Technology advances, politicians hold back

In the face of the utterly depressing final confirmation that the proposed energy bill has been abandoned in the US Senate in the face of Republican opposition, and the realisation that Obama has let the opportunity die without a fight, as Joe Romm puts it, I cast around for something cheering this morning.  I found it in an interesting article on Chris Goodall’swebsite Carbon Commentary. The article describes the world’s first molten salts Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plant. It’s not the first to use molten salts, in that many of the newer CSP plants use molten salts storage to extend the plant’s daily operating hours, but it is the first to use molten salts not just to store heat but also to collect it from the sun in the first place. Normally, pressurised oil which heats up to around 390 degrees is used to collect the heat.

Molten salts can operate at higher temperatures than oils, up to 550 degrees, thus increasing the efficiency and power output of a plant. With the higher-temperature heat storage allowed by the direct use of salts, the plant can also extend its operating hours longer than an oil-operated CSP plant with molten salt storage, working, the article claims, 24 hours a day for several days even in the absence of sun or during rainy days.

This feature also enables a simplified plant design, as it avoids the need for oil-to-salts heat exchangers, and eliminates the safety and environmental concerns related to the use of oils.

Significantly, the higher temperatures reached by the molten salts enable the use of steam turbines at the standard pressure/temperature parameters as used in most common gas-cycle fossil power plants. This means that conventional power plants can be integrated – or, in perspective, replaced – with this technology without expensive retrofits to the existing assets. The first plant, a small one of 5 MW, located in Priolo Gargallo (Sicily), is fully integrated to an existing combined-cycle gas power plant.

A small comfort, perhaps. However the writer describes it as a top-notch world’s first, expensive at around 60 million euros but with overwhelming scope for a massive roll-out of the new technology at utility scale in sunny regions like Northern Africa, the Middle East, Australia, the US.

Solar power is certain to play a large part globally in a future of renewable energy, if we don’t destroy that future before it arrives, and the constant improvements in harnessing the power of the sun are highly encouraging.

Meanwhile back in New Zealand the government has today released a draft of its proposed new energy strategy, which Gerry Brownlee announced the need for shortly after becoming Minister of Energy because the previous one  was just “an idealistic vision document for carbon neutrality”.  I’ve only had a cursory look so far, but it certainly looks like the great step backwards that he signalled. In the section headed Areas of Focus the leading item is “Develop petroleum and mineral fuel resources.” This is what it means:

“The country already benefits substantially from the revenue gathered from the development and sale of petroleum and coal resources, and both are significant export earners.

“Further commercialisation of petroleum and mineral fuel resources has the potential to produce a step change in economic growth for the country.”

The document does move on to renewables:

“The Government retains the aspirational, but achievable, target that 90 percent of electricity generation be from renewable sources by 2025 (in an average hydrological year) providing this does not affect security of supply.”

But we’re not going to get carried away with aspiration:

“Achieving this target must not be at the expense of the security and reliability of our electricity supply. For the foreseeable future some fossil fuel generation will be required to support supply security.”

There is some useful stuff on renewables and on new technologies, but the minister is obviously unwilling to face the reality of what continuing to produce and burn petroleum and coal actually means for the climate. It means hell and high water, to use Joe Romm’s words in his book of that title. In that book Romm also said that the global warming problem is a now only a problem of politics and political will. Technologies advance, but politicians lag.

12 thoughts on “Technology advances, politicians hold back”

  1. The new 4th gen Nuclear that the Chinese are embracing looks promising too

    Compared with the third generation reactors which have an utility rate of uranium of just one percent, CEFR boasts an utility rate of more than 60 percent.

    A new recycling technology called pyroprocessing is also used to close the fuel cycle by separating the unused fuel from most of the radioactive waste.

    “The CEFR is safer, more environment-friendly, and more economic than its predecessors,” Zhang said.

  2. Hansen discusses this in Storms of My Grandchildren. He thought that if there was to be a nuclear renaissance in the US it would be led by third-generation plants which are ready to go now. “However, a substantial nuclear renaissance, able to supplant a large portion of coal power, will occur only if we are confident that fourth-generation power plants are on the way.” It’s their capacity to deal with the nuclear waste from the third-generation plants and to meet growing energy demands that appeals to him. He points out that fourth-generation power plants mean we already have enough fuel stockpiled, in nuclear waste and by-products of nuclear weapons, to supply all of our fuel needs for about a thousand years.

  3. One name should act as a dire warning for Barack Obama – Kevin Rudd! The man who was riding on unprecedented – literally – poll approval late last year, and the hopes of millions were pinned to real action stemming from his proclamation that Climate Change is “the greatest moral challenge of our time”.

    Then he decided he couldn’t get a climate bill through our senate. Shoved it all on the backburner until 2013! The public stopped listening, his polls plummeted to unprecedented lows, and now we have our first female PM (who will probably win the August election – which is a relief given who the opposition are). But the internal conflicts and lack of real vision – beyond giving us ‘Business as Usual Lite’ – that hamper Labor have not gone away.

    Obama is in similar danger of having the people who voted for him simply sink into apathy, despair and cynicism.

    As to nuclear power, I remain skeptical on the basis of the cost of plants, the opportunity cost of investing in these highly-centralised and expensive facilities, and their net carbon budgets (Roxby, the world’s biggest Uranium mine in my home state will – under its current expansion plans – consume about half the state’s power, most of which will come from a brown coal-fired power station, for a start.)

    However, as my state stands to make $squillions – we are, according to our (NZ-born) premier, ‘the Saudi Arabia of Uranium’, and he’s not far wrong – I suspect the $ will win the day in any export argument here. Particularly where we are shipping to nuclear plants that are already in operation, in countries that are NPT signatories. I doubt that we’ll ever develop our own plants, though, through a combination of the drawbacks I’ve mentioned and prevailing NIMBY sentiment.

    However, please bear in mind that the current Uranium fever may also have a very large downside for our local environment.

    (And I’m not under the impression that we really have a thousand years of fuel, particularly if nuclear electricity begins to heavily substitute for ‘black’ production and we shift to electric cars etc.. The general impression here is several decades worth.)

    In one of those fascinating twists a trial 40Mw Solar thermal – but not, apparently, base-load – plant is due to be set up here as a component of the Roxby expansion, because the uranium mine will require massive volumes of water that cannot be extracted from the over-subscribed Great Artesian Basin; hence, politically-acceptable ‘clean’ electricity to power giant desal facilities to extract water from Spencer Gulf for the mine and processing facilities.

    Hydro has virtually collapsed in Australia – along with reliable rain and snow fall – and was actually removed from the schedule of accredited ‘green’ power as defined by our federal government a couple of years ago!

    Interestingly my home state also has the largest wind-farm capacity of any in Australia, and will soon be producing about 1/3rd of the country’s wind-power.

    (And, final note of interest, Stephen Schneider was ‘Thinker in Residence’ here in 2006, at the state government’s invitation.)

  4. “(And I’m not under the impression that we really have a thousand years of fuel, particularly if nuclear electricity begins to heavily substitute for ‘black’ production and we shift to electric cars etc.. The general impression here is several decades worth.)”
    The thousands of years are the figures for 4th generation plants which basically use the current stockpile of nuclear waste as fuel.

    This government’s strategy makes clear why taxing CO2 at the source is necessary. Otherwise all fossil fuels that are available will be dug out.


  5. Ah, the return of the fast-breeders and their new cousins!

    The wikipedia article gives plant commencement dates of 2030 and beyond, with one 2021. It also describes a couple of projects that have recently fallen over.

    The Chinese ‘comparative advantage’ – investment decisions based on perceived national/Party interest that don’t need to be so reliant on shareholders’ anticipated returns – probably sets them up well here. The Chinese plant appears to be an experimental prototype. Any ideas how many actual production plants maybe in the pipeline, and when?

    Whatever one’s attitude to these things – and I remain skeptical – I think it’s pretty clear that we can’t be looking to put all our eggs in this one basket.

    One of my concerns with nuclear generally is precisely that it’s presented as essentially a ‘business as usual’ option; like ‘clean coal’ I fear the ‘moral hazard’ of the impending wonder technology forestalling the development of a genuinely lean, low-impact economy based on efficiency and renewables.

  6. “Any ideas how many actual production plants maybe in the pipeline, and when?”
    No. But I am sure Barry at “Brave New Climate” knows the answer. I am skeptical as well, but then I have always been opposed to Nuclear Energy on principal (some might say ideological) grounds. I does seem however that 4th gen plants offer a way to deal with the waste problem (if they really are as good and safe as their proponents make them out to be).


  7. No plug for Gen IV nuclear would be complete without a plug for the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor:

    An old idea in nuclear power gets reexamined

    It cannot suffer a core meltdown (the core is already molten), breeds Uranium 233 rather than Plutonium (making it useless for producing weapons), is about as efficient in fuel use and waste as fast spectrum reactors, is passively safe with SCRAM procedure the same as normal shutdown and low pressure operation, uses plentiful Thorium as fuel and potential for factory manufacture and therefore low cost.

    It may or may not be a magic bullet, but it seems criminal that one is not being built to find out.

  8. Thanks Quokka (fellow Aussie or just like the name?)

    But that link appears to be behind a paywall!

    I found this one, though, which, if you can bear the lurid colour scheme and clunky layout, is actually rather informative – ( a date would be nice, though! )

    This qualifier from the same source is worth noting, however;

    It is certainly premature to celebrate this technology yet. Much of the feasibility data is from small scale tests and from simulations. There are technical challenges that will have to be overcome. One of these is to find a containment material that does not have the nasty tendency that steel has to dissolve in molten lead.

    However, I guess I have to grit my teeth and say, yes, that’s an option we’d definitely need to research!

  9. Bill,

    Yeah, another Aussie. Will we all get invited to Canberra for a citizens climate gab fest? Just another opportunity for deniers and one of the silliest ideas I’ve heard for a while.

    The article you linked to is about a lead cooled reactor. The LFTR is liquid fluoride salt cooled and both the core and blanket are both dissolved in molten salt. The beauty of this is that chemical reprocessing may be done periodically without reactor shutdown. And the really neat thing is the “frozen” salt plugs in the bottom of the reactor vessel that melt if the thing gets too hot draining the fissionable material into a container with non-critical geometry. Just about impossible to get that wrong.

    A good site for thorium reactors:

    Energy from Thorium

    and a link to a PDF of the American Scientist article. I didn’t have a problem with a paywall, so I’m not sure what went wrong.

    It’s true that the LFTR is behind fast spectrum reactors in development, but an MSR was successfully run in the 1960s which is a reasonable indication that it at least feasible.

  10. I listened to Martin Luther King’s Dream speech the other day and was stuck by the following words, which resound so well with the current political climate in the US and the timidity of Gillard in Australia.

    “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

    King’s comment on the need for action on race relations translates well to the action needed today on climate change.

    The other point Joe Romm makes in his book is that diffident politicians, or those wholly opposed to action, will cloak their inaction in a call for “new technology” development as a solution (e.g. Bush & fuel-cell cars). The reality is that substantive action today, coupled with pre-existing technology, can already make inroads into the problem.

Leave a Reply