Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gail the Actuary to Jacobson and Delucchi: All is for naught

Critiquing the Mark Jacobson, Mark Delucchi Scientific American article has turned into a cottage industry for internet energy sages. Gail the Actuary has at Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi in a Monday post on the Oil Drum. Gail is very bright, and though I am not nearly as pessimistic as she is about the energy future, her insights are very worth while looking at. If you enjoy a seeing a good mind at work, you will enjoy Gail's analysis. As "paal myrtvedt" observed,
Gail is jolly good here ; a well founded realist/skeptic. I'm impressed by her ability to present 'her case' without even using a small spoon of Sarcanol-
Of course Gail's conclusions would only bring joy to Parson Malthus, but that is to be expected from Gail. She observes:
There are a number of weak areas in this system:

• There are not likely to be enough rare minerals (and even not-so-rare minerals), to make all of the desired high-tech end products. Recycling will help, but it is likely that the system will run into a bottleneck in not very many years.

• The system will use a huge number of electrical transmission lines. These transmission lines are subject to all kinds of disturbances--hurricane or other windstorm destruction, forest fires, land or snow slide, malicious destruction by those not happy for some reason (perhaps those unhappy by wealth disparities). Fixing lines that need repair will be challenging. We currently use helicopters and specialized equipment. These would need to be adequately adapted to a system without fossil fuels.

• If electricity is out in an area, pretty much all activity in an area will stop (except that powered by local PV), and there will be no back-up generators. Residents will not be able to recharge vehicles, so they will quickly become useless. Even vehicles coming into an area may get stranded for lack of recharge capability. Food deliveries and water may be a problem. The current system at least offers some options--back-up generators, and cars and trucks powered by petroleum that one can drive away.

• Operating the system will require a huge amount of international co-operation, because the transmission system will cross country lines. If one country becomes unable to pay its share, or fails to make repairs, it could be a problem.

• All of the high tech manufacturing will require considerable international co-operation and trade. This could be interrupted by debt defaults by major players, or by countries hoarding raw materials, or by difficulty in producing enough ships and airplanes to handle international trade.

• The system clearly can't continue forever. It could be stopped by a lack of rare minerals, or international disputes, or lack of adequate international trade. The system doesn't provide any natural transition to a truly sustainable future. For example, food production is likely to still be done using industrial agriculture, with the food that is produced shipped to consumers a long distance away. It will be difficult to transition to a system which is truly sustainable at the point the system stops working.
Gail points out the problems of the transportation system under the Jacobson-Delucchi scheme.
Airplanes. The authors propose that airplanes be powered by hydrogen powered fuel cells (with the hydrogen be made by hydrolysis using WWS energy sources). I understand that hydrogen is three times as bulky as gasoline, explodes easily, and escapes fairly quickly from its holding tanks, making it difficult to store for very long. It seems like airplanes and helicopters would need to look more like blimps, to hold the necessary fuel. Unless the explosion issue is solved, the popularity of hydrogen fuel cells would likely be pretty low.
• Ships. The authors don't tell us how ships would be powered. Clearly sailing ships would meet the criteria, but would be quite slow. Because of their slow time for passage, we would need a lot more sailing ships than the types of ships we use now, because so many would be in transit at a given time. Barges could float down rivers, and if the current isn't too strong, could perhaps be towed back in some way (boat with fuel cell?). Ships powered by hydrogen fuel cells might also work, but they would have the same issues as for airplanes. Because of their long trips, leakage would be more of an issue than on airplanes.
Gail's post has drawn nearly 400 comments during the last couple of days, and no doubt will draw more. Some of the comments are very interesting, for example 'sampson" reported
It was the plan of the notorious Bavarian Illuminati to accomplish three goals in the overthrow of the Old World Order:

1)The emancipation of women.

2)The overthrow of all monarchies.

3)The separation of 'church' and state.

Gee that sounds familiar.Yes HAcland, America indeed has a religion; and it is not the Bible, it is Illumination via the Illuminati.It is no longer a secret order, it is out in the open; an open conspiracy if you will.
Just ask any psychotropic pill popping TV addicted brain dead American, they'll tell you.
And of course it comes with Gails favorite chat of doom:


djysrv said...

Comments on carbon emissions and the nuclear fuel cycle relative can be found at Idaho Samizdat

Jason Ribeiro said...

Charles, with all the attention that Jacobson and Delucchi have received lately on their renewable fantasy, I'm afraid that in their case the rule of "even bad publicity is good publicity" may be working in their favor. I hope that I'm wrong of course.

If SciAm is willing to publish their paper, then by all means they should publish a story about LFTR as well. If SciAm cares more about selling magazines than they do science, then their readers can vote with their dollars which science they like best of course. I'd have no problem with SciAm if they decide to balance the energy stories by publishing more about nuclear. Perhaps someone with PhD behind their name ought to submit something to them on LFTR.

Soylent said...

Industrial agriculture is infinitely sustainable as long as you have energy.

You can fix nitrogen, isolate potassium from sea water, recycle phosphates from waste treatment, co-mine lower phosphate grades toghether with rare-earths and uranium.

Local, organic agriculture is not sustainable. It's not just that a few billion will have to die and that it therefor fails to meet the needs of today; it also fails to meet the needs of tomorrow.

Organic agriculture uses plenty of pesticides, they're just ancient and not very effective so you have to use a lot more off them; things like copper salts, neem oil, lady bugs, sulfur. Because you don't have access to proper herbicides it's very hard to practice no-till agriculture; this leads to a lot of unescessary soil errosion and you're not going to have this wast army of cattle fed by conventional agriculture, supplying a small number of farms with mountains of manure.

Organic agriculture is extremely water intensive because the crop yields are so poor. In a world were you are expecting increasingly poor access to fresh water it's truly asinine to intentionally double or triple consumption.

Global trade in food is vitally important to ensure a stable food supply, see the irish potato famine. Container ships are enormously efficient. Ecotards driving 20 miles to the local farmers market consume more energy in their car to pick up a bag of groceries than shipping the equivalent amount of food half-way around the globe.

All food crops are extremely unnatural. They're simply nothing like their ancient ancestors, prior to our cultivation of them. Look at anything, look at wild carrots(white or purple, long and scrawny.), look at Teosinte(corn ancestor. Not even recognizable), look at wild tomatoes(thumb-nail sized), wild bananas(short, squat fruits permeated with large, inedible seeds).

Rejecting not only GM, but conventional breeding, in favour of heirloom species is not only an afront to the people who developed these wonderful crops, it's extremely dangerous. We need to keep running as fast as we can to stay ahead of plant fungi, virii and other pests; deliberately choosing plants with poor resistance to these pests is insane.

LarryD said...

How many years left?

Until the sun, in its natural aging, grows so warm that the Earth can no longer sustain life: 500 million.

Until the Earth gets hit with with another major extinction level impact: ? It could happen at any time.

A wind and solar powered society can't possibly deal with either.

The work on extraction of uranium from seawater by Japan, India and France, means nuclear energy is close to becoming renewable, according to the green definition.

I expect the greens to then change the definition.

Of course, all of the resource limitations get knocked into a cocked hat, once we become a space-faring society.

Septeus7 said...

Is there any consideration of the use of plasma converters and materials recovery using that recycling technology or like all Malthusians does Gail assume the impossibility of technology?

Soylent said...

Almost all copper is recycled, indeed some ~90% of all copper ever mined in the entire history of humanity is still in use.

The 31%(according to Gail's big-chart-o-doom) represent the amount of copper demand that is met from recycled copper.

Copper does no good at all sitting below the ground and since it's so easy to recycle you want to has as much of it as possible sitting above ground in transformers, water pipes, electrical wiring and so forth.
Far from being a message of doom that only 31% of demand for copper is met from recycled material, it's a message of rising prosperity; the above ground supply of copper is exploding.

It's just plain wrong to suggest that no platinum is being recycled. ~50% of world production of platinum is used in autocatalysts and ~25% in jewelry. Platinum in jewelry is essentially completely recycled, some but far from all of autocatalyst platinum gets recycled. A quick google revealed a 1977 book called "platinum group metals"(ISBN 0309026407) in which it is claimed that 37% of platinum demand is met by recycled material. I would presume that this fraction has increased since the 70's but it's clearly not zero, that's a bald faced lie.

As in the case for copper, if most platinum eventually gets recycled(I couldn't find those numbers) it's a very good thing if the amount of platinum demand that is met from recycled platinum is as small as possible, because that means the supply of platinum in circulation is rapidly growing.

Gail also suffers from a couple of popular doomer delusions.

E.g. today it takes x amount of indium per square metre of transparent electrode to make a flat panel display and y amount of indium for solar panels, therefor you can make z amount of solar panels or flat panel displays. Reality just doesn't work that way; you can figure out ways to minimize the use of ITO in flat panels and you can figure out how to replace it with something else(graphene and carbon nanotubes are popular candidates) or you can figure out how to replace OLEDs and LCDs with another display technology(SED is a promising candidate but I'm particularly fond of superceeding the paradigm of big, power-hogging displays with retinal scanning displays the size of a pair of sunglasses).

The other major delusion is the belief in perfect knowledge and characterization of a resource. In 1975 the known uranium reserves of the world was 1.5 million tonnes, in 2007 it was 5.5 million tonnes after a cumulative exploration cost of a paltry 5 billion dollar in the entire history of uranium mining(WNA numbers). It's a mistake to believe that only 5.5 million tonnes of uranium can be recovered for less than $130/kg; both technology and exploration proceed rapidly.

Charles Barton said...

Soylent, I have no disagreement with your assessment of Gail's adherence to the Club of Rome cult of doom. If we assume recovery of thorium at crustal concentration levels for mineral mines, mining can go on for numerous minerals at very low concentration levels with a positive EROEI from the thorium. Thus in a thorium economy, resource extraction can go on at levels sufficient to meet the demands of a Walmart civilization until the earth becomes uninhabitable due to solar evolution.


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