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I’m a working stiff, so lacked time earlier during this past week to respond further to the article by author Ellen Brown (Could Nature’s Own Fuel Save Us From Greenhouse Effect and Electric Grid Failure?) and to comments by Martin Goodman that follow Brown's article.

I appreciate the article and all comments both for their information and for their mental provocations – and despite gratuitous ad hominem presumptions in some of Martin’s statements. After all, besides being a math PhD (a credentialed scientist, as some see it), I try also to be an old-style liberal – i.e., to keep an open mind, and be ready to admit to and remedy a lack of latest knowledge and of the most enlightened perspectives – lacks which owe largely to insufficient time and energy to track many interesting advances and changes.

In particular, I have revised my thinking and accept the claim that use of civilian nuclear power to date has been far less fatal (apart from possible unaccounted effects of radiation from mining wastes) than use of oil and gas and coal. (On the other hand, I have no reason yet to accept the claim – made without citing even a single example, sensationalist or other – that somehow ‘solar power kills more people than nuclear’.)

Hemp

Concerning hemp, the article and comments leave open one key question and also provoke two further observations:

We should distinguish between practicality of using hemp as fuel long-term as part of a sustainable future, versus what to do in the short term to reduce greenhouse gas emission rates.

  • As noted, we should distinguish between practicality of using hemp as fuel long-term as part of a sustainable future, versus what to do in the short term to reduce greenhouse gas emission rates. For the short term, will hemp actually help? More precisely, are there known specific situations and tasks (and if so, please identify them!) where use of hemp as fuel typically will produce a given amount of useful energy with overall less greenhouse emission compared with use of low-sulfur oil or natural gas? (Here, ‘overall less’ calls for taking account of all processes which enable the end use of hemp as fuel.) This is the key question for short term climate action. A couple statements in the article state abstractly that hemp and other biofuels ‘could’ or ‘can promise to’ reduce emissions, but nowhere in the article or comments do I see any clear claim – let alone source to substantiate the claim – that the answer to the key question is YES.
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  • The article notes that hemp’s rapid growth enables it to fix (sequester) carbon rapidly (at least compared with some other plants). For climate action purposes, that’s a good reason to grow hemp where it’s opportune and economic to do so, but – absent a YES on the above question – it is not a good enough reason for now burning hemp as fuel.
  • The case of biofuels illustrates that the term ‘renewable’ can be misleading if viewed simplistically, as a yes-no attribute. In a sense, biofuels are ‘renewable’, but only conditionally. Eventual renewal of a given amount of consumed biofuel takes time (years) and depends on suitable and consistent human action (to ensure regrowth). By contrast, solar and wind are speedily and automatically renewed: the amount of solar power which comes your way tomorrow scarcely depends on whether you do or do not capture solar power today; ditto for wind power.

Energy Future

Concerning the roles of various non-carbon energy sources for action on climate, I have appreciated perusing Martin’s recommended ‘road map to nowhere’ (RMTN) reference. That reference aims at discrediting a single omnibus proposed road map (RM) ‘solution’ for running the USA on about 1600 gigawatts of non-carbon source power. Both RM and the RMTN counter proposal should now be updated to make more sense in terms of today’s knowledge, technology, and economics. Both the RM ‘renewables-only’ and the RMTN ‘nuclear’-focused scenarios in fact rely on technology that must still be worked out – or at least be far more widely demonstrated and fine-tuned for acceptance. That’s inevitable and OK. We would never have had a lunar landing in 1969 had we been stuck then with the technology and preconceptions which a few years earlier had led the US to dare to launch the lunar landing program.

RMTN effectively makes the point I would make: we don’t want to be – and according to RMTN we don’t have to be – stuck with old-generation nuclear which in order to be (with few exceptions) safe has involved massive costs and inconveniences and inflexibilities of scale owing to needs of shielding, safety protocols, decontamination, and waste disposal. I read with interest the accounts of the KEPCO (Korea Electric Power Company) technology and the potential for MSR design. By the same token, contra Martin’s summary comment, RMTN neither claims nor demonstrates that we need or should evaluate solar power on the basis just of past technology, or that solar power has already fatally proved to be a failure in any absolute or lasting sense: solar technology too has promise and a way to go.

As RMTN sometimes admits, major technical problems remain open and must be solved no matter what non-carbon technologies are to be used massively and for very long. For one big instance, vehicles need to be able to store and use energy-dense non-carbon fuel – whether for electric power (from a super-battery) or for combustion (from hydrogen – produced by electrolysis of water). RMTN repeatedly brags that nuclear power plants provide all-hours reliable power versus solar not so doing, but unfortunately even the hypothesized Gen-4 nuclear plants don’t scale down to autonomously powering typical vehicles.

joe weinstein

By the way, RMTN also brags that its preferred nuclear fuel for molten salt reactors (MSRs), thorium, is found everywhere, even in beach sands. The reference to beach sands in fact gave me doubts, that I did not have earlier, about economical thorium supply: beach sand has lately become a prized and in some places endangered commodity!

Joe Weinstein