Sunday, January 8, 2012

The lonely life of the pan-energist

Florida has good, not great solar potential

I like nuclear energy (the more so since reading Burton Richter's Beyond Smoke and Mirrors), and I like Brave New Climate and their relentless championing of nuclear energy.

When I read articles like "Solar Power in Florida," though, it makes me feel lonely. Because I do not have a power source to champion. I am not a wind-and-solar guy, nor am I with the nuclear-or-bust folks. As long as it doesn't spew carbon into the atmosphere, I really don't care what it is. This not-caring rests on several bedrock principles:

1. There really are no silver bullets to cut emissions and stop climate change. Everybody admits that, but not everybody really believes it. Whether or not you agree with the details of the wedge analysis, it's deeper truth is this: there is no single technology, strategy, or breakthrough that can cut carbon emissions by 80-90% from current levels while sustaining economic growth. But many hands make light work.

2. Nothing is more obvious in the world of energy than that different technologies thrive in different circumstances. Some places are really sunny; some enjoy a nice steady wind; some have plentiful water to cool a great big pile of fissionables. Some places are ideal for large, more efficient plants; some places are way off the grid and only need a smidge of power anyway. There are great geothermal sites in Iceland; there are mighty rivers coursing through the Northwest.

Wind energy potentials

Places like Japan have already picked the low-hanging fruit of efficiency; places like the Eastern United States have a giant source of "free energy" that they can tap any time they want to by choosing sensible measures (higher mileage standards, green building codes, etc.) to implement greater efficiency. 

Japan gets two-and-a-half times the economic output from a ton of CO2

Our energy present is messy; our energy future will be messy too. Often arguments about existing sources or promising future directions get caught up in what technology has the most promise, the greatest scalability, the cheapest implementation. But the reality of energy generation is that the answer to that question will not only depend on technological advances no one can accurately predict, but on who you are, where you are, and what kind of power you need at what times.

3. There is nothing in the political universe that is as important to me as action on climate change. Some people I respect want to yoke climate change to a more general shift in our politics towards greater equality, less consumerism, more respect for the environment and a smaller human footprint. I might agree with George Monibot that the general anti-progressive trend in politics is to be deplored. But that is not the argument. I am for a wedge solutions to climate change, not climate change as a wedge issue. This is about the survival of our civilization. Everything else is secondary. So I have no problem (well, I do have a problem, but I will accept) our remaining a selfish, consumer-driven, greedy and unequal society, to the extent that we can find a way to do that without shooting ourselves in the head. Give me plentiful no-carbon energy and I will happily waste it like a good American and defer the rest of the green agenda for another day. While we don't have that, we need to think about conserving energy and becoming more efficient, and I'm fine with that too. If the no-carbon energy kills birds or generates waste or floods valleys, then I'm for facing those consequences directly and incorporating them into the cost-benefit analysis, without trying to prove that one source is clearly superior and all the others are useless or repugnant. Which you would think would be the default position for everyone but, surprisingly, not so.

COMING SOON: How the hit piece on the potential of solar in Florida misled.


  1. What's wrong with focusing the next decade heavily on the stuff from the McKinsey abatement curve that has a negative cost?

    By the time we do that, the negative costs of AGW will be much clearer to everyone so we'll have the will to pay for the more expensive stuff.

    Does this just not drive the costs down fast enough, or is it that the BRIC countries will have locked in too much carbon emissions over that time?


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