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Greetings too one and all, and welcome to my blog! My aim with this blog is to try and address one of the most pressing of our planet and our civilisation’s problems, that of how do we continue to meet the worlds insatiable desire for energy? Up until now, we’ve gone, by and large, for the lowest common denominator, fossil fuels. But these resources are finite, dirty, costly (politically and environmentally speaking) and are almost certainly contributing to global climate change.
“A wait-and-see policy on global warming may mean waiting until it is too late to do anything” – National Academy of Sciences, USA, 1979
It is really only a matter of time before the environmental harm fossil fuels inflict on our planet (which effectively reduces our world’s carrying capacity) forces use to stop using them. Or we finally exceed the maximum geological rate of extraction of said fossil fuels – so called “peaking”. There is good evidence to suggest a peak in oil production is already underway (see my post here), and even the most optimistic projections suggest it cannot be any more than 30 years away. Switching to other forms of fossil fuels? It’s possible, but ignores a host of technical factors, will contribute further to climate change and inevitably will merely hasten the day when these resources peak.
“The American way of life is not negotiable” – President H.W. Bush, 1992
“Beyond a certain point nature doesn’t negotiate” – Richard Heinberg
“We can evade reality, but not the consequences of evading reality.”– Ayn Rand
What about nuclear? Nuclear has its own excess baggage. It can help, but not nearly as much as many people think. And nuclear is itself ultimately dependant on a flow of fissile materials into reactors. Can renewables be used instead? Possibly, but again there are a number of technical hurdles to large scale renewables roll out we need to address and they are certainly not a “silver bullet”solution that some in the Green movement portray them as being.
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” – T. Edison, 1931
Indeed the fact we need to accept about energy is that there are no “silver bullet” solutions. Even the obvious remaining solution, energy efficiency (i.e just use less of the stuff), can’t by itself solve all of our problems (as I will outline in future posts). All the solutions to our future energy problems are expensive to implement and may involve a certain level austerity in the short term, although they should work out imminently more sensible in the longer term. In summary, it’s a case of short term pain for long term gain.
“Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need….” – Richard Nixon, State of the Union Address 1974.
“…the United States is addicted to oil…” – G. W. Bush, State of the union address, 2006
Unfortunately with most of us barely planning beyond the next year, Corporations that generally only plan as far as the next quarter and governments who struggle to plan beyond the following election, getting the sort of long term commitment in place to deal with these problems becomes very difficult. And the longer action is delayed, the harder and more painful it will be to implement once we finally get around to it – assuming that’s still an option of course.
“…one could characterise the collapse of many large civilisations to a series of entirely rational short term decisions, which turned out to be effectively irrational when combined over the long term” – Jared Diamond, interview related to his book Collapse
Worse still, there is the danger of us adopting the wrong sort of long term plan, something that will merely burn our way through lots of cash and waste a lot of people’s time. It is therefore very important that everyone understands the issues involved here, so that we can make an informed decision about our future. Nuclear energy is a good example of this; you’ll note that this blog is currently dominated by this debate, largely due to the Fukushima accident. Ultimately a series of ill-advised long term decisions were made back in the 1950’s and 1960’s to pursue large light water reactors (LWR’s) and reprocess nuclear waste. Light water reactors, while not as safe as other proposed reactor types were cheaper to build and by building them big the nuclear industry hoped to make the industry economic. Reprocessing of spend fuel was considered important, both because the overly ambitious plans at the time for nuclear roll out would quickly exhaust the global supplies of Uranium (or so it was thought) as well as providing a steady stream of plutonium to certain countries nuclear weapons programs.
“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy [from nuclear] too cheap to meter…” – L. Strauss, 1954.
Fast forward 50-60 years and we can see the nuclear industry laid a giant trap for itself. At least 8 serious nuclear accidents involving LWR’s (10 if we count Fukushima’s 3 troubled reactors individually, see a partial list here), a further 3 involving HWR’s (Heavy Water Reactors) have occurred since then. The latest designs of LWR’s, which now have substantial fail-safes built in to prevent a repeat of prior accidents, are very expensive to build, and will also likely be expensive to decommission too. The rate at which they can be constructed is also likely to be relatively slow, or at least not nearly fast enough to make a significant difference. The reprocessing of spend fuel has left some countries with a large quantity of dangerous nuclear waste to dispose of (including hundreds of tons of plutonium), as well as a large and expensive clean up bill. In short, the very measures the nuclear industry took 50-60 years ago to try and make its industry economically viable have had completely the opposite effect. Obviously if the industry is allowed to continue down this path then either they will run out of money (or governments will tire of writing an endless series of blank cheques for them) or public opposition to nuclear power will reach enough of an intensity as to render it impossible for us to use it any longer. We also need to tackle the issue of nuclear waste sooner rather than later.
The fails of nuclear show us why its critical that we get this long term strategy right. As I will illustrate in future posts, the wrong decisions taken today with other energy sources, including some renewable sources, could also lead us to going down a blind alley.
You will note that I sort of dance around between two sets of blogs, I’m trying to sort out my general life the universe and everything stuff to my other blog and keep all the energy/climate related stuff here. Also a note about references. My main source of information is usually good old fashioned books, or scientific papers, or the stuff I hear from other colleagues working in the Energy industry. Since I don’t have the time to scan whole books onto the internet (and deal with the copyright lawyers afterwards) and I realize most readers aren’t sitting behind a University paywall, I’ll often use less “secure” references such as Wikipedia, or news articles, thought usually I’ve taken the time to verify the contents as being factually correct….thought of course one pain with Wikipedia is how it can be edited and altered. Where possible I’ll start including my more academic references.