Having started a correspondence within our group
on the DailyKos energy proposal for the Democratic party, Energize America
, I forwarded some great commentary from Chris Green and Ken Caldeira to Jerome Guillet, who has been posting most of the drafts of the plan on the DailyKos site. We exchanged some further information and it prompted me to write down the following list of conclusions that I believe our group has come to over the past year and a half, on what the real options are and what we can do from here.
From our analysis and discussion I believe we've come to consensus on a few things, some of which are somewhat contrary to conventional political or "progressive" wisdom:
- the optimists are too optimistic: Pacala and Socolow, Amory Lovins, etc. paint too rosy a picture of the current economic state of technical solutions. Yes there are things that could technically make energy use much more efficient or really produce new sources of energy for us - but most of these are currently far too expensive. There's a critical need for much larger-scale R&D and large-scale demonstration, and (subsidized) real deployments, to get the potential technologies to the point where they are actually cost-effective: thin-film solar, battery technology for electric vehicles, new transportation solutions, and perhaps even fusion, or at least advanced fission reactors. Once they are truly cost-competitive, they will sweep fossil fuels away in a natural technological replacement cycle.
- the peak-oil pessimists are too pessimistic: as Gov. Schweitzer points out, we have plenty of fossil fuels in the ground to last us many more years, at least in the form of coal. But there's a problem...
CO2 reduction has to be the central goal of a new energy policy; all the rest can only be temporary solutions, and there's little sense in spending trillions of dollars on temporary solutions. And all the real long-term solutions here involve electric power (see below)
hydrogen and ethanol and biodiesel in particular are distractions. Any or all might be real solutions to the problem of storing energy efficiently in a transportable form - but they should compete and be funded on an even basis with advanced battery technology and be viewed on those grounds; biofuels at least as grown in the US do not provide much net energy, certainly not anywhere near sufficient to power the nation. Hydrogen of course provides no net energy at all.
- centralized electricity generation is almost always going to be more cost-effective than distributed, sometimes much more cost-effective - (there is a minor exception for combined heat-and-power systems but a lot of that goes away averaged over annual usage variations and taking proper accounting of the lesser thermodynamic value of heat energy); long-distance transmission is costly though, so the ideal arrangement is to have not dozens, and not millions, but on the order of thousands of generating stations. Much as we in fact have now in the US.
- there are, in the end, just five zero-carbon technologies likely to have the scale to meet future energy needs: nuclear fission, fusion, solar, wind, and space - the latter referring to the proposed mechanisms for capturing some of that vast stream of energy that would otherwise miss this planet. Solar (on the ground) and wind are not expected to be able to supply more than about 20% of demand without a substantial investment in energy storage or long-distance transmission systems as well, so storage/transmission is a sixth (or sixth and seventh) technology that needs investment focus. Advances in storage, and possibly also in transmission, would also greatly enable the transition away from liquid fossil fuels for transportation. Of these, fission and wind are the most advanced in cost effectiveness and existing scale; solar is catching up and may be on a par with wind with only a few tens of billions of dollars worth of further investment. Energy storage has also made recent leaps with battery technology; the other areas also deserve some funding with the goal of real practical energy solutions in mind.
So that's the focus we'd like to see in a perfect energy plan; political reality suggests that biofuels and coal will unfortunately be forced into the picture as well, and some of the things with real potential will be delayed. Nevertheless, I believe the above reflects the underlying reality of the challenge we face.
Created: 2006-05-26 16:23:20 by Arthur Smith