The future of energy

The future of energy

This blog is about health. Mostly human health. But the health of the earth affects our health as well. Below is an article, “What Shall We Do?,” written for a local newspaper by my father, an atmospheric scientist for over 30 years. He has worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists with whom Al Gore has “shared” his recent nobel prize.The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report hasconfirmed previous studies of human influence on climate. Humans have beengenerating energy by burning plant remains since the stone age, from grassto wood to fossil fuels, and much of the residue (mainly carbon dioxide,or CO2) of this burning is accumulating in the atmosphere. We have now addedas much CO2 to the global atmosphere, from pole to pole, as the living earthadded to it after the end of the most recent ice age, and we continue to addmore. Recent data and modeling studies show this increased CO2 is warmingthe planet, and that the warming is rising above natural variability. Skepticswill continue to dispute this warming and its human cause, but their voiceswill become muted over time as the warming increases.So, what shall we do? …(And while we consider, the planet warms.)The advances of civilization in recent centuries have improved human lifeimmensely, and these advances depended on burning fossil fuels. We can nolonger imagine human civilization on this planet without sources of energycomparable to what fossil fuels provide. Less advantaged nations desire toimprove to the level of the leading nations, and this means more burning. Butwe are slowly realizing that the continued burning of these fuels will warmthe global climate beyond recognition. It is not a matter of running out offossil fuels; they will just get more expensive to mine and drill, but studiessuggest there is still sufficient amounts to fuel centuries more burning.So, what shall we do? …(And while we consider, the planet warms.)Many believe that so-called renewable sources of energy, namely those that donot burn fossil plant remains or are burning-neutral, will save civilization.Chief among them are wind, solar and biofuels. Concerning biofuels, how can wegenerate large amounts of them without seriously impacting food production?Already grain prices are rising from biofuel competition. We are farming mostof the arable land of earth already, so large expansion of biofuels isimpractical. Wind and solar have some promise, but as a large scale sourceof dependable energy, they have not produced. They can supplement but neverreplace large-scale energy production.So, what shall we do? …(And while we consider, the planet warms.)The life-blood of modern civilization is electricity. Electricity flowsthrough our wired-world like nerve impulses in living creatures. Sinceelectricity can be converted to other forms of energy, in particular motion,chemical and heat, as well as drive our electronic devices, civilizationcan stabilize climate if a non-burning way to generate large amounts ofelectricity is found. Wind and solar do generate electricity, but thesesources are dispersed and difficult to store. Modern civilization consistsof concentrated urban areas, where increasing numbers of people live. Weneed a concentrated non-burning source of electricity to feed the power grids,supplemented by dispersed sources of wind and solar. A dependable source ofnon-burning electricity would then be the basis for electrification of mostground transportation, thus reducing reliance on burning oil to move us around.So, what shall we do? …(And while we consider, the planet warms.)The 20th century saw some of the greatest breakthroughs in science, amongthem the unveiling of the secrets of the atom. This knowledge led first,unfortunately, to making and using atomic weapons. Later, heat from atomicpower was used to produce electricity, and the possibility of replacingfossil fuel electric power with atomic power was born. But the specter ofnuclear war, along with visceral and irrational fear of radioactivity, ledto public rejection of nuclear power. Thus, most peoples continued to burnplant remains for energy. Sequestering the burned plant residue is notpractical either. What will we do with the mountains of sequestered carbonresidue that now loft into the air after burning? Disposing this carbonwaste would make nuclear waste disposal look easy.So, what shall we do? …(And while we consider, the planet warms.)The scale of this problem is immense. Presently in the US, 20% of allelectricity is produced by about 100 nuclear power plants, many builtbefore the public turned away from nuclear power in the 1970s. If the USmade a national commitment not to build a single new coal-fired powerplant in the next 30 years, but rather replace them with nuclear powerplants, we would have to build more than 200 new nuclear power plants justto maintain present national electricity production. This means a newnuclear plant every few months on average for the next 30 years! Would webe willing to do this and to pay for it? If nuclear electric plants arerejected, what is the alternative? Exotic possibilities may tickle ourimagination, but they are unproven and their reliability unknown. Withoutelectricity, any large urban area would degenerate in a matter of daysinto a chaotic and lawless society. Civilization as we know it would end.So, what shall we do? …(And while we consider, the planet warms.)Conservation, hybrids and renewables are good and help in small ways, butthere is at present no large scale reliable energy source acceptable to theUS public that can replace burning fossil fuels. Many environmentalists haveromantic notions that renewables will still yet save civilization. Butconsider even the bold move by Governor Ritter of Colorado to promote 20%renewable contribution to electric energy by 2020. This is a noble causeworthy of support. But even if by 2020 this goal is achieved, then what?Given the track record of renewables to date, does anyone really believethey can replace ALL fossil fuel consumption for electricity by mid-century?Whether we admit it or not, fossil fuel use will be with us for a long time.The longer we delay in significantly increasing the only major alternativeto fossil fuel electric generation, namely nuclear, the more CO2 warmingwill result.So, what shall we do? …(And while we consider, the planet warms.)Take a walk some clear night and look at the stars, the ones you can seethrough the light pollution from burning fossil fuels. All these stars shineby nuclear energy. Much energy in the universe is nuclear. Even the earth isnuclear fallout from ancient stellar explosions. Heat deep in the earth isfrom radioactive decay of this nuclear fallout. Why should we not fullyembrace an energy source that most of the universe uses? Even solar energyis degraded nuclear energy after all, an energy that makes our entirecivilization possible by growing our food. Yes, there are issues with safety,security and waste disposal with nuclear energy that must be adequatelyaddressed. But if not nuclear, then what else? Nuclear alone will not savecivilization, but in combination with conservation, hybrids and renewables,excellent progress will be made towards climate stabilization. Let us finallyresolve to move from stone age burning to modern alternatives to generatingenergy, alternatives that will slow and hopefully halt global warming. Ourchildren and grandchildren deserve nothing less.