Posts tagged with: alternative energy

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 12, 2010

When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

There are two basic errors that entrap discussants on issues related to environmental stewardship. The first error is that of the uncritical activist, who is always ready to embrace whatever faddish innovation or practice the green intelligentsia casts as the latest solution. The problem with this approach is that in it often results in negative unintended consequences. Call this the error of the “early adopter.”

On the other extreme is that of the reactive critic, who is only too willing to cast scorn upon anything new in the realm of environmental concern (in part due to the over-exuberance of the early adopters). Comfortable in civilized affluence, the conservative anti-conservationist distrusts any claim of stewardship or responsibility that might upset complacency. Call this the error of the “never adopter.”

A characteristic common to both of these extremes is a sort of knee-jerk reaction, either for or against, that is basically un-reflective. Rational argumentation comes in later, if it comes at all, after a side or position has already been chosen. A sounder approach, I believe, is a more thoughtful and reflective environmentalism, a middle way between two extremes, if you will.

This is an approach that appreciates the possibilities for new technologies and innovations, for alternative sources of energy, without prejudice towards any particular project or every prospect in general. It’s an approach to questions of particular policies that values data over nostalgia, effect over sentiment, consequence over intent, even technique over piety. So let’s not uncritically embrace or unthinkingly deride new developments and concerns in the realm of environmental stewardship.

John Stossel must have been on vacation last week.

I caught part of the 20/20 special offering for Earth Day on Friday night. Among the reports was one by Jay Schadler focusing on solar power as an alternative source of energy.

Schadler pointed out that even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s energy. It’s a typical canard trotted out by those who want to depict us ugly Americans as “energy hogs.”

But instead of taking a deeper look at these kinds of statistics, the stats usually appear at the intro of a news piece as a hook leading into some other point about alternative energy.

But let’s take a brief look at the implications of such statistics. Let’s even accept them at face value. What such conclusions about the wastefulness per capita of American energy consumption overlook is the inherent connection between economic productivity and energy usage.

Yes, let’s say America’s share of worldwide energy usage is 25%.

But what is America’s share of the global economy? Somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of gross world product. So just maybe there is in fact a link between economic output and energy consumption.

Another aspect of this relationship appears when you run a historical series comparing per capita CO2 emissions and income growth on Google’s Gapminder software.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A debate about the future of energy policy is being held over at sp!ked, sponsored by Research Councils UK. From their notice:

Expanding supply or managing demand?

In the opening articles, five commentators address the question from different viewpoints.

ADAM VAUGHAN, online editor, New Consumer magazine argues that saving energy is the way forward: ‘By taking a number of simple steps, consumers can save energy and money – and help save the planet.’

JOE KAPLINSKY, science writer, spiked, believes that we need to greatly expand energy supply: ‘The best thing that we could do for future generations is to build a new energy infrastructure, bigger and better than the old one.’

MALCOLM GRIMSTON, associate fellow at Chatham House, argues that we need to embrace nuclear power: ‘Nuclear energy remains the only proven large-scale option that can deliver major saving in greenhouse gas emissions.’

MARK JACCARD, professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver believes that fossil fuels, particularly coal, remain central to energy supply: ‘Zero-emission fossil fuels will remain cost competitive for at least a century.’

JIM SKEA, research director, UK Energy Research Centre argues that renewables are not a panacea to all our energy problems, but ‘A variety of renewable technologies may play an important part in energy generation in the future.’

spiked is keen to find out what readers think, and you can respond to the debate here.

I would also briefly mention that you can read a related article by me here, and that in general I think the options posed in the debates subtitle (reduction of use or expansion of supply) is similar to the options posed by the problem greenhouse gas emissions (reduction of emissions or increase of sequestration).

Most of the policy recommendations I’ve seen regarding CO2 emissions have focused on reduction of emissions rather than an increases in the rate and amount of carbon sequestration (in forests and so on). There’s a lot of work to be done on that latter point, especially if largescale reduction of emissions is untenable both politically and economically for the foreseeable future.