The Future Of Power Generation
The current consensus on energy and climate is both unserious and incoherent. Burning fossil fuels is said to be responsible for global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions. Although nuclear power is a carbon-free energy solution, much of the public seems to be more afraid of a reactor accident than extinction by the greenhouse effect.
Solar and energy conservation have been media darlings since the energy crisis of the 1970s. President Barack Obama spent $100 billion on “green energy” in just one stimulus package. Yet there is little to show for it. World energy use is projected to grow rapidly. Solar accounts for only one percent of energy production.
Although I can’t agree with his conclusions, Director Jeff Gibbs did an outstanding job of skewering solar energy in 1921’s Planet of the Humans. (Michael Moore is executive producer.) Ethanol, hydrogen-powered cars, solar cells, and other supposedly renewable solutions are exposed as frauds that are dependent on fossil fuel once you scratch the surface.
Brazil’s forests are being converted to sugar cane and burned as part of the ethanol scam that Goldman Sachs promotes. The manufacturing process requires a great deal of electric power. There is an amusing scene in the film where a manager explains that Iowa is the perfect location for an ethanol plant because it is near coal deposits.
The closure of a coal-powered plant in Las Vegas is hailed as a victory for solar energy. But in fact, it was replaced with two natural gas-powered facilities.
“Some [solar] panels last only ten years,” a solar panel salesman told Gibbs. “I don’t know that it’s the solution.”
Solar cells are not made of sand but mined quartz and coal, which must be melted together in a high-temperature furnace. The furnace itself is likely coal-powered. Dust buildup can dramatically cut a panel’s efficiency.
The fact that solar panels can produce electricity only when the sun shines means that a backup solution is required to produce energy at night and when it’s cloudy. Energy professionals call this the “intermittency” problem. Unless you are willing to tolerate outages, solar energy will never allow you to turn a fossil fuel plant off.
Even a solar energy festival had to switch to the electric power grid as soon as rain started to fall, as Gibbs shows in another amusing sequence. Cycling power up and down only increases a generator’s carbon footprint. So, what’s the point of installing solar cells? Well, you can get a tax credit.
While it is often assumed that adding a megawatt of renewable power means that we will need a megawatt less of coal power, a peer-reviewed international comparison study by Richard York of the University of Oregon found that there was very little substitution of this type. For example, adding solar power to an electric grid reduces the need for fossil fuel by about one-tenth of the amount added.
No country emphasizes solar and renewables more than Germany. Yet only 1.5 percent of Germany’s energy is from solar and only 3.1 percent from wind, according to Gibbs.
When politicians talk about “green jobs,” what they mean is that solar and renewables are more labor-intensive than other energy sources. This is not an advantage! Lower energy prices are a far better way to generate jobs.
After Gibbs has exposed one eco-scam after another, the viewer begins to wonder if any environmental initiative is actually about improving the environment. Unlike Gibbs, I don’t think that the alternative to the solar energy fraud is human extinction. So, I am going to talk about nuclear power.
Nuclear power produces 20 percent of U.S. electricity, even though politics has stalled the industry’s growth since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
The 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the Soviet Union killed 51 people. Without a containment structure, all the radioactivity in the core was leaked out. Although the HBO Chernobyl drama is filled with scare talk about how it could all have been much worse, this represents a worst-case meltdown scenario.
The U.S Department of Energy recently awarded a $1.27 billion contract to X-energy to build the first of a next-generation reactor scheduled to begin operation in 2027.
X-energy’s Xe-100 will be a small modular reactor powered by tristructural isotropic, or triso, particles. These particles are 0.5 mm in diameter. There are three layers of casing to protect the enriched uranium kernel from the high temperature of a reactor core. A layer of silicon carbide is sandwiched between two layers of pyrolytic carbon.
The elaborate system of rods and water cooling found in light-water reactors is dispensed with. Molten salt circulates in the core as a coolant. The use of salt allows a reactor to function at atmospheric pressure. An LWR is under 100 times atmospheric pressure. As there is no danger of a triso reactor melting down, a containment structure is not necessary.
Triso fuel is being manufactured at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and by BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, Virginia.
China is operating a 200 MWe demonstration triso reactor at Shidao Bay in Shangdong Province. This is a modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (MHTGR).
This is not the first time the Department of Energy has attempted to revive the U.S. nuclear industry by introducing an advanced reactor design. Westinghouse contracted to build two AP1000 pressurized-water reactors in Georgia in 2008. These reactors were subject to a series of delays and cost overruns. The 2011 Fukushima accident undercut support for the project. Work stalled in 2017 when Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy.
Both reactors are nonetheless scheduled to open in 2022. While these 1,100-MWe reactors implement economies of scale, the watchwords this time around are modularity and standardization.
Peter Kauffner lives in Sequim, Washington.
Image: What a next-generation nuclear plant could look like by Idaho National Laboratory-NGNP. CC BY 2.0.
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