Conservation is a Dirty Word

I really liked Asher Miller's HuffPo article on an assessment of clean energy's scalability by three mostly conservative think-tanks. There are so many analyses done out there that simply work from the assumption that magic technology fairies will erase time and depletion and make it possible for us to live pretty much the way we have been.

Unfortunately, the report reminded me a lot of the failed legislative attempt undertaken by Senators Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman (I-CT), and Graham (R-SC) to pass bipartisan climate legislation. The original bill was a watered-down pile of... um, paper... but Graham still wound up pulling his support before it saw the light of day. And even after Kerry ignominiously signaled his belief that he and Lieberman had "compromised significantly" and yet were "prepared to compromise further," the bill still died.

Like the ill-fated American Power Act, this report makes some good recommendations but utterly fails to offer anything that promises to transcend political partisanship or transform the energy landscape with the speed and scale required. A few quick responses:

â¢The belief that the recommendations included are somehow post-partisan is, at best, naive. Joseph Romm does a thorough job of refuting this claim, so I won't bother to address that piece of it.
â¢I'm guessing that references to Department of Energy offices being "overly stove-piped, centralized in Washington, D.C.," and "ineffective, even wasteful energy research spending" came from the AEI side of the table. But I agree with the recommendation of establishing a "national network of decentralized energy innovation institutes that can bring private sector, university, and government researchers together alongside investors" -- particularly if those regional innovation institutes were focused on developing regionalized, distributed sources of truly renewable energy.
â¢The authors promote a "new generation of smaller, innovative nuclear reactors" that can provide "affordable, reliable, zero-carbon power and heat to utilities of all sizes, industrial facilities, and military bases." But unless this new generation of nuclear reactors manages to address many of the limitations that currently beset large-scale nuclear plants--the need for a depleting, non-renewable source of energy (uranium); the use of massive amounts of fresh water (already scarce in many regions and expected to worsen with climate change and population growth); significant requirements of fossil fuels and fossil fuel by-products for production; and tremendous capital costs, not to mention even bigger questions about security and disposal when dealing with a much more distributed collection of reactors--I have a hard time understanding how the authors can view nuclear power as a renewable, cost-effective, or scalable solution.
Most worrying (though least surprising) is the authors' belief that clean energy innovation breakthroughs can drive continued economic growth. This belief reflects two commonly held assumptions:

1.That alternative energy sources capable of replacing conventional fossil fuels either already exist or can be invented. All that's missing are incentives for innovation and/or the political will.
2.That exponential growth of the global economy--fundamentally driven by ever-growing consumption of energy and other natural resources--can and should continue indefinitely. Never mind the little fact that we live on a finite planet.

The rest is mostly a summary of Richard Heinberg's analysis of a number of reports to try and answer the question - can any combination of clean energy technologies support us to 2100. And the answer is predictably (if you've been paying attention) how much we'll have to work with depends heavily on our willingness to conserve for real.

Conservation, in this sense, does not mean trivial conservation - the lightbulb-changing-a-la-An-Inconvenient-Truth style. It means the kind of conservation that we have not seen since WWII - a real and deep transformation of how we use energy. And while it may be possible to imagine a functional, growing economy in a society that is using 50%, 60%, 70% less energy, it will require a great deal of imagination indeed. Far more likely is that the economy will place its own limits on technology usage and availability.

The good news is that most of us could cut our energy usage by 50% tomorrow, if we were sufficiently committed. The bad news is that as long as conservation remains off the table, we're not even going to get started.


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The authors promote a "new generation of smaller, innovative nuclear reactors"

OK, lets play along... I want a thousand units: when can I have them? Next month? Next year? Next decade?

To answer the previous commenter's question, anytime we can get them, they're worth having. We always make this same mistake of thinking that it takes too long to get something valuable. Then the years roll by and we find ourselves at the point in time when we could have had whatever it was, but we have nothing, because we couldn't plan that far ahead and stick to any particular program for that long. We WILL arrive at Ten Years From Now, in ten years' time. We can arrive there still hunting around for something or with something already in place. "Better is the enemy of good enough" or something like that. On the original article, nuclear power doesn't "use" water in the sense that a coal-fired plant "uses" coal. It goes in one end cool and comes out the other hot (temperature, not radiation) where it's directly recycled into the environment. It's "renewable" if we go in the direction of fast-breeder reactors (which incidentally would create all kinds of new jobs in the security industry) - and if people don't want these things in their back yards, then they need to be told in no uncertain terms why the plants are necessary. It's because society as a whole refuses to reduce its energy usage. If people would, then we could scale back the nuclear electric option, but they won't. As for whether it's a cost-effective option, fossil fuel costs are going to keep going up and up until the stuff is all gone. So the relative cost-benefit numbers for nuclear electric will keep getting better and better, but even if they didn't, it would still be the way to go for environmental reasons. Nuclear accidents are manageable; greenhouse gas warming isn't. If we refuse to get our energy usage under control, then we have to be willing to pay the price for doing what it takes to continue to provide that energy at the least damage to the planet.

I understand that conservation measures over the years have greatly slowed down the demand for electricity. Without these measures having been in put in place, we'd all be sitting around in the dark, rather than just having an occasional brown-out. There has not been a great increase in electrical generating capacity over, say, the last 30 years.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 26 Oct 2010 #permalink

I want a thousand units: when can I have them?

How about never? Read Nicole Foss' take on fission on TAE. She's right, as she usually is, but isn't nearly adamant enough regarding how life inimical ionizing radiation is. Fission power generation is a technology a sane society would leave strictly alone.

..nuclear power doesn't "use" water in the sense that a coal-fired plant "uses" coal. It goes in one end cool and comes out the other hot (temperature, not radiation) where it's directly recycled into the environment.

Where it creates a thermal pollution plume for many miles downstream, disrupting lotic ecosystems and promoting the establishment of invasive exotics.

(which incidentally would create all kinds of new jobs in the security industry)

LOL Which is just what we need. Honest employment for thugs.

- and if people don't want these things in their back yards, then they need to be told in no uncertain terms why the plants are necessary.

They aren't "necessary" and I DON'T want such a facility anywhere near the fallout radius of where I live. Had the 9/11 hijackers hit the Indian Point nuclear facility on the Hudson, the reactor containment vessel would have been ruptured and 30 million people irradiated. And don't think that it never occurred to bin Laden to hit a nuke plant. After the Bush/Obama regime's overreaction, next time he will.

It's because society as a whole refuses to reduce its energy usage. If people would, then we could scale back the nuclear electric option, but they won't.

Then don't build any more capacity and force conservation on energy hogs. Simple.

Nuclear accidents are manageable..

Yeah. The Soviets sure "managed" Chernobyl, didn't they?

What are you StevenR, a shill for the radiation industry?

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 26 Oct 2010 #permalink

Another negative about nuclear power: in the best of circumstances, operating nuclear power plants depends on a stable, strong, central government to maintain a degree of safety and proper regulatory protocols, such as they are. We may be entering a period of time where we can no longer count on stable, strong, central governments. If the Vandals sack Rome (in the form of the Tea Party, perhaps?), how long before the nukes will be unmaintainable? How long after that will we have radiation leaks? Scary to think about, eh?

Good point Don. What we need is decentralized power generation, not huge centralized power plants of any sort, from which people are obliged to purchase power. I'm all for photovoltaics on roofs, for instance, but detest the idea of large installations in the Mojave. Fission power plants epitomize the centralization of power generation and as such, have no viable role in the fossil fuel constrained near future.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 26 Oct 2010 #permalink

Efficency comes but the time constant is slower than some like. Take fridges, for example, new ones consume 75% less than ones build in the 1970s. However with the 20 year life cycle it takes a long time to run thru the population, particularly with the move the old one to the basement to keep beer cold model.
Actually energy efficency has been improving since the days of James Watt. The Newcomen engine for pumping water was so inefficient that it did not make economic sense except at a coal mine where the fuel was right there. Watt introduced improvements that allowed the steam engine to move to other locations and power other plants (the coal went by wagon to the canal and then by canal to the plant). With the high pressure double acting steam engine we got the railroads. By the 1880s it was important and a piece of the engineers job evaluation to drive an engine with a minimum use of coal, and The Catechism of the locomotive tells how to do this. The Diesel loco is about 2-3 times the efficency of a steam loco.
So the fact that energy is not free, and some standards settings by government results in slow but steady changes but the time constant for appliances and cars is in the 10-20 year period.


"Then don't build any more capacity and force conservation on energy hogs. Simple."

It doesn't sound simple to me. The tree-huggers in California got the state to stop building power stations. So the state went to rolling brownouts. A rolling brownout is where they turn the electricity off for a section of town or county for an hour or three, then turn it back on as they turn on another section.

President Obama calls that "smart power" - the ability to turn off an individual home or building from the power plant (Homeland Security?).

That is the actual accommodation I see, to not building more plants or conserving.

Conservation could be as simple as - forbid employers from keeping anyone on the payroll that lives more than three miles from work. Public or private transport doesn't matter - it is a mark of affluence to find a "better neighborhood" and use public facilities like highways and mass transit for a daily jaunt. Forbid cities to allow occupying a residence that isn't within walking distance to shopping for groceries and hardware. Simple conservation. Fairly high impact to a lot of people, though.

Perhaps forbid any individual to own, lease, rent, or possess more than one vehicle, two for a married couple, or three for a married couple with children.

What about using community steam for central heat, cooking, and hot water heating? How about running gray water (post septic) back to residences with gardens, for reusing?

How about a 100% excise tax on the resale of an automobile less than 10 years old, and a 50% tax break for installing a more efficient engine or transmission, that results in (measured) improvement of 50% in fuel efficiency?

How about clearly marking "zones" on food at the store, with each zone representing 400 miles transport from origin through processing to the shelf? And a 2% excise tax per zone, per item?

What about a 2% VAT tax on truck transported goods, for each 100 miles the contents are transported?

Conservation. Change from commercial beverages to tap water for 90% of your beverages. Limit sodas to one 12 oz serving per month,or less. Eat only home-made ice cream - with natural, off-the-porch ice only.

Turn off the water heater. Turn off the dryer and dry your clothes on the clothes line or the drying rack in the bathroom. Stop using ice cubes for anything but ice packs for muscle spasms and swelling. (Packages of frozen peas in the plastic package works really well. Leave the peas in the package, and reuse them. After several uses, though, the peas tend to lose condition, for serving at the table.)

Take a hot bath with epsom salts for muscle soreness, instead of a trip to the doctor for muscle relaxers and pain meds. Exercise regularly in addition to vigorous work habits, rather than driving to a concert or movie. Drive to a community dance instead.

Conservation. Conservation is about finding different goals; what you turn from is an expression of affluence that is no longer justified, when you conserve.

Pro-nuclear tree hugger here.

My electricity consumption is 150 KWH/month; US average for an apartment dweller is 350. My gasoline consumption is about 12 gallons / month; average for the US is about 40. My solid waste output including recycling is about 5 lbs / week, average for the US is about 3.8 lbs / DAY. My water consumption is at least 20% below average per capita by way of a graywater system I designed & built from components. And I invented the feature for the leading brand of office telephone systems that lets them transfer calls to home landlines or cellphones, thereby enabling telecommuting which takes cars off the road.

I DARE any of the no-nukers here to put up their own figures for power & resource consumption. Put up, or shut up.

I also worked on design engineering for 300 MW of utility-scale wind, and two of my clients are major solar contractors.

So I'm here to tell you that the only way to maximize the use of renewables on the grid is to have reliable climate-clean baseload power supplies that are "firm and dispatchable." For that your choices are nuclear, geothermal, and (arguably) hydro.

Even with maximum conservation this still holds true because it's about grid stability: how the various power sources interact with each other on the grid. Without conservation we'll need X amount of nuclear; with 50% conservation we'll need 50% of X amount of nuclear.

There is no escaping this.

Anti-nuclearism is the liberal equivalent of creationism.

"Anti-nuclearism is the liberal equivalent of creationism. "

We might be more inclined to hear you out, g724, if you refrained from calling us names.

And while we're at it, you might want to explain, given the half-lives of nuclear fuels and their byproducts, how human civilization is going to maintain nuclear containment devices for tens of thousands of years, to prevent this material from contaminating the environment. No human civilization and/or government has ever lasted anywhere near that long. Heck, we're talking about a time frame similar to the one thatHomo sapiens has been alive on this earth.

Good point Don. What we need is decentralized power generation, not huge centralized power plants of any sort, from which people are obliged to purchase power. I'm all for photovoltaics on roofs, for instance, but detest the idea of large installations in the Mojave. Fission power plants epitomize the centralization of power generation and as such, have no viable role in the fossil fuel constrained near future.

Going along with this theme: I support small-scale, in-stream hydroelectric, so long as fish & large invertebrates can be excluded from the turbines. Dams that kill rivers I adamantly oppose. (Taking out dams: now there's a good application for nuclear energy. I'm being facetious. Of course we shouldn't nuke dams. Taking them out is the job of conventional heavy ordinance.)

Likewise with wind: small turbines of a design that excludes volant vertebrates have their place. Huge monstrosities stalking across the landscape, collapsing the lungs of birds & bats in the turbulent vortices created by the rotating blades, are to be opposed. They do provide good target practice for hunting rifles, however. Don Quixote, where are you when we need you ?!?!

Shills with vested interests in promoting an economic agenda are naught but trolls in "tree hugger" guise.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 27 Oct 2010 #permalink

I'm just gonna say this much: any species that can convince itself that nuclear technology of any sort belongs anywhere other than the realm of theory cannot be trusted to handle nuclear technology in anything other than the realm of theory.


I think your closing snark was actually on point. Those that invest themselves in creationism or intelligent design (a deliberately contrived bit of dogma) are not about to engage in honest debate.

Debate, I would hope, is about examining facts and viewpoints, and arriving at a consensus. Those invested in dogma (religious, political, even environmental) aren't available for an actual debate, as their views are actual beliefs and not observations of the world about them.

It is those unavailable for debate about the environment that I referred to as "tree huggers". There are those that see a tree as sacred, an expression of divinity, such that they can envision no concept of "harvesting" or "pruning" - that, to me, is a tree-hugger, and not those that look at the region, and the trees around, and recognize the benefit to the grove, or the forest, and to the land, of pruning or harvesting select trees, or take other actions to manage and use in coexistence.

- - -

OK - nuclear power. I never understood - if the "spent" fuel is too hot (thermally) to just discard - why isn't there a means to use it for energy purposes?

I understand that commercial reactors in the US expect a certain amount of energy from the fuel. That is almost like burning wood to get charcoal - and considering the charcoal a waste. (Ooh! Bury some of that charcoal "waste" in *my* garden! Please!) The volatile gases are used up, but there is still an available bit of energy. (I know the example is flawed; typically we discard the volatile gases and keep the charcoal as the product. Best case today is regeneration, using the volatile gases to fuel part of the charring of the charcoal.)

If we can make a solar panel to recharge the 6 volt battery for an electric fence charger (for some couple of decades now), why isn't there an industrial use for the lower-energy, but apparently available, so-called "nuclear waste" - except maybe the waste returns more profit (*cough*tax dollars*cough*).

- - -

I toured the Diablo nuclear plant. I was impressed, in the Arizona desert, how the plume of water vapor downwind was shrugged off as not being a significant environmental impact to the region. I was also impressed that Phoenix was sending sewage gray water - output from the treatment plant - to the reactor plant, at the same time they were building settling ponds to help return some of the ground water to underground aquifers. It seemed a bit . . divided? . . in the approach. Dollars over conservation again, I guess.

Operating a commercial reactor turned out to be really energy intensive. A big portion of the reactor output was used to . . operate the reactor. They had multiple sets of reactor and generator on site. That way, if they could keep one going - they had enough electricity to start another up. Bootstrapping a reactor, cold, I take it isn't possible.

Which goes to say - be careful of planning how many nuclear power plants you need. Maybe the plan should look like Reactor capacity x Portion needed to operate reactor x Portion lost over distribution grid. That dwindling of rated output to delivered energy likely applies to all sources. The Portion lost over distribution grid is likely the part that eats Wind Turbine's lunch.

@ Don,

The British TV show Space: 1999 posited putting all that spent fuel in dumps on the moon - until they eventually developed a synergistic energy rise, and blasted the moon out of the solar system. I guess there are drawbacks anywhere.

But wouldn't it be grand if a safe method could take that spent fuel and generate community warm or hot water, or even steam? Or, if we stop treating it like waste and instead a resource to be developed (how can it be worse than uranium ore?), processing it to an inert form?

What about combining the heat of nuclear waste with the cold water of deep ocean trenches? Or dropping the fuel into a volcano?

Right now a big part of the "security" about nuclear waste - is denying that resource to nations and groups that might want them for military use, or to get rich using our "waste". It seems like getting government regulations out of the way might open the door to answers and opportunities.

Brad K:
You have a point. Sure, if we're going to use nuclear power, why not find a reasonable use for the 'spent' fuel?

But I wasn't speaking of spent nuclear waste, at least not primarily. I was speaking of the reactors themselves, with the live, hot fuel in them. How can we be sure these reactors, with their containment structures, can be maintained for tens of thousands of years so the fuel and the contaminated material inside the containment won't leak out? At some point in the future, these reactors are going to be abandoned, at least so far as producing electricity is concerned. What happens to the reactors and containments after that?

I have no doubt that we will be building more nukes, or at least trying to build them. By the time the energy crunch becomes painfully real to everyone, whatever political opposition to nuclear power remains will disappear. No doubt regulatory roadblocks will also be relaxed so that they can be built and activated more quickly. But these probabilities don't give me any comfort.

At some point in the future, these reactors are going to be abandoned, at least so far as producing electricity is concerned. What happens to the reactors and containments after that?

Nuke advocates only care about making $$$ in the short term, Don. As long as there's a profit to be made they don't even care about generating electricity, let alone about who may become irradiated. They certainly don't care about what happens after they're dead.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 27 Oct 2010 #permalink

It's more complicated than that DD. If it were only for the few bad apples out to make a quick $$, we could probably fight that successfully. A bigger problem is a much larger number of people who'd rather build a nuclear plant that's going to represent a mortal danger for thousands of years than put up with a few hours without electricity each day.

(And yes, I'm quite aware that brownouts are really annoying. I grew up with those, so I would know. I'll still take them over a nuclear plant any day you care to ask...)

When the first set of nuclear power plants were built in the US, the technocrats assumed all the spent fuel rods would be sent to a centralized location to be reprocessed into new fuel. (A given reactor design usually depends on rods of very specific composition, and using them changes their composition. Reprocessing would have sorted out the unused fuel, the hot-but-decaying-quickly waste, fuel for different processes, probably bomb material...)

But all of that would have happened at one plant, and no state wants to host the plant or have a train of dirty nuclear fuel crossing it. We'd apparently rather leave it in cisterns to leak into major rivers.

What I don't understand about the renewable energy debate is how the heck we are going to build, and keep building, renewable energy gizmos without fossil fuels. Aren't renewable energy devices (other than simple ones like solar ovens) in fact just as reliant on fossil fuels as anything, just another step removed?

@Lyle - The good news about moving the old fridge to the basement to keep the beer cold is that it then operates more efficiently because it is in a cooler environment, it stays full longer with items that keep their temp longer and the door is opened less often.

The best use of the old fridge for beer is to put a tap in the sidewall and keep a keg inside with soda cans stuffed into the remaining space around it.

@ Rachel - Not just fossil fuels, but limited supply of heavy and rare-earth metals such as lead and cadmium.

For reference see:

@DD and Isis: While YOU may be willing to forego steady supply of electricity for the sake of protecting yourself, your children and your planet from the problems of hot nuclear waste, you are in the minority. Not to mention whole segments of the economy that CANNOT FUNCTION without steady electrical inputs, including most manufacturing, medical facilities and convalescent homes, airports, seaports, telecom, and cities - especially during winter and summer - where people "on the margins" often end up dead when there's no heat or too much.

I personally believe that there is no plan being developed for our greater society and economy by anyone who has the political power to bring that plan into fruition. That means we will have to make plans with those of our neighbors who can see beyond the end of their noses and develop micro- and mini-scale solutions. I, myself, am way behind the 8 ball on this and am relying on the fact that western Washington has lots of water and still-cheap hydro power.

By Michael Enquist (not verified) on 29 Oct 2010 #permalink

I DARE any of the no-nukers here to put up their own figures for power & resource consumption. Put up, or shut up.

OK then: my electricity use averages 3.5 kWh/day, or about 100 kWh per month. My gasoline usage is 0 gallons a month. I don't have accurate figures for solid waste output, but it's certainly lower than 1kg a week. Approximately 25% of my food I grow myself with no inputs other than a ton of cow manure once a year.