Sunday, July 06, 2008

Better Than Baseline

I apologize for my lack of posts lately. This is because I'm currently in Moscow scoping out archival sources for my dissertation, and I've had some difficulties with my housing situation. The Russians I'm currently staying with informed me only a few hours before my flight to Moscow that I could only stay with them for one week, as their landlord apparently balked about their scheme to sublet a room. As a result, I've had to find a new place to live, so I'm moving to an apartment over at Park Pobedy on Tuesday. I'm happy to be staying there, as it's an elite housing development from the Brezhnev years a few hundred meters from the WWII memorial. The bad news is that I am probably going to lose internet access when I move, so I probably won't have another post until August.

Lately I've been pondering the debate surrounding potential policy solutions for global climate change. One of the things that I believe that nuclear advocates should emphasize is that our solution has the potential to be an enormous improvement of "business as usual." I'm honestly not sure what to make of the economic analyses that have been made of reducing carbon emissions. So many of the technical questions remain unanswered that it seems hard to know what sort of numbers are being used to reach these conclusions. And never mind the debates over issues like discount rates that plagued the Stern Review a few years ago. I believe that simple logic can provide a good basis for the nuclear case.

The problem with assuming a "business as usual" scenario is that it's pretty clear that our current economy, with its dependence on oil and natural gas, will not survive this century. Even assuming that sizable new resources are discovered, it is totally implausible that these will be adequate to meet soaring demand from the developing world. So clearly, there will be some sort of transition away from these fuels. Coal is another matter. We can continue burning coal for the forseeable future, but without vast technological intervention this is unacceptable in the current situation. It appears (to me, at least) that the chances of coal with CCS becoming competitive with even current nuclear plants is quite slim.

The preferred solution of much of the population is the idea of a renewable energy economy. This idea comes in several variants, of course. One popular vision is ultracentralized, as seen in the ideas for giant solar farms in the Southwestern US and the Sahara. The opposite vision is decentralized, to the point of people producing their own energy via rooftop solar panels, small windmills, and the like. Neither one of these is a good idea, in large part due to the vagaries of the weather. Indeed, the renewable energy economy is by its very nature crippled by serious problems. It might be best to describe its probablt result as "energy fuedalism."

Renewable energy technologies operate by extracting energy from the ambient environment. As such, renewable energy production is much like farming. And just as with corn or turnips, solar and wind farms can have a bad year. For instance, large volcanic eruptions can reduce solar flux, and large storms could damage offshore wind capacity, reducing generation considerably. So long as these technologies provide a negligable amount of our overall energy supply, these things don't matter. But if our economy lived off of them in a hand-to-mouth fashion, the results would be disastrous. Inclement weather events could cause large sectors of the economy to grind to a halt at a moment's notice. We would live in a world of fear and uncertainty, knowing that we could be mere hours or days away from a serious energy shortfall. Just as our medieval ancestors, we would be powerless in the face of nature, and would be forced to accept whatever bounty (or lack thereof) nature saw fit to grant us.

Renewable energy really becomes "feudal," however, in its "decentralized" variant. In this dystopian world, people would produce their own energy. What this would probably mean in practice is that only the rich could afford to acquire reliable energy supplies. It's fairly obvious that most places where people live are suboptimal for renewable energy generation, and on top of this many people don't own land to site such devices even if they could afford them. On top of this, it's unlikely that such a system would possess enough storage and excess capacity to be reliable under unfavorable weather conditions. As such, I'm shocked that so many people are enamored by this terrible idea. It's inequitable, and the uncertainty it created would curtail and probably cripple economic growth. Instead of creating a world of peace, equality, and prosperity, it portends a dystopia where energy will be monopolized by a neofuedal ruling class and the poor will have to go without.

Advanced nuclear fuel cycles, meanwhile, offer the possibility of a future markedly improved from the present. One of the great advantages of nuclear fuel is its incredible energy density. Because of this, nations could conceivably stockpile decades or even centuries worth of fuel. Air-cooled PBMRs and MSRs could be sited almost anywhere, allowing the electrification of remote communities that could never be adequately served either by fossil or renewable plants. Energy supply would be independent of the vagaries of the weather, and would indeed be considerably more reliable than they are now. Imagine the possibilities: a world where wars over energy resources are an unhappy memory. Where energy prices are stable because fuel is acquired decades in advance. Where electricification has improved the health and well-being of the world's remotest and poorest communities. Where the lack of uncertainty in all these things has fueled robust economic growth for all the world's people. And all without the deleterious environmental, social, economic, and political costs of the alternatives. Indeed, we can have all these things and beat global warming too. But to do so we have to start now. If we waste twenty years pursuing fantasies, we could very well lose everything.

There are, of course, a number of issues that will need to be resolved to make the nuclear future happen. Among other things, we need a practical agreement regarding the internationalization of nuclear energy. I believe that the universal and equitable inspection of all the world's nuclear facilities by the IAEA of some similar organization is called for. Every nation needs a chance to benefit from nuclear energy so long as they follow a reasonable set of rules. Given an appropriate agreement between the US and Russia, most of the world's nuclear weapons and weapons materials can be converted into fuel salt for starting MSRs or solid fuel assemblies. But the solutions seem simple enough, especially given the enormous possibilities.


DV8 2XL said...

You make some very pertinent obsevations about "energy feudalism," particularly when you point out that only the rich will be able to afford to live on the best sites for local generation.

Good luck in Moscow, it can be a trying city to live in, I know, although I haven't spent any time there since the late 80's, and I also hope your research goes well.

George Carty said...

I am worried about a massive increase in Arab terrorism come the end of the Oil Age (caused by a Malthusian die-off in the Middle East as the oil income dries up). How can this be prevented?

Would a massive grid of desalinated water (preferably solar-powered*) to make the Middle East self-sufficient in food be reasonable?

*The Middle East is reliably sunny, and desalination can live with intermittent power (unlike the grid). There's also another reason why Arab countries might be leery of building nuclear reactors - it's called the Israeli Air Force.