I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Okay, in my last post I came out as a global warming skeptic. However, here's some good news for those of you who worry about our carbon emissions: we have a safe alternative that produces no greenhouse gasses.

I've been googling this evening trying to find the total percentage of American carbon dioxide output that comes from coal. Unfortunately, I'm finding wildly varied numbers--anything from 35% to 85%. I can't believe the internet is giving me fuzzy information!

Whatever the actual figures are, I can tell you this: your house has a bigger carbon footprint than your car. We think of electricity as "clean" energy. If you have an electric furnace and an electric water heater, stove, etc., you might feel pretty smug about the fact that your house has no chimney. In fact, though, most electricity in America is generated by burning coal, and the emissions from that coal equal far more carbon than is being put out by all the automobiles in the US. Again, I keep finding different numbers--as low as 9%, as high as 25%.

We can't all stop driving in the next decade. If we switch to electric cars that are recharged at home, we'll be pushing the pollution from a tailpipe to a smokestack, but if we're still burning coal, it does little in the long run to reduce CO2. And, even if we perfect the electric car, we aren't going to perfect an electric airplane anytime soon, and all those big trucks on the highway are still going to be rolling on diesel. Electric cars might make acceptable short range commuter vehicles, but we are a long ways away from having a battery that would propel an 18 wheeler five hundred miles on a charge.

Fortunately, oil has jumped to $120 a barrel and could go higher. (Fortunately if you believe in global warming, that is.) This means that price alone is going to change people's driving habits. And, I predict that as $4 gasoline sets in, you're going to see more and more cars in production that are real fuel sippers. The Honda Insight hybrid gets almost 70mpg. I predict we'll see a 100mpg commuter car hit the market within the next 5 years. Maybe that's overly optimistic, but right now you can count all your 50mpg choices on the fingers of one hand. Give it five years, and you'll need both hands and some of your toes, too.

So, higher fuel costs will eventually cut down carbon emissions from vehicles. But, as noted, this is, maybe, 25% of the problem. The big target has to be those coal powered plants that are currently the backbone of american electricity, and, thus, the backbone of our economy and our way of life.

The technology exists to shut down the last coal fueled powerplant within the next twenty years. We just need to get over our irrational fear of nuclear power plants.

A few posts back, I talked about American's inability to judge relative dangers. Nuclear power is one of the victims of irrational fears. Let me be blunt: Nuclear power isn't safe. People can die working in nuclear power plants. The nearby cities can be endangered by nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants produce dangerous wastes. However: Every one of these statements is equally true for our present coal-based energy generation. Far, far, far more people have died mining coal than have ever died from nuclear power. US department of labor statistics show about 50 people die a year in mining accidents. Many more people die each year from a disease known as "black lung." Burning coal produces polution that some people estimates contributes to 10,000 cancer deaths per year, though I'm skeptical of such a round number. Still, it's inarguable that coal based power plants push a lot of bad things into our atmosphere... and, if you think that carbon dioxide is one of those bad things, then the environmental cost of coal is almost immeasurable compared with the environmental cost of nuclear. Coal also has pollution effects beyond just burning it... mining it currently strips away whole mountains and is a major source of ground water pollution.

The number of deaths attributed to nuclear power plant failures in the US is pretty low. The worst nuclear accident ever in America, Three Mile Island, killed exactly zero people. Yes, there is risk with this. If we converted to a completely nuclear electric economy, and had 1000 nuclear plants online instead of 100, we'd be increasing the risk of eventual catastrophic failure. But, again, you have to weigh this against the known risks and dangers of coal. Currently, if you compare the pollution and risk footprints of the 100 nuclear plants in the US against the pollution and risk footprints of 100 coal plants generating a similar amount of power, I believe you'd find that nuclear is the most responsible choice we can make for the environment.

As for waste, yes, nuclear waste has special challenges. There is a NIMBY response to its disposal. But, if you are a believer in man-made global warming, then you have to be more afraid of coal than nuclear. Nuclear power isn't going to make the oceans rise 30 feet. Carbon... maybe. I doubt it. But everything is a trade off of risks.

By the way, for proponents of wind and solar: Yes. Go for it. If you live in Arizona, solar may well be a better option than nuclear. If you live near an ocean or someplace that generates a lot of wind, put up the windmills. A windmill in my immediate vicinity would be mostly decoration... there's just not that much wind here. Solar panels are fine. We can cover the roofs of our nuclear power plants with them, but the technology isn't there today to have it completely replace coal. Nuclear power is ready. It's been ready for decades. It can save the world from coal, if we just have the good sense to use it.

Environmentalists are frequently called tree-huggers. Count me in the ranks of the atom huggers. I believe in power of the atom, by the atom, for the atom (at least when those atoms are arranged into the shape of me).


rastronomicals said...

I think there's little question that the American Green movement--and perhaps even American liberalism itself--is at its heart technophobic.

Beyond the predictable opposition to the energy solutions provided by nuclear energy, you can see a similar kind of head-in-the-sand approach when you look at the widespread opposition by the Whole Foods types to genetically engineered crops these days. The problem is not with the risks and/or results of the proposed solution, the problem is with people's fundamental incomprehension of it. If people had a better idea of how a nuclear plant operated, if people had a better idea of exactly what's involved with genetic modification of foodstuffs, there'd be a better chance that they would accept it.

But at the same time, my understanding of the situation is that more nuclear plants aren't being ordered not because the captains of American industry necessarily fear the wrath of Greenpeace, but rather because of the fact the nuclear power plants are simply more expensive to run and to maintain than coal-powered ones.

As always, you can expect change when big business finds that change to be in its best interest profitwise.

James Maxey said...

My perhaps skewed understanding is that nuclear is more expensive in part due to the inevitable lawsuits that can be expected anytime one is proposed. The industry also faced shifting sands of regulation in the seventies and eighties--they could plan a plant, get it approved, then in the middle of building it get hit with new regulations that forced them back to the drawing board.

However, it's indisputable that coal is a cheap source of power, and, unlike oil, coal is mostly produced in areas of relative political stability. China, the US, India and Australia have coal deposits that can last for several more centuries--and, China, the US, and India are right up at the top of the list of countries putting CO2 in the air.

For the US, coal is a no-brainer. We may not be energy independent on oil, but we have all the coal we need to keep the lights on for a long, long time. And, while I favor nuclear power, let me note I'm not fanatically anti-coal. Coal has done an excellent job of cleaning itself up in recent year, reducing its pollution footprint (at least in the US).

I had a friend argue last night that solar was the hope of the future, and even the present. I know a lot of people who are under that conviction. Fortunately, this one is something you can do something about if you are a homeowner. Solar panels are commercially available. I've looked it up, and the cost of fitting my house with solar panels is roughly $10,000. Since my monthly power bill is $75 on average, I could recapture my investment in roughly ten years... around the time I'd have to replace the panels again. And, I had a friend who lived off grid for several years and powered her home with solar... and diesel generators. The solar just didn't provide the power needed to keep her home powered even though she was using the most energy efficient appliances available and was living without certain modern luxuries like air-conditioning. I'm betting that with no AC and a hyper-efficient water heater and washer and dryer, plus LED lightbulbs, I could cut my power bill in half... meaning I'd need twenty years off the grid to justify the cost of my investment. I seriously doubt I'll live in my house 20 years.

Until solar falls to the level you could recover your costs in five years, even if you kept the AC running during the summer, I just don't see how it competes with coal economically.

John Brown said...

I've always found it useful to see if the 80/20 rule applies to a given situation. If it does, then it often shows where you get the biggest bang for your buck.

I haven't seen enough evidence yet to suggest that the human factor is the 80% factor. The evidence linking warming and cooling to the sun seems more compelling to me at the moment. But if humans are the 80% factor, then the question James asks is the next most important question--what are the few factors that make up 80% of the effect?

I saw an article the other day claiming that deforestation [cut and burnl] accounts for up to 25 per cent of global emissions of heat-trapping gases, while transport and industry account for 14 per cent each; and aviation makes up only 3 per cent of the total.


I've been trying to find an estimate of all factors. But if deforestation IS the big cause, then piddling around with one or two sheets of toilet paper isn't going to help. The effort and money should be spent helping those in these countries find sustainable economic alternatives--open trade etc--to what they're doing now. And we should be looking for ways to increase forests where they've already been eradicated.