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What’s Next on Climate Change? Let’s Hope it’s a “Poland Moment”

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Nothing unites human beings as quickly as a common threat. But even a common threat can take a long time to do the job.

German invasions took down Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway before “appeasement” was fully discredited.  Britain’s comfortable classes virtually had to see German guns across the water before they heeded Winston Churchill’s repeated calls to arms. In the end, the Allies stopped Adolf Hitler’s march – just barely.

The Second World War was the unifying struggle of the western democracies. But we came late and slow to the fight.

German soldiers remove Polish government insignia, 1939
German soldiers remove Polish government insignia, 1939. Source: German federal archive

Humans are brought together by shared experiences. In the century or two since human society has been an interconnected whole, no single and simultaneous global struggle has cemented our shared humanity. Today, we are united more by shallow popular entertainments, consumer goods, and designer brands than by values.

The last decade’s “global war on terror” came close to being such a common struggle, with its universal moral element. Popular revulsion of terrorist attacks reinforced the human preference for tolerance, social integration, and peace everywhere. But the legitimacy of that struggle got dissipated in places like Iraq and Guantanamo.  Democratic leadership did not rise to that occasion as Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had to the totalitarian threat.

What challenges lie on this century’s horizon that might similarly threaten people around the world – threaten us enough to make us articulate, and stand up to defend, common values with the kind of selflessness and integrity they deserve?

Today the clear candidate is the creeping environmental disaster that comes from rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. This is mainly due to our sustained burning of natural gas, oil, and coal.

While the immediacy of this threat can still be debated, we are now as certain as we can be that it will raise sea levels and storm severity. This will inundate coastlines, low islands, and river deltas where our fellow humans live in large numbers. It will also increase drought, desertification, and erosion, while wreaking havoc with ecosystems and crops, and reducing the availability of fresh water. And this will happen in our and our children’s lifetimes.

Global average sea level change
Global average sea level change. Source: IPCC, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis

With atmospheric carbon concentrations now around 400 parts per million, this has already well begun. If this were fascism’s march across Europe, we would be in about March of 1939. That is, we might be somewhere just after Franco’s triumph in Spain, but just before Hitler’s sweep into Denmark and Norway.

If so, then the next step, metaphorically, would be the fall of Poland: an impossible-to-ignore moment that tumbles us from mere nagging unease into real, constant fear.

Our response today is still the familiar mix of denial, helplessness, and isolationism. “It might not be that bad.” “It’s beyond anything we can do.” “We’ll take care of ourselves somehow.” While a few of us may get rid of our cars, put solar panels on our roofs, and fly less, this is like watching adventurous individuals go off to fight fascism with the International Brigades in Spain in 1937. While theirs are commendable sacrifices, they are not widely enough shared, and thus will not change the outcome. A fall-of-Poland moment would make this all too clear.

British troops retreating from Dunkirk, France, 1940.
British troops retreating from Dunkirk, France, 1940. Source: U.S. War Department

President Obama’s climate plan, on which this writer has already commented, is much better than the defeatism that Churchill despised. But it is much less than a Churchillian call to make the sacrifices needed to fight the war to victory. Even the un-ignorable fall-of-Poland moment (indeed, even a fall-of France moment – a disaster that brings the wolves to our very doors) will draw further denial, helplessness, and isolationism.

Environment International Nuclear Policy

All may not be Lost on Global Heating

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

The UN’s 69th General Assembly opened today in New York. On the agenda is “stemming the existential threat of climate change,” along with a litany of other crises from Ebola to ISIS.

I commented six months ago that only a “Poland moment” – the arrival of real, widespread fear for our way of life – might get climate change recognized as an “existential threat.” Let alone get it “stemmed.” I doubt that we are there yet.

But as catastrophic as the outlook seems on carbon emissions, I am not completely pessimistic. Governments do face up to, and act to mitigate, grave threats, even at times when doing so is costly and defies electoral arithmetic. The record of improving air and water quality in developed areas of the globe since the 1960s attests to this. So do many other international efforts to improve human health and security.

While it takes time, our governments have shown they can act to address environmental challenges. Source: http://www.ec.gc.ca/air/default.asp?lang=En&n=8ABC14B4-1&offset=2&toc=show
While it takes time, our governments have shown they can act to address environmental challenges. Source: Environment Canada.

How hopeful can we dare to be that a child born today will not witness hundreds of millions of people being displaced by rising seas and desertification due to climate change? Or at least, that he or she will live to see a substantial turnaround of this process?

Here are what I see as the negatives that support a pessimistic view:

  • Lack of action by major national governments so far – except for grasping at fake “solutions” that are politically expedient (such as farm subsidies dressed up as “biofuels”), are subsidy-based and therefore inefficient and unsustainable (much wind and solar). All of which create new vested interests faster than they decarbonize our lifestyles. Slightly less bad is watching government jump into solutions that may work out, but are too far down the road to be useful in the near-term climate battle (such as technology development funds).
  • A global policymaking environment of crises upon crises – to take just a few examples: for Europeans, the Eurozone economic crisis followed by Ukraine; for Arabs, the Arab Spring followed by Egypt and Syria; for Americans, financial crisis followed by politico-fiscal paralysis, military withdrawals, and now a new war.
  • The long financial crisis and sluggish world economy – putting a continuing drag on governments’ fiscal capacity, and also slowing the rate at which infrastructure can be rebuilt on lower-carbon technologies.

On the other hand, here are some major positives, raising hope that something can be done:

  • Real concern at the top – the UN Secretary-General, the US President, and many other top political, business and intellectual leaders appear to recognize the threat posed by climate change.
  • Steps forward by smaller players – large companies, industry associations and sub-national governments have been willing to be early movers, and some of those moves seem to have worked well.
  • Leadership in the high-growth regions – while dense emerging markets like China and India may remain far behind the West in many aspects of environmental quality, their high rates of infrastructure investment give them once-in-a-century opportunities to build lower-carbon systems in electric power, transportation and urban design. In fits and starts, they are seizing it.

The ecosphere will benefit if high-growth countries make good choices (as China does when it invests in fifty or seventy nuclear power plants instead of coal-fired units), and stable economies such as ours continue to rely on nuclear.

Weighing the scales, my own view is that the odds that we can still act to mitigate climate change are better than bleak.

Nuclear Education Nuclear Energy Statistics

Comparing Wind and Nuclear in Terms of Space

One of the reasons I support nuclear power is that it seems to require relatively little space to generate a huge amount of power. Some of Canada’s most powerful reactors can produce up to 881MW (electricity), or 7,717,560,000 kw/h annually. That’s enough to power about 643,000 households 24/7 (Average household consumption in Ontario is about 12,000 kw/h annually).

The Darlington nuclear power station – which has 4 such reactors – is about as big as one of the shopping malls in Whitby, ON (including the parking lots). Not bad, considering the plant produces power for up to 2.5 Million households, day in, day out.

imageimage

Based on that alone, I always thought that nuclear power would be a pretty good option for replacing much of the electricity currently produced globally by burning coal and gas.

But, a recent story published at PhysOrg.com suggests that, according to a study written by Derek Abbott (a professor at the University of Adelaide), it would be impossible for nuclear energy to supply the entire global demand for energy because all these nuclear plants would take up far too much space.

Abbott addresses other factors,  too, but for the time being, I’ll just focus on the question on size.

I haven’t read the actual study, since it is not yet published (but will be soon in the Proceedings of the IEEE), so I have to go by what the reporter says about Professor Abbott’s findings.

Abbott estimates that

One nuclear reactor plant requires about 20.5 km2 (7.9 mi2) of land to accommodate the nuclear power station itself, its exclusion zone, its enrichment plant, ore processing, and supporting infrastructure.

I’m not entirely sure where he got this number from (I suspect the final article will provide the sources), but it seems he does not allow for multiple reactors on a single site.

The Darlington plant, for example, is a little less than 2 km long (including the parking lot), and roughly 800m or so across. That’s just about 1.6 km2, though my method of measuring that is – admittedly – a little crude. However, there are no less than 4 reactors at that site alone. Even after OPG is done adding another two, the site is not going to get much bigger.

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Be that as it may, I will – just for the sake of argument – accept Abbott’s numbers for the time being.

Professor Abbott then calculates how many nuclear reactors it would take to supply the entire global energy demand of 15 Terawatt by generously assuming that each nuclear reactor can supply 1GW (e). That makes for easy math, and results in no less than 15,000 reactors globally. At 20.5 km2 each, the resulting space requirement is 307,500km2 – just a little less than Poland, or a little bit more than Italy.

That does, indeed, seem like a lot – all of Poland or Italy covered end-to-end in nuclear reactors, supporting facilities, fuel manufacturing plants, etc. etc. to supply the entire global energy demand (that is, all the power currently provided by fossil fuels, hydro electricity, nuclear , and other sources combined).

But how would that compare to other sources of energy under the same assumptions? While Prof. Abbott appears to like solar best, I’m going to do it for wind – simply because I have spent more time analyzing the spatial requirements for wind (mostly because wind power is the only low-carbon, non-hydro, source of electricity cost-competitive with nuclear).

Calculating the space requirements for wind is tricky business. The actual footprint of a wind turbine is not that much: if one includes the swept area, it’s anywhere from .2 – 2 acres (based on data from Enercon, and a little basic geometry. For those who want to dig deeper, the NREL has some good information on this).

Let’s assume we are going to use Enercon’s E101 turbine, which has a nominal capacity of 3,000 kW. Let’s further assume that we can expect an average output is about 25% of rated capacity ( though some studies indicate it is much less, and may be as low as 21%). The turbine has a diameter of 101m – or 331.4 ft – and therefore sweeps an area of about 1.98 acres. Since turbines need to be spaced several times their diameter apart, let’s assume we space them about 10x their diameter apart on average over a perfectly even plane, with nothing breaking the pattern (as I did with the nuclear plants above).

How big would a wind farm with such an arrangement have to be to generate 15TW of electricity?

16,023,693 km2 – a little less than the entire territory of Russia. Or about twice the size of Australia.

imageimage

Or Canada and Greenland with a chunk of the US:

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Even if we reduce the distance between the wind turbines to just 5x their diameter, we’d still end up with a space requirement of 4,005,923 km2 – 22% bigger than India.

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What about a bigger turbine, like Enercon’s E126, rated at 7,500 kW a piece (spaced 10x diameter)?

Well, that would require 25,335,374 km2more than Russia and Australia combined.

imageimage

If spaced only 5x diameter, it would still require 6,333,843 km2 – almost twice the size of India.

imageimage

[The reason is that the E126 has a diameter of 127m, which results in much greater space requirements even though the output is that much greater than the smaller turbine].

But this would just be the size of the wind farm itself. It would NOT include:

  • all the infrastructure needed to supply the farms
  • all the land lost to mining for the materials from which to build the turbines
  • all the land needed for the manufacturing facilities
  • the housing for all the people who will have to work continuously to maintain the wind farm.

These numbers also assume that

  • no wind turbine will ever fail (because that would reduce the average output),
  • electricity can be stored without any loss of power (because sometimes the wind blows just right, and sometimes not so much – or too much -, and the surplus energy from when it blows just right has to be stored to make up for the other times),
  • electricity can be transmitted without any loss of power (which won’t be the case until we figure out cheap super-conductivity).

So, the space requirements I calculated significantly underestimate the territory required for wind farms, if we wanted to supply all global energy needs with wind alone, while Prof. Abbott’s calculations for the nuclear power seem to significantly overestimate the territory required.

While I admit that supplying all the world’s energy exclusively from nuclear would be a stupendous task, it pales before the challenges of trying to supply it with wind (the only other cost-effective low-carbon, non-hydro source of power).