Energy and Energy Politics

RobRob Unknown EnemyMembers, NS1 Playtester Join Date: 2002-01-24 Member: 25Posts: 2,604 Advanced user
I spend a lot of time here being a blow hard, but I'm not sure if I ever actually started a discussion. I follow some of the developments in energy of types across the board. What I'm most passionate about, though, are the politics behind energy (or lack thereof) which mislead us in discussing our future. My basic premise here goes something like this:
  • Freedom of choice and liberterian/classic liberal ideas are all well and good, but we're only capable of devoting time to these philosophical debates because of our advancements in energy production and our use of energy to expand the capacity of human labor to do work.
  • The gap between optimal required energy and current maximum capacity is where scarcity lives, and scarcity results in conflict, violent or otherwise
  • Because of this, we should be tenacious in our quest for more and better sources of energy and consider all factors, seen and unseen when examining new sources

At this point, I have to confess that I'm more than slightly biased. I'm a huge fan of molten salt fission reactors using the thorium cycle, and I think every country should be pushing that technology as hard and as fast as possible. Given what's written above, it's a foregone conclusion that a 100 or 1000 fold increase in power while maintaining or lower per watt cost would have such a dramatic effect in the global arena that it makes me giddy. All the more so because my liberty ideals reinforce a mistrust of other alternatives energies since someone or something will have to dictate what you can or can't use power for as a moral imperative, but more on that later. Here are a couple of youtubes on thorium. They're long but well worth the time:

To summarize in a pros/cons list:

  • Absolute safety. As the videos suggest, the reactor is hardly more complicated than a radiator or a refrigerator.
  • Increased potential power output on a world scale by orders of magnitude
  • Cheap and safe source of high heat to be used in all manners of industrial processes: synthesized gasoline that is carbon neutral, all kinds of medical applications for the chemical by products (this bullet is the most exciting for me)
  • Distributed power grids brings direct supply much closer to your home, saving power loss due to transmission and hardening the grid against catastrophic failure... imagine your housing development having its own reactor that powers it standalone. Your cost of power might just be managed by your HOA fees.
  • 99% of all fuel is consumed and there are no demonstrable dangerous wastes like in conventional reactors. In fact, a molten salt reactor could burn up the mountains of waste we already have.

  • The technology is proven, but the science and engineering have withered away over 50 years. It will take a lot of ramp up time to get it going with regulator red tape and high risk investing in your way
  • As I said, I'm a little biased, and can't objectively think of anymore :) Feel free to offer one up

Now, on to the other alternatives. I'm going to lump them together, because the industry standard seems to be to design systems using advanced storage batteries, solar, wind, and possibly hydroelectric or geothermal in tandem like back up systems so you're less likely to be stuck without power.

There have been some impressive leaps forward in the last few years. Something I never thought would happen is that you could put solar panels on your roof and grab enough power to run your house and even charge a car (you have to think that cars use significant amounts of energy to move you around). But this has happened:

It's comforting, but there's also a lot left to be desired. It's still a hugely long term investment for an individual, and the honest truth is that there are too many people in the world for earth to provide enough sheer ground area for each person to harvest the energy they need using these methods. Not to mention that you'll still be constrained by an absolute maximum on wattage at your disposal and will have to ration it somehow.

  • A ridiculous amount of grid redundancy and robustness. Providing your own power is the definition of self-sufficient.
  • Constraints can be good for channeling creativity and driving progress in more efficient appliances and so forth
  • If designed and implemented correctly, can have very minimal impact on the environment

  • Constrains maximum power, which could be argued as a forum of passive oppression
  • Batteries and the like are dangerous. In terms of a car, it's basically all the energy it takes to drive a car 300 miles condensed into a small area. On this same note, windmills especially are basically bird killing machines.
  • Come on, let's face it... they're all pretty ugly.

Obviously, I think most of use would agree that it's time we transition coal and other fossils into industrial and metallurgical processes instead of primarily power generation. This is actually a topic I've grown and shifted opinions quite a bit on over the years, so I'd like to hear other opinions on it.


  • ScytheScythe NS1 Playtester, Forum Moderators, Constellation, Reinforced - Silver Join Date: 2002-01-25 Member: 46Posts: 4,371 mod
    I think you may be singing the praises of molten salt a little too highly. It still involves a highly dangerous substance heated to high temperature. Highly corrosive to pipes, reactive with air, etc, etc. Not exactly buttercup rainbow blowjobs. The main positive in my book is the much reduced proliferation risk. Molten (I typed "motel" three times then) salt reactor modules can be plonked down in developing areas and ease their transition into the first world with a much reduced risk of Evil McNuclearBoner trying to grab some nasty isotopes.

    I think that reality will require a blended solution. Renewables are going to have a hard time expanding rapidly enough to dissuade governments from planning big power projects, mostly coal and gas. Residential battery-backed solar systems on are a brilliant solution to a knackered power distribution system, and also add to the general robustness of a city's infrastructure, but are going to have difficulty providing enough power for industries.

    Thorium is still an unknown technology with no precedent for large-scale deployment. Back in the 60s we (USA and USSR) had the spectre of an arms race to power (lols) their nuclear programme. The actual energy going into homes and industry was a great benefit, but the big factor was the production of fissile material suitable for weapons. This is much less of a factor nowdays, so there's not the enormous capital available for investment that was available for the first nuclear boom (lols2).

    In summary: Molten salt thorium reactors are a safer bet than fusion, but not as safe as a natural gas power station in the eyes of today's only-grudgingly-accepting-the-reality-of-climate-change-government.


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  • RobRob Unknown Enemy Members, NS1 Playtester Join Date: 2002-01-24 Member: 25Posts: 2,604 Advanced user
    edited August 2013
    I have most definitely drunk the kool-aid. But I considered it long and hard before I drank, and upon doing so realized that it was sweet and delicious.

    The biggest concern I can think of is corrosion as you said, but that's a manageable problem. We can much more easily account for a known rate of corrosion than for containment of high pressure steam. The important thing is that it isn't theory. The reactor itself was tested and ran successfully at oak ridge for 4 years (not at full power, but it was a test model). I don't see the technical issues as any reason whatever to hold up development.

    The heat may be dangerous, but it's one of the biggest reasons to build the thing. Again, though, it's a very manageable problem. Because the engineering of the machine itself is so simple, it can operate almost anywhere: underwater, underground, etc.

    Other than regular inspections for safety, the thing doesn't need to be serviced since it uses a liquid and the piping itself refuels the reactor.

    All that said, if I can't have MSR, I want natural gas. All other things being equal though, I think you'd find that both solutions are comparable in environmental destruction to extract fuel, cost of fuel refinement, carbon pollution, and radioactive pollution. The major difference is that MSR would be astronomically more beneficial in terms of energy production and industrial by products.

    Another issue are the safety concerns with mining fuel, transporting it, and operating the plants. MSR clearly wins here, too. Gas lines explode at least once a year. Major ones. A few months ago around here one popped off and turned a major highway into an inferno. 1000 foot flames. Thankfully nobody was hurt because I live in a hick state and nobody drives around at that time of morning.

    Thorium only occurs in one isotope and it's not fissile on its own. It can't really do anything, actually. Its half-life is 14 billion years, so you could basically swallow a golf ball of it and just pass it right through you.
  • KamamuraKamamura Members, Reinforced - Gold Join Date: 2013-03-06 Member: 183736Posts: 669 Advanced user
    Once the decline of conventional oil picks up pace, it will be very hard to compensate, because it's net energy gain that matters, not the absolute produced volume. With companies, profit also matters more than revenues. EROEI is the name of the game.
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  • backamj82backamj82 USMembers Join Date: 2014-10-02 Member: 198819Posts: 3
    This is a great post and very useful. I really appreciate the research you put into it..
  • Soylent_greenSoylent_green Members, Reinforced - Shadow Join Date: 2002-12-20 Member: 11220Posts: 2,875 Advanced user
    Kamamura wrote: »
    Once the decline of conventional oil picks up pace, it will be very hard to compensate, because it's net energy gain that matters, not the absolute produced volume. With companies, profit also matters more than revenues. EROEI is the name of the game.

    EROI is ill-defined. It seems so simple, but it isn't.

    EROI doesn't account for energy quality. E.g. in the following ways:
    If putting 1 unit of reliable energy in gets you 5 units of unreliable energy, that can be a terrible deal, because unreliable energy isn't as valuable.
    Chemical energy is higher entropy and more difficult to use efficiently compared e.g. to electricity.
    Gasoline and batteries are portable, electricity on the grid is no easily made so.

    Where you draw the system boundaries really, really matters. E.g. in the following ways:
    A coal plant takes 3 units of chemical energy in and spits out 1 unit of electricity. If the coal is an energy input, then the EROI is less than 1/3, and it's still worth doing (pollution aside). If you draw the system boundary at the coal mine, then 1 unit of oil and electricity gets you dozens of energy units of coal. If you draw the system boundary to include the coal mine and the coal plant, then 1 unit of oil and electricity gets you dozens of units of coal, but only dozens/3 units of electricity.

    If you have a gas turbine, fully 1 third of the output is used to compress the incoming air and fuel. If you place the system boundary inside the turbine you can never have an EROI higher than ~3.

    If I mine tar sands at an EROI of 7, I can magically turn this into a much higher EROI. All I have to do is turn the crank one more time. One unit of oil in, 7 units of oil out, well, refine those 7 units of oil and put them back in and you get (same 7:1 EROI with 7 units of input) ~49 units out (minus some refining losses etc.). Now define the system boundaries to contain the refining and the second stage of oil extraction; now you put 1 unit of energy in at one end, it takes two turns through the tar sands mining operation and 49 units come back out. Basically, what this means is that it matters what "turning the crank" entails. The implication is, if tar sands mining was super simple to perform (low capital costs), it doesn't matter if the EROI is 2; your fuel costs may be high, but if 1 unit of fuel results in an output of 2 without any pain it is effectively an energy doubler, where very little capital results in a doubling of energy output and you can double it as many times as there is tar sand resource to back it. If on the other hand, mining tar sands is a pain in the butt and has huge capital costs, then even if EROI is 100:1 it may not be worth doing.

    Another game peak oil doomers like to play is to try and include the entire economy into the inputs. The workers at the gas plant have to go to the job, so they need a car, and they need a house, and their kids need toys made of plastic and so on ad nauseum. All energy will be used; we're not building any huge oil reserves or coal stockpiles. If you make the input wide enough the EROI will necessarily converge towards 1. They also like to try to convert miscellaneous costs (like lawyer-hours) into energy consumption using the average energy use to earn one unit of GDP. This is laughably wrong for obvious reasons, but it is the last resort for scoundrels who would like to see the EROI of nuclear in the single digits (rather than the double to triple digits where it belongs, assuming centrifuges and not gaseous diffusion).

    It's generally better to use monetary cost as a measurement than EROI. It does a far better job accounting for differences in energy quality and so on. You have to back out government subsidies (including externalities) and so on, but that's still simpler than agreeing on a definition for EROI everyone will be happy with.

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