Sunday, November 15, 2009

Global Plans and Muddling Along, Part I

Over on, there's an article having a go at Scientific American's attempt at "A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030".

Mostly SA's is the "if we just have a Global Grand Plan, it'll be alright" sort of stuff. Technically possible, politically unlikely - better I think to muddle along.

But TOD's response is even dumber, "oh dear, it's all too expensive and difficult, let's just keep on truckin'." This is common from TOD (the US one anyway), but the editors have stocks in fossil fuel companies, so they're most anxious that we should not leave oil before it leaves us. Go read both articles. I put a comment at TOD, but they tend to delete anti-doomer stuff, so I put up this here, too.

The authour is concerned about the following points:

Aircraft - indeed, hydrogen as proposed by SA is a nonsense for aircraft. However, very little in terms of essential goods are transported by air. No more Chilean cherries in New York winter, oh well.

Ships - indeed, they are powered with fossil fuels, how could we transport stuff? But consider the scale of the issue. Currently, some 34% of shipping tonnage worldwide is devoted to transporting oil [source, p.16]. 96% of oil is burned. SA's article proposes no more burning of oil, so some 33% of world shipping can be scrapped.

World coal trade was about 718Mt in 2003 [source, p2], at the same time as total world trade was 6,500Mt, so that coal was 11% of world seaborne trade by weight. Coal is all burned (even if sometimes liquefied first), and again SA proposes stopping this; so another 11% of world shipping could be scrapped.

I could go on, but the point is clear: just by no longer burning oil and coal, we could almost halve our global shipping, thus halving the demand for fuel for it. This does not eliminate the problem of how to fuel the ships, but certainly makes it easier to deal with.

Automobiles and trucks - how do we make them all electric, Gail asks, and how do we power them. These don't need to be built or fuelled at all. We have some recent inventions called "trains" and "trams", which are in many parts of the world entirely electric, and which can thus be powered by renewable energy.

Many supposed "problems" are like this. When you look at changing every single piece of infrastructure to some new power source, things look difficult. When instead you look at what the infrastructure is supposed to do, things look much easier. We don't need cars and trucks. We need to transport people and goods. Cars and trucks are simply one way of doing that, and an inefficient one at that; other more efficient ways exist.

Farm machinery, etc - electric versions of these exist already as anyone can discover in five minutes with google.

Mining and manufacturing - are largely electric anyway. It's only when going for marginal ores that a lot of fossil fuels are used, eg in open-cut lowgrade mines. Of course, absent fossil fuels, our demand for things like iron ore will drop - electric (not electronic) things tend not to break down as quickly as fossil fuel-powered things.

"We'd have to build lots of stuff!" - we build lots of stuff anyway. So it's just a matter of building different stuff. In 2006, the world produced a bit under 50 million cars.

If we can produce 50 million internal combustion engine cars I don't see why we can't produce (say) 2 million electric train engines and 10 million electric cars.

Likewise, we are already building more coal-fired and gas-fired power stations. China alone is building one or two new coal-fired power stations each week. If they can do that, they can whack up wind turbines or solar thermal stations or whatever.

We build lots of stuff already. The only question is what we build: more stuff that burns fossil fuels, or more stuff that doesn't.

"We need to figure out how to do this, we need a plan" - a century or two ago we had this thing called the Industrial Revolution. People harnessed wind and water, then wood and coal, and finally gas and oil, and used its energy to build things. Nobody figured out any Grand World Plan To Burn Stuff. They just went ahead and did it and muddled along.

I don't see why we were able to just stumble along through an Industrial Revolution, but an Ecotechnic Revolution is supposed to require careful planning. I suppose because some people are rather anxious that we should not stop burning stuff, their stock in fossil fuel companies might drop too low.

"So how will we pay for all of the new equipment?" - the same way we pay for 50 million new cars, hundreds of new coal-fired power stations, and billions of plastic widgets every year. As noted above, we're buying all this ecotechnic stuff instead of this burning stuff, not as well as it. We already spend a fortune on stuff, the only question is what we'll spend on in future.

"But if we stop burning stuff, my Valiant won't be worth anything in 2028!" - Gail is worried about assets which would no longer have value. Well, so what? Electric typewriters, brick-sized mobile phones with satchel batteries, valve radios and buggy whips ain't worth much nowadays, too. Things become obsolete, that's life in a technological society.

"Will I get compensation for this loss of value?" - no, why should you? When we brought in personal computers, did anybody compensate the typing pool? When we brought in cars, did anyone compensate buggy whip makers? When we brought in transistors, did anyone compensate the valve glass factories? Again, things become obsolete, that's life.

"Too many rare minerals are needed!" - name them, and tell us why they're needed.

"What about all the power lines?" - yes, we couldn't possibly have a system where power lines criss-cross the country. Wait, what?

"When the power goes out, we're in trouble!" - how is this a change from today?

"Operating the system will require a huge amount of international co-operation, because the transmission system will cross country lines." - Of course, that's impossible. That's why the Danes never sold wind power to Sweden and Germany, and the Swedes never sold hydroelectric power to the Danes, nor Germany nuclear power to Denmark.

Good thing countries never buy vital goods and services from each-other. Imagine if the US were to rely on other countries for most of its energy? However would it cope?

"All of the high tech manufacturing will require considerable international co-operation and trade." - this is a bad and new thing?

"The system clearly can't continue forever. It could be stopped by a lack of rare minerals, or international disputes, or lack of adequate international trade." - It's not clear whether Gail is talking about the proposed ecotechnic system, or the current fossil fuel one.

North Korea shows us what happens when countries try to go it entirely alone. All worthwhile systems require some international co-operation, people honouring contracts, that sort of thing. Big deal. Adjust.

"Instead of the high tech approach advocated by Scientific American, we may want to find solutions that can be done locally, with local materials." - see now this at last is a piece of good sense. However, the two are not incompatible. We can have some international high-tech, and some localisation of stuff.

We will have no problem transporting people and supplying them with goods and services sufficient for a very good quality of life without burning fossil fuels. We may have problems persuading them to stop burning fossil fuels.

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