Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Twenty-One Days - Day 11: Electricity

I had a really interesting conversation yesterday on Facebook. It started with an old high school chum posting a comment about how safe nuclear power generation is especially compared with other "alternative energy" solutions, and about how the temporary halt to all discussions regarding new facilities was an alarmist reaction to the tragedy in Japan. His statement was, essentially, there are over 400 nuclear power generation plants throughout the world, but no one's died as a result of commercial nuclear power. By contrast, 40 people have died due to wind mills.

A few people pointed to Chernobyl, which was immediately discounted, because Chernobyl is in Russia, and it was an old plant (40 years) and was in a communist country, and so it doesn't count. Later a link to a Wikipedia article was published that showed seven people, in the US, had died from working around or in nuclear facilities. Those findings were discounted, as well, because none of them were recent, and none of the deaths were directly attributable to a reactor malfunction.

It should be no surprise that I came out on the anti-nuclear side of things, but not for the reason that most people would think. Yes, I have concerns about the safety of nuclear power generation - specifically, I'm concerned about the waste disposal aspect of it. At the present time, we have no way of disposing of the radioactive rods. They are stored, forever, in refrigerated water, because if they get hot, bad things happen (hence the term "nuclear meltdown", which is the worst of what's happening in Japan right now). In the lower energy world into which we're moving, keeping those rods stored in cold water may well mean that none of us have electricity at all, because it will all be going to protect us from a meltdown. It may be that in our lower energy future, all of the money our government has will be spent to maintain waste storage facilities (munitions and hazardous materials dumps), and that there will be no services for the citizens ... and guess who will be paying for maintaining these facilities? Go look in the mirror.

But for me, it's not just about the safety aspect. It's about the cost involved in constructing these mega-super-fancy-high-output-extravangantly-unneccessary power generation plants. And for the record, I'm not a proponent of a 100-acre solar array in the Mojave desert, a wind farm in the hills of northern Maine, or a wave generator off the coast of the Carolinas. Any tega-watt generation system puts us in the same place - dependent on some huge, morally questionable conglomerate (like CMP, which is forcing smart meters down the throats of Mainers, who were neither consulted nor informed prior to the change being implemented).

I would like to see all of our nuclear facilities decommissioned, before we have more waste to deal with. I would like to see our rivers undammed and the water allowed to flow freely again. I would love nothing more than to have every coal plant every where shuttered and the coal mines buried under a lush, green forested mountain.

My friend pointed out that alternative energy could not meet present demand. I agreed with him, but offered that, perhaps, we should lower our demand.

I also suggested that instead of huge, tega-watt facilities, perhaps we should have small, community-based power generation plants that would use local resources. In my community, we have access to waves, wood, and wind. We also have an abundance of garbage, and there's already a facility that was a trash-to-electricity incinerator (because of concerns regarding pollution generated when burning garbage, the garbage is now being turned into pellets to burn for electricity).

A final possibility, which all communities could use, is to remodel our sewage treatment plants, and instead of "treating" sewage (an energy-intensive process) and releasing it to the wild, we could use it to produce methane gas, which could be used to heat water, which would produce steam, which would turn a big turbine, which would create electricity ... from our own poo.

When I first heard about methane digesters, smaller, residential-sized units were being field tested and sold in places like India and in some African countries where there is a huge need for cooking fuel. More recently, larger units, most situated on farms, are being built and tested in the US and Europe. These use animal manures, but could, conceivably take the place of our sewage treatment facilities.

As with all power generation, the process of turning poo into methane leaves something behind, but unlike nuclear power generation that leaves behind a radioactive rod that needs to be carefully stored, the end result of methane production is compost and water, which can be taken into the garden and used to grow more food, which we could eat, so that we can produce more ... electricity :).

I think it's an amazing idea, and it always makes me giggle to think about powering my laptop with my own pooh. It's possible that I'm just easily amused, but the fact is that it's the ultimate in "renewable" energy solutions - to take a product which all of us are full of and make so many things that are so useful.

As I suggested to my friend, we could field test the community-sized prototype in Washington, D.C., where there's plenty of fuel (*grin*).

In keeping with the theme of making our own power, today's giveaway is a great book. It's called the The Human-Powered Home by Tamara Dean. As usual, leave a comment ;).


The winner of the Wonderwash is Kristina. Congratulations! Please leave a comment with your full name and address. Comments are moderated and I will not publish your information.


  1. Well said on all the energy issues. I would think that Japan being the nation most prepared for both earthquakes and tsunamis, and the overwhelming crisis despite all that, would be a pretty strong argument against nuclear. Sharon Astyk recently pointed out that for some reason, we routinely discount the possibility or at least likelihood of failure, and refuse to plan for such. Yet our systems, and technologies, and our strategies fail all the time. Also, nature bats last.

    I'd love a chance to check out that book. Please count me in, and thanks again!

  2. Excellent points, as usual. I think that we tend to look to to future and our energy demands as "life-as-usual", and not thinking about the consequences. As is repeated time and time again, we are a reactionary society, rather than proactionary.

    I love the idea of using our sewage plants! Reduce the needed energy inputs to "treat" the waste, and instead, turn the "problem" into a "solution"!

    That book looks great. :)


  3. Well presented points...

    We have downsized to an 800 sq foot home. Could not be happier!!!

    The book looks interesting. Please count me in.

  4. I agree, Wendy, a move away from dependance on large, mega-corporations for our vital necessities is a good thing. Smaller, community-based systems seem the way to go, definitely.

    I'm even agreement on your "poo-powered" energy ;) with one condition: that the poo is good poo. Seriously, as we are finding out about the practice of sludge spreading on agricultural land, there are some things that just are not screened out. Our concern is not only heavy metals, but the hundreds of pounds of pharmaceuticals that are NOT being removed completely from the waste. It's bad enough that our lakes and oceans are being polluted with this, but why would we want to put it on the soil where we will be growing our food? Many, many years ago, we had sludge applied to our fields - the research seemed sound and it seemed a cost-effective way of applying some fertility to the land, and helping out with the waste elimination problem. Later, however, we realized that it wasn't the best option, and we have chosen to discontinue the practice. Bottom line, if it's good poo, yes, go for it...and I'm guessing your poo would be good ;)

    And yes, a key point that you made is that we need to be USING less...I find myself now less likely to flick on the light switch when using entering the room if I just need to get something quickly, if there is enough ambient light to see. It's all a matter of adjusting, not necessarily a hardship.

    Good post.

  5. We've had many conversations at our house lately about why humans would put themselves in danger and currently think that it's just easier to find a way to have that to which we have become accustomed and deal with the consequences some other time. And the call to progress is very loud for some very innovative and brilliant people. Since all of the repercussions aren't known at the outset, we develop something and become to some degree dependent on it, then perhaps begin to discover the disadvantages. It's much harder at that point to go back and make the decision we might have made at the outset if we'd had all the information at that time. Using less doesn't ever seem to be offered up by mainstream media or political leaders as a way of addressing energy crises. In addition, some family and neighbors just take for granted that the only way to dry clothes is with a machine. Thanks for the chance to see that book, it looks great!

  6. You made some good points Wendy, did any of your friends listen though?

    I personally would love to see individual towns taking charge of their own power generation and distribution. Stepping up to the plate and prepping for the future as a town or even a small community would be very hard to do though unless you moved several like minded families out to the middle of nowhere and started your own new town or community. Otherwise getting everyone in a town to agree to pay for such a project would be nearly impossible I believe.

    The book looks great, sign me up for the drawing please ;)

  7. I have to admit I have learned alot about the nuclear power plants in the past week...I now consider them weapons of mass destruction if there ever was one....Just another case of corporations telling us anything to get what they want in the name of "better" ...I would love to enter for the book...

  8. Nuclear is just such a bad idea, for so many reasons. Even just on purely economic basis, the numbers do not work out.

  9. Woah: "... perhaps we should have small, community-based power generation plants that would use local resources."

    Heard this tonight:
    Wherein they said this: "Much like community-supported agriculture, the array in Sacramento is a community-supported solar project."

    Cue spooky music!

  10. @Kaye - that's so funny! Hey, wait a minute ... they took my idea! Or is it a case of "great minds thinking alike ..."?

  11. @ Julie - When Michele Obama first started planting her organic garden on the lawn of the White House, I heard they had some concerns about contaminated soil from when the Clintons had sludge sprayed on the lawn during their tenure in the 1990s. It was considered perfectly safe at the time.

    I don't if the methane digester would allow those pharmceuticals to be broken down any better than the aerobic methods most municipalities are using for sludge compost, but I do know that the biological reaction is different. In the methane digester it's "anaerobic" which is the absence of oxygen. All of the oxygen is forced out, and the decomposition process creates methane.

  12. Most people live in population-dense urban areas where alternative energy is impractical or impossible. I know there are minor exceptions that distract from this, but they are not realistic for the vast majority and do not disprove the rule. While there are some promising advances in power generation and storage on the horizon, alternative energy sources are highly unlikely to be able to meet the demands of civilization even now and definitely not in the future (caveat: w/o some truly vast leaps in technology – what are the chances that will happen in the nick of time?).

    Not everyone can burn wood for heat and pretty soon a lot more won't be able to afford heating oil. Natural gas will last about 80 years - if used at current levels, but probably will be used a lot faster and the "fracking" method for extracting it isn't so good for the environment.

    On the personal level - powering your laptop or lights - alternative seems like a good idea, especially in the burbs or rural areas. How about smelting the steel that makes up your vehicle (be it a car or bicycle)? Or the rail that moves a lot of freight in this country? Or moving products to urban areas (this will always be a need, as long as there are cities). A lot (most?) energy is on that side of things.

    As for the nuclear reactors in Japan, they were early 1970s designs with known safety flaws. Seems the Japanese government gambled on that and lost. There are much safer designs.

    Unless something changes the taboo against more coal power, eventually we’ll have to look to a large rampup of nuclear power production in the U.S. Unless we collapse before then.

  13. Suburban - lots of great points, but ... You can argue all day about how great nuclear power is, but, you still failed to address the main problem with nuclear power generation, and that is what do we do with the waste?

    There are 100 nuclear power generation plants currently operating here in the US, the "youngest" of which was completed in 1977. So ... how are "we" any better off the Japanese?

  14. I agree waste is a big problem. What can be done? For one thing, there doesn't need to be as much waste as there is; European nations have been recycling nuclear waste for decades and produce much less. (This is one of the very few times you'll ever see me saying we should copy something the Europeans are doing.) Maybe they have newer reactors that are better geared towards that, I'm not sure.

    Second, Yucca Mountain needs to be revived rammed through. Right now we have nuclear waste spread all over in much less suitable locations;

    If we haven't' collapsed in a few years, the waste won't matter, we'll be scrambling to build more reactors. At the same time probably wreaking havoc by fracking for more natural gas, and I'd bet on coal gasification projects, too.

    For the current nuclear crisis, I'd say we are better off than the Japanese; we're not an earthquake-prone archipelago with such population-dense zones vulnerable to tsunamis. Sure we have our own problems, including old reactors.

    All I've read indicates modern reactors are much, much safer than what we have now and what's might be melting down in Japan.

  15. Suburban - Actually, the Europeans do not recycle their "radioactive waste." What they recycle is nuclear fuel - the uranium and plutonium, some of which can be used again in other applications - but there is still the problem with what to do with the "waste" that is unusable and radioactive, and as of this time last year, the Europeans were still in a quandry as to what to do with it. That said, yes, we could reduce the amount of waste we have in the process of generating nuclear energy, but there would still be some incredibly dangerous by-products to deal with.

    But, okay, for the sake of argument, let's say that modern reactors are safer, and we decide to spend our last bit of money on a massive build-out to establish a nation-wide grid system powered entirely by nuclear power.

    Nuclear power generation is dependent on uranium. The US seems to have an abundant store of uranium ... and back in the early part of the 20th Century, the US had an abundant store of oil, too. Like oil, uranium is a finate resource. I think it would be incredibly foolhardy for us to put all of our eggs into another basket of finite resources.

    There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and we need to be very clear to ourselves and to our "leaders" that they need to stop wasting our time and money trying to find *the* thing that will take the place of oil, because nothing will, but many, smaller, more local solutions could work to keep the power on, and they'll be cheaper to build, less costly to operate (becuse the fuel will also be local), and less costly to maintain, because overall, they will be much simpler machines.

    You mention coal gassification, what about a system that used dried up poo or other "organic material" (like food waste, perhaps) in a gassification process? Remember the indigenous people and the early settlers on the Plains used dried up cow paddies as fuel for their fires. Why not retrofit our sewage plants to produce methane for electricity? That would work great in an urban area, where there's always lots of ... ahem ... waste, and no one really knows what to do with that either. Why not dehydrate it and burn it as a fuel? What about garbage incineration? Certainly, it, too, has it's problems (air pollution from burning toxic products, like plastic), but overall, it's much less costly than most of our other high-powered solutions.

    There are dozens of options, and no ONE option is going to work every where. We need to get beyond trying to solve the energy crisis with a one-to-one swap and start looking at all of our options to find the best fit for where we are.

  16. Human powered home sounds awesome.
    I got to see some of those methane digesters at work in India. Really awesome applications for rural locations.
    I too think a distributed network of power generation, using what's locally available, is the better idea. Not as much money to be made there, so it's likely to never happen. :-(

  17. To say that Europe doesn’t recycle “nuclear waste” (I didn’t write the “radioactive waste” quoted) but their nuclear fuel is semantics; they recycle the depleted fuel that is considered waste here and in some other places. The waste that they recycle and we do not is significant;

    For the “sake of argument” modern reactors are safer? Double containment buildings, triple+ power backups, redundant supplies of cooling water that don’t require electricity (i.e. gravity fed), etc. Human error will always be there, but I don’t think the notion of safer designs for modern reactors is that debatable.

    If/when we do collapse, IMO it’d be much, much better to have modern reactors out there than the older designs. Are you potentially downwind from any of the older ones? I’d check.

    Need more fuel? Breeders (which can use Uranium or Thorium);

    I didn't say other sources of energy are useless (I plan on buying some solar panels this year), but even combined they cannot come close to replacing fossil fuels/nuclear, even with vastly reduced demand. I’ve never seen any credible numbers that would remotely suggest that. Great for small-scale off-grid living; not realistic for the masses. Unless the masses are reduced a good bit...

  18. Suburban, I completely respect the fact that you believe nuclear energy is the panacea for our energy troubles. I happen to strongly disagree. Until the issue of how to safely dispose of (not store) the unusable radioactive waste is addressed, I will continue to advocate for alternatives.

  19. I'm all for alternatives and for (newer/safer) nuclear, so we're 50% in agreement.