A pragmatic, ambitious 7-point plan to renew the U.S. economy, enrich its citizens, and lead the world in fixing the climate.
To tackle climate change effectively, we have to be both honest and cautious. Honest means we target the CO2 level we actually need, not the one we think we can achieve. Cautious means we assume the pessimists are correct, so we don't hit a target that turns out to be insufficient or late.
At the same time, our plan has to be realistic. In the timeframe required, we probably can't change the fundamental nature of the economy, or achieve major changes in individual behavior. Major industries probably can't be destroyed without compensation.
Above all, our methods have to be as cost-effective as possible, and we must avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. We can't assume that any particular technology will work, and take others off the table. Our plan should allow multiple avenues to success.
America is uniquely positioned to lead the world in addressing climate change, while enhancing its status as the preeminent economic superpower. By combining several technologies, and getting the accounting right, we can close the carbon loop.
Dennis Peterson, Charlotte NC
We start with a fee-and-dividend program, as advocated by James Hansen and many economists. Instead of setting an emissions target, we set the price on carbon emissions. Then we distribute the money to citizens on an equal per-capita basis, like Alaska does with its oil revenues. Anyone who emits less CO2 than average, profits.
2: Credits for absorbing carbon
Fee-and-dividend rewards reduction in emssions, but does nothing to promote absorbing carbon from the ambient atmosphere. In some cases, absorption can be cheaper. We promote it by allowing those who verifiably absorb and sequester ambient CO2 to earn emission credits, which emitters can use to avoid paying the fee. America's vast farmland could sequester huge amounts of carbon, improving the topsoil in the process.
3: Carbon tariffs
Any country that adds costs for carbon emissions will be at an economic disadvantage to countries that don't. Compensate by applying tariffs to imports from countries with no carbon fee. This is allowable under WTO rules. Since the U.S. is a major importer with a large trade deficit, it is uniquely positioned to apply this strategy effectively. Importers could avoid the tariff by buying absorption credits from American farmers.
4: Advanced nuclear power
Advanced nuclear fission would be far safer, cheaper, and more efficient than what we're using now, and would eat the nuclear waste we have on hand already. The U.S. has a large inventory of nuclear waste that could be used to jumpstart an ambitious program. Many scientists believe that renewables will not succeed at providing large-scale baseload power. This proposal supports renewables, while also advocating nuclear. In addition, it advocates modest additional investment in innovative fusion technologies.
5: Close the carbon loop
Electric vehicles have an advantage in efficiency, but the battery technology isn't there yet, and converting the entire fleet and infrastructure may or may not be feasible. An alternative is to make gasoline and diesel fuel from CO2 in the ambient air, using heat from nuclear plants. A Los Alamos study concludes that this could be done at large scale, with little technical risk, and as cheaply as $3.40/gallon retail (plus tax). We get all the advantages of biofuels, without displacing ecosystems or food production.
Renewables and nuclear plants have low ongoing costs, but need a lot of capital up front. With commercial banks curtailing much of their lending, the public sector may have to lead the way...and in the process, pull the economy out of recession.
7: White Roofs, White Clouds
Changing our economy will take time. Meanwhile, the planet is starting to emit its own greenhouse gases, in response to increased temperatures. We need to nip that in the bud. To buy some time, cool the planet with white roofs and white clouds.
All of these strategies can apply at the international level as well. For example, many countries could start implementing carbon fees and tariffs, gradually increasing the incentive for recalcitrant nations to join in.
Why and How
"New computer modeling work shows that by 2100, if society wants to limit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to less than 40 percent higher than it is today, the lowest cost option is to use every available means of reducing emissions. This includes more nuclear and renewable energy, choosing electricity over fossil fuels, reducing emissions through technologies that capture and store carbon dioxide, and even using forests to store carbon." source
"Humanity is close to breaching the sustainability of Earth, and needs a technological revolution greater – and faster – than the industrial revolution to avoid a 'major planetary catastrophe,' according to a new United Nations report." source
FEE AND DIVIDEND
A simple price on carbon has a similar effect to a cap; if meeting a cap of X tons causes a price of $Y/ton, then setting a price of $Y/ton will result in total emissions of X.
However, the fee has several advantages. For example, the cap-and-trade program sets a *floor* on carbon emissions. If emissions fall below the cap, the price of permits will collapse, until emissions rise to the cap. If new technology can reduce emissions a lot, it doesn't actually help! (This is currently
a problem in Europe, where adding wind power doesn't reduce total emissions.)
Caps demotivate altruistic behavior. Lowering your own emissions allows someone else to emit more.
Politicians are tempted to grant permits to emitters for free, rather than selling them all at auction. Permits then function as a tax with the revenues given to the recipients of permits.
Costs are less predictable. In all agreements so far, permits can be reserved for later use. This causes prices to rise faster than planned.
Caps allow setting a particular target, but don't guarantee the target is correct.
Politically, distributing the money helps political feasibility as well as economic efficiency.
In February 2008 British Columbia adopted a carbon tax with equal reduction in payroll taxes. Five months later it was in place and working. In the subsequent election, the opposition party campaigned hard against it, and lost. The public liked the system. Both parties now support it. In contrast, it took a decade to negotiate Kyoto, and many countries had to be bribed with concessions. Implementation was slow and complicated. (Hansen 218)
Many U.S. legislators have signed a pledge
to avoid any climate plan that increases government revenue. A fee-and-dividend program would qualify.
that "the carbon fee proposed by Congressman John Larson ($15/ton of CO2 the first year, growing $10 each year) would be $115/ton after 10 years. Such a rate would add about $1 per gallon to the price of gasoline. However, it would also yield an annual dividend of $2000-$3000 per legal adult resident, $6000-9000 per family with two or more children. Economic models show that this fee would yield a 30% reduction of carbon emissions at the end of the 10 years, and we would be well on our way to phasing out our fossil fuel addiction by mid-century." (See also Hansen 209)
To minimize admistrative costs and general aggravation, charge fees only at major sources: coal mines, oil companies, and so on. Fees can be based simply on how much product they sold. Those companies in turn will pass on the costs to the rest of us.
To avoid economic disruption and improve the chance of adoption, start with a relatively low fee. According to Norhaus, an initial fee of $38/ton, increasing over time, is as effective as a high fee up front. (This approach has been criticized
as ignoring the danger of large nonlinear feedbacks. Step 7 helps mitigate that danger.)
Biofuels should not be excluded from the carbon fee, since they often have a net carbon impact comparable to fossil fuels. In a recent study
, "researchers set the highest concentration that carbon dioxide could reach. Then they compared two ways to stay within that limit: in one, they taxed terrestrial carbon emissions and industrial and fossil fuel emissions all at the same rate. In the other, they only taxed emissions from industry and fossil fuels.
"Ignoring terrestrial carbon led to nearly complete loss of unmanaged forests by 2100, largely as a result of massive expansions of bioenergy crops. However, placing a value on terrestrial carbon emissions led to increased forest cover, while bioenergy still expanded considerably compared to today.
"In addition, the cost to reduce global emissions in a world that valued terrestrial, fossil fuel, and industrial sources dropped to half that of the world in which only fossil fuel and industrial entities paid to emit carbon."
Also of course, ethanol subsidies should go. "40 percent
of U.S. corn — that’s 15 percent of all global corn production or 5 percent of all global grain — is being diverted to ethanol distilleries to produce the energy equivalent of 0.6 percent of global oil needs." Farmers might resist that idea at first, but the next section should more than compensate them.
CREDITS FOR ABSORBING CARBON
Anyone who verifiably absorbs and sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere gains the right to emit the same amount, and can sell that right. Anyone who emits can avoid the carbon fee by submitting emission rights to the government instead. These "carbon rights" would be bought and sold on an exchange.
If the carbon fee is $50/ton, any absorption method that costs less than $50/ton will find a ready market.
In many cases, conservation or conversion to non-emitting energy sources will be cheaper than sequestration. Adding absorption credits simply provides another option; in some cases it will be the cheapest option, and our overall cost-effectiveness will improve. In other cases, absorption will be the only option cheaper than the carbon fee; by providing for absorption, we'll get lower net emissions than we otherwise would.
An important point here is that credits should be issued only for actually absorbing carbon, not for "offsetting" emissions by, say, building windmills, or simply refraining from building a coal plant. Those kinds of offsets can be largely fictional, granting substantial awards just because someone claimed they would do something harmful, and then promised to refrain. (Kyoto does award credits this way, because when you're using caps and trying to get developing nations to participate, there's not much else you can do.)
It's also important not to award emissions rights for absorption that would have happened in any case. Emphasize active methods that clearly wouldn't happen unless someone were paying for it. Methods need to be easily verifiable and auditable.
If, for some reason, none of our absorption methods work out, we still have fee-and-dividend. Absorption kicks in only to the extent that it's cheaper than other methods of reducing net emissions, and only when it's cheaper than the current carbon price.
Building an infrastructure for sequestering large amounts of ambient CO2 would have an extra benefit: if we needed to, we could eventually go beyond carbon-neutrality, into negative territory. With CO2 already well above 350, that could well be necessary. (Here's some good back-of-the-envelope calculation
of the necessary scale.)
Down on the farm
One absorption method is biochar: simply convert biomass to charcoal and work it into the soil. Biochar is proven to sequester carbon for over a thousand years.
An exceptionally cheap method of sequestering carbon is currently in production by WorldStove
, which sells carbon credits under Kyoto at a mere $2.59 per ton (Bates 136). WorldStove mass-produces the critical part of a high-efficiency cookstove, teaches third-world villagers to build the rest, teaches them to produce and sequester biochar, and provides monitoring.
There's a global demand for 500 million cookstoves, but that's not near enough to counter all emissions. As we gradually increase our carbon fee, other mechanisms will become viable. WorldStove is, however, a proof that very cheap sequestration is possible.
Biochar typically improves the fertility of soil, and producing it is an energy-positive process. For a farm, with "waste" biomass on hand, producing biochar is close to being economically viable even in the absence of carbon rights. As such, they could come into play at a fairly low carbon price.
Biochar can also be produced efficiently from arid regions, by using agave.
Globally, biochar's absorption potential is conservatively estimated
at about a gigaton carbon per year, or about ten percent of global emissions. Biochar also comes with a bonus: it reduces
nitrous oxide emissions from farms.
There are several additional methods farms can use to absorb carbon. Even without biochar, good topsoil holds a lot of carbon. Conventional agriculture tends to deplete topsoil, but it can be restored rapidly by techniques such as subsoil plowing, keyline contouring, and avoidance of chemical fertilizers. A recent U.N. report describes
other helpful farming methods. Brazilian farmers are already converting
to no-till agriculture for carbon absorption.
"Soil scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University found that with better carbon management practices, soils in the continental U.S. could soak up 330 million tons of carbon each year, enough to more than offset the emissions from all the cars in the U.S., while improving food production by 12 percent." (Bates 76) At $100/ton carbon, that's $33 billion to farmers, more than current subsidies provide. That's without even using biochar. And it may be a conservative estimate. Yeomans estimates a much greater potential. And let's not leave the ranchers
out, either. Grass-fed cattle on organic pastures are claimed to be strongly carbon-negative
Healthy topsoil is important for another reason. "Aerobic bacteria in soil is the most significant process by which methane is removed from the atmosphere." (Yeomans 155)
Unlike biochar, topsoil could easily release its carbon if the farmer changed methods. To earn carbon rights with topsoil, a farmer must agree to a deed restriction requiring payment of carbon fees if soil carbon levels decrease.
Another caveat: nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers allows very high crop density. The last thing we want to do is mow down more wilderness to make room for more crops. We should only migrate to more natural methods to the extent that we can maintain high productivity. (See Lynas for a good discussion of nitrogen in agriculture.) According to Biochar Ontario, biochar reduces
the need for chemical fertilizers.
Farmers could absorb even more carbon by developing crops with deeper roots
. According to recent research
, if all the land under human control used plants with roots one meter deeper, it would return CO2 to preindustrial levels.
To promote new practices, we may need to modify agricultural subsidies.
Off the farm
Farmers don't get all the action. There are many other methods of absorbing CO2.
One method is to pulverize rocks capable of absorbing CO2, and spread them on the ground. The energy cost of this method is quite low, a mere 0.04 kWh per kg of absorbed CO2 (MacKey 246). At ten cents per kWh, that's only 40 cents worth of energy per metric ton of CO2. The rocks turn into carbonate and eventually wash into the sea; the same process happens naturally, on a much longer timescale. Mineral reserves in the U.S. are sufficient to sequester 120 years
of emissions. (However, there may be unfortunate side effects
, so careful evaluation would be necessary.)
Another idea: wave-driven vertical tubes in the ocean, bringing deep water to the surface, would fertilize the surface, much like natural upwellings do in good fishing areas. Plankton in the Atlantic would excrete carbon pellets, which sink to the ocean floor. According to one estimate
, this method could absorb 29% of global emissions at a cost of $83/ton carbon. (also see Brand)
Two more methods using the ocean would actually decrease the acidity of seawater. One
is to add calcium oxide
from limestome to seawater, and another is to remove hydrocholoric acid
from seawater by electrolysis, neutralizing it via reactions with silicates. Both processes also occur naturally, at much slower rates.
can simply pull CO2 out of the air, for further use or sequestration.
A carbon price puts a country at an economic disadvantage compared to countries with no carbon price. To compensate, apply tariffs to imports from all countries with a lower price on carbon.
It's turned out to be difficult to get an international climate agreement up front. Tariffs, on the other hand, have a long successful record of triggering trade wars. Of course, trade wars are typically considered a bad thing. But if the tariffs in the trade war are carbon tariffs, we end up with a lot of countries putting fees on carbon.
Would these tariffs all be carbon tariffs? Likely so. Unlike most tariffs, those created for environmental purposes are legal according to the WTO, which ruled that countries "have the right to take trade action to protect the environment and exhaustible resources, and the WTO does not have to 'allow' them this right." (Stoft 233) It was the U.S. that brought this ruling about, in a case documented
by the WTO.
The process has already started. The European Union has just started charging carbon fees
to all airlines that fly to Europe.
In addition to Stoft, James Hansen advocates carbon tariffs (Hansen 220), and argues that poor nations must face the tariffs as well, or manufacturers will just move there. He also mentions that the money collected from poor nations could be used to help those nations directly. Aside from that, it's probably best to direct the collected tariffs to people's carbon dividends. Since people will get stuck with higher prices on imported goods, it's only fair to compensate them.
The exact level of the tariff for each country would take some effort to calculate, taking into account their carbon price (if any) and their emissions compared to their GDP. Calculating the price per product would probably be overkill, except for bulk products with easily-calculated emissions (most obviously fossil fuels). Bonus points for any country that not only adds a carbon fee, but applies its own carbon tariff.
ADVANCED NUCLEAR POWER
Many people assume that we can solve the climate problem with only renewables and efficiency. Others, such as James Hansen, think they'll be insufficient. "I have spoken with numerous utility executives and their technical staff. Every one of them asserts that efficiency and renewables will not be enough in the foreseeable future. In practice, they say, they will need either fossil fuels or nuclear power for baseload capacity. Maybe they are wrong--maybe they are underestimating the potential of efficiency and renewables--but it would be foolish for us to assume that they are all wrong." (Hansen 220)
This proposal takes no position on the debate, except to say that maybe it's posssible people like Hansen are right. Wind and solar haven't yet been proven for baseload power at large scale. Maybe they'll work out, maybe they won't.
Consequently, we shouldn't take any option off the table. Let's look at nuclear, which lately is favored by many prominent environmentalists, including Hansen, Brand, Monbiot, Lovelock, and many others. We'll start with common objections.
"The best evidence for the safety and resilience of nuclear power plants can be found at Fukushima. Not at Fukushima Dai-ichi, the power station where the meltdowns and explosions took place, but at Fukushima Dai-ni, the plant next door. You’ve never heard of it? There’s a good reason for that. It was run by the same slovenly company. It was hit by the same earthquake and the same tsunami. But it survived. Like every other nuclear plant struck by the wave, it went into automatic cold shutdown. With the exception of a nuclear missile attack, it withstood the sternest of all possible tests. What we see here is the difference between 1970s and 1980s safety features. The first Dai-ichi reactor was licensed in 1971. The first Dai-ni reactor was licensed in 1982." (Monbiot
Obviously, we don't want to build any more 1970's-era power plants. In fact, we should replace those that we have with newer models...after we replace coal. Coal emissions kill approximately 24,000 Americans each year, and adds an estimated $169 billion/year to U.S. healthcare costs (Blees 100). Nuclear power has never killed anyone in America. Even in the event of a horrible accident, it's unlikely to kill as many as coal kills every year, as part of its normal operation.
"Colorado, where much of the uranium is obtained, is a geologically active region, full of faults and fissures and mountains rising out of the prairie, and its surface rock contains about a billion tons of uranium. The radioactivity in this uranium is 20 times greater than the legal limit for Yucca Mountain, and it will take more than 13 billion years--not just a few hundred--for the radioactivity to drop by a factor of 10. Yet water that runs through, around, and over this radioactive rock is the source of the Colorado River, which is used for drinking water in much of the West, including Los Angeles and San Diego. And unlike the glass pellets that store the waste in Yucca Mountain, most of the uranium in the Colorado ground is water-soluble.
"Here is the absurd-sounding conclusion: if the Yucca Mountain facility were at full capacity and all the waste leaked out of its glass containment immediately and managed to reach groundwater, the danger would still be 20 times less than that currently posed by natural uranium leaching into the Colorado River." (Muller, 176)
Nevertheless, disposing of waste to everyone's satisfaction is a significant problem. Nuclear plants pay a tenth of a cent per kWh for waste disposal, and the fund for that purpose has accumulated $28 billion as of 2009, earmarked for Yucca Mountain (which is currently defunct). A DOE report in 2008 estimated
waste disposal costs of $98 billion.
Fortunately, we can solve our waste problem and our energy problem with the same technology: new nuclear designs that eat nuclear waste.
While often cited as a problem, nuclear provides power at around 8 cents per kWh. France, which is 80% nuclear, enjoys the cheapest electricity in Europe. However, this proposal advocates free-market approaches. If wind turbines out-compete nuclear plants, so be it.
Proliferation-resistance is arguably less important for countries like the U.S. that are already major nuclear powers, and other nuclear powers are less fastidious about it than we are. 70% of greenhouse gases are produced by countries that already have nuclear weapons (Blees 161). New technologies are highly proliferation-resistant (see below).
Some Nuclear Options
Gen-III+ Light-Water Reactors
These operate similarly to current plants, but with better passive safety features. They are ready for production now. The AP-1000 has a large tank of water above the reactor, able to provide several days of emergency cooling without power input. The ESBWR
operates with no pumps whatsoever, relying on natural circulation. It has a simple design that should be significantly cheaper than current reactors.
These would be a transitional technology. Light-water reactors capture only about one percent of the energy potential of their fuel. Relying on water for cooling means they operate at 160 atmospheres of pressure, requiring expensive, high-strength steel. They need large containment domes because, if a pipe broke, the water would flash to steam with 1000 times the volume. They still require expensive manufactured fuel rods.
Integral Fast Reactor (IFR)
Fast reactors are able to capture 99% of the energy of their fuel. Consequently they produce much less nuclear waste, and they can use the waste of light-water reactors as fuel. Waste from fast reactors returns to the radioactivity of natural uranium ore within 300 years.
One especially promising design is the Integral Fast Reactor
(IFR), developed by Argonne National Laboratories over the course of several decades. It was designed to be proliferation-resistant,
recycling its own fuel in a way that's difficult to intercept. Since the IFR consumes plutonium, it arguably reduces proliferation concerns compared to not buiding IFRs at all.
It has passive safety so good that the cooling systems can be shut down entirely, and the reaction will just quietly stop. This was actually done successfully in tests. It operates at atmospheric pressure. The reactor has a strong "negative coefficient," meaning the reaction slows down as the fuel heats up.
The project was near production-ready in 1994, but canceled just prior to a final test. Nevertheless, GE-Hitachi has a similar design, the PRISM
, ready to go. (There are many other
fast reactors in operation, too.) We don't need much further development. We just need to build a demonstration plant, then start rolling them out.
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR)
Uranium is not the only nuclear fuel. Another is thorium, which can absorb a neutron to become U-233, which fissions. No plutonium is produced, and it's so difficult to build and handle a bomb made with U-233 that no country does it. A leading candidate for a thorium reactor is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor
Thorium reactors were known in the 1950s and advocated by some, but at that time their uselessness for bomb production was a disadvantage. Nevertheless, the Air Force funded a development project, and a liquid fluoride test reactor was built in the 1960s.
The liquid reactor has many advantages. It can't melt down, since the fuel is already liquid. Like the IFR, it has a strong negative coefficient. If the fuel does get too hot, it melts a drain plug and drains into a cooling tank. Like the IFR, it operates at atmospheric pressure, is very efficient and produces little nuclear waste, which has only a 300-year lifespan. Many of its waste products are actually marketable products
, usable for medicine and deep space probes.
Thorium is four times as abundant as uranium, doesn't require enrichment, and is currently a waste product of rare earth mines. A chunk of thorium the size of a golf ball is enough to provide all the energy a person needs for a lifetime.
The LFTR uses a liquid salt coolant, which is inert but corrosive. Advocates say that alloys exist which won't be corroded by the salt. Long-term testing remains to be done.
There are a number of promising experiments in nuclear fusion underway. Tokamak fusion is still decades away, but the National Ignition Facility
may achieve breakeven within two years, and has a plan
to develop and deploy practical power plants
(prototype in 2020s, commercial rollout in 2030s). There are also a number of smaller designs, some of which, if successful, would be quite inexpensive and quick to develop. All will likely have definite results (positive or negative) within the next five years. These include Bussard's Polywell
(currently funded by the Navy), General Fusion
(funded in part by Jeff Bezos), Focus Fusion
(small but with adequate private funding), Helion
(currently unfunded, but built a 1/3 scale test reactor), and Tri-Alpha
(well-funded by venture capital, quite secretive, but reportedly similar to Helion). In addition, MIT's levitated dipole
experiment seems promising (though its funding has been cut
Fusion is a much more difficult problem than any sort of fission. Fusion shouldn't be counted on as a solution in the near term, and tokamaks may never be economical. However, small-scale possibilities like Polywell would likely be cheaper than coal, possibly much cheaper, and if they do work out they could be in production within the decade. A technology like this would make climate change a much easier problem to solve. According to the DICE model, introducing a low-cost, no-emissions energy source would keep global warming under one degree C, with no other interventions (Norhaus). Fusion would also likely face less political resistance than any form of fission. Investing several billion in a variety of fusion projects seems like a good idea. One avenue would be Arpa-E
Both fast reactors and thorium reactors require a certain amount of startup fuel.
First, 700 tons
of LWR spent fuel must be reprocessed to extract ~10 tonnes of fissile actinides (mostly Pu, Am and Cm of various isotopes, and laced with some trace lanthanoids which keeps it ‘hot’). The U.S. has 70K tons
of spent fuel so that gives us 100 1GW reactors to start. Configured for maximum breeding, the reactors could double in seven years. (Blees 360)
The U.S. has 333GW
of coal power capacity as of 2006. Since the PRISM reactor design is ready for production as soon as the NRC gets around to approving it, we could replace our coal plants and rid ourselves of dangerous spent fuel pools within three decades. Cost per gigawatt for PRISM reactors is estimated at $1.3 billion (Blees).
Three decades is a bit slow, especially considering that our energy demand continues to increase. We could supplement our IFR program with more light-water reactors, such as the AP-1000 and ESBWR, using their spent fuel to start up new PRISMs. With the nuclear waste problem solved, light-water reactors are more attractive.
Thorium plants require significantly less fuel for startup, so a program could be ramped up even more quickly. According to a plan
promoted by Kirk Sorenson, we could start by building 70 fast reactors using liquid chloride salts, with a design similar to our thorium reactors. These fast reactors would be fed by spent fuel, and breed the U-233 startup fuel required by thorium reactors. We could then build 70 thorium reactors each year, at one gigawatt each. At that rate, we could replace all coal plants in five years, all fossil fuel plants in another three years or so, and replace all U.S. fossil fuels including transportation in several decades. (See wikipedia for electricity
usage in the U.S.)
That's with an investment of $70 to $140 billion per year. Maybe even less; there's good reason
to believe that LFTRs would be cheaper than coal. A paper
from Lawrence Livermore estimates a resulting energy price of 3.8 cents per kWh.
Is This Realistic?
Is it really feasible to ramp up so quickly? Only if the U.S. is as competent as France. That country converted their power production to 80% nuclear over the course of 25 years, building up to six nuclear plants per year. They did that with a GDP only about a seventh as large as that of the U.S. The same rate equates to 42 reactors per year in the U.S. That was with the older, more complex plant designs, and without any particular national urgency. Both IFRs and LFTRs are compact designs that could be mass-produced in factories.
In early 2011 China announced
a program to develop liquid thorium reactors. Several months later, a private company called Flibe Energy was founded (by Sorenson) to develop LFTRs in the U.S., and plans to have a demonstration reactor by 2015.
has 25 nuclear reactors under construction, with more planned to start soon. Current construction includes four AP-1000s. Future plans include fast reactors and pebble bed reactors.
India is planning rapid development
of nuclear energy. With a GDP about a tenth that of the U.S., India expects 20 GW online by 2020 and 63GW by 2030. Thorium and fast reactors are a key part of India's nuclear plans, though they aren't currently developing liquid-fueled reactors.
To help guide international nuclear efforts toward proliferation-resistant technologies, the U.S. should increase its participation in the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC
). The U.S. started the IFNEC in 2006 (as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership), then reduced participation under the Obama administration.
A thorium reactor would be very useful to the military, being compact, lightweight, inherently safe, and not requiring water cooling or resupply. The military also has extensive financial resources. It makes sense therefore to fund thorium development as a military project, and spin off the technology for civilian uses if successful. The military is also unconstrained by the NRC, which has regulations oriented around solid-fueled reactors. To allow civilian deployment, it may make sense to form a new regulatory body for liquid-fueled reactors. The technology has little in common with conventional reactors, so there's little advantage in keeping it with the NRC.
One reason the French were able to build so many reactors was "an efficient licensing process that took four years instead of the twelve years that became standard in the United States...
"Lessons learned. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has adopted the French approach, with design standardization...Reactor manufacturers can get their designs preapproved. One next-generation reactor, from Westinghouse, has already been approved, and two others, from AREVA and GE, are in process. Many reactor-site approvals already exist, left over from the 1970s boom. Once a utility decides to build, it applies for a single combined construction and operating license, and the NRC has three years to grant or deny it the license. Get the data, hear the critiques (including those from environmentalists), make adjustments, decide, and move on. With standardized designs and standardized parts, construction of large plants should be completed in four years." (Brand 111-112).
In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which provides tax credits and insurance against regulatory delays for the first new plants, liability limits, and loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors, as well as funds for research on Gen IV reactors. (Brand 112)
The U.S. has a fund for the disposal of nuclear waste, currently slated to be used for Yucca Mountain, which is now defunct. The fund has almost $30 billion dollars. Hansen has suggested using that money to develop thorium and fast reactors, so we can eliminate the waste instead of just burying it. (Brand 113)
CLOSE THE CARBON LOOP: MAKE FUEL FROM THE AIR
LFTRs and IFRs would operate at much higher temperature than water-cooled reactors. This makes them more efficient at generating electricity. At the same time, the high-temperature waste heat can be useful itself.
One possibility that has been suggested is water desalination. By using only the waste heat, desalination can be accomplished almost for free. With drought expected from early climate change, this could be a crucial component of adaptation.
Another startling possibility is to use high-temperature reactor heat to make gasoline and other liquid fuels directly from the CO2 in the atmosphere. This avoids the problem of finding a place to put all that absorbed carbon.
Here’s a report from Los Alamos on a project called Green Freedom
, to create gasoline from atmospheric CO2. Their design uses existing technology and a Gen III fission plant, which accounts for over half the cost. Since the capital cost is high, they assume a substantial profit margin. Even so, they say it can be competitive at $4.60/gal retail (plus tax), or $3.40 assuming two modest advancements. (Since gasoline from this process wouldn't be charged a carbon fee, it would easily be competitive.) The process uses well-understood technology and common materials, so it could be easily scaled up as far as we need.
Initially, carbon dioxide is absorbed into a potassium carbonate solution to form bicarbonate ions. An electrolytic process pulls the CO2 out of solution, and water electrolysis provides hydrogen. From there, they synthesize methanol, followed by a methanol-to-gasoline conversion process developed by Exxon and already used commercially.
is the STEP process
. This is powered by a combination of heat and electricity. If using solar, it would combine thermal and photovoltaic, giving an overall collection efficiency nearing 50%. Heat and electricity from advanced nuclear plants should serve just as well.
(A similar STEP process can smelt iron
without CO2 emissions.)
To simply pull concentrated CO2 from the atmosphere, Klaus Lackner’s "artificial tree
" system costs about half a kwh per kg CO2, which is a little over twice the minimum required by physics. One gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 37 kwh, and has 2.5 kgs carbon, which is the amount you get from about 7.5 kgs CO2. So getting CO2 from the air contributes under 4 kwh to the cost.
Given CO2 and energy, we could use older processes to make fuel. We could start with the Sabatier
reaction, which turns CO2 and hydrogen into methane and water, using a catalyst, at 95% efficiency
. The next step is steam reforming
, which converts methane to carbon monoxide and hydrogen, using a nickel catalyst. This is between 70% and 85% efficient. The final step for liquid hydrocarbons is Fischer-Tropsche
, which the Germans used to produce fuel during WWII. Using Fischer-Tropsch to generate liquid fuel from biomass has about 40% efficiency
; presumably using pure syngas would be at least as good.
Sabatier/Fischer-Tropsch is old technology. STEP and Green Freedom would likely be significantly cheaper
. There are even more possibilities: other fuels that could be made from CO2 include methanol, natural gas, and formic acid. But sticking with the fuels that run in the vehicles we have, using the distribution systems we have, is probably the most practical.
(Blees advocates an interesting idea: boron, which only burns in pure oxygen. Consequently it can be shipped conveniently, stored in the shed, or carried in the back seat, eliminating the chicken-and-egg problem. Once oxidized, it can be shipped back to a nuclear plant, to have the oxygen driven off by waste heat. Energy density and cost would be better than gasoline. However, it would require new vehicles with high-temperature engines.)
Since heat engines are only about a third as efficient as electric motors, using liquid fuel would require more energy than converting to all-electric vehicles. That's somewhat matched by the efficiency loss in power plants, but we also have losses in fuel production. But it's not quite so bad as all that, since we could use the waste heat from nuclear reactors as our energy source. That's energy that would have been otherwise lost, amounting to about half the energy produced by the reactor. If that's not enough, we could add more reactors dedicated to fuel production, skipping the turbines entirely. (That'd make them cheaper to build, too.)
We may not have a choice. There may not be enough natural resources available
to convert all our ground vehicles to electric. If you also consider air travel and shipping, it's clear that we're going to be making liquid fuels, one way or another...hopefully not by digging them out of the ground, or wiping out vast ecosystems to grow biofuels.
Pulling liquid CO2 from the atmosphere is not the most energy-efficient method of recycling carbon. Mineral sequestration takes less than a tenth as much energy, and biochar is energy-positive. But making fuel has the advantage of being a closed cycle. We take CO2 from the air, make gasoline, burn it, and put the CO2 back in the air, with no net effect on the environment as long as our power source is nonpolluting. We can keep doing this for as long as we have power (and with advanced nuclear, we'll have power for a long, long time).
Other benefits include a complete end to oil imports, and maybe even cheaper gasoline (especially if peak-oil predictions are correct).
The levelized cost of nuclear power is low, but the initial capital costs are rather high. The same goes for wind and solar. But long-term, they'd be a great investment. Cheap energy is a boon to the economy.
The trouble is, capital is a bit scarce these days.
And good investments are exactly what the U.S. needs right now.
"If, say, the US borrows at 3% for a long-lived project yielding 20%, in the medium term the national debt – and even more, the debt/GDP ratio – will be down." --Joseph Stiglitz
With U.S. bonds still seen as a safe haven in world financial markets, and historically low interest rates, we have a golden opportunity to make this happen. (Though where we'll be when the reactors are ready, who can say.)
So one thing we can do is sell government bonds, use the money to make loans for advanced nuclear plants, and take some deficit-reducing profits.
On the other hand, there might be plenty of private capital available for safe investments. A loan guarantee program might be sufficient.
Yet another option, proposed by Jasper Sky at Oxford University, is for the Federal Reserve to handle it. Sky "suggests creating new funds with a novel twist on the traditional tactic used by recession-hit governments of 'quantitative easing' (QE). QE normally means that a central bank buys government bonds from investors, in effect creating new cash, which is then available to banks to encourage them to lend more and thereby increase economic activity. Sky suggests that a central bank could buy specially issued bonds from a Green Investment Bank, which would then use its funds to support new clean technology development at a large scale, from offshore wind to nuclear to supergrids. By spending on large infrastructure projects, this Green bank would help revive the economy and create jobs, whilst at the same time putting the country on the path towards a carbon-neutral energy system. In Sky's words, 'we could potentially build our way out of the climate crisis without taking on new debt and without increasing electricity prices, whilst tackling the economic crisis at the same time.' To some this 'printing money' approach might raise the spectre of inflation, but central banks have plenty of options - like limiting the annual amount offered, altering interest rates or forcing commercial banks to hold more reserves - to make this a minor concern." (Lynas 77)
At the moment, many observers think deflation is the real threat. It's the perfect time to kick off a strategy like this.
"A version of this idea has been put at the international level by the World Future Council, which suggests using the International Monetary Fund's 'special drawing rights' facility to create a $100-billion-a-year Green Fund for investment in low-carbon infrastructure." (Lynas 78, with reference to this
WHITE ROOFS, WHITE CLOUDS
Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, if the 100 largest cities in the world converted to white roofs and lighter-colored pavement, it would offset 57 gigatons of carbon emissions. (Details
To motivate these actions, we should apply tax incentives, at the national level with income tax credits (much like solar incentives) or the local level by varying property tax rates. It may also be helpful to pass ordinances overruling homeowner's association rules. Many U.S. cities have been ahead of the federal government on climate change issues, so local action could happen more quickly.
A fleet of wind-powered ships, spraying small droplets of seawater into the air with technology similar to inkjet printers, could seed clouds and cool the globe
dramatically at surprisingly low cost: about $10 billion to counter all current warming. Developing the program could take as little as five years
. (A recent study
is a bit less optimistic about countering all emissions, but still concluded that the method would work.)
Oddly enough, while most people don't bat an eye at painting roofs white, many object to cloud seeding, calling it "geoengineering."
But what's the difference? Both are localized actions at low altitudes, designed to reflect sunlight to space. Cloud seeding has the advantage of being more easily reversible. Stop doing it, and the clouds return to normal in a week or so. If for some reason you wanted to get rid of your white roofs, it would take a lot more effort.
The U.S. has the world's largest navy and a large merchant fleet; if any nation can build and run a fleet like this, it's America. At a $10 billion pricetag, it's easily affordable.
Of course, reflecting sunlight away is a stopgap measure. Fixing our greenhouse emissions is critical. But if we're going to use a gradually increasing carbon fee, as advocated by Norhaus and others, to get the most cost-effective longterm effect, we can buy ourselves some safety by applying some direct cooling in the short term. Otherwise, melting permafrost and icecaps, drought, and destabilized undersea methane ice could make a mockery of our own efforts, if things go nonlinear sooner than we expect. Besides, with the icecaps melting, planetary albedo is decreasing; it seems only fair to add some back.
Nevertheless, climate change often seems like a hopeless issue, politically. Fixing it seems unbearably hard, liable to cause enormous economic hardship. Alternatively, it seems that we'll be able to do little more than symbolic gestures, while climate change rolls on inexorably. The public responds with fatalism and denial, fueled by industries pursuing advocacy of their own short-term interests.
To get around this, we need several things:
- A "plausible promise" - a plan that could actually work, while still promoting economic growth
- Appeals to the short-term financial interests of constituents, particularly those most opposed to climate action
- A virtuous cycle, that builds political support with small early successes.
- Political allies with significant economic resources and long-term perspectives.
To build the promise, we need to demonstrate the technologies. There's no way around it; few people will sign onto a plan involving, say, liquid thorium reactors, until we have them production-ready.
Developing new nuclear technologies is likely to be the most capital-intensive, with the most technical risk. There may also be significant political resistance. However, small nuclear power sources have great military value. Military funding, classified if necessary, can get us over the hump. Once the technology is ready, it can be spun off into the private sector.
The "white clouds" plan already has research funding from the Gates Foundation. There's also private research into methods of absorbing CO2; these should pick up once the economic incentives are in place.
To build those incentives, we can start with a small carbon fee and dividend. Once most people see that their rise in energy prices is more than compensated by the check in the mail, political support will build for higher fees. If it can't be done initially at the federal level, states could do it, perhaps incorporating the fees into gasoline taxes.
A simple emissions fee, priced by the ton, is arguably easier to pass than cap-and-trade. It's simpler, less exploitable, and the money goes to citizens instead of government or special interests. British Columbia has a similar program which is quite popular. (To help get a bill passed, Hansen recommends
the Citizens Climate Lobby
In rural states, or federally, it will be important to incorporate carbon absorption. This will give farmers a large new source of revenue. Most grassroots political resistance to climate action comes from conservatives, who are majorities in the largely rural "red states." Getting the farmers on board, by showing them how we can make them rich, will fracture that resistance.
"One calculation by Robert Brown, director of the Office of Biorenewables Programs at Iowa State University, revealed that if the U.S. adopted a cap and trade program in CO2 emissions like the one already in place in the European Union, farmers in the Midwest could almost double their income by using corn stover—the leaves, stalks and cobs that remain after harvest—to fuel pyrolysis." (source
That's just for biochar. Farmers could also apply the other methods mentioned above, and scatter windmills across their fields, newly competitive in the presence of carbon fees.
Carbon tariffs might work well with "buy American" sentiments, too. Until China gets on board, we'll be taking money from the Chinese, and giving it to American citizens (or to American farmers, if the Chinese prefer to buy carbon rights on our market).
Obviously there is political resistance to nuclear power. But there's a flip side: including technologies like nuclear as a solution to climate change helps bring
resisters to climate action on board.
"packaged the basic science of climate change into fake newspaper articles bearing two very different headlines--'Scientific Panel Recommends Anti-Pollution Solution to Global Warming' and 'Scientific Panel Recommends Nuclear Solution to Global Warming'--and then tested how citizens with different values responded. Sure enough, the latter framing made hierarchical individualists much more open to accepting the fact that humans are causing global warming. Kahan infers that the effect occurred because the science had been written into an alternative narrative that appealed to their pro-industry worldview."
Advanced nuclear with little resemblance to current plants will likely fare better politically. This proposal's author has talked about thorium reactors to a number of friends including anti-nuclear members of the Green Party, and in his experience, a reactor that can't melt down, eats nuclear waste, and can't make bombs seems like a good idea to almost everyone. (Expect a lot of scare tactics from the coal industry, however.)
Using the military for initial development largely sidesteps budgetary and regulatory obstacles. Given that China is pursuing the same goal, with the expressed intent to control intellectual property, a "sputnik moment" might help things along.
No matter how safe the reactors, deploying a large number of civilian reactors will likely meet some level of local resistance. But in many cases, so does wind and solar, for reasons ranging from ecosystem damage to spoiled views.
A cheap, compact, abundant, non-polluting, purely domestic power source would be a significant economic boost to the nation, even before exporting the technology to other countries. The USA invented this technology. It should be the USA that takes the lead in benefiting from it.
With a plan that allows for the continued use of gasoline and diesel, we can work with the oil industry. We'll still need their refineries and pipelines. They're concerned about peak oil anyway; we can help them transition to producing oil from the air, using Green Freedom and other technologies. Green Freedom in particular has fairly low technical risk, if Los Alamos is correct, as long as we can build the non-emitting power sources for it.
To that end, it may be worth trying to partner with the oil industry in developing liquid-fueled nuclear reactors, which mostly require chemical processing expertise. The experience of conventional nuclear industry is largely irrelevant, and the industry has little interest in liquid-fueled reactors, since it makes much of its profits from selling expensive fabricated fuel rods.
(Of course, the conventional nuclear industry would benefit enormously from a strong IFR program, which would also require more LWRs for startup fuel. Since IFRs are production ready and LFTRs aren't yet, the nuclear industry should definitely support us.)
Coal, of course, will be our primary victim. Fortunately, the industry is weakening. No new coal plants have been built in the last two years, due to grassroots resistance and competition
from cheap natural gas. Coal mines are under pressure, and have shed 80% of their jobs since WWII as automation took over (Blees 234). At this point, there are only 80K coal jobs left. We can compensate and retrain that many workers.
On top of that, easily-reachable coal in the Appalachians is running out
. The DOE estimates that Appalachian coal production will drop in half in about three years, and further after that. Wyoming is still going strong, but "the big open pit mines in Wyoming employ a tiny fraction of the number of people in an underground mine in Appalachia. And for a variety of reasons – railroad congestion among them – Wyoming coal is never going to ramp up production enough to have a meaningful impact on job creation. For better or worse, the bulk of coal industry jobs are in Appalachia – and when that coal is gone, so are the jobs." (source
Meanwhile, after a legal settlement in April 2011, the T.V.A. agreed to close 18 coal plants
over the next six years.
But let's say the industry is just too strong for us after all. The largest 12 U.S. coal companies have a combined market cap of about $70 billion
. That'll drop as the mines run out but let's estimate $100 billion for the entire industry. If we're going to take them out, we might have to compensate the stockholders.
Where would the money come from? Easy. Eliminating coal emissions would save us a lot of money on Medicare and Medicaid payouts. Annual healthcare costs due to coal emissions have been estimated at $169 billion per year (Blees 100), which is comparable to the market cap of the mining industry. We could just buy out the shareholders, and come out ahead.
An industry that could provide significant, but so far untapped, political support is the insurance industry. Private health insurers pay about half of that $169 billion. If we need an industry to counterbalance coal lobbyists, health insurance is a pretty good candidate. With the industry under pressure to reign in premiums, now is a good time to reach out to them.
Property insurers are also natural allies, and are already considering
climate change in their projections.
We've done this before
In the mid-1980s, the Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol put strong limits on CFCs, preventing the destruction of the ozone layer.
"There were many reasons for pessimism even on the eve of the Montreal Protocol: world production of CFCs was still growing rapidly, and massive new investments in productive capacity were planned. Hundreds of billions of dollars of future profits were at stake, and powerful industries were vociferously opposed to meaningful change. Major developing countries were not on board either. In a striking parallel with carbon, China had announced plans to increase CFC production tenfold by 2000. And yet industrialized-country governments were prepared to take a leap in the dark, and a tipping point was thereby crossed. Within just a decade from the signing of the Montreal Protocol, worldwide CFC emissions had fallen by 95 percent...
"The lesson ensuing from this is that nothing can change without strong political leadership. Industry cannot shift by itself: any company voluntarily eliminating a damaging product that is also made by others will simply cede ground to a competitor....Vested interests in the commercial status quo will always be more powerful than potential winners not yet making profits in the new markets of the future...
"There was no silver bullet: many varying substitutes to CFCs had to be developed for different industrial processes and applications...Some were difficult and expensive at first, but industry innovated and costs inevitably fell.
"So the politicians led, and private industry delivered in consequence. And as substitutes to ozone-damaging substances began to become available, so governments were emboldened at subsequent negotiations to tighten up the Montreal Protocol even further, and move towards a worldwide ban on CFCs. There was a ratcheting upward effect, where confidence grew, new commercial incentives began to appear, and a steadily stronger ozone regulation regime came into being. Looking back, it now seems obvious that the original arguments made by industrial vested interests--that alternatives to CFCs were unavailable or too costly--were flat wrong. Not only did these technical alternatives appear more quickly even than the most fervent promoters had dared to hope, but in many cases they actually saved industry money. But at the time this was far from obvious. What happened was that the leap of faith taken by goverments led to a tipping point, which turned the whole dynamic of the ozone issue from one of stasis to one of rapid change.
"What is even more extraordinary is that the government that was most ambitious in leading worldwide action on the ozone layer [was] the United States."
Vision of the future under this proposal
By 2050, the transition should be complete.
Civilization is powered by safe, compact nuclear reactors that make very little waste, along with as much wind and solar as turns out to be practical. Our huge stockpile of nuclear waste is gone.
Transportation is partly electric, and partly fueled by gasoline or diesel made from the CO2 in the air. Oil companies do a solid business, having successfully navigated the decline after "peak oil."
The coal industry is gone. The miners were well-compensated, and the stockholders turned a tidy profit. They powered civilization throughout the industrial revolution; now they depart with our thanks (and a sigh of relief).
In the transition, emissions from fossil fuels were absorbed with a variety of sequestration methods. Now those methods are winding down, as civilization approaches a closed cycle for carbon fuels. The last to leave is natural gas...cheap, plentiful, and relatively low in carbon. But soon, we make even that from CO2.
Agriculture has been transformed, using topsoil-restoring methods, biochar, and deep-rooted crops to sequester large amounts of carbon, while maintaining excellent productivity. Farmers have made a lot of money selling carbon rights, as well as by adding wind turbines to their land.
Cities gleam white, even as ships seeding ocean clouds turn into port. By keeping the globe cool during the transition, we've averted runaway warming. The icecaps have stabilized.
America has led the way, collecting large sums from import duties until other nations caught up, and more from sequestering much of the world's carbon. America leads the world in advanced nuclear technology, and its cheap, plentiful energy has propelled the economy to new heights.
With populations even more urbanized than today, plentiful, cheap, nonpolluting energy, and advanced automation, indoor farms
start to reach their prime. Cities are discovering they can produce much of their own food. Some of our farmers retire rich, and let their farms return to wilderness. In their rich soil, trees grow rapidly, reforesting the land.
Urbanites have lower birth rates. Sometime around 2050, the world's urbanized population begins to shrink (Brand). By 2100, humans live primarily in scattered dense cities that are nearly self-sufficient in food production. Our energy sources take very little space and won't require mines for centuries (if ever). Vast amounts of land are returning to wilderness. The Earth, at last, is healing.
Bates, Albert. The Biochar Solution
Blees, Tom. Prescription For The Planet
Brand, Stewart. Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
Hansen, James. Storms of My Grandchildren
Lynas, Mark. The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans
MacKay, David. Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air
Muller, Richard. Physics for Future Presidents
Nordhaus, William. A Question Of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies
Stoft, Steven. Carbonomics: How to Fix the Climate and Charge It to OPEC
Yeomans, Allan. Priority One: Together We Can Beat Global Warming