Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
On the first of June, last Wednesday, Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger announced a series of ambitious target goals for curbing the emission of greenhouse gases. The ultimate goal is an 80% reduction by 2050, an 11% reduction by 2010, and a 25% reduction by 2025. This announcement is in sharp contrast to statements by the Bush administration which posits no goals and has consistently taken the position that global warming arising from greenhouse gases is of little concern and quite possibly a myth.
Immediately, upon the appearance of Schwartzenegger’s pronouncements in the press, various right wing think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute took the opportunity to scoff at the Governor’s initiative, insisting that attempts to achieve such goals were unrealistic and would harm the economy—in fact, the usual arguments marshaled against any wide ranging plan for promoting alternative energy.
One such statement, issued by Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies at the Cato Institute and Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, struck me as particularly representative. “There is simply no mechanism by which California will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to 2000 levels in five years. …there is no known or even imagined technology that could reduce emissions 80% in the next 44 years.” Michaels also states that attempting to meet such goals would require an exclusive dependence on natural gas which he deems an impossibility, and he further states that increasing the efficiency of automobiles is to no avail since any improvement there will be offset by a growth in the number of automobiles.
So do nothing and simply allow the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to climb inexorably….
It is my wont to focus in this blog on what I believe will happen rather than what I might want to happen. Here’s what I think will happen. I believe that nothing much will be done in the U.S. to curb greenhouse emissions because I am relatively certain that laissez faire, antiregulatory policies in regard to energy will prevail for the foreseeable future. I think that because I also believe that Congressional leader Tom DeLay’s notion of a permanent Republican majority is essentially correct. It may not be correct for the next hundred years, but it will probably be fulfilled over the course of several decades, which is as close to permanent as you can get outside of the dynasties of ancient Egypt. As long as that majority is there, there will be no significant legislation on greenhouse gases. On that, gentle reader, you can bet your ass. You can take it to the bank. You may not like it, or you may applaud it, but in any case that’s reality.
Still, I am not inclined to leave it at that, and I would like to entertain the question, is the good professor in fact correct? Is reducing greenhouse gases an utter impossibility? Is there truly no known or imaginable technology that could meet our energy needs without spewing further oceans of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?
There are in fact quite a number of zero emission energy generation technologies that are either at a conceptual level or the proof of concept state, and there are there are two proven technologies that could serve as the basis of a concerted effort to reduce emissions. This is not to say that emission reductions on the order that the Governor is suggesting could be easily accomplished, however, or, further, that any effective plan is likely to be implemented. And, rather interestingly, the Governor stopped short of enunciating measures for actually meeting his stated goals, as if, somehow, he knows that to be the case.
There is also the matter of the geographical scope. Unlike particulate emissions and smog, CO2 emissions are a global problem. One cannot significantly reduce CO2 levels in one’s own jurisdiction even if no CO2 whatsoever is being emitted there. And one cannot mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases on climate on a local level. If California achieves near zero emissions and the rest of the forty-nine states, or other nations, for that matter, are still polluting as usual, very little is accomplished.
That caveat having been stated, what in the way of clean, green energy generation technology is actually good to go?
At present there are only two zero emissions generation facilities that are well proven and capable of wide scale deployment—wind energy and nuclear. That’s it. Photovoltaic generation certainly works and is extensively used in off grid residences and as supplementary distributed power for businesses, but for utility generation it is several times more expensive than fossil fuel at present. Other renewable sources such as ocean energy, geothermal energy, and low impact hydroelectric have fairly serious limitations relating to the total size of the energy resource, siting, and, in the case of ocean energy, feasibility.
Now it is possible in theory to render fossil fuel generators effectively zero emissions. This is accomplished by means of carbon dioxide sequestration where the CO2 emissions are either captured temporarily in a chemical or stored in containers in gaseous form and then released in a subterranean repository such as worked out mine or oil field. Alternately, CO2 can be used to flush the last remaining deposits of oil from aging wells, and much of the CO2 will remain underground after that process has been completed. But two significant problems have hindered the acceptance of carbon sequestration. First, it is largely unproven; no one knows how long the gas will remain in the repository. Second, it adds significantly to the cost of operating a generating plant, perhaps by as much as 100% by some estimates. Clean fossil fuel plants, absent regulatory mandates, simply cannot compete with dirty plants. That’s why you don’t see any. Zero emissions cost money. If it were the other way around, if clean plants were cheaper to operate, you wouldn’t see a dirty plant in existence.
Given the fact that sharply reduced greenhouse emissions just within California’s boundaries is in the nature of a gesture and not a solution, how feasible is it really? In my view, Schwartzenegger’s long term goals could probably be met if the electorate were dead set on achieving those goals and sacrificing whatever were necessary to create a new infrastructure. That’s where things get sticky, however.
A nuclear solution, which is in many ways the most straightforward, would require roughly ten times the current nuclear capacity in the state. Since nuclear plants are extremely expensive to build vis a vis the fossil fuel variety and only apt to get more expensive, and since the public at large is vehemently against them, I don’t see nuclear happening in a big way even if the Republican administration in Washington gets firmly behind them, as they’ve often said they will. NIMBY extends well beyond party boundaries, and damned near nobody wants a plant anywhere near his or her residence. Maybe if things get really desperate on the energy front nuclear will get a second hearing, but it won’t be for awhile.
Wind capacity could be expanded significantly, but the total wind resources of the state might be insufficient to meet the energy needs of mid century, particularly if zero pollution cars come to predominate. Zero pollution vehicles would have to be based on either ultra high capacity batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, and both would probably demand vastly increased electrical capacity. Because wind is intermittent, the only way it could be used as a dominant primary resource is if some of the wind generated electrical capacity were used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis which would then be stored and used to operate fuel cell stationary generators or hydrogen powered internal combustion turbines. And because storing energy via electrolysis generated hydrogen is inefficient, the wind generation capacity would have to be immense. And that’s leaving aside the physical problems in storing large volumes of hydrogen today.
Within the next couple of decades, two emerging renewable technologies will mature, ocean power and concentrating solar. Concentrating solar uses huge reflectors to heat a working fluid in an external combustion engine while ocean power generators harness the power of ocean waves in any of a number of ways. Concentrating solar is probably closer to commercialization and is well suited to California whose eastern desert regions contain vast solar resources. In both cases, however, one is still dealing with intermittent energy sources.
I believe that coal resources will remain sufficiently inexpensive and abundant to meet California’s and America’s needs in terms of electrical generation at until 2050. I further believe that nothing substantial will be done to curb greenhouse gases and that global warming will be much exacerbated by that time. What that might portend might be the topic of some future posting.