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Yale 62

Comments on the November 4, 2021 Coffee Hour, and also comments on our environmental essays

We welcome your comments below.

11 comments to Comments on the Environmental Discussion

  • burgert roberts

    informative and thought-provoking. Many thanks.

  • Early this morning, a neighbor called me to say that the house across the street from him was on fire. I threw on my clothes and hurried out.
    When I got to the burning home, the whole neighborhood was there. “Shouldn’t we call 911?” someone shouted.

    “Well, if we do that, should we urge the dispatcher to notify the fire department?” another asked.

    “No, no,” said another. “We should request at least two fire trucks. It looks like the house next door is already in trouble.”

    That’s the scene that came to mind when I read the stories out of Glasgow this morning: UN Secretary-General Guterres declares the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° C is on
    “life support.” Meanwhile, negotiators parse the distinctions between “urging” or “requesting” that nations set new emissions-cutting goals next year! Meeting the 12-year old pledge
    by developed countries to provide $100 billion to assist poor countries that are receiving the brunt of the climate crisis gets kicked down the road to next year’s COP-out.

    Blah-blah-blah.

    End coal subsidies? What? Next thing you know they’ll want an end to oil and gas subsidies. Fossil fuels having to compete in an open market? What are they thinking?

  • Ken Merkey

    From a guy who spent a lot of his career in the alternate energy trenches, I can tell you, first hand, where many of the soft spots exist. There is plenty of blame to go around. The swamp in DC has done a terrible job of legislating. Bureaucrats at every level, especially local, have no incentive to be constructive or positive. Utility executives are, generally, useless.

    In the early 80’s, shortly after PURPA, my company developed a 2.4-megawatt hydro project. We had to wheel the power out of state because the local utility would not buy the power. In the early 90’s we tried to develop a 400-megawatt solar project in southern California but couldn’t get PG&E to buy the power. Initially we were told that we would have to wait until the next RFP round. (Bureaucracy?) Then we were rejected because they claimed that the grid could not handle the load. We built a municipal 8 MW waste-to-energy cogen project next to a major hospital. The only reason it got built was that the local hospital had the political clout.

    We all know that whenever government builds something, costs go through the roof. I have a problem with the government building EV charging stations. This, as well as many other projects, should be a private sector activity. Why do liberals believe that you can solve all of society’s problems by throwing money at it? For every problem, there is a government program?

    Today you cannot build an alternate energy project without at least 50% ITC. So, at the end of the day, the consumer is subsidizing these plants.

    Whenever the Trump haters let their avarice bleed through, I get turned off. Can’t liberals just get over it? And now libs live in a giant glass house. With the 2 bozos in the White House, we can’t control our borders, we have lost control of inflation, we kill pipelines needlessly, and they bloviate but do nothing concrete about climate change. Why was Kamy in Paris this week? For that matter, why did they drag Obama to Glasgow? COP26 should be alternately named Bloviate Central. For sure, all of the bloviators showed up.

    France, Japan, Korea and China all have national energy plans that include a significant amount of nuclear. The USA does not even have a plan.

    Bill Gates is developing a modular nuclear power system. He has set up to do this in China because of the inane regulations in the USA.

    Less advocacy, more solutions.

  • Anthony Carbone

    When the US announced that we would rejoin the Paris Climate Accord concurrent with previous Coffee House event, I expressed my disagreement with this policy change. Nothing has occurred since then to cause me to change my mind. Two of the biggest carbon emitters are still on the sidelines, pledges embodied in the Paris Accord are far behind their time lines, and investments promised to under-developed countries are in arrears. Despite some expectations to the contrary, COP26 failed to bring China and India into the fold with meaningful commitments, the under-developed nations upped the ante beyond any likelihood that their demands would be met, and most importantly, an enforcement mechanism was not even the subject of serious discussion. However, COP26 did create another alternate universe with the notion that government and public pressure on financial institutions and the investment community will siphon off funding for fossil fuel facilities and new exploration, and in turn, funnel resources into investments in renewable energy alternatives. This is more wishful thinking at best in my mind. It is already apparent that investments in existing green energy companies, environmental focused mutual funds and start-ups financed with venture capital are producing among the poorest investment returns by most traditional financial measures. The dis-economies associated with these uses of capital resources are simply not sustainable. The reality is that as fossil related sources are diminished by policy decisions, derivatives such as fuel oil, natural gas and petrochemical feedstocks will increase dramatically in price due to supply-demand imbalances. To assume renewables will scale up in time to avoid this economic distortion and its effect on our standard of living is “betting the house”, a bet that we need not make at this juncture without immediate consideration to a few under-promoted alternatives, one of which is in-hand today.
    In this context, I strongly support the two speakers during the Coffee House discussion that suggested a more rational way to wean our way from fossil fuels should include ramping up the licensing and construction of pre-fabricated, small scale (pocket) nuclear power plants, and launching a “Manhattan Project” type government sponsored/funded program to accelerate the development of hydrogen fuels by selective membrane technology. (Note that nuclear energy is not even mentioned in Biden’s Build Back Better plan). My point is, that in the longer term, the world will be compelled to move rapidly toward nuclear energy and fuel cell technology when it becomes apparent that renewables of all forms and battery technology can not get us to a carbon neutral condition without devastating the world economies and creating wide-spread civil unrest. I would like to think that this is the next generation’s problem to solve, but I am not so sure. Two or three years exceptionally high energy, heating fuels, plastics and gasoline prices may be enough for desperate voters to reject the green movement in it’s current form, and demand a more balanced and patient address to climate change with mitigation strategies built in. We can only hope.

  • Ken Merkey

    Well said, Tony. I am hoping to see some counter arguments from our classmates, especially those who oppose nuclear.

  • Thanks for your comments, Tony. I’m sorry you were unable to join the coffee hour discussion. I agree, perhaps from a different perspective, that the COPs invoke an alternative universe. It’s hard to imagine how 20 to 30 thousand “diplomats” can come to agreement on anything, let alone an existential threat like climate change.

    A few days ago, a friend loaned me his copy of the Oct. 30, “COP-out” edition of The Economist with the See-No-Evil, Hear-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil penguins on the cover. Its lead editorial, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/10/30/why-the-cop26-climate-summit-will-be-both-crucial-and-disappointing, is a prescient preview of COP26—a sample:

    “The main reason the UNFCCC and COP process matters is that the science, diplomacy, activism and public opinion that support it make up the best mechanism the world currently has to help it come to terms with a fundamental truth. The dream of a planet of almost 8bn people all living in material comfort will be unachievable if it is based on an economy powered by coal, oil, and natural gas. The harms from the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide would eventually pile up so rapidly that fossil-fuel-fired development would stall.”

    From your comments, it sounds like you recognize the sense of urgency many of us feel, but argue about how and when we come down from our carbon addictions. Seems to me that it’s largely a problem of how quickly various alternative technologies can be scaled up. I agree that we need a Manhattan Project-type effort to develop rational ways to wean us away from fossil fuels.

    Our classmate Steve Ripley has been exploring ideas about how sufficiently advanced general intelligence (SAGI) quantum-computing “robots” might help in this effort. I hope he’ll chime in.

    Several classmates have suggested, as you have, that nuclear and hydrogen technologies may save us.

    Hydrogen, an energy carrier, can be a medium for storage in situations where the cost/benefits balance out. However, hydrogen suffered from the limitations of the laws of thermodynamics: Extraction of hydrogen requires more energy than “burning” it provides. I’d like to know how membrane research might overcome those thermodynamic constraints.

    I agree that nuclear power will be needed to replace fossil fuels but resuscitating and scaling up that industry is unlikely to be any faster than the “green” alternatives. The data I’ve seen on so-called small modular reactors show them to be dirtier and more costly per mega-Watt-hour than conventional nukes. We shall see: There are plans to build a dozen 77- MW NuScale reactors in eastern Idaho, for which the feds have already kicked in $1.5 billion. That project would come online in 2030 if approved.

  • Anthony Carbone

    Gary…
    Per your comments above, I believe you have confused burning hydrogen as a fuel in place of fossil fuels with fuel cell technology which chemically reacts hydrogen and oxygen to produce electric current. For example, hydrogen fuel cells are already in use in EV commercial vehicles in place of batteries, alternate sources of electric current to power these vehicles. I suggest you Google “hydrogen fuel cells” if you are interested in this emerging field of technology. My reference to “selective membrane technology” above is a longer term efficiency enhancement to fuel cells in operation today.
    Also, you must be reading different information on modular nuclear reactors than various reports I have seen in the WSJ and various other publications. Ken Ken Markey’s 11/14 comments above are very consistent with my understanding of where we are in the development cycle for this technology. I would also note that my former employer, DOW, Inc, is planning to build a modular nuclear reactor to supply all of its power requirements for a green field petrochemical complex in Canada. During DOW’s investor conference this past October, the CEO made a very compelling case for the economics of this carbon free energy source in this application. He also said that the permitting this plant in the US was a non-starter given long standing government and public prohibitions.

  • “Fuel” cells use an electrochemical process to oxidize (burn) hydrogen while a catalytic membrane filters off some electrons, leaving heat and water. To produce the hydrogen either by electrolysis or reforming hydrocarbons more energy is consumed than is produced in the end by the cell. In the process, hydrogen is not actually fuel but a carrier of energy with substantial losses at each conversion step. If only we can figure out how to sustain fusion, then we’re talking hydrogen fuel!

    My data on SMRs are from studies of the Vogtle AP1000 project in Georgia and the NuScale/Fluor project at INL. The cost projections and timelines for both projects have grown substantially recently. Design flaws in the NuScale “passive” cooling system may slow things even further.

    Some of the “natural” sequestration systems that Bill Reilly mentioned in his coffee-hour interview show promise: Mangroves have a prodigious appetite for carbon as do the fungi that have been stripped out of the soil through farm chemicals and overgrazing:
    https://www.voanews.com/a/hold-for-weekend—restoring-mexico-s-mangroves-can-shield-shores-store-carbon-/6301361.html
    “Can Soil Fungi Fight Climate Change?” by Michael P. Amaranthus and James M. Trappe, FUNGI, 14:4, Fall 2021.

  • william weber

    The recent article in the WSJ reviewed the various methods of electric production and it showed, as many of you have mentioned, that nuclear offers great promise for zero emissions but is currently hampered by cost and heavy handed NRC regulations. GM has stated that it will go 100% electric vehicles by 2035 and I see no coherent plans for providing the added power requirements to charge all these vehicles in the USA. And if things like Bitcoin mining continue, where is all the electricity coming from? Global warming, if it is real and continuing, will increase the demand for domestic A/C—then what? I guess the real question is whether an electric society is compatible with carbon/methane reduction, or at least inhibiting the growth in atmospheric conditions leading to climate change?

  • Anthony Carbone

    Gary…Three short comments that I hope will end our point -counterpoint, pen pal relationship and leave room for others to join the debate:
    1) I never claimed that fuel cell technology is a cost competitive replacement for fossil fuels at this point in time. Neither is unsubsidized solar, wind and battery technology at present. That is precisely the reason why I advocated a “Manhattan Project” approach on 11/16 to optimize this process.
    2) Likewise, modular nuclear reactors do not currently offer the same economics per unit of energy as mega reactor installations. Economies of scale I would assume. But they have several potential advantages as this technology matures such as design standardization, off-site fabrication to reduce capital costs, more coherent permitting and universal safety standards.
    3) I am not well informed on “natural sequestration systems” (mangroves and soil fungi). However, I am quite sure that my investment advisor would have an easier time getting my approval to put my 401-k funds into nuclear and fuel cell technology versus sequestration schemes, including atmospheric “seeding” which is included on this same wish list.

  • Steve Ripley

    Gary, hi,

    While we await SAGI’s reply, here’s a starter on your question relating to energy resources, advanced computing, and global climate change.

    Imagine two project timelines, overlain: Nuclear Fusion, and Global Climate Change. Both became public issues starting about the middle of the last century. Both require more research, as basic physics and applied engineering. Both have serious public-governance problems to be managed. If one uses 2050 as a tentative endpoint to ask where each development will be at that date we begin to get an idea of relative accomplishment and interaction. Overlaying developments in quantum computing adds to the usefulness of the timeline.

    Below is a useful review.

    Conservative ‘nuclear fusion by 2040’ pledge is fantasy – their record on climate change is too little, too late
    https://theconversation.com/conservative-nuclear-fusion-by-2040-pledge-is-fantasy-their-record-on-climate-change-is-too-little-too-late-124404

    Below are links to MIT, as one example, of an American university’s research on the problems. There are many other university departments with similar programs.

    Revisiting a quantum past for a fusion future Paul Rivenberg | Plasma Science and Fusion Center, June 23, 2021
    https://news.mit.edu/2021/revisiting-quantum-past-fusion-future-abhay-ram-0623
    Plasma Science & Fusion Center, MIT
    Basic plasma theory & simulation

    Below is a link to a discussion by Sabine Hossenfelder, plus a useful review on the same topic.

    How close is nuclear fusion power? & “Comments”
    Sabine Hossenfelder, Oct 2, 2021
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJ4W1g-6JiY
    https://www.powermag.com/fusion-energy-is-coming-and-maybe-sooner-than-you-think/

    Regards,
    Steve

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