Greenpeace in partnership with The European Renewable Energy Council has offered its vision of the energy future in a Greenpeace report titled, Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable U.S.A. Energy Outlook. The European involvement in commissioning and preparing the report is worthy of note. The report was actually written by staff members of the German Aerospace Center. There are both advantages and disadvantages of the European sourcing of the report. Most European intellectuals do not have a deep understanding of American conditions, attitudes, beliefs and institutions. Thus European generated plans for the United States may strike Americans as having been prepared without due attention to American realities. On the other hand, the distance the Atlantic affords may help European planners avoid some deeply embedded American prejudices. The distance of the Atlantic cannot prevent Europeans from lapsing into their own set of prejudices, however. And prejudices we are likely to find in abundance when a report is commissioned by two ideologically driven organizations.
The cutesy feature of the report title, the rather uncreative play on the words revolution and evolution suggests the report's fundamental dilemma: the difficulty of charting a path to a renewables energy future given the serious limitations of renewable energy sources. In order to overcome the limitations of renewables the report suggests a path to the future that is not a straight path forward from carbon to post carbon sources. Their [r]evolution plan involves two stages of development, with continued developments in the use of fossil fuels continuing to play a major role in the energy mix for the next 20 years. Only after 2030 does the report envision moving away from a deep dependency on fossil fuels. The course which the report recommends for the post 2030 development is unexpected, and involves a very significant venture into the unknown. The [r]evolutionary approach is fraught with unacknowledged risk, and the upshot of the [r]evolutionary scheme could be a society that is not post carbon, but which suffers from a double energy poverty. I wish to first lay out the [r]evolutionary plan, while offering some speculations about what was in planners' minds as they laid out the plan's course.
Greenpeace states that the plan was written with several goals in mind. We ought to ask however how well the plan's authors conformed to its stated goals. Those goals are:
* Achieve science-based emissions reductions to minimize climate risk
* Ensure equity and fairness
* Implement clean, renewable solutions and energy systems
* Decouple economic growth from fossil fuel use
* Phase out dirty, unsustainable energy
We ought to note at this point that the plan goals include matters of fact, policy, political philosophy, and a culture based system of values that is suggested by the use of the words "dirty", and "unsustainable".
The report makes clear that it clearly separates the words "clean" and "dirty" from "emissions reduction," and "renewable", and "unsustainable" from "fossil fuel use," One of the energy systems the report would seek to phase out actually is a low emissions technology that seemingly can provide large amounts of energy for thousands and quite possibly millions of years. I will presently explore these puzzling separations.
Since the [r]evolutionary plan is divided into first separate phases, I wish to first explore those phases, and then point to some problems and paradoxes.
First, the [r]evolution plan envisions no significant drop in American fossil fuel use between 2005 and 2030. Instead the plan calls for a shift from coal, lignite, and oil products to natural gas during the next decade with gas-fired electrical generation capacity increasing from 340 GWs in 2005 to 505 installed GWs in 2020 while the number of coal and lignite burning facilities are expected to drop. The amount of electricity generated by nuclear plants is expected to decline by half by 2020, and by 2030 nuclear power virtually disappears from the plan. The plan calls for the eliminations of 18% of coal fired power plants by 2020 and 52% of all American Nuclear plants. Since the nuclear plants represent a low carbon emission technology, why shut down nuclear plants while expanding high carbon emissions natural gas fired plants?
We have to recognize that the [r]evolution report was written in Germany where is is a matter of national policy that many nuclear facilities are to be shut down by 2020. This is most assuredly not the case in the United States, with both the Bush and the Obama administration committed to extension of current nuclear plant life to 60 and perhaps 80 years. We would have to ask about the wisdom of any energy plan which assumes that shutting down nuclear plants is more important than the stated objective to "achieve science-based emissions reductions to minimize climate risk."
Clean thus appears to be disassociated from "science based emissions reductions", because the shutdown of nuclear is viewed as being in the interest of being "clean." Furthermore, the notion that over 50% of American nuclear plants would be shut down for the sake of "the clean", in the face of an emissions based climate crisis is highly unrealistic. We must ask then if the [r]evolution plan is a realistic route to a low climate risk future, or a green fantasy wish list for the United States?
And what are we to think of the short term commitment to natural gas? Our plan states:
The Energy [R]evolution Scenario is based on a new political framework in favor of renewable energy and cogeneration combined with energy efficiency.Cogeneration is to be achieved in the short run through natural gas systems. In the long run The Energy [R]evolution Scenario anticipates the use of geothermal energy and biomass burning. But while geothermal offers attractive features, its use at present is limited to areas where volcanic activity, brings super-heated water close to the surface. In order to expand geothermal beyond its present limitations, new geothermal technology must be investigated and commercial applications shown to be both safe and effective. This makes the use of geothermal energy a risk in terms of future viability in areas where there is no near surface volcanic activity. A further problem relates to the standard of sustainability. That would appear that with time energy out put from natural geothermal resources decreases. It would appear that heat withdrawn from the deep earth environment in the form of super-heated steam, is not completely replaced by heat from volcanic sources. This problem is also anticipated with geothermal heat from dry rock deep wells. Thus geothermal heat resembles a mineable resource rather more than a sustainable energy source.
The two problems described in the last paragraph do not reveal geothermal power to be fatally flawed but they do suggest that long term reliance on geothermal energy cannot be assumed without answers to questions that may not be answered for along time. Thus the [r]evolution report is premature in suggesting that geothermal power will emerge as a major energy/electrical source by 2050.
Until a good deal more is known about so called dry rock geothermal power, it would be impossible to say whether or not such power can be produced at a reasonable and competitive cost. By 2050 [r]evolution turns a significant role over to geothermal power. It is to be noted that among renewables only geothermal and burning biomass can produce base load electricity without the added expense of electrical/energy storage. By 2050 it is assumed that more geothermal capacity would exist than exist in nuclear plants today. The uncertainties attached to geothermal leave a potential big hole in the [r]evolution plan that would not easily be filled. Considering the risk it would be unacceptable for a good plan to go without an alternative. Not only does no alternative seem to be in the offing, but as we shall see biomass forms a second large risk to the [r]evolution plan.
There are in fact considerable divergences between the views of the Sierra Club and [r]evolution concerning biomass as an energy source. The Sierra Club, like Nuclear Green, holds the view that soil is not a renewable resource, and minerals, and energy withdrawn from the soil by biological harvesting, must be returned if soil is to sustain life. Withdrawing energy in the form of living organisms mines the capacity of the soil to sustain living organisms. Agriculture can only be sustained by providing soil sufficient energy to replace the energy lost when the last crop was harvested. In addition living organisms need minerals deposited in the soil. Minerals are either returned to the soil when an organism dies, or are not replaced. The harvesting of biomass to be burned as energy mines the soil of its ability to sustain life. This is understood by the principles of soil conservation. In so far as [r]evolution encourages the burning of biomass to provide energy it violates the principles of soil conservation, and supports anti-environmental practices.
Finally we ought to consider the use of natural gas in the [r]evolution energy system. [R]evolution supports the use of combined heat and power cogeneration systems. I personally think that natural gas combined cycle generators represent a far more efficient use of natural gas. Combined cycle generators uses the heat of gases exiting the turbine's exhaust to heat a boiler. Steam from the boiler powers a steam turbine which is connected to a generator. The combined cycle systems have impressive efficiency. We hear claims about how efficient Combined Heat and Power systems are, but I live in Texas where it would be nice if someone could build a similar system for air conditioning. Combined heat and power systems only are efficient if you need heating, and you certainly don't need heating year round. When you don't need heating you simply get your gas turbine generator efficiency from your CHiPs plant.
The whole problem with natural gas can be summed up with two words: carbon dioxide. Even though we might use natural gas more efficiently, it is still a carbon based fossil fuel, and when we burn it, we increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. There are other issues. Natural gas is becoming more expensive to extract. Thus even when used efficiently, natural gas is regarded as a high cost fuel, and natural gas generators are usually treated as peak reserve power sources because utilities can charge more for peak power. Natural gas generating systems have low capital cost, but high fuel costs. Natural gas generators are also useful as load followers. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with why [r]evolution sees as many natural gas generators producing electricity in 2040 as were producing electricity. Grid instability caused by the intermittency of solar and wind generating sources has to be controlled, in order to keep the grid from constantly crashing. Gas turbines have enough flexibility to handle the load stabilizing task on a renewables dominated grid. Unfortunately we cannot speak of such a grid as a post carbon grid, since the [r]evolution grid will be still dependent on the burning of carbon based fuel in 2040. presumably after 2040 electricity from non-intermittent renewable sources - hydro, biomass, and geothermal - will replace replace natural gas, but this assumes that biomass and geothermal will be ready provide large amounts of reliable electricity in a generation. This is a risk of the [r]evolution plan, and quite frankly the odds at present run heavily against biomass, and geothermal, while hydro is not envisioned to expand enough to pick up the slack if biomass and geothermal fail to live up to the expectations which the [r]evolution plan places upon them.
Given the likely failure of biomass and geothermal technologies, carbon emitting natural gas will be required to maintain grid stability after 2040. What happens when natural gas begins to run out? The answer is simple, the [r]evolution grid would revert to coal fired generating facilities to provide the grid with the stability! That is right folks, the [r]evolution plan might not get rid of coal long term.
(This is quite enough material for one post. However, I intend to continue my analysis of the [r]evolution plan, because it reflects many of the flaws of current thinking by renewables advocates. It is my intent to show that the renewables path will not protect us from anthropogenic climate change, and that it will lead to both energy poverty and to a loss of personal choice in energy use. I will also argue that none of these problems are inevitable, and that we have choices that will lead to better outcomes. Finally I will discuss the social and cognitive pathologies that are responsible for the errors and confusion of the [R]evolution plan. )