Pro-Nuke Greens

Provocative piece in the current issue of Wired on how small swaths of the traditionally staunchly anti-nuclear Green movement are starting to go pro-nuke. My earliest awakening of any socio-political thought whatsoever occurred while protesting the construction and launch of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in the early 80s with Mom and Dad. But now:

Some of the world’s most thoughtful greens have discovered the logic of nuclear power, including Gaia theorist James Lovelock, Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, and Britain’s Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a longtime board member of Friends of the Earth.

The “green” arguments in favor of nuclear power are not airtight, but the Wired piece does make a pretty compelling case. Not because nuclear power has become as safe as solar or wind, but because the current hydrocarbon-based situation is so dire.

Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury that a planet with 6 billion energy-hungry souls can’t afford. There’s only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power.

Not to mention the sheer scale of global energy requirements — to generate the kind of power with solar or wind that can be obtained from a single nuke requires enormous masses of land. Space requirements relative to power sources to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity:

Nuke: .33 sq. miles
Solar: 60 sq. miles
Wind: 300 sq. miles
Biomass: 1,000 sq. miles

So, yes — if we had put all of the effort and funding over the years into solar that we’ve put into nukes, solar power generation today would be cheaper and more efficient than it is. But I somehow don’t think we would have put that much of a dent in the space requirement problem.

I think I’d be willing to reconsider my stance on nuclear power if we had adequate answers to long-term waste storage problems. Unfortunately, the article pretty much glosses those, focusing instead on the possibilities of recycling spent fuel (which are promising). But until the storage problem is really nailed, there is a problem of conscience. We call the ancient Egyptians “ancient” and they were doing their thing just 5,000 years ago. 100,000 years+ is an almost inconceivably long period of time. It is almost impossible to image us not coming up with a good storage answer somewhere in that span. But it is also unconscionable to start laying this stuff in the ground before we’ve figured it out. It’s our problem, not our childrens’.

Music: William Parker Violin Trio :: Scrapbook

Evolution of Wind Power

Wind energy often takes a bad rap for its role in bird deaths (though as I’ve posted before, vastly higher numbers of birds are killed yearly by cars, plate glass windows, bridges etc. than by windmills). Neverthless:

SF Chronicle: With 5,000 windmills in a 50-square-mile area, the Altamont Pass is the world’s largest wind farm, producing enough electricity to power 200,000 households annually. But it is also the worst in the country for slaughtering birds.

Environmentalists are not stuck in limbo on wind energy though. Installations like Altamont have become both proving grounds and object lessons for one of the cleanest, most renewable energy technologies we have. Newer towers are much taller, with much larger turbines, both factors that greatly reduce bird deaths by making themselves more visible while spinning, and by spinning above the altitude where predatory birds fly. And, according to the Chronicle piece, we’ve learned that placing the turbines on the leeward side of mountains, we remove them from the paths favored by birds.

Hamster Power has cool photo essays on dozens of home-brew alternative energy sources, most of which are actually in use, supplying power to a collective of inventors / fringe-dwellers. Their newest addition (although this one is more of a joke than a viable power source) is the hamster-powered alternator. Also dug the two-way Banki turbine (which turns water energy into power on both the inflow and the outflow), and the Volvo disk brake alternator.’s headquarters is located in a remote part of the Northern Colorado mountains, 15 miles past the nearest power pole or phone line. All of our houses and shops run on only solar, wind, water and generator power…not because we are trying to make some sort of political or environmental statement, but because these are the only options available. And we refuse to move to town.

Music: The Pretenders :: Pack It Up

Wind Turbines and Bird Deaths

Spinning off recent solar conversations, I became interested in the question of whether energy-generating wind turbines actually contribute measurably to bird deaths. Solar Dude had told me straight up that there were only two confirmed bird kills at Altamont Pass. Meanwhile, commentators on the right have called wind turbines “Cuisinarts of the Sky” and worse. Looking for some actual data, came up with a fairly comprehensive research piece (PDF) at Home Power Magazine.

Summary: Solar Dude lied. There had been 183 bird deaths at Altamont at the time the article was written. But Altamont is apparently unique among wind farms. Most wind farms report ZERO bird deaths. The Altamont paradox is a black eye (and merits continued research), but it is not an argument against wind power in general. Now take this in:

… automobiles are responsible for some 57 million bird deaths every year … More than 97 million birds die by flying into plate glass every year … And about 1.5 million birds die from collisions with structures (such as towers, stacks, bridges, buildings) every year. … Viewed in this context, the 183 bird deaths in the Altamont Pass over a two year period of time is a small number indeed. It will take wind turbines in the Altamont Pass 500 to 1000 years to kill as many birds as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Music: Gilgamesh :: Lady & Friend

Solar for the Bourgeoisie

Bummed. Had this big idea to do solar-powered, Mac-based web hosting. On first conversation with an employee at Sun Light and Power, it had sounded like I could power a G4 with a single 120W panel, a $50 RV battery, and a $60 RV inverter. I borrowed the Watts Up to measure actual consumption and went back to Solar Dude with my numbers today.

The server, with LCD monitor, DSL modem and router draws 162 watts constant (8.67 kwh in 57.5 hrs). Assuming fixed-position panels on a South-facing roof in the East Bay, figure around 4.5 hours/day of usable sunlight. So I would need six 160w panels to keep the batteries charged day and night, not one. The panels run $500-$600 each. Comparing against our electric bill, it turns out that if the system had required one panel, it would have paid for itself in four years (tax rebates don’t apply unless you do grid-tie (sell your electricity back to the utility)). I was willing to bite off four years in exchange for the customer draw of solar-powered web hosting. But unless solar panels start falling from the sky (gently), it’s not going to happen. Panels make electricity out of thin air and are therefore pure gold. That’s also why there is virtually no used market for them.

Turns out you can get up and running with wind energy for about half the price of solar, although I’m not going to try and do that in a rental. And those stories about windmills killing so many birds on the Altamont Pass? Wives’ tales, apparently. Solar Dude says there have only been two confirmed bird kills there.

Question for the electrical geniuses — Solar Dude said it seemed like my server was drawing a lot of power. For comparison, we plugged his 1.8 GHz Pentium into the Watts Up and it drew 80w. So if the PowerPC is so energy efficient, why is my single PPC 867MHz drawing nearly twice what a Pentium draws (albeit with LCD in sleep mode, modem and router)? Of course the setup cost would still be huge even if I went x86.

Anyway, fossil-fueled birdhouse hosting is now up and running with a small handful of customers. Bring it on. Not giving up on the idea… maybe I need to write a grant for free panels or something.

Music: Aimee Mann :: The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist

Watts Up?

Just plugged my server, monitor, modem and router into a Watts Up watt meter borrowed from Berkeley’s Sun Light And Power. The goal is to see how much power this machine chews in a month, then purchase solar cells, inverter, and battery backup to match or exceed. Going by initial conversations, should be able do this relatively affordably, even without feeding power back to the grid (if you want to see your electric meter turn backwards, the investment swells considerably — we’ll start small).

Music: Velvet Underground :: Some Kinda Love

How Should We Use Our Power?

Watched Bush’s State of the Union address outside in the J-School courtyard during a faculty mixer, huddled around the tube with 30 or so journalism profs. A lot of seemingly liberal words coming from his mouth — commitment to hydrogen fuel cells, AIDS assistance in Africa, support for drug addicts domestically… was this the Bush we know talking? As if he was reaching hard to pull himself back toward the center after two years of extremism, trying hard to build emergency support in response to rapidly slipping popularity…. give us a shadow of the Gore we never got? Who knows. All to soften the blow for the war drums to come… But his speech was eloquent, no doubt, except for hilarious consistent use of “nucular.”

Then down to Zellerbach Hall for the big debate. Packed hall, overflow crowds. Unfortunately, the we thought dove (Danner) was a bit soft with his arguments, while the hawk (Hitchens) was kind of arrogant and convoluted, talking way over his time, using 3x more words than necessary to express any given thought. Both brilliant, but neither of them really impressed or illuminated the issues in any significant way.

My big takeaway from the evening was Danner’s point that Iraq is already under containment – occupied by an inspections regime, living under a U.S.-controlled no-fly zone, reeling from years of sanctions, and basically powerless with the world’s eyes on them.

Between Bush’s speech and the debate, we came home with lots to chew on. Things don’t seem quite as clear-cut to me as they did a few days ago. Good. I’m being challenged.

We brought Miles to the debate, which was interesting. He made it through without crying, but you have to put a lot of energy into a baby to keep him calm in an environment like that. Kind of distracting.

Update: reviews the debate here.

Music: Medeski Martin & Wood :: Saint