From Confusion to Clarity
Before people can make good choices they have to understand what their options are, and what the consequences of making different choices choices are. In cases where adequate and clear information is not available, we are likely to make poor choices. One of the major functions of an Energy Issues fact finding commission would be to clear up confusion, misinformation, and misunderstandings about our Energy options.
Let me mention some examples. One of the options that we face in is the extent which we will continue to burn fossil fuels for energy. NASA atmospheric scientist, Dr. James Hanson has called for drastically reducing CO2 emissions. He believes that atmospheric CO2 has reached dangerous levels, and that to proven major climate change with undesirable consequences drastic actions are required in June of 2008 Hanson told Congress and the national press club that:
Requirements to halt carbon dioxide growth follow from the size of fossil carbon reservoirs. Coal towers over oil and gas. Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming.Hanson's position is clear. We have to eliminate fossil fuel use because of global warming, and because we are running out of fossil fuels. There are some who would disagree with Hanson about AGW, but the consensus of the scientific community seems to back the notion that further increases in atmospheric levels of CO2 will lead to increased temperatures world wide, with widespread, adverse consequences. There is less agreement with Hanson's contention tht we are at a climate tipping point, and that if we fail to take drastic action now it may be too late.
Oil is used in vehicles where it is impractical to capture the carbon. But oil is running out. To preserve our planet we must also ensure that the next mobile energy source is not obtained by squeezing oil from coal, tar shale or other fossil fuels.
Fossil fuel reservoirs are finite, which is the main reason that prices are rising. We must move beyond fossil fuels eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly.
Hansor's other contention, that we are running out of fossil fuel resources is also debated, but we have observe dramatic rises in the price of oil during the last decade. We could expect from the rules of classical economics that such a price rise would lead to new producers appearing on the market, with a a consequent increase in oil supply. While new producers have appeared, their production has be largely offset by production declines among older producers. Thus total production has edged up slightly but has not kept pace with rising demand despite dramatic price rises.
The situation with coal and natural gas is does not suggest an immediate peak resources crisis, primarily because supplies are capable of being increased in the face of rising prices. Indeed this has already happened in the natural gas industry, where investments in new technologies have lead to the development of significant new resources, and the identification of even more resources. Never-the-less, these resources are only available at high costs, and will in time reach their peak production and inevitably begin to decline. Thus even if we wish to post pone the evil day when we can no longer rely of fossil fuels for energy, and Hanson makes the case that we should not, we will eventually be confronted with fossil fuels shortages that will increasingly limit our ability to limit the production of energy. Thus critics of Hanson on AGW, have no response to the argument that oil production is peaking, and coal and natural gas will as well sooner, rather than later.
Thus we are confronted with the necessity of replacing our current energy system with a radically different system, one which does not rely on fossil fuels. Our future fact finders will probably find that the use of energy from fossil fuels will greatly decline, in the case of oil by 2050, and should greatly decline in the case of coal and natural gas by 2050. The major question would be then, should any fossil fuel use e permitted in 2050, and if so, how much? This would be an issue for a fact finding commission to determine.
There is in our society at present a great deal of confusion about non-carbon energy sources. Internet personality Jerome a Paris, (Jerome Guillet) is a very articulate advocate of wind energy projects. Jerome believes in the financial viability of these projects, and indeed he puts his money where his mouth is. As a Paris banker, Jerome makes loans for the purpose of financing wind energy projects. Following a recent post by Jerome on the Oil Drum, we exchanged comments on the relative costs and benefits of wind and nuclear. In a way we were talking past each other, because Jerome assumed the current business environment, while I assumed a very different environment that would be created by California's "Proposition 7", which would require that 50% of California's electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2025. I had, using data published by Ed Ring of ECOWorld estimated that there was a very substantial "Green Premium" if California voters chose to mandate the generation of 50% of California power with renewable energy. (Wind comes in at about half the cost of solar generated electricity.) Wind projects capable of generating 50% of California's electricity, would $150 billion dollars more than building reactors capable of generating the same amount of electricity.
Critics of nuclear power often talk about how expensive new nuclear plants would be. They are seldom are open and honest about the cost of solar and wind projects. Indeed it is difficult to obtain current and accurate information about the current and future construction costs of renewable power sources. If our fact finders are going to offer wise decisions, they must find accurate information.
In a book review, Malcolm Slesser, who obtained a grasp of physics through his training as a chemical engineer, notes that
the authors expand the range of anecdotal information, gloss them with science, and extrapolate diminishing dollar costs into the distant future. In this rosy future there will be so much energy saving that oil will scarcely sell for $5 a barrel. To arrive at this sate of affairs they make some heroic assumptions, and incur some thermodynamic howlers. How is the reader to interpret hyperbole like '92% less energy use ' or '100% saving', or the claim that electricity from photo-voltaic devices is of 'higher quality' (p97), or that 'combined cycle gas turbines are not subject to Carnot's Law', or phrases like 'useful work extracted ... to more than 90% of the original fuel energy'? One should not lightly buck the second law of thermodynamics, for no-one has yet succeeded.Slesser, who set up the Energy Studies unit at the University of Strathclyde and became its first professor, further notes that one of the authors
has a degree in physics. He should know better.In fact the author in question, who has been depicted in the past as having earned an MA in physics from Oxford, actually received his degree on a complimentary basis. He also holds complimentary PhDs and is sometimes called Doctor, but in truth he has never earned earned any degree in any subject. This explains a whole lot about the intellectual deficiencies of the book. Slesser adds,
Their technique is simple. Some recent technological developments are reported which can cut the energy and materials needs by (say) half. Then new ways of doing things can cut the need for that energy by a further half (half of a half equals a quarter), then, since we have cut some inputs to a quarter, other economies follow in their train. This a very dangerous argument. Here is a quote from page 244:Well educated fact finders ought to be able to recognize when a so called energy expert appears to be unaware that the laws of thermodynamics are relevant to the question of whether greater energy efficiency is possible. We then need fact finders who can think independently, who understand the laws of physics as well as having some insight into economics. We need people like Malcolm Slesser who can tell when supposed experts don't know what they are talking about.
"Over the next half-century, even if global economy expanded by 6 - 8 fold, the rate of releasing carbon by burning of fossil fuels could simultaneously decrease by anywhere from one third to nine-tenths below current rate. This is because of the multiplicative effect of four kinds of actions. Switching to natural gas and renewable energy, as fast as Shell Oil planners consider likely, would cut by one half to three quarters the fossil-fuel carbon in each unit of energy consumed."
They continue: 'The efficiency of converting that energy into delivered forms, notably electricity, could meanwhile rise by at least half, thanks to modern power plants and recapturing waste heat. The efficiency of converting delivered energy into desired services would also increase by about 4-6 fold' (Why?, How?) '. 'Finally the amount of satisfaction derived from each unit of energy might perhaps be doubled by delivering higher-quality services and fewer unwanted ones.'
The allure of this argument is indeed compelling for it banishes the doom and gloom merchants to their dismal cellars; but it is misleading, for there is one thing they have over-looked: human greed. The evidence is that when you get more from less, you just take advantage of the slack. Economists call this the 'rebound effect', and it is well documented. Is it significant that neither 'rebound effect' nor 'thermodynamics' appear in the index of a book that is astonishingly rich in allusions to energy?
This critique may seem churlish when the environmental problem is so well put and where there are undeniable options for better material and energy use and waste recycle. Are the authors simply deceiving themselves? I think so, and in two ways. Firstly by using monetary measures to extrapolate into the future. Money is an abstraction that does not lend itself to longer term mensuration. Secondly, every single energy- and materials-reducing possibility impacts on the entire economy somewhere, somehow. These options needed to be tested through the medium of a holistic physically-based model of the economy.
Our fact finders need to ask how proposed systems are suppose to work, ferreting out unsatisfactory answers. In July, former Vice-President Al Gore gave a speech in which he called for the all electricity to be produced from non-carbon sources by 2020.
Blogger/Banker Jerome a Paris, using a Department of Energy report titled "20% Wind Energy by 2030" suggested that as much as 50% of American electricity could come from windmills within Al Gore's 2020 time frame.
As I write this I have been looking at "20% Wind Energy by 2030" from the US DoE. I came across the following statement:
Following load net of wind generation, however, creates a wider variability in the magnitude of load change between two adjacent hours. A system with wind generation needs more active load-following generation capability than one without wind, or more load-management capability to offset the combined variability of load net of wind.This is undoubtedly true, but many of the assumptions in this report are dead on Arival. The most notable example is the cost of the 800 GW project with out assuming the construction cost inflation that has doubled the cost of building windmills during the last 5 years.
The report states that in 2000 the average load in the summer peak time slice was 571 GWs with a peak instantaneous load of 702 GWs. The report also suggests that by 2050 the average load in the summer peak time slice will have risen to 1,249 GWs with a peak instantaneous load of 1,531 GWs. The report does not give the slightest hint where that power going to come from. We know that much of the 800 GWs of wind generating power the report assumes, will not be available to meet summer peak demand. Jerome a Paris has suggested to me that the power will be drawn from existing grid resources, which means primarily coal and natural gas powered generators. But if the goal is to stop the emission of CO2 from the electrical generating system, then the use of a large fossil fuel back up system would be less than satisfactory.
Quite obviously conventional nuclear is too expensive to be used as peak reserve, and is seldom used for its load following capacity. If we want to eliminate the use of fossil fuels from the electrical generation system, how do we follow loads and maintain a large generating stand by capacity for summer peak demand? Shouldn't we have a fact finding committee to come up with answers to such questions, and then in turn carry those answers to their logical conclusions? Isn't it time to stop listening to energy quacks? Isn't it time to really think through the energy issues posed by the need for post carbon energy, and carry those conclusions honestly to where ever they lead?