Energy at the Crossroads

Vaclav SmilVaclav Smil is a historian of technical advances -- particularly in the field of energy -- and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Over the years, Smil has written more than 25 books and many dozens of articles. In recent years he has been examining human uses of energy over past millenia. As Smil says, "My firm belief is that looking far ahead is done most profitably by looking far back."

His first conclusion is that energy systems change very slowly. The modern world today relies on machines that were all invented in the 1880s -- the steam turbine, the internal combustion engine, plus thermal and hydro-power for making electricity. These were supplemented in the 1930s and '40s by gas turbines and nuclear fission power. The photovoltaic solar cell for converting sunlight directly into electricity was theorized in 1839 but not actually created until 1954 -- and today, 54 years later, solar photovoltaic power remains a minuscule contributor to the world's energy needs.

From the stone age until the 1890s, humans relied mainly on biofuels. But Smil examines carefully, then dismisses, the dream of returning to large-scale energy systems derived from biomass (capturing sunlight in plants, then processing the plants to release energy) including ethanol. To provide the world's transportation fuels with the most efficient of these systems -- Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane -- would require a third of the planet's cultivated land, or nearly all the agricultural land in the tropics, Smil points out. Furthermore, such systems not only require too much land (thus disputing important ecosystem services), they also require too much nitrogen fertilizer -- so the ecological impact would be unacceptably large. Excessive human use of nitrogen fertilizer has been recognized as a global problem for more than a decade. (See Smil's paper on this and other human disturbances of global material cycles.)

Despite massive government subsidies, nuclear power has no obvious future, Smil believes. This results from a combination of things -- the rapid introduction of flawed reactor designs in the 1960s, the Chernobyl accident, the "serial failure" of fast-breeder reactors, the unsolved problem of nuclear waste, the unsolvable problem of terrorist threats involving nuclear material -- all producing dismal public acceptance of the technology (not to mention investor fear).

Nuclear fusion has been subsidized steadily at the rate of $250 million per year for the past 50 years, "with nothing practical to show for it," Smil observes. He believes it is "extremely unlikely" that nuclear fusion will play any significant role in future energy scenarios.

This leaves solar energy and fossil fuels.

sunlight reaching earthSmil points out that the sunlight reaching the surface of the earth is truly enormous compared to human energy demands -- something like 10,000 times as large as all human energy needs. But the resource is diffuse, not concentrated, so it will require 10 to 100 times as much physical space to use sunlight instead of fossil fuels (or 1000 to 10,000 times as much space, if we opt for growing biofuels). Still, direct conversion of solar energy into both low-temperature and high- temperature heat, plus electricity, "could supply a lasting, planet-wide foundation for non-fossil economies," Smil says.

Fossil fuels began supplying humans with more energy than biomass (wood, charcoal and crop residues) starting in the mid-1890s. However, if fossil fuels are contributing substantially to the problem of global warming because they emit carbon dioxide (CO2), then they must be phased out, the sooner the better, and the transition to solar power must proceed apace.

However, the fossil corporations have a different idea (shared by their allies in the chemical, automobile, railroad and mining corporations -- plus their loyal representatives in Congress and the White House, plus the Presidential candidates of both major parties). Their plan is an end-of-pipe solution -- to capture, compress into liquid, and bury carbon dioxide in the ground. Given growing public awareness of the large costs of global warming, this carbon-burial plan -- as far-fetched as it may be -- is the only way the coal and oil corporations can continue to burn fossil fuels until there are no more fossil fuels left to burn.

Here (in a very long quotation) is what Vaclav Smil has to say about burying carbon dioxide in the ground:

"Underground sequestration of carbon -- now routinely sold as both a feasible and an effective solution to avoid global warming (Socolow 2005; IPCC 2006) -- is a prime example of what I call the GM approach to engineering a desirable change. In the early 1970s, when faced with the legislative fiat to cut automotive emissions of CO, NOx and VOC the world's largest company chose not to lower them at all but to install costly and resource-intensive three-way catalytic converters. In contrast, Soichiro Honda, the founder of the eponymous and now legendary engineering corporation, approached the challenge as an ecologist and asked:

"'What would happen if catalytic converters were installed in a large number of automobiles, emitting platinum, palladium, and other heavy metals that would then enter human bodies? There are too many unknowns.' (Sakiya 1982:181).

"Honda's engineers thus concentrated on developing their extraordinary compound vortex controlled combustion (CVCC hence Honda Civic) and theirs was the first engine to meet U.S. EPA's strict automotive emissions requirements. Honda's way -- minimizing the production of undesirable outputs rather than controlling them as an after-thought -- should be always the guiding principle of any intelligent, far- sighted, rational design. I do not have to belabor the wider lesson taught by these two companies. Three decades after it surprised with its innovative engine design Honda is the world's leading, and a highly profitable, automotive innovator whose two dominant vehicles, Accord and Civic, set the standard for car-making in compact and sedan class while GM is a virtually bankrupt outfit (losing thousands of dollars on every car sale) whose products include such ridiculous monsters as Yukon (24 L/100 km [= 9.8 miles per gallon]) and H1, a military assault vehicle weighing 4,700 kg [= 5.2 tons].

"I must hasten to add [says Smil] that underground CO2 sequestration in the service of secondary oil recovery is most desirable, as is any form of plant-bound sequestration, ranging from a gradual build-up of soil organic matter to massive planting of trees. But beyond these highly desirable actions the stress must be on reducing the emissions, not hiding them in an uncertain and costly manner. There are simply too many unknowns to commit enormous investments to an undertaking whose results could be obtained in many more preferable ways. But ignoring the avoidance principle that should guide any sound engineering and environmental action does not turn sequestration into a more practical proposition: even if we were to embrace this second-rate option the magnitude of the enterprise needed to make a real difference will defeat us.

"A key comparison illustrates the daunting scale of the challenge. In 2005 worldwide CO2 emissions amounted to nearly 28 Gt [gigatonnes, or billions of metric tonnes]; even if were to set out only a modest goal of sequestering just 10% of this volume we would have to put away annually about 6 Gm3 [billion cubic meters] (assuming that all of the gas is compressed at least to its critical point where its density is 0.47 g/mL [grams per milliLiter]). The current extraction of crude oil (nearly 4 Gt [billion tonnes] in 2005) translates to less than 5 Gm3 [billion cubic meters]. Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today's global CO2 emissions (< 3 Gt [billion tonnes] CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by the petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.

"The obvious question is why it should be even attempted given the fact that a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions could be achieved by several more rational, mature and readily available adjustments. The most radical of these steps would be the reduction of the average annual U.S. per capita energy (about 330 GJ [billion Joules]/year, or roughly twice the affluent EU [European Union] level) by about 40%: this transformation alone would reduce the global carbon emissions by at least 2.5 GT [billion tonnes] CO2. Of course, this suggestion is always met with derision and the chances of such a shift are judged to be utterly impossible. But before you rush to join that dismissive howl recall that when empires unravel their energy use shrinks.

"The last perfect example was the demise of the Soviet Empire: between 1989 and 1997 the primary energy use in the successor states of the USSR fell by a third. Then consider the current U.S. trajectory of enormous accumulated budget and trade deficits, more than twice as large unfunded health and social security liabilities, absence of any new domestic savings, gutting of the country's manufacturing, dismal state of its education, acute strategic overstretch and a crippling dependence on energy imports (as of 2005 even its net food imports!) -- and you do not need a great deal of imagination to construct scenarios of a major economic (choose one: crisis, pull-back, collapse) to be accompanied by significantly reduced energy consumption." [End of Smil quotation] (Smil has elaborated elsewhere [1.2 Mbyte PDF] his reasons for believing that America's global empire is in the final stages of retreat.)

In sum, Smil believes that burying carbon dioxide in the ground is

  1. A monumentally dumb idea because the first principle of good industrial design is to avoid production of undesirable outputs, rather than controlling them as an afterthought.
  2. Fraught with uncertainties -- not the least of them being unknown costs that are surely larger than what is being forecast on the basis of almost no real-world experience;
  3. Could not be accomplished in a single generation because capturing even 10% of human CO2 emissions would require creation of an industrial infrastructure as large as the present-day global petroleum industry, which took 100 years to build.
  4. Unnecessary because merely eliminating the most obvious forms of waste from U.S. energy use -- making us as efficient as Europe -- would accomplish the same thing far more cheaply and far more rapidly (with considerable health benefits from reduced pollution, I might add).

Smil elaborated on this last point in a short paper in 2002. He pointed out that the U.S. requires 7 tons of oil equivalent (toe) per person per year to maintain our present lifestyle. But he shows that a top-notch lifestyle requires no more than 2.6 toe and arguably even a bit less. "Our quest for ever higher energy use thus has no objective or subjective justification," he concludes.

In sum, we could cut our energy use by more than 60 percent without diminishing our lifestyle in any way -- and arguably it would be enhanced because so much pollution would be avoided by the shift.

Burying CO2 in the ground is a General Motors solution when what we need is a Honda solution.

Further Reading:

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Uncle B (anonymous)

In light of the current economic meltdown and its reckless weekend marathon solution, it is only a matter of a short time before gasoline, at the American pumps skyrockets to above $14.00 a gallon, and American inflation and taxes make that price seem even higher. Americans will now limit the amount of gasoline they use, out of necessity to survive, not noble frugality and good sense. They have met the eco - enemy, and it is themselves!

Written in September 2008

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