Locklin on science

U.S. energy independence: hard numbers

Posted in energy by Scott Locklin on January 9, 2010

People have been gnashing their teeth about this for decades, since the 1973 Yom Kippur war and Arab oil embargo. There are giant government think tanks and agencies devoted to fixing this problem, and the present government seems to be obsessed with appearing to do something about it, but I’m going to solve the problem without putting any pants on. In fact, I will complete my solution before the morning’s second cup of joe is done (finding pictures took longer than figuring out what to do).

The most basic question to address is, how much energy do we use in america? About 100 quadrillion BTU’s. We import about 25 quadrillion BTU’s net (we import some, we export some). I’m basing this on 2000 figures, figuring consumption is approximately flat due to increased costs; scale up or down as needed if you feel like digging up the current figures.

Of this, about 780 billion kilowatt hours are generated using nuclear power, aka 2.6 quadrillion BTU’s. So, build 10 times the nuclear power capacity of america, and all our energy importation problems are solved. Coal liquefaction or domestic oil will take care of the fact that our cars burn gasoline rather than the hydrogen used in electrical batteries. This means, we’d have to add 7800 billion KWH to the infrastructure. This costs $1500 per KW in capital outlay. This works out to $1.3 trillion in capital outlay for all our new nuke plants. Amortized over 10 years, that’s a reasonable $130 billion a year in capital outlay. It will also quickly pay for itself, though such a huge change to the economy might have positive side effects. For one thing, it will up the construction and heavy manufacturing industries which helps out the vast pool of working class americans with nothing to do, and give them money to spend on goods and services. It will also help the nuclear service industries. It would also give us lots of cheap power with which to do interesting things, like make liquid coal to burn in vehicles. Also, uranium is mostly mined in Canada and Australia, which are much more politically stable than the places where we get oil from. Not that we’d have to care about those other places any more; while it is political of me to say so, and I loathe politics, the cost savings from not having to periodically invade the Middle East could easily pay for our new nuke plants. We can let the Germans run the Middle East if they want to, since they were foolish enough to get rid of their nuclear power infrastructure.

We could do the same thing with coal (our proven reserves of coal are enough for 200 years at current energy consumption rates) for just about the same price. The disadvantage is far worse pollution load; coal ash is nasty and fairly radioactive stuff. Teller once worked out that there is more radioactive waste generated by burning coal per BTU than burning Uranium. The waste products from coal are either pumped into the atmosphere, or into the ground if you use scrubbers. There are huge volumes of stuff involved; huge volumes of coal, and nearly equal volumes of solid waste products. Coal is also politically unacceptable to people who subscribe to the presently fashionable climatological fantasies. Personally I think minimizing the CO2 pumped into the atmosphere isn’t a bad idea either, even though I don’t believe the climatologists. So, nukes are better; they don’t make any appreciable waste volumes.

People wring their hands about the horrors of SUV driving, incandescent light bulbs, and living in areas with bad climate which require heating and cooling, but all transportation in america totals up to about 22 quadBTUs, and all residencies in america consume 15 quadBTUs. While these are substantial and could be squeezed a bit more (radical changes would give maybe a factor of 2 improvement, for a savings of 18 quad BTUs), the more important consumption rates are industrial and commercial. These groups already have a huge incentive to be efficient as possible, as energy costs influence their bottom line. The most important consumers of energy are the economic engines which make the United States a wealthy country. This is true across the board. If you look at what China and India consume in terms of energy, per capita GDP and per capital energy consumption are pretty much linear. Russia is an outlier due to all those wasteful communist power plants, and the fact that they have plenty of power to burn. Plus it is cold there, so many industrial processes take more heat. Here is a little chart showing how much wealth is generated per amount of energy used; for the number in the last column “the bigger the better,” meaning such countries generate more wealth for every bit of energy used. It could mean they use lots of slave labor and don’t heat anything, like in China. It could mean the countries that are big and/or cold (Canada, Australia, America and Russia) require more energy. The differences between these nations in wealth generated per unit energy is not so great that you’d figure you could do much better than America does now, even if you were as obsessed with efficiency as, say, the Germans are. It is an interesting calculation; check it out:

Country per capita energy use GDP/capita economic output/energy use
USA: 340 megaBTU 42000 $124/megaBTU
China: 35 megaBTU 6300 $180/megaBTU
Germany 173 megaBTU 29000 $167/megaBTU
Japan 175 megaBTU 30000 $171/megaBTU
Russia 200 megaBTU 11000 $55/megaBTU
Canada 343 megaBTU 33000 $96/megaBTU

This makes complete hash of the modern urban piety of “saving energy.” Even in China, where there are no environmental constraints (environmental constraints usually cost more in energy), and where people live like the serfs in Metropolis (approximate personal or comfort energy usage in China is zero), they still generate about the same amount of economic output per BTU as we do in the U.S.. I figure we could do a little better, but not too much better without becoming very poor.

For you hippies who fantasize about “renewable” (an absurd neologism meaning, “not nuclear”) solar power and windmills, the capital outlays are a minimum of a factor of 10 higher, and they often create more pollution and kill birds and desert life. The maintenance costs required are also absurd compared to nuclear power. Imagine a giant wind plant over the course of 50 years; the nuke plant is guaranteed to continue operation for the whole 50 years without serious construction costs. At best, I could imagine 1/5 of this figure from “renewable.” Wind might become slightly more important, as building really big mills can be cost efficient in windy areas, but even if you harvested all the wind energy in the country, you wouldn’t put an appreciable dent in U.S. energy needs. Consider; the total average amount of energy you get from the sun (solar, hydro, biomass and wind power all comes from the sun) is about 160W per square meter. The most you can get from that is about 5%., so, 32watts per square meter. America is 9 trillion square meters. You do the math. I think it comes out to 2E18 BTU. So, we use about 1/20 of the recoverable energy output of the sun to power the United States. I don’t fancy covering 1/22 of the nation in arsenic laden solar cells and replacing it every 10 years when they wear out. Though if we could bioengineer trees with electrical outlets, that would be OK by me.

Anyway: the hair shirt crowd needs to grow up; you can’t power the United States on pinwheels and solar powered calculators. You can’t save an important amount of energy unless you’re willing to eat gruel and live like a serf; and not a make-believe serf that takes international plane flights to save-the-world parties either. Americans as a people are a nation of artificers, mechanics and ingenious inventors; it wouldn’t be America without jet funny cars and monster trucks; let’s make them nuclear powered, and monster truck our way into …. the human future!

“Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”-F.T. Marinetti

35 Responses

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  1. Marton said, on January 9, 2010 at 1:52 am

    A few of your numbers and assumptions seem wide off the mark, thus your post seems to have a mild case of GIGO.

    – First, total insolation intensity is 1366W/m2 and not 160. Thus renewable solar power is almost an order of magnitude more effective than you say. They probably don’t have to be replaced every 10 years either (modern cells have25 years warranty – that might be a better first guess). And no, you don’t need to blanket 5% of the country – putting the cells on most roof tops and in a few sunny deserts would be entirely enough.

    – Second, you seem to seriously underestimate the maintenance cost advantage of nuke plants over wind/solar. Just think of the entire uranium mining, enrichment, transportation infrastructure, the need for reactor refueling, the super-high security needs (not just the fissile material needs watching; the waste is also great material for dirty bombs) and then the nuclear waste depositing or recycling… Vs a couple of engineers and construction workers who need to replace the occasional worn-out mechanical part.

    – Third, the Chinese GDP is closer to $3300/capita than to $6300. Not that it matters, your far bigger error is in comparing US per-capita consumption with China rather than, say, Germany. Your conclusion might have been that energy savings of 50% for the US are easily achievable without significant loss of living standards. (I don’t think GDP/BTU matters in a comparison between developed countries — the US GDP surplus against Germany or Japan is from services, not from anything energy-intensive).

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 9, 2010 at 10:06 pm

      You have lost all my respect with your first point, which is exactly the type of egregious flat-earth baloney spewed forth by solar power hippies. Perhaps if you put a perfect black body in space, you might get 1366W/m2, or something like this. However, the earth is round, has an atmosphere and rotates on its axis once a day, making the actual average amount of solar radiation more like 160w/m^2.

      Your “couple” of engineers and construction workers will be a giant army dwarfing all the people involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuke plants produce a LOT of power from a fairly small mechanism. How many square miles of 10watts/m^2 of wire, panel and voltage regulators is it going to take to power San Francisco?. Go figure this out, and no cheating and saying you can actually get the ridiculous 1300W/m2 number.

      Chinese GDP/Capita is, in fact, around $6000, as per the CIA world factbook.

  2. maggette said, on January 9, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Uuhhhhh….conisdering myself to be a kind of these “techno” Hippies and comming from Germany, these are some hard pills to swallow:).

    Again, well written and controversial, but of course I disagree. In general I get quite pissed off when believing in “renewable” energy is set equal to “ignorant, day dreamin tree hugger”:).

    Considering even the most defensive approximations, less than one percent of solar energy capacity has to be used to cover the worlds energy needs . If you only take the sub category “wind”, 5-10% of the available wind energy would supply the current worldwide energy needs.

    I know, I know…….it is not easy or even impossible to actually make this energy usable. And this wasn’t the point of your article! You were talking about America becoming autarc (energy wise). So renewable might not be an option (not sure so) to fuel your country and make it autarc at the same time.

    First of all, I don’t see why becoming “autarc” is so important. But I can understand, from a risk management point of view, why you don’t want your economy depend on oil as much as does right now.

    As always in these situations, I think the best thing to do is to diversify (at least to a certain degree). Diversify about energy sources (some carbo, wind, bio gas, hydro and solar and some nuclear) and strategies (corporate and government activities, programs to save energy..etc).

    My masterplan for the US would look like this:

    1) Take a huge amount of government money (some more debt won’t hurt your country) and create a a huge DC smart grid! Invest in your infrastructure! (The electricity net in the US is a joke compared to european standards). The net will be an asset of the Federal US government. “Sub networks” can be created and connected to the net by single states, private and corporate entities where they see demand and/or a way to make profit (all at their own risk). I admitt this will cost money and may hurt the US economy short term (not sure though…Keynes style this investment will create a lot of work etc).

    2) Take Scandinavia as an example. Net stays in public hands, sub nets and power plants are private assets. Make sure the market for kwh is free and competitive. Keep entry barriers low.

    3) Some government sponsored programs (wind farms in the mid west and off shore wind farms. Solar power plants in the south).

    4) Make saving energy a “sport” (like the japanese do). Make it an patriotic issue! Screw that “Budwiser-Monster Truck” America. Make America the undisputed number one in energy efficiency!

    I think the US is the only region that could manage such a ( I dream Europe would be able to do this…but I doubt it). The powerfull central government and unilateral thinking (compared to Europe or Asia…Ohio might be far away from Texas….but the residents still consider theself american….and IMHO thats a good thing) mixed with enterpreneur spirit and “frontier” mentality could be an asset here.

    Well…. I admitt, maybe I am still a tree hugger

    Again an interesting piece of work, Mr. Locklin….keep it comming

  3. Scott Locklin said, on January 9, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    What good would a “smart grid” do? That seems one of those fashionable solutions in search of a problem. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the US energy network.

    Mostly, I’m trying to bring some kind of rational dollars and kilowatts numbers to this whole discussion. I don’t know anyone who would be against cheap solar power if it were possible: people are only against it because it’s not really possible. Funding impossible projects is ridiculous. Funding enough new nuke plants to forget about the middle east: surprisingly affordable.

    • Jeff Wolfe said, on January 10, 2010 at 12:43 am

      Scott, to use the word ‘rational’ to describe your article is a generous stretch of that word. You say you’re not against ‘cheap solar power’, but refuse to believe anyone who says it is. Where your arguments fall short, you move to personal attacks. The numbers you use for nuke plants are surprisingly outdated and low. The numbers you use for fuel supply and maintenance costs are similarly incorrect.

      • Scott Locklin said, on January 10, 2010 at 1:03 am

        I don’t think I used any numbers for fuel supply and maintenance, but I’m well assured they’re a lot lower than for solar, simply because there are dozens of nuclear power plants operating right now, providing me with cheap energy. It ain’t too cheap to meter, but it’s as cheap as coal at the very least. Solar dudes: they never mention stuff like … lifespan, environmental load from making the whatsits, *washing* the panels or heliostats (yes, you need to wash them), paving vast areas, capital costs, the fact that the earth has clouds and rotates on its axis, energy storage (what do you do when it’s night time, eh?), the absurd amounts of raw materials needed to build practical projects like this, and technologies to pipe the energy from wastelands where it is practical, to places where humans can live.

        Of course I refuse to believe anyone who says solar is cheap; it is a fact that it is not cheap. If it were cheap, people would use it. The only people who assert that it is cheap are like you: people who are selling something that doesn’t work.

        Seriously: what was the point of this comment of yours, other than to register indignation? Do you have some extra data or information you don’t see here, or a specific problem with some of my figures? By all means: try to convince me. Making chimpanzee noises you’re unhappy I don’t believe in your sacred cow don’t serve much purpose beyond convincing me that solar advocates are religious nuts who shouldn’t be taken seriously.

  4. kkrev said, on January 9, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Some claim the “two hundred years worth of coal” line is misinformation. The energy density of the coal we mine has been steadily declining (we used the good stuff first), and the energy used to mine it has been going up. There’s decades of coal left at current usage rates, not 100s of years.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 10, 2010 at 1:05 am

      Maybe so; I never checked. Anyway, phuck coal. I don’t like the idea of bulldozing mountains in West Virginia to get at the stuff either.

  5. better said, on January 9, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    You don’t beleive climatologists about global warming? Could you write a new post about that in the future, I don’t think you have one about this topic.

    Of course I think you’re wrong about this, but I would like to read your arguments.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 9, 2010 at 11:39 pm

      I don’t really want to get into that pissing match, but, basically, the models they use are all crap, and the incentive system driving them is such that they all get the same answer. It’s illustrative that they dismiss anyone with a differing opinion who ever looked at an oil company as a “shill” or “denialist” -when their funding is all predicated on their being another sort of shill. One with an enormous political movement and dozens of governmental or quasi-governmental organizations behind it. They may very well be right, but I give them 50/50 odds on it, because the way they’re going about trying to understand the problem is pretty much textbook wrong.

      I’ve also never met a climatologist in finance. If these clowns are so damn good at long term predictions on hugely complex systems, the stock market ought to be trivial for them. How come none of them ever started a hedge fund? You’d figure I would have run into one of them by now, working somewhere; if only cooking up factor models or something. Nope. I guess either climatology pays so well that even guys with sick family members or gambling debts don’t see finance as a temptation, or they’re simply not competent enough at statistics to get a job in the biz. Either way doesn’t inspire much trust.

      That said, I’m not a big fan of dumping lots of CO2 into the atmosphere, just on the precautionary principle. As such, nukes are the way to go. That or Dyson’s imaginary trees with electrical outlets.

      • jay said, on January 10, 2010 at 5:57 pm

        “I’ve also never met a climatologist in finance.”

        I have used more or less the same idea in expressing my doubts about the “science” of climate science. In my opinion, climate is just too complicated to make the predictions they’re making. There are all sorts of economic models that work just fine to explain certain historical periods, but then reality occurs, and then you need new models. Climate science pretends like that doesn’t happen. It really depresses me. I think saying you’re “Pro Science” is just another membership in a church these days. I don’t know, maybe it always was.

        When people raise objections, Climate Scientists like to play No True Scotsman.



        • Scott Locklin said, on January 10, 2010 at 8:00 pm

          That’s a great Feynman clip; funny he homed in on the organic thing that long ago. People think I’m some kind of arrogant bastard for doubting all these sacred cows (and maybe I am); I’m just worried people are stupidly rooting for their favorite football team rather than figuring stuff out.

          Climatology used to be more honest; there are some fun review papers on the subject in the early 1960s.

          • Joe said, on December 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm

            “Climatology used to be more honest; there are some fun review papers on the subject in the early 1960s.”

            Interesting, would you mind posting them, or giving some pointers at least? Would be appreciated, thanks.

      • maggette said, on January 10, 2010 at 6:03 pm

        my english isn’t that good, so I may try again?

        My main point was that in order to get independent (energy wise) relying a 100% on nuclear power might not be a smart strategy. 10 times more nuclear energy implies 10 times the demand in nuclear material. Australia and Canada might be political more stable, but let’s assume India and China decides it wants to rely un nuclear energy too? You would compete for that resource…..with maybe way more powerfull players than a bunch of suicide bombing indiots! (just an example…I don’t say this scenario is gonna happen or is even likely …but I guess you get my point)

        If you would decide to use a well diversified protfolio of energy resources you need the ability to store and to transfer energy. A DC grid is the only way I know off to achieve this.

        I agree that this will cost a lot of money and will still FORCE THE USA TO ADAPT and improve ther energy efficiency. So what? You won’t die or fall back into the stone age.

        And if you think that everything is fine wit the US energy grid is all right, just ask ANYBODY who works in this business and came overseas. THE US NET IS A JOKE AND A DISGRACE TO THE WORLDS MOST POWERFULL ECONOMY( even though they started finally to do something about it in 2003).

        I agree that nuclear energy is relatively cheap ad of course even more if you factor in maintainace costs. But to be fair you should be fair and factor in the costs created by storing nuclear waste.

        So IMHO you didn’t solve the problem of amrican energy dependency.

        • Scott Locklin said, on January 10, 2010 at 7:40 pm

          I don’t think “US energy dependency” is a problem in that the US uses lots of energy. I think using lots of energy is a fact of all productive economies. There are no counterexamples; not even Luxembourg gets around it. As for efficiency, or “forcing” the nation to be more efficient; look at the numbers again. There ain’t no place to “force” the US economy to become more efficient: not without destroying it. People act as if the problem with U.S. energy consumption is fat people driving SUV’s and leaving the air conditioner on: in fact those are very small numbers compared to American industry. “Forcing” more energy savings is just moving more of our industry to China. Pardon me if nobody in America gives a damn about marginal increases in efficiency accompanied by further industrial decay.
          I also don’t know why blackouts are supposed to be evidence of a broken electrical grid. We get blackouts in California because the birds and bunnies people won’t let us build enough power plants to power everything. Of course, the economy is in such ruins now that power demands are much lower, so we no longer get the blackouts. That’s not the kind of solution I’m interested in.

          I’m not recommending 100% Nuclear power. I’m merely pointing out we could make up the balance of our power needs by building some more nuke plants for a very reasonable sum of money. The US produces plenty of natural gas and oil for the rest. We’ve also plenty of Uranium if we were allowed to mine it, should exploding Australians become a serious social problem. Though frankly, I think buying them another beer should take care of them if they get too uppity. Canada is a province anyway.

          I’m not worried about storage; the costs are all political. As Teller pointed out, there’s more curies released by coal than by nuclear. In principle, all you need to do is dilute the stuff to the point where it is like fly ash and no rational person should be worried any more than they are by fly ash. I used to teach for a guy called Bernie Cohen who you should google; his conclusions are shocking, but necessary to contemplate this stuff.

      • better said, on January 10, 2010 at 10:23 pm

        Have you actually looked at the models they use and understood how they work?

        I haven’t, but I would guess they are pretty complex and contain a lot of variables that are hard to understand for non-climatologists.

        There have to be thousands of smart climate experts and only a few AGW dissenters. I don’t remember any example in recent history when a major scientific consensus would be completely wrong.

  6. Chris said, on January 10, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Like this blog. You do know you are missing your calling, right? You should start a Firing Line-style show where you can host debates on these issues. Seriously. If you can talk, you would be good at it.

    Have you opinions on thorium and Kary Mullis?

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 10, 2010 at 8:47 pm

      Thanks! I have a lady friend in the television business who is determined to do this, but I’m terribly vain, like to wear loud jackets and photograph badly. I also generally dislike the whole “famous for being famous” scene.

      Kerry Mullis is a bona fide nut who also had a really good idea. I’d probably enjoy swapping stories with him. I admire his willingness to leave science and become a baker, and often contemplate this myself.

      I have a couple friends in the nuke business who assure me that thorium is a lot farther from reality than is generally acknowledged. I think it’s a great idea though, even if it turns out to not be any “cleaner” than uranium fission. Certainly a better bet than tokomaks.

      • Chris said, on January 11, 2010 at 6:57 am

        You could kill two birds with one stone by hosting a TV program where guests discussed topical issues while baking together. Seriously, why limit yourself because of what you dislike in others? Would you enjoy the content and work? There are no brownie points on the Elysian Fields for anonymity. In fact, I don’t think you can get there toiling in a cubicle, even if you have mad cash.

        • Scott Locklin said, on January 11, 2010 at 7:11 pm

          Har, well, that would certainly be easy if we did the filming in Berkeley. It would also make it easier for me to bag on people with crazy ideas.
          Who works in a cubicle anyway? Underpants in your apartment FTW.

          • JJ said, on January 14, 2016 at 7:06 pm

            I second the request for you to have a more public role. I would say that it is necessary for the sake of the public IQ that you, or someone like you, be broadcast regularly.

  7. maggette said, on January 10, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    “Bernie Cohen who you should google; ”
    I didi….very, very interesting.
    ThX a lot

  8. eminence_gris said, on January 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I’ve been doing some reading on this lately. The US has LOTS of coal and natural gas. Our natural gas woes at the moment are mostly an issue of delivery, current demand is at the limit of what the current pipelines and infrastructure can deliver.

    I did some back of the envelope math about a year ago to figure out how much coal gets burned per kilowatt-year, making reasonable assumptions about generation and transmission efficiency. I got 1 kilowatt-year = 5 tons of coal. Typical home electricity consumption is on the order of 9000 kwh per year, which conveniently works out very close to 1 kilowatt-year per household. There’s approximately 100 million households in the US.

    So yeah, we’re talking half a billion TONS of coal every year, JUST for home electricity use, not counting non-electrical heating, or transportation, or electricity used by industry, et cetera.

    Obviously it’s not all being generated via coal. But that’s how much coal would be getting used if it were.

    Honestly, we should have been building the nuke plants like 20 years ago, it’s a bit late now given the gargantuan lead time required.

    Thorium fuel cycle looks really cool to me actually. Much better waste characteristics, plus it’s a hell of a lot more common than uranium in the first place. A molten salt thorium reactor would be GREAT at hydrogen production as well since it would run at a high enough temperature to allow heat-assisted hydrolysis. This would mean that the reactor could use off-peak capacity to generate hydrogen.

    Not sure if I’m ready to drink the hydrogen economy koolaid. Hydrogen has a lot of nice features, but also some SERIOUSLY crappy ones. But it’s pretty handy stuff nevertheless.

    • Scott Locklin said, on January 11, 2010 at 7:45 pm

      I like keeping calculations in BTU; must be the tweed leaching into my brain.
      100E15 BTU/300E6people = 333E6BTU/person (considering everything: industrial, heating, transportation).
      In coal, this is about 13 tons. Since only 23% of energy comes from coal, 3 tons of coal/person used.
      According to the commodity dudes, we use around 1.1billion tons of the stuff a year.
      This is about right, considering inefficiencies in turning coal into electricity. Lots of coal!

      Hydrogen might be OK for transportation in the longer term, if you can solve the storage problems (metal hydrides aren’t there yet), but since we’re thinking in grand strokes here, let’s just guess that we can use all our domestic oil and maybe some coal to make gasoline. Hard to beat gasoline or diesel for transportation: lots of energy in a small place. Really, transport is small beer compared to other uses, so it’s not worth worrying about. I think people worry about it more because it’s one of the few commodities bought at spot.

      Build the nukes: worry about the details later! I mean, if we’re going to use paper money to inflate bubbles, it’s better to have surplus power capacity than surplus McMansions in Stockton.

      • eminence_gris said, on January 11, 2010 at 10:12 pm

        I calculated the coal number using some pretty wild-ass guess back of the envelope estimates, I’m surprised that I was only off by a factor of 2.5 or so. Fermi approximations for the win.

        I originally did the math to illustrate the feebleness of “well, I recycle my plastic bags!” arguments. “Drop in the fucking ocean, you retarded ecohippies! Okay, now you only have a carbon footprint of 4.99999 tons of coal per year. Here’s your gold star!”

        Agree on the transportation point. Also, one of the things you could do with a ton of nuclear power and hydrogen production capacity, even if you don’t use the hydrogen “raw”, is to go hydrogenate some carbon into, uh, hydrocarbons. Coal liquefaction is typically done with steam reforming, which generates a lot of waste CO2 in the process, but I wonder if there’s more efficient ways to do it if you are starting with raw hydrogen instead of syngas.

        Moving to hydrogen for heating and cooking would be a terrible idea though. Invisible fire bad.

        • Scott Locklin said, on January 11, 2010 at 10:37 pm

          Recycling is one of those purification rituals that makes people feel better. I vaguely recall that one of the main categories of recyclables in Berkeley (plastic or glass) was getting put in the dump anyway -though they’d still fine you for not putting it in the ritual box of ecological purification.

          I’ve always liked the M.C. Escher perpetual motion machine of growing diesel producing algae near a coal plant. Kind of ignorant of the laws of thermodynamics, but it beats burying CO2 in caverns or fizzy water or whatever the sequester du jour is. Gee, how could that possibly go wrong? http://pagesperso-orange.fr/mhalb/nyos/nyos.htm … I suspect adding carbons to raw hydrogen is a PITA; there are probably more helpful ways of storing electrical energy in some liquid form from nuke plants, or whatever else.

          • eminence_gris said, on January 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm

            Converting heat or electrical energy to a storable form is actually pretty damn hard. Or rather not THAT hard, but extremely lossy, both in the conversion to stable form, and then in taking that stable form and extracting the energy back out of it later. High temperature electrolysis is about 60% energy efficient at most, and then taking the hydrogen and doing anything with it is probably only going to be about 30-50% efficient as well. And if what you’re doing is taking the hydrogen and making, say, methane with it, you’d then pay the Thermodynamics Tax AGAIN when you tried to extract the energy from the methane.

            Almost certainly some category of plastic was just getting tossed, glass is embarrassingly recyclable.

            Totally agree on the ritual aspect of recycling. In a certain sense it’s hugely counterproductive to the “conservationism agenda”, because it defuses the sense of guilt.

            I’ve developed a saying over the years: “If you really care about the environment, kill as many people as possible, AND THEN YOURSELF. Anything short of that is pretty much just wanking.” And I’m not the only person that thinks this way: http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=283

            An amusing comment in the same vein from a pretty fabulous online interview with Bruce Sterling (http://www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/topics/373/Bruce-Sterling-State-of-the-Worl-page01.html):

            “On the subject of geo-engineering, I think it’s a crock. We’ll never
            get there. They’re all techie fantasies, far-out sci-fi notions, Star
            Wars physics-style. The cheapest and most effective method of
            geo-engineering is to cut the world’s population in half.

            Just a tremendous massacre. That’s the genuinely effective
            geo-engineering: it’s fast, it commonly works, it’s been proven
            effective for centuries by lebensraum exponents everywhere, and if you
            chose the right tactics and weaponry it might even look like a big

            When and if it becomes obvious that we truly need
            massive, ultra-costly geo-engineering interventions, that we have no
            other choice, then somebody — likely some traumatized veterans of
            weather havoc who are full of Al Qaeda self-righteousness — they’re
            gonna cut emissions in half by cutting people in half. Mankind
            wouldn’t lack for means, motive, opportunity and eager volunteers.”

            • Scott Locklin said, on January 12, 2010 at 10:46 pm


              • eminence_gris said, on January 13, 2010 at 12:48 am

                I AM the guy who shocks the room into silence by admitting I could give a fuck about recycling. That’s more or less why I did the napkin math regarding coal consumption. People just don’t realize the size of the problem. Too many zeros to comprehend.

                Global warming is another thing they’re worrying about. It very well may be a serious long term problem, but there are more important problems with shorter time horizons.

                For instance, I expect the oceans to collapse from overfishing WELL before global warming starts really fucking us up. “Peak Fish”, so to speak. You think it’s hard to get people to cut back on their emissions? Try getting the Japanese to cut back on their fish. For fuck’s sake, we can’t even get them to stop eating whales.

                I think the Japanese might subconsciously understand that when they finish stripmining the ocean that they’ll starve to death. But the alternative is starving to death right now. I suppose they could start importing food that HASN’T been stripmined out of the ocean, but I don’t really see that happening.

                • Scott Locklin said, on January 13, 2010 at 2:57 am

                  I have a hysterically funny first date story which involves me admitting I don’t recycle; unfortunately, it didn’t have the desired effect of convincing her she was an inappropriate prom-date.

                  I’m with you on “peak fish,” though I don’t think we can blame the Japanese for this: lots of asian and south american nations are putting giant vacuums into the ocean. I’m fond of eating fish myself.

  9. Lloyd G. said, on January 17, 2010 at 1:48 pm


    Nice blog you have here. FWIW, I first saw your stuff at Taki’s site.

    A couple of years ago I did a quick ROI calculation re: hooking up a solar system to my house. I went from skeptic to solar technology ‘hater’.

    Last night one of my ‘progressive’ friends sent me this link, with a note that, finally, solar technology is within the reach of everyone:


    The author’s math had me scratching my head. Until I got to the part about the govt’t fronting 80 percent of the cost. And Goldman Sachs’ involvement.

    Just thought you might like a Sunday morning laff.


    • Scott Locklin said, on January 17, 2010 at 10:27 pm

      When I was looking into getting one of my startup ideas funded, the hot thing was “green” anything; green wedding planners, green computers -there were solar financial ideas like this as well. In fact, I’m pretty sure at one of the pitches, there was me (new piece of computer technology applicable to making things cheaper), and a guy who built robots. Everyone was interested in green wedding planners. I’m not surprised they came up with an “innovative” way of getting solar panels put on houses.
      Not sure if I’ll continue to write for Taki; new editor and all. Though I’ll need to blow off that sort of steam somewhere.

  10. […] from Scott Locklin on energy independence: …the hair shirt crowd needs to grow up; you can’t power the United States on pinwheels and […]

  11. crocodilechuck said, on February 7, 2010 at 4:04 am

    Provocative-but wrong. Can’t speak for Canada-but here in Australia there’s only about 30 yr of uranium left. Also see that you have conveniently omitted the shutdown/decommissioning costs attendant with nuclear. Last, you have completely ignored all the govt subsidies and guarantees that have made the industry ‘competitive’ since the 1950’s. Remember? ‘Too cheap to meter’……

    ps beer consumption in Australia is flat

  12. […] been postulated that over the past decade, it […]

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