I really liked Asher Miller’s HuffPo article on an assessment of clean energy’s scalability by three mostly conservative think-tanks. There are so many analyses done out there that simply work from the assumption that magic technology fairies will erase time and depletion and make it possible for us to live pretty much the way we have been.
Unfortunately, the report reminded me a lot of the failed legislative attempt undertaken by Senators Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman (I-CT), and Graham (R-SC) to pass bipartisan climate legislation. The original bill was a watered-down pile of… um, paper… but Graham still wound up pulling his support before it saw the light of day. And even after Kerry ignominiously signaled his belief that he and Lieberman had “compromised significantly” and yet were “prepared to compromise further,” the bill still died.
Like the ill-fated American Power Act, this report makes some good recommendations but utterly fails to offer anything that promises to transcend political partisanship or transform the energy landscape with the speed and scale required. A few quick responses:
•The belief that the recommendations included are somehow post-partisan is, at best, naive. Joseph Romm does a thorough job of refuting this claim, so I won’t bother to address that piece of it.
•I’m guessing that references to Department of Energy offices being “overly stove-piped, centralized in Washington, D.C.,” and “ineffective, even wasteful energy research spending” came from the AEI side of the table. But I agree with the recommendation of establishing a “national network of decentralized energy innovation institutes that can bring private sector, university, and government researchers together alongside investors” — particularly if those regional innovation institutes were focused on developing regionalized, distributed sources of truly renewable energy.
•The authors promote a “new generation of smaller, innovative nuclear reactors” that can provide “affordable, reliable, zero-carbon power and heat to utilities of all sizes, industrial facilities, and military bases.” But unless this new generation of nuclear reactors manages to address many of the limitations that currently beset large-scale nuclear plants–the need for a depleting, non-renewable source of energy (uranium); the use of massive amounts of fresh water (already scarce in many regions and expected to worsen with climate change and population growth); significant requirements of fossil fuels and fossil fuel by-products for production; and tremendous capital costs, not to mention even bigger questions about security and disposal when dealing with a much more distributed collection of reactors–I have a hard time understanding how the authors can view nuclear power as a renewable, cost-effective, or scalable solution.
Most worrying (though least surprising) is the authors’ belief that clean energy innovation breakthroughs can drive continued economic growth. This belief reflects two commonly held assumptions:
1.That alternative energy sources capable of replacing conventional fossil fuels either already exist or can be invented. All that’s missing are incentives for innovation and/or the political will.
2.That exponential growth of the global economy–fundamentally driven by ever-growing consumption of energy and other natural resources–can and should continue indefinitely. Never mind the little fact that we live on a finite planet.
The rest is mostly a summary of Richard Heinberg’s analysis of a number of reports to try and answer the question – can any combination of clean energy technologies support us to 2100. And the answer is predictably (if you’ve been paying attention) how much we’ll have to work with depends heavily on our willingness to conserve for real.
Conservation, in this sense, does not mean trivial conservation – the lightbulb-changing-a-la-An-Inconvenient-Truth style. It means the kind of conservation that we have not seen since WWII – a real and deep transformation of how we use energy. And while it may be possible to imagine a functional, growing economy in a society that is using 50%, 60%, 70% less energy, it will require a great deal of imagination indeed. Far more likely is that the economy will place its own limits on technology usage and availability.
The good news is that most of us could cut our energy usage by 50% tomorrow, if we were sufficiently committed. The bad news is that as long as conservation remains off the table, we’re not even going to get started.