Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Power to the People? Not So Fast - Hang On To Your Thermostat!

Here at the Cosmopolitan Charlestonian we've often pondered exactly how far a little conservation could go. When taking the following into account, a little conservation could actually sustain our most unquestioned personal freedoms. It's hot here in the South. In mid August you can fry an egg on the hood of your car, if (unlike us) you've got one. Naturally as the asphalt bubbles, instead of whipping up a batch of scrambled hen offspring, homeowners typically flee to the comfort of their recliners after a downward adjustment of their personal climate control aparatii, otherwise known as the in-home thermostat. Sweet tea in hand, life is once again bearable as the heat headache subsides and the sugar rush ensues. This is life in the South. But don't spill your tea when you read this one.

Swanky inclinations are often conceived in the great State of California and don't take long to manifest themselves throughout the rest of the nation in this fascinating United experiment. That's why California's Title 24 Building Standards should now concern all of us. Anyone in the building industry recognizes code is king. And anyone with half a brain recognizes that eventually some good (as well as bad) laws will be enacted as climate change escalates. This is where Title 24 steps in. The American Thinker published a post entitled Who Controls Your Thermostat, explaining that the State of California is considering mandating installation of Programmable Communicating Thermostats on all new residential construction in 2008. These thermostats would typically be controlled by the homeowner, however, during "pricing events" or emergency situations, i.e. the power grid is overtaxed, the utility or state would step in and take control of your personal home temperature.

Should the State of California move forward with this policy, we firmly believe the eventuality of its adoption throughout the rest of the nation will become an inevitable future reality. Consider the South for one moment. Much of our electricity comes from hydropower. In the face of an intense drought cycle and water shortages expected within the next ten years as stated by the United States General Accounting Office, it's not difficult to see the swiftness at which our systems would experience pricing events and/or emergency situations wherein our new friend, Big Utility Brother would step in and commence regulation of our home cooling mechanisms. Maybe this is for the best as the State is simply taking into account selfish human nature. But we here believe a lot of Suthunas would get just a little hot under the collar, no pun intended, over the prospect of having lost control of the regulation of their own personal comfort.

Unfortunately, in our humble opinion, The Thinker derails when it comes to solution.

The real question poised by this invasion of the sanctity of our homes by state power is -- why are we doing this? It seems to me to be the wrong fix for a problem that we don't have to have. The common sense alternative is to build new power plants so that power shortages don't occur. Of course, they can't be coal or nuclear power plants! The coastal elites have their minds set against those undesirables. The state has wasted billions of our dollars on wind generation that hasn't helped to meet peak loads. For natural gas, offshore drilling should be considered. While we have one liquefied natural gas terminal in Mexico supplying us with Indonesian and, in the near future, Russian, LNG, another receiving terminal to be supplied by Australian LNG was rejected by the State Coastal Commission.

Wind generation cannot keep up with demand because there is just no replacement at this moment as powerful, easily transported and previously abundant as oil. And it's not that the "elites" are the only ones against coal or nuclear energy. Coal is dirty as hell and nuclear is dangerous as hell - take it from one of us here who is just old enough to REMEMBER the traumatizing Three Mile Island fiasco. The Honorary Belle grew up in coal country, afterall. Besides, there are many elites that have made bucket loads of money off of coal and would love nothing more than to see yet another coal plant erected. Last, the natural gas free-ride is about over as well. Both oil and natural gas supplies can no longer meet demand as the earth itself is seriously beyond its human carrying capacity. In other words, there are just too many of us demanding too much energy and using our limited resources with reckless abandon.

Until we as a nation get very serious about limiting population growth as well as using our limited energy resources exceptionally wisely there are few choices beyond submitting our freedoms one by one.


JFH said...

"and nuclear is dangerous as hell - take it from someone who REMEMBERS living through the traumatizing Three Mile Island fiasco"

As a former Nuclear Engineer, I find this statement woefully uneducated. You DO realize that you have at least two nuclear power plants already in the Charleston area: the nuclear power plants converted from SSBNs in Goose Creek. Shoot if you were "tramatized" by TMI, I guess I shouldn't remind you that we have 18-24 year old STUDENTS running those plants.

(BTW, the TMI design was significantly more dangerous than other designs at the time, and no longer used... that said, no significant radiation was released in that accident)

Harry Brinson & Stacey Barrington said...

Assumingly, you're talking about the Naval Weapons Station area as well as the Naval Nuclear Training Facility, with its population of young enlisted. SSBN - Polaris Submarines. Yes. Quite aware. Have said many times that a simple mistep in the Bushy Park area could spell a nasty future for the grandeur of the Holy City. There are also four other nuclear plants in South Carolina. SCE&G has info here on where our electricity comes from:

That said...there aren't that many places one can go and not be at risk of suffering any given disaster, whether it be natural, chemical (industrial)- you get the picture. Safety is a bit of an illusion; a belief system that helps us not go nuts over all the things that could kill us at any moment. LOL.

So, the question is of acceptable levels of risk. There are several hundred nuclear reactors dotted all over the US. Many were built in the 50s, and yes, the technology has improved by leaps and bounds.

During the history of using nuclear technology to generate power and/or make weapons, there have only been two major events, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. We were lucky in Pennsylvania, there was no proven radiational release. They were able to shut down the reactor and prevent meltdown (the traumatic period was when the newscaster basically told us we were goners while the reactor was beginning to "boil over" before they knew if they would be able to stop it). Russia wasn't so lucky, but then they didn't even have a protective shell around that sucker!!! But you probably already know all this. Under 100 people died as a direct result of Chernobyl's disaster, but thousands have gotten cancer as the years have passed. Most likely cases will continue to develop in aging adults who were the children of the event.

So, going back to levels of relative risk. You are absolutely right on two counts. First, that there have been vast improvements in the industry. Second, that we made a quick statement here that probably deserved further explanation and reasoning - "woefully uneducated," hence the long response. The question is do we want to increase our levels of risk overall by throwing conservation ideas out the window so we (humans) can continue to consume all the electricity want by building dozens of nuclear sites? Or do we go about this nuclear thing with kidd gloves on, and make sure we get it right. Like, put the horse actually in front of the cart. It is not so much the technology that creates risk in the field of nuke science. The greater risk is the human management aspect.

Just yesterday the CEO of Wackenhut Corporation, the subcontractor hired out to guard 30some sites out of the 62 operational commercial sites, left the company after a whistleblower videotaped guards sleeping on the job multiple times months ago. The story didn't get much attention until it was given to a news station. Sadly even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission apparently shrugged when they first heard about it. On Jan. 7, 2008, the Dow Jones reported two House lawmakers are planning a major review of the NRC's operations for ignoring the guy with the videocamera. Since 2002, the FBI has been sending warnings to nuclear plants to be at the ready, for they are terrorist targets...and these guys are sleeping on the job. One can imagine, with a capitalistic Mr. Burns running the power plant, security probably makes around nine bucks an hour and to them its just a second job to help pay the bills...half of those guards probably gotta go to work in the morning to their day job, so they really need to get some shut-eye.

There there's the nasty problem of spent rod storage and the approximate 500 year breakdown period. There was great fear during the 1996 earthquake which shook Yucca Mountain (storage facility) that radioactive material would be released into the groundwater, rendering areas as far as Las Vegas uninhabitable. Of course, these are just a few of the main issues that have cropped up in recent history.

So, would you have any recommendations for the management of the above risks? Maybe pay security professionals (in a world of terror threats and nuclear proliferation) what they're worth. Nuclear guards and teachers get paid squat while football stars on drugs are compensated millions, with the former holding our future in their hands. In a perfect world, nuclear is a great answer. We don't live in a perfect world. It's time for us to wise up.

We invite you, as a former NE, to share further comments as this is stimulating debate that the public may in fact be craving. It's probably in all of our best interest to make decisions on nuclear power with all cards on the table.

Thanks for your insights.

Pete DeSanto said...

Stacey - Heyyy (and hello to you too Harry). All in all an interesting post. Please understand that my comments below are not meant to piss you off!

1) Nuclear is not meant to replace oil used for transportation, rather coal and natural gas for electricity generation. Only a verrryyyy small amount of oil is used to generate electricity. Only by way of recharging electric or hybrid vehicle batteries or in thermally assisted electrolysis for H2 production (for use in fuel cells) from water would nuclear play a role in replacing oil.
2) There are only 104 nuclear electric stations generating power in the US (not several hundred) and a handful of much smaller research reactors operating at various places in the US.
3) I share your concerns regarding the handling of nuclear waste (spent fuel rods, etc.). A long term storage facility or distributed storage plan must address this issue. However, I have greater concern over current coal emissions. Besides CO2, SOx, NOx, heavy metals, and particulates, coal emissions add significantly more to the average US citizen's background radiation exposure than does living next to a nuclear power plant.
4) Historically, the health effects, injuries, and fatalities from all aspects of fossil fuel usage are about 10 - 100 times greater than nuclear power generation across the board on an absolute and per capita basis.
5) Wind power is a reliable and clean source of electricity and can contribute to meeting peak demand as part of an integrated energy distribution system (along with nuclear, solar, geothermal, and fossil fuels in the near-term).
6) US population growth is relatively low (<1%/yr) of which almost half is due to net immigration. Even halting population growth will not solve the global problem of resource utilization. It is economic growth that presents the problem in utilization of our current energy (and other) resources. Hence the need to expand to alternatives beyond fossil fuels (unless 3rd world countries remain underdeveloped, which I doubt anybody wants!).
7) While conservation and improved efficiency can go a loooong way toward reducing projected energy demands in the developed world, economic and population growth in developing nations will require alternative energy sources with production capacity beyond that of the present.
8) The solution to the human management problem in the nuclear industry is to design nuclear plants in a more fail-safe manner (something the current generation of plant design does) and to expand NRC resources.

No one solution exists to address future energy needs. But let's not write off viable alternatives due to perceived deficiencies. BTW - there are much better alternatives to reduce peak energy demand than having some government agency controlling your thermostat. You know I love you (haven't met you yet Harry, but if Stacey likes you, you gotta be all right).

Harry Brinson & Stacey Barrington said...

Hi Pete! OK, let's lay out the rules here. No one gets "pissed off" over comments. Life's too short. Besides blogging is sort of like The Merve Griffin show/computer mashup (4.0). We throw out the ideas and invite the public to debate, support and enhance the information we provide. Bloggers don't know everything and we're not newscasters. So, if you decide to show up, you get to sit in the chair and tell your story by commenting and taking us in a new direction. We seem to be getting other Engineers here, so we must be doing something right, eh? It's grown up entertainment at any rate. Anyway, we digress. Our disclaimer to all is that you are being used. We admit to painting with a broad brush at times. Gathering all the writings in the world will still leave some things uncovered. So, you are now potentially filling in gaps depending on what you bring to the table. Everybody's got an opinion in blogging - ha!

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, we present to you our old friend, Dr. Peter DeSanto, Jr. who graduated High School in Broadheadsville, Pennsylvania (Class of 1988) with The Honorary Belle. Keeping intermitent contact over all these years, we find ourselves reunited here in the Blogosphere. Pete, you'll need to fill in the rest of your creds. But let's get on with an answer to the post.

1. Agreed. Kinda why we didn't bother to buy a new car. We think cars will kind of go in the direction of electric plug in as we slide down the slope of oil's peak, which of course will take years. We'll see plug in stations at places like Starbucks. A funny yet realistic thought. Which naturally means further generation of electricity to replace fuel.

We don't expect hydrogen to save us. It is too difficult to manage at this time to our knowledge, but maybe someone has updated info on that who can interject here.

2. Since the 50s we were counting all, including decommissioned sites. Apologies for not providing further clarification. In fact, pretty sure there is one or two that are decommissioned here in S.C.

3. Agreed. You should check out our article entitled, Clean Cloal. Which Part of this Story is Dirt Free, from December 30th and others in the past. Charleston has a huge problem developing with air quality. Sadly, most people are oblivious to it as every runny nose is simply attributed to allergies. We wonder....

4. Gotcha, but still just don't feel comfortable with it. We could try to take our renewable ball as far down the court as possible, later using nuclear as a supportive solution for remaining need, in our opinion. This country could really go far just by promoting and providing tax incentives for solar, for instance.

5. Totally Agreed. Go Renewables! People here in Charleston are beginning to "go green," but there are very few people building houses like you reported you are preparing to build, using passive solar, geothermal, etc. Now, some people down here in the deep south are known to be downright offended by the new green! This is all crazy talk and if you ain't using oil, you ain't no kind of man, man. LOL.

6. No one here is suggesting we stop having babies, although we do fully support taking on the task with a great respect for the enormous responsibility of molding and shaping a life. People will continue to have sex and reproduce. End of story. What we worry about most is mass food production as we enter an age defined by the conjunction at which oil decline and global warming meet to wreak havoc on our ability to provide enough. No one knows when this will occur so it's mearly a subscript to the rest of a bigger story.

We hold American leadership responsible for not supporting and providing for the implementation of massive growth in the green-collar arena. On February 1st it will be two years from the Presidential State of the Union Address wherein Bush stated, America is addicted to oil. And we still have no mega-program to facilitate the development and administration of programs to provide for macro-scale generation of energy from renewable resources.

7. Agreed.

8. The NRC isn't taking its job seriously enough.

Last, it sounds as if you think we support the thermostat control mechanism. Hell no. We think people better wake up to where this road leads. We say "conservation for the preservation of our freedom" is fine, if that's what it takes, because that's a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

BTW, when you start working on that house we would really appreciate full reports and any tips you may come to realize. Since we're now beginning to think about the possibilities of retrofitting an historic home for energy efficiency (including solar panels), we'll need all the advice we can find. And let us know if you have any favorite wind ideas since we have that harbor breeze most days here in Downtown Charleston that could potentially be captured.

Talk to you soon!