Austin’s Recent Energy Crisis

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This is my first winter in Austin, Texas, and lucky me, it’s one of the coldest Austin has had in a while. Last week, the United States experienced a 2,000 mile long storm that stretched across the country. Here in Texas we experienced freezing rain and some light snow. But it was the cold that knocked out the power grid. Some in Austin had to endure rolling blackouts that ended up leaving them with less power on than off – for hours on end.

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I lucked out – I had checked the blackout zone on the Austin Energy website and my apartment complex had just missed a major outage possibly by feet.

Two pipes froze and broke at a power station. This curtailed the energy from that station, putting a load on other power plants. Then, the natural gas pressure in some supply lines dropped due to the low temperatures. The outages in Texas led to outages in New Mexico and a chain reaction of energy problems across the Southwest. Econoblogger Chris Martenson wrote the following in a Martenson Insider report about the “lessons” he learned from watching the energy fiasco:

The first is that complex systems behave in unpredictable ways. Nobody knew that a little bit of cold would lead to the set of behaviors exhibited by the highly interconnected energy production and distribution system in the southwest.

The second is that our national energy grid is not ready to handle the dreams of those promoting the idea that we can just run our country on the immense natural gas finds of recent years. If the pipeline system in the southwest couldn’t handle a couple of cold days, imagine trying to plug 30,000,000 vehicles into the system. Certainly someday we could do that, but not right now. There is an incredible number of infrastructure upgrades to be done first.

He may be right. What’s interesting to me is how much people seem to disagree on how to handle our future energy needs. In scanning through various comments on news articles during the blackouts, it seems a lot of people want to bash the push towards alternative energy as causing these problems. One common scapegoat was a Dallas mayor, who was blamed for blocking new power plants over environmental concerns. It also seems to be a go-to to mock solar power and wind power.

It may well be that in order to feed the energy needs of future Americans we’d have to make some horrible environmental concessions to do so and use “clean” coal or nuclear power. On the other hand, I don’t understand why some people are so down on alternatives. It’s almost like, because environmentalists don’t like coal, people who are against environmentalists will be against anything smacking of “alternative energy” just to be contrary.

Yet, driving from El Paso to Austin, I saw an incredible amount of wind turbines. Set up in areas that would otherwise not have much else except tumbleweeds. They apparently have problems when it freezes, but most of the year they do contribute quite a bit of power. I also continually wonder how much power would be generated if every American house that had any sunlight coming to it had solar panels on the roof.

Certainly here in Austin, which has a tremendous amount of sun even in the winter, I see an appalling lack of solar panels on homes. And Austin is supposed to be more into that sort of thing.

We’ve got to find a way to reach out to average Americans and help them get behind the search for alternative energy. I’m not sure how to do that – it seems like there’s a bizarre resistance to it that is partly due to people being annoyed at environmentalists. Well yes, some environmentalists can get annoying in their preachiness, but no more so than some extremist holy rollers. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, I say.

Japan’s Nuclear Clusterf*ck

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Despite the rosy picture the media likes to portray of the crisis at Fukushima, I am unfortunately expecting a bad end to this nuclear crisis. No amount of happy Japanese cartoons portraying stricken nuclear power plants as a stinky poo creating “Nuclear Boy” will lessen the fact that the nuclear power plant disaster has been an ecological nightmare that may well end up making Tokyo uninhabitable should the very worst happen. Meanwhile, the people of Tokyo have been drinking nuclear water and will probably end up with long-term health consequences even if this situation ends up resolved “positively.”

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You know what? I know that coal is bad for the environement, and so is oil. But nuclear power, when it goes wrong, is downright catastrophic. Maybe we need to look at alternatives already. All of the pro-nuclear sentiment is based on the idea that the people running our nuclear power plants are ethical and have a freakin’ clue as to what they are doing. Fukushima should be a warning to us all.

Here’s a great comment on the situation I found at Zero Hedge, which was reposted from the New York Times:

Good readers comment here I am re-posting from the NYT (thanks to Old Curmudgeon, Akron, OH):

“It is depressing to read all these well-written (and sometimes even erudite) comments doing nothing but reinforcing pre-conceived political positions for lack of the faintest knowledge of facts and the faintest understanding of their significance. This comment thread is convincing empirical evidence of the fact that humans beings think by exciting their prejudices first and rationalizing later.

Here are the most salient facts of this sad situation, from which I hope the conclusions are obvious:

1. The situation is far from under control. There are twelve trouble spots: six reactors and six spent-fuel pools. All will remain dangerously radioactive for centuries, whether operating or not, whether shut down or not, whether damaged or not, and whether abandoned or not. Radioactivity doesn’t care whether a plant is running, let alone meeting design criteria. The salient task is containing radioactivity.

2. So far only five or six of these trouble spots have been stabilized, namely, the reactors and spent-fuel pools for Numbers 4, 5, and 6, which were never in serious trouble to begin with. The reactors and/or spent-fuel pools for Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are still in trouble. In the case of Numbers 1 and 2, we don’t even know what’s going on because the control room, which is heavily shielded and supposed to be safe, has no air conditioning and is presumed too radioactive to inhabit.

3. Every one of these twelve trouble spots is DESIGNED to require continuous cooling to stay safe, whether operating or “shut down,” whether attended or abandoned.

4. The “concrete sarcophagus” solution of Chernobyl is a last resort, not a preferred solution. The reason: concrete is porous and cracks, especially in climates like Northern Japan’s, where water has been known to freeze. Over years and decades—let alone the centuries of radioactivity—water passing through broken concrete puts dangerously radioactive elements in the surrounding environment, including the water table. Concrete just impedes further access in the event of follow-on disasters, such as a total meltdown.

5. It is possible to design nuclear power plants that have none of these drawbacks. Even some current designs (for example, French ones) have few or none.

These are the facts. I leave readers to draw their own conclusions, in accordance with their own prejudices.

But I can’t resist drawing one obvious intermediate conclusion. There is no “fix and forget” solution to this crisis. Whether on or off, damaged or fixed, generating power or not, abandoned or not, these obsolete reactors and their spent-fuel pools will remain dangerous for centuries unless continually cooled with careful attention, or unless properly decommissioned at considerable expense. Those reactors and pools not decommissioned but “off line” will be sinks, not sources, of electric power for the foreseeable future.

I leave it to readers to consider the wisdom of keeping about twenty plants of this same obsolete design running here in our own country.”