What Do You Want To Know About Energy?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 8, 2010 1:54 pm

As I get started writing about energy, I’m interested to get a sense of what readers are most interested to discuss…

Picture 9Wind?
Solar?
Hydrogen Fuel Cells?
Cellulosic Biofuels?
Nuclear?
Oil?
Algae?
Tidal Power?
Corn Ethanol?
Coal?
Fossil Fuels?
Natural Gas?
Offshore Drilling?
The relationship to climate change?
The economy?
Jobs?
Water?

The list could go on and on, so let’s start a thread of your questions and get the ball rolling… Which technologies do you think hold the most promise?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Energy
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Comments (90)

  1. Alexa

    I’m very interested in the productivity potential for biofuels other than corn based methods.

  2. CW

    How would eliminating the current rule that nuclear waste is not able to be recycled/reused help the waste storage problem?

  3. Nuclear energy. I’ve heard a zillion pros and cons, and still not sure what the best available evidence about its use is.

  4. Gus Snarp

    I’m still looking forward to an in depth analysis of what you see as the problems with hydrogen fuel cells.

  5. @1 Alexa
    Me too, particularly cellulosic biofuels that can be grown on marginal lands.

  6. Matt Tarditti

    I get a sense that you realize how big of an undertaking this will become, so I would suggest that the first order of business is to establish some ground rules for comparing technologies. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of relevant data sets:
    1) total carbon footprint: how much energy is required to harvest/mine/create the infrastructure for the given energy producing tech. would also need to consider disposal of byproducts and spent fuel.
    2) energy density: how much energy is available for the consumer, given present-day efficiencies, e.g., how many kilowatt-hours can you get out of a gallon of crude oil?
    3) global (or USA) availability of the necessary materials. This will be directly related to the benefit for the US economy (sorry for being a homer, but there it is).

    By no means a comprehensive list, but unless you can compare things on equal ground, then you’re never going to make any headway. I commend you, Sheril (and Chris?) for starting down this path, and I look forward to going along for the ride.

  7. Using “too contaminated for food crops” sewage & sludge for fertilizing biofuel crops seems like an obvious step.

    Those lagoons of pig waste should be put to good use!

  8. William Furr

    The details of a particular technology are not as interesting to me as their relative EROI – Energy Return on Energy Invested. You could call this the “true” cost of energy, as opposed to the economic cost of energy. It’s reflected in dollars, but the monetary figures are distorted by subsidies, taxes, and infrastructure costs.

    I’m also very interested in how to accomplish a transition from one energy source to another, from a consumption economy based on infinite growth on a finite planet to a sustainable economy focused on human welfare.

    I’m also interested in the deep divide between oil-consuming industrialized nations and the developing world, and how we can raise living standards in the developing world without coal and oil.

  9. Multiple comments / wishes.
    - you left out considerations for the Grid. Just today, Yale Environment 360 had a reference to the fact that Texas can not take full advantage of wind energy because the Grid won’t support it.
    - I headed the EcoAction Committee of the Green Party US until recently. A paper on BioFuels is in the approval pipeline. For all the noise, these will never meet more than a series of niche needs. The math of energy needs vs. process energy inputs vs. available land mass just does not add up.

  10. Jake B
  11. interested bystander

    Things that interest me about developing new domestic sources of energy are in balancing the pros and cons involved. The energy required to produce the energy and the transmission of it (as in electricity) or the transportation costs of it as in corn ethanol and biodiesel. The practical applications that many articles seem to leave out. My son is involved in agri-business and so often the difference between realizing a huge profit or a huge loss is gleaned from maximizing efficient transportation and handling and maintaining favorable relationships with the railroads. There are already many regulations and inspections required along the way. Storage is extremely important at certain times. There is much more to consider than just the production of energy and it would be nice to see some expert analysis by people who are involved in the industries involved.

  12. Anonymous

    I’m interested in wind, solar, (as the most promising) as well as tidal power (I think this is very underestimated/underdeveloped). Nat Gas is good but we should move away from it as we get more sustainable technology up and running. The last 4 are also very important to think about.

  13. some guy

    It’s pretty obvious that the best method of producing energy is nuclear fusion, whether it’s with the use of a tokamak or a giant laser beam.

  14. Jon

    I’m interested in a few things:

    Smart grid–the kind of infrastructure you need to incorporate renewables into the grid.

    And why is it conservatives love nuclear power so much?

    Also, I’m interested in what Thomas Edsall called in The New Politics of Inequality, “independent oil“–what’s going on with that constituency today? Does it still look the similar to how Edsell described it in the 80′s? No doubt it’s now very strongly aligned with the Republican Party, similar to how the smart grid/green energy interests seem strongly aligned with the Democratic Party. (It’s too bad we’re so polarized…)

  15. Jon

    Let’s try that again: No doubt it’s now very strongly aligned with the Republican Party, similar to how the smart grid/green energy interests seem strongly aligned with the Democratic Party

  16. Chloride

    You don’t have to be a conservative to love nuclear power. It’s another conservative lie.

  17. Guy

    @Jon,

    The smart grid/green energy interested are aligned with the Democratic because they know that many Republicans are denier blockheads that prefer to stay with fossil fuels. People smart enough to design better solutions aren’t going to go barking up the wrong tree for funding.

  18. Robert E

    Being from Oklahoma: Switchgrass based biofuel

  19. Jake B

    How is not having to be a conservative to love nuclear power a conservative lie???

    The reason why conservatives like nuclear power and others should is because it is cheap, clean, and contrary to popular belief, very safe. The only accident every in America was 3-mile island and no one died. Chernobyl should not even be taken into consideration as The Soviet Union had basically zero safety precautions and no regard for human life.
    While I too would love to use other green energy solutions the costs associated with them are very high, especially solar.

    My dad used to jokingly say – People want get rid of nuclear power plants and save the polar bears, yet nuclear power plants kill no one and polar bears kill about 15 people in Canada every year.

    Note: I do not hate polar bears, and I am an Independent, not conservative

  20. Nullius in Verba

    Energy storage.

    Coal and gas plants can’t be just turned on and off – they sometimes take days to power up from a cold start, so at night when the consumption is low they just spin in idle, and during the day you need extra capacity to cope with the peak. So if you could cheaply store the difference with minimal losses, you could reduce peak capacity and run all your generation resources at a constant rate, for considerable savings.

    Current technologies (like flow batteries) are too small/inefficient and too expensive to store such a massive amount of energy. But if you could develop a cheap and compact technology for mass storage, it would be just as valuable. People always think about energy generation without thinking about all the other aspects to its use, too.
    (It would also help with that intermittent wind problem you have.)

    Some others to think about are the use of waste heat from power generation, the use of domestic heat pumps for over-unity heating efficiency, energy transmission – e.g. via superconducting cables, the role of Jevon’s paradox in energy efficiency, and the needs of developing countries trying to escape poverty.

    Regarding nuclear – you might like to discuss modern designs like the IFR and other breeders, the relationship between half-life and the intensity/danger of radiation (longer half-lives are safer, the most dangerous bits disappears fast), and the environmental safety of the Oklo “natural reactor”. Also, the total amount of Uranium in the sea, and the Japanese research on methods for extracting it.

  21. Nullius in Verba

    “It’s pretty obvious that the best method of producing energy is nuclear fusion, whether it’s with the use of a tokamak or a giant laser beam.”

    Or a Polywell.

  22. Jon

    The reason why conservatives like nuclear power and others should is because it is cheap…

    Not so much:

    http://climateprogress.org/2009/11/07/david-frum-conservatives-heart-nuke-power/

    But if throwing a bone to nuclear sweetens the deal for conservatives on climate change, whatever.

  23. David

    I second the request for energy storage. It would be great to see some posts about developments in batteries, flywheels, fuel cells, compressed air, and any other energy storage technologies, including some analysis of the sustainability merits of each technology and potential applications (e.g. utility-scale, vehicles, or alternatives to batteries for small-scale solar).

  24. I would like to see some articles on how Joe Homeowner can implement new off-the-grid energy technologies (generation & storage) in the framework of various levels of laws folks may face: homeowner associations/strata councils/condo boards, municipal bylaws, state/provincial laws, national laws (Canada & USA). What exactly is and isn’t allowed? And Why? How can we implement new technologies cheaply? Quickly?

  25. paul

    There’s a lot been said about energy already.

    I’d like to see this: what one issue can we educate the public about that would pave the way for wider adoption of a promising technology. For example, suppose fission is actually a really green technology, but everyone’s scared of it because it’s got the word “nuclear” in the name. And, suppose the waste can be stored, reprocessed, whatever, safely and effectively. Now, I don’t know if that’s true of fission, but maybe its true of some other technology that’s being underexploited because of ignorance/fear rather.

  26. sinz54

    In the long run, the most promising energy source is space-based solar power.

    Solar power satellites (powersats) can be as big as we want, generating as much energy as we want–without the drawbacks of covering over tens of thousands of desert ecosystems with solar panels.

    And it gives us a legitimate reason to revive our space program. Mars is interesting to scientists. But everyone in America could benefit from a gigawatt of electricity beamed back to us, year after year, for as long as the Sun shines.

  27. Jake B (Comment #19) said “The reason why conservatives like nuclear power and others should is because it is cheap, clean, and contrary to popular belief, very safe.” and he might be correct if you only consider the power plants themselves, some 20% of which in the US are leaking radioactive water today.

    But, when you consider the entire process from the time that uranium is mined, transported, processed, concentrated, used and then the waste dealth with, it is far from safe. If you really believe it to be safe, I suggest that you move all of your female relatives to the Navajo Reservation and have them drink groundwater. On second thought, don’t do that as the risk for breast cancer will go up significantly.

    Then, when you make the extractive industries responsible for whatever contamination they create, it will no longer be cheap. The idea that nuclear is both cheap and safe is another Sen. Inhofe level hoax. You might achieve safe, you might achieve cheap. You can not achieve both concurrently.

  28. Be sure you keep your nuclear discussions separated into fission and fusion.

  29. Sean McCorkle

    I agree with Nullius in Verba @ 20 on storage. There are many solutions for generating energy (albeit each with various pros and cons), but storing energy is a problem. There is a problem of matching variations in output of power stations to demand by the public, but there is the transportation problem in the US. We Americans have, like it or not, build a society with populations spread over large suburban and exburban areas which can at best be poorly serviced by mass transit schemes, and so we will require automobiles, which require power storage. Batteries are heavy, unreliable and often made of metals and such which are bad for the environment. Biofuels might be the answer, but that brings in all sorts of hard questions of land usage, food crop displacement, etc.

    Personally, I would like to see more discussion of a hydrogen-based economy. Not only does it remove carbon from the picture entirely, but in a pinch, all one needs to do is electrolyze water with ones favorite power source (i.e. windmill farms generating H2 and using that as a storage buffer) to generate it. And Honda and Toyota have demonstrated that cars can run on H2 as well. Granted, we’ll need to do some REALLY good engineering to make it safe (no explosions please) but we should take that on as a challenge. (The US is the country that once put a man on the Moon in ten years time, after all)

  30. Charlie

    I’d also like to hear more about nuclear (fission) power.

  31. Busiturtle

    Why does nuclear work for France but it is assumed it cannot work in the US?

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf40.html

  32. Gepinniw

    Zero or low carbon renewables. How much energy could they realistically produce?

  33. cmflyer

    I really like the idea of a smartgrid with electric cars plugged in everywhere and anywhere when not in use to provide peak power. Now, how much does photovoltaic efficiency need to rise before we can cover hundreds of square miles of the southwest with panels? Or just hundreds of square miles of roads and roofs?

  34. Jon

    Pumped hydro storage has been in use since the 1930′s, and it’s 80% efficient:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricity

  35. Busiturtle

    Why does nuclear work for France but it is assumed it cannot work in the US?

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf40.html

    # France derives over 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy. This is due to a long-standing policy based on energy security.

    # France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, and gains over EUR 3 billion per year from this.

    # France has been very active in developing nuclear technology. Reactors and fuel products and services are a major export.

  36. Busiturtle

    France’s successful and profitable nuclear power industry.
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf40.html

    # France derives over 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy. This is due to a long-standing policy based on energy security.

    # France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, and gains over EUR 3 billion per year from this.

    # France has been very active in developing nuclear technology. Reactors and fuel products and services are a major export.

  37. ChH

    The energy source I’d be interested to read about is practical wind power.
    I’m curious if anyone is doing the following:
    instead of directly driving a generator with wind turbine blades, which requires a lot of expensive equipment and places a tight operating window on the turbine, I’d be interested to see a wind-turbine / water tower / hydro-electric turbine system.
    Here’s how it would work – instead of the big generator and fancy electronics in the nacell, put a transmission that drives a positive displacement water pump at the bottom via a shaft that runs the height of the tower. Have 15-20 cubic meters of water storage in the nacell (this will not change the structural requirements, which already greatly exceed the ability to hold 40000 pounds of water due to wind load requirements). When the wind is blowing relatively hard, the P-D pump forces water from a small underground reservoir up a pipe to the tank in the nacell.
    A small hydro turbine at the bottom – with the intake right next to the P-D pump’s discharge – is connected to a generator at ground level, and dumps water back into the reservoir.
    For the cost of 5-10% mechanical loss, you benefit by:
    - continuing to generate electricity when the wind dies down (the size I specified for a standard wind turbine setup could generate electricity for 6-8 hours on stored water).
    - capturing more of the available wind power at all speeds (P-D pumps have a very wide range of speeds at which they work well)
    - informing grid operators exactly how much energy is available for future power generation even if the wind were to completely stop
    - allowing grid operators to specify the power provided by the hydro-electric generator regardless of current wind speed (via the intake valve to the turbine).

    Is anyone doing this? If not, why not?

  38. Interesting,

    I would like to discuss why it is taking so long to see the Feed In Tariff adopted by congress in U.S. It was suppose to be voted on last year, but with Obama hell bent on jamming through health care, it has stalled and I have heard nothing more on it, anyone know where it stands before house?

    Just like with net metering, several smart states adopted it, then years later it became federally adopted, makes you wonder who is being payed off by lobyists to stall the really important issues facing renewable energy industry.

  39. Jon

    But France is the “socialist” poster child for the US conservative movement. Interestingly, you can’t finance nuclear power without massive big government. Matt Yglasias noted the ironies of this a while back.

  40. Jon

    But France is the “socialist” poster child for the US conservative movement. Interestingly, you can’t finance nuclear power without m@ssive big government. Matt Yglasias noted the ironies of this a while back.

  41. Busiturtle

    Well if we are going to socialize US energy policy we might as do it with a technology proven to work.

  42. tcmJOE

    Fuel resources. What’s the current estimations for extractable coal, oil, uranium? How’s the market for rare-earths going? How can we best mitigate the environmental costs of mining fuels and material for solar cells?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/26/business/global/26rare.html?_r=1

  43. SY

    I’d like to hear more about the role of the production tax credits in wind and solar energy; do other types of energy get them? how does it affect the consumer price? Also, because the credits expire every few years and need to be renewed, this has a tremendous effect on project development, project size and financing wind/solar projects, etc. – do other sources of energy have similar cycles based on needed regulation?

  44. Emily

    I’m curious about offshore drilling. What are the risks and impacts, and how much of it subsidized by the government?

  45. Jon

    Busiturtle, as Matt Yglasias says, your solution is a lot closer to socialism than what anyone else proposes. Why should the government pick the winning technology? Let the market work by phasing in the real cost of the externality and have the market choose the best technologies…

  46. TB

    I put in a vote for @26

  47. Hrm, probably drowned out by now but here goes anyway…

    Smart Grid – Use what we have better.

    Decentralized Production – Instead of giant plants/farms for energy, why not spread the generation out? Has the nice side affect of making the grid more fault tolerant too.

    Decentralized Storage – Goes along with the above. Small amounts of buffer spread all over is more useful than large storage and a single spot. It can absorb some of the shock and allow idle plants to power up as things like solar and wide are dying back.

    These three ideas are basically treating the electrical grid more like an electronic grid.

  48. Matt

    Energy efficiency.

    How do we make all of the above go further.

  49. Changing the course of the world economy with regard to energy and carbon will take a multi-step approach implemented incrementally. Which is a lot of syllables to say that it can’t be done all at once. I’d like to see a discussion of strategy: how do you develop new technologies in concert with increased conservation in such a manner as to engage the public? Clearly there has to be a tactic that makes the public realize that changing the energy infrastructure of civilization is in our societal best interest. Right now much of the inertia is due to economic concerns. So one reason that nuclear is initally appealing is that it creates jobs, making nuclear power plants. But they’re expensive and take a long time. So what should be addressed is how to convince our society that conservation is cheaper and can be implemented faster than any alternatives that we can bring on line in the foreseeable future that can make a substantial contribution OTHER than nuclear.

    Therefore, I envision one pathway as a) conservation (note that this includes things like hybrid vehicles, b) increased nuclear, c) increased solar/wind/natural gas, d) increased use of biomass for fuel, particularly transportation, e) long-term energy generation prospects, like fusion.

    This is somewhat like the Wedge strategy, but mainly focused on energy, rather than climate change mitigation.

    In a related vein, I’d like to know how much waste could be used for fuel. Particularly food waste.

  50. ThomasL

    tcmJoe,

    Here is a pretty good chart of most resources and expected number of years until depletion. It isn’t a very optimistic outlook. Though I’d also advise reading the comment section as there is a level of guessing involved and new deposits and improvements in recovery can change the outlook. It will, none the less, give you some idea of the situation

    http://flowingdata.com/2009/04/24/how-long-will-the-worlds-natural-resources-last/

  51. Busiturtle

    Jon@45: “Why should the government pick the winning technology?”

    Help me understand how it is appropriate for the government to subsidize one form of energy production but it is not appropriate for it to push harder on nuclear.

    Help me understand how building wind farms, which are essentially steel towers with whirling blades, in mountain passes and coastal areas is environmentally sound policy. And for all the environmental blight and aviary damage windmills are a niche solution whose power could easily be provided by methods with less impact. Can we say Glen Canyon dam times 100 here?

    Windmills and solar panels only exist as energy solutions because of government subsidies. Nuclear would exist on its own if not for NIMBY polices and legal issues for which the government does not offer protection.

    We know nuclear works. We know it can be cleanly. Yet it is not done and no one can provide a substantive answer.

  52. The savings in power transmission from carbon nanotube wires.

    The savings in electrical use from carbon nanotube transistors.

    And yeah – The Polywell Fusion Reactor!!!!!!

    Also fuel breeding problems from fusion reactors that need Tritium to operate.

  53. Jon

    Help me understand how building wind farms, which are essentially steel towers with whirling blades, in mountain passes and coastal areas is environmentally sound policy.

    I subscribe to the common sense view that stabilizing the climate is more important than the lives of a few birds.

    Nuclear would exist on its own if not for NIMBY polices and legal issues for which the government does not offer protection.

    No, actually it’s been other issues. Read this article:

    http://solveclimate.com/blog/20090918/nuclear-power-s-cost-competitiveness-remains-critical-question

    We know nuclear works. We know it can be cleanly. Yet it is not done and no one can provide a substantive answer.

    If the market proves it to be a cost-effective technology, so be it. There may be some good applications of nuclear. But read the Joe Romm piece I linked to above. It’s a very open question whether its a good investment for the government.

  54. Anthony McCarthy

    Has anyone pointed out yet that your list leaves out the most plentiful and readily available source of energy online today ? CONSERVATION?

    It’s astonishing how little conservation is discussed.

  55. Chloride

    Jake B, I am talking about conservatives (not all) who say that it’s not surprising that Democrats are against nuclear power. This is supposed to be evidence that Democrats lack common sense. It’s extremely unfortunate that just like Democrats have become associated with climate change, Republicans have become associated with nuclear power. Both climate change and nuclear power are scientific issues; both are essential for the future of humanity and should stay apolitical. In this context it’s very encouraging that the current administration just backed new nuclear power plants in Georgia.

    Jon, it’s unfair to say that only nuclear predominantly gathers subsidies. Subsidies flow across the energy spectrum. For instance, since 1950, nuclear energy has received nine percent of total subsidies while renewable energy has received six percent. But consider this; coal and hydroelectric energy sources have received about 12 percent each of the total respectively. In addition, federal spending on nuclear energy R&D has been less than spending on coal research and, since 1994, has been less than spending on renewable energy research.

  56. Busiturtle

    Anthony is correct. Conservation is the fastest road to lowering current energy usage. And since people pocket the money they save by consuming less electricity it is a win-win all around.

  57. Matt Tarditti

    @ Busiturtle
    What? You expect that people will change their lifestyle for their own good? Yeah right.

  58. Nullius in Verba

    “No, actually it’s been other issues. Read this article:”

    The main issues are the extra safety measures and higher standard of construction required (for NIMBY and other legal reasons) and the lack of experience and expertise on the part of contractors (due to none having been built for decades, due to NIMBY and other legal reasons). The article doesn’t contradict this.

    If nuclear was only required to be as safe as coal (which kills thousands a year worldwide) or other industries then it would be a lot cheaper.

    That’s not to say that extra safety is a bad thing.

  59. If you like the idea of regularly scheduled rolling blackouts, a quintupling of electrical costs, and a surge in backup generator sales, then wind and solar seem to be your best bet.

    If you like low cost, highly reliable energy, nuclear seems to be the way to go. Especially the small nuclear projects that will be coming on line within the next decade

  60. In addition, the new Gen-4 reactors that are coming online promise to have an unprecedented record of safety, energy efficiency and low waste generation. A book that I will strongly recommend is Power to Save the World by Gwyneth Cravens. What’s interesting about this book is that the author was formerly a vociferous anti-nuclear activist. But she actually toured the country’s nuclear facilities, talked to experts and finally reached an informed decision that on a relative basis, nuclear promises to be the fastest and best hope for energy independence, high energy demand and climate change mitigation. Satisfyingly, it also seems to be one of the few issues that has the potential to unite conservatives and liberals.

  61. The main issues are the extra safety measures and higher standard of construction required (for NIMBY and other legal reasons)

    No. It’s not just for NIMBY and other legal reasons. Nuclear reactors have to be built to a higher standard than the average power plant. They present a real hazard if built poorly, not to mention the long term cost of waste storage after the fuel is spent.

    Proponents of nuclear power can’t declare that it is safe because we build to high standards in America (as Jake B. does @19) and then complain that nuclear power would be much cheaper if only we didn’t require that they meet such stringent safety requirements (as you are doing, now).

  62. Michael Heath

    Dr. James Hansen’s book, Storms of My Grandchildren strongly prescribes a Manhattan-like project to get to 4th generation nuclear ASAP as a long-term solution to global warming. He argues we have a $52 trillion stockpile of nuclear waste that can easily serve as fuel for these new plants and would last a thousand years.

    I have encountered little in the public square on Dr. Hansen’s long-term prescription; more so on his advocacy we expedite 3rd generation power plants. I’d like to see some coverage of the feasibility of nuclear power as a strategic antidote to global warming. I also think this focus might help soften up passive denialist resistance in conceding they’re wrong on global warming given denialist advocates appear to be nearly exclusively conservatives which I assume means their audience is heavily conservative and conservatives tend to be pro-nuclear energy.

  63. Michael Heath

    Jinchi – your point about nuclear waste being a reason not to further develop nuclear energy is not valid long-term. In fact nuclear waste eventually becomes a strategic and differentiating advantage.

    While current reactors only utilize about 1% of energy in uranium and result in waste with a half-life of ten thousand years; “fast reactors” already past the proof of principle development stage utilize 99% of energy in uranium and such reactors burns up the portion of waste with the long half-life. Therefore storage of waste would be hundreds of years, not ten thousand plus years.

    From a source of supply risk perspective, current possession of nuclear waste provides energy independence long-term even from uranium mines. That provides not only economic stability, but a marketable national security advantage.

  64. Michael Heath

    If you focus on biofuels my primary question not well answered is not the total carbon footprint, which I’ve seen primarily used to avoid dealing with emissions.

    We know we mere decades to reduce greenhouse gasses quickly; I suspect biofuels using at least some plant materials is a scam hiding behind total carbon footprint analyses where the costs are upfront- removal of sinks and emissions for some vague benefits decades from now. I know it’s a scam in my home-state and area of Northern Michigan where several biofuel plants going up will be relying on current stands of trees, which means we’ll be both burning carbon and removing carbon sinks. The part no one is able to answer in the relevant townhall meetings regarding these initiatives is the level of carbon emissions, the initial change in carbon, from harvesting, and sustainability since we have at least three permits being processed in my general area alone .

  65. Justin

    Thorium? Solar? Why is there (basically) an unlimited amount of energy, yet we continue to subsidize sources that are limited? so, I guess, most importantly…. (energy) subsidies

  66. Jon

    In fact nuclear waste eventually becomes a strategic and differentiating advantage.

    Is that the solution we want to develop and export to developing countries like, say, Pakistan? Do we want a world where we have a large number of nuclear states with varying political systems, some of which may use their waste to make weapons, or give weaponizable materials to non state actors–ie, terrorists?

  67. Busiturtle

    Jon’s flippant remark about nuclear waste opens the door to ask what I believe is a very salient question:

    Why do so many on this forum cling to the notion that the US must ignore the successes and failures of energy policies tried in other countries?

    If we want to see what failed solar policy looks like make note of what is happening in Spain.

    If we want to see what a successful nuclear policy looks like make note of what is happening in France.

    There is no need for the US to reinvent the wheel on energy policy. What it needs to do is adopt the best of what has been observed to work around the globe.

    Oh, and by the way, how many of you who favor windmills want a wind farm built on your favorite mountain or ocean overlook? You see, unlike power plants that can be built in industrial areas or in locations that minimize their environmental presence windmills must be designed with a high profile so as to capture the wind’s energy. If you would not want a windmill built in view of your favorite scenic overlook don’t advocate building it near mine.

    And if you believe windmills can be built offshore and function in such an extreme environment with minimal maintenance (which would be necessary to make them cost effective) you might want to talk to an engineer about how difficult a challenge this will be. With so much money on the table it is no surprise many companies say they can do it. Just let me know when they actually have a real farm (and not a demo unit) up and running in a place where sea depths are several thousand feet deep and waves are 30 – 50 feet high.

  68. Jinchi – your point about nuclear waste being a reason not to further develop nuclear energy is not valid long-term.

    I wasn’t arguing against developing nuclear energy. I was refuting the argument that nuclear power is inexpensive. It’s not. It’s the most expensive energy technology we have today. As for it’s environmental standing, that’s because it’s a low emissions source of energy (and particularly low-carbon). The waste is real though and very hazardous and has to be dealt with at cost that are not fully considered when a new reactor is given the green light.

    Your argument is that we will invent a new technology that will convert the waste into fuel. Great idea. But it the technology doesn’t exist yet, so you can hardly claim that it will be cheap. We’ve been promised cheap, clean fusion power for the last 60 years now. If we ever get that, I’m all for it. For now, we’ve got to work with what we know.

  69. Why do so many on this forum cling to the notion that the US must ignore the successes and failures of energy policies tried in other countries?

    Who has been clinging to that notion?

    If we want to see what failed solar policy looks like make note of what is happening in Spain.

    That’s the result of the global financial collapse and nothing to do with solar power itself. If they had been subsidizing nuclear power plants (which is what you seem to be arguing the U.S. should do) they would have had the same problem. And they’ve had tremendous success with wind power.

  70. @Jinchi: Yes, nuclear reactors have to be built to a higher standard, but that does not mean this is necessarily expensive. For instance the new reactors include many redundant ‘natural’ safety systems operated by physical principles like gravity. This would make the cost incurred by safety systems very low. Plus, fossil fuel plants, in spite of being built to high standards, have cost millions in enviornmental damage (in fact coal and thousands of lives lost. Once again we need to make a relative assessment. Costs of nuclear power would certainly go down with the more efficient safety and power generation features. And as someone mentioned before, nuclear has garnered no more significant subsidied since 1950 than fossil fuels, solar, wind and natural gas.

    @Jon: -some of which may use their waste to make weapons, or give weaponizable materials to non state actors–ie, terrorists?
    It is very difficult to turn waste into nuclear weapons. Although power-reactor plutonium theoretically can be used to make nuclear explosives,
    spent fuel is refractory, highly radioactive, and beyond the capacity of terrorists to process. Weapons made from reactor-grade plutonium would be hot, unstable, and of uncertain yield. I think Carson Mark, previous director of thory at Los Alamos, had an article on how difficult this would be. Plus, reprocesssing would make the waste even less attractive to terrorists and would in fact increase efficiency. And of course, that waste can be quite confidently buried in places like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant which looks quite promising. I think nuclear combined with solar power promises the best bet for the future.

  71. Guy

    It would be nice to see more innovation and implementation of non-fossil fuel energy production. If that means more investment in nuclear so be it. Each country has to look at all the available alternatives to coal and oil and invest capital where it will make the most difference. We need to get the maximum bang for the buck when it comes to clean energy.

    We need to do this so we can stop polluting the atmosphere and prevent global warming.

    We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors,
    we borrow it from our Children.

  72. Nullius in Verba

    “I also think this focus might help soften up passive denialist resistance in conceding they’re wrong on global warming given denialist advocates appear to be nearly exclusively conservatives which I assume means their audience is heavily conservative and conservatives tend to be pro-nuclear energy.”

    You misunderstand. Most sceptics are sceptical because they think the claims are unsupported, not because they don’t like the proposed mitigation. They think it’s an important enough issue to make a fuss about – as opposed to ignoring it like all the other crazy ideas – because they don’t like the consequences of the proposed mitigation.

    Oh, and not all sceptics are conservative.

    “Is that the solution we want to develop and export to developing countries like, say, Pakistan?”

    Pakistan already have nuclear weapons. Radioactive material is easily made and widely available. And we’ve got no problem exporting nuclear power generation technology to such countries – we have even offered it to Iran, so long as we could do the reprocessing – and with more modern reactor designs it’s less of a problem. Reactors are not the problem, enrichment is.

    “I wasn’t arguing against developing nuclear energy. I was refuting the argument that nuclear power is inexpensive. It’s not. It’s the most expensive energy technology we have today.”

    Evidence?

    “Your argument is that we will invent a new technology that will convert the waste into fuel. Great idea. But it the technology doesn’t exist yet, so you can hardly claim that it will be cheap.”

    The technology already existed decades ago. The research was shut down by Bill Clinton because of (false) concerns about proliferation. Fast breeders are more expensive than non-breeders, but only because fuel and waste-storage are so cheap in comparison. As I understand it, coal and gas are the cheapest, which is why we use them so much.

  73. How do we know that energy is there, but we can’t see it????????

  74. JS

    No mention of natural gas in the comments, yet, so I will bring it up. Burning natural gas to produce electricity generates ~1/5th the amount of CO2 than burning coal (per kW-hr electricity produced). Huge reserves of gas exist in North America (and elsewhere) and recent tech advances will greatly improve our ability to supply it.

    Also, there are companies developing fuel cells using natural gas to create electricity by an electrochemical process, rather than by burning. They claim this process generates ~1/2 the amount of CO2 per kW-hr than burning the gas, plus much less heat waste. I believe that several companies such as Google and Ebay are already powering their headquarters with this technology.

    I completely agree with comment #49 in the decentralization of energy production, and natural gas fuel cells in combination with replacing coal plants with gas plants is a good start.

  75. Kristina

    Hi Sheril!

    Jelena gave me a heads up about your new energy blog. I think it sounds like such an exciting initiative and would be more than happy to give you my opinion on what’s interesting in energy. I am the kind of person that is fascinated by a good mystery, as opposed to a defined problem. With these kinds of topics it is best to explore the big picture, before refocusing on specific solutions.

    So I would like to better understand the clean energy movement in the US and globally. What is its history? How has it grown? Who is generating the best ideas? Who is putting their money where their mouth is? Which cities/communities are serious about becoming carbon neutral/negative? Where are the political drivers at the moment? Beyond Al Gore, where are the leaders? Can/should this movement be compared to the IT revolution? How can your readers get involved?

    Another topic close to my heart is energy infrastructure. Why is there such a focus on developing nations when it comes to clean energy? Is an established energy infrastructure a handicap for developed nations? What is the argument for centralized versus distributed energy production? Most coverage focuses on technological success stories, what can be learned from failed/failing clean energy companies/markets/projects? How do we measure the impact of political support on specific energy sources/markets?

    Hope this is helpful. I look forward to reading your blog. :-)

  76. Kristina

    Hi Sheril!

    Jelena gave me a heads up about your new energy blog. I think it sounds like such an exciting initiative and would be more than happy to give you my opinion on what’s interesting in energy. I am the kind of person that is fascinated by a good mystery, as opposed to a defined problem. With these kinds of topics it is best to explore the big picture, before refocusing on specific solutions.

    So I would like to better understand the clean energy movement in the US and globally. What is its history? How has it grown? Who is generating the best ideas? Who is putting their money where their mouth is? Which cities/communities are serious about becoming carbon neutral/negative? Where are the political drivers at the moment? Beyond Al Gore, where are the leaders? Can/should this movement be compared to the IT revolution? How can your readers get involved?

    Another topic close to my heart is energy infrastructure. Why is there such a focus on developing nations when it comes to clean energy? Is an established energy infrastructure a handicap for developed nations? What is the argument for centralized versus distributed energy production? Most coverage focuses on technological success stories, what can be learned from failed/failing clean energy companies/markets/projects? How do we measure the impact of political support on specific energy sources/markets?

    Hope this is helpful. I look forward to reading your blog!

  77. GM

    Too bad I missed the thread when it was still fresh and it managed to devolve into another grand collective exercise in cornucopian delusion of a bright future powered by biofuels, nth-generation nuclear, solar, wind, tidal etc., a vision driven by nothing more than ignorance of the scale and urgency of the problem that often rivals the ignorance of those who deny there is a problem. With the authors of the blog leading the pack

    It would be very nice if people who want to be educating others on energy start with educating themselves about it first, and by that I mean actual understanding of the really very simple principles of thermodynamics that govern our world on one hand, and on the other, the clash between those laws and the nature of our growth-based society. If they don’t understand that fundamental and completely unsolvable problem, they are doing more harm than good by helping perpetuate the status quo. Unfortunately, the very fact that hydrogen is on your list reveals that you are totally ignorant not only of the problem with exponential growth, but also of the laws of thermodynamic. Not really that surprising, but still a very disturbing fact.

    And without wasting time going into each of them individually, of what you listed in the blog post itself, there is absolutely no energy source that has a chance of powering a civilization the size of ours right now in the next 50 years. So the question is how you power down in the least violent and disruptive manner, not how you try to keep things from collapsing until they finally do in the uglies possible manner.

  78. Nullius in Verba

    GM,

    The bit about exponential growth is just a rehash of Thomas Malthus, who himself was nothing new. Malthusians have been predicting imminent doom for centuries.

    But I’m curious as to what you mean by a conflict with thermodynamics? I know thermodynamics pretty well, and I am not aware of any difficulty powering a civilisation of our size.

  79. GM

    Economic (equivalent to social in our case) system based on exponential growth is 100% guaranteed to collapse once it hits the physical limits of the environment it is situated in. It should be obvious, and from this it follows that unless you change the societal system to account for the finiteness of the environment you will collapse, with 100% certainty.

    The above can not be argued with, what can be argued with is whether we have actually reached the above mentioned limits. So it happens that we have not only reached them, but at the level we would all like to live at, the planet can probably indefinitely sustain only a small fraction of our current numbers

    Anyone who is talking about energy and is not mentioning anything of what I just said, is either completely incompetent and ignorant of the real nature of the problem, or is deliberately lying that there is no such problem

  80. Brian Too

    Methane hydrates.

  81. hen3ry

    Comrade GM,

    Whilst you are correct inasmuch that it does not appear in the list, why would, say, tokamak fusion not be able to power our civilisation? Is there some thermodynamic limit on this energy source I should be considering?

  82. GM

    As far as I know, there has been little research into the EROEI of fusion. But this is for the simple reason that nobody has ever produced energy from fusion on any meaningful scale.

    Which means that if you have a problem to solve on a planetary scale and in the next 10 years, its solution is highly unlikely to be a hugely complicated technology that hasn’t been developed yet and that even when developed will take many decades to scale up to the needed level

  83. Nullius in Verba

    “Economic (equivalent to social in our case) system based on exponential growth is 100% guaranteed to collapse once it hits the physical limits of the environment it is situated in. It should be obvious, and from this it follows that unless you change the societal system to account for the finiteness of the environment you will collapse, with 100% certainty. “

    I’m not sure where to start. First, our economic system isn’t based on exponential growth – it grows at all sorts of different rates, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Second, even if it was that doesn’t mean it will hit physical limits. The physical limits may be expanding exponentially too, or may be a lot further off than you think, or might not actually be being permanently consumed (as with mineral resources). Thirdly, we are changing the system all the time, partially to adapt to and respond to resource availability. It’s what we’ve always done; it doesn’t require any special measures. Before a resource becomes an issue, we have changed direction. And finally, trying to stop the use of resources now doesn’t avoid such a catastrophe, it only makes it happen immediately.

    It’s like arguing that we ought to stop walking in straight lines, because if we carry on as we are on a finite landmass we will eventually fall into the sea. In a sense, the logic of that is inescapable, but it’s based on false assumptions.

    But none of that has anything at all to do with thermodynamics, which was what I was asking about. Is there any thermodynamic connection?

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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