• Powering up the energy answer
    September 24,2013

    @Body Ragged Right:As a petroleum researcher, I see a severe energy shortfall as fracked shale oil and gas decline rapidly. The problem is too rapid drill-up and decline of fracked shale wells. Prevention is conversion to 100-megawatt assembly line-produced liquid fluoride thorium reactors. I have no stock in thorium or LFTRs.

    @Body Ragged Right:Petroleum dominates energy, fracked shale dominates petroleum, and fracked shale wells decline 40 percent a year. If every fracked shale well were drilled at once, the play would decline severely after the first year. We approach that extreme, with the world’s largest supply of rigs and talent — more than 20,000 wells drilled in the Bakken since 2006. This rapid decline of accelerating numbers of older wells will force severe decline of the Bakken play in about 20 years.

    Fracked shale has gained back production lost from conventional petroleum, which continues to decline. When fracked shale has declined, total domestic production will be a small percentage of demand. This just when price escalation inhibits global shipping, and oil-rich countries start hoarding or charging black market prices.

    China is buying up contracts for Middle East conventional oil, as fracked shale oil loosens them up. Middle East conventional oil will outlast the fracked shale play by maybe a century. The fracked shale play itself will last several times longer in most other countries because the U.S. is drilling its up so fast.

    Delay reduces energy and time available to make the transition to the best next dominant energy source: thorium. There’s a thousand-year domestic supply, and a gram of thorium has the energy of 7,500 gallons of gasoline. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors seem best. They are safe, produce frugal and benign waste compared with uranium, and could be assembly line-produced rapidly. The prototype LFTR ran flawlessly four years, but was shut down by politics a half century ago.

    Had science prevailed, there would be no energy shortfall looming.

    Business as usual has left us open to a shortfall that will be especially bad for the U.S. — we get most goods from overseas, have transferred most skills to produce them overseas, and sell a lot of goods overseas. Most of the petroleum available to replace U.S. fracked oil and gas will have to come from overseas, and the present generation of u-reactors will have outlived their 20-year extensions just as the shortfall in petroleum hits.

    All energy alternatives have down sides, but thorium’s are least offensive. Anything with carbon causes global warming and degrades the environment. Refracking fracked shale, as we get desperate, will ensure mass environmental degradation. Storage problems, terrorism and major accidents argue for phasing out u-reactors. Most thorium waste is toxic for only 300 years, and there’s about 100 times less of it per unit of power generated, compared with uranium, depending on the LFTR design.

    Renewables can’t do the job alone. Their generation is intermittent and can’t adjust to demand, and they don’t easily mass produce, transport and erect. Still, the Southwest has huge solar potential, the Great Plains, huge wind potential.

    One hundred-megawatt stock LFTRs would mate with electric substations and give a green and resilient grid. Each would produce more power than all but the largest wind farms and dams. Here’s a way to quantify the solution (numbers rounded): There are 100 1,000-megawatt u-reactors to be replaced by 1,000 100-megawatt LFTRs. U-reactors produce a fifth of our electricity.

    Thus, we need 5,000 100-megawatt LFTRs to generate our electricity, maybe 20,000 to also replace petroleum usage. The big question is can we produce 20,000 100-megawatt LFTRs in 20 years.

    Boeing’s assembly line produces one 737 a day. The core of a 100-megawatt LFTR is only about 10 feet in diameter and 20 feet high, and much simpler than a Boeing 737 — an assembly line could produce five LFTRs a day. Multiple companies (Boeing, GE, Westinghouse, Caterpillar) are capable of this production. Twenty 100-megawatt LFTRs a day seems doable — 7,300 LFTRs a year. Ten years to get assembly lines up and running and 10 years of production is 73,000 100-megawatt LFTRs.

    Quantity-wise that’s encouraging — let’s try cost: The Boeing 737 costs $80 million. By the same reasoning a 100-megawatt assembly line-produced LFTR might cost $8 million — times 20,000 of them equals $160 billion. Double that to include the cost of assembly lines, and we could prevent the energy crisis for about $320 billion — half what we spent bailing out the banks and auto industry, and how painful was that? An example of the bull market that might result is going on now — because we are still on the ascending side of the fracked shale production curve, the stock market has nearly tripled since it bottomed after 2006. Think what an energy base with several hundred years on the ascending side of that curve could produce.

    Our best business people, among them Bill Gates and Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, lobby for more energy research. There’s nothing scientific or monetary preventing insuring against the looming energy crisis — it’s all political and motivational. Established energy stakeholders will resist and have most of the lobbying and media clout. We have most of the votes but no motivation — we need to deploy LFTRs for profit. The ramp up for World War II, the atomic bomb, the moon shot — America has always accomplished important things fast when needed. Bringing an eminently successful prototype LFTR to a deployed commercial product in a similar short time frame is doable and needed.

    John Sales lives in Barre.

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