Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Global Energy Miracles

The more I hear about and read Bill Gates’ speech at this year’s TED, the more I have to ask – how come we haven’t done this a long time ago?

Lack of money, lack of political will. That’s what it always comes down to.

Critics of nuclear power always bring up two bugaboos – waste and the initial cost of building the power plants – as reasons to avoid the technology altogether. If the technology can be developed to burn depleted uranium in a slow process – Gates is investing in a company researching a fourth-generation nuclear plant capable of doing so – and if there were enough political will in this country to allow nuclear fuel reprocessing, the waste bugaboo, while not disappearing entirely, would be a much simpler task to accomplish. It’s hard to come up with another power source that lets you re-use 99 percent of your fuel and produce electricity for the baseload.

The cost thing has always boggled my mind as well, because it seems to me that there’s a lot of cost involved in putting together large enough solar and wind power plants in order to provide electricity on the mass scale needed to get this country off electricity through coal. Why cost is always brought up as a no against nuclear power but glossed over for other alternative, carbon-friendly power sources kind of bugs me.

I’m as big an advocate for wind and solar as I am nuclear. One of my goals is to have solar or wind power personally installed at the house I live in, in order to help get me off the grid as much as possible. I think these technologies are reliable and inexpensive enough on the small scale like this to help individual families achieve electricity independence.

But we can’t ignore Gates’ (and others’) calls to action for clean electricity on a massive scale:
The world's energy portfolio should not include coal or natural gas, he said, and must include carbon capture and storage technology as well as nuclear, wind and both solar photovoltaics and solar thermal power.

"We're going to have to work on each of these five [areas] and we can't give up on any of them because they look daunting," he said. "They all have significant challenges."
Gates spent a significant portion of his speech highlighting nuclear technology that would turn spent uranium -- the 99 percent of uranium rods that aren't burned in current nuclear power plants -- into electricity.

Just talking about this makes me want to re-read my Richard Rhodes books. There’s a time when the science, the need, and the money all came together. The Manhattan project, the Apollo Missions – we need a similar push for the energy miracles Gates talked about.

Postscript: It's a shame the TED organizers are so slow at releasing text and videos of the speeches for the mass audience -- but then again, maybe they're not tyring to communicate with the masses. Elitist pigs . . .

Update: Just watched President Obama's talk in Maryland, announcing $8 billion in loan guarantees to Southern Co. for their planned nuclear power plant in Georgia. Maybe some of that political will is coming back, along with the cash necessary to make things happen. Encouraging signs. And a reminder that this single plant alone is the equivalent of removing 16 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere -- compared to building a comparable coal-fired plant.

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