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« Intelligence May Emerge | Main | Systems of Action »

June 26, 2005


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Jack Uldrich


You raise an excellent point -- and I encourage you submit your piece to some other newsletters so it gets greater exposure.


P.S. I'm in agreement with your basic premise. I'm convinced nanotechnology will radically alter the economics of sustainable energy (sooner rather than later) and render this whole issue over Unocal obsolete.

Tom Craver

Neither choice is good, so I'd spend my 10 minutes on alternatives. I'd treat this as an opportunity to show China we are willing to stick by free trade principles, but more importantly, an opportunity to ween the US off foreign oil and work on energy independence.

The right thing for the US to be doing is shifting to nuclear power, probably applied to coal gasification to take advantage of our large supply of coal, while producing fuels with lower net CO2 (natural gas for power plants, ethanol for cars).

The simplest approach would be for the US government to remove dis-incentives, provide some incentives commensurate with the security benefits, and get out of the way of the market. Real world politics probably require a more complex approach, however.

Possibly require that the funds from selling UNOCOL be invested into energy independence - with some suitable incentives to make that worthwhile to the investors. This is simply an opportunistic way to bootstrap a big investment into energy independence. Maybe set it up as a windfall that the investors will be eager to exploit.

To get around the NIMBY phenomenon, at least on a national scale, require every state to be contributing 5GW of nuclear power by 2015, and 20GW by 2030. (2.5x and 10x current levels.) Combining this with the UNOCOL deal, give the UNOCOL investors the first right of refusal on all those projects - they get richer ONLY if they rapidly exploit the opportunities by getting nuclear power projects underway.

Fund any R&D needed to settle on a few next generation plant designs. Probably guarantee a good price for the energy from the plants - any subsidy will be cheaper than another Iraq, let alone a war with China over energy.

Get the environmentalists on board and let them pick the sites in every state. Give them a deadline of 18 months to select 3 to 5 viable alternative sites - or lose the chance to pick. Allow states to pay other states to provide sites for their "contribution", if they would rather pay to give up the new tax revenues just to avoid the political hassles.

jim moore

It will take you ~10 years to build your first nuclear power plant, in that same amount of time we could have been rapidly improving our energy efficiency and building large numbers of windmills, and batteries, put up large areas of photovoltaics. This type of technical development would also have the advantage being much more useful to the rest of the world. Much of the worlds population lacks access to an electrical infrastructure.

So please don't shove nuclear power on me when there are cheeper, safer (in terms of nuclear materials), faster, and more marketable ways of dealing with our energy problem

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom--with all the reel-to-reel solar cells out of cheap nanomaterials being talked about recently, why do you still think nuclear is better?

And how could the Federal government compel states to accept nuke plants? Threaten their highway funds? And who would dare to vote for it? Look at all the political problems Yucca Mountain has caused, and that's just one site. Solar, by contrast, wouldn't be opposed.

I like the guaranteed subsidy idea, though. It's probably true that it would cost less than fighting. While we're on the topic, I'll mention an idea that I'd really like to see implemented--a war tax: 5% of all money spent on the military or wars must be used for some anti-poverty or anti-misery purpose in developing nations.


Tom Craver

Jim - I do think 10 years are required to get the first plants up - so we do need to do many plants in parallel.

If wind is adequate, I'll be perfectly happy to use that as an energy independence alternative to oil. And it might in some ways be a more secure approach - more units, scattered widely, would be less vulnerable to attack, and there's at least some potential that locals could repair them if damaged.

However, the concentrated nature of nuclear makes it appear better suited to fuel production, to replace oil. To match the 1000GW I'm proposing, 1 million wind turbines would be spread over about 167,000sq-km (6, 1MW avg towers per sq-km). Vs maybe 1600sq-km for 100, 4sq-km nuclear power/fuel production sites, each with a generous 1km deep buffer zone around it. To match that, the electricity from 16700sq-km of wind turbines would have to be concentrated. And that's before factoring in transmission losses, and fuel production efficiency losses, which might double the total area of wind required. (For nuclear, I'm assuming the energy losses for producing fuel would be roughly the same as for producing electricity, and so are already factored into calling it 1000GW - actual heat energy produced would be higher.)

Another possibility would be to replace the electricity production of coal and LNG power plants with wind, and then use coal and LNG to power coal gasification. This approach has issues of energy storage. Probably you'd want to have hydro-pumped storage able to provide 10% of your average production - 100GW, or about 50 Hoover dams worth (though not 50 Lake Meads).

But I really suspect MNT will make solar the preferred approach for electricity production, with home storage. Even then, I suspect most homes won't have enough energy collection to power vehicles, unless we simply stop travelling as much because we don't need to.

Me, I kind of like the look of wind towers - but people who live near them tend to hate them. I figure the two big problems are the sonic pollution and visual distraction of the moving blades. Maybe MNT will allow a way to replace the moving blades.

Tom Craver

Chris: I think a lot of my comments to Jim apply to solar, for fuel production. But again, maybe with MNT we just won't travel or transport nearly as much, so home and city-commons solar collectors will be adequate for most needs.

Still, I don't think we could build our energy policy on an assumption of future technologies, tempting as that is to those of us feel MNT is coming, and I do think it would be irresponsible to keep putting off energy independence.

WRT the feds forcing nuclear power on the states: Yeah, cutting off tenuously related funding is the usual tactic. But I think you're wrong to assume this would be a total liability to the states.

There is some political cost (some people still fear nuclear power). But nuclear power plants should be PROFIT centers, if a lot of the artificial costs are stripped away. All that money previously spent to import oil now goes to them - in state and taxable.

The major opponents would likely be the heavy oil refining states, who'd fear losing that industry. But they could always take on power plants from states that didn't want them, and they have some natural advantages in expertise and facilities that might be converted for fuel production.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, this time I wasn't talking about MNT, but about nanoscale tech solar cells.



You cannot have free trade without free countries on both sides of the equation.

Eric McErlain

On the question of "forcing" states to accept nuclear power plants -- nothing could be further from the truth. Communities are already lining up to be considered as potential sites for new plants that may be built by the NuStart Energy consortium.

In particular, I'm referring to Port Gibson, Miss. and Oswego, N.Y.



"So please don't shove nuclear power on me" - A proud, confident people would not be daunted by the challenge of nuclear power. It is a measure our weakness that the US does not 'get it' to the extent of France, Sweden, Japan, etc. etc. Living in the West and putting up with the eyesores near Banning, Mojave and Altamont, I'm sure this windpower obsession would vanish overnight if the grossly ugly windmills sprouted in NYC or along the beltway in DC.

M. Simon

The problem is transportation fuels.

Nothing is even close to production. Zero. Nada. It will take 20 - 30 years to replace current oil based infrastructure once there is a solution.

Currently there are a lot of interesting ideas. Too early to decide on a technology. Hydrogen or methanol? Too early to decide. So it is likely to be both for a while.

The best way to allocate oil is by market competition.

BTW China uses 6X energy per $ GDP as America.

They will be hurt more by rising energy prices than we will.

BTW America's future is wind. I'm an out of service Naval Nuke. So I'm not prejudiced. It is just that wind is coming down the cost curve fast enough so it will cost less than nuke power in 10 to 15 years.

America is the Saudi Arabia of wind.

In 10 to 20 years we will have the storage problem licked. Just as wind becomes about 20% of grid power.

BTW I see windmills as beautiful. Huge moving sculptures that also deliver energy. My favorite is the one on Hwy 80 in Iowa.

In any case most of them will be deployed on farm land. Which is not considered scenic.

the snob

If I understand correctly, the cost of producing oil from shale/tar sands found up north is around $80/bbl. In the short term prices could spike well above that, but over the long run there's a pretty solid wall right around that number. $80 oil wouldn't be good for our economy, but it wouldn't be devastating for it, either, and the Chinese would suffer proportionately more. So, this whole issue is built on a false assumption about long-term oil prices. All just a fine opportunity for everyones' favorite lobbyists to get their clients' hands in the taxpayers' pockets.


Farmland not scenic? Where'd you grow up, New York City?

From what I've heard from people over there, wind farms are starting to have a pretty big NIMBY effect in the UK.

Ken Crow

Another promising technology being developed is windmills that fly up in the jetstream. I saw a story at:

- It sounds (quite) a bit like a press release in search of funding, but it is an idea with a lot of potential.

These windmills would produce energy without being much of an eyesore since all you would see from the ground is thin tethers going up into the air (you could probably just barely see the windmills themselves at ~5.5 miles up). They would produce electricity at a very constant rate (unlike solar and current ground-source wind production), and claim to be able to eventually produce energy at 1-2 cents/KWh (probably unrealistic, but sounds promising).

This idea (like most fairly radical ideas) probably won't pan out, but we need many more innovative projects like this to be given a chance to compete for funds, and be winnowed down to a few effective and affordable ideas that work.

I think that Smalley's nickel and dime plan he was promoting would be a great vehicle for such projects to be funded and replace our current energy infrastructure. With Nanosolar/Konarka's reel-to-reel solar production, clean coal, and other promising developments, we have the potential to put a huge dent in our dependence on oil in the medium-term (10-20 years). But this won't happen without a focused and aggressive effort supported by the government.

And to imagine that these are all just incremental improvements on existing technology that can be developed without any radical MNT. As Mike pointed out in his New Inventions post, the really amazing stuff we may use 30+ years from now probably hasn't even been thought of yet.

Silent Spring

Wind power will kill more birds than DDT ever did.
It is the largest killer of birds of prey in the
United States today. If you really want a true
silent spring with no more birds, then by
all means go with windmills. Nuclear is much
more environmentally freindly though. The idea of
using nuclear to create methonal and methane from
coal would allow power plants to be placed in
remote nonecologically important areas because
we could pipeline the fule from there.


Ultimately, energy is a physics game. Solar power remains unconvincing at many levels - from nano to giga. Personally, I think most people just see solar as an easy way out, a fantasy to avoid uncomfortable, hard decisions. Yes, nuclear remains the predominant solution.

That said, petroleum will not run out. However, the net energy return will drop as we turn to tar sands and heavy oil. I do expect these sources to be nuclear supplemented. That is, use process heat from nuclear to extract and liquefy the crude and perhaps use nuclear-generated hydrogen for "benefaction". The syncrude effort in Venezuela loses about 20% of energy input to make a marketable product. Alberta tar sands are only in production due to local stranded natural gas that would be better used eleswhere if there was a pipeline to another market.

In the longer run, I have my doubts about direct use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel. It seems easier to make, distribute, and consume synthetic diesel fuel but that loses the GHG argument. In either case, the real power source will be uranium and plutonium.

Of course we need more nuclear power plants making electricity and we need to start 10 years ago. As it is, US industry will have a bit of a ramp up problem - there are only so many experienced people in the industry that starting more than four or five plants initially will be a challenge to do right. Give us 5 years from first orders and we can start another 10, and so on.

A critical public policy issue will be discouraging the use of imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) for electric fuel. Here in California, that looks like the plan (to fuel electric plant with LNG) and its a very bad idea. We could use four reactors instead.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Whitehall, can you say more about why solar is unconvincing? I know a lot of pieces have to come together--efficiency, clean cheap manufacturing, installation (vs. neighborhood codes!), maintenance, power storage. But my impression is that advances already in the pipeline could make solar cost-competitive with fossil grid.

When molecular manufacturing arrives, solar could get insanely cheap to manufacture, and a lot more convenient overall than nuke (which still requires a big grid, plus mining and disposal and building and decommissioning).

BTW, I also think windmills look cool, but it's a good point about the birds. Any sign they're evolving to avoid the windmills?



dear sir,
i was prity impressed with the information in this site .And i would like to know more about this application of nanotech in wind mills. i would be really glad to you if you provide me information about the implementation of nanotech in wind mills and in what way the wind power could actually be utilised by this and about the different ways to achieve that.
thankyou sir/madam

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