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.