Monday, November 2, 2009

Is A Completely Clean Solution To Global Warming Possible?

The latest issue of Scientific American says "yes." An article in the November issue by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi, "Sustainable Energy," argues that by 2030 100% of all global energy demand could be supplied by wind, water, and solar. This would even involve a reduction in power demand globally from 12.5 terawatts to 11.5 tw, as we would replace inefficient internal combustion engine autos and fossil fuel using airplanes with hydrogen technologies, the hydrogen obtained from electrolysis of water, using clean electricity sources to do so. 51% would come from wind, with 3.8 million wind turbines, 40% from solar, and the rest from water, including most tidal and waves, with some geothermal thrown in as well. While admitting that costs are still a bit too high for the solar components, they argue that the wind and water parts are already competitive economically with existing tech, with only some further improvements in transmission capability needed to really do it.

They do admit some caveats. In particular some rarer metals will be pushed to the limit unless there are some further tech breakthroughs: silver for solar cells, neodymium for gear boxes on wind turbines (mostly located in China), tellurium and indium for thin film solar cells, lithium for electric car batteries (half of world supplies in Bolivia and Chile), and platinum for hydrogen fuel cells. They note that nuclear has high carbon output in building the plants, but agree it does not once they are built (although other problems). I think there are other problems, with listening to local environmentalists here going on again over the weekend against wind turbines, reminding me that there will be lots of opposition to much of this, even if it is cost effective (and if it is not cost effective, just forget China or India signing on at all). But, it certainly makes for a nice vision just prior to the Copenhagen conference on global warming.


Anonymous said...

Since these don't seem to get much press, oceans of energy.


Walker said...

My impression is that the big stumbling blocks are not so much technical but political. There are institutions in place that subsidize particular sets of concentrated interests and they're not going to be too interested in giving up their privileges unless they can be handed a lock on the next set of subsidies and privileges.

My friend, Mark Jaccard, even suggests that fossil fuels could remain the prime energy source in an ecologically sustainable model. But looking at his model, it envisions essentially that a benign social democracy would be necessary for implementation. That's like saying the Taliban could be defeated in Afghanistan if only there was a non-corrupt, democratically-responsible government in place. Yeah, all that... AND a pony.

So, do these technical fixes come about through "market mechanisms"? Or would there need to be some sort of dictatorship of the sustainable energy engineers? If they get subsidized by taxes, who pays what share? Etc. etc.

jsalvati said...

This seems to ignore the biggest obstacles to using renewables: that it is difficult to store energy cost effectively. Most wind power currently generated is wasted because you cannot store it in an efficient way.

gordon said...

I wonder if this George Monbiot column is right, and there really is an upsurge in denialism? said...


A majority of the 9% due to water is supposed to come from tidal and wave power, neither of which is barely being used anywhere at all.


Hmmm, "political will" covers a lot. That becomes a lot easier to get if the alternatives really are cost effective or very close to being so.

Regarding fossil fuels, well, we're going to have enough trouble just getting people into hybrids, quite aside from leaping to hydrogen, although the latter does seem to be the way to go in the longer run. But by 2030? There is a lot of infrastructure that would need to be built, which is true of some of these other techs as well. The authors wave their hands and talk about WW II and such things, but that was indeed a command economy.

Of course the biggie on fossil fuels would be to get real carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for coal, which certainly would (and does) get a lot of political support. The authors dismiss it on the grounds of all the land it takes up, and CCS is also some distance from being cost effective. I also hear speculation that there would/will be serious resistance to the amount of sequestration that would be involved, which would involve a lot of land if one were to do it on all existing coal-fired facilities and not just new ones.


I think the authors seem a bit overoptimistic on both the storage and transmission questions. In several places they do some hand waving about further tech breakthroughs, including on this.


Did not check the article, but there has been a real heating up of the basic climate debate. While there have been some scientific papers recently arguing that greater warming is likely, there also seems to have been an upsurge of denialism as well, partly driven by the apparent slowing of the rise in global temperature in the last few years.

gordon said...

Prof. Rosser, that's interesting. I was wondering whether Monbiot was getting overexcited on the eve of Copenhagen.

Shag from Brookline said...

And what might be the impact of this "clean solution" on the economies of today's fossil energy rich nation states and then on the rest of the world? Might such energy reserves serve as threats upon the environment worldwide if economic assistance is not provided to such nation states to make up for the economic impact upon them of this "clean solution"? Things could get dirty.

Anonymous said...


Also consider Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC - Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE] purchases of U.S. paper:

The GCC total dollar portfolio is likely to be significantly bigger [than the reported $400 billion] –over half of the estimated $2 trillion managed by public and private sector GCC investors. The discrepancy can be explained by the GCC’s tendency to buy through intermediaries. It seems likely, however, that the use of local intermediaries has increased, as the flows of U.S. dollar assets from the GCC have been higher in the last year.
[Rachel Ziemba, 7/17/09]

The bit about 'energy independence' almost always forgets this not-small reflux.

juan said...

The big joke on this latest point is that quite recently the Saudis argued that if there is a global warming agreement, other countries should pay the oil exporters reparations payments for their loss of income, hack, cough.

Bat Guano said...

A pandemic as lethal as the Black Death, spread by air travel, ought to do the trick.

Min said...

jsalvati: "This seems to ignore the biggest obstacles to using renewables: that it is difficult to store energy cost effectively. Most wind power currently generated is wasted because you cannot store it in an efficient way."

Same problem as hydroelectricity, eh?