Conclusive proof we don’t need technology breakthroughs to solve our energy problems

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"Conclusive proof we don’t need technology breakthroughs to solve our energy problems"

I won the scientifically rigorous online voting in the Economist.com Oxford-style debate, 55% to 45% — a landslide of epic proportion. And that’s not even counting all the people who voted for the “con” side thinking they were actually supporting the pro side, since, if you actually read my opponent’s argument, he doesn’t really disagree with me that we can in fact solve our energy problems with existing technologies.

I’d like to thank my wife and daughter and all those people who believed in me or at least felt threatened enough to vote for me. Because of your actions, the kitten will live — and so will humanity!

You can read my posts here:

  • Opening Statement: The bad news is we can’t wait for breakthroughs to solve our energy problems. The good news is we don’t have to. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
  • Rebuttal Statement: I agree with Peter Meisen that “Energy efficient buildings, rooftop solar, smart grids, electric/hybrid cars and renewable electricity will become the norm for our children.” I do not agree this will be expensive nor do I think it will require technology breakthroughs.
  • Closing Statement: The time has come for aggressive deployment of energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. Indeed it is long overdue. Breakthroughs are nice, like winning the lottery, but in fact, breakthroughs in energy technology that fundamentally change how we use energy are considerably rarer than most people realise

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21 Responses to Conclusive proof we don’t need technology breakthroughs to solve our energy problems

  1. We already HAVE new Nukes. Fourth Generation does everything right.
    The only problem is a paranoid public. Reference: “Power to Save the
    World; The Truth About Nuclear Energy” by Gwyneth Cravens, 2007
    Finally a truthful book about nuclear power that the average person will read.
    Reference: “Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy”, by B. Comby
    English edition, 2001, 345 pp. (soft cover), 38 Euros
    TNR Editions, 266 avenue Daumesnil, 75012 Paris, France;
    ISBN 2-914190-02-6
    order from: http://www.comby.org/livres/livresen.htm
    Read a review of this book by the American Health Physics Society at:
    http://www.comby.org/media/articles/articles.in.english/HealthPhysics-NUC-July2002.htm
    http://www.ecolo.org
    Association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy [EFN]
    Nuclear power is 30% cheaper than the coal power we have been
    duped into using. We have 5000 years worth of nuclear fuel if
    we recycle it rather than waste it as we do now. Nuclear is also
    the safest, cleanest and cheapest form of energy available.
    Reference Book: “The Paranoia Switch” by Martha Stout. Coal
    companies push your buttons and pull your chain, just like George
    W. Bush, Adolph Hitler, Senator McCarthy and others. MRI
    used to be called NMR. The name was changed to get patients
    into the scanner. Most Americans are paranoid of terrorists and
    all things nuclear. If the “human” brain had been designed by a
    competent god, the coal industry would not have a $100 Billion
    per year cash flow and George W. Bush would never have had a
    chance of being elected once. We all know that we have to
    convert all coal fired power plants to nuclear worldwide by 2015,
    but it won’t happen because the average American has an
    irrational fear of all things nuclear. To solve the global warming
    problem, the whole USA needs to be sent to a mental health
    professional. We have enough time and technology. It is only
    mental health and education that are lacking.
    Coal contains: URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY,
    Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine,
    Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium,
    Magnesium, Thorium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine,
    Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. There is so much
    of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually
    valuable ores. We should be able to get all the uranium and
    thorium we need to fuel nuclear power plants for centuries by
    using cinders and smoke as ore.

  2. Ronald says:

    Good points made from your side even if it appeared that your debate opposition took your side. Even at that, he did take debate more seriously that some people take their vice president pick. Not saying much.

    I think we should think about why some would argue that breakthroughs in energy technology are the way to go and that is the enormous improvements that have come about in transistors and follow Moore’s law.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore's_law

    Transistor density increases about double every 24 months.
    It’s quite understandable to see Breakthrough’s in computers, commutations, cell phones, Plasma and LCD TVs, Satellites, vehicle engine controls and everything electronic because of the increase in the number of transistors that can be put into smaller and smaller volumes. We’ve gotten spoiled. New products and applications come out all the time that use transistors.

    That’s different than what breakthroughs come in mass products like houses, cars or aircraft. Are houses cheaper now than 20 or 30 years ago? Maybe houses are becoming cheaper than 4 years ago, but that’s not because of house building breakthroughs, but because of short term economic and financial changes. All these mass products are stuck with the costs of materials, labor and capital that go into their production.

    Energy, whether from energy avoidance, energy efficiency or energy renewable, come from sources closer to mass products than transistor products. Much of energy avoidance would come from the use of more insulation which are mass products and follow mass products costs. The collecting of wind and solar for require quite a large amount of mass products. All these products are from mass products and follow mass products costs, not the advantages of transistors and Moore’s law.

    Energy efficiency products can and do take advantage of the transistors breakthrough with more efficient engines other products with better controls, but much of those energy efficiency products will still have large mass product costs. Look at how much industrial metals and most raw materials have increased in price the last few years.

    Designs can be improved, such as better designed passive solar houses, but that architecture has gone through many generations of design and modification. Not much left to improve.

    Energy collection is tied to mass product costs, not to the miniaturization of transistors. Breakthroughs are harder to make a difference.

  3. Larry Coleman says:

    Ronald, apparently one person’s breakthrough is another person’s evolutionary improvement. I have never thought of Moore’s Law as arising from breakthroughs. The invention of the transistor is a breakthrough but increased transistor density is not. Granted, some might see Moore’s Law as evidence of breakthroughs, but that is misconstruing it in my opinion.
    Practical fusion energy would be a breakthrough, as would a discovery of a way to make durable solar panels at doubled efficiency and 1/10 the cost of current panels. The point, of course, is that we ought not wait for fusion (always 25 years away, except now it seems more like 50 years), nor eschew incremental improvements in solar panels while waiting for a breakthrough.

  4. Earl Killian says:

    Well said Larry! I think you’ve put your finger on the problem. The word “breakthrough” means exactly what each speaker wants it to mean, nothing more, nothing less.

    As they used to say at Bell Labs: “Never schedule breakthroughs.” (And by that they did not mean evolutionary improvement. John Mashey will correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

  5. Ronald says:

    I would agree with you that each increase in transistor density isn’t a breakthrough. The breakthrough is in the application of that improvement and that it then can be used in products that are breakthroughs.

    Example would be cell phones. Cell phones are everywhere, but that didn’t used to be. Because of the transistor density improvements, there application was able to be used in cell phones and in the cell technology that runs it.
    Another example is electronic control systems on ignition in cars controlling fuel economy, pollution, etc.. There is so much more information that engineers can program into these things that they become breakthroughs in engines.

  6. Robert says:

    Joe, you ignore the economics. Current solar, wind etc. is more expensive than coal, oil and gas. In the absence of a world government expecting expensive renewable technology to displace cheap fossil fuel is like trying to make water flow uphill. It just isn’t going to happen.

    Costs must come down to at least parity by some combination of technology evolution, breakthrough or economies of scale. Merely saying we should do it to fix climate change isn’t going to be enough.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Robert — Torrefied wood is cost-competitive with the (ever rising) cost of coal.

    http://www.pelletheat.org/3/institute/2008summerConf/JoeJames.pdf

  8. Larry Coleman says:

    Robert, Walmart is putting solar panels on lots of stores. They are doing this for only one reason…they will save money. It is a mistake to compare the cost of electricity from depreciated fossil fuel plants to that from new solar or wind. It is a more egregious mistake when politicians ignore the savings from improvements in efficiency. Here in Arkansas we are about to build a new coal fired plant which we would not need if we pursued increased efficiency the way some other states have. “Stupid” is too kind a word for it. Joe is absolutely right: we can address global warming and it does not have to be expensive. But we do need to be smart.

  9. Bob Wallace says:

    Robert, where do you get your numbers?

    Here’s what I’ve found per kWh for new plant electricity (not from already built/paid for plants)…

    Nuclear $0.14
    Coal $0.09
    Gas $0.10
    Wind $0.07

    These prices include Fuel, Transmission and Distribution, Firming and Integration, Operation and Maintenance, and Capital.

    Nuclear price is nuclear industry estimates.
    Coal price does not include cost of carbon sequestering or health impact.
    Gas price does not include cost of carbon sequestering.

    http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid467.php

    Add in approximately $0.08 per kWh of compressed air storage to shift nighttime wind excess production to peak hour needs and “peak wind” is about the same as nuclear. Averaging in $0.07 “during peak” wind brings the price of wind well under nuclear.

  10. paulm says:

    We have a new tipping point.

    More and more scientist are probably starting to think the political will is just not there and this might very well bes so….

    Extreme and risky action the only way to tackle global warming, say scientists
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/01/climatechange.scienceofclimatechange2?gusrc=rss&feed=networkfront

  11. David B. Benson says:

    More peo0ple need to take sequestering biochar deep underground as a serious solution.

  12. Robert says:

    Bob W – Avory Lovins numbers look highly suspect. For a like for like comparison of wind / solar with coal you would need to include the cost of storage: wind and sun are intermittent but coal can be used on demand.

    The reality is that coal is the cheapest way to make electricity. China has access to all the other technologies but chooses to burn ever more coal (1/3 of the world’s total) because it is cheap.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Robert — The world spot price for coal keeps increasing. It is now high enough that more and more utilities are moving to co-firing some form of biomass.

  14. Cyril R. says:

    Robert, Bob Wallace already puts in a storage cost figure. It’s too high I’d say, by a factor two. Nuclear is uncertain. 14 cents looks like a good average, but the uncertainties in projects make the range rather big. It could be 10 cents/kWh, it might be 20 cents/kWh by the time they’re finished. Learning curve analysis suggests a new nuclear plant in 2015 can’t compete with wind in a good location even with CAES storage (in the future AACAES or bio-energy CAES might be used to reduce natural gas consumption but this isn’t an immediate issue due to the impressive fuel efficiency of CAES systems already in operation today).

    Solar is perhaps the biggest questionmark. What’s it going to do in terms of economics? Guess we just have to wait and see.

  15. Cyril R. says:

    Keep in mind that demand side storage, such as ice storage for AC or hot water or other thermal mass for space heating is a very large resource, and could take most (if not all) of the diurnal storage requirements cost-effectively (almost certaintly cheaper than CAES) with very simple engineering.

    With most of the diurnal storage covered, that leaves just a relatively small portion of longer term backup or storage to deal with. Could be CAES, but even gas turbines will do fine. Plenty of biogas available in the US (see the billion ton vision report) and you wouldn’t need much in this energy system configuration.

  16. Bob Wallace says:

    Robert – saying “look highly suspect” is a bogus reply. If you think the numbers wrong please provide specific information which puts them in doubt or please furnish another set of numbers from a reliable source.

    Otherwise all you are saying is that you don’t want to believe the data presented you as it doesn’t fit your ideas of how the world should be.

    And don’t confuse what power from existing plants costs vs. what power from similar “to-be-built” plants would cost. What is cheaper than electricity from a hydro project built 70 years ago like the first TVA dam? Norris Dam was built when $0.50 an hour was a good wage and it was paid for decades ago. Pencil out the cost of building a new major hydro project and get back to us.

    Same with coal and nuclear. It used to be much cheaper to build these things. No longer. Construction prices are well up and fuel is only going to increase.

    And just think what coal generated electricity would cost if coal plants had to capture and sequester their pollutants.

    There’s a reason that private money is flooding into wind generation. And why it’s almost impossible to finance new nuclear. We’re beyond the tipping point for renewables.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    U.S. coal spot prices:

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/coal/page/coalnews/coalmar.html

    Look down the page at the graph for the longer term trend.
    Harder to locate is the corresponding data for the world coal spot prices, but these aree similar or even more extreme.

    Maybe David Rutledge is right.

  18. Nils Davis says:

    Referring back to Ronald’s and Larry’s points about Moore’s Law, there is definitely divergence of opinion on whether solar energy electricity generation is subject to Moore’s Law. Kurzweil thinks it is, some other scientists do not think so. (I cover this in a few posts on my blog if you want to see more.)

    Kurzweil’s argument is that energy is an “information technology” – and Moore’s Law is generally about information technologies, not just transistors. His book “The Singularity Is Near” has an extensive argument that information technology capabilities, measured in many different ways, has been doubling at a steady rate for centuries and even millennia (sp?). Of course, this doubling results in exponential growth, even though the *rate* of doubling doesn’t change.

    So, to the degree you can construe energy as information technology, it’s doubling. The argument is what proportion of energy is IT? Since Kurzweil thinks we’ll be building things atom-by-atom within a few years, which is a quintessentially IT operation (much like building a person, using DNA as the code and our cells as the computers), everything becomes IT, and therefore everything is doubling.

    This relates to the original point in that, yes, we have the technology today, although it will be a “moon landing” type of project to get it deployed, and it will be very costly – although perhaps very cost-effective or even profitable as well. But technology breakthroughs, or even just a few doublings (ten, equals a factor of 1,000) of solar electricity price-performance, will make it a no-brainer.

  19. shop says:

    Example would be cell phones. Cell phones are everywhere, but that didn’t used to be. Because of the transistor density improvements, there application was able to be used in cell phones and in the cell technology that runs it.
    Another example is electronic control systems on ignition in cars controlling fuel economy, pollution, etc.. There is so much more information that engineers can program into these things that they become breakthroughs in engines.

  20. indir says:

    Example would be cell phones. Cell phones are everywhere, but that didn’t used to be. Because of the transistor density improvements, there application was able to be used in cell phones and in the cell technology that runs it.
    Another example is electronic control systems on ignition in cars controlling fuel economy, pollution, etc.. There is so much more information that engineers can program into these things that they become breakthroughs in engines.

    Yes Man ;)

  21. sikiş says:

    This relates to the original point in that, yes, we have the technology today, although it will be a “moon landing” type of project to get it deployed, and it will be very costly – although perhaps very cost-effective or even profitable as well. But technology breakthroughs, or even just a few doublings (ten, equals a factor of 1,000) of solar electricity price-performance, will make it a no-brainer.