lavish the same attention, subsidies, and tax breaks on renewables that we do now on oil, coal, and agribusiness."

"Can clean energy fill the coal gap? It's got momentum, investment enthusiasm, and the arc of history on its side. Nuclear is the "least worst" option that everyone holds their nose to support. It feels wrong, because it is wrong."
Try growing bananas in the Rockies in 99.9% of the existing building stock, and use no fuel or electricity for heat.  Tell me how you do.

There are energy shortfalls, and then there are capacity shortfalls.  Huge heaps of generation during the March winds has the potential to supply tons of energy, but if you don't get anything the rest of the year you still have a huge deficiency in capacity.

I'm big on wind and whatnot myself (and I expect huge expansions over the next ten years), but intermittency is an enormous headache with all of the non-conventional schemes.  Implementing the storage or other responses to this intermittency is an expensive headache, and I'm willing to bet that new nuclear plants will be welcomed when they arrive.
We need the baseload power. Anyone who claims otherwise hasn't done any serious reading on the subject, or played with HOMER or some other power simulator.

If you want it to be CO2 free, it's either nuclear or hydroelectric. Hydroelectric resevoirs deplete fish stocks and reduce local biodeversity. Nuclear power is something people fear, but it has killed far fewer people than coal does every year. There's only a limited supply of hydro power available and it's better used to fill in the electricity valleys when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.
No sun, no wind, and... no temperature differential that geothermal systems could use, Bob?

Certainly, a critical question is how much base load do we need?

The problem with many past projections, or modeling based upon them, is that the starting point is centralized power generation.

If you follow that logic, then, yes, it is difficult to argue against investment in nuclear, especially when the cost of handling nuclear waste over many generations is ignored.

On the other hand, just by mentioning the coal v. nuclear body count for this week, you encourage all of us to consider alternatives.

Three Mile Island wasn't Chernobyl, but both occurred. Did anybody in your town take in children that survived Chernobyl? Mine did. Shall we poll them and ask whether we should be considering alternatives, to include greater support for distributed generation?

Still, E.P., no bananas v nuclear bananas, would be a tough choice for me. I might have to abstain or let Woody Allen be my proxy.

However, if the choice is no bananas v nuclear bananas for 17 generations, then I would gather on the evening shore and wave a sad farewell as the last banana boat steamed into the sunset.
Dr. Lovins is a zealot with an agenda far bigger than insulation and hydrogen. If you stick with his ideas on smart building practices and eliminating waste, you can find a lot of useful stuff. But a lot of his agenda is too utopian for me.
Sun and wind are intermittent; the only base-load source you mentioned is geothermal.

You may have noticed that we have enough difficulty making geothermal power work when hydrothermal resources are there for the taking; trying to create them where they aren't, with deep wells, rocks that have to be hydrofractured to get enough heat transfer, and low temperatures means larger energy expenditures for even smaller returns.

That doesn't include difficulties with minerals dissolved in the heat transfer fluid (which have a tendency to deposit as scale in pipes and other stuff... and some of them are radioactive).

If this was easy we'd probably be doing it already; if it even looked easy from my particular level of ignorance I'd certainly be flogging it.
"Sun and wind are intermittent"

But how intermittent are they? Nuclear and coal have modest intermittency from unexpected outages. Wind's intermittency appears much greater, but as you increase the number of wind farms, and widen the geographic base of wind generation, you reduce the variance. Solar tracks consumption patterns quite closely, much more so than coal or nuclear. In some places wind is higher when demand is higher, in other places it's lower. I've heard references to wind peaking in spring, but haven't been able to find anything quantitative.

So, has anyone done any good quantitative analysis of the variance of the outputs from these sources, especially of the variance of the difference between generation patterns and consumption??

I want numbers.....
Stashed on my disk, I've got a good fraction of a gigabyte of weather data from all over the world:  12-hour weather balloon measurements of temperature, humidity, wind speed and everything.

I collected this with the intent of calculating the likely output of flying wind generators in various locations.  Unfortunately, the data are in a format I don't quite understand, some fields are missing, blank or duplicated, and I haven't found the time to create scripts to massage it into something that I can get proper information from.  I'm sure the ground-level data would be good for determining how much geographic averaging you could get from widespread wind farms.

The logistical difficulty I can see is that dependence on wind in far-off places means a lot of long-distance transmission lines.  People tend not to like these going through their backyards, and the chicken/egg problem (can't expand wind past a certain point without the lines, can't justify the lines without power for them to move) may delay things.
E-P: if you want, I can setup an SCP account and you could upload the data to me. Then I could try to write a script to filter it and pass it into HOMER.

I may have wind data formated for HOMER at home but I don't recall.
It makes no sense to upload the data when it came from a web site like NOAA in the first place.  Besides, I've moved on to other things.

If you're interested I might be able to find the site again.
I am not a pollyanna when it comes to nuclear, though I am vastly irritated that though the waste problem CAN be solved, it never is. I can't support more nuclear industry until they clean up their mess.

There is another issue, which is the dependance of nuclear power on liquid fuels for manufactured goods, mining increasingly diffuse ore, lubrication, -- in fact generating nuclear energy is an extremely complex industrial problem, and nuclear is extremely reliant on industrial infrastructure.

Sign me up for wind first. I'll take the intermittant issues. That might affect our culture of "productivity" and "effiency", but I don't care a whit about that.

Wouldn't it be acceptable to have a manufacturing season? Just like a growing season?

Sure, we'd all have smaller TV's.
"Wouldn't it be acceptable to have a manufacturing season? Just like a growing season?"

Consider the financial and social costs of massive seasonal unemployment or migratory manufacturing workers, over and above the necessity of having several times as much manufacturing capacity because most of it has long periods of downtime.

I think it would be much cheaper to have several different energy supplies and trade off the intermittent/unstorable ones against one or more others, and the nation which makes the best investments is going to be the best and strongest.
In the US, the spent fuel is the government's problem by law.  The DOE takes a per-kWh tax to pay for disposal.

You might have noticed that the US government has not upheld its end of the deal.  It's wrong to blame the nuclear industry for this; they've paid, but the actual solutions have been held up by politics.  There are some powerful interests which do not want the problem dealt with; this resistance would probably evaporate as soon as an agreement was reached to shut down all nuclear generation.
Tidal energy has been in the news on this side of the Atlantic pond recently (Google Severn Barrage). It is claimed that the Severn project on its own could supply 6 or 7% of UK electricity needs, and the traditional problem of high capital cost is mitigated by currently low interest rates. (There are environmental and other objections too, of course). Tidal barrages and tidal lagoons suffer far less from predictability and intermittency problems than other renewables. It seems, though, that usable tides (one that generate sufficient flow/ebb differential or "head") only occur in specific geographies. How does the U.S. compare in this regard? ... you certainly have no shortage of coastline.
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