1/27/2015

Not Primarily Political


One serious misconception rampant in the climate discourse is that "climate action" is mainly a political issue.

"If only we had political will to tackle the problem."

In reality, it is not.

Gay marriage, equal pay, the minimum wage, etc., are primarily political in nature, but in the climate arena (in other words, respecting our civilization's CO2 emissions) the solutions are only tangentially political, but fundamentally technological in nature.

If we don't develop better energy sources that can seriously compete with fossil fuels, then we will continue using fossil fuels until they become scarce / expensive in an almost business as usual manner.

And here we have to make another statement: today we don't have anything to compete head on with fossil fuels. 

Yes, nuclear is good for producing electricity but the upfront costs are still high and, bar China, no other country has started a massive ramp up of this technology. Yes, newer designs in the pipeline show great promise, but they are decades from accelerated implementation.

Yes, hydro is great if you have the resources but as a percentage of our total energy, it is beginning to max out. 

Yes, solar and wind will have a (small) piece of the energy pie but due to their fundamental disadvantages (intermittency, unreliability, low density), may never exceed single digit penetration in out total primary energy supply.

Forcing a "political solution" could be catastrophic since it would certainly lead to expensive energy and since energy is the food of our civilization, this approach would make most of us poorer and shove the already poor to possible starvation.

Let's underline that a carbon tax is just (genius) a tax, and a very tempting one at that for many governments.

So, bar bringing down the world's economy by making energy too expensive, the best governments can do (if at all) is support R&D in technologies that have the energy density to amount to something in the future. And, let's name names here, that high density energy would almost certainly be confined to nuclear: either fission or fusion. Efficiency could also be fertile ground to achieve more quick gains.

Subsidies or "mandates" for deploying current technologies (in particular "renewables") are a mistaken approach that can only lead to lower emissions via unaffordable energy prices.

So, bottom line, reducing our carbon emissions is primarily a technological challenge and only tangentially a political one.

Can the Edwin Land / Steve Jobs of energy please stand up?

Feel free to add to the conversation on Twitter: @luisbaram

1/14/2015

Add Not Subtract


In the energy / climate discourse, it seems to me, many people tend to be "against" everything.

Could we be more "for" and less "against?"

Well, here is my list.

I am for:

  • Coal if it is the only option or if it is replacing biomass (dung or wood).
  • Natural gas. Do we have today a better energy source that is constant / reliable / scaleable / affordable to replace coal? I don't think so. Also, these natural gas plants could probably eventually be converted to nuclear power. 
  • Nuclear. What is not to like in nuclear? It is the lowest carbon energy in the reliable / dense camp. Well, yes, it is currently a little expensive and needs some PR work but still, it is very good.
  • Hydro. If you have hydro, don't think twice. Just look at the carbon intensity of the electrical grids in Albania, Paraguay and Norway. All of them are below 10 grams per kWh!
  • Oil. Nothing beats oil in transportation: cars, trucks, ships and particularly airplanes. 
  • Solar thermal. In other words, solar water heaters. They come with their own storage included and can substantially reduce or even eliminate other fuels used to enjoy hot showers.
  • Solar PV. The roofs are there anyway, so, why not cover them with solar panels? Sure, it is absurd to do this in countries like Germany that have very low solar capacity factors, but hey, most people live in places with more annual sunlight. Just a cautionary note: forget about "solar farms" that industrialize our treasured wilderness or use land needed for growing food.
Having said the above, I do have to concede that even when trying to think positively it is hard to find real merit with two energy sources:

  • Biomass (wood and dung). Hundreds of years ago they supplied almost 100% of our energy and we couldn't move away from them fast enough. Let's not return to that past.
  • Wind. I'm sorry, but I cannot, with a straight face, recommend this option. If there is a point to be made in favor of wind, let Vestas or General Electric do it. I'm sure they have enough financial incentive to try it.
Yes, eventually we will have to move away from fossil fuels but the transition won't take place overnight. No matter in how much hurry we are, it takes time to bring an elephant to term. Doing it hastily would only cause chaos and unnecessary suffering.

So again, people, let's try to build, not destroy, let's have the optimism of an engineer! Or, as the Beatles used to say, think that: we can work it out! 


Feel free to add to the conversation at Twitter: @luisbaram

Thanks.

1/01/2015

Starved for CO2


This article is speculation, and yet, it is something to ponder about.

During millions of years, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had been dropping. Actually the drop had been quite dramatic between the late Jurassic (more than 2,000 ppm) to recent times (less than 400 ppm). This is no fine tuning, the difference is in the range of five to one.

Important reserves of carbon in the form of ancient life remains had been trapped "forever" inside the Earth. These reserves were in the form of coal, oil and natural gas.

No natural mechanism could pump back to the atmosphere those "forever" sequestered amounts of carbon.

No natural mechanism...  but could the Earth naturally create unnatural occurrences to return to the biosphere that long lost carbon or, would the Earth itself slowly starve due to insufficient CO2 in the atmosphere?

It was inconceivable for any plant or animal species of the time to actually extract billions of tons of carbon from the Earth's inside and, at the same time, burn them. It was just inconceivable, unless...


Unless an animal evolved with a brain that could eventually appreciate the benefits of fire and subsequently crave for more and more energy that will eventually make him knock at the gigantic carbon warehouses inside the Earth.

The project would take a few million years to be implemented but once it caught fire (literally) the replenishing of the atmosphere's carbon will be quite fast, almost an instant in the geologic scale: hundreds of years, at the most one thousand.

Is the replenishing of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere THE purpose of humanity's existence?

Actually, it might not be the only purpose of our existence: another element that was reaching starvation levels in the biosphere was phosphorous and through the massive manufacture / utilization of laundry detergents by our civilization this scarce element is also seeing better days. 

Returning to CO2, some may say: yes, it is healthy for CO2 levels in the atmosphere to increase, but the problem is the rate at which it is increasing. This speed was probably a gamble the Earth had to take because once you liberate a civilization on a planet, things change very fast and the window of opportunity doesn't last forever.

Nobody doubts that carbon is the most important element for life on Earth and it is not a particularly abundant element at that. Its abundance on the Earth's crust is only 0.18%. Aluminum, for example, is 45 times more abundant than carbon. However, plants can only process the carbon directly from the atmosphere (and animals ingest the carbon from plants).

If the above speculation is correct, then burning fossil fuels is more than correct, it is humanity's contribution to the continued health of the planet. (Albeit, the ride in the short term might be bumpy).

So maybe we shouldn't even feel guilty about burning fossil fuels. No, maybe we are just doing our job!



Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram