Notes from Canada: Nuclear – Power or Folly?

Is nuclear truly the best choice for Canada's future energy needs? Photo: © tomas - Fotolia.com

Canada, like the US (and other nations), is presented with a dilemma: How to handle ever-increasing energy needs while decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. One leading plan is to develop new nuclear power plants. But why, asks Green Party member Bob Halstead, aren’t we thinking about renewable energy instead? A very good question, indeed — and one we should consider carefully on both sides of our shared border.

Halstead is a retired educator and active writer who posts thoughtful essays on environmental, social, and political topics on his Facebook page, Paradigm Shift. Blue Planet Green Living is pleased that he has agreed to share his environmental essays with our readers. This is the first in a series. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


I just watched “My Nuclear Neighbour: The Nature of Things” with David Suzuki, a documentary about building a plant to generate nuclear power in the rural community of Peace River, Alberta. The key point never raised is that wind and solar power will generate more electricity for the same investment in dollars with none of the same investment in angst and risk, a point that Obama also recently missed.

I know that the organisations that most strongly oppose nuclear power in Ontario and Saskatchewan make the same point: investment in new nuclear facility is not wise according to traditional economic theory, even without mention of the long-term effect on widespread earthly ecology or human health.

Originally, it was Jim Harris who brought these arguments to my attention: He did it in more detail. Jim’s points to me were roughly as follows:

1. To build a nuclear power plant required more investment.

(a) To build the enormous concrete structure would take more time, possibly 15 years, and this would use a lot of energy, long before the plant would produce any energy. This would require current coal-fuelled facility to operate more actively for much longer. If we put the same time and money into truly green facility, the coal-generating facility would close much sooner.

(b) The labour to build the enormous concrete structure and other detail would require a rather large work force in one location, boosting the economy of a small part of the country. If we put the same time and money into truly green facility, people all over the country would benefit from the economic stimulus of local activity.

2. To operate a nuclear power plant requires investment in many highly trained people with a very specific knowledge in nuclear engineering. In comparison, a typical farmer or property owner could operate a truly green facility without expensive full-time professional help.

"After a nuclear power plant closes, the land used would have an unlimited future as a toxic wasteland..." Photo: © Clivia - Fotolia.com

3. After a nuclear power plant closes, the land used would have an unlimited future as a toxic wasteland and the structure would be entombed in concrete. Neither structure nor surrounding land would have positive future value, both become a liability. Most likely, the land would have been productive farmland before the nuclear plant was built, as is the present case in Peace River, but it will be dangerous and useless forevermore after 70 years.

4. The design of a nuclear power plant cannot be changed significantly after government approves construction. No matter how the science advances, the plant design stays the same over the 5 years before it is approved, plus the 15 years during which it is built, plus the 50 years that it operates before closing. As sustainable power facility ages and then is repaired or replaced, it will benefit from the better technology that humanity will have acquired by then, becoming more productive.

It is when these points are evaluated for their economic impact using traditional economic theory that the investment in nuclear energy is obviously inferior to investment in truly green facility.

None of these points requires an assumption based on research that humanity has not yet done.

The pro-nuclear lobby argues the following:

1. New nuclear power is needed to bridge the gap between now and when we can rely on truly green facility. Point 1(a) above denies this claim.

2. They put forward scientifically unproven claims as positives:

(a) a little exposure to radioactivity actually improves human health;

(b) radioactive nuclear waste will have a future use as a source of more energy; and

(c) in the future we will have feasible ways of storing the most radioactively toxic matter on the planet (even though no biological life form has ever adapted to it).

Each of these potential positives is as likely to be a negative when the uncompromised, “peer-reviewed” science is in, or when the future has arrived.

Of course, we cannot wish away the nuclear “fear factor”. How remote is the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear accident? As long as it is a possibility, it is only a matter of time.

Bob Halstead

Paradigm Shift

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

This post originally appeared on Facebook and is reprinted by permission of the author. British spellings and punctuation have been retained.

Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy Resources

Wind power is a resource that Iowa  farmers and landowners should be able to control. Photo: © Jose Ignacio Soto - Fotolia.com

Wind power is a resource that Iowa farmers and landowners should be able to control. Photo: © Jose Ignacio Soto - Fotolia.com

In the first part of our conversation with Francis Thicke, Ph.D., candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in the 2010 election, we discussed the use of perennial crops as biofuels, using a process called pyrolysis. In this part of our discussion, Thicke talks about increasing biodiversity and farm-based power generation.

Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) and his wife are organic dairy farmers who live near Fairfield, Iowa. Thicke is a respected agricultural scientist, who has testified twice before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in Washington, D.C.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) has officially endorsed Dr. Thicke’s candidacy. In this series of conversations, we present his views not only for Iowans, but also for others to consider wherever you live; in our view, Thicke’s vision for sustainable agriculture and renewable energy transcends borders. — Publisher


BPGL: One of the growing “crops” in Iowa, if you want to call it that, is the wind turbines that are popping up on a lot of farms. It’s great to see the use of renewable energy for all of us. We certainly need to reduce our carbon footprint wherever possible. Is this also good for Iowa farmers as part of their business model?

THICKE: I would like to see wind energy development become more targeted toward systems that profit farmers, landowners, and rural communities. Currently, we have quite a few large wind farms in Iowa. One study shows we now have the capacity to produce about 15% of our electrical energy needs with wind in Iowa. It is very good that we have developed so much wind power capacity, but we should look at how ownership of wind energy production is structured, and who profits from it.

 

A lot of Iowa’s large wind farms are owned by out-of-state companies, and much of the energy they produce goes out of the state as well. So if you stand back and look at it from a broader perspective, what we’re doing is allowing Iowa’s wind resources — and profits from them — to be extracted from Iowa. Farmers and local communities are not profiting as much as they could be. Wind is a resource, much like oil wells and mineral mines, except that it does not become exhausted over time. We should look to how Iowa’s wind resources can be used to better benefit Iowa farmers, landowners, and communities.

Thicke and his wife own and operate Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Thicke, shown with one of the pampered cows he and his wife raise at Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

BPGL: How are farmers and landowners compensated for the wind turbines on their land?

THICKE: A large wind turbine might produce $300,000 worth of electricity in a year. And when it’s put on a farmer’s land, the rent that the farmer gets is about 1 percent of that. I’m not saying that the rental rates are not reasonable. What I am saying is that we should look for ways to increase local ownership of wind power generation so more of the income remains local.

What if we were to provide incentives for farmers and landowners to put up mid-sized wind turbines all across Iowa? That would allow farmers, landowners, and rural communities to reap greater economic benefits from wind energy.

BPGL: What would such incentives look like? Are there existing models?

THICKE: There are innovative ways to incentivize new wind power installations. In Europe — and some U.S. states are also adopting this model — it is done through a system called feed-in tariffs. There are various ways to structure them, but feed-in tariffs turn out to be a win-win situation for landowners and electric power companies.

The way feed-in tariffs work is that power companies are initially required to pay a high rate of return for power from new, privately owned wind turbines. For example, rates may be as high as 20 cents per kWh for the first five years. That allows a farmer or landowner to pay for the capital investment in the wind turbine through a higher initial rate of return on investment.

After that initial period, after the wind turbine is capitalized, the price that is paid drops down to the wholesale level, for example, 3.5 cents per kWh. Then the power company gets green energy for a low price for the life of the wind generator. So, it is a win-win situation for farmers and power companies.

Francis Thicke, testifying before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in Washington, D.C. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Francis Thicke, testifying before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee in Washington, D.C. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

If we had wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, farmers would not only be able to power their farms without high electrical bills, but they would also be able to sell the excess electricity produced, adding to farm profitability and rural economic development.

There are other advantages to distributed wind power generation. If wind turbines are spread across the state, as weather fronts move across the state, energy production is more constant than when wind turbines are concentrated in one area. Also, with distributed production, locally produced electricity is used locally, because demand is also distributed across the state. That reduces the need for constructing large distribution power lines, and reduces the loss of energy through long-distance transmission.

BPGL: What would it take to get more funding for farmers to have their own wind turbines? There are a lot of designs for small wind turbines and solar voltaic collectors that generate smaller amounts of kilowatts, but how can farmers and inventors get funding to get started?

THICKE: We could do it through a combination of tax credits and feed-in tariffs. Feed-in tariffs do not require direct state or taxpayer investments. However, they do require some up-front investments by power companies, which will be reflected in electrical rates. But up-front capital investments are required for any new generating capacity, such as coal or nuclear power plants. The feed-in tariff model could help wind turbines proliferate rapidly.

Solar power investments could also be funded through feed-in tariffs and tax incentives. Solar electricity generation is more expensive than wind, but solar voltaic technology is improving rapidly and may have a bright future here in Iowa.  Solar hot water heating is one type of solar energy system that provides a fast payback of required capital investments, and is something we should be widely utilizing here in Iowa.

Of course, one big advantage of wind and solar power applications is that they utilize energy sources that are truly renewable, inexhaustible, and nonpolluting. It makes good sense for Iowa to invest in these kinds of energy systems.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy (Top of Page)

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future

“We Can Get Completely Off Oil in 15 Years”

January 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Books, Electric Cars, Events, Front Page, Oil, Slideshow, Solar, Wind

Jeff Wilson has a plan: “We can free the United States of its dependency on oil, not just foreign oil, in 15 years.”

Yeah, sure. This guy’s dreaming. I thought, as I began to read his book, The Manhattan Project 2009. I’ve heard pie-in-the-sky schemes before.

Then I read his book, and I was convinced. My next thoughts were, Everybody needs to read this book. It’s all here, in a step-by-step program. He’s even written legislative proposals for congressmen. It’s all here, and it is possible. I wanted to talk to this guy.

So, Julia and I called him. We caught up with him in his office near Minneapolis.

BPGL: In 2008, you authored The Manhattan Project 2009, which describes a step-by-step process for the U.S. to escape our dependence on oil. How did you get interested in this topic?

WILSON: I’ve always had an interest in energy-related topics. I have degrees in physics, math, and electrical engineering.

1600 computer batteries power the Tesla.

6,800 lithium ion battery cells power the Tesla electric car. It can go 200 miles on a single charge and accelerate from 0 to 60 in four seconds.

I wanted to know the real situation with oil and our real possibilities for moving into alternative energy. There’s no consistent story about our oil use. Our government doesn’t have a consistent story; the media doesn’t have a consistent story. I delved into the research to answer the question for myself. What I found was so interesting that I felt compelled to share it.

I don’t see myself as a natural writer. My only virtue is that I have no patience for anything other than people getting straight to the point.

BPGL: How did you come up with the title?

WILSON: “The Manhattan Project” is a term I heard bubbling up here and there in the discussion about energy. The general public is way ahead of our federal government. The people know we need to get something done and are working to get to it. State and local governments are working toward it.

Every once in a while in America, we have something really important come up for which we need action right now, no ifs, ands, or butts. In the Manhattan Project and the Apollo missions, we stepped up to the plate and accomplished the impossible in a very short time. That’s what needs to happen now.

BPGL: How are we going to pay to create the infrastructure necessary to recharge electric cars?

The Chevy Volt. Photo: (c) General Motors

The Chevy Volt, an electric car of the future. Photo: (c) General Motors

WILSON: In the book, I propose government subsidies to promote the manufacture and purchase of electric cars. This will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But keep in mind that, in 2008, we spent at least a trillion dollars more for the oil we used (including the price of oil and the cost of protecting our oil interests) than we did in 1998, just 10 years before. And we aren’t using substantially more oil now than we did then. The cost of using oil kept rising. It has become so hideously expensive that we can afford to make a very major investment in getting ourselves off of oil and still come out ahead financially.

BPGL: You’re working against a number of huge lobbying entities — the internal combustion auto industry, oil companies. How will you combat that?

WILSON: I see the move toward the electric car, in particular, and alternative energy, in general, moving much faster than I anticipated. And it’s gaining momentum quickly.

A couple of entrepreneurs started a business software company. They sold out to SAP software, and walked away with $400 million. One of them, Shai Agassi, says he realized then that he had enough money. He asked himself, What can I do with the rest of my life? He settled on a cause: getting us off of fossil fuels. So, he started a company called Better Place. Its main focus is how to most efficiently move the world to electric cars.

To do this, we need to put a number of things in place, most particularly, the infrastructure. This means we need charging stations everywhere: at businesses for their employees, in shopping centers for customers, and at home. He’s also working with car companies Nissan and Renault to help design the necessary support systems.

Better Place’s first client was Israel, a country that feels much more threatened by dependency on foreign oil than we do.

Its second customer was Denmark. By the end of 2007, Denmark was getting 20 percent of its electricity supplied by wind. Their problem was that they had so much wind energy installed, if it was blowing during a period of low demand, such as at night, they had far more electricity than they had customers to buy it. They were giving up some return on investment on their wind generators because they had too much energy. They saw electric cars as an opportunity to use the electricity during non-peak hours, nighttime. Everyone wins.

Better Place’s third customers were the cities San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. They all made commitments to make the Bay Area compatible to electric cars. They are planning to spend up to $1 billion to construct charging stations in the next few years

Better Place has now signed contracts with the state of Hawaii as well as a large electric company in Australia. There is a list of other pending contracts, too. Their business is exploding. And all this is happening without governmental support or, rather, in spite of it.

Small wind installations will change the way the grid works.

Small wind installations will change the way the grid works.

I see Better Place as the next Microsoft. The big companies of the late 1900s related to computers. In the new century, alternative energy and electric cars will be the boom industries. Better Place is growing so fast, I’m not sure how they’ll keep up with it.

BPGL: Does your book deal with anything about home energy use?

WILSON:  No, not really. Home energy use is not so dependent on oil. Heat and electricity for homes come mostly from natural gas, uranium, and coal, and we have at least 20 years before those supplies will get tight.

My book is different from most green-related books on the market. Mine focuses on oil and getting us off oil. Seventy percent of oil in the US is imported. Worldwide, we’re using oil at two times the rate at which we’re discovering new oil. But here in the United States, we’re using oil at four times the rate at which we’re discovering new domestic oil. The oil supplies are tight and getting tighter. We have an immediate crisis with oil.

BPGL: We’re looking at a huge paradigm change. The people are changing much faster than the government does. How can we push the government?

Solar installations supplement power in many states.

Solar installations supplement power in many states. This installation has been working for 20 years.

WILSON: The other point that drove the title and format of the book is that I not only saw the general populace ahead of the government, I saw them concluding that nothing will happen with the federal government before the current administration is out. Everybody is hoping that something major will happen with the new administration.

In the book, I provided all the information needed to create a proposed energy policy. In fact, the second chapter is a proposed legislative agenda of bills that need to be passed daily, as soon as the new president takes office.

BPGL: Who is helping you push this?

WILSON: I’ve sent the book to Shai Agassi, to my governor, and to mayors in cities in California, who are pushing electric cars. I’ve done radio interviews and articles on a few websites. I’m hoping for that big break, but don’t know where that might come from.

BPGL: Where do you see home energy use in the future?

WILSON: I mention this in the book, in my legislative proposal for the Smart Grid. In every backyard, you’ll have a 100 kW battery buried there, which can run an average house for three days. The Smart Grid will solve the problem that we currently have with intermittent energy from wind and solar. We need a way to even out the general electrical demand. Ultimately, that means storage at individual homes.

This is how I see the future: At your home, you’ll generate whatever electricity you can with solar panels. You’ll have an Internet connection between your battery charger, an energy controller, and the electric company. You’ll be able to get the price of a kW at any given moment. Then you can buy when it’s low, and sell to the grid when the price is high. In some cases, you might make money. In the big scheme, it evens out the electrical demand for the grid, and makes it so you run your home on the lowest price of electricity.

BPGL: I see giving the public access to the grid info as counter-intuitive to the way the current power companies see the grid. They see it as “their grid.” They don’t want the public to know the price at which they buy and sell electric power. Won’t that be difficult for them to approve?

WILSON: The only interface between the electric company and the general public will be, “What’s the price at any given moment?” They’ll change the price up and down with supply and demand.

Today, the electric companies are the power generators, but over the next 20 years, they’ll shift to simply being power brokers.

BPGL:  They have to start improving the grid now.

Wind farms provide 7 to 8 percent of the energy in Iowa and Minnesota.

Independent wind farms contribute more than half the power of XCEL Energy.

WILSON: We’re moving from 500 and 1,000 MW power plants, to 10 MW wind farms. Instead of a few huge generators, you’ll have a large number of small generators.

Look at XCEL Energy, one of the biggest power suppliers. More than half of the wind energy that they bring on line, they purchase from independent wind farmers. Power companies will have to switch to purchasing power from independent generators.

Just in the last few days, I read about Xcel Energy’s experiment with a 7 MW-hour battery at a wind farm. That would supply about 200 homes with a full day of electricity. They are installing it and starting to play with it. Right now, the batteries are too expensive to be practical, but they’re getting ahead of the curve. The ones they’re using (sodium/sulfur), are about the size of two semi trailers.

Indianapolis Power and Light is experimenting with a 1 MW lithium battery for dealing with peak handling.

Minnesota and Iowa are the two biggest states for in-state wind generation. Both get 7% of their in-state generated power from wind. That’s developing into a healthy competition.

BPGL: We’ve been reading about car companies doing research on lithium and problems with the electrical flow. When you have that much power in a small space, there is risk.

WILSON: Altair Nanotechnologies makes a battery that, in my mind, is way ahead of all the others. They got rid of the polymer electrolytes that have been in most lithium batteries. Their battery is unusually safe. They’ve shot a bullet into it, dropped it till it bursts, and nothing happens. The brand name is Nanosafe.

The Nanosafe battery can do 10,000 or 12,000 discharge cycles — which is 10 times as much as a typical lithium battery — before it starts to get weak. And, it can be charged quickly.

The Phoenix uses

This Phoenix can be fully charged in 10 minutes.

The first electric car being made with it is from Phoenix Motorcars in San Bernardino, California. It can be charged in as little as 10 minutes. There will be a problem getting that much power from the electric company for 10 minutes, but at least the car and battery have that ability. In fact, Altair claims its batteries can be charged to 80% in 60 seconds. It’s a game-changer in battery technologies.

This kind of battery technology makes long-distance travel possible. The first-generation Phoenix cars go 120 miles on a charge. The second-generation goes 250 miles. You can charge it in 10 minutes, then go another 250 miles. Now, you’ve answered the problem of long distance travel with the electric car.

I see a number of companies advancing in technology so fast that it’s mind boggling to me. A couple of other battery companies are being forced down that path. Warren Buffett just bought 10% of BYD in China for a quarter of a billion dollars. They’ve started shipping an electric car. Their battery can quick-charge in 30 minutes. This one came out of nowhere. Warren Buffet called that one correctly. They’re taking on the world. They can go 100 km without recharging.

Another quick-charge battery is the one in the Subaru test car. It charges 80% in 15 minutes. I’m not sure who supplies their batteries.

Do you see my earlier point? I’m surprised at how quickly this stuff is moving even with our government standing in the way.

BPGL: So, the conclusion here is that your legislation is key?

WILSON: Yes. I guess the point I was making was, it’s moving surprisingly fast without the legislation, but let’s get the legislation in place and go full force.

BPGL: With bailouts from our government for the automakers, wouldn’t this be a good time to force them to change their behavior with your legislation?

WILSON: I see the current issue of the Big 3 as being more an issue of survival. They had their chance a few years ago with the General Motors EV-1 that they were shipping into California. They let that drop. Really, whether most of the Big 3 stays in business or not doesn’t have much bearing on the advancement of this technology.

In my book, I propose providing subsidies directly to the consumer to purchase electric cars. Let the customer decide who’s offering the best products. There are plenty of other companies who will step up to the plate.

The cool thing about green collar jobs is, we’re not just making an excuse to give someone a paycheck. These paychecks will be paid back many times over with the money we save on energy.

BPGL: What do you plan to write in the future?

WILSON: I can’t say that I see that far ahead. What I have in mind is to do frequent updates to the book. I’ll put out a new addition about every six months.

BPGL: How long did it take you to write the book?

WILSON: My first book was How Much Energy Does My Car Use? I finished that one in April or May of 2008. That’s when I decided to write the second book. I submitted the finished manuscript around Labor Day.

It was a labor of love. I love this technology. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed running the numbers on this stuff. I get real excited about it. We’re about to move into a very interesting future.

BPGL: One last question. If you could speak directly to Mr. Obama, what would you say?

WILSON: Our government showed us a couple months ago that, if they consider something to be important and urgent, they can come up with a trillion dollars over a weekend.

The fact that it’s a trillion isn’t a shame. But the trillion should go into something that will pay back big. If you put a trillion dollars into converting to alternative energy, that would have huge payback for us, our children, and our grandchildren.

BPGL: Anything else?

WILSON: The bad news is that the oil supply is an immediate crisis. The good news is that we can get completely off oil in 15 years, if we make the commitment. We can move ourselves into a new world with a never-ending supply of cheap, clean energy.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)