Thursday, October 16, 2014

Barking at the Wrong Tree?

Even though the science might (or might not) be settled, the climate discourse is still heated between those that sustain that carbon dioxide emissions are increasing the global temperature of the Earth and those that do not see it as a menace.

However, I believe this discussion is misguided and thus that we are barking at the wrong tree.

If the first camp is correct, then we need to drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption. To be able to do this without destroying the world's economy (and thus severely curtailing the possibilities of reducing poverty and even shoving many / most of us toward that same poverty) would require a massive substitution of fossil fuels by other, lower carbon energy sources.

If the second camp is correct, the so called "deniers" then we still all probably agree that fossil fuels will not forever be cheap and abundant.

Consequently, it seems to me, both groups should agree that the (eventual) replacement of fossil fuels should be a top priority.

If we look around today, we see lots of PR from the renewable, efficiency and even the nuclear camps, but where the rubber meets the road, (in other words, massive alternative energy production ramp-up) we don't see anything worth noting.

The Energy Information Administration estimates that by the year 2040, close to 80% of our primary energy will still come from fossil fuels, however, since consumption is projected to increase in absolute terms that means more CO2 emissions than today.*

Yes, renewables (solar and wind) will survive and maybe even thrive in the coming decades but there is no way they will dominate the global energy market. Why? Because they are diffuse (in other words, weak), intermittent and unreliable. Renewables are in a sense a road to the past. Centuries ago, practically 100% of our energy was renewable but our civilization moved forward with denser and more reliable energy.

Current nuclear is not that much better. Yes, it is low carbon, yes it is orders of magnitude denser than renewables (and even than fossil fuels) but it is still too expensive and hard to scale up rapidly.

In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel states that "only when your product is 10X better can you offer the customer transparent superiority." Well, that is certainly not yet the case respecting our current alternatives to fossil fuels.

The solution to our energy quandary has to be technology. We won't advance toward the future by walking backwards.

New nuclear (fission) designs in the drawing board seem great on paper, but to prove their concepts we would need massive implementation in the real world. This is not happening. At least not yet.

Even though it might not feel like it, our civilization has been upgrading its energy sources to better ones:

Coal is better than wood, wind and water.
Oil is better than coal.
Natural gas is better than oil.
Nuclear is better than natural gas.

Sure, the above statements are arguable, but the point is we have been moving to denser more reliable energy that is actually cleaner. (Without coal, we would probably had destroyed all our forests to use them as fuel).

So, bottom line, our civilization has been moving forward and there is no way back (at least not if we plan to support +7 billion persons).

Renewables are in a sense a return to the past. New nuclear (fission and fusion) can be a step forward, maybe even a giant step forward.

How much time do we have to replace, say, 50% of fossil fuels with nuclear? That depends on when fossil fuels will become painfully expensive / scarce.

Try as we might, this transition will probably not be fast. It may take 100, 150 years, or more, but as JFK used to say: let us begin!

Feel free to add to the conversation in Tweeter: @luisbaram


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At 9:17 AM, Anonymous rob de laet said...

Agree with your blog except for timing. If, like me, you think we triggered abrupt climate change, we need to hit the brakes now. So agree that energy transformation is must no matter whether you are a AGW believer or a denier. Where the roads diverge is the necessary pace for change.


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