Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Energy Disasters

   I want to talk about energy, the environment, fear and morality.  I'm not going to talk about global warming and whether or not it's real or caused by humans, because it doesn't matter.  What matters is that i don't want to live in a world where i can't drink the air or breathe the water.  Or something like that.  Trees are pretty neat, too.
  Because i work in architecture, energy is something i think about quite a lot.  If you take a look at this graph posted by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, it's easy to see why energy use is a major concern for architects.
   Never mind cars or manufacturing plants -- those buildings you live and work in are drawing down more energy than either of those.  Now, there are some noble endeavors taking place in the domain of reducing our energy needs, such as LEED and Green Globes.  The US Green Building Council, which oversees LEED, boasts that over 10,000 homes in the US are now LEED certified.  That's nice, but according to the American Housing Survey of the US Census there are over 128 MILLION housing units, so that doesn't make for a very good percentage.  No matter what the adoption rate of sustainable practices though, it seems unlikely that our energy demands are going to shrink.  Ever.
   Things look even bleaker in the Industrial sector as pressures mount to weaken the ability of the EPA to enforce penalties on businesses who flout the environmental restrictions on pollution.  Loosening restrictions might decrease manufacturing costs, and maybe if they're richer they'll expand and hire more, but it will definitely increase pollution.  If these businesses were capable of responsible self-regulation we wouldn't have all the restrictive, knee-jerk legislation they're complaining about in the first place, because it would never have been necessary to write.  Pollution and energy are only somewhat related, but the point is that the industrial sector isn't going to solve this problem internally.
   In the transportation sector there's a little bit of sunshine now that car companies are realizing that consumers want more fuel efficient cars, but as with housing, the percentage of efficient cars and the colossal, growing quantity of vehicles on the road trumps any gains from efficiency.  Switching to electric may provide a slight respite, but at our current rate it's about 21-58% in greenhouse gas emissions better than gasoline, as calculated by The Energy Blog.  The remaining 42-79% is coming from the power plants that provide electricity to the car...and your house.
   Compounding the problem, developing nations face an impossible choice between following sustainable practices (and being left behind the industrialized world, who polluted for decades) or callously polluting (and having sanctions imposed on them through the World Trade Organization and others).
   So if our energy demands in buildings are going to consistently increase, and the next best alternative to gasoline in cars also increases our energy demand, what about those power plants that are providing the energy?  Here's a bit of a confusing graph, but i'll do my best to simplify it.
   On the left we've got sources of energy, and on the right the sector for which the energy is used.  The numbers along the lines on the left indicate what percent of that source is being used in a particular sector -- for example, Petroleum, which accounts for 37% of all energy use in the United States, is primarily used for transportation.  To be specific, 72% of all petroleum goes to transportation uses.  This accounts for 94% of all transportation energy.  So that i can use consistent units of measurement throughout this analysis, let's convert the 94.6 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units) to terawatt-hours: 27,724 TWh.
   I want to focus on electric power and residential and commercial sectors.  The R&C energy demands are provided mostly through natural gas.  Recently we've discovered that we have an enormous amount of natural gas in the United States, so that's unlikely to change.  There are all sorts of controversial issues surrounding the safety of extracting it, but i'll leave those discussions to the experts and courts.  We're going to use a much higher f/stop for this topic so that we don't fall into the trap of missing the forest for the trees.
   Electric power, on the other hand, is provided by a number of sources, coal foremost among them.  That's not ideal, because we know that fossil fuels aren't particularly good for the environment.  People are scared of nuclear (we'll come back to this), so that leaves "Renewables", a category which includes wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric.  There is a fascinating article by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi which outlines a world where energy needs are entirely met with the use of renewables, but for various reasons i find their report to be somewhat fantastical (the scale of the project, primarily).
   Nuclear power would be far easier to implement, if the political will were present.  Perhaps it's not, and this is similarly wishful thinking, but unless we harness some as-yet-undiscovered source of energy in the near future, these are the only two acceptable solutions.
   But people are afraid of nuclear energy.
   Here's why you shouldn't be.  Here's a graph to bring home the point.
   That nuclear figure includes Chernobyl and the recent Fukushima Daichi disaster.  There are one MILLION deaths per year due to the coal power industry, which includes mining and air pollution deaths.  In contrast, there are only 104 deaths per year (averaged) due to nuclear power.  Building more nuclear power plants would increase the total number of deaths per year due to nuclear power, but would drastically lower the total number of deaths per year due to energy production.  One of the ironic consequences of the Fukushima disaster is that countries which had plans to build more nuclear power plants have decided to stall construction of those facilities, which has the effect of keeping older, less safe nuclear power plants in operation.  If there's one thing i learned from SimCity, it's that it's a bad idea to run a nuclear power plant longer than its lifespan.  Incidentally, the Fukushima Daichi reactors were days from a likely shutdown (due to age) when the tsunami hit.  Thus far, there has been 1 death attributable to radiation from Fukushima.\
   Opponents of nuclear energy like to say things like "nuclear power is safe...unless there's a disaster".  Well, how many disasters until it would be comparable to coal power?  Let's measure it in units of Chernobyl disasters.  Estimates for deaths from Chernobyl range anywhere from 31 (JUST thirty-one) to 1.4 million, which is a pretty ridiculous range.  For the sake of argument, let's take the worst estimate: 1,400,000 deaths.  We would need to have a Chernobyl scale disaster every year and a half (16.8 months) just to match coal alone.  Chernobyl happened 24 years ago, to a nuclear power plant built with 1970's technology.  Do you know what else was built in 1977?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
  The Apple II.  Now look at the computer or smartphone you're using now.  We've come a long way, haven't we?
   If you still think nuclear power is unsafe -- compared to what?  Let me show you a list of things people are likely to die from: choose one.  Neither nuclear power nor radiation show up.  
   But what about nuclear waste?  That's an environmental issue too, right?  Well, no.  If there were political will to build nuclear reactors, we could invest in breeder reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor, which can use waste fuel from other nuclear reactors as fuel, and which produces waste fuel itself which is radioactive for orders of magnitude less time than current waste.
   Our fear of nuclear power is causing nearly 1.4 million deaths per year.  It's dirtying our air and acidifying our oceans.

   It's time to stop being afraid.


  1. Also if we DO have a complete awful meltdown apocalypse, we get to play Darwin's World all the time!

  2. Very convincing argument for nuclear power. I enjoy your style of writing and your examples are very poignant.