Food politics

8 December, 2006

An interesting piece in The Economist discussing issues around, organic food, fair trade and ideas about embedded energy, or food miles. Some of these topics I’ve mentioned in earlier posts.

On the claim organic food is better for the environment:

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food… The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

On fair trade coffee:

The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium—in effect, a subsidy—both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist” (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place…

But perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers. Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.

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Safety, risk and nuclear power

30 November, 2006

It has been pointed out by many people, including on this blog by Sacha (quoting James Lovecock), that nuclear is much safer than pretty much any source of power for electricity. The relevant comparison was that per Terawatt-year of electricity generated there are 342 deaths for coal, 885 deaths for Hydro, 85 deaths from Natural Gas and only 8 for Nuclear. This comparison appears to be using a low figure for the Chernobyl accident as the WHO finds around double that number of deaths directly to the Chernobyl accident, but even so that brings the total to 16 per TWy, still well less than the next most safe method, Natural Gas. Hydro rates poorly due to some severe accidents with dams bursting in India that have killed in the thousands each.

Death of course is not the only risk associated with nuclear. Thousands more have had thyroid cancer directly as a result of Chernobyl although most have been treated and over 99% have recovered it is still a cost to bear. Then there is the contamination of land and the wholesale abandonment of the surrounding area. Also this is not to mention that we don’t really have much historical data to base our estimate of how bad or how frequent a meltdown can be. Still if we look at the total historical human costs and average over all the power that has successfully been generated by nuclear the human cost still comes out as being low, certainly lower than coal power.

If that is the case then isn’t it rational that we should adopt nuclear on the basis of safety? What that kind of comparison misses out is that people regard riskier situations as different to less risky situations for similar expectations. Thus although most nuclear power plants will sit there quite happily not hurting anyone, the rare one that does is potentially extremely hazardous. It is reasonable to treat this volatile outcome as much more serious than the equivalent. We do after all routinely pay away money to insurance companies when we would be better, on an expected outcome basis, to save the money ourselves.

If we believe that nuclear is not just a bit safer (in terms of deaths) than other forms of electricity but significantly safer, then surely this is enough to outweigh our risk aversion? I would say yes, but I could quite easily understand others coming to the no conclusion as well even if they were fairly well informed of the facts and the true risks.

That said I believe it is clear that many people over estimate the risk of nuclear compared with other risks that they don’t even consider or take for granted. On the other hand its also seductively easy to look at nuclear power’s track record in the west and do the reverse. It’s easy to believe there are no black swans if you’ve never seen one. We know catastrophic accidents are rare, but have we been lucky or unlucky seeing as few as we have seen?


Can we have nuclear power without bipartisan support?

21 November, 2006

The key sticking factor in developing a nuclear industry would seem to be the political risk. Would any company take on the risk of building a nuclear power plant while the likely alternate government is opposed to the plan?

With a construction lead time of 10-15 years, this is likely to encompass at least one change of government, and a likely 2 full rotations of the senate. Without significant financial guarantees it is difficult to see why any company would take on the risk of having a billion dollar venture, with a high likelihood of crashing down on change of government. As the report summary states on page 10:

An efficient and predictable regulatory process is an essential prerequisite for a nuclear power
industry. With its high capital costs, nuclear power is very sensitive to delays and uncertainty in obtaining approvals.

While this is mostly talking about governments altering the requirements, an opposition hostile to the very idea would seem to pose an even greater risk. This means the government initiating the deal would essentially need to tie some sort of financial guarantee into the project. While a policy reversal for the ALP once construction has begun would not be out of the question, the chance that they may decide to roll back these changes as well makes it a very risky regulatory environment.

Personally I think this is a shame, as we should have all options on the table to reduce CO2 emissions and nuclear is still one of the few viable base load power sources.

Update: Of course the political risk is not only federal but also regional, with several States already coming out and saying they would fight it in the courts, although given the recent WorkChoices decision it appears unlikley they would win according to this report.


Draft nuclear report

21 November, 2006

The draft report of the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review has been released and is available in whole and parts here. I haven’t yet been able to read the documents, but from the summaries appearing in the news they aren’t telling us anything that wasn’t already known. In short that nuclear is more expensive than coal in Australia, and only becomes cost effective if we put a price on carbon emissions. With regards safety, it finds it to be safer than other energy industries, and poses no additional nuclear proliferation risk.

I’ll try to comment when I actually read more of the report.


Government plays Enviro-Santa

26 October, 2006

The government announced yesterday $75 million dollars for a 154 MW concentrated solar power plant to be built in rural northern Victoria. Although the Peter Costello claims its going to cost $280 million, the company building the project Solar Systems, say it will cost $420 million. An additional $50 million is being contributed by Victoria. Perhaps PC is talking about the private costs and has missed $15 million?

The company describes the technology like this.

The power station will use technology known as ‘Heliostat Concentrator Photovoltaic’ (HCPV). It will consist of fields of heliostats (sun-tracking mirrors) focusing sunlight on receivers. The receivers house photovoltaic (PV) modules, which consist of arrays of ultra high-efficiency solar cells that convert the sunlight directly into electricity. Photovoltaic literally means ‘electricity-from-light’. The heliostat control system, PV modules and cooling system are patented by Solar Systems.

Solar Systems has collaborated with US company Spectrolab (a Boeing company) to optimise ultra high efficiency space technology for earth based power stations. The resulting photovoltaic cell arrays are three times more efficient than typical solar panels. Further cell efficiency improvements are underway.
….
This is a new generation of solar technology,” Mr Lasich said. “The secret is to be able to make a solar power module work about 1500 times harder than typical solar panels. If you can do this at high efficiency using low cost materials, you have the recipe for an infinite supply of clean energy at an affordable price. “This new power station will demonstrate these principles and produce the most affordable solar energy yet generated.”

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Carbon Emission Trading

25 October, 2006

There have been a few interesting pieces around recently on the subject of carbon emissions trading. The first is The Economist (subscription only) noting some of the failures of the European carbon trading market, which has seen prices of CO2 emissions collapse due to the issuing of too many free permits.

In order to get industry to swallow this scheme, allowances were handed out free to companies, rather than being (as economists wanted) auctioned. In power-generation (Europe’s most-polluting industry) companies passed the price of carbon credits on to customers and pocketed the value of the allowances. According to a report by IPA Energy Consulting, Britain’s power-generators alone made a profit of around £800m ($1.5 billion) from the scheme in its first year.

As the article notes, this failure is not a reason to rubbish the idea of emission markets altogether, but it is a good lesson in the mistakes that can be made and the need to either slash the number of permits or auction them off if the scheme is going to be worthwhile.
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Geothermal energy in Iceland

11 October, 2006

Old news, but I didn’t read it at the time and given I’ve mentioned Geothermal energy in Australia before, I thought I’d link to it anyway. The Economist from nearly a month ago mentions some developments that have been making geothermal power at either extreme (low or high temperature) more usable. The low temperature part I think is particularly interesting.

Not all geothermal activity is hot enough to bring water to the boil. The Chena hot springs, in Alaska, for example, are just right for bathers, at a porridge-like 43°C, but not much use for traditional geothermal power generation. Even within the spa’s wells, the water is only 74°C. Nonetheless, its owners, in conjunction with United Technologies, an engineering conglomerate, have worked out how to generate power from the tepid flow—the coldest ever used in a geothermal plant.

The power station at Chena uses the spring water to heat up R134a, a fluid hitherto employed mainly as a refrigerant. Since R134a has a relatively low boiling point, the water is hot enough to convert it into a gas. This gas is used to drive the turbine just as steam would be. Icy water from a nearby river then cools the gas back to liquid form, to start the cycle again.

The designers of the plant at Chena, however, managed to slash their capital outlay by substituting mass-produced parts from air-conditioners for the bespoke components of most geothermal plants. They reckon their design could be mimicked anywhere there is a difference in temperature of at least 50°C between heating and cooling water. That would apply not only to a huge number of geothermal sites, but also to many oil wells, which often bring up warm water from great depths along with their more valuable output.

The idea that you can use off the shelf construction materials to build cheap “warm” power stations is great. These could be much more widely available than the current deep hot rocks that we are drilling for in Australia is interesting. I’m increasingly convinced that some mix of geothermal is going to be an important part of our greenhouse friendly energy usage in the future along with distributed wind power and perhaps nuclear.
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