Sunday, October 19, 2014

Renewable Energy Versus Wildlife Conservation

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Migrating waterfowl at feeding grounds via Pembina Institute

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

The argument goes something like this:

Real environmentalist: “We should not allow the destruction of orangutan habitat for palm oil biodiesel!”

Apologist: “In fact by displacing fossil fuels, palm oil biodiesel is helping orangutans, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet! Orangutans are at serious risk due to climate change. Some primate species are forecast to to lose more than 95% of their current ranges!”

(1) From an article in Treehugger about wind farm impact on birds:
…. in fact by displacing fossil fuels they are helping birds, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet. … the bald eagle and eight state birds …are at serious risk due to climate change. …some species are forecast to lose more than 95% of their current ranges.
Another real world analogy to wind farms, the Elwa river dam, was recently removed in an attempt to restore an extinct salmon migration.  Using the reasoning presented in the Treehugger article about wind farms, what’s the point in restoring a salmon run if climate change will eventually destroy it? Right? The dam should be rebuilt so it can once again produce renewable energy.

There are a few missing links in this argument’s logic chain. Scientists recognized the sixth extinction event long before they did climate change.  Producing low carbon energy with that rebuilt dam would immediately and directly cause the extinction of that salmon run. Whereas, removing the dam (not producing low carbon energy at that location) will help assure there will be salmon left to save from the ravages of climate change, assuming humanity can avert climate change. In other words, find another place to generate low carbon energy.

Analogously, usurping raptor hunting grounds(2) and intersecting major migration routs with giant blenders to produce low carbon energy is not going to help eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats survive climate change. They are going to need all the help we can give them (with or without climate change) in addition to attempting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Conservation and development of renewable energy have to be done in parallel with priority given to conservation. The extinction event has been accelerating even in the absence of climate change, which of course will make it even worse.

One could argue that humanity should not be building new dams at all in places like the Amazon basin, and that wind farms should be relegated to offshore locations far from raptor and bat hunting grounds and major migration routes. And why are we destroying intact dessert tortoise habitat for solar thermal installations? We can’t find a place without threatened tortoise habitat?

The author’s strategy is to use close-up photos of naughty kitties to convince “bird lovers” to stop hassling utilities that own wind farms and to instead focus their ire on …cats:
“But bird lovers need to go against the real enemies rather than spending precious energy fighting one of the main tools that we have to clean up our power grid and have a greener world.”
The label “bird lover” makes an easy target because it conjures up images of retirees in their birding gear gathering into flocks of their own to count and categorize the birds they see (Greater Peewee, Spectacled Tyrant, Handsome Fruiteater …to name a few). In reality, state and federal governments, environmental groups, and their attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms.

Interestingly enough, the author’s attempt to deflect attention away from wind farms to cats appears to have worked, at least on his Treehugger readership. Drop into the comment field below his article to participate in the hate festival. Several comments had to be deleted. I did find one salient comment:
Wind turbines are creating mortality on birds that aren’t at risk by cats or large buildings. The bigger birds (raptors, owls, etc.) are long-lived and have low reproductive rates. They’re like the grizzly bears of the bird world. They have no way to compensate for excessive mortality.
If cats are the real problem maybe Treehugger should spend a little more time writing about cats, a little less time trying to trivialize the  damage done by wind farms.
More from the article:
Many people have this obsession with wind turbines killing birds, probably because it’s a really great story.
Riiight. I seriously doubt that state and federal governments, environmental groups and the attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms ” ….because it’s a really great story.”

Male Swainson's hawk
Photo of Male Swainson’s hawk in front of the turbine that eventually killed it

The photo above and the following excerpts are from an article by concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists from my local zoo:
With such keen eyesight, why do hawks not see these giant fans in their workaday flight paths?  Gretchen explains that “hawks are predators. After a long migration, their job here is straightforward, driven by instinct: build nests, find food and defend territory in the home range.” Making sense of strange, new human-built hazards is a secondary priority. “As Jim sees it, imagine waking up every day with hungry kids to feed. A huge, dangerous blender is lodged between your bedroom and your kitchen. Your eyes scan the ground, locking in on food, so even with all your flying skills, eventually you’re going to bump into it.”

Through focal observations, the keepers collect data on specific birds’ range behaviors, recording flight type, duration of interaction with or near turbines, and wind and turbine speed. They seek to discern patterns and trends holistically on two levels. The landscape level looks at whether populations are displaced by the turbines, abandoning their breeding grounds for safer but often less suitable habitats. The interaction level looks at whether the hawks become habituated to the turbines, flying near or through them.  In nesting territories, the mean rate at which hawks encounter turbine collision zones, a 400-foot radius around the blades, is once every 76 minutes.
From the Treehugger article:
As a meme, it really strikes the imagination because wind turbines are this green thing, right, so killing birds is antithetical to what they’re supposed to be doing.
Really? Killing hawks, owls, bats etc isn’t antithetical to what wind farms are supposed to be doing?
But if the goal is to save birds, we have to look at the actual facts on the ground and not just at whatever story makes for the catchiest headline.
Following is the headline to the Treehugger article: Wind turbines kill around 300,000 birds annually, house cats around 3,000,000,000

And if you just blew coffee (or whatever you were drinking) out your nose, I don’t blame you. Several commenters mentioned that based on the headline they also thought the article was about wind turbines killing 3 billion cats annually.

After having said all the above, the author concludes with a throw-away comment as a hedge against the unlikely event that somebody would call him out: “This doesn’t mean that wind power operators should stop doing what they can to protect birds. Wind farms should be properly sited and everything should be done to mitigate any risks.”

The Treehugger article was based on one found in the respected peer reviewed science journal …USA Today.  I had to dig around on the internet to find the actual link to the peer reviewed study that the USA Today and subsequent Treehugger articles were based on. The photo below was found on the website that linked back to the study.

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Halved Golden Eagle via WindAction.org

The study is about the impact on small songbirds. It isn’t about eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats, which cats don’t eat, although some eagles, hawks, and owls do eat cats. See the photo below of a great horned owl that landed on a power line with the cat it had caught. Both were subsequently electrocuted. The irony. Could only have been worse had they been struck by a wind turbine.

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Electrocuted Great Horned Owl with Cat Prey via Imgur

I read the study, which was very obviously biased but I suspect that its conclusion is largely correct: wind farms kill a relatively small percentage of the total song bird population. The authors showed their bias by repeatedly comparing the numbers of small birds killed by turbines to the numbers killed by other things, like cats, which were not part of the study. There was no need to repeatedly do that comparison other than  to bias the article intent–to trivialize song bird deaths. It’s a moot argument. Song birds are not the big problem.

To convince myself that the study conclusion was reasonable I made a simple spreadsheet that calculated the number of song bird deaths as a percentage of the power supplied to the grid by wind. The total percentage of song birds killed struck me as relatively small no matter what percentage I chose for wind energy all the way to 100 percent (a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab suggests that a maximum of about 12 percent of total energy supply can be from wind by 2050).

An extreme example just to make a point about renewable energy would be the conversion of the entire Amazon rain forest into corn, soy, and sugarcane fields to make biofuel and tree farms to fuel power plants in place of coal. That act would be one step forward (displacement of fossil fuels) and a thousand steps backward (utter destruction of the very biodiversity we are trying to protect from climate change).

Climate change is expected to wreak havoc on the planet’s already rapidly disappearing biodiversity (wildlife) because it will further shrink/degrade what remains of the ecosystems wildlife needs to avoid extinction. Ergo, an energy scheme that reduces carbon emissions but also kills wildlife and degrades wildlife habitat is going to worsen the impact of climate change on the natural world (one step forward, some number of steps backward).

(1) If you want to read a more useful article about efforts to reduce the damage done by some wind farms I would suggest this one: For the Birds and the Bats: Eight Ways Wind Power Companies are Trying to Prevent Deadly Collisions  by Roger Drouin writing for Grist.

(2) If you look at the background of the wind turbine photo  chosen for the Treehugger article you will see degraded habitat; roads leading to wind turbines bulldozed through a hunting ground for raptors which soar/soared on wind currents while hunting rodents and ground nesting birds in the rocks below.

Why Ethanol Free Gas is More Popular than E85

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Sign at a gas station that sells only ethanol free gasoline

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Sam Avro, Energy Trends Insider editor, recently received an inquiry from a reader about the popularity of ethanol free gasoline in the Midwest. Coincidentally, I recently visited Indianapolis and had noticed a large billboard advertising ethanol free gasoline.

I thought I’d share what I found. Much to my surprise, there are about 8,000 gas stations offering ethanol free gasoline and only about 1,200 offering  E85 (85 percent ethanol). There are about ten million flex fuel cars on the road designed to burn E85. Assuming a cost of about $100 per car to make it flex fuel, and assuming that about 10% of flex fuel cars actually use E85, this would mean that consumers have paid about nine billion dollars for nothing.

Why is ethanol-free gasoline so much more popular than E85? I poked around in comment fields to come up with a short list of reasons, some rational, some not so much.
  1. Many consumers realize that E85 reduces gas mileage, but this is largely irrelevant when E85 is cheap enough to make up the difference. Maybe people don’t want to bother running the numbers every time they use E85 to figure out if  it’s cheaper or maybe they don’t want to visit gas stations thirty percent more often.
  2. Others fear that gasoline with ten percent ethanol might harm their car. This is a rational concern only for owners of older cars.
  3. Some consumers don’t want to use gasoline with corn ethanol for ethical reasons. Using food stock to produce car fuel increases the cost of basic food staples like corn meal and eggs, which impacts the poorest of the world far more than it does the richest.
  4.  Still others don’t want corn ethanol in their fuel because of its negative environmental impact. When farmers plant corn instead of some other crop it causes a dominoe effect where farmers in other parts of the world create farmland to plant the crops replaced by corn. Many thousands of acres of wildlife habitat (conservation reserve land) has been converted back into corn  fields as farmers understandably use unproductive land to capitalize on the record breaking high price of corn thanks to government mandated consumption of corn ethanol creating a demand that continues to exceed supply (thus the tripling in the price of corn).
  5.  Yet others buy ethanol free gasoline as a way to protest government mandated consumption of what they believe is an inferior product.
Although I am unaware of any environmental organization that supports corn ethanol, some states have made it illegal to sell ethanol free gasoline. Go figure.

As part of writing this article, I discovered that there are two gas stations serving ethanol free gasoline within a few miles of where I live. If I didn’t drive an electric car, I might be buying ethanol free gasoline, for some rational reasons and maybe a few not so rational ones.

Update on the Tesla Model S

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Has anyone else noticed how much a Tesla Model S looks like a Jaguar XF (pictured below)? One of my neighbors drives a Tesla Model S. I was following him down the street a few weeks ago and heard his tires squeak three times in two blocks. Adequate acceleration to maneuver in traffic can enhance overall safety but too much acceleration potential can be dangerous, especially in the wrong hands. Not sure I’d want that temptation.

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Tesla Model S Photo courtesy of Gareth James via Flickr

 JaguarXF
Jaguar XF Photo courtesy of Jimmy Smith via Flickr

Fast Chargers

Tesla is dead on with their promotion of fast charging stations. The ubiquitous 240 volt chargers are next to worthless simply because they take too long. A high voltage fast charger can provide a significant charge in a matter of minutes. I recently deliberately drove my Leaf beyond its range because we needed two cars to get supplies to a wedding. My plan was to stop at a charge station on the way home for a few hours to get enough charge to finish the trip. The rest of the family came home in our Prius.

I had obtained my code to use a given company’s charge station but it turned out that the station I chose was owned by a different company so I had to move to the next closest charge station, which was occupied by a Chevy Volt. So, I moved to the next closest station, also occupied by a Chevy Volt! There was a Volt at the fourth station as well but luckily, there were two chargers. However, they were owned by yet a third company. Luckily they were in a municipal parking lot so their use was free. By calling the number on the charger I was able to get the operator to unlock it for me. Don’t invest in any company providing 240 volt public charging stations.

Crash Safety

From the Tesla website: NHTSA Reaffirms Model S 5-Star Safety Rating In All Categories For Model Year 2014

That’s all well and good but a 2003 car safety study titled “An Analysis of Traffic Deaths by Vehicle Type and Model” concluded what insurance companies have known for a long time: “…sports cars, as driven, are extremely risky to their drivers…”

Personally, I never consider crash safety ratings when purchasing a car. Why? Even with new, more stringent standards in 2012, roughly 95 percent of all cars tested by the NHTSA received a four star rating or better (out of five). About 25 percent received a five star rating.  Although there are other organizations that do safety ratings, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) ratings are much less likely to contain bias. Five star ratings are inevitably used for marketing, but if you were to buy a new car that has a four star rating, the odds of being injured purely as a result of not having that fifth star are very low. All new cars today have safety features not dreamed of decades ago (three way restraints, airbags, anti-lock brakes, crush zones, safety glass and on and on).
SUV_graph
In reality, when it comes to crashing into other cars, the overarching difference is mass; heavy cars crush lighter ones. If a three star truck hits a five star economy car, the occupants of the higher rated car are at greater risk of injury.  But that does not necessarily mean that heavier cars are safer. The vertical axis on the above chart ranks risk to the driver of the other car. The horizontal axis  debunks the myth that trucks and SUVs are necessarily safer than smaller cars. In a nutshell, driving a truck or SUV may not only put you at greater risk but the greater mass also puts other drivers at greater risk.

The Tesla is a  heavy car for its size, thanks to its batteries (roughly half-a-ton heavier than the Jaguar XF). On July 6th a Tesla (4,600 lbs) rear-ended a 2004 Corolla (2,500 lbs) at high speed, killing one adult and two children. However, largely thanks to the five star crash rating, the Tesla driver had minor injuries.

Obviously, a five star crash safety rating can only do so much. On July 5th a stolen Tesla crashed into a pole during a high-speed chase and broke in half. The batteries in the front part of the car caught on fire and the back half of the car ended up jammed in the doorway of a synagogue, I’m guessing, about 100 feet away from the front end of the car. The driver was thrown clear but is in critical condition. You can see video of the carnage here.

In response to the car fires earlier in the year, Tesla has reinforced the car’s underbelly. Although Elon Musk said that additional “…underbody shields are not needed for a high level of safety” (i.e., to reduce the risk of a Tesla being engulfed in a fiery inferno after hitting road debris) …he did it anyway. The NTSB investigation did not mandate a fix.

However, from the AP:
The U.S. government’s auto safety watchdog has closed an investigation into Tesla electric car battery fires after the company said it would install more shields beneath the cars.
To avoid the stigma associated with the word “recall” Tesla does not call this retrofit a recall (although, for the record, it is by definition a recall). This is reminiscent of when extra “non-mandatory” reinforcement was voluntarily added to the Chevy Volt after some caught fire as a result of side impact. GM called it a “customer satisfaction improvement.”

The Tesla engineers looked under their car to see where they could bolt more hardware on under the already existing quarter inch thick “ballistic grade” aluminum plate. They cobbled together a titanium plate along with a couple of  aluminum extrusions. The Tesla website has three short videos of the car running over junk (which you can bet represent the best examples out of the 152 tests they ran).
They also did a software tweak that limits how much the suspension will lower the car at highway speeds. Lowering the car at high speeds does two things: it drops the CG for better handling and less ground clearance can also improve range by reducing drag. Tesla was quick to point out that the extra weight of the fix did not meaningfully affect range but made no mention of the aerodynamic impact of higher ground clearance.

Electric cars (including Tesla) have so far proven to be far less susceptible to catching on fire than conventional cars. On the other hand, not all electric cars will necessarily be equally less susceptible. Although there are far more Leafs on the road than Teslas (due to the lower price tag) I am unaware of any of them catching on fire. The simple fact that Tesla uses quarter inch thick “ballistic grade” aluminum plate to protect its battery pack is all the evidence you need to know that Tesla was concerned about what could happen when a car hit the wrong piece of road debris.

 Drive Train Issues
 From Green Car Reports:
On Tesla’s own website forum, dozens of owners weighed in with their tales of drive unit woes. “Every car in my area has had at least one DU replaced,” noted one. “I’m on my fifth drive train at 12,000 miles,” reported another. One poor fellow was on his sixth–as far as we know, the record for drive-unit futility.
 The Gigafactory
 Tesla will eventually run out of customers who can buy $80K cars. To keep selling them, they have to get the price down. The only way for Tesla to do that is to get the battery costs down. Because their car is designed around their choice of battery cell, they are stuck with the battery they have so the only way to get prices down is with greatly expanded mass production of the battery. Aside from other concerns, the problem as I see it, is that they are going to commit themselves to mass production of a soon-to-be obsolete battery.
TeslaLeafBattery
Unlike the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and Ford Focus Electric, which all use a larger, flat, prismatic shaped battery, the Panasonic batteries used by Tesla have been around for a long time (I wrote an article about them long before there was a Tesla). Their cylindrical shape wastes a great deal of space and their small size necessitates the use of thousands of them in a car which can lead to thousands of potential problems. Buying off-the-shelf Panasonic batteries was the best Tesla could do at the time of its development.

In Conclusion

All companies eventually fail, or get bought up. That does not mean a company was not successful. Tesla is a success. However, it is also a monopoly of sorts. It is the only electric car in its price and performance range. They can and do charge whatever it takes to cover costs. How long will Tesla survive when a car with the same performance arrives with a much lower price tag, as would be the case with a car that has cheaper, more modern batteries?

Nissan Leaf Replacement Battery for $5,500

LeafWithBattery

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Provision of an after-market battery pack is another electric car first and an all important step for electric cars to gain greater market share. Leaf owners now have the option to upgrade to a new battery (with new, more heat resistant chemistry) when the old one wears out, or of selling their car and letting someone else put a new battery in it. An electric car with a worn out battery wouldn’t have much resale value if you couldn’t replace the battery. The existence of a reasonably priced battery replacement might stimulate sales by putting at ease any prospective customers concerned about how they would sell their electric car once its battery wore out.

All automotive lead-acid batteries have a core charge to make sure they get recycled (parts store will pay $5-$10 for your old battery). The core charge for the Leaf battery is $1,000 (new battery would cost $6,500 without it). And you don’t have the option of keeping your old battery. Nissan wants them back to recycle or possibly become part of a study that uses old batteries for other energy storage applications. Nissan may not want to be sued by tinkerers who burn their garages down (like may biodiesel tinkerers have) trying to use the old batteries for solar back-up and such. Modern lithium battery packs require sophisticated charging and discharging controllers to keep them safe.

It should take two or three hours for a dealership to replace a battery and if you own a 2011 Leaf, you need to purchase a retrofit kit for a few hundred more dollars as well. This cost is comparable to having a dealership put a new engine in a conventional car, and certainly no more than the cost of putting a new engine and a new transmission in a car (it isn’t advisable to put a new engine in a high-mileage car without also replacing the transmission). Having only one moving part, the electric motor may last longer than the car.

It may come as a surprise to many, but there are still only two electric car manufacturers that sell (and can maintain) your electric car at any of their dealerships: Nissan and (of course) Tesla. The Ford Focus electric and Mitsubishi MiEV are low volume cars. I just called my local Ford dealership and was told that they had a Ford Focus Electric on the lot about a month ago but wasn’t sure when there would be another one. The Fiat 500e, Chevrolet Spark EV, Honda Fit EV, and Toyota RAV4 EV are even lower volume cars sold in states like California primarily to meet zero-emission vehicle mandates. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as compliance cars. Unfortunately, with an $80,000 price tag the Tesla is relegated to a niche market. Tesla can only sell them to a relatively limited number of people willing and able to pay that much for a sports car.

Nissan may provide an option for  a 150 mile range battery pack in the next year or two. Considering the Leaf’s passive battery cooling system, I suspect that this upgrade is technically possible thanks to the more heat resistant battery chemistry. A reasonably priced 150 mile range electric car along with fast chargers sitting next to the coin operated tire pumps at most 7-Elevens could be the beginning of the end for market dominance of internal combustion engine automobiles.

Road Trip–Thoughts on the Satsop Nuclear Power Station


Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

My wife and I recently took a weekend road trip to view the annual shore bird migration along the Washington coast. Because it was along our route, we made a short stop in the town of Satsop.

Cooling Towers

The above image of a cooling tower was taken at the unfinished Satsop nuclear power station, which is now serving as a development park. Use your left mouse button to click here to see a higher resolution image and then left click once again on that image to see an even higher resolution photo of this cooling tower. Now employ your mouse wheel to scroll up and down that high resolution photo. Use the stairs zigzagging along the side to get a sense of scale.
Many people associate this type of large cooling tower with nuclear power plants, I’m guessing, because they make dramatic copy. But this type of cooling tower can be used with any thermal power plant regardless of energy source: solar, coal, biomass, natural gas, oil etc. From the Wikipedia article on cooling towers:
"These designs are popularly associated with nuclear power plants. However, this association is misleading, as the same kind of cooling towers are often used at large coal-fired power plants as well."
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Six cooling towers at the Didcot Power Station (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The Didcot power station pictured above burns a combination of coal, natural gas, and oil. Note the use of six hyperboloid cooling towers. Cooling towers are used to condense the steam exiting the steam turbines back into liquid water to be converted into steam again and sent back through the turbines. This greatly reduces the amount of water lost as steam.
How do they work? Essentially the rising steam creates a natural draft like your fireplace (ambient air is pulled in at the bottom). The steam must pass through a plastic grid that is being sprayed with water, which in turn, causes the steam to condense back into water. This strong natural updraft negates the need for fans to move the steam. One might guess that the hyperboloid shape may have something to do with the Venturi effect, but in reality, the shape is primarily for structural efficiency (load resistance at a minimum cost). Cylindrical cooling towers are not as wind or earthquake resistant for the amount of material they contain. Click here to see a YouTube video of the inside of a working cooling tower that uses fans.
The Reactor Containment Structures

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The Two Unfinished Reactor Containment Domes at Satsop

To get a sense of scale, note the eight foot high fence around the reactor containment structure on the left.  I’m always amazed by how diminutive the containment domes are–smaller than many oil, or municipal water storage tanks. These house the heart of a nuclear power plant; the reactor vessel which contains the nuclear fuel rods that boil the water to make the steam that spins the giant pinwheel (steam turbine) that is connected to the electric generator the sends electricity over the grid to our homes and cities. This is also the only part of a nuclear power plant that is different from other thermal power plants that use a different heat source (coal, biomass, natural gas, solar, geothermal).

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Pressurized Water Reactor (Wikipedia Commons)

Click here to animate the above schematic. Coincidentally, that looks an awful lot like the Seattle skyline.

The Difference Between a Nuclear Reactor and a Nuclear Power Plant/Station

The terms “nuclear reactor” and a “nuclear power plant” are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing because they are not the same thing.  A power plant (sometimes called a power station) may have more than one nuclear reactor (each inside its own containment structure) on site. The Fukushima power plant has six reactors (each inside a steel and concrete containment structure, which is in turn housed in a sheet metal outer building). Although three of the Fukushima power plant reactors were damaged beyond repair when a tsunami overwhelmed the emergency cooling pumps, the other three reactors could, in theory, still be used by the power plant to produce electricity. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant (the poster child for how to do nuclear energy wrong) continued to produce electricity using  its other reactors for well over a decade after one reactor (which had no containment dome) experienced a meltdown.

A Brief History of the Unfinished  Satsop Nuclear Power Plant

For those of you too old to remember, or too young to have watched it unfold, Satsop was one of the four nuclear power stations (and their five reactors) involved with the WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System) debacle. From Wikipedia:
"Energy Northwest (formerly Washington Public Power Supply System) is a United States public power joint operating agency formed by State law in 1957 to produce at cost power for Northwest utilities. Headquartered in Richland, Washington, the WPPSS became commonly known as “Whoops” due to over-commitment to nuclear power in the 1970s which brought about financial collapse and the second largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. WPPSS was renamed Energy Northwest in November 1998."
Note the term “produce at cost.” This is a Washington State not-for-profit joint operating agency, which should take some wind out of the sails of the anti-nuclear energy crowd who typically portray the operators of nuclear power plants as profit hungry conspirators. These guys were simply incompetent bureaucrats. From Wikipedia:
"The directors and the managers of the system had no experience in nuclear engineering or in projects of this scale. System managers were unable to develop a unified and comprehensive means of choosing, directing, and supervising contractors. One contractor, already shown to be incompetent, was retained for more work. In a well-publicized example, a pipe hanger was built and rebuilt 17 times."
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WPPSS Nuclear Reactor Locations

There were four proposed nuclear power plants. Click here for a photo and quick facts about each. Three of them were to have a single reactor and one (in Satsop) was to have two reactors (containment domes shown above) for a total of five reactors.  Out of the four planned power plant/stations, only one was completed and is now called the Columbia Generating Station.

Note in the above graphic I put together (to better understand what had gone on) how radically different each power station is from the other. They have three different containment structure designs as well as three different cooling tower designs, and probably different everything else on the inside as well …unbelievable. The French and Canadians used one design which they repeated over and over again. The cost to build the first 777 airliner was astronomical. Imagine the expense of building a different airliner from the ground up for every customer.

Consumers of course had to pay for this boondoggle, but even so, we still have the lowest rates in the country. The fact that rates vary a great deal from state to state is largely a measure  of how badly managed their utilities have been (number of power plants built but not needed). Click here for a list of 150 or so canceled, abandoned or on hold non-nuclear thermal power plants. Proponents of any given energy scheme be it wind, solar, or coal will high-five each other when a planned nuclear plant gets canned.

Who predicted that fracking was going to usher in an era of cheap natural gas? If you were planning to build a wind farm to reduce the fuel bills of your new natural gas power plant, you might need to cancel the plans for the wind farm if it now costs more to build than it will save you in fuel bills. Almost as if to rub salt in a wound, a natural gas power plant was built adjacent to the defunct Satsop nuclear power plant to take advantage of the power lines that had been installed. Fossil fuels win again!

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Natural Gas Power Plant Adjacent to Defunct Nuclear Power Plant

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The "Nuclear Energy Creates Thousands of Square Miles of Uninhabitable Land ...for Centuries" Argument

Photo of the Montlake landfill near my home courtesy of Alexandra MacKenzie via Flickr
To see some great pictures of birds spotted at this former dump (once a lakeside wetland), go to Birds of Montlake Fill. More photos of wildlife, including beavers, otters, raccoons, turtles, frogs, etc can be found here.

From Wikipedia:
Formerly the Montlake Landfill, University Dump, or Ravenna Landfill, it was used by the City of Seattle for residential and industrial solid waste from 1911 to 1966. It was fully closed five years later and overlaid with two feet of clean soil.
To this day you can find rebar poking up in the water and the occasional old tire appearing out of nowhere. I wonder if the regular visitors to this dump would protest the installation of wind turbines in it?

As with the global warming debate, and thanks to our human nature, new anti-nuclear arguments tend to take hold when old ones (like nuclear power safety, see aside below) are put to rest ...an endless game of whack-a-mole. Thanks to the usual lack of critical thought exacerbated by the internet echo chamber, the "uninhabitable land" argument has been popular of late.
Aside: The safety argument against nuclear has been losing popularity thanks to overwhelming rational arguments to the contrary on the internet. Really big renewable energy accidents have been known to kill tens of thousands at a time (dam failures). Three Mile Island and Fukushima caused no loss of life. The Chernobyl accident death toll has been estimated to be roughly four thousand when potential cancer related deaths are included. Contrast the combined total of those three nuclear power incidents over half a century with the fact that about forty thousand Americans are killed in their cars annually. 
Two of the grand total of three nuclear power plant incidents of note over the last half century resulted in land being abandoned by the sentient primate species Homo sapiens sapiens for the same reason tens of thousands of other abandoned industrial sites all around the world are not inhabited by our species--they harbor excessive amounts of one or more of the 450 carcinogens listed by the EPA, which can lead to an increase in cancer rates, or some other toxin, like heavy metals. Go here to see a list of 1,280 Super Fund sites.
Super Fund Sites
The Tar Creek Superfund site covers roughly the same area as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and it isn't the largest Superfund site. In this documentary about it, a narrator says "this is being unreclaimed by nature" (meaning that it is so damaged that even Mother Nature doesn't want it back).

But that certainly isn't always the case, as this PBS documentary about the wildlife at Chernobyl and  the aforementioned landfill a few miles from my home attest. Were it not for that landfill, the edge of that lake would likely be lined with the waterfront homes of the wealthy, as might yet another abandoned industrial site near my home, Gas Works Park.
Gas Works Park in Seattle
I suppose you could call this a silver lining of sorts. We sometimes lose control of the land we usurped from nature for industrial or agricultural purposes and are forced to give it back, assuming the land isn't so badly damaged that nature doesn't want it back!

From Wikipedia

According to Wikipedia, there are four main ways of looking at land degradation and its impact on the environment around it:
  • A temporary or permanent decline in the productive capacity of the land. This can be seen through a loss of biomass, a loss of actual productivity or in potential productivity, or a loss or change in vegetative cover and soil nutrients.
  • Action in the lands capacity to provide resources for human livelihoods. This can be measured from a base line of past land use.
  • Loss of biodiversity: A loss of range of species or ecosystem complexity as a decline in the environmental quality.
  • Shifting ecological risk: increased vulnerability of the environment or people to destruction or crisis. This is measured through a base line in the form of pre-existing risk of crisis or destruction.
The Soviet military industrial complex gave us Chernobyl, the poster child for how to do nuclear power wrong. It killed roughly 4,000 (compared to the 40,000 annual death toll of our highways) and permanently displaced about 300,000. Humanity learned a great deal and today's nuclear power is  more reliable as a result. We also learned that instead of creating mutant armies, a disaster like this can create vibrant wildlife preserves (much to chagrin of many anti-nuclear ideologues).

To put the amount of land lost to agriculture by the Chernobyl accident into perspective, consider that the American dust bowl alone removed roughly 100 times more land from agriculture than the Chernobyl accident (156,000 square miles  verses 1660 square miles). And that dust bowl was just the tip of an iceberg. There have been similar dust bowls in China, Africa, and the former Soviet Union.

Human beings have been destroying land for a long time. Archeologists had a hard time finding the site of ancient Troy which was located next to a bustling sea port. Because agriculture denuded the surrounding hillsides causing them to erode into the bay, the site of ancient Troy is now located roughly three miles from the coastline. Easter Island, like some of the Greek islands, was once covered in forest.
Easter Island, Wikipedia Commons
Fukushima pales in comparison to Chernobyl for a number of reasons:
1) Although the quake induced tsunami killed somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people, the damaged Fukushima reactors did not cause any fatalities (much to chagrin of many anti-nuclear ideologues).

2) Chernobyl, for the foreseeable future, returned to nature roughly 1660 square miles (envision a rectangle 20 miles wide by 80 miles long) while roughly 430 square miles were temporarily evacuated for Fukushima. As of today, approximately 70% of that 430 square miles is safe again and most if not all of the remaining 129 square miles is expected to be safe again at some point in the next few years. Nature may not get any land back. In the United States alone, coal ash landfills and ponds cover 124 square miles.

3) Chernobyl was the result of human error, while Fukushima was damaged by a magnitude 9 (literally 1000 times more powerful than the quake that flattened Haiti) quake induced monster tsunami ...what insurance companies sometimes refer to as "an act of God."

So, the next time you read that nuclear energy creates thousands of square miles of uninhabitable land, remind them that only one accident in half a century did that. To put it further into perspective, remind them that it became Europe's largest wildlife preserve, and in comparison to all of the land that can no longer be used for industrial agriculture thanks to human activity, the Chernobyl wildlife preserve is a drop in the bucket.