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2022-06-20 07:00 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 1288 references
[Comments enabled]  

I'm getting tired of political feelz being paraded around as alleged "facts".

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Sunday that the Biden administration’s policies are not responsible for record-high gas prices, and the only way to fix the energy crisis in the "medium-term" is to move towards "renewables to address climate change."


"Actually, consumption of gas and fuels are currently at lower levels than pre-pandemic, and what's happened is the production has gone down. Refinery capacity is declined in the United States and oil production has declined. ...."

Refinery capacity and production declined because Biden said he would ban both and, within days of being inaugurated, took concrete steps to do both.

Refineries and pipelines have a 30, 40, 50 or more year service life.  Nobody in their right mind is going to put forward capital investment with a 30 year payback when you're told that investment will be destroyed and that threat is credible because the people making it then act in accordance with same, thus confirming that its not mere election-year rhetoric (which we all know happens and usually means nothing.)

Yellen argued that the best way to address the energy crisis in the "medium-term" is to transition the country off of fossil fuels.

That's a thermodynamic impossibility within the current realm of knowledge.  In short: You can't.

To make an EV battery you must dig up 500,000 lbs. of earth.  For one battery.  Which has a service life, after which it must be replaced.  Which has no current means of economically recycling the components either, so unless you'd like the price of the pack to wildly exceed the crazy levels it is at now you will throw the old away and buy another one with another half-million pounds of earth dug up.  All of which are dug up, transported and processed using fossil fuels because there is no other rational way to do so.

Renewables in the form of wind and solar require these fossil fuel inputs, as do storage batteries.  Because the energy they produce is uncertain, that is the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, you can never guarantee how much output you will have from them even if you could somehow resolve the fossil fuel requirement for creating the panels, concrete and blades for the windmills, and rare earth materials you must dig out of the ground and refine to make them.  For this reason the energy they produce will always fluctuate wildly in price simply due to fluctuations in supply.

If you build "enough" that you're comfortable you will not be short there will be times there is so much supply the price is zero and the economic incentive to build them will likewise be zero.  At any build-out less than this there will be times when you demand it but can't have it.  Of course the time when you demand it and can't have it will be at the most inconvenient time of all, typically when its freezing-butt cold or broiling hot.

Look at the price of these things and the fossil alternatives over long periods of time.  Natural gas has seen wild spikes in both directions in price.  So has wind power, solar and similar.  There are only two that do not over our history of use: Coal and fission-based nuclear.

It doesn't matter one bit whether you like any of this or not.  These are facts and unless you want a power bill that varies by 400% or more (natural gas has seen price variations of ten times or more in reasonably recent history) you are out of your mind to not build the base demand capacity out of things that do not have that fluctuation and aren't dependent on those that do.

This isn't complicated.  Yellen famously said that inflation was "transitory" not all that long ago -- about a year back -- when she was arguing for, and implementing, the next round of wild money-printing after Trump did it too and I remind you that she has now been proved to be completely full of crap.

Now she's doing it again and if you let her and this Administration get away with it I hope you are ok with the wild price spikes and shortages, up to and including black-outs, that these policies will lead to.

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2022-06-16 07:00 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 1221 references
[Comments enabled]  

I spat my espresso when I read this...... 

"No more subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. No more drilling on federal land. No more drilling including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill.  Period.  End."

That's what candidate Biden said, and he made good on his promise as soon as he was inaugurated.

Such a position also means nobody will invest in refining capacity, particularly when you have states such as California which have banned the sale of passenger vehicles using petroleum-based fuels starting in 2035 and all trucks (medium and heavy duty), where possible, in ten more years.

Why does that shut down refining now?

That's simple: Capital cost for improvements and new construction have to be recovered over decades of time and the service life of equipment like that is typically 30, 40 or more years.  If you tell me there will be no demand for the product in 10 years you have quadrupled the capital cost recovery required each and every year from now until then and that in turn means the price will wildly escalate and nobody may buy.  There is no reason for a private concern to take that risk and you cannot compel them to do so.

If you think this is some "unexpected" result you're nuts.  Tell me how many nuclear fuel reprocessing plants are online today in the United States.  In 1977 this was banned by Jimmy Carter and while Reagan reversed that E/O when he took office it did not matter as the former investments that had been made were destroyed by Carter's action and nobody in their right mind would do it again, given that Carter ruined their investment by executive fiat.

There is basically zero fabrication and development on the nuclear fuel front today compared with requirements; we only produce about 5% of what we need.  This isn't because we don't have it -- we do have it.  It's because Carter screwed industry out of billions of dollars and nobody in their right mind is going to let that happen to them twice.  The entire kerfluffle over waste disposal is of our making; the safest and best thing to do with high-level nuclear waste from reactors is to put it back into a new fuel pin (the fissile portion in commercial power reactors is only 5%, so you have 95% of the fuel pin contents available for such waste) and burn it up.  Over time this process reduces the high-level waste that is dangerous for 100,000 years into lower-level waste that is dangerous for a hundred or two years which we can reasonably expect to be able to keep out of the environment using existing technology.

The same is true when it comes to petroleum, coal and natural gas.  The latter, I remind you, is essential to make fertilizer, without which crop yields will be half or less of what we produce today.  The far left, along with those who go along with it on the right, either do not understand any of this or don't care and they both ignore the history including what happened in the 1970s and the impact that persists forty years later when it comes to civilian energy production.

If you want to see energy development resume here in the United States there is only one way to do it: Pass into law that (1) it will and may continue and expand, (2) Executive Action cannot curtail, impair or stop it again and (3) a serious supermajority of both houses of Congress will be required to change said law.

Since Biden would never sign such a bill and it will take 2-3 years once it is signed before the investment can bear fruit if you think the insanity in energy prices and availability is going to end before 2026 or thereabouts you're crazy.  The one thing we could do now is to bar the export of refined products; we are currently exporting about 25% of refined petroleum product we produce .vs. 5% a couple of years ago and that could be done today -- and would have an immediate and real impact on gasoline and diesel price.

Further, let's go here and solve the problem for the next 500 years.  That we can't do in a day but we can do it in a decade.

Biden can threaten all he wants but he cannot force private capital investment to take place and nobody in their right mind will make such investments when mere executive whim can turn said investments into dust as happened as soon as Biden took office, exactly as was the case in 1977 with Carter.

Behind every unit of economic output is a unit of energy.  This is not a matter of debate or "public policy"; it is hard, material fact that has stood since the beginning of economic time and no amount of feelings or desires can change it.

Would you like to eat?

Would you like the food to show up at the grocery store?

Would you like your A/C and heat to work?

Would you like to be able to get to work?

The above are your choices and, so far, you've answered all of the above with "No!"

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2022-06-07 07:00 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 1832 references
[Comments enabled]  

Folks, right here:

To meet the nation's clean energy goals, the US must develop a robust manufacturing capability to produce solar energy panels and components. It can do that by providing financial incentives to US manufacturers to help offset higher domestic production costs, which have been estimated to be 30% to 40% more than imports.

That is the problem.

Congress handing out money will not solve it; forcing Americans to pay that 30-40% more simply bankrupts Americans but through a different way.

There are many things we can do but they don't make any sense to do.

The only reason someone does it is that there's a boot on someone's neck (they're a slave), the environment is destroyed without care (remediation costs money) and similar.

That's the beginning and end of it, when you get down to facts.

This is not just limited to solar panels.  Its also true for EVs; you have to dig half a million pounds of earth up to make just one battery, and there is no economically viable means of recycling them either.  Yes, technically they can be recycled, but then you get to pay even more.

If the industry will collapse if the 30-40% has to be paid by the end consumer of the product then whatever you're proposing does not work.

Why would you pay 30 cents/kwh for power you can have for 10?  Do you understand that this is exactly what we're talking about here?  At 30-40% more the panels are non-economic to put in and use; they're simply not competitive.  At 300% more than what you pay now for electric power you can't heat or cool your house and eat at the same time.

Understand this folks -- I love technological advancement.  I believe we should have invested in LFTRs a long time ago, and we should do so today.  Not just directly for electrical power, but because we have several hundred years of known fuel for them, and what we get while digging it up we can use to turn into synfuel at the same time with some of the produced energy.  The latter is not fanciful nonsense; Nazi Germany used it close to eighty years ago.  We know it works.  Yes, there are engineering challenges remaining.  But those are engineering problems and thus can be solved.  They are not attempts to claim that which is thermodynamically impossible will work.

Physics, chemistry and thermodynamics (which are functionally a subset of physics, when you get down to it) are not suggestions.  Irrespective of how you feel these are facts you cannot evade.  Shoving off the damage somewhere else, whether to people or planet doesn't change the math.

It only changes who gets screwed, and if Congress subsidizes this the person who gets screwed is you.

Food prices, rent and similar are high enough already -- right?

You don't want any more of that -- right??

That's what I thought.

Now tell me why we allow (and yes, we are allowing it) the current Congress and Executive to remain in office.

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2022-01-03 10:00 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 1187 references
[Comments enabled]  

If you have read Leverage one of the key points made fairly early on, and one I've made repeatedly in this column, is this:

Behind every unit of GDP there is a unit of energy.

It has always been thus and always will be thus.  It is akin to the laws of thermodynamics, which you cannot do anything about and it does not matter if you like them or not.  Attempting to go "beyond them" will not only always fail it will hurt in some regard since it will at best be a less-than-optimal experience and at worst will be a death-causing one.

Fracking was considered a "miracle."  It was no such thing.  I noted many years ago during its "heyday" that it was nothing more than a parlor trick: Yes, you get hydrocarbons out of the ground in places where they were formerly uneconomic to attack, but the problem with doing so is that you haven't changed the amount in the ground -- only the speed of extraction.  Therefore if you double the speed of extraction you also double the rate of depletion!

One of the common chestnuts is that we're "running out of oil."  We are not.  There is a crap-ton of oil.  The problem is the cost of extracting it.  We've run out of cheap to get to oil.

Indeed, we have more than 500 years of reasonably-recoverable and consumable fuel that can be used as liquid hydrocarbons and, if you do not care about cost, we actually have an infinite amount!

What, you say?  That's impossible!

My riposte is that you failed high school chemistry class.

Hydrocarbons are simply chains of hydrogen and carbon, when you get down to it.  Natural gas is a simple one; CH4, or one carbon and four hydrogen atoms.  It has much more energy than coal (which is basically just Carbon) because hydrogen has much more electronegative potential, and thus when burned you get much more energy released for each unit of fuel you use.  This has been the primary reason the United States has in fact dropped its per-BTU CO2 emissions dramatically over the last 30 or so years; natural gas has been cheaper than coal.

We don't use hydrocarbons for energy because we're pigs that hate the Earth, in short.  We do so because they are the only reasonable means to get the energy required for modern life in a package form that works.  All the screaming about EVs and similar is nothing more than a bunch of ignorant jackasses who think they can violate the laws of thermodynamics..

You can't.

The person who figures out how to do it, if it can be done, creates a world that is wildly beyond the dreams of Lucas and Roddenberry.  Even in the Star Wars and Star Trek fictional universes they follow the laws of thermodynamics -- in Star Trek they use dilithium as an energy medium, and in Star Wars it is Kyber crystals -- both of which have to be mined, in other words, both of which were created as a result of the formation of planets and stars and both of which are finite resources.

Let's take a simple example: An electric car.  It's "more efficient" than burning gasoline, right?

Uh, nope.

A modern gasoline engine is about 35% efficient in terms of taking the BTUs in the gasoline and turning it into movement.  That's horrible, you'd think -- electric motors can reach 90% efficiency with modern controls (and the motors in electric cars typically are near that range.)

Electric wins, right?


Every transfer or transformation of energy involves loss.

The best combined-cycle natural gas generating plant has roughly 60% energy efficiency.  These are the most-modern; everything else is worse.  Nuclear is a lot worse, typically, about half that (that is, for every watt that comes out of a nuclear plant as electricity about two more wind up dumped, typically into a body of water.)  So we'll use the best.

The natural gas plant is 60% efficient making the electricity.

The transmission of the power from the generating plant to your house is 95% efficient (5% is lost, roughly.)

The charging of the EV battery is about 75% efficient during normal (slow) charging but this drops wildly when "superchargers" or similar are used.  Such charging is unlikely to exceed 50% efficient due to the requirement to keep the batteries cool.  In short charging at more than "1C" for a lithium cell results in much lower charge efficiency because you are attempting to "overdrive" the chemical process that charges the cell, and doing so radically increases loss.  We'll use 75%.

Assuming you do not let the EV sit (all batteries self-discharge over time) and drive it the next day the loss from self-discharge is very small.  We'll ignore it, and give you the entire 90% "best of breed" efficiency between the battery and the wheels (the withdrawal of said energy, control electronics and motor turning the stored battery power into movement.)

So where are we thus far?

0.6 * 0.95 * 0.75 * 0.9 = 38.5% efficient for the EV assuming the best case, which of course is bull****, but even if you assume such it is still nearly identical to that of the gas-powered car that cost far less money to buy!  Never mind that there is no economically-viable means to recycle a lithium battery pack in an EV; it is toxic waste when it wears out and inevitably, as with all such things, it does.  Nearly every part of a traditional car is recyclable; the metal the vehicle, including its engine and transmission all is, much of the plastic is, and the starting battery is almost 100% recyclable into a new starting battery.

But while you can't violate the laws of thermodynamics you can deliberately cripple yourself.  We can, for example, make all the liquid hydrocarbon we want out of atmospheric (or sea-sequestered carbonate) sources of carbon.  Indeed the CO2 bottle that is refilled at your local brewery or fast-food store that dispenses fountain drinks was almost-certainly condensed out of the air; that is the most-common means by which industrial CO2 is produced.  The reason we don't do this to make fuel is that you must put the energy back in you wish to liberate, plus something for the inevitable losses which you cannot eliminate.  In short what we're doing is using that which the sun put in via energy rather than doing it ourselves and the reason we do it is that it is cheaper.  That's all.

It does not matter if you like these facts or not; they are nonetheless facts.  No amount of braying at the moon nor complaining by the "green wokesters" will change it.  What you can do, however, is foolishly jack up the price to the point that nobody can afford it, at which point modern society as we know it ceases to exist.

Consider that while you may think it would be great to not have all those vehicles running around spewing CO2 into the air where the CO2 goes into the air doesn't change that it does so, and the "more refined" form energy takes the more loss and less efficient it is.  Electricity is a very highly-refined form of energy particularly when compared to, for example, a gallon of diesel fuel.

The premise that we can shift all our energy needs to "renewables" is pure folly.  We cannot at a price that can be paid by the common person, and whether we like it or not renewables are largely unreliable as well so you must add massive storage costs which makes them even more uneconomic.  While the ultra-rich do not care if their power bill at their mansion goes from $2,000 a month to $5,000, since they make north of a million a month anyway, the common person cannot pay a $500 electric bill that used to be $200.  That's roughly $3,500 a year of additional expense they do not have.  To cut that $500 bill back to something they can afford they cannot have either heat or air conditioning, and might not be able to have hot water!

Years ago I penned a column that was an expansion of part of what I wrote about on energy in Leverage called "Let's Talk About An ACTUAL Energy Policy" that, unlike the woke dreams and fairy tales does not violate the Laws of Thermodynamics nor does it require that we conquer something (e.g. fusion) we do not know how to do.  It does require engineering progress, but engineering is something that humans have always been good at, given the will.  Our landing on the moon is but one example; there were no actual breakthroughs required in terms of what we knew how to do, but engineering, the application and refinement of what we know, was required.  The same holds true here.

It is indeed easier to scream at people about them being pigs than to put your nose down and solve engineering problems, especially if you lack the intellectual firepower required to do the latter.  Those who fly all over the world yet scream about fossil fuel use are in that group -- to an individual.  So are those who live in mansions rather than 1,000 sq/ft hyper-insulated homes, have swimming pools and other personal accoutrements.  Fenestration (windows) are energy pigs; the person who claims to be a "green woke individual", if they're not lying, has no business living in a structure with floor-to-ceiling "natural light" that both gains energy in the summer and loses it in the winter, both of which must be reversed by artificial (and earth-damning, by their claims) means.

Perhaps as the self-imposed stupidity begins to bite we will force some of these people to live by their own standards.

I might also grow six heads, but somehow I suspect both are equally likely, and given the public's unwillingness to take the time to understand even the most-basic principles of both chemistry and physics I hold out little hope on a forward basis.

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2019-06-06 10:05 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 162 references
[Comments enabled]  


More than 50 U.S. companies are developing advanced reactor designs that will bring enhanced safety, efficiency and economics to the nuclear energy industry.

X-energy, located just outside the nation’s capital in Greenbelt, Maryland, is working on a pebble bed, high-temperature gas-cooled reactor that the company says can’t meltdown.

X-energy is developing its Xe-100 reactor and specialized uranium-based pebble fuel that could be available in the market as early as the late 2020s.

Who gives a ****?

Seriously, I mean it.

This design does have advantages -- don't get me wrong.  It's also not new.  The premise is that you construct fuel "pebbles" (about the size of a cueball, so more like "fuel rocks" rather than pebbles) that contain the fuel inside an allegedly "impervious" sphere.  The pebbles, being spherical, allow gas (Helium in this case) to pass between them, which takes the reaction heat away, and you use that to produce electricity through a traditional heat exchanger mechanism.  The moderator is graphite and in the reactor vessel; the fuel is cycled through from top to bottom, which means it is continually refueled in operation, with each fuel unit running for about three years.

Traditional water-cooled reactors use zirconium for the fuel rods.  Zirconium is "transparent" to neutrons; that is, it neither interrupts their passage nor does it get "activated" (absorbing them and becoming a radioactive isotope.)  This is good; you want what looks like a window to the sun for neutrons, because they have to get into the fuel in order to cause fission.

But zirconium has some problems.  Chief among them is thermal tolerance.  This is not a problem provided the reactor remains flooded with water, since water has a critical point of ~3200psi and ~705F.  Therefore you must keep the pressure below that and the temperature below it too, since water is also the moderator.  Above 705F it's steam no matter the pressure.  For this reason water-cooled reactors tend to run around ~1,000psi in normal operation for a BWR and ~2,200psi for a PWR.  BWRs are simpler in that as water boils it loses its moderation; this is a negative feedback on the power level and makes designing control systems, and their inherent safety, easier.

However in the event of loss of circulation (the ability to dump heat) or coolant (e.g. pipe break, etc) you have a severe problem because zirconium melts at ~3,300 F -- and once it does, you're screwed.  Silicon carbide, which is what the pellets in a pebble-bed reactor have their outer shell made of, doesn't melt until nearly 5,000F.  That's a huge safety factor.

But, there's a rub.  The "safety analysis" has run tests that postulate that in an accident the temperatures should not exceed 1,800C.  I note that this is below the melting point of zirconium, yet as we know in Fukushima and elsewhere, that temperature is indeed exceeded in bad situations.

There are also general issues with graphite moderators; they're manageable however, albeit at some cost.

So how safe is this thing?  Well, good question.  But in the end, it doesn't matter.

No fission design is safe end to end, which is all that matters, until and unless you have a closed fuel cycle.  The problem is that the burn-up in a TRISO fuel reactor -- that is, a pebble bed, while much better than a BWR or PWR (20% .vs. ~10%, roughly) still sucks in that 80% of what you put in there comes out and has to be reprocessed somewhere or discarded as high-level waste.

There is no reprocessing in the United States today, and hasn't been since Jimmy Carter shut it down.  Therefore any plant design that does not inherently separate and reprocess its own fuel as an inherent part of its operation is manifestly unsafe and unsuitable for deployment until and unless there is a viable reprocessing cycle available in the United States.

There is only one way to safely deal with most transuranics, which remain dangerous for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.  You have to put them back into a reactor and burn them up.

Short-lived isotopes that reach a stable, non-radioactive element with half-lives in the range of single-digit years or less we can deal with.  After 10 half-lives basic mathematical theory tells us that the substance is no longer dangerous no matter how high-level of radiation it emitted originally.  But that's not something you can fudge; anything with half-lives in the tens, hundreds or thousands of years has to be returned to a reactor and reduced in this fashion until it reaches either a stable isotope or one with a half-life of less than 10 years.


Now there will always be a small amount of waste that isn't amenable to this, but if it's small enough in volume it never has to leave the plant until the plant is decommissioned.  What we cannot accept is a no-reprocessing paradigm, which is what we have now, where fuel comes out of these units full of hundred or thousand-year or more half-life highly-radioactive elements for which we have no rational disposal mechanism.  Without reprocessing we cannot put those elements back into a reactor and burn them up and we have nowhere we can safety put them either.

Nuclear power safety is not solely about meltdown safety, although pebble bed designs look promising in that regard.  In addition these designs have other challenges, one of them being that they use Helium as a coolant -- and Helium is a non-renewable gas that is in short supply and in addition it's a very small molecule so it leaks like crazy.  Helium, incidentally, is used as a coolant in these units for a number of reasons -- among them is that it is not easily activated (that is, it doesn't capture more neutrons easily) and when it does it decays extraordinarily quickly, so it doesn't form dangerous reaction products.  This means that if it's released (e.g. due to a pipe break) it won't hurt anyone as any activated isotopes will decay before it can get out of the building.  It also has a pretty good specific heat ratio; that is, it carries heat well as gases go (much better than air, for example), so it's a good choice for that reason as well.  Being inert it has no reactive issues with the various materials inside the reactor either, which is a big bonus.  And it has a very low neutron cross-section, so it doesn't interfere with the fission reaction itself.

Finally, due to the use of gas as a coolant and the much higher temperature tolerance of the fuel these units run at materially higher temperatures than a common PWR or BWR, which means they're materially more thermally-efficient.  It also means they can, at least theoretically, be run in places where large-volume water cooling is not available (e.g. inland, and not near oceans, fault lines or huge lakes) with reasonable overall efficiency.  That's a plus.

But on the downside our supply of Helium is basically all from natural gas wells, where it's a trace component of what comes out of the hole.  It's completely non-renewable and non-capturable, in that it is so light it effectively disappears into the upper atmosphere when released.  For this reason consumption of it is a serious long-term problem since our ability to get more of it is inherently tied to natural gas production.

Nonetheless the big problem with all of these types of reactor designs remain -- there is no sane means of dealing with the waste products out of these units.  Of the fission designs currently known and on the board there is only one that is amenable to continual, on-site reprocessing that burns up basically all of the high-level reaction products as part of its normal operation.

That's the LFTR, which uses Thorium as its fuel, is started on Uranium (since Thorium is fertile and not directly fissile) and since the fuel is dissolved in the working fluid it can be reprocessed chemically online in the plant itself, thereby allowing on-site burn-up of most of the high-level reaction products.

Oh, and it is also passively safe since are no fuel pellets or rods that can overheat, crack and release the material inside, and we know that passive safety system works because it was run for several years at Oak Ridge in the 1960s and when the scientists went home for the night they literally just turned the power off to the systems and walked away.

I wrote an article on a viable hydrocarbon replacement strategy here, and also covered it extensively in my book Leverage in Chapter 10.  It's as valid today as it was then; go read it.

The LFTR was abandoned, incidentally, because being Thorium fuel-cycle based it is almost entirely unsuitable for the production of nuclear bombs -- and we wanted dual-use nuclear technology.

Go figure.

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