Competing Solutions for the Energy System

February 20, 2012

By Matt Palmer

I am linking two articles today, post State of the Union, that lay out solutions for dealing with the world’s growing energy challenges. Both writers, Bjorn Lomborg and Amory Lovins make good points and suggestions, and I am sure many readers will work to find flaws in both. Mr Lomborg makes an interesting counter argument to Mr Lovins assertion that more solar and wind are the best and easiest solution.

Wind Turbine

Amory Lovins, whom I have written about here before, is the Chairman and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. In his article in the Huffington Post “No Breakthroughs Needed, Mr President” he argues current technology can solve America’s energy demands, resulting in radical reductions of greenhouse gases. He is a big proponent of a massive rollout of wind and solar to reinvent the American electrical grid. Here is a quote from the article:

The U.S. is already started towards a clean energy system based on technologies cost-competitive today in many markets and, unlike traditional generation, with steadily declining costs. These new winners include energy efficiency, solar, wind, and flexible demand through a smart grid, integrated with geothermal, biomass, hydro, and others. Soon most renewables will compete almost anywhere without subsidies — especially if fossil-fuel subsidies are phased out too, as the G8 nations have agreed to do.

One of Mr Lovins best proposals is around energy efficiency, particularly retrofitting buildings. A concerted effort on this front would have positive impacts across the board, including jobs. He states:

Energy efficiency can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.

While Mr Lovins focuses a lot on the electricity system, he rarely points out that in North America, as a rule, we do not burn oil for electricity. This is important, because, for example, in the debate against pipelines, opponents argue that pipelines stop investment in alternative technology to harness electricity. This would only be true if we burned oil for electricity.

In his article, Mr Lovins uses Europe, and in particular Germany as an example of how well wind and solar can work. Germany has had some good success with residential use of solar and wind. He states:

Cloudy Germany installed three gigawatts of solar in the month of December 2011 alone. That is 1.6 times more than was installed in the entire U.S. Germany’s scale-up has cut its solar-system costs to half of ours.

But, wind and solar cannot power the massive German industrial sector. The reliability is not there. In addition, as a result of the decision to shut down their nuclear program, Germany’s CO2 emissions are rising rapidly, as they have had to revert to using more coal. Coal in Europe is cheaper than gas, and without nuclear, it is the option they have to ensure the electrical grid is stable. CO2 emissions in the US on the other hand are going down due to the increase in use of natural gas. Globally, use of coal is on the rise, pointing to an urgent need for new technologies that can close the carbon loop. Capture CO2 at the source and recycle it.

Lake Louise

The other issue that Mr Lovins does not seem to talk about is the fact that we still need oil and coal to build all the wind turbines and solar panels, or all the other natural resources required, let alone the land. We must also consider that there will be downsides to global expansion of wind and solar both to human health, and ecological health. Building solar panels, for example, requires great inputs of potential toxic materials, and impacts from the creation of nanoparticals and nanotechnology that are not yet well understood. This is not to denigrate alternative energy like wind and solar, rather to suggest better understanding of impacts is crucial.

If we look around the world at major energy infrastructure projects like oil sands, pipelines, wind farms, solar farms, hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants, bio fuels, transmission lines there is one similarity. You don’t have to look far to find people or groups that are against the developments.

One of my disagreements with Mr Lovins is that he always paints the picture as being a rosy transition, and we need to be pragmatic and realistic. Our global economic, social, political and environmental systems are steeped in complexity and interconnectivity. Reductionism within such a complex system, may not produce all the impacts we desire, and will create undesired impacts as well.

Bjorn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus, in his Wall Street Journal article “Climate Change Misdirection” takes another approach to the issue. While he agrees that action on energy issues is critical, he disagrees that massive effort be put into immediate rollout of wind and solar.  Lomborg argues that investment and effort needs to be put into research and development of wind and solar technologies first, to make them better.

Instead of pouring money into subsidies and direct production support of existing, inefficient green energy, President Obama should focus on dramatically ramping up investments into the research and development of green energy. Put another way, it is the difference between supporting an inexpensive researcher who will discover more efficient, future solar panels—and supporting a Solyndra at great expense to produce lots of inefficient, present-technology solar panels.

Innovation will make new technologies better, more efficient and cheaper. Lomborg uses Europe as an example, contrary to Lovins, of how the implementation of alternatives will not produce a great reduction in global temperature, and has created tremendous cost.

In the long run, the world needs to cut carbon dioxide because it causes global warming. But if the main effort to cut emissions is through subsidies for chic renewables like wind and solar power, virtually no good will be achieved—at very high cost. The cost of climate policies just for the European Union—intended to reduce emissions by 2020 to 20% below 1990 levels—are estimated at about $250 billion annually. And the benefits, when estimated using a standard climate model, will reduce temperature only by an immeasurable one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Mr Lomborg argues against the apocalyptic alarmism that has become the foundation for many in the environmental movement. I would agree with this sentiment. The future is one of possibility, based on values like community, public problem solving, individual responsibility, cooperative and complementary action, inclusion and environmental stewardship, that in turn will provide foundations for a vibrant economy that may look a lot different from the current one.

Road to Ngorogoro

President Obama has made climate change an issue. I hesitate to write or talk much about climate change, only because it is such a volatile topic. Writing any opinion just  invites attack. Here’s the thing, in my opinion, what we could be talking about is this:  how do we live on this planet, maintain a vibrant economy and provide a good standard of living for the most people possible, and protect our environment? Without a stable environment, there is no economy, there is no standard of living. The economy is completely dependent on a healthy environment. Energy is one part of the equation that drives the world economy, but the other two parts are food and water, and so consider the impacts of an environment that is too far out of balance that then impacts our food and water systems?

We cannot let disagreements about whether climate change is real or not prevent us from improving the energy system, to make it more efficient, cleaner, and more sustainable; whether it is a system based on fossil fuels or alternative energy systems, or a system that takes advantage of many different technologies to harness energy, based on localized resources, needs, and abilities to absorb or mitigate  impacts.

What is your energy?

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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One Response to Competing Solutions for the Energy System

  1. Alina says:

    This really is the 2nd blog post, of yours I really read.

    And yet I actually like this 1, “Competing Solutions for the Energy System | Unintended Consequences Documentary Project” the very best.
    Take care -Cornell

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