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Wednesday, August 8, 2012


The problem is energy, a subject I've focused on my entire professional life.  My grandfather helped build the first hydroelectric power plant (below is the Wainiha Powerhouse I'm visiting, which is still producing the original 3 MW) on Kauai more than a century ago, so, I guess, this has been a multi-generational effort to find solutions.

My first job exactly 50 years ago was in biomass engineering (also known as the sugar industry in those days).  Ten years later soon after my PhD in chemical engineering, I was one of the original reservoir engineers on the Hawaii Geothermal Project. Around that time I became chairman of the American Solar Energy Society's wind power division.  I drafted the original ocean thermal energy conversion and hydrogen legislation when I worked for the U.S. Senate about a third of a century ago.  I've been trying to advance biomethanol and the direct methanol fuel cell for cars, the hydrogen jetliner and the Blue Revolution.

Thus, in addition to the energy industry, I spent  two periods at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (on laser fusion--to the right, Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, co-founders of the lab), conducted basic research, taught energy courses at the University of Hawaii, was director of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute for almost 15 years, helped invent the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research, chaired a multitude of sustainable resource conferences, published several energy books, and served on various energy company boards and advisory committees.  Frankly, I don't know of anyone who has had a more varied energy career over half a century.

Thus, when venerable colleague Joe Vadus (former Chief Ocean Technologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) sent me an article on "A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy" by Vaclav Smil (left), a distinguished professor of energy and the environment, for my comments, my whole working life flashed in front of me.  For anyone in this field or not, I can only highly recommend that you click on that paper, for as negative as it might sound to most, this is the reality, and I can only agree with him.  Here are some direct quotes:

1.  Welcome to the world of new renewable energies, where the subsidies rule—and consumers pay.  Without these subsidies, renewable energy plants other than hydroelectric and geothermal ones can’t yet compete with conventional generators.

2.  According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the excise tax credit for ethanol production cost taxpayers US $6.1 billion in 2011.

3.  ...the cost of electricity generated by residential solar systems in the United States has not changed dramatically since 2000.  (At that time the national mean was close to 40 U.S. cents per kilowatt­-hour, while the latest Solarbuzz data for 2012 show 28.91 cents per kilowatt-hour in sunny climates and 63.60 cents per kilowatt-­hour in cloudy ones. That’s still far more expensive than using fossil fuels, which in the United States cost between 11 and 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2011)

4.  Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of energy transitions is their speed. Substituting one form of energy for another takes a long time. U.S. nuclear generation began to deliver 10 percent of all electricity after 23 years of operation, and it took 38 years to reach a 20 percent share, which occurred in 1995. It has stayed around that mark ever since. Electricity generation by natural gas turbines took 45 years to reach 20 percent.

With respect to #4, he thus describes as fanciful all those grand ideas of Al Gore, the Google Plan and Stanford's Mark Jacobson.  He doesn't fault them on their goal.  But the time to attain any kind of energy independence will absolutely not occur in your lifetime, even if you are five years old.  He further states that:

1.  Germany has significantly reduced their initially ridiculous (in the  sense that they not only don't have much Sun, but this give-away takes funds away from more important matters) 70 cents/kWh feed-in-tariff subsidy for solar PV, and so have most European countries and even China.

2.  Fracking for natural gas has changed the profit equation, and renewable energy companies will more and more suffer (meaning going bankrupt) over the next few years.  While better than coal, this is still a fossil fuel, with various sinister water and land effects.

3.  The world is even beginning to turn AGAINST large wind farms.

He goes on an on, and, and I can only nod my head in agreement because I have been saying these same things for too long.  Worse, I don't think I have positively made any difference.

I can further add my two cents by indicating that green transport fuels from biomass and algae will, in ten years, still cost at least $4/gallon to produce, which is the equivalent of $168/barrel oil, and that is without any profit or taxes.  The state of the technology can best be exemplified by noting that our U.S. Navy just paid something like $26/gallon for the biofuel portion of their RimPac exercise in Hawaii. and the U.S. Air Force was charged $59/gallon for 11,000 gallons of biojetfuel.

Further, that plug-in electric cars are not viable, especially in Hawaii.  First, because all that electricity mostly will come from fossil fuels for many decades, second, the lithium battery is the last battery (well, there might be something to fluorine, but...), and finally, electricity in Hawaii costs 300% more than the U.S. average.  Finally, almost all the renewable expenditures have gone towards electricity, which is only one third the problem.  Ground transportation should be our greatest concern, and then, there is aviation.

If you're now depressed, you should be.  If not, you should be.  If you disagree, well, I Iook forward to your comments below.  

SO, THEN, WHAT SHOULD THE WORLD DO?  Smil and I approach this question in similar fashion and can mostly agonize (much of the editorializing is mine):

1.  Sure, fossils and nuclear have had their subsidy period (and still do, actually), so let us give equal time to the sustainables.  (If you are new to using computers, you can enlarge the view by clicking on the visual.) Thus, all the above might actually be justified, as silly and outrageous as the economics are.  The problem is that politicians and their corporate sponsors are so dependent on the conventional sources that they won't sacrifice profits for the sake of the longer term future.  In any case, at what point do you pull back on any subsidies if a renewable option will never be competitive, ever?

2.  Global warming is so potentially serious that we need a more enlightened view on how to approach a solution.  Decision-makers are not even close to a serious carbon tax.  But I've long been saying that the fatal flaw in our free enterprise society is that we will not make that decisive decision until it is too late.  I've given reasons why and won't repeat them here.

3.  Appeal to China, India and the USA power plant developers to eliminate the use of coal.  Sure, and good luck.

4.  There is such a thing as life cycle analysis.  But sell this to a corporate board.

Want to guess how fast renewables will overcome?  Want to speculate if the world will be using less coal in the future?  Here is a typical projection:

Whatever happened to Peak Oil?  And, aren't we supposed to be reducing the emission of carbon dioxide?

The previous two serious economic recessions struck after the second energy crisis in 1979 when the price of oil shot up, and the summer of 2008 when the spot topped $147/barrel.  I would not be surprised if there is a cataclysmic depression when oil jumps to $200/barrel and stays there for many months.  I would not be particularly shocked if this occurred next year.

So what's my point in bringing this all up again.  Perhaps you, too, have been concerned, but might be even more powerless than me.  I'm not trying to be mean or tormentive.  Yes, all the pathways to resolution appear to be blocked.  Perhaps it is hopeless, and the the best that anyone can do is to ride the wave downhill as lifestyles continue to decline.  You can accept that eventuality, but I continue to hold out for that of spark of the possible.

First, don't only blame the fossil fuel companies, Congress or China.  The true problem is the absence of public will.  The problem is us.  My advantage is that I am old and most of you aren't.  I've tried.  Isn't it about time for you to do something about this?  You will be the ones to face the consequences.  And I don't mean to suddenly hoard gold or attempt to set up a sustainable community or merely educate the public that something akin to doomsday is coming.  That would be like giving up.  Do something productive to circumvent the worse or, at least, to ameliorate the pain.  The world wide web is where there is hope (yes, that word again) for catalysis.  Maybe you are the one with the right idea and ability to make that crucial difference.
There are now four ocean storms, as former typhoon Haikiu made landfall south of Shanghai and Zhoushan, but still caused serious damage to both cities, while once hurricane Ernesto mostly blew through Mexico and Belize:



Jim Baird said...



I regularly get chastised by some of my colleagues for even bringing up the potential of hope. Jim, keep trying, for there is hope.