An Energy Economics Truth GameProfessor Ferdinand E. Banks
December 7th, 2013
The Atlantic is an important United States (U.S.) publication, and those of us who occasionally read it like to think that they only publish authors who know what they are talking about. One of their favorite contributors is Charles C. Mann, but a recent issue (May 2013) featured an article he wrote about oil (and some other aspects of energy) that hardly deserves to be called goofy. Moreover, when challenged about nuclear the following month by Professor (of physics) Kevin Cahill of the University of New Mexico, Mr Mann responded with "it seems to me that the world has chosen, for better or worse, not to use nuclear power."
With all due respect, it seems clear to this humble teacher of energy economics that "the world" has not chosen anything of the sort. Germany was of course noted by Mr Mann in his reply to Professor Cahill, and he could have also mentioned Japan, although the attitude toward nuclear in those two countries has nothing to do with engineering or economics, or for that matter common sense. The truth is that it has everything to do with politics. By that I mean obtaining or not losing the votes of environmentalists and their sympathisers. What readers should concentrate on, and should never forget, is that globally at least 55 nuclear facilities are or soon will be in the process of construction, between 50 and 100 are somewhere in the planning stage (mostly in China), and more than 400 are still in operation.
Something that deserves attention here is the failure of Mr Mann to access this information about the nuclear future, because twenty minutes spent with the superb sites EnergyPulse and 321 Energy would make it virtually impossible for an intelligent person to entertain the kind of statement that Charles Mann made above, and in addition to magnify this misunderstanding by acting as a propagandist for methane hydrate, which for many years has been an energy source with a looney-tune patronage.
In the same issue as the 'piece' by Charles Mann, there is an article called 'Learning to Live with Fossil Fuels', which focuses on what its authors call the capture of carbon. I don't know when this article was written, but I was of the opinion that Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) was a lost cause - or "thermodynamic travesty", as it was labeled by the MIT graduate and leading energy economist in Germany, Jeffrey Michel. I occasionally extend this judgement by claiming that CCS is recognized as a loser by almost every engineer, manager, power broker, moon walker, rapper, researcher and break dancer not participating in some phase of a CCS scam.
Unfortunately those last remarks require amplification, because everyone has not had the opportunity to enjoy a course in thermodynamics at MIT or at my school IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago), but I think that this matter can be easily clarified. The 'carbon' (or CO2) from a power plant goes to a separation facility and from there into a pipeline that with the aid of compression equipment takes it to a storage facility, that eventually - with the assistance of injection equipment - pushes it into unmined coal beds or depleted oil or gas reservoirs or deep saline aquifers or something equally as exotic - assuming that they exist and are accessible without a declaration of war. Thus, the thermodynamic travesty alluded to by Jeffrey Michel will be described to my charming students as an occasional economics travesty, because all of this collecting, moving and (though not mentioned) processing of carbon involves serious money. So serious that some of the ladies and gentlemen in the executive suites might argue that it would be best to allow this carbon to escape into the upper atmosphere, where it may not cause you and yours any trouble for a few centuries, or if you and yours are unlucky decades.
During a meeting I attended of the Network for Oil and Gas (NOG), a Swedish forum for discussing energy problems that operates on about the same intellectual level as a Boston Public pyjama party, a young and probably honest engineer employed by the Swedish utility Vattenfall was asked what provision had been made to avoid environmental deterioration from Vattenfall's activities in the production and use of coal in Germany. His answer, which was very brief, and contained a reference to a CCS project of his firm in Germany, was so ingenuous that I am sure I was not the only person among his large audience who believed that he had not bought the bizarre lie about the efficiency of CCS disseminated by the people who paid his salary. The truth is however that somebody has bought it, because the plans of Vattenfall for their CCS experiment in Germany was strictly off-the-wall.
Another lie that missed its mark that wonderful day concerned the prospects for wind and solar in Germany and Denmark, because before the conclusion of that meeting it was made it clear to anyone willing to listen to yours truly that the highest cost of electricity in Europe is in Denmark and Germany, and furthermore no attempt is made in those countries to conceal the fact that this burden must be foisted on businesses and households alike in order to obtain the subsidies required to support or encourage the utilization of wind in Denmark, and wind and solar in Germany.
What is concealed that a portion of this burden is unloaded on rate payers in surrounding countries, because as a Belgium researcher noted at a conference in Stockholm a few years ago, if the Germans carried out the insane nuclear downsizing they keep talking about, then electricity might have to be rationed in his country. Put more directly, the replacement in Germany for electricity from German nuclear equipment would not be just wind and solar, but also imported electricity, and that would raise the price of electricity in every country whose government was not intelligent enough to prohibit the export of electricity, or to make electricity exports to Germany so expensive that they lose their taste for economic nonsense.
How much of the above do I expect my students to study and accept without a question? I think that I will limit it to the easily provable TRUTH that a comprehensive nuclear retreat is NOT taking place on a global scale, regardless of the lies and misunderstandings to the contrary. I would also be grateful if my students and everyone else with the opportunity to attend my lectures would accept - as I do - that Germany and Japan will probably be the most nuclear intensive countries in the world by the middle of this century, although if my students deny it and call me a fool for broaching this subject, I can assure them now that their grades for my course will not be influenced. After all, we Americans were once praised for our good sportsmanship.
What do important and articulate people - as well as the rest of us - want from renewables like wind and solar. I think it fair to assume that above all they want them adopted when it makes economic sense to adopt them, and I hope that I am not departing from the truth when I say that at least a few persons like myself do not mind if this involves subsidies. Take for example the Swedish nuclear inventory. Twelve reactors were constructed in this country in just under 14 years, and for taxpayers as a whole, this did not involve a penny in subsidies. Those reactors, together with the hydro that supplied most of the remainder of Swedish electricity, gave Sweden some of the most inexpensive electricity in the world, which in turn provided a boost to employment and incomes that more than paid for the reactors. Of course, the curse of electric deregulation wiped out some of the gains, but that is another matter.
Banks, Ferdinand E. (2014) Energy and Economic Theory. Singapore, London and New York: World Scientific.
Gisiger, Michael (2013). 'Energy, the foggy crystal ball'. Energy Pulse (November 27).
Mann, Charles C. (2013). 'What if we never run out of oil'. The Atlantic (May)
Michel, Jeffrey H. (2013). 'Klimaschutz und nachhaltiges Wirtschaften aus der Perspektive eines OECD-Landes.' Evangelische Akademie Berlin (May 10). Ing. Büro für Energieforschung (Hamburg).
Payne, Bill, (2013). 'Comment on Gisiger'. Energy Pulse (November 27).
Sarewitz, Daniel and Roger Pielke Jr (2013). 'Learning to live with fossil fuels'. The Atlantic (May).
Swan, Davis (2013). 'It's time to do the right things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard'. Energy Pulse (December 2),Professor Ferdinand E. Banks
December 7th, 2013
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