This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

Post

Climate Change, Sustainability, and Energy Choices

image credit: Three Gorges Dam, China (left) and Russellville Powerplant, Arkansas, US, courtesy Wikipedia.
Alan Rozich's picture
Director BioConversion Solutions

Providing quantitative sustainability insights using sound technical analyses with a management consulting approach to craft strategies that address the mega-trends that are occurring in the...

  • Member since 2017
  • 59 items added with 44,093 views
  • Oct 6, 2022
  • 474 views

Synopsis

Just because something is labelled “renewable” does not mean one is implementing a solution that realizes a modification to societal functionality that results in a net reduction in GHG emissions when considering the aggregate sustainability calculus. The definitions, functionalities, and realities of climate change and sustainability are often confusing, inconsistent, and frequently subject to mercenary interpretation by special interests. Many of these crafted elucidations alarmingly stem from virtue signaling. As a result, climate change and the crucial role and functionality of sustainability for mitigating anthropogenic emissions become muddled and obfuscated. This particularly occurs when considering the implementation of problem fixes as well as the development of broad strategic thinking. This has, and may continue to lead to, calamitous outcomes for societal functionality. Solar and wind platforms notoriously have problematic sustainability features when deployed en masse in large, centralized installations. Nevertheless, these renewable energy platforms tend to be preferentially deployed despite mounting evidence of egregiously poor economic and technical performance.

Introduction

Addressing anthropogenic climate change by implementing sustainable practices as part of societal functionality is essential. However, there seems to be a tendency to emphasize form over substance. An archetypal organization whose unabashed obsession with virtue signaling is the United Nations (UN). They wrote the book on this practice and have elevated it from a curiosity to a compulsory, dogmatic bureaucratic art form. For example, they dubiously and astoundingly bestowed the title of "UN Champion of the Earth"  to Costa Rica because of its prodigious utilization of hydroelectric, solar, and wind for energy production. At first blush, this accolade to Costa Rica may appear harmless or, at worst, misguided. However, in this circumstance, the UN is guilty of egregious greenwashing of the highest order. The aggregate impact of the renewable technology mix results in large land area requirements. Furthermore, categorizing hydropower as renewable is dubious at best and just plain wrong at worst. Furthermore, Costa Rica has a relatively low per capita energy footprints (about 10% lower than that of China and 75% lower than the US energy footprint) but the country's energy mix requires about 6.3% of its land area resulting in displacement of indigenous people and other problems. If the country's energy footprint were that of the US using the same energy mix, Costa Rica would have to commit a staggering 26% of its land area for energy supply.

The Realities and Interactions of Climate Change and Sustainability

The first conceptual realization that one needs is to appreciate is that there is a significant difference between climate change and sustainability. These are two totally separate scientific precepts that are nevertheless intertwined to an extent. As stated elsewhere, "In the context of climate change, this (sustainability) usually means changing our energy, transportation and other systems so that they don’t contribute to warming the planet."

It is notable that Earth has had non-anthropogenic climate change of one sort or another for almost 4 billion years.

Furthermore, given the magnitude of those ancient, non-anthropogenic climate change events, it is virtually impossible to believe that any efforts by humanity could reverse or influence those weather patterns.

Thus, climate change management efforts of human civilization must totally focus on ameliorating the impact of emissions that result from societal functionality.

The historical reality is that increased societal functionality results in concomitantly higher energy demands which in turn produce greater levels of anthropogenic GHG emissions. The graph below plots energy footprints with increasing levels of societal functionality. It is obvious that as human civilization became more technologically sophisticated, energy demands and footprints rose dramatically. Consequently, as energy consumption rises, so do emissions.

No alt text provided for this image

The Renewable Energy Landscape

The deployment of renewable energy in today’s world is often fraught with inordinate commentary by individuals, special interest groups, influencer, celebrities, and the like relentlessly focused on climate change and the need for action. Unfortunately, these potential actions are proposed without considering the potential cost or damage that might be inflicted to the economy, the environment, or both. Therein lies the conundrum. Nobody is in charge, but everybody is in charge, and they are all experts du jour that are not accountable. Meanwhile, society must focus on sustainable practices and technologies first that are also economically prudent AND authentically sustainable.

Just because a technology is labelled “renewable” does not mean it automatically gets a free pass from other sustainability considerations.

For example, solar, wind, and hydropower all have huge land area requirements which grossly conflict with UN guidelines for sustainable land management. Conversely, other technologies such as natural gas, renewable natural gas, nuclear, and even coal are far more compliant with this criterion. It is particularly interesting to note the recent upsurge in interest for deploying more nuclear plants as part of a clean energy initiative. Nuclear is receiving serious consideration in some circles because of its favorable sustainable land management metrics.

However, be wary of the hype on hydropower. One “report” notes that hydropower is superior to other technologies because it is operationally “cheaper.” One site notes that Hoover Dam generates about $63 million annually in revenue. And that is more than the cost of construction at the time of $49 million in 1931. Unfortunately, the construction cost in today’s dollar’s is $860 million so the annual return is about 7% of the CAPEX without accounting for other operating costs. Buyer beware.

No alt text provided for this image

The table below shows a comparison of solar, wind, RNG made using biomass feedstock, nuclear, and hydro. It is interesting to note that obtaining rigorous financial and economic data for most renewable technologies is quite challenging. Solar, Wind, and Hydropower all have challenges with egregious land requirements, while Nuclear is much more favorable in this regard. The data in the table clearly show that RNG (50% < IRR) that is manufactured using biomass as a feedstock offers a compelling alternative to other renewable platforms. This technology architecture is capable of 90% conversion rates and leverages the use of existing infrastructure that are in wastewater treatment plants, either existing anaerobic digester operations, tanks, and/or both to process biomass to generate

TABLE 1. Comparison of  Various Renewable Energy Technologies

No alt text provided for this image

Key Links for Table 1: Solar (10% ROI) , Wind (EU Comments), RNG (50% < IRR), Nuclear (Nuclear economics),and Hydropower (No CAPEX data)

RNG or renewable natural gas with robust conversion rates in the 90% range. It is notable that RNG can also be blended in a 50:50 mix with natural gas to double the aggregate renewable energy output. In addition, value-added products such as green ammonia, other green fertilizers, and the production of large amounts of water creates additional revenue streams and enhance project profitability.

Summary

Using renewable energy technologies just because they are renewable is a dangerous path. Table 1 shows that, for the most part, there is a toxic, myopic focus on technology platforms that are crippled with egregious land consumption. Furthermore, the fiscal performance for these systems appears to be anemic, if not totally unknown and undocumented. And some technologies get a free pass because they are only able to perform if the “weather is just right.” Really?

Why would anyone pay for anything so expensive without having solid performance guarantees?

Anthropogenic climate change should be addressed. However, just like any other technological enterprise, the engineering and scientific rationale and procedures must govern all aspects of projects that are earmarked for addressing climate change. Clearly, long term heavy reliance on solar and wind is an exercise in futility, particularly if they are envisioned as large scale power plant installations. These platforms have a role, but additional technological tools are needed if we are to address anthropogenic climate change without causing harm to the environment and desecrating the economy.

 

Discussions
Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 10, 2022

The planet’s climate is controlled by the sun’s energy and the complex, chaotic processes that move heat around the globe, generally towards the poles. CO2 affects is a minor sliver in the sun’s energy spectrum and is a minor fraction of the atmosphere.

The green energy religion claims that by controlling CO2 emissions, we can direct the planet’s distant climate. Such dogmatic claims are nonsensical when viewed in the context of the actual drivers of the climate and practical reality.

Spending trillions of dollars on “climate change” only serves to enrich the few while impoverishing tens of millions. The expenditures have no particular impact on the future climate. CO2 is a minor climate player and man has no practical ability to control planetary levels of CO2.

Energy policy should be based on providing reliable,  reasonably clean, and reasonably affordable energy.

Alan Rozich's picture
Thank Alan for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »