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As most readers of this short paper probably know, Dr. Steven Chu is the energy secretary of the United States, a physicist, and a Nobel Laureate. Discovery Magazine, in its latest issue (2011), selected what it called the "100 Top Stories of 2010", one of which was authored by an editor of Discovery, and whose main purpose was to verify Dr. Chu's green credentials.
As good luck would have it, the article was only two pages long, and did not contain any elementary physics or mathematics -- two subjects that I failed twice in my first year of engineering school, and as a result of which I was duly expelled. On the other hand, some important observations of the Economics 101 variety were missing from Dr. Chu's answers to editor Corey Powell's questions, which unfortunately prevents me from recommending his 'piece' to serious readers.
Mr. Powell began this Q&A with a reference to the Gulf Coast oil spill, asking how an accident of this magnitude could happen. I won't bother to discuss Dr. Chu's answer, because both question and answer were irrelevant. Statistically, accidents of that type are unavoidable, and have always taken place. If we go back to the Second World War, we can look e.g. the unnecessary invasion of Peleliu Island and the attack on Manila, the failure to clear the approaches to the port of Antwerp as soon as possible, and perhaps the worst blunder of all, which was adopting the Sherman as the main American battle tank. Compared to those 'accidents', the Gulf Coast tragedy was small beer.
For long term energy investments, Dr. Chu pictures the U.S. moving toward the electrification of personal vehicles. So do I, only I don't have a clue as to the details, nor how rapidly a large-scale electrification could be completed if deemed necessary. I therefore wonder if the secretary and his foot soldiers could provide us with the kind of information that we can use in our teaching and publications, and to do so as soon as possible -- assuming that they, unlike my good self, have examined this issue sufficiently to tell us something beyond public relations hype.
His thoughts on nuclear energy bother me somewhat, because he states that large reactors will cost 7 to 8 billion (US) dollars. I regard that estimate as completely and totally wrong, and suggest that he should have a talk with Anne Lauvergeon about her plans for her firm Areva, as well as what she knows about the new Chinese reactors. If his French is not up to scratch, he can examine my new energy economics textbook (2011), because evidence from the nuclear past and present leads me to insist that "large" reactors, whose construction is organized by competent managers, will soon cost a maximum of 5 billion dollars. This is because the time span from ground break to grid power will be less than 5 years, and when the nuclear renaissance moves into full swing, perhaps much less.
"FutureGen" (in the form of zero-emission coal power plants) evidently plays a prominent role in Dr. Chu's vision of an optimal energy structure. It plays none whatsoever in mine however, and I never use the expression "future-gen" nor listen to anyone discussing it. Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is an element in this activity, and the Swedish firm Vattenfall once made certain optimistic promises to the German government and newspaper readers concerning their efforts in that direction. Jeffrey Michel, an MIT graduate and energy consultant living in Germany, calls CCS a thermodynamic travesty, and remembering my own long and delightful study of thermodynamics and engineering economics causes me to say that Michel's judgment is much too mild.
A carbon-free United States in 2050 seems to be one of Secretary Chu's more abstract notions. Interestingly, a recent large energy meeting in Berlin was on the same wave length, where the emphasis was on solar and wind's place on the German energy scene in the same year. As far as I am concerned, the German intentions are strictly off-the-wall, and in 2050 the German nuclear intensity will match or over match that in France. The nuclear equipment will be breeders, and I sincerely hope that the security problems associated with those reactors are solved the way that they should be solved, because if not somebody could be in a world of hurt.
Finally, Dr. Chu mentions that "there is no law of physics which states that the whole society can't benefit", and unlike the contention of e.g. Gordon Gekko (in the film Wall Street), he says that "there is no zero sum game here". It was really very decent of the Secretary to inform us of his interest in the subject of game theory, because in a world of 9.5 billion souls -- which is his prophecy for 2050 -- a complicated version (or extension) of the zero sum paradigm is going to be the order of the day, and there is very little -- or more realistically nothing -- that he or all the Nobel Prize winners since Adam and Eve can do about that.
Banks, Ferdinand E. (2011). Energy and Economic Theory. Singapore, London and New York: World Scientific.
Powell, Corey S. (2011) 'Secretary of Energy Steven Chu on How We'll Get to the Green Energy Future'. Discover (January/February)
For information on purchasing reprints of this article, contact sales. Copyright 2013 CyberTech, Inc.
I wonder how the events in Japan might derail the nuclear renaissance. Bad news indeed.
I agree that FutureGen is ridiculous notion. Either burn the coal or not. Dealing with the CO2 is silly unless and until the rest of the world follows suit. I don't see that happening anytime soon.
Overall, I think Dr. Chu is a brilliant man well-versed in the intricacies of energy technology. (Compare with say, Spencer Abraham). But I think the political realities associated with his position have proven to be waters he has been less able to navigate. But he seems to be getting better. Note his efforts to shelf hydrogen energy, and the furious political push-back he's been getting on that.
Malcolm Rawlingson 3.14.11
Not likely to make much of a difference. The main driver nations are China and India and I don't see that slowing down and they have gone on record as saying so. They simply do not have an alternative.
But the efforts of the Japanese power plant workers to control this serious situation with so many of them not knowing whether their families are safe needs to be recognized. I am sure that many of them have been working on this non-stop since Friday and haven't left the plant. I am sure they will get it under control but my heart goes out to each and every one of them. They have just lived through an earthquake a tsunami that flooded the plant and now have three damaged reactors to deal with I can only call their efforts heroic.
However I am sure they will overcome it.
Ferdinand E. Banks 3.15.11
Jim, I dont think that Dr Chu is a brilliant man - I KNOW that he is. President Obama is pretty sharp too - but even so we/I am not getting from these gentlemen what I want. I dont want the US making war in Muslim countries, and I would like to see Dr Chu doing the kind of thinking that those of us in this forum are doing, and coming up with a sensible energy program for the US in near future. He and his boss are just 'running off at the mouth now', and some of their top employees are worse.
Jim Beyer 3.15.11
Most of what Dr. Chu has said has seemed sensible. Except maybe for the part about painting all of our roofs white. Not sure about that one. I have a bit of a growing dread that our problems aren't due to not having smart people in those positions, but that the problems are pretty intractable and "we can't handle the truth". That is, first global warming is real and causing problems, and second, nothing can replace coal in any kind of timely fashion, due to technical and/or political reasons. For these reasons and some others, I don't think nuclear power can be built to the scale needed to replace coal. It's just too complicated/expensive. Let's face it, if a tsunami hits a coal plant, you have a wet and destroyed coal plant. If it hits a nuclear power plant, you have technicians risking their lives trying to shut the thing down.
As for peak oil, I don't think the U.S. (or any other country, really) is prepared to have a frank dialogue on this topic with their people.
bill payne 3.15.11
Let's hope Dr Chu uses his brain to try to get these unfortunate matters peacefully settled.
Google 'admiral william h payne' for detals.
Jim McBride 3.15.11
I frankly don't care how brilliant Dr. Chu is, what's needed in a Secretary of Energy is some common sense and knowledge of macroeconomics. This country's economy is not going to turn around without an emphasis on the COST of energy over the long term. That means it's silly to be investing so much in wind power given it's capacity factor. And while solar may make sense long term in the desert Southwest, it's silly as a national policy.
While global warming may be real, that it is anthropogenic is absurd (Mars is warming too!). That carbon release is causing a greenhouse effect is unscientific (study solar absorption spectra). So none of the anti-fossil policies make any sense. We should be building coal plants, we should drill, baby drill for domestic petroleum. And, we should be building the next-gen nuclear plants for base load capacity ASAP.
Those new nuke plants should be fail-safe: hands-off, they shut themselves down.
We should also be investing in advanced nuclear research to find ways to burn nuclear waste products, and use nuclear to achieve higher temperatures that would be useful in chemical processes such as hydrogen production and oil shale extraction (instead of burning fossils for this).
Finally, an ode to the heroes of Tokyo Electric Power wrestling with the 40yr-old monster that's been unleashed. I'd like to see the Nobel committee disburse the whole of the endowment to compensate these folks and/or their families!
Michael Keller 3.15.11
Dr. Chu and Obama brilliant? Perhaps, but not at solving the nation's problems. Maybe they should return whence they came and we bring in folks less "brilliant" but who possess common sense.
dennis baker 3.16.11
Nuclear in the existing formate is not likely to continue!
penticton bc canada
The solution to climate change. ( human excrement + nuclear waste = hydrogen ) The USA discharges Trillions of tons of sewage annually, sufficient quantity to sustain electrical generation requirements of the USA.
Redirecting existing sewage systems to containment facilities would be a considerable infrastructure modification project. It is the intense radiation that causes the conversion of organic material into hydrogen, therefore what some would consider the most dangerous waste because of its radiation would be the best for this utilization.
I believe the combination of clean water and clean air, will increase the life expectancy of humans. The four main areas of concern globally are energy, food,water and air! he radiolytic decomposion of organic materials generates Hydrogen By using our sewage as a source of energy we also get clean air , clean water, and no ethanol use of food stocks. Eat food first, create energy after.
Simply replacing the fossil fuel powered electrical generating facilities with these plants, would reduce CO2 emissions, and CH4 emissions, to acceptable levels, globally. This would require a completely new reactor facility capable of converting human waste into hydrogen and then burning the hydrogen to generate electricity on site.
This solution is sellable to citizens because of all the side issue solutions. I ve been able to convince most simply with concept of using nuclear waste to a productive end. Superbugs ( antibiotic resistant ) apparently are created in the waters sewage is discharged into, which is one more side issue solution.
Anything not converting into hydrogen will potentially be disposed of using Transmutation. The water emitted from hydrogen burning will have uses in leaching heavy metals from other contaminated site clean ups.
Heat is not a neccessity to the conversion process as in present Japan reactor designs
Murray Duffin 3.16.11
Dr. Chu is probably brilliant, but like many brilliant men he is laboring under a major load of false information, probably reenforced by his own paradigm blindness. Nuke plants will cost well ove $2.00/watt. For a 1000 Mw plant thats $2B minimum, and probably 2-3 times that at the end of the day. Also the nonsense about carbon free is evidence that he has been drinking the kool-aid of the AGW alarmist crowd. It is much more likely that we have now entered a prolonged cooling period, and soon CO2 will be most welcome.
Dennis can you provide some references for and/or quantification of your input above. Radiolytic decomposition is a new term for me, and given the claimed nymber of calories it takes to put one calorie of food on our table, I don't see how our waste can meet our energy needs.
Don Hirschberg 3.16.11
Dennis Let’s do some crude arithmetic. 300x10^6 people x 2000 kcal x 3.96 = 2.4 x 10^12 BTU/day food intake. Even if Americans used NONE of the energy in their food then their sewage would have a heating value of 2.4x10^12 / 6x10^6 = 0.4 million barrels of oil, about 2% of what the US uses.
Look at it another easy way. Suppose we used all our 2000 kcal or 8000 BTU. This is the energy equivalent of 1.25 KWH (about 15 cents worth) in 24 hours or52 continuous watts. (I use about 1000 continuous watts of energy as electricity alone.)
Actually we exhale the carbon content in our metabolized food as CO2 and make water and NH3 and urea out of the hydrogen atoms. What goes to the sewer is rather thin gruel energy-wise... Animals that can subsist on cellulose discharge stuff that has some heating value because digestion of cellulose even by cows is incomplete.
Any way you make hydrogen you invest more energy than you can get back. Water and CO2 are at the bottom of the hill, and it’s uphill in every direction.
Ferdinand E. Banks 3.17.11
Michael Keller, I hope that by folks less brilliant you do not mean John McCain and Sarah Palin, because with the exception of George W. and Ron Reagan, I can't think of anything worse for the United States of America. But, as a Democrat, I would be only too glad to vote for Mr Romney if I get the chance.
Murray, is that two billion for a 1000 MW plant. Sounds lovely to me, but I think that we'll have to wait a while to see that.
And Jim McBride, they are building the next generation of nuclear plants in Finland and France, although I saw something in a French magazine which claimed that they are not building the´m the way they should. I didn't read it though because I had just finished my lunch. But I think that the new equipment will be satisfactory, if it is given a chance - which is exactly what certain people don't want it to have.
Michael Keller 3.17.11
Have no idea who the Republicans will run, but the current socialist regime is absolutely unacceptable.
Don Hirschberg 3.17.11
Careful Professor, even idle talk of voting for Romney here in Arkansas could cost you your proud standing as a Yellow Dog Democrat.
Ferdinand E. Banks 3.18.11
Absolutely is the wrong word, Michael, assuming that the present regime in Washington is socialist, which it isn't. Obama and his team just don't get the message. Of course, it doesn't make any difference to me what they are or get. The sooner I see their backs the better.
As for voting for Romney, I should have said Romney or somebody like him - you know, somebody who can add and subtract.
But getting back to energy, I saw that a no-fly zone will be put into effect over Libya. Bengazi in front of Gaddafi's tanks, and the oil behind those tanks. No wonder Saif el-Islam Gaddafi was so relaxed in the interview he gave in Paris. And gentlemen, here is the opportunity for some serious addition and subtraction.
Malcolm Rawlingson 3.24.11
The great thing about the USA is that it functions despite its idiot politicians and will continue to do so. Whatever the politics the US UK and France just knocked out the entire Libyan Air force and Air defences in 48 hours without a single soldier on the ground.
Read today about the test flight of a hypersonic cruise missile that delivers payload anywhere on earth in less than 60 minutes to within feet of its target. Flies at 4000 mph. Engine technology being developed for commercial jets that can fly from LA to NYC in 30 minutes. No sonic boom - flies in upper atmosphere.
Warren Buffet considers the best years are ahead for the US and world economies. I think he is more believable than the doom and gloomers here.
Ferdinand E. Banks 3.25.11
Malcolm, modern aircraft and explosives attacking ground targets is not war but murder. And remember, the thing in Libya is about oil. It is not about protecting civilians.
But of course, why should the US be concerned. Bush started a war with a lie, and as a result between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians were killed in Iraq, some and perhaps many of which were women and children. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 had to leave their homes - for instance, there are thousands of these people in Sweden and probably the same number in the vicinity of everybody reading this. And incidentally, about 5000 Americans died, and several thousand received terrible wounds.
As for these hypersonic missles, the less said the better, because in 50 years the wrong people will have them. And that colleague is a CERTAINTY. Stop and think about it. Suppose you were a 22 year old graduate in engineering, with a hatred of some country. How long do you think it would take you to put something nasty together.
Don Hirschberg 3.25.11
I have difficulty getting the butchered alive images of hundreds of thousands with machetes in Rwanda out of my mind. Maybe thoughts of these ever so much more pleasant hyper rockets will displace the bad images. Thanks.