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.
I’ve been looking, apparently in vain, for a good book (that’s not in German!) detailing Passive House building and modeling techniques. The best I’ve been able to do so far is Toward a Zero Energy Home, and it must have been pretty good, since I read it cover-to-cover in less than 24 hours. It’s not particularly dense or detailed, but it was a nice quick overview of low energy building systems, with lots of pretty pictures, and a dozen case studies from all over North America, including a couple right here in Boulder.
The goal that the authors have chosen to highlight — “Net Zero” — means that the buildings in question produce as much energy as they consume on an annually averaged basis. This necessarily means that they all have some on-site production, wind, PV, solar-thermal hot water, etc. However, to keep such projects reasonably cost effective, it’s necessary to focus first on energy efficiency measures. Most important among these is a very tight building envelope, much more insulation than code requires, and appropriate glazing for passive solar gain. Then the internal power loads need to be minimized, by using energy efficient appliances and LED or CFL lighting. Only after doing all that is it financially worthwhile to start adding on-site renewable generation, capable of meeting the overall annual energy demands of the dwelling. Financially worthwhile, that is, if you have already decided that you want to create a Net Zero building.
We watched a Long Now talk last night by Nils Gilman, entitled Deviant Globalization. I first ran across Gilman in a shorter talk from a couple of years ago about the global illicit economy — black markets. He describes deviant globalization somewhat differently. Trade can be perfectly legal, and still deviant. He used the example of US men arranging trysts with 14 year old girls in Canada… which amazingly could still be considered legal until 2008, since 14 was the nationwide age of consent. Sure, it was legal, but who really thought it was okay? So deviant globalization represents a kind of moral arbitrage. Demand exists for goods and services which are proscribed in different ways, to different degrees, in different places. Sometimes they’re socially taboo, and sometimes they’re outlawed, but in all cases there exists a kind of moral disequilibrium gradient that can be exploited.
What united all these extralegal commodity flows […] was the unsanctioned circulation of goods and services that either because of the way they are produced or because of the way they are consumed violate someone’s ethical sensibilities.
One of his main points is that the steepness of that moral or regulatory gradient translates pretty directly into profit margins. Cocaine increases in value by 1400% when you bring it across the US border. This creates incredible incentives to get around the rules, even at great risk. This is why Prohibition rarely works as a policy. Any attempt at eradication financially empowers those who are willing to continue taking the risks you’re able to impose.
David Montgomery‘s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations reminded me a lot of When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce, except that instead of looking at how we have allocated our water resources globally, it focuses on the way humanity has husbanded (or not) its soil resources throughout history, through a vast array of case studies in what we got wrong. It also reminded me a little bit of Energy at the Crossroads, insofar as the last chapter or two, instead of being a concrete, level-headed outline of what we need to do if we actually want to solve the problem which has been presented, it devolves a little bit into a lament. You’ve convinced me there’s a problem. Clearly you have some idea of what the solution looks like. Please don’t be afraid to put that idea into words, even if you think the plausible solutions are so far removed from our current way of doing things that someone is going to think you’re crazy. I think a lot of the most credible solutions to our sustainability problems sound “crazy” to “normal” people these days… but that’s just the way it is. We still need to know what the available solutions look like, or at the very least, what characteristics one can sketch out which any available solution has to have.
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.
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.
I just finished David Bodansky’s 600+ page tome Nuclear Energy. It’s almost a textbook, but not quite. I don’t know who the intended audience is really. Other than me. Similar genre, broadly, as The High Cost of Free Parking. A comprehensive overview of a technical topic, for those with a long attention span and no fear of numbers. I decided to read the book because of the recent turn toward nuclear power that some environmentalists have taken. There are many publics that react strongly, and negatively, to the idea, but I don’t trust public sentiment to be rational any more than I can manipulate it. Bodansky did an admirable job of remaining neutral throughout the book, on a topic that almost universally devolves into something resembling a religious debate. As a result of this reading, I’m much more positive (or rather, less negative) about nuclear energy than I was before. I think that my position, which I hope can count as an informed one, now closely resembles that of Ralph Cavanagh, as articulated in this debate with Peter Schwartz hosted by the Long Now Foundation.
The main questions I had coming into the book were:
Can nuclear energy be done responsibly?
What would it take for it to scale up meaningfully?
How would it compare in costs and risks to renewable energy sources, if it were done responsibly at scale?
The answers I came away with were that yes, it probably can be done responsibly, and at the scale necessary for it to be meaninful as a long term source of primary power globally. However, if it were to scale up responsibly in the long term, it seems that the associated costs would likely end up being greater than for renewable energy sources. So I guess I’m supportive of having the so-called “nuclear option” on the table, in competition with any other carbon free power source, with the significant caveat that the cost of the nuclear power being considered correspond to a responsible, long term, large scale deployment. The scenario I foresee needing to be avoided is ending up with an unfair comparison, between short-term and/or irresponsible and/or non-scalable nuclear power, and renewables — especially renewables as priced before the solar power industry has obtained whatever economies of scale there are to be had in their niche. One might be able to make a persuasive argument that we need to use nuclear power as a bridge between fossil fuels and renewables at scale, but I haven’t heard that argument made yet.
After coming across Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s TED talk recently, and already being familiar with his stunning aerial photography, I was excited to see his film Home, about the Earth, and its dwellers. It is probably the most beautiful film I have ever seen. The BBCs Planet Earth is gorgeous, but Home is far better. Every scene is a piece of art, like his photography, but in motion. I would pay to see it in high definition. The first half hour or so is a kind of naturalistic creation myth: true, but poetic. The formation of the Earth. The rise of the cyanobacteria, and the oxygenation of our atmosphere. The eventual emergence of our own species and the journey we took from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists, to city dwelling, fossil fueled, rulers of the world.
But there it stumbles. While what it says is true, it is not enough. The truth alone is no longer sufficient. The film is blind, or nearly so, to the future that we need to see. It’s too easy, given the truth we have inherited, to envision a dark future. Vague assertions that the solutions are at hand are not enough. He exclaims, and rightly so, that “We don’t want to believe what we know.” For some reason, we are afraid to envision a bright future. Maybe it’s because throughout the 20th century, the bright futures we envisioned often turned dark. Social progress became World Wars and gulags. Technological progress became mustard gas, ICBMs and DDT. Economic progress became the Depression and the disingenuous promise of perpetual growth through the liquidation of our natural capital. I agree that we don’t have time to be pessimists, but fodder for pessimism seems to be almost the only content out there in the environmental sphere. And it’s getting old.
We watched a Long Now talk last night, by Orville Schell (currently a fellow of the Asia Society in New York) entitled “China thinks long term, but can it re-learn how to act long term?” His main point was that China is, even to the Chinese, filled with internal contradictions. That both as a nation and a culture, it is to a greater degree than any other nation of consequence in the world, essentially unresolved. To this end, he painted two pictures of China today: first optimistic, and then dark, but both to his mind true.
I can’t believe how much I enjoy the Long Now talks. Thoughtful and intelligent people, usually talking about things I happen to think are important, and interesting. I almost feel like it’s a re-invention of the oratory form. I’m glad they’ve gone to the extra effort of doing a high quality production, with decent microphones, and well illuminated speakers in front of a dark background, multiple camera angles and only occasional (but necessary) cuts to the slides on screen. Not all thoughtful and intelligent people are good orators, but I guess I’m willing to put up with some unnecessary “um” and “uh” syllables thrown in if the ideas on offer are good enough.
Michael Pollan gave a recent talk, unsurprisingly to a full house (it’s SF after all), entitled “Deep Agriculture“, which was largely, but I think not entirely, a synthesis of his previous books. The first point he made was that America’s healthcare costs, our industrialized agricultural system, climate change and the ultimately limited supply of fossil fuels are really all part of the same system of issues.
We spend roughly twice as much per capita on healthcare as do the twenty nations which have longer life expectancies than we do. A significant portion of that excess spending is on chronic “diseases of the rich” which are intimately linked to diet: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. At the same time, we spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on food than any other nation in the world, and probably any other nation in history. If our cheap diet is generating high healthcare costs, then it isn’t really all that cheap.