Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Truth vs the fossil fuel lobby

By Jeffrey Sachs

03 February 2014

Have a look at what happened around the world this past month. Australia’s heat wave filled headlines when temperatures reaching 45° Celsius disrupted the Australian Open tennis tournament. 

California’s extreme drought forced the governor to declare a state of emergency. Major floods in Indonesia killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands. 

Beijing’s coal-induced smog forced people to stay in their homes, closed highways, and diverted flights. Such events are daily warnings to the world: Wake up before it is too late.

We have entered the Age of Sustainable Development. Either we make peace with the planet, or we destroy our hard-won prosperity. The choice seems obvious, but our actions speak louder than words. Humanity continues on a path of ruin, driven by short-term greed and ignorance.

Much (though not all) of the global environmental crisis stems from the world’s fossil-fuel-based energy system. More than 80 per cent of all primary energy in the world comes from coal, oil, and gas. When these fossil fuels are burned, they emit carbon dioxide, which in turn changes the Earth’s climate. The basic physics has been known for more than a century.

Unfortunately, a few oil companies (ExxonMobil and Koch Industries are the most notorious) have devoted enormous resources to sowing confusion even where there is clear scientific consensus. But, in order to save the planet we know, and to preserve the world’s food supply and the well-being of future generations, there is no alternative to shifting to a new, low-carbon energy system.

[Easier said than done.]


There are three parts to this transition. The first is improved energy efficiency, meaning that we should use much less energy to achieve the same level of well-being. For example, we can design our buildings to use sunlight and natural-air circulation so that they require far less commercial energy for heating, cooling, and ventilation.

Second, we need to shift to solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, geothermal and other forms of energy that are not based on fossil fuels. The technology exists to use these alternatives safely, affordably, and at a scale large enough to replace almost all of the coal, and much of the oil, that we use today. [No it doesn't.] Only natural gas (the cleanest-burning fossil fuel) would remain a significant source of energy by mid-century.

Daniel Nocera list the possible contributions of alternative energy sources in his 2006 paper: "On the Future of Global Energy" (as summarised by The StraightDope - link and excerpt after this article - extract here:).
  • Biomass. If we devote all the arable land on earth to energy production rather than food crops and presumably just don't eat, we could generate 7 to 10 terawatts. 
  • Wind. If we build wind farms on 100 percent of the sufficiently windy land, we could produce 2.1 terawatts. 
  • Hydroelectric. If we dam all the remaining rivers, we could come up with 0.7 to 2 additional terawatts. 
  • Finally, nuclear. We could produce 8 terawatts by constructing 8,000 nuclear power plants, which would mean one new plant every two days for the next 40 years.
What about solar?  Nocera's solution is to push for a technological breakthrough in solar power, currently a relatively trivial contributor to the world energy mix. His reason for discounting the other alternative fuel is to extoll the virtues and promise of solar power.

[See below for information on Solar Power and it's constraints.]

Finally, to the extent that we continue to rely on fossil fuels, we must capture the resulting CO2 emissions at power plants before they escape into the atmosphere. The captured CO2 would then be injected underground or under the ocean floor for safe long-term storage. 

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is already being used successfully on a very small scale (mainly to enhance oil recovery in depleted wells). If (and only if) it proves successful for large-scale use, coal-dependent countries like China, India, and the United States could continue to use their reserves.

[The key thing to note is "on a very small scale". Unless the CCS is easy, automatic and natural, it is not going to be easy to scale up the process to any significant and meaningful degree.]


American politicians have proved to be incapable of designing policies to shift the US to low-carbon energy use. Such policies would include a rising tax on CO2 emissions, large-scale research-and-development efforts in low-carbon technologies, a shift to electric vehicles, and regulations to phase out all coal-fired power plants except those that install CCS.

Yet, politicians are pursuing none of these policies adequately. Climate-change foes have spent billions of dollars to influence policy-makers, support election campaigns by defenders of fossil fuels, and defeat candidates who dare to promote clean energy. 

The Republican Party as a whole attracts massive financial support from opponents of decarbonisation, and these donors aggressively fight even the smallest step toward renewable energy. For their part, many Democratic members of the US Congress are also in the pro-fossil-fuel camp.

[Yes. Politics are getting in the way of alternative energy, but alternative energy is not the panacea for all our problems. The "solutions" are not as simple as the author here is suggesting.]

A few big players in the energy industry, showing no concern for truth (much less for our children, who will bear the consequences of our present folly), have teamed up with Rupert Murdoch. Indeed, Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and their allies behave just like Big Tobacco in denying scientific truths; even use the same experts for hire.

The situation is generally the same around the world. Wherever powerful lobbies defend existing coal or oil interests, politicians typically are afraid to tell the truth about the need for low-carbon energy. Brave politicians who do tell the truth about climate change are found mainly in countries that do not have a powerful fossil-fuel lobby.


Consider the fate of one courageous exception to this rule. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, tried to implement a clean-energy policy in his coal-producing country. 

Rudd was defeated in his re-election bid by a candidate whose backing from an alliance of Murdoch and coal companies enabled him to outspend Rudd by a huge margin. Murdoch’s tabloids pump out anti-scientific propaganda opposing climate-change policies not only in Australia, but also in the US and elsewhere.

The reason all of this matters is that the path to deep decarbonisation is open to us. Yet time is very short. 

The world needs to stop building new coal-fired power plants (except those that implement CCS) and to shift to low-carbon electricity. It needs to phase out the internal combustion engine for almost all new passenger vehicles by around 2030, shifting to vehicles powered by electricity.

And it needs to adopt energy-saving technologies that consume less commercial energy. The technologies are available and will get better and cheaper with use, if only fossil-fuel lobbies can be held at bay.

[That is optimistic at best. Energy saving technologies usually requires rare earth elements to manufacture. And these are in short supply (the name "rare earth elements" might have been a clue):
A 2007 law requiring the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs may increase demand for terbium, europium and yttrium, used in compact fluorescent bulbs that comply with higher efficiency standards, according to the report.]

If this happens, people around the world will discover something wonderful. Not only will they have saved the planet for the next generation; they will also enjoy sunshine and clean, healthy air. And they will ask what took so long when the Earth itself was at dire risk.



Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. 

[He also led the Millennium Village Projects, which while well-intentioned, created new and arguably larger problems. The road to hell... good intentions... etc.]

[This article is optimistic at best. It is unrealistically upbeat, glosses over (or is unaware of) limitations, trade-offs, and true costs.]

In 2002, Nocera points out, the global energy consumption rate was 13.5 terawatts. What will it be in 2050? If everybody were to burn through the juice at the current U.S. rate, Nocera calculates, we'd need 102 terawatts — seven times as much. Chances of our producing that: zero.

Instead, Nocera conservatively pegs annual global energy usage circa 2050 at between 28 terawatts — which assumes average consumption at the same rate as in present-day Poland — and 35 terawatts, roughly the rate now seen in Samoa. You may say: Samoa sounds like a lifestyle I could get used to. That’s sporting of you, but it still means we'll need about 15 to 20 more terawatts of energy than we're consuming right now.

Where will it come from? Nocera runs through some possibilities:
  • First, biomass. If we devote all the arable land on earth to energy production rather than food crops and presumably just don't eat, we could generate 7 to 10 terawatts. 
  • Next, wind. If we build wind farms on 100 percent of the sufficiently windy land, we could produce 2.1 terawatts. 
  • Third, hydroelectric. If we dam all the remaining rivers, we could come up with 0.7 to 2 additional terawatts. 
  • Finally, nuclear. I know you don't like nukes, Randvek, but the professor's evident aim was to tote up all power sources that aren't net emitters of greenhouse gases. He thinks we could produce 8 terawatts by constructing 8,000 nuclear power plants, which would mean one new plant every two days for the next 40 years. 
Total: around 18 to 22 terawatts. In other words, if we squeeze out every available watt of alternative energy on the planet, and build nukes at an impossibly aggressive rate, we'll barely keep up with the energy needed to support even a modest standard of living for the world's people.

In reality, we'll need to find additional energy somewhere. Nocera's solution is to push for a technological breakthrough in solar power, currently a relatively trivial contributor to the world energy mix. Good luck, seriously. Barring that, however, we're stuck with more coal, oil, and gas, and you know the problems with those.

My point isn't that the situation is hopeless, although it certainly gives one pause. All I'm saying is we need to dispense with the illusory notion of "alternative" energy, which suggests we'll get to be choosy about energy sources. Sorry, not going to happen. We'll have to use them all.


From another website: Brother, Can You Spare 22 Terawatts? 2002 the United States used 3.3 terawatts (TW), China 1.5 TW, India 0.46 TW, Africa 0.45 TW and so forth. Totaling it all up, Nocera finds, "the global population burned energy at a rate of 13.5 TW." A terawatt equals one trillion watts.

Nocera calculates that if 9 billion people in 2050 used energy at the rate that Americans do today that the world would have to generate 102.2 TW of power—more than seven times current production. If people adopted the energy lifestyle of Western Europe, power production would need to rise to 45.5 terawatts. On the other hand if the world's 9 billion in 2050 adopted India's current living standards, the world would need to produce only 4 TW of power. Nocera suggests, assuming heroic conservation measures that would enable affluent American lifestyles, that "conservative estimates of energy use place our global energy need at 28-35 TW in 2050."  This means that the world will need an additional 15-22 TW of energy over the current base of 13.5 TW.
So, is solar power the way to go?
"...converting sunlight into energy useful to people is a huge unsolved technological problem. In 2000, author Richard Rhodes and nuclear engineer Denis Beller calculated that using current solar power technologies to construct a global solar-energy system would consume at least 20 percent of the world's known iron resources, take a century to build and cover a half-million square miles. Clearly a lot of technological innovation needs to take place before solar becomes an option for fueling the world."


Can Solar Power provide 50% of our energy needs?

If you believe the link, and the figure above yes. 

This is a link to an article on the newest (opened in Feb 2014) and largest solar thermal plant. The Ivanpah Facility has an array of mirrors occupying 3500 acres, producing enough energy to power 140,000 homes. However, it is probably already obsolete as cheaper photo-voltaic (PV) cells/panels would be more feasible.

But even for PV solar power, there are deployment or implementation and other issues.

First, geographical proximity. Where the sun shines steadiest and where people live don't always coincide.

Second, alignment of output and demand. Sunlight is strongest at noon, but most residential demand is in the evening.

To put it simply, the sun don't always shine.  

The Rare Earth Elements needed for alternative energy means...
Solar Energy: Not So Clean After All.

Solar energy turns sunlight into electrical power. What’s not to like? Well, there is that whole process of manufacturing solar panels, which requires a great deal of energy. All that energy requires generation via means other than solar power — usually coal.

“In the case of silicon-based solar panels, which are the most common type, the silicon material requires melting silica rock in roughly 3,000-degree F ovens,” notes The Data Center Journal. “That energy, however, typically comes from coal plants, meaning that although solar panels may produce no emissions when in operation, they indirectly produce a fair amount during manufacturing.

And what to do with the solar panels when their productive life is over in about 25 years or so? And what about all the waste chemicals generated by the solar panel manufacturing process? The Union of Concerned Scientists write that the photovoltaic (PV) cell manufacturing process “includes a number of hazardous materials,” similar to “those used in the general semiconductor industry,” such as “hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, and acetone.” If we’re talking about thin-film PV cells, it’s worse, as UCS explains, since those have “more toxic materials than those used in traditional silicon photovoltaic cells, including gallium arsenide, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, and cadmium-telluride.”


Is Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR) a possible solution for our energy needs in the future?
The consensus at present seems to be that LENR is undeniable. The problem is the output. Generally, if you put in 1 unit of energy, you want to get more than 1 unit of energy out. For now the output for LENR seems to be in the low positives. That in 1 unit in gets you 1+ (but maybe less than 2) unit out. But that is still a positive.

The question is not simply if there is a positive output (i.e. > 1), but the ratio of output, and the concentration of energy. Coal and Oil are excellent sources of energy because of their "energy density". A litre of petrol can take you a long way. In contrast, you need 3500 acres in the desert to collect solar power for 140,000 homes. A similar coal power plant need less land.

LENR is currently not very promising because the energy density is rather low. It remains to be seen how it develops.

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