The generally accepted equation for solving our global climate problem is simple—at least if you remove as a factor the web of human expectations and beliefs as well as the network of infrastructure and supply chains that keep most of the world’s 7 billion people alive. This solution, which, it is also assumed, would alleviate any coming shortage of fossil fuels, is to end our dependence on oil, coal, and natural gas. Or to put it more simply yet, the solution (and really the only one) is to stop burning fossil fuels. Once you put us humans back into the equation, this becomes a far more difficult nut to crack--more difficult, in fact than even our most sophisticated climate scientists and climate activists seem to understand. The nearly universally recognized formula can be arrived at by following a handful of different approaches, all of which involve making fossil fuels less attractive and alternative energy more, whether through cap and trade, fee and dividend, tax credits, or government investment and rebates. While it is usually recognized that people will have to change their behavior, this usually amounts to choosing a different sort of car, changing out light bulbs, choosing paper over plastic, and, most significantly, spending enough time screening our congressional candidates so that we might free our government from the chokehold of big oil and other fossil fuel producers, whose influence on congress and the White House have indeed created an economic climate with few regulations on the one hand, and huge subsidies on the other. The problem, in large part, is described as a political one, and one moreover in which political liberals can feel at least somewhat safer on this small sliver of moral highground.
I think all these “changes” are worth pursuing. But the scale of change they can accomplish--as long as we maintain our basic liberal, middle-class expectations--is almost always overestimated. Consider, as an example, James Hansen’s advocacy of a “fee and dividend” system. Hansen is perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on climate change and has carefully calculated what turns out to be a sobering assessment of our current predicament. More specifically he has called for a drastic decrease in our carbon emissions by about 80%. By his calculations, which are probably the most reliable ones we have, our only hope to avoid runaway climate change (the sort that will make the Earth indistinguishable from Venus) is to phase out coal-fired power plants immediately while imposing a fee on all fossil fuels. This fee, Hansen believes, will remove the main barrier to our use of renewable energy: the simple fact that they are more expensive than fossil fuels to the consumer. With fossil fuels prices more highly (commensurate with their non-subsidized “true cost”) consumer will now be more likely to pay for the equivalently priced renewable energy, driving demand and spurring innovation and scaled production of wind turbines, solar panels, and efficient electric cars. Thus Hansen concludes,
How can we fix the problem? The solution necessarily will increase the price of fossil fuel energy. We must admit that. In the end, energy efficiency and carbon-free energy can surely be made less expensive than fossil fuels, if fossil fuels’ cost to society in included. The difficult part is that we must make the transition with extraordinary speed if we are to avert climate disaster. (208-9; emphasis added)
Surely this is possible. Surely. Unfortunately Hansen does not know how; nor does he make rudimentary calculations to test this certainty. But surely it can be done.
I sympathize with Hansen, who has spent considerable time trying to explain to governments around the world how urgent the situation is and knows better than anyone how difficult a barrier to change something as simple and painless—at least when compared to the impending climate disaster--as paying a bit more for our energy is. He is fighting such a huge uphill battle that I understand his reluctance or inability to steepen the grade or jeopardize any of his scant public traction with a description of the real changes necessary to cut our emissions by enough to give our children and grandchildren a fighting chance. But a false solution won’t help us either. For Hansen is, mistaken in his belief that the main obstacle to a transition to alternative, renewable, carbon-free energy is one of policy and politics. This is sadly ironic, given Hansen’s scientific credentials. For the true obstacle is one that can be best identified through science and mathematics.
Thus Hansen, and nearly everyone else in our civilization who would be capable of such calculations, participates in a trend illustrated by our earlier examination of way the notion of “infinite” or “limitless” has been bandied about over the past several centuries: that some sorts of beliefs or gut senses regarding scale seem so obviously true that they don’t require any sort of calculation or verification. In this case, it is the belief that it is possible, theoretically and practically, for the amount of energy (not to mention the quality) we obtain from fossil fuels to be replaced by some sort of combination of solar, wind, and biofuels. Hansen’s faith, which is fairly ecumenical amongst our various knowledge makers, is illustrated by one simple phrase in the passage cited above: “carbon-free energy can surely be made less expensive than fossil fuels.” This language is a kin to a “tell” in poker players. A phrase like this—“there must be a way,” “it is certainly possible,” “surely we will find some way”—can in fact be seen in nearly every such plan to end our addiction to fossil fuels by replacing the work they do with substitutes which are assumed to be capable of performing the same sort of work at the same scale. In a similar vein, Thom Hartmann assures us that “no doubt, new technological innovations and, over a time, a transfer from fossil fuel energy to renewable sources such as sun, wind, and geothermal will have the potential to continue the ‘expansion’ of the world” (Threshold 143). In his much heralded Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, described by the New Your Times Book Review as “relentlessly logical,” Jeffrey Sachs does in fact relent when it comes to supporting his faith in renewable energy: “with improved technologies, however, solar power will eventually compete favorably with fossil fuel power” (44); “we can reasonably expect nonfossil energy sources to provide a meaningful and growing fraction of the world’s energy supply”(102). Concerning what these new technologies might possibly be and what reasons make these expectations reasonable, however, Sachs offers no evidence, resting instead just on the assumption that surely this can be done.
In all fairness, the belief that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels does not, of course, originate entirely from futuristic fantasy or science fiction. This is not a kin to suggesting that Star Trek style teletransportation is just around the corner. Technology does exist to convert wind, sun, waves, and tides into electricity. Most pocket calculators have a tiny solar cell on them. Diesel engines can run on vegetable oil with little conversion necessary, and ethanol is regularly added to our petroleum. The technology is itself becoming increasingly pedestrian and capable of being mass-produced.
Hopes for a total societal transition in this direction are, however, checked simply by looking at scale, which, along with an understanding of other basic limitations that we will discuss in later chapters, suggests that we will be hard-pressed to replace even a ¼ of our total energy diet with any combination of energy sources other than fossil fuels. We can get an initial sense of the scale of the problem simply by examining how much of our current energy comes from renewable sources, a number that is almost always overestimated by anyone who hasn’t made it their personal project to track down the relevant data. Of the 550 exejoules of energy consumed in 2010, it can be broken down into its source as follows: “80% was provided by fossil fuels, 11.3% by bio-energy, mainly from wood consumption, 5.5% from nuclear, 2.2% from hydro and <0.4% from other renewable energy sources,” namely wind, solar, and geothermal.
The last category (wind, solar, geothermal) is the one we are most concerned with, or should be, if we are proposing a transition away from fossil fuels. While hydroelectric provides a good chunk of energy at 2.2%, and does so fairly efficiently, it is not scalable; all the best sites have been exploited, often with great ecological damage. Nuclear has obvious problems and is facing the challenge of peak uranium. Burning waste wood is worth doing, but deforestation poses a grave risk to our atmospheric carbon levels and, quite frankly, burning all the wood on Earth would barely make a dent in our burning of fossil fuels. Thus the most sane hope is for tremendous increases in wind and solar, with a few exajoules from geothermal and tidal power added in, for they are scalable and the collateral damage they inflict is considerably less than most other forms of renewable energy.
Despite all the enthusiasm for solar and wind visible at trade shows, economic development plans, in political speeches and the glossy pictures said to represent our diverse and bountiful energy future displayed in magazines such as Harper’s or The Atlantic, solar and wind provide less than ½ of 1% of world energy, and a similar fraction of U.S. energy. To put the amount of power currently supplied by scalable renewable energy in other terms, they provide the equivalent of about 1 million barrels of oil per day out of our total energy diet of over 200 million barrels per day. Viewed graphically in terms of a history of world energy use, they barely register. But can production of wind turbines and solar panels be quickly ramped up? How much energy could we produce with them if we made it a national and world priority? This is a difficult question to answer, and it impossible to prove a negative, such as that it would be impossible to ramp them up as fast as oil and other fossil fuels deplete; but we can look at their track record to get a sense of the way things are trending. For instance, since 1970, the amount of power that comes from wind and solar has gone from .03 exajoules to 1.7. That is a substantial increase if looked at in isolation. But that rise of 1.4 exajoules will be rather disenheartning to the renewable energy enthusiast if compared to the rise in output from coal, oil, and natural gas over the same time period: 92.58 additional exajoules from coal, 80.66 from oil, and 82.26 from natural gas. This adds up to an increase between 1970 and 2010 of 255.5 exajoules from fossil fuels, compared, again, to 1.4 from wind and solar.
But these numbers do not seem to have the impact that I believe they should, or at least not an immediate impact. For when I present this sort of evidence in an energy talk, almost never do I fail to get the same sort of response. Yes, it seems like an uphill battle, but we put a man on the moon, built the atom bomb, won two world wars by all coming together. There’s no good reason why we can’t do this again. There must be some way to make it happen if we put our national will behind this program, not to mention the godlike genius of all our entrepreneurs.
Perhaps. But we should nevertheless try to understand just what would be involved in this sort of transition. Fortunately, Tom Murphy, a physicist who teaches and conducts research at the University of California, San Diego, has done just that in series of posts on his blog entitled, “Do the Math,” in which he does, focusing most frequently on the issue of scale. More specifically, as his blog’s subtitle suggests, he uses “physics and estimation to assess energy, growth, options.” What, he asks, would an electric grid run on wind or solar look like? What sort of battery storage would be necessary to deal with the intermitancy of renewable energy--the fact that days can pass with light wind and overcast skies? Would we shut down our hospitals, airports, and factories during these periods? How much land would be required to run our transportion fleet on biofuels? But what do things look like if one actually does the math, instead of proceeding as if these problems have been solved if only we can get Republicans and ExxonMobil out of the way?
As Murphy describes it, he wasn’t initially a skeptical about the potential of alternative energy, just someone whose professional training encouraged him to make a detailed analysis of various types of renewable energy. As he puts it,
It was by teaching a course on energy in 2004 that I first became aware of the enormous challenges facing our society this century. In preparing for the course, I was initially convinced that I would identify a sensible and obvious path forward involving energy from solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, tides, waves, ocean currents, etc. Instead, I came out dismayed by the hardships or inadequacies on all fronts.
True to his scientific training, Murphy is careful not to overstate the conclusions of his evidence. He does not rule out the possibility that a renewable electrical grid and transportation system might be created. “Obviously, he notes, “the `exits` here are solar, wind, nuclear fission, hydroelectricity, geothermal, biofuels, wave, tidal, etc.” But the fact that they exist does not prove their viability to perform the work that takes the equivalent of 220 million barrels of oil a day to perform. “The fact that we can rattle off a lot of names for alternative energy sources,” he continues, “comforts some people enough to skip the precaution of guaranteeing the viability of those exits when they are needed.” (The tendency to “rattle off” a list of “promising” technologies, can be seen in most accounts of our alleged coming transition to a sustainable version of the American way of life). But Murphy will not skip that precaution, demanding that we consider how many solar panels that will be and how much battery space this will all take
The numbers that Murphy presents, however, make the notion of “hardship” or “inadequacy” sound a bit understated. . Take, for instance, photovoltaic power, the source that Murphy believes to be most promising. If we were to use solar power converted to electricity to supply our world energy, however, we would need millions of sq. miles of photovoltaic panels. This, he calculates,
represents more than all the paved area in the world. This troubles me. I’ve criss-crossed the country many times now, and believe me, there is a lot of pavement. The paved infrastructure reflects a tremendous investment that took decades to build. And we’re talking about asphalt and concrete here: not high-tech semiconductor. I truly have a hard time grasping the scale such a photovoltaic deployment would represent. And I’m not even addressing storage here. So while it’s physically possible, and the efficiency is sufficient to allow it, it remains a daunting challenge.
As I calculate it, moreover, if this were done with standard thickness solar panels, this would create about 30 stacks stretching from the Earth to the Moon. It is unlikely that there are enough of all the necessary rare-earth elements in existence on the Earth.
The conclusions for biofuels are no more encouraging. After calculating the yield per acre for biodiesel and ethanol he concludes, “We’re not about to give up eating, so in the simplest analysis, we would have to find an additional cropland approximately ten times the area of our current cropland. For scale, Earth’s land totals about 140 million square kilometers. About 50 million are classified as agricultural (includes permanent grazing land), and 13 million as arable.” Thus we would need to turn every bit of our global landmass to biofuel production. “On what planet,” asks Murphy, “would we find enough land for sufficient biofuel crops?”
The same story holds true for tidal power. While it can work well in a few select locations with a very specific land formation, if the world’s most promising “dream” sights and future development prospects are added up their total energy output equals about ¼ of 1% of current world energy demand. Unless about 400 sites have been overlooked, Murphy suggests, tidal power will not provide the sort of “baseload” replacement for coal that is promised in the alternative energy fantasy playbook.
One of the great advantages of fossil fuels is that they come complete with self-storage. Whereas solar power requires current flows of sunlight that can be captured only at its moment of arrival, as is the case with wind, which is a delayed convection response to recent sunlight and the heat it generates, fossil fuels are just that—fossilized sunlight, packed into a stable and concentrated form that is there, ready to use on demand but that can sit idle for as long as anyone could possibly want. Thus plugging these other instant and fleeting energy sources into an infrastructure built around self-storing energy in the form of fuels, will require a gigantic secondary storage system or, in other words, some sort of battery. While one constantly hears of allegedly break-through battery technology with lithium, cadmium, or nickel, Murphy suggests that lead-acid batteries are the ones most capable of being scaled up in a practical time frame. Lead is also far more prevalent than the other metals necessary for battery production. The exercise is, at any rate, instructive, or as Murphy puts it, “I nonetheless find it immensely instructive (and daunting) to understand what it would mean to scale a mature technology to meet our needs.” As it turns out, the size of battery necessary for the U.S. alone would have a volume of 4.4 billion cubic meters and would require 5 trillion kilograms of lead. To put this in perspective, known world reserves of lead would add up to only 80 million tons (with 7 million in the U.S.), adding up to only 2% of the necessary material to make this imaginary battery. A battery of the necessary size would cost ½ of the U.S. GDP in lead alone, if the lead were available, which is relevant to the extent that lead-acid is the cheapest approach we have: piecing together scores of smaller scale solutions would certainly cost more.
And so Murphy runs through all the known sources of alternative energy that are paraded in front of a gullible public ready to believe in the clean, green future that lies in wait for us as soon as we come to our senses and finally decide to kick the oil, coal, and natural gas habit. Even after doing the math, Murphy remains more optimistic about the potential of alternative energy than I am, but is concerned about complacency and the sense that the technological problems have already been solved. As he summarizes it, “To be clear, I’m not trying to discourage pursuit of any viable alternative to fossil fuels. What I do want to discourage is the sense of comfort we get because we’ve heard of lots of solutions to our energy problems (tidal, wave, geothermal, energy from trash, etc.). When we imagine a smorgasbord of options in front of us, we think we’ll never go hungry. But when the plate arrives and it’s a raisin here, a crumb of bread there, and a speck of cheese there, the variety alone is no longer a source of satisfaction.”
The daunting challenge of scale alone does not prove that a global, consumer-based, industrial economy cannot be run on wind and solar, or some other as yet undeveloped power source. Though it is easy to understand why these numbers nor the immensity of the challenge are not highlighted when President Obama hopefully speaks of powering our factories and cars on biofuels, wind, and solar. The optimist in me (yes, there is one) likes to believe that when these numbers become widely known, perceptions about what is possible, not to mention likely, will begin to shift. But even someone like Tom Murphy and his carefully researched and documented numbers, presented complete with all the relevant calculations cannot shake the faith of the true believers. Murphy discovered this based on reader response to a post in which he honestly and sincerely attempted to assess the plausibility of mining outer-space for energy and actually does rule it out:
The faith is strong that technologies are already in hand and that we just need NASA to get out of the way so the commercial bounty of the sky will open up and we’ll finally be off to the races. I myself refrained from ruling out such a future, but the mere suggestion that we may fail to expand into space was clearly considered by many to be ridiculous—as if such a fate is predestined: as sure as the sun will tomorrow. Sociological impulses tugged at my physicist bones, tempting me to study exactly how such an unshakable faith has been implanted in so many obviously smart people. For these folks, the arc of the future is as sure as the historical progression from the Dark Ages until now.
This, of course, is where we pick up. As is the consistent case throughout this book the questions, “is the American way of life sustainable” is relatively easy to answer. Far more complex are the multiple layers of belief and denial that we have built up and that form the backbone of our national narratives, political myths, and economic expectations. These expectations may have been first conceived when Columbus wrote to the Queen of Spain that he had discovered all the gold and slaves she could ever want, and were planted firmly in the ground as early white settlers looked out upon a land of great abundance and seemingly infinite capacity. But they have also been reinforced throughout the oil age with the sense of omnipotence and invincibility that it has given us. As it turns out, though, a misunderstanding of the oil age, a misreading of its history, accounts for much of this faith, the faith, ironically, that we can kick the oil habit by way of technology and politics alone.