April 2017- Just Where Are We Heading?

April, 2017   

Just Where Are We Heading?  

It is, I believe, the prerogative of old curmudgeons to firmly state that the world has gone to Hell.   Well, I’m eighty-five and curmudgeonly and in those eighty-five years I have travelled widely and seen a lot of changes.  In my opinion we are not going Hell at the moment, in fact we are living in a golden age but it is a fool’s paradise; unless we get our thinking straight, the future really will be hell.  There is no question that in the past two hundred years or so we have created a civilization that is very comfortable and pleasant for many humans.   This astounding jump in our standard of living compared to previous centuries is due to our profligate consumption of fossil fuel.  Virtually all our transportation uses oil or a derivative, about two-thirds of electricity generation is powered by fossil fuels of one kind or another. The local pollution caused by burning fossil fuel was obvious from the start; blackened buildings, smog and respiratory disease.  Roughly thirty years ago, however, it became generally known that there was severe, wide-spread collateral damage, to use a popular military term; we were soiling our own nest.  We called it Global Warming.  Governments agreed with the diagnosis advanced by many scientists that a factor in the warming trend was caused by the emission of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas,  when fuel is burned. This triggered palliative steps including improvements in engines and fuels and the construction of generators using wind power or solar radiation.  These last two, of course, are intermittent sources of energy, when the wind dies or the sun sets the power load on the grid is picked up by conventional generators.

This where I start to get curmudgeonly; the last two steps I have mentioned above will make little difference in the carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere over the long haul.   It is overly optimistic to believe we will leave the fossil fuel reserves in the ground.  It is contrary to human behavior, there is too much money to be made by mining and pumping.   All the fossilized carbon will be released anyway in the long run.  If we do get smart and leave some fuel in the ground, alternatives must be found sooner rather than later.    Developing benign alternative energy sources now not only reduces emissions but anticipates the larger problem of how civilization will function when the fuel is gone.

   While much ground transportation can be electrified, a way of providing a portable, non-polluting liquid substitute for the fuel in ships and planes must be found. This is just one of the problems to be solved if we abandon fossil fuels or if they simply run out.  The good news for enthusiasts of wind and solar is that these machines are indeed capable of replacing fossil fuel generating plants, but not by themselves in isolation.  Intermittent energy alone will not significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere in the long run.  Only by combining these intermittent sources with extensive power transmission lines and energy storage devices engineered to keep the network stable under the statistically worst combination of zero wind and sunlight will it be possible to retire fossil fuel generating stations. Only when these three elements; wind and solar power generation, extensive power transmission line interconnections and massive energy storage devices, are taken together can they be considered a replacement for conventional power plants. The optimum size of a network that could be operated this way is uncertain and would depend on local conditions.  A region with sparse population near a dam would be wired differently than a large city on the coast.   Individual homes could possibly be independent of the grid using solar power.   The only way to greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to forget fossil fuels and develop non-polluting alternatives.

The scale of our present energy use is staggering, finding alternatives will be extraordinarily expensive and take a great deal of time.   In effect, the energy we use at the moment is free, it was put in the ground by Mother Nature hundreds of millions of years ago.   The energy companies only extract and distribute it.  For many years, I was a research and development engineer, one thing I learned was that the solution to a problem would only work if the problem was first understood and described precisely.  And what is that problem?   It is perceived to be that we are pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In fact, this isn’t the real problem, by burning all the remaining fuel reserves the problem will solve itself.   But the damage to the environment will be maximized.  A real problem is that the world needs to stop using fossil fuel as soon as possible and develop alternative forms of energy that will replace fossil fuels in their entirety.  Introducing intermittent energy sources will not greatly reduce the total amount of polluting gases vented into the air but simply extend the time scale the electrical supply network will depend on fossil fuel plants.   By developing alternative energy sources, we attack two problems that are interconnected; 1) fossil fuel burning plants and their emissions are eliminated and 2) we foster a way of life which is not dependent on an unsustainable resource.

The magnitude of the task to develop alternative energy sources can be gauged by looking at what we use now and assuming it must all be replaced.    If all of it is not replaced, the difference must be made up by conservation or elimination of some energy uses.   I have made an estimate of the scale of alternative energy supply by looking at the time the fossil fuel was first created and the time it will be all used up.  These are dubious and controversial assumptions; nevertheless, assuming all in-ground fossil fuel was created over a period of 200 million years and the fossil fuel era will last 400 years (of which 200 years are already past) we can easily calculate what scale of alternatives must be found.  Every year during the fossil fuel era the world will use the average energy that was laid down and stored in 500,000 years, or to put it another way, we must produce alternative sources of energy every day equal to what nature produced in about 1400 years on average.

At first this looks like a formidable task, but squeezing and baking organic material for a hundred million years or so is not particularly efficient, we must be able to do better.   We are an ingenious species and no doubt in the future we will not abandon the level of civilization we have achieved without making a tremendous effort to save it.  But we are deluding ourselves by thinking our problems can be solved by a few wind farms or solar arrays.  Proponents often exaggerate the number of homes that can be powered and underestimate the cost, which should include storage as well as generation.

In summary, sticking isolated pockets of wind and solar generation in random locations will not significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere in the long run.    We must develop alternatives for every use now made of fossil fuel as soon as possible. Obviously, development of efficient, inexpensive energy storage is a crucial priority if intermittent sources are to be exploited, but it increases the true cost.  It is ironic that extensive installation of intermittent sources without concomitant energy storage may force the life of fossil fuel plants to be extended.     Every effort must be made to develop sources capable of continuous energy output, such as geothermal, hydroelectricity, tidal generation, improved nuclear reactors, fusion reactors, fuel cells, biomass cultivation and, possibly, something nobody has thought of yet

And Global Warming?   Well that’s still a problem to be solved.


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