Wanna Save the World? Free the Market.

What’s needed in the energy sector is an innovation boom.We need to develop technologies that will simply out compete fossil fuels. What we need is to hold true to Smith’s observation: free trade, free immigration, and free markets.

I never intended to write a three part series on energy for this blog, but I felt I was starting to make an argument for something, and that I should probably do my best to finish it. However, my strict 500 word policy left me cutting corners a lot, and today’s post will be no different.

In the first part of this series, I talked about developing a new framework for thinking about energy policy (Safety, Efficiency, Economy, Sustainability), the problem with fossils fuels, possible solutions to those problems, and then problems with those solutions. In the second part, I tried to argue that a new form of nuclear energy, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, is our best solution for the world’s energy future. The LFTR is safe, efficient, economical, and sustainable. But as a friend of mine pointed out, solar and wind technologies will become more viable options in the future as technology grows. He’s absolutely right.

We have been cursed by our prosperity. There has been so much abundance since the end of the Second World War, that we take economic and technological progress as a given. I live a life filled with many more advantages than even someone like J. P. Morgan did 100 years ago.  But the truth is, for much of human history, there was very little change in personal wealth from one generation to the next. A poor peasant was born, lived, and died with almost no chance of living a life above subsistence. We don’t live in a world like that anymore. The idea that one generation wouldn’t be substantially better off than their parents is almost anathema to us.

But, if you were to ask yourself how it is that “the West” became so prosperous, you might find yourself spiraling down into a very deep rabbit-hole. Economists and philosophers have been debating this issue for awhile now, but a few things seem to be agreed upon. Adam Smith, in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, laid out a set of principles he thought distinguished rich countries from poor ones. The book is extremely dense, and, try as I might, I’ve never gotten through it all. Smith makes the observation that rich countries have better institutions than poor countries. They are generally economically freer, they value free trade over tariffs, and they are countries that attract and accept immigrants.

Smith was writing in a time when Great Britain (under the infamous King George III) wasn’t exactly a paragon of those virtues. But the United States took these principles and ran with them. It’s why the U.S. overtook the UK as the world’s leading industrial power by 1880, when it had been (only 100 years before) a rural backwater clinging to life on the Atlantic coast.

What’s needed in the energy sector is an innovation boom.We need to develop technologies that will simply out compete fossil fuels. What we need is to hold true to Smith’s observation: free trade, free immigration, and free markets.

Your Love Keeps LFTR Me Higher

“…when humanity learned to do without slaves, and made carbon our slave, we began to learn what it meant to be civilized people. Imagine the profound changes to our society when we free ourselves from the barbarity of fossil fuel. “


First, a caveat (which does not count toward my 500 word limit):

Yesterday I wrote about SEES (Safety, Efficiency, Economy, and Sustainability) as a framework for understanding our energy solutions in the future. I wrote that while solar and wind meet several of these requirements, only nuclear, (and only new forms of nuclear in particular) satisfy the SEES. A friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that it was perhaps illogical of me to judge current forms of solar and wind against the nuclear of the future. He may have a point. But whereas LFTR technology is already developed and waiting to be implemented, proposed solar and wind technologies still seem to fall short. I haven’t seen anything in solar and wind that looks like the panacea the LFTR might be. This is not to say that we may develop viable solar and wind techs in the future. More on that in a few days.

We split the atom at the end of WWII not for energy needs, but for warfare. We developed the atomic bomb in 1945, but we didn’t begin thinking about nuclear as a power source until 1947 (and it wouldn’t be until 1954 that a nuclear plant was connected to a power-grid). In the early days of nuclear, emphasis was placed on heavy water reactors that used uranium (specifically uranium 233/235) as the nuclear catalyst. This is for two reasons. First, we understood how uranium worked within a reactor because we had been building bombs using the same process, and second, heavy water reactors produce plutonium (specifically plutonium 239) which is preferable in bomb tech to uranium due to its more fissionable character.

In a “typical” nuclear reactor (“typical” is used here in quotes because there are many different ways of doing nuclear), uranium 233 or 235 is used to generate heat within a reactor. This heat is then transferred through a heat exchange to outside water sources which boil to produce steam which then spins turbines for power generation. These reactors need to be kept cool in order to prevent meltdown, and water is circulated within the reactor to regulate temperature. However, because the temperature within the reactor reaches 450º Celsius,  the reactor must be kept pressurized in order to keep the coolant water in a liquid state. Meltdown occurs when power is lost to the pressurization system, the water flashes to steam, and the reactor can no longer be kept cool.

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor mitigates many of the concerns of traditional heavy water reactors. Instead of water, the LFTR uses molten salt as a coolant and propellant. Since salt is already liquid at 450º Celsius, the reactor does not need to be pressurized, and the chance of meltdown is therefore virtually non existent. Thorium is also “fertile” as opposed to “fissile”, meaning the nuclear waste created within the reactor cannot be made into a bomb. Thorium is one of the most abundant rare-earth materials in the earth’s crust, and since the LFTR consumes 98% of the inputs (as opposed to 0.7% in uranium based reactors), we have a virtually limitless supply of thorium energy.

Like I said, the thorium based reactor is an already developed technology. Chinese and U.S. firms are already working together on developing market ready LFTR technologies as a way to combat climate change and secure our energy future. I can’t tell you how excited this technology makes me. It may be a silver bullet. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about LFTR implementation: how it might take shape, and how the LFTR might change the very way we view the world and each other. As LFTR evangelist Kirk Sorensen often says, when humanity learned to do without slaves, and made carbon our slave, we began to learn what it meant to be civilized people. Imagine the profound changes to our society when we free ourselves from slavery of fossil fuels.

Next Up: The Backyard Thermo-Nuclear Reactor

Let’s Talk about SEES, baby.

It’s becoming harder and harder for mainstream conservatives to deny the dramatic changes in global climate. Whether it’s record flooding coinciding with record drought, street fights in India over dwindling fresh water resources, or orcas appearing in the arctic, the climate is changing in dramatic ways.  If we’re going to combat climate change seriously, we need to dramatically reevaluate how we see energy production.

In my mind, there are four characteristics which must determine how we approach energy production in the future. These are Safety, Efficiency, Economy, and Sustainability (SEES). Any new forms of energy must be able to out compete fossil fuels in price per kilowatt. New energy technologies must also use their resources efficiently and safely, and, perhaps most importantly, new energy sources must be (or virtually be) in limitless supply.

Fossil fuels fail to meet three out of the four of these. They are not safe , they are not efficient, and they are certainly not sustainable.  But as it stands right now, fossils are out-competing alternative energy technologies. In the new annual report from the Energy Information Administration, we can see that fossils are far cheaper to produce than any other form of energy production currently on the market and are likely to remain that way. This is all the more shocking when you consider that the gas in your car was dug up half a world away, shipped across the planet, refined, and then distributed to your local Circle K. Milk is almost twice as expensive as gasoline even though the process for getting milk to the consumer is far less intensive.

Solar and wind fare better than fossils when judged on SEES, but even they fail to meet all four qualifications. Without massive subsidy, solar and wind are just too expensive, and the EIA report doesn’t even factor in the upfront cost of purchasing solar panels, or the installation, or the walls of batteries that are needed to maintain quality of life. This is all beside the fact that the manufacture of photovoltaic cells is highly toxic.

Only nuclear satisfies the SEES. Now, wait. Yes. I am aware of Fukushima and Chernobyl. And, yes. I get it. Nuclear is only 0.7% efficient in getting the energy out of the inputs. Yes. I am aware that according the EIA report, nuclear is almost 3 times as expensive to produce as fossils. And yes, I know. Uranium is not in limitless (or virtually limitless) supply. But I’m not talking about the way in which we do nuclear right now, I’m talking about the way we’re going to do nuclear in the future. What I’m talking about is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).

What’s needed in the energy market is innovation and invention. If we can manage to cut through the politics of these issues, we can reduce energy regulation, reduce market manipulation through subsidies and credits, and we can begin, really begin, to take this problem seriously.

Next up: Let’s Talk About the LFTR.