Thursday, December 31, 2009

Post # 6: Science, Ethics, and the Global Climate Debate

I don't know about you, but I'm growing increasingly frustrated with the global warming debate and the global climate research community. And not for the reasons you might expect.

We are faced with a suite of challenges stemming from global patterns of population distribution and growth, natural resource distribution and utilization, the global economy, and a wide range of related geo-political issues. I take very seriously my personal, and our collective responsibility as stewards of this planet to be informed and act responsibly with regard to these challenges. This requires that I (a) know the relevant facts, and (b) understand the implications of these facts. The careful application of the Scientific Method (yes, the one we learned in grade school) is critical to understanding many of these challenges. Science is, after all, a search for truth. Wherever it leads. And remember – a hypothesis that cannot be negated by experiment is not a scientific hypothesis, but a statement of faith. It cannot be acted upon by the Scientific Method. (That doesn't mean it's wrong - just that we may have no way of really knowing for certain.)

It is with this in mind that I find revelations such as the recent one regarding allegations of misconduct by leading climate researchers at the University of East Anglia so troubling (see for example:, and I spent several hours over the Thanksgiving holidays investigating all of this for myself. (By the way, there's an absolutely fascinating analysis of these emails at The more I learned, the more troubled I became. Analyses by reputable scientists such as McIntyre and McKitrick (see only added to my angst.

All scientists of good conscience should condem conduct such as that alleged to have occurred at East Anglia. A zero-tolerance attitude is in order here. Too much is at stake. To the extent these allegations are proven valid, they cast a serious shadow over the climate debate. A prudent person SHOULD ask questions such as, "To what extent is the behavior of these researchers endemic to larger sections of the climate community?". How do we know which analyses have been corrupted? Which data sets have been selectively altered? Which dissenting voices have been quieted?

It's critical to note that even if all the allegations about ethical misconduct are valid, this does not automatically invalidate the IPCC global warming claims. It certainly does suggest, however, that we have a legitimate basis for questioning the accuracy and objectivity of the IPCC analysis.

As a research engineer and scientist in the energy field, I find many aspects of the climate debate fascinating.

So where does this leave us? Well, it appears to me the "consensus" on global warming as expressed by the IPCC is eroding - or at least deconvolving into a cluster of "mini-consensus" camps characterized as:
  1. Those who believe global warming is real, threatens human society and life as we know it, and human activity is a major causal mechanism
  2. Those who believe global warming is real, threatens human society and life as we know it, and human activity has little to do with it
  3. Those who do not know if global warming is real or significant if it is real, and don't feel we understand it well enough to know the causality
  4. Those who believe global warming is not a significant threat and worry we are over-reacting.
Where am I on this issue? I feel more carbon in the atmosphere is not a good thing. But if I had to choose a camp, I guess I'm (uncomfortably) in Camp 3. I believe we need to recommit ourselves to the Scientific Method – more science, more and better data, better simulations (with greatly improved model validation), and ruthless peer review in an open and professionally-skeptic environment. There should be no room for "political correctness" in the pursuit of science. In the mean time, the climate community would be well-served to be more transparent about its epistemology. But that's a topic for another day...


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Post # 5: Whole Earth Discipline and Sustainable Energy

There's been a rather remarkable reversal of viewpoint during the past few years among many leaders of the environmental movement. Blueblood environmentalists such as Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace); Tim Flannery (author of the recent book, "The Weather Makers"); and Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and president of the Long Now Foundation) are among a growing number of leading environmentalists who have embraced nuclear energy as a major ingredient, if not the major ingredient, in the solution to a number of global challenges such as climate change, access to clean water, quality of life in developing countries, and yes - even war. There's even an organization now called "Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy" that boasts some 9800+ members from sixty countries ( ).

I recently ran across a compelling video seminar by Stewart Brand in which he discusses the key elements of his "Whole Earth Discipline" philosophy. The seminar ties together the issues of climate change, population growth, 3rd world development, energy, and genetically-engineered food, to weave a compelling and thought provoking message. Though I do not necessarily agree with all Brand's viewpoints, I do highly recommend this video seminar for holiday viewing. It can be found at the Perimeter Institute's web site:

Brand's message is clear: Solutions to global problems of the 22nd century will only be achieved via a marriage of scientific and technical rigor, systems-oriented thinking, and a spirit of stewardship and commitment to the welfare of our fellow man and the planet we inhabit together. Good thoughts for the Christmas season and the New Year...


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Post # 4: Energy, Entropy, and the GDP

Much is made about the fact the U.S., with only 4.5% of the world’s population (~ 308M), accounts for 21 % of the world’s total annual primary energy consumption ( (These figures are for 2006 – the most recent statistics I could quickly locate). Viewed from this perspective the U.S. appears to be a greedy, irresponsible consumer of diminishing resources.
Are we?
The short answer is … “no”.
A different perspective on this issue emerges when one considers the entire cost-benefit equation. According to Wikipedia (, referencing the Goldman Sachs International Monetary Fund, the U.S. generated 21% of the global GDP in 2008. Hmmmm, we consume ~ 21% of the annual primary energy and produce ~ 21% of the annual global GDP. So let's create a figure of merit... M = % Global GDP / % global energy consumption. M = 1 for the U.S.

What's the value of this figure of merit for the up-and-coming nations of the world… say India and China?
India has 1.17B people. China has 1.33B people. Total population = 2.5B. The same sources I cited above indicate China and India combine to consume 19% of the world’s total primary energy consumption in 2006, and produced 16% of the world’s total GDP in 2008. So M for India+China = 16% / 19% = 0.84. In other words, based on this figure of merit, India and China are less efficient at producing value from the energy they consume. Or, stated differently, they are consuming too much energy relative to the GDP they produce. But this is not, of course, the complete story. (More on that in future posts.)
So, while the average American consumes much more energy than the average citizen of India or China, each American also contributes much more “value” to the world economy.

“Visualization from Gapminder World, powered by Trendalyzer from“
It turns out there is a rather direct relationship between per capita energy consumed, and per capita GDP produced. This relationship is demonstrated rather dramatically by the plot above, which I generated at the wonderful website ( It displays national annual per capita GDP (Y axis) vs. per capita electric energy consumption in kWh (X axis) for the countries of the world. Gapminder is one of my favorite resources for visualizing world demographics data. I encourage everyone to check out their on-line data visualization tools. The plot vividly demonstrates the direct relationship between per capita GDP generation, and per capita electricity consumption. There are many other thought-provoking visualizations one can generate on the Gapminder site (the plot of UN Human Health Index vs. per capital electricity consumption for instance). All of these plots point to one fact: energy availablity is a key to quality of life and economic prosperity.
And what about entropy? Well, as those of you who've studied engineering or physics will recall, entropy is, among other things, a measure of disorder in a closed system. The higher the entropy, the higher the degree of disorder in the system. One of the interesting artifacts of the first and second laws of thermodynamics is that the application of energy is necessary to bring order from disorder. In a funny sort of way, this is what the plot shown above demonstrates - albeit from an economic perspective rather than an engineering perspective. Energy is required to bring order, organize matter, and add value from an economic perspective as well. The relationship is direct, strong, and unavoidable.
One important final note. All applications of energy are inefficient and imperfect. An our primary energy resources are limited. There are clearly economic advantages to be gained by taking steps to drive down energy consumption per unit of productivity delivered. The fact there is a very real relationship is not an excuse for waste and inefficiency, but rather a motivation for improving our energy usage efficiency.
Enough musing for now...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Post # 3: The Staggering Challenge Of Achieving President Obama's Carbon Emissions Goals

The current administration has articulated a goal of an 80% reduction U.S. carbon emissions by 2050. The first thing to keep in mind as one considers this lofty goal is that electricity production consumes 40% of our primary energy resources in the U.S. and produces 40% of the CO2 emissions. The remaining 60% of our primary energy consumption and CO2 emissions originate in the transportation, industrial process heat, and non-electrical building heating sectors. (According to their 2007 energy analysis, LLNL analysts estimate the transportation sector is directly responsible for 33% of our total CO2 emissions.) So... achieving this goal will require rapid transformation of BOTH the electricity and transportation sectors.

Sometime ago, I created a simple Excel spreadsheet model of U.S. electric energy consumption and carbon emissions. I decided to use this simple model to explore the magnitude of the electricity sector actions required to achieve the 80% reduction goal.

The simple model I built employs a first-order approach to estimating time-dependent energy consumption and carbon production based on the market share of a specific generation in the first and last years of the analysis, the carbon intensity of each energy production type, the population growth rate, and the per capita electricity consumption per U.S. citizen. The model interpolates in a linear manner from the starting year to the ending year of the analysis, and provides year-by-year estimates of electric energy production by type, carbon emissions by type, and the required installed electrical production capacity to deliver these results. Not rocket science, and subject to several approximations - but certainly good enough to provide some high-level insights.

Now for some basics... Several sources indicate the average American consumes approximately 14,000 kWh of electricity each year. This value varies a bit as a result of economic conditions (it apparently has been somewhat lower this year). Future improvements in energy efficiently might drive this per capita consumption down, but it's a reasonable number for our estimates.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts our 2008 population to be ~ 304,000,000, and our population growth rate to by 0.6% per annum for the foreseeable future. Based on this data, one can predict total electricity consumption grows by 14% by 2030, and 29% by 2050. [At this point I note that this is where we can harness the "law of large numbers". Even small improvements in energy efficiency and personal energy conservation can have very large payoffs. Thus investments in energy conservation and efficiency should be high on everyone's list of things to do... But conservation will only take you so far...]

I assumed the carbon intensity of various energy production types to be constant at:
Coal: 0.96 kgCO2/kWh
Natural Gas: 0.60 kgCO2/kWh
Wind, Solar, Nuclear: 0.00 kgCO2/kWh.

With this as background, let's examine a few simple questions:

1. What is the impact in 2050 if the current U.S. generation mix (~ 51% coal, 21% nuclear, 17% gas, 6% hydro, 1% wind, and the remaining 4% solar, geothermal, etc.) is maintained? The answer is simple. Since the generation mix doesn't change, the total CO2 from electricity production grows by 29% by 2050. Remember the 80% reduction goal...

2. What electrical energy production mix is required to achieve the 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050? (Remember this would still leave the 60% CO2 emission fraction from transportation and industrial process heat sectors untouched, so we would still fail the 80% overall reduction test miserably...) According to my model, we could achieve this by transitioning to 60% nuclear, 15% natural gas, 10% wind, 10% solar, while maintaining the current market shares of hydro, geothermal and oil, and eliminating all coal-fired generation. Remember - this is energy production. In terms of installed capacity (assuming 92% nuclear availability, 30% wind availability, and 40% solar availability) this translates to ~ 410 GWe installed nuclear capacity, 211 GWe installed wind generation capacity, 158 GWe of solar capacity. That's a factor of 4 expansion over our current nuclear capacity, a factor of 50 expansion in our current solar capacity, and a factor of 10 increase in our current wind generation capacity. That's 400 1-GWe nuclear plants; 211,000 2-MWe wind turbines, and I haven't taken the time to calculate the acres of solar panels.

3. Can we completely de-carbonize electricity production? Yes. According to my model, we could go with ~ 65% nuclear 15% wind, 15% solar, IF we can maintain the current hydro energy split - an unlikely possibility. Or, we could go 80% nuclear, 10% wind, and 4% solar - if we maintain the current hydro production fraction.

What's the "so what?"

Here's my summary observations:
  1. We really need a focus on energy conservation and energy efficiency improvements. Harness the law of large numbers. Probably still much low-hanging fruit there.
  2. If we totally decarbonize electricity production, we still miserably fail in achieving the 80% overall CO2 emissions reduction target unless we also transform the transportation and industrial energy use sectors
  3. A breakthrough in carbon sequestration would be really nice. Otherwise it's difficult to see a future for coal-fired electricity production in an era of carbon taxes, and the demand for deployment of other energy forms is dramatically increased.
  4. A massive uptick in the deployment of nuclear, wind, and solar energy is required. ALL THREE are needed. There's no silver bullet.
Again, all this based on a simple analysis of the fundamentals. No rocket science (but maybe a Nobel ? )

Got to run. Be especially safe during the next few days. An astonishing percentage of the folks you meet on the road during the next 72 hours will be intoxicated. Take extra precautions.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Post # 2: Centurion Reactors - Achieving Commercial Power Reactors With 100+ Year Operating Lifetimes

Nuclear energy is our largest source of emissions-free electrical energy. Today in the U.S., nuclear power contributes ~ 70% of our low-carbon electrical production. Though the capital cost of nuclear power plants is high, once the plants are amortized, nuclear power plants produce base-load electricity at the astonishingly low cost of 2-3 cents per kilowatt-hr. Amazing for a power source that is available over 90% of the time 24-hours a day, 365 days a year!

During his later years, nuclear energy pioneer Dr. Alvin Weinberg often spoke of the "trend toward nuclear reactor immortality", and the dawning awareness that commercial nuclear power plants originally licensed for thirty-to-fourty years of operation could and would operate for significantly longer periods of time. As of October 1, 2009, ninety-three of our nation's 104 operating nuclear power plants have either extended their initial 40 operating license, have applied for a license extension, or have announced their intent to apply for a license extension.

While "immortal" reactors are still well beyond our reach, modern advances in nuclear energy science and technology hold the promise that nuclear power plants could be designed and licensed in the near future for operating lifetimes of 100 years or beyond. I call these reactors, "Centurion Reactors". A Centurion Reactor would operated for a century - perhaps eighty years or longer after their initial capital cost has been repaid.

All of us use and benefit from a vast array of civil infrastructure "bequeathed" to us by our parents and grandparents. Think highways, bridges, hydroelectric dams, etc. What if we could bequeath 80 years of inexpensive nuclear electricity to our children and grandchildren?

Interestingly, the most significant challenge to achieving Centurion Reactors may not be technical, but financial. Current power plant build decisions and business models are not designed to internalize the 80-year, post-amortization value stream (revenues from electricity sales to the investors, and reliable affordable electricity to society) in the initial build decision and plant business models. By analogy, imagine two entrepreneurs who are seeking to build a corner gas station. The first builder is building a "40-yr" gas station. The second builder is building a "100+yr" gas station. Both builders visit their favorite bank for the necessary business loan. How are the differences in the lifecycle value and return on investment of the two installations reflected in the financing term and the interest rate required by the lender. Will the businesses and the individuals involved in these decisions even be around in the latter half of the lifetime of the business? How does this influence the decisions being made?

Fascinating stuff! One of those energy-economics-society issues. Comments anyone?

Post # 1: Welcome to the premier of the Sustainable Energy Today Blog

Hi to all, and welcome to the initial entry in the Sustainable Energy Today blog! My intent in creating this blog is to provide a forum for commentary and dialog on the complete spectrum of sustainable energy topics. Energy sources, production, distribution, and utilization. Energy and the environment. Energy and climate. Energy and the economy. Energy and culture. Energy and ethics. Energy and national security. In short... "all things energy". So visit often and join the dialog.... Cheers, and Merry Christmas! Sherrell

*** DISCLAIMER: This is my personal blog. As such, the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization with which I maintain a professional or personal relationship ***