A Thousand Splendid Power Plants

Light Pollution

Xcel Energy’s Valmont East Terraforming Station in Boulder, CO. As a side effect, it powers all the lights you see in the background.

James Watt’s industrial revolution was fired by coal, is fired by coal, and shall be fired by coal under the current plan, until death do us part.  Anthracite, lignite and bituminous — it is all nearly pure carbon, sequestered in the shallow inland seas of the Carboniferous, scavenged from a powerful greenhouse atmosphere by the first macroscopic life to colonize the land, 350 million years ago.  It was into these scaly fern tree forests, club mosses, cycads, and giant horsetails that we tetrapods laboriously crawled so long ago, to gasp our first desperate breaths.

Industrial power, carbon and coal are deeply synonymous.  The SI unit of power is named for Watt, and the word “carbon” is derived from the Latin carbo, which means coal.  Many of the super-human abilities we are accustomed to wielding today are intimately bound up with this strange rock that burns.  Our purpose in burning it is to release usable heat, and we consider the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to be a side-effect of that process.  In the fullness of time I suspect we will come to see that relationship reversed.  When we look back at today’s coal fired power plants a few centuries from now, we won’t see them as electricity generators.  We will instead see them as components of a massive, coordinated and yet unintended climatic engineering project.  We are effectively terraforming the Earth, participating in the transformation of our planet as a new force of nature.  It’s not the first time life has done something like this.  The cyanobacteria began pumping oxygen into the atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago, incidentally making both fire and macroscopic organisms possible for the first time.  And also incidentally oxidizing away a lot of previously stable atmospheric methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, plunging the Earth into the deep freeze for three hundred million years.  I hope that we can be more mindful of the consequences of our actions than the blue-green algae were, but honestly I’ve got my doubts.

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Links for the week of October 26th, 2010

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Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil (Part 2 of 2)

Fossil Fuel Futures

Smil’s take on the future of fossil fuels seems very similar to that of Steve Koonin (and thus BP), namely that there’s plenty of all of them in the ground for us to damn ourselves to a hothouse hell, if we should so desire.  I’m not entirely sure whether this strikes me as an optimistic, or pessimistic statement, but I suspect it’s pessimistic.  If we were forced to change our energy systems, I believe (unlike many Peak Oilers) that we would be up to the challenge, dramatically reducing demand without reducing our standard of living, increasing conversion efficiencies, and innovating our way out of the mess partly technologically, and partly socially.  If, on the other hand, we have to choose to stop burning fossil fuels, I’m much less confident that we’ll do the right thing.

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Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil (Part 1 of 2)

Where does our energy come from today, and how do we use it?  How much does it take to live the Good Life, and what, really, should that energy be used on?  Where might it plausibly come from in the future, and what does the Good Life consist of anyway?  Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil at least attempts to get at this stuff, looking at humanity’s utilization of energy, in the past, present, and several possible futures.  But the book is a such a dense mass of numbers and graphs that I think I’m going to have to do this in several posts.

The first two sections Long-term Trends and Achievements and Energy Linkages, look at how energy use correlates with other variables of interest, how those correlations have changed through time, and how they vary globally today.  If there’s an overarching message here, it’s that nothing about today’s global energy system is straightforward.  You can’t make many useful comparisons by looking at only one dimension, such as the total primary energy supply (TPES) utilized or the energy intensity (EI) of a nation’s economy, or by simply looking at mean values without considering the distribution they come from.  These variables are not normally distributed.  Another clear message is that the 20th century was an anomaly.  The explosive global growth in fossil fuel utilization that we have seen over the last hundred years will not be sustained, for a variety of reasons, any one of which would be convincing, but which in combination are downright scary.  Either the way our civilization uses energy will be utterly transformed, or the sources of that energy will change dramatically.  Or both.

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