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Escaping our four-way energy bind

November 18, 2007|By ROBERT GARY

It would take Harry Houdini's skills to get us out of the four-way bind we are in on energy policy. It's obvious to all but the flat-earthers that fossil fuel burning is altering the climate of the planet in ways that we cannot tolerate.

Forget about the effects on other nations if you like, the U.S. could not tolerate the loss of half of Florida, half of New York City, and whatever's left of New Orleans and other cities on the Gulf Coast. So we need about the same amount of energy, but with less fossil fuel. That's the first bind.

Nuclear is the obvious solution. Maybe a renaissance in nuclear power, maybe 30 more reactors, new ones this time, with gravity feed emergency water - no need to pump it in, because the whole reactor works like a toilet. If you have a loss of coolant, you can just flush a big bunch of new water into the reactor core and, voila, the fuel bundles are fully covered.

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You close some valves, switch over to natural core cooling mode and the decay heat will work itself down - assuming that you've got the control rods fully in place so the free neutron intensity is too low for fission to continue.

The problem on the nuclear side is not so much reactor safety as what to do with the spent fuel. Storage on site is a very bad idea. It creates a target for terrorists - and a pretty easy target too, in at least two ways that I'm not going to spell out here.

If the stuff isn't stored on site, how about in Yucca Mountain? That's a great idea except for two things: 1. Harry Reid, who doesn't want it in Yucca Mountain, and 2. His best argument, which is that transporting it across the U.S. from the 100 places where it now is would create a huge number of very easy targets for terrorists and if they just hit one train car or one truck, they could do immeasurable damage partly as a result of our decision to put the spent fuel in harm's way, on the roads or on the rails. That's the second bind.

So how about wind and solar? They are viable, or would be if we spent the kind of money on them that we spend defending the interests of Big Oil around the world, but they are inherently weak and therefore land intensive.

A lot of ground would have to be covered with solar collectors and wind farms to get much yield from these sources. Geothermal is a richer source and technically feasible right now. The richest green source of all is conservation.

This could involve more use of telecommuting via remote, high-bandwidth offices in the suburbs, for example in Frederick and Hagerstown and Thurmont serving big agencies and corporations in Baltimore and Washington. Less driving, more teleconferencing. The result? Lower gas prices for everybody, because fewer people would be competing for the same supply of gasoline. Ethanol is viable in Brazil, but in the U.S., even the smartest researchers and economists cannot say with conviction at this time that it saves more energy than it costs to produce and transport. The stuff cannot be piped like oil and gas; it has to be trucked to its distribution hubs. The renewables, to summarize, are problematic, and they are not here now, so that's the third bind.

The solutions that would work are highly capital intensive. Massive exploitation of the Athabasca tar sands in Canada would work to reduce our dependence on overseas oil, although it would not solve the carbon release problem (global warming).

We would have to make a long-term deal with the Canadians so that huge investments in surface mining and retorts for separating sand from bitumen could be built with the assurance of getting an adequate return on capital.

The other solution that would work would be a national energy spine, probably down the median strip of Interstate 80, which runs right across the country. This would allow power to be wheeled from the East Coast to the West Coast and vice versa so that peak loads on both coasts would be partially supplied by the grids on the other coast.

This would mean less need for power plants on a national basis. But it's not cheap to get gigawatts of power safely across 3,000 miles with high- energy efficiency. It might require superconductors. So capital intensity is the fourth bind.

Harry Houdini knew how to get out of two sets of chains and two sets of handcuffs. Quadruple binds were not a problem for him. But they are for us.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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