Megatons to Megawatts

In the spring of 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in which the institution changed its language on the actions needed to address the issue of climate change. The IPCC made a distinct shift from the strategy of preventing the effects of warming around the globe. In that report, the strategy of prevention was abandoned and replaced with the phrase “adapt and mitigate.” This substitution is significant because it acknowledges the irreversible effects of warming that are already evident. It shows that now, more than ever, it is important that the international community starts to take steps toward eliminating the use of fossil fuels and other practices that increase the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Global warming is widely discussed as a major problem that faces the human race, and people around the world know the phrase. However, it is important to have an understanding of the greenhouse gas effect and why it is such a problem, so here is a quick breakdown. The sun heats the Earth by emitting radiation that penetrates the Earth’s atmosphere. That radiation makes its way down to the surface where it is absorbed and then released as heat, which rises back up into the atmosphere. Before that heat can escape the Earth completely, gases in the atmosphere absorb it. These greenhouse gases catch approximately 90% of all the heat, thus warming the Earth.

The two main gases present in the atmosphere that do a majority of the work are carbon dioxide and methane. These gases not only account for most of the heat absorption, but also are how humans fit into the puzzle. They happen to be the gases that we contribute most to the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is released through the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas to produce power. In 2012, The Global Climate Project’s report estimated that 9.7 billion tonnes of carbon were released from burning fossil fuels. Deforestation is also a big contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When trees die, they release carbon that has been stored up for photosynthesis. The EPA estimates that deforestation accounts for 1 billion tonnes of carbon being released each year. The second gas, methane, is less prevalent in the atmosphere but it is much worse for warming, as it is about 20 times more effective at trapping heat. Though methane occurs naturally like carbon, unlike carbon, humans account for most of the methane being released into the atmosphere, around 64%. Human production of methane comes from the massive farming of livestock and the use and production of natural gas. The larger problem is that we are creating methane emissions at a faster rate than the Earth can remove them. This is true of both carbon and methane.

Most of the problems that occur from warming are seen to be more long term and impactful on later generations. However, some of them are already observable, such as the melting of ice in the polar regions. According to National Geographic, the mean sea level has risen four to eight inches in the past century, and is rising .13 inches annually, a rate that is roughly twice the speed of the proceeding 80 years. The more important point is that the oceans are getting warmer, which has a direct effect on the currents, and in turn affects the power of natural disasters like hurricanes. Over the past decade, these storms have gotten stronger, as evidenced by storms like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. According to NASA observations, warmer currents are directly linked to a storm’s increased surge, making it more devastating.

All of this is suggestive of the fact that not any one country, but as people inhabiting the same planet, we need to make a change. The time for alternative energy use has already passed, so there is some catching up to be done. Even the deniers of global warming, to whom none of the previous points hold much weight, can not dispute the fact that fossil fuels are finite. The Earth only has so much oil, coal, and natural gas to offer its inhabitants. The validity of Peak Oil has been debated recently since the production of oil started rising again in 2009, but its inevitability is something even the largest proponents of oil cannot dismiss, as they are developing new strategies to more efficiently use what reserves we have access to. This points to the necessity of developing reliable alternative energies, even if only to supplement our use of fossil fuels. The approach of global governments is diverging, and we are nearing a fork in the path in which one choice is forward to the future and the other is a dead end.

After agreeing that there is a need for clean energy sources, a whole new problem surfaces. The next step is finding the optimum avenue to concentrate on; all have benefits and all have costs. To be certain, it will take a multilateral approach to reach a point where combating climate change’s effects begin to prove successful. Unfortunately, there is an immediate need for an alternative, and choosing all options just is not feasible.

Solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and nuclear are the current leading energy alternatives. Solar and wind face many of the same roadblocks to becoming a viable alternative to fossil fuels. While they may become a wonderful supplementary source for power, the capacity for majority production does not seem to be available. One massive disadvantage to using wind and solar is the sheer amount of land needed to yield significant amounts of power. For example, to turn out 1,000 megawatts, 45–75 square miles of land is needed for a solar farm, and that is only at a capacity rate of 17–28%. Wind, while at a higher capacity rate of 32–47%, needs an even larger plot of land at around 260–360 square miles. Inefficiency and landmass requirements place both into a secondary role. This is especially true when compared to nuclear energy. For that same yield of 1,000 megawatts, only a single square mile is needed, and that is at capacity rate of 90%.

Geothermal and biomass face their own unique sets of problems. Geothermal has high installation costs and has the potential to run out of the steam that creates the fuel for producing energy. Geothermal sources are often region-locked, which makes transportation difficult and expensive. Lastly, and most importantly it has the potential to release harmful gases like methane. Biomass involves the burning of wood fuel, which as discussed earlier, is harmful for the release of carbon and removes carbon dioxide absorbents from the environment. It also starts biomass off at a deficit, making it not truly a clean energy. It can take 20 years or longer for biomass facilities to become carbon neutral. Other types involve the combustion of ethanol, in turn creating black carbon that absorbs light at higher levels than carbon dioxide.

Nuclear power creates no carbon or methane emissions and also possesses the unique ability to use recycled waste as a secondary source of fuel. It rises far above the alternatives in efficiency and environmental impact. It has a heap of benefits, but two big draw backs that keep it from becoming the premier alternative. The first of these is its cost: nuclear power has become more expensive over time because of diverging investments. Companies and countries are choosing to place their focus on other methods, such as wind and solar, which has driven the cost of those alternatives down. Over the past 10 years, the cost of wind and solar has dropped to record lows of 2.5 and 5 cents per Kwh respectively while nuclear hangs around 9 cents. This is a result of a surge of research and development into wind and solar coupled with less and less interest in the nuclear option. The cause of that divestment lies not in the fault of nuclear energy itself but in how society views nuclear energy. A study produced by the Institute for Environmental Decisions evaluated how people feel about reactors after the malfunctions at the Fukushima plant. The study found that despite the facts of the incident, people’s opinions of the use of nuclear energy drastically dropped.

It is important to note that nuclear power plants differ from nuclear weapons quite drastically. This is a point worth mentioning because, since 1945, most public exposure to the word “nuclear” has been inextricably linked to weapons of mass destruction. However, evaluating the last two major meltdowns actually reveals some interesting information. In 2011 it was an earthquake near the plant and the following tsunami that devastated the cooling system of Fukushima. After the core overheated, some radioactive elements were released into the environment. It was the tsunami that caused almost all of the damage to the area. The plant itself accounts for very little harm. It did not in fact, explode and kill millions of people. The same is true for the incident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986, perhaps the most famous meltdown of all time. What is interesting about this incident is that the plant’s reactor turned out to be of unique design. It was one-of-a-kind and a result of Cold War isolationism. The flaw in the reactor design paired with inadequately trained personnel led to the meltdown. Only 5% of the core was released into the environment and the damage was contained to the site of the reactor. It is also the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power where radiation-related fatalities occurred. It also did not explode and end in the deaths of millions. Actually, almost 7,000 people still work at the Chernobyl plant. Hundreds of people have settled inside the exclusion zone and are thriving.

Pushing aside preconceived notions is not an easy task, but once it has been done all of the major benefits of nuclear power become evident. It is already cleaner than most alternatives, and light years more efficient. The fission process of a Uranium 235 atom releases 60 million times more energy than burning a carbon atom, yet has basically no impact on local habitats or the atmosphere. According to climate scientist James Hansen at the University of Columbia, nuclear energy has prevented the release of 64.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. It also avoids soot and air pollution, which has saved roughly 1.8 million lives.

Actually, nuclear energy production even combats the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. About 20 years ago the United States started a program called “Megatons to Megawatts,” which has seen the dismantling of 19,000 nuclear warheads from the Soviet and American arsenals, accounting for over half of all nuclear power produced by U.S. in that time.

While the upfront costs of building these plants is substantial, the long-term return on investment still makes them winners. Out of the 100 plants in the United States, the oldest has reached its 40th anniversary, with the average being 30 years old. Half of these plants have already been approved for 20-year extensions, to the age of 60. As engineers find ways to replace aging parts of the plants, and studies are conducted on the longevity of modern facilities, scientists are discovering no major barriers to the life extension of these plants. They could easily function for 80 years, possibly even further.

The world even has a role model to follow. France has an incredible nuclear program that displays the path to energy independence. Currently they produce 75% of their power from nuclear plants. Another 17% comes from recycling the waste of those plants, which answers the concern of what to do with the waste. France is the largest exporter of energy, yet has only 58 reactors.

Climate change is happening and the earth is slowly but surely running out of fossil fuel reserves for us to tap into. We have already discovered several alternatives, and we will need them all to make the future a smarter, cleaner place.