…. Nuclear power, even with it's evident risks, looks to me to be a necessary part of our energy systems. I have no beef with hydro-electric generation which is benign (other than as regards conflict with resident populations who will have to move). The share of energy provided by solar and wind systems (along with others in development) will grow, particularly if that growth is not impeded by fossil fuel interests and their toadies in office.
Is there something I get wrong there?
No. We actually agree !
The growth rate of wind and solar power is limited by their cost, despite large subsidies and guaranteed access to sales to Public Utilities. New more efficient ( power/unit of area) solar cells are now available, however they cost much more than the standard silicone based cells. Over time I suspect that will improve, and, when it does, we can expect faster growth.
The main inherent limitation of wind and solar results from the fact that the wind doesn't blow, and the sun doesn't shine all the time. Both must be designed to take the maximum expected solar intensity/wind velocity, but both are limited by this to "capacity factors" ( = average actual power output/installed power capacity) of no more than about 50%. In fact modern wind turbines have capacity factors of about 30% (~37% in ocean areas), and solar cells also about 33%. This means that for both about three units of generating capacity ( i.e. cost) must be installed to get one unit of output.
Modern wind turbines are easy to see from an aircraft at high altitude and their numbers are increasing fast. On a boring flight to the East coast I noticed that the ridgelines of the Western Appalachians in Virginia and Maryland are dotted with wind turbines every few hundred yards. I estimated about 100 turbines on each of the two westerly ridges - 200 total. New land based turbines are typically rated at 3 MW output , so the total before my eyes had a rated output of ~ 600 MW- that's about 50% of the output of a current nuclear generating station. However, based on the capacity factor, the average output of each turbine is about 1.0 MW, or 200MW total. In short it would take about 1,200 such wind turbines to equal the output of a single nuclear plant, and we would still need other power sources to fill in when the wind isn't blowing.
Offshore turbines are generally larger and, owing to the lower wind friction, have higher capacity factors ( up to almost 42%). However they are more costly. A good definition of a worried man is the owner of a $7,000,000 wind turbine mounted on an equally costly 300 ft. tower installed concrete & steel platform, 30 miles at sea.
There are indeed large hazards associated with nuclear power. However the probability of their occurrence is incredibly small, and modern construction features virtually eliminate most hazards in the unlikely case an extreme accident - a meltdown- occurs. This was demonstrated at Three Mile Island, and, despite numerous, unconscionable safety violations, even at Fukushima. ( 15,000 were killed by the tsunami but no one died as a result of the reactor accident.) Almost forty years after the Three Mile Island accident, there is still zero discernable impact on public health in the region.
In both Canada and the U.S. the nuclear power establishments have lower safety and public health effects (confirmed by government data) than their fossil fuel counterparts and even large industrial manufacturing complexes.
I believe the long term future of our energy production should be based on nuclear and renewable generation, supplemented by compound cycle gas turbine plants (very efficient and low emissions) as may be economically needed
But the over-riding necessity is to minimize the causes of global warming. As you know, even the Pentagon is crafting policies/strategies to deal with the now inevitable mass migrations of humans, the loss of low-lying coastal military installations, etc. We talked earlier about Tony Judt's pessimistic views on our future and surely this all sits at the center of his or our concerns.
I generally agree, but believe the well-being of living people should also be a priority. Most AGW enthusiasts have unrealistic expectations for the continuation of warming and sea level rise. The fact is that we are looking at a max. 2 deg. C temperature rise over the next century and a sea level rise of 1/8th inch per year ( i.e. 96 years per foot) . That's temperatures and sea levels about equal to the Medieval warm period.
In short we should include the current welfare of people in our considerations, and take advantage of the ongoing technological improvements we are already seeing . We have the time to solve this problem in an orderly, realistic way that is also protective of human life.
I liked Tony Judt's "Postwar" history of modern Europe very much. He did indeed become more pessimistic in the years that followed, and before his death from ALS (a terrible disease) a few years ago. He wrote a brief history of his last years and struggle with his debilitating disease which I read -- very gripping and sad.
I don't know if you attend to automotive writing very much. I do because much of it is wonderful. For example, just last week I read a piece on a new McLaren model which sports 600 HP. The chap who tested the car wrote that driving the thing is like log-rolling the planet. The legitimate complaint against auto mags is that (like golf or skiing or cycling mags etc) is that they function in tandem with their industries, providing fundamental marketing needs like encouraging demand for new products. I've been reading them for years. My brother, who raced and did ground-up restorations of his race cars and a number of Lotus' just because he loved them, had a collection of thousands of the things going back to the mid 60s. But these writers are car nuts and their integrity is really very consistent. When an editor (it was Motor Trend) chooses to criticize a major media figure for his ignorant blatherings about a car (something I have never seen before) he ain't the voice you ought to ignore. Here's that editorial
I read the editorial, but noted the near complete absence of any technological detail in it. I noted the writer commended it for urban commuting, and "well planned trips". I suspect the latter referred to planned amusements during the required six hour recharging after ~ 5 hours of driving.
Immediately after graduating from Annapolis I ( and many others) bought a Corvette ( I wish I kept it) . However, when I reported to flight training in Pensacola I found the parking lot at the officer's quarters filled with them. Later, after getting married, I owned a Pontiac GTO ( stupid car- huge engine and a two speed automatic transmission). I retired from the Navy driving an Alfa Romeo Spider -- my favorite car. ( Very Italian - if you let go of the wheel it would cut somebody off.)