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.
Publisher, Atomic Insights