Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
There have been several movements throughout the past several decades promoting the necessity of using renewable energy. The three prominent ones that come to mind are, "peak oil", "global warming", and "climate change". With them came the proliferation of applied technologies such as photovoltaics, wind/wave turbines, geothermal heating etc. This was made possible in large part due to the unpopularity of nuclear energy, hydrocarbon pollution and the recognition that fossil fuel use will not be viable in the long term. Today the latest figure I see counts renewable energy as taking approximately 25% of the entire energy generated in the world. This is quite impressive and I applaud the effort that went into making this happen. However I must question whether this trend is all that good and settled as a solved problem.

Centralized electricity production using fossil fuels is a reliable way of generating power. You put fuel in, combust, and you get electrical energy out. We use the same method in our transportation, although that is starting to be contested by all major automotive companies transitioning to electric vehicles. If this trend continues then we could theoretically have 100% renewable electrical power but we would also be heavily dependent on the cyclic and variable changes in nature. For example we can't get solar power during the night or when it's overcast and we can't get wind power during mild weather (conversely can't use it during storms as it can break). We can't transport this energy across large distances as transmission loss is a major deterrent. So it needs to be "stored" relatively locally somehow for use later on. There are renewable solutions to achieve this, the conventional ones being hydroelectric pumps, flywheels, and batteries. These are all expensive solutions and have their own issues regarding ecological impacts. For instance, hydroelectric dams are usually situated on natural rivers and lakes and can negatively impact wildlife. Flywheels have very limited storage capacity and high efficiency batteries require rare earth metals that are difficult to obtain and are often toxic. Let us also not forget that there's a manufacturing cost and more importantly, disposal costs associated with the renewable generators - photovoltaic disposal being the most prominent pollutant. In addition to this, managing a large number of renewable sources in an electrical grid is also difficult, which I'm sure many fine engineers battle as we speak. Therefore I must ask, are we on the right path if ecological conservation and energy security are the ultimate aims? Aren't we simply shifting the problem by destroying the environment in a different way and making ourselves dependent on highly variable weather patterns rather than using steady fuel?

Perhaps green energy is a reactionary solution to the fears associated with nuclear power. The disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima being prominent cases. However if CO2 and air pollution are indeed the most important goals to tackle in man-made "climate change", then as far as centralized clean energy goes, nuclear electric power generation technology is actually quite environmentally friendly. The only truly environmentally harmful components are the radioactive waste products. But then again, aren't the toxic components in renewable solutions also disastrous if they're not disposed of properly? The meltdowns that occurred in the famous nuclear reactors we're told are due to old equipment and because they were operated by improperly trained personnel. These are issues that can be mitigated as long as proper design and inspections are carried out, as they should be in all large sensitive facilities. There are also different kinds of nuclear power generation technologies and they can't be all clumped together as being "dangerous". Perhaps with further focus we can achieve the most super-green nuclear option that would minimize or even eliminate nuclear waste altogether. Therefore I'm very skeptical of the rhetoric that nuclear is not "green" (ironic btw. that artists frequently put a glowing green hue on anything radioactive) and at the same time casually brush aside the environmentally destructive elements and processes involved in other "green" solutions. Hence I must conclude that current forms of green energy are in fact not green at all and we're only going to run into other environmental and supply problems later on. Safe nuclear power needs to be the answer to centralized electricity generation.
Maybe centralized electricity generation is the wrong answer. Distributed and local energy has the benefit of low transmission losses and allow smaller players to enter the energy market with alternatives. Those players in the market sell their electricity to the grid and ideally allow free market competition to exist. Centralized energy generation in the meanwhile involves huge capital investments and can form monopolistic situations, which is problematic on several levels. Many of these are also public utility companies so there's that aspect to consider.

It's true that mining, manufacturing, and disposal of toxic materials and byproducts in green energy is a growing environmental concern. But that can be said about any human activity in general. Uranium mining and fracking for oil are as equally disastrous, not to mention that the wastes and byproducts are the reasons why the climate change movement had garnered such a strong support in the first place. The terms "clean" and "green" are for marketers and are umbrella terms for alternative non-fossil fuel and non-nuclear energy generation technologies. They don't necessarily mean that the entire process results in net zero pollution. It's about reducing environmental impact and at the same time, hoping for improvements in those alternative technologies by injecting R&D capital and garnering public support to continue the trend.

Climate change itself in the meanwhile is a notoriously contentious topic that can spark almost religiously zealous responses in people from either side of the argument. However, whichever side of the dogmatic and highly politicized science you're on, the common ground that everyone can agree on is that human beings have historically had a profoundly destructive influence on ecosystems. Industry requires resource extraction and that is becoming increasingly difficult due to the scarcity of those raw goods and the growing complexity of the extraction processes. The cut-throat market dynamics and harsh economic circumstances force much of these activities to continue often at the expense of those lives dependent on the environment. The attempts to reduce carbon emissions is a way to reduce not only the greenhouse effect but to also reduce the air pollution level in general. Doing only that is certainly not going to fix the climate or the environment, but it's a start and hopefully it will spur on innovation in addressing the issue in a broader sense.
Development of nuclear energy has far too many strings attached to allow any major innovation to occur. The shadow of the nuclear cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States still lingers hauntingly in all dealings involving anything that can be used to construct various forms of atomic weaponry. This is seen and felt often whenever hostile non-western-ally nations pursue related activities such as uranium enrichment or nuclear experimentation. It's a sensitive and secretive subject and the likelihood of seeing private innovation (aside from the very wealthy and well connected types) is almost nil. Even if a brilliant rogue researcher were to make headway, chances are you'd most likely never hear from such a person ever again.

Renewable energy however does not have this limitation, and therefore there's a higher chance that someone with conventional and non-classified knowledge would be able to propose an alternative. Solar panels for example are only possible due to the expertise gained through advancements in semiconductors. We wouldn't have high efficiency wind turbines if it wasn't for the work that went into the study of aerodynamics on airplane wings. Battery technologies have improved significantly due to advances in new chemical combinations and processes. The downside though is that all of these solutions create their own specific types of pollution related to materials extraction, construction methods and waste disposal. Something large and industrial in scale will always have such issues.

On the other hand, key innovations using renewable technologies can look into simpler solutions that can be constructed locally. For example, biodiesel is made from several sources such as used oils from local restaurants. These are often deployed in powering public transportation systems. Methane extraction happens in some landfills and the gas is utilized for heating and electricity generation. Geothermal power is deployed in areas that are suitable for use, such as near geysers and other hot steam sources. It could be that small scale electricity generation can be done using less harsh materials at a local level rather than relying on larger industrial-scale solutions. This is already observable with commercial solar panels on rooftops. It may be that economy of scale combined with simplified materials and processes can produce environmentally friendly (throughout the entire lifecycle of the device) solar panels that would immediately be recognized as a "no-brainer" solution to any home owner. It's certainly a more likely outcome than a new form of nuclear fission/fusion solution for electric power making its way into the public space.
Comparing the power generated through a fission chain reaction, arguable one of the most incredible achievements of the 20th century to windmill-driven generators or narrowband photovoltaic arrays is hardly a comparison at all. Even the good old coal-powered steam technology is more reliable and efficient. But don't get me wrong. A ravenously energy hungry society such as ours needs every little bit of electricity we can get. Every circumstance is different and it may be that distributed electric power is the answer for much of the residential needs. Economical home PV panels with lead-acid battery storage might be something that can offset the energy bills significantly. The excess energy can be sold back into the electricity grid. This is not a problem per-se, but the idea that just installing a PV panel is going to result in a green and sustainable future is a fallacy. The solar panel is toxic both to make and to dispose of. This needs to be addressed before making such a claim, and there needs to be economic and public pressure if that is to happen.

Meanwhile, one must also question the logic of artificially limiting the advancement of an incredible technology that can potentially/hopefully solve many problems. Granted, Truman's introduction of the technology to the world stage was nightmarishly horrific. The cold war with its ever present threat of mutual annihilation and the ensuing thousand years of nuclear winter had a collective grip on the minds of generations. Support for anything nuclear dropped once the old generations had passed on and the new generation shifted their preference to fossil fuels and the emerging renewables in the 1980's. The meltdown in Chernobyl certainly didn't help in curbing this continuing trend.

When the Soviet Union fell, concerns about the possible future of a nuclear wasteland had diminished significantly and it seized to be an issue to many people. This should have been when nuclear research began in earnest to redeem itself in the eyes of the public. And perhaps this effort existed but it was overshadowed by the overbearing computer and internet revolution, only to be soon followed by the massive retaliatory effort of the military-industrial complex and their campaigns in the "search for the holy oil" in the middle east. Since then the prospect of concerted nuclear power research and large public support was silenced, and continues to be silenced by both the fossil fuel lovers and the renewables crowd. Ironically if more effort was put in place to review and bolster the nuclear power generation facilities, perhaps the disaster in Fukushima could have been averted.

Surely eighty years of nuclear science is worth reviewing and consider utilizing? For example, thorium as fuel is purportedly more abundant, safer and creates less waste than pure uranium reactors. Small modular reactor (SMR) facilities can be cheaper to install and may pave the way for even more miniaturization and commercial viability. Not only that, miniaturized portable nuclear reactors using abundant fuel such as thorium can be used in vehicles both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. None of this is going to happen if the green solution is to solely rely on solar panels and wind farms to meet the world's energy needs. Something akin to a Dyson sphere out of solar panels, or "gull whacking" offshore wind farm factories are not aesthetically pleasing, realistically viable or practical to maintain. There needs to be a wide support for nuclear power research and proliferation of safe, clean, and non-weaponizable facilities.