Apartment Rentals and Energy Waste

Landlords usually suck. And they probably cause some notable percent of emissions by being lazy (I would guess like 1+%) and not modernizing their apartments (modernizing by 1980s standards).

Drafty rental unit?

Background

A few months ago, I wrote my most-trafficked article about why living in the suburbs is bad for your wallet, and bad for the environment.

A lot of people had some ridiculous responses.

The ultimate point of the article was that living in a city is better for the environment than living in the suburb. Many responses mostly ignored the environmentally friendliness part. These butthurt folk only cared about the size of their house (which, as we showed in the previous article, means they probably suck in terms of energy efficiency). If they did, they would have pointed out the giant gaping hole in my argument: most landlords don't give a care about energy efficiency of your apartment. They aren't paying for utilities, they only care about your rent.

Some Sources of Energy Waste in Houses

In my last article, I pointed out that all houses need some amount of venting. So bigger houses will likely need a lot more energy to heat and cool than smaller houses. The driver of this was how many times per day the house cycled all of its air. It will surprise most people to find that the amount of ventilation that is still considered safe will dump all of your heated / cooled air 15 times per day.

Drafty windows, much? (same disclaimer as below, burrowed image from a commercial website)

In most cases, your landlord doesn't care about how drafty your place is. On other words, the old place I lived in in Somerville probably exchanged all of its heat to the atmosphere about 100 times per day (we could perceptively feel drafts through every window and door). So the place took about 4-8x as much energy to heat as a well-sealed house of the same size.

What incentive does the landlord have to fix this? Absolutely none. He doesn't pay any utilities. He gets rent no matter what. Given that a majority of people won't ask what the air-exchange rate of an apartment is, he won't have to fix it.

What about appliances? Stoves are pretty easy. Electric stoves produce heat by using electricity to heat an element. They are pretty efficient at converting electricity to heat, but newer ones can definitely be more efficient and save you money. Gas stoves, as long as they don't leak, do pretty well despite age.

Remember these fridges? (note: I just burrowed this from a random site since I couldn't find a .gov site with an old fridge)

Fridges, dish washers, clothing washers, and dryers, or really any other appliance (including hot water heaters, etc.) are a very different story.

Just go here and play around with how much you'd save in electricity annually to figure out how much you'd save by buying a new fridge.

And then remember that 1 kwh of electricity requires 1 lbs. of coal. And then let's consider that replacing an early 1990s era fridge with a new energy efficient one in MA will not only save about $200 per year, but will save nearly 1300 kwh. Or 1,300 pounds of coal, if you get all your power from coal (or about 700 lbs. of methane (recall that methane produces a lot less CO2 for the same energy production)). I am going to repeat that again. Replacing a 20 year old fridge will prevent the equivalent of burning 1300 lbs. of coal in environmental change per year.

That's right. Your landlord being lazy and cheap is making us burn 1,300 lbs. of coal per year. And the energy savings from replacing other old appliances is similar.

What about replacing windows, doors, etc., for ones that don't leak? For ones that have a lower amount of heat transfer directly through the window (double paned, triple glazed, etc.)? It's huge. You can even get tax credits to replace old windows, making the payback time less than 5 years. But many landlords don't care about this, because they don't face the costs of heating a home. They would just be paying money for replacement appliances and windows, and they would never see a return on this investment.

I don't think I need to belabor this point. Old appliances and leaky housing are things your landlord doesn't care about, but they are things that matter in terms of energy use.

So how to fix it? That's for policy people to figure out. I'm not one of them. But I would suggest a few things:

1. Require that landlords report yearly costs of heating to 65F in winter, and cooling to 75F in summer, as well as electricity bills, every time they show an apartment to a potential tenant. This way tenants can add this price in to their monthly rent, and it will force landlords to make a correction for the market.

-or-

2. Require landlords to not have appliances that are more than 15 years old, and windows and doors that are not more than 25 years old

Obviously #1 is much better with market mechanisms, paperwork, etc. I would go with that, since there is pretty much no overhead involved.

Anyone else have any ideas to address this? Leave it in the comments!

Also, if you liked this, please subscribe & share. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

*Recall from an earlier article that the energy use of heat from electricity depends entirely on the "energy mix" of the grid. If enough of that electricity comes from renewables (let's conservatively say 3/4), then the amount of CO2 produced from using electric heat will be better than gas heat (even if the last 1/4 is dirty coal, hence using the 3/4 conservative #).

Why Giant Houses Always Use More Energy

Big houses use more energy to heat and cool, for reasons you might not suspect. Houses lose heat to the outside. Nearly all houses are drafty in some form or another, and they need to be somewhat drafty, as we will soon find out.

When energy prices skyrocketed in the 70s due to price gouging and market manipulation of oil (thanks, OPEC), there was a big movement to make it so houses didn't leak air (and leak their heat energy in the process). The idea is that for every bit of air you heat and then let out into the environment, you have just wasted energy. So the process of sealing houses began.

OPEC oil embargoes of '73 and '79. The prices of energy spiked worldwide.

Some groups bragged that they could build houses that only exchanged 1% of their air per hour with the outside. In other words, it would take 4 full days to lose all the heat or AC energy of a house to the outdoors. Excellent, right?

It was excellent in terms of energy savings. But anyone with a flatulent spouse/significant other can tell you that being stuck in a place that is producing unhealthy fumes is dangerous if you don't vent it. It turns out that a lot of basic human activity, like cooking and heating, produce things that are bad for humans and need to be vented.

Much more importantly for advanced cultures*, cooking (it boils water, yo) and breathing and sweating make the air inside a house humid. Humidity in a house causes mold that can make you ill or, in extreme cases, kill you. One of the most effective ways to remove all this humidity is to let the air exchange with the outside.

So here we have a problem. We need to seal our houses well in order to save energy on heating and cooling, yet we also need to allow loss of all this heated and cooled air so we don't sweat ourselves out and cause bad mold to grow.

And we arrive to the crux of the matter. A good exchange rate is .6, or that 60% of a houses air is exchanges per hour. Sounds like a lot? It kind of is. But it's what is healthy for normal technology (we aren't all going to install CO and CO2 scrubbers and dehumidifiers in our houses). So in 24 hours, we have

 24 hours  \cdot .6 \frac{exchanges}{hour} = 14.4 exchanges per day. Of your entire house volume.

So. You have to exchange air in your house. About 15 times per day. Otherwise you might start falling ill. If you have a gigantic house that is 2x larger than you need, then you will use 2x as much energy to keep the place heated and cooled as you need to. So, in short, living in a giant house is a bad thing for energy conservation (take notice, Al Gore**)

Next week we will suspend our assumption that all houses have decent exchange rates, and discuss why this is a huuuuge policy gap.

You don't really need to live in a place like this, do you?

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

*Developing countries still use coal. By 2020 there will be up to an estimated 400,000 deaths per year in China from indoor air pollution associated with burning coal for heat and cooking in poor rural homes (160,000 median estimate). Obviously this is more pressing than mold.

**I was going to rip Al Gore a new one for having had a huge electricity bill just after making An Inconvenient Truth, but it turns out that in 2007, before it was cheaper or easier, he elected to power his home, in TN, with solar and wind power almost exclusively, jacking up the price to a level higher than most Americans pay. So yeah, he did have a much higher electricity bill than the average American, but he only used about 4x the electricity, apparently. Which is still a lot. Except that he and Tipper both also work out of their houses. And now they have solar panels all over it. So it's not that bad. Though it is still huge.

 

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

Geoengineering

So. Science can fix anything, right? Only if we have lots of time and money. And grad students that function as indentured servants in a pyramid scheme to get tenure.

Back to the point. The truth is that science can't fix everything on short time scales. Climate is one of them. Geoengineering can help to a degree, but it will only get us part of the way there to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Let's discuss some.

White roofs, white roads, white buildings.

Two articles back, we discussed albedo, or reflecting sunlight. Ice reflects 90%, water reflects 90%. Whatever is reflected tends to go to space and not stay in the Earth system and warm it up. In fact, whatever is absorbed then gets in the greenhouse trapping loop, warming up the Earth a good bit. Dark surfaces (our roofs, our roads, most of our buildings) reflect little and absorb a lot. So, paint them all white, and more light is reflected. Excellent!

"But Jason," you say, "Cities are only a small percentage of land area. How could this possibly help? I mean, the rest of the Earth will still absorb just as much heat. Right?"

And to you I say, "Excellent, sir! That is true. Making all our stuff white won't do much for the overall heat budget of the Earth. I am so proud of you for reading most of my website so you quickly figure stuff like that out."

So what does it do?

 

The heat island effect is based on the fact that cities are covered in dark buildings and pavement, and have a very low albedo, so they absorb heat

Cities are fucking warm. They suffer from this thing called the "heat island effect." That is a fancy way of saying that they are so dark, they absorb the sunlight and are easily 10 degrees F (around 5 degrees C) warmer than they should be. Turn everything white, and you can cool the city. This will actually have a very large effect on how hard our AC units have to work in the summer. Imagine if your city was suddenly 10 degrees F cooler. How sweet would that be? I posit that it would be pretty rad.

This one seems to help a bit, but we will still be using tons of energy and producing CO2 in all other ways. Moreover, it won't solve the problem of the agriculture, ice caps, and acidifying ocean.

Putting CO2 in the ground

There are two ideas of sequestering CO2 in the ground. The first is capturing it at the source. Like power plants. This sounds like an easy idea, but the first problem is the energy it takes to capture it. Thermal power plants take in atmospheric air. Which is 78% nitrogen, and 21% O2. Even if all the O2 were converted to CO2, what comes out of the power plant stack is still 78% nitrogen. Separating the two to store the CO2 takes more energy. In fact, the power plant is roughly 30% less efficient. So it needs to burn a lot more coal or natural gas to produce the same amount of power, and will cost a lot more to build. And any fancy idea you have to get around this 30% efficiency hit won't work. No matter what, you either have to pre-concentrate O2 to get a pure stream of CO2 on the other side, or separate the CO2 on the emission side.

The next problem is where to store it once you get it. Gases like to leak out of things. Some companies are trying to store the CO2 underground, much like petroleum is stored underground in a lot of places. This is why you need to separate it from the nitrogen in the air. There just isn't enough space to store both the CO2 and the nitrogen, and also it is expensive to pump stuff underground. Another issue is that it is unclear how long storing CO2 will last in the ground, since it more or less needs to be done indefininately.

Finally, since 35% of our energy use is from cars driving down the road, and it is impossible to capture that CO2. So Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) from the source still won't do everything we need.

Direct Capture
The next idea is to capture CO2 directly from the air. We have increased CO2 in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million (.028%) 400ppm. The idea of direct capture is to do the opposite. Draw down the CO2 and then store it somewhere. Some might suggest we store it in trees, but that is an awful lot of trees, and unless we bury them trees somewhere underground, they are just gonna get consumed by bacteria and become CO2 again. Other options are to mechanically and chemically separate CO2 from the air, and them store it underground as above. This is very expensive. It might work in the future, but for now it won't.

The bonus of this, if it ever works, is that it is the best way to reverse our issues from an engineering standpoint. We can turn back the clock.

Stratospheric Injection

Injecting small sulfur or other particles into the atmosphere cools the entire globe by reflecting some small portion of sunlight before it hits the rest of the Earth. We know this cause when mountains like Pinatubo and St. Helens explode, they launch particles into the stratosphere and we get a cold year.

SO2 increase in the stratosphere by exploding volcano

Some people have suggested that we could do this. Just inject stuff into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight. The problem? It turns out that everything small enough to cause the proper scattering just happens to be the right size to promote adsorption of water particles. Which then allows for rapid recycling of CFCs in the stratosphere.

"But Jason," you say, "I thought recycling was good!"

Recycling plastics is good. Stratospheric recycling of CFCs is bad. Cause what happens is a CFC reacts with ozone, breaking it apart, wrecking the ozone layer, and then usually is all like, "Man, I am exhausted from catalyzing that reaction, I am gonna take a break." But that water that adsorbed onto our reflective particle provides an excellent place for it to re-radicalize. Which means it is ready to take out another Ozone particle. That's right, our CFC goes to chill out on some water droplets, effectively taking a restful timeout at a pool, and gets ready for work again destroying the ozone layer.

Let's pull this all back together. We try to put stuff in the upper stratosphere, if could make CFCs more effective at destroying the ozone layer, and then we are all screwed in a much much larger way than climate change. Cause the ozone layer is what protects us from getting fried by a lot of UV rays.

Here's where things get fun. Imagine you are a small country of 1 million people living on an island. And that island is going to get inundated with water in 20 years unless climate change is reversed. You don't give a damn about a chance of destroying the ozone layer. You only care about saving your people and your country. Stratospheric injection isn't exactly nuclear science. We aren't going to have rogue nations stumbling through how to do this, and failing all the time.

I'll leave you to ponder what all that means, cause it is more fun that way, and we are already at 1200 words.

The upshot of this is that it also fails to solve the acidifying of the ocean, we don't know how well it will work, and we don't know what will go wrong.

Solar Reflector

Another idea is to put huge mirrors in space and reflect a chunk of the sunlight coming in. This could work. Wasn't this a plot in some Bond movie, though? Also, it would be mad expensive. Probably much more expensive than some other options. And much like the option directly above, we still acidify the ocean.

Review

Hokay, so. Most of the technologies for fixing our problem don't exist, don't work, are too expensive, or could kill us all. And if they do work in the future, they won't solve all the problems we are creating. Even the one that does solve all the problems, direct capture from the atmosphere, won't do crap for our plight if we rely on that alone. As a species, we can easily outstrip any CO2 removal measures just by burning more things. Even if after rigorous testing proved all these work, we would need to some combination together to get anywhere. And even with that, we need to reduce the continued growth of emissions worldwide, otherwise no science or engineering solution will stop climate change.

Depressing, eh?

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

Other Alternatives

Here we will cover a few more electricity producing alternatives, specifically geothermal in its different flavors, and the waste of money that is tidal power. Before that, let's make a quick roadmap of what we have covered, where that is going, and what we haven't yet covered.

Pretty much, we have talked about electricity producing resources. We have only briefly touched on energy as a whole. In the US, for example, 35% of all energy use is petroleum for transportation. None of the stuff we have discussed is useful to replace that without better battery technology. Nonetheless, it is likely that at some point in the next century, much of our domestic energy needs, including transport, will be covered by electricity. And we will require a lot more of it. An upcoming post will assess all the different tech for producing energy we have discussed, and which ones can be potential solutions.

Geothermal

Geothermal energy exists because it gets hot underground. In general, the temperature of the Earth rises by 30 degrees C for every km you go underground. This temperature increase in depth is called the geothermal gradient. If you go 7km underground, you are pretty much guaranteed temperatures of higher than 200 degrees C. Which, as we all know, is hot enough to boil water. 7km underground is pretty deep, however. In some places, the underground is much hotter. The temperature rises much more rapidly. It could be due to volcanic activity in the area, or radioactive decay underground. Either way, when hot temperatures are closer to the surface, that heat can be harnessed to drive a turbine.

Map of the geothermal resources available in the US. In general, this represents areas of higher temperature gradients.

Geothermal comes in two main flavors. One directly harnesses the steam from the ground to produce electricity (called flash steam, cause the pressurized hot water comes out, flashes to steam at atmospheric pressure, and drives a turbine), the other uses a heat-transfer mechanism where pressurized hot water from the subsurface (it needs to be pressurized, because it is above the boiling point of water at atmospheric pressure) is run through a set of heat-exchanging pipes before being put back underground. There is a third type discussed later in the article called hot dry rock.

Surprisingly, the first mechanism of directly using steam, in practice, is unsustainable and produces pollution. This is because the used steam is often vented to the atmosphere. The steam produced underground has pollutants. Like CO2 and sulfur, amongst other things. If the steam is used directly in a turbine and then expelled to the atmosphere, these pollutants come with it. If the used steam is instead re-injected into the formation, this problem is avoided.

Reinjecting the steam is easier and more common in the heat-exchange mechanism. The super heated stream of steam from underground is already isolated, and re-injection is pretty simple.

And here comes the fun part. If the steam is used and then vented rather than reinjected, the formation will run out of water. Instead of being a renewable resource, the geothermal will be a depletable resource that will only last for 10 or 20 years. This is because the pressure of the formation will drop, and the steam will no longer be able to rise. Does this sound familiar? Oil and gas production need to do this all the time to get maximum recovery rates. Reinjection of fluids is rather easy, and has been pretty well developed by the oil and gas industry.

Hot Dry Rock

The next major innovation takes a cue from the oil and gas industry. Hot dry rock is exactly what it sounds like. The rock starts off hot and dry. It has plenty of heat in it, but there is no steam or water to produce and then make energy from. How is this dealt with? Hydrofracking and injection. A well is drilled, the drill hole goes horizontal, it is fracked to drastically increase the surface area that the well hole can be exposed to, and water is injected into the rock. The water heats up a lot, then it is produced via a separate well to make steam. It is fairly complicated, and costs a lot more.

EGS

EGS stands for enhanced geothermal systems. You will run across this term a lot these days. It more or less means that the heat in the field is managed by either fracking beforehand, injecting water afterwards to maintain pressure in the field and extend the life of the geothermal power plant, or a combination of both. It drastically increases the lifetime and viability of a geothermal site.

Cost

The capital costs of geothermal pretty much will dictate the average cost of electricity produced. It looks like flashed steam will cost the least. In reality, unless the steam is reinjected afterwards, the field won't last as long, and the capital investment costs will have to be paid out over a shorter period of time, resulting in higher costs. Hot dry rock will undoubtedly always remain more expensive because of the costs associated with fracking and reinjection.

Footprint and other

Most of our power plants produce heat above ground, and need storage for either spent nuclear fuel or a coal pile (except for gas plants. They just need pipelines). So geothermal power plants don't take up a ton of space

fun uses of geothermal: geothermal heat is produced and used in Iceland to melt snow on the roads and such.

Tidal

I tend to think that tidal power sucks. In part because it is very expensive, and in part because at best it could provide all of 1% of world electricity.

Tidal power has two main problems: it uses salt water and it has only a few areas that it will work. There needs to be tides of sufficient strength that it can produce electricity, and even then, salt water is corrosive, limiting the lifetime of these power plants and making the levelized capital cost very high.

Tidal power also comes in two main flavors. One is tidal impoundment. Think of it as creating a hydroelectric dam every time the tide goes out. The tide comes in, fills up the area behind the impoundment dam, and then as the tide goes out, the area behind the impoundment dam is filled, and as it flows out, it generates electricity. As you recall from the hydropower article, the energy produced from a hydro dam directly relates to its height. The height of a tidal impoundment dam is limited by the height of the tide. In most parts of the world, this is not very high, so it is not very efficient. Moreover, it kinda messes with natural habitats.

The other type of tidal power is more or less an underwater wind turbine. The problem is that all the moving parts are underwater in the ocean. Where decay and breakdown happens quickly. Moreover, looking at the equation of energy produced via such a turbine:

 E = \frac{1}{2} A \rho v^3

where A is area, and v is velocity,

we quickly realize that the area of the rotor for a tidal turbine is small (wind turbines have 40m blades, and we aren't gonna have 80m of water depth in most places to replicate that scale in tidal areas), and the speed is slower (water doesn't flow at 6-8m/s very often). Tidal power can't scale and produce as much energy as wind. And the environment is unfavorable. In short, this is not a viable resource for large-scale energy production. And it costs a lot.

Hokay, that is all for today! Thanks for reading!

-Jason Munster