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Xylene Power Ltd. provides professional engineering services relating to energy, electricity and climate change.
Fossil fuel consumers must face the reality that they are causing increasing temperatures, extraordinary droughts, huge forest fires, crop losses, insect infestations, violent storms, flash floods, rising sea levels and human migration pressures.
Governments must face the non-fossil energy supply choice:
A problem common to all renewable energy forms is storing renewable energy when it is plentiful for later use when it is scarce. Renewable energy has seasonal availability. Energy storage for a few hours is technically practical but energy storage for weeks or months is inefficient and is usually prohibitively expensive.
A mountainous region with consistent rainfall and a low average population density, such as British Columbia or Quebec, can rely on renewable energy and seasonal hydraulic energy storage if the population is willing to build and maintain the required large hydraulic energy storage reservoirs. These reservoirs have major impacts on fisheries and indigenous populations.
Adjacent regions with sufficient intermittent renewable energy generation may be able to access this hydraulic energy storage capacity by integrating their electricity grids with the region containing the hydraulic energy storage. However,such electricity grid integration requires a high degree of political integration.
A related major issue is thatfresh water that is used for electricity production is fresh water that is not available for agricultural irrigation or for recharging depleted aquifers. The amount of fresh water required per kWh for hydro electricity production is far in excess of the amount of fresh water required per kWh for nuclear electricity production. As existing fresh water aquifers are depleted the resulting increasing requirement for fresh water for agricultural irrigation will reduce the amount of river water available for electricity generation.
The nuclear energy supply alternative requires political stability, an educated work force and year round access to sufficient water for evaporative cooling. Making nuclear power safe and sustainable requires enlightened government policy relating to: nuclear reactor technology, natural draft cooling towers, nuclear fuel reprocessing, radioactive material transport and radio isotope storage. Obtaining such enlightened government policy from legislators is often extremely difficult. The legislators respond to the demands of voters who have little or no understanding of the technical issues. The North American education system has failed to teach the pubic basic energy supply physics.
As a result of over a century of heavy dependence on fossil fuels, in many jurisdictions the electricity rate is primarily based on kWh consumed. However, that electricity rate structure encourages use of fossil fuels in preference to electricity even when there is surplus non-fossil electricity that is available at no marginal cost. In order for non-fossil electricity to economically displace fossil fuelsthe electricty rate must be primarily based on each consumer's measured peak kW or peak kVA during each billing period, not kWh consumed during the billing period. A peak kW or peak kVA based electricity rate financially encourages appropriate use of consumer owned behind the meter energy storage. From a non-fossil electricity rate perspective measurements of kWh consumed are only useful for fairly allocating surplus non-fossil electricity generation capacity.
Changing both the primary energy source and the electricity billing methodology involves many transition and implementation issues.
This web site contains over 160 energy, electricity and climate change related web pages, most of which are accessible via six tables of contents titled:
ENERGY AND SOCIETY;
Hydrocarbon pipeline related matters are included in the ELECTRICITY section under the heading:
ENERGY TRANSMISSION AND DISTRIBUTION.
Synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuel production matters are included in the ELECTRICITY section under the heading:
Today, in spite of decades of overwhelming scientific evidence, most governments have failed to adopt the energy system changes required to prevent severe climate change. These governmental failures include:
1) Ongoing planning and construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure;
2) Failure to impose a tax on fossil CO2 emissions sufficient to keep fossil fuels in the ground;
3) Failure to build sufficient non-fossil electricity generation capacity to displace fossil fuels;
4) Failure to set aside and suitably zone the land corridors needed for the high voltage electricity transmission lines, rail lines and district heating pipelines needed for fossil fuel displacement;
5) Failure to set aside and suitably zone sites suitable for the required nuclear generating stations, nuclear district heating plants and commuter railway parking lots;
6) Failure to adopt an electricity rate structure that financially rewards appropriate use of energy storage;
7) Failure to adopt an electricity rate structure that enables economic use of intermittent surplus non-fossil electricity generation capacity for displacement of fossil fuels.
8) Failure to plan for and build hydroelectric power capacity and/or nuclear power capacity sufficient to meet the combined electrical and thermal power requirements at times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine;
9) Failure to educate the public with respect to critical energy related matters including:
a) the law of conservation of energy;
b) atmospheric thermal runaway;
c) the nature of electricity;
d) photon energy quantization;
e) sustainable non-fossil energy sources;
f) constraints on utility supplied power and energy;
g) long distance electricity transmission;
h) energy storage;
i) electricity rate structure;
j) nuclear energy;
k) fast neutron reactors;
l) nuclear fuel reprocessing;
m) nuclear waste disposal.
10) When legislators comprehend the scope of the work that must be done to prevent atmospheric thermal runaway they often feel overwhelmed and do nothing. At the root of the problem is that legislative action is driven by voter demand and most voters do not understand the basic energy balance that drives climate change.
Today Earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is over 400 ppmv and this CO2 concentration is rising at over 2.5 ppmv per year. Humans are injecting fossil CO2 into the atmosphere at more than twice the rate at which CO2 is absorbed by the oceans and at many times the rate at which CO2 is removed from the oceans by natural processes (formation of carbonate rock and fossil fuels). Prior to the industrial revolution Earth's atmospheric CO2 concentration was steady at about 280 ppmv. A consequence of the increased atmospheric CO2 concentration is that Earth is continuously absorbing more radiant energy from the sun than it emits via thermal infrared radiation. This net energy absorption is causing continuous heat accumulation.
The heat accumulation is melting: ice that floats on the ocean surface, ice that occurs as land borne glaciers, ice that occurs as permafrost and ice that occurs as fine particles in clouds. This melting of ice is reducing Earth's solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo), which is increasing the rate of net energy absorption. This net energy absorption is gradually warming the oceans. This warming process will continue until the average temperature rises about 17.4 degrees C.
Today Earth is on the threshold of a spontaneous uncontrolled atmospheric temperature rise known as thermal runaway. If the net energy absorption by Earth continues thermal runaway will melt the polar ice caps and will cause Earth's average emission temperature, as viewed from outer space, to rise by about 17.4 degrees C. This temperature increase will persist for several hundred thousand years and will cause a global large animal extinction. This temperature increase has two major components, about 3 degrees C due to increased atmospheric CO2 and H2O concentrations and about 14 degrees C due to a decrease in Earth's average solar reflectivity (Bond albedo) from about 0.30 to about 0.10 caused by the phase change of water from ice to liquid.
The non-linear equations that describe this warming phenomena have two stable solutions. These two solutions correspond to the present atmospheric "cool" state and a future "warm" state. Thermal runaway is the spontaneous transition from the "cool" state to the "warm" state that is triggered by an atmospheric CO2 concentration exceeding about 433 ppmv.
Thermal runaway is not an unproven theory. The sedimentary isotope and fossil record shows that CO2 triggered atmospheric thermal runaway occurred about 55 million years ago, during a period known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During the PETM the polar ice caps completely melted and all land animals larger than a mole became extinct. Thermal runaway will not happen over night. It will take several decades to develop. However, once started thermal runaway will be impossible to stop.
In Canada a near term consequence of thermal runaway will be uncontrolled human migration into Canada from lower latitude countries to such an extent that there will be insufficient food and consequent mass starvation.
PREVENTION OF THERMAL RUNAWAY:
Preventing thermal runaway requires an immediate and sustained decrease in the atmospheric CO2 concentration. Achieving such a decrease requires an immediate 90% reduction in fossil CO2 emissions by all industrialized countries.
The fossil fuel industry and most elected governments are simply unwilling to sufficiently reduce fossil CO2 emissions. The problem is compounded by persons who do not understand that due to storage and transmission losses displacement of fossil fuel supplied energy requires about twice as much renewable energy. In most jurisdictions the renewable energy supply and storage options are not sufficient for displacement of fossil fuels, so rapid deployment of advanced nuclear power reactors and corresponding electricity transmission/distribution is essential.
As nuclear electricity generation displaces fossil fueled electricity generation the market value of intermittent renewable electricity generation decreases, potentially making present investments in intermittent renewable electricity generation stranded assets unless there is sufficient balancing energy storage.
The present electricity rate structure in Ontario is principally based on kWh rather than peak kW or peak kVA. This existing electricity rate structure discourages construction and use of consumer owned energy storage. At the root of this problem is an erroneous Ontario government policy of encouraging minimization of electrical kWh consumption instead of encouraging minimization of peak kW or peak kVA and minimization of overall fossil fuel consumption.
There is insufficient public recognition that the cost of nuclear electricity delivered to an urban load is much less than the cost of equal reliability wind and solar energy delivered to the same urban load. Nuclear electricity kWh measured at the generator are more expensive than wind generated kWh measured at the generator but nuclear electricity is three fold less expensive to transmit per kWh-km, involves about 4 fold shorter average transmission distances, does not require expensive seasonal energy storage, does not incur energy storage losses and does not require balancing generation.
These issues collectively make reliable electricity delivered to an urban load from a nuclear power station in Ontario about five fold less expensive than equally reliable electricity supplied by wind and solar generation.
There is also insufficient public recognition that advances in liquid sodium cooled fast neutron reactors (FNRs) and related technology have enabled a large increase in nuclear plant life, an over 100 fold improvement in natural uranium utilization efficiency and an over 1000 fold reduction in the average isolated storage time required for safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
For safety in depth each modern power Fast Neutron Reactor (FNR) fuel bundle: passively shuts down if its operating temperature exceeds the operating temperature setpoint and has an independent temperature control/power shutdown system. Each FNR has many independent heat removal systems.
In order to displace fossil fuel consumption the price of a marginal electrical kWh to the consumer must be less than the cost of a marginal fossil fuel thermal kWh. To meet this requirement the electricity system revenue must be primarily obtained from a charge proportional to each consumer's monthly peak kW or peak kVA. The peak kW or kVA measurement apparatus should be automatically disabled at times when the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) signals that there is a significant surplus of non-fossil electricity.
Due to repeated political procrastination with respect to a fossil CO2 emissions tax, electricity rates and nuclear power development there is no longer certainty that atmospheric thermal runaway can be avoided. Under the best of circumstances the time required to build the nuclear reactor capacity required for fossil fuel displacement is over 30 years. During that time the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration may trigger thermal runaway. However, absent prompt construction of this additional nuclear reactor capacity thermal runaway during the later half of the 21st century is certain.
Prevention of thermal runaway requires:
a) A fossil CO2 emissions tax sufficient to cause fossil fuels to be left in the ground;
b) Immediate construction of much more nuclear electricity generation and related electricity transmission capacity;
c) Widespread adoption of liquid sodium cooled fast neutron breeder reactors (FNRs) and nuclear fuel recycling;
d) Interim use of renewable energy when and where readily available for displacement of fossil fuels;
e) Adoption of electricity rates primarily based on each consumer's peak kVA measured at times when electricity generation is in short supply;
f) Widespread adoption of consumer owned behind-the-meter energy storage;
g) Large scale production of synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels for fueling aircraft;
h) Large scale production of ammonia, sodium and chlorine for fueling ships;
i) Wide spread adoption of lithium batteries and compressed hydrogen for automotive propulsion;
j) Widespread adoption of electricity and liquid / compressed hydrogen for railway propulsion;
k) Adoption of nuclear district heating and/or cooling in urban areas;
l) Widespread adoption of heat pumps for heating and cooling of buildings.
In recent years in Ontario there has been a disproportionate investment in wind, solar and run-of-river electricity generation without corresponding adoption of peak kVA based electricity rates and without sufficient investment in nuclear power, energy storage and electricity transmission. As a result much of the renewable electricity generation capacity is going to waste. This waste has been concealed by improper electricity rates and by deceptive accounting by parties with short term political and profit agendas.
Ontario is in the ridiculous position of exporting electricity at about $0.01 / kWh while charging Ontario consumers about $0.20 / kWh. This electricity pricing strategy has increased consumption of fossil fuels and has made many Ontario businesses internationally uncompetitive. The Ontario government has repeatedly ignored engineering advice to allow consumers to voluntary change from an electicity rate primarily based on measured kWh to a new electricity rate primarily based on measured peak kW or peak kVA. The new rate would allow economic use of surplus electrical kWh for displacement of fossil fuels.
In spite of multiple promises, at this time elected governments are unwilling to act to sufficiently reduce fossil CO2 emissions. Hence this author is not optimistic that atmospheric thermal runaway and the consequent global large animal extinction will be avoided. In Ontario the Liberal government is unwilling to reprice electricity to reduce total provincial fossil fuel consumption. In the USA no major political party is facing the full scope of the required CO2 emission reductions. The political problem in India is comparable. Nowhere in North America is net new nuclear power capacity being built. In every case financial corruption from the fossil fuel industry is driving government decisions. In both Ontario and the USA CO2 emissions are increasing due to replacement of non-fossil nuclear electricity generation capacity by natural gas fuelled electricity generation.
There is only one sustainable path for displacement of fossil fuels and that path requires widespread adoption of fast neutron reactors. In 1994 former US president Bill Clinton, the husband of current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, cancelled the highly successsful US fast neutron reactor development program. Since neither Bill Clinton nor Hilliary Clinton have acknowledged this mistake it is reasonable to conclude that Hilliary Clinton is not serious about sufficiently reducing US CO2 emisssions to prevent atmospheric thermal runaway. The problem with her opponent Donald Trump is even worse. He does not believe in the science related to climate change and he advocates expansion of US coal production. The USA, which used to be a leader in science and engineering matters, has totally given up its leadership role.
The failure of major elected governments to commit to advanced nuclear power technology is highly troubling. If present governmental behavior patterns continue much of the existing world population will die of starvation within the 21st century. This starvation will be triggered by agricultural failures due to drought and aquifer depletion at equatorial and middle latitudes. As the absorbed solar radiation and atmospheric temperature rise so also will soil moisture evaporation. Absent sufficient nuclear power for desalination of sea water and pumping of desalinated water inland, in many places there will not be enough fresh water in the dry season to support intensive agriculture. Already there are substantial reductions in land used for agriculture in Australia, Africa and North America due to lack of irrigation water.
NOTES TO READER:
Most of the material on this web site is suitable for persons with a high school science education. However, some of the material requires the reader to have a deeper understanding of mathematics, physics, chemistry or engineering.
The web page ENERGY AND SOCIETY gives an overview of some of the major issues that are more fully developed elsewhere on this web site.
Visitors to this web site should review the various other tables of contents that are accessible via links located at the top and bottom of each web page.
Web site visitors are encouraged to email constructive comments to the author.
This web page last updated August 16, 2016.
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