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Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change Report: The Role of Deforestation?

The fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due in complete form in a few months, but the “Summary for Policymakers” was released last week. The general consensus from environmental activists, along with the media and nearly all politicians can be summed up as this: “The ‘question mark’ has been removed; fossil fuels are causing global warming.”

Iowa Cornfield
Corn for Ethanol – uncritical support for
biofuel may win the Iowa primary, but may
also destroy the planet via deforestation

There are many questions raised by this report and the reactions to it. For example, why don’t any commentators note that the report has pretty much dismissed the danger of sea level rise – since the new projection is one foot per century?

The biggest question, however, is why has the IPCC 2007 summary minimized or ignored the impact other factors may have on global warming – factors that have nothing to do with burning of fossil fuel?

The IPCC report claims that up to 27.5 GtCO2 per year originate from burning of fossil fuel, and up to 9.9 GtCO2 per year originate from “land use change.” This suggests that up to 26% of anthropogenic CO2 comes from “land use change,” which one may assume is associated with deforestation. And it is fair to say that the primary driver of deforestation today is the mad rush to establish biofuel plantations where tropical rainforests currently stand.

What also isn’t mentioned in the IPCC summary is that deforestation not only releases of vast quantities of CO2 as trees are removed and burned, but also causes a permanent loss of CO2 uptake capacity. Tropical forests, which flourish year-round, are far more efficient at removing CO2 from the atmosphere than the more extensive forests in the northern latitudes. Also receiving scant mention in the IPCC summary is the “surface albedo” and “cloud albedo” effects, which cool the planet, and which are directly undermined by deforestation, especially in the tropics. Worldwide, tropical rainforest area has declined from over 7 million square miles to less than 3 million square miles – a decline equivalent to nearly 10% of the land surface of the planet.

Also given short shrift in the IPCC summary is the impact of volcanic aerosols on radiative forcing (initial cooling from particulates, long-term warming from gas emissions), which are not included “due to their episodic nature.” In general, the role of non-anthropogenic CO2 is not given much attention by the IPCC, in spite of the fact that the numbers are far, far greater.

If you doubt the role non-anthropogenic CO2 emissions have on atmospheric CO2 levels, there is an interesting study entitled “Why Does Atmospheric CO2 Rise,” authored by Jan Schloerer at the University of Ulm. It remains the best source we can find to reveal global estimates of CO2 emissions, uptake, and reservoirs. In this study, Schloerer states “Natural CO2 fluxes into and out of the atmosphere exceed the human contribution by more than an order of magnitude.”

If you go to section 3.2 of Schloerer’s study, you will see that there are 38,000 gigatons of CO2 sequestered in the deep ocean. As the earth warms, this CO2 is released. The magnitude of this release, impossible to monitor, easily dwarfs whatever quantity of CO2 we can emit using fossil fuel.

The momentum building to do whatever it takes to curtail fossil fuel emissions is ludicrous for a variety of reasons – that deforestation (now in full swing again in order to grow “carbon neutral biofuel) may be the actual cause of any alleged global warming is only one of them. Another is the futility of quickly ending our dependence on fossil fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, human civilization currently consumes just about 500 quadrillion BTUs of energy each year – and 78% of that energy comes from coal, oil, and natural gas.

Even with greatly improved “energy intensity,” the growth of the world economy absolutely requires total energy production to rise over the coming decades. If per capita energy consumption on the entire planet were only half what the most energy efficient developed nations currently consume, i.e., if energy intensity on the planet were to improve to twice where it now stands in the best cases, for everyone on earth to have a standard of living equivalent to the average represented by the 30 wealthiest nations, energy production on earth would still have to double (ref. “The Good, the Bad, & the BTU’s”).

While non-fossil fuel energy production worldwide stands at about 100 quadrillion BTU’s per year, or 22% of total production, this is almost exclusively comprised of hydroelectric power, nuclear power, and biofuel. Not only are these power sources problematic to many environmentalists, there are upper bounds to how much more of the world’s energy production they can represent. The remaining renewables, primarily geothermal, photovoltaic and wind power, currently constitute well less than 1% of global energy production.

Fossil fuel is here to stay. And the enemies of fossil fuel, the global warming alarmists, are acquiring power in politics and media that any student of history should find frightening. Their prescriptions so far – banning various forms of energy consumption and condoning massive new rounds of deforestation – may very well do more harm than good. Combatting global warming, should it really be a problem, might begin through initiatives to immediately double the tropical rainforest canopy on earth.

Posted in Causes, Coal, Consumption, Effects Of Air Pollution, Energy, Geothermal, Global Warming & Climate Change, History, Hydroelectric, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Other, Wind4 Comments

China's Renewable Energy

Aerial View of the Three Gorges Dam
With output up to 17.5 gigawatts
China’s Three Gorges Dam is the most powerful
hydroelectric power complex ever built.

Editor’s Note: As we reported in China, Canals & Coal, if the Chinese wish to develop their economy to the level of the major industrialized nations, they will have to build as many power plants and water diversion projects as they possibly can, and that is exactly what they are doing. The question is just how much of this energy and water will be green, and the prognosis is daunting.

In this assessment of China’s renewable energy initiatives, the unprecedented attention the Chinese government is giving to green energy is only half the story. It is true they now intend to derive 15% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, but 15% isn’t very much, and within this total is hydroelectric power, and in any case the 15% target may be ambitious.

If one correlates energy production to GNP, even assuming China achieves western levels of energy intensity (units of energy per dollar of GNP), China is going to have to increase their energy production from 50 quadrillion BTU’s per year to over 250 quads. This means that while production of renewable energy in China is set to increase by staggering amounts, the amount of fossil fuel derived energy consumption in China, in absolute terms, is going to quintuple in the next few decades.

This is the message the anti-CO2 crowd doesn’t get. Even if the billion people in the developed world stopped emitting all their CO2 tomorrow, and they won’t, there are over a billion people in China, and another billion people in India, and another few billion elsewhere in the world, who are going to burn quantities of CO2 in the coming decades that easily surpass what the global north burns today. More realistic solutions to global warming, such as releasing benign aerosols in the Arctic spring and summer, had better be considered. It is inspiring to imagine how innovation and global investment will help China and India accelerate their adoption of green energy technology, but a close reading of this report underscores the challenges and complexity of this calling. – Ed “Redwood” Ring

China’s Renewable Energy – Can clean renewables increase their share of China’s rapidly expanding energy sector?
by Gordon Feller, January 30, 2007
A Clear Day in Shanghai
A clear day in Shanghai.

China’s government plans for renewable energy generation to meet 15% of the country’s growing energy needs by 2020.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency look set for a boost as Beijing authorities have now outlined plans to diversify their energy resources in the face of continued price rises, pollution concerns and China’s unquenchable fuel and electricity demands.

In its “alternative oil strategy,” which is part of the China’s 2006-2010 Five-Year Plan, Beijing has called for a doubling in renewable energy generation to 15% of the country’s needs by 2020.

The target is in line with a new renewable energy law requiring grid operators to purchase resources from renewable energy producers. The law, which came into effect in January, also offers financial incentives to foster renewable energy development, including discounted lending and a range of tax breaks.

Tsinghua University Logo

Of the main renewables, wind power is tipped to have the most potential. Professor Wang Weichang, an energy expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, predicted wind was on course to supplant hydro as the country’s second-largest electricity source, behind coal. Wang said China has the ability to generate up to 100 gigawatts, or 20% of current national capacity.

Beijing also plans to use other alternative energy sources as part of a drive to cut coal dependence from 73% of total generation today to 68% by 2010 and 60% by 2020. Vast investments in new technologies to turn coal into synthetic oil have been announced, and ethanol production will be boosted to create hybrid fuel by mixing it with regular gasoline. With China nearing a deal with Australia on uranium supply, nuclear power is also in the picture, with generation expected to rise 400% by 2020.

But a report released last month by consultants at Capgemini suggests China has underestimated future demand, putting its target at risk. The report estimated an additional 280GW of electricity will be required by 2020 on top of the 950GW already planned, meaning coal-fired power plants would still provide 71% of China’s electricity needs by 2010 and 65% by 2020.

This is good news for energy efficiency proponents, as a reduction in demand will help the government meet its targets. Beijing has said it is looking to relax its tightly controlled energy-pricing system to encourage conservation and energy efficiency plans have also been put in place. The construction ministry announced pans to increase energy-efficient floor space by 2.16 billion square meters by 2010, saving 101 million tonnes of coal.

China is increasing international cooperation with the world’s heavyweight energy producers to address growing demands. The country’s top oil refiner, Sinopec, signed a memorandum of understanding last month with India’s second biggest state-run oil company, Hindustan Petroleum Corp, for energy projects in China, India and other countries. Meanwhile, China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) was also expected to sign a gas supply agreement with the world’s biggest gas producer, Russia’s monopolist Gazprom. In the US, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said there needed to be greater international co-ordination on energy issues, especially with China and India, to address concerns about growing global competition for energy resources.

The powerful National Development and Reform Commission said that filling of China’s strategic oil reserves at its 16-tank Zhenhai facility in the eastern province of Zhejiang was on schedule to begin by the end of this year. It is the first of four strategic oil reserves to be completed. Reserve facilities in Daishan, Zhejiang province, Huangdao, in Shandong province southeast of Beijing, and Xingang, in northeastern Liaoning province, are due to be completed in 2007 and 2008. Beijing plans to stockpile up to 100 million barrels of petroleum, or the equivalent of almost a month’s national consumption, to cushion against possible disruptions to supplies coming from abroad.

The country’s power-generating capacity will reach a record high this year when new generators producing an additional 75 million kilowatts come on line in 2006. But China Electricity Council secretary-general Wang Yonggan said shortages would still persist in the first half of 2006. Power shortages affected seven provinces at the end of 2005, down from 26 at the beginning of the year, as China’s power supply increased by 66.02 million kW to more than 500 million kW.

China’s rapidly growing economy is pushing energy consumption to new highs as the increasingly affluent populous plugs in and turns on more appliances than ever, adding to the high-voltage factory hum that has long characterized the country’s modernization efforts.

The chief means of meeting this insatiable demand is the domestic coal reserve, which accounts for 74% of China’s 360-gigawatt total annual power output. Oil is a distant second on 13.5%, followed by domestic hydro-power at 8.2%, nuclear energy at 1.1% and natural gas at 0.3%.

But coal presents several problems. Around 70% of the country’s coal is transported by rail from the coal-rich north to the energy-hungry coastal regions. While China accounts for 24% of global rail traffic, it only has 6% of the world’s rail tracks, resulting in bottlenecks in the transport network followed by regional power shortages. Despite US$248 billion being committed to rail expansion over the next 15 years, historical underinvestment means there is much ground to be made up.

A potentially more serious concern is environmental pollution and the related healthcare and clean-up costs, which are adding ever more weight to calls for a diversification away from coal.

Although China’s thirst for fuel means that consumption will still increase in absolute terms, there are plans to reduce coal’s contribution to the power supply to around 60% by 2020, with increased output from gas, nuclear and renewable options.

To this end, official muscle has been put behind alternative power sources. China’s Renewable Energy Law, which came into effect in January, decreed 20% of total national energy consumption should come from renewable sources by 2020.

China is set to spend US$200 billion over the next 15 years to achieve this goal, which would make it the world’s largest consumer of renewable energy.

In solar power, China already leads the world, with a total of 52 million square meters of solar energy heating panels in China representing 40% of the global total. Wind power appears to have incredible growth prospects. Installed capacity was just 1.3GW in 2005, but China aims to increase that to a world-leading 30GW by 2020. Potential installed capacity stands at 250GW onshore and 750GW offshore.

Nuclear power, and the foreign players queuing up to build the 30 new atomic power stations planned over the next 15 years, could also win big as China targets a 400% increase in capacity by 2020.

However, alternative energy sources do not yet produce nearly enough power to replace fossil fuels. It is generally thought within China’s expert community that not only do these sources provide negligible power, but the power they do produce is still prohibitively expensive.

While renewables may be the holy grail for China, oil is increasingly becoming the focus of its geopolitical maneuvrings.

Once a net exporter of oil, China imported 47.3% of its crude in the first half of 2006. Oil will fall as a proportion of total energy consumption with greater efficiency in coal delivery and the growing emphasis on renewables and nuclear power. But – just like coal – actual oil demand will continue to rise, principally through imports.

The US Department of Energy predicts China’s crude imports will represent 75% of national oil consumption by 2025, and domestic oil producers are busy buying foreign assets to meet this need. Beijing’s diplomatic tentacles have spread to Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and the Americas in search of the black stuff.

China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) acquired PetroKazakhstan for US$4.2 billion, teamed up with an Indian group to buy a stake in Syrian oil assets and secured drilling rights in Sudan in a joint bid with China Petrochemical Corp. It has also struck exploration and supply deals in Venezuela and Peru, and took a 4% stake in Rosneft for US$500 million when the Russian oil giant went public in July.

China Petrochemical has also snared a slice of the Russian pie by forming a 25.1% owned joint venture last year with Rosneft to explore the eastern seaboard of Russia for oil and natural gas. Not to be outdone, China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) paid US$2.7 billion in April for a 45% stake in a Nigerian oil field.

Escalating consumption has made conservation measures commonplace in China. Factor in an energy market that is becoming ever more volatile in the current geopolitical landscape and the only certainty for China is that as demand keeps rising so will the priority attached to securing energy resources.

But such acquisitions will not be used exclusively to serve the home market, unless Beijing further deregulates energy pricing. China’s retail prices remain among the lowest in the world as authorities seek to protect vulnerable sectors.

Sinopec, the listed arm of China Petrochemical, received a one-off state handout of US$1.17 billion in January to compensate for losses incurred due to caps on domestic oil-product prices. This was a sweetener to stop the company from putting profits before domestic needs – last year’s diesel and gasoline shortages in southern China and Shanghai were created by Sinopec re-exporting refined products to Korea and Japan to maximize profits.

Unless there is a substantial rise in domestic prices, companies will continue to siphon off some of their newly acquired foreign oil assets to use as a source of foreign exchange.

For every tonne that is traded, swapped or sold abroad, another question mark will be placed against China’s energy security.

What is the future of China’s use of fuel ethanol? It is already used in five provinces and Beijing seems ready to bankroll a nationwide roll-out. But is biofuel a viable alternative to gasoline?

China’s oil demands are already the stuff of legend. Urbanization, industrialization and a six-fold increase in private vehicle ownership over a decade have left the country dependant on foreign sources for 40% of its oil. This figure is expected to pass 60% in 2010 and 76% in 2020 as imports go from 4.6 million to 8.5 million barrels per day.

The price is not just financial – the International Energy Agency predicts China will account for 18% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, up from 12% in 2000.

Beijing is taking action. Measures outlined in the 11th Five-Year Plan for 2006-2010 won’t end the dependency on foreign oil and dirty coal, but they should see wind, water, sunlight and nuclear power keeping the lights on for significantly more people than before. Those same people could also be filling their gas tanks with ethanol fuels.

“China needs to import a lot of oil so the government is looking at alternative fuels,” said Christine Pu, energy and chemicals analyst at Deutsche Securities Asia. “The advantage of ethanol is it’s good for the environment.”

Launched in 2000, China’s fuel ethanol industry is still in its infancy. According to GTZ, a German company that advises on energy management on behalf of the German government, total bio-ethanol production is around 4 million tonnes. Three quarters of it is edible ethanol and the remainder fuel ethanol.

“At present it’s largely limited to research institutions and there has yet to be much spillover from the labs into the marketplace,” said Frank Haugwitz of GTZ-China. By the end of 2005, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Henan and Anhui Provinces were wholly dependant on 10% ethanol-90% gasoline fuels (E10), with certain regions in Hubei, Shandong, Hebei and Jiangsu following suit. Studies have shown that using E10 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 3.9%.

GTZ has calculated that a nationwide roll-out of E10 could see fuel ethanol demand reach 8.5 million tonnes per year by 2020.

The government appears ready to meet its goal. Four bio-ethanol plants, with production capacities ranging from 200,000-500,000 million tonnes per year, are under development. In the Jilin Fuel Ethanol plant, China already possesses what is believed to be the world’s largest fuel ethanol facility with a capacity of 600,000 tonnes per annum.

The vice-minister for finance said in July that China is committed to a long-term bio-fuel development program, noted Professor Liu Dehua of Tsinghua University’s chemical engineering department, who has been involved in China’s fuel ethanol program since its inception.

“By 2020, liquid bio-fuel production will be 20 million tonnes a year – comprising 15 million tonnes of ethanol and 5 million tonnes of bio-diesel.”

China has also cast its net wide in search of the key to success with fuel ethanol. Professor Liu has been to Brazil twice – most recently in April, accompanying officials from the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Science and Technology – to study a system under which all vehicles must run on fuel comprising at least 20% ethanol.

China’s 11th Five Year Plan
Never before has the environment
been such a high priority.

“China wants to learn from Brazil’s experiences in promoting fuel ethanol production and find out what impact using ethanol has on the environment,” said Liu. The officials were also keen to see Brazil’s flex-fuel vehicles that run on varying combinations of gasoline and ethanol.

Thirty years ago, Brazil faced some of the energy challenges that now confront China. It imported 75% of its oil in 1975 and received a series of economic body blows as the price of oil fluctuated during the course of the decade.

The development of fuel ethanol has greatly reduced this vulnerability.

However, experts warn against viewing the two countries as being at separate points on the same developmental path.

“Brazil used to import a lot of crude oil as China does now,” said Deutsche Securities Asia’s Pu. “But the big difference is that Brazil is a large producer of sugar cane while China uses corn for its ethanol.”

The situation is complicated by the high priority China attaches to food security. If it’s a choice between corn for food and corn for ethanol, the food need wins hands down. Three of the four large scale ethanol facilities under development will use sugar-based energy crops or sorghum – not only does this resolve the food-or-energy dilemma, but ethanol can be created more efficiently from these crops.

Based on their extensive work in China’s energy economy, Germany’s premier technical cooperation organization, GTZ, identified potential planting areas in southern provinces such as Guangdong and Guangxi, where the climate is more conducive to growing sugar and sorghum.

“China has multiple choices,” said Professor Liu. “It wants to diversify and can grown corn in the north and sugar cane in the south.”

Mount Tianshan in the highlands of Xinjiang. Will China
preserve the breathtaking beauty of her vast country
as she becomes the world’s leading energy producer?

But the mounting pressure being placed on China’s deteriorating farmland by the growing food demands of an increasingly affluent population means that land use is a sensitive issue. China will be a net grain exporter this year on the back of bumper crops but in the long-term, imports will grow and grow. Despite the food supply pressures, Liu believes farmers will benefit from the fuel ethanol development whether they diversify into sorghum and sugar or stick with corn.

“When the government first started the ethanol program, the price of oil was not high and the attention given to the pollution situation was not great. The reason ethanol production was important was the impact it would have on farmers’ incomes.”

For Beijing-based independent energy analyst Jim Brock, fuel ethanol in China can serve the same purpose it does in the US as far as farmers are concerned – a means of insurance.

Surplus corn that decays before it can be transported elsewhere, or grain that fails to make the grade for human consumption or cattle feed suddenly has an end-use.

“There is not really any conflict between food supply and energy supply,” he said. “In almost all cases, the production value for food is much more. It all comes down to having a supply valve so the corn that cannot be used for food is used for energy.”

Ultimately, the rise of ethanol as a viable alternative fuel hinges on the price of oil. A GTZ price comparison earlier this year put fuel ethanol in the region of US$460 per tonne, although this included a US$175 subsidy per tonne of ethanol. Production costs can be as much as US$617 per tonne, 70% of it spent on raw materials. Gasoline was priced at US$616-654 per tonne, although this too included a state subsidy.

Deutsche Securities Asia’s Pu points to a rise in global oil prices, together with oil price liberalization in China and technological improvements in ethanol production, as factors that could drive the fuel ethanol bandwagon onwards. It would take a sizeable spike in crude prices to make fuel ethanol truly competitive; otherwise, it is a question of how much Beijing is willing to spend to find the key to cost-effective ethanol production.

“Is China willing to subsidize ethanol to the extent that it has been in Brazil and the US?” asked Brock. “My impression is no – the government is willing to incentivize but not subsidize.”

About the Author: Gordon Feller is the CEO of Urban Age Institute ( During the past twenty years he has authored more than 500 magazine articles, journal articles or newspaper articles on the profound changes underway in politics, economics, and ecology – with a special emphasis on sustainable development. Gordon is the editor of Urban Age Magazine, a unique quarterly which serves as a global resource and which was founded in 1990. He can be reached at and he is available for speaking to your organization about the issues raised in this and his other numerous articles published in EcoWorld.

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Posted in Chemicals, Coal, Conservation, Consumption, Electricity, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Energy Efficiency, Engineering, Hydroelectric, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Other, People, Regional, Retail, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar, Urbanization, Wind3 Comments

How To Fight Global Warming with Tropical Reforestation & Aerosal Emissions

Assume global warming is real, caused by humans, and can be averted through immediate collective action on the part of all humanity. How then might we analyse what to do about global warming, based on everything we know?

The return on investment, in terms of time required, cost to implement, and immediate impact to cool the planet, is very good when invested in increasing (nontoxic) aerosol emissions, reforesting the tropics, or cooling the urban heat islands with billions of canopy trees. The return on investment in reducing carbon emissions, even if completely successful, is more problematic.

U.S. National Aerospaceplane
Why not emit non-toxic aerosols over the Arctic?
Photo: NASA

More aerosols in the atmosphere would be a good way to quickly combat global warming, potentially saving Antarctic ice and immediately ending crippling droughts. In the book “The Weather Makers” by Tim Flannery, the author cites Mt. Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption as having immediately cooled the planet by 0.3 degrees centigrade (0.5 farenheit). The same book references an unprecedented increase in temperature in the U.S. during the three-day grounding of commercial aviation after Sept. 11th, 2001. If we are serious about stopping global warming now, clearly there is a role for aerosols – we just have to invent less toxic aerosols.

Compared to the cost of sequestering CO2 and replacing CO2 emitting sources of fuel, reforesting the tropics and greening the urban heat islands, are less expensive, more feasible, and will yield greater immediate results. Along with cooling global surface temperatures and increasing land-based CO2 uptake, reforesting and urban forestry will attract rainfall therefore moderating global weather streams more evenly and improving global water supplies. Cooling the world means giving her back her tropical lungs, to move the monsoons. Cooling the world means trees transforming mega-cities from heat islands burning like rocks in the sun into shaded streams. Invest in tropical reforesting. Invest in urban forests.

To focus exclusively on curtailing CO2 emissions is to ration burning and invest trillions in CO2 sequestration schemes – yet fossil fuels are something the world economy is utterly dependent on. The reason you don’t see pie charts depicting renewable energy sources as a slice of total energy production is because there is only one small slice, hydroelectric, with solar and wind not registering as more than thin lines in the circle. As of late 2006, most citizens of the world have only begun to live in industrialized societies. If we focus too much on curtailing CO2 emissions, we will deny aspiring nations their only practical fuel, coal.

Feasible cuts to CO2 emissions may be too little, too late. Clearly other measures to combat global warming must be considered. In America, Africa and Asia the tropical forests should expand again, and urban trees should help cool the mega-cities. In the last 150 years the 56 million square miles of land on earth has seen its forests shrink from 25 to 18 million square miles, deserts expand from 5 to 8 million square miles, and well over a million square miles of urban heat islands sprout across the planet – usually along the rivers where the rain used to fall. And isn’t it feasible to seed the Arctic from March through September with non-toxic aerosols to save the Polar Bear along with the gulf stream?

Posted in Aviation, Coal, Energy, Global Warming & Climate Change, Hydroelectric, Other, Solar, Wind1 Comment

Dams & Greenhouse Gas

Here we go again. The International Rivers Network, based in Berkeley, California, an organization with some incredibly great ideas, now reports that dams (and the reservoirs behind them) cause greenhouse gas emissions. Courtesy of the IRN, read “Fizzy Science: Loosening the Hydro Industry’s Grip on Reservoir Greenhouse Gas Emissions Research.” This report (click here for full report), of course, damns dams, and demonizes yet another industry – this time those evil people who build devices to store water for irrigation, control flooding, and generate electricity for terrible things like stoves.

Aswan High Dam
Aswan High Dam

Before we go any further, let’s be clear about one thing; this is almost certainly less than meets the eye, and even if it isn’t so what? CO2 as a boogyman seems to have become the fulcrum upon which pivots all environmentalist logic and reason. But are we so sure CO2 emissions are bad? There is evidence to support theories that the more atmospheric CO2 concentrations increase, the less warming impact occurs per additional unit of CO2. This would mean our climate may have already seen the biggest effects of increasing CO2 emissions. For much more on this, read our “Global Warming” posts.

Remember when nuclear power plants were deemed to cause dangerous levels of CO2 emissions? This was determined based on the amount of CO2 that is emitted when pouring cement. Apparently nuclear power stations require prodigious amounts of cement. But shortly after this press release went out, gobbled up as usual by mainstream media, a perspicacious blogger named Tim Worstall penned a gleeful comparison wherein he demonstrated that more cement per megawatt is required when installing windmills than when installing nuclear power stations. Others were also chiming in. Thank you hive-mind. And hence nuclear power is again touted as alternative energy by many environmentalists.

Back to our new problem of dams and greenhouse gasses, taking a look at the facts indicates scant evidence for alarm. Hitting its stride, the IRN piece states as follows: “available evidence strongly suggests that reservoirs are a significant global source of greenhouse gases.” They back this up with the following footnote: “reservoirs worldwide release 1,000 million tons CO2 annually (4% of CO2 from other known anthropogenic sources).

Even if this statement is completely true, that 4% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions come from dams and reservoirs, so what? Does this mean the benefits of dams – irrigation, flood protection, and renewable electricity, are not worth putting out 4% of anthropogenic CO2? Per gigawatt-year (or quadrillion BTU’s), hydroelectric power would still be far more greenhouse gas efficient than, say, coal or natural gas.

That’s not the half of it, however. In the remainder of the same footnote, IRN discloses the following: “These estimates are based on a calculation of 1.5 million km² global reservoir area. This calculation is likely an overestimate. A more recent analysis estimates that reservoirs cover a global area of 260,000 km².”

This means IRN is saying the information they just gave you – that reservoirs cause 4% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions – is overestimated by a factor of 5.8 times! IRN’s revised estimate of global reservoir area isn’t 1,500,000 square kilometers, the figure they used to calculate their 1.0 million ton estimate of annual CO2 emissions from reservoirs. Rather IRN acknowledges the global reservoir area is more likely only 260,000 square kilometers, which equates to 176,000 tons of CO2 per year, or .7% (seven-tenths of one percent) of anthropogenic CO2 emissions per year.

Needless to say, if dams only emit .7% of anthropogenic CO2, which itself is only 3% of all CO2 global emissions (the rest come from mother nature), they are not a factor. To use the CO2 emissions of dams and reservoirs as a reason we must demolish them, and demonize the hydroelectric power industry to boot, is not useful information, it’s propaganda.

The International Rivers Network might instead have on their website the letter that one of their members, Peter Bosshard wrote to the New Yorker (published in their December 4th, 2006 issue). Instead of brandishing the CO2 demon to scare us into destroying existing dams, he advocates an alternative to construction of new dams. Listen to this great idea:

“The 2006 Human Development Report on water presents an alternative to large dams. It estimates that, with an initial investment of seven billion dollars, extending small check dams across India’s rain-fed farming areas could quintuple the value of the country’s monsoon crop from thirty-six billion dollars a year to a hundred and eighty billion. Such an approach would not only protect rivers and the groundwater table; it would also create jobs and give the poor the means to buy the food they produce.” More on this, if you please.

Posted in Coal, Effects Of Air Pollution, Electricity, Energy, Hydroelectric, Ideas, Humanities, & Education, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Other3 Comments

Central Asian Electrification

Turkestan Solo Book Cover
Central Asia
A place of myth, legend & lore

Editor’s Note: From the windswept steppes of Turkestan far, far west to the high desert of north-east China, Central Asia is the heart of the greatest land mass on earth. Undiscovered, remote, indescribably ancient, to the western psyche this vast land is the subject of lore, myth, legend and wonder. Now Central Asia becomes something else, a repository of huge energy resources that are only beginning to be tapped.

From new coal fired electric power stations in Kazakhstan, to massive hydroelectric development in Tajikistan, Central Asia is not just oil from the Caspian basin, Central Asia is an electricity powerhouse with surplus current to be exported to China, India, Pakistan and Afgahnistan.

With Turkic, Mongol, Persian, Russian, and countless other ancient cultural influences, Central Asia is a crossroads of the world. Eastern Central Asia – as distinguished from the much smaller trans-Caucasian region to the west which is also considered part of Central Asia – is comprised of the nations of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Krgyzstan. In the modern era, these nations have only been independent since 1991.

Strategically placed and energy rich, the five countries of Central Asia are being courted most assiduously by the neighboring and wealthy nations of Russia, China and Iran. Much of the financing for these new coal plants and hydroelectric dams are coming from these nations. Tajikistan’s potential hydroelectric capacity is well over 30 gigawatts.

The plans now in motion to dramatically increase this region’s electricity supply – Tajikistan’s hydroelectric power stations today only have a capacity of about 3 gigawatts – is transformative. Combined with the latest innovations in energy efficiency, the potential this much new electric power has to improve the lives of millions of people is substantial. Remember the Tennessee Valley in the 1930′s? Imagine rural electrification in Afgahnistan.

Such improvements to the quality of life, encouragingly, require cooperation between peoples. For Russia, China and Iran to work together to help Central Asian nations export electric power to Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere, in addition to supplying their own people, is a very positive notion.

Ed “Redwood” Ring

Central Asian Power – Rapid Development of Coal & Hydroelectric Power, Financed by Russia, Iran & China
by Gordon Feller, September 25, 2006

Central Asia’s power sector is just beginning to be developed. Each of the Central Asian economies is hungry for greater power generation – and each one is facing big obstacles on the path to further growth and development of the sector. Probably the most significant development in Central Asia’s power grid is in Tajikistan.


Tajikistan’s hydro resources are unique and top-ranked. Electricity production for 15 years of independence in average amounted to 17 billion kWh. Their aggregate installed capacity of hydropower stations in 2006 amounts to 4,090 MW.

According to the Tajikistan’s National Strategy for Energy Sector Development (2006-2015) their electricity output is estimated to reach 26.4 billion kWh by 2010 and 35.0 billion kWh by 2015.

(expressed in megawatt-years)
Tajikistan's Electricity Export Potential
According to the National Strategy for Energy Sector
Development (2006-2015) the electricity output is estimated
at 3.0 gigawatt-years (gWy) by 2010 and 9.1 gWy by 2015

Opportunities for new hydroelectric power generation projects exist on the following rivers: Vakhsh, Pyandj, Amudarya, Zerafshan, Surkhob and Obi Hingoh.

Development of the potential on Vakhsh River is estimated at 9,195 MW with annual electricity generation at 36,930 million kWh. At present only 3,835 MW are utilized. Hydropower stations offering an additional aggregated installed capacity of 4,490 MW are under construction, and hydropower stations with another 850 MW installed capacity are under design.

Hydroelectric Projects on Tajikistan's Vakhsh River
Projects already in progress will triple the hydroelectric
output on Tajikistan’s Vakhsh River, to 9.1 gigawatts.

The investor behind the Sangtuda-I project is the monopoly power company of Russia, Unified Energy System (

The investor behind the Rogun project is the largest aluminum producer in Russia, Russian Aluminum, (

The investor behind the Sangtuda-II project is the Government of Iran.

Kairakkum, Golovnaya and Varzob Cascade Hydropower Plant Modernization Projects:

Barqi Tojik’s Kairakkum hydropower station (126 MW) located on the Syrdarya River in northern Tajikistan, and Golovnaya (240 MW) and Varzob Cascade hydropower stations (a total of 25 MW) in southern Tajikistan need to be rehabilitated to increase utilization and efficiency. Rehabilitation would include primarily the turbines, runners, substations, and ancillary equipment, such as pumps, compressors, and some piping. With the rehabilitation of the hydropower plants, capacity would increase to 162 MW for the Kairakkum station and 270 MW for the Golovnaya station. Likewise, the additional power generated per year would be 259 GWh, 216 GWh, and 40 GWh from the three hydropower facilities, respectively. The Kairakkum and Varzob Cascade rehabilitations are expected to cost a total of $43 million and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is expected to fund these rehabilitations as a package. The Golovnaya rehabilitation is estimated to cost $34 million, and the Asian Development Bank is expected to provide financing.

New Export-Based Power Generation Plants:

The objective of the project is to increase the supply of export-based power generation by identifying from 300 to 1,000 MW of new hydroelectricity in Tajikistan at new sites or by completing partially completed installations. This new electricity will then be exported to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The existence of a transmission corridor makes it feasible for the new electricity supply to reach its markets. The project includes: identifying the criteria by which the new generation would be ranked and selected; the design and construction of the new reservoirs and generation installations; and the new transmission lines to connect to the transmission corridor. It could also involve the negotiation of new electricity sales agreements with Afghanistan and Pakistan that recognize the long-term nature of the new supply before it becomes available. Total project costs are estimated at around $700 million.

Tajikistan's Potential New Power Generation Plants
Along with Norway and Sweden, Tajikistan is a country relatively
small in population that has an enormous hydroelectric resource.

Export of Available Seasonal Electricity to Afghanistan:

Tajikistan has a well-developed sector for the generation of hydropower from existing dams and other structures and seasonally available surplus power. Afghanistan, which lies immediately to the south of Tajikistan, has suppressed electricity demand and currently supplies much of its demand through costly decentralized diesel-electric generation based on imported diesel fuel. This project consists of a transmission line (220 KV) and connection with the appropriate substation in Afghanistan’s northeast transmission grid. The attractiveness of the project stems from the ability to implement it in the short term and the gap between the cost of hydroelectric power and diesel-generated power. Total project costs are estimated at $35 million.


North-South 500kV Transmission Project:

The existing North-South (N/S) electricity transmission lines are insufficient to meet growing domestic and anticipated export demand. The new 500kV N/S line will enable an increased volume of electricity transfer from generating plants in northern Kazakhstan to markets in southern Kazakhstan. Additionally, this will expand the Central Asia electricity marketing options through the expansion of a Kazakhstan leg of a new Central Asia North-South power transmission system. The loan for this project has already been approved by the World Bank. The total amount of financing is about $326 million. The project includes 3 phases.

Central Asia Guide Book
The Music of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan : Moinak Hydropower Plant:

The Moinak Hydroelectric Power Project is located in South-Eastern Kazakhstan on the upper reach of the Charyn River, approximately 170 km East of Almaty. A number of studies have been undertaken in the past to investigate the hydropower potential of the Charyn River, and in 1985, construction on the head works and the dam for the Moinak project started. However, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent suspension of project funding, construction was halted in 1992. The total cost of the entire project is estimated at $310 million. The majority of the costs will be financed by the Government of Kazakhstan, with funding apparently being drawn from the national pension fund, which is reported to have accumulated more than 460 billion tenge ($3.5 billion).

Export of 4,000 MW of Coal Fired Power & 1,500kV DC Transmission Line:
Voracious growth has created an unprecedented demand for energy in China. In order to meet the growing power supply deficit, China is actively looking for innovative supply solutions. Both China and Kazakhstan are taking steps to meet this looming demand as evidenced by their decision to commence deliberations on the construction of a huge power station at the Ekibastuz coal field in Pavlodar Region. This power will be exported to eastern China through a 4,500 km 1,500 kV DC transmission line, with an expected capacity of 5,500 MW.


Datka-Kemin 500KV Transmission Line & Substations Project:

A new 400 km, 500kV transmission line and one substation will be designed and built to increase the internal power transmission capacity of Kyrgyzstan. This will link abundant generation capacity and potential in the south of the country with the energy deficient north. Additionally, this will expand the Central Asia electricity marketing options through the construction of the Kyrgyzstan leg of a new North-South power transmission system. The transmission line will require building, along new rights of way, steel structures with steel-reinforced conductor wires to carry a maximum load of 1,500 MW. At the north end, the line will connect to the 500/220 kV Kemin Substation, whose implementation is included in this project. At the south end, the transmission line will connect to the planned 500 KV Datka Substation and a substation that is part of the Southern Kyrgyzstan Transmission Upgrade Project, for which USTDA is funding a feasibility study. The estimated investment for the project totals about $170 million in line construction and about $20 million in Kemin Substation construction.

Rehabilitation of Uch-Kurgan Hydropower Plant:

The Uch-Kurgan hydropower plant is the first plant of the Naryn Cascade. Construction began in 1956 and was completed in 1962. Its installed capacity of 180 MW (4 units of 45 MW each) averages an annual generation of 899 million kWh. As a result of 40 years of operation and a lack of funding for adequate maintenance in the years following independence, Uch-Kurgan HPP’s primary equipment, auxiliary equipment, control equipment and technical systems all need significant repair or replacement. Lack of action will result in further decrease of installed capacity, leading eventually to HPP shutdown. The cost of rehabilitating Uch-Kurgan is estimated at between $27 million and $35 million.

220 kV Overhead Transmission Line Rehabilitation:

At the present time, power to the South of Kyrgyzstan is supplied through a network of 110-220 kV transmission lines. Those lines also pass through the Uzbek Republic, which leads to security issues for reliable power supply. In addition to the security issue, those lines and substations are overloaded by 25- 30% in the wintertime when peak demand is three times that of the peak summertime load. The transmission company has begun the South Kyrgyzstan Electrical Improvement Program to rehabilitate and strengthen the transmission grid in this region. The first phase of the project involved the construction of the 131 km Alay-Aigultash 220 kV transmission line, the construction of the 220 kV Aigultash Substation and rehabilitation of the 220 kV Alay and 110 kV Batken substations. The second phase of the project involves the construction of a 500/220 kV substation at Datka, with interconnection to the existing 500 kV O/H Transmission Line and the 220 kV network and replacement of the 220 kV network, which is old and in need of rehabilitation. Total costs for this project are estimated at $70 million. Financing is in place.

Naryn Cascade Hydropower Projects:

This project covers the study and promotion of the integrated development of the hydroelectric resources of the Naryn River. There is significant interest within the Government of Kyrgyzstan and others to design and build five or more hydroelectric plant sites with a total generating capacity of approximately 350 megawatts. A concession will be offered for the development of the five sites for the production and export of electricity under the terms and conditions of a negotiated concession agreement. Funding amounts have yet to be determined.

Taliban Book Cover
Taliban, by Ahmed Rashid
Coexisting with Electrification?


220 kV Transmission Line from Sherberghan to the Turkmenistan Border:

At present, Afghanistan’s power demand is being supplied by plants run almost exclusively on diesel. Progress is being made by the governments of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan on energy trade between the two countries. This project is a 220kV interconnection with Turkmenistan that has been identified by USAID as a means to facilitate additional import of power into Afghanistan. This would be an adjunct to the North East Transmission System (NETS), which is currently being designed and built. ADB and others are funding other project components to provide for the transmission of electricity from the north into Kabul. The transmission infrastructure (lines & corresponding sub-stations at different locations) requires repair, and rehabilitation, as well as greenfield project development. Total funding requirements are being established for this component of the NETS project.

Export of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan:

The project addresses the seasonal surpluses of hydroelectricity in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and the establishment of a transmission corridor that would export this surplus electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The total surplus electricity supply from the three Central Asian countries can meet a significant part of the demand in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For this supply to meet the demand an electricity transmission corridor (500 KV) needs to be constructed by linking segments of existing lines with new construction. The corridor will originate at a connection with the Kazakhstan grid at the border with Kyrgyzstan and connect to the Pakistan grid at a yet to be determined location. Total costs of the project are estimated at between $600 million and $1 billion.


* Power generation cost in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is lower than in its neighboring countries in South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India);

* Host governments support export based projects, and in some countries domestic demand for electricity is significantly lower than generating capacity;

* U.S.-based power sector companies are absent in the energy sector in Central Asia, while companies from Russia, China and Iran are actively involved;

* Multilateral banks recognize and support export based strategies;

* In general, the investment climate in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is positive, but remains challenging.

Map of the Nations of Central Asia
(Map: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency)

About the Author: Gordon Feller is the CEO of Urban Age Institute ( During the past twenty years he has authored more than 500 magazine articles, journal articles or newspaper articles on the profound changes underway in politics, economics, and ecology – with a special emphasis on sustainable development. Gordon is the editor of Urban Age Magazine, a unique quarterly which serves as a global resource and which was founded in 1990. He can be reached at and he is available for speaking to your organization about the issues raised in this and his other numerous articles published in EcoWorld.

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Posted in Coal, Electricity, Energy, Energy Efficiency, Hydroelectric, Infrastructure, Other0 Comments

India's Nuclear Power

We have just published a new in-depth feature article “Nuclear Power in India” by Avilash Roul, who is based in New Delhi. We welcome readers of that story who wish to comment here. While editing this story we found interesting data from the World Nuclear Association. As is nearly always the case, we also got very good information from Wikipedia’s entry on nuclear power.

What was surprising to learn is the relatively small role nuclear power plays in the sum energy consumption in the world. As a share of electrical generation, nuclear power is significant, generating about 16% of the world’s electricity. But as a share of all energy from all sources worldwide, nuclear power is only good for about 2%.

Another surprising detail we learned is that in Germany, where there is a strong anti-nuclear movement, nearly 30% of their electrical energy comes from nuclear power. At over 20 gigawatts, Germany has the fourth largest nuclear power output in the world, behind the U.S., France, and Japan. In the U.S., only 20% of their electricity comes from nuclear power.

Any look at world energy generation today has to conclude we remain hooked on coal and oil. Can nuclear power, hydroelectric power, and other renewables eventually replace coal and oil? Will nuclear fusion ever be a reality? Should nuclear power, which is clean energy as long as everything operates normally, help us with our energy needs while we develop other even cleaner, more renewable sources of energy?

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The True Cost of Photovoltaics

There is an excellent website on the business of photovoltaics, SolarBuzz ( which provides information on corporations, products, and people associated with the photovoltaic industry. On their home page they have a perpetually updated report on the price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of photovoltaic electricity. Currently they show the price for photovoltaic electricity to be 21.7 cents per kWh.

If you compare this price to the cost of electricity from many conventional sources, especially coal, but even natural gas and oil burning power plants – even at today’s higher energy prices – at 21.6 cents per kWh, photovoltaic electricity isn’t even close. Coal generated electric power can be sold retail for $.04 per kWh, if not less.

As shown by the table in “Photovoltaics, the Ultimate Renewable,” however, it may be a fallacy to base kWh prices of photovoltaic electricity on the installation price. This is because the installation price might be compared to the externalities associated with other forms of electric power. What is the cost of transmission lines, which photovoltaics don’t need? What is the cost of actually building the coal mines, and the railroads, to serve coal-fired power plants? What is the cost to build a dam for hydroelectric power, or a facility to store nuclear waste?

The installation price of photovoltaics, similarly, is an externality. Moreover, the high initial installation cost is a sunk cost, not an ongoing cost like many externalities. Does anyone take into account the cost of building the entire drilling, shipping, storage and refining infrastructure for crude oil, when analysing the price of gasoline? These costs are long-ago amortized, and are no longer reflected in the price we pay at the pump. The economic problem with photovoltaics isn’t their ongoing replacement cost, which is minimal, it is the cost of building the entire photovoltaic infrastructure – the installed base – from scratch.

On a replacement basis, photovoltaic power is dirt cheap. Once you’ve installed a photovoltaic array, assume you replace 5% of the array each year. That would mean every twenty years the entire array would be replaced. Such a program would guarantee level electrical output forever. And what would the cost be in this scenario? Only 5% of installation costs, or less than one cent per kWh! That is why photovoltaic electricity is a compelling long-term investment, and the reason they are being purchased faster than manufacturers can make them.

Finally, look for production of photovoltaics to ramp up significantly in the next few years. As we discuss in “The Coming Boom in Photovoltaic Power,” the supply bottleneck of polysilicon raw material is about to be broken.

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Nuclear Power

Nuclear Power Plant Next to River
One kilogram of uranium fuel yields 20,000 times
more energy than one kilogram of coal
(photo: US EPA)

Editor’s Note: Using electricity does not pollute. Using electric motors, electric heaters and electric lights all result in zero air pollution. The problem with electricity is how to make it, because making electricity causes pollution. And amid anxiety and disruptions, the world nonetheless is experiencing the most spectacular energy-fueled industrial renaissance in human history. There isn’t enough electricity being produced in the world at a time when world demand for electricity is skyrocketing, with no end in sight.

If the “hydrogen economy” ever took off, we’d need even more electricity since manufacturing hydrogen fuel generally requires massive amounts of electricity, in a process known as electrolysis. If grid electricity is used for automotive power ala hydrogen – or batteries for that matter – the world’s electricity production would have to quadruple instead of merely double. Global energy consumption in 2005 is around 14,000 gigawatt-years (420 quadrillion BTUs) per year. Wind power contributes less than 1% of the total. Photovoltaic electricity contributes at best 1/10th of one percent of the total. Biofuel is going to help but it still generates greenhouse gas, and in most cases requires significant energy inputs to grow. Will these clean energy sources develop in time to replace fossil fuel and meet growing energy demand all by themselves?

When choosing what type of electrical power generation to develop, the trade-offs are stark. Pick your poison. Over the past 30 years there haven’t been many new nuclear power plants developed in the USA or most of Europe, but they are the exception. Fortunately nuclear power technology has developed significantly in the last 30 years. A few years ago the article that follows, which is informative but unabashedly pro-nuclear, would have been condemned by 99% of environmentalists. But today nuclear power has become so much safer and concerns about greenhouse gasses have become so acute that growing numbers of environmentalists are dropping their opposition to nuclear power and instead are calling for more nuclear power plants. Imagine driving through Los Angeles, or Beijing, or Mexico City, in 2020, in a car that is powered by electricity coming from a nuclear power plant. Imagine all these mega-cities without one tiny wisp of smog.

Ed “Redwood” Ring

When I declare that the U.S. desperately needs to become more like France, some of my friends get upset. But hold your anger, keep eating your Freedom Fries, and let me explain. The real reason to emulate the French is that 75% of their electrical power use is derived from nuclear reactors.

The U.S. right now generates about 50% of its electric power from coal and only about 15% from nuclear reactors. No new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. since the early 1970s, thanks in part to misguided environmental activists reacting to the Three Mile Island (3MI) meltdown, but also to really cheap natural gas and oil in the 70′s and 80′s. We will never see cheap oil and gas again thanks to huge increases in demand from India and China that is here to stay. We need to start building new nuclear power plants and catch up with our erstwhile friends those French, without whom we never would have won the American Revolution.

While the only by-product of a nuclear power plant that finds its way into the surroundings is hot water, coal fired plants spew out about 90% of all the pollutants given off by power production in the U.S. These include sulfur dioxides (acid rain), various nitrogen oxides (read smog), mercury, lots of carbon dioxide, (greenhouse gas, anyone?), and more radioactive gases than the virtually zero amounts given off by nuclear plants. Even relatively clean natural gas fired power plants still release significant amounts of pollutants and lots of carbon dioxide.

Opponents of nuclear power always point out that operating nuclear reactors create radioactive gases that are released into the atmosphere. Not true! The radioactive gases generated by a nuclear reactor are held in holding tanks until they decay into harmless, non-radioactive gases. Only then are they released into the atmosphere.

Hoover Dam
One large nuclear plant easily equals
the 1.2 gigawatt output of Hoover Dam
(photo: Idaho National Labs)

Along with coal, another energy choice we might consider in lieu of nuclear is hydroelectric. Building big new dams is probably even more expensive than building new nuclear plants, but the advantage is there is no waste or emissions at all. In the bargain, however, we lose all those wild rivers that rafters, kayakers, and myriad wild creatures love so much. In addition, we create huge new lakes that not only ruin the local environment, but also give jet boaters a place to zoom around in and make lots of noise. Let’s not forget about what dams do to migrating fish populations such as salmon. As for “green” dams? Well if you think a regular dam costs a lot…

Remaining alternatives to nuclear power, such as wind and solar, are promising technologies but can’t offer constant baseload power generation like hydroelectric and nuclear power. Moreover, solar power is still far too expensive to be developed on a scale sufficient to replace coal or nuclear power and meet growing worldwide energy demands. Also, windmills, as do new oil refineries and nuclear plants, evince the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response. It is estimated that photovoltaic solar power costs about 23 cents per kilowatt hour (could get cheaper as new technologies evolve), while conventional coal and natural gas plants cost about half that. Nuclear power weighs in at less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

I was against the widespread use of nuclear power back in the hippy sixties and seventies for the usual reasons at the time: China Syndrome meltdowns, what to do with radioactive waste, Homer Simpson like reactor workers, and poor regulation and corruption. That was then, this is now. Several icons of the environmental movement, apostates like me, believe that the aforementioned nuclear power problems have been solved. Nuclear power is simply the most environmentally friendly way to generate electrical power, cleanly and economically.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant
The Three Mile Island accident could not have
happened in today’s modern nuclear power plants
(photo: US EPA)

No less a luminary than Patrick Moore, the founder of Greenpeace, recently endorsed developing nuclear power.
In his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Energy and Resources, he said he now believes that the majority of environmental activists (his former friends) have become so blinded by their extremist policies that they fail to consider the enormous and obvious benefits of harnessing nuclear power to meet and secure America’s growing energy needs. His testimony in essence boils down to that we need to get away from the fossil fuels that are responsible for most all of the air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions we are inundated with, and get with nuclear power that is clean and safe.

Other pioneering environmentalists have also embraced nuclear power, including Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and James Lovelock, who put forth the Gaia theory (basically, Earth is a huge living, self-regulating organism in itself). Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore went on to say, “The industry is mature. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island (3MI) and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design. Nuclear plants are high yield, with low cost fuel that offer the best avenue to a hydrogen economy.” Well said, Mr. Moore. So let us now visit the questions of 3MI and Chernobyl, and what is “pebble bed”, anyway? And lastly, the big gorilla always put forth by nuclear opponents, what to do with all that dangerous radioactive waste from a reactor’s spent fuel rods.

United States Environmental Protection Agency Seal

In 1979, at the 3MI nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., a reactor overheated and a partial meltdown of the uranium core occurred. Hydrogen gas was released raising fears of a BIG explosion that would release radioactive water, solids and gases into the atmosphere. The crisis lasted 12 days, and some radioactive water and gases were released, while thousands of people were evacuated from the area (for you trivia buffs, the movie, “China Syndrome” was released just days before the real thing happened at 3MI). The explosion never happened, but the incident effectively ended construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Various celebrities and politicians at the time demanded the shutdown of all nuclear plants and predicted cancer epidemics of every kind. Well, after 25 years, no other such accidents have occurred and no adverse health effects on the people exposed to the radioactive materials have emerged. The whole incident was due to human error. The operators reacted to a completely manageable problem with safety valves by shutting down the emergency cooling system, ultimately causing a reactor to overheat, resulting in the infamous meltdown. Wrong move, Homer Simpson and pals!! Anyway, the incident caused the industry to fix some design flaws, and actually give plant workers rigorous training, MUCH more rigorous than before the accident.

Chernobyl from Orbit
Chernobyl from orbit. The dark elongated area
area is the 12 kilometer long cooling pond. The
reactor complex is just to the left of the pond
(photo: NASA)

O.K., but what about Chernobyl, the poster child for nuclear power opponents? The worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred there, and the Ukrainian city is to this day a ghost town. In April of 1986, engineers (probably including “Homeri Simpsonov”) disabled emergency backup systems and then proceeded to test one of the plant’s four reactors. Who knows why? They only succeeded in initiating an uncontrolled chain reaction in the core of the reactor, which resulted in blowing up the whole containment building. This “minor misjudgment” on the part of the plant workers resulted in about 8 tons of highly radioactive materials being spewed all over Eastern Europe and beyond. About 35 people were killed immediately from the explosion itself and acute radiation poisoning, while hundreds of others suffered from severe radiation sickness (the unlucky ones, as it is a slow, painful death).

Nuclear energy experts I have talked to say such an accident is impossible for reactors of the design used in the rest of the world. Only the old Soviet Union used the Chernobyl design, which is fatally flawed and susceptible to such accidents even when the engineers working there know what they’re doing. In the 20 years since, there has been a large rise in thyroid cancers in people who were heavily exposed, especially in children. This is predictable because ingested radioactive iodine from the explosion is all concentrated in the pea sized thyroid gland. The good news is that it is one of the most curable of cancers. The cancerous gland is surgically removed and a thyroid hormone pill must be taken for the remainder of one’s life. Even better, no increase in any other types of cancers has been detected in the exposed population (yet).

United States Department of Energy Seal

Now for the big gorilla, what to do with highly radioactive, long half-life, spent nuclear fuel. For the conventional nuclear plants that are operating today all over the U.S., the answer is Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The area has already been subject to about 900 nuclear bomb tests, NIMBY doesn’t apply because nobody lives anywhere near there, and the area is so arid that there is virtually no groundwater for any potential waste to leech into, even if the containers of the waste do fail in only 500 years or so. It has been approved by the government as a very, very, long-term safe disposal site for all nuclear waste, but its status is now in limbo because of all those former friends of Patrick Moore. Opponents cite the danger of vehicles transporting encapsulated waste being involved in some accident that might release radioactive waste all over the place. Firstly, transport will be by rail, not trucks, so the NIMBY folks needn’t worry about a truck hauling radioactive waste driving through their neighborhood. According to one of my favorite columnists, George Will, in the last 40 years more than 2,700 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been transported more than 1.6 million miles in the U.S. Of those shipments, 4 rail and 4 highway accidents have occurred with no failure of any of the nuclear containers. Sounds like pretty good odds to me.

Yucca Mountain Aerial View
Yucca Mountain is being developed as a
central repository for America’s nuclear waste
(photo: Sandia)

At present, radioactive waste is stored at hundreds of temporary sites around the country. How secure are those sites against a possible theft by some terrorist determined to set off a “dirty bomb” in Manhattan? Nellis Air Force Base, next door to the Yucca site, will supply ample security. Because nobody lives anywhere near the site, a terrorist would have a hard time explaining why he just happens to be in the area, maybe counting mutant gila monsters (from all those nuclear bomb tests), or even house hunting? Finally, we could again follow the lead of our European friends, and use new technologies to re-cycle nuclear waste. They have been doing it for years, why not us? Perhaps because it’s cheaper to mine new uranium? The process ultimately reduces the amount of waste by about 80%. We recycle paper and aluminum, why not uranium?

Finally, let’s consider why newly built reactors should use that pebble bed reactor design as an alternative to conventional nuclear plant designs. The pebble bed uses pool ball sized uranium fuel, not rods. They produce less waste material, and are more easily disposed of. The most important thing is this: if the engineers running a conventional plant are abducted by terrorists or aliens, the reactor might eventually overheat, meltdown, and explode, just like Chernobyl. The pebble bed reactor would shut itself down! Accidents such as occurred at 3MI and Chernobyl are impossible! In addition, helium is used as the coolant instead of water, yielding hydrogen as the by-product, which could be recovered to power fuel cells for the hydrogen economy of the future.

International Atomic Energy Agency Logo
International Atomic
Energy Agency

America’s politicians and regulators need to drastically reform the process that a company must go through to get government approval for new construction. It would take about 2 years to build a new nuclear reactor and get it up and running. It now takes about 11 years to go through all the government red tape, paperwork, hearings (featuring eco-radicals screaming and obstructing at every turn), environmental impact statements with more words than the entire encyclopedia Britannica, and other political baloney that it would take to get approval, before construction can even begin. Saving the planet today starts with using nuclear power instead of coal, as the transitional fuel to the tomorrow’s totally clean and sustainable energy economy, whatever it may be.



Dear Editor:

Let me first thank you for an informative and thought provoking article about nuclear power from an environmental point of view. As one of many “environmentalists for nuclear power” I appreciate the way that you have provided a new way of looking at old issues. I laughed out loud at the following comment with regard to using hydroelectric damns for power production:

“In addition, we create huge new lakes that not only ruin the local environment, but also give jet boaters a place to zoom around in and make lots of noise.”

As one of the kayakers that loves wild rivers, I appreciated your point of view.

I also enjoyed reading about pebble bed reactors, a technology that I have studied intensively for the past dozen years.

One minor correction – though pebble bed reactors use helium for coolant, and though it is possible for them to be used in a system that produces hydrogen, they do not produce hydrogen as a “by-product”.

In other words, there is no chemical or physical process that is an inherent part of the closed cycle helium cooled pebble bed reactor that results in hydrogen production. The helium remains helium throughout the cycle, and all fission products remain locked inside the pebbles. As in other nuclear power systems, the only real byproduct that is normally emitted is heat.

Hydrogen production is often mentioned in association with pebble bed or other high temperature gas cooled reactors simply because it is a process that can be aided with a heat source in excess of 800 degrees C. Conventional water cooled reactors do not reach that temperature.

Any kind of electrical power reactor can be used to produce hydrogen from water by using electrolysis, but many observers think that process is not efficient enough for wide scale use.

Keep up the good work, I am going to point to your article from my Atomic Insights Blog.

Best regards,

Rod Adams

Editor, Atomic Insights

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Posted in Air Pollution, Causes, Coal, Consumption, Effects Of Air Pollution, Electricity, Energy, Energy & Fuels, Fish, Fuel Cells, History, Hydroelectric, Hydrogen, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Other, People, Policies & Solutions, Radiation, Science, Space, & Technology, Solar, Wind1 Comment

Solar Thermal Power in India

India Building Large-Scale Solar Thermal Capacity
Parabolic Trough Array
Brighton, Colorado, USA
photo: US D.O.E.

Editor’s Note: Just as on a small scale, hybrid engines stretch a gallon of gas, in the same manner a hybrid power plant can stretch its own supply of fossil fuel. In India, a huge new power station using hybrid systems is close to completing their financing and breaking ground in the sunny state of Rajasthan. This fossil fuel / solar hybrid will produce a whopping 140 megawatts of electric power, and 40 of those megawatts will be produced from a field of solar thermal parabolic troughs. Not as glamorous as photovoltaics, but still much more cost-effective, parabolic systems use mirrors to focus sunlight that in turn heats a thermal media (gas, steam) to drive a turbine generator. The project described below is projected to go in at about US $1 million per megawatt, which is competitive with conventional fuels. Read on…

India’s power sector has a total installed capacity of approximately 102,000 MW of which 60% is coal-based, 25% hydro, and the balance gas and nuclear-based. Power shortages are estimated at about 11% of total energy and 15% of peak capacity requirements and are likely to increase in the coming years. In the next 10 years, another 10,000 MW of capacity is required. The bulk of capacity additions involve coal thermal stations supplemented by hydroelectric plant development. Coal-based power involve environmental concerns relating to emissions of suspended particulate matter (SPM), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other gases. On the other hand, large hydroplants can lead to soil degradation and erosion, loss of forests, wildlife habitat and species diversity and most importantly, the displacement of people. To promote environmentally sound energy investments as well as help mitigate the acute shortfall in power supply, the Government of India is promoting the accelerated development of the country’s renewable energy resources and has made it a priority thrust area under India’s National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP).

The Indian government estimates that a potential of 50,000 MW of power capacity can be harnessed from new and renewable energy sources but due to relatively high development cost experienced in the past these were not tapped as aggressively as conventional sources. Nevertheless, development of alternate energy has been part of India’s strategy for expanding energy supply and meeting decentralized energy needs of the rural sector. The program, considered one of the largest among developing countries, is administered through India’s Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), energy development agencies in the various States, and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Limited (IREDA).

Solar Collectors
Parabolic Dish Array
Rajasthan, India
photo: UNESCO

Throughout the 1990′s, India’s private sector interest in renewable energy increased due to several factors: (i) India opened the power sector to private sector participation in 1991; (ii) tax incentives are now offered to developers of renewable energy systems; (iii) there has been a heightened awareness of the environmental benefits of renewable energy relative to conventional forms and of the short-gestation period for developing alternate energy schemes. Recognizing the opportunities afforded by private sector participation, the Indian Government revised its priorities in July 1993 by giving greater emphasis on promoting renewable energy technologies for power generation. To date, over 1,500 MW of windfarm capacity has been commissioned and about 1,423 MW capacity of small hydro installed. The sector’s contribution to energy supply has grown from 0.4% of India’s power capacity in 1995 to 3.4% by 2001.

India is located in the equatorial sun belt of the earth, thereby receiving abundant radiant energy from the sun. The India Meteorological Department maintains a nationwide network of radiation stations which measure solar radiation and also the daily duration of sunshine. In most parts of India, clear sunny weather is experienced 250 to 300 days a year. The annual global radiation varies from 1600 to 2200 kWh/sq.m. which is comparable with radiation received in the tropical and sub-tropical regions. The equivalent energy potential is about 6,000 million GWh of energy per year. The highest annual global radiation is received in Rajasthan and northern Gujarat. In Rajasthan, large areas of land are barren and sparsely populated, making these areas suitable as locations for large central power stations based on solar energy.

The main objectives of the project are these: (i) To demonstrate the operational viability of parabolic trough solar thermal power generation in India; (ii) support solar power technology development to help lead to a reduction in production cost; and (iii) help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) global emissions in the longer term. Specifically, operational viability will be demonstrated through operation of a solar thermal plant with commercial power sales and delivery arrangements with the grid. Technology development would be supported through technical assistance and training. The project would be pursued under The World Bank’s Global Environment Fund (GEF) — which has a leading program objective focused on climate change. This project is envisaged as the first step of a long term program for promoting solar thermal power in India that would lead to a phased deployment of similar systems in the country and possibly in other developing nations.

India supports development of both solar thermal and solar photovoltaics (PV) power generation. To demonstrate and commercialize solar thermal technology in India, MNES is promoting megawatt scale projects such as the proposed 35MW solar thermal plant in Rajasthan and is encouraging private sector projects by providing financial assistance from the Ministry.

One of the prime objectives of the demonstration project is to ensure capacity build-up through ‘hands on’ experience in the design, operation and management of such projects under actual field conditions. Involvement in the project of various players in the energy sector, such as local industries, the private construction and operations contractors, Rajasthan State Power Corporation Limited (RSPCL), Rajasthan State Electricity Board (RSEB), Rajasthan Energy Development Agency (REDA), Central Electricity Authority (CEA), MNES and others, will help to increase the capacity and capability of local technical expertise and further sustain the development of solar power in India in the longer term.

The project’s sustainability will depend on to what extent the impact of the initial investment cost is mitigated, operating costs fully recovered, professional management introduced, and infrastructure and equipment support for operation and maintenance made accessible. Accordingly, while the solar thermal station will be state-owned, it will be operated during the initial five years under a management contract with the private sector; subsidy support will be limited to capital costs. Fuel input, power supply and other transactions would be on a commercial basis and backed up by acceptable marketable contracts. Staff selection and management would be based on business practices; the project site would be situated where basic infrastructure is well developed and engineering industries established.

Parabolic Trough Array
Parabolic Trough Array
Tehachapi, California, USA
photo: US D.O.E.

This project is consistent with the World Bank’s Global Environment Fund’s operational strategy on climate change in support of long-term mitigation measures. In particular, the project will help reduce the costs of proven parabolic trough solar technology so as to enhance its commercial viability. This initiative is part of an anticipated multi-country solar thermal promotion program, the objectives of which will be to accelerate the process of cost reduction and demonstrate the technology in a wider range of climate and market conditions.

Demonstrating the solar plant’s operational viability under Indian conditions is expected to result in follow-up investments by the private sector both in the manufacture of the solar field components and in larger solar stations within India.

Insights into local design and operating factors such as meteorological and grid conditions, and use of available back-up fuels, are expected to lead to its replicability under Indian conditions, opening up avenues for larger deployment of solar power plants in India and other countries with limited access to cheap competing fuels. Creation of demand for large scale production of solar facilities will in turn lead to reductions in costs of equipment supply and operation. It is also expected to revive and sustain the interest of the international business and scientific community in improving systems designs and operations of solar thermal plants.

The Project is expected to result in avoided annual emissions of 714,400 tons of CO2, or 17.9 million tons over the life of the project, relative to generation from a similar-sized coal-fired power station. The cost of carbon avoidance is estimated at $6.5 per ton.

The project involves: (i) Construction of a solar thermal/fossil-fuel hybrid power plant of about 140MW incorporating a parabolic trough solar thermal field of 35 MW to 40 MW; and (ii) Technical assistance package to support technology development and commercialization requirements.

Map of Location of Rajasthan in India
Location of Rajasthan

Investment Component. The solar thermal/hybrid power station will comprise: (i) a solar field with a collection area of 219,000 square meters to support a 35MWe to 40MWe solar thermal plant; and (ii) a power block based on mature fossil fuel technology (i.e, regasified LNG). The proposed project will be sited at Mathania, near Jodhpur, Rajasthan in an arid region. In addition to high solar insulation levels (5.8 kWh/m2 daily average), the proposed site involves approximately 800,000 square meters of relatively level land with access to water resources and electric transmission facilities. The solar thermal/hybrid station will operate as a base load plant with an expected plant load factor of 80%. The final choice of the fossil-fired power block would be left to the bidders, subject to performance parameters set out in the tender specifications.

The design choice is an Integrated Solar Combined Cycle (ISCC) involving the integrated operation of the parabolic trough solar plant with a combined cycle gas turbine using naphtha. Such a plant would consist of the solar field; a combined cycle power block involving two gas turbines each connected to a heat recovery steam generator (HRSG) and a steam turbine connected to both HRSG; and ancillary facilities and plant services such as fire protection, regasified liquefied natural gas supply and storage system, grid interconnection system, water supply and treatment systems, etc. A control building will house a central microprocessor control system that monitors and controls plant operations.

The success of the solar thermal/hybrid power plant as a demonstration project will determine if this technology is replicable in other parts of India. The project will provide technical assistance to ensure that adequate institutional and logistical support for the technology is available for future expansion of solar thermal power.

Specifically, funds will be made available for promoting commercialization of solar thermal technologies among potential investors; staff training and development of a local consultancy base; upgrading of test facilities; mproved collection and measurement of solar insolation data and other solar resource mapping activities; and development of pipeline investments.

The total cost of the investment component is estimated at US$ 201.5 million, including interest during construction, physical and price contingencies as well as duties and taxes. Of these costs, the cost of supplies (excluding contingencies) for the solar component including the steam generator amounts to $41 million, and that for the conventional power plant component is $72 million. The cost of the technical assistance component for promoting replication of the solar power technology is estimated at $4 million.

City Palace of Jaipur in Rajasthan India
City Palace of Jaipur
Rajasthan, India

Investors Note: For more information on the solar thermal project in Rajasthan, India, please contact:

Mr. G. L. Somani, General Manager

Rajasthan State Power Corporation Ltd.

E-166, Yudhisthar Marg, C-Scheme, Jaipur, India

Telephone No.: (91-141) 384055

Fax No.: (91-141) 382759

About the Author:
Gordon Feller is the CEO of Urban Age Institute ( During the past twenty years he has authored more than 500 magazine articles, journal articles or newspaper articles on the profound changes underway in politics, economics, and ecology – with a special emphasis on sustainable development. Gordon is the editor of Urban Age Magazine, a unique quarterly which serves as a global resource and which was founded in 1990. He can be reached at and he is available for speaking to your organization about the issues raised in this and his other numerous articles published in EcoWorld.

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