The TerraPower Natrium Reactor – a Quick Review

TerraPower, a company funded by billionaire Bill Gates, has teamed up with several partners to build a demonstration nuclear power station in Wyoming by the end of the decade. Several sites are under consideration. The plan is to re-use the grid connection of a former thermal coal power plant, of which Wyoming has many.

The Natrium reactor developed by TerraPower in cooperation with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is quite a departure from the design of the light water reactors (LWRs) that produce the bulk of nuclear power worldwide today. For one, its output is highly variable because it incorporates gigawatthour (GWh) energy storage using tanks of molten salt. The design is quite innovative, which creates both upsides and challenges.

After reviewing the company’s website and watching a webinar, I am quite impressed but also concerned. The reactor will still run on uranium and will produce radioactive fission products that will need to be contained and stored safely for thousands of years. This is still a largely unsolved problem. Countries that have been generating power from nuclear fuels are today sitting on thousands of tons of waste kept in intermediate storage, still without a proven long term storage solution. Eight decades since the start of the “atomic age” with the Manhattan Project that gave us nuclear reactors and atomic bombs we are only now seeing the first permanent storage site being used in Finland. Some consider this the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. Proponents of nuclear power will argue that, given we already have existing waste, this is a problem we will need to address anyway and that the volume of highly active nuclear waste will remain relatively compact. Nevertheless, there is a lot that can go wrong there, especially if the volume keeps increasing.

What most excited me about the reactor concept was its incorporation of the heat store using molten salt tanks, which it borrowed from concentrated solar power (CSP). Everything from the molten salt tank to the grid connection is basically the same as in this type of solar power plant. The major difference is that the heat source is not solar power focused onto a tower by thousands of mirrors but an underground nuclear reactor. This means the designers could use existing technology developed to maturity over the last 2-3 decades for use in solar projects in Nevada, Australia, Morocco and other locations.

This part of the plant is conventional technology that will not be subject to the same regulatory oversight as the nuclear portion, making it easier and cheaper to build. At the same time, the nuclear portion of the plant is much smaller and simpler, requiring a lot less concrete and steel than in a LWR per MW of output capacity.

By incorporating the heat storage, the electrical output of the power station can be varied considerably – the TerraPower presentation showed a range of about 240 to 500 MWe, with 345 MWe available continually without charging or discharging the heat store. Output that varies by 100 percent roughly covers the demand swing between day and night in many power markets. If combined with solar and wind, the stored heat can be used to smooth out fluctuations in power output from those natural energy sources. Heat from the power station may also have applications for desalination, industrial processes and residential heating.

Conventional nuclear power stations such as PWRs or BWRs can not vary their output very much. They basically can only run at 100 percent load or be switched off. Once shut down, bringing them back up again takes a very long time. That makes them suitable only for base load but not for demand peaks such as in the afternoon or evening. For that they would have to be combined with energy storage such as pumped hydro, opportunities for which are limited by geography. Due to the literally built-in output flexibility of the salt storage system, a zero carbon grid could theoretically incorporate a lot more Natrium output capacity than would be possible with existing LWRs. From an economic point, it means the operators in a competitive electricity market with bidding for supplies can sell more power at lucrative peak prices instead of having to try to find buyers at night when demand and prices are low.

So what’s the catch? The nuclear reactor itself is a sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR), basically a Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) without the breeding: Except for the absence of a breeding blanket made of depleted uranium that slowly turns into plutonium, the technology is very similar. Perhaps you remember the Monju reactor in Fukui, Japan that was shut down after a major accident in 1995. The operators attempted to hide the extent of a coolant leak and fire, which led to a 15-year shutdown. After a second accident in 2010 the reactor was eventually decommissioned. In 1966 the prototype Fermi 1 FBR in Monroe, Michigan suffered a partial meltdown. It was permanently shut down in 1972. Several other sodium-cooled fast reactors have been built around the world, such as the French Superphénix, the Prototype Fast Reactor in Dounreay, Scotland and the SNR-300 in Kalkar, Germany. All of the above have since been shut down due to high costs or troubles or, like the one in Kalkar, were never even started up.

While sodium has a high temperature range between melting and boiling point and is a good heat conductor, it also reacts violently with water and oxygen. Naturally, you can not put out a sodium fire with water. Normally the top of the reactor vessel is filled with an inert gas such as argon to prevent sodium fires but it needs to be opened for loading and unloading fuel, during which time the sodium has to remain heated above its melting point. You do not want to start a fire then.

If an LWR overheats, steam bubbles will form that reduce the criticality, interrupting the chain reaction. By contrast, control of the chain reaction in SFRs depends 100 percent on positioning of the control rods.

While the cooling pipes will not have to withstand high steam pressures as in a BWR, they will be subject to thermal stress: The coolant temperature in an SFR is much higher, around 550 deg C (1020 F) which is basically red-hot and hot enough to melt some aluminium alloys (and of course salt, for the heat storage). When SolarReserve decided to build a molten salt CSP solar power station in Nevada, it turned to Rocketdyne to make some of the metal parts, because of their metallurgical expertise in rocket engine nozzles that are also exposed to high temperatures.

There are other viable solutions for base load in a zero carbon grid, such as geothermal power, utility scale battery storage, thermal storage using rock heated electrically with surplus wind and solar or green hydrogen powering fuel cells or gas turbines. Costs for wind, solar and battery storage have been falling rapidly for years. Once renewables are cheap enough, you can partially address issues of intermittent output by overbuilding capacity and simply idling some of it when not needed. Or you can use spare output when supply exceeds demand to produce hydrogen, for making ammonia and for use by the steel industry.

Some of these solutions depend more on geography than the Natrium reactor, which can be installed on any continent and provide power at time of day and in any season. However, it would definitely need to be safe and reliable. Ultimately, this new technology will first have to prove itself.

Expiring the Internal Combustion Engine Car

The US state of Washington has decided to ban sales of new cars with internal combustion engines (ICE, gasoline or diesel) by the year 2030. That is five years earlier than in the state of California.

There are two issues to overcome for a switch to battery electric vehicles (BEVs): supply and charging. Two common worries however will not stand in the way of BEVs replacing ICEs: cost and range. Let me explain.

Battery cost per kWh has been dropping for decades and this trend is expected to continue. THis is highly significant: Most parts of a BEV car other than the big battery cost either the same as in an ICE car or they’re cheaper. As a result, the cost of batteries will stop being a major obstacle to adoption of BEVs years before the end of the decade.

The same is true for range. Cheaper batteries mean BEVs with more capacity will become affordable. The higher the capacity, the more km of charge can be replenished in a given number of minutes. For example, a Nissan Leaf with a 40 kWH battery will fast-charge from 0 to 80% in 40 minutes. The Volkswagen ID.4 First Edition with an 82 kWh battery (of which 77 kWh are usable capacity) will go from 5% to 80% charge in 38 minutes, essentially double the charging speed (kWh added per minute) for a battery with twice the range. If you can add hundreds of km of range in the time it takes you to use the toilet and get a cup of coffee then BEVs will be just as viable for long distance trips as ICE cars.

By the middle of this decade there is likely to be a wealth of different battery electric vehicle models on the market, with even BEV laggards such as Toyota, Honda and Subaru having joined in. Production could increase to about 50% of new sales of several large makers (e.g. GM, VW). It will have to scale up further, with the necessary increase in battery production capacity, by the end of the decade to make this happen but it seems eminently doable. Right now, the major bottleneck to ramping up production is not lack of demand but limited availability of battery cells. Every big car maker getting into BEVs will have to build Gigafactories churning out battery packs, or team up with battery makers who make these huge investments.

The more BEV there will be on the road, the more the impact on the electric grid becomes an issue. If you have a car that can cover 300 km or more on a full battery and you can charge at home every night then most likely you will almost never have to seek out a charging station, unlike drivers of ICE cars who regularly will have to fill up at a gas station. BEVs parked in a driveway or garage with a nearby wall socket are much easier to accommodate than cars currently parking in the street or on parking lots, who will require capacity at paid public charging points, which are more likely to be used at daytime. The grid has plenty of capacity for off-peak charging (e.g. overnight), but if a lot of people want to do their charging at superchargers or other fast charging points, this could require an upgrade in generating and transmission capacity to cover a higher daytime peak load. Vehicle to grid technology would help to make this more manageable, as cars sitting idle in a driveway could provide spare power for the few cars doing the odd long distance trip.

In any case, I see a date roughly around 2030 as the Goldilocks target for a phase-out of ICE-powered new cars. For high income countries this goal is neither too unambitious nor too unrealistically aggressive. Japan’s goal by contrast for a phase-out by the mid-2030s that still allows hybrid ICEs like the Toyota Prius after that date is quite unambitious. By setting the bar that low, prime minister Suga pleases Toyota, as expected, allowing it to keep selling dated technology in Japan that they will no longer be able to sell elsewhere. That puts Japan in the company of developing countries, which will most likely continue using ICE cars exported from rich countries for years to come.

The sooner rich countries switch to BEVs, the shorter the long tail of CO2-emitting ICE cars still running in poorer countries will be.

Releasing Tritium-tainted Water from Fukushima 1

The Japanese government has approved a plan by Tepco to release more than a million tons of water stored in tanks at the site of the Fukushima 1 nuclear power station. The water is supposed to be gradually released into the ocean starting two years from now.

Currently about 1.2 million t of contaminated water are stored on site, an amount that is increasing by about 170 t per day. Tepco is expected to run out of space at the end of 2022. Water is being injected into severely damaged reactors on the site to cool the remains of nuclear fuel left inside. It leaks back out, mingles with ground water that seeps in and is then purified through a filtration system called ALPS. This removes most of the radioactive contamination, but leaves tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen which can not be chemically removed from water. So it ends up in the storage tanks.

Proponents of the release argue that tritium poses little hazard in small quantities. Radiation from tritium is so weak, it only travels for a couple of mm through air and it is stopped by the dead cells on the outside of human skin. Even if ingested it does not accumulate in the human body.

The water released will be diluted to levels so low it would meet drinking water standards in Japan and in other countries. Opponents fear an economic backlash against local fisheries or argue in principle that Japan has no right to contaminate the Pacific ocean, which is not just their territorial waters but shared by many other countries.

Proponents call such criticism hypocritical, given that many other countries, including the Republic of Korea, routinely release tritium into the ocean from their own nuclear facilities.

The issue is complicated. First of all, whether the danger from the water release is real or exaggerated, fishermen will suffer economically because consumers will end up avoiding fish from Fukushima more than they already do, even if it was safe to eat. If the release is unavoidable, the fishermen should receive compensation for their economic losses. That is only fair.

The truth about the water is not black or white. The 1.2 million t of water that has accumulated over the past decade was treated in different ways at different times. Some may indeed contain only those low levels of tritium as a contaminant, but other tanks will hold water that still has significant amounts of caesium, strontium and other dangerous isotopes that unlike tritium can accumulate in organisms and pose long term hazards. More purification and testing will definitely be needed before a release can take place. As Motoko Rich and Makiko Inoue reported for the New York Times in 2019:

Until last year, Tepco indicated that with the vast majority of the water, all but one type of radioactive material — tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts say poses a relatively low risk to human health — had been removed to levels deemed safe for discharge under Japanese government standards.

But last summer, the power company acknowledged that only about a fifth of the stored water had been effectively treated.

Last month, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry briefed reporters and diplomats about the water stored in Fukushima. More than three-quarters of it, the ministry said, still contains radioactive material other than tritium — and at higher levels than the government considers safe for human health.

The authorities say that in the early years of processing the deluge of water flowing through the reactors, Tepco did not change filters in the decontamination system frequently enough. The company said it would re-treat the water to filter out the bulk of the nuclear particles, making it safe to release into the ocean.
(New York Times, 2019-12-23)

Long term there is no real alternative to releasing the water. Once its radioactivity has been reduced to only tritium, dilution and disposal at sea should pose little risk.

The challenge however is that Tepco and the government have a public trust problem, at home and abroad. How do we know the water released will be as clean as claimed?

Any release process needs to be transparent and independently verified to make sure there are no shortcuts or other shenanigans.

See also:

My team “Maillot 24Tokyo” ride of AR Nihonbashi Flèche 2021

I survived my second Flèche ride from Toyohashi in Aichi prefecture back to Tokyo (on Strava) and my third Flèche overall.



Although we officially did not finish again, I rode 401 km altogether from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, including the entire 368 km route as planned, just not within the set hours. A Flèche is a randonneuring event where teams of 3 to 5 machines (tandems only count once) ride at least 360 km in 24 hours towards a central location / meeting point. At least 25 km have to be covered after hour 22 of the 24 hour ride. It was organised by AR Nihonbashi.

We used almost the same course again as last year, only the part close to Tokyo was different. The biggest difference overall was that it didn’t rain all day on Saturday as it had last year. Therefore I rode the whole day in shorts instead of in rain gear and the temperature was much more pleasant too.

To get to the start, I drove to Aichi by car the day before (I can’t rinko my Elephant Bikes NFE). I was joined by my wife and my son. Together we visited Cape Irago (Iragomisaki) on the Atsumi peninsula of southern Aichi. After dropping me off they drove back to Tokyo. The peninsula is beautiful. I was impressed by the natural forests that are a sprinkle of different colors, unlike around Tokyo where much of the current forests are regrown mono-cultures planted after post war clearcutting.

I had dinner with two other team members, then went to bed at 21:00.

The alarm went off at 05:15 and we assembled at 06:00 to get the bikes ready.

It was a 20 minute ride to the official start at a 7-11 on the outskirts, where we set off at 07:00. We head a very pleasant tailwind on our ride through farm country out to Iragomisaki, where we uploaded a group picture in front of a road sign to prove passage.

The view from the road next to the Irako View Hotel (伊良湖ビューホテル) was breathtaking. You could see the coast of Mie prefecture on the other side of the entrance to Ise Bay and various islands in the sea. I took in the view but we didn’t stop for a picture. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia (By Bariston – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0):

We headed into the headwind that would be blowing in our faces for the next 120 km. Sometimes we took turns leading the ride. Many of the farmhouses had a storehouse between it and the coastal side, probably to block the wind.

There were also many greenhouses. Regardless of shape and size, glass or plastic they all seemed to have fuel oil tanks with the JA logo (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives), so it’s a safe bet that JA sells most of the fuel oil consumed to help grow crops in the cold season. Lots of signs advertising melons which are currently out of season but we came across many kei trucks loaded with cabbages.

There were many wind turbines in Aichi and also Shizuoka, as well as many photovoltaic installations. Their ubiquity there highlighted for me how few of them we have in Tokyo and Kanagawa. Perhaps Chubu Power is easier to deal with for feed ins than Tepco is, especially for wind power.

At noon we stopped for lunch at a ramen and gyoza place about halfway between Cape Irago and Omaezaki.

As we passed the former Hamaoka nuclear power station (it is permanently shut down) we were passed by a group of three cyclists on mamachari. Actually, one was a hybrid bike with flat bars while the other two were bona-fide mamachari. It was team ”マチャリはロング向き!” (“Mamachari is suitable for long rides!”) running in the AR Nihonbashi event and they were steaming ahead of us.

We got to Omaezaki a little after 16:00. By then it was a Century ride (160.9 km / 100 mi), but not even half of what we had set out to do.

As the course turned north here, the headwind ceased and became more of a tailwind again. It got dark near Shizuoka City.

I had felt a bit sleepy after lunch but then felt OK again. Over the next couple of hours others became sleepy as we were riding through the dark and it became more and more of a problem.

I wasn’t able to see Mt Fuji on the drive on Tomei expressway on Friday because of low clouds and now I couldn’t see it because it was night time. After crossing Fuji city and Numazu we started our climb in Izu towards Atami toge. When we finally got to the top, we had to take another power nap break at the tunnel entrance. We put on all our extra clothes for the steep descent down to Atami (13 percent). After that my rear disk brake, which recently had been very noisy and not very effective (maybe due to oil contamination from the chain) has been working perfectly again, as the heat and wear effectively decontaminated it.

Dawn approached as we headed from Atami to Yugawara and Manazuru.

We had burnt up most of our time buffer for the sleep break planned at the 22 hour stop by then, but the sleepiness in the team only got worse. So after another long break at Manazuru we sent in our DNF-notification to the event organiser. We headed to Odawara and had breakfast at the station.

After that, my friends rinko’ed their bikes for the train home while I continued on the planned route to Yamato, then another 26 km to my home. I also needed a few naps to get me home safely.

With this ride, I now have 104 contiguous months of Century a Month.

I may join a 400 km brevet later this spring and a 200 km brevet or two again after the summer.

As for the Flèche that we DNF’ed twice now, let’s see what we can come up with next year. We may just try it again a third time 🙂

Germany Reaches Renewable Energy Milestone

The drop in demand for electric power due to the Covid-19 pandemic helped Germany reach an environmental milestone in 2020: For the first time more electricity from renewable sources was fed into the German grid than from fossil fuels and nuclear combined.

50.5 percent of the net electricity production came from wind, solar, hydro and biomass vs. 49.5 percent from fossil or nuclear. Wind power alone accounted for 27 percent of all electricity, more than brown coal and hard coal combined (24.1 percent).

2020 numbers for Japan are not yet available, but in 2017 renewables excluding hydro power accounted for only 8.1 percent of the Japanese electricity production, with hydro providing another 7.9 percent. 39.5 percent came from LNG, 32.7 percent from coal 8.7 percent from oil and 3.1 percent from nuclear.

Japan’s power generation plan for FY2030 foresees only 1.7 percent for wind power, 7 percent for solar and an overall share for renewables (including hydro power) of 22-24 percent of the total. That is less than half the share that Germany achieved in 2020, a whole decade before Japan.

Test-driving a Tesla Model 3 in Tokyo

Recently my son Shintaro and I went to the Tesla showroom in Aoyama, Tokyo to take a Tesla Model 3 for a test drive. I wanted to see for myself how this electric vehicle compared to my almost 12 year old Prius hybrid and to be able to compare it to future EVs from other brands that we may eventually consider.

I’d noticed an increasing number of Teslas around Tokyo, though they’re still far rarer than around the San Francisco bay area. Given that much of Japan is densely populated, range anxiety (an often cited reason for slow electrification) should be less of an issue here compared to the US, particularly with cars that already have over 400 km of range.

I love the practicality of the rear hatch of my Prius that allows me to carry two road bikes without disassembly by simply folding the rear seats. The Tesla Model 3 has a much less accessible trunk, which pretty much rules it out for me. The Model Y will be more practical, but is also even bigger. Apparently it won’t be available in Japan until a year or two after it starts shipping in the US this month (March 2020).

Tesla’s models are quite large by Japanese standards, with implications for parking and for driving on narrow back streets. For example, these are the dimensions of the Tesla Model 3 vs. the current generation Toyota Prius (XW50):

Length: 4690 / 4570 (+120 mm)
Width: 1850 / 1760 (+90 mm)
Height: 1440 / 1470 (-30 mm)

Exact numbers for the Model Y aren’t available yet, but it’s expected to be about the same width but about 1600 mm tall (160 mm taller than the Prius).

The test drive was an unusual experience by Japanese standards. Somebody had mentioned that the dealer experience with Tesla is more like visiting an Apple store than a traditional dealer showroom. I’d say the difference was even greater.

Customer service expectations in Japan are incredibly high and that is probably one factor for Tesla’s relatively sluggish sales here, see a recent Japan Times article.

Shintaro had tried to make the reservation online and was promised a callback within 48 hours, but that never happened so he had to call again to fix up an appointment.

Even when I take my Prius to an oil change at a local gas station, I’ll be served a cup of coffee while I wait. By contrast, when we visited the Tesla showroom to evaluate a JPY 5,100,000 (USD 48,000) car, all we received was a business card of the sales person. They don’t even give you paper brochures. You can look it all up on the website, right?

Before the test drive they took photo copies of our drivers licenses. We were instructed not to take any pictures and to follow the rules of the road. We would be liable for any incidental damage to the car during the test drive. Then we got into the car parked by the roadside outside the showroom, first as passengers, then later taking turns driving it around Akasaka.

I liked the seats, which were nice and firm. The acceleration when you put your foot down is amazing. It feels like a big car but with enough power for its weight. Getting back into the Prius later, it felt quite light by comparison, by which I don’t mean acceleration but it simply feels like a lot less metal being moved around. It tips the scales at about 280 kg less than the base Model 3 (1335 kg vs. 1612 kg).

Some of the controls took some getting used to, such as the lever action of the indicator stalk (which is on the left unlike in Japanese cars) or putting the car into park or into drive with the right stalk. Much of the demonstration involved showing the use of the center screen and its user interface. Many of the functions of the car, such as the electrically assisted steering or the regenerative breaking can be tweaked there, to change the feel of the car.

Headroom in the Tesla was good but personally I don’t much care for the glass roof. In a roll-over accident I would feel safer with a steel roof, but maybe those are not so likely with the low center of gravity afforded by the floor-based battery. The car interior felt overheated when we got into it and no fan was blowing, but I only asked about fan control towards the end of my driving portion. In any other car I would have easily figured it out on my own.

Checking out the trunk and the “frunk” (front trunk) after we got out of the car, the limited access for bulky luggage from the rear was quite a contrast to our Prius, in which we regularly move large items from a DIY center or bicycles for cycling tours far from Tokyo. The Model Y will address that, but it’s also 160 mm taller than the Prius on top of being 90 mm wider like the Model 3. That’s more air resistance and more kWh used to overcome it. That’s one thing I love about the Prius, it offers all this interior space despite being compact and efficient on the outside. 🙂

The width would already make a Model 3 or Model Y a very tight fit in our driveway. We would also have to figure out if there’s enough clearance around the car to plug in the charging cable for overnight charging.

In summary, Tesla’s range of cars is not an easy sell for me as a Japanese customer. While they have great technology, some of the design choices are not a good fit for Japan and the customer experience when dealing with the company (especially given the price range) will not match a lot of cultural expectations.

UPDATE (2020-03-19):

Size information has finally been released for the Model Y. These are the exterior dimensions compared to my current Prius:

Length: 4751 / 4570 (+181 mm)
Width: 1921 / 1760 (+161 mm)
Height: 1624 / 1470 (+154 mm)

Given the width and height it looks like it has roughly 20% more frontal area than the Prius which will impact its air resistance and hence energy usage at freeway speeds.

Toyota is yielding the future to Tesla and other EV makers

In October 2019, Toyota along with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler sided with the Trump administration in its effort to strip the state of California of its ability to set tighter vehicle emission standards than set by the Federal government. In July 2019, several other car makers including Ford, Honda and Volkswagen had sided with California.

This seemed a very odd move for a company whose iconic Prius hybrid was once seen as a way for people ranging from middle class families to Hollywood stars to show their green credentials. Toyota seems on the wrong side of history now.

I also drive a Prius which I bought almost 12 years ago. When it came out, it was way ahead of everything else: Three times as fuel efficient but more spacious and more reliable than my Audi. It wowed me when I first saw one and later when I first test-drove a friend’s. As an engineer I appreciated the clever technology behind it and as a family man I could rely on it for affordable transport.

However, if I were to buy a car now, I’d have a hard time making up my mind. If Tesla had designed its Model 3 as a mid-size hatchback (like the Prius) instead of giving it a trunk, the choice would be easy. Tesla seems set to address that criticism with its forthcoming Model Y, which will be like a slightly larger hatchback version of the Model 3. If Toyota had redesigned its Prius as a battery electric vehicle (BEV) with at least 300 km of range, the choice would have been even easier. The problem is, Toyota isn’t going to do that and I think I understand why.

I have talked to Toyota dealer sales representatives who came to sell me a new Toyota and when I mentioned about electric vehicles, they kept telling me the time wasn’t ripe for that yet, that infrastructure was too spotty and range too short. I would be better off getting another hybrid as the next car. And Toyota has many hybrid models.

This is precisely the problem: Toyota kept enhancing the hybrid drivetrain of the Prius, improving fuel economy with every new version. Now many different models, from the Toyota Aqua / Prius C to the Corolla Hybrid to the JPN Taxi basically all use the same family of engines, gearbox, battery, inverter and other electric systems. This has kept development costs low and maximized economic gain from the numerous patents that Toyota has received for the Prius.

Meanwhile, Tesla appeared on the scene as a complete outsider and took a radically different approach. By going for an all-electric drivetrain they don’t need an Atkinson-cycle internal combustion engine (ICE), an electrically controlled planetary gear transmission and many other mechanical parts that make the Prius family unique. They just need a bodyshell, an electric motor/generator, inverter and battery. For the first models the battery was basically built up from the exact same “18650” cells that power laptops and the bodyshell for the Tesla Roadster was bought in from Lotus.

Batteries for the automotive market are made by specialized suppliers such as Panasonic and LG instead of being based on in-house designs and intellectual property such as ICEs or gearboxes. Motor/generators and inverters are much simpler and less proprietary than ICEs. The basic technology for inverters used in BEVs and the electric part of hybrid drivetrains has been around since before the 1960s. Toyota engineers got the inspiration from the electrical systems used in bullet trains (shinkansen) that launched before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

If current owners of conventional or diesel cars replace their aging vehicles with hybrids then Toyota and its stable of Prius and cousins will do very well. If people however take a good look at the ecological realities of the 2020s and beyond, they will see that the sooner we can stop pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere, the less catastrophic our future will be on this planet. If we still drive cars, they will have to run on renewable energy sources, which hybrids can’t do (except plug-in hybrids for relatively short distances).

This raises a second issue: Toyota has been betting on hydrogen as the fuel of the future. Its Toyota Mirai runs on compressed hydrogen (H2), which is converted into electricity in an on-board fuel cell. This gives it a range of about 500 km between refuelling.

If Toyota were to sell BEVs with ranges of 300-450 km, this would undermine the rationale for hydrogen cars which need a completely new infrastructure for refuelling. Each H2 station costs millions of dollars and the fuel is expensive.

The most economical way of making hydrogen is from natural gas or coal, which releases greenhouse gases. Though one could make hydrogen through electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity), because of inefficiencies inherent in this process, this would actually consume about three times more renewable electricity than covering the same distance by charging/discharging a battery. This is why hydrogen will ultimately remain an automotive dead end.

What hydrogen technology basically gives Toyota is a political fig leaf: They can claim to have a path into a carbon-free future that does not rely on batteries (like Tesla and others). Using that fig leaf they think they can keep selling cars that burn gasoline, in California and elsewhere. Perhaps they can hold off moving beyond hybrids for years and years to come. If they can keep selling what they’ve got they may make healthy profits in the short term, but for the sake of the planet I hope this plan won’t work.

I’ve seen this movie before. In the 1990s Sony launched its MiniDisc (MD) player as a replacement for analog audio tapes and recordable alternative to digital Compact Discs (CDs). Then, in the late 1990s MP3 and flash memory came along: smaller, cheaper, more simple. The whole strategy fell apart. Sony could have accepted that MP3 was a superior solution, but that would have then put them on a level with every other audio consumer product maker. Their patents on MD would have become worthless. So they struggled on with trying to promote MD until they eventually had to kill it. From the inventor of the iconic Sony Walkman that had created a whole new market and sold the brand name to billions of consumers, Sony turned into a company that had lost its way. It let newcomers such as Apple with its iPod (which soon morphed into the iPhone) take over the market and consumer mindshare. The rest is history.

So if you’re listening, Toyota: Please build a car as spacious, practical and reliable as the Prius, but without a hybrid drivetrain that still releases CO2 with every km driven. Make it a no compromise battery electric vehicle. Support vehicle-to-grid technology, in which parked cars have an important role to play for stabilizing the electrical grid. Instead of working with fossil fuel companies to turn fossil fuel into hydrogen for thousands of yet to be built H2 filling stations, support expanding renewable power production from solar, offshore and onshore wind, geothermal and large scale storage, which is what we will need for a carbon-neutral future.

Meanwhile, when the time comes to replace my 12 year old car I will look at all the battery electric hatchbacks on the market then. If there is no Toyota amongst them then my next car will not be a Toyota. It’s as simple as that.

The Runway to Hell

Even four years after the Paris climate agreement, politicians, businesses and consumers are still in denial what this means for our future and what we must do today. At best, we’re all paying lip service while trying to postpone making real changes.

Two examples: Narita airport is planning for a major expansion in flight capacity in the 2020s and Tepco and Chubu Electric Power are trying to open a new coal fired power station in 2023.

One of the greatest concerns behind climate change goals are climate feedback loops, where any amount of additional global warming triggers new causes of global warming. A few examples:

  • If arctic temperatures rise enough for the ground in permafrost regions to thaw in the summer this will lead to CO2 and methane releases from frozen ancient organic matter that starts to rot and decay.
  • Warming oceans may release methane trapped in icy slush as methane clathrate on the sea bed.
  • If summer air temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet rise enough to melt snow during daytime before freezing again, it changes the albedo of the frozen surface to absorb more sunlight and melt again more easily.

So if we want to avoid runaway global warming, we have a very tight CO2 budget that we can still release before the world has to run on 100% non-fossil energy sources.

What we would need is a moonshot-like project, with our brightest minds and financial resources focused on switching all power generation to non-fossil energy, expanding it to take over from other uses of oil and gas such as transport while minimizing release of CO2 outside of power generation. That means not just electric cars and trucks but also fewer cars, less air travel, no more deforestation, minimal consumption of cement and steel and more recycling.

While the Japanese government has formally committed itself to fighting climate change, the reality looks different. Last year the Narita International Airport Corp., government ministries and local government agreed to a plan to increase annual takeoff and landing slots from 300,000 to 500,000. To this purpose, a 2,500 m runway will be extended to 3,500 m to handle bigger planes and a third runway of 3,500 m will be built in the 2020s. Currently, there is no practical alternative to kerosene-based jet fuel. More flights and bigger aircraft mean more CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. Instead of making it possible for more people to fly more often, we should be looking for ways to discourage and avoid flying wherever possible.

JERA, a joint venture between Tepco and Chubu Electric Power is trying to build a coal-fired power station at Kurihama near Yokosuka, with plans to start operating in 2023. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels. One kWh generated by burning coal even in the most advanced coal-fired thermal power stations releases about twice as much CO2 as the same amount of electricity generated from a combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power station running on natural gas. With a limited carbon budget it makes no sense to burn any coal if we still have gas. If we really still must expand fossil fuel power generation (and we probably don’t in Japan), coal is by far the worst choice of all fossil fuels available!

Instead of expanding airports and building coal power stations, we should expand offshore wind power and geothermal energy while raising taxes on air travel, for example by taxes on jet fuel. A recent International Energy Agency report estimated the worldwide potential for wind energy production at 11 times the annual electricity consumption of the world. Japan has almost completely blocked offshore wind power. It has a huge Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), yet in 2018 Britain’s installed offshore wind power base was over 120 times that of Japan, Germany’s about 100 times and China 70 times. Even Belgium which controls only 0.5% of the North Sea had 20 times more installed offshore wind power capacity than Japan in 2018.

Some air travel can be shifted to trains or to less energy intensive ships. Eventually we will develop technology to fly airplanes with non-fossil fuel, such as methane produced from CO2 with renewable electricity in reverse fuel cells though that won’t be cheap or particularly energy-efficient. But until then we need to make hard choices that take us closer to our goals, not further away from them.

Future generations will struggle as coastal land where hundreds of millions of people worldwide currently live or where they grow food will disappear in the sea as warming oceans expand and glaciers melt. They will have to deal with it.

Whole countries will disappear in the next couple of centuries, including the Netherlands and Bangladesh. The same will happen to most of the ten largest cities in the world. The sea level rises projected until 2100 are by no means the end of the story: Sea level rises for several centuries to come are already locked in with the emissions of the last 200 years. The last time this planet had more than 400 ppm of CO2 in its atmosphere (as opposed to 280 ppm before the industrial revolution) was 3 million years ago, when sea levels where 20 m higher than today. So that’s going to happen again, even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today. But because we are still going to keep doing that for a number of years or decades, the ultimate sea levels will be even higher than they were then.

Maybe in some ways it’s easier to speak truth if you’re a 16 year old school kid, not a politician who wants to get campaign finance from friendly businesses or to get reelected by voters who still want to fly on vacation to Thailand, or a business leader trying to please shareholders instead of saving the planet. But reality is reality, even if we look away. We, or our children and their children, will have to face it eventually and it will be what we make it today.

It Takes a Child to Raise a Village

A few years ago I was visiting Venice. It was a fascinating experience to walk around this ancient city without cars, built on some islands in a lagoon that protected it from the chaos after the fall of the West Roman Empire. I was surprised how eastern some of the architecture looked, because I hadn’t known how tight the connections were between Venice and the Byzantine empire, the successor state to the East Roman Empire. More than a thousand years of history come alive when you walk those ancient cobble-stoned streets.

For a long time Venice has been slowly sinking into the sea. In many buildings I saw, the ground floor was more or less uninhabitable and ruined due to water damage or the risk from regular flooding during storm surges. Sadly, despite all efforts to save it, Venice will disappear in the ocean, gradually swallowed up by rising seas.

The same will happen to Amsterdam, once the capital of a trading nation from where ships sailed to every continent. And not just this city will disappear, but almost the entire country of the Netherlands. It’s not a question of if but when.

Its inhabitants will gradually migrate to other countries in Europe, such as Germany, France or Spain that will be less affected by a 20 m rise of global sea levels. The Netherlands will be virtually wiped out when that happens. So will be Bangladesh and many island nations, as well as Miami, Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta, much of Tokyo, London, New York City and many other coastal megacities around the world.

When I was a schoolkid, I learnt from science books that 0.3% or 300 ppm of the earth’s atmosphere was carbon dioxide (CO2). I wasn’t told that only 200 years earlier, before the Industrial Revolution it had only been 280 ppm. Later I learnt that CO2 is a so called “greenhouse gas”, as it traps heat from the surface of the earth and prevents it from escaping into space, thus raising the surface temperature of the planet. As our civilization burns coal, oil and gas and clears forests the CO2 level increases and the greenhouse effect intensifies. In the last couple of decades this has been happening at an increasing rate.

Last year the world consumed about 100 million barrels of crude oil a day. 99.6% of passenger cars on the roads worldwide in 2018 run exclusively on fossil fuels. Worldwide power generation from coal is growing rapidly and is expected to double from 2011 to 2023. Of all the fossil fuels, coal releases the highest amount of CO2 per kWh produced, yet many countries are still building new coal-fired power plant capacity, including here in Japan, where a TEPCO – Chubu Electric Power joint venture still wants to open a new coal-fired power station in Kurihama near Tokyo in 2023/2024.

In 2013, the 400 ppm level was already breached and it is still rising at an increasing rate. How significant is that number? Since humans walked on this planet it had never been as high as this: You have to go back millions of years to find an era when there was as much CO2 in the atmosphere: The last time the CO2 level was above 400 ppm was in the Pliocene (about 3-5 million years ago).

At that time the average global temperature was some 2-3 C higher than today, but temperatures in the arctic and in Antarctica were significantly higher than that. Trees were growing in the southern part of Greenland, which was not covered in thick glaciers as it is today. Trees were also growing in parts of Antarctica. Without billions of tons of water locked up in glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, sea levels were 20-25 m higher than today. Also these oceans were warmer than today and water expands when it warms up. The rising CO2 levels will melt these glaciers again, until a new equilibrium is established several hundreds years or more in the future. The coast lines will move, gobbling up cities and farm land alike. Ultimately they may well look like those in the Pliocene again, but how much ice will melt and how rapidly it will melt still depends on what we do from now.

To give you an idea of the long term impact of this kind of sea level rise, the former Chinese capital of Nanjing, 200 km from the Yellow Sea, lies only 20 m above sea level. With 25 m of sea level rise the ocean would penetrate about 180 km inland southwest of Beijing. Some of the most densely populated areas of China (national population: 1.3 billion) would be swallowed by the sea.

In Vietnam the two biggest cities, Hanoi and the Red River plain around it, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and all of the land southwest of it will drown. Many of Asia’s river plains that are now its biggest rice baskets will turn into continental ocean shelf. The same will happen in the Nile valley or along the Euphrates and Tigris in the Middle East.

Note that these are changes that will happen over the next centuries or more regardless of what we do from now. They are the least bad outcome of what is possible. If we do nothing, it will get far worse.

There are feedback cycles that amplify the negative effects. For example, once it gets warm enough in summer in arctic permafrost regions that the ground will melt in summer, then peat and other frozen organic matter in the wet soil will start to decay, releasing huge amounts of methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. This in turn will raise temperatures even higher. Where white sea ice melts in the summer, darker ocean water is exposed below, leading to more sunlight being absorbed and higher air and ocean temperatures. This in turn leads to less sea ice coverage the next year. When snow on top of glaciers thaws and refreezes, it also changes its albedo. The ice absorbs more sunlight than the virgin snow. So every warm spell leads to more warming. Once the thick ice sheet in Greenland and East Antarctica starts melting, its elevation will drop. It’s colder at higher elevations. The reduction in thickness will speed up melting. We could end up with a run-away effect that is impossible to stop until there is no ice left (see this article in National Geographic for maps of what the world will look like then).

The young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who started campaigning against inaction against climate change as a 15-year old, used the image of a “house on fire”:

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. […] Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

The changes brought about by man-made climate change will be dramatic, but political action so far has been underwhelming. The steps taken so far or even the steps discussed in public fall far short of what is necessary to avoid even worse outcomes.

There is considerable resistance to taking action against Climate Change. We are not used to thinking much about events beyond our own life time. Politicians will worry about the next elections, business leaders about their next annual business results. Politicians tend to take drastic action only in wars and other major disasters, but Climate Change is going to be bigger than any (non-nuclear) war or hurricane.

If we were honest and ethical, we would not put the stock market value of our power companies or car or airplane manufacturers or our airlines or tourism industry above the future of the planet. The resistance to change from both industry and consumers will be huge, but we owe people the unvarnished truth: That we can’t continue with business as usual.

Even if we switch to electric cars, the steel, copper and glass for those cars for now will be made using fossil fuels. Even the wind turbines, solar panels and battery storage that we have to build at a massive scale to supply renewable energy for our future civilization will largely be manufactured using fossil fuels for years to come. We have to spend our dwindling carbon budget wisely, for example on rebuilding infrastructure instead of on holidays in Bali or a shiny new BMW SUV.

There is as yet no clear technical solution for air travel or for international cargo ships without fossil fuel. The same is true for making cement or for steel production from iron ore. In the short term we could replace kerosene or heavy fuel oil with LNG to reduce CO2 output in transport, but that is not enough and we will need to go much further than that. The next steps will be much harder. We don’t have the solutions yet. Therefore we need a modern moonshot program for a post-fossil future, an all-out effort — not to put more humans on the moon again — but to decarbonise our economies.

Over the last year Greta Thunberg has become a household name worldwide. She has drawn attention to the urgency of change and to the drastic nature of the changes needed. Her youth and thus her expected life span versus those of the politicians and business leaders of today, who mostly won’t be around after the year 2050, gives her a different perspective which the rest of us can then also relate to. It’s not all about us, but about our children and all of humanity after us. Sometimes it takes a child to educate the world.

Water Abundance XPRIZE – Do the Numbers Add Up?

On October 22, 2018 a US$1.75 million prize was awarded to two companies for a way of providing abundant water at a price of no more than $.02 per liter using renewable energy.

The technology developed by the Skysource / Skywater Alliance condenses humidity from the air using electrically powered compressors. It’s basically the same process as in a domestic air conditioner unit that has water dripping out of it, except that the Skywater units will filter and then sterilize the water using ozone. Condensation through a compressor is an energy intensive process.

There are other processes for generating fresh water from abundant sea water that also have a reputation for consuming a lot of energy. Desalination is used by many coastal cities and regions to top up insufficient ground water supplies. About of half of Israel’s water supply comes from Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants that desalinate sea water from the Mediterranean. Desalination plants also provide about 30% of Singapore’s water supply.

Reverse Osmosis consumes about 3 kWh of electrical energy per 1000 liter (1 m3) of fresh water extracted. If produced from fossil energy sources such as coal, oil or natural gas this energy demand will result in CO2 output, contributing to global warming. If produced from renewable energy, it requires considerable investments in generating capacity on top of the desalination plants themselves.

How does the Skywater process compare to RO with regards to energy consumption? The Skywater website is not exactly helpful, as it present gibberish instead of actual data:

What are the power requirements for the machine?
The Skywater® 300 runs on approximately 7 -10 kilowatts per hour. It operates on 50hz or 60hz and either 208-240V (single phase) or 380-440V (3-phase). This power can be supplied directly or from a generator for portability.

The Skywater 300 is a unit that can generate up to 1100 l of water per day. The above quote was neither written nor checked by an engineer. Note that energy is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh) while power is measured in kilowatts (kW). There is no such unit in physics as “kilowatts per hour”. Whoever uses this term basically doesn’t know what they are talking about! A device drawing one kilowatt of power will consume one kilowatt hour of energy for every hour of use.

Let’s assume they meant a power demand of 7-10 kW (which is the same as 7-10 kWh per hour). That means a daily consumption of 168-240 kWh of electricity. With an output of up to 1100 l, this amounts to at least 150-220 kWh per 1000 l (1 m3). This is roughly 50-70 times more than the specific energy consumption of a Reverse Osmosis plant. Other commercial units of water generators have similar specs. For example the units offered by Water-Gen in Israel are quoted as consuming 310 kWh per 1000 l, or roughly 100 times the power consumption of reverse osmosis units.

Today we’re still a long way from having access such an abundance of cheap electricity from renewable sources that we could afford to use 50-100 times more of it than another proven solution would use. Installing solar panels or wind turbines to power RO plants is expensive and consumes land. Building 50-100 times more solar farms or wind turbines to generate the same amount of water using water-from-air technology instead would make little sense, at least within a reasonable distance of the coast where you could still pipe desalinated water from coastal RO plants.

Water-from-air technology may make sense only in limited areas such as mobile military units in remote areas where cost is no object (but only if humidity is not too low and it’s neither too hot or too cold, i.e. if they’re not deployed in a desert anyway).

On the present evidence, water-from-air technology is far from ecologically benign or economically viable, compared to more efficient technologies available. The first step would always have to be reduced use of conventional water supplies (e.g. better irrigation systems, growing less water intensive crops) encouraged by appropriate pricing and reuse of waste water for other purposes.