A (very) long piece by James P. Hogan at Lew Rockwell is worth reading. Some of it is purely speculative, but it covers a lot of interesting ground. (Generally speaking, it is longer than I suspect most web readers will bother with, but I’d still recommend it, even if you bookmark it and read it in sections). Had Hogan stayed on his very first point and expanded it a bit, he could have had a shorter, punchier article that would have been excellent.
From unaided muscle power, through the use of animals, wood, wind and water, to coal, and oil, finding better ways of doing the work involved in living has reflected the harnessing of more concentrated energy sources. A lot is written about how much energy can be obtained from this source or that source. But if you really want to do things more easily and efficiently – and open up ways to doing new things that were inconceivable before – what counts is energy density. How much can be packed into a given volume. It’s easy to calculate how much energy it takes to lift three hundred people across the Atlantic, and how much wood you’d need to burn to release that much energy. Okay, now try building a wood-burning 757. It won’t work. The mountain of logs will never get itself off the ground. You need the concentration of jet fuel.
Some people argue that we don’t need nuclear power because we already have other ways to generate electricity. This misses the whole point. It would be like somebody in an earlier century telling Michael Faraday that we didn’t need electricity because we already had other ways to heat water. What made electricity so different was its ability to do things that were unachievable to any degree with existing technologies, and the whole field of electrical engineering and electronics that we take for granted today was the result. A similar distinction sets nuclear processes apart from conventional sources. All forms of hydrocarbon and other chemical combustion involve energy changes in the outer electron shells of atoms. The energies associated with transitions of the atomic nucleus are thousands of times more intense, and hence represent a breakthrough to the next regime of energy control that the growth of human populations and wealth creation require. The so-called alternatives do not.
Longtime readers know what I do for a living. For better or worse, I have spent most of my professional career keeping the lights on working in the utility sector. One of the things that has , frankly, annoyed the heck out of me in recent years is this push to less energy-dense technologies. Wind and solar are – by their very natures – extremely low density. That means that they are extremely demanding for space. Wind farms have a ginormous footprint. Solar, even worse.
The Nuclear Electric Institute used to (they may still) distribute a card with a dummy uranium fuel pellet glued to it. The pellet was about the size of the tip of your little finger. The card described how that pellet alone – if real – contained the energy equivalent of several train cars full of coal.
Instead of recycling spent nuclear fuel, we are being pushed into low-density technologies that will take huge – really huge – areas to generate equivalent energy. Vast fields of really, really ugly wind generators (bat and bird mince-o-matics) or an area equivalent to the entire state of Georgia paved over with photovoltaic cells.
All the “green” solutions are inherently unreliable enough to require a spinning reserve – or everything stops when the winds drops or the sun goes down.
This is the future our “green-friendly” politicians are planning for us.
God help us.