Friday, December 13, 2013

Energy Crisis Stuff

Electric Cars

Electric cars have been a big thing by the environmentalist and conservationist sorts for quite a while and the concept is very exciting.  In truth, completely electrical cars are not a new thing, back in the early days of automobiles, internal combustion was competing against electrical cars and only won out when they added a small electrical engine to supply power enough to start the engine without requiring a person to crank the engine up.  At the time, electrical cars were incapable of providing enough power for the cars to be of much use for anything beyond a curiosity and only lasted a short period of time.  The technology was re-opened recently in the light of the dwindling supply of fossil fuels and the industry has produced both hybrids and the true plug-in sort of electrical cars everybody associates with the term.

I am not going to say electrical cars are bad.  They are a rather exciting possibility, however, the problem is that electrical cars recharge their energy from the power grid so electrical cars are simply another drain on the city power and consume the same fuel that the local power plant does.  As such, if you are in an area powered by a coal-based power plant, your electrical car is most likely a worse drain on the environment than the traditional internal combustion engine driving alongside you.  It used to be that the construction of these cars was a significant drain as well, but that has been changing.  Currently, the major thing that determines whether an electric car is better or worse for the environment is in the nature of the power grid it is drawing from.

In low carbon-use countries, like France (where 75% of the electricity comes from nuclear sources), Iceland, Brazil (with lots of hyrdoelectric) and Sweden (nuclear and hydroelectric), your electric car is going to be several times better than a standard car for the environment.  In places like the US, where we're still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, it depends highly on your local, but, by and large, you're likely to find you're in an area supported by coal (52% of American power generation currently) and thus the electric cars in those places are a worse impact, overall, than the standard internal combustion engine.

Wind Power

Wind power is another interesting development in power generation.  It has definite potential, but it also has limits.  One supporting article pushing for adopting more wind energy has suggested that wind turbines could possibly produce as much as 20% of the nations power requirements, perhaps more.  The problem is that this is a supportive article, likely to lean towards the optimistic view.  The other issue is that for each megawatt-production, approximately 50 acres is required.  This is not so onerous as it initially sounds, the land can also be used for farming, ranching and other things. 

A turbine with a capacity of 1 MW can produce between 2.4 million kilowatt hours and 4 million kWH annually which is wide, wide, wide range of result.  There's no way to effectively plan on those numbers.  It implies there are times when the wind is going to produce way too much electricity, which you can't reliably save all of, or way too little electricity which results in brown outs.  There is also no mention of the impact of severe weather on these facilities.  Also, each MW of capacity requires about 50 acres of land which they are quick to point out can be used for other things.  They specify farming and ranching.  But there is now a limit on what you can use the land for since you can't have anything that would require too much height from a building or else the turbine won't function properly.

A 2.5 MW to 3 MW capacity turbine can supposedly produce more than 6 million kWh annually.  That 6 million kWh is enough to power 1,500 European Union households for a year, or New York City for a little more than 57 minutes.  Which means, to supply New York City for a full year, you need somewhere around 9227 (perhaps less since the original was 6 million or more) turbines at a capacity of 2.5MW to 3 MW, when would each take 125 to 150 acres of open, flat land to hold the turbines.  Which is a total of 1,153,375 acres (assuming the smaller 125 acre amount) which is 1802 square miles.  New York City is 468 square miles in area.  Meaning it would take roughly 3.85 times as much space to power NYC as was actually in NYC.  And that's assuming that all that power goes to New York City and nowhere else, like, say, Albany.  These are using numbers for New York's power expenditure from about 6 years ago at roughly 55,000 gigawatt hours in a year.  It also uses the energy production numbers from several pro-Wind energy sites.

These sites are found of siting the 20% possibility sited by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  If we assume that that number is correct, where will the remaining 80% of the power come from?

Solar Power

Another touted source of alternate energy is solar power.  Very recently, Germany reported that it's solar power facilities were now producing 22 GWHours of energy, which is a world record.  However, it is not as good as it seems like it is.  The Germans are supporting the solar power via subsidies and a tariff which they plan to reduce as solar power makes more advances.  Running this by a chemical engineer of my acquaintance gave me the opinion that it seemed like there was an actual exciting advancement behind the event but that it was being pushed for political purposes in a manner that will possibly bury the legitimate scientific advance.

Essentially the problem with solar panel is that the panels have not reached parity.  Over their effective lifetime, they will not produce an amount of energy equal to what it takes to produce them.  By the looks of thing, the people behind the German accomplishment might be actually close to the tipping point at which point solar becomes a viable energy technology.  By which I mean solar tech that pays for itself and does not require a subsidy to support it.

Solar power seems to be usable at the moment for small scale uses, but even there, it has problems.  For the most part, a solar power system works best to reduce dependence on a city grid or else when supplemented by another system such as a diesel generator or a battery that can be recharged during times of surplus sun.  However, this requirement for support tends to be magnified for larger scale projects.

I'm not saying solar is a lost cause, far from it, the idea of solar power is very interesting.  However, they are not currently at a point where they make a practical option for power generation.!divAbstract

Nuclear Power

Since Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima, nuclear power has received an unfair amount of suspicion from people.  This is fairly understandable.  Radiation sickness is horrific and the fact that radiation can cause an increase in such things as cancer, including some of the really bad cancers, years afterwords is terrifying.  Having family that come from a part of the country where uranium was mined and nuclear tests were done, I can tell you about some of the things we suspect happened as a result of those tests and mining.  I also live in Fukushima, Japan.  You know what?  My family still supports nuclear power as the most viable choice we currently have.

Let's look at some of the numbers.  There's Chernobyl in 1986, of course.  There were 56 direct deaths that were clearly as a result of radiation and another 4,000 that were of cancers years later that may have been caused by Chernobyl, and likely were.  I'll go with the 4,056.

Then there's the Kyshtym Disaster in 1957.  Unfortunately, this happened in the Russia of the 50s.  There's almost no good numbers relating to it because the Russians buried all the information, even from themselves.  One estimate says 8,015, another said 49 to 55.  The most often quoted number is 200, but nobody knows where that number comes from.  I'll go with the highest numbers, 8,015.

There's the recent Fukushima....where no one died of radiation poisoning whatsoever though 2 people died of drowning.  There has been a recent death by esophageal cancer by one of the people that responded to the accident, but it hasn't been confirmed as a result of the radiation yet.  For argument's sake, we'll say it was.  One prediction has been that we could see an extra thousand deaths by cancer in Fukushima in the coming year.  As with the previous two disasters, I'll accept the 1000, including the esophageal case with that.

In 1957, there was a fire in the United Kingdom that spread plutonium through the surrounding area resulting in around 33 deaths.

There are another 130 deaths listed from various other smaller accidents.

This comes to a total of 13,236 deaths by radiation (or accidents in nuclear facilities) from 1945 to 2013, not including the deaths related to the actual bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (intentional caused death does not relate to the safety of a power system).  I'll round it up to 15,000 deaths over the course of those 68 years.

By comparison, black lung alone kills 1,500 per year.  Which would be 102,000 deaths in America alone the same 68 year period as we're estimating 15,000 people were killed by nuclear energy (some of whom aren't dead yet).  This is a little less than 7 times as many deaths than nuclear.  That, however, is rather meaningless since we use coal for other things and will likely continue to mine it regardless of whether or not we are using it for energy, though hopefully with better safe guards.

For another note, consider the fact that in 1945 alone, 26,785 people died in car accidents in the United States.  34,080 people died in automobile accidents in 2012.  In 1972, 54,589 died in car accidents.  All of these numbers were from the United States as compared to the 15,000 from around the world.

Now, of course, there is the concern of radiation.  And of course radiation is horrible, but I wonder if some people are aware that the fly ash of a coal mine can produce 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same level of power.  Uranium and thorium are both radioactive elements that exist within coal.  Normally, they're in such trace amounts that it's not a problem, the coal dust itself is more deadly.  Once the coal is burned to produce energy, however, it is concentrated.  Estimates are that if you live in the area around a nuclear plant you have a 1 in 1 billion chance of developing a health problem due to radiation.  The chances of being exposed enough radiation to suffer health problems when living around a coal-based power plant ranges from 1 in 10 million to 1 in 100 million.  In either case, the threat of radiation sickness is minute, but it is higher around coal-based power plants.

There is also a tendency to try to compare Fukushima to Chernobyl based on unproven predictions.  However, there are incredible differences in the situations.  Chernobyl's meltdown was due to poor design and safety features while Fukushima's meltdown was due to a tsunami following one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded.  The number of deaths in Chernobyl's incident was much higher as was the amount of radiation released.  Also, Fukushima's plant was of an older design than Chernobyl's.  More modern reactors are designed to totally contain a meltdown.  Unfortunately, there isn't much info on meltdowns because in the nearly 70 years that we've had nuclear power there have been so very few meltdowns, partial or total.

There is a very recent development in the form of the thorium nuclear reactor that's being tested in Norway.  These nuclear reactors use thorium as a fuel, which is much safer than uranium while it also gives us a way to use up that plutonium our current uranium using power plants produce as waste.  So, thorium reactors would give us a way to use up our current waste while at the same time being much cleaner than any previous reactor.

Another problem we have with power generation in general in the United States and nuclear power in specific is the age of our facilities.  Actually, the age of our infrastructure is a problem we have throughout the country, bridges, roads, tunnels, power plants, dams and so on.  All of our infrastructure is aging.  The average age of an American nuclear power plant is 33 years old.  Which means the number of plants we have using modern, safer and more efficient methods are very few.  Many of our conventional power plants suffer from the same problem.

We are hesitant as a culture to decomission an old facility and replace it with something new and shiny.  We distrust new and shiny.  We tend to think “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.”  Well...thing is, a lot of it is broke.  There's a lot of loss of energy and a lot of pollution we could get rid of by shifting away from coal and other fossil fuels to nuclear energy.  Also, switching to nuclear energy will give us the time we need to develop other energy options, such as solar, which are currently not feasible as primary energy generation methods.

Another Note on Fossil Fuels

There is another reason that we need to cut down our use of oil, coal and natural gas for fossil fuels.  Currently, these minerals are the basis for the plastics that make much of our modern life possible.  If we use up all that on electrical production, we'll be unable to make more plastic.  Were as it is possible to recycle quality plastic into new products.  We have alternative energy sources.  We do not have alternative plastic sources.  As my chemical engineer friend noted: we can't get away from using fossil fuels as energy sources fast enough.

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