The Island of Doubt

It shouldn’t be all that difficult to figure out. Do we have the means at our disposal, now, to replace fossil fuels with clean alternatives that won’t bankrupt us all? The only two variables we need consider are the energy conversion efficiency ratios of each candidate technology and the costs, up front or amortized, of same. So why can’t we agree on this simple question?

Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress, and the blogger responsible for Climate Progress, sums up the disparity in an opinion piece in Nature:

Although it has recently been argued that “enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels”, on the contrary it would seem that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century.

In fact, such is the urgent need to reverse emissions trends by deploying a multitude of low-carbon technologies that we must rely on technologies that either are already commercial or will very shortly be so.

Joe is probably right. After all, the Rocky Mountain Institute has been telling us for as long as I can remember that we can cut energy consumption in half right now just by implementing off-the-shelf efficiency measures —;;;; measures that won’t actually change our lifestyle in significant ways, but simply stop wasting ridiculous amounts of fuel and electricity.

Couple that with solar-thermal, photovoltaics, wind, geothermal and the kinds of things that were featured in National Geographic back when Charlie’s Angels was the the most popular program on network television, and reducing our emissions by 80 or 90 percent within 20 years doesn’t seem all that difficult. Yes, it would mean getting everyone on board, introducing a cap-and-trade regulatory regime for all fossil fuels, reorganizing sales taxes and whatnot, but those are only political hurdles. Technologically, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done.

And yet, everywhere we hear that clean alternatives aren’t ready for prime time. In this past weekend’s Sunday New York Times Magazine‘s hagiographic feature on Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, Clive Thompson casually writes that “No low-carbon sources are currently big or cheap enough —;;;; and it’s not clear when they will be.”

I’m not sure what he means by “big” enough. No one’s building massive solar installations today, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t. As was argued in Scientific American a few months ago, we have the know-how to generate enough electricity to replace “69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy” by 2050. We could do this by covering a chunk of the southwest 215 miles square, storing excess power in pressurized caverns or molten salt, and distribute it over new high-voltage DC power lines. All for about $10 billion a year over 40 years. Peanuts. Relative to Middle Eastern occupations, that is.

Or, to borrow Joe Romm’s brain again, how about solar thermal electricity, which uses water or salt again as a storage medium, and thereby avoids the night-time/cloudy day problems?

The list of available options is a long one, and the key is there is not single bullet, simply a variety of calibers depending on regional resources. So for Clive Thompson —;;;; or Duke’s Jim Rogers, or Lorraine Bolsinger, VP of “ecomagination” at General Electric (to Newsweek magazine recently) to claim they just can’t think of anything that works … well, I don’t buy it.

The coal and electricity-generating industry made the same argument back in the 1980s when they were told to find ways to stop spewing acid from their smokestacks. They said the technology wasn’t mature, so they shouldn’t be forced to work under any kind of cap-and-trade system. But they were wrong. It took all of a year or two to start building the scrubbers, and making money selling the sulfur the scrubbers were scrubbing.

Realistically, what are the chances that we won’t be able to affordably switch to clean technologies over the next two or three decades (because that’s all the time we’ve got)? Slim to none, I’d say. Let’s get on with it. And stop letting those who are enjoying the benefits of the status quo redefine the state of the art to their advantage.


  1. #1 Clark
    June 24, 2008

    When they say not ready for prime time they usually mean not cost effective. Although part of that was due to the low price of oil and a lot of people are still skittish that oil will go down. (The collapse of the high oil prices in the late 70’s and early 80’s sent a lot of firms into bankruptcy – otherwise we could have made much of the transition then)

    I agree though that with massive government funding on par with Iraq spending we could do more. On the bright side they are building large solar power plants in the Nevada region right now. If they are successful (as I suspect they will) expect to see a massive building project in Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

  2. #2 dave X
    June 24, 2008

    I saw Margaret
    Leinen of Climos speak on remediation costs. She framed the costs of remediation using some
    ‘McKinsey curve’, (One is on p14 of$
    ) and spoke about the possibilities ocean iron fertilization and how it
    would fit in on a global scale.

    I thought the graphic was a good representation of costs and capacities across a range of technologies.

  3. #3 Stephen
    June 24, 2008

    In May there was a big shift from SUVs to crossovers and cars in the US. At $4 a gallon, it costs $100 or more to fill the tank. Even wealthy people balk at that.

    Heck, it costs $46 to fill my car. And despite the fact that this gets me over 500 miles, it’s still more than i’m used to shelling out. 44 MPG is good, but it was 44 MPG last year too.

    So, i’ve said that my 2000 Saturn cost $1400 in 2005. It’s nothing special. It has a smallish 1.9 liter engine with a 5 speed manual. But after putting another 70,000 miles and a couple years on it, it’s Kelly Blue Book value is now $3500. That’s right. 220,000 miles, and it’s worth more than i paid for it. I’m seriously not used to the value of my car increasing with time. But, as it’s not for sale…

    So, this is bad news for the automotive industry. They’re used to high profit margin SUVs, and haven’t tooled up to produce the smaller cars people want, except maybe Honda. The new in 2020 40 MPG CAFE standards should be old news by 2020. People have started voting with their wallets.

    My 2000 Saturn SL has a 40 MPG EPA highway rating. But starting in 2008, the testing has changed. My guess is that it would only get a 35 MPG highway rating today. So, the 2020 CAFE standards are going to have to be a little better, though still well within the reach of current low tech.

  4. #4 MikeB
    June 24, 2008

    Its interesting how the ‘technology’ to cut emissions will always be extremely expensive, and be years in the future.

    Yet an article some years ago in American Prospect showed clearly that the actual costs of improving pollution control, etc, actually averaged about 10% of the amount claimed by industry . Indeed, there were often savings to be made.

    The reality is that the bulk of solutions are not only sitting on the self, they have been on the shelf for years, as James points out. The RMI use basically 1984 level technology for insulation at their HQ, which I suspect is far better than anything specified for buildings in the US or (I’m sure) the UK.

    If we want to use less energy, all the tools are there, but it will take social change, concerted government action and a demand to manufacturers that energy efficiency is not only desireable, but mandatory.

    If you give industry a goal, they will tend to do one of two things. They will either try to avoid the target, water it down or simply kill it off. Since this has worked extremely well for them in the past, its basically SOP.

    If, however, government actually sticks to its guns (which means voters have to apply pressure as well), then industry will normally meet the target, and even exceed it. If they don’t want to, there is always the Al Capone way of encouragement (‘You get more with a kind word and a gun….). It works during wartime, so why not now?

  5. #5 emc
    June 26, 2008

    I just read an interesting text online about the numbers for switching a country off of fossil fuels, but it didn’t answer a question that’s been bugging me about clean energy.

    Currently, the sorts of renewable energy sources are things like sunlight, wind, and water currents. All this time, those constant movements of energy have been going from one place to another. Clean energy technologies would divert some or all of this energy. What happens to the things in the places where the energy has been going all along?

    Consider the notion of covering all of a desert with solar panels, such that the sand never gets sun exposure. The sand has been receiving all of this energy for a while, and that system is more-or-less stable. What happens to the world if that sand stops getting that energy?

    Even if we take half, or a quarter, or ten percent…well, that energy has gone somewhere, and now something is going to be getting less than its usual supply.

    Does anyone have anything like an educated guess on this sort of thing?

    – emc

  6. #6 James Hrynyshyn
    June 26, 2008

    emc asks an interesting question. While there are undoubtedly going to be consequences to the local ecology beneath a solar array that absorbs photons that used to reach the ground, I don’t think we need to worry all that much.

    First, we’re only talking about a tiny portion of land. 46,000 square miles isn’t that much when you’re talking about millions of square miles of desert.

    Second, most that insolation (solar radiation) that would normally reach the desert floor would then re-radiate (at longer wavelengths, which is what leads to the greenhouse effect), a few hours later when the sun goes down. We’d only be capturing that energy rather than letting it warm the atmosphere or escape into space.

    So yes, a solar array would inhibit photosythesis because of the shade cast, but if the array is built in a low-productivity desert, not much else would happen.

  7. #7 emc
    June 27, 2008

    James ~

    Thanks for that. I assume a similar answer applies to windmills, watermills, hydroelectric dams, etc: the amount of energy withdrawn from the natural source will leave a footprint, but a negligible one.

    I ask about this part because of a documentary I watched about the wetlands along the southern coast. The idea presented was that the tropical storms vented much of their energy on the wetlands, so that they were depleted and survivable by the time they hit land proper. Without the wetlands to soak up the power of the storm, the land proper gets the full intensity.

    Elsewhere, I read about the idea that waste heat from various processes goes somewhere, and that somewhere is storms. If subtle and pervasive energy drains come into existence, what sort of impact might they have on such seemlingly unrelated phenomenon as weather?

    Again, it would seem that the answer is that the energy drain would be minimal and produce limited or negligible side effects. But if the goal is to match our energy consumption in the future, but to draw all of that energy from “renewable” resources rather than fossil fuels, do we run the risk of seeing the illusion of “renewable”?

    – emc

  8. #8 Survival Acres
    July 7, 2008

    You’ve basically just shoveled a load of bullshit down your readers gullible throats.

    The problem with alternative energy is this:

    a) The EROI is considerably poorer then petroleum, nothing even comes remotely close.

    b) If it really was so wonderfully cost-effective and worth doing as so many imply, industry would be beating down the door to develop this technology. There are more then oil and gas companies “in this field” of generating usable energy for the public, found all over the world. Yet not a single one of them has managed to deploy an alternative energy solution on a wide scale. There is an very obvious reason why this is happened.

    c) As energy costs (petroleum) go up, the cost of developing alternative energy also go up, they are inextricably linked because one is actually dependent upon the other (read below). There in only a tiny lag time between the two, which is negligible in the real world. This means that what wasn’t really ‘affordable’ because of production costs, only becomes affordable when petroleum prices rise — except by that time, the new production costs for alternative energy have also shot out of sight!

    d) Overlooking the dwindling resources now available (rare metals in particular) is forgivable, but it’s a reality nonetheless. Technology increases the level of complexity and resource demands, most alternative energy demands increasing levels of (rare) resources. This already being recognized as a world wide problem (look up gallium for example).

    e) It is also broadly assumed by alternative energy pundits that the “market” will always identify the ways and means in which to deploy widespread alternative energy solutions, because market forces (demands and profits) will prevail. This too is yet another fallacy — these conditions for solutions demands already exist and yet, where exactly is all this promise of alternative energy?

    f) Always overlooked in alternative energy technology is that alternative energy technology is ALWAYS a downstream product of petroleum. It took petroleum energy to even make PV panels or wind generators or mine the raw resources for the silicon and metal ores involved. What do you suppose this will mean for the entire alternative energy industry when there is no more petroleum? Will they just switch to manufacturing and processing and mining using alternative energy? This is a deeply negative EROI, meaning that it can’t and simply won’t ever happen.

    g) As a result of f) alternative energy has an extremely short life-cycle, which is directly related to the availability of petroleum AND it’s costs. Moreover, the payback period for the development, production and deployment of alternative energy solutions is measured in decades (get the real numbers). You don’t think industry already knows these facts?

    Alternative energy is an empty promise that can never deliver what is claimed, not even close. It proposes to solve what it cannot even do for itself (keep itself in existence), let alone power our civilization indefinitely.

    The only ‘alternative energy’ that can actually do this is solar energy, radiating directly on this planet. This does not require any technology, any resources of the Earth or any effort at all on our part. This is how petroleum itself was created, representing 400,000 years of sunshine in each barrel.

    Nothing else even remotely comes close to this store of energy, not even close. All alternative energy can do is to take the existing energy we have (petroleum), create a dependent resource hungry technology, return a very low EROI, and die when petroleum is gone. That’s it. Hardly worth doing.

    It’s quite possible we would not extend our civilization for even a decade longer before total energy collapse, due to the conversion and consumption of resource to alternative energy (a DC grid for example would consume a huge amount of resources, but still be as limited as described above).

    We are going to return to a solar powered civilization whether we like it or not. We’ve also blown our chances at anything else by the way, but that’s another explanation.

  9. #9 Scott M.
    July 9, 2008

    Cover an area of the American SW 215 miles square? Who are we kidding? Environmental laws and the preservationist lobby won’t allow it. :-/

  10. #10 söve
    January 27, 2009


  11. #11 D_E_R_M_A_N
    March 12, 2009


  12. #12 D_E_R_M_A_N
    March 12, 2009

    thanks you

  13. #13 kelebek
    March 13, 2009


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