My new word for the energy sources popularly known as “renewables” is “unreliables”. Though there may be some tiny exceptions, the general characteristic is that they are all diffuse sources that cannot actually be controlled by humans or automated control systems.
One of the main reasons that energy has been a huge political topic since about World War I is that it plays a major role in the economic security posture of any nation. With accessible sources of energy that can be focused and exploited in a short period of time, a nation literally has the “power” to do great things for its population or to do very nasty things to others. It is a matter of choice as to how that power (energy per unit time) is deployed.
One of the issues that caused Japan to attack Pearl Harbor was a desire to protect sea lines of communication to secure sources of energy in the South Pacific. One of the main reasons that Hitler pressed into Russia was a desire to access energy sources in the Caspian region. A primary purpose of Rommel’s move through North Africa was gaining access to oil. Though there were other factors, America’s secure Texas, California, Oklahoma and Louisiana oil fields were a major factor in our ability to deploy sufficient power to defeat the Axis nations.
Throughout my military career, which lasted 33 years from the time I first entered the Naval Academy, I studied the importance of energy in our foreign policy actions. When I learned about Henry Kissenger’s famous statement “America doesn’t have friends. America only has interests.” it was in the context learning about efforts to secure access to energy resources that could supply our economy, ships, aircraft, trucks and tanks.
In the name of energy security, there are some people, like T. Boone Pickens, who try to sell the idea that unreliables like wind and solar energy can make a contribution. As a trained military man, that whole concept makes no sense. A diffuse source of energy that cannot be called on when needed is not a source of power; it is a source of impotency. It turns people into passive recipients of nature’s largess instead of being able to establish control and decision making authority.
Please do not get me wrong; I like the natural environment. I simply do not agree with the notion that building massive collecting systems to harness energy from nature has anything to do with improving national security or providing power to the people. It does not enable development, but forces a reduction in living standards that is often portrayed as some kind of admirable “conservation”. The act of “doing without” might bring some kind of inner pleasure to some, but for a nation it brings poverty vice economic prosperity.
Finally, I want to point out that many advocates of unreliables will attempt to point out that nuclear energy does not replace oil since we do not use oil in the continental United States to operate our power grid anymore. My response is multidimensional.
- The operative word regarding oil on the electrical grid is “anymore”. Until nuclear pushed oil out of the market, it provided as much as 17% of our power. We burned it at the rate of a million barrels of oil per day in 1978.
- Solar, wind, geothermal, waves, and ocean thermal energy cannot directly power cars and trucks either.
- We do use a lot of oil for process heat. Nuclear energy can provide reliable heat as well as electricity.
- Nuclear energy can push natural gas out of the electricity market and force well capitalized oil and natural gas companies to invest in compressed natural gas infrastructure to open up a new market in vehicles.
Most of the time, unreliables advocates get impatient with me before I finish the first bullet.
A contact suggested that blogging on Atomic Insights and engaging in discussions in a group called Nuclear Safety might be limiting the conversation to those who already agree with me. At his advice, I joined the “Sierra Club” group on LinkedIn. (The group is not affiliated or sponsored by the Sierra Club, but it includes individual members and other people who are interested in the Sierra Club.)
That contact had started a conversation thread about nuclear energy and attracted some rather pointed commentary. Here is my first contribution to that discussion, which had already included almost two dozen comments.
Please allow me to politely join the conversation.
I am not a Sierra Club member, but I wish I could be one. I respect the organization’s long record of wilderness preservation achievements and agree with about 90% of the organization’s goals. I have studied its history in the roots of Ansel Adams (no relation) and John Muir and its epic struggles to prevent filling priceless canyons with water held back by enormous hydroelectric and flood control dams.
Though I am a life-long suburban dweller, I have spent many of the best hours of my life practicing “no trace” camping and hiking in eastern mountains in Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. I have been driving a 40+ MPG car since 2001, but even before that I always bought cars with as high a gas mileage as possible.
The reason I cannot join the Club is that I cannot come to terms with the illogic of its shift, dating back more than 30 years, from an official policy of “Atoms Not Dams” to a strong and inflexible antinuclear stance. I call myself a hard headed BHL; I learned that from my dad, the guy who taught me to appreciate camping in National Forests as being a lot more fun than the trips to Disney World that most of our neighbors took during their vacations.
Dad was an electrical engineer who was firmly rooted in rational approaches to problem solving. When I was about 8 years old, he came home from work and told me about the amazing new power plants that his company was building at Turkey Point, Florida that did not even need any smoke stacks.
We talked a lot more about nuclear power and by the time I was ready to go to college, I had decided I would become a nuclear engineer. I got detoured slightly; I actually majored in English, but I did it at a school where English majors were still required to take 4 semesters of calculus and post calculus math, 2 semesters of physics, 2 semesters of chemistry, 2 semesters of thermodynamics, a semester of basic propulsion systems and 2 semesters of electrical engineering.
When I graduated, I entered into the Navy nuclear power training pipeline and eventually served as the Engineer Officer on a submarine. When you have lived in a completely closed environment with a nuclear reactor as your sole source of power, it becomes very difficult to see why there is so much concern about the technology. We had clean air, all the clean fresh water we could want, air conditioning, and refrigeration. Our computers did not contribute to global warming.
The 9,000 ton ship I was on operated for about 14 years on a quantity of fuel that weighed just a little bit more than I do. Every used core that the Navy has produced since starting to operate the USS Nautilus is stored in a single, modestly sized building with an indoor pool in Idaho.
That almost magical technology is built on an incredible gift from god (mother nature if you prefer) that packs as much energy into a pound of uranium as it packed into 2 MILLION pounds of oil. I cannot understand why an organization that was founded on protecting as much of the natural environment and heritage as possible would prefer to cover vast quantities of it with industrial scale wind turbines built by some of the world’s largest and least admirable corporations. I do not understand why the Club supports projects like the Abengoa solar project that will cover hundreds to thousands of acres in the Mohave desert with shiny mirrors aimed at hazardous heat transfer liquids for no more than 50% of the day and predictably become idle monstrosities every single night.
Finally, and most illogically, I cannot understand why the national club, supported by Carl Pope’s strong statements over a number of years, is ignoring the feedback from local chapters in Pennsylvania who have seen first hand the full scale of the environmental destruction that comes with the industrial process of extracting methane gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
(Note: BHL – Bleeding Heart Liberal)
I’ll let you know if any interesting conversation develops. During my twenty years of Internet conversations – dating back to Prodigy, USENET and AOL – I have had the sometimes disheartening experience of making the last comment in an interesting thread.