The All Energy Forum at the American Nuclear Society annual meeting in Philadelphia last week wrapped up with some good news on the nuclear energy front. Small Modular Plants are developing fast. Nuclear is on the rise globally, especially in China. Nuclear jobs topped the Forbes list of highest paying blue-collar jobs yet again.
The All Energy Forum, chaired by yours truly, was the second in a recurring series that attempts to determine an optimal mix of energy sources to address the twin issues of global warming and global energy poverty.
The Forum discusses all energy sources, their advantages, disadvantages, their hurdles and successes, the probable outcomes by mid-century and analyzes mixes such as the business-as-usual two-thirds fossil fuel one-third everything else, 100% renewables, or a third fossil, a third renewable and a third nuclear.
The Forum led off with a discussion of how much energy, in the form of electricity, do we really need as a species.
The short answer is – about 35 trillion kWhs per year by 2040. We are presently at 24 trillion kWhs per year.
That is the minimum amount of energy needed to eradicate global poverty, and its evil stepchildren war and terrorism, from a planet filled with 10 billion people. And that is only if that energy is distributed equitably and fairly to all members of the human race, which it generally never is. So even more energy will be needed to accomplish this.
It turns out that to raise someone up out of poverty, or keep someone from falling into poverty, requires about 3,000 kWhs per person per year. This has been known for decades and is embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index. The HDI tracks the close relationship between per capita energy use and quality of life (see HDI figure in Atoms For Africa).
According to the HDI, humans need about 3,000 kWhs per year per person to have what we consider a good life, to be in the middle class. Americans average 12,000 kWhs/yr, but 70% of the world’s 7.5 billion people are well below 3,000 kWhs/yr. If we move everyone in the world who is below 3,000 kWhs per year up to 3,000 kWhs per year, and move us energy fat cats down to about 6,000 kWhs per year, it will take just under 35 trillion kWhs per year by 2040 to eradicate global poverty (see table).
That will be hard to do without fossil fuels unless there is a huge increase in non-fossil fuels like nuclear, hydro and all other renewables. The noble goals of ending global poverty and limiting global warming are really competing goals in our present energy world dominated by fossil fuels. It’s easy to rag on coal – I do a lot – but it has raised 3 billion people up out of abject poverty.
Which leads to the presentation of Dr. James Hansen, formerly Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and presently Director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions in Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Hansen is our most technical and famous climate guru, the first to testify before Congress on climate change in the 1980s which raised the country’s awareness of the global warming issue for the first time. For that, Time Magazine recognized Hansen as one of the 100 most influential people on Earth.
The message Hansen gave to the Forum was sober – we are failing to address global warming and the climate is close to being out of control.
With more than half of the world’s largest cities on coastlines, sea-level rise alone will cause the biggest human migration in history. Added to that, many areas in the tropics are already becoming uninhabitable during the summer.
Just look at recent Earth history. During the Pliocene Era (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) the global temperatures were 3° to 4°C above the 1880 mean temperature. The sea level during that time was 45 to 75 feet (15 to 25 meters) above the present and that is what we have to look forward to if we do not limit warming.
We are trying to keep temperatures from increasing beyond 2°C, but if we don’t cut fossil fuel emissions over 90% by mid-century, we are looking at a 3° to 4°C increase with sea level completely inundating cities like Amsterdam, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Tunis, Washington D.C., Lisbon, London, Miami, New Orleans, Rome, Abu Dhabi, Oslo, Brussels, New York, Tel Aviv, Havana, Taipei, Dublin and many others. Our big ice sheets have a lot of inertia, but even they are melting at an astounding rate, beyond what we expected just ten years ago.
The IPCC (2007) predicted that not cutting emissions significantly will extinct up to half of all species on Earth. We are seeing greater heat, droughts and fires in arid regions, and greater violence and conflicts over water (the Syrian crises was started by a once-in-a-millenium drought that Assad failed to address). But because the changes are slow on the scale of our lives, there just isn’t much urgency to change.
In addition, the developed countries of the Northern Hemisphere burned most of the carbon, but the developing nations near the equator and in the south are bearing the brunt of the effects.
For all the global discussion and climate meetings in the last ten years, the increases in renewables, and the attempts at carbon capture, fossil fuel use and global carbon emissions are still rising (see figures). The call for a Carbon Tax or a Carbon Fee&Dividend, has not gotten off the ground, and has prevented our beloved financial markets from helping address the issue.
Most troubling, the warning to dramatically increase all non-fossil fuels – renewables, hydro and nuclear – has basically gone unheeded in any significant way, especially the part about increasing nuclear and hydro. Instead, America and some countries in the European Union have been closing nuclear plants prematurely for local financial and political reasons, and we are even trying to decommission hydroelectric plants. The environmental community has foolishly doubled-down on being anti-nuclear despite the warnings of climate experts like Hansen and all the top climate researchers in the world.
This has been most obvious in Germany, which considers itself the leading country in the battle against global warming. But German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze declared last week that the country would not meet its carbon emission goals for 2020, even though renewables make up about 40% of Germany’s electricity generation.
That’s because Germany’s policies, referred to as Energiewende, have been closing low-carbon nuclear plants prematurely, as a purely political move, and increasing renewables at great cost. Unfortunately, so much renewables on the grid has led to an increase in coal in order to balance the grid as renewables fade in and out throughout the day.
These policies have also increased the cost of energy in Germany, disproportionally hitting the poor and, according to the European Commission, is actually increasing energy poverty in what is one of the richest nations on Earth.
If Germany can’t understand this problem with all of their resources and knowledge, then we cannot expect Niger, or Ethiopia or Angola or either of the Republics of Congo, to understand it and do the right things.
Which also turn out to be the more expensive things.
The rest of the All Energy Forum went on the discuss cost, natural gas, the grid, more specifics on nuclear energy in the world, and these will be discussed in coming posts.