Saturday, July 09, 2011

Of Nuclear Power and Hang Gliders

How's that solar farm coming?  How are you doing with mothballing those coal plants?  2015 is just four years away after all.   How are you in the East doing about rebuilding your horribly atrophied and unreliable electricity grid?

2015.   If you pay any heed to the warnings from experts like the director of NASA's Goddard Space Laboratory, Dr. James Hansen, that's how long we have to wean ourselves entirely off coal power electrical generation.   Let me see.  We're already in the second half of 2011.  That leaves us all of 2012, 2013, 2014 and might as well toss in 2015 to put Big Coal out of business.

Oh yeah, Hansen has the same deadline for weaning ourselves off unconventional fossil fuels, ersatz petroleum.  Yeah, that's right - the Athabasca Tar Sands.  Big Tar has to go too.

But we can't give the boot to Big Coal, Big Tar and Big Oil without having in place some clean energy alternative.  And that's pretty much electricity generated by non-emitting power sources.  Wind is one.  Solar is one.  Hydro-electric is our old standby.  Tides are another one.   But hydroelectric comes at a great cost to the environment and, as for the others, there are technical and other problems that need to be overcome for which there are no immediate solutions nor, really, any on the horizon.  So coal and tar and oil it is then, I suppose and to hell with the warnings unless they're right in which case it's to hell with us.

But we've always got that fallback - carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), right?   Of course we do, only we really don't.   Not yet anyway.  We've got table top models of it.   Why we even took Will and Kate to the Calgary zoo to look at one of those.  Bet that rocked their world.  Funny how Harper and Stelmach didn't spoil them with an aerial tour of the Tar Sands themselves.   I guess there are some things you would rather stuff in the basement when company arrives.

It turns out that CCS creates its very own host of "technical and other problems."   It uses up a lot of energy and creates its own emissions problem.  It's dangerous - virtually forever.   If the ground shifts (and it does, constantly) it can escape its underground containment and leaks can be lethal to life on the surface.  And, it's very expensive which undercuts the profitability of the energy resources it is supposed to cleanse.   Let's put it this way.   If CCS was affordable and technically viable and even remotely safe, we'd be up to our alligators in CCS plants.   But it's not, it's not and it's not.

So, my enviro buddies, got anything else up your greensleeves?   Oh yeah, there's conservation.  I've been there and done that.  I live in what, by today's standards, would be considered a beautiful and wonderfully comfortable but small house.   I've modified my house and lifestyle.  I got rid of my 20th century auto and replaced it with a low-emissions diesel that I almost never drive anyway or as little as absolutely necessary.  I've got my place as insulated as the bottom of the space shuttle.  Got rid of my fossil fuel heating system.  Now I'm on the surface fuel cycle.  I burn wood in a high efficiency, low-emissions stove.  Better yet it's scrap wood scavenged from the leavings of the logging companies, stuff they would ordinarily bulldoze into heaps and burn on the side of some local mountain.   Colour me green.   I switched to high-e windows, casements all of them.  I don't need air conditioning in the summer.  I just open the house at night, close it up and lower the blinds in the morning.  I don't even need a fan but two or three days a year.  I've got two active compost bins that are more like overcrowded red wiggler dorms.   With all that compost I grow scads of fruit.   In the winter I keep my house cold enough to hang meat, I really do.  I got through the winter and a miserably cold, damp and drawn out spring with just a cord of firewood. Solar panels are coming down in price and going up in reliability and I already have a rough price point at which I'm planning to take the plunge.

Now that I've given myself an enormous pat on the back the point is I'm still responsible for more carbon emissions than I can justify.  Yet I'm of that age where long past foolishness returns to take another bite at you.  As Leonard Cohen puts it, I'm beginning "to ache in places where I used to play."  That's life and I knew the deal when I signed on for it so I have no complaints and a very short list of regrets.   I regret some of the things I have done and a few I never managed to do when I should have.  The worst regrets, however, are things that my society, my people have neglected to do, things we have chosen not to do, things we still won't do and a great many things that we did and seemingly will continue to do.

As a nation of people I regret that we didn't listen, didn't believe, didn't want to know.  I regret that we just didn't care enough.   I regret that we abandoned posterity as a quaint, unacceptable intrusion on our wealth and happiness.  I regret that we have dodged the tab and left it for future generations to pick up - if they can.

I began this writing of solar energy and coal-fired electricity.  I had intended to lead into the same argument The Guardian's George Monbiot, along with many others, has been making in defence of nuclear energy as the only viable intermediate solution to our fossil fuel addiction - the thing that's surely killing those with whom we're supposed to be sharing our planet.

Every day that the atrocity we know as the "Oil" Sands continues and steadily expands, people in some distant corner of the planet pay for it with their lives.   Every day that we keep our lights burning, our TVs blaring and our electric stoves cooking on coal-fired energy, people in some distant corner of the planet pay for it with their lives.   For every one that dies many others pay for our indefensible excess and indifference with prolonged, inescapable misery.   And their numbers are only going to keep growing.   We look the other way and make up distractions like games of finger pointing and scientific denial and unsolvable debates of moral relativity.   And then we reach the point we arrived at so recently when our military posits these people to whom we've bequeathed this unbearable misery as threats, our potential enemies.

We have, through our indulgence and excess, created a world nearing the pinnacle of "them and us."  We're going to have enough problems with what's coming that the last thing we're going to accept is "them" adding to our own.   America is not going to be the refuge for Latin America.   Already financially drained, it will be strained to the breaking point to cope with internal displacement, citizens forced to relocate due to seawater inundation, severe storm events, cyclical floods and droughts, depleted groundwater reserves.

In somewhat different ways, we too are going to be pushed into a "them and us" reality only, in our case, "them" will include the hillbillies next door and they have all the guns.  Good luck with that.

So I fear it's already too late for discussions of third, fourth and even fifth generation nuclear power options, fast reactors and thorium.   Too many minds are already locked on first generation nuclear plants like Chernobyl and Fukushima that the environmentalism community is already hopelessly rent and incapable of championing alternatives.   That option, arguably the best and possibly the only way to escape our carbon addiction is now foreclosed.

But we've still got solar and tidal and wind and geothermal options.   Yeah, we've got them.   What we don't have is the time to get them online as a feasible replacement to fossil fuels.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't plug away at it, we should.

It reminds me of learning to hang glide in the 70s.  I noticed one of the seasoned hands was wearing a harness attached to a pouch that rested at his arse.  He explained it was an emergency parachute.  If the frame of his airfoil collapsed he was to fight the centrifugal forces, turn himself around, open the Velcro fastened bag, somehow grasp the parachute securely in both hands and toss it out between the rigging at just the right moment.  I asked him if he thought that would really work.   He replied not really but at least it would give him something to occupy his mind on the way down.  I never bothered getting one of those parachutes then.  I don't think I will now either.


samvg said...

For sake of discussion, set aside the dangers.

Costs appear to be tipping against nuclear.

Outstanding effort you have made in conservation and energy efficiency.

Joe Romm's post below gives me hope based largely on getting our priorities right and act rapidly beginning with energy efficiency.
WWII type of mobilization is possible, subject to politics. Political action may emerge if the climate destabilization continues to accelerate in the USA. Reality might bite so hard and with such severe consequences...

Sam Gunsch

The Mound of Sound said...

Sam, thanks so much for the link. Anyone else reading this post would do well to check it out. I so hope your optimistic scenario becomes our next reality if only because the alternative is unspeakable. Keep plugging away Sam. We all need you to do that.