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Gas Leak at North Sea Platform
March 28, 2012 4:26 PM   Subscribe

A potentially dangerous situation is developing off the coast of Scotland. An off-shore drilling platform is leaking substantial quantities of gas contaminated with hydrogen sulphide. Much as here, the comments thread is as interesting as the post at The Oil Drum itself.
posted by indices (67 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I really appreciate being linked to an active discussion by people who actually know something about off shore oil drilling.

Here is a newscientist link to their handling of it.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:35 PM on March 28, 2012


My lab is right next to another one that works with hydrogen sulfide producing organisms so I get to smell it every so often. It is a particularly scary gas because, even though it stinks, it will deaden your sense of smell well before it kills you. So when you stop smelling hydrogen sulfide, you can never really be sure from smell alone whether that is because the hazard is gone or you are about to die.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:41 PM on March 28, 2012 [27 favorites]


About the right time of year for another energy industry disaster.
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:50 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


"potentially dangerous"

Well, that's nice to know.
posted by New England Cultist at 4:54 PM on March 28, 2012


About the right time of year for another energy industry disaster.

I was thinking the same thing... It's spring, it's time for a major disaster again.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:54 PM on March 28, 2012


Totally safer than nuclear!
posted by narcoleptic at 5:03 PM on March 28, 2012 [12 favorites]


I look at these platforms and scream. How much trouble and expense to suck more hydrocarbons out of the ground and burn them. We have gotten so much almost almost free energy over the past 150 years. Our civilizations are where they are because of buried carbon. Yet if we didn't have it, would we have got where we are without burning all the trees and whales? It's like sugar. A quick rush that will kill you if you have too much. And now we are diabetic and half mad with sugarbrain. We're digging three miles into the earth under hundreds of feet of water for another hit. Mountains are leveled, miles of greasy sand are sifted, enough corn to feed a nation is instead esterised for our machines to eat instead. And the oceans rise, droughts, storms, insects...

Either we cure ourselves of this disease, or it will kill us. The next 50 years will be the most wonderful, or terrible, our species has ever seen. I hope I live that long. I hate not knowing how a story ends.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:03 PM on March 28, 2012 [124 favorites]


Man, I wish I could favourite that more then once Seanmpuckett.
posted by Canageek at 5:07 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Totally safer than nuclear!

Can't we just agree that fossil fuels and nuclear are both dirty and dangerous?
posted by KokuRyu at 5:10 PM on March 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'd rather think that both fossil fuels and nuclear power are as dirty and dangerous as they are because of cutting corners for maximum profit. Instead of burning methane from drilling harness it. Instead of building reactors haphazardly, do some research.

Aren't we advanced enough to do these things? I'd say yes. But the profit kills people.
posted by Splunge at 5:13 PM on March 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


Profit margin.
posted by Splunge at 5:14 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can't we just agree that fossil fuels and nuclear are both dirty and dangerous?

The question is which one is worse? The political consensus indicates that people believe nuclear is worse. So we have this. The choice isn't between nuclear and happy bunny rabbits nibbling under the whirling blades of infinite wind power. For better or worse, the choice is between nuclear (with its Chernobyls and Fukushimas and Yucca Mountains) and fossil fuels (which seanmpuckett so well described the downsides of above).
posted by chimaera at 5:15 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


1,100 bar = 15,950 psi.

The threshold for HP/HT is commonly set at 150 C / 10,000 psi.

So, yeah, this'll be a technically challenging kill.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:20 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Totally safer than nuclear!

Wow. Yeah, I think I'll take a relatively fixable problem like this over a region uninhabitable for thousands of years, spewing deadly cesium and iodine downstream into drinking water and fishing zones.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:20 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


This platform is leaking hydrogen sulfide not radioactive forum angst, can we please focus on the interesting nature of this potential disaster rather than each other?
posted by Blasdelb at 5:24 PM on March 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Maybe we should stick with discussing the danger involved in this specific incident.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:25 PM on March 28, 2012


Pro-nukes can't stand it when another dirty polluting energy gets all the attention.
posted by stbalbach at 5:27 PM on March 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


The talk said that the wind is now from the north, driving the gas slick southward to the east shore of England. is there any word or thought if or where this might land? Some of us kinda live nearby.
posted by Jehan at 5:28 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


If we shoot at it, will it go away?
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:39 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


*goes outside for a smoke*
posted by loquacious at 5:45 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


If we shoot at it, will it go away?

No, but I have heard that poking it with a stick totally works. /
posted by futz at 5:50 PM on March 28, 2012


Could we all purse our lips, blow real hard? Catch it all in trash bags? Wet-dry shop vacs?
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:55 PM on March 28, 2012


Aaaaaaand this is why the scientists among us get so frustrated with some of us mefites. Let's let them speak. I regret my "funny" jab.
posted by futz at 6:03 PM on March 28, 2012


I love science and being educated. Once again, I apologize.
posted by futz at 6:05 PM on March 28, 2012


Actually, seriously, what are the ramifications of this cloud? I understand this cloud is not friendly, potentially a terror cloud, definitely not a cloud chum, but I do not get what this cloud could do, is capable of doing, would like to do, what it wants, hopes, dreams, what is it willing to do to get what it wants? What is this cloud up to? Do we need to fear this cloud? Is diplomacy out of the question? People, people, what could this cloud do? Explode? Suffocate all the fish? Suffocate us? Cause fish to explode? Suffocating both us and the fish? What type of disaster is this? I don't understand. Help me understand. Without all the technical talk, just what is this cloud up to, and what am I to fear? I am all ready to fear. All jacked up on fear right now. I just need some direction. What about this gas cloud is to be feared?
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:05 PM on March 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


All jacked up on fear right now. I just need some direction. What about this gas cloud is to be feared?

According to the Guardian, the biggest danger is greenhouse gas emissions:

Oil pollution expert Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, said because the leak is below the water's surface, hydrogen sulphide released could lead to mass animal and plant deaths. "Much of the methane in the water will be consumed by micro-organisms and converted to carbon dioxide. This will make the water slightly more acidic, but the effect will be short-lived and localised, and therefore should not cause too much harm to marine life."
posted by KokuRyu at 6:09 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can we fix it with some ads two years after the accident claiming it totally got fixed right and everything's fine now?
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:22 PM on March 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'd rather think that both fossil fuels and nuclear power are as dirty and dangerous as they are because of cutting corners for maximum profit. Instead of burning methane from drilling harness it. Instead of building reactors haphazardly, do some research.

Aren't we advanced enough to do these things? I'd say yes. But the profit kills people.


Fukishima failed b/c it got hit by a huge earthquake followed immediately by a huge tsunami, did it not? There are limits to steel and concrete, and to ingenuity. Besides which, at some point you run into the "why don't they make the whole plane out the same material as the black box" problem --- there's a limit to how much you can spend (of money or time or effort) before the thing ceases to be able to perform its function. EROEI, as the peakists holler. Energy Returned on Energy Invested. If the ratio goes under 1, you got a big fuckin' problem. Hell, if the ratio goes much under 10, you got a big problem, and that's where we're headed with oil....
posted by Diablevert at 6:23 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Given the sheer amount of energy produced by one nuclear power plant, it is probably beyond human ability to create a truly fool-proof system.

At any rate, the problem with nuclear power, earthquake or not, is disposing of spent fuel (reprocessing does not provide a complete solution, and has been abandoned anyway). Most spent fuel is stored on-site (and most of the contamination across Japan has been caused by fires and in the spent-fuel pools).

The technology needed to safely dispose of fuel has to last for 200,000 years, which is a longer time-period than human civilization to-date.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:27 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fukishima failed b/c it got hit by a huge earthquake followed immediately by a huge tsunami, did it not?

And was an older reactor design that needed active cooling to keep from boiling, and the site designers had put the electric backup generators in a low spot where they were flooded, instead of high up, which may have allowed the reactor operators to control the reactors and cool them even after the tsunami.
posted by zippy at 6:28 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


The choice isn't between nuclear and happy bunny rabbits nibbling under the whirling blades of infinite wind power. For better or worse, the choice is between nuclear (with its Chernobyls and Fukushimas and Yucca Mountains) and fossil fuels (which seanmpuckett so well described the downsides of above).

Yes indeed, only two choices. As two of the most stridently anti-nuclear jurisdictions on earth so clearly demonstrated in just the last 10 days:

Denmark Affirms Commitment to 100% Renewable Energy by 2050

Germany’s $263 Billion Investment In Renewables Is Biggest Energy Shift Since World War II

That's right, folks. Only two choices.
posted by gompa at 6:39 PM on March 28, 2012 [16 favorites]


My point was, in case that it wasn't clear, that we have the ability to create new ways of using power that is less dangerous. But since the point of any power is profit instead of the best power for the greatest good, we must almost always fail.

Sure there are mandates in some countries for more green types of power. But ultimately 2050 is a long way away. And what can we do with the systems that we use now to make it safer? Less dirty?

I'm 53 years old. I'd love to see 2050 when we have solved all these problems. But you know what else I'd like to see while I'm still alive? Fixing the fixable now. And it's possible. Just maybe not profitable enough. And that sucks.
posted by Splunge at 7:39 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


You misunderstand, gompa. The question is "how should we generate the portion of power we can't get from clean sources?". Nobody's willing to reduce their electricity use to what's available from wind and so on. So every nuke plant you don't have means correspondingly more coal, oil, and gas plants, and their associated mines, wells, drill rigs, pipelines, fracking, and so on (plus the occasional enormous explosion, toxic clouds of gas, etc).
posted by hattifattener at 8:55 PM on March 28, 2012


KokoRyu: According to the Guardian, the biggest danger is greenhouse gas emissions

Strangely, that same Simon Boxall is quoted in the New Scientist article above as saying that he doesn't think the greenhouse gas emissions will be a significant enough to be a big problem.
All three of the escaping gases are greenhouse gases, but unless the leak carries on for weeks or months, the effect on the climate is likely to be small. "The impact on climate change is not going to worry anyone," says Boxall.
posted by theyexpectresults at 9:26 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Standard disclaimer applies: I work for a major oil company.

This isn't a 'potentially dangerous situation', it is a legitimately dangerous situation, but there's a lot of aspects of it that people don't seem to understand.

This is a gas leak in the middle of the North Sea. The platform is completely evacuated. Here are the options (maybe not fully spelled out in the New Scientist article):

1) Send people back onto the platform to try to re-gain control over the well. This is ridiculously dangerous for the individuals involved, but there are companies that are willing to take the risk for extremely high pay. The reason that this is worth it for the companies is the staggering cost of option #2. Keep in mind, this is stepping onto a platform where there is the potential of a single spark setting off a massive explosion.

2) Drill a relief well. This is the most likely scenario, and planning is likely to be on-going now. This is as expensive (ca. $100m) as any other well. Every single well drilled in the North Sea has a relief well option already planned, but it takes quite a while to get this mobilized and done (likely 3-6 months in total).

3) Hope that the well stops flowing on its own. This may seem like wishful thinking, and can only be done in conjunction with #1 and/or #2, but it is a realistic scenario. If the gas leak is in the overburden, it's possible that it's self-limiting, and will stop flowing or reduce down to something easily controllable within weeks. If it's really in the reservoir, this is less likely (this seemed to be a major point of contention in the original article).

Now for some misconceptions:

This is an environmental disaster. Is it good? Absolutely not. However, I don't buy the "H2S poisoning our ocean" argument for one second. The North Sea (and most other petroleum provinces, like the Gulf of Mexico) are chock full of natural oil and gas seeps. The sea bottom is covered with pock marks from these, and you can spot 'gas chimneys' everywhere. This ecosystem is adapted to this already, and claiming spawning ground collapse based on what will be a very local phenomena is like claiming that the duck population will collapse because one pond in Minnesota has been drained - it's simply not going to affect an area large enough to make a difference.

Additionally, as it is natural gas, it will for the most part disappate into the atmosphere. This means that there should be nothing more than very local effects (very much unlike an oil spill). The Guardian article was correct - the greenhouse gas aspects are likely the largest effect of this. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, but has a short residence time in the atmosphere. However, it's a drop in the bucket compared to our overall methane or CO2 emissions, or for example, a volcanic eruption. That doesn't mean that the company shouldn't be held responsible for this as part of their overall emissions targets.

That this is a 'normal' well. This is, as mentioned, is a HP/HT well. These are difficult engineering challenges at the forefront of well technology. To make that even worse, this is an 'old' reservoir, in that gas has already been produced from it for a long time. In one article, it was mentioned that it is 800 bars depleted in some areas. Most people in drilling would tell you that it is insane/impossible to drill a reservoir with 800 bars of depletion for very good technical reasons. However, Total has made the claim that they can do this safely through a solid understanding of the pressure differences involved and the application of appropriate technology - something that other companies have NOT been willing to do. They were obviously wrong.

To be clear, Total should be held to account for this, as they have created an incredibly dangerous and risky situation that will have an environmental impact. However, there's no need to go hyperbolic about it, as this isn't a Fukushima or a Macondo event - not even kinda close. The UK offshore is not known for it's risk-averse culture - these are old (and in some cases decrepit) fields that people are trying to squeeze value from - something that will continue to result in problems if it continues as it has.
posted by grajohnt at 9:55 PM on March 28, 2012 [29 favorites]


The question is which one is worse? The political consensus indicates that people believe nuclear is worse. So we have this. The choice isn't between nuclear and happy bunny rabbits nibbling under the whirling blades of infinite wind power. For better or worse, the choice is between nuclear (with its Chernobyls and Fukushimas and Yucca Mountains) and fossil fuels (which seanmpuckett so well described the downsides of above).
First of all, compare deepwater horizon to Chernobyl or Fukushima. It was bad, but it went away. Those two will be with us for centuries.

People have been saying stuff like that for years, except over the years the price of solar energy has dropped exponentially. I'm pretty sure it's already cheaper then nuclear energy. The prices are about $1/watt peak capacity now, and the maintenance costs are basically non-existent. In comparison a nuclear power plant costs about $5-6/watt to build (with the time value of money factored in)

Now, one key difference is that the sun doesn't shine all the time, and it doesn't shine with peak brightness all the time either. The amount of sunlight is quantified as 'insolation', the number of hours equivalent to the sun shining straight down per year. If you lay the panels flat on the ground, you get about 6-4 hours of sunlight per day. The number goes up if you tilt the panels though (essentially, you go by the size of the shadow that the panel casts)

Anyway, let's just assume that the panels are laid flat and get the equivalent of 5/hr of direct sunlight per day. That means (24/5)*1$/W = $4.8/W averaged over an entire year.

Also, while nuke plants can run at a higher capacity, they don't typically run at 100% capacity either. Fukushima Daiichi was running at 4.6GW but had 7.4GW of installed capacity, which is 62%. And their 'annual generation' 29.8TWh/year, which actually works out to about 3.4GW. That's just 45%.

Anyway. If you are generous and assume 75% capacity with nuclear, you get $5/0.75 = $6.66/watt to build a nuclear power plant. But just $4.8/watt to buy solar panels - with the price dropping rapidly*

That's cheaper then a nuclear power plant, if you take into account the fact that you could invest the money elsewhere and earn interest on it while the plant is being built. In fact, if you were to invest in solar energy at this point in time, the costs are so low now that you'll have earned back half of your investment in solar before the nuke plant even turns on.

You still need to actually install the solar panels, and that isn't free. But for now it does seem like Solar energy is probably already cheaper then nuclear, even without factoring in maintenance costs - and without factoring in decommissioning costs solar is already ahead.

If you had $10m to invest in energy production, would you rather invest in solar or nuclear?

Obviously, you need some way to generate energy at night. But people do use less energy at night as well.

(*rapidly as in, like 50% drop in 2011 rapidly). If price drops continue, solar energy may actually become cheaper then coal within a few years.)
Fukishima failed b/c it got hit by a huge earthquake followed immediately by a huge tsunami, did it not?
Yes, both of which should have been expected over, say, 1000 years. Except how long would was the plant expected to exist? 100 years? 50 years? Do the math: That would mean a 1/10 or 1/20 chance of an earthquake + tsunami while the plant existed. Fukishima Daiichi was commissioned in 1971. That means it was around for 40 years when it was destroyed.

In fact, if you look at the historical record, it's even worse. There was a 10m Tsunami in the same area in 1896. And there was another 10m tsunami in a different part of Japan in 1605.

So really this is something that probably happens every couple hundred years on average. There was really something like a 1/10 or even 1/5 chance of this happening during the time that the plant existed.

The plant could have been designed to be safer, but it wasn't because TEPCO decided to take the risk in order to make a profit.
So every nuke plant you don't have means correspondingly more coal, oil, and gas plants, and their associated mines, wells, drill rigs, pipelines, fracking, and so on (plus the occasional enormous explosion, toxic clouds of gas, etc).
It's not a zero sum game. Adding more nuke plants will reduce the cost of oil, meaning more will be used. Same thing with wind and solar. That's why you need to set caps. Once greenhouse gas emissions and other externalities are factored into the price of oil and coal (and natural gas), the market should figure out which type of energy production is actually the most cost effective.
posted by delmoi at 12:35 AM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was curious how much land would be needed for a solar power plant with the output of Fukushima (29.8 TWh/year).

There's a plant in Sarnia, Ontario (admittedly not the best place in the world for solar) that produces 120 GWh/year and contains 238.7 acres of panels. 29.8 TWh/yr would then need 238.7*29.8/0.12 = 59,277 acres, or 92.6 square miles. That's about the size of Knoxville or Amarillo.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:30 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: "The technology needed to safely dispose of fuel has to last for 200,000 years, which is a longer time-period than human civilization to-date."

For a while, I've had the idea that just distributing nuclear waste widely and evenly enough will take care of it, the problems we have with it are mostly because we concentrate it so much. Seriously, if we ground all our nuclear waste into a very, very fine powder and mixed it with seawater, then distributed that contaminated seawater evenly into the world's seas, would there be any appreciable environmental effect?

Or into the atmosphere, for that matter.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:38 AM on March 29, 2012


grajohnt knows of what he speaks. My bet is on a relief well being drilled to get down to the reservoir and kill the leak
posted by arcticseal at 2:38 AM on March 29, 2012


To get back to the FFP......From a post last night on the Oil Drum thread by someone who seems to be taken as somewhat of an expert on the situation.
"Now about all the unbelievable BS about this not being a dangerous situation because the wind is blowing this way or that way, the burning flare stack is blah, blah blah. Let’s try this: you have a kiddie poll filled with 100 gallons of gasoline and you cooking on your charcoal grill 20 feet away. Dangerous? Give me a freaking break. Are you aware that the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world is exactly what they have going on out there? It’s called a fuel-air bomb and it essentially releases a cloud of mixed petroleum gas that’s ignited. All it will take is a mixture of the spewing gas to mix with the oxygen in the air in sufficient volume and be ignited by the burning flare or any other ignition source on the rig or from a passing boat. In one report they actually point why they have flare stack: to burn off the gases to prevent a potentially explosive accumulation. The situation out there has the potential to be one the greatest manmade explosions of all times. Notice the 2 mile safety zone? There's a dang good reason for it and the operator knows why. A NG explosion is what scares the crap out of us: oil burns...NG explodes."
posted by gigbutt at 4:15 AM on March 29, 2012


I made a picture of the rig platform position superimposed over a remarkable picture of a nearly cloud free day over the United Kingdom here.

UK picture and rig position map
posted by panaceanot at 4:45 AM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


H2S is horrendous stuff. I used to work on land rigs in Northern Germany where it was a risk, we had to carry gas masks at all times in case there was a leak. The training was pretty simple - if you smell rotten eggs, check the wind socks placed around the rig site and then run as fast as you could upwind.
posted by arcticseal at 5:29 AM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


A few years back I got stranded at an airport and ended up having a drink with an oil rig worker. He was a big, burly guy who had worked on offshore rigs all over the world. The only thing he was really afraid of, he said, was hydrogen sulphide. He'd actually moved from the US to work on rigs off northern Australia, just to escape from the stress of dealing with it. He told me that on rigs where HS2 is present, workers refer to the area closest to the drill as the Barbecue Cage. No prizes for guessing why.
posted by embrangled at 6:21 AM on March 29, 2012


One of the scariest moments I had was on one of these H2S jobs in Germany. We were tripping in hole, and I wandered up to the rig floor in the middle of the night to get the pipe tally. I discovered the AD (assistant driller) and 2 roughnecks checking the serial # of the drill pipe as they ran it through the rotary by the light of a cigarette lighter since the batteries were gone in their torch.
I told them just how clever I thought that was and went and found the toolpusher who quickly tore them new orifices. Luckily, this was the start of a new section so we hadn't drilled the casing shoe yet and the borehole was cemented.
posted by arcticseal at 6:29 AM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


gompa: Getting politicians to agree to it doesn't mean it is true. Investing in something and saying we are going to get X back out of it doesn't mean that is what you will get out of it anymore then a company saying 'We are going to make $5 billion next year' is gaurenteed to be true.

The other problems with most people agreeing that nuclear is scary and dangerous is that most people's idea of nuclear power plants are based on our understanding of nuclear waste from the 1950s and 1960s. HINT: Science and engineering have advanced in the last 50 years.
Are nuclear reactors happy fun safe things? No. Are they a manageable risk?
There are hundreds of nuclear reactors in the world, many of them badly built by the USSR using cheap materials and without proper safety controls (One of the reasons Chernobyl was so bad). Despite this we've had three bad nuclear disasters. Three.
One of those was really bad; Chernobyl. That blew up a significant part of the reactor core and contaminated a good chunk of Europe. From what I understand modern estimates are about 2000 people got sick or died from that to date. The ground around Chernobyl will be contaminated for a good length of time, since you let most of the heavy elements out, the long lived ones.

I know less about Three Mile Island, so I'm not going to comment on its environmental impact.

Fuckashima isn't nearly as bad, I don't get why it was rated the same by the IAEA. In it only short-lived isotopes got into the air, as there was only a hydrogen explosion as they were trying to vent off pressure, not an explosion in the core. This means that no, land won't be contaminated for centuries. I131 has a halflife of 8 days; it was the main risk to human health for chemical reasons, and it was at safe levels under a month after the disaster, and 100% gone within a few months. There was also airborn Cs37, which is more of a problem since it has a half-life of 30 years. Now, there is a lot of it in the environment already (Thank you American open-air weapons testing). However, that means there will be 8 times less of it within 100 years. Now, I don't know how badly contaminated areas are, but that means we will almost certainly be able to reclaim them in under 100 years, 200 at the very outside (and I'm being far more conservative here then I normally would be; I strongly suspect every contaminated area in Japan will be back to normal within my lifetime).

The big thing I like about nuclear is that you get all the waste in a barrel. It is right there, sitting there. You can take the time to sit back and debate about it. It isn't going anywhere. You want to take 10 years to analyze a new method of waste disposal? Sure, go for it.
We can't do that with oil and gas. The pollutants are going up into the atmosphere, doing damage every minute of every day. If we take 10 years to debate it, we've done ten years more damage. Ocean levels are predicated to rise one metre in the next hundred years or something like that; imagine how many people that is going to displace. The land area effected by burning oil and gas is going to make all nuclear disasters combined look quaint and manageable compared to what will happen.
It also isn't like we aren't pumping out radiation by them either; Ontario still burns coal, as do a number of other places. Coal has small amounts of radioactive material in it (Radon I think, it has been a while). You actually get more radiation living on the perimeter of a coal plant then you do a Canadian nuclear power plant (Since one of these is scary and sciencey and heavily regulated, and the other isn't.).

My other problem is people present geothermal, hydro, wind and solar as magic bullets. Ok, so lets pretend that we can get enough power out of these to replace all fossil fuels. There are still environmental problems from each:
Hydro: With a very few exceptions, most of which we've already tapped, you have to flood a huge area of land to use hydro. There is an endangered species living in that forest? Hope it can swim. Also you are drastically changing the marine environment in that area.

Solar: Right now we use very, very toxic chemicals to make solar cells, some of which we have a very finite supply of --As I recall there is at least one rare earth metal involved, and China just found a bunch of those under an endangered reef. Bye bye reef. Also you need a huge area of land to do that. You want to build solar farms in Ontario? Which forest would you like to bulldoze? You can get some power putting them up on buildings, and I think that is a great idea, but you aren't going to be able to run a city on that level of power, even if you had 100% efficient solar cells.

Wind: Wind is very unreliable for one; you can't really depend on it. Also they have started to observe local climactic changes from it in California, which makes sense. There are no free lunches; if you are getting power it has to be coming from somewhere. If you take power out of the wind, then somewhere else will have less wind. Now this might counterbalance global warming by sucking some of that excess heat out of the environment, but I'd want to see more research on it before we dismiss this as negligible.

Geothermal; I've heard there are some links to increased earthquakes, but I have no idea if this is true. However, my understanding is that in any area it is a finite supply. There is only so much heat near the surface we can use before there isn't enough temperature difference to harvest. It always makes me slam my head when this is called renewable.

Tidal: First of all you are going to drastically change ocean currents if you use this on a large scale. You'd better hope we know what we are doing first, as we rather rely on some of those currents to keep Europe warm enough to live in. Also; changing coastal waters is going to do some nasty things to fish living along the coast. All those habitates and coves they liked to live in? Hey, look, they are now replaced by geothermal power plants.

I personally like an idea some people at NASA have been kicking around since the 60s; You build a big (really big, 200 km) solar array in space, capture light and beam it down to earth as microwaves. The downsides I can see is that it still relies on solar cells, which have all the listed problems with toxic chemicals and supply, and since the beaming down is rather inefficient it is going to contribute to global warming. The question is, does each GW we get that way contribute less then equivalent CO2? (Probably, and the heat won't stay around the way CO2 does). However, if we use this while still pumping out lots of carbon I can see them working together in a very, very bad way. Also, you need a 5 km radius receptor, and can only have that near the equator. However, as I understand it, in this case you can still have plant and animal life living *under* the receiver, like with a large radiotelescope.

Alright, since I've pointed out the problems with everything else, I'll give nuclear a fair treatment;
You get waste. Depending on your type of reactor this can be reusable; Canada was designing a series of reactors that would run on US nuclear waste, since we could buy lots of it for next to nothing, but at some point you will hit a level were you have to either store it or reprocess. Right now we don't reprocesses, since doing so costs 3 times more then just mining a new fuel rod, but we could and will once uranium deposits run out. Also, there is a lot of waste that isn't fuel rods, and you can't do much with that.
Right now we can't do much with nuclear waste: That have been a few ways discovered to dispose of it, but most cost enough to bankrupt large counties several times over to do it on any type of scale. If run badly, things get very bad. Now, each time we've had a nuclear disaster we've learned from it, but this could just mean that minior accidents won't happen as much, and when things do go wrong they will go *very* wrong. Also building nuclear reactors is crazily expensive, and so is taking old ones apart. This introduces a LOT of incentive to cut corners. Chernobyl was made far worse by corner cutting by corrupt officials. This isn't so much a problem in North America, but damn, I will admit China's nuclear plans scare the pants off me, as if anyone is going to cut corners it will be China.
Also: Nuclear isn't renewable, and it generates heat not found in nature. Therefore, you will have a small contribution to global warming, but this shouldn't be a problem if the atmosphere doesn't get worse. However, at some point we ARE going to run out of uranium. I've heard people claim that if we switched to 100% nuclear it would be under 100 years before we ran out.

The are people working on fusion, and my understanding is there are sane physicists who think this is not a pipe dream. I personally don't see how, but it isn't something I know a lot about. Lets just say that it is off the table for now.

So what I'm trying to get across: There are no free lunches. Anyone who tells you that X method of getting power has 0 impact on the environment and is 100% safe is either uneducated on the method or trying to con you. If they are in politics any of those three are possible, if they stand to make money off it, I'm willing to bet on number two. Nuclear isn't safe; coal isn't safe; hydro sure as heck isn't safe in a lot of cases, as incidence in both China and the US have shown.
There are methods which hurt then environment LESS, or carry LESS risk, but we have to figure that out ourselves. Right now we are using the cheapest methods, not the best. Even the US's nuclear reactors were built based on existing expertise and cost, not the safest ones (Heavy water is the safest, but also the most expensive by a long shot; that is what Canada, Korea, some of Europe and China use. Light Water reactors are a lot cheaper, and the US new a lot about them from shipboard reactors, but generally aren't as safe). Coal is cheaper then each, but one of the worst for the environment and the health of those around the plant. Oil and gas then fall above that, but still warm the earth.

Finally, get the idea that we can use any method forever out of your heads. We WILL eventually run out of fossil fuels, and each ton we burn is a ton we can't use to make medicine, plastics, etc. We WILL eventually run out of uranium. The energy from wind and tides comes from the moon and atmospheric heat, so those shouldn't be a problem, in the next few hundred years, but if we ran the whole world on it you'd see some pretty major changes in the environment. Really, if we want to have unlimited power, we need to start looking at non-earth based sources, which means the sun. There is a lot of gravity there, and a lot of power that is being radiated off into space, so we could harvest that, but getting it back to earth is an issue, as is spending fossil fuels blasting ourselves into space, spending finite resources putting rare earth metals into solar cells that will burn up and be lost as some point, etc.

Basically we need to sit down and have a long hard look at the costs and benefits of each, but that really isn't going to happen when the only thing you can count on is that we are going to use more and more power each year, which means more and more money to be made supplying power.
posted by Canageek at 11:41 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Solar: Right now we use very, very toxic chemicals to make solar cells, some of which we have a very finite supply of
Not really. Thin film solar panels are made from more exotic elements, but polysilicon panels are made from, obviously, silicon. It's the exact same process used to make microchips. Once you purify the silicon, all you have do is melt it down, recrystalize it, and then dope it with boron and phosphorus.

People thought at one point that the thin-film panels would be a lot cheaper, but what's happened is that Chinese polysilicon production has crashed the market, making the previously expensive silicon panels extremely cheap.

Anyway, it's amazing how people who bash solar in favor of nuclear actually don't seem to know anything about it.

Plus there is a comparison of minor problems (you need a lot of space!) with major problems with nuclear.

Let's look at the space issue, for example. Nuclear has resulted in unusable land. Looking into it recently I calculated that If you covered, for example, the Fukushima exclusion zone in solar panels (which, remember, no one can use for anything now anyway) you could generate about 1/4th of the electrical power needs (this is including taking insolation into account)

We have a huge amount of land covered by roads. If you put solar panels above roads, it would both keep driver's cool and the sun out of their eyes, while at the same time there would be more then enough space to provide all our energy needs (at least during the day)
You want to build solar farms in Ontario?
You would never put solar panels in Ontario, you put them nearer to the equator where there's more sun, then use high voltage lines to transmit the energy to wherever you want it to go. Right now, solar panels are usually put in deserts, where there isn't really anything you have to tear down, and it's too hot for many plants to grow.

Energy storage is an issue, but one solution would be to build a global power grid, transferring electricity from the day side of the earth to the night side.
posted by delmoi at 12:59 PM on March 29, 2012


I'm confident that the energy solution will solve itself by new technology that makes clean energy cheaper than fossil or nuclear, putting them out of business. The advancements in solar power alone are enough to get excited about. Might take 20 years or more though.

One thing about nuclear power most people are not aware of is the time and cost to decommission a plant. If a plant produces electricity for 40 years before being decommissioned, it will take a further 80 years to decommission it. That's how long it takes to tear the thing down. The costs are massive. Most decommissioned plants are currently sitting there waiting for the money to start work, it takes generations.
posted by stbalbach at 1:00 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


You would never put solar panels in Ontario

The largest solar power plant currently operating in the world (although it won't be for much longer) is the one I mentioned above in Sarnia, Ontario.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:11 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm having trouble finding the cite for 80 years, but this:
By the start of 2012, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 138 commercial power reactors had been permanently shut down. At least 80 are expected to join the queue for decommissioning in the coming decade - more if other governments join Germany in deciding to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year.

And yet, so far, only 17 of these have been dismantled and made permanently safe. That's because decommissioning is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Decommissioning just a single one generally costs up to half a billion dollars. The UK's 26 gas-cooled Magnox reactors will eventually cost up to a billion dollars each to decommission. The UK has put its now largely defunct fleet of Magnox reactors under "care and maintenance" for around 100 years.
It almost doesn't matter how long they take to decommission, because the unfortunate truth is, it's so costly and difficult, they don't get decommissioned and just sit there, in the UK's case, for at least another 100 years.
posted by stbalbach at 1:12 PM on March 29, 2012


This is totally a Scottish problem, and it's up to the Scottish people and the Scottish Government to clean this up.

(kidding)
posted by zoo at 1:13 PM on March 29, 2012


The largest solar power plant currently operating in the world

That's photovoltaic solar BTW. Most people don't realize that large commercial scale solar is usually not PV technology, it's too expensive.
posted by stbalbach at 1:17 PM on March 29, 2012


I didn't know that. You are correct. SEGS is larger (producing 392.4 GWh/year) and uses parabolic trough solar thermal technology.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:26 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait, make that 1084.9 GWh/year.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:32 PM on March 29, 2012


The advancements in solar power alone are enough to get excited about. Might take 20 years or more though.
Comparing solar and nuclear, I'm pretty sure it's already happened. Comparing solar and coal is difficult because solar is pretty much an up-front cost, while with coal most of the cost is the coal itself. The question is how long it takes for the solar panels to pay for themselves
The largest solar power plant currently operating in the world (although it won't be for much longer) is the one I mentioned above in Sarnia, Ontario.
Er, well It's not the most efficient way to use solar energy, but I guess national borders are an issue. Northern countries still want solar, rather then relying on plants in other countries.

The same panels, if placed in Arizona or southern California could probably produce about twice as much
That's photovoltaic solar BTW. Most people don't realize that large commercial scale solar is usually not PV technology, it's too expensive.
What do you mean by "too expensive"? How expensive do you think it is? The SEGS plant, for example cost $90 million to produce 30MW power, that's $3/watt. That's cheap, but it's still three times the raw panel cost for photovoltaic today.

A photovoltaic system is simpler then a parabolic mirror system because you don't need to have any moving parts to track the sun. It just sits there. (you get more power if you do track the sun, but tracking mechanisms aren't free)
posted by delmoi at 2:35 PM on March 29, 2012


delmoi, there's a reason most large scale solar plants are not PV. That may be changing as new PV technologies and market changes are bringing PV costs down.
posted by stbalbach at 2:50 PM on March 29, 2012


Link is now an access denied message.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:07 PM on March 29, 2012


delmoi, there's a reason most large scale solar plants are not PV.

Well, a couple of things though:

1) Unlike nuclear the cost of PV is pretty much linear. 1000 panels produce the same amount of electricity at about the same cost whether they are all in one area or spread out on 1000 different rooftops. So "large scale" is somewhat irrelevant, in fact if you DIY the costs are lower, since you don't have to pay for labor. That's obviously not the case with nuclear

2) The price drops have been really recent. As in, you can't even compare the economics today with 2009.

The largest Solar install is Golmud solar park in China, at 200MW. SEGS is just 354MW. So already you see PV plants that are about 56% as large as the largest Concentrating solar plants.

And Golmud park was commissioned in October, 2011. Just 5 months ago. The Second largest plant is 100MW, in Ukrane It was completed in December, 2011, just three months ago. The third largest is in Canada, and that was from 2009. The wikipedia article says it has 80MW, but this page lists it as having 97.

In any event, those three plants combined are larger then the SEGS plant. And the SEGS plant isn't actually even one single plant anyway, but rather a network of smaller facilities. So it's likely that the largest single solar install actually is PV.

So it's not clear that 'large scale' PV isn't being done. Clearly, the large scale plants that are coming online today are PV, not concentrating.

If you look at the world wide installed base, there were about 67GW of capacity installed. That's almost 200 times the size of the SEGS plant. Wikipedia only gives figures for spain and the US, but both of those countries combined would have about 1GW.

That isn't to say concentrating solar is a bad idea. But new capacity going up is going up as PV, and there is an order of magnitude more of it.

Also, according to wikipedia annual energy output of all the current PV install would be about 80TWh/year, or about half a percent world energy production, compared to about 14% for nuclear. At current growth rates, though, solar may eclipse nuclear power by the end of the decade.
posted by delmoi at 4:17 PM on March 29, 2012


Has the endless fossil fuel/solar/nuclear debate been ressurected in this thread because the North Sea gas leak is essentially dead as a story for the time being?

Rig evacuated because of hydrogen sulphide leak. Cloud of gas turns out to be mostly water vapour. Danger from deadly hydrogen sulphide mostly localized in surrounding seawater. Nothing much can be done until a relief well is drilled. Little risk of large oil spill.

Anything else to add here?
posted by KokuRyu at 5:15 PM on March 29, 2012


Sorry; I guess my information on solar is outdated; Also I probably shouldn't listen to organic chemists pushing how good their non-toxic organic based solar cells are compared to inorganic ones. I'll admit, I find solar a very attractive technology.

I am wondering about the people who say build the plants in the states and send the power north; My understanding was that the losses became too great to send power over those kind of distances, even with high voltage lines?

I fail to see why we can't build solar panels on radioactive land, so long as it isn't highly contaminated (Which, again, will drop quite rapidly since it is a relatively short lived isotope). Radiation only does damage if the exposure is chronic (noticeable dose year after year after year) or very high. Ground too contaminated to live on (For example, most of the area around Chernobyl) could still be easily used to set up solar, so long as you rotated through workers so no one got a noticeable does. Doubly so as most of the radiation is (from my understanding) which is easily stopped by protective equipment you could wear while setting up or doing maintenance on a solar farm.

People way overestimate the dangers of mild radiation; there is a significant level between 'we can't let people live here' and 'we can't use this land'; Sure, if you live on land, eat food that may be contaminated, etc, you might develop health problems, which means the government can't let you live on that land. However, the same land can easily be made safe to trained workers.

@KokuRyu: Yes, that seems to be the case. Which is probably a good thing. I'd rather argue about theoretical dangers then have to morn the lose of human life when one of them comes to pass.
posted by Canageek at 6:03 PM on March 29, 2012


Anyone know why the Oil Drum took down the post?
posted by daveirl at 3:28 AM on March 30, 2012


Oil Drum site was a mess all day yesterday and today is down completely, hopefully being repaired... too bad because just like the Macondo disaster, the comments thread was an expert source of info not seen in MSM -- many articulate and expert regular posters. Googling news for "Elgin Platform" indicates that the story has not quite died yet...
posted by indices at 7:20 AM on March 30, 2012


This just in from the BBC twitter account:
"#Total says it's tackling #Elgin platform gas leak by blocking well with "heavy mud" and preparing to drill relief well http://bbc.in/H3vQS0"

However, the linked story talks about the gas company claiming that there is no danger, and it is not human error that caused the problem.
posted by Canageek at 8:02 AM on March 30, 2012


Anyone know why the Oil Drum took down the post?

Users are missing - like Leahan. The drumbeats were gone as a category, and the front page had this the list bel120329 12:55:50 [ERROR] /usr/local/libexec] Got error 127 when reading table './dr

Who knows - the whole site could go away under "I give my time for free for this - now this hassle isn't worth it".

There is always peakoil.com I guess.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:37 AM on March 30, 2012


I fail to see why we can't build solar panels on radioactive land,

Depending on the level of radiation, the panels would become broken because of the radiation.

Then you have the opportunistic theft - unless someone is watching the panels are going to get stolen or the copper wire that makes 'em useful.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:40 AM on March 30, 2012


Sorry; I guess my information on solar is outdated; Also I probably shouldn't listen to organic chemists pushing how good their non-toxic organic based solar cells are compared to inorganic ones. I'll admit, I find solar a very attractive technology.
For a long time, people thought "thin film" solar would be the way to make solar cheap. Those do typically use toxic chemicals. But the traditional polysilicon panels have seen their prices crash completely. Those are just made from regular old silicon (along with traces of boron/phosphorus)
People way overestimate the dangers of mild radiation; there is a significant level between 'we can't let people live here' and 'we can't use this land'; Sure, if you live on land, eat food that may be contaminated, etc, you might develop health problems, which means the government can't let you live on that land. However, the same land can easily be made safe to trained workers.

Prypiat actually has a lot of tourism these days.

Still, it might increase the install cost, if you have to buy radiation suits for all your workers.
posted by delmoi at 4:31 PM on March 30, 2012


Deep in the comments thread of "Drumbeat" on the front page of The Oil Drum is an update from JoulesBurn, author of the inaccessible original article about the Elgin platform.
posted by indices at 5:24 PM on March 30, 2012


The insanity created by the people's greed and ego has taken over their minds so they can't see that they are apparently the most unintelligent species in this Earth.
posted by hsogorop at 11:02 PM on April 1, 2012


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