Sunday, July 28, 2013

Beating a Dead Horse

A substantial, if not most, of what we hear today about global climatic disruption concerns people trying to prove that it is actually occurring.
Well... we do not have to continue beating a dead horse. Climatic change caused by our civilization's excessive carbon dioxide emissions is a fact. Period. Let's move on.

Almost immediately after stating the obvious, two other things come into the picture of the environmentalists:
a) The "climate change deniers" (a label always mentioned with scorn).
b) The lack of political will from governments.

Climate change deniers are not dumb, they are only suspicious of what they may be committing to if they accept that anthropomorphic emissions are driving harmful change. Consciously or at the gut level, they know that combating climate change would entail less personal choices and a significant reduction in their standard of living.

Now, with respect to "lack of political will", governments cannot get too far ahead of their constituents. If they do, they seriously risk being removed from office at the drop of a hat. 

The fact is that moving to a low carbon economy would entail, in the short and medium term, very significant increases in the prices of energy and transportation that would cascade through the economy and create serious inflation, job losses and a general reduction of our standard of living (exactly what the climate deniers fear). 

In theory, governments could act very fast with measures that would significantly reduce carbon emissions in the short term, for example by applying heavy carbon taxes.  However, most of the population on Earth is not ready, or willing to accept these drastic measures. 

Some environmentalists keep preaching that the transition to a low carbon economy (through "renewable energy") can be fast and painless. They are performing a disservice to humanity because what they are saying is plain false. Solar PV and wind heavily depend on subsidies and the moment they are removed (e.g. see what is happening in Spain) they come tumbling down. Besides, their intermittency produces hidden costs that are masked by the conventional power grid but, if their penetration continues to increase these costs will be impossible to hide any longer. If the conventional grid is decommissioned, then vast and expensive storage would be required (storage that, by the way, wouldn't be too environmentally friendly). From a purely financial point of view it makes no sense because we will need to:
1. Duplicate the current fossil fuel installed capacity (including all the transportation equipment).
2. Replace it with "renewable" capacity.
3. Build the "renewable" storage capacity.

The reason today most of the energy of civilization comes from fossil fuels is not because of a perverse twist in human psyches; rather it is because they are, by far, the cheapest type of energy we have access to (at least as we now cost them which is to say WITHOUT considering the cost of extrenalities). Yes, hydro competes with fossil fuels but currently supplies less than 3% of our total primary energy supply and cannot easily be scaled much above that market penetration. 

Bottom line: we all have to begin telling the truth about the consequences of a low carbon economy. That means asking the population to volunteer for serious sacrifices and significant changes in how we live. 

In the short term, a low carbon economy would seem much worse than mitigating climate change effects, in the long run, it might be the only alternative we have. 

Labels: , , ,

Monday, July 08, 2013

Going Green

More and more we hear people getting impatient with their governments and demanding them to implement the right policies to "go green."

Is this possible?

If by "going green" we mean moving to a less carbon intensive economy then the answer is that technically it is completely feasible.

So then, what is the catch?  The catch is that a low carbon economy today would be more (actually much more) expensive than the current one.

This is something we all have to understand when we demand our governments to act. Actually our demands should be preceded by deciding how much each one of us is personally willing to sacrifice in the form of higher (much higher) energy prices. 

How much are we willing to pay for the liter (or gallon) of gasoline, for the kWh, for our airplane tickets and even for everything else? In a low carbon economy almost everything, including food, would be more expensive.

There are many half truths out there that are really complete lies.  For example, we hear that solar photo-voltaic (PV) has already achieved "grid-parity", but obviously these calculations do not take into consideration the extra costs that the grid has to absorb to deal with the intermittent / unreliable nature of solar.

As long as solar PV is a small part of the energy mix, the grid can (grudgingly) accept it.  Conventional power generators adjust their output to compensate for the fluctuating nature of solar.  However if solar were a main component of the grid  (as many environmentalists propose) then the equation changes completely and vast amounts of storage would need to be installed.  On the one hand this storage will be an additional investment and on the other it won't be particularly kind to the environment whether it consists of vast warehouses full of batteries, gigantic hydrolysis plants with their respective hydrogen storage tanks or hydraulic reservoirs.

The issue does not stop here, because now we would have to decide for how long we want to store the solar electricity: for eight hours? For eight days? For eight weeks? Costs rise exponentially with each step. 

So, let's make no mistake: the reason we have not moved yet to a low carbon economy is because the fossil fuel economy is much, much cheaper (sure, without pricing the effects of climate change). It is NOT a philosophical choice but an economic one.

Environmentalists challenge this point but you just have to look around and ask why if renewables are as cheap as they say they are, they need subsidies to survive? And even with subsidies they are a minute portion of the global energy supply.

The bottom line is that our governments CAN grant our wishes to move to a low carbon economy BUT at least in the short term it would translate into much higher energy prices and thus a considerably lower standard of living for most of us. Are we willing and ready now to sacrifice in this manner to prevent a global climatic catastrophe?

This is the most important real question that we need to answer in the energy debate.

It is a fact that we have to move to a low carbon economy, but we need to understand and accept the consequences beforehand.

Labels: , , , ,