China's Water Shortage and Power Plants (their power plants definitely have a drinking problem)

In the previous post, I described how thermal power plants use a massive amount of water. This time we are going to explore a specific case. As usual, it's China.

Power plant water use can be a problem in a water-stricken area. Let's look at a case-study. China is a water-stricken area, and has a lot of thermal power plants. In fact, China uses more primary energy than any other country in the world. Unfortunately, their power plants are far less efficient than they should be. So they are wasting water, and this is unsustainable. Moreover, China has 1,350 million people. The US has 314 million.

First, let's look at the rainfall of China, compared to the US:

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Looks pretty similar, right? Now recall that the US has 1/4 the population of China. And pretty much the exact same amount of area. Keep that in mind while we look at China's powerplant locations:

 

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

So. The places that have the most people and need the most power are the same as the dry places. In other words, China is building the bulk of its thermal power plants in the area that can't provide sufficient water to cool the power plants.

Before coming to the complete picture, let's check out the water use:

Fresh Water Use in the US. source

Fresh Water Use in the US.
source

In the US, 80% of water use is to grow food and to make electricity.

Finally, where is all this water coming from? Rain alone isn't enough, it comes from the ground. Fresh water from the ground is not unlimited, and we are running out of it. It's called Fossil Water, and here is what the situation looks like in the US:

Water withdrawals in the US

In other words, a huge chunk of our country is relying on water that will not exist in a few decades.

And looking at China:

China's groundwater depletion rate

In the US, the scale of groundwater depletion tops out around 400 cubic kilometers. In china, it tops out at 3,000 in regions. That's not to say that the US won't run out. It just says that China is in serious trouble.

Again, 80% of water use is for electricity and agriculture. And China has 4x the people of the US. There is not sufficient water. Would you rather run out of electricity, or run out of food? It's not an easy choice, but food can be imported. That being said, someone has to grow the food, and that country better have a robust water supply. Moreover, food growth is a low income industry. A country that marries itself to being a food supplier, unless it charges gouging levels of prices, is marrying itself to never being a high-income country. But charging price-gouging levels is a bad idea.

While this mental exercise was fun, let's look at some examples.

First, while Californians probably shouldn't have been growing water-intensive almonds in a dessert in the first place, running out of water has imperilled the world supply of all sorts of nuts and things. They are tearing up their farms because of lack of water.

That's only the start. Drought in Syria helped bring about war there. Syria is a tiny country that doesn't matter on the world scheme. India, China, and Pakistan face water shortages. Combined, they have 1/3 the world population. They also happen to hate each other. As climate change progresses, and some countries face droughts, people may not want to choose between food and electricity. They may try to divert water supplies, sparking tensions and even war.

So. Does your power plant have a drinking problem? If you live in China, it definitely does, and it's causing all sorts of strife.

Wrapping it all together: Yes, a country can import food. But you know how much of the world relies on the middle east for oil, and we talk about energy security? That's just stuff that makes your cars move. Remember how Russia threatens to shut off natural gas to Europe if they don't get in line with Russia's plans, and so much of Europe is cowed? That stuff keeps homes warm, but it isn't as important as food. Imagine a powerful country that is mostly reliant on other countries for food to stay alive. That's a really bad situation. The country in this situation has to either take dictations from whoever feeds them (not really a problem if you are getting your food from non-powerful nations, but still irksome), or has to take over a food-producing country.

One potential solution: Chinese power plants are notoriously inefficient. If you have a 25% thermodynamically efficient powerplant, it uses 30% more water than a 37.5% efficient power plant. China should either shut down inefficient plants and require new construction that is efficient, or require retrofits of old plants. It would be very expensive, but less expensive than the social and political cost of running out of water too soon. What about the US? Most of our plants are pretty efficient already. Especially our Natural Gas plants that much of the country runs on. We probably spend too much water on watering desserts to make food, but that's another story.

An almost-final note. While solar power and wind power use water in construction, their water use is minimal compared to that of thermal power plants. Barring solar-thermal (it's thermal, it uses water), these renewable resources are the only answer to the reducing the choice between electricity and food. In other words, expansion of wind power and solar PV is the only cheat code we have to deal with this impending water shortage.

One last thing. Why did I single out China? Only because I know a lot about China. Pakistan will have water shortage issues, but they already don't have electricity. In the summer, they have blackouts for up to 20 hours a day cause they can't produce enough electricity. This is a country of 180 million people, bordering India, and sharing a strong mutual resentment with India. More on this later, though.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

The President's State of the Union Address. Geopolitics of Oil: Expanded US (and Russian) Oil Drilling and the Middle East's Bane.

source

An oil rig in the Bakken. This represents a massive shift of primary energy resource production power in the world. picture source

What do the price of oil, the president's state of the union address, and middle eastern stability have in common? In the address, the President talked about fighting climate change, but the US is going full-tilt towards more drilling. While this sounds like hypocrisy, it actually puts the US and the world in a better position to deal with climate change. Sounds crazy? Keep reading. Here's a hint though: What would happen if the price of oil dropped to $40 overnight? Much of the Middle East power structure would collapse.

The Science!  (skip this if you only care about what oil prices do for the Middle East)

Because this is a science blog, I am writing science stuffs here.

Hokay, the background. The world consumes around 90 million barrels of oil a day. How much of this does the US produce? Check out this graph:

 

Historic US oil production. Source is EIA

Historic US oil production. Source is EIA

I want to point out three things. First, in the 70s and 80s the US was one of the world's most prolific oil producing countries. A lot of this came from huge Texas fields, like Eagle Ford. And then the gigantic basins like Eagle Ford ran out of easily accessible oil, and US oil production collapsed. Now look at the ramp rate of production in the most recent years. The rate of increase in production is unprecedented. It's going up fast.

Next, lets focus on Texas and North Dakota:

North Dakota and Texas Oil Production

North Dakota and Texas Oil Production

Notice the massive rate of increase of production. From 2008 to 2012, Texas alone increased production so much that it provided an additional 2% of the world's oil. North Dakota is producing nearly 1 million barrels a day, or slightly more than 1% of the world oil. Together, they produce 3.75 million barrels per day, 4% of the world's oil.

Let's put this in perspective. Iran produces 4 million barrels a day. North Dakota and Texas alone produce nearly this much. Look at those growth rates. Are they showing any signs of slowing down? No. In other words, the US is rapidly becoming one of the world's most prolific producers of oil.

How'd this even happen? Hydrofracking and horizontal drilling. Earlier I said that Eagle Ford and such were played out. In reality, all the easy oil in it was pulled out. The remaining oil is like the Bakken: tight oil. Let me emphasize this:

Every single major play of the 70s and 80s is about to become a new Bakken.

That means going back to the days when the US was the largest oil producer in the world. That means Russia is also going to be able to ramp up production, once they figure out how to hydrofrack.

So the price of oil is going to drop in the future.

What This Means for Politics and the Middle East;

Expansion of drilling in the US and Russia will have two major effects. The first is that we will no longer rely on oil from the Middle East to supply the world markets. In this case, the world will care less about stability in the middle east. To the point where the world would just let the Middle East burn, just like we let happen in Africa today (except for Israel, I would guess)

This would mean less military spending, which would in turn mean more domestic investment (or lower taxes, but our ailing infrastructure and gutted R&D budget really could stand to be brought back up to where it was when the US rose to become the world's only superpower).

The second implication of this glut of oil is much more far-reaching. It means is lower oil prices worldwide. If oil drops below $75 a barrel, even Saudi Arabia struggles. It'll be hard for the Middle East to make trouble when they cannot afford to. Now let's say hypothetically that Iran funds terrorist groups (I haven't researched this and don't know whether it is true, so it's a hypothetical). If the price of oil drops to the point where they can no longer profitably produce, then suddenly our hypothetical country cannot fund terrorism. And we save moneys from no longer needing as much anti-terrorism programming.

In other words, we save money because we won't be sending military to the middle east, and because terrorism will potentially be more poorly funded.  

Let's sum up: produce more oil, the price of oil drops, countries and companies make less money from oil (mostly countries, companies have a way of maximizing profits pretty well), since countries have less money, they can't push their state agendas as much.

Wrapping This Up

So, pretty much, drill more in the US (where we can regulate emissions), save a ton of American (and European) money by no longer having to make sure there is peace around oil resources, use that money to fix all the problems we've created with the environment. In other words, more drilling is a potential long-term solution because it will eventually free up more funds in the federal budget.

It's my guess that the president can't say, "We need to drill in the US to make it so we don't have to spend money stabilizing the Middle East. Once that is no longer a problem, we can use the extra money to address climate change."

Some criticisms: If the decrease in the price of oil results in more oil consumption, this would be bad for the environment. We need to continuously improve efficiency of vehicles and industry, and decrease our demand for oil and fossil fuels. Any money saved from military intervention happening less should be driven towards this goal.

That's all for now! Thanks for reading.

- 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

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

Oil exports and imports

I am going to be lazy this week and post a very short one.

We discussed the Bakken before. It is producing nearly a million barrels a day of oil. This is $100 million in oil sales a day. It costs up to $45/barrel to lift the oil out of the bakken. The Bakken makes profits of about $50 million a day, or about $18 billion a year.

Let's compare this to Saudi Arabia. They pull oil out of the ground for $1 per barrel (it is very efficient there). They make profits of roughly $100/barrel. They produce 12 million barrels a day. In other words, they make $1.2 billion per day.

The US currently imports 11 million barrels of oil per day, and we use a total of 20 million. We transfer about $1.1 billion out of the US per day to drive cars.

What is the end product of this money? Many countries with oil have what is called the "resource curse." It is also known as Dutch disease. It turns out if your country has a ton of natural resources, it becomes inefficient and actually has less growth than it would have otherwise. This has several reasons. First, if a government makes a ton of oil money (or copper or gems), they tend to provide stuff for free to the populace. They take the money they make and just use it to pay for social things, like schools, hospitals, etc. Citizens pay less or no taxes. Corruption and handouts tend to be rife, but since the citizenry gets stuff for free, they don't even care. It is highly inefficient, and the country does not develop a real economy. They often will not use the money to diversify the economy, and once the resource runs out, the country is literally worse off than it was before they found the resource. Finally, having resources tends to allow despotic regimes to thrive. Iraq, Iran, Venezuela,

Interesting, eh? Maybe is a good reason to drive a fuel efficient car. Except that China and India and other developing countries with increasing numbers of cars will ensure every barrel of oil finds a buyer.

One last thing. The US gets its oil imports almost entirely from North America, from Mexico and Canada. The Middle East oil goes to China and the rest of the east. Why does the US spend so much money to maintain peace in the Middle East? Cause if the oil produced there came off the market, the former buyers will have to go elsewhere to buy their oil. Despite the fact that we don't get oil from the middle east, the global price (and our price) is much lower than it would be if war caused the oil to stop flowing from there. So why doesn't China start also enforcing peace in the Middle East? How come the US is the major country to fund this peace keeping? Frankly put, no other country has the experience of the US with having troops on foreign soil. China doesn't yet have the experience to effectively do this sort of thing. But they are already practicing. Eventually, as China continues to rise, they will likely begin to shoulder responsibility of ensuring the flow of oil.

Nuclear Reactors Final

I am getting bored of this topic, and I want to get to wind-solar-hydro so I can finish up with the energy technology stuff and write varied stuff. So I am going to compress it a lot. If anyone wants to see it expanded, let me know and I will take care of it later.

This post is about breeder reactors, thorium reactors, preventing nuclear proliferation, how the electricity costs stack up to other power plants, and why nuclear power is so expensive.

Nuclear power is expensive because the up-front costs are massive. The cleanest and most efficient coal fired power plants might cost a billion dollars to build. It might take 5 years to build it. Nuclear power plants seem to cost about $8 billion to build with all the safety features they use to prevent nuclear meltdowns (seriously, the new tech is very safe, and it shows in the cost). And they seem to take 8-15 years to build, depending on how much Greenpeace or pretty much every other group tries to stop construction via litigation. In other words, they take out an $8B loan and accrue interest for 8-15 years before they can start paying it back. Stuff costs a lot. Why do it? Cause nuclear waste can be contained, unlike the NOx and CO2 from natural gas and coal plants. Also, South Korea thinks it can build a nuclear plant a nuclear power plant in a short amount of time for only $5 billion. United Arab Emirates decided this was a good idea, and is buying four South Korean nuclear reactors to desalinate water.

Schematic of the South Korean nuclear power plant to be built in the United Arab Emirates, from link above.

The US Energy Administration Administration agrees that nuclear power is now less expensive than it used to be. I have ripped a table straight off their web page that shows it (see, I really am getting lazy in this post).

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

 

Note that last column is $ per megawatt hour. It is the bottom line cost of producing power from that plant. First, what is dispatchable vs non-dispatchable? Dispatchable means you get it whenever you want it. You can ramp it up or down however you please. Non-dispatchable means that you depend on external factors, like the fickle winds of.. well.. winds?

Tangent! Winds are really just redistribution of energy from the equator to the poles. The sun shines more at the equator, heating it up, and then energy likes to move from areas of high energy to areas of low energy, so it does it using wind. And sometimes hurricanes. So really, wind power is just really inefficient solar power. You know what else is really inefficient (and slow) solar power? Hydrocarbons and coal. Cause they are really just buried plant and algae matter and such. That is tens to hundreds of millions of years old. So, coal and oil are really just really old, slow, and dirty solar power. Tangent done!

Tangent picture? This shows how the equator heats more than the rest of the earth. These extra heat has to redistribute to be more even. Hurricanes start near the equator cause of the heat there, then move away from it. from: http://oceanworld.tamu.edu/resources/oceanography-book/oceansandclimate.htm

Nuclear power is almost as cheap as coal power, and cheaper than clean coal (note, clean coal still produces a ton of CO _2 and NO _X )! What gives? How is nuclear so inexpensive? Well, we haven't built a nuclear power plant in the US in years. We don't know what it will actually cost. Those are just estimates. Also, people are quite scared of nuclear power. The cost of building nuclear power rises when you have environmentalists and NIMBY folks suing the pants off nuclear power developers. But let's make one thing clear: if the new generation of nuclear power plants are as inexpensive as they are supposed to be, the power is less expensive that all other power plants other than natural gas (note: the US does not have capacity to build more hydro power), and less expensive than even that if you account for NO X produced by and methane leaks associated with natural gas power (methane production and transport will always have leaks, and it is 23x as powerful a greenhouse agent as CO2).

Let's look at a few more things on the chart above. Remember when I said natural gas got cheap? Look at how cheap it is to produce power from natural gas on the chart above. Think anyone is building nuclear, solar, or offshore wind when you can build and deploy reliable natural gas power? Somehow, the answer to this is yes. Yes, people are building all these things, despite being expensive. Which is kind of cool.

Before moving away from costs, look at the variable costs. The variable costs are high for everything except renewables and nuclear. Why is this? Cause renewables and nuclear don't really use fuel. Yes, a nuclear plant uses fuel, but it costs almost nothing relative to the labor and the capital costs. All the cost of these is upfront CAPEX (capital expense), and then you get free power.

Finally, lets take a really close look at the variable costs. This link is pretty sweet for those of you interested. It contains variable costs for each power source. You can see that fuel is the bulk of cost of fossil steam plants, but less than a quarter of the total cost of nuclear, and nuclear fuel is 1/4 the price per energy unit than even dirt cheap natural gas.

Enough about costs! Onto breeder reactors!

In the first post I mentioned that one part of nuclear reactions is to give off neutrons. Sometimes instead of a neutron splitting an atom, the atom absorbs it. U-235 is the uranium we use in nuclear reactors. U-238 doesn't produce as much heat, cause it doesn't like to decay as fast, so it isn't viable nuclear fuel. Or is it?! U-238 is like a catcher in baseball. Except it catches neutrons. And then it incorporates them into its nucleus to become U-239. In other words, it really isn't like a catcher in baseball.

The breeder reaction series. From: http://nuclearpowertraining.tpub.com/h1019v1/css/h1019v1_76.htm

What's special about U-239? It decays rapidly through a special type of decay to become neptunium-239 and eventually plutonium 239! This process can extract up to 100x the energy from nuclear fuel. You know what's magic about that? Less nuclear waste produced. Also, you produce a ton of nuclear fuel this way. You can also use thorium-232, which then becomes uranium-233 after absorbing a neutron, which can in turn be used for nuclear fuel. Thorium is very cheap and very abundant. So the plutonium and uranium that is magically created through awesomely manipulating nuclear forces is then used in nuclear thermal reactors to produce power.

Nuclear proliferation!

Having a nuclear power plant does not mean you can make nuclear bombs. Nuclear bombs required U-235 enriched to a very high level. What exactly is enrichment? Natural uranium is less than a few percent U-235, the rest is U-238. The uranium comes as a solid, and is processed by making it dance with a bunch of flourine. UF _6 is produced, which is gasified uranium. The U-238 is slightly heavier than U-235, so it very very slowly settles to the "bottom" if you spin it very fast in centrifuges. Once you have enriched it to somewhere between 5 and 8%, U-235, it is good to go into a reactor and make energy. To make a bomb, you have to enrich it to around 90%. Enriching it further gets exponentionally more difficult. Getting from 50% to 70% is much more difficult than getting it from 10% to 50%. So making bombs is hard.

What about plutonium? Seems like any fool can make plutonium. And in fact, they can! All you have to do it get some U-235, wrap it in U-238, and you have make a breeder reactor in your back yard! This seriously happened. Someone made a breeder reactor in their garage at 17. And this wasn't one of those kids that comes from a brilliant family with a ton of money that goes to work in a world famous lab and 'discovers' a new technique under the watchful eye of one of the most brilliant researchers in the world. This was your every day kid who was just really interested in something.

Except that building a nuclear weapon from plutonium is even more difficult than from uranium. Cause when you make the plutonium, you always get a large amount of another plutonium isotope. The other isotope loves to go critical much earlier than Pu-239. Remember what happens to a potentially critical nuclear reaction when the fuel gets split up? No? Remember what happened to Chernobyl when a small gas explosion spread the core out everywhere? It completely shuts down the critical reaction. In other words, plutonium loves to accidentally blow up to early and just spread itself around without going critical. Not much of a weapon there. How do we have plutonium bombs then? Really smart people made special triggering mechanisms to make this happen. How do they do this? I dunno. If I did, I wouldn't be out in public writing a blog, I'd be doing super secret awesome research somewhere.

Turns out that only the US and a handful of other countries have figured this one out. So while any old fool can make a breeder reactor, the combined science of most nations is not good enough to figure out how to do it.

One last thing. If nuclear power is so difficult, how did so many countries get it? Well, US and Russia developed it. The US gave it to China at some point to balance some power issues with the Soviet Union. The US gave it to several other allies as well. The Soviet union gave it out some, too. China then distributed to crazies like North Korea years later, and Pakistan and India were given it through similar pathways. In other words, it is still pretty difficult to develop.

Hey, I just covered 4 whole things in one post, and managed to get more terrible jokes in. Awesome.

Aww darn, I forgot to include the small amount of original research I did on this topic. Next article

Thanks for reading

-Jason