I just finished reading Renewable Energy Policy by Paul Komor (2004). It’s a little book, giving a simplified overview of the electricity industry in the US and Europe, and the ways in which various jurisdictions have attempted to incentivize the development of renewable electricity generation. The book’s not that old, but the renewable energy industry has changed dramatically in the last decade, so it seems due for an update. There’s an order of magnitude more capacity built out now than ten years ago. Costs have dropped significantly for PV, but not for wind (according to this LBNL report and the associated slides). We’ve got a much longer baseline on which to evaluate the feed-in tariffs and renewable portfolio standards being used in EU member countries and US states. I wonder if any of his conclusions or preferences have been altered as a result? In particular, Komor is clearly not a fan of feed-in tariffs, suggesting that while they are effective, they are not efficient — i.e. you end up paying a higher than necessary price for the renewable capacity that gets built. This German report suggests otherwise, based on the costs of wind capacity built across Europe. Are the Germans just biased toward feed-in tariffs because they’ve committed so many resources to them? NREL also seems to be relatively supportive of feed-in tariff based policies, but maybe this is because the design of such policies has advanced in the last decade, better accounting for declines in the cost of renewables over time, and differentiating between resources of different quality and utility.
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.
I recently watched Code 46 again. When I first saw it a few years ago I didn’t like it very much, but this time it seemed more interesting. The storyline doesn’t hold together very well, and from a scientific point of view there are some painful gaffes, but it’s at least attempting to explore some important present and near-future issues, which is more than I can say for most science fiction films. That makes me sad, since I feel at its best, science fiction helps us understand how we interact with and relate to technology, and how technology changes the way we interact and relate to each other. The fact that there’s so little mainstream science fiction trying to do this today is frightening. We’re just blindly stumbling forward into the darkness. Maybe the best thoughtful sci-fi I can recall from the recent past is Gattaca, which depicts in a very stylized way a future society which is starkly divided between those who are genetically enhanced and those who are not. Gattaca is pretty clearly unconcerned with the details as opposed to the implications of its premise, and that makes it easier to gloss over whatever issues it has. It’s less clear that Code 46 is this self aware, but at least on a second viewing, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Be warned, there are spoilers below.
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.
If you want to follow my shared links in real time instead of as a weekly digest, head over to Delicious. You can search them there easily too.
Continue reading Links for the week of June 4th, 2010
It turns out that Pasadena has a wonderful little theater called The Boston Court. It’s a non-profit organization, producing some classics, but perhaps more interestingly, also some first-run original pieces by SoCal playwrites. Michelle saw an adaptation of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh there last year, and we went and saw 1001, a story weaving the Arabian Nights with commentary on the modern Arab-Israeli coflict and the War on Terror. The casts are essentially dedicated amateurs – the auditions page lists a $300 rehearsal stipend, plus $25/performance. The space is so small that there is no need for amplified sound, and the sets are fairly minimalist. They have student discounts and matinees, and late night salons for discussion after the plays are performed. I have a hard time imagining a better setting and scale for theater. Even better, it’s easy biking distance, and they seem to have a bent toward plays that are relevant to the modern world.
On Friday, we went to see The Sequence, by Paul Mullin, who has also written about Louis Slotin’s death during the Manhattan Project due to a criticality accident while “tickling the dragon’s tail’, and The Ten Thousand Things, an exploration of the meaning of deep time in human society, inspired by The Clock of the Long Now. The Sequence is a play about the Human Genome Project, and the race between Craig Venter‘s Celera, and the publicly funded project headed by Francis Collins, to complete the sequence first, and also about a young journalist, Kellie Silverstein, who is covering the race, who struggles with her own genetic destiny, knowing that her mother died from breast cancer due to the BRCA1 mutation, which she likely also carries. The Sequence was commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Ironically, Mullin cannot afford to be a professional playwrite, and instead works in a clerical position at Amgen to pay the bills. Like Copenhagen, the play has only three characters.
Set in contemporary Mongolia, this imaginative fable follows 17-year-old Bagi, a nomadic shepherd who possesses untapped transcendental powers. After the military forces Bagi and his family to abandon their way of life and resettle in a mining town, he crosses paths with a beautiful coal thief who helps him find his destiny.
No trailer, virtually no reviews online. I went for it anyway. Mongolia is a wild place, I like wild places, and I like insights into foreign lands via film. It’s certainly weird, but it was absolutely worth 2 hours.