• Our energy choices
    January 17,2013

    Recent articles have shown that our energy choices and policies will affect the growth of business in Vermont. Vermont now has nearly the highest cost of electricity in the U.S., and it is rising faster than in most other states.

    Wind, solar, biomass and geothermal renewable energy sources may someday evolve to meet our total energy demands, but an honest examination of those sources now shows that they are: too costly, too weak, very inefficient and have numerous negative implications and related problems that make them poor choices for significant investments at this time. It is also clear that under current state and federal policies, the more we invest in renewable energy sources, the higher our electricity rates will be and the less attractive our state is to business investors.

    We need a safe, environmentally friendly source of electricity that will meet large capacity (baseload) demands but does not cost a lot to build or to operate and will offer low rates to homeowners and will attract business investments. Let me tell you about an energy source that will satisfy all our needs while also being the cheapest, safest, least polluting and most cost-efficient method known. In fact, it is so efficient that it is the only method known that can create hydrogen fuel from water (called “cracking”) at a net energy gain.

    Hydrogen has been called the perfect fuel because when it burns, the exhaust is clean water. The lack of a cheap source of hydrogen is one of the major obstacles to the widespread use of fuel cells to power homes, cars and businesses.

    Like most sources that are capable of handling baseload demands, this new design uses heat to turn generators, but it does not burn fossil fuels — in fact, it doesn’t burn anything. Unlike currently designed nuclear plants, it does not heat water with nuclear heated rods. It uses an inert gas — usually helium or nitrogen — to spin the turbines. This means that there are no radioactive rods, no cooling towers and no hot water dumping into the rivers, and all the miles of related plumbing are totally eliminated.

    The gas is chemically inert, which means that it does not react or mix with the heat source — it remains pure and safe nitrogen or helium forever.

    A side benefit of not having all that plumbing is that these kinds of power plants are small. Five of them can fit on a football field with room left over for parking, but each one would be capable of putting out as much as 400 megawatts. At the end of its 40-year life, the primary heat vessel is small enough to put on a truck and haul away.

    The fuel used is made mostly of pyrolytic graphite in hollow 2-inch balls coated with silicon carbide. The active fuel is called tristructural-isotropic (TRISO) and is in the form of tiny flakes within these balls. This unique design generates very high temperatures, but if it gets too hot, the system naturally shuts itself down due to a quirk in physics called Doppler broadening. This design is referred to as inherently “walk-away safe,” which means that no human error or equipment failure can cause an accident that would harm the public. Berkeley professor Richard A. Muller has called this design “in every way ... safer than the present nuclear reactors and arguably safer than the global-warming danger posed by fossil fuels.” In fact, China is on a massive campaign to build 1,000 of these plants with a goal of producing 300 gigawatts of electricity.

    We need a generation source that is capable of 200 or 300 megawatts to meet minimum average daily demands. Current renewables simply cannot generate at that level, so we have got to look at other choices. Any fossil fuel power plant — even using natural gas — and any nuclear plant using the old water-cooled designs have to be avoided as long as there is any alternative. There is an alternative. Search Google for “NGNP HTGR” for more details.

    Tom Watkins, of Montpelier, is a decision management consultant specializing in the application of advanced technologies.

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