Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Energy density, global warming, and nuclear power

Now, as you know, I'm derisive of the tighty-righties and their hatred of science, especially their hatred of the science of biology and the science of climatology (both of which have made discoveries that conflict with their small-minded interpretation of their holy scriptures). But I have lately come across yet another group of people who hate science because it conflicts with their small-minded interpretation of their holy scriptures, though the science they hate is physics. Tightie righties, meet loonie greenies. Different religion, same ****.

The fact of the matter is that technological civilization is pretty much the only way we're going to prevent a massive die-off of the human race in the near future, because the human race has pretty much used up all the easily-accessible resources that can be exploited without a technological civilization. There are no more nodules of high-quality iron ore lying around on the ground ready to be smelted with charcoal and beat into plowshares. And a technological civilization requires a high energy density to maintain, an energy density that is not attainable with current solar or biofuels technologies. I don't know how many of you have any manufacturing experience. In my last job, I designed the manufacturing processes used to manufacture our product, which was a server similar to the one that this blog is maintained on. Every single one of those servers rolling off our assembly line represents a massive energy investment as parts and resources from around the world are collected into one place and assembled into a final form.

Technological artifacts such as the computer you are reading this on cannot be made as a "cottage industry". The world is long past that point. No single nation has the resources, skills, or know-how to maintain technological civilization all by itself. Your computer has parts or resources in it from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the United States, the Phillipines, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, Saudi Arabia, ... and all these pieces were gathered together using massive amounts of energy to transport them from point A to point B. The last nation to try doing all of this all by itself ended up collapsing in disgrace (see: Former Soviet Union). A modern technological civilization simply is too complex and requires too many resources both human and physical for it to be maintained by a limited number of people in a limited number of places. And keeping this technological civilization going requires huge amounts of energy, an energy density far higher than what is available via current technologies from solar and other "renewable" resources (all of which boil down to solar, BTW). We need high-density energy sources to keep technological civilization going. And right now, that gives us two choices: Hydrocarbons (i.e., stored solar energy, causing issues with global warming and with rapid depletion approaching), or nuclear fission (waste disposal issues, health issues dealing with mining and refining of uranium ores, issues with radiation leakage in the vicinity of the reactor).

So now I hear loonie greenies grumbling, "technological civilization is over-rated," as they chortle about how their storage batteries and solar panels power their home (both of which are products of technological civilization -- see the microchips in the battery management unit?) and talk about "sustainable" lifestyles (sustainable only because technological civilization has provided them with the resources to sustain those lifestyles). The collapse of technological civilization, if and when it happens, will have consequences that are similar in scale to the consequences of the collapse of Roman civilization in the 5th century AD. Within the course of 100 years the city of Rome went from being a city of over 1,000,000 people to being a heavily armed camp of maybe 50,000 survivors huddled in the ruins of the city. It was not until 1931 that Rome ever again had more than a million people. Today we are all Rome, because technological civilization is far more interconnected than Roman civilization ever was. If we look at the effects of the collapse of technological civilization upon the world's population, you can figure that the world's population would plummet from 6,600,000,000 to around 330,000,000. That's a lot of dead bodies (6,270,000,000 dead bodies, in case you're counting). And the result would be a permanent Dark Ages where the survivors live short and miserable and hungry lives, since, as I previously noted, all the resources necessary for the creation of a pre-technological civilization such as easily-accessed nodules of iron have long since been exhausted.

Technological civilization substitutes energy and technology for those pre-technological resources, and theoretically, if provided with dense enough energy sources, is sustainable for pretty much forever since technological civilization is capable of using energy to reclaim resources that otherwise are unusable waste. The "dense enough energy sources" part, though, is the killer. Thus far technological civilization has relied upon fossil fuels. This is not sustainable, both because of the damage that it is doing to the world's climate and because fossil fuels will not last forever. We cannot cover sufficient area of the world with solar panels, biofuel plantings, and wind turbines to replace the fossil fuels because that would have its own environmental consequences (even if we planted every inch of arable land in the Americas with soybeans we wouldn't have enough soy oil to maintain sufficient transportational infrastructures to keep technological civilization going in the Americas, not to mention the environmental consequences of turning topsoil into diesel fuel), not to mention the fact that solar and wind are good "peaking" sources of power but lack sufficient reliability and are geographically ill suited for providing "baseline" power for much of the world's population. At the moment, the only replacement we have for the fossil fuels that has the required energy density is nuclear fission feeding a "hydrogen economy" to meet the transport needs. As the loonie greenies will be swift to tell you, nuclear power has its issues. On the other hand, it will not bankrupt the world (France gets 3/4ths of their power from nuclear fission and thus far I haven't noticed them bankrupted by it), it will not result in the entire world being sterile eunochs (while Frenchmen seem to be uninterested in reproducing nowdays, their North African slave class that they keep in bondage and refuse to give citizenship to seem to have no such reproductive problems), and at least for the short term, until nanotechnology and warm superconductors come along to allow transporting solar power more easily and allow constructing solar panels without the current massive infusions of energy required, it's the only technology we have that'll replace the fossil fuels with sufficient energy density to maintain technological civilization.

Of course, if you want to kill 6.3 billion people, merely outlaw nuclear power world-wide and wait. It won't take long. 100 years, tops. That's a *lot* of dead bodies, folks. Makes me glad I will never have grandchildren to be subjected to such a world. Lack of suitable female penguins up here in the warm Northlands isn't the only reason this penguin has not reproduced...

-- Badtux the Energy Penguin

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Posted by: BadTux / 4/24/2007 01:20:00 PM  


Short, nasty and brutish. You forgot brutish.
# posted by nunya : 24/4/07 6:32 PM  

Hello, Mr Penguin.
Over the past few months, this has become one of my pet peeves, and I would like to address this. A lot of misinformation on either side.

The new coal plants going up give out around 18-22% of the greenhouse gases that the old ones do. That's why you see new coal plants going up in Europe now, because of the emissions trading. Build one new coal plant and you can keep 2 old ones running while reducing emissions by around 30%.

The problem with storage of nuclear waste has been pretty much solved. The Columbia River facility isn't up and running right now because of cost-plus bidding, and nothing else.

Where the avg coal burner puts out around 850MW, the avg wind farm pouts out around 100MW-- meaning it would take about 8 1/2 times the footprint to produce the same power. But it's not the same, because power generated from wind (as the Alaskans found out) produces an unstable power source when the feed is greater than 40%.

As for your post, the thing about hydrocarbons and other fuels holding solar (kinetic) energy is completely beside the point. Much of our air comes from the water, but it isn't the same as pumping water into your lungs.

What irks me is--
1) People that refuse to believe that a new power plant can pollute less than one 40-50 yrs old;
2) Talk of how wind & solar power development is needed, while ignoring hydro;
3) Talk of improving cafe standards for cars, etc., while ignoring airplanes (jet trails are significant pollution).

Bottom line-- coal will be our predominant power source for the first part of the 21st century, and nukes for the second part.
# posted by Progressive Traditionalist : 25/4/07 2:13 AM  

1. Yeah, we need to get rid of the old high-polluting plants, and coal is going to remain part of the mix for the next 50 years whether we like it or not, though it needs to be made a *decreasing* part of the mix during that time. That said, the process of mining coal is horribly environmentally damaging all by itself despite all the propaganda of the coal mining industry about how they "restore" the site after they're finished mining it. I've seen some of these "restored" sites. They look like a freakin' flat-topped pile of rubble with grass and trees planted on top of them. Which is what they are -- a pile of rubble that was moved off the top of the coal, the coal extracted, then the rubble shoved back into the pit. It screws up the water table and soil percolation and everything else in the area as well as being ugly as sin compared to the mountain that once was sitting on top of the coal but as far as the law is concerned it was "restored". If you want, I'll take you a picture next time I'm near one of these "restored" sites.

2. Hydro kills fish and the dams create lakes that drown canyons thus the radical anti-human greenies hate hydro. (But then, wind farms kill birds). Except hydro from small streams sent through Peltier wheels, for some reason... they lurves their Peltier wheels.

3. CAFE standards for jets are not needed because today's jet engines are much, much, MUCH more fuel efficient than the jet engines of 30 years ago. Ever wonder why you never see a Boeing 737-200 (the one with the long under-wing turbojet engines) anymore? It's because the airlines retired them all (or sold them to overseas airlines) because once the 737-300 came out with highly fuel-efficient turbofan engines, they could save 20% on their fuel bills. Fuel costs are a big deal to airlines. The fuel savings from operating a 737-300 for five years more than paid for the jet compared to operating a 737-200 even with the low-cost fuel of the 1980's. As far as emissions go, emissions can only be cleaned up by a) making the engine more efficient so more of the fuel gets burned (already being done because the airlines want better fuel economy), and b) cleaning up the fuel, which needs to be done (the current high-sulphur JP-8 emits lots of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere once it reacts with atmospheric gases and gets bombarded by solar radiation, which is nasty stuff). You cannot put a catalytic converter on the tail of a jet engine for obvious reasons (it would melt).
# posted by BadTux : 25/4/07 8:52 AM  

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