Positive Energy

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lighting The Way

The InterAcademy Council published:

Lighting the way: Toward a sustainable energy future

This document was written by people who have well established positions as administrators, academics, and researchers in scientific fields such as physics, chemistry, system analysis, and biology. I dug into it hoping to find the hard headed, skeptical logic of a physics text book. That didn't happen. I waded through chapters of apologetic explanations of renewables and carbon fuels and how they don't work, but will work if we just spend lots of money quickly on research. I suffered through chapters that faintly praised the successes of nuclear power and then essentially wrote it off as a serious contender. I searched through the conclusions which admonished us to spend a fortune on the energy infrastructure of Africa because that would be a proper thing to do, without any quantification of what this would cost, whether or not we could even hope to complete the job, and what the benefits would be after the costs had been paid. Yes, these are laudable goals - I just expected a more pragmatic treatment that recognized what is actually happening, what is actually doable, and what is really to be gained or lost in measurable terms. Instead, I got what I don't need - a long promise that clean coal and renewables research will save us so we don't have to use nuclear power very much. I won't add this document to my recommended reading list.

What I did like in the document was the clear message about the amount of fossil fuel we have left - namely "lots". The report showed in several ways that we have no shortage of carbon fuels. What we are lacking is a big enough atmosphere to burn all this stuff in without killing ourselves in the process. Along with these facts, the report summarizes how fast we are building up our carbon burning capabilities. It seems pretty obvious to me what this is leading up to - a global heat calamity in a hundred years or so. The report hints at this using much more diplomatic language, and then contradicts itself by demanding that we have to get everything solved within the next ten years. In particular we have to seriously increase our spending on scientific research right now. The facts don't support this kind of panic, and the report reads like a political polemic in these sections. Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with the global heating discussion need not bother with this report.

Notes made while reading:

  • Good Idea - The InterAcademy Council produces peer reviewed reports written by experts from all over the world. We should be able to use these reports as an honest reflection of what is generally believed to be true about the report's topic. However, they probably will not identify radical departures in thinking that break through to significant solutions.
  • Bad Idea - Too many times the report authors launch into a litany of self praise. They describe how science can solve problems such as energy sourcing, and tell us that they deserve more money for this important work. They just don't seem to be aware of how their narrow focus might be a cause of the problem as much as a solution. I don't see any representation from economists, moralists, militarists, politicists, capitalists, or idealists even though these groups have as large a stake in energy policy as scientists. The scientists writing these reports do have something to contribute, but not as much as they claim (and claim, and claim, and claim).
  • Bad Idea - the plan is to make energy using devices more efficient, introduce clean coal technology, and build lots of wind mills and solar panel systems. This is the song of the Pied Piper calling all the children away - it is a recipe for doom. Don't worry, it won't happen. At this point I wonder if this report is worth reading. So far, it has not been insightful or helpful.
  • Good Idea - there is a clear statement that impoverished people must have access to good energy sources so they can live better. This might be a very positive objective if it means setting up highly available, reliable, and clean energy systems (i.e. nuclear power). If it means burdening the poor with wind mills, then it is a callous attempt to extend their pain.
  • Good Idea - the Preface outlines how energy supports a modern life style that is healthy, secure, and worth experiencing. It then outlines the problems that will make the continuation of this life style difficult. This discussion seemed reasonable to me - it shows what we want to attain, and the problems that stand in our way.
  • Bad Idea - The Executive Summary states that significant initiatives have to begin within ten years. This is a totally unfounded statement. It is a political objective, not a scientific one. This is the equivalent of the huckster salesman trying to push a buyer into a poorly thought out deal. Who knows that we have ten years still to delay? Who knows that we cannot delay for fifteen years and still be OK?
  • Good Idea - The Executive Summary clearly states that there is no shortage of fossil fuels. Everyone needs to understand this clearly. Even if pumped oil is less available in the future, we can continue burning coal and extracting oil from coal, for hundreds of years. The problem is the capacity of our atmosphere to absorb the resulting carbon dioxide. There are many solutions for this problem - we might just decide to live with the heat. The report seems to favour economic coercion that penalizes carbon dioxide releases. The report seems to be blissfully confident that this approach will work. I am not so sure. Anyway, there is no shortage of fossil fuel - a point that is important to emphasize.
  • Good Idea - The Executive Summary states that nuclear power technology should be improved and widely used. Along with this, the facts about it should be collected by the UN and published to the world.
  • Good Idea - Repeatedly, the concept of a carbon tax, or some other cost scheme, is mentioned. This seems to be the only way to inform business that air pollution is not wanted.
  • Bad Idea - The report devotes a whole chapter to energy efficiency. The assumption is that more efficient delivery and end-use technology will make the sustainable energy problem easier to solve, somehow. The authors acknowledge that culture, emotion, and belief all complicate this picture in ways that are not understood, but they blithely plow on with a discussion of efficiency in any case. Scientists like to talk about efficiency, so they are going to do so here whether it helps or not. Efficiency does not help because it accelerates the processes that we use to live. If these processes are dirty, then making them efficient only increases the dirt levels. We have to be clean, whether or not we are efficient. The report does not recognize this distinction.
  • Bad Idea - The report defines efficiency as the ratio of energy input to energy output, and consequently discovers that this kind of thinking has no impact on the market. This is really sterile ground. We could measure efficiency in other ways, such as deaths per kilowatt-hour for energy generation, or deaths per passenger-meter for transportation. The definition of efficiency makes a big difference in its relevance, and the report defines it in a most irrelevant manner.
  • Bad Idea - The whole discussion about efficiency is stated in very general terms. This can make the idea of efficiency sound appealing without bringing out the really controversial stuff. For instance, we have to be efficient in the sense of producing less carbon dioxide, not in other areas such as producing heat. This means that we have to stop using gasoline as a transportation fuel. The report does not really make this clear, and thereby glosses over the controversy. Oil barons run the world and won't allow oil use to stop. We will have to fight to save ourselves. The report pretends that the oil barons will go away without a fight. This is wishful thinking.
  • Good Idea - Table 3.1 shows how long our fossil fuels will last at current rates of consumption. We have decades to centuries of reserves. Everyone should be clear about this - we have time to think, plan, and get it right before we make big changes.
  • Bad Idea - The continued use of coal is criticized because it releases too much carbon dioxide into the air. The fact that coal mining kills ten thousand people annually is not even hinted at. The discussion then flows into methods for carbon capture, totally missing the safety problems. This is a major gaffe in thinking.
  • Good Idea - The report outlines the environmental damage caused by extracting oil from tar sand, and states that this problem cannot be overcome. This is just a really dirty way to get oil, and we should just avoid it.
  • Good Idea - An objective and accurate review of nuclear power technology must be conducted and communicated to the world's people. At present, the general understanding of nuclear power is inaccurate, and this ignorance is preventing the expansion of this clean energy source. I agree with this goal, but wonder how to achieve it. Politically motivated groups will work hard to preserve the present ignorance (i.e. oil barons, luddites, terrorists). An attempt to review the technology will get turned into a shouting match, that bores and scares people.
  • Bad Idea - The report claims that wind power has achieved commercial competitiveness in some places. This is simply wrong - it is like claiming that perpetual motion machines have been built somewhere. The claim is just impossible. Wind turbines are intermittent. They just cannot produce commercially competitive electricity because they are unreliable. When wind turbines are backed up by coal generation that runs all the time then a claim could be made that wind-coal can be competitive, but not wind alone. Of course, for these wind coal systems they would be cheaper and even more reliable if the wind aspect was removed. The fact that the authors don't know this basic aspect of the physics of wind power is worrying. The report is a marketing blurb, not a technical analysis summary.
  • Bad Idea - The report emphasizes the use of wind turbines, and goes to great lengths to outline all the ways that the deficiencies of wind turbines can be addressed. It does not point out that even with the most optimistic growth, wind turbines will only provide five percent of the power needed in 2030. Wind just cannot do the job. The report's fascination with wind technology reflects biased, wishful thinking, not the hard headed analysis we expect from scientists.
  • Bad Idea - Solar photovoltaic cells are mentioned as a technology worth considering. This is amazing given the very small role that this technology will have. World wide, all the solar photovoltaic applications will produce less power than ten nuclear reactors in 2030. The report mentions that this technology is very expensive, and intermittent, but fails to point out that it is also filthy. Producing photovoltaic cells is a highly polluting process. Serious omissions like this do not impress me.
  • Bad Idea - The review of hydroelectric power points out that small projects are the only ones that are really feasible today, due to the opposition of people to large projects. The report fails to mention that hydroelectric power is keyed to weather, and may not be a good strategy for future expansion for this reason. A small project dam can be left dry by a drought or swept away by a ten meter flood rise. Once again, this section reads like a whitewash of hydroelectric power, only emphasizing the positives, especially after all the negatives outlined for nuclear.
  • Bad Idea - The report summarizes the position of non-biomass renewable resources. It states that significant government subsidies are crucial for keeping this technology around. It would disappear quickly if market forces dictated its future. The report also states that carbon taxes that favour renewables are essential for keeping this technology viable. What the report does not say explicitly is that fair carbon taxes would hurt renewables. Dams produces a lot of methane, and wind turbines release a lot of carbon dioxide when they are constructed, and as a result of tree clearing. The report makes it clear that the renewables industry is only continuing as a result of misguided government action that is based on incorrect information, however it does not state this. Instead it blithely congratulates governments for this folly, and encourages them to continue wasting the people's resources. How sad!
  • Good Idea - The report points out that ninety percent of the biomass energy used in this world comes from the burning of wood, dung, and other domestic waste. In other words, we should all be shamed into significantly reducing the use of biomass energy. Dung burning should be replaced with electricity.
  • Good Idea - The report lists the problems associated with biomass - e.g. the fact that food production is being reduced to provide transportation fuel (usually for transportation in far away places). Despite the report's upbeat tone about the future of biomass, this emphasis on the negatives is a good thing.
  • Good Idea - We have lots of energy sources. Coal, for example, will last for hundreds of years. What we don't have is a means for using these resources that avoids pollution and war. Oil causes war because it is unevenly located, coal causes air pollution. To help us figure out how to use energy in a much cleaner manner we need a thorough study of the nuclear power option.
  • Bad Idea - The report devotes a whole chapter to a call for more spending on science and technology research - increasing the amount spent each year and the number of years needed. Subsidies and government support are the main theme. At the same time the government is supposed to introduce policy that steers private industry in the right direction. Exactly how to achieve this miracle is left as an exercise for the reader. Nothing is said about the real issues that make this approach so difficult - corruption, war, crime, and value clashes. This kind of simplified, blatant self serving is really unhelpful in this context.
  • Good Idea - The report makes a strong case for the improvement of the lives of two billion people who do not have good energy availability today. This position is morally strong, and I like it. But it is not backed up by scientific evidence that the world would be better off if this approach is used. The report authors who so vehemently want lots of money spent on science quickly drop the scientific requirement here. Economics and sociology don't seem to count as science, and are not called for. So a really good idea - helping the poor - is strongly argued for, but not strongly justified or rationalized.
  • Bad Idea - The report claims that scientific evidence is overwhelming that today's energy systems are not sustainable. However, not one reference has been given to scientists that disagree with this claim. Bjorn Lomborg is not referenced. How can one claim that the evidence is overwhelming if it has not been added up on both sides?
  • Bad Idea - The report states that coal has to be used more cleanly, and that the technology exists to do this. The report does not mention that coal kills ten thousand miners annually, and that these people should be protected. The report makes all kinds of fuss about helping the poor, and then misses this key aspect of how the poor are exploited. This report is really missing the point in a lot of ways.
  • Bad Idea - One of the challenges facing us is the task of mitigating environmental degradation, according to the report. Why is this thought of in such negative terms. It sounds like humans have to ruin the environment if they want to live in it. The challenge should instead be environmental improvement. We want things to get better for life, not just get worse more slowly. The report is mired in this kind of defeatist language and thinking.
  • Bad Idea - The report acknowledges that an analysis of efficiency improvements and how they will affect society is too complex. Even so, it then emphatically states that efficiency improvements are absolutely needed, both at the user end and at the delivery end, to achieve a sustainable society. This is a statement of ideology, not fact. We just don't know if efficiency improvements are mandatory.
  • Good Idea - The report points out that energy delivery companies make more money if they sell more energy, so they have little incentive to promote end user efficiency. Something needs to be done about this. They should make more money if living standards go up, and if the environment improves. These criteria are difficult to measure now. So we need better measuring devices.


  • I've always wondered what's wrong with this nuclear monolithic absolutism. There are many blogs with this endless nonscientific omissive analysis. Pretty sad situation.

    I've wondered if it is some sort of disease. The pro-wind and solar people seem to suffer from it as well, in reverse.

    But now I believe that these are counter-currents to the opposition - but it's overreacting.

    The act of persuasion is to be subtle, to appear fair and, of course, not to overreact.

    By Blogger Cyril R, at 09 July, 2008 11:46  

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