Tell ’em they’re dreaming

The title of a piece in Inside Story on nuclear power in Australia. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think it’s feasible in any relevant time frame (say, before 2040). I don’t expect nuclear devotees to be convinced by this (I can’t think of any evidence that would have this effect), but I’d be interested to see someone lay out a plausible timetable to get nuclear built here sooner than my suggested date.

To clarify this, feel free to assume a conversion of both major parties and the majority of the public to a pro-nuclear position, but not to assume away the time needed to generate a legislative and regulatory framework, take proper account of concerns about siting, licensing and so on.

181 thoughts on “Tell ’em they’re dreaming

  1. It seems an opportune moment to repost something I wrote on;

    The Ubiquitous Resource Economy.

    Our global economy must eventually run solely on renewable and ubiquitous resources. In addition, the waste generation associated with resource use and production must be fully assimilable and degradable. All waste not recycled at the industrial level must be absorbed and recycled by the earth’s natural systems without significant damage to the biosphere or ecosystems. Some resources, like fossil fuels, cannot be safely used up in their entirety due to the long term damage they will do to biosphere systems like the climate. All non-renewable or limited and non-ubiquitous resources will dwindle and peter out if their use continues. Recycling of materials can ameliorate this problem but recycling never recaptures 100% of the material in question. Some proportion is always lost and dispersed in unrecoverable quantities.

    Only renewable and ubiquitous resources offer humanity any long term prospects for maintaining global civilization. This is whilst terrestrial and solar conditions remain sufficiently benign for human civilization to continue. A renewable resource is a natural resource with the ability to reproduce through biological processes or replenish through natural processes in a time scale useful to human generations. Resources which will eventually fail after vast periods of time, e.g. solar power when the sun explodes or fails can be considered renewable resources for all practical purposes.

    Ubiquitous Resources by definition are found everywhere and in large quantities on earth. Key examples of ubiquitous resources on earth are solar energy, visible light, air, water, oxygen, silicon (as silica), nitrogen, carbon, sodium, chlorine, calcium and some others. We might add items like cellulose, carbohydrates, starches etc. from plants. Useful bacteria and viruses might also be termed ubiquitous resources. Not all of these items (where they are elements) are available in their free state. The graph of elemental abundances in the biosphere and crust of earth is some guide to this. However, even some abundant elements (like iron) are not economically recoverable except at specific locations. All such elements along with the rarer elements are correctly termed localized resources.

    Seawater is a good source of key ubiquitous resources in addition to water itself if sufficient energy is available to extract them. “The four most concentrated metal ions, Na+, Mg2+, Ca2+, and K+, are the only ones commercially extractable today, with the least concentrated of the four being potassium (K) at 400 parts per million (ppm). Below potassium, we go down to lithium which has never been extracted in commercial amounts from seawater, with a concentration of 0.17 ppm. Other dissolved metal ions exist at lower concentrations, sometimes several orders of magnitude lower. None has ever been commercially extracted.” – Ugo Bardi. Chlorine is also extracted from seawater or more precisely from treated brine. The ions Na+, Mg2+, Ca2+, and K+ can be economically extracted at that time.

    Localized Resources are only found in recoverable quantities in certain limited parts of the world (e.g., copper and iron ore). These localized resources are limited (though in some cases the limits are very large) and non-renewable. Eventually all economically recoverable, limited and localised resources could be exhausted and scattered. Substitutions for many of these are feasible. For example iron (for steel) and also aluminium for construction can both be substituted with carbon fibre and glass fibre reinforced polymers. Carbon and silica are ubiquitous resources. Epoxy (the most common polymer) needs propene (also known as propylene or methyl ethylene) and chlorine as the basic feed stocks for manufacture.

    We have already seen that chlorine is a ubiquitous resource given adequate energy for extraction. Propene is currently produced from fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and, to a much lesser extent, coal. If these fossil fuels are conserved for industrial feed stocks rather than wasted by burning them, then propene production for epoxy is assured for a very long but not indefinite time. In the distant future, should all fossil fuels be used up for feed stocks, synthesis of propene from cellulose or pure charcoal from sustainable forests or from inorganic carbon sources like limestone, dolomites and carbon dioxide might be possible. Large quantities of energy would be required. Recycling of waste carbon fibre epoxies would have to occur probably through high temperature furnaces achieving complete combustion and producing useful energy.

    Some metals would seem to be needed indefinitely for the maintenance of a high technology society. For example, iron, copper and aluminium would seem to be needed for as long as a high technology electrical economy would continue along with lithium, zinc and neodymium. I am not sure how this supply of metals can be maintained indefinitely given the exhaustible nature of these resources, their non-ubiquitous nature in practical recovery terms and their slow dispersal given the impossibility of 100% effective recycling. How do we eventually make electrical machinery (generators, motors, transformers, inverters, transmission lines etc.) without metals? That is a question to exercise our minds but it might be solvable in the future by advances in carbon, silicon and polymer technology along with nano-engineering applications. It’s hard to know at this stage. Alternatively can iron, copper and aluminium etc. be recovered indefinitely in a sustainable, renewable, ubiquitous fashion?

  2. Of course, Hermit,

    Any generator that is to be used as a household item needs to be as quiet as a refrigerator. The design of the LP engine lends itself to that as the operative slide plate acts as a heat exchange and muffler as the gasses flow through the slider on one side for the intake and the other for the exhaust, it is a very clever innovation. The only limitation is the, at present, 1000 hour between refits, but that will change with experience and materials development. This engine is a perfect configuration for ceramics which, if true, would significantly increase its efficiency and running life. The advantage of an engine sep up to charge a battery bank is that its design performance can be optimised as its running speed is fixed, so that speed can be selected for optimal fuel economy, and the silencing becomes easier for resonance management.

    The point that I am making is that the future grid will be nothing like its origins, and most of the arguments put up in support of BAU are totally irrelevant. As an example the extensive discussion about energy production cost is the smallest part of the delivered product, especially since the retail price has more than doubled over a five year period. When I hear people quibbling about energy sources when the cost is 3 to 5 cents per unit (if that is in fact true) when the delivered price is 25 cents it is clear that business rational is absent.

    Future grid operators will have to rethink what their optimal business model is operating in concert with distributed energy, or see their business shrink to a third to be a boutique industry with massive overheads relative to its turnover.

  3. I think our energy supply will be more of what we have now but with loathing and resentment. Coal will be our main source of electricity for another 20 years. Batteries in cars or homes will be too expensive and short lived. We’ll simply drive less and cut our electricity use to bare bones. There will be crises before 2030 over the amount though perhaps not the price of oil and gas. Since politicians are listening to the dreamers not the pragmatists we’ll probably dither ourselves to a standstill.

    2015 should illustrate this. There will be less hydro and gas will go up in price so we’ll burn more coal despite a quiet economy. Solar installations will slow to a trickle and only a handful of electric cars will be sold. Hardly a revolution. Maybe it will start the following year or the one after that.

  4. Indeed 2015 will be interesting,Hermit.

    According to David Evans, Novarians and Catallaxians, 2015 is the year in which we plunge headlong into a new ice age. The French news is telling me right now that snow has hit the alps motorways bringing trafic to a halt in Albertville, and Derby too it seems. Absolute proof of an ice age. Denialists every where will be popping the champaigne, realists will be waxing their skis.

    I don’t doubt at all that coal will persist for decades, it will, however, steadily reduce over the decades as older power plants are retired. The question is the pace at which distributed energy systems are taken up. I’m quite certain that there is a huge body of people keen to participate but who are holding off for more advanced systems to become available.

    Time will tell on several fronts.

  5. @BilB
    I especially like the section of the article where they mention the cost per watt of electricity from solar panels, comparing 1977 to 2014:

    For solar power, meanwhile, the numbers are way more dramatic. The authors cite a stunning figure from Clean Technica: From 1977 to today, the average cost of a solar panel declined from $ 76.67 per watt to $ 0.613 per watt!

    That’s in USD, but even so. There’s still plenty of scope for further innovation in solar panels.

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