Sensible Thoughts on Our Energy Needs
My readers know I favor nuclear energy and think Biofuels are no answer. I favor nuclear because it has proven to be the safest, lowest cost and cleanest source of electrical power, and because newer designs could yield free hydrogen for powering vehicles. One objection to nuclear is the fear of a massive failure due to an earthquake. The recent experience in Japan, discussed below, should calm these fears.
As for Biofuels, not only are they more and more unpromising the more we learn about their limitations, the providing of subsidies to encourage their use and production is already causing massive distortions in food supplies and prices; and focusing on them diverts us from real solutions – more domestic drilling for the short run – and nuclear-hydrogen for the long run.
Actually the second article below is kinder to Biofuels than most, because many scientists have concluded that the use of a gallon of Biofuels consumes more than a gallon of petroleum.
Restored faith in nuclear power
August 26, 2007, Chicago Tribune (Excerpt)
“If an earthquake of about 6 or larger occurs anywhere around the globe, every single sand grain dances on this planet.
-- Ross Stein, U.S. Geological Survey
Amid the photos of collapsed houses, shattered roads and buckled bridges, the most arresting image out of Japan after last month's 6.8-magnitude earthquake was of black smoke billowing from an electrical transformer at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, near the epicenter. The plant has seven reactors and 8.2 million kilowatts of generating capacity, making it the world's largest nuclear facility.
Initially, officials said damage was confined to a small fire and a 300 gallon leak of water with negligible amounts of radioactivity. But that was followed by reports of toppled barrels of low-level nuclear waste. Then came word that Tokyo Electric may have unwittingly situated the plant atop an active seismic fault.
After a recent three-day examination of the plant, however, six international safety experts dispatched by the International Atomic Energy Agency reported better news. The July 16 earthquake exceeded the level of seismic activity the facility was designed to withstand, but the design still helped contain the damage. No one was hurt, and there was no measurable environmental fallout from the plant.
"Safety related structures, systems and components of the plant seem to be in a general condition, much better than might be expected for such a strong earthquake, and there is no visible significant damage," the IAEA report said.
That's comforting for Japan, and good news for those who want to revive the nuclear energy industry in the U.S.
The U.S. has 104 operating reactors at 65 sites, providing roughly 20 percent of the country's energy needs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Illinois, with 11 reactors at six sites, has the highest nuclear capacity of any state.
With energy consumption and concerns about global warming rising, more nuclear power is a must. It can be done efficiently, cost-effectively ... and safely.
Before a plant is built in the U.S., extensive studies are done at the site to account for potential natural hazards. Plants in different areas are built to different codes, to account for the likelihood of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and other natural disasters.
"They're overdesigned," said David Wald of the U.S. Geological Survey. "They're very tough structures."
They had at one time also become prohibitively expensive structures. Unit 1 of the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee, the last nuclear reactor to go into service in the U.S., took 23 years to build and open and cost $6.2 billion. Though the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island stopped nuclear expansion, skyrocketing costs and endless construction delays had already started to cripple the industry.
The cost of nuclear power, however, is poised to come down, and its efficiency has been rising….
Inception to operation would take just seven years, meaning that new nuclear power plants could come online as early as 2015.
The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last May that nuclear power, along with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, has to be in the mix of technologies to curb global warming.
Nuclear power is a safer industry, it is a more efficient industry, and it is critical to answering energy demands and protecting the environment. The U.S. can have faith in nuclear power.” Chicago Tribune
Bio-fuels waste energy, breed pollution
Thursday, August 30, 2007, ROBIN MITTENTHAL, Providence Journal
WE MUST MOVE our nation beyond fossil fuels. But let’s not be suckered by the promoters of such bio-fuel alternatives as corn ethanol and soy bodies.
Large companies that stand to reap billions in federal subsidies and tax breaks from these energy “sources” are selling them as the way to a healthy planet and energy independence for the United States. For two reasons, don’t believe it.
First, consider “energy return on energy invested,” or EROEI. This is how much energy we “earn” for every unit of energy we “spend” to get it.
Gasoline’s EROEI ranges between 6-to-1 and 10-to-1, says Cutler Cleveland, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. In other words, we get anywhere from 6 to 10 gallons of gasoline for every gallon we use to find oil, pump it out of the ground and refine it. But the EROEI of corn-based ethanol, the most common U.S. bio-fuel, is a mere 1.34-to-1, the Agriculture Department says. So even though an acre of corn can make 360 gallons of ethanol, only 90 gallons of that is “new” fuel.
Expand this to a larger geographic scale. Researchers at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics calculate that planting the entire state of Iowa in corn and using it for ethanol would give us enough new fuel for about five days’ worth of U.S. gasoline use. For policy-makers, this should be a red flag signaling that even enormous increases in ethanol production would do basically nothing to move America to energy independence.
Second, consider the environmental effects of bio-fuels.
The corn used to make the ethanol at your local gas pump exacts a heavy price from our land and water. The fertilizer required for high corn yields starts as a resource, but once it leaves farm fields — and most does — it essentially becomes poison, polluting our lakes and rivers, harming drinking water and creating a huge lifeless zone at its final destination, the Gulf of Mexico. Corn production also uses actual poisons in the form of pesticides, and these too can end up in our water and even our food.
And corn plants have wimpy roots that do a poor job of preventing erosion. Millions of tons of superb, irreplaceable Midwestern soils are lost from fields every year because of corn.
And other bio-fuels? Soybean-based bodies have an EROEI of about 1.9 to 1, according to University of Minnesota ecology Prof. David Tilman and his colleagues. That’s better than corn ethanol, but still a poor return, and soybeans carry much of corn’s environmental baggage.
An unproven form of bio-fuel production would wring several forms of energy, including ethanol, from grass, tree pulp and other plant material we can’t eat. No one yet makes fuel this way with an acceptable EROEI. Efficiency might improve over time, but the environmental goodness of the resulting fuel will depend on the kinds of plants used.
Tilman favors growing diverse mixtures of long-lived, deep-rooted native plants on damaged, unproductive farmland. These prairie-like mixtures would mean much less erosion than corn and soybeans. They could also pull more of the nutrients they need from air and soil than do common crops.
Unclear, though, is whether they could meet a significant fraction of our energy needs. The Agriculture Department’s Michael Russelle and other researchers suggest that Tilman overestimates the EROEI of these mixtures and the amount of damaged land available. They also say it’s difficult to establish and maintain these mixtures. Tilman disputes these arguments, but it’s very much an unsettled question.
So where do we turn? Wind and solar energy will get us part of the way. These technologies have EROEIs of up to 20-to-1 and fewer unpleasant environmental side-effects than bio-fuels. But a big answer is conservation: We need to use much less energy in the first place by living in smaller homes, buying smaller cars, driving less, trimming our general consumption, and being obsessive about energy efficiency.
We must move beyond fossil fuels. But bio-fuels are not the answer. Let’s pursue real solutions that are easy on our planet.