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The Sciences

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonOctober 15, 2005 8:18 AM


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Well, you've read my whining here and here about being terribly distracted by having to organize departmental colloquia every week. You've noticed that the extra grundge work sometimes comes about because I want it to be a fun, inclusive event every week, with everybody having a great time while learning a lot, meeting their colleagues, and with a great deal of good ideas and conversation resulting from it. Achieving this requires effort, and when it does is really, really worth it. Such an event happened on Monday. Caltech's Nathan Lewis gave an excellent presentation entitled "Scientific Challenges in Sustainable Energy Technology" at 4:15pm. As promised in the posters, there were refreshments on the lawn outside at 3:30pm, and we had people from several departments: students, postdocs, faculty, department chairs, and deans showed up. Energy is important you see. That (and tasty Trader Joe's grub) is what I tried to use as the hook to get them there, and I think it worked, as we had at least 100 people.


We had a treat. Nate is an engaging speaker on an interesting topic which he knows very well. He's quick as a ...quick thing, and he can (and he will) call up all the facts and figures he needs to debate you vigourously on the topic of sustainable energy technology. He gave us a very detailed abstract, and as it does a pretty good job of describing a lot of the talk, I'll reproduce it here so that you can get an idea of what he talked about:

This presentation will describe and evaluate the challenges, both technical, political, and economic, involved with widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies. First, we estimate the available fossil fuel resources and reserves based on data from the World Energy Assessment and World Energy Council. In conjunction with the current and projected global primary power production rates, we then estimate the remaining years of supply of oil, gas, and coal for use in primary power production. We then compare the price per unit of energy of these sources to those of renewable energy technologies (wind, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal) to evaluate the degree to which supply/demand forces stimulate a transition to renewable energy technologies in the next 20-50 years. Secondly, we evaluate the greenhouse gas buildup limitations on carbon-based power consumption as an unpriced externality to fossil-fuel consumption, considering global population growth, increased global gross domestic product, and increased energy efficiency per unit of globally averaged GDP, as produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A greenhouse gas constraint on total carbon emissions, in conjunction with global population growth, is projected to drive the demand for carbon-free power well beyond that produced by conventional supply/demand pricing tradeoffs, at potentially daunting levels relative to current renewable energy demand levels. Thirdly, we evaluate the level and timescale of R&D investment that is needed to produce the required quantity of carbon-free power by the 2050 timeframe, to support the expected global energy demand for carbon-free power. Fourth, we evaluate the energy potential of various renewable energy resources to ascertain which resources are adequately available globally to support the projected global carbon-free energy demand requirements. Fifth, we evaluate the challenges to the chemical sciences to enable the cost-effective production of carbon-free power on the needed scale by the 2050 timeframe. Finally, we discuss the effects of a change in primary power technology on the energy supply infrastructure and discuss the impact of such a change on the modes of energy consumption by the energy consumer and additional demands on the chemical sciences to support such a transition in energy supply.

Why did I title this post "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid"? Let me explain a bit, without scaremongering too much. Well, frankly the energy issue, and the numbers and trends accompanying it, is extremely frightening. First, I recommend that you consult his slides, which can be found on this page. I strongly recommend that you take an hour of your time out and view video of a similar talk entitled "Powering the Planet" that he gave as part of Caltech's Watson lecture series. So your first thought on hearing his estimates for how much we have left in fossil fuels is "So things are not as bad as they say.... We've plenty of time to get onto another track for energy supply." No. That's wrong. He then goes on to point out just how much carbon dioxide we're dumping into the environment, and no matter how conservative you are about the effects this will have, and no matter how optimistic you are about the difference we will make by trying to clean up our act using emissions reductions, we are extremely late in getting around to considering greenhouse-gas-emission-free primary sources of energy. How late? Well, using generous estimates of how the trends will continue if we use the policy of "business as usual" currently advocated by our policy makers, by about 2050, we will begin to pass the point where it will take of the order of 1000 years to restore the levels of greenhouse gas to anything like we were used to. So you can argue about whether or not we know for sure that we are making huge changes to our planet (at this point he shows some before and after snaps of him in front of various glaciers turned to lakes in a few decades) which we'll have to deal with, but the point is that we'll get to try it out -doing what he calls the "biggest experiment humankind has ever performed". And if we don't like the outcome (e.g. completely new climates, weather systems, flooded cities, huge losses of some of our favourite habitats, species, etc... and that's just the mild stuff), we're stuck with it for a 1000 years, even if we figure out how to immediately stop what we're doing. Well, the scary thing is that we are nowhere near figuring out how to stop what we're doing. We're not putting even close to the required resources into research into figuring it out (compare the entire DOE budget to the recent increase the NIH got), and there is no political will (regardless of political party you care to name) to face the reality of the situation and do something about it. So we are going to do that experiment. I'm scared. You say "But we can sequester the emissions from fossil fuels and stop it getting into the atmosphere, can't we? That will buy us time." No. Not even close. We're not very good at it, and even if we were, we just have no way of securing the stuff (burying it or whatever) in a reliable way that does not leak at a rate which invalidates the approach anyway. You say "But we have nuclear fission, wind power, tides, biomass, hydro, and geothermo, and one day we'll have nuclear fusion...right?" No. First, he estimates that we need 10-30 TeraWatts (TW) of supply by 2050. Fission plants come in at about 1 GigaWatt (GW) of generation capacity (we don't know how to safely, securely and make efficient ones much bigger), and so we'll need to construct one new nuclear fission plant every other day -starting now- to meet the challenge. And then they only last 50 years.... The biggest and brightest fusion project right now (in europe) is hoping to get break even several years from now, and then maybe built a workingdemonstration machine when it is probably already too late! He then continues to work down the list of all the other alternative sources, and you realize that they just won't even come close to what we need if we are truly going to stop dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So at this point everybody's on the edge of their seats, probably making a mental note to not bother having children, or pay an extra couple of thousand for that fancy new hybrid vehicle, or to sell that cute folding bike they've been commuting on the buses and trains with, etc. Maybe they're thinking of getting that Hummer after all and humankind just going out with a bang. But then he reminds us that we have one source left, and it has way more energy than we can possibly need. The Sun. Two hours of sunlight hitting the whole earth's surface gives us the equivalent of the 30 TW for a year we need to be working at. Taking into account practicalities, we can expect about 600 TW or so fairly easily, and at 10% efficiency in recovering it and putting it to good use, we still are way ahead of what we need. It turns out you need a total surface area the size of a medium sized US state in about six places around the world (say one on each continent) to do the job. A bit of thought reminds us that of course this has been done before. Nature extracts about 90TW planet wide through photosynthesis. (Photosynthesis is not the way we'd go, exactly, but it's a big clue.) So what we should be trying to figure out, he argues, and I'm convinced, is how to use the sun. And we should be trying to figure it out now. There are several challenges. It's not really just making better solar cells, because we'll never tackle the crippling day-night effect by focuing on that alone. So it's a lot more about efficient storage and distribution technologies, and the challenges are actually huge scientific ones as well as technological. (All the jumping up and down by a few seeminly enlightened politicians about the "hydrogen economy" does not really add up, he argues. The long list of problems with hydrogen begin with the fact that we don't even know how to store it properly right leaks through everything, even steel containers.) Anyway, I'll let you look at the talk and get the details and draw your own conclusions. My own feelings are that it is even more urgent than I previously thought that we get a global realization by our political leaders about the science challenges that lie ahead of us, and the urgency to begin work on them -also globally. How do we get our politicians to listen, to worry about the really long term? They listen to the concerns of the electorate, whose support supplies their real power. How do we get the electorate to realise the urgency of the scientific challenge if the electorate is, relatively speaking (see several other posts, such as this one, on this), scientifically illiterate? Ah, it all comes back to the theme to which I regularly return on this blog: Science education. -cvj


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