Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Renewables Won't Stop Climate Change?

Someone posted a number of long, semi-coherent rambling comments to the Radio Ecoshock blog for this episode, but among  the clutter were a few items of interest, including the article below:
Whenever somebody with a decent grasp of maths and physics looks into the idea of a fully renewables-powered civilised future for the human race with a reasonably open mind, they normally come to the conclusion that it simply isn't feasible. Merely generating the relatively small proportion of our energy that we consume today in the form of electricity is already an insuperably difficult task for renewables: generating huge amounts more on top to carry out the tasks we do today using fossil-fuelled heat isn't even vaguely plausible.
Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fibre, neodymium, shipping and haulage etc etc would appear. All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms - and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on. The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.

In reality, well before any such stage was reached, energy would become horrifyingly expensive - which means that everything would become horrifyingly expensive (even the present well-under-one-per-cent renewables level in the UK has pushed up utility bills very considerably). This in turn means that everyone would become miserably poor and economic growth would cease (the more honest hardline greens admit this openly). That, however, means that such expensive luxuries as welfare states and pensioners, proper healthcare (watch out for that pandemic), reasonable public services, affordable manufactured goods and transport, decent personal hygiene, space programmes (watch out for the meteor!) etc etc would all have to go - none of those things are sustainable without economic growth.

So nobody's up for that. And yet, stalwart environmentalists like Koningstein and Fork - and many others - remain convinced that the dangers of carbon-driven warming are real and massive...Koningstein and Fork say that humanity's only hope is a new method of energy generation which can provide power - ideally "dispatchable" (can be turned on and off) and/or "distributed" (produced near where it's wanted) - at costs well below those of coal or gas. They write:

    "What’s needed are zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over within the next 40 years ..."

    "Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive."

Unfortunately the two men don't know what that is, or if they do they aren't saying. James Hansen does, though: it's nuclear power...
Renewable energy 'simply WON'T WORK': Top Google engineers (The Register) Windmills, solar, tidal - all a 'false hope', say Stanford PhDs

The rest of the article is just one long sales pitch for nuclear energy. Most of the links in the text are to articles in the same newspaper rather than outside sources, so I’m guessing “The Register” is simply some sort of industry marketing newsletter, rather than an actual news source. Nevertheless, their reporting of the Google engineers’ conclusion does seem accurate. But if nuclear power were a simple answer to the problem, wouldn’t the Google engineers simply have said so?

So I went to the actual article and read it. In fact, it’s even more depressing. The engineers say that existing technologies won’t be enough to stop climate change, and they fall back on the same chimera used by those who say we will avoid technological unemployment, the “(jobs) / (technology) we can’t even imagine…” argument:
Unfortunately, not every Google moon shot leaves Earth orbit. In 2011, the company decided that RE<C was not on track to meet its target and shut down the initiative. The two of us, who worked as engineers on the internal RE<C projects, were then forced to reexamine our assumptions.

At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.

As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach. So we’re issuing a call to action. There’s hope to avert disaster if our society takes a hard look at the true scale of the problem and uses that reckoning to shape its priorities.

Climate scientists have definitively shown that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere poses a looming danger. Whether measured in dollars or human suffering, climate change threatens to take a terrible toll on civilization over the next century. To radically cut the emission of greenhouse gases, the obvious first target is the energy sector, the largest single source of global emissions.

RE<C invested in large-scale renewable energy projects and investigated a wide range of innovative technologies, such as self-assembling wind turbine towers, drilling systems for geothermal energy, and solar thermal power systems, which capture the sun’s energy as heat. For us, designing and building novel energy systems was hard but rewarding work. By 2011, however, it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver a technology that could compete economically with coal, and Google officially ended the initiative and shut down the related internal R&D projects. Ultimately, the two of us were given a new challenge. Alfred Spector, Google’s vice president of research, asked us to reflect on the project, examine its underlying assumptions, and learn from its failures.
What Would It Really Take To Reverse Climate Change? (IEEE)

Essentially, their attitude seems to be some sort of new “disruptive” technology that we have not invented yet will save us and we will innovate ourselves out of all our problems. Of course, one would expect exactly this attitude from Google.
Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive to reverse climate change. What, then, is the energy technology that can meet the challenging cost targets? How will we remove CO2 from the air? We don’t have the answers. Those technologies haven’t been invented yet. However, we have a suggestion for how to foster innovation in the energy sector and allow for those breakthrough inventions. 
Consider Google’s approach to innovation, which is summed up in the 70-20-10 rule espoused by executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The approach suggests that 70 percent of employee time be spent working on core business tasks, 20 percent on side projects related to core business, and the final 10 percent on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive. 
Wouldn’t it be great if governments and energy companies adopted a similar approach in their technology R&D investments? The result could be energy innovation at Google speed. Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects. The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy. These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing. The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability. Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact. Our society needs to fund scientists and engineers to propose and test new ideas, fail quickly, and share what they learn. Today, the energy innovation cycle is measured in decades, in large part because so little money is spent on critical types of R&D.
If highly trained engineers write an op-ed piece about potential solutions to climate change and the phrase, “wouldn't it be great if…” appears in the text, then you ought to  be very afraid.

Furthermore, if the article also has the statement, “We don’t have the answers. Those technologies haven’t been invented yet,” you might want to be even more afraid. According to an article in the journal Nature, to deliver a 50% probability of no more than 2° of warming this century, 80 percent of coal, 50 percent of gas and 33 percent of global oil must be left untouched until 2050: How Much Fuel We Need To Leave Buried To Beat Climate Change (Five Thirty-Eight)

The engineers, however, are undaunted:
We’re hopeful, because sometimes engineers and scientists do achieve the impossible. Consider the space program, which required outlandish inventions for the rockets that brought astronauts to the moon. MIT engineers constructed the lightweight and compact Apollo Guidance Computer, for example, using some of the first integrated circuits, and did this in the vacuum-tube era when computers filled rooms. Their achievements pushed computer science forward and helped create today’s wonderful wired world. Now, R&D dollars must go to inventors who are tackling the daunting energy challenge so they can boldly try out their crazy ideas. We can’t yet imagine which of these technologies will ultimately work and usher in a new era of prosperity—but the people of this prosperous future won’t be able to imagine how we lived without them.
In other words, we have a religious belief in things unseen, much in the manner of Saint Paul’s words in Hebrews 11:1  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” or perhaps his epistle to the Romans 8:24, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”

That doesn't sound very scientific to me. By definition, the impossible is not achievable (as is giving more than 100 percent)

Also, there is this response to many of the claims of thorium-based nuclear power from Oliver Tickell: How Much Safer Would Thorium Based Nuclear Power Be?


  1. The whole base assumption of the google project -- the idea that we have energy "needs" which must be met at levels somewhat approximating those provided by fossil fuels -- is the problem. This is not an engineering issue, but a psychological issue.

    I'm sure Donald Trump has monetary "needs" far above those of the average person, but that doesn't really make them needs, any more than our energy desire constitutes a need. Just as with money, the appetite for energy is infinite.

    Granted, we cannot possibly continue to sustain 7 billion or more without fossil fuels, but we can't sustain fossil fuel production anyway, so a dramatic population reduction is a given. Hopefully through attrition more than war/famine/pestilence, etc, but I suspect the latter will play a big role. The obvious way to meet our energy needs is right in front of us. Simply match our needs to our (shrinking) budget.

    1. Of course your assumptions will affect your conclusions. Most studies assume current levels of population and consumption, but do not say so explicitly.

  2. Bad link. The article on thorium reactors does not exist.

  3. You and Greer were on the same wavelength yesterday, as he wrote about how renewable energy wouldn't have another desired effect, permitting our energy consumption to continue at our present high levels and allowing the lifestyles of the U.S. middle class to continue.

    As for "The Register," that's a publication for IT people. Because of their readership, that's going to have a very pro-technology bias, even if it's not explicitly a PR organ. The result will be a lot like the kind of pandering to readers that I describe for British newspapers (and U.S. cable news channels) and U.S. newspapers at my blog.

  4. David Veale is right. I like to put this in personal terms. My two person household has an off-grid solar system; we use 2 to 3 kwh/day, 10% of the US average, and we live comfortably. We need to get over the idea that the current energy-obese American Way of Life (TM) is a vital necessity. How much electricity, how many vehicle-miles, are absolutely necessary? Gee, didn't all of our ancestors until a mere four or five generations ago live what they considered adequate lives with NONE?
    On the other hand, I lived a couple of years with no electricity. I used kerosene lamps for light. Kerosene lamps suck; they stink, they're a fire hazard, you're always having to adjust the wick, and they need kerosene--which is a fossil fuel, of course. If we don't use the last of the easy, cheap fossil fuels to build out a renewables infrastructure, we won't be using kerosene lamps--we'll be using CANDLES, which give out even less light and are a worse fire hazard. But we cling to denial about resource depletion like we cling to denial about climate change, so it looks like we'll spend the last of our one-time inheritance ina a final orgy of consumption--and then go back to candles and horse. Unless the Google guy finds his magic energy source.

  5. I'm on a water budget of one gallon a day be cause I live in a building without running water although I do have electricity. I'm not sure how much electricity I use but it can't be much since the bill at commercial rates including the other tenants in the back half of the building is typically 50 bucks. Vihecle miles are bicycle miles or if it's rainy busnor light rail miles. I make about ten grand a year and feel quite fortunate because there are many, many people living on less. This is in San Jose, California where we have a very thin upper crust of people working for the legendary tech companies. Most people live more like I do then like the 1970s Brady bunch, this is the new normal.

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