Sunday, October 11, 2009

Green Jobs and Energy

What are green jobs, and how does energy production tie in? The current thinking among the Carbon is Killing Us Crowd, those who devoutly believe that CO2 in the atmosphere is already causing catastrophic world-wide changes, is that green jobs derive from reducing or eliminating a fossil-fuel economy in favor of increasing a renewable energy-driven economy.

As one example, in California, the Air Resources Board (ARB) states that job losses in low-intensity industries will be more than offset by job gains in high-intensity industries. Their definition of "job intensity" is such that a major power plant that burns natural gas (and has few employees per unit of production, kWh electricty) has a very low job intensity. In contrast, a wind power farm with hundreds of windmills has a high job intensity due to the greater number of employees required to service and repair the windmills. This is a two-fer for the greenies, as evil carbon is not emitted, and more people have a job.

Yet, just a few decades ago, it was patently obvious that high labor cost was a hindrance to economic efficiency. To name just a few fields, bookkeepers were quite common before the computer age, but automation now does the job. Automated factories require far fewer employees than did the older, manually operated factories.

The green power revolution is said to cut jobs in traditional, fossil-fuel plants, and create many times the jobs in the green collar field.

This week saw a major announcement of job losses in the fossil-fuel plants, as Sunoco announced the closing of an oil refinery in New Jersey with the loss of 400 permanent jobs and hundreds more independent contractors. Should we wait to see the announcement of what, 3 times that number of green jobs? That would be roughly 1500 to 2000 more green jobs if the greenies' jobs-math is correct. One must wonder (as I certainly do) just how long is required for those 1500 to 2000 new green jobs to appear, and those displaced workers have steady paychecks again. Will that be by Christmas, so everyone has a merry Christmas? I doubt it.

The closure of the Sunoco refinery also plays into the Grand Game - the world-wide competition to provide energy. New refineries are under construction world-wide, and a couple of major expansions are underway in the U.S. India started up a very large refinery almost a year ago, and is exporting the products, some of which are imported by the U.S. Excess refining capacity drives down the price of petroleum products - this is basic economics - and that encourages greater consumption. More and more refineries will close, especially those that are smaller and inefficient compared to the larger and modern refineries.

As petroleum prices decrease, the economic incentives for renewable power plants also decrease. Hybrid electric, and pure electric vehicles have an initial cost premium that is supposed to be offset by the fuel savings - but only if petroleum fuels are sufficiently costly. At this time, the additional $3 to $4 thousand premium for a hybrid vehicle is simply not a wise investment.

Obama's Cash for Clunkers program accelerated the purchase - distorted the market - of high-miles-per-gallon vehicles and the (literal) destruction of older, gas guzzling cars. Thus, the demand for gasoline is lower than it otherwise would be, the gasoline price is also lower, and refineries in the U.S. are shutting down. Yet, now the automotive companies see fewer customers following the Cash for Clunkers fiasco, as a person with a new car will not likely set foot in a car dealership for several years.

And so it goes in the Grand Game. Hybrid cars that are not worth the price, oil refineries shutting down, fossil-fuel workers out of work, renewable power plants stagnating due to low economic incentives, and oh yes, crops barely beating the killing freeze this year to provide raw material for the bio-fuels industry. Who knows what the summer of 2010 will bring in that arena.

One wonders if the farmers will be asked to hire more workers as green jobs, and park the tractor in the barn. We tried that for centuries, using manual labor on farms. Those are exhausting, monotonous jobs that paid very low wages. Still, they are green jobs. There are approximately 700 newly-jobless workers in the New Jersey area. Does anyone think that farmers will hire any of them?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dilute Energy Sources

A thread on strayed onto nuclear power the other day, and I offered a few comments. This seems appropriate to reproduce them here, with additional comments added.

As some may remember from the 1960s an old saying "What if they gave a War, and nobody came?" Today, we can rephrase that for the South Texas Nuclear Project's proposed expansion as "What if they wanted to build a new nuclear power plant, and nobody invested?" The city of San Antonio is scheduled to vote on their level of participation in the STNP expansion, with the date presently set for October 13. This date keeps getting pushed back, so we shall see. The topic is wildly controversial, with very few people trusting or believing the nuclear advocates who insist that the plant can be built for only $13 billion, and be producing power four years after start of construction. My assessment, published in comments to various articles at, is that the expansion will cost at least $22 billion, and require 10 years or more to produce power. It is more likely to cost $25 billion.

As background, the City of San Antonio already owns 40 percent of the existing twin-reactor STNP, with the City of Austin owning 20 percent. It is quite instructive that the City of Austin this time declined to be a party to the STNP expansion. Austin learned its lesson quite well in the original fiasco, in which the nuclear proponents for STNP stated the plant would only cost $900 million, yet its final cost was $5.4 billion, for a cost over-run of $4.5 billion or six times the original estimate. There is no recent experience in the United States, but the new Generation III nuclear plant presently being built in Finland is billions of Euros over-budget, and so far behind schedule (it was to be started up by now, 2009), that the builder cannot provide an end date to the construction at this time. What an industry - who can trust the promoters? Their track record is horrendous.

The exchange of comments on the WUWT thread is shown below.

A commenter (beng) wrote the following. My response is below that.

(beng) : "Sorry, WUWT, for being OT.

Roger Sowell, the present state of nuclear power development is similar to objective climate research — they have been and are presently mostly dead-in-the-water in the US. Environmentalism and litigation have done their jobs very well over the decades.

If the US had maintained its can-do attitude, we would already have safe and proliferation-proof nuclear plants reprocessing their own fuel. The US is now falling behind the progressive (non-European) countries in science and technology development in general. Space exploration has been the exception, but now even that is at risk.

Sorry, but “renewable” energy sources are and will always be bit players in the big view. It’s a basic thermodynamic thing — low-density energy sources (wind, solar, even hydro) can never replace high-density sources like fossil fuels and especially nuclear (very high density). Unless we want to return to an 18th century society."

Roger Sowell


What a pessimistic viewpoint!

The reality is that renewable energy sources are now major players, as designed. The incubation and encouragement of innovation via government assistance has provided economically viable renewable power generation plants. Although the Road Not Taken argument makes it impossible to know where we would be today if not for the government assistance, the fact is that we do have viable solar power, viable wind power, viable geothermal power, and very promising wave power. Ocean current power is the next big thing, and it needs zero storage.

For California, only because I live here and am familiar with these numbers, in 2008 (source and percent of total state power generation):

Natural Gas 46.5%
Nuclear 14.9%
Large Hydro 9.6%
Coal (out of state) 15.5%
Renewable 13.5%

Renewables provided more than large hydro, and almost as much as nuclear in that year. As renewables continue to grow, and coal is eliminated, it will soon be the second largest power source. That is hardly a “bit player.”

The horrible realities of nuclear energy (outrageous cost, toxic byproducts that endure for centuries, among others) spurred development of renewables also.

The US government has very recently increased emphasis on offshore renewables development in wind, wave, and ocean current. Other countries also are developing their offshore renewable resources.

The thermodynamic argument is laughable! A dilute resource is just as viable as a concentrated resource. By your argument, sunshine is not viable because it is so dilute. Yet billions of plant leaves silently refute your argument every day, and have done so for billions of years. By extension, water vapor is not a viable energy source because it is spread out across the entire atmosphere. Yet thousands of hydroelectric plants give mute testimony that such a dilute resource (in the form of rainfall) is perfectly capable of providing economic energy. And, before hydroelectric plants were built, waterwheels provided power for centuries.

Thermodynamics has a place in the debate, but not where you seek to place it. A far better argument is one of economics. If I can build a windmill (taking advantage of that highly dilute resource, wind) and provide power at a lower cost than the highest alternative resource (e.g. a new nuclear power plant or a gas-fired peaker plant), then that is all that matters. Perhaps I tie the windmill to a water source, and use the windmill to pump water uphill into a hydroelectric plant, rather than direct generation of power. In this manner, I obtain a time-shifting of the power in the wind, and I do not care that the wind blows mostly at night while my electric demand is during the day. Thermodynamics has absolutely nothing to do with that aspect, simply economics does.

As to the US and its can-do attitude, it of course still exists. What we learned in the 60s and later the 70s is that radioactivity is too deadly to ever be widely implemented except under very carefully regulated and monitored conditions. There is a reason that children should not play with firearms, and there is a similar reason why nuclear fission processes are heavily regulated. If that increases the cost of building a power plant, and the time required to build it according to the laws, then so be it.

As I have stated before, if you do not like the existing laws, you are welcome to change them. This is the USA. We have in place procedures to do exactly that. Good luck to you.

A bit earlier in the comments, "crosspatch" offered that the modern Generation III nuclear power plants are much less costly due to a simpler design, which uses what he referred to as "the same technology that makes toilets work" or float valves. That hardly gives one a good feeling that the plant will actually operate safely. Float valves are notoriously unreliable - has anyone ever had to repair one of these on a toilet? Here is crosspatch's comment, and my reply.


"You might want to recognize a few facts about the US nuclear power industry’s abysmal record of building power plants on schedule and on-budget. Cost overruns of 5 or even 6" [this is crosspatch quoting what I had written earlier - RES]

[crosspatch's statement here] There has not been a single nuclear plant started in the US that I know of since 1979. Your figures are sheer propaganda and not related to any reality. Today’s plants are MUCH simpler to build than those plants were. China has ordered 200 of the AP series plants from Westinghouse.

Two of the drivers of plant construction costs are the cost of financing during the construction phase and the substantial amount of skilled-craft-labor hours needed on site during construction. The AP1000™ technique of modularization of plant construction mitigates both of these drivers.

Overnight construction costs
The AP1000 was designed to reduce capital costs and to be economically competitive with contemporary fossil-fueled plants. The amount of safety-grade equipment required is greatly reduced by using the passive safety system design. Consequently, less Seismic Category I building volume is required to house the safety equipment (approximately 45 percent less than a typical reactor). Modular construction design further reduces cost and shortens the construction schedule. Using advanced computer modeling capabilities, Westinghouse is able to optimize, choreograph and simulate the construction plan. The result is very high confidence in the construction schedule.

Simplification was a major design objective for the AP1000. The simplified plant design includes overall safety systems, normal operating systems, the control room, construction techniques, and instrumentation and control systems. The result is a plant that is easier and less expensive to build, operate and maintain.

The AP1000 design saves money and time with an accelerated construction time period of approximately 36 months, from the pouring of first concrete to the loading of fuel. Also, the innovative AP1000 features:

* 50% fewer safety-related valves
* 80% less safety-related piping
* 85% less control cable
* 35% fewer pumps
* 45% less seismic building volume

With so many of these plants currently being built worldwide, the construction has been modularized and the process refined so that they go in quickly. The plant design has eliminated much of the complexity of older designs. Passive emergency systems means they work without having to be activated by a computer or a person and can not be accidentally deactivated by a computer or a person.

To greatly simplify, it works like this:

If the pool surrounding the reactor core begins to heat, water evaporates. It condenses on the inside of the containment vessel and the water returns to a reservoir. When the water level in the pool drops to a certain level, float valves operate allowing water from the reservoir to flow and replace the water lost in the pool due to evaporation. Basically the same technology that makes toilets work. This can continue for two weeks worst case (longer in winter when the containment dome can shed heat to the outside air) without any pumps, external power, HVAC, anything. At the end of that period, cooling water sprayed on the containment vessel (fire hose) will allow operation indefinitely.

But in any case, you cost overrun argument is silly as there is not a single modern plant to which that argument can be applied in the US.

Also, much of the additional cost is due to “lawfare” applied by misguided, uneducated, fear mongering groups who would want to scare the living crap out of people about nuclear power. They have convinced a great portion of California that nuclear plants are unsafe in seismic areas, for example. We have reactors capable of surviving greater seismic loads than Earth can dish out. What is the equivalent seismic load of a depth charge going off next to a submarine hull?

The anti-nuclear movement is based on ignorance and works by stoking irrational fear in people. The only legitimate concern is spent fuel. If you reprocess that fuel on-site, that concern is gone, too. That is why China is doing it, India is doing it, France is doing it, Japan is doing it, and Germany will now likely be doing it. The entire world EXCEPT the US will be generating carbon-free power in huge quantity while we base our energy policy on rainbows, unicorns, and technology that might be here someday.

It is idiotic.

Roger Sowell

Crosspatch, and Mike Borgelt,

Those are the same tired (and untrue, ultimately) arguments the nuclear industry made 40 years ago — and look where we ended up. “We have a good design,” and “these plants are inherently safe,” and “we know how to build these plants.”

Sure you have, and sure they are, and sure you do. [sarc off] You cannot kid me, crosspatch, because I have worked all across this globe building and running process plants, refineries, chemical plants, and power plants. You can probably sell that propaganda to the gullible, non-technical public, but not to me nor any of my colleagues. We know better.

But the arguments at this point are futile. I will be accepting the apologies of all the nuclear nuts, after a so-called Generation III nuclear power plant is built here, in the US, not in other countries. The cost overruns and schedule delays will be public record. The higher cost of electricity will be common knowledge. (on second thought, nuclear nuts will likely not apologize, but instead will make perpetual excuses how it was not their fault, if only the environmentalists and their lawyers had stepped aside none of the cost overruns would have happened).

The nuclear power industry has always had rose-colored glasses, in a hopeless dream to build the most expensive, toxic legacy-creating, misguided form of power man has ever devised. The retail power price increases due to massive cost overruns will harm the poor and those on fixed incomes, and it will be those people who share your misguided optimism who are squarely to blame.

One last point, and that is end-of-life-cycle increased accidents. The existing nuclear power plants are entering the final phase of their operating lives, and they will (because they must) experience increased system failures and radiation emissions. This has already begun as pressures exist to maintain or increase operating rates, systems and pipes corrode, tritium leaks into groundwater, and other systems slowly fail over time.

With at least 50 nuclear power plants older than the average (in the US), the odds are increasing with every passing day that an accident that releases deadly radioactivity will happen. This is not good for your cause.

Roger Sowell

crosspatch, I respect your writings on WUWT, as you usually have interesting and (mostly) accurate things to say. But this time, IMHO, you fell quite a bit short of that mark.

Do you really want to hinge your argument for nuclear power plant safety on float valves, the “technology that makes toilets work?” I suppose toilet float valves work with close to 100 percent success somewhere in the universe, but not on this planet. Even a 99.9 percent success rate is not good enough for a nuclear power plant. That missing 0.1 percent represents 0.36 days, or roughly 8 hours of each year when the float valve will not work. Not nearly good enough.

I have spent too many hours fixing faulty float valve systems on toilets for that to be a convincing argument. I suppose next you will tell us that these are nuclear-grade float valves, not the cheap junk that are installed in actual toilets. Still, a float valve is one of the LEAST reliable of all instrumented control systems, and I have seen thousands of these in industrial (e.g.non-toilet) applications in my career. Their failure rates are legendary.

For just a partial list of float valve failure mechanisms, consider that float valves stick open, stick closed, stick partially closed, they corrode, they rust, they bend, they spring a leak and fill with fluid (water), the hinges freeze, and many, many others.

Thanks for the laugh on that one, I will be sure to include it in my presentations in the future! I think a bumper sticker is also in order.

“Don’t worry folks! These new nuclear plants are SAFE!!! We use the same float valve technology that makes your toilets work!!”

And a few final comments from me. The entire concept of allowing water to vaporize (boil) to prevent a runaway nuclear reaction from exploding or melting down has several problems. First, the amount of water that must be boiled then condensed is immense. Consider that a nuclear reactor produces approximately 3 times the amount of heat compared to the amount of electricity produced. Thus, for a 1250 MWe reactor/power plant, the nuclear reactor side is producing the equivalent of 3,750 MWe of heat.

The heat transfer surface (interior of the reactor dome, as offered by crosspatch) that is required to condense this amount of water would be absolutely immense. Further, the design apparently has the heat being transferred across a very thick wall of steel, then to the ambient air (hence the reference to better heat removal during winter, and it can be continued indefinitely by shooting water on the outside of the containment dome).

Finally, heat transfer to air has a very low "efficiency" or what is referred to technically as the heat-transfer coefficient. In practice, that means that a very large surface area is required to transfer the heat to the air. The smooth exterior of the containment vessel just does not have the surface area.

I do hope that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is competent at performing the necessary heat transfer calculations, and uses the appropriate heat-transfer coefficients. These new reactor designs are a disaster just waiting to happen.