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Greening Giants: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Azevedo's picture
Carnegie Mellon University
  • Member since 2018
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  • Dec 5, 2014 9:30 pm GMT
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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 6, 2014

Roger, the phenomenon you describe is often cited by global warming deniers in an attempt to show it’s a hoax.

The problem is that the oceans act as a CO2 bank, and even if we were to stop generating all CO2 tomorrow, atmospheric CO2 concentrations would only decline 40 ppm by 2100:

A 50% reduction would stabilise atmospheric CO2, but only for less than a decade. After that, atmospheric CO2 would be expected to rise again as the land and ocean sinks decline owing to well-known chemical and biological adjustments. Complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century.

http://co2now.org/Know-GHGs/Emissions/ipcc-faq-emissions-reductions-and-...

Once we pull fossil fuel carbon out of the ground, it’s a problem for a long, long, long time.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 7, 2014

“…50% of the power coming from solar and wind is a pretty nice boost.”

I think this is a pretty common belief, but I don’t agree.  The problem with 50% wind and solar is that the other 50% must be “flexible generation”, which can only be big hydro (which is not available in adequate quantities) or fossil fuels.  There’s no guarantee it will get much better over time either, as electrical energy storage is a very serious environmental and economic problem, and the very countries which are now driving world energy demand through the roof are too poor to consider expensive options.

Climate scientists are telling us we need very low CO2 emissions, not a just 50% reduction in the electrical sector only.  Nuclear power is the easiest way to make a 0% fossil electrical grid (combined with a little hydro), it’s the cheapest way to power EVs (via night time charging), it’s the cheapest way to make scalable low-environmental-footprint non-fossil syn-fuel, it’s the cheapest way to provide non-fossil low grade heating for building and domestic hot water, and it’s the cheapest way to provide non-fossil high temperature heat for industry.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 9, 2014

Actually, we have plenty of uranium, see this article.  Also, according to this article, the Lemhi thorium deposit in Idaho could power the US for 1000 years.

As far a battery prices dropping in the future, I agree lithium-ion prices will drop somewhat (lead-acid batteries are mature, and unlikely to drop in price).  But to get from today’s lithium-ion prices to what’s needed to compete with pumped-hydro (which is itself too expensive to compete with fossil fuel backup), requires about an order of magnitude drop, and lithium ion is already in the billion cell per year range.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Dec 9, 2014

Technology always improves and goes down in price over time. If you have enough people working on a problem, the odds are at some point, you will find a solution.”

Nope. Technologies always improves toward an asymptote. At one point, incremental technology improvements yield no more net benefit. Or in other words, further improvements cost more than the benefit they deliver. Moreover, we can be confident that many if not most of our current major technologies have already reached their ultimate potential. In other words, in a thousand years time these technologies will not have changed much from what they are now. There may will be scientific breakthroughs in materials, computing, and bio-sciences which can cause step-change improvements to certain technologies, but these should not be counted on for producing paradigm shifts. At least, we should not ‘bet the house’ on the expectation of such results. That would be irresponsible.

Whatever path we end up going down, it isn’t straightforward, or simple, even taking politics and money out of the equation.”

Taking politics out of the equation instantly makes most problems which are currently extremely difficult – like solving climate change among other serious problems – childishly simple at once. If it wasn’t for politics, the climate change problem would have already been solved by engineers long ago (through the use of nuclear fission technology), and we wouldn’t even be talking about the problem today. We would be concentrating on the other major problems such as clean water, pollution, food, disease, conflict and poverty.

Taking money out of the equation is something that the “Renewables Will Save Us” crowd does pathologically. It makes nothing straightforward. Rather, taking money out of the equation of any problem makes cataclysmic failure at solving that problem absolutely certain.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Dec 10, 2014

Computers and typewriters are in no way, a practical analogy to the energy debate because, even though computers are more efficient at data processing, still require energy, and even cause more energy to be consumed due to the “more efficient, the more it will be used” law (Jevon’s paradox).

The only disruptive tech that will ever (positively) displace a modern day grid is that of an “energy from thin air” generator. It’ll have to use quantum resources similar to or better than nuclear fission. It’ll still have to generate (far) more energy than renewables from the typical homesite. Problem with that, the immense amount of power will prove unlikely for such to become enabled on a “per apartment” basis (ya, there are a lot of people not responsible enough to be trusted, not to mention that MOST people can not manage it and the wastes in isolation – me included!). There is NO thing as the necessary amount of energy without its waste management issues.

This is why we need big grids and centralized governments (maintained by an educated populace, of course) to access such immense energy sources in the safest way possible. Of course, we can not afford to wait for (technology to develop for) such a thing as “plentiful free energy without the wastes”.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 10, 2014

The other thing about technical inovation is that breakthroughs don’t come just a result of trying really hard.  It is also crucial to sow the seeds in fertile soil.  For example, we know that solar and wind will always be problematic due to the variable and diffuse energy source; we know there are good prospects for cheap nuclear because 1) nuclear was cheap in the past, and 2) today’s nuclear plants use only half the concrete and steel of coal plants, and an order of magnitude less than wind farms (of a given energy output). 

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