What does a world without fossil fuels look like? There are lots of different options, but none of them look much like the rich developed nations of the world today. David MacKay’s approach in Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is to hold our rate of energy consumption constant, and explore the kinds of carbon-free energy systems that could satisfy that demand. The uncomfortable conclusion he comes to is that if we want to run our world on renewables, the energy farms have to be comparable in scale to nations. Comparable in scale to our agricultural systems. This is because all renewable energy is very diffuse, and we use a whole lot of energy.
Just as an example, of all the renewable power sources solar is the most concentrated, and PV farms like the ones cropping up in Bavaria because of Germany’s generous feed-in tariff average about 5W/m2. With better siting (the Sahara, Arizona) you can do a bit better, and there’s a little more efficiency to be eked out of the panels, but for large scale deployments, you’re not going to get above 10W/m2. If you’re an average citizen of the EU or Japan, your 5kW of power thus demands 500m2 of land. Multiply that by 700 million people in the EU, and you get the total area of Germany. An average North American’s 10kW requires 1000m2. Multiply that by 300 million people, and you get an the entire area of Arizona.
Sustainable Energy, without the Hot Air by David MacKay, is a book (available in its entirety online) looking at the sources of energy available, and the ways in which we use it today. There are lots of options, but any real discussion has to, at the very least, use numbers that add up.
The Atlantic Monthly looks at Pakistan, America’s “Ally From Hell”. Following the raid to kill bin Laden in Abbottabad, and in the shadow of our ongoing drone war in the northern tribal regions, Pakistan has become (somewhat understandably) paranoid that we’re intent on denuking them in the event of a crisis of state. So they’ve taken to driving around assembled tactical nuclear weapons in unmarked, unescorted, unarmored cargo vans. The ISI takes US money, and funds various paramilitary groups which it doesn’t actually control, some of which are anti-American and end up killing US troops and disrupting our supply channels. Both sides turn a blind eye to the mess because they can’t do without each other. What a clusterf*ck.
In Genoa, Italy a radioactive cargo container appeared. Nobody knew where it had come from, or where it was going, or what was in it. It took a year to get rid of it. It’s as if a pixel got stuck on, in the real world, not the digital world. I have to imagine given how automated the container transshipping is in some ports, that you could almost treat the insertion of something like this as a software problem. You just have to get a truck to pick it up without knowing who you are, or what you’ve loaded, and from there the 20 ton packet of reality moves, guided by a disembodied digital hand.
Whatever the outcome, I don’t think anyone should be surprised by the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Like virtually all nuclear plants, they’ve been safe and quiet for decades. But they’re not the kind of thing you can walk away from. And sometimes, you need to walk away. Volcanoes erupt. The Earth trembles beneath your feet. There are floods, and famines, epidemics and wars. We do a good job of ignoring these things when they aren’t pressing concerns. It makes life simpler and more enjoyable, especially since historically, we’ve had little power to do anything about infrequent, terrifying events.
I’m not categorically against nuclear power. If we can do it in a responsible, scalable way, then great. Making 10,000-100,000 year commitments is not responsible. We can’t keep those promises. Extracting only a couple of percent of the fuel’s energy isn’t scalable to tens of terawatts for centuries or millennia. So any scalable, responsible nuclear power will involve breeding fissile fuel, and re-processing spent fuel to remove fission products that inhibit the chain reaction. Additionally, to be responsible in my mind, a nuclear power station should be something you can walk away from at a moment’s notice, with no fear of catastrophe. It should be something that an invading (or perhaps more likely, retreating) army cannot use as part of a scorched earth campaign without a major engineering effort that would take months of work.
I am now in this place where you should never come. We call it Onkalo. Onkalo means hiding place. In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child. Work will be completed in the 22nd century, long after my death. Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.
If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization. If you, some time far into the future find this, what will it tell you about us?
It isn’t often that you find people seriously thinking about deep time in a concrete way. Usually it’s abstract, just a thought experiment, not an engineering problem or a gut wrenching moral quandry. But this is apparently not the case for the Scandinavians who have taken on the task of storing their spent nuclear fuel. Finland has decided to go forward with permanent storage, in a typically responsible, deliberate, earnest Nordic way.
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 Achievementsand 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.