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By Charles Rhodes, P. Eng., Ph.D.

Xylene Power Ltd. provides professional engineering services relating to energy, electricity and climate change.

Thermal runaway is uncontrolled spontaneous thermal energy accumulation by planet Earth. Combustion of fossil fuels produces CO2 which reduces Earth's infrared emissivity and hence causes net heat accumulation by the oceans. The net absorbed heat melts snow and ice and liberates more CO2. The snow and ice melting reduce Earth's solar reflectivity which causes yet more net heat absorption. These processes together form a positive feedback loop which is now running out of control. If present trends continue thermal runaway will eventually cause an 18 degree C average atmospheric temperature rise, an 80 m sea level rise and a global extinction of all large land animals including humans. The rate at which this warming process is occurring is accelerating.

Thermal runaway can only be stopped by immediate and complete displacement of fossil fuel energy and heat production by non-fossil electricity. Even after combustion of fossil carbon is stopped, due to the long half life of nonequilibrium CO2 in Earth's atmosphere, net planetary heat accumulation will continue for a further 42 years.

Implementation of the much heralded 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change will guarantee human extinction via thermal runaway. The limited and delayed fossil CO2 emission reductions contemplated in that agreement are not sufficient to reduce the atmospheric CO2 concentration and hence will not prevent thermal runaway.

On November 29, 2016 the Liberal government of Canada demonstrated its unwillingness to adhere to even the limited CO2 emission reductions contemplated in the 2015 Paris Agreement by federal cabinet approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. The energy, jobs and profits from that major new fossil fuel infrastructure investment could be much better realized via a comparable investment in nuclear power capacity.

At the root of the thermal runaway problem is widespread lack of public understanding regarding the cumulative effect of net heat absorption on the average planetary solar reflectivity. Above a threshold atmospheric CO2 concentration the thermal runaway process will run uncontrolled until there is no more ice on Earth left to melt.

In Canada during the last three decades almost every year has been significantly warmer than the year before. The cumulative warming effects on glaciers, ocean ice, ice roads, permafrost, average air temperature, insect infestations and extreme weather events have been striking. In the USA the direct costs of major floods, major storms, wild fires and droughts have risen by more than $100 billion per year. In the US south-west major aquifers are near depletion.

The projected future consequences of the ongoing warming are immense. The belief that mankind can continue to emit fossil CO2 to the atmosphere and then adapt to the resulting changed climate is completely false. Already there are major crop failures, extinctions of large tropical animals and mass human migrations from equatorial countries to more temperate countries.

Fossil fuel producers and consumers must face the reality that they are directly responsible for the consequences of fossil CO2 triggered climate change. Continued use of fossil fuels for primary energy supply is simply not a viable option.

Governments must face the financially and politically difficult decision to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to adopt an appropriate mix of renewable energy and nuclear energy. The optimum energy supply mix depends on local: geography, sunlight, wind, rainfall, political stability, public education and work force training.

Problems common to all renewable energy forms are seasonality of renewable energy supply and storing renewable energy when it is plentiful for later use when it is scarce. Energy storage for a few hours is possible but bulk energy storage for weeks or months is usually both inefficient and 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. However, such reservoirs have limited capacity and have major impacts on downstream river flow, fisheries and indigenous populations.

Adjacent regions with intermittent solar and wind 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, there are practical constraints on hydraulic energy storage related to the maximum tolerable variations in downstream river flow.

A related major issue is that river water that is used for hydraulic electricity production is river water that is not available for remote agricultural irrigation or for recharging depleted aquifers. The amount of river water required per kWh for hydraulic electricity production is far greater than the amount of river water required per kWh for nuclear electricity production. As fresh water aquifers are depleted the resulting increased requirement for river water for agricultural irrigation will reduce the amount of river water that is available for hydraulic electricity generation.

The nuclear energy supply alternative requires transparency, political stability, public education, a highly trained work force and year round access to sufficient water for evaporative cooling. Making nuclear power safe and sustainable requires enlightened government policies relating to: nuclear reactor technology, natural draft cooling towers, nuclear fuel reprocessing, radioactive material transport and radio isotope storage. Obtaining such enlightened government policies from legislators who lack an advanced science education can be extremely difficult. The legislators respond to irrational demands of voters who usually have little or no understanding of the technical issues. The North American education system has failed to teach the voting pubic basic energy supply physics.

As a result of over a century of heavy dependence on fossil fuels, in most jurisdictions electricity rate revenue is primarily based on the number of kWh consumed. However, that electricity rate structure encourages use of fossil fuels in preference to non-fossil electricity even when there are surplus non-fossil kWh available at zero marginal cost. In order for non-fossil electricity to economically displace fossil fuels the electricty rate must be primarily based on a consumer's measured peak kW or peak kVA during each billing period. A peak kW or peak kVA based electricity rate, in addition to encouraging conservation of energy, financially encourages appropriate use of consumer owned behind the meter energy storage. Measurements of kWh consumed should be used for allocating spare non-fossil electricity generation capacity for fossil fuel displacement and energy storage.

Changing the electricity billing methodology involves transition issues relating to consumer education. Consumers must be taught that to reduce electricity costs they must invest in hybrid heating (fossil fuel displacement), energy storage and load management equipment. That education process will take several years.

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:

Hydrocarbon pipeline related matters are included in the ELECTRICITY section under the heading:

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) Continued 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 replace fossil fuels;

4) Failure to set aside and suitably zone river valleys that are potentially suitable for hydraulic energy storage;

5) Failure to set aside and suitably zone the land corridors needed for the high voltage electricity transmission lines, rail lines and district heating pipelines required for fossil fuel displacement;

6) Failure to set aside and suitably zone sites suitable for the required nuclear electricity generating stations, nuclear district heating plants and commuter railway parking lots;

7) Failure to adopt an electricity rate structure that financially rewards appropriate use of energy storage;

8) Failure to adopt an electricity rate structure that enables economic use of intermittent surplus non-fossil electricity generation capacity for displacement of fossil fuels.

9) Failure to plan for and build hydroelectric storage and generation 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;

10) 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.

11) 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 physics of 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 nearly 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 further increasing the rate of net energy absorption. This net energy absorption is gradually warming the oceans. This warming process will continue until the average Earth solar reflectivity (planetary Bond albedo) drops from 30% to 10% with an accompanying temperature rise of about 18 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 18 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 4 degrees C directly 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. There is a further small temperature increase due to the decrease in Earth infrared emissivity as the rate of ice formation decreases.

The non-linear equations that describe this warming phenomena have two stable solutions. These two solutions correspond to the atmospheric "cool" state and the atmospheric "warm" state. Thermal runaway is a 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 ratio 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. Spontaneous thermal runaway will not happen over night. It will take several decades to develop. However, once started spontaneous thermal runaway will be impossible to stop.

A foreseeable 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.

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 have demonstrated that they are simply unwilling to even consider sufficient reduction of fossil CO2 emissions. The problem is compounded by a voting public that does not understand basic energy issues. In most jurisdictions the renewable energy supply and energy 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 unless there is sufficient balancing energy storage. Over investment in intermittent renewable electricity generation without sufficient energy storage will create stranded assets.

The present electricity rate structure in Ontario is principally based on kWh consumed rather than peak kW or peak kVA. This existing electricity rate structure discourages construction and use of consumer owned behind the meter 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. The Ontario Long Term Energy Plan does not adequately address displacement of fossil fuels in the heating and transportation markets with non-fossil electricity. The present Ontario government refuses to face the reality that to displace fossil fuels the operating nuclear reactor capacity in Ontario must be at least tripled in the near term.

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. An erroneous electricity transmission rate structure is to blame. Nuclear electricity kWh measured at the generator are more expensive than wind generated kWh measured at the generator but nuclear electricity is 3 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 potentially 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 isolated storage time required for safe disposal of 95% of spent nuclear fuel. Even with liquid sodium fast neutron reactors about 5% of the spent nuclear fuel should be kept in safe isolated dry storage for about one million years.

For safety in depth each modern Fast Neutron Reactor (FNR) fuel bundle: passively shuts down if its operating temperature exceeds its operating temperature setpoint and has an independent temperature control/power shutdown system. Each FNR has many independent heat removal systems.

Properly designed FNRs use a 2.8 m thickness of liquid sodium for neutron shielding to increase equipment life and to minimize production of decommissioning nuclear waste.

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 have a 4.3 hour step response time and should be automatically disabled at times when the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) signals that there is a 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 certainty that atmospheric thermal runaway can be avoided. Under the best of circumstances the time required to build the nuclear reactor capacity required for total fossil fuel energy displacement in Ontario is over 30 years. During that time interval the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration may trigger thermal runaway. However, absent prompt construction of this additional nuclear reactor capacity thermal runaway during 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 Ontario electricity rates are sky high and 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 $0.23 / 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 voluntary change from the obsolete 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 non-fossil electrical kWh for displacement of fossil fuels in Ontario.

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 confident that atmospheric thermal runaway and the consequent global large animal extinction will be avoided. In Ontario the Liberal government is unwilling to change the electricity rate structure 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, for reasons of political expediency, cancelled the highly successsful US fast neutron reactor development program. The USA, which used to be a world leader in nuclear engineering matters, has totally given up its leadership role. Hopefully the new Trump administration will address this problem.

The failure of 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 net absorbed energy and atmospheric temperature continue to rise so also will soil moisture evaporation. Absent sufficient nuclear power for desalination of sea water and for 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.

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 November 30, 2016.

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