Energy: September 2007 Archives



ITHACA, NY - Cornell University celebrated the retirement of its president, Dr. Waclaw Czerwinski, whose 2013 accident at the University's Synchrotron led directly to the low-cost fusion power the world enjoys today.

"Luck was with me that day," reiterated Czerwinski. "My mistakes in setting up the experiment produced a small but strange amount of unexpected energy. and it only took five years to move from that error to a surprisingly practical source of energy."

Czerwinski, who grew up in Buffalo's East Side, seized the opportunity to help his hometown and the surrounding area. He described his childhood in his farewell address:

"When I was a child, I was very angry to see what seemed like everything leaving Buffalo, both people and businesses. I almost went into politics, but my parents kept pushing me toward the sciences. As it turned out, I've been able to do much more as a scientist than as a politician."

Czerwinski's successes, both in his initial (and repeatable) discovery and later in his rapid drive toward commercial implementation, led him quickly to a platform where he could control the way his ideas were used: the Presidency of Cornell.

"The Trustees were pleased to invite me, much to my surprise, and I'm not sure they quite understood why I was interested in the job. I'd been lucky enough to be doing that work on university funds, so the university had clear control of the patents. I wanted to ensure that those patents helped the area I care about, in addition to easing the world's energy problems."

Czerwinski's vision extended beyond Buffalo to include much of central and western New York. The primary assembly point for the fusion reactors is an enormous facility in Buffalo, but ceramic components are made in Corning and Rochester, and electronics in Jamestown, Syracuse, and Binghamton, with fuel processing in Oswego. Cornell itself, in Ithaca, remains the main center for research on the practical side of the field. Other universities have established centers, but focus mostly on the theoretical side.

"These reactors produce so much energy so cheaply," said Czerwinski, "that we could have set nearly any price for them. That would, however, have invited price-based competition. Instead, we set prices at a level that comfortably covers manufacturing costs, including a fine living for all of our workers with money left over to help Cornell reach more students. We know how to make these reactors reliably and safely, and they are so incredibly cheap relative to other forms of energy production that we can help this area tremendously while easing the burden of the world as well. That may not last forever, but hopefully our current lead will last another thirty years."

In his conclusion, Czerwinski thanked university founder Ezra Cornell for his confidence that "Cornell University could produce practical results, helping its students, its community, its state, and the world. His founding of 'an institution where any person can find instruction in any study' has brought us to a wonderful new world where we can help more people find more studies."

Canal days

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15 miles a day it is again. My mule's not named Sal, but somebody's mule probably is. I'm very happy to have a job, any job, and this job comes with some benefits, like full exposure to a wide variety of weather conditions, plus a long unpaid vacation in winter when I'd really like some heat.


It's not that bad, though. The Barge Canal stays busy the whole time it's navigable, filled with grain to keep New York City and the coast alive. There's some other stuff on there too, mostly things that don't need to go anywhere fast. If something needs to move fast, it rides the rails, right? Every once in a while I take a detour down the Seneca-Cayuga Canal to send things that way or pick things up, and the change of scenery's a good thing.

I know every bar in every canal town along the way, though the cities are huge and I can't be expected to know everything there, can I? If it's within a mile of the canal, though, I probably do. Unless maybe it's a boring bar, too dull for a canal man.

Yeah, I grew up in Lockport. Never thought this was my future.

Time to get back to work. Thanks for the drink!

Nuclear New York


After the federal government let NYRI make a fortune punching a new powerline through from Upstate to Downstate, other companies looked over Upstate's relative proximity to New York City and did the same, giving the growing metropolitan area much more direct access to power. Con Ed celebrated by getting rid of its waterfront diesel emergency generators and closing the incinerators, celebrating the availability of new power supplies. There was also talk of finally decommissioning the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

The temporary drop in energy prices thanks to the new power lines encouraged the creation of some 'bubbles' - multi-block indoor malls - were developed in Lower and Midtown Manhattan, creating huge 24 hour zones freed of weather and traffic, daytime and nighttime, though residents on the upper floors could still see the outside world. The bubbles were financially successful, but a major new consumer of power.

There were also problems on the demand side. Even at the start of the new connection, Hydro Quebec and the New York Power Authority couldn't grow their hydropower to fill the metropolitan area's growing power demands. Over several decades, the declining quality and quantity of coal available made old coal-fired power plants less attractive and more expensive to run. The price of natural gas spiked up 500% around 2015 as several large fields depleted quickly, making it an especially expensive source for electricity. Rapidly developing wind power helped, but the continuing growth of energy demand Downstate drove prices higher and higher.

In 2025, the state attempted to balance the environmental issues of coal with the economic issues of high energy prices. To meet Downstate energy needs, promote safety, and lower the cost of energy Upstate, the State of New York authorized the construction of 15 nuclear power plants, to be built between 2030 and 2050.

All of New York State's existing nuclear plants would be decommissioned, and the new plants would be built in relatively low-density places. Upstate New York's continuing population decline made it the home for all fifteen plants, with two on Lake Erie, eight on Ontario, and one each on Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida lakes. Hazardous waste would be stored and reprocessed at several under-used facilities: West Valley, the former Seneca Army Depot, and the former Griffiss Air Force Base.

The plants were built by a consortium of investors, with all of the engineering and turbine construction performed, as required by the state authorization, by General Electric in Schenectady. All workers on the plants had to have lived in New York State for the previous five years, a provision that had garnered additional support for the plan. The temporary boost from the jobs created in building the plant had a mild effect on the Upstate economy, though Schenectady in particular revived substantially.

Protests against the plan were muted by the pain of $1.50/kilowatt-hour (kWh) energy in an area with an aging population, though the plants in the Finger Lakes especially were slowed by efforts to halt or block construction.

In March 2050, the last of the plants, Milliken Station II on Cayuga Lake, opened for business. Electrical rates had fallen back to 89¢ per kWh over the previous ten years as new plants came on line. Despite numerous construction quality scandals and general concerns about the level of regulation the plants received, there has not been a serious accident at any of the plants yet.

"Like putting soil in your gas tank"


Upstate New York? Sure, I lived there. I lived lots of places, driving that combine and then trying every other way we knew to get corn out of the ground.

Ethanol sure was tasty - I don't mean the corn whiskey, though that was fun after a long week, but the appetite everyone seemed to have for energy. My dad had planted just corn his last few years, occasionally doing some soybeans for biodiesel, but the price of corn just kept climbing once folks realized that gasoline wasn't going to be forever.

Early on, every time the price of gas went up, we knew we were in for a bonus. They said ethanol was just a tiny energy increase over the gas we had to put in the machines, and in the fertilizer and pesticides, but once they got it up to 20%, things were good. When they got it up to 120% with that cellulosic stuff, things got even better.


You know what the problem was, though - our cornfields started drying up like the oilfields did. I had a reputation for keeping the fields going, so that kept me in demand for a lot of years. Mix the right set of fertilizers, figure out which chemicals to spray on which bugs that were going to cause the worst problems where, and figure out which other plants might mix well in the fields and machines once we went to cellulosic. Rotate crops once in a while, when you had to.

I could have kept it going too, but the more we made, the more they wanted. Sure, the government was happy to talk about how energy use was declining, thanks to improved efficiency, but the basic problem seemed to me that when you don't have energy, you just can't burn it.

I'd never really gone east until 2035, when the Feds created those "energy sacrifice zones", where we'd be able to rearrange the countryside however we needed to get the most energy out of that soil. The government paid people off and they left, or were supposed to leave. The National Guard proved awfully helpful a few times.

Where was it you were asking about? Upstate New York? Yeah, that got us a few years worth of gas. At least they had water. The northwest was okay, but too much of it was hills. Sure, we tried the hills, but that got us a lot of mudholes and not enough corn. It seems that the people who'd farmed that way back when hadn't done a great job of taking care of the soil, and even a century of forest didn't fix it. So there wasn't a whole lot there.

What's that? Oh, yes - there's less there now. When we couldn't get decent yields out of the soil, the government sold it cheap. I don't know what those people are going to do with it - there's nothing much there. Starve, I guess.

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