Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's the Energy. Why I Love Nuclear.

To me, this graph is the Reason-For-It-All. My friend Bob Hargraves put it together, and you can find the graph on his website about the promise of thorium for the future (Aim High). To build this graph, Bob went to the CIA World Factbook, which lists countries and their statistical data: population, GDP, electricity use, life expectancy, etc. The factbook is the most convenient source of information for many countries and used in many academic and scholarly papers. (Note, double-clicking on these graphs will enlarge them.)

Bob constructed a spreadsheet of GDP per capita and birthrates per woman for 82 countries. He used the countries that have populations of over ten million people. The results are shown above. Simply put, women in poor countries have terrible lives. Many children, many children dying, little opportunity for education, grinding poverty. Prosperity (being above the "prosperity" line in the graph) improves women's lives immensely.

The next chart shows another of Bob's graphs. This one illustrates how electricity use and prosperity go hand in hand. Since it does not show that prosperity depends on electricity use or vice versa, no doubt, a few hundred people will now comment on this post that we can have plenty of prosperity with low electricity use. They may also ask: What is prosperity good for anyway? I have an answer for that. Prosperity is good for making people's lives longer and richer, and allowing women to participate in the greater business of the world.

The fact is: prosperity and electricity use go together. As you can see, prosperity and electricity increase together on average as a straight line, especially in the 0 to $15,000 per capita region. That region on the chart below is equivalent to the the Up From Poverty region of the chart above.

That's why China and India are moving so quickly on electrification.

A View from the Third World

Recently, I posted about Jaczko coming to Brattleboro, and Claire sent a long comment about all the ways we can conserve, and lead to a world which is carbon-free and nuclear free. Her aim was to have households using just a few kWh a month. Some ideas were rooftop solar collectors and organic gardens on the lawn. She received interesting replies.

Steve Aplin noted that:

Claire, I have no problem with your list of suggestions. Not everybody can follow them, however, and especially people who live in high rises. High rises are (1) absolutely the cleanest way for humans to live en masse, and (2) literally uninhabitable without electricity, which brings you to and from your floor, pumps your water, ventilates your unit, and lights it. We need lots of GHG-free electricity, and sorry but renewables are not capable of providing it.

Steve blogs at Canadian Energy Issues.

Dave then commented:

Is being low in energy use intrinsically good? If you think it is can you tell me if you also think that long life spans, education and generally health are good or evil?

I live in a second world country. I have great respect for how much energy it takes to supply a growing population. I know many people who live on less than a kwh a day. It is not pleasant and they struggle greatly. Some schools here only have light bulbs turned on if the parents in the community pay for the extra electricity. Then there is often a single light bulb in a classroom of 50 students.

This population that already uses less energy per capita than any of its still poor neighbors will not be helped by "green" energy. You cannot build an economy, (schools, jobs, roads, business, manufacturing) on sources of power that come and go randomly.

Most in this population cannot conserve more. They cannot "live with nature" more closely. Sure, pollution could be minimized, but not waste, there is NO waste, everything is used.

I include these quotes just in case you thought the Hargrave plots above were theoretical. They aren't. They are about real and suffering people

On the Other Hand

Some people don't care. Some people have furry mustaches and a down-home way of talking, and basically don't give a hang about people (probably people of color) living in other countries. Here are some quotes from people very opposed to nuclear energy.

If you ask me, it'd be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won't give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other."
—Amory Lovins, The Mother Earth - Plowboy Interview, Nov/Dec 1977, p. 22

Gosh, Mr. Lovins? Whose needs? Are you the one to decide on who-needs-what? Are we talking about your own needs (which include a certain amount of jetting around the world, giving highly-paid talks)? Or the needs of a third-world mother pregnant with her fourth child, who wishes she had clean water (water purification plants are energy hogs) and maybe even an electric stove (many many third world women die in accidents with small charcoal or wood-fired stoves, or from smoke inhalation. Full disclosure: as part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, our son-in-law Vijay Modi does research in the cookstove area.)

By the way, I found the Lovins quote in the Wikipedia article Anti-Nuclear Movement. Just in case you thought Mr. Lovins was talking about coal.

Another quote, from a somewhat less engaging personality:

Giving society cheap, abundant energy ... would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun. - Paul Ehrlich, ``An Ecologist's Perspective on Nuclear Power'', May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report

The condescension is so heavy you could cut it with a knife.

If you want to see some really vicious quotes, including banning DDT as a way to get rid of people by letting them die of malaria, I recommend this collection of quotes. The quotes were gathered by a retired professor at Stanford University, John McCarthy. Read it only if you have a strong stomach. (This website was recommended to me by a friend. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all the quotes, but the author says he will take down any quotes that are challenged. I checked two of the quotes, and they were okay.)

The Bottom Line

Nuclear power truly has the ability to change the earth, and improve the lives of poor people and save the lives of women and children. There is really nothing else like it.

Let's ignore the Euro and America-specific rantings of certain condescending and overpaid people, and look at Bob Hargraves carefully drawn charts. If we look at those charts, we will see that answer for the world is MORE energy use, not less. And the answer for more energy use is nuclear.

That's what its about, for me. It isn't just about Vermont Yankee. I am committed to better lives for everyone, through nuclear power.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this beautifully written article, Meredith! It so often overlooked that energy is truly an humanitarian issue. Many times we become focused on the impact of energy sources, and don't consider the impact of not having access to electricity. Adequate health care, education and general quality of life are completely dependent on electricity.

Achieving a high quality of life for all people, while ending unnecessary damage to our environment is only possible with nuclear. It is the best humanitarian solution.


Thanks for the reminder, Ms. Angwin. Your high ethics inspire us, & demand a full hearing from all, even those blinded by politics.

The use of concentrated high energy began only in 1705 with Watt's steam engine, but resulted in a spectacular epoch of uplift for the human race. By 1776 god-based royal sovereignty was crumbling, and by 1863 permanent human bondage was outlawed.

Our modern secular humanist meme birthed itself on a wave of freedom from the deathwork drudgery that had been mankind's lot since the paleolithic.

We, the liberated, ought not forget what got us here. Universal electric power (plus the internal combustion engine) is the wind beneath the wings of our godhood.

In this information age, every human alive is aware of these realities, and determined to get a share. Our duty, as the technologically endowed, is not to return our 6 billion fellows to the stone age, but to usher all into the best world possible.

The planet has gifted the knowing among us with a limitless energy source, capable of accomplishing our task. Amazingly, the very dirt on which we walk has power in it.This Gaian gift-power demands much of us. To take it up carelessly would be fatal hubris, but to take it up is our destiny, so we must rise to the occasion.

Faint hearted denial is inadequate. Insane self-delusion and hatred of the real can provide no escape.

The planet bekons, and holds out the gift.


David said...

Hi Meredith,

Thanks for the mention. After more than twelve years I am coming back to the USA in a couple of weeks. I have been working in places that got my engineering tendencies cooking trying to figure out ways to help the people around me. Using my knowledge of energy and networking skills, I helped to coordinate a bio-fuel "tuba tuba" plantation, which crashed as the investors realized there was just not enough energy in the tuba plants to pay back the effort to gather it. It was poisonous as well, (One of my friends ate it as a child to get a "buzz"), which meant that it was not supposed to compete with food crops. It did compete because to grow enough to actually get diesel fuel out of it took thousands of hectors from other crops. A business contact and friend had 10,000 hectors under plantation and it still crashed. Bio fuels take a LOT of effort.

I have fairly conservative political leanings, with a mustache and a down home way of talking :) Learning the local language was a stretch because of my tendency to drawl. I hope you don't hold that against me... :)

I have been very worried about the environmental movement because it seems to focus on eliminating everything that frees people from illness, grinding poverty and blithely tosses around the phrase, "over population." How I would LOVE to have them plant rice by hand for a month, and wait for three months for the harvest while they pay off their 30% interest loans and fight dengue fever. Poverty is real. Combating it is complex, challenging and disappointing.

Electricity is needed!

You know how many buckets of water you need to carry if you are sick with diarrhea in order to keep your toilet flushed? I do. One time I carried them up two by two (5 gallons each), used one and poured one into a large trash can for storage and went back down the 6 flights of stairs in our high rise that had no electric at the time, to get two more buckets.

Let me tell you, when the electric came on I was THANKFUL!

I am really excited about the possibilities in small nuclear reactors. These are the way to the future.

I pray that Vermont hangs on to the power plant that keeps the lights on and the water flowing in an inexpensive, CO2 free way. I hope some people avoid all exit signs...

David said...

Good post Meredith.

I have a ton of stories I could share but poverty is very real and the solutions to it difficult. Electricity is NEEDED!

I hope Vermont Yankee keeps pumping out clean electricity for the citizens of Vermont. I also hope some people avoid exits as they might get too close to the signs.

Roy H said...

Thorium is the right approach, in particular LFTRs.

Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors were invented in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They ran one for almost 5 years. LFTRs use cheap thorium, are inherently safe, do not produce long term radio-active waste and were abandoned because they are not suitable for making bombs. See:
Although the principles are proven, there is still some research required for the best materials to have long 50 year plus life. This should be our highest priority to solve our energy and pollution problems.

friend2all said...

First I would like to thank Robert Hargraves for producing the frequently featured slide "Prosperity depends on energy" that is includedas part of this Blog post and in his very fine talk "Aim High". There is a respectable degree of correlation of energy use with prosperity and this slide helps illustrate the case for the concept.

There is a large and even dominant segment of opinion that places as first priority item in energy policy the objective to strive first for energy efficiency as the lowest hanging fruit in a plan for providing energy for America's future. Coupled with this request is often embedded the additional component of just reducing energy use, or energy conservation, to avoid the need to build as many power plants that each are perceived as "evils" and CO2 and pollution generators that we would really do better to do without if possible.

I would hope to learn more about David Walter's view of "energy poverty" but now propose the following:
I feel there is another lesson to draw from the "Prosperity depends on energy" slide. That lesson is that there is not allot of historical support for the view that, if you voluntarily choose to reduce energy use per capita, that the GDP per capita will remain the same. The roughly linear graph of GDP per Capita as a function of Annual kWh per capita would suggest that as you reduce the use of energy in your factories and within your society your productivity and prosperity also will decrease. The economic pie starts to shrink as you, voluntarily or involuntarily, use less energy per capita. This is a significant result that illuminates many current economic problems. The method commonly proposed to reduce the use of energy presently is to increase the cost of energy - either by legislation requiring production from more costly energy sources (Renewable Energy Standard) or by imposing large new energy taxes on energy (carbon tax). Our slide would suggest that the unintended result of increasing the cost of energy, and thereby decreasing the use of energy, is a shrinking economy and a lower GDP per capita.

The consensus view is that the less painful way to get America out of its economic problems is to grow the economy. There is no historical president for reducing energy use (from pricing up the cost of energy) and initiating vigorous economic growth, rather it is the contrary. The most truly liberal, hopeful, and “empowering” outcome for the majority of citizens including the poor comes from driving down the cost of energy and increasing energy use by a wider range of individuals in society. This administration, and this DOE Secretary, should pursue a course to select forms of power generation that simultaneously are clean, produce no GHG, and directly drive down the cost of energy which will broadly grow the economy and sustainably create jobs. I believe that the energy sector capable of directly driving down the costs of energy is nuclear (given just a little regulatory relief to bring us to regulatory par with our French and Asian industrial competition).

That is my reading of Robert Hargraves' nice slide.

Karen Street said...

This is the first point made by the InterAcademy Council report, Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future.

This is the point I begin with in my policy presentations.

However, there is another thread about energy use important to acknowledge: a lot of behavior in the wealthier countries is conspicuous consumption--larger cars and appliances than needed, leaving stuff on when it isn't being used, driving when we can walk. This is true for both rich and poor first worlders.

When Californians reduced electricity consumption 10% almost a decade ago, people surveyed said, I didn't really do anything, just sometimes turn out the lights and turn the computer off at night. I suspect that for most of us, a 10% reduction can be accomplished without really doing much.

People in the rich world engage in behaviors that are not particularly healthy, such as spending large amounts of time in a car or airplane.

The poor deserve access to clean energy. For everyone it makes sense to use objects that require less energy, even if the car, TV, and refrigerator are smaller. And for those of us who routinely throw away huge amounts of food or leave stuff on instead of off or drive when we could walk, or at least carpool or take public transit, it is important to acknowledge that there isn't really enough for so much waste.

One of your graphs shows among countries with GDP per capita over $30k, kWh per capita is >2.5x for some than others.

I add this because it can sound as if people advocating for the poor are also advocating for my right to waste. A lot more people will agree with you if you make this point.

Meredith Angwin said...

Thank you all for your comments! I decided that the issue of "do rich people need electricity" was very important. I blogged about it today.

David. Your comments about biofuels agree with my assessment of the situation in Vermont. Sometimes I look out my window at the beautiful tree-covered hills and think: Thank you, Coal!

At one point Vermont was logged to provide firewood for Boston and room for sheep (think Vermont=Scotland). This area was denuded. However, Boston switched to coal, sheep were phased out, and I can look out my window at lots and lots of trees. This would not have been the case a century ago.

Also, your tale of carrying buckets of water while sick resonated. Rather too much. I was at my son-in-law's parents house in India. I was sick (though not really sick, as my daughter explained. No fever, no doctor needed. Well, I thought I was sick.) Anyhow, the household can only receive municipal water for a few hours every other day (more or less). When water is available, they fill a tank on the roof with a pump they own.

Anyhow, I was sick, by my standards at least. Filling that bucket to flush the know how it's done....I ran the whole household out of water. I ended up emptying the tank on the roof! Talk about being a terrible houseguest!

Of course, when we flush the john in this country, we assume more water will be there immediately, not two days later...

Energy. It's the key to everything.

Energy Audit said...

The graph is providing the enough information. Hence it has cleared my all concepts. Thanks for sharing this.

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