Responding to “Science and the Greens” – via Skepteco

Suzy Hobbs Baker at Pop Atomic Studios shared a link to an excellent thought piece titled Science and the Greens that is posted on Skepteco: An Ecopragmatist examines the environmental movement.

Near the end of the piece, however, there is a section that needed some feedback.

Many analysts who warn against the dangers of rapidly increasing CO2 levels do not agree that this is a useful approach. The reality is, the world does not have a CO2 problem, it has a Chinese coal problem. Any reductions in US CO2 will be swamped by China’s increase in coal burning, and as Richard Muller argues in Energy for Future Presidents, the developing world will never follow a lead it sees being taken in the west unless it can afford to.

The most feasible solution in the short- to medium- term is the supplanting of coal with shale gas, as Dieter Helm argues, something which has already reduced US CO2 and could do the same for China. In the meantime, we need to invest more R&D into low-carbon alternatives, including nuclear, solar and even genetic engineering for higher-yielding energy crops, while avoiding the wish to pick winners now for an energy transition that will take more than a generation to achieve.


I could not let that go without comment. Some of you might have already read my opinion about Muller’s efforts to promote natural gas. Coincidentally, I have also made a few comments on Dieter Helm’s Spectator piece.

As is my frequent habit, I am repurposing the comment I submitted to Skepteco here. I often republish a comment made somewhere else when I am worried that my thoughts might get trashed by a moderator with an agenda, but I do not have that worry in this case. I just think that the ideas are worth sharing in a place more visible than a comment thread.

I was with you up until the very end, when you seemed to agree with the illogical position that it would be better for China to invest in building a shale gas production and distribution infrastructure than to continue what they are already doing – building a large number of nuclear power plant in a series production fashion.

The Chinese central planners, many of whom have excellent engineering educations, have figured out that nuclear power plants produce cheaper power than coal plants and that they require fewer supporting resources because their fuel delivery infrastructure is far less intrusive than the one required for their current coal plants or the one that they would have to build to support a system based on low energy density methane from deep shale deposits.

By building nuclear plants in large quantities in a series fashion, the Chinese are taking advantage of the economy of mass production. They can learn lessons from early units and apply those lessons to later units. They can streamline supply chains and build skilled work forces that do not have to relearn their jobs with every new plant.

They have also figured out something else about nuclear energy in the west – we did not pay attention to cost reduction as a significant measure of effectiveness. In fact, our vendors accepted onerous regulations because they were building at a time when their customers were rate regulated monopoly utilities who could always pass additional costs on to captive customers.

Chinese customers are captive, but the government has no reason to want to expend any more resources in energy production than is necessary.

One more thing – those nuclear plants that China is building emit about 1/100th as much CO2 as an equivalent methane fired power system – even when you include the entire construction life-cycle.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

About Rod Adams

20 Responses to “Responding to “Science and the Greens” – via Skepteco”

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  1. Rick Maltese says:

    The paragraph that comments on China’s coal as though they are the biggest problem is an oversimplification. The US may have lowered their coal consumption but now it gets exported and burned in some other country. Not sure if this is a big improvement.

    This is worth reading
    http://www.fastcoexist.com/1680868/does-natural-gas-really-produce-lower-carbon-emissions

    Besides the emissions from coal in the US is still 2nd to China.

    “China’s coal output increased from 1.3 billion tons in 2000 to 2.23 billion tons in 2005 making China by far the world’s largest coal producer (next largest is the U.S. with 1.13 billion tons produced in 2005).
    About half of China’s coal use is for electricity; and 80% of electricity generation is fueled by coal.
    China reportedly added over 90 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity in 2006 alone – the equivalent of almost 2 large coal power plants a week, and more than the entire fleet of generating plants in the United Kingdom.”
    Check out http://www.c2es.org/science-impacts/basics/fact-sheets/coal-facts

  2. Rick Maltese says:

    Very good point
    “They have also figured out something else about nuclear energy in the west – we did not pay attention to cost reduction as a significant measure of effectiveness. In fact, our vendors accepted onerous regulations because they were building at a time when their customers were rate regulated monopoly utilities who could always pass additional costs on to captive customers.”

    Cost reduction. The culture in North America is one of waste and a belief in endless resources. A culture that expects resources come easily and that we somehow emerged from the depression of the 30′s immune to seeing that ever again where rationing was common place. Some are waking up to the reality of limited resources and the cost of maintaining energy independence.

    US still gets 50% of electricity from coal. The picture that has been clear to us is slowly being pieced together in many other countries. Hopefully we can learn from their realization. The average Joe in places like the UK and China are more connected to a participatory mentality because they did not always have things so easy.

    I just hope that pragmatism is what we learn to adapt more fully. Even Obama had hopeful words in this regard talking about balanced solutions. It’s too easy for niche cliques of “wanna be” radicals to attach themselves to the latest “threats” to civilization without learning. They need to see that real and sensible solutions are here with us now and reachable with cooperation and participation.

    • Rick Maltese says:

      By “clear to us” I mean us pronuclear folks.

    • Brian Mays says:

      A culture that expects resources come easily and that we somehow emerged from the depression of the 30′s immune to seeing that ever again where rationing was common place.

      There was no rationing in the US in the 1930′s.

      US still gets 50% of electricity from coal.

      No, it doesn’t. The US has not generated 50% of its electricity from coal for almost a decade. In recent years, coal has comprised less than 45% of the electricity generated in the US.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Brian – this year, coal’s contribution is down to about 33% due to the far-below-international market price for natural gas.

        It would have been really dumb to ration in the 1930s. The Depression caused a lack of demand, not a lack of supply.

        My Depression Era parents were very good at efficient use of resources, not because they were told they were not allowed to buy things by the government, but because their parents did not have any money with which to purchase things that were available.

  3. Daniel says:

    Regarding cost reduction:

    Let it be said that France’s industrial model of having 5 or 6 nuclear plant designs allowed them to build and maintain a fleet at a fraction of their German, Japanese and US counterparts.

    Will we learn this time around that 1 to 4 models for the entire nuclear renaissance is enough. Then SMRs will finish the job for good.

    • jmdesp says:

      Basically almost only 1 design.

      There used to be the local UNGG design, but we realized in 1969 it was a dead end, and De Gaulle approved the decision to license the US PWR design instead
      (let me say that probably some part of the file are still confidential, since if he of all person approved that decision, he sure had under his eyes the most damning file about the failure of UNGG one can imagine. This happened more or less at the time of a core fusion accident at the Saint Laurent des Eaux plant)

      So everything is based on the licensed PWR design with the 900 MW generation, the 1300 MW generation and the 1450 MW generation. The 900 MW generation has the original CP0 design and some security enhancements in the CP1/CP2 (Aka CPY) design.

      One relevant thing here is that this CPY design has been exported to China which only started a few unit in the 90 and early 2000. The very slow speed of deployment of this technology in China, despite they having acquired complete rights on the technology and developed their own variation, the CPR-1000 design, has as a direct consequence the fact that today still only less than 2% of China electricity is generated by nuclear, and therefore a huge amount by coal instead.

      I think it’s quite obvious the fear of risks of nuclear has led China during the last decade to favor coal development instead of nuclear, and therefore the success ecologists have had of convincing even them that nuclear was dangerous has led to an impressive amount of coal deaths and pollution.

      It’s nice to see China finally understand how much nuclear can bring them, but it leaves a baste taste in the mouth to think about how this only comes after so many deaths have been caused by coal (by now, 10% of all Chinese rice is contaminated by cadmium at a level higher than the OMS limit).

  4. John Tucker says:

    China’s coal problem?

    Why point out and fixate on the elephant in your neighbors living room, especially the neighbor that works mostly for you and wants to obtain your standard of living. Its quick and easy and can be made relativity cheap for us to help them fix?

    31 percent of our emissions are from transportation. Resource issue wars and strife contribute significantly to emissions. Military activity in the middle east alone raises the greenhouse gas intensity of gasoline from ME imported oil by 8 to 18 percent. What about our oil problem?

    The world has a energy habit that for many involves a catastrophic fossil pollution and resource problem – climate change and acidification are some of the most pressing symptoms of that problem. Not factoring that cost into fuel use and across the board dumbing down of regulation and safety to make nuclear competitive with fossil fuels is going to be mistake and could tarnish nuclear power technology’s real and outstanding safety record.

    Considering the role of rumor, superstition and conspiracy in China they could be one incident away from recklessly abandoning nuclear power tech as many in Japan recently were.

    • Rick Maltese says:

      The acceptance of nuclear will be greater when people figure out all of it’s advantages. There is a general misconception that wind and solar are able to compete with nuclear. The basic hurdles are easier to overcome when a high authority figure like Obama or Chu advocates and educates about how nuclear is vastly superior and necessary.

      Electric cars (hybrids will likely be the norm) will be more acceptable when the public learns that recharging their batteries will be using electricity powered by nuclear rather than by CO2 emitting sources. Self reliance will also be a growing phenomenon where people will be ready with backup generators to keep the lights on during blackouts. We are slowly adapting.

      We know the Japanese are vulnerable to mass propaganda about radiation but between China and the US it’s hard to say who’s worse.

      • John Tucker says:

        True, we should talk considering TMI.

        The beginnings of real evaluation of a nuclear free Germany are being considered now and the future isn’t pretty according to some scenarios. ( http://www.theoildrum.com/files/BMU%20Bruttostromerzeugung%20Leitscen%202010%20E.jpg ). I haven’t finished reading the reports but the overview at the oil drum is shocking to say the least ( http://www.theoildrum.com/node/9480 ). [note imports, required solar and wind expansion] I cant imagine the waste and carbon costs/resources they are dumping into that disaster.

        Rooftop solar and some wind is wonderful but I wont ever forgive the Greens for pushing that extreme fiasco and trying to mislead the rest of the world on it.

        • John Tucker says:

          Breakthrough ( http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/why-governments-must-pick-the-right-energy-policy-winners/ ) is carrying a piece previously published in the Guardian titled Why governments must pick the right energy policy ‘winners’ ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/oct/30/governments-pick-energy-winners ) penned by some WWF types:

          If the UK relies excessively on a carbon price, we will end up locked in to a gas-based energy system, which is bad news for the climate, the consumer and for security of supply. And the apparent faith that nuclear – now a very mature technology – will be cheap and reliable this time round flies in the face of historic experience in the UK and globally, and ignores the huge cost over-runs with new nuclear projects under way in Europe.

          Which is a grossly and counter-factual unsupported statement ( or possibly intentional lie?) As noted in the comments, WWF also stated in it’s 2009 ‘G8 Climate Scorecards” report :

          WWF does not consider nuclear power to be a viable policy option, due
          to its costs, radiotoxic emissions, safety and proliferation
          impacts. To reflect this, a policy approach that favors the
          use of nuclear power was assessed in the following way:
          Indicators for the “current status” were adjusted, by assuming
          that electricity from nuclear energy was produced
          with gas, the most carbon efficient fossil fuel.

          ( http://assets.panda.org/downloads/g8_scorecards_report.pdf )

          Which is so incompetent it defies belief. What does that even mean? What is going on here??

          Of course with respect to “safety” as WWF sees it, I should note here there is another spectacular natural gas safety demonstration going on in the US this weekend as we speak:

          Gas explosion in Indianapolis levels part of a neighborhood ( http://wtvr.com/2012/11/11/gas-explosion-in-indianapolis-levels-part-of-a-neighborhood/ )

          • John Tucker says:

            Messed up on the italics –

            “Which is a grossly and counter-factual unsupported statement ( or possibly intentional lie?) As noted in the comments, WWF also stated in it’s 2009 ‘G8 Climate Scorecards” report :”

            Is my comment.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @John – I fixed your comment.

          • George Carty says:

            Maybe the WWF believes the only way to protect wildlife is to reduce human populations?

          • Brian Mays says:

            Maybe the WWF believes the only way to protect wildlife is to reduce human populations?

            … except for the population of wealthy donors to the WWF.

          • John Tucker says:

            Tks Rod.

            Considering the bulk damage from coal oil and gas – the land use/species impact of wind and the role of reservoirs and dams in aquatic extinctions I dont see how WWF can disparage nuclear with a straight face.

            Also I dont understand that weird vague opposition to a carbon price in that guardian piece. It doesn’t add up as protecting wildlife by any measurement. I agree it probably has more to do with attracting donors. No other conclusion fits that I can imagine.

  5. James Greenidge says:

    http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Cartoon_bird_warns_Fukushima_children_of_radiation_999.html

    This vehemently anti-nuclear “impartial science news” outfit goes to show that there’re no depths too low for fear mongers to spread FUD to an unwary public and even kids. My heart goes out to any pro-nuclear groups under siege in Japan! I only wish I can offer them some kind of air support!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

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