Avoiding CO2 – THE benefit of nuclear power

Many lessons can be learned from the events at the Fukushima Daiichi (FD) nuclear power facility in Japan. First, the resulting tsunami and not so much the eathquake (like the levees breaking in New Orleans, and not as much the hurricanes – but still significant) was the determining factor for the resulting emergency events still occurring at FD. The tsunami’s rushing waters engulfed the diesel generators (in electrical terms – the “critical loads”) responsible for maintaining emergency power backup. They failed, and cascading events leading to today’s situation resulted. Second, nuclear power is a part of our lives at least in the developed world. Many US States have reactors (104 in the country). These plants provide LOTS of power. Generally, only the largest coal facilities and the immense hydro facilities of the US Western States match the ‘nameplate’ power capacities of nuclear plants. The price of the power from these plants is low to the electrical consumer, but the cost of just having nuclear power is great for society when publicly funded components in construction, extraction, processing, transport, and waste disposal are considered. But, my objective is not to focus on those points of nuclear power. Nuclear power provides a great service to our electricity consumption desire and our environment.

The point I would like to highlight is nuclear power’s offsetting ability for CO2 emissions. From my perspective, this capacity is nuclear power’s greatest asset. Today, nuclear power is one of only a few options for displacing millions of tons of CO2 emissions. Until a higher scale of deployment of renewables and ‘efficiency & conservation’ is realized, nuclear power is that main player. For more detailed analyses follow The Breakthrough Institute, who also takes this general stance of nuclear’s role in CO2 mitigation and abatement. Nuclear comes with a cost, and a significant one at that, but it’s the largest wrench in the tool box for ebbing the flow of CO2 from smokestacks, waiting for other technologies to mature.

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Retail price of food per energy content

Food is energy. Look on the back of any food package and you will see the energy content of the item plain and clear – Calories, specifically nutritional calories (or kilocalories). What is a calorie? It is a energy unit, and for an exact definition let’s look to its wikipedia entry:

“The large calorie, kilogram calorie, dietary calorie or food calorie (or Cal) approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. This is exactly 1000 small calories or about 4.18 kilojoules.”

With that said, food is also much more than just energy, providing us both vitamins and minerals. The cost of any food includes its monetary value for energy, vitamins, minerals, etc. But, for the moment, I just want to consider food’s energy content. Because the thought dawned on me – if food is just energy, then what is its price per unit energy?

With my background (electrical engineering), I live in the energy world which has the units of kilowatt-hours (kWh). A kWh is just another unit of energy. Specifically, the ratio between kWh and Calories is 1kWh equals ~860 Calories (kilocalories). With this conversion in hand, it is easy to change the back-of-the-box Calorie listing to kWh(s). Then, by dividing the retail price of the package by the energy content of the food, a cents per kWh value can be obtained. When I did this for a grocery list that I had just purchased, I learned a very interesting fact about food. It is really expensive on a cents per kWh (cents per energy unit) basis!!!

For example, the cereal I buy costs $3.99 for the box, and contains 2640 Calories (3.07 kWh). So, 399 cents per 3.07 kWh = 130 c/kWh!!!

In contrast, electricity costs about 11 c/kWh, vehicle fuel about 9.7 c/kWh, and natural gas at 2.97 c/kWh.

Although the comparison between these prices is dramatic (one order of magnitude difference), the comparison is a little apples to oranges. The retail price of food includes not just the energy content, but also the packaging, vitamins, minerals, nutrition, manufacturing, transport, etc . The retail price of other forms of energy includes taxes, marketing, manufacture, and transportation (if any).

Although there are differences, the price of food as seen in just an energy lens is a striking thing to see. The c/kWh for individually package, retail, consumer food is very high. This fact just hits home the point about using food for fuel. It can be an expensive enterprise (at least if you are using individually packaged food products…).

For ethanol makers, the basic economics looks okay. Dry corn has 2.34 kWh per dry pound, and at 4.5 cents per pound ($18 per 400 lb dry), the cost would be 1.92 c/kWh.

Just an interesting food for thought. Or thought for food (thanks Colbert).

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The Latest on the Japanese Nuclear Facilities

The Japanese government is now confirming, after tests, that the food supply in the country is now being affected by the nuclear radiation leaks. From the New York Times:

“As Japan edged forward in its battle to contain the damage at its ravaged nuclear power plants on Saturday, the government said it had found higher than normal levels of radioactivity in spinach and milk at farms up to 90 miles away from the plants, the first confirmation that the unfolding nuclear crisis has affected the nation’s food supply.”

Although the radiation levels are low, another blow has been dealt to the Japanese psyche.

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An energy-centered approach

I hope this blog will help to bring insight about energy to the public. I have a background in this area and a great interest in learning more about it, understanding it, and helping the public read about how energy plays a role in their lives and to what degree. The blog may also have other posts about data related subjects that may or may not have to to with energy, but more broadly about math, numbers, equations, and physics in our daily lives.

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