Add a Gigawatt a Day to Keep the Climate Crisis at Bay

If we think we're going to make the goal from solar, wind, and other renewables alone, we must be smoking something. Every clean power technology, including nuclear, has to play a role.
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You'd think that after all the press coverage that global warming has received that the public would be pretty well educated on exactly how fast we need to install clean power to avert an irreversible climate disaster. But the public has no clue.

As far as I know, only one member of the press has asked the right questions to figure it out: Joshua Green, a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Green wrote a great piece in the current issue entitled "The Elusive Green Economy." It's long but it's a great read. Green points out that the IPCC set 450ppm as a level we shouldn't exceed because otherwise climate change becomes both irreversible and catastrophic. But at the very end of his article is the real gem: he points out that we need to develop 13,000 GWe of carbon-free power (within the next 25 years) if we're to limit atmospheric carbon concentration to 450 ppm. Australian climate scientist Barry Brook was kind enough to double check the math and came up with a similar figure. I also ran it by a top scientist at DOE and he didn't even raise an eyebrow when I quoted that figure. It is also about the same as the 11,500 GWe that Saul Griffith derived. Green next points out that current global solar-power production today is only 10 GWe. In fact, in 2008, the peak solar capacity was 13.4GWe, but the average powered delivered was only 2 GWe. Yikes! That's about the capacity of a single nuclear plant.

Compare that 2 GWe to the 13,000 GWe we need and you get a sense for the magnitude of the task ahead of us. The point is this: after decades of installing renewable power, we are nowhere close to making a small dent in the problem. In other words, if we think we are going to make the goal from solar, wind, and other renewables alone, we must be smoking something. And even if we added the big elephant of clean power, nuclear power, which can be installed in huge capacities relatively quickly when the political winds are blowing in the right direction, this is still an almost insurmountable goal. That's why at the Aspen Energy Forum held earlier this year, all of the renewable experts agreed that every clean power technology, including nuclear, has to play a role in solving the climate crisis.

I'd like to give you a sense for what that 13,000 GWe figure means. Let's be generous and assume we have 30 years to install the 13,000 GWe of power we need. If we were to build a large nuclear plant every single day for the next 30 years, that would still not be enough to avert the 450ppm limit.

Without nuclear as part of the mix, it's even harder and it's also a lot more expensive to meet the goal. We would have to be installing more than 1,500 large (2 MW, with enormous 100m diameter blades) wind turbines every day for 30 years. If we used desert-based concentrated solar thermal (which is much more efficient than solar photovoltaic), we'd have to install 80,000 huge 37 foot diameter dishes covering over 100 square miles every day for 30 years. Or some combination of those two. And then we'd have to cost-effectively store a lot of that power and deliver it when it is needed so you have reliable base load power all without generating any CO2 emissions. Storage is less of a problem with wind if you have a huge geographic area (which we have in the US), you massively overbuild to account for the unpredictability of wind, and you have a national transmission grid so you can move huge amounts of power when and where it is needed (which we don't have). And even with all of that in place, it's still not a guarantee that you won't have power outages when the wind is particularly low. With solar, to supply base load power, you'd need something like what Ausra is doing where they store power for up to 16 hours. Andasol uses such a thermal storage system and its electricity will cost 38 cents per kWh to produce, which makes it nearly 10 times more expensive than nuclear or coal.

We aren't anywhere close to installing clean power of any type that fast. Not only are we not doing it, but we aren't even close to just talking about the need to install power that fast!

Furthermore, our best nuclear technology, according to a multi-year multi-national study commissioned by the DOE, is the technology Clinton canceled in 1994. This design (the Integral Fast Reactor) remains on the shelf today, collecting dust, despite the fact that it can produce power cheaper than coal, is 100 times more efficient than today's nuclear technology, and can consume our nuclear waste and generate power from it (virtually solving our nuclear waste problem). Other countries want to build that design because it is safer, cheaper, and more proliferation resistant than the nuclear plants they have now (and because it gets rid of their nuclear waste). But we won't let them. Where is our sense of urgency?

Doesn't anyone get it?!?!

Have you ever in your life heard any politician mention how insanely fast we need to install new clean power on the planet to meet the 450ppm goal? I sure haven't. And none of the environmental groups will tell you that. They don't give you any numbers at all. Al Gore never mentioned it either.

The best job of public truth telling on how aggressively we have to build clean power that I've seen so far doesn't come from an environmental group at all.

Saul Griffith's Wattzon Game Plan does a great job of giving concrete examples of how fast we need to move to save the planet. Just watch the last 14 minutes of his highly entertaining Scarcity and Abundance video.

The "Climate Change" page of the upcoming State of the World Forum also does a great job of laying out the need to act a lot more aggressively than our political leaders would have us believe. Here are a couple of excerpts from their climate change page:

It is for these and other reasons that when he accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Head of the IPCC, said "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment." Thousands of scientists around the world agree. Lester Brown states bluntly that we are facing the demise of human civilization itself if we do not take action now.

Even more troubling is that reality that even if the governments are successful reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, this accomplishment would be essentially irrelevant to dealing with global warming in any meaningful way. A recent study by MIT states that if all the governments completely fulfill their current promises, which essentially are pointed toward reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, we will have reached over 600 ppm of CO2 by then and global temperatures will have risen at least 4 degrees Celsius.

This contradiction between what the governments are negotiating and what the science says is the most crucial fact in the climate change crisis today.

We do not have until 2050 to reduce our carbon emissions by 80%. We need to do this by 2020 and we only have until 2012 to make perhaps the most obvious decision in human history. Yet not a single government in the world is willing to recognize the obvious. Dr. Pachauri recently stated that the governments are engaging in "tragic inaction." Never before has there been a such a dearth of imagination, courage and leadership.

We believe that the world must mobilize around what is scientifically urgent, not around what is politically expedient.

What our governments are negotiating for 2050 must be accomplished by 2020.

So let me be real clear. Here are five key things that I think every American should know about the climate crisis:

1. If we are to have any hope of avoiding a climate crisis, we have to be installing about 1 GW of new clean power somewhere in the world every single day for the next 30 years.

2. We are nowhere close to that rate today.

3. All options for clean power have to be on the table.

4. Based on today's technologies and costs, our best chance of getting anywhere close to that rate (and at a cost we can afford) is to aggressively install lots of nuclear power as the centerpiece of that strategy.

5. Our single best clean power technology, the Integral Fast Reactor, remains sitting on the shelf in a government research lab in Idaho, collecting dust. Ray Hunter, the former Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science, and Technology at DOE is furious about this. If the US wants to be a world leader in clean tech, suppressing our best clean tech technology is not a good strategy to get there.

The sooner we realize the magnitude of the solution and start acting on it, the better our chances of saving the planet.

It's time to stop putting our head in the sand thinking that cap and trade and the House energy bill is going to solve the climate crisis. It's not going to make much of a dent. In fact, because it allows existing coal plants to continue operating, it actually makes things worse, not better. Japan adopted cap and trade and their emissions have continued to increase. Canada adopted a straightforward carbon tax and it's working. Yet our Congress thinks it is better for the country to adopt a system that hasn't worked anywhere in the world for reducing CO2 emissions than to copy a system that actually works. Go figure.

Senator Lamar Alexander is the member of Congress who is the closest to advocating what is needed. He's advocating building 100 new nuclear power plants in the US over the next 20 years. That's still not nearly enough, but it would be a good start. Nobody else in Congress is advocating anything close to that.

I'm waiting for a member of Congress to tell Senator Alexander that he's seriously underestimating the magnitude of the problem; that there are over 1,500 coal power plants in America and we need to put the pedal to the metal and install at least 1,000 new nuclear power plants in the US over the next 20 years, not 100. When that happens, we'll have a chance.

Today, we have complacency where we should be having a sense of urgency. After all, even if we deploy all the King's soldiers and and all the King's men, it's not clear at all we can run fast enough to save the planet.

One thing's for sure: we are never ever going to get there at the snail's pace we are on now.

Who will be the first one to tell America the truth about how fast we need to be installing clean power to save our planet?

Addendum: to date, we're only installed just 40 days of clean power worldwide:

Data for installed (peak) capacity are available. See BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2009.

In 2008, for technosolar, peak capacity for solar was 13.5 GW and wind was 122 GW. The amount of wave power and hot dry rock geothermal is trivial (small scale demonstration only). Volcanic vent geothermal is 10.5 GW.

Based on average capacity factors of 0.15 for solar, 0.25 for wind and 0.75 for geyser-derived geothermal, that represents a total average 'renewable energy' power (excluding biomass) of 40 GW, globally, in 2008.

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