Per Capita Davis: Pieces of the puzzle

By From page A4 | March 07, 2013

Sometimes random news items share a thread that, when linked together, become a theme for a column. Other times, like now, the thread and theme are not obvious, but the individual items are still of interest (at least to me) because they’re a part of the overall discussion about climate change.

“More cars across the land” (apologies to John Denver): China is now the leading producer of greenhouse gases (and almost everything else). A recent article indicates that automobile factories in China are capable of producing 10 million cars a year above what they can sell and, as a result, have stopped offering incentives for foreign (including U.S.) automakers to build new factories. The car, once owned by only a few, is becoming widely available.

Nuclear news: The 860-megawatt Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida was shut down in 2009 when a crack was discovered in the concrete containment structure. Adding insult to injury, repairs initiated in 2011 resulted in more cracks and the total cost to fix everything was estimated to be as high as $3.4 billion.

The plant was built in 1977 and its 40-year license to operate was due to expire in 2017. So, rather than try to extend the license, the utility chose to permanently close the plant and pursue recouping its losses through a combination of ratepayer and insurance funds. It will take 60 years to dismantle and decontaminate the facility.

Who exactly insures nuclear plants? In this case, a firm named Nuclear Electric Insurance Ltd. — aka NEIL — a company founded in 1980 in response to the Three Mile Island disaster. NEIL is a “mutual insurance company” composed of the owners of all U.S. nuclear plants but, according to local media in Florida, has only half the funds to pay off the claim so member companies (presumably including ours) and their ratepayers (presumably us) will have to absorb the rest.

While we’re at it, what exactly is a megawatt? A watt is the basic unit of power and is named after James Watt the guy whose improvements to the steam engine jump-started the Industrial Revolution (sidebar: most discussions of climate change note that greenhouse gas emissions began to rise with the advent of the Industrial Revolution).

Just like metric units for measuring distance, the watt can be divided into smaller units (e.g., the “Femtowatt is one quadrillionth — that would be 10 to the minus 15 of a watt) or bigger units. Our electric bills measure how many “kilowatts” (1,000 watts) or “kilowatt hours” we use. A “megawatt” is a million watts. Nuclear power plants usually produce between 500 and 1,500 megawatts.

Looking at both sides? Sierra Magazine has a regular feature “On the one hand … On the other hand …” where it details two sides of a given story. The March/April edition had “On the one hand” information about the carbon footprint of big-box stores like Walmart Supercenters that can be 200,000 square feet or more and use as much energy in a day as more than 1,000 homes (not counting the estimated 10,000 car trips to and from each store each day).

“On the other hand,” the magazine points out that big buildings have lots of roof surface and Walmart produces 30 percent of its power needs from rooftop solar. Ikea has solar arrays on nearly 80 percent of its buildings. Big-box stores are the biggest generator of solar energy of any type of commercial business.

Maybe the thread/theme in this column is nuclear power: It’s hard to deny that climate change is happening when governments around the world are spending billions based on this reality. For example, Russia is building a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers to complement its existing diesel-powered fleet. As the arctic sea ice melts, the expectation is that heretofore impassable sea routes, as well as undersea resources, will be accessible for a greater part of the year and icebreakers that can plow through 10-foot-thick ice will extend the period of access and facilitate a nation’s ability to claim economic and territorial rights.

Interestingly, this nuclear fleet will have a ballast control system that also will allow the ships to penetrate via shallower northern rivers deep into Mother Russia itself.

A world of fewer people: A recent article reports that the average birth rate for the planet as a whole has fallen from nearly five children per woman in 1970 to about half that in 2011. In some countries, such as the United States, the birth rate is below what is required to replace the current population, and the estimate is that nearly one-quarter of nations in 2050 will have a population smaller than they had in 2010. Interestingly, this includes China.

The main focus of the article is on potential impacts on the economy of a global population that is older and no longer growing, but it also observes that, “The big challenge in climate change is to ensure that a given income per person can still be delivered to everyone, but more sustainably. A smaller number of people would clearly help in that regard.”

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis and enjoys an occasional jigsaw puzzle. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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