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.

Climate Change 2

I am not expert on different effects of climate change. But I do know a good smattering of random things. More importantly, several of my coworkers in grad school are at the forefront of the research of a lot of things here.

Here are some events relating to climate change, with indications of how much I think I know about it. So, for these things, I will have a title, than a 5 star rating for my level of confidence in the material I am presenting. 5/5 means I think I know a whole lot, 4/5 means I know what a grad student in a related field should know, and I probably am friends with one of the experts in the field, 3/5 means I am conversant in it, 2/5 means I understand it a little and have seen the math, 1/5 means I have heard of it and think it is worth mentioning.  It is important to note that anything rated 1 or 2 should be taken with a grain of salt, and should absolutely not be cited. I don't really know much about these things, other than they are possible.

Melting Ice Sheets -  3/5

A snapshot of the Arctic sea ice extent from June 2013. Area of sea ice has decreased over time

A snapshot of the Arctic sea ice extent from June 2013. Area of sea ice has decreased over time

It seems like every summer, the news programs get all abuzz over the Arctic ice extent. No matter which way it goes, they get excited. The extent is literally the surface area that this ice covers. But as we discussed on an early post about thermodynamics, the amount of heat energy you have to pump into a system does not relate to its surface area, but instead to its volume, since volume is directly related to mass. And the story of ice volume yearly minimum is more telling: the minimum ice volume in the summer has decreased by a factor of nearly 50% over the past 5 years. In other words, half of the summer ice is gone.

The areal extent of ice seems somewhat erratic. The volume measurement of arctic ice over the last 5 years is a much more important measurement

What happens when the ice goes away?

Albedo changes - everyone knows about this, so I won't rate my knowledge here. In the last post, I mentioned that ice reflects 90% of light energy, and water absorbs 90%. If the sea ice disappears, more heat can be absorbed and trapped by the Earth, causing warming to happen more quickly.

Shortwave radiation is high-energy radiation from the sun. Longwave is infrared that comes off from Earth. Ice reflects shortwave (sun) radiation.

Stronger temperature changes in high latitudes

As the planet warms, the warming will be more felt in the high latitudes (ie the Arctic and Antarctic). As you can guess, this will have feedbacks with the ice melting and albedo changes.

Projected temperature increases show that the high latitudes will have far more profound temperature increases under climate change.

The habitats of the Arctic will present another positive feedback - 5/5

This is what I study directly. I don't model this, I measure it. Well, my team does. I am a small part of that. In normal biomes, plants pull CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into plant matter. A lot of this is leaves or grass and such. They then die, fall to the ground, and get consumed by bacteria or oxidized to become CO2 again. So most of the CO2 consumed by plants and such is recycled back into the atmosphere.

In cold places, it is different. Moss and grass grow in the summer (no trees, permafrost prevents them from ever taking root). Much of this after it dies does not get recycled to CO2 again,cause the freeze already happened and it is too cold for the stuff to become CO2. This has happened in the Arctic for 300,000 years or more. In the first 3 meters of Arctic soil, there is enough undigested carbon to double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Obviously it won't all release at once, and most of it may not release. But even if a part of a percent started being released per year, it would match mankind's CO2 emissions. This hasn't started happening yet, but if it did, we'd want to work fast to reverse it if we hope to prevent climate change from jumping into a strong positive feedback loop that we cannot control.

More on this later, when I describe my actual research and what I do day to day.

Weather patterns change - 1/5

I can barely even hand-wave at this one. The ocean strongly influences atmospheric circulation patterns. Hurricanes, for instance, always form over the ocean. This is because the ocean has a ton of thermal momentum (it doesn't change temperature at the same rate as the atmosphere) and the top layer of it is well-mixed, so even if the top few inches warm up, it will rapidly be cooled off by the water beneath. The atmosphere has much less thermal momentum, mostly because it is far less dense than water. So what happens when you have an ice cap? The water-atmosphere interaction is cut off. The water is sealed away from the atmosphere, and suddenly the ocean stops controlling wind patterns and such. And then very large-scale atmosphere-driven wind patterns can develop without ocean waters impeding it. This leads to wacky weather. Like increased snow in winter at mid-latitudes, and much more variable weather. This is why we now call it climate change instead of global warming. Some places will get cooler, but the variability of weather patterns will increase because of this sort of event. Like in Boston on May 2th where we broke the record low, and then on may 29th we broke the record high. Yay more climate variability.

Drought in the US. Much of the west coast is short of water.

Drought in the US. Much of the west coast is short of water.

In addition to weather variability, some trends will be more pronounced. Dry seasons will be more dry and last longer. Rainy seasons will have more intense storms. This can be a problem, cause droughts prevent agriculture from working.

Which leads to:

Increases in Floods and Droughts - 2/5

There are floods called 100-year floods, cause they should only happen once every 100 years. Areas of Australia had two 100-year floods in a decade. This is because climate change will make large weather events, like floods and droughts, a lot more frequent.

Torrential rains flood Australia pretty frequently these days. Expect more of this in many parts of the world as climate change takes hold.

Melting Glaciers 4/5 (I hang out with the world experts on this all the time, cause they are cool)

Did you know that everything with mass exerts a gravitational force. Yes, hard to believe, but it is true! And it turns out that mountains and glaciers exert a sideways gravitational force. One that is strong enough to pull water from the oceans towards them. In other words, if the Greenland ice sheet melts, the sea level Greenland would actually drop. And the sea level around India, Africa, and South America would rise a more than you would expect. So instead of seeing 7m of sea level rise from all of Greenland melting, they might see 8m. In other words, all the poor countries that didn't put the GHGs in the atmosphere, and also cannot afford to prepare for the rise, will take the brunt of this one.

Disease - 1/5

Many people predict that certain diseases will become more rampant. Like how trees are getting destroyed all over California, because certain tree-eating bacterias and insects can survive in the slightly warmer weather. More trees and plants will die, yes. The disease part is a bit questionable how it will work. Diseases of many times will shift where they work, but it won't necessarily expand it. But just think about how much fun most of my readers (predominantly American) will have if Malaria creeps north into a bunch of our states. Overall, though, the jury is still out on this one.

Food Production difficulties - 2/5

Many staple grains, like corn and wheat, won't grow as easily if the temperature rises even 2 or 3 C. The world food supply could easily run short, especially with the combination of increasing population from 7 to 9 billion over the next 40 years or so, and the fact that as much of the world gets wealthier, they want more meat. Why is the meat thing an issue? It takes about 40 lbs. of grains and such to make 1 lbs. of cow meat. For pigs, it is much better, with a ratio of about 8. Cause pigs are excellent at turning calories into food for us. Yet another reason to like bacon, eh?

Anyways, food supplies will become more strained. It could be a very serious issue. People might fight over it. By people, I mean countries.

Also interesting, I sometimes brew beer with a guy who is one of the experts on this.

Wrapping up

I have only touched on a few things here. As more come up, I will update this post and tell people to check it out. Before leaving, let's review some of this stuff.

Wealthy countries by and large have pushed a ton of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is causing climate change. Because of how gravity and glaciers work, climate change is going to effect predominantly Southern hemisphere countries. In other words, South America, Africa, areas around India, etc. Pretty much, it is going to have a more profound effect on the countries that can't afford to build walls around their cities to hold back water, and can't throw money and science at the problems as easily. Climate change already punishes poor countries cause they cannot afford to deal with the changes, but the melting glaciers problem exacerbates their situation.

One great example: If emissions of greenhouse gases are not somewhat arrested and sea level rises 1m, at least 17 million people in Bangladesh will find themselves inundated. Where are they going to go? They are surrounded by an ocean, India, Burma, and a whole slew of mountains called the Tibetan Plateau (think Himalayan mountains). India doesn't want them, they are already crowded. Burma is rather hostile. Sending 17 million climate refugees anywhere is likely to cause a problem. And that is just one country.

Hokay, that was depressing to write. To end on a cheery note, climate change will make the weather in both Canada and Siberia much nicer. Also, when the ice caps melt in the Arctic, international trade will have all new sorts of inexpensive ways to move around! This will prove useful.

Oh, one the thing.

The Arctic has a ton of resources that can be mined / produced. So when that ice melts, there will be a wealth a resources. And probably a lot of fighting over said resources.

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:

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

 

Hydraulic Fracturing!

Fractured Shale and pipe

Schematic of what hydrofracking does to the surrounding rock. Source

This is one of my favorite topics! Hydrofracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) is used to extract both natural gas (Barnett and Marcellus Shales) and oil (Bakken Shale, a few other places) from regions that used to be too dense to extract hydrocarbons from, or that would otherwise not produce much.

These dense rocks, called “tight formations” (formations meaning rock beds, tight meaning not having connected holes) are not permeable enough for hydrocarbons to move out of them at high flow rates. (Permeability means fluids can flow through something. Paper towel is permeable, plastic is not.) Believe it or not, many types of rocks are very permeable. They have lots of interconnected cracks. Shale is not such a rock. It may have space inside it with oil or gas, but these spaces are not connected by the cracks that would allow these hydrocarbons to flow out to a well. A well drilled vertically into this shale would produce almost nothing. These hydrocarbons stayed in the ground. Hydrofracking changed that.

Hydrofracking

Hydrofracking, in short, is exploding cracks and holes in the ground with shaped charges and water and then pounding sand into those holes. Hydrofracking requires 2 to 3 million gallons of water and 2 to 3 million pounds of sand per well.

Hydraulic Fracturing first requires drilling a hole in the ground. These holes can be kilometers deep. The advent of horizontal drilling allows for drilling horizontally by bending the steel tubes of the well. Sounds crazy that steel can bend? Given 300 feet of pipe, the steel pipes can bend  at a right angle. Horizontal drilling can cost up to 4x what normal drilling costs, so it is only used in places where it can greatly increase production. Like hydrofracking applications, where it makes a well go from zero production to up to 2000 barrels of oil per day.

This is where the magic happens. Formations that hold oil and natural gas are often horizontal. First a vertical well is drilled, then it goes horizontal for up to 10km. For hydraulic fracturing, shaped charges are planted inside the pipe in the horizontal section. They are then directionally exploded into the rock, creating large cracks in the rock extending away from the pipeline.

Next they pressurize a viscous fluid and cram it into the drilled hole using dozens of pumps to create massive pressure. This process can take dozens of trucks work of fluid, pipelines, and pumps. The trucks gang-pump fluid into the hole. The fluid finds the cracks in the pipe and rock made by the shaped charges. The fluid rips through the rock, rending the cracks, expanding them in length and volume and connecting them. These cracks become very widespread. The former tight shale or sandstone formation that prevented the flow of fluids is now a series of connected cracks leading to the pipeline. Fluids can flow.

Hydrofracking pump trucks

Dozens of hydrofracking trucks pump hydrofracking fluid into the hole. Source.

When the hydrofracking fluid is drained, the cracks can close up again. To prevent this, something called a proppant is used. A proppant props open the cracks, much like leaving a door stopper in your door. Typically sand was used for this, but new proppants with special shapes and properties are being used as well, like ceramic beads covered in resin for deeper wells. The proppant is put in at the same time as the hydrofracking fluid. When the trucks reverse the flow of hydrofracking fluid and pump it back out, the proppant remains behind.

Fracking Proppant

Proppants hold the cracks open after the hydrofracking fluid is drained. Source

Proppants hold open the rock and allow flow, but this is not permanent. Flow reduces over time. The first year after hydrofracking happens is the most productive. Drilling and hydrofracking a hole, then closing it, reduces the hydrocarbons you will get out of the hole compared to drilling and pumping. If you frack a hole and then close it, the hole will ultimately produce a lot less hydrocarbons than if you drill and pump. In other words, once you have fracked, you gotta make use of that hole or you will lose a lot of money.

Natural Gas hydrofracking

Natural gas hydrofracking in the US is one of the more polarizing topics. The chemicals in fracking fluid are of such low concentration that it does not matter if it gets in the local water supplies. But they mix concentrated versions of these incredibly toxic chemicals into the fracking fluid. In other words, the fracking fluid may not be toxic, but the pure chemicals they keep on-site to mix into these trucks sure are. If any of this leaks into the environment (it has), it can be quite damaging. One can hope that this sort of thing is both rare, and well-controlled in the future.

There is the leaking associated with hydrofracking for natural gas. Howarth (2012) estimated there is an upper limit of 8% of methane leaking from natural gas extraction and transport for hydrofracking. Given the factor of 23 greenhouse warming potential of methane, this is a problem. Compounding the problem is that mineral and resource policy are states rights in the US.  NY and PA do not have the law history in place or the resources to figure out how to deal with the potential pollution from fracking, nor the resources to enforce the policy. This, in part, is why fracking has been stalled in the Marcellus in many places.

Oil hydrofracking

The Bakken formation. Here the sandstone contains the oil. It is sandwiched between two impermeable layers of shale.

The Bakken formation. Here the sandstone contains the oil. It is sandwiched between two impermeable layers of shale.

There are other important implications for fracking specific to oil production. In order to drill, a company has to lease drilling rights. When a company leases drilling rights, they have obligations to produce certain amounts of hydrocarbons within a short time-frame, or they lose the lease. So they drill. A lot. Remember how we talked about holes losing productivity over time? Once a fracked hole is open, they are unlikely to close it. The problem? In the Bakken shale, they co-produce natural gas with oil. There is no infrastructure to pipe the natural gas away. They burn it instead. Some of it may leak. In other words, they are producing massive amounts of pollutants and GHGs. North Dakota does not have the ability to quickly build infrastructure to capture and transport this natural gas. And North Dakota doesn’t quite have a population that is accustomed to or capable of having a lot of bureaucracy to deal with these issues and enforcing policy. It’ll be a while before this is handled. In the meantime, North Dakota will light up the night sky like a mega-metropolis.

Bakken at night edit

The flaring of natural gas 24/7 in Bakken makes North Dakota look like it has one of the largest cities in the US. If you look at the picture below, you can see a stark contrast.

 

That light in North Dakota didn't used to be there. Courtesy Nasa

Implications

You may have heard that Hydrofracturing for natural gas is a phenomenon that is not repeatable outside the US. This is untrue. It likely cannot be repeated in Europe, but China is just discovering shale gas deposits that could rival or outsize that of the US. There are also likely large deposits in Africa. As far as shale oil goes (not to be confused with oil shale!), it is also likely available outside the US. We are just really good at getting stuff out of the ground here.

You may have also heard that this could make the US energy independent by 2035. If we don't grow our appetite for oil, this could possibly happen. It is unlikely, but that is a topic for later. The US is already one of the largest producers of oil on the planet. Is this a good thing? It is a mixed bag. It will definitely be a boon to the economy if we are not sending nearly $1 billion a day overseas to satiate our demand for oil (we use 18 million barrels a day in the US, importing 10 million of those @ $100/barrel, or a billion dollars a day). It would not prevent the middle east from getting a ton of money from oil still, as Asia and Europe will still buy all the middle east oil. It likely won't decrease the price of gas in the US, since any increase we make in production will be matched or outstripped by increased demand in China (1.3 billion people), then India (1.2 billion people), then Africa (2 billion people) in the 2nd half of the century. In other words, it won't change much on a world scale. Producing this much oil domestically also will keep the US addicted to oil, rather than transitioning to cleaner energy sources and more rational lifestyles that don't burn tons of resources. But the whole quarter of a trillion dollars per year that we aren't sending overseas, if handled properly, could easily boost our economy and help subsidize our way out of oil addiction. It's clearly a thorny topic, and beyond the scope of this post.

Conclusions

Fracking will change the energy landscape in the US by providing a lot more natural gas and oil domestically. It has downsides, from increased flaring of natural gas to domestic pollution, but it does have upsides that can be harnessed for the good of our future.

Coal Power Plants

Expect a lot of updates on this post. Thanks to Buck Farmer, who told me that I needed to learn LaTeX to make this prettier.

COAL FIRED POWER PLANTS

A coal fired power plant.

Coal fired power: it provides a lot of our energy, is less expensive than petroleum by far, makes cheap electricity, and causes all sorts of health ailments and pollution. Coal power plants produce particulate matter, sulfur pollution, and other pollution, resulting in deleterious health effects.

Coal fired power plants provide a huge chunk of the world’s energy. It provided almost 50% of US electricity in 2009. Today, the math section is a review of how much energy is in coal, how much coal we need to operate a single power plant, and how much coal we need to operate all the coal fired power plants in the US and China.

The topic of coal fired power plants used to be simple. Thanks to fracking, natural gas prices are now approaching coal prices. This post is written with 2009 information. It is largely relevant today, but this landscape may change in a few years as more power is produced via natural gas in the US. Suffice it to say that natural gas has become considerably cheaper in the US:

Oil be getting expensive, NG be getting cheap!

The price ratio per unit of heat in natural gas prices compared to oil in the US. The ratio used to be around 1. Now you get a lot more heat out of natural gas per dollar, thanks to the abundance from hydrofracking.

We will discuss this more in a future post.

Maths! Warning, this is pretty shocking!

High grade coal has an energy density of about 32MJ/kg (For our math, lets assume the best coal is used everywhere. In reality it is about 24, so my world with coal is 33% nicer than the real world). Compare this to a gallon of gasoline, from my very first post, at 120MJ. A gallon of gas weighs about 3kg, with an energy density of 40MJ/kg, slightly higher than coal, or nearly twice as high an energy density of a majority of coal.

A watt is a joule per second. A megawatt is a megajoule per second. A coal fired power plant can produce 1GW per second, which would be a gigajoule expended per second. But remember from our thermal efficiency post, these powerplants are not all that efficient! Let’s say a coal one averages 35% for thermal efficiency.

 

Coal_eqn1

31.25kg of coal used per second to produce 1GW of heat! But remember from the thermal plants post, thermal plants tend to only be about 35-40% efficient!

Coal_eqn2

A 1000MW coal fired power plant burns nearly 200 lbs of coal PER SECOND to provide power. That is my weight in coal for every second.

Let’s continue blowing your mind. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, yes? (yes).

Coal_eqn3

2.8 megatons of coal per year for a single coal-fired powerplant! Okay, 200 lbs. per second leaves a bigger impression. Here is another way to look at it. How much coal does it take to keep a 100W lightbulb lit for a year?

Coal_eqn4

 

280kg! Per year! This is about 2 lbs. of coal per day to power a 100W lightbulb. “But Jason,” you say, “We don’t get all our electricity from coal!” This is also true. We get almost ½ of our electricity from coal. But say ½ is from coal, the other ½ is from hydro power. If you turn off your light, we get back the ½ from coal, saving a pound of coal from being burnt. What about the ½ from hydro? Welp, that can go and power another light. The ½ of the light that would have been powered by coal. So yeah, even though ½ of our power comes from coal, the opportunity cost of using that light is the equivalent of getting all of it from coal.

Let me repeat that. If you have a 100W incandescent bulb, and you leave it on for a day, you just burnt 2 lbs. of coal. Good job. If turning off your lights to save on electricity is not enough to get you to shut em off, just picture that much coal burning to keep that light on. Your laptop computer uses about 2-3 pounds if it runs the entire day. Your TV, if left on, will burn more like 10 lbs. of coal a  day.

One last part. China provided 500GW of coal power provided in 2012. The US provided 200GW in 2009 (note: thanks to shale gas and fracking and using the gas to produce electricity, the amount provided by coal has dropped!). 200GW of coal power in the US means 600 megatons of coal per year in the US using our numbers, and 1500 megatons of coal in China. And remember, my numbers are rosier than the real world.

Turn off your lights.

The qualitative stuff!

Emissions from coal-fired power plants, and health trade-offs

Smog. Not fun to breath.

Burning coal emits sulfur (which can be mitigated through special filters, but often is not), CO2, NO and NO2, mercury (also can be mitigated, usually is in the US), other metals, and fine particles (called PM2.5 and PM10 for Particulate Matter of radius 2.5 microns and less, and radius 10 microns or less, respectively). Sulfur causes irritation and lung problems, smog, and acid rain. CO2 and NOx contribute to global warming, NOx also to smog. Mercury emissions are the reason we can no longer eat fish every day. PM2.5 causes cancer, asthma, and severe lung problems. Coal power plant emissions can lead to ozone at ground level, which causes smog and serious respiration issues.

Later we will discuss black carbon vs. sulfur here, since they have opposite effects on regional warming vs. cooling. Today we discuss the health effects of a coal fired power plant.

In the US, where coal-fired power is relatively clean, it causes tens of thousands of deaths per year. It causes hundreds of thousands of heart attacks, asthma attacks, ER visits, and hospital admissions per year. A compilation of EPA and heavily peer-reviewed articles estimates 13,200 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks were caused by coal-fired power plants in 2010. In 2004, before the EPA starting getting aggressive, these numbers looked like 24,000 deaths per year in the US.  The rate of asthma is drastically increased in the area of coal fired power plants. The US even then had relatively stringent requirements on power plants. When you factor in the population and lax controls of countries like China and India, I have heard estimates of premature deaths caused globally by coal fired power to be in the millions, and even larger numbers for asthma.These adverse effects are much more likely to be caused by the wealthy regions that use more electricity per capita than the poor regions that host the power plants and the adverse effects. In other words, the electricity used by large mansions in wealthy neighborhoods often comes from powerplants placed near poor neighborhoods.

The coal used by the US and China directly contribute to global warming on a huge scale. In a future post that describes the composition of the atmosphere and how greenhouse gases work, we’ll get directly into those numbers.

Satellite image of pollution in China. From: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=76935

Beijing's got a bit of a particulates in the air in the winter. I was in an airplane in Beijing on this day. They announced "The fog is too thick to take off." Except it was below freezing and the air was dessicated, making fog unlikely.
A more clear day near Beijing

 

Let’s be pragmatic for a second.What’s worse than deaths and heart attacks caused by coal-fired power? Not having electricity to power your hospitals and other vital services. If you are a poor or developing country that can’t afford fancy nuclear or renewable electricity, and you don’t have access to hydro power, putting up a coal plant to power cities enough for basic services is a no-brainer.  Wealthier countries have a choice: suffer the pollution, or spend more money and avoid it by building more expensive yet cleaner electricity sources. The US as a whole can easily afford to do this. Pakistan and India? Not so much.

Take-aways: Turn your lights off, they require a lot of coal. Avoid breathing or raising children near coal-fired reactors.

-Jason Munster

Base load electricity vs Peak Load

Base load Electricity vs. Peak Electricity

I was writing a post about how a coal fired power plant works, and then realized that I needed to describe more about our electrical power grid and how each power component fits into it. Also, speaking of power grids, there is an excellent game called Power Grid that anyone who knows me should come over and play.

Base load electricity!

Electricity_demand_profile_NE

Pictured above is the electricity demand for an October day in New England. Notice that throughout the middle of the night, the electricity demand is roughly 10GW. Throughout the day it ramps past 15GW. Base load electricity in this case is 10GW. It is the minimum amount of electricity needed at any point. All power plants that provide base load electricity will run 24 hours a day. Base load power plants need to be very reliable so they don’t shut down unexpectedly.

Base load electricity requirements do change throughout the year. During the sweltering summer in southern states, air conditioners are constantly on, drawing more electricity in the summer. In some countries, there is not enough base load electricity to provide electricity in the worst months. In Pakistan, for instance, there will not be viable electricity more than 4 hours per day for several months. We will return to base load electricity soon.

Peak electricity is whatever is above base load. In the above figure, it is the all the extra stuff from 10GW to 15GW. Peaking power presents special challenges, because it can be unpredictable. If the temperature is several degrees warmer in a summer afternoon, the peak electricity requirements can be greater than predicted. Power plants that are capable of ramping up power quickly will compensate for peak electricity demand. “Ramp Rate” is the MW per minute a turbine can spin up at. This ramp rate is important, and we will get back to that almost immediately.

A brief interlude on cost! Base load electricity tends to be pretty cheap. A base load plant will not get paid as much for electricity. Peaking plants are designed to turn on only when electricity is more in demand. This means they get to charge more! A peaking power plant will figuratively not get out of bed in the morning for less than 50% above base load electricity rates.

Okay so here is where things get somewhat more complicated. Some power plants can never be taken offline in short order (think nuclear). Thermal power plants tend to take longer to create enough heat and steam to spin up their turbines, including both coal and nuclear, and some types of natural gas. Anything that takes a long time to spin up is meant for base load power.

A nuclear power plant with the nuclear plant (small rectangle buildings and one cylindrical building) and a cooling tower (big steaming parabolic-shaped tower). Nuclear power plants never shut down, except to change fuel rods.

A nuclear power plant with the nuclear plant (small rectangle buildings and one cylindrical building) and a cooling tower (big steaming parabolic-shaped tower). Nuclear power plants never shut down, except to change fuel rods.

Other types spin up very quickly. For some, like natural gas plants that are designed to deal only with the peak electricity use, a typical turbine can ramp at a massive 20MW per minute (most plants have several turbines, and can ramp at multiples of 20MW!). Why don’t we use these for base load, since they seem so flexible? These fast-ramping systems are not designed to be always-on. They accrue damage if they do not have downtime.

Let’s talk about renewables. A power plant has to produce either base load or peaking electricity on demand to be useful. We have the magic of hydro electricity. It combines a very high ramp rate, and also capable of maintaining base load electricity.  Wind and solar at first seem terrible. They only work when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. So they cannot provide either base load or peaking electricity, right? Fortunately, this is not correct. Due to complexities we will discuss in later posts, wind and solar can be installed and paired with each other and with other tech to produce somewhat reliable base load electricity or peak electricity.

One example? When does electricity demand peak in the summer?

If you said when it gets hot and air conditioners work harder and draw more electricity, you are onto something. And it gets hot when the sun shines. Put some solar panels on your roof, and you see your solar panel electricity production rise coinciding with your need for more electricity for house cooling.

Every power plant type has important considerations for peak load vs. base load. As we look at each in turn, it will become apparent how important this distinction is.

One last thing before closing. How do power plants figure out when to turn on? In New England, we have a group called ISO New England. It projects electricity demand based upon yearly trends (people consume a ton of electricity over holidays, and at different time periods!) and upon weather forecasts. Each day, every power plant puts in a bid for how many cents per kilowatt hour they need to turn on. In other words, it’s the figurative “price per kwh to get out of bed.” If demand is projected to rise to such a point that the bid for a plant is met, that plant will turn on once the price hits that. This is confusing. Let’s use an example.

We have three power plants in our imaginary tiny country. Since I keep bringing up this country, I am going to call is JasonLand (for now). JasonLand currently has a coal fired plant, a nuclear plant, and a natural gas plant designed for peaking. The nuclear plant cannot shut down. It will literally bid -$0.50/kwh to  ensure that no matter how low the price is, it will produce electricity. Our coal-fired power plant is baseload, but will shut down on days when it is not needed. It will bid $0.07/kwh. As soon as the price rises above this, it will start up (this is simplified, starting a coal power plant takes a long time). Our peaking gas plant will bid in at $0.11/kwh. Once people get home and need more power, or when it is a really hot day, our peaking gas plant will spin up its turbines rapidly.

So how do these bids work? How much does each plant get paid? As demand rises, price rises, and the power plant earns more for every kwh. Our nuclear power plant will make a small amount in the middle of the night, and make more during the daytime. I’ll leave you to ponder why a power plant would choose to not run until a certain payment threshold is hit.

Because I can’t help myself, let’s close with a tiny bit of math. A realistic price for energy in New England is about $0.15/kwh. To make it easy, let’s convert to $150,000/gwh*. A nuclear plant is about 1gw. It will produce 24 gwh of electricity in a day. That is $3,600,000 in revenue per day. Every week it earns nearly $25 million. I hope at this point any regular reader is beginning to get a sense of how staggering numbers associated with energy use are.

Thanks for reading again!

Jason Munster

*Correction: original post was a factor of 10 short.