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

As of the year 2015 the estimated time remaining until thermal runaway is triggered is about 13 years. There is almost no public comprehension of this reality.

The only way to prevent species extinction via near term thermal runaway is to reduce world fossil fuel consumption enough to cause the Earth's atmospheric CO2 concentration to decrease over time rather than increase over time. Today the Earth's atmospheric CO2 concentration is over 400 ppmv. The preindustrial atmospheric CO2 concentration was 280 ppmv. Hence the excess atmospheric CO2 concentration is about 120 ppmv. The half life of the excess CO2 is 10 years. Hence if there was zero combustion of fossil fuels the atmospheric CO2 concentration would diminish at the rate:
(120 ppmv / 2) / 10 years = 6 ppmv /year.
The atmospheric CO2 concentration is currently rising at about 2.5 ppmv / year. Hence more than a 24% reduction in fossil CO2 emissions is required just to stop further direct increases in the atmospheric CO2 concentration. However, the ocean temperature lags behind the transient increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. As the transient atmospheric CO2 concentration causes heat accumulation by the ocean the ocean will release yet more CO2 to the atmosphere. Hence an immediate world wide CO2 emission reduction of at least 50% is required to simply prevent the present situation getting worse. Ultimately the only way to prevent eventual warm state trapping is to leave all fossil fuels in the ground. There is no escape from this blunt reality. Any process that involves removal of fossil fuels from the ground eventually leads to an increase in the ocean-atmosphere CO2 pool and hence in the atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Prevention of thermal runaway requires a near term 75% reduction in world wide fossil fuel extraction. Prevention of warm state trapping will eventually require complete world wide shutdown of fossil fuel extraction and may require use of nuclear weapons to enforce that shutdown. One of the most difficult related political issues is that preventive measures have a substantial immediate cost but take many years to have a noticeable effect. The beneficiaries of preventive measures are primarily subsequent human generations.

It would be nice if we could legislate an end to use of fossil fuels tomorrow. However, at this time as much as 75% of the present human population relies on food obtained from intense agricuilture, which in turn relies on fossil fuels for production and transportation of fertilizers and food stuffs.

In order to preserve human life on this planet over the long term there must be a sufficient increase in non-fossil electricity production to completely displace fossil fuels. To meet this challenge at the present world wide fossil fuel consumption requires a more than 20 fold increase in world wide installed nuclear generation capacity. In order to allow for modest increases in population and average per capita energy consumption in the third world during the next 60 years there must be at least a 40 fold increase in world installed nuclear reactor capacity.

In Ontario the the nuclear reactor capacity increase required to completely displace present consumption of fossil fuels is about ten fold. In areas where there is plentiful wind, wind can be harvested for electricity generation. However, the costs of storing and transmitting wind generated electricity are huge. Thus nuclear power will be the dominant energy source for meeting the Ontario non-fossil electricity generation requirement. A nuclear power station needs cooling water and hence must be sited close to a major river or lake.

Methanol can be made at farms and forest plantations by combining hydrogen obtained from on farm electrolysis of water with agricultural and forest waste carbohydrate. The methanol is easily transported by truck, rail or pipeline. Additional hydrogenation of methanol at a refinery will yield energy dense liquid fuels such as propane and gasoline. This liquid fuel production methodology more than doubles the liquid fuel production capacity that is possible via bio-ethanol processes.

The only experimentally proven prime energy technology with sufficient capacity to sustainably replace fossil fuels at a reasonable price is liquid sodium cooled fast neutron reactors. Such reactors derive their energy from U-238. Irrational governmental and public fears are currently preventing adoption of fast neutron reactor technology. The practical challenges in adoption of that technology include:
1. Safe management of large stocks of Pu-239;
2. Reliable exclusion of air and water from large pools of hot liquid sodium;
3. Complex radio isotope chemistry;
4. Advanced education;
5. Procrastinating politicians;
6. Misinformation and propaganda circulated by fossil fuel producers;
7. Need for a remote, high, dry and accessible Deep Geologic Repository formed in granite;
8. Need for a fossil carbon emissions tax;
9. Need to expand the installed non-fossil electricity generation and transmission/distribution capacity in Ontario 10 fold and world wide at least 40 fold. In Ontario that expansion means about doubling the installed nuclear generation capacity every 10 years.

An issue that is as important as expansion of nuclear generation capacity is adoption of peak demand based firm electricity rates and interruptible electricity rates that allow parties which are located close to non-fossil electricity generation to purchase otherwise constrained interruptible electricity at an affordable price. The Ontario Energy Board has totally failed to create an optional electricity rate that makes economic sense for synthetic liquid hydrocarbon production. Fertilizer and synthetic hydrocarbon fuel producers need to be able to purchase off peak and interruptible electricity at an affordable rate whenever there is surplus non-fossil electricity generation capacity that would otherwise be constrained for voltage regulation or reliability. This sale of interruptible electricity would also enable an electricity rate reduction for other electricity rate payers.

An essential element of a successful Interruptible Electricity Rate is a smart metering arrangement that prevents interruptible electricity being used to displace non-interruptible electricity except via an energy storage system which shifts stored interruptible energy from a time of electricity surplus to a time of electricity deficiency.

The present billing concept of a global adjustment that is equally shared over all electrical kWh sold is fundamentally wrong because it prevents cost effective displacement of fossil fuels with otherwise unsold off peak non-fossil electricity. Similarly transmission costs must be fully recovered at times of high grid electricity demand to allow reduction of transmission/distribution charges to interruptible customers when the electricity grid has unused transmission/distribution capacity.

This web page last updated January 18, 2017.

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