Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fossil fuels are dead

Whenever the subject of climate change comes up, someone always says with little tears forming in the corner of their eyes, "but what about the economy?" The problem is that most of us don't really believe in a free market. We want to prop up dying companies run by people too stupid to know times are changing. Larry the Liquidator expressed it the best:

"This company is dead. I didn't kill it. Don't blame me. It was dead when I got here. It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead. You know why? [...] New technologies. Obsolescence. We're dead alright. We're just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.

"You know, at one time there must've been dozens of companies makin' buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead. Let's have the intelligence, let's have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future.

"Take the money. Invest it somewhere else. Maybe, maybe you'll get lucky and it'll be used productively. And if it is, you'll create new jobs and provide a service for the economy and, God forbid, even make a few bucks for yourselves. "

Larry's absolutely right. General Motors is dead. Ford is dead. Western Coal is dead. BP is dead. The Saudi royal family is dead. All the companies relying on burning fossil fuels are dead. They face two problems: the stuff is finite, and once burned is gone forever, and burning it is killing us. Whether it'll run short before we toast ourselves, or whether we'll toast ourselves first, who knows? Either way, new technologies are replacing fossil fuels, making them obsolete. So companies relying on burning stuff to make money will get an increasing share of a shrinking market. 

This upsets a lot of people. Some of them have invested heavily in oil, and are so keen to keep demand high they even deny global warming, and talk fearfully of the "costs" of change. Which is like talking about the costs of earthquake-proofing homes in Japan, putting up levees in New Orleans, or drought-proofing homes in the desert. You can spend money, or you can just die. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but trouble is coming. We can prepare for it, or we can die. 

Change is coming whether we like it or not. Fossil fuels will run short, and since their burning is killing us, at some point someone will get annoyed about it and stop it. One day, we're going to have to live without fossil fuels. No choice. Driving is not a rational choice, but someday there won't be a choice at all - there'll be no fuel for that car. Maybe you're happy with factory farming of animals, maybe you're horrified but try not to think of it as you tuck into your burger - doesn't matter a bit, someday the artificial fertiliser and all the trucks will stop, and that's that, no more burgers, sorry. Maybe you think the environment is a human rights issue, maybe you care that Congolese die so we can have our mobile phones, or that ten million Bangladeshis will drown under rising sea so we can drive half a mile to the shops, or that fossil fuels won't be around for our children and grand-children to burn - it doesn't matter, things will change anyway. 

The world is changing. Fossil fuels are dead. I'll bet the last car company around makes the best damn cars you ever saw, and the last coal company makes the best damn coal-fired power stations you ever saw. You want to be a stockholder in those companies? 

We invested in the business of burning fossil fuels in every way imaginable, and that business is dead. It's just not broke yet, thanks to the billions we keep pumping into it to save it. With modern medical technology, a guycould lose his head, and we could keep his body alive without it, keep the heart pumping and the legs twitching. He's still dead, though. No matter how much we wish upon a star and click our heels and say "there's no place like burning, there's no place like burning," it's dead and gone.  

Let's have the intelligence, let's have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future.

Listen to Larry, unlike the car and coal and oil company CEOs or our governments, he's not a cowardly communist. He believes in a free market, just like a good greenie should. Let's invest in products with a future, create some jobs and a service for the economy, and God forbid, even make some money for ourselves. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Solar power... in SPAAAACE!

Recently there's been some discussion of space-based solar power. Basically you whack a bunch of solar panels up there with a big mylar sheet to concentrate the light, then you beam the power back to Earth. Sounds cool, yeah? Well...

Apart from the obvious cost difficulties (it's about $10,000/kg to get something into space), this faces many practical difficulties, too. To be able to beam back to a single station, the satellite would have to be in geosynchronous orbit - about 36,000km up. Getting it up there takes a lot more energy than to low earth orbit where we put the space station and the like. At first that looks like just a cost issue, but it underpins many of the technical issues I outline below.

The first issue is that if you have a 1km2 mylar sheet, the solar wind (the stream of particles it blasts into space along with its heat) and the very light it's designed to capture will blow the satellite out of position over time. The solar wind is such that people have actually planned spacecraft which use it to travel around the solar system. You can have manouvering rockets on board to counter this, but that uses up fuel - and you have to get the fuel up there, too, a few times over the several decades lifetime of the satellite.

Secondly, the Earth has a magnetosphere, that is its magnetic field shields it somewhat from high-energy particles from the Sun. Craft high up don't have that protection (which is one of the problems with long-range spaceflight, both manned and unmanned) and so would need to be heavily shielded (increasing the non-productive weight to put up there), or else would occasionally get blasted and destroyed. Repairs would be difficult to say the least.

Thirdly, beaming the energy back to Earth is difficult. As anyone who's ever had an electric torch knows, light spreads out. You can tighten the beam somewhat, but still over thousands of kilometres it'll spread out. So either your receiving station is really huge or else you lose a good chunk of the energy; if you're losing the energy anyway, why bother putting the station in space, the whole purpose of which was to get more energy than you could on the ground?

Fourthly, the building of the thing would require several launches, and assembly in space. The International Space Station was planned for 12 years before the first modules were launched into orbit, and has been in construction for 10 years, still not finished - and it's only in Low Earth Orbit, not the geosynchronous orbit this thing would require.

Fifthly, geosynchronous orbit is already pretty crowded. Basically it's the plum spot for communications and spy satellites. It's one thing to whack another table-sized sat up there, it's another to put a 1km2 satellite up there. Or hundreds of them, as we'd need. 

The first and fifth points combine to make a maintenance nightmare. At orbital velocities of kilometres per second, the tiniest speck of dust becomes deadlier than a bullet. It whacks into the mylar sheet and makes a hole. Then the solar wind pulls on the sheet and tears that little hole into a big long rip. Much less or no power is produced by the thing. Then your power satellite is pushed more on one side than the other, and starts spinning.

You better have a lot of spare fuel on board, and a crew ready to head up there and repair it. You can't just chuck the old mylar sheet away, that's 1km2 of rubbish floating around in orbit at several kilometres per second, other satellite owners - especially those owning other power satellites - won't appreciate that kind of litter. So you have to roll it up. Fancy rolling up a 1km2 sheet? Do you know how to? Nope, neither does NASA or anyone else, no-one's had to do it before.

So even if the launches were completely free, there are a lot of technical obstacles in the way of this kind of satellite.

Seems a lot easier to build the thing on the ground. I mean, does the Earth really lack big empty spaces for us to build power stations in? Not Australia, that's for bloody sure.
And so in conclusion, here we see another example of the modern religion of Science! That's different to plain old science, which is just the study of things to figure out how they work; the believer in Science! has blind faith that it'll save us like a Messiah. "They'll figure something out," the believer says, meaning "the Lord will provide." By which reasoning I should go ahead and leap off a cliff because I'll figure out how to fly before I hit the bottom. Maybe - but probably not. 
It's really a lot easier to go with what we definitely know works, and works well: reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order, combined with a mix of geothermal, hydroelectric, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, tidal and wind, railways,   walkable towns and cities, eat less meat and more plants, and don't buy so much junk.
Science is needed for all that, Science! isn't.