Athena 4, Gaia 0

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From the start of the industrial revolution to the present day, many Green critics have decried the rise of technology. Gaia (Mother Earth) worshipers — Green neo-pagans — have viewed with alarm the dramatic rise in human flourishing, and the key determinant in this flourishing, which has been the development of plentiful energy. From the year 1800 to the year 2000, the world’s average per capita income rose tenfold (in real terms), while the world’s population rose sixfold, thanks to this productive and peaceful revolution. But the Gaia cult has resisted every step of the way.

During the past half century, the Gaia groupies have achieved tremendous political power in America and Europe. (They have yet not been able to dominate in Asia — one big reason Asia is so rapidly rising economically.) It is a struggle between those who embrace technological progress and those who reflexively and viscerally oppose it. The struggle can be viewed as a contest between Greek goddesses: Athena, goddess of wisdom and technology, is fighting Gaia, and Athena keeps winning — thank goddess!

Four recent reports of technological progress in energy production are worth noting. The first is about the fracking revolution, which I believe will be viewed by future historians as one of the major turning points in the evolving industrial age. It conveys the news that the largest American railroad, BNSF, is planning to test the use of natural gas as power for its locomotives. Currently, BNSF uses diesel fuel exclusively, and by its own estimates has the largest diesel-burning American fleet, second only to the US Navy.

It is not because but in spite of the neo-pagan policies of the Oval Office that we have the natural gas miracle.

The reason BNSF is considering the move is that because of the fracking revolution, natural gas is getting very cheap. Under current pricing, while a gallon of diesel fuel costs about $4, the same power can be produced for less than 50 cents worth of natural gas — though there are additional costs when you compress or liquefy it.

This is leading BNSF to follow other industries in moving toward natural gas. Utility companies are rapidly abandoning coal for gas, and manufacturers are moving toward it as well. Many municipal bus fleets have been using compressed natural gas (CNG) for years, and other commercial vehicle fleets (such as garbage trucks) are looking into switching to CNG. Already, tugboats are being fitted to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG). And long-haul freight companies are looking at LNG as well — in fact, Shell is planning to provide LNG in Ontario and Louisiana and distribute it at 200 truck stops.

The hurdle that BNSF faces is that it costs upwards of $1 million to retrofit a diesel locomotive to run on LNG as well, and BNSF has almost 7,000 locomotives to retrofit. So this conversion likely will take time, but given that the cost advantage of natural gas shows no sign of going away anytime soon, the conversion seems inevitable.

Lest anybody be addlepated enough to thank the current Green regime for this flourishing of clean, low-cost energy, let me disabuse him now. The crony-capitalist administration has placed all of its — oops! I mean, the taxpayers’ — money on solar and wind power, bankrolling numerous projects (headed by various Obama donors) that have gone nowhere but bankrupt. The EPA and the Department of the Interior have gone out of their way to stop drilling on federal lands. This is documented in a recent report from Marc Humphries of the Congressional Research Service. The report documents the fact that the fracking revolution has increased American natural gas production by 20% over the past five years alone — a total of 4 trillion additional cubic feet of natural gas pumped into the nation’s supply. But this overall increase hides a revealing disparity: while natural gas production on non-federal (mainly private) lands is up by 40% over this period, production on federal land has plummeted by 33%.

In short, it is not because but in spite of the neo-pagan policies of the Oval Office that we have the natural gas miracle.

But the miracle just might become even more miraculous. The second story about technological advances in energy production is a news release from the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals Corporation, which notes that it is preparing the first test of commercial production of natural gas from methane hydrate layers under the ocean. Essentially, methane hydrate is natural gas (methane) trapped in ice crystals along the ocean’s floor. This source of energy is estimated by some experts as potentially exceeding all of the world’s existing coal, natural gas, and petroleum reserves — combined! Developing the resource will be tricky, given the instability of the layers that have to be processed, but then, the minds of self-interested creative individuals are tricky as well.

The third technological development in energy production worth noting is the advent of a new type of nuclear (fission) reactor.

Nuclear power, of course, can’t get no respect from nobody. Despite its exemplary safety record in the US and other advanced economies (which always excluded, of course, the Soviet Union), people fear it. These fears were only intensified two years ago when a Japanese earthquake led to the destruction of four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Actually, the quake — a massive magnitude 9.0 one that moved Japan’s main island eight feet to the east and shifted the Earth’s axis by six inches — didn’t destroy the reactors. They were ruined by the tsunami it generated (a tidal wave that destroyed 300,000 buildings and killed 20,000 people). Despite the fact that the reactors’ disaster killed nobody, sickened nobody, and is likely to cause few health problems in the future, organized pressure led to the shutdown of the country’s 53 other reactors. These reactors jointly produced 30% of the country’s electric power. As a consequence, last year Japan ran a record deficit ($78 billion) because it had to import more energy, increasing the cost of its manufactured goods, and reducing exports accordingly.

But nuclear power is by no means dead. There is a new company, Transatomic Power, that is perfecting a design for a molten-salt reactor — a design that may well cut in half the cost of future nuclear reactors. It is the high cost of building reactors, especially in the face of the dramatically dropping price of electricity from natural gas plants, along with the Green Regime’s preference for solar and wind power, that has been holding up the expansion of nuclear power in the US over the past few years. But this new reactor will probably reignite that expansion.

Molten-salt reactors were explored as long ago as the 1960s in the Oak Ridge Lab, but the design now being worked on would produce 20 times the power for the same size reactor. It would allow reactors smaller than the 1,000 megawatt behemoths currently running. Besides the smaller footprint, the reactor under design would save money because it could be factory-built (as opposed to being custom-built on site).

Its chief advantage, though, would be the use of molten-salt rather than water as a coolant. Water is the coolant used in all present reactors. The problem with water is that it boils at 100o C, whereas the fuel pellets in the core operate at about 2,000o C. So in the event of an emergency shutdown, unless water can be continuously pumped over the core to cool it, the water will vaporize and the core will melt down (as one did at Fukushima).

But the salt, which is combined with the fuel, has a boiling point much higher than 2,000o C. So if the reactor core starts to overheat, the salt will expand but not evaporate, separating the pellets and thus slowing the core reaction. In a complete shutdown, a stopper at the bottom of the core container would melt, and the molten fuel and salt would flow into a holding container, where the salt would solidify and encapsulate the fuel.

If global warming is real — as all good, pious Gaia supplicants believe — then it’s either nukes or solar and wind power, and the latter is clearly not economically viable.

The clever pups behind this innovative design are the cofounders of Transatomic Power, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, who are still only Ph.D. candidates at MIT. These two are Schumpeterian entrepreneurs of the best sort. America is lucky to have them, as the Chinese are also working on a similar design.

This all comes at a crucial time for nuclear power. For as a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, the fracking revolution has lowered natural gas prices so much that gas powered electrical plants are driving both coal-fired plants and many nuclear plants (especially the smaller ones, and the ones facing expensive repairs) out of deregulated markets.

For examples, Excelon has announced that it will soon close its Oyster Creek, New Jersey nuke, ten years before its license expires. And Dominion Energy has announced that it will soon close its Kewaunee, Wisconsin nuke, a full 20 years before its operating license expires.

Pricing makes the reason for this clear. The fixed costs to run a nuke are $90,000 per megawatt; the fixed costs for coal fired plants are $30,000; for natural gas fired plants, only $15,000. And, of course, existing nukes require intensive security and safety costs, precisely because of the risk of meltdown. In the first 11 months of 2012, natural gas plant output rose by 24%, while the output for nuclear powered plants dropped by 2.5%.

This all presents an interesting dilemma for the Gaia communicants. As natural gas prices continue low, gas will, absent extensive subsidies or other protection for other forms of energy, supplant nuclear power. Now, natural gas emits just half the carbon that coal does, but nuclear plants emit none. So if global warming is a hoax, we could easily go all natural gas. But if global warming is real — as all good, pious Gaia supplicants believe — then it’s either nukes or solar and wind power, and the latter is clearly not economically viable. All this is clear except to the blindest Gaia devotees (and the greediest Green crony capitalists).

And indeed, there has been an interesting schism in the Green faith. In a recent piece, the excellent science writer Robert Bryce calls this “the rise of the nuclear Greens.” He notes that an increasing number of Gaia votaries now support nuclear power. One prominent convert is British environmental activist George Monbiot, who has now admitted — belatedly, to understate it massively — that solar energy (in the UK, and by extension everywhere else) is “a spectacular waste of scarce resources,” and that wind power is “largely worthless.” Referring to the Fukushima disaster, he concludes, “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

Wow.

Monbiot now joins other Gaia disciples Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Mark Lynas, James Lovelock, and Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) in favoring nuclear power. This is nauseatingly ironic: it was the environmentalist zealots who stopped the growth of nuclear power 40 years ago. But the pro-nuke Gaia devotees are still a distinct minority. Most of the cult still lights candles in front of wind and solar power.

The fourth interesting development concerns an energy source that has been tantalizing but elusive for many decades: fusion power.

A news report out of Europe indicates that an important international project is moving forward. The “Iter” (Latin for “the way”) project is a collaboration of 34 nations working on building a pilot fusion nuclear reactor. Nuclear fusion is, of course, what powers the sun and other stars. In principle, it offers a chance to provide virtually unlimited supplies of reliable, consistent energy at the levels needed to power an industrial economy. And it would provide that power from clean, nontoxic fuel (extracted from water), with no possibility of any kind of core meltdown.

The new Iter experimental reactor has received an operating license. It is projected to be the first fusion reactor (“tokamak”) to generate more power than it uses — ten times more, in fact. The Iter design would serve as the prototype for the first generation of commercial fusion power plants.

The foundations for the reactor are now being laid, but the work of putting together the million or so components (made at factories all over the world) will take a long time. The tentative date for firing it up is about 15 years in the future — though with a project of this enormity, it will probably be longer. And it has cost about $20 billion. However, it signals that by the second half of this century, commercial fusion power will be a reality.

That would be nothing less than the crowning achievement of the industrial revolution. It would be the human mind harnessing the power of the stars to secure permanent prosperity for our species.

In spite of the Gaia cult, Athena is ascendant.




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Bob Robertson

You might like this Tech Talk, "Should Google Go Nuclear?"
www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk6z1vP4Eo8

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