Is Nuclear Power Really the Most Expensive Technology?

No. It isn't.

Let's explore this more. In a country that already has a well-developed electrical grid / electricity distribution system (sorry, much of Africa), doesn't have ideas based on fear about how dangerous nuclear power is (European and North American countries, +Japan), and doesn't have a terrorism issue (proliferation), nuclear power is the cheapest and least polluting type.

Okay, so where can we find a country that meets this description? How bout Croatia, where some scientists did some probabilistic modeling on this?

From the results of the simulations it can be concluded that the distribution of levelized bus bar costs for the combined cycle gas plant is in the range 4.5–8 US cents/kWh, with a most probable value of about 5.8 US cents/kWh; for coal-fired plants the corresponding values are 4.5–6.3 US cents/kWh and 5.2 US cents/kWh and for the nuclear power plant the corresponding values are in the range 4.2–5.8 US cents/kWh and a most probable value of about 4.8 US cents/kWh.

Let me sum this up. In Croatia, nuclear power is likely going to be the cheapest source. Plus is doesn't pollute and kill people like gas or coal.

Admit it, you needed this.

Why do we face a different situation in the US and Europe? Easy. I've mentioned it before. There is so much concern about the safety of nuclear power that each construction gets mired in legal battles. The legal battles themselves don't cost much. What costs a ton is that these power plants took out $8 billion in loans, meant to be paid back over 10 years. Those loans accrue interest. If legal hurtles slow the construction of the plant down and it takes 15 years instead, those extra 5 years of loans are gonna have several extra billions in interest to pay. Suddenly the cost of power produced goes up.

These costs need to be paid back. The only way to pay back higher than anticipated costs would be to charge more for nuclear power.

So it's safe to say that stalling the construction of a nuclear power plant can effectively prevent it from ever getting built. Now we are in a situation where no one wants to fund a power plant, because the chance of it being slowed and made unprofitable is a bit higher.

Sometimes there are just plain time overruns. The US hasn't build nuclear power plants in years. Our companies barely know how to do it. Our people haven't been trained in colleges and universities to build nuclear power plants. We just don't have the nuclear engineers we would need to make a nuclear renaissance happen, and we'd need several nuclear power plants built before we finally get the hang of it. So there will be a learning curve. Would you want to fund that learning curve? Probably not when natural gas is so cheap in the US.

Are we gonna get there any time soon? Not without a major policy shift. Let's look at planned nuclear power plants worldwide:

Planned nuclear power plants. Image mine, constructed from data available at

Planned nuclear power plants. Image mine, constructed from data available  here

So um... Good job, China. US? Not so much. 32 of the 72 nuclear power plants scheduled to come on-line in the next 5 years are in China. 4 are in the US.

Nuclear power will be more expensive than gas (and coal) power in the US unless 3 things happen:

1. We account for the annual loss of life and increase in asthma and heart disease associated with gas power plants.

2. We start building nuclear power plants now, training a cadre of engineers and speciality construction personnel to finish power plants quickly, safely, properly, and on time (the first few will be finished slowly, behind schedule, but still safe and properly complete, cause lots of eyes will be on them)

3. We continue to build enough of them so that the future ones are build on time and for less expense, driving down the cost of nuclear power to competitive levels (especially when accounting for the external costs of pollution and CO2 from gas and coal).

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

 

Nuclear Power: Savings lives

Nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives by replacing fossil fuel power sources.

A nuclear power plant!

I've mentioned that fossil fuel power plants kill people and shorten lives by emitting not only particulate matter and smog normally associated with pollution, but also NOx (natural gas power plants produce almost no particulate matter, but any time anything is combusted, the combustion process in a nitrogen rich atmosphere (78% on Earth) produces NOx, so natural gas power plants do produce NOx).

Coal fired power plants, even clean ones, belch yuckies into the air.

Shortly after harping on exactly this for several posts, a journal article came out that exonerated my aggressive stance on how nuclear power saves lives rather than ending them through nuclear disasters. Nuclear power has saved over 1.8 million lives, according to this peer-reviewed research. The authors didn't include long-term health ailments and non-death causing heart attacks related to climate change. Only death: full stop. They go on to say that replacing nuclear power with natural gas would cause 400,000 deaths by 2050. Replacing them with coal would cause 7 million. Meanwhile, the best estimates of long-term deaths caused by radiation exposure from the Chernobyl meltdown, mining uranium, and building nuclear power plants stands at about 5,000 No deaths arose from Three Mile Island or Fukushima. What about the radiation that Fukushima is spilling out into the ocean? It's less than 1/20th the radiation levels found in a banana.

I am a banana. Eating one of me makes you ingest more radiation than Fukushima ever will.

I am a banana. Eating one of me makes you ingest more radiation than Fukushima ever will.

Critics are quick to point out that renewables like wind are cheaper and more effective at reducing CO2 emissions than nuclear. Great. Let's build more wind power. Except that there are not sufficiently good places to make wind effectively and cheaply. In an exhaustive (and depressing) article on the state of nuclear energy construction, it is pointed out that Germany has an installed capacity (recall, installed capacity is simply the name-plate power generation of a plant/turbine at best-case scenario) of 76GW of renewable energy. They then compared this to all of France's installed capacity of Nuclear at 63.1 GW. But, as we have talked about, renewables don't always work. While France's nuclear generators put out 407 TWh in 2012, Germany's renewables generated 136 TWh despite their larger capacity.

"Except like Jason's former manager at JPMorgan, I only work under ideal conditions!"

"Except like Jason's former manager at JPMorgan, I only work under ideal conditions!"

Moreover, Germany pledged to phase out nuclear power after Fukushima. What did they replace it with? Not renewables. Coal fired power plants. Meanwhile, as the US expands power generation from natural gas and ceased buying coal from the US, US coal producers are finding a new market for coal in Germany.

So let's look at Fukushima a bit more. Several things are bad about fukushima. First, it melted down when a tsunami overtopped its protective walls. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had told Japan 20 years ago that their Fukushima walls were too low and they could be overtopped by a very realistic earthquake scenario. And now after the disaster, groundwater contamination with (less than 1/20th of a banana's levels) radiation is all a concern. Guess what? The NRC warned Fukushima to get their groundwater issue under control three years before the Fukushima meltdown.

That's right. The US NRC predicted that Fukushima was going to happen, and told Japan to get their house in order.

NRC: Telling Japan what to do since 1980. "We don't have much of a job to do in the US anymore since we haven't built a power plant in decades"

The US has a nuclear meltdown, too. You know what the consequences were? Pretty much nothing. It cost a billion dollar to clean up. That is a huge sum. But the meltdown was well-handled. And a lot was learned from the meltdown.

My point is, the US has it's matters sorted out when it comes to nuclear safety. And we are good at identifying risks in other parts of the world.

Finally, here's the big one, new reactor designs wouldn't allow for either three mile island or Fukushima to happen. With these new reactors, in the event of mechanical failure of the passive systems, the worst case scenario of the new designs is that it would take 3 full days before even needing to worry about meltdown beginning, leaving plenty of time to deal with the situation.

So yes. There are risks with nuclear. But there are guaranteed deaths with coal and natural gas.

The best solution by far is avoiding building new power plants and to massively increase efficiency and conservation. But people are slow at changing, and we aren't gonna change our lifestyles fast enough in the western world to avoid expansion of power use, and the developing world needs to build a ton of power capacity.

So let's stop being scared of nuclear power, cause it's saving lives rather than costing them.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

Appendix

Oh, but what is this section? Just a bunch of extra information. Check out how long it takes for various countries to build nuclear reactors:

What are Pakistan and India doing that they can build nukes in 5 years?!?

Average, min, and max times of nuclear plant construction for countries that have built them. Source

Hokay, so. I need to acknowledge the bad parts of nuclear power. The real ones, not the fear-mongering that happens.

First, nuclear power is more expensive than on-shore wind (which is a limited resource, there are not infinite good places to put wind farms), coal, and natural gas. There is no doubt about that. If we switched everything to nuclear, many parts of the US that don't have high electricity prices will experience a rate shock. That is, their electricity bills will rise. But hey, remember what we said earlier about efficiency and conservation being the best way to save lives and to arrest climate change? Slightly higher electricity prices would promote this conservation. The initial rate shock would be a bit of an issue, but I am betting that nuclear power's opponents overstate it.

Second, there is an alternative to nuclear that I want to acknowledge, with a caveat. Renewables can't provide baseload power. But renewables paired with load-following natural-gas fired plants can (recall from a prior article that gas turbine based power plants can spin up very fast, and no other major power plant type can) (we don't count hydro as a major power type because we can't build more hydro in the US, we are tapped [punny]). This is by far better than coal, and better than gas alone. But it still burns gas, which produces CO2 and kills people and causes asthma.

Solving the Climate Problem

I started this site to get practice in writing science for the general populace. I've slacked off because I am a bit bored of reaching for topics. More importantly, I've been playing rugby with HBSRFC.

So here it is. A generalized and very incomplete version of my view on climate change, who it will affect most, and what we can do about it.

CO2, The Ugly One That Won't Leave You Alone

CO2 stays in the environment for more than 40,000 years. That is longer than nuclear waste lasts. Moreover, its effects are experiences by every person on the planet. What we do now has an effect on the entire planet. Luckily, technology will probably be able to fix this eventually. We can't count on this now, though.

Energy and Climate Change, How They Relate

Climate change is caused by emissions of CO2 by energy use, methane by agriculture and other things, and a host of other very powerful chemicals that are emitted from industry.

How do we solve climate change? The answer is straightforward, but far from simple: use much less energy from sources that produce CO2. Either switch to "green" tech, or conserve. Buy less things that require all the energy to produce. Travel less, or travel in ways that produce less greenhouse gases. Make fewer babies. None of these are easily accomplished, unless you are poor and can't afford any of them. Even then, everyone is striving for a wealthier, more CO2-heavy lifestyle.

So let's assume for a second that people aren't going to change their lifestyles and conserve. We need ways to get energy without belching CO2 everywhere.

Live in Smaller Houses, Buy Less Stuff

You can't convince Americans to live in houses that are the size that Europeans live in and you can't convince them to give up their cars to take public transportation and live in cities (at least in the short term). Houses require energy to heat and cool. Smaller houses mean fewer drafts, leading to less heating and cooling needs.

How about green energy? We have reviewed those technologies. There isn't enough wind to provide sufficient wind power, and the wind isn't always blowing, so sometimes we won't have power when we want it. Hydro power is pretty much fully tapped. Tidal power is a joke in the big scheme. Solar could be an option, but it is currently far too expensive. It is not "deployable" in that with solar, you only get what the sun decides, so we will always need some backup power that can be turned on when we want. Solar doesn't work well at night, for instance. Moreover, the best places for solar are far from cities, so figuring out how to get the electricity from the countryside to the cities is a monumental task, especially in the US (even with eminent domain, getting the land to be the transmission lines through several states would be nearly impossible). So here we stand with three good reasons that solar won't solve our problem in the near future, and with the other resources insufficient. Pretty much, even if we do use solar to solve a lot of our problems, we still need some other energy source to provide baseline power.

Too small! Turn back!

What about buying less stuff? The amount of CO2 that goes into making cars, laptops, etc., is pretty big. How much stuff do you buy that you never use afterwards? Or you maybe use once a year or two? All of that, you could have rented, saved money, and saved space. Even better? The things that go into making electronics like cellphones are not easy to pull out of the ground. Tantalum in your cell phone is pretty much produced by indentured servitude in Africa. The other stuff that goes into electronics, the rare earth metals, these are not so rare. It just turns out that it is difficult to produce it without destroying the environment. The US has plenty of rare earth's the reason it is done in China is that they don't mind wrecking the environment and their workers (see bottom of that post). Yeah, we need electronics to communicate and keep things moving. We don't need a new iphone every 6 months. Those things last at least 2 years.

Energy for Transportation

This is a much larger hurtle. 35% of US energy consumption is in transportation. Transportation requires that the energy source be within the vehicle (unless you are in South Korea, where the energy source is induction and is beneath the road. Pretty badass, if you ask me). Batteries currently weigh a lot, don't have nearly as much energy per pound as gasoline, and require a long time to charge. The problem is not as bleak as it seems, however. Most driving in the US could easily be done with all-electric cars.

Your bus is ugly, but it charges while driving without producing its own CO2. Well done, South Korea.

Cars

I've also written about Electric Cars.

This is an area with a lot of potential. 120 million Americans commute to work by car. The average person lives fewer than 20 miles from work. Substantially all of them commute alone. The Nissan Leaf gets 75 miles before it needs to be recharged. The Tesla model S goes about 275 miles. No matter what the source of energy for an electric car, it produces less CO2 than a normal car. Going by the numbers available on these cars, we see that with the standard US energy mix (some renewables, lots of nuclear, a whole lot of natural gas), they produce between 33% and 50% the CO2 as a combustion engine.

Bicycles

I've written about bicycling. It's good for you, and saves the environment. Unless you eat only beef. Then you have other problems.

Power Generation: What Works

Wind power makes sense everywhere that there is a lot of wind, as long as it is onshore. Wind is pretty much going up everywhere that makes sense. It costs less than a new coal power plant, and is far cleaner.

Solar power is expensive. Is there anywhere it works well? Sure, just take a look at the electricity rates paid by different types of consumers. Commercial real-estate (stores, offices) and residential places (our homes) pay a huge premium on electricity. In most states, residents and commercial consumers pay nearly 15 cents per kwh, while industrial consumers pay closer to 7 center for a kwh. How does this stack up to costs to produce? Let's return to my favorite chart:

Table 1. Estimated levelized cost of new generation resources, 2018 
U.S. average levelized costs (2011 $/megawatthour) for plants entering service in 2018
Plant type Capacity factor (%) Levelized capital cost Fixed O&M Variable O&M (including fuel) Transmission investment Total system levelized cost
Dispatchable Technologies
Conventional Coal 85 65.7 4.1 29.2 1.2 100.1
Advanced Coal 85 84.4 6.8 30.7 1.2 123.0
Advanced Coal with CCS 85 88.4 8.8 37.2 1.2 135.5
Natural Gas-fired
Conventional Combined Cycle 87 15.8 1.7 48.4 1.2 67.1
Advanced Combined Cycle 87 17.4 2.0 45.0 1.2 65.6
Advanced CC with CCS 87 34.0 4.1 54.1 1.2 93.4
Conventional Combustion Turbine 30 44.2 2.7 80.0 3.4 130.3
Advanced Combustion Turbine 30 30.4 2.6 68.2 3.4 104.6
Advanced Nuclear 90 83.4 11.6 12.3 1.1 108.4
Geothermal 92 76.2 12.0 0.0 1.4 89.6
Biomass 83 53.2 14.3 42.3 1.2 111.0
Non-Dispatchable Technologies
Wind 34 70.3 13.1 0.0 3.2 86.6
Wind-Offshore 37 193.4 22.4 0.0 5.7 221.5
Solar PV1 25 130.4 9.9 0.0 4.0 144.3
Solar Thermal 20 214.2 41.4 0.0 5.9 261.5
Hydro2 52 78.1 4.1 6.1 2.0 90.3
 

Solar PV costs less in sunny areas than buying from the grid, as long as you are residential or commercial. A big industrial complex gets really cheap power, so they will never use something as expensive as PV.

The Future of Solar

Even if solar power is widely deployed in the future, it doesn't work at night. A lot of people in Houston, and other places that are unlivable without modern tech, would be unhappy if they couldn't sleep in AC. We don't have massive-scale battery tech  to compensate, so we will still need baseload.

Baseload Power

There are two viable places to get baseload power. The first is nuclear power. The second is burning fossil fuels and then catching their CO2 and putting it underground.

Carbon Capture and Storage

This is a very unproven technology. We don't know if we can hold the CO2 underground forever (which is what would be necessary) or whether we can find a place for it. And there are only a few test cases for it. The numbers above are completely unreliable in terms of cost. This might be better in the future, but I would guess that it isn't viable for at least 15 years.

Another issue? You can't just start capturing CO2 emissions from any old power plant. Retrofitting the plant is expensive or impossible. Power plants are built to last 50 years. Even when we figure out carbon capture and storage, we can't easily retrofit old plants to make them work well.

Baseload?

So we need baseload. There are no green baseload sources. Making coal based powerplants green is not currently viable. Nuclear power doesn't produce much CO2, but it has nuclear waste. Nuclear waste lasts a long time. But it is the only power source that contains all its waste. It's manageable. And it decays faster than the Earth will take down CO2.

nuclear power plants are my favorite

What's the biggest problem with nuclear? I'll describe this in more detail later. The long version: it can't get financed. Short version: people are afraid of Nuclear. Cause three powerplants have blown up. Fukushima was completely preventable. The US literally told Japan twice to get their house in order, cause there was trouble.The USGS warned that the walls of Fukushima were not high enough to prevent tsunami flooding years ago. Had they followed through with the USGS recommendations, Japan would not be spewing radioactive waste into their groundwater. Moreover, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Fukushima and Japan that they had a groundwater problem, and that a breach would cause widespread contamination; that if it ever melted down, it would dump nuclear waste into the ground through the water. They indicated Japan should divert the flow of the groundwater to prevent this. Still, no one died in this meltdown.

When Russia melted down a nuclear plant, it was a big mess.

When the US melted down a nuclear plant, no one was harmed and not much was released. It was just expensive to clean it.

Short version? The US is good at nuclear. Korea seems to be good at it. People shouldn't be afraid of it.

But they are. So the plants don't get financed, they don't get built, they aren't allowed to go forward.

As a result, if someone did want to finance them in the US, they would have to pay such massive interest rates that it would never pull a profit.

You know who is building them? Korea. China. Korea is also building power plants in the middle east. Other countries will follow suit. We need to get our house sorted out so our country can build power plants here and elsewhere, too.

Summing it Up

Live in smaller houses, it won't make you less happy. Buy less stuff, it also won't make you less happy. You also don't need to drive an SUV. Or drive as much as you do. Commuting sucks anyways.

Until all that happens, we still need a ton of electricity. Nuclear is probably the best way to do it for now.

That's my rant

Seriously. I'm pretty much done.

Thanks for reading all along. There might be a few more posts on this stuff.

- Jason Munster

Urban vs Suburban

When I say suburbia vs. urban in this article, I am referring to people who live in the suburbs and work in the city. If you live in the suburbs and live a mile from your work, you are halfway to not being a part of the problem. The other half is not living in an oversized house.

traffic!

If you are living in a suburb and commuting to the city, you probably are being both financially stupid and a bit of a jerk to the environment. Moreover, you are probably short-changing your kids on family time. Most of this article can be read as "Don't live far away from your place of work."

Since most of my readers don't yet have kids or homes, read on to find out why you shouldn't ever leave the city.

For those of you in rural places, this article is really only useful if you want great ways to make fun of suburban folk.

The Financial Cost of Commuting from Suburbia (or Rural)

If your wage is $50,000 a year, living in suburbia costs up to an extra $15,700 extra over 10 years in driving time/expenses per mile you live from work. In other words, if you choose to live 10 miles closer to work, you could afford a house that is $150k more expensive. Moreover, the average suburbanite produces about 40% more emissions than a person living in a part of a city with access to public transportation.

Read the real maths from the original post by MrMoneyMustache.

"But Jason," you lament, "Surely you recognize that if you live in the city, you need to take public transportation, and that also costs time." To which I have to say two things:

1. No I don't. I ride my bicycle everywhere. I'm getting fit and sexy while getting around the city.

2. The only time I don't bicycle is when I have a massive amount of work to do. Then I take the subway and use my commute time to catch up on work. And the entire time I am wishing I was getting exercise on my bike.

"But Jason," you say, "I live in the suburbs and I bicycle to work in the city."

To you, sir, I say, "You are badass and a shining example of someone who cares about their fitness and the health of their fellow man. But if your house in the suburbs is huge, you probably still use more energy than the average city resident."

urban cycling can be safe if you learn how

"But Jason," you say, "bicycling is dangerous! It will shorten my life or cause injury!"

Three things.

1. Take a bike safety class and wear a helmet. I am what is known as "reckless" and have yet to be in a maiming bicycle accident. It's safer than you think.

2. If you live in a city, you live just a few miles from work and will bike 1/10th the amount a commuter will drive. Based on the fact that per mile, a bicycle is 4x-10x as dangerous as being in a car, at worst your safety is break-even on a bicycle commute, and at best is 2.5x safer.

3. As MrMoneyMustache points out, bicycling makes you healthier to the point that even when accounting for the chance of dying younger from an accident, bicycling increases your life expectancy. Whereas being in a car only decreases your life expectancy while making you fatter and uglier.

One last thing on bikes: In a prior post, I mentioned that if you are in shape, biking is the fastest way to get around in a city. You will save time if you live in a city and bicycle.

Suburbia Home Energy Use

In his paper on construction trends and CO2 per capita, Edward Glaeser shows that some cities have massively higher CO2 emissions per capita than others. This is primarily because in some cities, people live in houses and apartments that are far bigger than their needs. These houses have heating and cooling needs. Bigger houses not only have more volume to heat and cool, they also have more places they leak from. So they take a lot more energy to cool. This is why people who live in shoebox sized apartments in NYC emit only the equivalent of only 8 tons of CO2 per year in their lifestyle, and Houston residents emit 30. Also cause AC is very energy intensive. That's for a future post though.

The Health Cost of Commuting from Suburbia

Sitting on the highway in slow-moving traffic and breathing in exhaust fumes is not good for you. MIT says that 53,000 people die per year from the emissions of autos. So maybe stop sitting in traffic and breathing all that in, eh?

Many people get stressed and upset sitting in traffic. This is obviously not good for you.

I Don't Care About This, I Moved Out to Suburbs So My Family Would Have a Better Life

Well aren't you the martyr? Sacrificing your time, health, and happiness for your kids. Very kind of you.

That 1-2 hour commute you are doing would take 30 minutes if you lived close to work. Spending an extra 1 or 2 hours with your kid every day will be much better for them than putting them in a supposedly better school. Unless, that is, you are convinced that you are a truly shitty parent and that you damage them every time you interact with them.

Summing It Up

Living near the place you work and biking or public commuting there will save you time, money, promote your health, remove a need for auto repair. Most importantly, it'll give you more time with your kids. That'll mean more than a marginally better school system or a yard for them to play alone in.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 4 - The end.

*Note: I wrote most of this during the 4th week in Deadhorse. It is pretty embarrassing, but I will publish it unedited. 600 straight hours of sunlight and working every day makes your brain think you are on the longest unending day ever, and it punishes you.

(2017 edit: This post is not embarrassing at all. Depression from difficult work settings is a real thing.)

My best shot from Prudhoe Bay

My best shot from Prudhoe Bay. Click for full image.

Good news! With my return to Harvard, this will be the last bullshit post for a while. Climate science posts will shortly resume, after a brief break!

Deadhorse is Behind Us (better than the original section title "Deadhorse is in our Rear")

We have ended our month in Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, AK. I am now home. I am suffering from some pretty severe culture shock, cause I've been thrown back into my job in a Harvard undergrad dorm. So I am going from hanging out with 6 surly scientists with declining hygiene habits to 400 energetic Harvard undergrads putting their best forth for the new schoolyear.

Week 4

The airplane was fixed hours after my last post. The instrument worked on all fronts. We are collaborating with the Navy on some research up here, and we will continue to collaborate with them back in lab in Cambridge.

Last night we were talking about various small airlines that used to kick ass. Apparently Midwest would serve you steak and beer on flights. We would always ask what happened to each airline after we heard how great it was. Apparently Midwest was bought by Northwest.

One of the group (left nameless cause HR things) mentioned that there had even once been a Hooters airline. When we asked him what became of the airline, he deadpanned, "It went tits up."

Yep, pretty much par for the course for our conversations up here.

 

Sunset over the horizon, taken in the last days when the sun finally got tired of being up all the time

Sunset over the horizon, taken in the last days when the sun finally got tired of being up all the time

 

Deployments are Weird Anywhere

Our airplane mechanic was deployed in Afghanistan for 3 months as an airplane mechanic, and also in several other places. By the middle of the 3rd week, everyone was making awful jokes. At the end of the 4th week, no one was talking to anyone else. We mostly just sat silently and did our work. "What happened?" we would say. "Did we just run out of awful jokes?" Naw, says our mechanic. "I've been on several field deployments and noticed a cycle. At first you are excited, cause you get to see a new place and the pace of everything is changed. Eventually you fall into a groove and start making jokes with everyone. Then everything is all the same, and you sort of drift into depression."

Yeah, that happened.

Days before this discussion, we had already banned all movies that didn't have happy endings. Depressing or down-beat songs were all vetoed. We only wanted to watch action movies and comedies. It's strange how off a weird place can make you after only 4 weeks.

Home!

As the only young unmarried person on this trip, I think I missed Boston more than everyone else. Boston is fucking awesome in the summer if you are single. Deadhorse is not.

The Aftermath

I wrote this section after a week at home, so I am more sane again.

When I first got back, I was really awkward. Sometimes I would be listening to conversations, and want to join in, and have things to say, but I couldn't figure out when there was about to be a break in the conversation. And then I was so focused on trying to find that break that I forgot what I was going to contribute. Other times I just said awkward semi-related things. I kinda just sat around listening to conversations and trying to figure out how it worked while everyone wondered why I was creepily sitting in the corner listening to their conversation.

So pretty much I got to be an introvert for a day.

We managed to measure via an aircraft whether the ground is uptaking or emitting CO2 and methane. We have to crunch the numbers to see what is happening where. This is pretty significant. It will definitely add some serious weapons to the climate change observation arsenal.

We will be upgrading the laser system on the CO2 instrument, and the detector on both methane instruments. Claire and I have enough data to each get a PhD even if we don't get funded for field work next year.

On that note, there is a good chance we will get funded for field work next year. We will have two 4-week stints in the field each. Hopefully we are better prepared for it this time.

Yay! We are home!

Mather

This week was advising week in Mather. We resident tutors directly advise sophomores. It is a long, stressful week. It's over with, and I finally feel like I can take a day off after about 3 months of no real rest. So I am gonna help a friend move. And then go kayaking. Sunday is more sophomore advising stuff, pretty much all day.

Classes

I am taking an advanced statistics course and Mandarin.

Future Posts

I will be getting back to real posts after this one.

Research Updates, Plus, It's not gay if it's week 3

Chris: "Jason, did you change the names on your blog to protect the innocent?"

Jason: "There are no innocent in Deadhorse. Only Victims."

Rawhide! Probably cause when it is 70 below zero, your ass gets chapped.

Read the name of the outhouse.

You might want to skip down to the funny stories at the bottom if you don't give a crap about research.

 

Our plane

Our plane broke. There was damage to the propeller. It looks like we are losing 4 days of potential research because of that. It kinda sucks, cause we need that time to get more data. We should be back up on Sunday. But it is getting cold, and the ground is freezing. This means the ground will stop emitting stuff, and we pack up and head home.

Bernie was getting too close to the moose.

The airplane threw part of the propeller. Look at the topmost tip

The weather here is not friendly for flying an airplane 30 feet off the ground. There is always fog in the morning. We get out in some afternoons. There is a lot of time tweaking instruments.

For hot weather, like VA, we have a radiator with a cooling loop on a pump. We have a weight-limit issue on the airplane. We want to have two pumps, but we need that radiator to keep the pump cool. Since it is cold here, we took off the radiator and use ambient air to cool the pump. So we gained 80 lbs. of weight capacity, and installed the 2nd pump. Now we can do pressure control on both our flux cells independently, greatly increasing the precision, accuracy, and speed of our data.

I used to call the instrument the Carbon Centipede cause the outlet of each pump was tied to the inlet of the next one.

We went from 3 instruments and one pump to 3 instruments and two pumps.

The Good News

Our instrument is kicking ass. The CO2 detection axis is behaving nicely. It shows consistent performance over a wide range of temperatures. Most of the time, the thing samples ambient air from the front of the plane. Every 20 minutes we shut down this flow and begin with a calibration gas that we carry onboard. The instrument is rock-solid and gives the same answer from the cal gas throughout the flight.

(2017 update: The instrument did not behave as nicely as we thought, with some pretty serious temperature regulation issues).

What's special about this? It is a brand new instrument. It is one of the only CO2 instruments in the world that flushes and refreshes the air samples in it 30 times per second. It is precise to nearly 0.5 parts per million (1-σ, 1 second). That means if it samples two million particles in one second, it counts the number of CO2 particles pretty much exactly. It pretty much kicks ass.

Building in the Field

Our methane instrument got a steroid treatment, thanks to Mark Witinski at EOS Photonics (they are hiring infrared laser engineers and semiconductor physicists, in case you are wondering).

A week before departing, Mark let us burrow a fancy piece of equipment that he thought might be better than ours. It was about 10x better. Which is sufficient to make our methane instrument hands-down the best methane spectroscopy instrument. So of course we needed to re-design the entire detector side of the instrument, in the field, and then get parts machined and shipped, then assemble it here. There were a few errors, so we had to file, chip, and cut at the metal to make everything fit. But we built fully a third of an instrument in the field. Now we have so much signal that we literally need to attenuate it to record it. Luckily the noise and signal are attenuated by the same amount. So we just got a 10x reduction in noise. Thanks, Mark!

It's Getting Hot in Here

It's sometimes near freezing when the plane flies.

Wait, it's always near freezing when the plane flies. It's fucking cold up here.

Somehow two of our three lasers keep overheating anyways. You might guess that lasers have a tendency to do that. We have augmented both systems by doubling their cooling capacities. Also, all our systems have really badass wrapping of flame-proof Nomex (worn by fire-fighters and also our instruments) clad in a type of tape call Kapton (stable to 400C, or 752 degrees fahrenheit. Note that paper does not burn this hot). It takes a lot of cutting and measuring and such to makes these wrapping. We call them clothes, cause you have to cut holes for all the cables. Kinda like arm sleeves.

Anyways, it was too hot in their, so they took off all their clothes (heh, sorry.)

Research, Summing it Up

We have a tower set up to measure methane and CO2 emissions. Where it is measuring is emitting 10x the methane of a marsh in Virginia, and 25% more than has ever been measured from a tower in the Arctic. NOAA set up and manages this tower. These tower measurements are standard and considered reliable.

Our instruments are kicking butt. We are going to compare our airplane flux measurements to the tower measurements. We anticipate that they will agree. If they do, then our airplane flux measurements of methane works. Did I mention that our methane instrument has a precision of about 4 parts per billion? Airplane flux measurements will make it so we can measure a larger area of the Arctic and find out what the region is doing.

Now we only need the weather to cooperate.

It's Not Gay if it's Week 3

"It's not gay if it's week 3." -Everyone in Deadhorse.

Week 3 has come and gone with no major incidents except for everyone deciding that I am a giant teddy bear.

Some funny things:

We were watching Hercules in New York. For some reason around then I had referred to Chris as Testosterone. Claire decided after watching Hercules that we should instead give Chris the nickname of Testicles, pronounced like Hercules (testi-cleez). We were sober at the time (Remember, no drinking at MagTec).

"Jason, your blog has really gone downhill." -Testicles (remember to pronounce it right!)

In another event, we have plumbing to do as part of our research. We move lots of air through our instrument to measure the methane and CO2. So we plumb lines together to pull the air through. At one point, I needed to connect two tubes together. They were both tubes with a 1" inner diameter. The connector is called a quick-flange to nipple connector. Yep, the thing you put in a tube to connect it to other things is called a nipple. Stay with me here. Anyways, we were missing 2 of them. I was looking all over for them. Finally, I spotted them. I joyfully yell out, "I finally found the one inch nipples I was looking for!" Claire starts laughing. Then I realize that David, a post-doc in our group, had walked by just as I was pointing and yelling about having found one-inch nipples. It looked like I was pointing at him. It didn't exactly go over well.

These are some of the more tame stories and comments. When I get back, ask me about the joke about spicy food.

Upcoming in life

By my next post (which will come later than on Sunday), I will be home in Cambridge. I haven't seen the moon, stars, or the night sky in over a month. I miss trees and clear blue sky. I haven't had reliable internet in the same amount of time. It will be nice to get back and see my friends and my room-mate.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 2: A Descent Towards Impropriety

"How come the only time I hear poop jokes is when I am with the Harvard team?" -Our airplane mechanic.

Caribou with a drill rig in the background

Caribou with a drill rig in the background

 

Imagine working 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week, in a place where the sun never sets. You lose track of which day it is, how long you have been here, how long you have left here. People here work 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. More than that and it gets weird. Oil workers work 3 weeks on, 3 weeks off. Their motto? "It's not gay if it's week 3!"

When I first arrived in deadhorse, it was more like this:

Apparently at third week, everyone gets confused and it starts to look like this:

We are here for a little over 4 weeks. How's this affecting our group? We are making awful jokes. We've all started making 3 week jokes around the oil and other workers. Recently I was hanging out playing Magic: The Gathering (yep) with some random people I met here. Chris comes down to make fun of me a bit, starts walking towards the cafeteria, and asks if I want anything. I say, "From you? It's not week 3 yet." Laughter all around. Literally every single person here enjoys a good 3-week joke.

I found out that Deadhorse has almost no real permanent residents. There are a very small number of people that enjoy working here and don't like society. They stay for 13 weeks, and are forced to take a week off. They make more than $10k a month and have no expenditures (all food and such is provided), and they have done this for 20 years. In short, they are millionaires and just don't want to be anywhere else. Outside of this, everyone leaves Deadhorse.

 

Deadhorse

As you can see from the caribou photo above, this place really is just oil and wilderness. It is all dirt roads, and there is no car wash. Check out this bus!

Dirty bus! There is no pavement here, and there are no car washes.

Dirty bus! There is no pavement here, and there are no car washes.

Slope Wives

I had to take a day trip to Anchorage to pick up a vital piece of equipment. While there, I went out to a bar and talked with a ton of random locals. I heard about a phenomenon called the Slope Wife. It's been said here that when you go to the slope, you don't lose your wife/girlfriend, you just lose your place in line. I thought this was an exaggeration. It's not. Everyone I ran into in Anchorage said that if a woman has a husband on the slope, she is highly likely to cheat on him. They are in effect "open season" at the bar. I don't like this. I was happy to return to my team on the North Slope after a night in Anchorage.

Mag-Tec

We live in a man-camp called Mag-Tec. It's really great here. The food here is amazing. 3 really great meals a day in a cafeteria. On one of my first days here I walked into the cafeteria and Charles, the cook, yells to me "How do you like your steak?" I thought he was kidding. And then I saw a giant pile of steaks. It's some of the best steak I have eaten. On Sunday nights, they have prime rib. In 4 more hours, I get to eat some excellent prime rib. You know when else I have been able to have prime rib? Pretty much never. This place is great in that respect.

Rooms are off a hallway with shared bathrooms. We can't lock the rooms during the day. The place is like a dorm. We hang out in our rooms at night. A bunch of 30 and 40 year olds sitting in a tiny dorm room, interpreting data and making awful jokes. It's like something out of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Prime rib and shrimp. We get this every Sunday.

Prime rib and shrimp. We get this every Sunday.

Research

We are kicking ass up here. More on that next week. For now, here is a photo of our plane flying low over ground.

Bernie flying low with wings perpendicular to the ground

 

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 1

It was  below 0C in August in my first two days here.

The North Slope of Alaska is flat and has lots of lakes and running water

The North Slope of Alaska is flat and has lots of lakes and running water

Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, AK, is different from most other places. Deadhorse is practically devoid of women, and has zero children. I asked a friend who works here on the oil rigs what dating was like: "The same as working everywhere in Alaska. Get in line and wait your turn."

Deadhorse is a dry town. You can't buy alcohol here. If someone working here is found with alcohol, they are fired or kicked out. The workers here will occasionally buy cool-aid, throw some champagne yeast in, and brew their own awful alcohol that way.

There are no hotels here. Instead there are Man-Camps. There are no restaurants in Deadhorse, and no place to buy real food to cook. You eat at a mancamp. There was an outbreak of the flu here a few weeks back, and an entire camp was quarantined. From then on, every camp requires that you use hand sanitizer upon entrance, and you use disposable plastic gloves on top of that when you get your food. All the hangar facilities here also have hand sanitizer everywhere.

This is not a town, it's a construction site.

This is not a town, it's a construction site.

There is no pavement. Dirt roads lead everywhere. You get dust and mud on your boots (you don't wear shoes). Upon entering a camp, you rub your shoes on some aggressive mud-and-dust removing blocks. After that you are required to put fabric booties over your boots. You are not allowed to walk around in camps in sandals or barefoot. Everyone has big manly boots with fabric booties over them.

Bears roam freely through town. I wanted to take a picture of one, but I have been assured that a grizzly does not look majestic while rummaging through a dumpster, emerging with an ice cream wrapper stuck to its head.

The only passenger vehicle used here is a 4WD king cab diesel pickup. All trucks have heating blocks in them, because it is so cold in the winter that the oil in the engine would turn to a gel if left unheated. In every single parking lot there are dozens upon dozens of plugs for these trucks to keep warm during the forever night of an Arctic winter.

Every truck needs to be plugged in during the winter, or it won't start again.

Every truck needs to be plugged in during the winter, or it won't start again.

 

Because of the bears, we are required to keep our keys in the trucks and the trucks unlocked. If someone is walking along, they need the safety of a heavy truck to dive into immediately, and be able to drive off.

No one is worried about theft here. We don't get keys to our hotel rooms. They are left unlocked when we leave. There is no black market here, so what would someone do with something they stole? We freely leave most of our possessions out, knowing that no one will touch them.

8/7-Research

Our plane has arrived. We had to make repairs to the cooling of the Laser Pressure Vessel (it is an airplane, so as it flies higher, the ambient air pressure decreases. A pressure vessel holds the instrument at one pressure to keep everything precise) on the methane detection instrument.

 

I forgot my boots at lab. My advisor is flying out on 8/8. He is putting them in his luggage. That's right, my advisor thinks nothing of carrying my hiking boots across the country for field work. He's pretty cool that way. Would your PhD advisor do that?

8-10

We flew!

8-11

We had some heat control issues with the laser system, and two of our three instrument overheated.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

My Research - Climate Change and the Arctic

I am in Deadhorse, AK. It is as lovely as it sounds. The area of Prudhoe Bay is here because there is oil on the North Slope. Everything looks like a huge, permanent construction site with the sole goal of pulling oil out of the ground. But that isn't why I am here.

Before that, some housekeeping.

I have been awful at keeping up with my posting. While I am finding it difficult to write interesting posts on the same topic iteratively, the more pressing reason for my consistent delays is this trip to the Arctic Circle for all of August to do research. My team has been working their asses off in Cambridge and in Manassas, VA, to get our instrument and our plane ready. You are going to see a lot of posts about how things are going up here.

Soon, my random rantings and musings will take over this blog, and the energy topics will be fewer and far between.

Back to Prudhoe Bay. My research.

Prudhoe Bay and the Melting Arctic

I stand now in eternal sunshine. That isn't some deep metaphor. The sun doesn't go down during the summer when we are this far north. I am here to measure CO2 and methane emissions from the melting Arctic. This has nothing to do with sunlight, and has everything to do with global warming.

It is difficult to sleep like this

The Arctic is Melting

Ice volume in the Arctic is dropping. I have covered this in a prior post. We also mentioned that the Arctic will experience more amplification of heating than most other parts of the world. The direct response of the Arctic is to melt deeper every year into the permafrost that underlies the topsoil, where all the remnant CO2 from millenia of photosynthesis is kept.

How did Millenia of Carbon get Stored in Arctic Soil? 

Let's start by thinking about a tree. Trees grow leaves. The leaves store CO2. They pull it out of the atmosphere and store it as mass in the leaves. In the fall the leaves fall from the trees. Bacteria consume the leaves, turning it back into CO2 (or maybe a rabbit eats the leaf and turns it into CO2).

What happens when the leaf falls but doesn't get eaten? Most of the time it gets buried by snow or a bit of dirt and that CO2 is out of the atmosphere til Spring, when it warms up and the bacteria/rabbits get active again.

(This paragraph is skippable. Let's replace "leaves" here with all types of organic matter. Sometimes those "leaves" end up in anoxic environments, like the bottom of marshes, and there is nothing that can efficiently eat them. Or they get buried really deep really quickly by something, and get stores for a long long time. Then that CO2 is permanently removed from the atmosphere. Unless epochs later we dig it up and burn it as fossil fuel).

In the Arctic Circle, there are no trees. At some depth, maybe about 6 feet, the ground is permanently frozen. So tree roots can't go here. Moss and leaves grow here. But it is too cold for it to all get digested and eaten. Some of it pretty much sticks around forever. There are 300,000 years of undigested carbon in the first few meters of soil. Now it is warming up, and they that carbon might be ready to go.

Thermokarsting. IE giant chucks of Earth falling and collapsing.

Thermokarsting. IE giant chucks of Earth falling and collapsing.

Hastening this is a process called thermokarsting. In short, the ice in the soil (sometimes as much as 75% of the mass of the soil) melts. This ice held the soil together. Without it, the soil starts folding and collapsing, much like a riverbank does during a flood. Except it happens constantly in the warm days. This churning exposes tons of soil to the atmosphere. And this soil has carbon in it that can be eaten and turned into CO2 (This is a gross oversimplication, but the real details will only interest a few readers. Email me if you actually want more detail). In a bit of a slower process, underground bacteria can just eat the carbon at depth. In a more nefarious process, in anoxic environments the carbon can be converted to methane. Which is 23x stronger than CO2 on a 100 year timescale. The video below shows that these things produce enough methane so that the lakes can be lit on fire.

There are millions of lakes in Northern Alaska. If they convert even .05% of the carbon in the soil to methane, it will be more GHGs than all of mankind currently produces in a year. Same thing if 1% of the carbon in the soil is converted to just CO2. This is unlikely to happen in a short time period. It is quite possible in a long time period. And the scientific community doesn't have any data on it.

My team is measuring this. We are developing brand new technology to do this, and later teams will use similar or improved technology to continue the measurements. We are here to prove that it can be measured and that the technology works. Others will monitor the situation once we have proven that it can be monitored.

What we are doing is pretty neat. Direct from our webpage:

[Our system] has the capability to deliver to the Arctic research community a first-ever carbon isotopologue flux system that combines state-of-the art technologies in spectroscopy, infrared lasers, electronics and computing, advanced global navigation systems, high-performance airborne vertical wind speed measurements, and a state-of-the-art, high efficiency aircraft that provides regional coverage with disciplined costs.

 

The airplane with instruments in it plus some of my team

The airplane with instruments in it plus some of my team

That's all for now. Look forward to more pictures from Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, alongside what we are doing here.

Thanks for reading.

-Jason Munster

Bicycles

The DOT says that bicycling is awesome, and has a happy dude in a suit to prove it. see site.

Make sure you make it all the way to the bottom for the funny comic!

What's the big deal about bicycles? Everything! You get exercise and you get around. MrMoneyMustache has a great post on bicycles that you should check out if you have time.

So what's this doing on a climate change website? This one is easy. Unless you eat only beef all the time, a bike produces less CO2 per mile than a car.

Maths!

Good news! The maths this time are super easy! Also, great news! You can eat bacon and then bicycle and it is better for the environment than driving a car!

Burning a gallon of gas gets you about 20 miles and produces 8kg of CO2. Let's assume you weigh 175 lbs and bicycle 20 miles. Most calculators show you burning about 1000 calories to do this. Let's further assume you eat potatoes to get that energy. Potatoes are about .2kg CO2 per kg potato, and a kilogram of potato has about 500 calories that we can use (it has many more, but we can't consume them all perfectly). So you need to eat 2kg of potatoes in order to gain 1000 calories and then bicycle a mile. This equates to .4kg of CO2, or literally only 5% the emissions of a car.

Let's go to worst-case scenario. You eat only beef (note that you will likely die young) which makes way more CO2 in its production than potato (just picture how much cows fart, and that they produce a very strong greenhouse gas). Luckily cow is very energy dense, and you only need to eat .6kg to get 1000 calories. Unfortunately, a cow makes 29kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat, and 1000 calories produces 20kg of CO2 equivalent. So you are pumping the equivalent 20kg of cow farts into the air to get those 20 miles (more seriously, it is probably like .5kg of cow farts, plus some CO2, cause them cow farts really are strong greenhouse gases).

So good, but not worth it for the environment

Okay, so I have good news! before you go all vegan on me, Pigs are much more efficient! You only need to eat .3kg of these bad boys to get 1000 calories, and they only produce 8kg of CO2 per pound (pigs don't fart as much methane, I guess? Actually they require less feed and less water to make meat). So you produce about 3kg of CO2 if you eat bacon and bike 20 miles, which is still better than a car. Moral of the story: eat bacon and buy a bicycle. Or you could eat potatoes and veggies and be really good for the environment, but let's be realistic, Americans aren't gonna eat much less meat, so at least they can substitute pig in there.

Eating bacon and bicycling: the only way to eat bacon and get sexy.

Eating bacon and then bicycling is still better for the environment than driving.

Other important stuffs (like getting fit and sexy)

I bike in Boston and Cambridge. I bike to work every single day. I never have to worry about finding parking. Better yet, I get to go straight from my door to the door of work. I go shopping with my bike, and that's even better. Nearly all stores have a place to park my bike right at the door, and I can usually fit all the foot I need into a large backpack.

I bike to bars at night, I bike home from the same bars. When I go to a friend's party, I always bike. I pretty much never drive anywhere, and usually don't take the subway. It turns out that biking takes less time than nearly any form of transportation. One great example: my friend Erik and I were walking home from a party (I was walking my bike). He hailed a cab, I jumped on my bike as soon as he was in the cab. Erik lives next door to me. Going at my usual after-party biking pace I beat him home. And then I waited for the cab to arrive, arrogantly leaning my bike against his apartment complex like it wasn't an effort. I had just saved a $10 cab ride and a few minutes.

This is not rare. If traffic is heavy, I beat friends in a cross-town trip by about 20 minutes. I live a mere mile from work, but I can get there faster than any other form of transportation. It's faster than driving cause I don't need to go pick up my motorcycle from the garage and then find parking at work.

Biking is faster than the subway in nearly all cases, and more convenient in Boston cause my bike doesn't shut down at midnight (nor has it been stolen). Also, every time I take my bike instead of the subway, I save at least $4 round trip. Usually it is more like $20, cause I don't have to take an expensive Boston cab back home after a night out. So let's say I go out twice per week and save an average of $10 every time. That is $20 per week, for 50 weeks, or $1000 per year. Just paid for several of my bikes, yo. Or like 3 beers a week.

What's the best part about bicycling everywhere? Being fit. Your clothes will fit better, you will have more energy, and people find you sexier. Including your spouse or significant other. Yes, yes, they do say that they love you as you are. They are lying. Get on a bike.

So wait. I just said you could do something that saves time, saves money, saves the environment, makes you more attractive, and will get you the ladies/men and/or make your relationship spicier? Why isn't everyone biking right now?!?

More seriously, people might have three reasons: you work too far away (this is a bad idea to start with, both environmentally and from a money perspective), up front cost, and safety concerns.

The first: future post. Too big to include in this one. Suffice it to say, if you don't live close enough to work to bicycle there, you live too far from work. If your job is in an area where you don't want to raise your family, you are probably either in a rough place financially or maybe you are financially well-off financially and are still making poor life decisions (more on this later, too).

The second: A bike costs a lot less than a car. Buy a cheaper car and then buy a bike. More legitimate: you have enough money to afford monthly subway fare, but not a bike. And/or you live in an area where your bike gets stolen. I got nothin' for you here. Try to take public transportation or walk, cause driving is still bad for the environment. If you can afford a car, you can afford a bike and a lock.

The third: Safety! Wear a helmet. Everyone on a bike should wear a helmet. I know helmets make you sweat and mess up your hair. You know what is worse than having bad hair from a helmet? Becoming a vegetable from getting smeared on the road.

Back to accidents. Bicycles do have a slightly higher accident rate per mile. But if you live near work and bicycle, you drive few miles. If you then consider that you cover 6x as many miles on your average car commute as your average bike commute, your death rate per minute is actually equal to that of a car. Mr Money Mustache does a great job of describing this, so I won't go farther. Moreover, If you factor in the health benefits of bicycling, you gain health and actually increases your chances of living longer (same link describes this).

Okay, this is getting long. Time to Summarize!

Bicycling will save the environment, save you time, prolong your life, make you sexier, and save you money. It's a damn miracle drug, and if you aren't on it, you are doing something wrong with your life.

Bicycling

 

-Jason Munster