There is war underway that you may not be fully aware of. It is not the biblical battle between good and evil that began in the Garden of Eden, but there are parallels. The battle is of epic proportions and involves some of the most powerful forces on the planet. At stake may very well be civilization itself. No I am not talking about the war on terror, at least not directly, that is only the most visible battle in a much broader war. This war is being fought over a wasteful way of life and the ongoing pursuit riches. The war has been fought for years, but only now have the fiercest battles begun. Battles in this war have names like Water, Poverty, Disease, Pollution, Energy. It is an aspect of the energy battle I wish to address here.
If you watch TV, read the news (electronically I hope), or engage in polite office conversation you are probably aware that Bush and other fossil fuel friendly politicians have been seeking ways to drill for oil in various places like ANWR for years. Most recently they seek to open up more off shore coastal areas for exploration with the stated goal to bring down the price of oil. You have probably also heard of Al Gore’s challenge to switch the production of electricity, essentially all of it, over from fossil-fueled power plants to renewable sources (like wind and solar) within 10 years. Interestingly, legendary oil man T. Boone Pickens has been in the media talking about his reasons for investing heavily not on drilling, but on wind power. In the middle is just about everyone else, you and me, and we are the real force to be reckoned with. We are the key to each side’s success. We are already causing things to happen much faster than anyone anticipated. And for once, this is a good thing. I’d like to explain in a bit more detail just what is going on, what is at stake, and what you can do about it.
In the past year, the UN released a report on climate change usually referred to as the IPCC report. The report is a substantial work of several volumes based on input from hundreds of scientists around the world. The report details the nature of climate change, the causes, the effects, and the ramifications of climate change on civilization. Also partaking in writing the report were politicians. The final report paints a not too gloomy picture of climate during the next hundred years. What you may not know is that the report is based a lot on climate models. In order to be accurate, models need to include all aspects of the problem. In order to be precise, those aspect need to be well understood. The less well understood, yet important, aspects of the climate system being modeled result in a large uncertainty/confidence in the models predictions. During final editing and negotiations, the report focused on the most robust conclusions. Namely that humans dumping CO2 into the atmosphere is primarily responsible for the observed climate changes. Predictions for the next 100 years, however, did not include some of the feedback mechanisms which are the least well characterized. Virtually all of these are positive feedbacks which would increase the rate/magnitude of climate change. So instead of talking about a sea level rise of 12 meters by the end of the century, we are instead reading in the report about changes of 2 feet. You may think that they were just being careful – perhaps so. You have certainly read about the unexpectedly rapid melting of the polar ice cap in the Arctic. Just a year ago, it was believed that the ice cap at the north pole would melt near the end of the century. Now the observational evidence – not models – indicates that it may be gone in less than 15 years. Glaciers are melting at accelerated rates throughout the globe. Remote sensing imagery indicates that spring is arriving earlier each year. You can question a lot of the details, but the overall evidence strongly suggests that things are changing and they are changing fast.
Climate models do tell us a lot about what specific processes are important. In particular they tell us that the increases in CO2 that have already occurred and are likely to occur from the continued reliance on fossil fuels to meet our increasing energy needs. Whether you believe the observed climate change is due to man or natural causes, it is quite clear the dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere is not going to help matters. The US annual energy consumption is of the order of 100 exojoules (or 100 Quadrillion BTUs). The way that energy is produced and used results in over half of it being wasted through inefficient production or conversion to useful work. This site shows the details of production and consumption for 2002. The overwhelming majority of our energy needs are obtained from fossil fuels (Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas). A few things derived from from this data are noteworthy. Light duty transportation (cars and small trucks) uses the bulk of the oil with an average efficiency of 25%. The generation of electricity primarily comes from coal with an efficiency of better than 30%. The bulk of natural gas is used by homes and industry and achieves an efficiency of 80%. The latter is not surprising since the natural gas use is primarily for producing heat (furnaces, hot water, …). The take away message here is that using fossil fuels to produce heat to make things spin – generators and vehicle wheels - is horribly inefficient.
So why are they so determined to dig up every last bit of fossil fuel and burn it? Because it represents the fundamental value of the extant energy companies. They own the rights and means to exploit these fuels for profit. And, the profits are huge! There is also a huge investment in infrastructure to convert and distribute these fuels. The consumer is well equipped to consume them. The energy companies are faced with a difficult choice: go with what has made them great or risk changing to an unknown. Humans do not like change and uncertainty, they like the familiar and comfortable. That is true at least when they are comfortable – and the energy providers are very comfortable. Even when the topic of Peak Oil arises, there is so much coal in the US that the comfort level remains acceptable.
The problem is that climate change is real and it is probably changing faster than even the neutered IPCC scientists would like to have reported. Peak Oil has very likely already happened. China and India are on par with the US now for energy consumption (as a nation not per capita – there is a lot more room for their growth in that respect). Oil is $135 a barrel! The price of oil is determined by the limited supply and that is why the US is in Iraq and is worried about Iran. Despite its public statements, Saudi Arabia could not meaningfully increase its oil output if it wanted to. Peak oil likely occurred in 2006 or 2007. That is why the fossil fuel complex and their politicians are pushing so hard for more production in the US. Yes, they can make lots of money, but they really want to keep the addiction going. They are worried that we might just decide to switch. And they should be worried. Who would have thought that the US consumer, in love with their gas guzzling SUVs, would reduce consumption of SUVs & pick-ups to the point that GM would consider selling the Hummer brand and that Ford would virtually halt production of its very profitable pick-up line? Who would have thought that Toyota could not produce enough Prius hybrids? It did happen and it happened fast. The power is in the consumer’s wallets and we are beginning to realize what real power we have.
So what do we switch to? Last year’s fad was ethanol from corn. What a joke that is. When you account for the farming and fertilizer costs, the transportation aspects, and the production fuel needs, ethanol from corn produces 11 gallons for every 10 gallons of fuel consumed in production. This is why the production of fuel must never compete with the production of food. There simply is not enough productive land area or, more importantly, fresh water to waste on fuel production. Nuclear energy will not and should not become the dominant source of long-term energy. The current implementations of nuclear power either produce hideously lethal waste or the stuff of terrorist’s dreams. Either is a security nightmare. There are a few alternative nuclear technologies emerging, but in the long term they cannot become the dominant source of our energy needs on Earth (subject of a future post). We need to rely on either geothermal or solar power sources (including, biomass, wind, wave, and direct solar – not space solar power). The path to future sustainability of our civilization is to promptly curtail our use of fossil fuel in favor of geothermal and solar derived energy sources. Don’t bite the apple!
Many of the alternative forms of energy are compatible with our existing infrastructure. If we achieved just one thing: the widespread use of electric vehicles (80+% efficient fed by renewable energy sources like wind) for our light-duty transportation needs – we would not need to import any oil. If we added to that a bio-fuel, like bio-diesel from algae, for our long-haul and aviation fuel needs we could stop using fossil oil altogether (except for its, IMHO, proper use as a raw material for the production of other materials). Coal is a bigger problem. It is the primary source of electrical power in the US and it is also the most potent (dirty) source of CO2. We have lots of it in the US and it will be very difficult to stop using it. There are thousands of coal-fired power plants and whole industries associated with mining, transporting and consuming coal. Fortunately, local politicians and voters have essentially shut down the building of new coal-powered electrical generation facilities by denying them permits to build.
We have a vast resource available to us that we are mostly unaware of. We also have a history for rapidly bringing the resources of our industrial might to meet to challenge. The US industrial complex (primarily the automotive sector) during World War II was challenged by president Roosevelt to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, and 6,000,000 tons of shipping. In the three years from 1942 to 1944, they built 88,400 tanks, 229,600 planes and 34,000,000 tons of ships. There is no reason to think that we could not produce a couple of million multi-megawatt wind generators (1 coal fired plant = 1000 Megawatt) in 10 years. All we have to do is want to do it. Today, we have idled an immense resource in the automotive industrial sector which could be promptly retooled for the production of wind and tidal energy generators. Given the support of congress and the ‘next’ president, we could quickly, albeit at a high cost, reemploy this idled expertise and capacity to produce and deploy an enormous production capacity for wind power generation. It would aid an ailing industry, put the unemployed to work, generate new exports (more on the state of our economy in a future post), generate tax revenue, generate income for the farm economy, devalue the importance of the Middle East, reduce the price of oil, and put us on a path to reducing our CO2 emissions to a tiny fraction of what they are today. More importantly, it would buy us all time to figure out what to do next.
If you have stuck with me this far – thank you. I have a few suggestions for how you can contribute. First download and read a free book (PDF) called Plan B 3.0 by Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. This is the book that is fundamentally behind the Al Gore initiative and has been disseminated widely among the industrial and political elite. It is a long read that is initially somewhat depressing. You’ll come to understand why things are the way they are in the world. The remainder of the book is uplifting in that it clearly delineates a plan to overcome the challenges we face. If you cannot read the whole thing, try to read Chapters 11 and 12. If you read chapter 13, the summary, you’ll probably need to go back and read the whole book to understand it. These are the near-term things related to this post. After reading the book, I hope you will go out and replace all of your incandescent light bulbs with high quality compact fluorescent lamps (GE, Philips – not the generic imported trash-brands that do not last long). Buy a new car that is a hybrid (preferably a plug-in hybrid) or use mass transit systems. Seriously look at solar power. After running all of the plumbing to heat my pool with natural gas (yes I’m guilty as charged, but repentant – the future does not have to be Spartan), I installed a solar pool heater. It works great! It cost a little more up front, but it will last 3 or 4 times as long as a gas unit and I do not have to pay for the sunshine it uses. I’m looking at solar PhotoVoltaics next. I also switched from oil heat to natural gas last year. Probably the biggest thing I did was to switch my electric hot water heater for a natural gas one. I’m thinking about adding a solar water heater to the loop. There is more you can do, but that will be the subject of future posts.