Fusion in the Not-So-Distant Future

Using fusion reactors in place of fission reactors is not a new idea, but the technology has always seemed so far away. However, according to research done by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), construction of the world’s largest experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor will be completed by 2020. The ITER consists of seven countries: the European Union (EU), Japan, India, China, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. If this reactor is successful, it will pave the way for eventually replacing fission power plants with fusion power plants.

 The difference between fusion and fission is that fusion takes heavy atoms (uranium 235 is the most commonly used isotope in industry) and splits them into smaller atoms, producing energy. The heat from this energy is used to generate steam from water to turn a turbine, which powers a generator to produce electricity. Fusion, on the other hand, takes two smaller isotopes (such as deuterium and tritium, which are isotopes of hydrogen) and fuses them together to make a heavier atom (such as helium). Like fusion, the energy from this reaction powers a steam-turbine system to generate electricity.

So what is wrong with our fission power plants that we even have to think about fusion? Fission reactors are usually about 30% to 45% efficient. As Dr. Webber has discussed in class, fission nuclear power plants also generate some very dangerous radioactive waste that we do not really know how to deal with yet. Fusion is a very attractive alternative because it produces no carbon dioxide and is expected to produce 10 times the amount of energy that is required to power the reaction [1]. One of the most attractive aspects of fusion, though, is that it produces a minimal amount of radioactive waste. This is because the deuterium and tritium isotopes chosen for the fusion reaction in the to-be-built reactor do not have a long term legacy of radioactive waste. Not to mention, these hydrogen isotopes are naturally abundant in Earth’s oceans [2]. We would not have to go digging around, looking for fuel for fission anymore.

 If fission is so great, why have we not started using it by now? The fusion reaction is extremely hard to contain. Fission is relatively easy to induce compared to fusion. In order to make two atoms fuse together, you need to give the atoms a great amount of potential and kinetic energy to want to even go near each other, let alone fuse. In fact, you would need to heat the gases consisting of the hydrogen isotopes to temperatures greater than 100 million degrees Celsius. That is about 10 times the temperature at the center of the sun! Once fused together, the fuel enters the fourth state of matter: plasma. Needless to say, no material on Earth is able to withstand the high temperatures of plasma [2].

 The solution for this is to exploit the physical properties of plasma itself. Plasma consists of charged particles that can be directed and confined by magnetic forces. The particles in the plasma will follow magnetic field lines. Magnetic fields are not affected by heat. ITER’s tokamak reactor will utilize a donut-shaped reactor chamber, called a torus. This torus will use magnetic fields to shape the plasma into a ring-shape, continually spinning the plasma in the torus chamber and preventing the fuel from touching the container walls [3]. When I think of magnetic fields, I automatically imagine refrigerator magnets. So to me, thinking that plasma can be contained by something as small (or should I say as strong?) as a magnetic field is somewhat scary. Of course, the magnetic fields that the torus will have will be much stronger than the refrigerator magnets I am thinking of, but the science is still unfathomable to me, as I am sure it is for many other people as well.

 Many people are also concerned about the safety of these fusion reactors. At first I thought that if the fusion reaction somehow escapes from its containment unit that it would just go on to consume everything in its path for the reaction, and the reaction would go out of control. However, Aris Apollonatos, who is the communications leader for the EU branch of the ITER project, says that there is no risk of meltdown or runaway reactions because the plasma will cool itself and stop the process if anything should go wrong [1]. While this makes sense to me, I feel that it would still take a long time for the plasma to cool down from such high temperatures before being safe enough to be around. Though, I am pretty sure that they will have adequate safety measures in place in case anything goes wrong. This reactor is still highly experimental, so they have to be extremely cautious.

 Overall, fusion is definitely a promising alternative source of energy to what we have available now. The technology now has made fusion reactors a not-so-distant possibility. I am interested in seeing the result of ITER’s fusion reactor and what it will do for the world’s energy landscape.

 

Resources:

  1. http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/global-observer/building-the-worlds-largest-nuclear-fusion-reactor/10646
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11541383
  3. http://www.iter.org/sci/plasmaconfinement

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Belgium’s Battery Island

One of the largest hurdles facing renewable energy is intermittency.  Renewable energy is often available during off-peak hours or only during parts of the day.  Both situations seem to require some sort of storage in order to balance the load and provide a continual electricity supply. Belgium Battery Island

Belgium has side-stepped the battery issue in their plans for a pump-storage “battery” island near their offshore wind farms in the North Sea.  The island is planned to be 3 km in diameter and will be located around 4 km off the coast of West Flanders.  The project is slated to be completed in the next five years and will consist of a horseshoe-shaped island with a large central water reservoir.  Upon completion, the island would use excess electricity generated from the wind farm to pump water out of the reservoir.  The energy is recovered again later when water is released back into the reservoir through a hydro power plant at the end of one of the horseshoe legs.  The pump-storage technique is traditionally used in mountainous regions where water is pumped to higher elevations when electricity is cheaper and then released during peak demand.  The Belgian battery island is an innovative display of this traditional technology.

The integration of this technique with renewable offshore energy is a very interesting solution to the dilemma of renewable intermittency.  Belgium is phasing out its nuclear program and replacing most of that electricity generation with wind power.  In 2011, the country had just 1,078 MW of wind power connected to the grid, but production is expected to expand to over 4,000 MW by the year 2020 generating a very real need for some sort of battery to help balance load.  The creation of a pump-storage island battery is a very innovative solution to their intermittency dilemma.

 

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An Overview of Austin Energy’s New Smart Thermostat Program

In late April Austin Energy announced that customers participating in a new smart thermostat program would be eligible to receive an $85 rebate on qualifying thermostats. The new rebate program is similar to the Power Saver program, which provided free programmable thermostats to customers in exchange for allowing Austin Energy to remotely cycle the thermostats during periods of peak electricity demand.

One of the goals of the new program is to further reduce peak demand during the summer months, which Austin Energy said has already been reduced by up to 40 megawatts through the free thermostat program [1]. In exchange for the $85 rebate, Austin Energy retains the ability to remotely cycle on and off the new smart thermostats in participating households from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. for 10-15 days during the hottest months.

The program covers three smart thermostats, including options from Nest, Filtrete and Ecobee. Below is a cost comparison chart of the different thermostats based on the retail prices on www.amazon.com, as of May 4, 2013 [2].

Smart Thermostat Cost Comparison with Rebate

These programmable smart thermostats allow consumers to access and manage home heating and cooling controls from a computer or mobile device, although certain models require additional equipment in order to obtain these benefits. According Austin Energy, the thermostats can help households reduce cooling and heating bills by up to 20 percent. Some research has also shown that smart thermostats can improve overall temperature control and extend the lifetime of heating and cooling equipment in the home [3]

However, other studies have shown that installing smart thermostats does not lead to consumer savings, particularly for households that are already energy conscious consumers [4]. Given that Austin Energy consumers must opt-in to the new smart thermostat rebate program—and that some of those consumers are already energy conscious consumers—it may not lead to significant savings for most households.

Sources

[1] Austin Energy. Accessed May 2, 2013. http://www.austinenergy.com/About%20Us/Newsroom/Press%20Releases/2013/smartThermostatProgram.htm

[2] Austin Energy.

[3] Saha, A., M. Kuzlu, and M. Pipattanasomporn. “Demonstration of a home energy management system with smart thermostat control.” In Innovative Smart Grid Technologies (ISGT), 2013 IEEE PES, pp. 1-8. IEEE, 2013.

[4] Surles, William, and Gregor P. Henze. “Evaluation of automatic priced based thermostat control for peak energy reduction under residential time-of-use utility tariffs.” Energy and Buildings 49 (2012): 99-108.

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Green Patent Pilot Program

In 2009, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) instituted the Green Patent Pilot Program. The program encouraged the development of new, green technologies by offering an expedited process on patent approval for technologies meeting certain “green” criteria.  Beyond demonstrating a technology proven concept, eligible technologies must also demonstrate “a single invention directed to environmental quality, conserving energy, developing renewable energy resources or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” [1] Under the typical patent application process, a typical patent filing takes over 26 months. Under the Green Patent Pilot Program, this time is reduced to approximately 49 days. [2] This is an important advantage for companies exploring green technologies to leverage, because it allows companies to bring green technologies to market more quickly.

The pilot program was intended to last until 2010 or until 3,500 applications had been placed on the expedited track, whichever occurred first. While the program has been heralded as a success, the pilot program did not cease until late 2012 due to extensions granted based on the underwhelming number of applications. [3]

The pilot program was intended to encourage more innovation from green startups by expediting intellectual property protection more for market entry. However, based on research, more large companies used the Green Patent Pilot Program than startups or small companies. For example, GE accounted for over 116 patents in the total program. [4] If the aim was truly to encourage green technology by removing barriers to entry for startups, a more viable policy could have included reducing the cost of patent filing instead of solely rushing the patenting process.

References

  1. http://www.greenpatentblog.com/2011/12/21/uspto-green-tech-pilot-program-begins-final-descent/
  2. http://www.law360.com/articles/208434/uspto-extends-green-patent-pilot-program
  3. http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1188&context=iplr
  4. http://www.uspto.gov/news/pr/2011/11-53.jsp

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Why do we fear smart meters but love credit cards?

People currently debate the benefits and costs of smart meters. On the one hand, they allow automatic reporting, time-of-use pricing, and usage statistics to customers. This allows utilities to reduce costs (no more meter readers), manage generation more efficiently, charge customers more fairly, and give customers the feedback they need to adjust their consumption behavior. On the other hand, there are concerns over privacy, potential hacking/security risks associated wireless data transfer, skepticism regarding savings, and even health fears. To me, there are a lot of concerns here, but I want to address the one that seems the most prevalent in the United States and Texas specifically: privacy.

In the current legislative session, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas proposed SB 241 in the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce to allow residents the ability to opt out of smart meters, citing personal privacy. In SB 1219, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth wrote legislation that required customers opt-in to third-party affiliates getting the data being sent to utilities. Privacy is a big concern for Texans. That being said, why are smart meters being treated differently than other data-intensive products? Specifically,  what them different than credit cards?

By and large, credit cards and smart meters have many parallels: both track customer consumption, whether it be energy or other goods. Both technologies provide the majority of their benefit to the business. Utilities can run more efficiently and charge more fairly. Banks and payments networks make huge profits from high interest rates and convenient spending. Both have the potential to sell their tracking data to third parties. Both utilities and credit card companies have an inherent interest that conflicts with the customer (buy as much stuff/electricity as possible).

There are some noteworthy differences: Smart meters need limited opt-out or else the utility benefits are highly restricted. The benefits for customers is much more nebulous for utility customers than it is for credit card users. Utility customers don’t know how much money they’ll save. In fact, if they use a lot of power during peak times, their bill could actually increase. The benefits are also less immediate. A credit swipe is immediate; it saves your pocket from change; it allows you to carry debt until payday. Smart meters are more like the savings from warehouse retailers like Costco and Sam’s Club. There is an upfront cost with membership and even buying in bulk – you buy 100 rolls of toilet paper  instead of 10 – but over time you see savings. This is much less alluring than the instant gratification/benefit of credit cards.

For smart meters to overcome privacy fears, they need policy structures that make privacy rules transparent. It also needs to continue havimg this popular debate. Just as credit cards took decades to become ubiquitous, smart meters must address legitimate public concerns and fears or else it will continue to struggle for adoption.

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The Future of Nuclear Waste in the US

The issue of nuclear waste has been a hotbed of contention by many senators and policy makers a-like for many years. Recently four senators have proposed legislation that will enforce some of the recommendations made by President Barack Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.  The recommendations proposed by the legislation will be seen below.

The first recommendation is the formation of a new government agency outside of the Department of Energy. The specific legislation labelled this new agency as the Nuclear Waste Administration. The proposed legislation will give the Nuclear Waste Administration control of the Nuclear Waste Fund. The Nuclear Waste Fund is a tax payer supplemented fund that is charged per use of nuclear power. This fund is for the disposal of commercial nuclear waste. Furthermore, the proposed Nuclear Waste Administration would get supplemented for dealing with nuclear waste from defense agencies.

The second recommendation proposed by the legislation will provide a means of separating commercial nuclear waste from defense waste. This has long been a major issue with the past large scale storage solution, Yucca Mountain.

The legislation proposes that the Nuclear Waste Administration will be headed by an administrator that is appointed by the President of the United States.

I am not completely sold on the idea that this administration would take care of the nuclear waste issues. How much money was spent on Yucca Mountain and with no results? I feel like this legislation is taking a step in the right direction but it is not going to fix the solution.

[1]  http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2013/04/30/a-new-authority-for-nuclear-waste/?ss=business%3Aenergy

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An Effective Reverse Energy Weapon?

Much coverage about using energy as a weapon has been on the traditional energy weapon: the refusal of producing nations to supply consuming ones.  The effect of this was a decrease in supply and increase in price in those consuming nations that were affected.  The energy weapon has been used very effectively historically.  For example, the 1973 oil embargo drove supplies in the United States down, prices up, and created a gasoline shortage that caused thousands of people to wait in lines for fuel around the nation.  Even today, supplying nations wield some power.  For example, in 2008 Saudi Arabia was threatened with sanctions for its refusal to raise production in response to high worldwide prices.  Also, Canada has used threats of supply interruptions as a bargaining chip with the United States over the years in order to affect US trade policy.

Recently, however, a new “reverse” energy weapon has been used.  In response to nuclear ambitions by Iran, the United States and the European Union have lead a worldwide coalition of countries in sanctioning Iran through the refusal to purchase its oil.  In 2011, Iranian oil revenue was $95 billion.  As an effect of the sanctions, oil revenue for 2012 fell 27.4% to $69 billion:

Graph of iran's crude and condensate exports, as explained in the article text[1]

According to the US Energy Information Agency, oil revenues account for 80% of Iran’s export revenue and 50% to 60% of its government’s revenue.  Clearly, the sanctions are having an impact on the ability of the government to fund its operations.

Additionally, the sanctions are more comprehensive than previous rounds.  They impact both foreign investment and technology transfers into Iran, hampering production.  Specifically, sanctions have “have prompted a number of cancellations of upstream projects and have resulted in declining oil production capacity.  Sanctions have also impeded the import of refined products, effectively reshaping the midstream sector and forcing Iran to become self-sufficient.” [2]

US and EU policies have clearly demonstrated the ability to effectively use the oil weapon today, albeit in a method rarely feasible in the past.

[1]  http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=11011

[2]  http://www.eia.gov/countries/cab.cfm?fips=IR

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