The greener, the sooner.
(originally published on Mo.be)
Large quantities of ink have, are, and likely will be spilled on the impact of man’s voracious appetite for energy. So much so that the ink itself, if not properly disposed of, might form an environmental hazard in its own right.
Jokes aside, the debate is heating up, no longer centered on whether climate change due to manmade emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses is real, but on whether and how we can stop or attenuate the danger. While a myriad ideas and technologies abound, pundits disagree on the technical and political feasibility of a timely turnaround or, put differently, whether populations and their elected or anointed policymakers are willing or able to pay for a clear conscience and like skies in time to avert catastrophe.
The obstacles, according to some, seem far to outweigh the opportunities and benefits of changing the way we’ve done things so far. A cursory glance at the annual reports and stockholder presentations of hydrocarbon energy companies might easily hoodwink one into believing coal, oil and gas will necessarily continue to form the lion’s share of the global energy mix for decades to come. However, a closer look at budding and current technologies, markets and policies suggest in the tug-of-war between green and less keen, the perimeter is quickly shifting. Unfulfilled promise.
Alternative energy sources have always been around in one form or another. The first horse-drawn buggies sans-horse were mostly electric for example. People preferred them to the noisy, smelly gasoline-powered cousins that in addition were cumbersome to start up and required such complex hassles as hand-crank start-up and manual gear shifting. The discovery of cheap Texan crude, and the electric starter motor in early 1900’s finally tipped the scale toward the internal combustion engine.
Nuclear fission energy promised abundant, and emissions-free power from the fifties onward, but never quite managed to be cheap, despite lavish government subsidies, loan guarantees, and capital write-offs. Potential-, near-, and actual catastrophes, the cost and lack of societal acceptance of burying nuclear waste, should have sealed the case long ago. Illusive fusion technology has been a few decades away since the idea was first launched a few decades ago.
All the while cheap hydrocarbons such as coal, oil, and gas continued and continue to form the backbone of the developed world’s energy infrastructure. Aware of the geo-political dangers of depending on unstable or unsavory regimes for sustenance, and the growing cost of freak weather occurrences widely believed to be linked to greenhouse gasses have rekindled interest in alternative technologies old and new.
Skeptics will often judge a single technology on its potential merit as a climate-saver, or oil-killer. “Wind will never be able to produce all the power needed currently, let alone a multitude thereof when China begins to watch in stead of merely making plasma televisions sets.”
However true, the argument, left to its own devices, fails to take into account important evolutions taking place beyond the seemingly exponential increase in global energy demand. Diversification. No single alternative energy source can be a panacea. Current trends point to an ever-widening array of fast-maturing technologies currently being rolled out, or already available. The line-up of existing or just-round-the-corner technologies to char your toast, or heat baths and living rooms is nigh infinite. From giant wind farms to rooftop micro-turbines, from large-scale solar plants to palm-sized photovoltaic panels, heat or methane-extraction from biomass, tidal and wave energy, utility-scale or villa-sized geo-thermal, etc… The list goes on. Not metaphorically, it really does.
The intermittent nature of some of these new energy sources makes storage and supply management an integral part of the story. Here too, a wide array of solutions are already being applied. Large solar plants have started using molten salts such as saltpeter (a non-flammable, nontoxic material consisting mostly of fertilizer) to preserve day-time heat to run turbines at night. On blustery days excess wind energy is used to pump water uphill creating hydro-energetic potential for calmer times. On moments of low demand, surplus electricity might compress air to spin turbines when millions of families prepare their evening meals. Pessimists claim green energy proponents and investors misguidedly expect information technology’s Moore’s law, to apply equally to green energy technology.
Unlike the cost of processing power, the price of green power cannot be expected to halve over every 18-month period. However, the two are inextricably linked. Cheap computing power forms the linchpin of for instance automating management of decentralized energy production and consumption. Your electric or hybrid car might for example, on moments of peak demand, feed electricity back to your house or your neighbor’s stove. Cheap information technology is further proving a boon for designing better-shaped, better-positioned wind turbines.
The high-octane prediction modeling needed to line up demand and supply in a seamless fashion has fast become more dependable and affordable. Tipping point. Prices of photovoltaic panels, the wafers that turn sunlight directly into juice for your iPod or washing machine, are coming down at Moore-like speeds. Smart government policies, such as Germany’s subsidies and feed-in tariffs have spawned both a market and an industry thriving on economies of scale they wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. Recently reduced government largesse on the other hand are hurting western producers, now forced to cede ground to cheap Chinese panels.
Very quietly the subsidies have done what they were designed for: To break the chicken-and-egg situation where high prices meant low demand meant high prices. The industry is gearing up for a perfect storm, according to some analysts 3 to 5 years away, of photovoltaic energy reaching grid-parity, i.e. a unit-price comparable to or lower than gas or coal. In a true Copernican shift, our lives will start to veritably revolve around the sun. The next thing. Western producers, outgunned by Chinese mass production will be relegated to researching higher-value products such as super-efficient panels for portable applications, flexible and lighter materials enabling integration of photovoltaics into a widening array of objects.
Gradually, as logic dictates, the energy that one consumes will increasingly be produced locally, if not by the device using the power itself, then by nearby sources like your building’s solar panels, micro wind turbine, or organic waste-processing equipment. Obstacles. The Malthusian increase in energy consumption that the Western world has seen in past centuries, is not a natural law. However, governments’ identification of certain energy sources as strategic, and the resulting favorable treatment of coal, petrol, gas, and nuclear power has created artificially low prices, biasing markets against efficiency. Many of these advantages are still in place.
Cash-strapped governments wishing to reexamine these handouts to what are essentially outdated industries will have to reckon, as they have, unsuccessfully until recently, with these powerful ingrained interests. Postponed for too long, the transition will be a painful one for many working in these old industries. Despite solar’s amazing promise, governments should not be tempted to do what they did before: to pick a specific “winner” among competing technologies. The energy specifications and prescriptions to industry and consumers should remain as broad as possible.
Eventually, cheaper, more efficient technologies will come to the fore. In the end, today’s champion is tomorrow’s dinosaur. From transitional to transformational. A global “renewables” industry is slowly taking the place of traditional so-called anti-industry advocates. In a world inhabited, and inhabitable by 7 to 8 billion people, classical resource extraction will never be cheap again. The economics of energy production based on abundant, free resources with no external cost born by all, are already developing their own inexorable momentum. Government or inter-government accords such as the follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol need merely to agree on fazing out support to coal, oil, and nuclear.
A global zero-carbon economy by 2050 is no pipe-dream. On a level playing field there’s just no competing with the sun.