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245) What can be done to avoid a global disaster?

Ludwik Kowalski (8/2/05)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

Discussing energy-related issues (on phys-L, a website for physics teachers) one contributor asked three questions. The replies posted by another teacher (see below) are interesting and worth showing here.

1) By how much would the emission of CO2 etc. be reduced if 100% of US electricity were from nuclear reactors?

Not likely to happen. Currently we get over 60% of our electricity from coal and about 15% from nuclear. We would need on the order of 300 new nuclear plants to take over the coal burden. It is also the case that our energy demand for electricity is increasing (as a percentage of total energy use) even though the electrical usage is only on the order of 20% of total usage [actual values depend on whether you look at gross or net usage.] Even with the incentives of the new energy plan, it could be 10 years before the first new nuclear plant would be built.

2) By how much would the emission of CO2 etc. be reduced if 100% of US vehicles were powered from rechargeable electric batteries (using nuclear electricity)?

Not likely because of the lack of progress in battery technology. Fuel cells (run on hydrogen separated by electricity from water) are a possibility, but current prototype vehicles run hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is the whole infra-structure, chicken & egg thing here too--you can't sell hydrogren powered cars (combustion or fuel cell) until there is a wide spread network of hydrogen 'filling stations' and who will build those if there are no hydrogen powered cars to buy the fuel.

3) By how much would the emission of CO2 etc. be reduced if we used trains and busses instead of automobiles?

The infra-structure cost of mass transit (other than busses) is just too prohibitive to expect to see much happening without some kind of major federal program feeding billions of dollars into such a project. [New urban rail project go for 50-500 million per mile.] Getting people to ride busses is not going to be easy either. However, one CAN reduce gasoline usage by 30-40% just through car-pooling [70% of our driving is done commuting to work]. Agressive programs could do a lot with this without any infrastructure costs. However, there will be GREAT opposition to any reduction in 'driving freedoms.' We've built an entire culture (and a large chunk of our economy) based on the automobile, and moving away from such will be very difficult and disruptive to the economy (short term at least).

For actual numbers the web. <> is the place to find all the information you would need. The bottom line to all of this is that there won't be any quick and drastic cuts in CO2 emmissions from the U.S. or from the world for that matter. Weaning our energy systems off of the fossile fuels (currently 90% of supply) will take 50 year at best and more likely will take most of this Century to accomplish. However, it is by no means certain that we can actually totally replace our fossil fuel energy with 'green technologies' and even less certain that we could do this for 9 billion people all living at a 'western' standard of living. There are money, land usage, and materials problems with scaling up any of the current 'clean' energy technologies to really take over from coal, oil, and natural gas. . . .

Try one of my newer Energy Management Simulators to get a feel for the problem--see web site below.
**************************************************** R.W.Tarara Professor of Physics Saint Mary's College Notre Dame, Indiana Free Physics Instructional Software Windows & Mac New Energy Management Simulation software just posted. ****************************************************
Appended on 8/3/05:

The discussion is going on. Teacher #3 wrote:

Some discussion of energy reserves and the exhaustion thereof can be found at:

which is based on a calculation that can be found at

This concludes that "switching to coal" is not much of an "alternative". Extrapolating current usage suggests that coal will last longer than oil, but not much longer ... and switching doesn't solve the main problem, namely exhaustion of the *total* fossil energy reserves. U235 doesn't change the story very much, either, because there's not enough of it.

IMHO this is a methodical and dispassionate analysis. If you disagree with the raw data, please provide better data. If you disagree with the method of analysis, please present a more-meticulous analysis. I've presented my evidence in detail. I see no reason to consider it a paranoid fairy tale. If you have evidence to the contrary, let's see the evidence.

And here is what Richard Tarara wrote to me in private, after I asked him if it is OK to show his name and affilation on the CF website.

You can use my name and affiliation AND my web page (see signature below). Actually, what my simulators and my class project seem to show is that we CAN change over to green tech on a 100-125 year schedule, at least some countries can. It will be expensive, but according to an economist (Kevin Laws--Pricilla's son) who frequents the PhysSoc list, not unreasonably so. The big problem for some will be land--Japan can afford the technology but has no place to put it. Western Europe can afford it, Eastern Europe has the land---seems like a marriage proposal to me. Russia and India can't afford it.

The model is primarily one without a Deus Ex Machina--no cheap fusion (hot or cold)--no other rabbit from the hat [recognizing Nuclear as the only new energy technology of the 20th Century suggests the strong possibility that we are stuck with what we've got.] The scenario is to eliminate oil and natural gas in 100-150 years. Coal and Nuclear can play a role, but ultimately should be phased out as well. That leaves Hydro (minor contribution), Geothermal (likewise), Biomass (land intensive), Wind and Solar. The latter two must carry most of the load, but neither are energy on demand resources. In our model, besides the direct use of electricity from each, additional wind and solar sites are used to produce hydrogen which is piped (a $5 trillion infrastructure upgrade) throughout the country to be used in place of natural gas, as a portable fuel (combustion or fuel cell), and perhaps to power traditional HIGH DENSITY thermal power plants. The latter would be very convenient in say the East Coast corridor with the high population density, but suffers from ending up at about 25% efficiency considering the initial output of the wind generators or solar cells then taken through the hydrolysis process, piped hydrogen to the east, then the 33% efficiency of a typical thermal-electric plant.

The bottom line for the U.S. is it will cost $200-400 billion per year and end up using maybe 20% of our land area to provide the current per capita energy levels (with corrections for efficiency and conservation changes) for a population of 450-500 million people. All that can be done with the will to do it. The model works for other areas as well--Europe for example--but fails in places like Japan, Indian, and Russia.

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