Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Climate - Dire Warnings And Faint Hopes

With the Bali summit underway a range of articles across the media on the issues. Good to see the palm oil and deforestation issue getting some coverage. I read in a recent article by Ronnie Hall of the Global Forest Coalition that deforestation is equivalent to one fifth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions - more than the contribution of cars, ships and planes combined. Much of this deforestation occurs to supply land for palm oil used in a vast range of products in developed economies and for timber (often illegally logged.)
Ronnie suggests that rather than spend so much time fiddling about with largely ineffective carbon markets and carbon trading the conference attendees should spend some time addressing this problem.

Elsewhere, a rather depressing article from George Monbiot on the shifting of goalposts caused by newer data on climate change (accompanied as ever in the comments by the usual chorus of naysayers, deniers, professional contrarians and blatant hate merchants.)

It becomes clearer and clearer that the nature of the crisis facing us and its likely effects makes the favoured "nuclear solution" of the neo-liberals less and less of a good idea. Apart from the fact that further nuclear plant cannot possibly be brought on line globally in sufficient quanities and quick enough to make a significant impact the fact remains that nuclear power is not a resilient (to use the terminology of the emergency planners) enough technology to survive the coming upheavals that now seem inevitable to a greater or lesser extent. Further nuclear plant will hinder mitigation, and eat resources needed for both mitigation and adaptation. It is a "carry on as though nothing is happening and no changes are needed in consumption patterns or resilience of communities and energy supplies" option that will aid nuclear proliferation and scatter toxic timebombs across the globe in the face of the rising sea levels, social disruption and probably wars that are coming.

What is needed is a massive turn to distributed, resilient, renewable energy generation, and social and economic changes on a global scale to take away the power of those who have got us into this situation (and are likely to doom us all if they continue along their current path of limited action and complacency) and give it to the people.

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At 10:52 am, Blogger Phil BC said...

I haven't met anyone among the quite substantial Keele Green community who can get excited by Bali. One thing is certain - a hell of a lot of hot air will be produced.

At 2:38 pm, Anonymous JohnD said...

I disagree with your assessment of nuclear power not being an option. To begin with the statement that nuclear power plants can't be constructed and brought online in time to address the crisis is incorrect. In the world right now there are more than 30 power plants under construction and each of those is on track to have a total construction time of 4 to 5 years. In the US, most power companies are estimating 10 to 15 years time mainly because of governmental redtape.

While I advocate efficiency and the increased use of renewables, they will not be able to address the problem alone. Somewhere between 30 to 40% of the demand in the US is for baseload electricity. In other words, we need a huge amount of reliable and affordable energy going all the time. Renewables aren't going to be able to supply that level of demand. Until there's a new technological breaktrhough, nuclear and fossils are the only realistic options for supplying the country's baseload needs.

At 9:08 am, Blogger greenman said...

With respect, John, 30 new nuclear stations globally is a pinprick - a drop in the ocean that will not even begin to address increasing demand. Coupled to this - despite your comments about "red tape" ( little things called democracy and local consultation and proper safety assessments, that it does not bode well that nuclear advocates want to bypass!) the much vaunted Finnish programme is well behind schedule all on its own.

Baseload argument is also disingenuous - the fallacious argument that a mix of renewables cannot meet baseload demand is based on implying that one element of the renewables (usually wind) has to carry it. Tidal, wave and local biomass/CHP are amongst the other options that come into play and these and other options offer much more stable supply than wind or solar. That is before we examine ideas such as Carbon Capture and Storage - which really should be being developed and deployed *now* as the only rapid way of dealing with e.g. the Chinese situation. Instead, with the fingerprints of the influence of nuclear lobby on it, half the global pilot projects were recently shelved.

And of course you completely fail to address my resilience point. Know which parts of the world Uranium comes from? Some of them are already not pictures of stability even before major climactic effects kick in. Imagine the effect of widespread nuclear dependency when the now increasingly likely effects of severe climate change start to bite - floods, wars, famines, epidemics.
We have, as I said in my article, gone beyond business as usual and planning for more of the same. There are crises coming that will make the bloody 20th century look like a few minor squabbles.

There is no security of supply with nuclear, which, when the whole fuel cycle is considered, is not carbon neutral either. Uranium is a finite resource - quite simply there is not enough to last very long if that path is followed on the global scale you imply is necessary. And before you burble on about extraction from seawater - how energy efficient is that going to be! (Answer - not very!) If you say, well security of supply does not matter, then why not consider CSP - solar power generated in Saharan Africa could meet demand from two continents!

At 1:29 am, Blogger John said...

Obviously 30 new reactors is only a pinprick. My point was to illustrate that error in your statement that nuclear plants "can't possibly be built" in time to address the problems of global warming.

Also I don't think you're correctly representing the reasons why a nuclear plant will take longer to build here than in, say, France. It's not like we require an additional 8 years of safety assessments that the French just blow off.

As for your assessment of baseload generation, it's quite simply incorrect. Tidal power faces many of the same drawbacks as wind and solar. First off they have to be huge. A tidal station in excellent location will still need a surface area of ~9 square kilometers to have a 100 MW capacity. And then, much like wind and solar, tidal is only generating it's nominal output ~25% of the time. In other words a 100 MW tidal station will generate less than a third of the power that a 100 MW nuclear station will generate over the course of a year. Now tidal does have the benefit of being more predictable than solar and wind, so grid dispatchers will know when it won't be available. That doesn't help much in supplying baseload though.

As for biomass, I think biomass does have potential in the future. But right now direct combustion of biomass still contributes significant CO2 to the atmosphere. To be truly effective in combatting global warming, other methods have to be used to convert biomass to a clean fuel (fermentation, pyrolysis, etc.) Now those clean fuels are nearly CO2 free, but currently the process is both hugely expensive and operates at an energy deficit. In other words it requires more energy to grow the biomass and convert it to alcohol than what it is produced. Until that problem is overcome, biomass can't play any significant role in supplying the country's baseload needs.

As for resilience, your argument is nonsensical. To begin with I DO know where most uranium deposits are, but it doesn't sound like you do. Currently, Canada and Australia produce more than 50% of the world's uranium. What instabilities are your referring to?

And the nonsensical part is that there currently is NO power source that will be unaffected by "floods, wars, famine, and epidemics".

Also, the only reason nuclear plants aren't carbon neutral when you consider the fuel cycle is because of the large amounts of electricity used in the enrichment process. If we were generating our electricity from carbon neutral sources (like nuclear) then the fuel cycle would become essentially carbon neutral.

As for nuclear being a finite supply, that's absolutely true. We probably disagree about how long it will last, but nonetheless it is finite. However, it will work right now. It will meet our energy demands, it will reduce our CO2 emissions, and since most uranium reserves in the US haven't even been touched it has the potential to give us true energy independence.

Just because it won't be viable 1000 years from now is no excuse to ignore the looming crisis by trying to implement solutions that will work in 1000 years and won't work NOW.

At 4:20 pm, Blogger greenman said...

The location of 25% of known Uranium supplies is the lovely "democracy" of Kazahkstan. -
One of the other major reserves, is as you say, Australia. What will happen to Australia when the effects of global warming kick in big time is another matter. Drought and increasing desertification are already beginning to take their toll there.

So we really expect the Chinese, say, to leave their indigenous coal in the ground and pull down their power plants, build new nuclear stations at vast cost and become dependent on Kazahkstan, Australia and Canada? Not likely is it?

As I say, CC+S is the only likely technology that will wash with the Chinese.

Re baseload. Tidal power from i.e. the Severn Barrage is as you say a predictable and potentially massive power source.

The point with mass introduction of renewables is that you are able to produce in excess of demand and store - i.e Dinorwic etc.

The point with local biomass (which must be differentiated from imported - climate and social justice unfriendly) biofuels and ethanol is that it is produced locally and the energy produced in smaller local CHP stations - eliminating the massive energy wastage during transmission experienced with centralised or isolated nuclear stations - unless you are advocating city centre nuclear plants? CC+S or other emerging technologies could be deployed here also to eliminate the need for the energy intensive procedures you mention.
Of course no power source is unsusceptible to climate change, but unlike nuclear, renewables do not create massive pollution risks and dangerous, rather than just vulnerable, wartime/terror targets in crises.

And no, the carbon neutrality of nuclear will not likely be achieved through "using nuclear electricity throughout the fuel cycle". As the peak oil folks point out it is oil that is one of the key elements here.

We are not looking at a 1000 years! We are probably looking at 50 if the kind of global programme you are suggesting (i.e. just about everything running off nuclear generated electricity - see your comments on the fuel cycle - and the inevitable starving of funding from renewables that your strategy will imply)is implemented.

But as I say, regardless of the energy arguments over the nuclear option, politically it is just not going to happen. On the scale you would need Western electorates will not wear it, the Chinese ruling class will not wear it, private finance will not fund it and insurers will not insure it! On a smaller scale - that is more likely as a political "figleaf" - it will just be an expensive hindrance to the necessary development of renewables and energy efficiency. These are your big problems aside from technical/environmental ones.


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