January 13, 2005
Peter Huber And Mark Mills On Our Energy Future

Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills have a new book out about energy policy entitled The Bottomless Well: The Twilight Of Fuel, The Virtue Of Waste, And Why We Will Never Run Out Of Energy which includes a strong pitch for nuclear power as our best choice to meet continuously rising energy demand. Tyler Cowen finds the book interesting. The latest edition of the City Journal (which FuturePundit strongly recommends) has a long article by Huber and Mills which provides shorter versions of the book's arguments. Each American continually uses about 1,400 watts of electricity on average.

Think of our solitary New Yorker on the Upper West Side as a 1,400-watt bulb that never sleeps—that’s the national per-capita average demand for electric power from homes, factories, businesses, the lot. Our average citizen burns about twice as bright at 4 pm in August, and a lot dimmer at 4 am in December; grown-ups burn more than kids, the rich more than the poor; but it all averages out: 14 floor lamps per person, lit round the clock. Convert this same number back into a utility’s supply-side jargon, and a million people need roughly 1.4 “gigs” of power—1.4 gigawatts (GW). Running at peak power, Entergy’s two nuclear units at Indian Point generate just under 2 GW. So just four Indian Points could take care of New York City’s 7-GW round-the-clock average. Six could handle its peak load of about 11.5 GW. And if we had all-electric engines, machines, and heaters out at the receiving end, another ten or so could power all the cars, ovens, furnaces—everything else in the city that oil or gas currently fuels.

Note that the 6 and 10 Indian Points translate into 12 and 20 nuclear power plants. So they are talking about supplying all the power for New York City for all purposes with about 32 nuclear power plants. In a previous post about how all transportation energy could be supplied by 1000 nuclear power plants I pointed to Westinghouse's new AP1100 nuclear plant design that would generate 1,100 MW or 1.1 GW. My guess is that since nuclear plants have down times it would take 32 AP1100 plants to run NYC. So we can place a price of about $32 billion on their construction. If anyone has any good estimates on yearly operations and fuel costs or nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning costs I'd like to hear them in the comments.

NYC has a population of about 8 million people. The United States as a whole has about 293 million people. So the US as a whole is almost 37 times larger. If the American people would need proportionately as many nuclear power plants as the denizens of the Big Apple then the US as a whole could be operated completely on nuclear power with 32 times 37 or 1184 nuclear power plants. However, that doesn't sound reasonable given the previous estimate I've referenced that claimed 1000 nuclear plants would be needed to power just the cars in America. Anyone understand the cause of the different results of these calculations?

Vehicles use only 30% of power now produced in America.

The U.S. today consumes about 100 quads—100 quadrillion BTUs—of raw thermal energy per year. We do three basic things with it: generate electricity (about 40 percent of the raw energy consumed), move vehicles (30 percent), and produce heat (30 percent). Oil is the fuel of transportation, of course. We principally use natural gas to supply raw heat, though it’s now making steady inroads into electric power generation. Fueling electric power plants are mainly (in descending order) coal, uranium, natural gas, and rainfall, by way of hydroelectricity.

Note that in spite of the attention lavished upon oil as a political topic it accounts for less than half of all energy use in the United States. But there is a difference between energy generated and energy used. A large fraction of the energy generated in electric power generation plants is lost by the time electricity flows through a wall socket. To supply enough nuclear power to operate cars would require more heat generation than is currently generated from burning gasoline in cars. See, for example, the efficiency column of the first table of Engineer-Poet's Ergosphere post laying out his vision of our energy future.

In spite of the lower energy efficiency of electricity it is so convenient and useful that it is a growing percentage of total energy used in America and likely worldwide as well..

That shift is already under way. About 60 percent of the fuel we use today isn’t oil but coal, uranium, natural gas, and gravity—all making electricity. Electricity has met almost all of the growth in U.S. energy demand since the 1980s.

Will this shift toward electricity as the preferred medium for delivering energy continue? To put it another way: Does hydrogen stand any chance of becoming a major medium for the distribution of power? Hydrogen has a lot of problems as an energy storage medium. Perhaps advances in nanotechnology will solve some of those problems. But we'd still be left with the need to use nuclear power plants or solar photovoltaic panels to generate the power we'd use to produce hydrogen in the first place. At the same time, materials advances will reduce electric power transmission costs and so hydrogen is not going to compete against a static target.

Electricity has an inherent advantage over hydrogen: Many end uses require electricity. Think about computers or any electronic devices. The devices run on electricity. Hydrogen use for these applications would require generation of hydrogen from some other energy source (possibly in nuclear power plants designed to optimize hydrogen production), hydrogen transportation and hydrogen storage devices where needed, and then the use of hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity where and when it is needed. Any guesses on why that approach can be expected to cost more or less than the construction of more superconducting high voltage lines?

Huber and Mills see electricity continuing to encroach on natural gas and other energy source competitors in end-use applications..

Electricity is taking over ever more of the thermal sector, too. A microwave oven displaces much of what a gas stove once did in a kitchen. So, too, lasers, magnetic fields, microwaves, and other forms of high-intensity photon power provide more precise, calibrated heating than do conventional ovens in manufacturing and the industrial processing of materials. These electric cookers (broadly defined) are now replacing conventional furnaces, ovens, dryers, and welders to heat air, water, foods, and chemicals, to cure paints and glues, to forge steel, and to weld ships. Over the next two decades, such trends will move another 15 percent or so of our energy economy from conventional thermal to electrically powered processes. And that will shift about 15 percent of our oil-and-gas demand to whatever primary fuels we’ll then be using to generate electricity.

Huber and Mills also point out that cars are becoming big electric appliances. They expect the trend toward hybrid vehicles to effectively make the main purpose of power plants of cars into electric power generators connected to a large number of devices that run off the electricity supplied by the electric power plant under the hood. I agree with this assessment and have previously argued that Cars May Become Greater Electricity Generators Than Big Electric Plants. However, while the engines in hybrids may eventually become huge electricity generators Huber and Mills argue that the use of gasoline for generating car electric power is an expensive way to charge car batteries. Electric power delivered from electric utility companies is much cheaper:

Once you’ve got the wheels themselves running on electricity, the basic economics strongly favor getting that electricity from the grid if you can. Burning $2-a-gallon gasoline, the power generated by current hybrid-car engines costs about 35 cents per kilowatt-hour. Many utilities, though, sell off-peak power for much less: 2 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. The nationwide residential price is still only 8.5 cents or so.

This makes pluggable hybrids (hybrids that can be recharged from wall sockets while parked) as the next logical step. I expect we will see the development of better and cheaper batteries to facilitate this transition.

Huber and Mills make a pitch for nuclear power that has an interesting twist to it: Because nuclear plant reactors are so small compared to the power that comes from them it is easy to overbuild them to protect against terrorist attacks.

And uranium’s combination of power and super-density makes the fuel less of a terror risk, not more, at least from an engineering standpoint. It’s easy to “overbuild” the protective walls and containment systems of nuclear facilities, since—like the pyramids—the payload they’re built to shield is so small. Protecting skyscrapers is hard; no builder can afford to erect a hundred times more wall than usable space. Guaranteeing the integrity of a jumbo jet’s fuel tanks is impossible; the tanks have to fly. Shielding a nuclear plant’s tiny payload is easy—just erect more steel, pour more concrete, and build tougher perimeters.

Because uranium fuel amounts to only one tenth the total cost of nuclear power it is a great energy source for baseline power needs. Also, since hybrid vehicles could be recharged at night an electric industry run by nuclear power would work extremely well with the implementation of residential variable rate electric power metering where late night prices for electric power would be much lower than the peak day rates.

Huber and Mills mention that the Hoover Dam on the Colorado generates 2 GW of electric power. Increasingly I find myself automatically translating energy numbers into nuclear plant terms. For the cost of 2 $1 billion dollar Westinghouse AP1100 nuclear plants and perhaps a few billion more in operations and fuel costs and waste disposal costs the Hoover Dam could be torn down and the Colorado River could be allowed to return to its natural state. So perhaps the whole project would run to $6 billion. Sound far-fetched? Over a period of decades we spend trillions of dollars on environmental protection. Once nuclear power again becomes an acceptable energy source I predict that the idea of building nuclear power plants to enable the tearing down hydroelectric dams will become popular in environmentalist circles.

Huber and Mills end their City Journal article with a plea to end our need to buy oil from the Middle East in order to stop the flow of money into a region so intent upon violence. I agree.

Update: What are nuclear fission power's biggest competitors in the medium run of the next 20 to 40 years? I see two:

  • Coal plants that have extremely low emissions. By extremely low I mean less than 1% of the mercury, sulfur dioxide, soot, and other emissions now coming from the worst American coal-fired electric power plants. Also, the plants would have near total carbon dioxide sequestration. Coal emissions control technology has already greatly improved and further improvements are possible. So clean coal might become possible for less than the cost of nuclear power.
  • Cheaper solar photovoltaics coupled with cheaper storage systems. The costs of photovoltaic panels inevitably will fall by an order of magnitude and more. At the same time, carbon nanotubes or lithium polymers will enable the building of batteries that are cheaper, higher power density, and longer lasting.

In the longer run what are nuclear fission's other competitors? Two more will become feasible:

  • Nuclear fusion. Will fusion be cheaper than fission?

  • Solar satellites. The satellites could provide constant power and the light hitting them would be more intense than the light hitting solar panels down on Earth. A carbon nanotube beanstalk into space may eventually make construction and deployment of such satellites orders of magnitude cheaper than it is today.

Natural gas in the form of clathrates on the ocean floor might become a major source. However, it is unclear how much natural gas is tied up in clathrates.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 January 13 04:06 PM  Energy Tech

Jim said at January 13, 2005 8:00 PM:

nuclear is needed - good post.

have you considered wind power? i guess that a 1.5 megawatt GE wind turbine costs about $1MM. This is about the same cost as the nuclear you quoted ($1BB/gigawatt). most of south dakota is high wind value land, sufficient to get about 25 - 50% of the peak rated power on any given day. there are about 50 million acres in south dakota, and let's assume 30 million is high wind value land - the potential for about 1e13 watts (30e6 acres * 1e6 watts * 0.33 operating efficiency) of power in that state. no fuel is needed. maintainence costs are low. the land could still be farmed. the only waste (and cause for environmentalist opposition) is dead birds, but presumably they could be fed to hogs. and there is no chance of terrorist-caused or accidental meltdown (although the nuclear risks could be reduced quite low, it's finite and lot's of plants mean lots of opportunities for unlikely events to occur). the biggest excess cost is the power transmission lines, but the turbine tower could possibly double as power line towers.

solar costs 10 times more, but prices are still dropping. distributed power is very desirable - reduce demand on the grid and render terrorist attacks impossible. think solar shingles. they're not very efficient right now, which means they have a lot of potential improvement, and we can all think of other semi-conductor technologies that increased performance exponentially.

super batteries aren't very likely imho. how much more power density can you get? even platic explosives don't have much more power than batteries. gasoline is the most efficient chemical storage device, and gasoline engines are pretty efficient after a century of tweaking. we all like high power (lot's of energy/time) cars.

when the cost of fuel goes up wind and solar will save the day. (it'll take a while to run out of coal though)

Tom DC/VA said at January 13, 2005 8:36 PM:

While I think nuclear power could be a component of the future power mix, I'm not all that enthused about boiling-water or pressurized-water reactors. I think the US needs to develop some next generation reactors that are have better inherent safety features, such as pebble-bed reactors or the integral fast reactor. Even the CANDU design is better. Whether the anti-nuclear forces, the GE/Westinghouse duopoly, and general interia can be overcome so that we can move in the right direction is a good question.

Randall Parker said at January 13, 2005 9:47 PM:


I do not understand nuclear power economics well enough. Beyond basic construction costs what are the operational costs as a fraction of those costs? What will waste disposal costs be in the long run? What will deactivation costs be? How long will each reactor operator?

I really do not want landscapes covered with windmills.

Tom, Why do you think fast breeders would be safer? I thought they were just as dangerous or more dangerous than conventional nukes. No?

The new AP1100 design has many fewer parts that can fail. I think a great deal has been learned about light water reactors since the TMI accident.

Jody said at January 13, 2005 11:09 PM:

think solar shingles. they're not very efficient right now, which means they have a lot of potential improvement, and we can all think of other semi-conductor technologies that increased performance exponentially.

The efficiency gains of semiconductors have come through the creation of ever smaller gates. While I'm not a solar expert, I don't think that smaller gates will help the photovoltaic effect. Personally, I expect chlorophyll to be a better technology than silicon for solar cells in the long run.

However, I don't think even the chlorophyll cells will ever beat nuclear power for usefulness as a power plant.

Michael Vassar said at January 14, 2005 8:35 AM:

Jody: photosynthesis is hideously inefficient and probably has limited potential for optimization. Don't bet on it. I could imagine cost effective plankton farming in the open ocean and rendering to fuel, but this would have a big environmental impact.

Randall: What's wrong with covering some of the lanscape with windmills? A few million acres isn't terribly much. A major benefit of wind is that its small scale means market competition can be fierce, while its limited history means economies of scale have not been fully realized. I look forward to the day when chinese factory laborers build inexpensive windmill construction kits (from plastic?) for export. Since manufacturing costs are the only significant expense for wind, and since the cost of defects is moderate, it can potentially fall to a price far cheaper than current energy sources.

jlw said at January 14, 2005 9:27 AM:

Randall Parker says: "I really do not want landscapes covered with windmills."

You know, nuclear energy enthusiasts like to belittle the concerns of those who have serious concerns about ramping up the use of nukes. And yet here we have the hard-nosed Mr. Parker espousing a squishy, aesthetic argument for leaving a potentially potent energy source untapped.

Wind is becoming a competitive energy source--it's not there yet, but the efficiencies of large-scale turbines is increasing all the time. Will wind supply all our energy needs in the medium-to-long term? No. But it has the potential to supply quite a bit, without any after-manufacture waste or emissions. Even the threat to birds is greatly overblown: the famous Altamont Pass in California was something of a breeding ground for golden eagles, and the latticework turbine towers there provided an attractive perches for the birds. Recent studies suggest that birds would be threatened less from the widespread use of megawatt-scale wind turbines than by the high-voltage lines carrying the power they generated.

We need a lot of everything--many more nukes, large tracts of wind farms, solar cells on most rooftops, zero-emission coal plants, the works. We can't afford to leave any carbon emission-free energy source untapped.

Randall Parker said at January 14, 2005 11:32 AM:


Serious concerns about ramping up nukes? Well, are those concerns justified? And what exactly are your concerns? Accidental nuclear materials release? Or nuclear proliferation with so much uranium moving about and stealable? Or what exactly?

I know that windmills will make the landscape less attractive. I also have read fairly credible claims that windmills will change the environment by slowing winds and changing surface temperatures and precipitation.

Also, I do not see any need to rush to embrace energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide. Even in the more pessimistic climate models most of the problems from global warming are decades away. Our technology will advance greatly by the time global warming has to be dealt with and it will be far cheaper to deal with it in the future than to deal with it now.

Wind power also costs much more than coal. Building wind towers today is a waste of resources.

Aside: I'd like to see better data on what the cost would be of electric power from new nuclear plants built today.

Kurt said at January 14, 2005 12:02 PM:

Unless we develop some sort of fusion power, its clear to me that the future is nuclear power. Nuclear power technology has quietly come a long way in the past 20-30 years. There are several new designs for nuclear power plants that effectivcely deal with the problems of current plants, such as nuclear waste, reprocessing, and proliferation.

One is the Integral Fast Reactor. Another is the pebble-bed reactor. Both of these concepts have been discussed here previously. There is a third design that uses thorium, rather than uranium for fuel. Presummably this design could be combined with either the IFR or pebble-bed reactor to make an even better design that eliminates the potential for nuclear weapons production. I also believe that by creatively using an IEC device (the farnsworth fusor), it is possible to make a nuclear power plant that fissions U238 directly. Since the nuclear reaction is not a self-sustaing chain reaction, a "criticality" accident is impossible.

There is enough thorium and U238 to provide enough energy for a U.S. standard of living to 15 billion people for the next 1 billion years (check out http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/index.html). This makes nuclear power a "renewable" energy source for all practical purposes.

I really think that nuclear power is the way to go. The Chinese and other Asians realize this, too.

I also believe that the wide scale adoption of nuclear technology will fuel technological advances (low cost transmutation, etc) that will have as much a profound effect on the economy as the semiconductors and biotechnology.

Doug said at January 14, 2005 1:29 PM:

Regarding wind power (i.e. "cover South Dakota with windmills"), aside from the aesthetic objections, isn't one serious problem with wind power the difficulty of locating it near cities & industry? In the linked article, the hypothetical all-nuclear-NYC had nuclear plants 50 miles from the city, presumably to minimize the loss during transmission. Nuclear would be much easier as well if we could put all the plants in the middle of the Nevada desert, but that's not a reasonable strategy to power the whole country.

Quantitatively, what percentage of generated power is lost per mile of transmission? And what does that imply about the real cost of delivering power by wind? I don't know enough of the underlying technology to answer, but I've definitely read assertions that few cities are close enough to suitable wind-generating terrain that they could economically use it.

It might well be like hydroelectric - it's great if you want to power Seattle, but not so helpful if you want to power Atlanta.

Randall Parker said at January 14, 2005 2:05 PM:


The other problem with wind power is its unreliability. Solar suffers from a similar problem. However, at least solar is there on hot summer afternoons when air conditioners are causing peak demand.

Solar and wind both become more attractive if we can develop cheaper methods of converting electricity into storable energy forms.

Also, unreliable energy sources would be more attractive if dynamic end-user electricity pricing was allowed to quickly tailor demand to supply.

Bob McGrew said at January 14, 2005 2:19 PM:

Also, unreliable energy sources would be more attractive if dynamic end-user electricity pricing was allowed to quickly tailor demand to supply.

I strongly suspect that end-user electricity consumption is pretty inelastic over the short run and pretty elastic over the long-run. Are you envisioning stores and businesses dimming their lights immediately in response to price fluctuations? We had that in California during the energy crisis, but it didn't seem to do very much.

Randall Parker said at January 14, 2005 2:47 PM:

Bob McGrew,

A few points on dynamic pricing:

1) There are industrial processes that could be made to run only when power is cheap. For example, water pumping for long aqueducts takes a lot of power. The water could be pumped more rapidly when the power is cheap. Aluminum smelting is another industrial process that could be done more when power is cheap.

2) A lot of the uses of power for humans could be automated to start and stop based on the price of power. For example, put clothes in a washer or put dishes in a dishwasher to have it automatically start once prices get low enough.

3) Charging of electric vehicle batteries could be done when power is cheap. Most vehicles sit still 20+ hours per day 7 days per week. If the batteries can run a car for days then any time during those days it could be recharged when power is cheap.

4) Still, any power that is not reliable can not be used for all purposes. We obviously need coal or nuclear or satellite solar to satisfy baseline demand needs.

5) But advances in energy storage technologies can reduce the amount of power needed for baseline demand.

gmoke said at January 14, 2005 8:32 PM:

Well, I use about 100 kwh per month. All my lights are compact fluorescents, I plug all my phantom load devices into power strips which I turn off after I turn the phantom load devices off, and, last but not least, my refrigerator/freezer is a Danish VestFrost which is close to 2/3 more efficient than most others of comparable size. We shouldn't be talking about building another 1000 nukes until we've advanced as a society enough to be energy conservative at least to the degree that I currently am.

I also think we shouldn't build another 1000 nukes because there are always going to be bad guys willing to give their lives for a mushroom cloud or dirty bomb. And Wackenhut won't save you - they are guarding a number of nukes while at the same time having the DOE contract to test security at our present 100+ nukes. Can you say conflict of interest?

Tom DC/VA said at January 14, 2005 10:37 PM:

Randall - my understanding is that the IFR (or AMLR, really) employs doppler broadening effects, which means the reaction rate goes down as the core temperature goes up. While the liquid sodium coolant is not the easiest thing to handle, it is at atmospheric pressure and not corrosive like superheated steam. From my readings (and what I've found on the IFR is limited, unfortunately) I think the ALMR is not as inherently safe as the PBMR, but if it can really "burn" uranium more completely, as well as plutonium and other high-level wastes, it could have a lot of utility. And that's leaving aside the need to use its "breeding" capabilities. I think this all needs to be researched a wee bit more, but it sounds promising.

Some other comments:

On the transmission front, long distance DC transmission lines cut down the losses a bit and can allow various parts of the grid to be out of sync with each other, easing management problems. There are several long DC lines in Canada that move power south from the big dams. (Also, DC lines are good for undersea cables like the one from Italy to Sardinia.) So I think the separation of wind generation areas and load centers will not be as big of a problem as everyone thinks, provided someone is willing to take charge of reworking the grid.

Dynamic pricing sounds good. What needs to be done is to add communications capabilities to the grid and to individual appliances so that they can respond to the price and availability signals (possibly two different issues) from the system operator. Surely someone has done R&D on this already?

At this point I'd be hestitant to include fusion in any energy plans for this century. Too much money has been thrown at it with not much practical progress. I'd say cut back on the nuts and bolts research for a while and concentrate on computer modeling. Sure, it will probably take a computer with 1000 times the power of the current top computer to find the solution, but we all know how rapidly computer technology improves, so its not that far off.

I haven't been to Altamont or Tehachapi, but the wind turbines near Somerset PA were not displeasing to me. The large, slow-turning rotors have fairly nice designs, and the idea of them generating clean(er) power pleases me. It would be nice to have none, but its not a perfect world. Anyway, when a better power source comes along, they will be fairly easy to remove. Besides, very few people live in North Dakota or most other high-wind areas, and leasing the land for energy production will bring benefits to those rural areas.

Randall Parker said at January 15, 2005 2:10 AM:


The primary problem with long distance transmission technologies is not lack of technology to manage the lines. The problem is that the current regulatory structure discourages investments to develop and implement the technology. Huber and Mills wrote a previous article on grid reliability that I did a post on and it covers this issue. See my post On Public Electric Power Grid Reliability And Terrorism and click thru and read their full article.

I do not see how to structure a market of competing grid capacity suppliers to address this problem. The whole grid acts like a single system and it needs to be extremely cooperative to protect all pieces. The free rider problem can't be solved easily with such a system.

Jim said at January 15, 2005 11:45 AM:

hey - what a great comment section

regarding windmills:

1) i think the environmental effects are v. small, and not that bad. basically it reduces circulation of air across the globe with a net zero effect on global temperatures. it makes the poles cooler and the equator warmer. given that melting of huge, inland glaciers at the poles (i.e. greenland, antarctica) leading to rising sea levels is the worst part of global warming, this cooling of the poles would actually be preferred, i think.

2) i respect the unpleasant landscape argument - at least it's honest. i wonder if those with that opinion would object if huge-scale farms, with land never really seen by outsiders, chose to use private funds to build these wind farms? personally, i kinda think they look cool, almost mesmerizing.

3) all of the great lakes are high-value wind areas, close to huge industrial cities (chicago, detroit, cleveland, etc.) granted this would about double the costs

4) operating costs are significantly lower than coal, but of course the upfront capital investment costs of coal plants probably can't be matched by anything.

regarding nuclear:

1) proliferation of associated knowledge then used for weapons by enemies of u.s. is probably the biggest risk. nothing can stop the advance of knowledge though.

2) search 'Generation IV' nuclear reactors at google or oak ridge national lab's site for information on these types of reactors being planned. they will be far safer and more efficient. many plans are currently materials limited amongst other challenges.

regarding storage:

1) even theoretical carbon nanotubes only have hydrogen energy storage density of gasoline by volumetric or gravimetric comparison without any mention of reversibility losses

2) i wonder if resevoirs couldn't be more widely used for energy storage in combination with variable sources (i.e. wind & solar, plus offsetting peak demands) it has huge energy storage potential depending upon the site. (how many kWh's of power are stored behind hoover dam? i don't know but i'll bet it's a very big number) i think energy reversibility losses storing and recovering energy from water turbines/pumps is pretty efficient and cheap to build capacity.

finally, what about geothermal energy? as noted in this post, 30% of energy goes to heating, and much of this is from saudi oil in the northeast. it's a free fuel source, and i think it's relatively low up-front investment although i don't know exact figures. it also doubles as a cooling system in the summer. a quick google brought up a company selling these and here's a bunch of positive, economical case studies.

are there any downsides to geothermal heating/cooling?

Dave Schuler said at January 15, 2005 12:00 PM:

There appears to be some problem with your trackbacks. I've linked to this post and issued the appropriate trackback pings. Nada. FWIW.

Randall Parker said at January 15, 2005 12:09 PM:


Regarding reservoirs: We could get a lot more hydroelectric power if we could figure out a way to prevent water evaporation. Those huge lakes behind dams like Lake Mead are enormous evaporation ponds.

Could nanofilm coatings reduce water evaporation? But then would that block oxygen from getting into the water for fish?

Randall Parker said at January 15, 2005 12:48 PM:


The 1400 KW electric use rate quoted in the article times 24 hours times 30 days equals 1008 KWH per month. Part of that is used by industry. Still, your 100 KWH per month is very low. I just checked my bill and I run over 400 KWH. I think about half of that is from computers. I sit here with 2 computers and 2 20" monitors on.

David A. Young said at January 15, 2005 2:16 PM:

Randall, just a nit. You said:

"Natural gas in the form of clathrates on the ocean flood might become a major source. However, it is unclear how much natural gas is tied up in clathrates."

I think you meant "clathrates on the ocean FLOOR. . . "

Sorry, I'm a Tech Editor -- it's compulsive with me.

Randall Parker said at January 15, 2005 2:49 PM:


Never be the least bit sorry for reporting typos to me. I greatly appreciate it!!

Really, never hesitate to tell me. I make mistakes. I hate to find them a month after I made some post and thousands of people have read it already.

Lawrence said at January 15, 2005 5:42 PM:

Being a nuclear engineer, I of course see nuclear power as having the major role (85% or more) in meeting future U.S. electricity requirements. Nuclear power should definitely replace all coal fire plants leaving hydro, wind, and gas-fired turbines to provide the remainder and all the peaking capability. A new generation of nuclear reactors would be of standard design and modular in construction for lower unit cost and would have increased safeguards to preclude criticality type accidents (e.g., TMI). They would also be capable of producing hydrogen as a load leveler during off-peak hours. (Ever wonder where all that hydrogen to supply the so-called "Hydrogen Economy" of the future will come from?)

This leaves the problem of transportation fuels and the growing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But now we have the solution: coal. Coal, you might ask? Yes coal. Here's why. Using the Fisher-Tropsch (FT) process, it is now cost-effective to convert coal to a high cetane, sulfur-free diesel fuel to replace gasoline in all ground vehicles. (There's more energy in a gallon of diesel than in a gallon of gasoline if you ever wondered.)

The reason why coal-to-liquids conversion is now cost effective is the world price of oil. Above about $30/bbl, FT is commercially viable without a government subsidy. So instead of burning all this coal to make electricity, we convert it into a superb transportation fuel and reap a 30% increase in fuel mileage to boot. All this depends only on the world price of oil staying above $30/bbl. This now hardly seems like a problem given oil's recent flirtation with $56/bbl along with the looming day of so-call "Peak Oil" when world oil production actually levels off and starts a slow but inevitable decline.

If you've never heard of FT, then go see what Mr Google has to say about it. You will be pleasantly surprised to find that a chemical process is now at hand to substitute U.S. coal for foreign oil without a government subsidy. Neat trick, eh? Maybe more like a God-send for the U.S. given the high price in treasure and blood that we're paying for a dependable supply of oil for both the U.S. and our Allies. FT - "Bring it on!"

DigitalDjigit said at January 16, 2005 8:10 AM:

I do not buy his argument that the more efficient the technology, the more electricity is used. "The more efficient a car, the cheaper the miles; the more efficient a refrigerator, the cheaper the ice;". But wouldn't the total spending remain the same in terms of dollars? If I spent $10 dollars a week on car trips, why would I spent $15 after my miles per gallon went up? Even if I spend the same amount I would get to drive far more which should satisfy my demand.

The aggregate increase in fuel burning can be attributed to growing population, the fact that the average family owns more cars than before and new uses for energy. No one had a computer constantly running in 1970.

Efficient energy use is a much better way to proceed than simply producing more energy.

DigitalDjigit said at January 16, 2005 8:18 AM:

OH, about your calculation "how many nuclear plants will it take to run the country". Are cars included in the New York energy demand figure? I doubt it since it uses per capita home electricity demand. Moreover, an average New Yorker drives much less than other Americans and lives in a smaller apartment (thus less lighting, air conditioning etc.).

Randall Parker said at January 16, 2005 11:23 AM:


Go back and read closely what I quoted and said. The NYC figures include the reactors for the existing electricity demand and then a larger number of reactors assuming that all energy uses were switched to nuclear power. So I take that to mean that cars would be included.

Energy efficiency has its limits. Rising affluence translates into more money to buy goods and services that consume energy. For example, people fly more because they can afford to play for airplane tickets to more distant locations. They build bigger houses that require more energy to run. Instead of all the family staying in one room watching a single TV channel dad is in one room surfing the net, junior Jack is in another room playing a video game, junior Jill is in another watching a teen soap opera and mom is in another room watching an adult soap opera. So energy demand is going to increase per capita as well as due to population growth.

Tj Green said at January 17, 2005 11:31 AM:

We seem to be facing two problems,"global warming" (because of increase in carbon dioxide) and "global dimming"(reduction in sunlight, because of change in cloud structure,turning them into giant mirrors).By burning fossil fuel we risk coastal erosion,and the loss of major cities.With less sunlight we reduce evaporation,and therefore experience more droughts.With what we are learning about how life interacts(pollen causing rain droplets to form) with our planets weather,and how we can intervene in that interaction,to bring about a different outcome is remarkable.I would agree,that with ever increasing computational power,we could take control of our planets weather.

Kurt said at January 17, 2005 12:07 PM:

I just looked up the "generation IV" nuclear plants. This is quite impressive, if it is actually realized. Stuff like the pebble-bed reactor and the IFR are generation III. Presummably the generation IV plants will be even better than these two generation III designs.

Either way, the future is nuclear power. Unless, of course, someone manages to develop a cost effective form of fusion (either B11 + H or cold fusion).

Robert Bradbury said at January 18, 2005 10:20 AM:

I am not opposed to nuclear -- particularly if we develop inexpensive isotope separation technologies (nanotechnology can enable this) and breeder reactor
and/or accelerator technologies to completely eliminate the nuclear waste issue (by turning all of the radioactive isotopes into non-radioactive isotopes).

However, there is one technology that isn't being considered which is based on existing technology. That is solar ponds that produce methane that can be pumped into the existing natural gas pipeline system. To the best of my knowledge there are no bacteria which currently use solar energy to convert atmospheric CO2 into methane (CH4). But the genome sequences for bacteria to do this *do* exist in the public databases if they were combined properly. The advantage of using a bioengineering approach to this is that most of the "machinery" required can manufacture itself. Solar ponds are also much easier to construct than nuclear power plants. There is the additional advantage that using bacteria one has an infrastructure that can effectively
be replaced within a few days. You can't do that with nuclear power plants.

Kurt said at January 18, 2005 3:28 PM:


What would be the production capacity (in cubic feet) of, say, a one acre pond over a one year period? Current usage of natural gas is measured in trillions of cubic feet (TCF) per year.

Tom DC/VA said at January 18, 2005 7:21 PM:

Randall - I agree the grid won't be re-engineered by market forces. I hope we've not become too ideologically blinkered to let that hold up progress.

Jim - "geothermal" in this case seems to be heat pumps that use the ground or a pond as the heat sink/source. This is not a new idea and can work quite well under the right conditions. I don't think that enough energy is in the ground in most places to actually generate electricity, which is still needed to run the heat pumps.

Also, thanks for mentioning the Gen IV NPP research. The goals sound right but nothing struck me as radically different or better. And DOE as a whole seems to be spending almost twice as much on implementing a new round of BWR reactors as they are on new designs. Here's their 10/2004 reports:


john bigelow said at January 19, 2005 3:00 PM:

A few points to note here:

“How much energy can wind realistically supply to the U.S.?” – American Wind Energy Association

Overall energy usage in the U.S. decreased after the oil shocks of the 1970s, but is now larger.
Energy conservation and efficiency gains on the national level are eventually overwhelmed by more people finding more things to do that need more energy.

The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal. There is enough coal for hundreds of years of usage at current rates of use. But the caveat “at current rates of use” is misleading, as coal will be needed to make synfuels, for a feedstock for chemicals and to power more electrical production.

“There is almost no doubt that coal production will rise in the future and the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that coal consumption will greatly increase in the next two decades.4 Most would agree that this will not be a problem because in the U.S. we have hundreds of years of reserves remaining. Years of reserves remaining is easy enough to calculate: one only need determine how many tons of coal remain in the ground (available from the EIA) and divide by the production for that year. If we look at the year 2000, we can see that we have 255 years of coal remaining. However, if we look at other years, we see something strange: there were 300 years of coal reserves in 1988, 1000 years reserves in 1904, and 10,000 years reserves in 1868! As each year goes by, we use our coal more quickly and we see that the standard formulation of 'years remaining' is nearly meaningless.”

Nuclear power plus the Price-Anderson Act means the U.S. taxpayer will pay for nuclear accidents.

John Bigelow

Dezakin said at January 22, 2005 2:38 PM:

I'm suprised and frustrated that everyone keeps repeating the Integral Fast Reactor as a real power reactor. They must have gotten some good press for such a bad prototype to have such entheusiasm.

First its a sodium cooled fast reactor that has a positive void coefficient. You have a cooling accident that causes the sodium to boil and you're reaction just gets going faster. Second its a _fast_ reactor. That means that your delayed neutron fraction is very small meaning the reactivity flux is very high. Its hard to control fast reactors and you run into problems that lead to prompt criticality accidents. Fast reactors are very good at one thing: breeding plutonium fast. In other words, making a giant nuclear weapons program.

To add insult to injury, the fuel is metallic rather than an oxide, meaning much easier to process in the PUREX process that you use to extract Pu239 for those nice warheads. Oh and its damn expensive also.

A far superior reactor design is the molten salt breeder reactor. Liquid berryllium and Lithium flourides disolve thorium and uranium tetraflouride as a fluid fuel reactor. The core cant melt down, because its allready melted. Only fluid fuel reactors have truely negative void coefficients in the epithermal neutron spectrum, and also strongly negative thermal coefficients: The hotter it gets the slower the reaction because the lower the neutron density as the molten core expands.

Also, online reprocessing is done, so there is no high level waste; The fuel cycle is closed without having external chemical processing plants. The flouride volitility process controlls the uranium level in the reactor, and helium sparging yanks out all the noble gas fission products which incidentally are often enourmous neutron poisons, giving far better neutron economies.

Its likely that the economics of molten salt reactors are less expensive than coal also: Very low refueling costs, no high level waste disposal issues, etcetera.

As to the hosts assertion:

This makes pluggable hybrids (hybrids that can be recharged from wall sockets while parked) as the next logical step. I expect we will see the development of better and cheaper batteries to facilitate this transition.

Not a chance. You'll never approach the volumetric energy density of diesel fuel with batteries. Even hydrogen, for all its fault is far better than batteries.

Randall Parker said at January 22, 2005 7:11 PM:


Donald Sadoway, a battery researcher at MIT, claims that lithium polymer batteries could achieve 10 times the power to weight ratio of lead acid batteries. As for volumetric energy density: That is less of a concern. There are enough empty spaces under the skin of a car that could have bateries designed into them that volume is not the limiting factor.

As for the danger of breeders: Yes, some designs are dangerous.

It is my understanding that the appeal of breeder reactors is to stretch out the supply of uranium by converting U-238 into fissionable material that can then be used to power more conventional fission reactors. Is that not the case? For how many conventional nuclear reactors can a single breeder reactor create fuel?

Also, since you know a lot about nukes: Is thorium a practical fuel to use in Third World countries to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons prolferation? Is there enough thorium or could thorium be produced by a breeder reactor?

T. C. Dean said at February 9, 2005 10:57 AM:

All of you folks waxing eloquent about the great virtues of nuclear power seem to forget that one nuclear core vaporized and spread over the countryside will effectively destroy more value in land and infrastructure than all of the plants will generate in 1000 years. The current generation of pressurized water reactors are completely vulnerable to a $100,000 precision guided penetrator dropped from a private jet. Punching through the pressure vessel and destroying the control system, complete meltdown would be inevitable and an area the size of a state would rendered uninhabitable indefinitely. Pebble bed reactors would be safer - until terrorists obtain a nuke. Vaporizing a nuclear reactor multiplies the destructive power of a nuclear device by hundreds. Is it any wonder that the Price-Anderson Act is necessary to shield the nuclear industry from public liability? Without it, the industry would be completely non-viable today.

Dezakin said at February 9, 2005 8:49 PM:

Ah yes, Chernobyl. A lesson in how not to build and run a reactor. You have a reactor without a containment dome, scram rods that make the reactor explode, a strongly positive void coefficient, no stay indoors order for the local population that has iodine deficiencies. Its as bad as an accident as you could have if you planned it to be bad. And yet, most of the damage is political. The chernobyl area isn't uninhabitable except by government fiat. I can cite many places on the earth with naturally higher background radiation exist with thriving local populations. It was a political catastrophy with much fearmongering, and now one of the most vibrant wildlife refuges in Europe.

Molten salt reactors can breed U238 into Pu-239, but the ideal fuel is Th232. Which is fortunate because thorium is roughly three times as common as uranium, and especially important to India, given the lack of Indian uranium yet ample thorium sands. Oh, and the waste stream is 1/100th that of a once through LWR, so no nasty aqueous processing regime.

And yes, thorium is a reasonable fuel in the third world as any other. U233 (bred from Th-232 via neutron capture, decay to Pa-233, then decay to U233), while being usable in nuclear weapons, is hardly ideal due to the gamma decay mode that makes storage and handling of the warheads problematic at the least.

As for Donald at MIT's magic batteries: even if they can compete on cost, they'll still suck in power to weight of diesel fuel. And volumetric energy density is important, especially for planes. New batteries are great, but liquid hydrocarbons will allways rule the fuel world.

T. C. Dean said at February 11, 2005 12:06 PM:

Dezakin is obviously smart enough to know that his statement "I can cite many places on the earth with naturally higher background radiation exist with thriving local populations" is highly misleading. Or should I just say a lie. Naturally occurring isotopes are not concentrated in biological systems, unlike iodine or strontium. That's because creatures that concentrated radioactive materials would not have survived. Fortunately our distant ancestors were not exposed to frequent nuclear reactors exploding and spreading radioactive iodine over the environment. But unfortunately for the millions of children living in the areas around Chernobyl, their thyroid glands couldn't differentiate between naturally occurring iodine and the radioactive variety spewed out by the ton by exploding reactors. So thyroid cancer rates exploding by tens or hundreds of times in children is not a problem to you, Dezakin? I guess you must be a compassionate conservative.

Dezakin said at February 11, 2005 6:22 PM:

Well I just got banned from Free Republic after my first post, so I guess I'm not enough of a compassionate conservative by the neo-fascist right that are currently in power.

In Ramsar, Iran, the natural background radiation is due to very high concentrations of Ra-226, which has biouptake mechanisms very similar to Sr-90. There never were 'millions' of children subjected to toxic levels of radioactive iodine, and this myth has been banded about for far too long.


Randall Parker said at February 12, 2005 3:54 PM:


Congratulations for getting banned by the Freepers!

Personally, if someone called me a "compassionate conservative" I'd take it as an insult. I think real conservativism is more compassionate than left-liberalism because of the harmful consequences of the welfare state. But what gets labelled as "compassionate conservatism" is whatever Bush is for. Well, Bush has been for a number of extensions of the conventional welfare state (e.g. No Child Left Behind) that fly in the face of the facts of human nature.

T. C. Dean said at February 15, 2005 10:17 PM:

So Dazakan, what is a "toxic level of radioactive iodine"? One that kills a kid in a week? Certainly there were millions of kids exposed to levels that increased their risk of thyroid cancer significantly. You are a know-it-all punk and I would ban you for your misleading, big-energy boot licking crap if it were my site. "All together, territories from the former Soviet Union with an area of about 150,000 km2 were contaminated with 137Cs deposition density greater than 37 kBq m-2. About five million people reside in those territories." Very significant iodine exposure was found outside this area. Finding excess cancers in large populations exposed to radiation is fraught with many statistical and methodological problems.

There is scientific evidence that people living around Ramsar have indeed adapted to the high levels of radiation by having hyperactive chromosome repair functionality in their cells that other people living in nearby low radioactivity areas don't have. That is consistent with my point about the differences between natural and human generated radiation.

So Randall, "No Child Left Behind" is a liberal sell-out on the part of an otherwise decent Fascist president that "flies in the face of the facts of human nature"? I would have to suppose you eat yours.

Randall Parker said at February 15, 2005 10:52 PM:

T.C. Dean,

Otherwise decent? You seem to be making unwarranted assumptions about my views of Bush. I think he's a bad President on a number of counts.

But, yes, NCLB does fly in the face of what is known about human brains. We do not live in Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone where he says all children are above average. NCLB is based on false assumptions about the distribution of cognitive ability. Not everyone can perform at the intellectual levels needed to achieve what NCLB holds to be adequate scholastic performance. Half the population really is below average. Well okay, if you are statisically literate you might want to argue that half the population is below the median. But lots of people do not want to admit that. I get disbelief when I tell people that more than half the US population have IQs below 100 (US average being about 98).

As for your use of the term fascist: Like with so many other overuses of the term it does nothing to illuminate. It pretty much amounts to "my side is good and their side is is bad and you just know it because I called their side fascist". It is also inaccurate. Last I checked Bush isn't trying to take over all of American industry to use it for the goals of the state. Nor has he imposed martial law and banned democracy.

T. C. Dean said at February 16, 2005 7:40 PM:


Thanks for the calm and well reasoned post. I'll admit to getting a little carried away.

Taking over "industry to use it for the goals of the state" is what socialism does. Fascism can be defined as "A totalitarian philosophy of government that glorifies the state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life." Not ownership, but control. Fascism emerged as a response by the ruling European elite to counter egalitarian socialist and democratic trends. And to accomplish this "they appealed to nationalist sentiments and prejudices, exploited anti-Semitism , and portrayed themselves as champions of law, order, Christian morality, and the sanctity of private property." If you recall that Arabs are also Semitic people, that sounds an awful lot like George Bush. It is really quite specific. And the dependence of Fascism on a strong leader is also a characteristic o Bush's regime. "Salvation from rule by the mob and the destruction of the existing social order can be effected only by an authoritarian leader who embodies the highest ideals of the nation." By placing himself in the position of a mouthpiece of the only true God, Bush seeks to legitimise greater grabs of power by the state like NCLB and the Patriot Act. And that is what true Fascists do.

But more to the point, Bush is fully in line with what Mussolini said about what Fascism is really about: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” What is really going on is the subversion of American democracy by giant corporations that are pulling the strings on all aspects of our government simply because they have the money.

Jim said at February 18, 2005 1:26 AM:

I just finished watching Mark Mills appear on the daily Show with Jon Stewart and have a few comments. He suggested that with improvements in technology we will never run out of energy. This statement is on the surface true but the underlying issue is that improvements in technology cost money therefore any improvements from technology come at a cost. It was enlightening to hear him mention the 3 trillion barrels of oil reserves(probable) which are contained in the Athabasca Oil Sands in Northern Alberta. However he also shows a complete lack of understanding for the oil industry as a whole. He suggested that this resource is not as appealling to recover because of its higher cost than oil from Saudi Arabia. To the average consumer there is really no difference, both supplies will sell for the same price for similar qualities of oil. Technology improvements have allowed companies to make the Oil Sands industry very profitable and competative. This has been demonstrated by the boom in the industry which will be investing 80 Billion $ over the next 10 years and has made similar investments in the previous 10 years. Production has increased to approximately 800,000 barrels a day and is expected to double in the next 10 years. Mark suggested that Middle East Oil is cheaper but I don't think he has included all the costs. Lets be realistic and agree that the S presence in Iraq has little to do with WMD and security and a lot to do with Oil. The latest price tag for the war suggests that the S tax payer is on the hook for $200 Billion. They are getting absolutely nothing for this investment. If they were to make a similar investment in the Oil Sands they would get a secure supply of 5 million barrels/day for the next 25 years +. Based on todays costs and technology. The industry creates high paying, jobs not only for Canadians but a significant number of Americans. The US administration has been brainwashing Americans into beleiving they are in Iraq for security reasons when the real reason is to protect a handful of multinational oil compabies business interests. Remember what Mark Mills stated about middle east oil being cheaper. What he is really saying is that it is much more profitable to multinational oil companies as long as the US taxpayers subsidize their security in the region by declaring war on questionable grounds. It is about time Americans wake up to the propoganda they are constantly bombarded with and hold their government accountable.

Your friend in Canada

Iggy said at February 18, 2005 2:32 AM:


I agree with your last statement. However, I think the U.S. is in the middle east more for geo-political reasons than for oil. Please don't get me wrong, oil is a very important factor in the equation, but the real driver for the neo-cons (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Pearle, etc.) is their insatiable thirst for world domination. They said it very clearly in the late 90s and all their actions aim in that direction.

It's important to notice that less than 25% of the oil the U.S. consumes comes from the middle east. However, most of the exploration, drilling, extraction, transportation, refining and commercialization is done by American corporations. So when Bush says that we are in Iraq in order to protect American interests... he's right... now the question is, which Americans?

Randall, without denying the fact that you are well informed, I pretty much disagree with most of your perspectives, specially when it comes to energy consumption. One thing is that energy demand will increase and another one is that energy demand per capita will increase. Unfortunately, despite the Kuznets curve, the demand for more energy efficient technologies has never been a characteristic of Americans (i.e. the manifest destiny), but in the medium and long run it is politically and phisically unsustainable to exhaust every single source of energy to satisfy an untapped demand for wasteful energy. Sooner or later, Americans must realize that it is not feasible to have 1 out of 4 vehicles in the market to be an SUV.

And finally, risk and uncertainty must be part of every equation when it comes to power plant-building. On one hand, you have the undeniable devastating effects faced by vulnerable nuclear plants (add all the costs of national security) and on the other hand, let's say wind turbines... if one falls, well, it might kill a cow ...but not an spherical cow!

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2005 8:02 AM:


Energy can be produced a number of ways. Whether it will be produced a particular way is mainly a function of what it costs and what the overall market price is for energy. Right now the cost of energy is high enough to make nuclear power cost effective. If market prices stay this high (or go higher as oil gets used up) and regulatory obstacles are removed then so many nuclear power plants could be built that the American economy could continue to operate with current living standards or even higher living standards. We wouldn't have to give up our big cars. So, yes, we can continue to afford to have large numbers of SUVs on the road if we want to.

We aren't going to exhaust every single source of energy. Again, we can switch to nuclear. Or eventually photovoltaics will become much cheaper and nanotech fabrication techniques will allow battery storage techologies to be light and cheap.

Vulnerable nuclear plants: Vulnerable to what exactly? To terrorist attacks? Why do you see nuclear as not being an option?

Dezakin said at February 18, 2005 10:20 AM:

T. C. Dean:

I'm a know it all punk? You accused me of lying, which I didn't. When I provided cites on my data points, you then accused me of merely attempting to mislead. As far as I can tell, you haven't read any of my posts with an open mind, nor the links I provided to back up my position.

When I say 'toxic levels' of radioactive iodine I mean levels that measurably increases chances of thyroid cancer. If you have data that backs up your claim, I'm genuinely interested. As for Cs-137 contamination... What does that mean? That Cs-137 can be measured there, or that it actually is having an effect on mortality there? Oh yes, finding increased cancers is fraught with problems...

As for iodine exposure, heres a study of the effect of iodine exposure in sweden from chernobyl:

Here from a site claiming massive contamination of iodine:

They claim that the cancer rate jumped 2400%... but the raw numbers are 1472 vs 7504... not exactly millions, and its in their interest to inflate the figure as much as possible.

There is a link between radioactive iodine and thyroid cancer, but it does depend on getting sufficient dosage to develop it.

All fossil power sources dwarf nuclear power in the death count, and all power sources do on a per watt measurement. Nuclear, even with chernobyl, is the safest way to make electricity. Not to mention the cheapest.

Jim said at February 18, 2005 10:24 AM:

I just wanted to point out that nuclear power generation does not translate to driving your SUV, unless of course you have an electric Hummer. (ie not a Dildo) Contrary to what some beleive, non renewable energy sources will become exhausted if you keep using them, hence the name non-renewable. (This includes nuclear power) The use of new energy sources will become more expensive and will require a change in thinking in order to be accepted. I think that the largest flaw with the Capitalist System is that it requires constant growth in order to function properly instead of having the goal of acheiving stable and full employment regardless if the economy is growing or shrinking. The pressure that is being put on the environment and the worlds resources is staggering and is only going to get worse. It was announced yesterday that China has surpassed the US as the largest consumer nation. With the 10% growth rates their economy has been creating in recent years and with 1.3 Billion population it is easy to project what will be the result in the near future. Throw India into the picture and it is easy to understand why today's economies are unsustainable. I think that the only result can be all out world conflict triggered by the US to protect its dominant position.


I think if you review the Neo-Con doctrine you will find that their main motivation is not for world pre-eminence but to change the political structure in the Middle-East. You have to consider the only real benefactor to the war in Iraq is Isreal. The war has effectively removed one of the threats to Isreal's security, although this threat is more perceived than real. Although Saddam would always be an enemy of Isreal he posed no real threat, just take the case of the first gulf war when he fired a few errant Scud's at Isreal. The real issue is the protection of a key ally and friend(the only one the US has) in the critical Mid-East region. The next logical question is, Why is the Middle-East such a critical strategic region? I'm sure you can answer this question on your own. I will give you a hint, its not to secure the date crop. So there you have it combine a little ideology to with a war and theft of a valueble resource and you have a foriegn policy? By the way the US imports more oil from Canada than the Middle East and twice as much from NA if you combine Canada and Mexico. You get about 15-17% of your imports from the Middle East. Consider the subsidy the American taxpayer is making by deploying 100's of thousands of troops to the region so that a handful of companies can make a profit. It is interesting that the present administration views investment in Canada as less appealing than a war in Iraq. The Government of Canada and Alberta have made numerous invitations to Vice President Cheney to come and tour the Oilsands Operations which would hopefully lead to direct investment, but until now more than 4 years after he has taken office he has refused the invitation. Even though Kellogg Brown & Root is a major construction contractor in the region and is presently working on a $8 Billion expansion of one of the facilities. It would appear that it is more profitable for Halliburton to secure contracts from the Pentagon than to do some real work.


Randall Parker said at February 18, 2005 10:59 AM:


There are no infinitely renewable energy souces (at least none discovered so far). The whole universe is supposed to wind down eventually. But this is not an argument against driving Hummers. With conventional fission we could operate high energy consumption economies for many decades. With breeder reactors we could extend the supply of fissionable material so far that we could operate high energy industrial societies for centuries. With nuclear fusion we could operate high energy industrial societies for tens or hundreds of millions of years. Our main problem would be the sun expanding at some point to make Earth unlivable.

Yes, if you read my other energy posts you will see that I do have in mind electric-powered cars. Huber and Mills also see an increasingly electric future. Advances in battery technology are inevitable. So are advances in hydrogen storage technology. Then nuclear power plants could be made into hydrogen production facilities. I provide a link above to a post about how technologies to do this are under development.

Again, I do not see the need to shift to low energy consumption societies. We can afford to shift to different energy sources. We already have the technologies needed to make the shift. The alternatives will become cheaper in the future and we will become wealthier and more able to afford those alternatives in the future.

As for the politics of the Middle East: I favor much higher levels of government funding for energy research so that we can simply have less interest in what happens in the Middle East.

T. C. Dean said at February 18, 2005 7:25 PM:


I would repeat, you are being misleading. I said "unfortunately for the millions of children living in the areas around Chernobyl, their thyroid glands couldn't differentiate between naturally occurring iodine and the radioactive variety spewed out by the ton by exploding reactors." That only implies that millions of kids were exposed to radioactive iodine, which is true, not that millions got thyroid cancer, which is what your post suggests I said. I am still of the opinion that even 5000 excess pediatric cancers is a problem. I guess you don't. In any case the statistics you cite are only those from the Thyroid Tumour Clinic in Minsk, not the totals for the incident. Is that misleading or a lie? You be the judge.

The meaning of Cs-137 contamination? It marks where the contamination plume was blown and it is easier to measure than iodine since it's half life is longer. Being more volatile, iodine traveled further, so that area is a minimum. Ergo, millions of people and children were exposed to radioactive iodine. You say "and its in their interest to inflate the figure as much as possible." So who has the greater motivation to distort, a small charitable group that takes care of kids with cancer caused by nuclear energy or a multi-trillion dollar energy industry that can't get insurance for contamination disasters on the free market and so live off of corporate government welfare? You be the judge.

So nuclear is the cheapest way to generate electicity? Maybe if you only consider fuel cost. It isn't cheaper than coal or gas in the US. It is cheaper in China. So why don't you go live next door to a Chinese nuclear reactor? And none of these estimates includes the insurance cost of accidents or terrorist incidents since 9/11. http://www.uic.com.au/nip08.htm

Let's be clear here: the problem with nuclear is not with normal operational safety. If we knew for certain that nuclear power reactors would hum calmly through their life cycles, nuclear would be just great (except for the waste problem, the proliferation problem...) The average number of people killed thus far in the nuclear fuel cycle really doesn't matter. The problem is what happens when the system fails catastrophically. They have failed disasterously in the past with no outside help. In a time of terrorism the complete meltdown of a large power reactor (which did not occur in Chernobyl) becomes an unacceptable risk and the vaporization of a nuclear fuel core and associated waste stores with a terrorist's nuclear device is beyond comprehension. If the free market could not insure nuclear power plants before a credible terrorist threat, the risk is clearly far beyond acceptability now. As Bush is so fond of saying, you people need to understand that the world changed with 9/11. Unfortunately the massive propaganda from corporate interests has paralysed your minds.

Tom DC/VA said at February 19, 2005 7:30 PM:

T.C. Dean - why are you attributing motivations to users of this board? You don't know us, you can't read our minds, and you aren't adding to the conversation by slinging wild accusations around. Personally, I am only advocating research on GenIV designs. I hope that photovoltaic technology will advance enough to make that our main energy source, with wind, hydro, and bio contributing to the mix. But because I don't know if those technologies will progress enough, I think we should keep the door open to nuclear power of the proper design.

Dezakin - The IFR researchers from Argonne claim to have already put the design through a real-world "excursion". So, even though it does have a positive void coefficient, they feel that the design is inherently safe. If you can point me to some research on why it isn't safe, please do. If you can recommend any especially good papers on molten salt reactors (with pros and cons, preferably), I would appreciate those as well.

T. C. Dean said at February 19, 2005 8:56 PM:


I am not "slinging wild accusations around", I am properly criticizing an opposing argument as misleading and disingenuous. It's called debate. Get used to it. It was Dezakin who falsely implied that I had claimed millions of thyroid cancers from Chernobyl. If you wish to criticize my arguments on a reasonable basis feel free. If you wish to discuss gen IV designs, go ahead. The technology is very cool. But I think that it is important to consider the vulnerability of nuke plants to terrorist attack. Just answer the question: If commercial nuclear power plants could not get insurance for nuclear release accidents from free market insurers before 9/11 and had to hide behind the Price/Anderson Act which gives them a federal free ride, how could the risk of nuclear reactors in an environment of sophisticated terrorists be acceptable now? Gen I-IV.

I will apologize for using the term "know-it-all punk". That was over the top. Sorry Dezakin.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2005 9:43 PM:

T.C. Dean,

It is a pretty wild accusation to state "Unfortunately the massive propaganda from corporate interests has paralysed your minds."

You are far too quick to attack the poster rather than the argument and to involve personalities and leaders (e.g. Bush) in a debate that ought to be about science, technology, economics and other basic fields of knowledge. My readers do not come here to read harangues about Bush either pro or con. While I occasionally mention politicians when appropriate (e.g. when reacting to budget proposals and science policy changes) for the most part I pride myself in avoiding personality politics. That kind of discussion is very easy to engage in, is widely available elsewhere, provides very little illumination, and wastes a lot of time of far too many people.

Also, I agree with Tom DC/VA: You do not know us. You can not tell from a brief exchange in a single thread here what our backgrounds are and what our views and knowledge is on a number of topics related to this discussion. With me at least you can read my Energy Tech category archive and see what else I've written on energy. But you ought to be a little wary before proclaiming that our minds are all paralysed. Some of my visitors have advanced training and work experience (physicists, nuclear engineers, electrical engineers) in some of the topics under discussion here and have demonstrated their knowledge in other energy tech discussions on other posts.

If you want to change our minds then change them with facts and figures (preferably with links to sources) and logic. But if you think we are too dumb and ignorant to have our minds changed by facts, figures, and logical reasoning from those facts and figures then you are wasting your time posting here.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2005 10:31 PM:

T.C. Dean,

You bring up a valid point that has not been responded to as yet: The nuclear power industry gets a large subsidy of insurance from the Price Anderson Act. True enough. But does this unfairly tilt market prices in nuclear power's favor? There are big externalities in harmful effects from the other energy sources that are not captured by market pricing. How does that work out net? It is not clear to me.

What even to include as external costs of various energy sources is not clear to me. What is the military cost of keeping the Strait of Hormuz open for example? It is real. The US has been paying such a cost since FDR met with a king of Saudi Arabia to negotiate an alliance.

What economic value to assign to lost years of lives due to the effects of pollution caused by fossil fuel burning? What is the cost of mercury pollution from burning coal? I would really like to know how much of the mercury in fish is from burning coal.

What is the cost of paint peeling due to pollution from fossil fuel burning?

As for penetrating bombs fired from an aircraft at a nuclear power plant: What is the worst case outcome of such an attack? How many would die? Is the Chernobyl attack the worst case? How many died from it? Is the worst case outcome not as bad if the reactor is a pebble bed design? Also, could reactors be protected from such an attack by being built underground? Also, what would be the impact of such an attack launched on an LNG ship terminal located near a city? Or suppose such an attack was launched against a chemical plant similar to the plant that killed so many people in Bhopal India. How many could die from such an attack? Are nuclear plants the only potential targets which, if attacked, could result in large numbers of deaths as a consequence of the attack?

T. C. Dean said at February 19, 2005 10:38 PM:


You should consider a little fairness and evenhandedness. Dezakin in an earlier post suggested devious interests on the part of a child cancer charity caused them to inflate their numbers of child cancers in the Chernobyl incident. That is quite an accusation. Remember? I directly challenged that assertion on the basis of the extent to which "a multi-trillion dollar energy industry" has an interest in distorting information. Remember that? My "massive propaganda" statement directly follows that line of argument. In fact, it is you who are attacking me and not in any way refuting my arguments regarding terrorist attacks on nuclear reactors. Why is that? You had asked about "vulnerabilities of reactors" and I pointed them out. I mentioned air dropped penetrators and nuclear explosive devices destroying the fuel cores. Why have you not responded? Cat got your tongue? Sorry if you don't like my style, but I have made cogent arguments and they have not been refuted. Give it a shot. I find debate to be more interesting than the blathering of talking heads. And by the way, I am a professional scientist.

And of course it was you who brought up Bush and began discussing off topic political issues. Check the posts. I had only made a joke about Deshakin being a "compassionate conservative" given his apparent lack of concern about thousands of pediatric cancer cases. It's your site, but try to be fair and reasonable and I will too.

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2005 11:08 PM:

T.C. Dean,

I didn't click thru on Dezakin's comment about the child cancers and so did not know enough to comment on the accuracy of his claims. Hence I said nothing. Yes, it is quite an accusation. No, I do not put it past a charity to exaggerate some danger by orders of magnitude. I've certainly seen charities do such things in the past. No, I do not know if it is accurate. No, I do not have the time to click thru on every comment made in every post here and read what is said. I am curious to know how many people died from Chernobyl. I realize that there are lots of people both strongly pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear who are propagandizing on the subject. I also realize that lots of science gets published that is bad either because scientists make mistakes or because reality is so complex or both. I also know that proving stuff from epidemiology data is very hard. So you can't even trust a single scientific paper on death estimates from, say, Chernobyl or from LA automobile pollution and then just simply know the right answer. I judged that I didn't have the time to develop a decent judgement on what the right answer is (within some range) on deaths from Chernobyl and so passed on your exchange.

By contrast, if you accuse me of having my mind paralyzed by corporate interests I do know that is both wild and inaccurate.

I didn't take your comment about Dezakin being a "compassionate conservative" as a joke. From the context it read more like an insult aimed at him. I stated as much in my own response. That is why I amplified on it to flesh out my interpretation of "compassionate conservative". My guess is that, yes, you really think of the term "compassionate conservative" in a negative light. Though since I do not know you and at that point was hesitating to say anything about your posting tone (again, because I do not know you either and could be misunderstanding your tone) I did not explicitly say you'd insulted him. I just stated that it would be an insult to me if someone called me a "compassionate conservative". However, as the exchange progressed I tended toward the explanation that you were quite fast to insult people and tended them toward the view that, yes, you really were insulting him in your earlier post.

Cat got my tongue? Again, you are assuming things about me. I simply do not have time to respond to every point raised in these debates or I delay and get to them later. I'm out digging for information for new posts. I'm working around MT-Blacklist bugs to keep spam off this site (and that takes a lot of time btw). I'm going thru threads fixing things like I just did here putting in "a href" HMTL tags so that it is easier to click thru on the many URLs that people have posted in this thread (and the lack of "a href" tags is one reason I do not click thru on all the links btw - copying and pasting takes time and I'm very busy).

I also refrain from responding in some cases because I do not want to dominate debates. I'd rather various visitors argue more with each other. Though I did respond to your points about terrorism and Price-Anderson about 7 minutes before you asked me if a cat got my tongue.

T. C. Dean said at February 19, 2005 11:45 PM:


Well, that was a pleasant surprise! After your ad hominim attack you actually got around to responding in a manner of speaking to my arguments while I wrote my post. I appreciate that.

I think you will like this little argument about government support for the nuclear industry by none other than the Cato Institute: http://www.cato.org/dailys/05-18-01.html This was actually pre-9/11 but discusses the many billions of subsidies NOT INCLUDING PRICE-ANDERSON.

Is Price-Anderson really necessary for the viability of the nuclear industry? Well, you can find any number of estimates of the cost of a worst case reactor disaster but: "A 1982 analysis by a congressional subcommittee estimated that, under worst-case conditions, a catastrophe at one of the Indian Point reactors could result in fifty thousand fatalities and more than a hundred thousand radiation injuries. The same study calculated the cost of such an accident at roughly three hundred billion dollars." http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/archive/index.php?t-4932.html (That isn't the best reference to that study, but it was handy.) Today that would be the better part of a trillion bucks. It's easy to see why insurance companies wouldn't be too interested in taking on nuclear power accidents. Again, that is considering accidents. Now we have a really determined bunch of folks who we know for sure are planning to attack and break nuclear reactors in the US. How many more times does the probablility of a worst case event increase (or should I say "orders of magnitude") when terrorists are working very hard to initiate a failure?

Let's look at my favorite scenario. I was doing some research in Big Bend National Park in '02 (I'm a geophysicist) when I heard some low flying planes going by. I had some good binocs so I had a look. Imagine my surprise when I saw that they were two pure white Lear jets flying wing to wing at cactus top level through the valleys toward Mexico. "What does this have to do with anything?" you might reasonably ask. If those unmarked planes can carry a ton or so of cocaine with little fear of the feds, they could also carry a very long, skinny arrow made of, say tungsten, that weighs a ton. With a precision guidance system that arrow could hit a target about a meter or so in diameter. That arrow would pass through the containment building without even slowing down and then tear through the reactor vessel at about mach 1.5, smashing the fuel rods and control systems to smithereens. That would be much worse than Chernobyl because the fuel assembly would melt into one big white hot blob that would never be contained. That did not happen at Chernobyl because their fuel assembly was distributed inside of refractory (albeit flammable) graphite assembly that did not allow the entire fuel assembly to melt. In a relatively compact pressurized reactor vessel like we have in the US the fuel would melt it's way through the whole shebang and into the earth, making a really spectacular radioactive volcano that could go on making the news for years and taking out a really big chuck of US real estate as iodine and other glowing isotopes blew all over the countryside. And be assured, I am not just making this stuff up. I discussed it in detail with several nuclear scientists and engineers. Most wouldn't discuss it, for obvious reasons. They'd be out of a job. I think that if I had a half million bucks or so and a couple of Lear jets, I could do what was necessary to get the job done. I'd bet you could too, Randall. That would be a spectacular return on investment for a guy like Osama Bin Laden. And that is why nuclear power is a really bad investment for the American people, who will lose their asses and property completely with no recourse whatsoever thanks to Price-Anderson.

So who wants to refute my argument that nuclear power is just too risky in an environment of high tech terrorism? Anyone? Anyone?

Randall Parker said at February 20, 2005 9:21 AM:

T.C. Dean,

In my response to you I pointed out that other energy sources have their external costs as well. I have certainly read many arguments on why nuclear is too dangerous. But fossil fuels are killing lots of people every day. What of them? That 50,000 deaths figure you quote has to be compared to the millions who have died so far from fossil fuels or, perhaps more accurately, to estimates for how many will die from fossil fuels in the future. I suppose you can argue in defense of fossil fuels that in theory we could make them so much cleaner to burn (and we have already gone a long way in that direction) that they can be made to do very little harm.

My point is that, yes, nuclear has its problems. But the alternatives to nuclear have their problems too. Most of their problems do not create dramatic disaster scenarios since people geting cancer and emphysema at younger ages just do not have that TV-grabbing power. Though even with fossil fuels we can have big disasters since LNG which just as vulnerable from a missile shot into a tanker or unloading terminal near an urban area. Can you state with confidence that nuclear is going to cause greater harm?

I don't see tha you have fleshed out an effective argument to that end. You can't show what the probability is that your nightmare Lear Jet-launched missile attack (or cruise missile attack from an offshore freighter perhaps) will happen in the next few decades. If it as easy to do as you claim then why hasn't it already happened? Osama Bin Laden has a lot more than a half million dollars at his exposure. Now, maybe he's working on it right now. I don't know. I admit to being worried about it.

But suppose we assign a probability of, say, .9 that some terrorist group is going to launch missiles at a nuclear reactor in the next 30 years. Does that mean that nuclear power is not a viable energy source? I'm not a nuclear physicist. I don't know. But it is my impression that pebble bed reactors would be far less vulnerable to a meltdown from a missile attack. Is my impression wrong? Or is there a way to design and construct nuclear plants (perhaps in mountains?) to make them safe from terrorist attacks?

Also, you haven't shown estimates of the external costs of the other energy sources. That latter set of exercises is not easy to do. What are the net health costs of fossil fuels? What are the net costs of fossil fuels on the wearing out of capital plant either by petrochemicals wearing on roads or acid rain eating on the outsides of buildings? What is the cost from radiation and mercury released from burning coal?

So while I can't refute your argument I also do not think you have proven it either. Therefore your position is an assertion. It might be true. I am quite willing to be convinced. But you have to produce a lot more evidence to make a convincing case.

Cato Institute and subsidies to the nuclear industry: Cato treats research funding as subsidies. Well then, should we stop research into, for example, earthquake prediction? Earthquake prediction strikes me as a subsidy for Californians in particular. Or how about stopping research funding into cancer? Strikes me as a subsidy for cancer patients if we want to go with libertarian logic. Or how about putting an end to subsidies for solar photovoltaic research or for carbon dioxide sequestration?

My own take on research is that the market does not provide enough of a reward to technological innovators to get the optimal amount of innovation. Most of the benefits of innovation flow to the population at large and innovators get little reward. The situation is even worse with science funding. So I don't buy the libertarian argument about research funding being subsidies to industries. Sometimes they are to some extent. But in many cases the bulk of the benefit flows to the public at large.

Also, Cato is talking about many forms of subsidies for nuclear in that article. Cato does not break out some of the non-research subsidies for nuclear power. So I can't tell from it how much the government has subsidized nuclear power. But again, there are external costs and government subsidies for other sources of energy. All those subsidies and costs need to be tallied up to find out the true market costs of each energy source. With such a tallying nuclear might still turn out to be cost competitive or perhaps with more research it can be made to be cost competitive.

T. C. Dean said at February 20, 2005 4:01 PM:


Honestly, it would appear that we have many more points of agreement than disagreement. Your key point regarding externalities of energy and other industrial production is one that I share completely. We should use the energy sources that have the greatest net benefit to society, and that includes pollution and risk factors. As you say, computing exact numbers for externalities is very difficult and bound to be fraught with political intrigue. It is an area that requires the most robust and independent science. I wonder when that is likely to happen. The recent problems with pain relief medication and the FDA is a good microcosm of how corporate interests manage to weasel their way into honest scientific efforts to protect the public from monstrously powerful, non-human entities with the singular goal of maximizing profits, i.e. corporations.

I certainly do worry about things like LNG tankers and they are indeed a similarly fat, high payback target for terrorists. There is no doubt at all that LNG tankers are high priority targets for terrorists and I have recently read some research into simulations that estimate the results of such attacks. The difference between LNG and nuclear is that there is no equivalent to the Price-Anderson act with regard to LNG so that LNG facilities that are excessively dangerous cannot be insured and therefore won’t be built. There is no such constraint on the placement of nuclear facilities. That is a huge problem that no one in the public domain is talking about. Why do you suppose that is?

You claim that my assertion that yours and others “minds are paralyzed by corporate interests … is both wild and inaccurate.” Coming right on the heels of a billion dollars or so of corporate sponsored political advertising, you seem a lot more doubtful about the effects of those efforts than myself. You are absolutely immune from advertisements? Let me express my skepticism. In any case, suggesting that we as a nation are affected by corporate propaganda is hardly a vicious attack. I regard it as an obvious truth. On some level, we don't hear about the dangers of terrorist attack on nuclear reactors or about the Price–Anderson Act because GE doesn't want us to. I wonder what percentage of your superbly informed audience even knows what the Price-Anderson act is.

Certainly burying nuclear reactors under a hundred feet of steel and concrete would protect them from all but nuclear penetrators. But given the tenuous economics of the federally fattened nuclear industry at present, increasing the costs of capital equipment several fold would certainly kill the nuclear industry as a going concern. As the Cato folks pointed out, the reason the federal government hasn’t approved a single nuclear plant license in over 20 years is because one hasn’t been applied for. Only massive additional corporate welfare to the nuclear industry will allow anything close to safe nuclear power to be profitable. That is, of course, the goal of huge political contributions provided to our politicians by the nuclear power industry.

My argument regarding the current and future viability of the nuclear power industry is straightforward and compelling: If, as is certainly true, the nuclear industry wasn’t viable without the Price-Anderson Act before the advent of high tech terrorist attack, it certainly isn’t now. You have simply avoided the simple logic of this argument and responded with a blizzard of disjointed questions. Like you, I am a busy man and suggest that you do your own research before tossing red herrings all over the landscape. Certainly the question of externalities is critical with regard to all energy use, but it is lethal for the nuclear industry that has the greatest legacy of corporate welfare. You may question my assertion with regard to the necessity of the PAA, but if it weren’t necessary, why does the nuclear industry fight like tigers for it whenever it comes up?

Here is a nice little article by an nuclear advocate group discussing costs and Chernobyl deaths. http://www.wtpeople.com/energy_art.asp?id=86 It is worth considering that the thyroid cancer numbers are from UN IAEC sources and are widely believed to be massively lowballed. The total deaths thus far from the incident vary widely from over 20,000 to about 35. It depends on what you mean by “proven link”. This link says about a half million eventual deaths from cancers and discusses the problems of statistical methods of establishing excess cancer deaths in a large population. http://www.lightparty.com/Economic/Chernobyl2.html But Chernobyl is far from the worst sort of accident, as previously noted. Only three to five percent of the total fuel load was released by Chernobyl, but even still, the damage created by Chernobyl far exceeds the value of all of the electricity produced by all of the nuclear reactors in the former Soviet Union. http://archive.greenpeace.org/comms/97/nuclear/reactor/chern11.html A terrorist event as I have described would be many times worse, because it would continue to release large quantities of radiation for several years and easily take out a state-sized piece of real estate. One such event would clearly make the cost/benefit analysis for nuclear hugely negative. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/nuclear_terrorism/page.cfm?pageID=1508

A conventional missile attack on a pebble bed reactor would be considerably less dangerous, since they can be effectively air cooled and the individual fuel elements are very refractory and strong. Obviously, it would make little difference if the core were vaporized with a nuclear device. http://www.mmmfiles.com/archive/nukes2.htm That combination terrorist disaster, which increases the lethality of a nuclear attack by some 40 to 1, is the real worst case scenario. It is simply and clearly too great a risk to take in the face of very viable current and future energy sources.

Tom DC/VA said at February 20, 2005 6:01 PM:

"If commercial nuclear power plants could not get insurance for nuclear release accidents from free market insurers before 9/11 and had to hide behind the Price/Anderson Act which gives them a federal free ride, how could the risk of nuclear reactors in an environment of sophisticated terrorists be acceptable now? Gen I-IV." - T.C. Dean

Uh, well, again, all I advocate at this point is research into GenIV designs. Note that there aren't any built today, nor are there imminent plans to build any, so it is a wee bit hard to assess their vulnerability, not to mention the threats that they might be vulnerable to. I'm not a big fan of the current plants so I'm not going to defend them as being sufficiently safe, and I don't support the funding the current administration has allocated towards building new GenII+ plants.

But if the tradeoff - in the future - is between nuclear power plants with a "low" risk of contaminating the environment on the one hand, and a low-energy society on the other, I'll take the risk. Hopefully, if we sponsor enough research into other technologies - and I advocate doing a lot more than we are currently doing - we won't have to make that choice.

Tom DC/VA said at February 20, 2005 6:05 PM:

Ah, look, progress already: smart grids are coming. We're that much closer to not having to need nuclear power.


T. C. Dean said at February 20, 2005 7:11 PM:


As I said, advocating research on Gen IV reactors is great. I only wonder about how they are less vulnerable to terrorist attack. If they have good economics when made much smaller, that would probably be an advantage, but the advantage would tend to be lost when one considers the cost of securing more plants.

I liked your ref on smart grids. I think that is closer to a reasonable future. Distributed power is more flexible and intrinsically safer.

T. C. Dean said at February 20, 2005 8:06 PM:


You can get a brand new 368 page academic study on the economic competitiveness of nuclear relative to gas and coal from the U of Chicago at www.nuclear.gov. But incredibly, there is not a single mention of risk due to terrorist attack on power reactors or even any meaningful analysis of the effects of accidents on nuclear plants. I am appalled that my tax dollars are going to this sort of outrageous whitewash in the service of the nuclear industry.

Tom, I had a look at some of your earlier refs for GenIV designs and didn't see anything that suggested more or less safety for these design breeds with regard to terrorist attack. Any ideas?

Randall Parker said at February 20, 2005 8:43 PM:

T.C. Dean,

See my post Nuclear Power Has Cost And Proliferation Problems for an MIT study on nuclear power that lays out the major problems with nuclear.

T. C. Dean said at February 21, 2005 12:59 AM:


Thanks. I think that says it well. The economic competitiveness of nuclear is currently highly dubious without considering the great difficulty in protecting the reactors from sophisticated terrorist threats. Add the costs of anti-missile defense for each reactor and it's off the charts. It is also true that the complete sequestration of fossil fuel CO2 is the best option to cut greenhouse gasses and eliminate pollution in general. When pumped back into the ground, CO2 is supercritical and fit's nicely into the same rocks we get oil and gas from. I am looking into sequestration using horizontal wells in combination with enhanced production, since the CO2 tends to dislodge gas and oil from reservoirs.

Michael said at February 21, 2005 3:33 PM:

How come no one ever mentions Cannabis, or Hemp as an alternative for fossil and nuclear fuels?

400 million acres of U.S. farm land for one 3-4 month growing season could fuel the country, gasoline and coal, for an entire year. Not only that, but HEMP fuel is over 80% cleaner than ANY fossil fuel.

Now throw in the fact that HEMP can be produced anywhere on the planet and even indoors, which means it can be produced forever. Virtually Free, Limitless, Clean Energy.

T. C. Dean said at February 22, 2005 6:07 PM:


"How come no one ever mentions Cannabis, or Hemp as an alternative for fossil and nuclear fuels?"

Uh, cuz people would think I was just high, maybe(:^) Kidding, really. Biofuels' effectiveness as fuel replacements depend mainly on their carbon fixation capacity, as well as the value of co-products. If pot were legalized the co-product THC and fiber would no doubt make cannibis a hell of a crop. Failing that, I wonder what the carbon fixation capacity for cannabis is expressed as Kg C/Ha yr. I looked for it and couldn't find it. I did find some interesting stuff on chesnuts and hazelnuts. The nuts are a valuable co-product and the carbon fixation for northern climates is particularly good. Another interesting possibility is a South American variety of mesquite that grows very quickly in semiarid environments that hardly support any other crops. Great for the barbeque, as well. Mesquite is also a legume that fixes nitrogen and so improves poor soils. Plants like mesquite answer some of the problems associated with using good agricultural land for fuels.

Iggy said at February 24, 2005 12:28 AM:


There are too many wrong assumptions in your statements. The most basic ones are that the cannabis cannot be grown anywhere in the planet and particularly not indoors... er... sure, people do, but they use a looooooot of lights (uv or regular) which use a loooooooot of energy, certainly much more energy than the plants themselves could "generate". So why do people grow such an energy-inefficient crop indoors, well... not for energy purposes... duuuuude! Please don't think I'm against the growth of cannabis... after all, I do live in Santa Cruz! :)

Investor said at February 24, 2005 6:00 PM:

Interesting discussion, much of it way over my head. There is obviously a big transition ahead of us from the current fossil fuel driven economy to some other model. I would expect that the costs of this transition will be huge. My interest is in the investment aspect. While investing in oil and gas (and coal) stocks during the past few years has been quite profitable, where can good investments be made in the new forms of energy? I just want to get rich, even though it may mean freezing in the dark.

Battery power seems like a reasonable place to invest. A small nano-tech company 'Altair Nanotechnology' recently announced patents on technology that they say increases the charge in lithium batteries three-fold, while reducing the time to charge by 80%. Costs for the new batteries will remain about the same as today, so they say. Anyone have expertise in this area ? Is it conceivable that we will one day be driving cars entirely fueled by rechargable battery power?

Here's the Altair website.



Iggy said at February 25, 2005 9:05 AM:


Even though I don't think getting rich (or the quick accumulation of wealth by a small sector of the economy) should be the drive of this debate, at least I appreciate your honesty. You're here for the money and not for the good of mankind/environment/etc.

On that basis, I'd say that the current political trend is not very encouraging for the development of any new non-fossil fuel/nuclear technology. However, science abd people's understanding throughout the world is moving in that direction. The same way you can't block the sun with your thumb (or you can't stop global warming just by denying it), the transition to new technologies is inevitable.

Now, what does that mean in the short run (next quarter)? I'd say that you keep your money in oil companies for the next few years, but start setting some money aside for technologies that are well on their way up and that will take over the electricity-generating of this country in a matter of years (however long the fossil-fuel financed republicans loose their dominance in the white house and the hill). This is the case of wind power and even photovoltaic. Wind already generates large amounts of electricity for European countries (where private investing is not as profitable as in the U.S.) and every year that amount/percentage increases. When it comes to battery power, I'd say that the jury still out in terms of what technology(ies) will be the most successful one(s)... and you don't wanna be stuck with the new 8-track! right?

Another way to invest widely in technology is looking at the number of patents and their tendency. Patents on wind and solar have been increasing in the last few years even though those technologies are semi-well established. There are a couple of good studies done by a couple of my coleagues at U.C. Berkeley's ERG (Energy and Resources Group).

Well, that's my take as an economist. I know you finance people look at things in a different way and I tried to change my discourse using your perspective.

Let me know what you think and help me finance my research once you get rich! :)

Investor said at February 25, 2005 10:48 AM:


A friend of mine invested in a fuel cell company called 'Ballard Power' in 1998. The stock went from about $27 to $140 in two years, then back to $6.00 where my friend ruefully still owns it. Fuel cells were the big investment theme a few years back, but are no longer in vogue. The expectation was that the fuel cell would replace the internal combustion engine (ICE) within 15 years, and we would live in a world where gas stations would be replaced by hydrogen stations. That vision has been replaced by one that expects fuel cells to be run with hydrogen generated through burning natural gas, which obviously defeats the goal of eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

So, perhaps naively, my expectation is that battery power is the rational replacement of the ICE down the road, hence my interest in the nano-tech advancements announced by Altair. If nuclear, wind, gravity sources are going to be powering the grid in future, replacing oil, gas, coal based generation, then battery powered vehicles, which can be recharged by plugging them into the grid, make a great deal of sense. Am I wrong?

I have recently read information at a website 'www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net'
where the author states:

Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, and investment bankers in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global “Peak Oil.”

and then goes on to support his statement with various facts (and promote his own books on the subject). I was quite alarmed by this, and have not really been able to find weak points in his thesis. The main thing he is saying is that alternative, such as nuclear, need long lead times and enormous capital, and vast numbers of plants worldwide to replace our dependency on fossil fuels.

After having read that, and then coming to this site, I'm concluding that an immediate ramp up of nuclear, wind, and gravity electrical generating plants, along with major advancements in battery technology, can save the day. The costs will be gargantuan and the risks (nuclear in particular) high, and plastics may disappear, but the planet should survive (perhaps thrive).

Which of these extreme visions will be more likely?

T. C. Dean said at February 26, 2005 2:13 PM:


You must be doing well in your investments because you sound like a very rational sort of person. I am an independant consultant in the oil business and I am certainly convinced that we are at the crunch point in terms of petroleum supply and demand. BP has probably the best compilation of energy statistics around and it is at http://www.bp.com/statisticalreview2004 . If you check out the world oil data it is clear that production is beginning to struggle to keep up with demand. The story since 2003 makes this clear. The demand in Asia and North America is swelling while that in Eurasia is flat. Eurasia is flat because after the oil shocks of the late 70's they took strong measures to reduce consumption by increasing taxes on energy, and because of the poor performance of the former USSR economies. Increasing taxes is a painful solution but it is one that achieves results. There is a very good chart of oil prices since the petroleum business began and it seems clear to me that the current run-up in prices is the first time in history that major price increases are due to fundamental supply constraints rather than geopolitical events. As an insider in the business I can see the coming oil crunch pretty directly. When I asked a friend of mine, who is a lead scientist of the largest US independant, what they are doing overseas, he said their biggest area is deep water offshore Africa. This is an excedingly risky place to be looking for oil, both because of the massive direct expense but also because of the extreme political risk associated with Africa. You don't invest huge amounts of money in such risky ventures if there are easy prospects anywhere else in the world. Certainly the oil sands in Canada will be increasingly important, but they have to be cooked out of the rock with large amounts of energy and so will always be expensive. It is essentially strip mining and so has huge environmental costs as well. I make a living in the high tech areas of the oil business including 3-D seismic and horizontal drilling and I can pretty well guarantee you that technology will not be a miracle cure for the fundamental supply/demand equation. What will happen as production peaks and prices skyrocket in the next few years is rapid technological innovation in efficiency and renewables and massive political/economic dislocations and crashes that in the most painful way, reduces petroleum demand.

Huber and Mills are not experts in the energy business and frankly don't know what they're talking about.

Desmond said at March 6, 2005 1:42 PM:


My compliments on a stimulating Blogsite. If we want to see our lives improve in the U.S. we need to come to grips with some basic facts. First what is wrong with efficiency, we tend to have the most extravagant, most personalized and privatized type of infrastrucure possible for running our society. Most relatively well-off people in the U.S. will pay high prices to visit traditional urban places like the French Quarter of New Orleans, or Venice, or Amsterdam, or San Fracisco, or even New York (Manhattan of course) but live in poorly planned, poorly designed suburban areas which discourage walking, bicycling, or public transportation use by bad design and population densities below those needed to sustain public transportation. Yet even here in the U.S. in some of our traffic choked smoggy metropolitan areas the viable old style central urban neighborhoods continue to see skyrocketing land values as upper-middle class and elites want to live near the viable urban institutions that do exist in our cities. The legacy of over 50 years of collosally bad urban development has left the U.S. backed up a desperate corner in terms of transportation and land-use and concomitant energy resource needs. Just fixing our urban transportation and land-use mistakes will take many years and much effort. Europe and Asia did not make these mistakes since they did not have the low population densities and available land to do so on the scale the major Anglo Settler states (U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) were able to. I always tell my classes that the U.S. was the first society to have the money, the land, and the technology to abandon its cities and did so with gusto (the other three afore-mentioned countries did so to somewhat lesser degrees).

Increasing population and resource depletion will force the U.S. to change its ways hopefully with a minimum of warfare and domestic strife but I have my doubts looking at the current situation. Places like China and Europe with their much longer term tolerance of high-density urban living are predisposed to successfully contending with the challenges of the future. The U.S. was built by Europeans released from the constraints of Europe's limited land and resources. Mastery and exploitation of huge resources and possibilities was the strategy for success during the 1800s and first 3/4 of the 1900s. The tide has steadily turned against the U.S. since then as the bee-hive / anthill adapted Japanese, Koreans, Singaporese, Chinese, Indians and other Asians have begun to remake the world economically and socially. We still drive huge inefficient cars, use large poorly built inefficient appliances, consider a person walking in the suburbs to be a sign of criminality and so on. We also led the world in an unfortunate rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes occurrence in children, and other ills. Unfortunately we see the same desire to privatize and personalize use of space and transportation increasing in other places. Look at photos of the outskirts of Beijing and Shanghai and you see research and industrial parks that look like anything you'd see in suburban Dallas or Chicago. Huber and Mills and all the various energy optimists offer an easy out. We can live this way without any serious consequences. Well we can't and we certainly can't when we figure in the populations of China. India, and other countries where large numbers of people are entering into industrial and post-industrial middle class status. Yes each individual machine is more efficient than in previous years but there are staggering numbers of people wanting to be part of this unsustainable lifestyle. Remember that there are still 2 billion people who virtually do not participate in our globalized capitalist society at all, and another 2 billion who do so only quite minimally. Wouldn't they all like to drive Hummers to work and eat lots of steak too.

New paradigms of living are needed which draw both on the best lessons of the past and new possibilities opening up with technological and social advances. Some of these lessons come from societies that existed previously to ours and some from American tradition as well. We must also choose the best of the many new possibilities opening up from our advances in science and technology, as we discard where possible the negative aspects of these developments. But the argument that "waste and greed are good", well maybe so in a world of 500 million people with ample unspoiled land and water; but in a world where we will reach a population of 9 - 10 billion and virtually no part of the world has not already been harnessed and exploited? That is not a viable position in my opinion anyways.

Probably this particular conversation has run its course and my post will not be read, anyways......


Randall Parker said at March 6, 2005 4:10 PM:


Americans are not all going to move into high density cities in order to lower their energy usage. Energy would have to become incredibly expensive for that to happen. But at the very most energy prices could double from current levels and then only temporarily. Make energy expensive enough and the public will become very supportive of nuclear power. Over the longer term the price of nuclear power is the upper limit on how expensive energy will be.

Economic development in China and India and similar places is driving up the price of energy in the short to medium term. But, again, in the long term nuclear power or solar power will put a cap on the price of energy. So the use of energy will rise worldwide.

The higher living standards rise the more easily people can afford energy. In the West and East Asian living standards will continue to rise and buying power will continue to rise. So I expect to see energy consumption to increase in the long term. Just where the energy will come from remains to be seen. When will photovoltaic cells become cheap to make? When will oil prices get so high that the public opposition to nuclear melts away? If oil prices go up to $70 or $80 a barrel before solar power becomes cheap then I expect to see massive efforts to build nuclear reactors. But if solar becomes cheaper sooner then the big nuclear building program might be avoided.

One way or another we are going to get the energy needed to continue with our high living standards.

Desmond Morista said at March 7, 2005 8:28 PM:


I became aware of this excellent blogsite when I googled Huber and Mills after seeing Huber speak about their book on
C-Span. After looking at some of the titles he has written I can see he is a right-winger and something of a shill for the nuclear power industry but clearly an intelligent and thoughtful person. There are two schools of thought (at least, probably many more) on all this, the optimists (limitless horizons types) think we can do anything we want to the planet and still live here. The facts they have on their side are that science and technology have constantly kept us a couple of jumps ahead of the grim reaper and no Malthusian bype scenarios have occurred. On the other hand the earth is groaning under the weight of humankind's ever greater demands and we are definitely on new ground as far as approaching the carrying capacity of this planet is concernced. Science and technology continue to advance at a faster and faster pace and what kind of new developments will occur in the future are beyond my ability to forecast but are bound to be tremendous.

I think most thoughtful people will agree we must sustain ourselves here and "bridge-over" some period until our scientific understanding allows us to solve some of these problems without such crude activities as fossil-fuel burning and dangerous fission operations, with all their attendant problems. I am a biologist, geographer, and an urbanist and I know that the damage already done to the biosphere is approaching the critical stage. The answers, I believe, will lie in a combination of utilizing many technologies (wind, solar, nuclear, etc.), conservation, and limiting population growth. A planet with 9 - 12 billion people on it will not have room for a society like the current U.S. Harder working rising societies will push us rudely out of the way in a few more years and we'll likely see a major reduction in living standards here. Here we get into questions like economic productivity, industrial location, and technological prowess; all areas where the U.S. is lagging. Clearly the "torch" of human leadership is getting passed to the East and South Asians.

Huber made the claim on the program that the Athabascan tar sands in Alberta and the Orinoco tar sands in Venezuela each hold 3 1/2 trillion barrels of oil energy equivalent. Since total light oil reserves on the entire planet were probably in the 2 - 3 trillion barrel range (with around 850 Billion pumped out and used so far) his statement piqued my interest and I decided to poke around and see if he was right (since I did not remember the figures being that high). In his television appearance he argued we could get our energy from tar sand, coal, or nuclear it was up to us. Anyhow he was probably very overoptimistic about the amount of energy available from the tar-sands as there are serious problems with net-energy gain, tremendous water usage in the production processes, and highly toxic tailings and sludge produced by the refining of tar sands. Hopefully some less damaging technology will help solve these problems. People talk about orbiting solar collectors beaming down tremendous amounts of energy (a certain ionization problem there but who knows), photosynthesis under non-living conditions (more efficient perhaps than biological photosynthesis) and so on.

Obviously over 50 years of moving towards less dense urban living indicates people seem to like living that way, but then again the downsides of urban sprawl are pretty apparent now to all but the least perceptive people. And in almost any American city with a viable urban core the inner neighborhoods have become enclaves of the elite with decaying middle ring neighborhoods between the the elite core and the expanding regions of exurbia. Congestion and ability to pay mean that the portion of the population that likes to live with urban amenities buy up the inner neighborhoods. Does this mean we will see a total resurgence of higher density living, not entirely of course but there has been a significant counter current against the ever expanding sprawl for the last few years and that is all to the good. Up to this point in the U.S. it has largely been driven by commute-to-work and cultural amenity issues rather than by energy costs. In Europe and parts of East Asia where they used tax policy to keep gas and diesel expensive and used some of the proceeds to subsidize public transportation and have somewhat different attitudes to urban living they have a different result. You know the first written reference to good life in suburbia I know about is from about 700 BC and was written by some well-off people who lived outside of Babylon. The combination of time-to-work, housing expense, economic decline for much of the U.S. population (high-school drop-outs, innumerate and semi-literate high school and even college graduates), the general movement of even knowledge work to off-shore locations, congestion, and social problems associated with low density urban development are already bringing it to a halt for much of the population. Sure you have your exurban areas where some portion of the population is still moving but that is not really that large of a group anymore, nothing like the massive movements that took place from the 1920s through the 1990s that totally changed this country.

There is another aspect to all this to you know. We use 10 calories of petroleum to produce 1 calorie of edible plant material on average in the U.S. and other advanced countries. You go another trophic level (meat eating) and it is an order of magnitude yet again. And this doesn't include transportation, refridgeration, processing, and marketing the food. Everything we do in our economy and society depends on machines doing work for us. I know I don't grow much of my own food (other than some garden stuff and a few fruit trees) and would prefer to not live like a peasant. So I very much hope to see reasonable solutions to this that do not involve duty warfare and/or environmentally suicidal actions. Undoubtedly humankind will lurch along solving the problems in a less than optimal but sufficient manner. But a society of people who are not willing to walk or use public transportation and who are not leading the world in productivity the way we did in the 30s - 60s are skating on pretty thin ice in my opinion. Something's gotta give.

Anyhow Randall my congratulations on your hosting and moderating what can obviously get to be a rancoruous discussion at times as well as living a life and holding down a job and so on.


Randall Parker said at March 7, 2005 9:29 PM:


Outer suburbs are exploding in England in spite of high fuel costs. The same is happening in a number of other countries.

Europe has denser cities in part because the population is so dense and the cities were built before cars were developed. The same is the case with old East Coast American cities. But new cities get built around the car. So do suburbs around the world.

Within the United States overall pollution is declining and the area given over to farming is shrinking as well. Only greenhouse gasses are increasing significantly.

The story of world population growth is a story about the Third World. That is where the bulk of the population growth is coming from. We need more population control aid to less developed countries and the development of better birth control technologies to give to the Third Worlders. Though I think Darwin is having his way and women who want to have more children are being selected for.

Desmond said at March 8, 2005 11:04 AM:


Since I am a geographer and an urbanist I am well acquainted with arguments around these issues. Below this paragraph is a relatively long post that summarizes some things about the history of these issues (actually painfully brief considering the complexity of the issues, but then I am an academic). Since the U.S. leads the world in the "Suburban lifestyle" with its tremendous energy appetite I feel it is pertinent to this blog. In summary let me say that I find it difficult to believe that a society that runs something like a $1.6 trillion deficit between government (including social security money siphoned off into general funds) and world trade will find the wherewithal to solve some of these problems. Particularly constructing something like 1,100 or more nuclear power plants. Clearly some of the attacks on basic legal rights by the current administration are paving the way for court battles over siting of plants and transmission lines, but who will fund this stuff? Localized solutions to energy problems like wind and solar and new fossil fuel solutions seem more likely to succeed since funding and implementation are much less massive. Intelligent electricity grids with time-of-day rates seem likely too. And yes most population growth has been occurring in the poorer countries for many years now. In fact birth rates for native-born populations in much of Europe and Japan are definitely below replacement (2.1 children / woman / lifetime). This is probably also true in Taiwan, S. Korea and Singapore as well. In the U.S. native-born fertility rates are around 2.0 and if you figure out second generation immigrants even lower. However these burgeoning Third World populations inevitably lead to migration for poor to rich countries after which those migrants begin to live more like First Worlders. Clearly we must limit population growth. In the long run population will be controlled, the difference is in how either by conscious human action or by a breakdown of natural systems that sustain life. Clearly the first option is the better of the two (but remember Sexual Abstinence is our only choice here according to U.S. government policy). Incidentally Huber and Mills are way off on the ratio of power between Three Gorges and Grand Coulee Dams. Three Gorges Dam will eventually generate 18.2 million KWatts (by about 2009), Grand Coulee's original equipment generated 7.6 million KWatts and it is being upgraded to (or perhaps already producing) 10.06 million KWatts. That makes it the third largest in the world after Three Gorges and Igazu in Brazil / Paraguay which generates 13.32 million KWatts. In other words it generates 5/9 as much not 1/9 as much.

You might recall I mentioned a suburbanization trend in many places. In fact worldwide there was at least some tendency for the population density in almost all cities to go down over the past 20 or 30 years. Nonetheless the amount and nature of this development you get is determined by an interaction between the innate desire for people to live with some greenery around them with public policies, technology, and the limits of their environment. The parts of the world with large sprawling low-density cities are, in fact, the English-speaking "settler states" particularly the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (perhaps I should include South Africa here). These are places which share a cultural tradition handed down from England and domination over land areas where the aboriginal populations either conveniently largely died out (North America, Australia, New Zealand) or was defeated militarily in a sufficient manner to allow a free hand to the new settlers (S. Africa). In fact modern suburbanization really began in England, in fact Manchester (and later London and other English cities) were the first places. Central European cities tended to invest money in keeping their inner urban cores desirable to the emerging middle classes (Paris with von Hausmann's "cannon-shot boulevards" is the classic example of this, the state subsidized the building of the elegant apartment houses we all associate with Paris along those boulevards in the early and mid 1800s).

You correctly point out that the oldest cities in the U.S. all have dense urban cores as these cities were founded before automobiles were invented. As settlement and city building moved westward the relative size of the pre-auto core to the rest of the city declines and with sunbelt boomtowns that core is frequently just about obliterated by downtown office booms. While suburbanization and auto-domination of U.S. city building began in the 1920s the really key development was the construction of the interstate highways. As originally planned these highways would not have penetrated the urban areas but like the Autobahns would have entirely gone around the cities leaving auto penetration of cities to regular surface level streets. However downtown business interests in the U.S. lobbied hard to have the interstates connect to the downtown areas and so it was done. Eisenhower, in fact, was being driven in from the airport in Washington D.C. late in his term and saw the demolition of neighborhoods underway and asked what was going on and his aides told "you signed the bill Mr. President" but he was unaware of that particular ramification of it.

Europe, with a very different history and different interplay of forces did not build limited access highways through their historic urban cores and therefore did not unleash the inevitable land-use changes within their cities that we did. I think most societies are shaped by historical chance interacting with social forces within them. The U.S. following WW II was incredibly rich, had a lot of pent-up demand for housing, and had a population of people at the family forming period in their lives which had mostly grown up in older denser neighborhoods (not necessarily apartments but houses or 2- 4 plexes on 30 and 40 ft. lots too). These people were amenable to the immense suburban development that took place over the next 40 years and which transformed the country radically. They knew well the drawbacks of living in urban America and bought up the Levittowns of the day with gusto.

Europe has a varying amounts of sprawl with the Netherlands (with its extremely limited land area and social democratic tradition) having the least and England (original Western Culture home of the suburb and Thatcher/Reagan "free-Market" revolution background) having the most. As some of your posters have pointed out cars spend most of their time sitting (and taking up an inordinate amount of room in the process). Dutch residents frequently petition housing and apartment designers and administrations to REDUCE the amount of land given over to parking and INCREASE the amount of land for other resident uses. Many European cities have "car cooperatives" where you don't personally own and store a car but have the use of one when you need it (reserving use and paying a mileage charge) and the organization handles the storage and maintenance questions. I don't know what percentage of the population is involved in this sort of car usage and ownership arrangement but again it is higher in places like the Netherlands and lower in places like England.

Most Asian cities only recently became prosperous enough to problems with cars. Singapore built a state of the art urban rail transportation system on-time and under-budget during the 1980s and 1990s. Most people there live in large apartment houses and the well-off who have cars and want to drive them into the urban core between something like 7am and 7pm pay a daily fee anytime they do it, automatically deducted from their account and apparently it is pretty efficient with no ways to sneak into town. But of course much new development around the edges of cities is similar to what we see here. Singapore, of course, does not really operate under the advantages and disadvantages of democracy as practiced in the West. Asian cities run the gamut from the most prosperous in the world to among the poorest and no short essay could address the diversity, but all share the characteristic of 50% of urban journeys or more are by walking, bicycling, public transportation or some combination thereof.

Contrast some of these things with policies here. Colorado passed a law a few years ago which stipulated that any land subdivision under 40 acres did not need to be platted. The result was a massive proliferation of 39 acre ranchettes which now occupy the foothills and lowlands along the frontrange all the way from south of Colorado Springs to north of Fort Collins. A place like Boulder (which of course is relatively wealthy and progressive) passes strict land use laws and buys a lot of land inside and outside of the city limits for greenspace and manages to protect their immediate environment but merely displaces sprawl out past the limits of their jurisdiction. Well-off Boulderites get to live in older more compact neighborhoods and do a sizeable portion of their activities without driving while less well-off people live outside the greenspace perimeter in typical sprawl conditions. Your psychiatrist there might well walk to work, your carpenter most certainly drives. These sort of contrasts are growing in the U.S. even while outer suburbs and exurbs continue to grow with well-off populations.

Where I disagree with you is not that I don't see a desire on the part of people to want to live some sort of sylvan lifestyle if they can. But to just say that what we have here is the inevitable result of people's desires being fulfilled by the development business is just a bit too simplistic. Suburbia, as originally built out, was premised on a society prosperous enough that the husband worked and paid for most everything and the wife stayed home and served as homemaker and chauffer to the children. Time and reality has passed this up. Most couples both work to support their lifestyle, elderly people face horrible dilemmas on maintaining some sort of independence, children are either ferried about at great inconvenience to various lessons and activities or fend for themselves as "latch-key" children for the period between the end of school and the arrival of parents.

Some relatively simple expedients can correct a lot of this. Many people are willing to car-pool to work if there is a way to take care of basic errands at work. Office and commercial parks with places to eat, a some basic retail businesses on site that allow people to exercise or go to the shoe cobbler or buy a gallon of milk etc. as part of their at work routines would make it possible for many people to comfortably carpool much of the time. Subdivisions that are designed so people can go to the local store walking or by bicycle (by means of pedestrian and bicycle paths out of the subdivision to the local business strip that do not require a mile or two mile trip along variously dangerous streets, generally without sidewalks, to go to a place you can see across the line of back fences). There are major fights going on over zoning and home businesses. Our zoning laws are left over from the period when most commercial operations were noisy, smelly, and often toxic sites. Clearly there are major issues getting worked out here but as the security of corporate employment recedes for much of the population there is a desire for more flexible arrangements of this sort. These sort of issues are increasingly heard in urban development battles but we have a tremendous array of road-builders, land speculators, and developers who are used to doing things the traditional suburban way and local jurisdictions with zoning and subdivision laws that require more of the same. There is also a constituency of people who can afford to live the traditional suburban way and want more of the same. It is just that more and more people want something else and they are still getting short shrift.


S. Cormack said at March 9, 2005 11:19 AM:

Mr. Parker

First time poster to your forum. I have the Mills book on order. I saw the Daily Show interview, and also have recently read a pro-nuclear article in Wired Mag with similar sentiments.

Both you and wired address the alternative of solar photovoltaic, which IMHO is not a real alternative. Neither you, nor Wired, addressed the alternative of solar thermal, which was recently covered by Pop Sci.

Solar thermal doesn't require extravagent land coverage like wind or solar photo, and the cost per KWH is dropping. I haven't seen any long-range comparison between solar thermal and nuclear, perhaps you could provide?

It seems to me nuclear's primary advantage is in mature technology and relatively low energy cost. Solar thermal seems to have a tremendous upside once the price of the hardware drops.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to reading the Mills book. I've read books and articles by Lovins and it seems that he and Mills/Huber are 180 degrees apart on this issue.

Randall Parker said at March 9, 2005 11:57 AM:

S. Cormack,

What is your objection to photovoltaics? Currently photovoltaics cost too much. But that will not always be the case. Do you disagree?

I would not call nuclear technology mature. We need to move on to pebble bed modular reactors.

I don't understand your attraction to solar thermal. Can it cool houses in the summer? Provide electricity to operate appliances and computers? Power cars?

S. Cormack said at March 9, 2005 12:36 PM:

Mr. Parker:

Photovoltaics - not as efficient as solar thermal, nor as cost effective. Of course they'll get cheaper, but so will solar thermal. For power production, photovoltaics take up a lot of land.

Attraction - sunlight is free, intense heat is an effective energy source, solar thermal isn't as big a land hog as solar. Solar concentrators can generate point heat sources in the tens of thousands of degrees. We're talking in the context of providing bulk power so, yes, it can cool and provide electricity to homes. It can't power hybrids now, but I suppose it can once we get the plug-in models.

Here's an example of a solar thermal concentrator powering a Stirling engine which generates electricity:



Randall Parker said at March 9, 2005 1:39 PM:

S. Cormack,

Interesting article. Thanks for sharing. Some comments:

First of all, note that they say the installation costs $250,000 and the Sandia guy says it needs to fall to $50,000 to be cost effective. Well, can it fall by that much?

My intuition on photovoltaics is that their costs can fall by orders of magnitude because different photovoltaic materials can be found that are cheaper to fabricate. Silicon crystals cost too much to make in the first place. But other materials could be used that would be cheaper once those materials were discovered. Also, photovoltaics can be made more efficient. Already two approaches for boosting efficiency over 50% are being explored at two US Department of Energy national labs.

But this solar thermal Stirling engine dish complex looks like it is more conventional steel (or perhapsh aluminum) arrayed in some shape. A significant chunk of its cost is just from structural support. Also, are the mirrors expensive to fabricate? Do they need to be of an especially high quality? How expensive is the Stirling engine as compared to the rest of the apparatus?

Is the whole apparatus amenable to having its cost greatly reduced? If so, how? What are the aspects of how it is fabricated that are amenable to cost reduction? I don't know enough to begin to judge.

Secondly, the Stirling engine and its collectors can not be incorporated into existing structures. Whereas future photovoltaics (say made from moldable plastics) will be usable as roofing and siding and as covering on other structures and even road signs.

I'm not saying there is not a future for the solar thermal Stirling engine approach. Certainly if the costs for it can be gotten low enough it could be used to generate electricity. But one big advantage I see for future photovoltaics nanotech materials will be the ability to serve dual purposes of being both covering of structures and energy producers.

Philip Sargent said at March 11, 2005 2:08 AM:

Can I recommend to the commentors on this list a book "Nuclear Renaissance" published very recently. The Generation IV discussion on this list is interesting, but actually the USA and UK nuclear programmes are going to build G-III or G-III+ first (and China, Finland, India etc are already doing so).

It's not a one-sided book at all, and although it covers the technologies in some detail, the political implications are very thoughtfully explored. The use of thorium to reduce the danger of waste and proliferation is well-covered, and there is a very full description of nuclear fusion technologies.

The book contains several social points which are rather unexpected, for example that the "polluter pays" principle and the Brundtland formulation of sustainable development can have pathological effects when applied to the institutions and waste streams inherited from past policies.

We must not forget the use of nuclear heat to produce hydrogen, or to upgrade coal to make transport fuels. The intermittancy of Tokomak fusion generators is well-suited to hydrogen production, but is rather a problem for electricity generation.

NB. Several new designs are entirely underground, which should protect against tungsten-rod launching Lear jets.

A full review should appear on Amazon soon.

Philip Sargent
Cambridge, UK.

S. Cormack said at March 11, 2005 10:39 AM:

Mr. Parker

You have to dig a bit to get info on solar thermal systems. A few URLs:

Stirling Energy's website, which explains their Stirling Engine system in detail: http://www.stirlingenergy.com/default.asp

The Stirling Engine is only one manifestation of solar thermal power generation. Different types are discussed here: http://www.nrel.gov/clean_energy/concentratingsolar.html. The NREL seems to believe the trough systems hold the most promise, as most of their projects are focused on that technology.

Regarding cost, this webpage describes the initiative to build 1000 MW of new solar thermal power generation in the SW USA, aimed at dropping the cost to $0.07/kwh: http://www.nrel.gov/csp/1000mw_initiative.html

Regarding the cost of the various system components, the Stirling Energy website doesn't break it down but I have emailed them and hope to get a breakdown of the relative costs of major components. It seems to me that opportunity for cost reduction exists in the same way it exists for other things - they need to be able to produce enough for economy of scale savings.

S. Cormack

Damien Sullivan said at April 9, 2005 10:56 PM:

About the number of plants needed -- I don't know what they left out, but I think something went missing. Maybe it's in the "10 or so". Elsewhere in their book -- I just read it -- they say each American is served by the equivalent of 200 human servants. A human body taks about 100 Watts, so that's on the order of 20 kilowatts. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/ene_usa_per_per says US uses 8.35 tonnes of oil equivalent per person year; 4e7 joules per tonne, 10 kilowatts. 10 kW is also the number I remembered before I did the citation finding. So, 10 kW, vs. the 1.5 kW they started with, then multiplied by 3.5 by adding another 10 Indian points, or by 6 if you add 20 ("ten or so") Indian Points.

How is solar thermal less land intensive than photovoltaic? Both are tapping solar energy. I guess while thermal is more efficient it can take less land; OTOH, PV can work even under clouds, and I think thermal can't. Given cutting edge PV of 32% efficiency, it's getting close. Also, what really matters is cost; if the cost of the solar system itself dwarfs the land cost, how much land is used doesn't matter as much as other things.

I don't think you can get 10s of thousands of degrees with solar thermal; thermodynamics prevents focusing arbitrarily with mirrors. Looked at another way, you can't focus light from the Sun to get higher temperatures than the Sun; if your focus was hotter, heat would flow back to the Sun. You need engines to do the real concentration (as in the lasers Huber kept talking about.)

Mike Lorrey said at August 17, 2005 10:13 AM:

The number of plants discrepancy is this: 1000 plants will power the transportation needs. 1184 plants ARE WHAT IS NEEDED TO REPLACE OIL CONSUMPTION. Since most oil consumed goes toward transportation, it is no wonder both numbers are similar. Oil is half of our energy supply. Trading off the coal consumed in electricity production for an equal amount of oil needed for future materials technology shift into synthetics/composites, the airline industry, as well as the nascent but growing space industry, all of which will be much more expensive to shift to a hydrogen economy, and your numbers all balance out while getting rid of as much CO2 emissions as possible while electrifying the transportation sector.

jon mclain said at February 15, 2006 6:52 PM:

Above you stated that to charge car batteries on a hybrid engine would cost 35cents per kilowatt hour. Is that accounting for the benefit the .35 cents of gas provide in miles driven while charging your car batteries?
How much does charging your car batteries hinder mpg in a hybrid car?

A. Z. K. Sanders said at January 13, 2007 9:20 PM:

I came across this discussion room because I was interested in Huber's book claiming that the supply of energy is endless--which seemed contrary to common sense. Huber is intelligent and well-educated but this doesn't keep him from coming to ridiculous conclusions. His ideas remind me of the old manufacturing saying that nothing is too difficult for the man who doesn't have to do it. He is confident that fossil fuel can be used to satisfy the energy needs of an earth population increasing from 6 billion to 8 billion. Also that the c-o-2 increase (which is already depriving us of winter) can be ignored. I can see him later this century sitting among the cinders still arguing the climate warming is just a random fluctuation. Not to mention that the whole world's population wants to live just like the Americans they see on their TVs using energy at rates that are orders of magnitude higher than at present. (In fact, this seems to be a universal rule. There's another 6,000-sq. ft.--for empty nesters-- house going up across the street from me. The average for the whole village has gone from 2,000 to 6,000 sq. ft.)

He also has this simplistic way of looking at nuclear power. He somehow can't put a couple of simple facts together. First, there are terrorists whose heart's desire is to destroy New York and Washington. Second, every nuclear plant produces waste from which plutonium--used to make a nuclear bomb--can be separated by ordinary chemical reactions. Further, centrifuges concentrating fissile U235 isotope for power generation just have to be run longer to produce nuclear explosive. Adding together these facts, are the dangers from nuclear energy worth it? Does he have any idea of the effect on the country's economy, morale, psyche, etc., if midtown Manhattan disappears? Can he picture the shock of 9/11 multiplied as, not 3,000, but 1 million people die? Plus a trillion dollars of property damage? Will nuclear power still seem viable? And has he no sense of caution?

Forgetting Huber's folly, I wonder if anyone contributing to your discussion can answer what I consider the ultimate question. Assume the entire world population uses per-person energy at a rate equivalent to the present per-person US energy usage. Assume that it is all obtained from renewable sources. This means hydro and thermal fully exploited. Windmills wherever there is enough wind. Deserts covered with photovoltaic cells. All arable land (not needed for agriculture and grazing) covered with switchgrass for use as boiler fuel. (Electricity generated distributed through a modernized grid and used to power hybrid-plug-in vehicles as well as to power mass transit and to electrify railroads to the maximum.)

Question: what is the maximum population the earth can support on such a sustainable basis?

Randall Parker said at January 13, 2007 11:55 PM:

A. Z. K. Sanders,

We should not increase our use of hydro. Biomass energy is a bad idea that does not scale. We could raise the whole world up to US levels of energy usage with photovoltaics once we find ways to make photovoltaics much more cheaply. There's no need for biomass or geothermal or hydro once photovoltaics become cheap enough.

I do see a serious problem coming if the whole world becomes far more affluent though. The footprint of roads and large houses and other buildings will become enormous.

Max sustainable human population: Depends on how many other species you want to have survive and with how much land dedicated to nature.

S said at March 17, 2009 1:41 PM:

Congratulations, we now have guaranteed over-population.

How many fields (unpolluted) do we need to grow food for people?
How much space is needed to live in?

Global warming? Icecaps melting? Sunami's?

Where's the solution for all of these problems?

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