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Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby Abacus » 02 Jun 2012, 16:50

I find it strange that the thread is titled politics vs climate yet there is very little discussion about the politics that feed our dependence on fossil fuels.

One area that that politics are good at maintaining the status quo is by dishing out massive subsidies to ensure that cheap fossil fuels are available. Defenders will say that cheap energy is a right but the ordinary person really requires very little electricity/fuel for their daily lives but they consume a lot because it is available. The biggest area of impact will be on the transportation of goods which will be passed onto the consumer. Of course the gov't isn't spending the subsidy money so that money can be redistributed to lower taxes/more services.

I'm all for practical initiatives that supply green(er) energy and/or reduce consumption.
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Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby headhonchoII » 02 Jun 2012, 18:33

Actually most governments tax the hell out of fuel rather than subsidize it. Subsidies on fuel are being phased out in India now which is causing a lot of strife but the government has no choice there due to it's fiscal situation.
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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby Abacus » 02 Jun 2012, 20:00

headhonchoII wrote:Actually most governments tax the hell out of fuel rather than subsidize it. Subsidies on fuel are being phased out in India now which is causing a lot of strife but the government has no choice there due to it's fiscal situation.


What? Electricity? Are you including the subsidies/tax breaks that go with every step from exploration to customer usage?

Perhaps I'm mistaken though.
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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby fred smith » 02 Jun 2012, 20:39

Perhaps I'm mistaken though.


Perhaps, chances are that you are...
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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby Dog's_Breakfast » 02 Jun 2012, 21:15

OK, a little bit of energy politics and prices, though I personally prefer to talk about energy technology...

Taiwan is one of those places that subsidizes electricity consumption. Right now, the DPP is raising hell over the recent increase in electric prices. Taipower is a consistent money loser because their rates are set too low, but as a state-owned company politicians decide the rate, not the market.

The main reason why Taipower is recently losing even more money than usual is because of the recent increase in international oil prices. This is one of the big problems with depending of fossil fuels - price instability. Since Taiwan has no domestic fossil fuels and relies entirely on imports, dramatic price increases caused by international politics (ie wars jitters in the Middle East, OPEC manipulations, etc) is a constant threat. A war in Iran (which is entirely possible) could close the Straits of Hormez, leading to a world wide energy crisis - Taiwan would have no defense against that.

Except nuclear. Even though Taiwan has no uranium mines of its own (and thus has to import), uranium (and thorium) are especially "energy dense" fuels. With fourth generation nukes, it would be possible for Taiwan to stockpile several decades worth of fuel. With oil, coal and natural gas, I doubt that Taiwan could stockpile more than a month's supply.

Of course, solar and wind are "fuels" that don't have to be imported. But as we've already discussed, it would pretty much impossible for Taiwan to meet its current needs for power from these sources.

So my point in the above rambling...even if one is not terribly concerned about global warming, there are some other good reasons to get off fossil fuel dependency. If you happen to live in Saudi Arabia, you probably needn't be concerned about an oil shortage, but in energy-starved Taiwan (among many other places), the supply and price of fossil fuels depends very much on the international political scene - even a slight disruption could result in brownouts, blackouts and a rapidly collapsing economy.
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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby finley » 02 Jun 2012, 23:19

One area that that politics are good at maintaining the status quo is by dishing out massive subsidies to ensure that cheap fossil fuels are available. Defenders will say that cheap energy is a right but the ordinary person really requires very little electricity/fuel for their daily lives but they consume a lot because it is available. The biggest area of impact will be on the transportation of goods which will be passed onto the consumer. Of course the gov't isn't spending the subsidy money so that money can be redistributed to lower taxes/more services.


I couldn't agree more. HH, what you say is true, but there are subsidies. The gubmint giveth, and the gubmint taketh away. Nuclear power is a one example, which must have absorbed hundreds of billions in gov't cash over the last few decades. Catastrophe insurance is also underwritten by governments, because the potential fallout (haha) from any nuclear accident could be extremely expensive to fix. Some "subsidies" are a bit more subtle and indirect. For instance, out-of-town supermarkets are often given planning permission with few questions asked, or even given handouts and favours, because they "create jobs". Yet out-of-town supermarkets couldn't exist unless the gov't provided a road network, gave tax breaks to road-freight companies, and encouraged everyone to own cars. Shoppers agree to waste their own time and fuel so that the supermarket can make profits.

Back to nuclear: to a certain extent I agree with DB - the people shouting for "no nukes" generally have very little understanding of the technology - but the people pushing for them often don't, also (present company excepted, of course ;)). The main problem is that a nuclear power station is very, very, VERY complicated, and it can't exist without a supporting "nuclear industry". It's hard for the man in the street (or in parliament) to imagine how much attention to detail is required to build and operate a nuclear plant safely. Few countries can muster the required talent (and regulatory enforcement). 4th-gen plants may well be better, but there is still a finite probability of catastrophic failure, and dire, costly consequences if it happens. That is, a very small number times a very big number is still a big number.

That said, there will be some places forever dependent on nuclear, because they don't have any other realistic options. Current nuclear reactors are (as DB just said) not very good at turning fuel rods into heat, so an improvement in that area would definitely be welcome. Apart from anything else, it means there is a corresponding reduction in waste output - waste that's dangerous for centuries is still a royal pain in the ass.

Of course, solar and wind are "fuels" that don't have to be imported. But as we've already discussed, it would pretty much impossible for Taiwan to meet its current needs for power from these sources.

This is true, but Taiwan could still become that "green island" that the DPP (or was it the KMT?) used to spout off about, imagining that if they said it often enough it would become miraculously true.

Transport is one area: because of Taiwan's geography, demographics, and transport preferences, it would be the ideal place for an automated transport network. It could easily parallel existing roads (have you seen the freeway-in-the-sky next to route 3 south to Hsinchu?) until cars/scooters could be phased out entirely. Taiwanese people could completely avoid learning to drive. Um ... ok, no change there then, but they would pay less for their transport and there's be less risk of maiming.

Then there's building design. Building quality here is only a couple of notches above third-world level, and competent architects and structural engineers seem rare. I've heard there are a couple of celebrity "green" architects, but they're considered cranks and only rolled out for face-saving projects. Design in general is not taught well in Taiwan. I come across all sorts of structural features here that make me think "WTF?". Example: the huge pedestrian plaza outside HongShuLin MRT, which faces onto a two-lane road. One or both lanes are invariably blocked by people dropping off and picking up, and by parked shuttle buses transporting people to the (many) nearby communities. It apparently didn't occur to the designer that a drop-off area might be a good idea.

Agriculture also needs attention. Subsidies for fuel, water, and fertilizers, and inappropriate methods imported from temperate climates are causing massive problems. I was reading a Taiwan gov't website the other day crowing about their 'discovery' of symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria - something which farmers have been using since at least 1850.
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Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby headhonchoII » 03 Jun 2012, 08:31

Here is an interesting comparison of petrol taxes by country. Each country has it's own specific industrial, geographic and economic environment.

In countries such as the UK total tax take on petrol is well over 50%!

http://www.economist.com/node/17101124
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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby Dog's_Breakfast » 03 Jun 2012, 08:54

Since I'm plugging for nuclear power, I feel the need to address nuclear accidents.

To date, there have been three, though the anti-nuke folks will tell you with a straight face that there have been "tens of thousands" of accidents, including the recent "accident" in Taiwan where Taipower replaced two broken bolts during a routine maintenance shutdown (by this method of calculating, there must have been thousands of accidents involving wind power too, but I digress).

Of the three accidents, only the first, Three Mile Island, is a "true accident." I say that because it was simply defective design. A valve in the cooling system failed, the reactor overheated and was destroyed. Although only a small amount of radiation was released and no one was killed, there is no denying that the reactor was inherently unsafe by design. The only upside is that the nuclear industry was forced to do a lot of safety redesigning as a result.

The second accident was Chernobyl, which was a generation one reactor. It was also a bad design, built to produce as much plutonium as possible (for nuclear weapons) - producing electricity was secondary. Despite the poor design, ironically the disaster wasn't a true accident in the sense that it wasn't caused by a mechanical failure or even an operator error. What happened is that a team of "experts" was sent from Moscow to conduct a dangerous experiment on the reactor, which involved shutting down the reactor with all the safety systems disconnected. The operators of the Chernobyl reactor objected to this, but they were overruled. They gritted their teeth and obeyed orders, unhooked backup safety equipment, knowing it could easily turn into a disaster. The experiment was conducted near midnight (because the demand for electricity is low then), so when the evening shift departed, the graveyard shift came on duty not even knowing what was being done. The reactor overheated and caught fire, an entirely predictable outcome. My understanding is that several people later went to jail because of their role in creating the disaster. Of course, whether or not one wishes to call it an "accident" or "sabotage," there is no denying the fact that it was indeed a disaster, the most deadly one in the history of nuclear reactors.

Last accident was, of course, Fukushima Daiichi, a generation-two power plant composed of six reactors. First off, the reactors all came through the earthquake OK. The emergency earthquake detection system did its job and shut down all six reactors almost instantly, the emergency cooling system (which is diesel powered) started automatically. But this points to a major weakness in generation-II design - you need an active cooling system running even when the reactor is turned off. The tsunami arrived about 20 minutes after the earthquake, and carried away the diesel fuel tanks (which were stored outside the building housing the reactors). With no fuel, the diesel generators shut down. There was a backup cooling system which ran off of batteries, and this kicked-in as it was designed to do, but the batteries could only power the pumps for eight hours. Once the batteries were discharged, the cooling system went down, the hot reactor started boiling the water and it evaporated, exposing the core to the open air and causing a meltdown.

There are a few lessons that should be learned from Fukushima. First would be to locate reactors at least 20 meters above sea level (Fukushima was 10 meters, the tsunami was 15 meters). Ironically, a 45-meter high hill was bulldozed when the power plant was constructed, lowering the site to 10 meters - the landfill was used to construct the harbor for delivering uranium. I used Google Earth to look up the elevations of Taiwan's reactors - sadly, the fourth nuclear powerplant (currently under construction) is only 10 meters high - like Fukushima, the site is actually being lowered to make it easier to deliver fuel by ship. That was dumb, and makes me wonder if the project shouldn't be abandoned - it might actually be cheaper to do so, since the design being used is already obsolete and a generation three-plus plant could be up and running in three years.

Another lesson that should be learned is that we need to use generation-four reactors, which eliminate the whole problem of needing a cooling system running for weeks after shutdown. As an added bonus, generation-four plants burn their own plutonium waste (the most troublesome kind of waste, by far) - the Gen-IV plants can burn the waste of Gen-II and Gen-III plants, using it as fuel.

As Finley said, nuclear power is complicated, and the details matter. Unfortunately, the public and politicians want energy policy to be so simple that everything we need to know can be fit on a bumper sticker.

Looks like the USA will soon begin building two new gen-III-plus reactors, the first in decades:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AP1000
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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby finley » 04 Jun 2012, 15:12

sadly, the fourth nuclear powerplant (currently under construction) is only 10 meters high - like Fukushima, the site is actually being lowered to make it easier to deliver fuel by ship. That was dumb, and makes me wonder if the project shouldn't be abandoned - it might actually be cheaper to do so, since the design being used is already obsolete and a generation three-plus plant could be up and running in three years.


I wouldn't trust Taiwanese engineers to design and install a toilet roll holder without causing a major international incident. There are maybe five countries on the entire planet that have 1) the skills 2) the clipboard-wielding, ramrod-up-the-backside culture and 3) the learned-it-the-hard-way experiences with technology to build nuclear power stations correctly. Taiwan is not one of them. Although previous nuclear accidents might not have been actual "accidents", that's probably cold comfort to the people living nearby, for whom the result was much the same. Accidents in general are usually not "accidents": they're invariably caused by some human doing something jaw-droppingly stupid. Ever watched the Discovery Channel series on aircraft crashes? It's quite ... educational. Humans everywhere are equally stupid, I guess, but some cultures tolerate stupid behaviour more readily than others.

Then there's the issue of fuel or waste going astray. I understand breeder reactors didn't become popular in part because people were afraid of excess plutonium - although I believe that problem was soon solved in various ways, after the politicans had lost interest. Personally, I don't think any terrorist organisation will ever be capable of building a nuclear weapon (I mean, a fission bomb). OTOH a "dirty bomb" is dead simple. We happened to drive past the waste dump on Orchid Island the other day. It doesn't look very secure. I bet you could break in and out of there with a second-hand Mi-8, a couple of AKMs, and a good loud "Allahu akbar!". Or you could just pick up a few of the glowing barrels floating gently out to sea.

The bottom line is: if you have some technology that is inherently safe and idiot-proof (such as solar), it's better to use that rather than something that's inherently dangerous - if at all possible.

Just on the subject of fuel taxes/subsidies: it's interesting how the man-in-the-street actually believes fuel subsidies make fuel cheaper. Take Taiwan for instance, where electricity is (was!) heavily subsidized, although only unofficially. Mr Lin probably uses about the same amount of juice as Mr Chen down the street, and most likely pays a similar amount of tax. The government takes some certain slice of Mr Lin's and Mr Chen's tax and gives it to the power company so that the numbers on their respective bills are lower. But, in fact, they've both paid the market rate for their electricity - it's just been made less visible. Something similar happens with fuel tax. Road infrastructure and the externalities associated with vehicle use all have to be paid for, one way or another. The cash can either come out of general taxation, or it can be directly linked to vehicle use. Personally I think the latter is a lot fairer.

So my point in the above rambling...even if one is not terribly concerned about global warming, there are some other good reasons to get off fossil fuel dependency.

Most certainly. There are all sorts of problems associated with excessive energy use (or just a perceived need for it). I know I keep banging on about poverty, but it depresses me how certain countries insist on trying to install expensive, outdated technology - roads and cars, for example - where there is no obvious economic payback and where they do not have the supporting industries (or culture) to make it work. If these places would a) accept that such things are not an indication of progress, but the twilight nightmares of a waning epoch and b) that they can do much better with much less investment, there would be a lot less misery in the world. Climate change doesn't even come into it.

In Taiwan's case, a distributed solar infrastructure would be very difficult to knock out with air strikes. Four nuclear power stations being bombed to rubble - yes, I know, they're hard to crack, but not impossible - that's what they call a "national security issue".
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Re: Politics Vs Climate (and how to stop it)

Postby Dog's_Breakfast » 05 Jun 2012, 07:42

finley wrote:I wouldn't trust Taiwanese engineers to design and install a toilet roll holder without causing a major international incident. There are maybe five countries on the entire planet that have 1) the skills 2) the clipboard-wielding, ramrod-up-the-backside culture and 3) the learned-it-the-hard-way experiences with technology to build nuclear power stations correctly. Taiwan is not one of them.


To a large extent I agree, though I would contend that Taiwanese could learn how to build nuclear power plants if that was any kind of national priority and it was funded. If you are today a young Taiwanese with engineering talent, you wouldn't go into nuclear engineering given the possibility that Taiwan might shut down all their nukes as Japan recently did. Rather, you'd go to China, where the opportunities are. The ability to build and safely maintain nuclear power plants is being lost in Western countries, and the only people with those skills are older and nearing retirement. I expect that any future research and development will be done in China, Russia and possibly South Korea. France and the USA are dropping out of this business and may soon lose the ability to build nuke power plants, though there is a chance of revival if the fossil fuel situation becomes dire (which may happen).

Although previous nuclear accidents might not have been actual "accidents", that's probably cold comfort to the people living nearby, for whom the result was much the same.


Yes, I'm sorry if I gave the wrong impression. The disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima were disasters nonetheless, regardless of their cause. I only meant to emphasize that they weren't mechanical failures, as was the case at Three Mile Island where defective design caused the accident. One might argue that Fukushima was defective, in that it should have been built higher above sea level (amazing that the original site was high enough but was intentionally lowered, and Taiwan is now repeating this mistake). Chernobyl was actually a very crappy design, but it wasn't design failure that caused the disaster. It behooves the designers of future nuclear power plants to build them bulletproof, so that tsunamis and stupidity won't lead to catastrophes.

Then there's the issue of fuel or waste going astray. I understand breeder reactors didn't become popular in part because people were afraid of excess plutonium - although I believe that problem was soon solved in various ways, after the politicans had lost interest.


Old-style breeders produced plutonium that could easily be diverted to weapons. The newest designs make that almost impossible (but not 100% impossible) by "polluting" the plutonium so that it's never enriched enough to support a nuclear explosion. Separating out the plutonium until it becomes "weapons grade" is an extremely tedious and high-tech process that few countries have mastered.

Personally, I don't think any terrorist organisation will ever be capable of building a nuclear weapon (I mean, a fission bomb). OTOH a "dirty bomb" is dead simple.


Fourth generation would also make dirty bombs pretty difficult (I don't want to say "impossible") because there is no need to store large quantities of nuclear waste in pools. The "waste" gets consumed in the reactor. If one was looking to construct a terrorist weapon, it would be easier and deadlier to use toxic chemicals.

The bottom line is: if you have some technology that is inherently safe and idiot-proof (such as solar), it's better to use that rather than something that's inherently dangerous - if at all possible.


I agree 100% that solar is safer than nuclear. Ditto for wind. Ditto for horses and squirrel cages. The big question is whether or not solar, wind, horses and squirrels can provide enough power to run this society. OK, I'm being facetious about the horses and squirrels, but you get my point. Shut down all the nukes in Taiwan, put solar panels on every available rooftop, and you get...brownouts and blackouts. Sure, you will get some power from the panels, and solar hot water heaters mostly work well (not as well in north Taiwan, but reasonably well in the south). Wind I think is a dead loss in Taiwan, but sort of works in some places (along the North Sea coast of Europe, in winter), works really well year-round in a few places (ie Aleutian Islands). My big problem with alternative energy isn't that it won't produce anything - it will indeed produce power - I just don't think it comes anywhere near what is needed for the type of society we live have on our crowded planet. In crowded Taipei, I don't see how solar panels can even make a dent in power consumption - just try running the MRT or high-speed rail on them. But I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

The response most greenies give to the above argument is that we, as a society, need to "power down." By this I think they mean we have to go back to a simpler lifestyle, ride a bicycle, read by candlelight, plow fields with horses, heat and cook with firewood, do away with air travel, sea travel allowed only by wind-driven ships - basically 19th century living. Which might be fine if we had the same population the world had in the 19th century (around one billion).

Of course, the world may get back to one billion (or less) people if we continue on our present path of environmental destruction. A nuclear war could go a long way to achieving this goal - one way in which nuclear power can definitely contribute to reducing fossil fuel consumption.
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