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The trouble with vaporware

Observers of the mechanics of decline and fall found plenty to keep them occupied over the last week. As I write these words, bombs are falling in Libya as the Western powers hurriedly resort to military force; Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi’s moves toward selling his oil and natural gas to China and India rather than the European nations that have received most of it to date probably explains this abrupt and almost panicked change in tactics.

Meanwhile, the immediate human impact of Japan’s devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami seems to be ebbing. The Japanese military and rescue teams from a hundred other countries have succeeded in bulldozing open transport routes into the stricken Tohoku region, and food and emergency supplies are beginning to reach the survivors. Still, at least two other dimensions of the crisis are still ongoing, and show every sign of getting worse before they get better.

The first of these is the economic impact of a disaster that leveled one of Japan’s major industrial regions. In a global economy geared to extreme specialization and just-in-time delivery, the sudden destruction of scores of factories, chemical plants, warehouses, and shipping facilities is a body blow with potentially wide-ranging effects. One GM plant in the United States has already been forced to shut down because a Japanese factory that was once a crucial part of its supply chain suddenly turned into a heap of salt-stained debris. Over the months ahead, as products already shipped reach their destinations and the details of the disaster become clearer, we will get to see just how thoroughly the proponents of global economic integration got their wish. The possibility that more factories shut down, more jobs are lost, and some consumer goods are in very short supply for months thereafter can’t be dismissed out of hand.

The second ongoing aspect of the crisis, of course, is the Fukuyama nuclear disaster. More than a week on, the situation at the crippled plant remains dangerously unstable. Emergency crews on the scene are putting their lives on the line to keep three partially melted reactor cores and two critically damaged fuel rod storage tanks from overheating; so far, they’ve succeeded well enough that leaks of radiation and high-level nuclear waste have been sporadic, but the struggle’s not over yet. Even in the best case scenario, the utility that owns the plant has just had a very expensive and profitable facility turn into a heap of smoldering radioactive junk, and the ensuing financial meltdown may do as much damage to the nuclear power industry as an actual core meltdown at the plant.

Last week’s post here commented on the ways that proponents of nuclear power have tried to put their spin onto a situation that seems to be taking a perverse pleasure in frustrating them. One of their tactics seems to have shifted into overdrive over the last week: the insistence that even though all past and nuclear technologies have turned out to be far less safe and spectacularly more expensive than their promoters claimed at the time, future nuclear technologies not yet off the drawing boards will surely be safe, clean, cheap, and reliable sources of energy. Those of my readers who know their way around the software industry have heard this kind of song and dance before, often enough so that there’s a useful term for it among computer geeks: vaporware.

The mass production of vaporware in the energy field is hardly limited to the nuclear industry’s shills and unpaid fans, to be sure. Connoisseurs of the absurd will remember the flurry of optimistic claims about algal biodiesel released a couple of years ago by GreenTech, which got plenty of money from venture capitalists until an outside analysis showed that their process wouldn’t make a profit until the price of diesel fuel broke $800 a barrel. Still, for some reason nuclear power seems to attract an uncommon number of vaporware schemes. Whether it’s liquid sodium or lead-bismuth reactors, fourth generation this or modular that – and let’s not forget the fusion advocates, still chasing a phantom that has hovered twenty years in the future since before I was born – bring up energy issues online and you’re sure to get somebody making grand claims about some kind of nuclear vaporware.

There are at least three good reasons to ignore them. The first is that every generation of nuclear technology has been sold with exactly the same sales pitch – those of my readers who recall the Eisenhower administration will remember how, back then, publicists for the industry insisted that clean, safe nuclear power would soon make electricity too cheap to meter – and it’s turned out to be wrong every single time. There’s no reason whatsoever to think that the current crop of publicity releases will be any more accurate. It’s easy to make a technology look good if it doesn’t exist yet, and the inevitable technical problems have not been faced, but after this many rounds of grand and unfulfilled promises, it’s arguably time to roll our eyes and walk away.

The second is that building more nuclear power plants, of any kind, is far from the most cost-effective way to deal with shortfalls in energy here in the United States. Nuclear advocates have made much of claims that the only alternative to more nukes is burning coal, but there’s a much simpler, saner, and cheaper alternative: conservation. The sort of cheap and simple conservation retrofits we’ve been discussing in this blog for the last few months can cut home energy consumption by 20% or more. Such measures were at the heart of the industrial world’s successful response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the fact that they’re ignored by all nearly all sides in today’s energy debates – including too many supposed environmentalists – does not speak highly of the collective intelligence of our time.

It’s worth noting, for example, that for the amount of money it would take to replace the 23 US nuclear reactors that have the same flawed design as the ones at the Fukushima Daiichi plant – $276 billion, at an estimated average total cost of $12 billion per reactor – we could give every one of the 130 million homes, apartments, and condominiums in the United States a $2000 conservation retrofit, including caulking, weatherstripping, insulation, and the like, with room in the budget to spare. That would save more power than those nukes would generate, and do it with no fuel costs, no security threats, no radioactive waste, no risk of catastrophic meltdowns, and an annual maintenance budget per home equal to a couple of takeout pizzas.

A comparable option, a little more costly per housing unit but with similar paybacks, would involve getting solar water heaters on the roofs of America’s houses, apartments and condominiums, and commercial and industrial facilities. I’ve discussed solar water heating in these essays several times already. It’s arguably the most thoroughly developed renewable technology we’ve got; a century ago, solar water heaters were standard in American housing across the Sun Belt, and only the brief heyday of cheap fossil fuel energy squeezed them out of the market. It’s high time we put them back to work.

There are three basic types of solar water heater: batch, passive thermosiphon, and closed-loop active. Batch heaters are the simplest and most robust of all; they can be made and installed by an ordinarily competent handyperson for less than $1000 a piece. They consist of a tank, painted black, in a box with glass walls facing the sun and insulation everywhere else. The simple version is operated by hand: in the morning, as long as the weather is above freezing, you fill the tank by turning a tap; later in the day – the interval varies depending on location, size of tank, and intensity of sunlight – you have a tank of hot water that you can use in all the usual ways.

You can also feed a batch heater into your regular hot water system, but there are more effective ways to use solar energy if this is your plan. The reason I mention batch heaters here at all is that, as the simplest and cheapest solar water heating system, they’re probably the one that will be standard a century or two from now, when the end of the age of fossil fuels has broken our descendants of the bad habit of thinking that they have a right to expect energy when, where, and how they want it. Afternoon laundry and evening baths may well be standard in that age, though it’s by no means impossible that they’ll also pick up the trick of running water through pipes in the back of a woodstove when it’s fired up, and use the two systems jointly to keep hot water ready on tap. (We’ll be discussing that, and the possibilities and problems with wood stoves, in a later post.)

Still, for the time being, those of my readers who like hot water throughout the day have other options. If you live in a part of the world that doesn’t get freezing temperatures in the winter, a passive thermosiphoning system is usually your best bet. This has a set of panels through which water flows, and a well-insulated tank located above the panels, so that hot water rises from the panels into the tank, and cooling water cycles from the tank back down to the panels. The tank connects to your regular water heater, which thus has a lot less heating to do – when the sun is out, in a well-designed system, none at all.

In areas that freeze in the winter, the standard approach is an closed loop active system that uses something other than plain water to take heat from the panels and circulate it into the tank. Various antifreeze solutions are standard; they go from the panel to a heat exchanger in a well-insulated tank, and a small electric pump (which can be powered by a photovoltaic panel) keeps the fluid moving. Once again, heat goes from the panels to the insulated tank, hot water from the insulated tank goes into the regular water heater, and keeps it from having to work hard or, under good conditions, at all.

On average, a thermosiphon or closed loop system will provide you with 70% of your hot water free of charge, though that figure varies significantly by location; in Sun Belt locations with plenty of clear skies, it tends close to 100%. Since water heating accounts for around 15% of the average household energy bill, a solar water heater in an average location will account for around 10% of your home energy. The cost for systems of this kind varies widely depending on the details of the system, the orientation of your house toward the sun, and the ease with which pipes can get from the solar system to your ordinary hot water system, but $4000 is a good ballpark for a passive thermosiphon system and $8000 for a closed loop active system. It’s a noticeable upfront cost, to be sure, but here again it’s worth remembering that there are no additional fuel costs for as long as the sun is well stocked with hydrogen.

There are probably other ways to heat water using the sun that haven’t been invented yet, but the three I’ve just mentioned have a major advantage: they represent mature technologies, with strengths and drawbacks that have been tested thoroughly in practice. To put it another way, they’re the opposite of vaporware; when you install a solar water heating system, you know exactly what you’re getting into, and though it can sometimes be necessary to correct for the pitches of overenthusiastic salespeople, most of the firms that install solar hot water systems these days have been around for decades and have learned, as most small businesses learn, that satisfied customers are the advertising that matters. You can also look up the performance of the available models in a variety of independent sources, go fishing for complaints on the internet, and do everything else you would normally do when assessing a piece of technology for your home.

You can’t do that with vaporware. If someone came knocking on your door and offered you a chance to buy an exciting new water heater using advanced technology, you’d probably want to know how well it worked in practice, and if the salesman wanted a dizzyingly high price up front for a heater that had never been built or tested, was ultimately nothing more than an appealing concept, and wouldn’t be ready for decades, I doubt, dear reader, that you’d go running for your checkbook. This is what the proponents of untested new nuclear technologies are doing, and once again, it’s worth recalling that the sales pitches they’re repeating right now are the same ones that were used to justify building the reactors at Fukushima.

That points up the third and, to my mind, conclusive reason to ignore the promoters of nuclear vaporware: we don’t have the time to spare. Peak oil is already here, peak coal and natural gas are a good deal closer than the cornucopian assumptions of previous decades liked to admit, and peak fissionable uranium – the fuel for our existing reactors – is not far off either. We can’t afford to take the risks involved in pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into untried nuclear concepts that may prove to be as unworkable as fusion or as fatally flawed as the Fukushima reactors, and in the very best case won’t produce a watt of power for decades to come. A realistic approach to the looming energy crisis of our time, rather, will have to depend on existing technology, and especially on mature and thoroughly tested technologies that have proven themselves to be safe, effective, compatible with existing systems, and capable of meeting genuine human needs. Those technologies exist; they won’t enable us to continue to waste energy with the unthinking carelessness that most Americans have somehow come to think of as one of their inalienable rights; but they do offer a realistic way of providing a viable, comfortable, and humane existence as we extract ourselves from the tight corner into which the vaporware salesmen of the past have wedged us.

Resources

Once again, the starting point for green wizards interested in solar water heating is the Master Conserver papers available online at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you want are those on passive solar water heating and active solar water heating. There have been some useful improvements introduced since these were published, but they still provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the technology.

Readers interested in building batch systems should find a copy of Daniel K. Reif’s classic Passive Solar Water Heaters; which provides plenty of information and detailed plans for two systems. David A. Bainbridge’s The Integral Passive Solar Water Heater Book is a good sourcebook for the range of batch designs in use or under development in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Passive thermosiphon and closed loop active systems are beyond the reach of all but a very few home workshops; if you want to go this route and have the funds, your best bet is to talk to a professional. There are solar energy companies in every region of the United States and a good many countries abroad that can set you up with a system suited to your location.

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