Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Technological Fix for Global Warming

Note: I posted this on my general blog bartoncii, last year.

Fixing global warming will pay for itself

Global warming skeptics argue that fixing global warming will cost us so much that it would be ruinous to society to even attempt a solution. This is nonsense. We can take a few steps over the next 40 years to bring at least half of global greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions under control. 50% to 60% of CO2 emissions can be eliminated by bring two sources of CO2 emissions under control. There are great secondary benefits for controlling theses sources. Indeed the secondary benefits may save so much money, that they will pay for the changes on their own.

The two sources that produce over 60% of the CO2 emissions in the United States are electrical generation, and the use of internal combustion engines in ground transportation. Existing technology can eliminate all of the CO2 emissions from electrical generation within the next 40 years. Using existing technology we can eliminate at least half of the CO2 emissions from the ground transportation sector. Expected technological breakthroughs can eliminate the other half.

The changes are simple but radical. By 2050 all base load electrical generation should come from hydroelectric sources and nuclear power plants. All coal fired electrical generating plants should be phased out. Since most world wide hydro electrical resources are already utilized, the replacement of fossil fuel power plants will be primarily through conversion to nuclear reactors. Reactors can be mass-produced and either constructed modularly with local assembly, or by constructed on barges at reactor factories, and then towed to permeate locations at costal or riverine settings. Smaller pre-assembled reactors can be shipped by rail.

Many old and inefficient American and European fossil fueled fired plants, having come to the end of their useful life, will scrapped during the next 40 years. Since they will be replaced anyway, there will be replacement costs. Increasing demand for electrical energy will lead to massive new power plant construction as a matter of course. Already in the United States electrical utilities are focusing on building new nuclear power plants to replace old coal fired plants, and to bring new generating capacity on line.

While it might seem impossible to accomplish the goal of replacing fossil fuel generation with nuclear power, the commitment of societies including national governments, and international cooperation can accomplish it. For example, if the United States makes a national commitment to convert all fossil fuel generation electricity to nuclear, this can be accomplished using existing technology and resources.

The problems of transportation can be solved through the replacement of fossil fuel energy with electrical energy. Existing technology already makes plug in hybrids practical. Even with no new technology, it is feasible to build plug in hybrids with 40 to 50 miles (60 to 75 kilometers) range with no fossil fuel input. This range would cover almost all urban use. Thus it would be possible to perform everyday activities like drive to work, shop and do errands and go out for the evening, without starting the backup fossil fuel engine. Urban trucks and busses could also run on portable stored electricity. Finally American rail roads can be electrified thus eliminating the use of diesel power to haul rail freight.

I promised secondary benefits, they are these. First we will see a significant decline in national healthcare expenses. A few years ago a group of Canadian doctors began to look at the health related costs of producing electricity from coal. They found that atmospheric pollutants from coal fired electrical generating plants were a significant source of health problems in the province of Ontario. There research found that air pollution from all sources kills more than 5,900 people each year in Ontario. An Ontario government follow up study found that coal-fired power plants in Ontario were responsible for up to 668 deaths. In addition, atmospheric pollutants from coal-fired generators were responsible for 928 hospital admissions and 1,100 emergency room visits every year. The health related cost to the people in Ontario associated with generating electricity by burning coal was found to be $4.4 billion.

A more recent Canadian study found that Ontario hospitals received in one year 12,518 asthma related visits (7,825 children and 4,693 adults). There is little doubt that emissions from fossil fuel engine are a major cause of a worldwide asthma epidemic. In the United States alone, the number of people with asthma grew from 6.7 million people in 1980 to 17.3 million in 1998, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Elimination of coal fired power plants and most autos and truck exhaust would save many billions of dollars in healthcare costs, and would prevent an enormous amount of human suffering. Thus a secondary benefit from switching electrical generation and ground transportation, from CO2 emitting sources to CO2 free sources, would be decreased a hospital admissions due to repertory illness, and a significant healthcare savings which in time would by itself more than pay for the conversion.

A further secondary benefit for switching from the use of oil-based fuels in transportation to stored electricity has to do with the oil-based economy. It would be present far cheaper in the United States to power autos with locally produced electricity from nuclear reactors than to power them using energy derived from imported oil. Even without global warming, two factors are driving the price of crude oil ever higher. They are, the growing demand for oil in India and China, and the peaking of world oil production. So just as the oil supply has reached its maximum, tens and even hundreds of millions of new oil consumers are entering the market. Switching from fossil fuel based transportation to a transportation based on stored electricity would save consumers in North America and Europe trillions of dollars and euros.

The costs of fixing global warming will not be exorbitant, if we use a technology that will actually does the job, and indeed the secondary benefits of the fix may by themselves, more that pay the cost of the fix. Right now the only technology that can even come close to doing the fix is nuclear.


Anonymous said...

Urban trucks and buses could also run on portable stored electricity. Finally American rail roads can be electrified thus eliminating the use of diesel power to haul rail freight.

There is also the option of powering buses via overhead wires, this is rather old technology, known as either trollybuses or trackless trolleys. It was much more common fifty to sixty years ago than today, when cities as small as Topeka, Kansas had trolleybuses.

Charles Barton said...

Yes, although I think that the overhead electrical lines are not needed to make electrical buses work. The Chinese have developed a capacitor powered bus, with automatic plug in at stops. The bus automatically disconnects when it is ready to move. This sort of system could work well; in urban environment.

George Carty said...

Why is electric propulsion preferable to synthetic internal-combustion-engine fuels to the extent that it would be worth replacing millions of vehicles to adopt it?

Wouldn't some applications need hydrocarbons anyway (eg aviation)?

Charles Barton said...

George, I can answer the why question in two words, Air polution. Burning fossil fuels including oil products is responsible for as much as 20% of our health problems. The same problems would continue if we burned bio-fuels.

Aviation may well become a thing of the past. If fossil fuels are banned because of global warming then the future of aviation is very dark. Even the decline of oil production my make flying beyond the reach of the average person. Short range air transportation can be replaced by high speed electric trains.


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