…a renewable energy-powered Internet: Leaping into the future, and over a cliff

Steve Alpin considers what it would be like to switch from our familiar 24/7 Internet to 100% renewable Internet. It’s not a happy experience. Steve closes with this:

Take e-commerce. Let’s say you’re a best-selling Canadian author and, moving with the times, you sell your books through iTunes, among other e-commerce vehicles. (I mean, iTunes is so convenient, and cheap—they’ve cut out all that nuisance human labour that is involved in bookstores and other dinosaur-economy relics.) Never mind that you specialize in anti-corporate screeds and that you fulminate in print against Big American Multinationals. Never mind that these Big American Multinationals ought to include Apple (the company through which you sell your books on iTunes) and Amazon (the company whose massive server farms host services like iCloud, another Apple product).
Forget about these irrelevant details and just think: what would be the impact on sales of your book through iTunes if Amazon’s gigantic server farms, currently located in the U.S. state of Virginia, which makes most of its electricity in coal and nuclear plants, suddenly switched to only renewables?
Think about that as you wait on hold, fingers impatiently drumming the desk, while some twenty-something in the premier’s office tries to find the number to somebody in Virginia who’d be better able to answer your question of why Amazon’s server farm is experiencing so many power blackouts and brownouts, affecting your e-sales.

Does Steve’s hypothetical Canadian author remind you of anyone? Any particular author? Naomi somebody? Please read Steve Alpin front to back and do check out the comments to this essay.


Jacob DeWitte and Leslie Dewan interviewed at TechCrunch Disrupt 2015


Jacob DeWitte and Leslie Dewan made a joint appearance at the September TechCrunch Disrupt – video here. This purpose of this post is to rummage for some scraps on what Jake DeWitte’s UPower is up to. UPower has been in stealth mode since their launch, so it isn’t easy to figure out what their technical/business approach is. My understanding is UPower is designing a 2 MWe sodium fast reactor that can use both U-238 and SNF as fuel. If you watch the Harvard Alumni presentation by Joe Lassiter and Ray Rothrock you’ll notice that Joe uses PRISM and UPower to illustrate the category of factory-built SFRs (Sodium Fast Reactors).

“The reactor is also fuel agnostic, meaning it can run on uranium, thorium, even nuclear waste. In fact UPower’s technology can turn existing stockpiles of nuclear waste around the world into almost a millennium of clean power.”

When Sam Altman’s Y Combinator funded UPower that signaled to me there was something quite unusual going on. On nothing but guesswork I infer they have a design/build concept intended to achieve unusually rapid time to market. Could the first customer be the US Military? If that’s true does it improve the outlook for speed through regulatory hurdles? I don’t want to say more in case I’ve guessed some part of the strategy that’s actually true:) If their plan has them delivering product fast then a competitor might be able to exploit early knowledge of what UPower is doing.

For me, that Sam Altman invested, then went on their board – that says “very special, and special relative to the other advanced nuclear startups.”

I’ve collected the following UPower insider comments from a long Hacker News thread [I’ve not identified who donttrustatoms is, but she clearly is an insider]:

★donttrustatoms 87 days ago

You’re exactly right, and that’s what we designed for with UPower. I would have written the exact same thing when we began talking about doing something in nuclear 5 years ago.

Too many reactors are designed without the market or financing in mind. We decided on the simplest possible reactor optimized to a size useful to a market in dire need- just MW scale.

It has no pumps, no water in the reactor, and builds upon a legacy of data so that there will be minimal fuel and materials qualification, which adds up very quickly in both time and money.
Why hasn’t it been done before? The key, as you bring up, is in manufacturing, simplicity, a relatively new and hugely growing microgrid market that didn’t exist much before, and a business model that doesn’t require the customer to buy the unit as opposed to power purchase.

★beat 87 days ago

It’s exciting work, to be sure. Before now, the only small-scale nuclear work I’d seen were plutonium batteries (like for powering satellites), which are horrendously expensive and not something you ever want in the hands of Bad Actors.

It looks like UPower is currently targeting environments where traditional power is impractical and lots of power is needed, and plenty of budget is available – remote mines, military installations and such. Do you see a market for urban/residential power grid in the future, too? Or would that be too difficult a squeeze between distributed solar and traditional power plants?

★donttrustatoms 87 days ago

The short answer is yes. We see this as our Tesla roadster (well designed niche product for a market willing to pay, in this case however, desperately in need for a solution that doesn’t involve constant shipments of expensive and polluting diesel for loud generators) from which we will streamline and optimize to make our “model 3” so we can produce something to meet and even beat grid prices. It actually isn’t a big jump between the two, we have good indication now that it will be possible without much iteration to beat grid prices in all but the cheapest markets. And as you pointed out, the financing at that stage will play a significant part. :)

★donttrustatoms 87 days ago

Solar is much cheaper and wind was already cheap, however the question, for both carbon and cost, is what is the price of the renewable intermittents with storage and backup. Batteries and storage in general have not had the step changes in cost and performance that solar has. Backup tends to be fossil plants. Ultimately energy density is a zero sum game for the environment and cost. In more detail:

On storage: Rough calculations show, if there were just enough Powerwalls to backup US peak demand for one hour it would require 10x the global annual mining production of lithium. And that’s just one hour. And that doesn’t include the electricity production.

On panel material required for production: It’s generally estimated that US power, with good transmission, would require enough solar panels to cover the entire state of Massachusetts. Most non solar advocates think it’s this square footage that’s important. But of course this can largely be put on built land or in deserts so that is a relatively moot point. In fact, I want to get solar panels on my roof. However the real concern is what does this look like in terms of material mining? In immense panel production factories? (which isn’t the greenest mfg process ever, likely one of the reasons it is largely done in China)

On mining and transporting material required: Mining is almost entirely powered by fossils, it has to be. And so is most transport. And so is recycling of metals. So the energy density of an energy source really is a zero sum game. If it takes a millionth the material for one source versus the other, that adds up.

On maintenance Then in maintenance, solar farms are truly “farms”- they require a lot of water to wash away dust to operate optimally. A states’ worth of water is significant.

On lifetime/end of life First of all the lifetime of a panel is very optimistically 30 years/for a nuclear plant 60-80 years, and for the UPower fuel in particular can be used and recycled repeatedly for about 70+ years.

On afterlife/recycling Then in recycling at end of life, and this is why I got so excited about nuclear as a somewhat hippie child growing up around oil companies in Oklahoma, solar is going to require a lot of energy (and fossil fuels or nuclear) to recycle, while nuclear can produce energy in recycling its fuel.

The main import, to me, is: what is the energy density of this energy, and if emitting, how much pollution? Coal is far more energy dense than wind, which is why humans evolved from windmills and wood to coal. But it’s so polluting which is why we are all working towards better sources, and the greater energy density (nuclear on order of 2M x any other source) that’s roughly 2M less trucks transporting, 2M less mining to do, 2M less recycling, etc. Thats more on the environment than pure cost like you are saying but the costs add up if the full life cycle is taken into account on both sides

★donttrustatoms 88 days ago

I am one of the UPower founders. There are two big stories here that most people don’t know yet: 1) that a fast reactor can be waste-negative, I.e. transform existing waste to energy. 2) a fast reactor destroys the long lived waste- instead of trying to store waste for a hundred thousand years it’s on the order of a hundred.

Both of these are critically important for existing waste but also having an emission free energy source with a closed fuel cycle. No other energy source is better than a hundred thousandth as energy dense and no other energy source could produce clean energy for its own recycling.
It’s obviously just a cool technology but more than that it’s amazing what that could mean for the environment and remote communities. Even for solar and wind materials mining, these remote mines generally have to burn tons and tons of diesel. That’s what we are trying to fight.

★donttrustatoms 88 days ago

So true. That’s exactly why this is so exciting. With a UPower generator, small communities or neighborhoods could have always on, emission free power for a decade.
and then, as you indicated, with enough clean power, individuals can create desalinated water or even extract water from air. They could cleanly power greenhouses even in the arctic. We could remove carbon from the air.

There is a separate very interesting. TechCrunch interview with Jacob DeWitte at the Disrupt 2015 conference

When Greenpeace hires journalists, it’s a double-edged sword

Image courtesy of Robert Wilson

“…research, which focuses on humanitarian and human rights groups, suggests that this development of NGO journalism is a double-edged sword.”

Over at The Conversation Prof. Matthew Powers has a stimulating short piece on the growing volume of 'journalism' content produced by NGOs. Dr. Powers 2014 paper offers a deeper examination of this issue: The Structural Organization of NGO Publicity Work: Explaining Divergent Publicity Strategies at Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations [Open Access PDF].

My reaction to “Greenpeace hires journalists” was alarm because Greenpeace is the leading example of the damage that powerful NGOs can do to public policy. On both Climate Change and Development I've learned that Greenpeace advocates for policies that cannot work and are distracting the dialogue from considering effective policies.


Mitigation of Climate Change: The central policy decision is how to eliminate fossil fuel burning. Optimal solutions depend very much on the local particulars (is it sunny?) but it's obvious to all serious scholars that the policy menu should be technology neutral. The objective is to eliminate fossil fuels, not to promote “renewables”. In many locales nuclear power will be a big component of the optimal mix of low carbon energy. Greenpeace is a powerful anti-science activist – they are extremely effective at engendering fear.

Development: Greenpeace is a poster-boy of the Big Green NGOs that are trying to prevent development. If in 2050 African women are still trapped in subsistence farming they can thank Greenpeace for preventing the agrarian to industrial transformation that has been enjoyed by every rich country. The most visible example of destructive Greenpeace activism is their fear-mongering about genetic engineering (GMO).

If you've read The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr. you will appreciate that politicians need more options, not less. That's what an Honest Broker offers. Greenpeace is a science-free advocate who wants to prevent consideration of any option other than the ONE that's Greenpeace-approved. Greenpeace is the Dishonest Broker – it's difficult to think of any NGO more expert at fear-mongering.

Dozens of Greenpeace 'journalists' is a truly frightenting prospect. What the planet needs is more investigative journalism that exposes and defunds Greenpeace. We need more Will Saletan: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. We need more George Monbiot: The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all

“A great wrong has been done by this movement. We must put it right.”

Image courtesy of Robert Wilson The Green Movement is not Pro-Science


An Ecomodernist Elevator Speech

This is a guest post by Amy Levy, proprietor of Ecomodernist Mom. (This post first appeared on Ecomodernist Mom September 14, 2015)

I’ve had some interesting reactions from friends when I’ve brought up the term Ecomodernism and I’ve had some very funny responses when I say the words, “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” to people. Everyone seems to glaze over or become slightly alarmed that I’ve become another Unabomber.

I can’t seem to get anyone to take the time to read the manifesto and I’m not surrounded by anti-intellectuals by any stretch. I am, however, surrounded by very busy, working parents whose brains are occupied with the logistics of getting multiple kids to multiple activities while juggling hours of homework, dinner, and hopefully sleeping at some point. I think that even hearing the word, “manifesto”, makes people tired. This is not a criticism of the work. Obviously, I find the piece beautifully written and inspiring but I think the message needs to be accessible to everyone.

I’m still working on my “elevator speech” about Ecomodernism but I try to describe it to people as a new way of looking at environmentalism that takes a more actionable, humanitarian approach. The current environmentalist movement seems to treat humans as an invasive species that needs to be beaten back in order to save the planet. Ecomodernism celebrates humankind’s achievements and what we’ve brought to our planet and wants to harness those achievements to make us less dependent on nature so that we can restore the balance and health of our planet.

In addition to treating humans as invasive, traditional environmentalism seems to romanticize a return to nature that may be appealing to those of us in the West who have never depended on nature for survival, but probably isn’t so romantic to a subsistence farmer who has just lost his crop to floods. We can’t expect people in the developing world who fight with nature every single day to be on board with a world vision that doesn’t let them escape that fight. Ecomodernism acknowledges that humans are drawn to the beauty and spirituality of nature and therefore aims to preserve and protect nature by lessening human impact and dependency on it.

Even though humans have caused the problems on our planet, treating humankind as the enemy accomplishes nothing other than causing those on the right to dig in further and and the rest of us to throw up our hands and think, “Well, I voted for a Democrat and separated the recycling, what else do you want from me?” Or maybe, “Yes, I admit the planet is completely hosed but I’m too busy paying bills and caring for these little humans right in front of me to worry about people who won’t be born for another century.” In other words, being treated as the enemy inspires apathy at best and at worst, doesn’t even attempt to bridge the divide with those who are emotionally or economically invested in the idea of climate-change as fiction.

Today’s environmentalism is well-meaning but unworkable if the majority isn’t on board with it. I’m not sure we can mobilize billions of people on the message of sacrifice and a return to a romantic natural world that never really existed. With Ecomodernism, I see immediately actionable solutions in science and technology and I think human nature is more motivated by action with results rather than by conservation and sacrifice.

As I read this, I realize that this is just more of what I said in the opening post and I’m not sure I’ve completely answered the question of what Ecomodernism means and why it should matter to a busy parent.

I guess I would say to parents to stop and look at what’s already happening in the world. A massive refugee crisis, weather extremes, wildfires – whether we like it or not, or whether we believe humans are to blame or not- these things are happening now and there’s a good chance they will get worse. Is this what you want for your child? Or any child? We are not powerless but we are at a critical point where we have to start moving forward and support a new, pragmatic vision because the current, polarizing efforts have us running in place.

You can follow Amy on Twitter @AmysTruth and please do follow her wonderful new Ecomodernist Mom.


James Hansen on antinuclear environmental groups

James Hansen

More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media.

A year ago James Hansen published a “draft opinion” on the Columbia University website: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? The PDF received surprisingly little attention considering the importance of the issues covered. I found the piece when I was researching thinking on how we could dramatically increase China US Nuclear Cooperation.

Here I’ll just highlight some of Dr. Hansen’s remarks on how he sees the workings of the anti-nuclear lobby. In his closing paragraphs What Can the Public and Scientists Do? he writes

(…snip…) I also recommend that the public stop providing funds to anti nuke environmental groups. Send a letter saying why you are withdrawing your support.

Their position is based partly on fear of losing support from anti-nuke donors, and they are not likely to listen to anything other than financial pressure

. If they are allowed to continue to spread misinformation about nuclear power, it is unlikely that we can stop expanded hydro-fracking, continued destructive coal mining, and irreversible climate change.

(…snip…) The public is unaware of pressure put on scientists to be silent about nuclear power. After I mention nuclear power I receive numerous messages, often heart-breaking in their sincerity as they repeat Caldicott-like unfounded assertions and beg me not to mention nuclear power. More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media. Each large environmental organization has a nuclear “expert” (often a lawyer, not a physicist) with a well- developed script to respond to any positive statement about nuclear power. Liberal media follow precisely the “merchants of doubt” approach that the right-wing media use to block action on climate change; raising fears about nuclear power is enough to stymie support. The liberal media employ not only environmental organization “experts”, but former heads of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) appointed during Democratic Administrations.

These NRC talking heads are well-spoken professionals with a spiel that has been honed over years. And they have a track record. The NRC, despite its many dedicated capable employees, has been converted from the top into a lawyer-laden organization that can take many months or years to approve even simple adjustments to plans. It is almost impossible to build a nuclear power plant in the United States in less than 10 years, and this is not because an American worker cannot lay one brick on top of another as fast as a Chinese worker. Anti-nukes know that the best way to kill nuclear power is to make it more expensive.

Given this situation, my suggestion to other scientists, when they are queried, is to point the public toward valid scientific information, such as the “radiation 101” page written by Bob Hargraves. “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay lets the public understand calculations as in the footnote above, thus helping the public to choose between renewables and nuclear power in any given situation – there is a role for both.

Yes, a few scientists assert that renewables alone are sufficient, a position that gets applause. As for me, I would prefer to stick to science and tend my orchard. Unfortunately, the situation is different than it was in the 1600s, when religion pressured science. The urgency of now steals the luxury of silence. Galileo knew that the truth would come out eventually and no one would be harmed. So he could just mutter under his breath “and yet it moves!” That, I cannot do.

Anti-pipeline activists: “give us what we want or these two won’t like it”


Canadian Chemist Blair King recently reposted “The Machiavellian battle against climate change using Energy East”. Excerpt:

…When I have pointed out that shutting down the pipeline will only force more oil to be transported by rail I was met with the point that rail cars are visible while oil moving in a pipeline is not. When I pointed out that the oil trains pose a greater risk to human health and the environment I got the distressing response that

“these tactics effectively apply pressure to reassess the fossil fuelled system as a whole, i.e. we’ll see what happens to any remaining social license when oil trains start blowing up left, right and centre”.

Yes I am as shocked about that statement as you are. In two sentences it is acknowledged that they know that by fighting the pipelines they guarantee that there will be more spills and that they are essentially counting on those spills, and their ensuing ecological devastation and potential for loss of human lives, to degrade the social license of the oil industry. Metaphorically it is like they are holding up a grandma and a newborn kitten and saying “give us what we want or these two won’t like it”. I honestly had no clue how to respond.

It’s obvious to observers of energy policy that the highly visible protests about oil pipelines can’t be about pipelines. Like Blair King I’ve assumed the pipelines were a calculated proxy war. The pipeline is an easy target, a symbol that TV cameras like. Surely the activists know that stopping a pipeline just makes the human and environmental damages worse.

The possibility I had not considered is the activists know perfectly well how damaging their stated objective is.


Asymmetric Warfare has moved into Kevin Folta’s neighborhood

When I wrote “Big Organic mounts Asymmetric Warfare attack on public scientist Kevin Folta” I intended Asymmetric Warfare to be a metaphor for rich-organic attacking an individual scientist. I’m very sad to report that it’s no longer a metaphor. Kevin posted this today:

Now there are messages showing up on Craigslist.  They are false and defamatory and foment local fervor that could translate to physical harm to my family, home or laboratory. 


Is it not obvious that the right thing is for Thacker and Seife to issue a public apology and for PLoS Blogs to require Thacker and Seife to correct their article? If not promptly corrected it should be withdrawn. The “correction” they posted at the end of the article is ridiculous. Thacker and Seife did not remove the false allegation in the body of the article, and did not even link to the update posted at the end, which was written to imply that their allegations were fundamentally true – they had just made a clerical error or two.

This is exactly what the PR strategists at Gary Ruskin’s Just Label It designed. This is what a witch hunt looks like in the age of the Internet.

Asymmetric Warfare is too gentle a term for what these people are doing.

James Hansen on Big Green – it’s all about the money

The truth is that present energy and climate policies of the United States and the United Nations are dishonest and tragic.

In October 2014 Dr. Hansen wrote an essay covering some of his personal history. I would like to highlight a just few words that support my explanation:

Why do the big name “environmental” NGOs seem to support every policy except the ones that will actually work.

My thesis is they prefer to raise money over promoting sound policy. Their big contributors do not like nuclear power. But oh my, they do so love Amory Lovins’ soft power. So the NGO leaders have a stark choice – support policies that will impact emissions. Or raise more and more money. Dr. Hansen:

It is not always easy to speak truth to power, but all citizens have the opportunity if they choose. I have one minor, easy suggestion for you to consider, and another requiring more effort.

The first concerns “Big Green,” the large environmental organizations, which have become one of the biggest obstacles to solving the climate problem. After I joined other scientists in requesting the leaders of Big Green to reconsider their adamant opposition to nuclear power, and was rebuffed, I learned from discussions with them the major reason: They feared losing donor support. Money, it seems, is the language they understand. Thus my suggestion: The next time you receive a donation request, doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear or the like, toss it in the waste bin and return a note saying that you will consider a donation in the future, if they objectively evaluate the best interests of young people and nature.

The other suggestion is to donate time to Citizens Climate Lobby. They need people to write letters to the editor and op-eds, and to visit members of Congress. The aim is to make the price of energy honest, in a way that spurs our economy, creates good jobs, and enhances the future of young people and nature. To be sure, our democracy has developed flaws, especially the inordinate role of money in Washington, but we still have the opportunity to make it work.

My view is the Big Greens have blood on their hands. Greenpeace in particular because they not only block nuclear around the world but they continue to block live saving advances like Golden Rice. Shame!

And kudos to James Hansen: Who speaks truth to power.

Schalk Cloete: “My thesis on the deployment of CCS…”

Schalk Cloete is brilliant. His five-part series on CCS is essential reading for anyone concerned about climate change. It’s essential because Cloete is “All Pragmatic All the Time”. He doesn’t do agenda activism. He just focuses upon assessing policy options – completely: scalability, life cycle cost, EROEI. Answering questions on his Part 1 of 5 post he explained why CCS:

My thesis on the deployment of CCS is a pretty simple one:

1) Fossil fuelled economic growth will be prioritized over climate change as long as climate change has a limited real-world impact, thus leading to an overshoot of climate targets.

2) When real-world climate impacts eventually start to have a large and clearly attributable effect, public opinion will shift rapidly.

3) This shift in public opinion will lead to a rapidly rising CO2 price.

4) A rapidly rising CO2 price will lead to a rapidly rising production (and storage/utilzation) of CO2 through CCS.

5) CCS is very well suited to such a reactive CO2 mitigation scenario due to the ability to access locked-in emissions, abate emissions from industry and because it will be less capital intensive than most alternatives. </

I’m unclear about the timeframes over which this will play out (mostly determined by real-world climate change impacts), but am fairly confident that the lack of proactive action will eventually necessitate such reactive emissions cuts through CCS in spite of the non-technical problems you mention.

My take on the political reality is quite parallel to Schalk’s. There will be no big public policy push for decarbonization – until people starting feeling real pain. By that time a lot of dangerous change will be “baked in” and people will be very motivated to look beyond Amory Lovins “soft power” for real solutions. To find out what the following graphic is all about, you’ll want to read Part 1.Dahowski cumulative annual co2 storage cost curve us china

Forget NIMBYs. We have moved into the era of the BANANA

Rendering of Transatomic nuclear plant

Robert Wilson ridicules the UK voters and status quo interest groups who collectively manage to prevent nearly every kind of substitute for fossil generation. Robert wrote:

And this is where we are going. Forget NIMBYs. We have moved into the era of the BANANA. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Eventually, we will act like China and erect an island in the North Sea – near Dogger Bank perhaps – where everything will be done out of sight, out of mind. No one must now see how things are made in the country of the Industrial Revolution.

Robert got me wondering if there is a “third way”? We know that India, Africa, and Indonesia will be building coal plants about as fast as they can organize the financing. How could the UK convert natural NIMBY incentives into high impact investments – in the places where the most serious new emissions threats will be originating? 

Is it possible that rich-country voters would prefer to enable the low-carbon generation where it’s “Not In Their Back Yards”? At least until new tomato farms are sprouting in Scotland? Would a UK taxpayer spend 1 £ to prevent 5 £ of new Nigerian coal plants that will emit for 50 years?

One pathway is to create a UK fund or agency authorized to write loan guarantees for qualifying projects. My hypothesis is that local (or foreign) equity investments could be encouraged by access to low interest rate loans. 

Imagine the political advertisements promoting the new fund:

Support New Conservative Labour’s “Clean Power Africa Initiative”. Turbines for every ridge top! Nuclear plants for every Megacity! All paid for by OPM (Other People’s Money)!

Thanks to Transatomic Power for the very cool rendering. I wish I had an eye-catching image of coal CCS – because that would also surely be a priority for the fund. Not glamorous, just effective.