The Promise and Peril

April 3, 2012 0 Comments

I suppose it could be said of every age in human history that there was “great promise and peril” involved with all we could imagine to do and build. I wonder if today’s dichotomy is more extreme. I have often heard it said that we are currently in a Schrodinger economy that seems both alive (growing) and dead (drowning in debt) at the same times. The Lifeboat Foundation has certainly found plenty of perils to worry about in the near future. In the case of the environment, as I mentioned yesterday, we are either headed for mass starvation, death, and world-wide calamity or an abundant future with clean energy, depending on which lens you are peering through on any particular day.

I mentioned the great progress in battery and electric vehicle technology yesterday, but these will do no good unless we have a clean source of energy to “fill them up”. Wind power is an option, but it is limited, and comes with some drawbacks. Biofuels might be a good bridge fuel (to the future), but are they really that much better than natural gas (another “bridge” fuel) when everything is considered (land use, infrastructure development, etc). About the best biofuel story I have seen recently is this lab result which created liquid fuel from carbon dioxide and electricity supplied by solar panels. Who knows if this could be scaled up for industrial production, but if we could take carbon dioxide out of the air and make fuel out of it, that would be ideal from an AGW perspective – if we continue to use liquid hydrocarbons to power the economy many decades into the future.

Then there is nuclear energy, which has taken a beating since the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Japan has of course shut down nearly all of its reactors, Germany has promised to retire all of theirs, and funding is drying up for the construction of newer safer fission reactors. As far a pollution and AGW is concerned, the phasing out of nuclear power right now will probably lead to the use of more fossil fuels, not more renewable energy sources, because our Schrodinger economy is not good enough to pay for the expensive alternatives. Two new modular reactors are being considered in the U.S. but they are mired in regulatory approval and will not come online perhaps until 2020. There is still hope for nuclear fusion reactors as new computer simulations have shown some promise, but these will be quite expensive to build and are probably years away.

One of the cheaper and cleaner alternative options we have right now is solar power. The price has fallen dramatically in the last 5 years from about $4 per watt down to $1 per watt and there are many signs it will continue to get cheaper. The price drop is due in part to technological innovation but also due to an oversupply on the market. Chinese solar panel manufacturers are running full steam ahead flooding the market - with the help of government support. This has led to a burgeoning trade war between the U.S. and China and the implementation of tarrifs.

Blythe Solar Power Plant Goes Bankrupt

I know the reasoning behind tariffs, and perhaps this will help U.S. manufacturers survive, but the end result is usually bad. Tariffs (economic warfare) often lead to real physical war. They also raise the price on the taxed items. Perhaps we should just buy up all the cheap solar panels while they are on the market instead. Maybe our solar power plant projects in the U.S. would not be going bankrupt (after recieving billions in loans from the government) if we managed our purchases better. Solar would also likely benefit from a more intelligent power grid and the use of information technology to save on installation costs.

Outside of all the current technological “fixes” we could implement to the world from potential future peril (like AGW) there are also more mundane measures that would help. If it is too difficult to stop emitting carbon dioxide, maybe we could focus on methane instead, as less of the gas floating around the atmosphere would lead to a significant reduction in possible future warming of the atmosphere. Then there are more radical futuristic ideas like engineering our bodies to be less energy intensive. Although instead of re-engineering the human body, it would be much easier to stop having so many kids.

I’ll leave you with one last positive data point to consider for today: extreme poverty around the world has decreased dramatically in the last couple of decades. The percentage of people living on the equivalent of less than $1 per day has dropped from 42% in 1981 to just 14% today.  Now why would this be a positive thing for the environment? Becoming wealthier usually means increased usage of resources, doesn’t it? Typically, yes. However, wealthy people usually choose to reduce pollution as we have seen almost all metrics of pollution decline in recent decades in the developed nations of the world. When people have greater food and energy security, they do not focus as much on day-to-day living and instead on the future world where they will live. Most people choose an un-polluted future world. Also, with the price of traditional fossil fuels continuing to rise, it is likely the new prosperity will lead to the use of alternative energy sources.

Have a pleasant Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.

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