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The other day Talking Points Memo had a gallery of "green tech" under the heading "Gas Prices Blues?  Feast your eyes on the open vistas of clean, green alternative energy sources."

Sure, why not.  And with gas prices where they are, it's not surprising to hear calls to go after speculators or Exxon.  There's no reason not to.  But finding scapegoats is a mostly-pointless exercise.  Alternative energy isn't a "solution" in the sense we're used to, and oil companies and speculators aren't the "problem".

There's a bigger uncomfortable truth here that's completely lost in the discussion.

While I'm fully in favor of moving off of oil and fossil fuels, it's important to highlight the panoply of false solutions out there right now.

Five facts are essential for understanding our energy predicament today:

  1. Oil is critical to transportation and agriculture in the United States.
  2. Numerous reports and studies (including the Department of Energy commissioned Hirsch Report, the UK Task Force on Peak Oil, and the German Military) indicate we're at, near, or past the point of maximum global oil production, often known as "peak oil".   This indicates that no matter what drilling is attempted, the world will never produce oil at a faster rate, and that after peak production declines.
  3. The Hirsch Report concluded that it would take a 20 year crash program to mitigate the effects of oil depletion, meaning that the crash program should have started around 1990 to avoid what they called "severe" economic impacts.  Also, the mitigation program they proposed relied upon coal, heavy oil, and tar sands, all of which would exacerbate our climate problems.
  4. The industrial capacity for building alternatives is a tiny fraction of what would be needed to substitute for fossil fuels even within 2 decades, given the massive scale required.  (Just to give an idea of the scale involved - per Bill McKibben the sunk cost of today's fossil fuel infrastructure is $10 trillion, and would require 10-50 years of operation for capital cost recovery.)
  5. Almost none of the substitutes provides a dense liquid fuel substitute for oil that can be used in transportation or agriculture.  The only alternative that does - algae-based biofuel - is extremely far from commercial viability and requires even more land area per unit energy than corn-based ethanol.

We definitely need to work on alternatives, but we should stop pretending that they can make the problems we face go away.  To give an idea of the scale involved, consider Saul Griffith's excellent talk on climate change, where he considers what a global alternative energy infrastructure would look like, and concludes that we'd need to build an energy infrastructure, over the next 20 years, that is roughly the land area of the continental United States.  The scale of deployment we need is WWII-like, not Apollo-like.

People tend to view these issues either through the lens of progress (technology will solve it) or catastrophe (we're facing an apocalypse).  The evidence suggests that neither view will prove correct.

Next time: the truth about energy is that there are no good answers, there will be severe impacts from what we've done so far, but we can't afford inaction.

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Comment Preferences

  •  By contrast, (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    aoeu, A Siegel, radical simplicity, BYw

    total global GDP is about $65 trillion, and US GDP about 15. So the total global sunk cost of transportation infrastructure (assuming complete replacement instead of partial) is 15% of the world's annual output. Assuming a crash programme (5% of GDP on a global scale), you can fully fund replacement infrastructure in thee years.

    Fractions: They work.

    Iuris praecepta sunt haec: Honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere. - Ulpian, Digestae 1, 3

    by Dauphin on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 09:53:30 AM PDT

    •  That's only looking at one piece of the puzzle. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      terabytes, A Siegel

      If you look at industrial capacity (taking optimistic estimates of what can feasibly be built), and assume a 20-year crash program, we will still end up about 50% short of what we'd need to build to replace fossil fuels.  That is, assuming we have a massive conservation program and target having about 15 TW of production in the 2030s (per Griffith), we'd only be able to build about 8 TW of alternatives.

      Worse still, very little of those alternatives would substitute for oil.

      (Also, never mind that companies aren't going to write off $10 trillion in capex just out of the goodness of their hearts.)

  •  I had the same reaction, . . . then (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, A Siegel

    I took it differently.

    I do not think that TPM was trying to make the point that green alternatives could save us from problems in any short to medium time frame.

    I think they were just trying to present some cheer against the gloom.

    Having said that, I agree with all the points you make.

    Numbers are like people . . . Torture them enough and they'll tell you anything.

    by Actuary4Change on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 09:54:39 AM PDT

    •  Good observation (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Actuary4Change, A Siegel

      I know they're trying to provide people something to look forward to, but part of the job of the media (and blogosphere) is to present a realistic view of what's going on, not just an idealistic view.  It'd be nice if they followed it up with a discussion of how the alternatives aren't going to quite do the trick.

  •  Doesn't Really Matter Because We Aren't Going (6+ / 0-)

    to tackle it seriously.

    We've lost the ability to legislate and are not likely to regain it in 2012.

    When we had strong majorities, we were told (rightly) that the majorities weren't strong enough. And instead of a program for how we could get the strong enough majorities, we were told for 2 years that the majority loses ground in a midterm.

    There is not only not a plan, there is not even a plan to get into position to come up with a plan. We're appealing to persuadable conservative moderates and hoping to continue the mild majorities and frequent divided government & bipartisanship.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 10:12:13 AM PDT

    •  True, but I wonder what sort of legislation (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel

      we'd be looking for.  What would you suggest?

      One issue here is that the fundamental problem is one that actually aligns both Democrats and Republicans:  Growth.

      While there's no agreement on how to achieve growth, and who should get the wealth from that growth, both sides do agree that growth is good and no growth is bad.

      What this predicament poses is a limit to growth (as forecasted many decades ago).  We'd need legislation to move to alternatives but also a fundamental shift away from a growth economy.

  •  yes it is a big problem (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, radical simplicity, BYw

    an even bigger problem is the state of politics here.  Imagine, if the trillions wasted in Iraq had been spent on renewable energy instead. At $5/watt installed, $2 trillion would yield 400 GW installed capacity, about 40% of our current generating capacity, more than all the coal plants.

    Scientific Materialism debunked here

    by wilderness voice on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 10:23:07 AM PDT

    •  Yeah, we've had a lot of missed opportunities (3+ / 0-)

      Not following Carter's plan was the biggest missed opportunity of all.

      However, we've been at a point for the last decade or two where even electric generation capacity wouldn't really help deal with oil depletion, simply because we'd need to somehow substitute for liquid fuel as opposed to electricity.  Had we started much sooner (the late 70s/early 80s) we would have had enough time to move our transportation and agricultural systems off of fossil fuels.

      •  indeed (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        barath, BYw

        if we were getting started now, we could at least take comfort in moving in the right direction. But we are not even getting started in anywhere close to the scale needed and have no prospects for doing so. Mebbe when gas prices go up by another factor of 4....

        Scientific Materialism debunked here

        by wilderness voice on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 10:40:04 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Couple things ... (4+ / 0-)

      1.  Price would have gone lower with capacity ramp-up.

      2.  Of course, no silver bullet. Imagine $100 billion/year into greening public infrastructure -- from schools to roads to pools.

      3.  Re capacity, recognize that solar might rate 20% capacity factor, coal is in range of 66%.  400 GW of installed solar is in the range of 80 gigawatts of 24/7 production.  Same coal total capacity is in range of 250 gigawatts of 24/7 production.

      Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

      by A Siegel on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 10:33:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The problem with a crash program (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    is right in its name, crash. A lot of hasty ill informed, and probably crony capitalistic choices would be made. In fact, we're already in the throws of this sort of mad dash approach to energy as we implement the 2005 energy bill. Fracking anyone? Ethanol?

    Just uhh, food for thought.

    "We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden." - Joni Mitchell

    by shaggies2009 on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 10:31:09 AM PDT

    •  Yup (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      One of the big problems with the crash program recommended in the Hirsch Report was that it would be bad for the climate.  (It was, though, viable in the sense that it would yield a substitute for oil.)

      Also, to properly do a WWII-style crash program we'd probably have to stop manufacturing of many other things and put that productive capacity towards the construction of alternative energy infrastructure.

  •  Technology will not solve it? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Then I won't bother to discuss my company's new battery, which is capable of 700 times greater energy density than anything presently on the market.  I guess we should just abandon the project due to lack of understanding and interest.

    "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the universe." -- Albert Einstein

    by Neuroptimalian on Wed Apr 27, 2011 at 06:03:32 PM PDT

    •  I'd like to hear about it... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I'm not against trying to ameliorate the situation with technology.

      However, as David Fridley notes, there are nine challenges of alternative energy technologies:

      1. Scalability and Timing
      2. Commercialization
      3. Substitutability
      4. Material Input Requirements
      5. Intermittency
      6. Energy Density
      7. Water
      8. The Law of Receding Horizons
      9. Energy Return on Investment

      I'd be interested in hearing how these can be overcome.

  •  Not you, not me; the guy behind the tree (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, noladerf

    Who's to blame for rising oil prices?

    Every time prices rise, there's a mad rush to find a scapegoat to blame.

    • The oil companies.
    • Speculators.
    • Taxes.
    • Environmentalists.
    • Foreign suppliers.
    • etc.

    Nobody will admit that consumption is a big part of the problem. Or as you point out, the lack of development of alternatives, or efficiency improvements to reduce demand is part of the problem.

    Sure, some are in a tight spot and hurting.  I feel sorry for them.

    But there's plenty of energy hogs out there who think they need a big hulking SUV to show off, who need lots of other energy-hogging luxuries, etc.  And that there's no reason for alternatives, because energy should be cheap and unlimited forever. I can't feel the least bit of sympathy for these people.  They do absolutely nothing to reduce consumption, just whine about what their extravagance is costing them.  And try to blame someone else. Anyone else.

  •  Riddle: When's the best time to plant a tree? (0+ / 0-)

    Answer:  Twenty years ago.

    Yes, the problem's scale is impossible to overstate.  And yes, we're facing the converging catastrophe's of peak oil and global warming.  The scale of these challenges is so overwhelming that it's deflating.  

    But as someone working within the field of developing wholesale market mechanisms for the smart grid, I say there's hope.  These solutions will, indeed, require decades and we'll be very lucky to embrace conservation measures that yield fruits that are larger than oil production decline rates.  

    One should not, however, fail to look at the growing list of new zero emission technologies coming about due to ARPA-e and the Recovery Act.  

    To wit:

    1.  MIT's success is developing a synthetic leaf that produces hydrogen from sunlight hitting silicon.  No wires, just silicon.

    2.  Fourth-generatioin nuclear.  HTGR, LFTR and IFR may be twenty year's off, but promises thousands of years of safe, low-waste, low proliferation risk power.   This isn't fusion.  This is real and Idaho National Lab is hot on the trail.

    3.  Transportation fuels from synthetically-grown fatty acids.  This isn't algae.  This is new and as a result of ARPA-e efforts.

    Energy-dense liquid fuels from Earth abundant materials are the holy grail and, while they may seem unattainable (I'm often pessimistic too!) there are some real breakthroughs starting to surface.  

    We need more overt leadership.  We all need to be looking in the mirror at our own living patterns and fixing everything we can.  I've seen people in my neighborhood that once thought I was crazy now come by my house and ask me for advice.  

    Inflection points are funny things.  They sometimes arise at the most hopeless points.  

    Keep trying and keep hoping.  Our kids will take a dim view of us if we don't.

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