Archive for February, 2007

Climate Change Series in Berkeley

Monday, February 26th, 2007

What Can We Do About Global Warming?

The environment committee of Berkeley Friends Meeting is sponsoring a series of talks by Karen Street on climate change and what we can do about it. The series will run on 1st Sundays of the month at 2151 Vine St beginning March 4 after meeting for worship, starting at 1 p.m. The series ends June 17.

Session I: Climate Change and Friends March 4th

This session will begin with an updated version of Karen’s PowerPoint presentation, first delivered at the 2006 Gathering of Friends General Conference. It will cover the science, with actual and likely impacts of global warming, and will tie those impacts to Friends testimonies, taking an initial look at what we can do to make a difference.

The Environment committee will distribute a questionnaire to help us calculate our greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption. In Session III, each person will get an individualized handout showing how he or she compares to a typical person in Berkeley Meeting, California, and the United States.

Session II: How We Make Choices April 1st

Karen will lead an exercise on looking at the advantages and disadvantages of our current choices, and how we go about making changes in our lives. This will be followed by a worshipful consideration: in what spirit do we take on the task of addressing climate change, from negative or positive emotions? What kinds of support might we give each other, or do we want for ourselves?

Session III: Our Own Carbon Emissions May 6th

Karen will explain the results of the questionnaires distributed in Session I and help us to understand the private and individualized handout each of us will receive, based on the information we submitted. This important exercise will teach us about the behaviors that policies must address, and provide us with the baseline requested at our January monthly meeting in response to the Committee’s proposed minute on our possible response to global warming.

Session IV: Technology and Policy June 3rd

What are the policy solutions that will make a difference? What do we look for in legislation? A look at Socolow wedges, cap and trade, and other policy issues. We will also examine the potential for technology, including efficiency, cellulosic biofuels, solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear power.

Session V: Nuclear Power in Today’s World June 17th

Does nuclear power make sense in a carbon-constrained world? A discussion on the issues for and against nuclear power.

This series is for everyone, including teens and young adults. The committee will provide childcare.

Sponsored by Berkeley Friends Meeting Environment Committee

Sierra Club Explains Energy Issues Pt 2/2

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

More on the January/February issue of Sierra.

Negawatt Power tells us that we can reduce energy use between 30% and 85% per capita here in the US, up to 67% per capita in Europe. The 2,000-Watt Society says so:

Of course, this estimate is highly hypothetical, but indicates that the vision is not out of any theoretical probability.

OK, so 2000-Watt Society is not as optimistic as Sierra Club, stuff could go wrong between here and there. Since population is expected to increase by 40% by 2050, and per capita consumption to more than double, the actual world reduction in GHG emissions would perhaps not show up as a reduction in actual emissions, but in expected emissions.

The concept of Negawatt (energy saved is energy that we don’t have to provide) is important — no one sees solutions without massive improvements in efficiency. However, it is premature to assert that we can reduce business as usual energy use (which assumes 1% annual increase in efficiency, and more than doubles energy use between 2000 and 2050) by even 50%. If we can, the world will be much better off. But designing energy policy based on this assumption may be dangerous.

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute
Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute first used the term negawatt.

Why Not Nukes? lists several reasons for opposing nuclear power:

1. as recently as 2002, the Davis-Besse reactor came “darn close” to a major accident,

2. there is no safe way to dispose of its “long-lasting, highly radioactive waste,”

3. “nuclear power remains inextricably tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.”

4. building 1,000 new reactors (to achieve one wedge, begin here) “would require a stupendous amount of money”, and “there are many far-cheaper ways to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions: conservation; cogeneration (utilizing the heat produced by industrial processes to make electricity) and wind, to name a few. A dollar spent on energy efficiency would save seven times more carbon dioxide than a dollar spent on nuclear power.”

5. Even with enormous subsidies from the Department of Energy and a taxpayer-funded shield from liability for major accidents through the Price-Anderson Act, no private utility has committed to building a new plant. There is a graphic showing subsidies for different energy sources since 1974, with fission and fusion power combined.

Note: if utilities do not and will not want nuclear power plants because they are too expensive, then there would be no need for this article.

They skip a few of the arguments in favor of nuclear power, eg, it’s much safer for workers and the public. (Take a quiz to see what you know about how energy sources compare.)

1. From the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The NRC staff’s calculations estimated how the reactor head damage, combined with design problems in certain high-pressure pumps and issues affecting a water recirculation system component (containment sump), could have led to damage to the reactor core in the year preceding discovery of the head damage. This Accident Sequence Precursor (ASP) analysis concluded the combination of issues at Davis-Besse had 6 chances in 1,000 of damaging the core during that one-year period. The ASP determination does not estimate the likelihood of a radioactivity release, since the power plant reinforced concrete containment structure and other safety systems were capable of protecting public health and safety.

So Davis-Besse could have been expensive, very expensive, but not a health danger.

2. It depends on what is meant by safe. How many people are expected to die from nuclear waste while it decays under the current plan? This was one of the questions I had when I was examining arguments on both sides — people who are pro-nuclear answer this question, those who are anti-nuclear don’t. It’s one of the questions in a quiz; you can look it up here.

3. I’ve discussed this. Start here.

4. Conservation is much cheaper than any new energy source. Improved efficiency is also much cheaper, up to a point. Cogeneration is good. Wind power requires backup, either hydro or natural gas, and natural gas is a fossil fuel. Wind plus natural gas backup is better than natural gas alone, but still emits more GHG than does nuclear. I’m not clear how they calculate that wind plus natural gas is cheaper than nuclear. The goal is to reduce per capita world GHG emissions to 3 – 5% of current US per capita emissions by 2050, and then to zero out the carbon to protect the oceans. Even while consumption is rising pretty much everywhere, notably in China and India.

What is cheapest in the US might not be cheapest elsewhere. Many believe that photovoltaic (solar) power will soon be able to compete against other sources of electricity, especially in cloudless areas of the American South, because PV competes against retail prices of energy. Rome is north of New York City. Tokyo is a little north of Santa Barbara, so that’s not too bad. Beijing is at the same latitude as Denver, Shanghai south of San Diego, so if China ever gets rid of coal power, so the sun is visible, PV will be an excellent option there. India is even further south, but air pollution is also a problem, one that will worsen with increased use of coal power.

smog in Beijing
Smog in Beijing

See more on wind prices in the US and Germany compared to nuclear prices.

This is not to say that no wind power should be built because nuclear power is cheaper. A variety of energy sources are needed, because situations differ, because it’s better to have a variety of energy sources in case something goes wrong, and because every reduction in GHG emissions will save lives.

5. Take the fusion out and the numbers are somewhat different; differences also emerge if more than direct subsidies are considered — of the $655 billion in US incentives since 1950, almost half were for oil: taxation, regulation, and government services.

I went to an industry blog and found a few counterexamples from December 15 – January 31: Florida Power and Light intends to announce interest in a nuclear plant the first quarter of this year. Canada will expand its use of nuclear power. The majority of Germans now oppose closing nuclear power plants, plus Deutsche Bank (and every other numerate source in the universe) has warned that Germany will screw up Europe’s GHG reductions if they go ahead with closures. In fact, there has recently been an agreement for Germany to stop subsidizing coal power, which means that either German nuclear power will expand, or French nuclear power will. TVA intends to expand by 50%. Finland intends to add a 6th reactor. New reactors are still being designed by companies that believe they will be able to be sold. Sweden plans to add new reactors after 2010. VA is looking at new plants, and the Environmental Impact Statement came back with a green light. The British will be building new plants. China and Japan will be working together on nuclear power.

That’s part of the news back to December 15; if you go back further, you’ll find stories of other American utilities that intend to apply this year to build one or more nuclear power plants. Some of these may be private, some public, it doesn’t really matter.

Generally, it’s safer to use analysis that has been peer reviewed, and then accepted by the scientific or policy community. If scientists and policy experts make mistakes, we can be forgiven for accepting their ideas. But young people, and those not yet born, will not easily understand that we assumed experts wrong and relied instead on the analysis of Sierra Club volunteers.

Helen Caldicott
Helen Caldicott convinced some California Friends (Quakers) that nuclear power might not be as bad as advertised, after she warned of imminent nuclear plant meltdown in late 1999, and nothing happened.

Sierra Club Explains Energy Issues Pt 1/2

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

I’ve spent time hiking with, even volunteering with, Sierra Club, but have never taken a good look at their magazine. Now someone asked me to post on the January/February Sierra. Not because Sierra Club analysis is any worse than that of environmentalists in general, but because it is typical.

Sierra Club volunteers
Sierra Club volunteers

In checking Sierra Club numbers, I have to go to some source or other. This time I chose John Holdren’s The Energy Innovation Imperative. Holdren is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a major person in climate change policy.

The Sierra Club does its analysis differently:

For the past year, our volunteer leaders and energy experts have been examining the nation’s energy options.

OK, so Sierra Club is off to a bad start, no indication of peer-review publications, or anything written by someone of Holdren’s stature. How does their work hold up from there?

What first emerges is the difference in tone. Sierra Club is optimistic that so many solutions exist for climate change, that we can forego what is currently, along with hydro, the largest source of non-GHG emitting energy in the world. Happy faces practically cover the articles, except when Sierra Club gets to the energy sources it disapproves of.

John Holdren's Nobel speech for Pugwash
John Holdren’s Nobel speech for Pugwash


Global climate change is increasingly recognized as both the most dangerous and the most intractable of all of energy’s environmental impacts-indeed, the most dangerous and intractable of all of civilization’s environmental impacts, period. Distortions of this envelope [the atmosphere] of the magnitude that are underway and in prospect are likely to so badly disrupt the environmental conditions innovations and processes influenced by climate as to adversely affect every dimension of human well-being that is tied to the environment, including:

__ the productivity of farms, forests, and fisheries;
__ the geography of disease;
__ the prevalence of oppressive heat and humidity;
__ the damages to be expected from storms, floods, and wildfires;
__ the property losses to be expected from sea-level rise;
__ the expenditures that must be made on engineered environments (e.g., dams, dikes, air-conditioned spaces); and
__ the distribution and abundance of valued species as well as pests.

It is becoming clear, nonetheless, that the current level of anthropogenic interference is dangerous.

So Holdren says is that reducing GHG as fast as possible is best, and that nuclear power problems don’t begin to compare to climate change.

Sierra Club:

Americans have gotten ourselves out of tough jams and overcome big obstacles before. We cured polio, put a man on the moon, and ended segregation. If we set our minds to it, we could also meet the enormous challenge of global warming. We already have the know-how. Unleashed, American ingenuity.. etc

Americans go to the moon
Americans went to the moon, but most people believe that climate change will be a much more difficult problem to solve.


The multiplicity of challenges at the intersection of energy with the economy, the environment, and international security–led by the oil-dependence and climate change challenges just described–add up to a need for policies designed for two ends:

__ to help society find and implement a satisfactory compromise among competing economic, environmental and security objectives–which includes trying to leave the biggest margins of safety against the biggest dangers–given the resources and technologies available at any given time, and
__ to accelerate the processes of energy-technology innovation that, over time, can reduce the limitations of existing energy options, can bring new options to fruition, and thereby can reduce the tensions among energy-policy objectives and enable faster progress on the most critical ones.

These ends cannot be achieved by markets alone, without supplementary policies, because many of the goals relate to public goods (such as national security and meeting the basic energy needs of society’s poorest members) and externalities (such as air pollution and greenhouse gases) that are not priced in markets unless policies achieve this.

A further implication of the characteristics of today’s energy challenges is that society will do better to pursue a broad portfolio of improved energy-supply and end-use options, rather than putting its eggs in too few baskets. The merits of such diversity are manifold: it provides flexibility to respond to changing conditions and new information (an insurance policy for an uncertain world), including providing the possibility of discarding options that ultimately prove unsuitable; it takes into account that, even after all plausible technological improvements, there comes a point in the expansion of any energy option where rising marginal costs and/or risks make further expansion unattractive (meaning a broad portfolio is likely to have lower costs and risks overall than a narrower set of options wherein each has to bear too much of the load); and by combining the growth of multiple new or improved options–each drawing on different types of material resources, skills, and firms–it can replace status quo technologies more rapidly than would be possible by one or two new options alone.

In The Fix, Sierra Club describes, with no supplementary explanations, a 2050 where efficiency displaces all energy growth and then some (in the US, where there is much inefficiency). Nuclear stays the same — hard if plants that close are not replaced. Renewables displace coal and oil. Natural gas use remains about the same.

Some questions: how can we use no oil, no coal (to liquids) and not increase nuclear (to power plug-in hybrids?) No peer review analysis, no matter how optimistic, assumes that biofuels and Smart Growth alone can completely replace today’s oil by 2050, let alone the growth in oil. No idea of energy security as presented by Holdren — what if one of the eggs cracks? No explanations supplied to justify the graphs.

US Electricity 2004
US Electricity 2004
Sierra Club acts does not address problems that might arise in depending on currently marginal sources of electricity.