Why Global Warming is really an Energy Problem.
We have stated in The Resilient Earth that the global warming crisis is actually a side effect of the global energy shortage crisis. By this we mean that excessive CO2 emissions and other forms of air pollution can be traced to the use of certain forms of fossil fuel instead of less damaging alternatives due to the highly competitive world energy market. Often nations use the energy sources that are indigenous or least expensive, even though doing so has greater impact on the environment. Consider the figure below:
The US has historically gotten most of its energy from oil and coal—oil because it has been inexpensive and coal because America has abundant supplies of the stuff. According to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), the US gets around 51% of its electrical energy from burning coal, which generates 81% of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with electrical production. Oil (labeled petroleum), which is a negligible part of electrical generation (3%) but the major contributor in the transportation sector, contributes even more overall CO2 than coal—42% vs. 37%. In short, America gets most of its electrical and transportation energy from the worst two contributers of greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, oil is no longer cheep, as indicated by the current price of gasoline at the pump or by the cost of crude. Energy costs are rising in all sectors both in the US and around the world. Rising energy prices affect not just transportation and electrical costs but everything that is manufactured, grown or shipped. Vacation plans are put on hold and airlines totter on the brink of bankruptcy; food prices rise while restaurants suffer from lack of customers. Idiot politicians demand emergency reserves be tapped while blocking attempts to drill off shore or in an insignificant corner of frozen wasteland most of them couldn't find on a map. With all the hoopla about energy the global warming crisis has mostly been forced off the front pages and evening news casts—the news media always likes the next crisis more than the previous one.
Not only are the pundits and politicians caterwauling, even Texas oilmen are getting into the energy independence through renewable green technology business. T. Boone Pickens, not previously known for his environmental sensitivity, has declared, “as imports grow and world prices rise, the amount of money we send to foreign nations every year is soaring. At current oil prices, we will send $700 billion dollars out of the country this year alone — that's four times the annual cost of the Iraq war. Projected over the next 10 years the cost will be $10 trillion—it will be the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.“ (For more see the comment "the Pickens Plan" below).
The Resilient Earth Plan
As we stated in The Resilient Earth, the world's energy needs can not be met using renewable energy alone and eventually we need to stop using fossil fuels altogether, even fuels as clean burning as natural gas. Don't misunderstand, people will be needing gas, oil and even coal to burn for the next half century even under the best of conditions, but the goal for mankind must be to break the non-renewable, fossil fuel habit once and for all.
While powering cars with propane, as Mr. Pickens wishes to do, could significantly reduce CO2 emissions, plugin hybrids and eventually full electrics would be even better. The problem is find a reliable, clean source of energy to power the hybrids and electrics—unfortunately, renewables on their own fall short: there is a green energy gap. And that is where both Mr. Pickens and President Obama fall short, neither have workable proposals for expanding baseload generating capacity. The main thing missing from the Pickens Plan and the Obama administration's energy policy is the dreaded N word—nuclear power. Here is the outline of our plan from Chapter 18 of TRE:
Satisfying the world's need for clean, non-polluting energy is a gigantic problem—but not an insolvable one. The future will no doubt provide technological breakthroughs, though what form these will take, and when they will emerge, cannot be predicted. In the meantime, we need to apply the best available technology to solve the problem. Already sig- nificant advances are being made in aviation, automotive, and power storage technologies. Wind, geothermal and hydroelectric generation can help ease the demand for green energy, but will not be able to solve the problem on their own. Solar can help as well, but barring dramatic reductions in cost, it will remain a minor energy source. Even with optimistically high efficiency improvements (10-20%), the hard truth is the world must turn to nuclear power—at least as a bridging technology until better solutions become available. Here are the main points of our plan:
- Use renewable energy where economically viable. This includes hydroelectric, geothermal and wind power.
- Aggressively pursue the development of hybrid transportation technologies. This includes trains, buses, trucks and automobiles.
- Build only energy efficient new buildings and homes. Utilize both passive and active solar heating and power. Use renewable building resources such as timber from managed forests.
- Overhaul national and continental power grids. Switch to DC transmission and add off-peak storage systems to make the most productive use of variability in wind and solar power.
- Actively work on improving solar power technology, both on Earth and in space.
- Rapidly expand nuclear power capacity. Adopt safe recycling of spent nuclear fuel and advanced reactors.
- Develop synthetic fuels for aviation and other uses from environmental carbon capture and hydrogen produced by nuclear thermal disasociation.
These are things we can and should do today. There are also things we should not pursue. These include biofuels, “clean” coal and tapping methane ice deposits. The potential return on these technologies are poor, or the potential for environmental disaster exceeds any possible gain.
In these times of heightened eco-anxiety it has become fashionable to express concerns for the fate of our planet and all its creatures. Much of this public posturing is disingenuous and, in some cases, opportunistic boosterism for hidden agendas and other unrelated causes (see chapter 15) . We, however, remain optimistic that mankind's energy problems—and hence the global warming crisis—can be overcome with a combination of rational science, workable technology and patience.
Patience is one of the things significantly lacking from both the global warming debate and the current energy flap. Humanity has been known to take on long term projects and see them to completion—building the pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China or building a spaceship and voyaging to the Moon come to mind. But for some current day politicians any effort that doesn't yield immediate results is deemed useless. When people suggest we should drill for oil and gas off the American coast or in the shale deposits of the Midwest the refrain is “we won't get a drop of oil for 10 years!” Do these folks not plan on being around in 10 years? Do they think that we will no longer require energy in the form of oil and gas in a decade? Get real.
Humanity will still be using oil and gas come 2050, even if we have tripled our use of clean, safe nuclear power, our highways are populated by hyper efficient plugin hybrids and electric cars, and we get the full 20% of electric power optimistically forecast by the Pickens Plan. In the coming days we will present the facts and figures to back these statements up but, if you are anxious for answers right now, please click on the link to “The Book Online” and read The Resilient Earth. Better still, click on the image of the book cover and buy your own copy of TRE from Amazon.com.