Population + Energy = Prosperity
Energy with Advanced Nuclear
NuScale: The Bridge Reactor
ThorCon Molten Salt Reactor
Coal to Nuclear
Wind and Solar
Nuclear CHP MicroGrids
Spent Nuclear Fuel
Why Natural Gas Matters
Population + Energy = Prosperity
This subject's pages:
Population + Energy = Prosperity
Footnotes & Links
Population + Energy =
People who live without electricity have life spans
half that of people who live with electricity.
Powering out of poverty at $100
a kilowatt. Recall the $100 personal computer?
Wars come from lack
of energy, lack of wealth, lack of vision.
Powering an end
to poverty at $100 a kilowatt.
the ultimate resource.
Energy Correlates with Prosperity. Prosperity Correlates with Fewer Children.
Earlier Web Page 1
Earlier Web Page 2
Part 1 Energy Correlates with Prosperity, Prosperity Correlates with
Part 2 Correlations. (a) Population
Stability, (b) Prosperity vs. Population, (c) vs. Energy
Part 3 Population Overload.
Part 4 2,000 Watt Society
"How critical is cheap energy for developing countries? Bryce
points out that Africa—a continent with 14 percent of the world's population—has
developed only 3 percent of the world's electricity. Of the 15 countries in the
world with the highest death rates, 14 of them are in Africa. Of the 22
countries with the highest infant mortality rates, 21 of them are in Africa.
Many factors contribute to those high death rates, but a widespread availability
of cheap energy would likely make life healthier for millions.
From "Gone with the Wind" - - Renewables like solar power and
others can't fuel America's future. Say experts: Just do the math." - - Jamie
"The International Energy Agency and World Coal Institute report a 10-year
increase in life expectancy for every tenfold increase in electrical power
availability. Of the world's approximately 6.8 billion people, only 2.6 billion
have adequate electrical power." - - A.J.S. Spearing, Ph.D., P.E.
Population and Energy. Energy correlates with prosperity. Prosperity
correlates with fewer children.
Correlates with Prosperity
Prosperity Correlates with Fewer Children
Did you ever happen to read (or see
on PBS) the 1978 book "Connections" by James Burke? I feel like I've just had a
"Connections" moment. I think Robert Hargraves' Power Point presentation "Aim
High" touches on a very important point that connects abundant energy
availability with population growth.
To see it, play the first 7 minutes
of the "Video" (slide + audio) presentation
http://rethinkingnuclearpower.googlepages.com/AimHigh by Robert
shows: Robert Hargraves cites CIA data that shows population growth trends
to replacement as energy as per capita energy availability trends toward 2,000
kilowatt-hours per year and GDP trends toward $7,500 per year. These are
some of the necessary ingredients for a "Population-Neutral" world.
WHY? - Simple. If
you've got machines doing your work, children cease to be valuable appliances.
It's life's economics, not culture or religion.
In energy-starved Africa, children of the
poor are commodities, often traded like cows or donkeys by adults who value
Slavery became obsolete when the age
of steam got up to steam. It's far cheaper to feed and maintain machines
than it is to feed and maintain people. Example: Healthcare cost is killing our
car companies. Think about all the large and tiny electric motors in all your
household appliances - I counted about 50 once. And you only have to feed them
when they are doing work for you. Think about your 200 horsepower car with its
20+ electric motors.
Abundant electricity is a
pre-requisite for a higher standard of living. Does this mean that by simply
adding more electrical generation capacity to a country one can expect the birth
rate to go down? No, but this does show us the path to rolling back the
human population has ample personal energy availability as a key component.
All businesses need abundant,
inexpensive reliable energy. And each individual's life is a small business.
Look at what is happening to California's economy right now as they become
increasingly energy-emaciated due to state government policies promoting wind
and solar and while banning new nuclear. "Dim," "Flicker," and "Off" are not
acceptable for traffic lights, water, or refrigeration, a few of the many things
that must function consistently for our personal lives to function at all.
There is no better endorsement of an energy-abundant lifestyle than this.
Population and Energy.
(a) Population Stability, (b) Prosperity vs. Population, (c) Prosperity vs.
I have never seen a
stronger condemnation of
Rocky Mountain Institute's concept of
"Starving Yourself Strong" than the correlations shown below.
(a) Population Stability
(The Organization for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an international organization
of thirty countries that accept the principles of representative democracy and
free-market economy. Most OECD members are high-income economies with a high
Human Development Index and are regarded as developed countries.)
The United States actually has a
negative birth rate among its citizens. Population growth depends upon
immigration. Blue line represents citizen population only.
(b) Prosperity vs. Population
(c) Prosperity vs. Energy
This is just the electricity
energy component of a nation. Coal, oil, and natural gas are almost always also
components of a nation's energy portfolio.
Electricity, actually a secondary
source of energy, is a very sophisticated form of energy. A large electrical
KWH per capita component implies a more advanced country.
(One KWH = 3,413 BTU = 3.6 x 106
Population and Energy.
Our Food, Water, Carbon Reserves,
and Nuclear Energy.
Powering poverty at $100 a
stabilizes population" by Robert
Hargraves, from "Aim High."
WHY? - Simple. If
you've got machines doing your work, children cease to be valuable appliances.
It's life's economics, not culture or religion.
In energy-starved Africa,
children of the poor are commodities, often traded like cows or donkeys by
adults who value their labor.
It's not uncommon for the average
U.S. household to have 50 electric motors in their appliances, a U.S.
Books about population overload:
Clear, and Deadly
For starters, the author
would like to cite a posting by Kurt Cobb on his web site:
Posted by Kurt Cobb, Sunday, July 05, 2009
I'm not a European, but I play one on the Internet--at least for the next
, a website
"explores the personal views of thinkers, innovators and scientists about
possible solutions to global warming, overpopulation and dwindling
asked me and other "European intellectuals and leaders" to
respond to the following question for the month of July posting: What can we
do to ensure that generations to come have a sustainable future?
The European Voice
, a newspaper
which covers the European Parliament, and the
channel, both of which are owned by
The Economist Group
, owners of
magazine and other
publications. The Comment: Visions
site is produced in association with
, a fact which gave me some misgivings. But as I looked at the
previous questions and responses, I discovered a wide range of views, some
of them quite radical, at least by the standards of
and Shell. And so, I
decided to participate.
I attempted to write a concise, blunt assessment of our ecological
predicament in hopes that perhaps at least one person of influence might
read and understand what I believe we face. I have reproduced my answer
below. For the other answers, go to the
home page for
Now to the mystery of how I became a European intellectual. The site clearly
invites non-Europeans to participate. I took the phrase "European
intellectual and leader" from one of the emails I received and was pleased
at what I perceived to be a promotion. I think the site operators may have
gotten my name from
, a science news site
based in Paris for which I am a columnist. They never said how they came
across my name.
In any case, here is what I wrote. See if you think I hit the mark for being
concise and blunt.
We are in overshoot. Failure to recognize this fact and act on it
will ultimately condemn humans worldwide to nature's cure for this
condition: collapse. Overshoot is a well-defined ecological term; it
means an organism is temporarily living beyond the long-term carrying
capacity of its environment, that is, the ability of the environment to
provide it with the needed food, energy and other resources for the
long-term and to absorb the pollution it produces without destroying
that carrying capacity.
Collapse is a more indefinite term, but it does not mean annihilation.
Collapse in the case of human society implies a fairly rapid decline in
population over perhaps many decades and the reorganization of society
into smaller and far more decentralized units.
For those who say that this cannot happen, the onus is on them to show
that the record of history (which is replete with such instances) and
the findings of science no longer apply to humans. Our predicament is
probably most aptly described by ecologist William Catton Jr. in his
book entitled "Overshoot." The enabling substances for this overshoot
have been fossil fuels. They have provided a one-time endowment of
exceptionally concentrated energy which we have used to extract large
yields from farms, forests, mines, fisheries and factories. Fossil fuels
have enabled us to increase our population and our wealth exponentially
in the last 150 years.
But once these finite fuels are burned, they are gone forever. The
long-run alternative is solar, its derivatives of wind and water power,
and possibly nuclear power. However, our problems run deeply across
multiple natural systems--climate, fisheries, water, farm fields, and
forests to name a few. Merely deploying alternative energy quickly
enough to replace fossil fuels will not solve all our problems. In fact,
increasing our use of energy could put even more pressure on the very
natural systems upon which our lives depend.
How then are we to climb down off this ledge of overshoot and avoid
crashing headlong into the valley of collapse? And, what should our
destination be? The historical record has only a handful of examples of
long-term sustainable societies, and they are based on agriculture and
hunting and gathering. The Indian agricultural village and the
Australian Aboriginal culture come to mind. But few people in
industrialized nations desire a return to such forms of human society.
When modern people speak of sustainability, they mean a sustainable
industrial society. And so, we are in uncharted waters for there is no
historical example of such a society to guide us.
We must rely instead on certain principles to tell us what to do. The
bedrock principle that nature suggests is this: We cannot have infinite
growth in the consumption of resources inside a finite system, the
Earth. If we are in overshoot, as I suggest, then we are beyond the
point of growing and must recede from our current consumptive habits.
How can we achieve this? I admit that my solution is one no sane
politician would embrace: a steady-state economy, that is, an economy in
which neither the throughput of material resources nor the associated
pollution would grow. The quality of goods and services, however, could
continue to increase so long as that increase in quality does not demand
the use of additional resources. And, the satisfactions we obtain from
nonmaterial sources such as friends and family, athletic and artistic
pursuits, and religious practice could continue to deepen and grow
indefinitely. Note, however, that while this is the description of a
steady-state economy, it is not one of a steady-state society. Both the
economic and cultural life of such a society would continue to evolve.
All of this seems hard enough to imagine, let alone implement. But we
must go even further for we cannot achieve a sustainable, steady-state
economy by merely ceasing to grow. Rather, because we are already in
overshoot, we need to reduce drastically our use of resources,
especially energy. This will doubtless require new technology to make us
vastly more efficient. But it will also require that we rearrange our
lives and change our habits so as to accomplish our goals by using far
fewer resources than we do today. We will also need to bring down
population gradually over time to a level consistent with long-term
While what I'm suggesting may seem like an impossible political task,
it is the only feasible solution for a sustainable industrial society.
Either we summon the will to bring about a steady-state economy or
nature will tragically and remorselessly implement one for us. These are
The 2,000 Watt Society.
2,000 Watt Society.
2,000 watts continuous or 17,520 watt-hours per year per person.
have to move to nuclear so everyone in the world can enjoy a 10,000 Watt
take away from the energy-rich so polar bears can have a comfortable
Intellectuals with zero capacity to build and fix things
are a major reason our society is headed in the wrong direction.
BOOKS about Population
Clear, and Deadly
Unraveling a toxic legacy. Melvin J. Visser, Michigan State University Press,
The waters of our Northern Hemisphere are deadly.
Toxics are carried to them by a polluted mantle of
air containing hundreds of millions of molecules per
breath full of persistent pesticides such as
chlordane, toxaphene, Dieldrin, PCBs, Lindane,
hexachlorobenzene, and DDT. Human health and
wildlife survival continues to suffer from chemicals
that were long banned because they promoted human
cancer or caused acute environmental devastation.
These highly chlorinated, persistent organic
pollutants (POPs) circulate with global weather and
distribute around the globe according to their
volatility. Lindane, relatively volatile, was found
in the Arctic Ocean at 40 times the concentration of
ocean waters near its temperate region uses. PCBs
smear out through the mid latitudes and decrease
towards the north. Toxaphene and chlordane settle in
north of PCBs. They must be stopped.
The Human Effect:
Everyone: Researchers continue to connect the
presence of low levels of POPs with diabetes,
cancer, asthma and other diseases. Is it surprising
to find that chemicals designed to destroy life may
be interfering with human health?
Inuit: POPs enter the food chain at the
microscopic level and remain in the fat of living
creatures, bioaccumulating up the food chain to the
point that the fat of Arctic narwhal and beluga
whales would be classified as hazardous waste. Inuit
of Northern Canada and Greenland, who consume this
fat as well as that of seals, polar bear and walrus
as a portion of their diet, are highly contaminated.
Canadian Inuit women of child bearing age consume 14
times the tolerable daily intake (TDI) of chlordane,
toxaphene, PCBs and other pesticides. They suffer
infertility, stillbirths and birth defects. Many of
their children have compromised immune systems,
suffering near constant colds and flus that leave
them hearing impaired.
The Great Lakes: Waters from the Chesapeake to
San Francisco Bays are contaminated with POPs.
Toxaphene levels in Lake Superior, banned in 1982,
have increased 50% since banning. Lower Great Lakes
PCB levels fall slowly as they vent their excesses
to the atmosphere, but Lake Superior has maintained
a constant level of PCBs for decades. It is in
equilibrium with the toxic mantle of global air and
controlled by it! Fish reproduction is impaired and
eagles cannot reproduce on a diet from the waters of
the Great Lakes. Humans are advised to restrict
consumption or avoid eating Great Lakes fish.
The Arctic: Polar bears of the Hudson Bay area
may suffer from the lack of ice and seals in the
summer, but their brothers to the north have higher
levels of POPs and experience half their lifespan
and half their reproductivity. Killer whales,
leaving the Pacific Northwest to feed on mammal pups
in the Arctic return without their mature males. The
nursing pups are very toxic from their mother’s
milk. Female killer whales vent POPs through their
own milk while males continue to accumulate POPs.
Their compromised immune systems make them
vulnerable to death from infections.
We banned these chemicals in the 1970s and 80s
after using them for a couple decades.
Unfortunately, through the Green Revolution of the
1960s, our high yielding agriculture was exported to
India, Pakistan and Asia to save hundreds of
millions of lives using chemicals we subsequently
banned. The developing countries have now used these
chemicals for their expanding agricultural business
for a half a century. China now exports 3.5 billion
pounds of food per year to the U.S. food grown with
pesticides we’ve banned pesticides that make their
way back to our waters.
The Stockholm Convention is a 2001 voluntary
agreement to globally ban POPs. Since 2001, there
has been nothing voluntarily accomplished that will
improve the health of our waters. Global business
continues unfettered while poisons pour into the air
and find our waters. There will not be any efforts
in developing countries without diplomatic carrots
or sticks. This will not happen until citizens of
the developed world let their elected
representatives know that they are tired of
breathing contaminated air and not being able to
enjoy the fish from our cold, clear deadly waters.
Don’t ignore the opportunity to pass this message
to all your friends the same list that you sent the
last cute little joke you received. Then let the
politicians who are now campaigning about how they
will protect your health care dollar know that you
would prefer that they clean up our air so there
will be less illness and health care cost!
WEB LINKS for this subject.
http://rethinkingnuclearpower.googlepages.com/AimHigh by Robert
NEWS ITEMS for this subject.
Panel: Only Technology Can
Guarantee Global Food Sustainability.
The UK's Press Association (1/21) reports, "Finding enough food and energy to
sustain the Earth's population is the greatest technological challenge facing
humanity, an expert panel of chemists and engineers have said." According to
their report, "the world is heading for a food crisis caused by climate change
and competition for land use," and "in the long term, only technology could
guarantee global food sustainability." The experts "called for the creation of
more genetically modified pest and drought resistant crops, as well as
nutritionally enhanced plant foods," and "recommended a stronger focus on
chemical engineering to improve water supplies, and the development of ways to
generate energy from livestock waste." The report "said GM regulations must be
'based on an evaluation of the risk, using sound evidence, and not on a
socio-political fear of new technology.'"
We Are the 10,000 Watt Society
Earlier Web Page 2
We Are The 10,000 Watt Society
How We Will Be Living
Comfortable, Environmentally Clean, 10,000 Watt Lives In Nuclear-Powered
Sustainable Small Cities, Towns
Power and Poverty A Light in India .pdf
10,000 Watts per
person is what you get if you divide the Watts the United States is using by the
number of people living in the United States.
(For 2010, the author gets 11,063 Watts, 30% of that is imported oil.
The 10,000 Watts
mentioned above includes all the different energies needed to sustain the lives
of ourselves, our families, everyone in the United States - food,
transportation, heating, cooling, etc. Obviously, by this measure, if we led
2,000 Watt lives like the Mexicans, we'd be living less well.
economic poverty. Think about it.
thing to keep in mind is that since energy is what makes anything possible,
energy is a big part of everything you eat, wear, drive, live in, etc. Keeping
energy costs low is the key to keeping
all prices (pdf) low.
Our 10,000 Watt
lives are powered by fossil fuel heat engines. That seems to be as good as we
can get from our vanishing mix of fossil fuel sources. If we want to live
better, we're going to have to add more watts to the mix.
Where are we going
to get them? Pound-for-pound, nuclear fuel is 3 million times as powerful as
fossil fuel. If our fossil fuel heat engine mix were replaced by more a more
powerful nuclear heat engine mix that produced, say, an average of 15,000 Watts,
we'd be living better.
If our energy mix
were to be replaced by 2,000 Watt windmills, we, our families, our entire
country, would be living at or below the poverty level.
about the 2,000 Watt Society at
Part 1 The 10,000
Watt U.S. citizen living in sustainable nuclear-powered small cities, towns and
Economics say we should buy our
10,000 watts from nuclear as the way to
keep costs low, move beyond fossil fuels.
Part 3 Making
Electricity From Heat.
3A: Making Nuclear
Electricity. 3B: Electricity Reliability. 3C: Powering Electric Cars.
How electricity gets from power plants to your house. Irrigation loads and
rural power plants.
Part 5 Example
Small Reactor: mPower
- For the sustainable small American city of about 20,000 population.
Part 6 Example
Small Reactor: Hyperion
- For the sustainable small American town of about 5,000 population.
- Toshiba's Galena, Alaska, nuclear reactor for a sustainable village of about
Chernobyl Region to be Resettled .pdf
Chernobyl Becomes Tourist Attraction .pdf
The 10,000 Watt U.S. citizen living in sustainable nuclear-powered small cities,
towns and villages.
We are the
10,000 Watt Society.
How We Will Be Living
Comfortable, Environmentally Clean,
10,000 Watt Lives In Nuclear-Powered Sustainable Small Cities, Towns and
To a large degree, Watts are a good gauge of both how
well we are living and our physical freedom.
Do you really, really,
want to live like a 2,000 Watt Mexican?
Learn more about the
2,000 Watt Society at
who think we should lead 2,000 Watt lives are a major reason our society
is headed in the wrong direction.
Nuking Small Towns:
As an example, Michigan, with 10,000,000
total population, has 538 incorporated towns or an average of 18,590 people per
town which would make about 186 megaWatts per town.
A pair of small Babcock & Wilcox "mPower"
125 MWe buried modular reactors can power a single, low-cost 250 MegaWatt
generator. What a coincidence! Smaller towns could have as little as a single
125 MWe reactor driving a single 125 MWe electricity generator.
The author's city of Kalamazoo, population about
100,000, would require 8 single reactor 125 MWe reactor modules to abundantly
power it. A "Quad" of 125 MWe reactors driving a pair of 250 MWe electricity
generators would look like this:
B&W mPower quad.
If 125 MWe is still too large, check out the
rather rural, bargain-basement 25 MWe Hyperion "Neighborhood
Nuclear" below or, for remote villages,
Toshiba's 10 MWe 4S.
The advantage of any of these modular nuclear
electricity plants is that you can add modules as your town's electrical needs
grow - as many as 10 in the case of B&W's mPower packages - to add up to a
hunking 1,250 MegaWatts. Operational advantages are if one reactor is being
refueled, the others can continue to produce electricity. The containment
vessel is big enough to safely hold underground all the spent radioactive fuel
rods the reactor is likely to produce over its 70-year life. Being small, a
small pond will have sufficient cooling water. The plant would be located
outside, but nearby, the town it serves, just as the 2,000 Watt rural diesel
units do today.
Moving everyone in the world to 100%
nuclear would enable a
world of 10,000 Watt lives with a zero-carbon footprint.
Economics say we should buy our
10,000 watts from nuclear as the way to
keep costs low, move beyond fossil fuels.
say we should buy our 10,000 watts from nuclear
as the way to keep costs low, move
beyond fossil fuels.
OECD report graph below shows the
projected ranges of global electrical energy costs in U.S. Dollars per MegaWatt
hour. Nuclear will have a significant price advantage over both wind and
fossil fuels. Adding as much nuclear energy as possible to our energy mix will
bring down all prices. Likewise, using wind energy would cause all prices to
become higher. ( For complete information see both the:
Energy - Indirect Energy In Consumer Products .pdf and the
OECD report )
power plant construction costs.
Gasification Combined Cycle [IGCC] coal plant construction costs: The IGCC
power plant in Edwardsport, expected to be in operation by 2012, will cost $2.88
billion or $4,660/kW. The 602 MW Taylorville IGCC plant will cost $3.5 billion
The 582 MW Kemper
County IGCC will cost $3.2 billion or $5,500/kW. If a traditional coal-fired
plant was to be built for Kemper County, it would cost $2.4 billion or $
4,100/kW. In this case the additional cost to opt for IGCC raises power plant
cost by about 35 percent." -- -- Dr.
Richard W. Goodwin, P.E., Environmental Engineering Consultant
stated their 25 MWe reactor module (above)
will cost $1,000 per kW and that associated generic steam generation equipment
and construction costs would add an additional $1,000 per kW. At about $2,000
per kW, there is no way future coal can compete with small nuclear from
suppliers such as Hyperion, NuScale (45 MWe per module "under $4,000 per kW"),
or Babcock and Wilcox mPower (125 MWe per module, "less than $3,500 per kW for
four 125 MWe modules").
Making Electricity From Heat. 3A:
Making Nuclear Electricity.
3B: Small Nuclear Electricity. 3C: Powering Electric Cars.
Electricity From Heat.
Ample Reliable Electricity is Essential
for Living Better Electrically.
About the heat engines that
power our 10,000 Watt lives.
Only the heat engine has
the ability to provide on-demand mechanical power in whatever amount is needed
for as long as it is needed. Heat engines are keeping about 80% of the world's
Wind and solar are
like rigid airships (Zeppelins) - rather fragile romantic ideas that simply
don't have the power or durability of heat engines for 70 years of hard work.
The evolution of the Heat
1712 - Thomas Newcomen -
First heat engine powerful enough to do "Industrial Strength" work pumping water
from mines. Much larger mines, cheaper coal resulted.
1763 - James Watt - First heat engine capable of producing "Industrial
Strength" rotary motion. Windmills and most waterwheels, unable to compete,
1804 - Richard Trevithick - First
high pressure heat engine both small and strong enough to power a train of
railroad cars. Trains pulled by horses made obsolete.
1942 - Enrico Fermi - First
artificial nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, at University of Chicago. Made
heat from fossil fuels unnecessary.
Notice it took 92 years
for the basic heat engine to be evolved to the point where it could power a
locomotive about the size of a car and 230 years before the first
man-made nuclear reactor ran - this was effectively the inventing of a second
form of fire. It wasn't until 9 years later - 1951 - that a reactor actually
heated a small boiler to make electricity. All these changes were eventually
met with strong opposition, especially by those whose incomes were threatened by
In some cases, handsome incomes
can be derived by heading up large organizations of people opposed to
something. So, in the author's opinion, it isn't surprising that modern-day
Luddites such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, or the Union of Concerned
Scientists are still opposing peaceful uses of nuclear energy. (James Hansen
calls them the "Union of Concerned Lobbyists," p204 in his book, "Storms of My
Grandchildren".) Few of Sierra Club's supporters have any real knowledge of any
kind of energy - much less understand applied nuclear technology - and usually
accept their leader's wildly inaccurate, garbled, and scary anti-nuclear
Nuclear Power: The inconvenient solution.
Nuclear Power will replace fossil fuels. Nuclear power is economic, nuclear
fuel 300 times cheaper than coal, safe, and the only practical path to a zero
carbon society -
The author is not delighted
with the difficulty we will encounter making nuclear fuels replace fossil fuels
and, after having done a decade of personal energy studies, finds while nuclear
may eventually replace all fossil fuels, mankind will never replace all forms of
combustion. The heat of nuclear will have to be used to manufacture
synthetic carbon-neutral oils and gases.
Nuclear, like coal, is a
crude and clumsy form of scaleable heat that usually isn't as hot as fossil
fuel's fire and doesn't scale all the way down to "tiny" or "quick" like natural
gas and the oils can. Another major drawback of nuclear is that since nuclear
fission produces strong neutron radiation any time it produces strong heat, the
physical containment and shielding this type of radiation demands means nuclear
heat devices will usually be at least 10 feet in diameter, usually buried at
least 20 feet into the ground and weigh perhaps 20 tons. There will be
exceptions but not many. A nuclear engine in your car is unlikely.
Carbon-neutral synthetic gasoline made by using massive amounts of nuclear heat,
however, is very likely.
Nuclear's Big Advantage:
Huge amounts of very low cost heat. We will never run out of nuclear fuels.
Small reactors can be "Set, Bury, and Forget for Decades" heat sources.
Imagine our predicament if we had only fossil fuels and renewables.
“The Navy has been
running ships the size of cities for years with small nukes.”
Making Nuclear Electricity
(Right) Looking at total electricity added up but
not looking at the quality of the electricity produced.
Left, One month of wind electricity in
Germany. Center, One day of scattered cloud solar electricity
in Southwest U.S. Right, One month of nuclear electricity in
the U.S. (Click on images for details.)
You can see for yourself how Bonneville Power's wind power is doing in
the Pacific Northwest at this moment.
Living with wind electricity .pdf
(The blue line on the Pacific Northwest linked plot is wind
This advertisement is dangerously misleading. (1.2 meg wmv)
The reality. (3.2 meg wmv)
As you can see, no electricity source is 100% available 100% of the time, that's
why electricity grids are always powered by multiple electricitygenerating
units. In the United States, electricity voltage has to be within 10% of where
it should be all of the time for the grid and most large electrical devices in
the home to function properly without burning out before they are worn out.
In addition, the grid in the United States is
"tuned" to run at a frequency pitch of 60 cycles (or Hertz, Hz) (that hum you
hear around big electrical equipment) and electricity generating sources must be
within 1/2 cycle of that pitch or they cannot contribute electricity to the
Just as your car gets poor gas mileage, wears out
faster, and makes excessive amounts of emissions in stop-and-go traffic, your
power company experiences the same degradations if it has to add stop-and-go
electricity from herky-jerky wind and solar sources into the electricity it is
supplying to the grid feeding your house. This is why wind electricity, which
has been around since 1900, has not been used as a source of electricity.
In the author's opinion, if we want to add wind
and solar electricity to the grid mix, these sources should be used to pump
water up into nearby pumped water energy storage facilities. Hydro is
jet-engine quick. Wind + hydro makes one of the most perfect renewable
electricity generating systems ever devised.
Pumped water energy storage facility. Green is taking energy in, red is
sending energy out. Notice it is well suited to track changes in wind and solar
generation to smoothly meet electricity user needs.
As you can see, nuclear electricity has the lowest production
cost of any source. (Click for details.)
Unfortunately, spending years
in court fighting the environmentalists causes nuclear to have the highest build
costs of any electricity generating technology.
blog is devoted to major events going on in the world of nuclear technology and
run by a journalist and researcher from Belarus studying in Sweden, willing to
draw public attention to atomic technology development, security and
consequences of its usage.
Powering Electric Cars
In addition to the items mentioned
in the attached article, there is the psychological stress of recharging your
battery-only electric car standing in a puddle in the pouring rain with a live
220 volt cord outlet in your hand.
Electric Vehicle Recharging .pdf
gets from power plants to your house. Irrigation loads and rural power plants.
How electricity gets from
power plants to your house.
It takes about 1,000
Volts to push electrical energy 1 mile. 1,000 Volts is typically called:
electricity distribution components. Below, from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_distribution Notice all circuits
are 3 phase (Φ), 60 Hz.
(Above) Higher-voltage transmission
lines are more typical of a grid several hundred miles in diameter. kV =
kiloVolts or thousands of Volts.
(Right) Basic components found in a more complete electricity distribution
What will the "Small
Energy" picture be like when all we have is nuclear?
There is a huge gap between the 25 MWe
obtainable from the smallest commercial reactor that's about to come on the
market - the Hyperion - and what thermal energy may be obtained from a 4kV 3
phase electrical distribution line.
An 800 boiler horsepower boiler
consumes about 33,600 SCF or 105 MegaWatts thermal per hour in natural gas.
To do 70 MW thermal at 4,000 volts
3Φ, would take 4,000 amps. This is an impractical amount of current. 400 amps
is about as high as we can go.
A great little electrical power
Parts 5, 6, and 7. Small Town Nukes
- For the sustainable (some commerce, light industry) small American city of
about 20,000 population.
(Left) In this
drawing we see two underground mPower reactors in the foreground driving a
single generic 250 MWe electricity generator in the distance (Blue Turbine,
Black Generator). Babcock & Wilcox's control system enables as many as 10 such
reactors to be installed in a row to produce the same power, 1,250 MWe, as a
single huge nuclear power plant.
A 500 MWe quad reactor, dual turbogenerator mPower unit.
Underground containment for a single, stand-alone reactor and small 125 MWe
electricity turbine (in back).
Images by Babcock
& Wilcox, Inc.
would be remiss if he did not point out the often overlooked NuScale modular
nuclear system that made it's debut a few months before B&Ws. We all know who
Babcock & Wilcox is. NuScale is virtually
unknown. Designed by an Oregon team of scientists and engineers who have lived
their lives in the Northwest's Bigfoot country, NuScale's reactor is clearly a
reactor done "West-Coast" style.
Like B&W mPower,
NuScale uses the world's current "Gold Standard" for safe design, the double
isolated core Westinghouse PWR layout.
underground reactor unit, the NuScale is hyper-passively safe, going beyond what
B&W has done. And it cost them. The same physical size as B&W's reactor, but
running at lower pressures than the big reactors, it is only 1/3 as powerful (45
MWe) as B&W's 125 MWe mPower reactor. Made almost entirely of simple stainless
steel tubes, the NuScale strikes the author as "Model T" simple in both
construction and operation but it is clearly market-vulnerable on a cost vs.
performance basis. If "Green and Clean" is your thing, this might be your
permission, the author quotes from their web site:) "Compared to a typical PWR
plant, the NSSS parameters are much lower. Thermal rating of the reactor is
several times smaller. Coolant pressure and steam pressure is about 50% lower
than that of a typical PWR. The power generation system is greatly simplified.
It implements a turbine-generator set and condensate/feedwater pump. The entire
turbine-generator can be replaced with a spare unit for overhaul. Additionally,
NuScale plants will use nuclear fuel assemblies similar to those in today’s
commercial nuclear plants. The only difference is the length of the fuel
assemblies (6 feet for a NuScale system instead of the traditional 12 feet) and
the number of assemblies in the reactor."
NuScale to learn about their small town nuke philosophy.
- For the sustainable small American town of about 5,000 population.
Now everyone needs to
learn about being around radioactivity just as we needed to learn about being
Nuclear Will Look
Hyperion Homegrown Hyperion Nuclear Power .pdf
Living around nuclear, rather than
fossil, energy. How these pint-sized reactors will be used.
The portion - yellow circled by the author - is all that would be needed
for heating and cooling a
hospital complex, college or university, large factory, airport terminal,
military base, office or apartment complex, etc.
This is how we will end NATURAL GAS BURNING.
By moving nuclear beyond just the big
cities, large grids with their inherent electrical losses and instabilities,
will be minimized.
We will go back to the much more electrically robust times that prevailed during
(Right) Thousands of small towns
around the world have a few diesel generators nearby.
These semi truck trailer diesel-powered electricity generation modules are near
the town of Coldwater, Michigan. Combined, they produce about 12 MegaWatts of
The drawing below shows the Hyperion reactor powering a small town 25 MegaWatt
nuclear power plant.
Like the diesel's radiators, the Hyperion nuclear plant has condensate cooling
towers so does not need water.
As the author understands it,
fresh, never used, reactor fuel rods from the factory can be safely handled with
Once in a running reactor
however, fuel rods become dangerously radioactive, somewhat comparable to
the danger a fossil fuel presents when it is actually burning. Unlike a fossil
fuel fire, nuclear fuels do not stop fissioning quickly, needing several years
to decay to a "cooled down" state that will always remain somewhat dangerous.
Running reactors MUST have adequate
radiation shielding to block the high levels of radioactivity needed to make
heat. There are many materials that make excellent
nuclear barriers. Burying a small reactor in a thick concrete vault is a
good way to improve security and add additional shielding. (Concrete and steel
rebars are cheap - we make roads out of them -and moist dirt makes excellent
Hyperion reactor is a factory sealed unit and does not have user-replaceable
fuel rods. The first Hyperion will be a 25 MWe unit with a 10 year fuel load.
When the fuel is used up, a fresh reactor is connected and the old reactor is
left to allow the strong "running radioactivity" to die out (decay) for a couple
of years before the reactor is ready to be loaded onto a truck for refueling at
the factory. Having a Lead-Bismuth coolant, when the reactor is cooled down,
it's a solid block of metal. (Right) Notice that the village's
reactor is buried.
This is shown clearly on the
Hyperion drawing (below) showing their reactor powering a small electricity
generating plant. In-ground reactor silos are provided on either side of the
steam generating heat exchanger vault (bottom of drawing) to hold both an active
and a cooling Hyperion Power Module (HPM). Notice the silos are outside the
electricity generator building to enable a transport truck to drive over either
silo opening to deliver or remove the 20+ ton reactors by lowering or lifting
them through an opening in the bed of its radiation shielded semi trailer.
This is a small nuclear power
plant - only 25 MegaWatts electrical (MWe), ($25 million), - compared to the
1,800 MWe, ($6 billion) nuclear power plants we are used to. It would power a
town of 20,000 people and it's industries quite nicely. If some town decided to
buy a Hyperion reactor to reduce their electricity costs (nuclear electricity is
cheaper than coal) they should also have access to 12 hours worth of
water energy storage electricity within 100 miles (Grid I2R
losses become high over 100 miles.). Nuclear likes a slowly changing load (a
50% load change can take more than an hour), pumped water energy storage can
deal quickly with changing loads very nicely and also provide the reactor
with some work to do during very low load times in the middle of the night.
(Images by Hyperion, Inc.)
(As an engineer who has been around
utilities, the author would like to see a standby biodiesel powered 25 MWe
modular combined cycle gas turbine located just beyond the cooling towers - so
the combined cycle steam lines could come in alongside the tower lines. This
would add critical redundancy and extra peaking ability for little extra cost.)
the somewhat larger 125 MWe mPower unit being offered by Babcock & Wilcox,
larger market strategies come into play. Several mPower reactors can be
combined in a single power station to provide 2, 4, 8 or more multiples of
125MWe power. NSSS units could be twinned or possibly quadrupled to drive a
single large turbogenerator set for larger stations, or a single reactor could
connect to a single turbogenset. As a result, the mPower reactor-based power
station is being marketed in three different size ranges: 500-750MWe;
125-250MWe, e.g. for municipalities or replacement of old 200-300MW coal-burning
stations now considered too polluting to continue in operation; and 1000MWe or
above. An attraction for larger plants is that the capacity can be added in
steps rather than all at once, allowing stepwise capital investment, with the
first module producing early revenue before the others are completed. The cost
of competing large reactors is so high – perhaps $10 billion for two units –
that it exceeds many utilities’ market capitalization, B&W's Mowry says. “You
are betting the company on one station, and utilities do not want to do that.” -
- Nuclear Engineering International News.
Below: Specifications for the
reactor used above. Notice formal NRC license date. Hyperion
as of Aug 10 2010 .jpg
Hyperion to Build Demo of Small Modular Reactor at Savannah River .pdf
Near-Ground level sectioned elevation.
Toshiba's Galena, Alaska, 10 MWe nuclear power plant for a typical sustainable
village of about 700 population.
Toshiba 4S April 29 2009.pdf
Toshiba 4S Overview .pdf
illustrates the problem by translating human life into watts. “A human being at
rest runs on 90 watts,” he says. “That’s how much power you need just to lie
down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll need
about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find food. So
how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you add up
all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the computer and
the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000
watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to
live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more
watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the biggest animal that has
ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable. We can’t have seven
billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not even clear that we can afford to
have 300 million blue whales.”
December 17, 2010
A Physicist Solves the City
By JONAH LEHRER
Geoffrey West doesn’t eat lunch. His
doctor says he has a mild allergy to food; meals make him sleepy and nauseated.
When West is working when he’s staring at some scribbled equations on scratch
paper or gazing out his office window at the high desert in New Mexico he
subsists on black tea and nuts. His gray hair is tousled, and his beard has the
longish look of neglect. It’s clear that West regards the mundane needs of
everyday life trimming the whiskers, say as little more than a set of
annoying distractions, drawing him away from a much more interesting set of
problems. Sometimes West can seem jealous of his computer, this silent machine
with no hungers or moods. All it needs is a power cord.
For West, the world is always most compelling at its most abstract. As a
theoretical physicist in search of fundamental laws, he likes to compare his
work to that of Kepler,
Galileo and Newton. “I’ve
always wanted to find the rules that govern everything,” he says. “It’s amazing
that such rules exist. It’s even more amazing that we can find them.”
But the 70-year-old West, who grew up in Somerset, England, is no longer trying
to solve the physical universe; he’s not interested in deep space or string
theory. Although West worked for decades as a physicist at
Stanford University and
Los Alamos National Laboratory,
he started thinking about leaving the field after the financing for the Texas
superconducting supercollider was canceled by Congress in 1993. West, however,
wasn’t ready to retire, and so he began searching for subjects that needed his
Eventually he settled on cities: the urban jungle looked chaotic all those
taxi horns and traffic jams but perhaps it might be found to obey a short list
of universal rules. “We spend all this time thinking about cities in terms of
their local details, their restaurants and museums and weather,” West says. “I
had this hunch that there was something more, that every city was also shaped by
a set of hidden laws.”
And so West set out to solve the City. As he points out, this is an
intellectual problem with immense practical implications. Urban population
growth is the great theme of modern life, one that’s unfolding all across the
world, from the factory boomtowns of Southern China to the sprawling favelas
of Rio de Janeiro. As a result, for the first time in history, the majority of
human beings live in urban areas. (The numbers of city dwellers are far higher
in developed countries the United States, for instance, is 82 percent
urbanized.) Furthermore, the pace of urbanization is accelerating as people all
over the world flee the countryside and flock to the crowded street.
This relentless urban growth has led to a renewed interest in cities in academia
and in government. In February 2009,
established the first White House Office of Urban Affairs, which has been told
to develop a “policy agenda for urban America.” Meanwhile, new perspectives have
come to the field of urban studies. Macroeconomists, for instance, have focused
on the role of cities in driving gross domestic product and improving living
standards, while psychologists have investigated the impact of city life on
self-control and short-term memory. Even architects are moving into the area:
Rem Koolhaas, for one,
has argued that architects have become so obsessed with pretty buildings that
they’ve neglected the vital spaces between them.
But West wasn’t satisfied with any of these approaches. He didn’t want to be
constrained by the old methods of social science, and he had little patience for
the unconstrained speculations of architects. (West considers urban theory to be
a field without principles, comparing it to physics before Kepler pioneered the
laws of planetary motion in the 17th century.) Instead, West wanted to begin
with a blank page, to study cities as if they had never been studied before. He
was tired of urban theory he wanted to invent urban science.
For West, this first meant trying to gather as much urban data as possible.
Along with Luis Bettencourt, another theoretical physicist who had abandoned
conventional physics, and a team of disparate researchers, West began scouring
libraries and government Web sites for relevant statistics. The scientists
downloaded huge files from the
Census Bureau, learned
about the intricacies of German infrastructure and bought a thick and expensive
almanac featuring the provincial cities of China. (Unfortunately, the book was
in Mandarin.) They looked at a dizzying array of variables, from the total
amount of electrical wire in Frankfurt to the number of college graduates in
Boise. They amassed stats on gas stations and personal income, flu outbreaks and
homicides, coffee shops and the walking speed of pedestrians.
After two years of analysis, West and Bettencourt discovered that all of these
urban variables could be described by a few exquisitely simple equations. For
example, if they know the population of a metropolitan area in a given country,
they can estimate, with approximately 85 percent accuracy, its average income
and the dimensions of its sewer system. These are the laws, they say, that
automatically emerge whenever people “agglomerate,” cramming themselves into
apartment buildings and subway cars. It doesn’t matter if the place is Manhattan
or Manhattan, Kan.: the urban patterns remain the same. West isn’t shy about
describing the magnitude of this accomplishment. “What we found are the
constants that describe every city,” he says. “I can take these laws and make
precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of
roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this
city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And
the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.” After a
pause, as if reflecting on his hyperbole, West adds: “Look, we all know that
every city is unique. That’s all we talk about when we talk about cities, those
things that make New York different from L.A., or Tokyo different from
Albuquerque. But focusing on those differences misses the point. Sure, there are
differences, but different from what? We’ve found the what.”
There is something deeply strange about thinking of the metropolis in such
abstract terms. We usually describe cities, after all, as local entities defined
by geography and history. New Orleans isn’t a generic place of 336,644 people.
It’s the bayou and Katrina and Cajun cuisine. New York isn’t just another city.
It’s a former Dutch fur-trading settlement, the center of the finance industry
and home to the Yankees. And yet, West insists, those facts are mere details,
interesting anecdotes that don’t explain very much. The only way to really
understand the city, West says, is to understand its deep structure, its
defining patterns, which will show us whether a metropolis will flourish or fall
apart. We can’t make our cities work better until we know how they work. And,
West says, he knows how they work.
West has been drawn to different fields before. In 1997, less than five
years after he transitioned away from high-energy physics, he published one of
the most contentious and influential papers in modern biology. (The research,
which appeared in Science, has been cited more than 1,500 times.) The last line
of the paper summarizes the sweep of its ambition, as West and his co-authors
assert that they have just solved “the single most pervasive theme underlying
all biological diversity,” showing how the most vital facts about animals
heart rate, size, caloric needs are interrelated in unexpected ways.
The mathematical equations that West and his colleagues devised were inspired by
the earlier findings of Max Kleiber. In the early 1930s, when Kleiber was a
biologist working in the animal-husbandry department at the
University of California, Davis,
he noticed that the sprawlingly diverse animal kingdom could be characterized by
a simple mathematical relationship, in which the metabolic rate of a creature is
equal to its mass taken to the three-fourths power. This ubiquitous principle
had some significant implications, because it showed that larger species need
less energy per pound of flesh than smaller ones. For instance, while an
elephant is 10,000 times the size of a guinea pig, it needs only 1,000 times as
much energy. Other scientists soon found more than 70 such related laws, defined
by what are known as “sublinear” equations. It doesn’t matter what the animal
looks like or where it lives or how it evolved the math almost always works.
West’s insight was that these strange patterns are caused by our internal
infrastructure the plumbing that makes life possible. By translating these
biological designs into mathematics, West and his co-authors were able to
explain the existence of Kleiber’s scaling laws. “I can’t tell you how
satisfying this was,” West says. “Sometimes, I look out at nature and I think,
Everything here is obeying my conjecture. It’s a wonderfully narcissistic
Not every biologist was persuaded, however. In fact, West’s paper in Science
ignited a flurry of rebuttals, in which researchers pointed out all the species
that violated the math. West can barely hide his impatience with what he regards
as quibbles. “There are always going to be people who say, ‘What about the
crayfish?’ ” he says. “Well, what about it? Every fundamental law has
exceptions. But you still need the law or else all you have is observations that
don’t make sense. And that’s not science. That’s just taking notes.” For West,
arguments over the details of crustaceans were a sure sign that it was time to
move on. And so, in 2002, he began to think seriously about cities.
The correspondence was obvious to West: he saw the metropolis as a sprawling
organism, similarly defined by its infrastructure. (The boulevard was like a
blood vessel, the back alley a capillary.) This implied that the real purpose of
cities, and the reason cities keep on growing, is their ability to create
massive economies of scale, just as big animals do. After analyzing the first
sets of city data the physicists began with infrastructure and consumption
statistics they concluded that cities looked a lot like elephants. In city
after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism,” like the number of gas
stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in
size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent.
This straightforward observation has some surprising implications. It suggests,
for instance, that modern cities are the real centers of sustainability.
According to the data, people who live in densely populated places require less
heat in the winter and need fewer miles of asphalt per capita. (A recent
analysis by economists at Harvard and
that the average Manhattanite emits 14,127 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide
annually than someone living in the New York suburbs.) Small communities might
look green, but they consume a disproportionate amount of everything. As a
result, West argues, creating a more sustainable society will require our big
cities to get even bigger. We need more megalopolises.
But a city is not just a frugal elephant; biological equations can’t entirely
explain the growth of urban areas. While the first settlements in Mesopotamia
might have helped people conserve scarce resources irrigation networks meant
more water for everyone the concept of the city spread for an entirely
different reason. “In retrospect, I was quite stupid,” West says. He was so
excited by the parallels between cities and living things that he “didn’t pay
enough attention to the ways in which urban areas and organisms are completely
What Bettencourt and West failed to appreciate, at least at first, was that the
value of modern cities has little to do with energy efficiency. As West puts it,
“Nobody moves to New York to save money on their gas bill.” Why, then, do we put
up with the indignities of the city? Why do we accept the failing schools and
overpriced apartments, the
bedbugs and the traffic?
In essence, they arrive at the sensible conclusion that cities are valuable
because they facilitate human interactions, as people crammed into a few square
miles exchange ideas and start collaborations. “If you ask people why they move
to the city, they always give the same reasons,” West says. “They’ve come to get
a job or follow their friends or to be at the center of a scene. That’s why we
pay the high rent. Cities are all about the people, not the infrastructure.”
It’s when West switches the conversation from infrastructure to people
that he brings up the work of
Jane Jacobs, the urban
activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs was
a fierce advocate for the preservation of small-scale neighborhoods, like
Greenwich Village and the North End in Boston. The value of such urban areas,
she said, is that they facilitate the free flow of information between city
dwellers. To illustrate her point, Jacobs described her local stretch of Hudson
Street in the Village. She compared the crowded sidewalk to a spontaneous
“ballet,” filled with people from different walks of life. School kids on the
stoops, gossiping homemakers, “business lunchers” on their way back to the
office. While urban planners had long derided such neighborhoods for their
inefficiencies that’s why
Robert Moses, the “master
builder” of New York, wanted to build an eight-lane elevated highway through
SoHo and the Village Jacobs insisted that these casual exchanges were
essential. She saw the city not as a mass of buildings but rather as a vessel of
empty spaces, in which people interacted with other people. The city wasn’t a
skyline it was a dance.
If West’s basic idea was familiar, however, the evidence he provided for it was
anything but. The challenge for Bettencourt and West was finding a way to
quantify urban interactions. As usual, they began with reams of statistics. The
first data set they analyzed was on the economic productivity of American
cities, and it quickly became clear that their working hypothesis like
elephants, cities become more efficient as they get bigger was profoundly
incomplete. According to the data, whenever a city doubles in size, every
measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank
deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t
matter how big the city is; the law remains the same. “This remarkable equation
is why people move to the big city,” West says. “Because you can take the same
person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a
sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.” While
Jacobs could only speculate on the value of our urban interactions, West insists
that he has found a way to “scientifically confirm” her conjectures. “One of my
favorite compliments is when people come up to me and say, ‘You have done what
Jane Jacobs would have done, if only she could do mathematics,’ ” West says.
“What the data clearly shows, and what she was clever enough to anticipate, is
that when people come together, they become much more productive.”
West illustrates the same concept by describing the Santa Fe Institute, an
interdisciplinary research organization, where he and Bettencourt work. The
institute itself is a sprawl of common areas, old couches and tiny offices; the
coffee room is always the most crowded place. “S.F.I. is all about the chance
encounters,” West says. “There are few planned meetings, just lots of unplanned
conversations. It’s like a little city that way.” The previous evening, West and
I ran into the novelist
Cormac McCarthy at the
institute, where McCarthy often works. The physicist and the novelist ended up
talking about Antarctic icefish, the editing process and convergent evolution
for 45 minutes. Of course, these interpersonal collisions the human friction
of a crowded space can also feel unpleasant. We don’t always want to talk with
strangers on the subway or jostle with people on the sidewalk. West admits that
all successful cities are a little uncomfortable. He describes the purpose of
urban planning as finding a way to minimize our distress while maximizing our
interactions. The residents of Hudson Street, after all, didn’t seem to mind
mingling with one another on the sidewalk. As Jacobs pointed out, the layout of
her Manhattan neighborhood the short blocks, the mixed-use zoning, the density
of brownstones made it easier to cope with the strain of the metropolis. It’s
fitting that it’s called the Village.
In recent decades, though, many of the fastest-growing cities in America, like
Phoenix and Riverside, Calif., have given us a very different urban model. These
places have traded away public spaces for affordable single-family homes,
attracting working-class families who want their own white picket fences. West
and Bettencourt point out, however, that cheap suburban comforts are associated
with poor performance on a variety of urban metrics. Phoenix, for instance, has
been characterized by below-average levels of income and innovation (as measured
by the production of patents) for the last 40 years. “When you look at some of
these fast-growing cities, they look like tumors on the landscape,” West says,
with typical bombast. “They have these extreme levels of growth, but it’s not
sustainable growth.” According to the physicists, the trade-off is inevitable.
The same sidewalks that lead to “knowledge trading” also lead to cockroaches.
Consider the data: When Bettencourt and West analyzed the negative variables of
urban life, like crime and disease, they discovered that the exact same
mathematical equation applied. After a city doubles in size, it also experiences
a 15 percent per capita increase in violent crimes, traffic and AIDS cases. (Of
course, these trends are only true in general. Some cities can bend the
equations with additional cops or strict pollution regulations.) “What this
tells you is that you can’t get the economic growth without a parallel growth in
the spread of things we don’t want,” Bettencourt says. “When you double the
population, everything that’s related to the social network goes up by the same
West and Bettencourt refer to this phenomenon as “superlinear scaling,” which is
a fancy way of describing the increased output of people living in big cities.
When a superlinear equation is graphed, it looks like the start of a roller
coaster, climbing into the sky. The steep slope emerges from the positive
feedback loop of urban life a growing city makes everyone in that city more
productive, which encourages more people to move to the city, and so on.
According to West, these superlinear patterns demonstrate why cities are one of
the single most important inventions in human history. They are the idea, he
says, that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity. “When we
started living in cities, we did something that had never happened before in the
history of life,” West says. “We broke away from the equations of biology, all
of which are sublinear. Every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger.
That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As
cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. There is no equivalent for
this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally
faster than a mouse.”
There is, of course, a very good reason that animals slow down with size:
All that mass requires energy. Because the elephant has to eat so much to feed
itself, it can’t afford to run around like a little rodent. But the superlinear
growth of cities comes with no such inherent constraints. Instead, the urban
equations predict a world of ever-increasing resource consumption, as the
expansion of cities fuels the expansion of economies. In fact, the societal
consumption driven by the process of urbanization our collective desire for
iPads, Frappuccinos and the latest fashions more than outweighs the ecological
benefits of local mass transit.
West illustrates the problem by translating human life into watts. “A human
being at rest runs on 90 watts,” he says. “That’s how much power you need just
to lie down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll
need about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find
food. So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you
add up all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the
computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere
around 11,000 watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires
11,000 watts to live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle
where we need more watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the
biggest animal that has ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is
unsustainable. We can’t have seven billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not
even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales.”
The historian Lewis Mumford described the rise of the megalopolis as “the last
stage in the classical cycle of civilization,” which would end with “complete
disruption and downfall.” In his more pessimistic moods, West seems to agree: he
knows that nothing can trend upward forever. In fact, West sees human history as
defined by this constant tension between expansion and scarcity, between the
relentless growth made possible by cities and the limited resources that hold
our growth back. “The only thing that stops the superlinear equations is when we
run out of something we need,” West says. “And so the growth slows down. If
nothing else changes, the system will eventually start to collapse.”
How do we avoid this bleak fate? Constant innovation. After a resource is
exhausted, we are forced to exploit a new resource, if only to sustain our
superlinear growth. West cites a long list of breakthroughs to illustrate this
historical pattern, from the discovery of the steam engine to the invention of
the Internet. “These major innovations completely changed the way society
operates,” West says. “It’s like we’re on the edge of a cliff, about to run out
of something, and then we find a new way of creating wealth. That means we can
start to climb again.”
But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new
shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our
fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving
electric cars, at least
until we run out of lithium. This helps explain why West describes cities as the
only solution to the problem of cities. Although urbanization has generated a
seemingly impossible amount of economic growth, it has also inspired the
innovations that allow the growth to continue.
There is a serious complication to this triumphant narrative of cliff edges and
creativity, however. Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain,
every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the
cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough
providing a shorter reprieve. The end result is that cities aren’t just
increasing the pace of life; they are also increasing the pace at which life
changes. “It’s like being on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster,” West
says. “We used to get a big revolution every few thousand years. And then it
took us a century to go from the steam engine to the internal-combustion
engine. Now we’re down to about 15 years between big innovations. What this
means is that, for the first time ever, people are living through multiple
revolutions. And this all comes from cities. Once we started to urbanize, we put
ourselves on this treadmill. We traded away stability for growth. And growth
While listening to West talk about cities, it’s easy to forget that his
confident pronouncements are mere correlations, and that his statistics can only
hint at possible explanations. Not surprisingly, many urban theorists disagree
with West’s conclusions. Some resent the implication that future urban research
should revolve around a few abstract mathematical laws. Other theorists, like
Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif.,
argue that the working model of Bettencourt and West is already obsolete and
fails to explain recent trends. “In the last decade, suburbs have produced six
times as many jobs,” Kotkin says. And these aren’t just unskilled service jobs.
Kotkin says the centers of American innovation are now low-density metropolitan
areas like Silicon Valley and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. “For a supposedly complete
theory” of cities, Kotkin says, “this work fails to explain a lot of what’s
happening right now.”
The theoretical physicists aren’t discouraged by these critiques. While they
admit their equations are imperfect, they insist the work remains a necessary
first draft. “When Kepler found the laws that govern planetary motion, he didn’t
get the laws exactly right,” West says. “But the laws were still good enough to
inspire Newton.” In the meantime, West and Bettencourt continue to search for
new statistics (they have just received a data set from the I.R.S.) that they
hope to feed back into the model. Nevertheless, West says they believe that
their essential theory those superlinear and sublinear laws will remain
intact. The math is scientifically sound.
In fact, West is so satisfied with his urban research that he’s already becoming
a little restless. Recently, he and Bettencourt, led by this impatience, began
exploring yet another subject: the corporation. At first glance, cities and
companies look very similar. They’re both large agglomerations of people,
interacting in a well-defined physical space. They contain infrastructure and
human capital; the mayor is like a C.E.O.
But it turns out that cities and companies differ in a very fundamental regard:
cities almost never die, while companies are extremely ephemeral. As West notes,
couldn’t wipe out New Orleans, and a nuclear bomb did not erase Hiroshima from
the map. In contrast, where are Pan Am and
Enron today? The modern
corporation has an average life span of 40 to 50 years.
This raises the obvious question: Why are corporations so fleeting? After buying
data on more than 23,000 publicly traded companies, Bettencourt and West
discovered that corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely
sublinear. As the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee
shrinks. West gets giddy when he shows me the linear regression charts. “Look at
this bloody plot,” he says. “It’s ridiculous how well the points line up.” The
graph reflects the bleak reality of corporate growth, in which efficiencies of
scale are almost always outweighed by the burdens of bureaucracy. “When a
company starts out, it’s all about the new idea,” West says. “And then, if the
company gets lucky, the idea takes off. Everybody is happy and rich. But then
management starts worrying about the bottom line, and so all these people are
hired to keep track of the paper clips. This is the beginning of the end.”
The danger, West says, is that the inevitable decline in profit per employee
makes large companies increasingly vulnerable to market volatility. Since the
company now has to support an expensive staff overhead costs increase with
size even a minor disturbance can lead to significant losses. As West puts it,
“Companies are killed by their need to keep on getting bigger.”
For West, the impermanence of the corporation illuminates the real strength of
the metropolis. Unlike companies, which are managed in a top-down fashion by a
team of highly paid executives, cities are unruly places, largely immune to the
desires of politicians and planners. “Think about how powerless a mayor is,”
West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk
to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just
these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea
or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.”
Jonah Lehrer is the author, most recently, of "How We Decide."
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