How do we clean up our power?

Most of us are by now across the problems humanity faces around global warming and its most probable cause – humans burning ‘fossil’ fuels. basically we have been returning carbon to the atmosphere that had been sequestered deep in the crust during massive die backs in the late Permian at the end of the Paleozoic era. The Earth was far hotter in those days and it seems we are discovering in a massive open air experiment why that was. The atmosphere contained far more C02 and the greenhouse effect (which incidentally was only discovered by our study of the planet Venus) heated the planet far hotter than today.
So how do we clean up our energy sources so as to stop driving this effect? The solutions divide generally into

  • power-down – return to a simpler life with greater local and personal responsibility and productivity. See also Permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren,
  • relocalisation – softer version continuing more of current lifestyles but without most of the long distance transport that characterises our current economy and with a great many efficiencies to drive energy and carbon use down,
  • technofix – new discoveries and technologies that could make the problem go away without average individuals having to significantly adjust the way they live.

The more extreme versions of these have serious problems but anything but a major global concerted effort at this point would be courting catastrophe. There are no comfortable busines-as-usual options for humanity this century. Power down is almost certainly not realistic without major world famine with all the human dieback, war and destruction that would imply. It is usually presented as the soft, natural alternative – and I believe stringly that we have to adopt what Mollison and Holmgren are saying where ever possible – but the numbers do not fit this as a global solution on its own. We must do it but we must do more. Relocalisation is an implied subset of power down so obviously the savings on transport also need to be on the table. The sad thing is that while we need to implement every possible efficiency to eliminate energy waste and we need to do it with as many non-carbon, especially non-fossil, sources as possible. We cannot realistically expect our civilization to power down, cut production, food, heat etc without a global economic and martial spasm. We need to find technical solutions as well to finish off the portfolio of efficiencies and green energy sources. Fortunately there are some promising ones, although a lot of research is also going into not very promising ones such as geosequestration that may well never work but would be a tantalising magic bullet solution for the fossil fuel industry.

It seems that the most promising technologies for energy generation such as solar, wind, tidal, hydro and geothermic will be brilliant in limited applications but are bounded by time (when sun, wind & tides are available) and by space (where geothermal or hydro) are available. A heavy adoption of them through a good distribution grid – which we already have – can actually meet a large portion of current energy needs. But what of the sector that remains? This is what pundits usually call “base load power”. The power that we can simply turn on or off as needed, all the time. Right now that is nearly all the power we consume and it comes mainly from coal with a small amount of Uranium nuclear fission.
This leaves us with a number of concurrent courses to pursue:

  1. Bring ecological costs into the global economy with international carbon caps and trading:
  • End indirect subsidies of fossil fuel industries and even “penalise” them with carbon debits. This is not really a tax or a penalty. It is simply exposing fossil fuel energy sources to the full cost of ownership – including global environmental costs – so that sensible economic choices will guide us increasingly away from fossil carbon to less ‘costly’ energy sources.
  • Actively encourage green power sources but do not shelter them from their true costs – including environmental ones – so as to avoid distortions like forests being cleared (releasing megatonnes of C02) in order to grow palm oil as a biofuel ‘to save C02 release’ as is currently happening.
  1. Find ways to drive relocalisation of our economies and prefer goods and services with lower transport overheads. This may occur naturally with global carbon trading driving fossil based transport out of the reach of lower value distribution.
  2. Proliferate better use of all resources. Adopt more permaculture principles in our lifestyles and economies, utilise wind, solar, geothermal & other local power sources where ever available as well as adopting any possible micro-generation and grid sharing efficiencies possible so that any local heat source, waste outflow, garbage dump etc contributes power back to the grid.
  3. Identify and invest in longer term technology fixes that promise growth beyond the survival mode we must adopt in the coming decades. We can expect an ongoing *need* for power that is as cheap, abundant and clean as possible for the projectable future. I have written on these elsewhere but they include such projects as nuclear fusion power (especially He-3) cheap access to space resources (e.g. space elevators) geosequestration (OK maybe it could work one day but don’t bet our lives on it) along with a host of other projects that can deliver stepwise improvements.
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~ by clauswitz on February 20, 2008.

2 Responses to “How do we clean up our power?”

  1. Great article! interesting ideas…

  2. Anent says : I absolutely agree with this !

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