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Thursday, December 29, 2011

IF NOT RENEWABLE ENERGY...THEN WHAT?

When you see this type of sustainable energy growth:

you feel good about the recent progress.  Combined with the fear of a warming Earth, there is thus a measure of public support for all the renewable energy subsidies.  Yet, my deep understanding of the field casts a totally different light on the reality.

Since I retired twelve years ago, I have grudgingly come to a personal conclusion, as expressed in a range of postings over the past couple of years, that the totality of green energy options is insufficient to maintain the world economy.  With Fukushima virtually eliminating fission power (although there might be something to thorium), and the double hammer of Peak Oil and Global Warming looming, it troubled me that the world was thus left with only three options:

1.  Fusion:  which I suspect is at least 50 years away from commercialization.

2.  Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC):  capable of providing a major supplement through a Blue Revolution.

3.  Acceptance that lifestyles will only decline, and, maybe even cataclysmically.

Here are the problems:

    a.  A population of 1 billion is sustainable.  However, Planet Earth now is home to more than 7 billion people.

   b.  Federal government subsidies for the renewables have focused on mostly intermittent technologies which produce electricity, only one third the current demand.  

    c.  The prime government support for transport is for plug-in electric cars, a sub-optimal choice, for a fuel cell car can take a vehicle five times further and the lithium battery is the final one.  Of course, hydrogen is far too expensive and lobbyists have prevented the development of the direct methanol fuel cell.  Plus, very little is being done about sustainable aviation fuels, where the most promising pathways will probably only reduce costs to $3/gallon in a decade (oil will need to cost more than $150/barrel for this to work), and more probably, $4/gallon (which can only compete with crude north of $200/barrel).

This feeling was substantiated today by an e-mail from Chuck Helsley, a former colleague who is now heading Fusion Power Corporation.  Click on the analysis by the Porter Stansberry, who somewhat convincingly argues that the Sun and winds are grossly insufficient to meet the needs of the whole world.  Of course, Ted Trainer published a book four years ago entitled, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  

The three options mentioned above do not give me much comfort.  First, while our Sun and all the stars do well with fusion, after more than half a century of R&D, we have not yet attained net positive and I have no confidence in magnetic confinement, especially the only major effort in France, ITER.  Mind you, Chuck's company is touting heavy ion fusion, and his team "promises" success within the decade, where the products will be electricity plus liquid fuels.  I'm afraid, though, that as sound as their concept may be, the politics of reality will only delay progress for many, many decades.  

About option 2, it was just about a third of a century ago when I helped draft the OTEC bill that became law, just about the time that net positive was attained in Hawaii by Lockheed.  Yet, today, there is exactly zero megawatt of OTEC electricity.  Strange as it may seem, I nevertheless remain optimistic that recent activity, buoyed by reports showing the potential could supply all the energy we currently use, plus the availability in the upwelled deep ocean water of phosphates (some say that terrestrial farming will seriously decline when we use up all the available phosphate fertilizers), omen well for the Blue Revolution.  But this is a blue sky longshot, considering that no major company nor any national government has endorsed the effort.

Which then leaves option 3 as our most probable future.

So do we give up and only educate the public to accept the inevitable?  I say no!  There will be Peak Oil, maybe not next year, but within a decade or two for sure.  Petroleum prices will skyrocket.  Global Warming?  I think this is serious enough that a severe carbon tax will happen, someday.  All the while, let us continue to develop all the renewables, for it will be the wide-ranging assortment of sustainables that will be needed to ameliorate the decline.

Finally, as we found a way to spend a couple of trillion dollars on the Middle East Wars, a similar sum can be identified to accelerate fusion and the Blue Revolution.  Do I have any hope that global sanity will soon prevail to maximize progress?  No.

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