The breakthrough technology illusion

This post will explain why some sort of massive government Apollo program or Manhattan project to develop new breakthrough technologies is not a priority component of the effort to stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm.

Put more quantitatively, the question is “” What are the chances that multiple (4 to 8+) carbon-free technologies that do not exist today can each deliver the equivalent of 350 Gigawatts baseload power (~2.8 billion Megawatt-hours a year) and/or 160 billion gallons of gasoline cost-effectively by 2050? [Note — that is about half of a stabilization wedge.] For the record, the U.S. consumed about 3.7 billion MW-hrs in 2005 and about 140 billion gallons of motor gasoline.

Put that way, the answer to the question is painfully obvious: “two chances “” slim and none.” Indeed, I have repeatedly challenged readers and listeners over the years to name even a single technology breakthrough with such an impact in the past three decades, after the huge surge in energy funding that followed the energy shocks of the 1970s. Nobody has ever named a single one that has even come close.

Yet somehow the government is not just going to invent one TILT (Terrific Imaginary Low-carbon Technology) in the next few years, we are going to invent several TILTs. Seriously. Hot fusion? No. Cold fusion? As if. Space solar power? Come on, how could that ever compete with solar baseload (aka CSP)? Hydrogen? It ain’t even an energy source, and after billions of dollars of public and private research in the past 15 years “” including several years running of being the single biggest focus of the DOE office on climate solutions I once ran “” it still has actually no chance whatsoever of delivering a major cost-effective climate solution by midcentury if ever (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P.).

I don’t know why the breakthrough crowd can’t see the obvious “” so I will elaborate here. I will also discuss a major study that explains why deployment programs are so much more important than R&D at this point. Let’s keep this simple:

  • To stabilize below 450 ppm, we need to deploy by 2050 some 12 to 14 stabilization wedges (each delivering 1 billion tons of avoided carbon) covering both efficient energy use and carbon-free supply (see here).  The technologies we have today, plus a few that are in the verge of being commercialized, can provide the needed low-carbon energy [see “How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution (updated)“].
  • Myriad energy-efficient are already cost-effective today.  Breaking down the barriers to their deployment now is much, much more important than developing new “breakthrough” efficient TILTs, since those would simply fail in the marketplace because of the same barriers.  Cogeneration is perhaps the clearest example of this.
  • On the supply side, deployment programs (coupled with a price for carbon) will always be much, much more important than R&D programs because new technologies take an incredibly long time to achieve mass-market commercial success. New supply TILTs would not simply emerge at a low cost. They need volume, volume, volume “” steady and large increases in demand over time to bring the cost down, as I discuss at length below.
  • No existing or breakthrough technology is going to beat the price of power from a coal plant that has already been built “” the only way to deal with those plants is a high price for carbon or a mandate to shut them down. Indeed, that’s why we must act immediately not to build those plants in the first place.
  • If a new supply technology can’t deliver half a wedge, it won’t be a big player in achieving 350-450 ppm.

For better or worse, we are stuck through 2050 with the technologies that are commercial today (like solar thermal electric) or that are very nearly commercial (like plug-in hybrids).

I have discussed most of this at length in previous posts (listed below), so I won’t repeat all the arguments here. Let me just focus on a few key points. A critical historical fact was explained by Royal Dutch/Shell, in their 2001 scenarios for how energy use is likely to evolve over the next five decades (even with a carbon constraint):

“Typically it has taken 25 years after commercial introduction for a primary energy form to obtain a 1 percent share of the global market.”

Note that this tiny toe-hold comes 25 years after commercial introduction. The first transition from scientific breakthrough to commercial introduction may itself take decades. We still haven’t seen commercial introduction of a hydrogen fuel cell car and have barely seen any commercial fuel cells “” over 160 years after they were first invented.

This tells you two important things. First, new breakthrough energy technologies simply don’t enter the market fast enough to have a big impact in the time frame we care about. We are trying to get 5% to 10% shares “” or more “” of the global market for energy, which means massive deployment by 2050 (if not sooner).

Second, if you are in the kind of hurry we are all in, then you are going to have to take unusual measures to deploy technologies far more aggressively than has ever occurred historically. That is, speeding up the deployment side is much more important than generating new technologies. Why? Virtually every supply technology in history has a steadily declining cost curve, whereby greater volume leads to lower cost in a predictable fashion because of economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve.


A major 2000 report by the International Energy Agency, Experience Curves for Energy Technology Policy has a whole bunch of experience curves for various energy technologies. Let me quote some key passages:

Wind power is an example of a technology which relies on technical components that have reached maturity in other technological fields”¦. Experience curves for the total process of producing electricity from wind are considerably steeper than for wind turbines. Such experience curves reflect the learning in choosing sites for wind power, tailoring the turbines to the site, maintenance, power management, etc, which all are new activities.

Or consider PV:

Existing data show that experience curves provide a rational and systematic methodology to describe the historical development and performance of technologies”¦.

The experience curve shows the investment necessary to make a technology, such as PV, competitive, but it does not forecast when the technology will break-even. The time of break-even depends on deployment rates, which the decision-maker can influence through policy. With historical annual growth rates of 15%, photovoltaic modules will reach break-even point around the year 2025. Doubling the rate of growth will move the break-even point 10 years ahead to 2015.

Investments will be needed for the ride down the experience curve, that is for the learning efforts which will bring prices to the break-even point. An indicator for the resources required for learning is the difference between actual price and break-even price, i.e., the additional costs for the technology compared with the cost of the same service from technologies which the market presently considers cost-efficient. We will refer to these additional costs as learning investments, which means that they are investments in learning to make the technology cost-efficient, after which they will be recovered as the technology continues to improve.

Here is a key conclusion:

“¦ for major technologies such as photovoltaics, wind power, biomass, or heat pumps, resources provided through the market dominate the learning investments. Government deployment programmes may still be needed to stimulate these investments. The government expenditures for these programmes will be included in the learning investments.

Obviously government R&D, and especially first-of-a-kind demonstration programs, are critical before the technology can be introduced to the marketplace on a large scale — and I’m glad Obama had doubled spending in this area. But, we “expect learning investments to become the dominant resource for later stages in technology development, where the objectives are to overcome cost barriers and make the technology commercial.”

We are really in a race to get technologies into the learning curve phase: “The experience effect leads to a competition between technologies to take advantage of opportunities for learning provided by the market. To exploit the opportunity, the emerging and still too expensive technology also has to compete for learning investments.”

In short, you need to get from first demonstration to commercial introduction as quickly as possible to be able to then take advantage of the learning curve before your competition does. Again, that’s why if you want mass deployment of the technology by 2050, we are mostly stuck with what we have today or very soon will have. Some breakthrough TILT in the year 2025 will find it exceedingly difficult to compete with technologies like CSP or wind that have had decades of such learning.

And that is why the analogy of a massive government Apollo program or Manhattan project is so flawed. Those programs were to create unique non-commercial products for a specialized customer with an unlimited budget. Throwing money at the problem was an obvious approach. To save a livable climate we need to create mass-market commercial products for lots of different customers who have limited budgets. That requires a completely different strategy.

Finally, it should be obvious (here), but it apparently isn’t, so I’ll repeat:

The risk of climate change, however, poses an externality which might be very substantial and costly to internalise through price alone. Intervening in the market to support a climate-friendly technology that may otherwise risk lock-out may be a legitimate way for the policymaker to manage the externality; the experience effect thus expands his policy options. For example, carbon taxes in different sectors of the economy can activate the learning for climate-friendly technologies by raising the break-even price.

So, yes, a price for carbon is exceedingly important “” more important, as I have argued, than funding the search for TILTs.


The NYT‘s Revkin (here) interviewed a whole bunch of people who think we need “massive public investments” and breakthroughs. Revkin writes: “Most of these experts also say existing energy alternatives and improvements in energy efficiency are simply not enough.”

The devil is always in the details of the quotes “” especially since everybody I know wants more federal investments on low carbon technologies. And, of course, some of the folks Revkin quotes are long time delayers, like W. David Montgomery of Charles River Associates “” who has testified many times that taking strong action on climate change would harm the economy. He says stabilizing temperatures by the end of the century “will be an economic impossibility without a major R.& D. investment.” Well, of course he would. In any case, we don’t have until the end of the century “” yes, it would certainly be useful to have new technologies in the second half of this century, but the next couple of decades are really going to determine our fate.

Revkin quotes my friend Jae Edmonds as saying we need to find “energy technologies that don’t have a name yet.”  Jae and I have long disagreed on this, and he is wrong. His economic models have tended to assume a few major breakthroughs in a few decades and that’s how he solves the climate problem. Again, I see no evidence that that is a plausible solution nor that we have the time to wait and see.

I would estimate that the actual federal budget today that goes toward R&D breakthroughs that could plausibly deliver a half wedge or more by 2050 (i.e. not fusion, not hydrogen) is probably a few hundred million dollars at most. I wouldn’t mind raising that to a billion dollars a year. But I wouldn’t spend more, especially as long as the money was controlled by a Congress with its counterproductive earmarks. I could probably usefully spend 10 times that on deployment (not counting tax policy), again as long as the money was not controlled by Congress. Since that may be difficult if not impossible to arrange, we have to think hard about what the size of a new federal program might be.

Yet another reason we don’t need sort of massive government Apollo program or Manhattan project is that the venture-capital community has massively ramped up cleantech spending just where it is most needed — key low-carbon technologies and have a serious chance of become commercial in the next 3 to 5 years (see Stimulus and venture capital sow seeds for cleantech industry’s “revival”).

Roger Pielke, Jr., has said (here) that my proposed 14 wedges requires betting the future on “some fantastically delusional expectations of the possibilities of policy implementation” and that my allegedly “fuzzy math explains exactly why innovation must be at the core of any approach to mitigation that has a chance of succeeding.” Well, we’ve seen my math wasn’t fuzzy (here).

But you tell me, what is more delusional “” 1) that we take a bunch of commercial or very near commercial technologies and rapidly accelerate their deployment to wedge-scale over the next four decades or 2) that in the same exact time frame, we invent a bunch of completely new technologies “that don’t have a name yet,” commercialize them, and then rapidly accelerate them into the marketplace so they achieve wedge scale?

And so I assert again, the vast majority “” if not all “” of the wedge-sized solutions for 2050 will come from technologies that are now commercial or very soon will be. And federal policy must be designed with that understanding in mind. So it seems appropriate to end this post with excerpt from the Conclusion of the IEA report:

A general message to policy makers comes from the basic philosophy of the experience curve. Learning requires continuous action, and future opportunities are therefore strongly coupled to present activities. If we want cost-efficient, CO2-mitigation technologies available during the first decades of the new century, these technologies must be given the opportunity to learn in the current marketplace. Deferring decisions on deployment will risk lock-out of these technologies, i.e., lack of opportunities to learn will foreclose these options making them unavailable to the energy system.“¦

“¦ the low-cost path to CO2-stabilisation requires large investments in technology learning over the next decades. The learning investments are provided through market deployment of technologies not yet commercial, in order to reduce the cost of these technologies and make them competitive with conventional fossil-fuel technologies. Governments can use several policy instruments to ensure that market actors make the large-scale learning investments in environment-friendly technologies. Measures to encourage niche markets for new technologies are one of the most efficient ways for governments to provide learning opportunities. The learning investments are recovered as the new technologies mature, illustrating the long-range financing component of cost-efficient policies to reduce CO2 emissions. The time horizon for learning stretches over several decades, which require long-term, stable policies for energy technology.

Deployment, deployment, deployment, R&D, deployment, deployment, deployment.

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72 Responses to The breakthrough technology illusion

  1. John Mashey says:

    Yes, for sure.
    Some people have actually been involved with long-term, large-scale R&D efforts, and understand that:
    – you have to always keep doing research, with a well-managed process; we’d be better off in energy if R had been funded consistently.
    – but you have to ship what works

  2. tj88 says:

    I voted for Obama to do something about the environment but, to date: nothing! Seven hundred billion dollars passed out to the wealthy and how many to develop alternative energy and for pollution control? None!

  3. Kojiro Vance says:

    Or we could just concentrate on building Generation III nuclear reactors. Build a standard design and order 100 or so to drive the costs down.

    Change the laws that allow anti-nukes to protest and draw out approvals and construction. We could deply this technology relatively quickly at a cost that is far cheaper than PV solar ($.20 per kWh or higher) and other renewables.

    The reason nuclear power is expensive is that we’ve chosen a process which makes it expensive.

  4. Chris says:

    tj88: One thing at a time. It has been detailed here why it doesn’t make sense to rush into this. I think Obama is being careful about methodically implementing the most important items first (health care, attempting to improve the economy, etc) to help secure the political backing needed. You especially can’t make much of a case for ‘raising taxes’ in a time like this. Better to wait until you can take advantage of the re-emerging economy.

  5. paulm says:

    here is James Hansen being interview over at Accuweather a year ago. (There’s an interesting link between Hansen and Seinfeld).

    He clearly say in the interview that the ice sheets melted in the past within a 1dC rise in temp of what we have now.

    That means the ice sheets are toast now, according to Hansen. And I think with the current events and data out that is definitely the case.

    We are in for another couple of degrees what ever we do do in any case so its pack you bags and head for the hills.

  6. Carlin says:

    I am a fervent believer in your stabilization wedges. Your policy and implementation recommendations are the smartest, most plausible solutions to our impending climate and energy doom. I wonder if you would comment on other societal changes that will have to take place in conjunction with strong policies.

    A big problem keeping many people complacent and inert today–even those who acknowledge climate change and say they want to halt it–is the expectation that Americans will always be able to live our current lifestyles, consuming energy at our current rates. Most Americans think that if we just switch our energy infrastructure from dirty sources to clean ones, everything will be ok. We are slow to comprehend how drastically our lives will change due to government policy, economic incentives, voluntary measures, and the effects of climate change.

    You mostly discuss how government intervention can transform our society and mitigate climate change. What role will voluntary action, or action of any kind among the general populace, play in your mitigation scenario? Even after all our available clean technologies and energy efficiency capabilities are implemented at a large scale, won’t Americans still need to consume less energy?


  7. paulm says:

    The most important essay you will ever read…

    Reversal of Fortune
    Bill McKibben

    Myth: Using less energy = sacrifice
    grist . org
    David Roberts

    Mention “reducing demand” to Average Jane American and she’ll assume you mean conservation: turning off lights, drying clothes on a clothesline, riding a bike to work, wearing a sweater when it’s cold inside. And when she thinks conservation, she’ll generally think, ugh, there go the dirty hippies telling me to feel guilty and be miserable again.
    Both these associations are bogus.
    …The high-speed, high-consumption American lifestyle is no longer increasing happiness. Slowing down, spending time rather than money, can be enormously gratifying. For more on this, see Bill McKibben (ie above)

  8. paulm says:

    Calvin theres the rub. The west’s life style would have to change to reduce emissions no matter what efficiencies or green solutions we implement now, because of scaling.

    Will this change happen in time to avoid Catastrophic Climage Change (CCC).
    No way.

    Oh, and the Chinese etc are right behind us on stepping up to this destructive consumer life style.

  9. Jim says:

    Speaking of Newsweek, note in the April 13 issue that just arrived, p. 39, a piece by Jacob Weisberg called “What else are we wrong about?” One such thing is that “climate change will be catastrophic.” The only cited authority? Freeman Dyson, who says in the recent Sunday Times Magazine article that “judgment is more important than knowledge.”

  10. Carlin says:

    I like the way you think. Here’s a moral question for you: knowing that humanity is so screwed, should we spend the next few years jet-setting around the globe, before the beautiful sights are gone? I’d like to see the world’s great rain forests and reefs in my lifetime, so, if I believe I cannot save her, should I take part in the gutting of mother earth?

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    “A big problem keeping many people complacent and inert today–even those who acknowledge climate change and say they want to halt it–is the expectation that Americans will always be able to live our current lifestyles, consuming energy at our current rates.”

    Would that be Wyoming/Kentucky energy use (about 25.5 kWh per capita) life style or California/New York energy use (about 7.5 kWh per capita) life style?

    Only 11 of the 50 states use less than 10 kWh per capita. I don’t think anyone would argue that the life style of people in those states (including Conn., Maine, Hawaii, Mass.) exactly sucks.

    We could start by taking what’s worked in the best performing states and implementing those ideas in the places where vast amounts of energy are being wasted.

    Let’s pick some low hanging fruit….

  12. petb says:

    There is coming at least one very important technology that will change everything – AI.

    Now, I do not claim that we should abandon attempt to fight GW and hope that technology will solve it, but it very well may happen.

  13. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent article and very well laid out. All of the big steps will be in place or in the process in the next two decades – as you’ve said, we get to use what we’ve got in the tool box.

    Counting on anything else (some new technology that hasn’t been demonstrated yet) is an experiment in self delusion – but works quite well to the deniers purpose.

  14. Robert Blandford says:

    Why isn’t Obama pouring money into building nuclear and into any research needed for breeders. That would actually *work*. It works in France. Is it just politics? What are the implications of killing Yucca Mountain? Is he saying no to nuclear?

  15. paulm says:

    Nuclear is a dead end.

  16. Bob Wallace says:

    “Why isn’t Obama pouring money into building nuclear and into any research needed for breeders. That would actually *work*. It works in France. Is it just politics?”

    No, it’s economics and time.

    We have limited financial resources and we need to make some quick progress on reducing CO2. Nuclear is expensive and it would take decades to bring a significant number of new nuclear plants on line.

    We can spend our funds on conservation, wind and solar and get where we need to be quicker.

  17. Modesty says:

    What about the closing-the-information-gap problem (see below)? Will that “only” take deployment, or do we need an Apollo program type effort there?

    “At this critical moment, scientific understanding
    has outstripped our society’s capacity
    to use that knowledge by a wide margin. This
    situation must be resolved quickly to give
    policymakers—and the public—the broadest
    range of options. Therefore, the science community
    should adopt a common language and
    standard baselines to help nonexperts see the
    problem. Beyond this, the science and communications
    community should support a
    concerted effort to close the information gap
    by communicating climate knowledge in
    ways that nonscientists will find useful.”

    Bowman et al. at:

  18. paulm says:

    Carlin (right this time:),

    Me too. But you might want to consider the option of spending that money on preserving you genetic pool (if you are of the competitive kind) as things are going to get tough in the near future.

  19. Perhaps we could learn something from the Titanic disaster:

    -Neglecting to deploy sufficient lifeboats – denial

    -Refusing to take the safe route – instead steering into a known dangerous path, Serious misjudgment, Hubris.

    -In the dark and fog refusing to slow down lest we smite something immovable – arrogant denial.

    As it was sinking, I wonder if the Titanic victims considered building more life boats.

  20. Robert says:


    You focus very much on the supply side and on the US. The attraction of a technical breakthrough which made clean energy cheaper than coal would be that it would solve the problem globally. Otherwise, how do you persuade China and other nations to follow a US lead based purely on political direction?

    You could learn so much from other nations. There really is no excuse for per-capita CO2 in the US being double that of Europe. Why not study how the average European lives and simply copy it?

  21. Joe thinks that in 1900 he could have predicted the interstate highway system, airline transport, space stations and moon landings and robotic voyages of discovery to distant planets. Tell us where you think rocketry and space flight, quantum critical points, quantum simulators and two dimensional heterostructures are going to be in 20, 30, 50 or 100 years from now, Joe.

    Incident solar irradiance is what you have, Joe. What you decide to do with it, whether you let it go on by with transparency or nothing at all, reflect it with a metallic mirror, absorb it and reradiate in with a black body, and what you do with it once you got it, is entirely up to you. If you don’t know what to do with it, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means that you haven’t yet tried.

    [JR: You haved missed the point. Energy technology isn’t like other types of technologies. The needed infrastructure and scale changes everything. Your question is irrelevant, except the point about solar. PV and really CSP — old technologies — are a major answer.]

  22. ZS says:

    Bob Wallace is absolutely on the mark about the “low hanging fruit” of meeting the low electricity consumption per capita standard of our highest performing states. The eleven that he mentioned were below 10 kWh/capita are:

    California: 7.23 kWh/capita
    Rhode Island: 7.57 kWh/capita
    New York: 7.68 kWh/capita
    Hawaii: 8.25 kWh/capita
    New Hampshire: 8.54 kWh/capita
    Massachusetts: 8.86 kWh/capita
    Maine: 9.00 kWh/capita
    Alaska: 9.26 kWh/capita
    New Jersey: 9.43 kWh/capita
    Vermont: 9.44 kWh/capita
    Connecticut: 9.74 kWh/capita

    California in particular should serve as a model. CA’s consumption per capita in 2005 was 7.23 kWh, while the rest of the nation (excluding CA) was 13.21 kWh. Bringing up the rest of the nation to the standard of California would reduce an enormous amount of demand.

    Of course, temperate and colder climates require less electricity for air conditioning than warm climates, and the different commercial and industrial makeup of our states play a large role in their resulting consumption. But there still exists a large “electric productivity gap” between the top performing states and the rest of the nation, that is, a gap in consumption rates that can’t be explained by climate or economic makeup, and is instead the result of policy differences.

    Joe’s already written about it here, but Rocky Mountain Institute recently released a report on the subject of the electric productivity gap which can be found here:

  23. Bob Wallace says:

    Thomas, no one could have predicted the breakthroughs that we experience from time to time. But do you want to bet your future on some of those breakthroughs happening “just in time”?

    You really want to sit in a sinking boat out in the middle of the ocean and bet your life on a ship to come over the horizon and rescue you “just in time”?

    Or don’t you think it makes sense to start bailing like a mad man?

    After all, you might be able to keep your boat afloat.

    Or at least, you might delay your sinking and keep afloat long enough for a ship to reach you. One that would have shown up “just a bit too late” otherwise.

    Time to grab those buckets folks….

  24. Bob Wallace says:

    ZS – Utah uses 10 kWh per capita, Colorado 10.4 and New Mexico 10.7. Even Florida uses only 12.7 as opposed to the 20+ of the most wasteful states.

    Some Californians live along the North Coast where AC isn’t needed, but a lot live in the very hot central valleys and southern inland areas.

    I don’t think AC is the difference between the best (CA) and the worst (Wy).

    And don’t forget to add in all of CA’s hot tubs and tanning beds….

  25. ZS says:

    I don’t think AC is the difference between the best (CA) and the worst (Wy).

    Bob, as I said, I agree with you completely.

    That’s why I mentioned that while A/C does play a role (the study I linked to claimed that electricity consumption in non-temperate states would be between 10-20% lower if they had a temperate climate similar to California’s), there is still “a gap in consumption rates that can’t be explained by climate or economic makeup, and is instead the result of policy differences.”

  26. But do you want to bet your future on some of those breakthroughs happening “just in time”?

    Science isn’t a betting game. You read the papers every night, think about them deeply, and then you get out there and do some experiments.

    You really want to sit in a sinking boat out in the middle of the ocean

    I’m not the guy who purposefully and willfully shot a hole in the bottom of the boat, I’m just the guy who has to patch it with whatever I can find in the boat. Since you are unwilling to help, I suggest you bail while I work.

  27. hapa says:

    that RMI report is even better than first look suggests, they adjusted for state-to-state differences in service/manufacturing mix and industry-by-industry electricity intensity, and found that they could close 2/3 of US coal-fired plants if the country met that top group’s standards.

    earmarks: not as bad as misallocation.

  28. Bob Wallace says:

    Thomas –

    You miss (I suspect deliberately) the point.

    We are experimenting. Perhaps we’ll get lucky.

    But let’s cut to the chase and revisit Joe’s earlier question…

    “What are the chances that multiple (4 to 8+) carbon-free technologies that do not exist today can each deliver the equivalent of 350 Gigawatts baseload power (~2.8 billion Megawatt-hours a year) and/or 160 billion gallons of gasoline cost-effectively by 2050?”

  29. Brendan says:

    Joe, I think your posts assumes something which most people do not understand, and that is that renewable energies are already ready. When you talk to many people, they do not realize how much power you can get out of wind turbines, how many hours a day CSP can actually work, that geothermal exists and acts as baseload. People assume that renewable energy is mostly intermittant and while maybe they know it’s not a full order of magnitude more expensive, they think it’s close. They do not realize how close CSP and Wind are to grid parity, nor do they realize the scale that these technologies are actually able to be implemented right now if we are willing to pay 5 cents more per kWh.

    In terms of wedges, how much do you think break throughs are going to contribute? Zero? It seems to me like improved geothermal (depending on our definition of TILT) will be able to contribute at least half a wedge, and so much is going on with bio engineering for new fuels that it seems inevitable something big will emerge out of that.

  30. Len Ornstein says:


    Since the problem is global, it helps to focus on plans that MIGHT be agreeable to most states. Granted that’s a tall order. But the markets are global and so unless fossil carbon taxes, or their equivalents, are levied fairly evenly worldwide, they’ll fail due to smuggling, if not from governmentally sanctioned cheating.

    With such taxes in place, various competing low-footprint technologies automatically are pushed way up your learning curve – some immediately become ‘competitive’. Last summer’s experience with gasoline prices at around $4.00/gal taught us that at least the American public can quickly adapt with much less squealing than was anticipated.

    Mature technologies like the reverse osmosis (RO) desalination of seawater and the building of aqueduct systems could, over a few decades, permit the afforestation of The Sahara desert and the Australian Outback, with the tropical evergreen forests that would (in 8 to 10 years) ramp up to sequester a sustained level of about 8 GtC/yr (8 wedges per year) from the atmosphere. And the cost would be in the vicinity of $1.00/gal of gasoline. In so far as such forests would induce rainfall locally, the cost would end up being even less. And after a decade or so, careful harvest, ramping up to about 8 GtC/yr could further produce other ENORMOUSLY valuable benefits – a sustainable source of near-zero footprint fuel for energy, construction and stock for a new biochemical industry to replace the present petrochemical industry – solving the ultimate non-renewability of fossil fuels.

    And there are other models that can provide up to 5 additional bio-sequestration wedges a year for ‘eternity’.

    ‘New ideas’ can add useful policy options – occasionally without requiring long learning lead times! A call for more R&D, is a call for new ideas.

    And because useful ones may need to be implemented on prodigious scale, WWII and the Apollo Program may not be unreasonable models.

    So perhaps you come down a bit too hard on both the call for stimulus for R&D and the suggestion that grand-scale projects are a diversion?

    The 8 to 13 wedges discussed above are the subject of two studies to appear in the journal Climatic Change.

  31. Bob Wallace says:

    Brendon – absolutely agree. We are not doing enough to inform the general public about what we can do with what we have.

    Take a look at this paper. Look especially at Fig. 6.

    “This work has shown that at least 70 percent of the total projected California generation on a summer day in 2016 could be provided by renewable sources … with relatively minimal upgrades to the transmission infrastructure,”

    This stuff is getting argued out at the wonk level. It needs to be getting into the public arena.

  32. We are experimenting.

    No, I’m experimenting, you’re bailing. If you hadn’t shot a hole in the bottom of the boat we wouldn’t be in this situation.

    Perhaps we’ll get lucky.

    Why don’t you pray while you’re bailing as well.

    What are the chances that multiple (4 to 8+) carbon-free technologies that do not exist today can each deliver the equivalent of 350 Gigawatts baseload power (~2.8 billion Megawatt-hours a year) and/or 160 billion gallons of gasoline cost-effectively by 2050?

    Given the laws of thermodynamics as we currently understand them, and the measured solar irradiance of that star we call the sun, and our current understanding of condensed matter physics and our current implementation of that understanding, I’d say pretty darn good. But only if you quit praying and start thinking.

  33. David B. Benson says:

    One schedulable breakthrough is actually social:

    energy efficiency

    Just havta convince (almost) everybody to do it.

  34. Bob Wallace,

    I much appreciate your point of view that we need to do as much as possible with what we have.

    However, the reference you give seems more a matter of wishful thinking as to how things might shape up in 2016, and I tend to suppose that the study was done based on some big spending assumptions. The mix of generation shown on the chart there is far from the way it is now.

    I believe it was a few months ago you ruled me possibly nuts, and progress toward my favored solutions has only been one more completed Patent Office Action Response. Still, in light of our present understanding of the economy, it seems even more important than ever to find low cost solutions to the CO2 problem. Thus, distributed cogeneration based on small, high efficiency cars seems to merit deeper consideration. This is both a major CO2 reduction measure on the transportation side, and a lesser, but still large CO2 reduction on the power generation side.

    In effect, it is a path to reduction in coal use with only a modest boost from CO2 tax. That might get through Congress without getting them all thrown out in the next election. I do not know if $3100 per household is the correct number for the cost of a CO2 tax with teeth, it seems likely that the correct number will be large, and no matter how it is sliced, delayed, rebated, redistributed, it is going to be a nasty thing to happen in today’s economy. So if there was a chance of finding a more palatable path, maybe we should try it. (Don’t fear to click my name. Nothing is for sale and the site hasn’t messed up anybody as far as I know. You have to be ready to think outside the box, that is, the four wheeled box we now call a car.)

  35. Harrier says:

    Len Ornstein: I like the way you think. I don’t believe there’s been nearly enough thought put into the ways we might terraform our own planet for the better, both to fight climate change and adapt to it. We needn’t resign the global biosphere to failure in the face of climate change, because the climate isn’t really failing- it’s just beginning to work in different ways. If we can keep abreast of those ways, we can roll with climate change’s punches.

  36. Charlie says:

    Agreed, TILTs can’t be part of the plan. But there is shorter term less risky research that is also needed. Witness the recent discussion on this blog in the posts on 5, 10, or 20 steps to a greener home (, which consisted mostly of untested opinions. We need real research on what really works in retrofitting houses for energy efficiency, modifying or driving cars for higher efficiency, planning for transit, etc.

    Each research project will be way less than a wedge, but they will be essential for making each of the wedges we think we have available really work in practice.

    Also note that funding academic research in these topics also means we have students coming out of academic programs understanding how all these critical things work. Much more important than having students come out understanding TILTs.

  37. paulm says:

    Break through technology…

    Offshore Wind Power Could Replace Most Coal Plants In US, Says Salazar

  38. paulm says:

    “It really is a stretch,” he said of Salazar’s estimate. “How you put that many new (wind) plants up, especially in deep water, is confusing.”

    maybe there could be ‘battery boats’ that could store the energy and transport it to grid ports were the energy is offloaded on to the national grid.

    Of course the ferries would have to use the wind energy also.

  39. paulm,

    Cheap and right around the corner is that battery boat?

    I imagine that the Obama administration is actually concerned about practical matters. Isn’t that what the restructuring of the auto industry is supposed to be about? Salazar does not seem to have that attitude.

  40. I am sorry to say it looks like our host got bamboozled by AFS Trinity.

    Reading their fine print, it turns out that the trumpeted claim of 150 mpg is the same kind of gibberish used by Calcars 100+ mpg claim. Using the way these “achievements” are calculated, the number could be anything from probably about 20 to 1,000,000 for the AFS SUV and for Calcars it could be anything from about 35 to 1,000,000+. In other words, the mileage is absolutely undefined. That is the definition of gibberish.

    This is the worst kind of nonsense. It bamboozled Joe who was probably too busy and trusting to notice the sham. He really should have spotted that the AFS trinity SUV has the worst possible aerodynamics known in the automotive world. What the heck is the “trinity” about?

    It is not quite as bad, but almost when the trick is MPGe, defined as if the Second Law Of Thermodynamics did not exist. This is at least defined, though wrongly.

    So we need to think a bit more about whether the technologies already exist.

    How about a conversation about some things that could actually work effectively? (click my name)

  41. Harrier says:

    Hey paulm: regarding power transmission, why couldn’t we use something like this?

    Just transmit the energy right to the shoreline. Admittedly I don’t know how much of the power that would consume, but the way the wiki talks about it, it is feasible to some extent…

  42. Neil Howes says:


    The choice of an Apollo program is unfortunate, as this is exactly what is needed and the type of research that DOE has been doing with wind power.
    Unlike the Manhattan atomic bomb project, in 1960 we knew that rockets with people could be launched into space. What was needed was thousands of technical improvements to be able to transport a human to the moon and back.
    The US has had wind turbines since early 1980’s, but the costs prevented their deployment on large scale(without massive subsidies). The DOE research program has contributed to many advances, along with European manufactures. Having the scale that the Danes and Germans developed helped, but the research also helped to make wind power very competitive. It’s not true to say wind is a mature technology, just look at the performance of a 1989 turbine and a 2009 turbine.
    Probably nuclear power has suffered from an over emphasis of research and relative to mass production to bring costs down. One reason was the shortage of fissile material in 1980’s placing emphasis on breeder reactors that in hindsight we don’t need for perhaps another 30-50 years.

    One feature of the Manhattan project we do need is to advance several different technologies at once because we cannot predict what will be the best in 5 or 10 years. I think it’s fair to say the success of the Manhattan project was due in part to Gen Groves’ organization skills and engineering background especially building the facilities for separating U235 from U238 and the uranium bomb was not a technical breakthrough once the U235 chain reaction was known, in fact was not tested prior to dropping on Hiroshima. Another feature was the scrapping of a pilot plant stage, going straight to full-scale production.

  43. jorleh says:

    In a hurry, the anonymous was me. And following: there is your CCS, too. You can burn coal besides, put the CO2 in the moistured mountain soil, chemical reactions follow, CO2 binding to carbonates, for ever, soil upon soil.
    Being only MD and not engineer or chemist or physicist I can calculate that this is some solution.

  44. Tomas Martin says:

    Harrier, I think the only major tests of microwave power transmission did succeed, but only in transmitting around 0.05% of the original power. There was one test in Hawaii where they started with kW and ended up with a couple of watts.

    A high voltage direct current cable laid under the seabed would transport the electricity with very low losses for a much more reasonable cost. Offshore wind has been connected before. The problem isn’t how you connect it, it’s how easy and affordable it is to scale up connections – in essence, the connection argument is the same as the generation argument in Joe’s post – rather than look for new power transmission technology, we should be writing legislation to ramp up the installation of the stuff that already works.

  45. Bob Wright says:

    Maybe the analogy isn’t a project but a war. A war on GHG emissions with numerous projects, R&D, mass production. Deploying what works right now and replacing it later. Like faster and higher flying aicraft, more accurate missiles, thousands of tanks, millions of small weapons, logistics… A strategy to win the war and an organization to deploy and improve the strategy.

    And a bit of a curb on our abuse of the right to pursue happiness – sacrifice. As many posters wrote – you can’t schedule innovation. But you can legislate a cap and reduction plan, and go to rationing if things don’t work out fast enough. Public support for a mandated global recession will be a problem until its almost to late, as usual.

  46. jorleh says:

    The latest Nature article of CCS last week was just of water and rocks, I noticed.

    They said one part of five of CO2 was mineralized as carbonates, four of five in water. But the mountain rock which comes down is in rather small fragments, or gravel and sand. Not house-sized granite with small surface area to make chemical reactions but surface area millions of times larger than those huge solid rocks. The whole process is like making hundred storied wet mineral burgers, blowing CO2 between each new layer and much of the CO2 making carbonates, some dwelling first in water but probably almost all mineralizing at last.

  47. Charlie says:

    Bob Wright: Great analogy. At the start of WWII, airplanes, tanks, submarines, machine guns, and aircraft carriers all existed, but the technical progress made of them during WWII was tremendous. Worth studying in detail how that was managed–not only how factories were converted to producing military equipment, but also how the technology development was managed. Not just the Manhattan Project but lots of lower tech lower risk technology development and refinement.

  48. Bob Wallace says:

    “However, the reference you give seems more a matter of wishful thinking as to how things might shape up in 2016, and I tend to suppose that the study was done based on some big spending assumptions. The mix of generation shown on the chart there is far from the way it is now.”

    Jim – I fear you missed the point. What the referenced site illustrates (and there’s a lot of data backing up the report) is that we *could* produce a great deal of our electricity with renewables using technology available today.

    (The discussion is about solving problems with tools you have as opposed to delaying action in hope that something better might come along sometime in the future.)

    As for you being nuts, my recollection is that I cautioned you about not coming across as nuts in your approach to something you were proposing.

    I don’t have sufficient evidence to diagnosis your sanity or lack of it….

  49. Bob Wallace,

    I said you diagnosed me as “possibly” nuts, thus giving me an option to prove myself. I was quite content with that state of affairs, and am only kidding about it here.

    It is actually kind of fun to be leading with strange approaches that people have a hard time relating to, where the technology involved is based on physics of the very fundamental sort.

    I have earned my living for many years on the basis of very simple, fundamental physics, where my most frequent activity was in critically reviewing projects. Now and then I felt guilty about shooting down things without also putting myself up for fair retaliation. I try to test my proposed concepts with the same critical view as I apply to others. The reason I keep trying to get people to look at my web site (just click) is to get some critical thinking going about my stuff. I would rather be shot down earlier rather than later; being fundamentally lazy, I hate working hard on bad ideas, even my own.

    The things I have most trouble understanding are the human factors, which prevent so many people from actually looking at the underlying physics of things and basic benefits to be had. The only way I know to deal with that is to figure it is just a matter of time before right answers get appropriately studied.

    The question then is, “How long do I have to be patient?” It has been my experience that there is a lot of comfort with things that look familiar, and only when things start to go badly, are people willing to think about strange and different approaches. Public attachment to cars as we know them is very strong, so it would clearly be nice if we could just stuff electric motors and batteries into the familiar cars. The fact that there is a basic problem with the car itself will not get addressed as long there are charlatans purveying the plug-in car, where that car continues to be fundamentally flawed. Thus I urge you follow up on mine of Apr 6,10:09pm above.

  50. Robert Blandford says:

    Of course conservation comes first. Then, running cars on electricity. But as far as generating electricity is concerned; why build a massive base of wind and solar when the technology is improving so rapidly and hence may soon be obsolete?

    Just pour the generation funding into nuclear. Are you telling me that it is faster and/or cheaper to build solar and wind than to build nuclear … given that nuclear is a very mature technology?
    I wrote:

    Why isn’t Obama pouring money into building nuclear and into any research needed for breeders. That would actually *work*. It works in France. Is it just politics?”

    Bob Wallace replied:

    No, it’s economics and time.

    We have limited financial resources and we need to make some quick progress on reducing CO2. Nuclear is expensive and it would take decades to bring a significant number of new nuclear plants on line.

    We can spend our funds on conservation, wind and solar and get where we need to be quicker.

  51. Robert Blandford,

    I think you might be on the right track with nuclear. In California, we have just one nuclear power plant, but it has been quietly putting out a sugstantial fraction of California power for many years. It is hard to argue with such performance. And cost estimates based on the turmoiled historic costs might be quite inaccurate if past regulatory craziness was swept away.

    This is not to say that I do not want serious scrutiny of nuclear facilities. I am not sure where the line needs to be drawn.

    All that said, there is still the problem of nuclear waste, and that is simply not a problem that has been acceptably solved. They say France has done quite a lot better on this than we have.

    But surely, if we want real reduction of CO2, this has to be on the table for consideration.

    And if it passes critical examination, we should get busy on it so it comes into the act when natural gas runs low.

  52. The analogy to Apollo and Manhattan Project efforts emphasizes mission-driven research, as opposed to pure science. So how about less research on particle physics, hot fusion, supercolliders, hydrogen cars, chemical CO2 capture, sequestration, and other such fascinating but barren pure science territory, and more on applied physics and engineering to solve the problem of CO2 emissions from coal.

    The world, especially China and India, will need even more coal power to meet increasing electricity demands. So banning coal plants, or punishing them by taxes, won’t work because the political will for sacrifice of a modern electricity-intensive lifestyle is not there. The US Senate recently proved that.

    Deployment of CSP as a baseload substitute for coal may be a good idea, once the water use problem is solved. Now that we have a drought, the desert CSP sites will be pretty dry.

  53. paulm says:

    we all admit that the structure of the economy will have to change. Well guess what the structure of society is going to follow.

    Maybe we will see clusters of communities around solar and wind farms with their own food farms nearby in the future.

    Large cities are the result of cheap transportable food and energy. This is about to change.

  54. Keith Henson says:

    Space based solar power could grow fast enough to replace all fossil fuels by 2050. (30 plus TW). Double that, 60 TW, and ten years is enough energy to convert 100 ppm of carbon dioxide in the air into synthetic oil which could be pumped back into old oil fields. (1000 cubic km of liquid CO2.)

    The problem is cost, if you want synthetic gasoline at a dollar a gallon, that takes penny a kWh electric power. For that the installed cost of a kW of power must be $800 or less. To get the cost of space based solar power down that far, the cost of lifting a kg to GEO should be $100 or less. That’s a 200 to one reduction over the cost using expendable rockets.

    It looks like a combination of a modest sized reusable rockets (300 tons) flying every 15 minutes and a 4 GW laser (with a price tag of $40 B) will get the cost per kg below, maybe even well below, $100/kg. It takes a traffic model of at least half a million tons per year to make this viable, but that’s at the low end of what is needed for power sat construction at a rate intended to replace fossil fuels by mid century.

    Keith Henson

  55. Leland Palmer says:

    Actually, carbon negative approaches combining biomass and carbon storage appear to have the potential to become true breakthrough technologies, I think. This is because these approaches can apparently actually take carbon out of the air while being competitive with existing ways of generating electricity:

    Read and Lermit: A Sequential Decision Approach to the Threat of Abrupt Climate Change

  56. Leland Palmer says:

    Stabilization wedges are great, and we need to use them. But we need some real heavy armor in this war, too. Seizing the coal fired power plants and converting them to biocarbon plus CCS would provide us with that heavy armor, which might be able to strike a decisive blow against climate change.

    How to Turn Coal Plants into Climate Solution Machines:

  57. Leland Palmer says:

    Another potential breakthrough technology: Oxyfuel combustion of biocarbon.

    In this recent report from the National Energy Technology Lab and Jupiter Oxygen Corporation, an existing (2 MW) coal fired power plant was converted to oxyfuel combustion. When running the power plant in “untempered” mode (no exhaust gas recirculation), at a higher temperature than combustion in air, they achieved almost 7 percent higher efficiency than other existing oxyfuel combustion schemes. I believe that this is roughly enough efficiency gain to compensate for the efficiency loss incurred by separating the oxygen from the air before combustion and compressing the resulting nearly pure stream of CO2 for deep injection.

    So in this RETROFIT of an existing coal fired power plant, they were able to achieve a nearly pure stream of CO2, at a negligible efficiency loss compared to air combustion of coal and no carbon capture.

    Apply this technology to biocarbon, and we could turn most coal plants, worldwide, into carbon negative power plants.

    This would indeed be a breakthrough.

  58. Leland Palmer says:

    Yet another potential breakthrough technology – biocarbon. Biocarbon makes biomass as energy dense and as transportable as coal:

    Biocarbon, also called biochar or charcoal, is a renewable replacement for coal manufactured for industrial markets. The material can be produced from biomass resources such as wood, municipal and agricultural waste, and tires through a controlled heating process called “carbonization,” which heats organic (carbon-containing) materials to elevated temperatures in an environment of controlled and reduced oxygen levels. During the carbonization process all of the energy necessary to fuel the process can be supplied by the biomass.

    Carbonization is a thermochemical refining technology that involves a myriad of complex reactions of the components of biomass. At temperatures of 300 C, a sharp rise in the carbon content or energy density of the biomass occurs and biocarbon production takes place (Figure II). When temperatures exceed 500 C, gasification of the volatile components in the biocarbon commences and the remaining solid becomes predominately purer forms of graphite-like carbon. At this stage of pyrolysis, activated carbon is generated.

    Activated carbon is commonly utilized to remove organic impurities in water and air, in addition to many industrial purification processes such as sugar refining and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

    Above 700 C, another group of reactions is possible where the residual biocarbon is reacted with limited amounts of oxygen and gasified (Figure III). In the biocarbon gasification process, synthesis gas (syngas) is produced, which is composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Syngas can be combusted to produce heat; utilized in a turbine, internal combustion engine, or fuel cells to produce electricity, or in a Fischer-Tropsch reaction to produce biodiesel and related fuels. An advantage of biocarbon over the direct gasification of biomass is that the wood tars have already been removed, producing a much cleaner syngas.

    Biocarbon has the unique ability among renewable energy sources to utilize electrical generation equipment that has already been installed. Since the physical and chemical properties of biocarbon are sufficiently similar to coal, biocarbon can be utilized in existing coal-fired generating stations, with minimal modifications.

  59. Bob Wallace says:

    Robert Blandord –

    “Just pour the generation funding into nuclear. Are you telling me that it is faster and/or cheaper to build solar and wind than to build nuclear … given that nuclear is a very mature technology?”

    Yes. Joe has some good cost analysis for new nuclear on this site. Just do a quick search and you’ll find lots of info. (Don’t confuse the cost of new nuclear with the cost of plants built decades ago. Costs have drastically changed over the years.)

    Nuclear takes (best case) about 8 years to get on line. In the real world that 8 years can stretch out to 20 and a portion of the plants that are begun never produce any power or produce for only a short time before they are closed.

    Wind farms take about 2 years to build.

    Here’s an overview of the cost of new power generation from various sources.

  60. vakibs says:


    I think you should spend more time and effort in criticizing the real breakthrough technologies that are championed by Dr James Hansen : the Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) and the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).

    Please spend some time, read about these technologies and produce as pungent a critique as you can. Otherwise, your essay will hold no water.

  61. Bob Wallace says:

    Wilmont –

    We’re researching a lot of stuff, including how to sequester the CO2 from coal. And perhaps some of that research will find a “magic bullet”.

    But, as Joe wrote, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to see if that so, so special, bullet if found. We need to get busy right now with the tools we have that we know to work.

    We know that we can solve the problem with what we have.

    We know that we can afford to do the job. In fact, we might well be financially better off were we to switch to things that now work.

    We also know that each day we wait to get busy the problem grows larger making the solution harder and more expensive.

    The boat is leaking. We need to bail right now with the bucket we have rather than dreaming of the bucket we might have.

    The longer we wait, the more we have to bail.

    And if we wait too long to start….

  62. Leland Palmer says:

    Yeah, we have to get started, on a true emergency basis.

    I think we should seize the coal fired power plants, and immediately convert them to oxyfuel, biocarbon, and carbon capture and storage. This is one form of the BECS (Biomass Energy with Carbon Storage) abrupt climate change strategy advocated by Read and others. Carbon negative energy schemes like this can be our heavy armor, our shock troops in this war against what may easily be extinction, if we ignite a methane catastrophe. We should of course pursue the stabilization wedge strategy advocated on this blog, as well.

    Oxyfuel combustion can be fairly easily retrofitted to existing coal fired power plants. Biocarbon fuel makes biomass more transportable, and makes biomass as transportable as coal. CCS is the fastest and simplest way to store large amounts of CO2, although permanent sequestration as a carbonate would be better, in the long run, as soon as we figure out how to do this economically.

    This particular carbon negative energy strategy has numerous advantages, I think. Firstly, it keeps fossil carbon out of the atmosphere. Secondly, it puts biomass carbon back underground. Thirdly, it generates electricity that can be used to run electric or plug in hybrid cars, displacing much of the oil we currently burn for transportation. Fourthly, if some of the biomass comes from cutting firebreaks through existing forests and removing undergrowth from existing forests, it could prevent large amounts of carbon from wildfires from entering the atmosphere.

    Carbon negative energy schemes can have a huge synergistic effect on this problem, I think, and we should immediately and massively convert the worst problem (coal) to the best solution (carbon negative energy).

    We need to do “all of the above” and hope desperately that something works, at this point. But we certainly need to seize the coal fired power plants and immediately convert them to carbon negative power plants, in my opinion.

  63. Robert says:


    Why do you persist in censoring me?

    [JR: Mellow out. Have you noticed I’m getting a lot of comments? Sometimes I miss one or two in the queue.]

  64. Leland Palmer says:

    What Read and Lermit think biomass plus carbon capture could do:

    Click to view the image:

    Certainly, this strategy of putting carbon back underground would have a huge synergistic impact on the problem, whether Read is quantitatively exactly right or not.

  65. Bob Wallace says:

    “But we certainly need to seize the coal fired power plants and immediately convert them to carbon negative power plants, in my opinion.”

    Might I please request that you keep that opinion to yourself?

    You’re welcome to it, but publicly stating is likely to spook the cattle, er…, upset the right wing paranoids.

    If we put a tax on carbon (by whatever means) then coal plants are likely to convert themselves to non-coal fuel. Or at least as much as possible.

    Between concentrated solar heat for the turbines and biomass for the burners we could cut way back on coal use and not have to engage in an outright battle with owners of coal plants. (Who are not going to like the idea of their plant being seized.)

    We even might want to put some of our dry rock geothermal money to work punching holes in the ground next to a coal plant or two….

  66. Leland Palmer says:

    I dunno, “spooking the cattle” is certainly preferable to a methane catastrophe, I think. We just did something similar to Citigroup, and the universe didn’t fall into a black hole.

    We’re just totally out of time, I think. James Lovelock was right, I think, when he realized in 2004 that the climate system was in failure mode.

    It turns out that some of these coal atrocities churn out 20 to 30 million tons of CO2 per year. Check out – a very neat interactive Google maps database that can be integrated with Google Earth, so that you can zoom in on these things and see where they are located – mostly far from the eyes of the majority of the public, it turns out.

    It’s all about gigatons of carbon per year. We need to start putting gigatons of carbon back into the ground, because it looks like the traditional carbon sinks which have saved us so far are becoming saturated. So we can expect to get less help (maybe no help) from the earth system in sequestering carbon from here on out.

    Most of us reading this blog are trying to visualize this problem in our heads and guess when the tipping points will be. This problem scares the snot out of me, frankly. The only way that I can visualize a positive outcome to this problem is if we start putting gigatons of biomass carbon back underground ASAP.

    So, if the Council on Foreign Relations can send Scott Borgerson to Congress to testify that it would be really peachy if we had a nice fleet of nuclear icebreakers so we can drill for oil in the Arctic, and are not concerned about my feelings, I think I should be able to tell the truth about mine.

    This problem scares me spitless. We need to stop fooling around, and use whatever resources we have to stop any developing methane catastrophe. That includes everything we have on earth that might stop this thing, before it is too late.

    I think that the coal industries have made quite enough money destabilizing the climate, and should be happy that we don’t fine them all the money they have ever made, or make them pay damages for runaway global warming, which would likely be of the same magnitude.

    Thanks for the reply, though.

    Looking at the locations of these things, it looks like some of them in the West are located in areas of very high solar flux, so these could be converted to solar thermal with biocarbon backup, maybe. Any amount of solar thermal would decrease the amount of CO2 that had to be deep injected, which might be a good thing CCS sites are not very close.

    Others might be close to hot dry rock, as you say. Still others might be able to be supplied with biocarbon in the form of synthesis gas by pipeline from biomass sources hundreds of miles away, or by trains or biocarbon slurry or biocarbon log pipelines from biomass sources hundreds of miles away.

    If these things are not in areas of high solar flux, not in areas close to geothermal sources, not close to large sources of biomass for biocarbon, or not close to good geological sequestration sites, I think they should be converted to nuclear. Maybe we could get the French to build the reactors. :)

  67. Bob Wallace and Leland Palmer —

    I don’t share your optimism about underground CO2 storage (sequestration) for coal (or biomass) emissions. In many areas, such as the American southeast, no underground sites are available, so an extensive new pipeline system will need to be constructed. CO2 is a lethal gas, so who wants the pipeline going through their neighborhood? Who will insure the risk?

    Once it’s in the ground, how can you be sure it will stay there and not erupt to suffocate your grandchildren? The GAO last year examined sequestration and found the DOE’s fixation on it problematic, to say the least.

    Mineralization (e.g. the Calera CO2 to cement process) is slow and the volumes we need to store are huge — each ton of CO2 (at STP) is about as big as a house.

    Why not convert CO2 into oxygen (for oxyfuel combustion) and carbon (for all sorts of things, including low resistance lightweigh nanotube cables for transmission lines)? To crack CO2, we must use wind, solar, and other renewables, because fossil fuels add more CO2 than they crack.

  68. Leland Palmer says:

    On the other hand, the IPCC report examined deep injection of CO2 and seemed to think it promising:

    I’ve wondered about this GAO report, and wonder what an Obama administration GAO report would look like.

    CCS is a stopgap measure IMO, meant to help us turn the corner on this problem, and avoid a methane catastrophe. Ultimately, all of that CO2 should be sequestered as a carbonate, IMO.

    The enthalpies go the wrong way, on converting CO2 to carbon, sad to say. Converting CO2 to carbonate, though, is themodynamically favored, although very slow at the present time. CO2 storage as a carbonate is the way to go, longterm.

    If we want to use carbon itself as a sequestration material, we need to start with biomass, IMO, and just obtain the carbon by carbonizing it. This may be a viable answer, and is known as biochar, of course. A biochar based aggregate for concrete might also be possible, and might work as a sequestration material.

  69. Leland Palmer —

    There seems to have been some political pressure on the IPCC to make clean coal sound more possible than it really is. Probably there would be the same practical concerns in a GAO report during the Obama administration. The GAO is not a political pawn.

    Agreed that the enthalpies go the wrong way — a lot of energy (5.5 eV per CO2 molecule) needs to be pumped into CO2 to get carbon monoxide for syngas, and the CO2 that you emit in producing that energy is more than what you crack. But solar and wind can provide the cracking energy for CO2 as well as SOx, in a hybrid power system. The coal plant’s CO2 serves in effect as means for energy storage, putting to use the renewable energy that would otherwise go to waste.

  70. Andy Gunther says:

    “A misleading Newsweek piece, “We Can’t Get There From Here” that I will respond to in detail later this week is the inspiration to update this earlier post on the breakthrough myth”

    Joe, did you ever respond to that Newsweek piece? I searched but could not find it on your site.

  71. Stephen Watson says:

    The fabulous thing about “Breakthrough technologies” is that it means we don’t have to change anything about our way of life – we just need to do what we’ve been trained to do since birth and go to the place we gain life’s meaning. Namely, we shop for new, exciting, high-tech products or services. GDP keeps growing, advertising still works, manufactures keep selling and consumers know that our incredible smartness has sorted out the problem. Again.

    Paul Mobbs said “Less is a four letter word”. In our current consumer, growth obsessed, debt-based economy it’s the most obscene word you can utter. What we need is NOT efficiency – we’ve had more and more of that since we started making things that use energy – what we need to do is … USE. LESS. ENERGY. Simple eh? Efficiency is a complete distraction dreamt up by business. It’s the BAU that you’ve know your whole life: Hybrid cars, lower energy computers, cars using less fuel, aeroplanes using less fuel, more efficient game consoles, more efficient TVs, more efficient dishwashers, more efficient boilers. But look in Mark Lynas’ ‘Carbon Counter’ book. Look at the number of electrical items in a typical house in 1970. Then at the number – about twice as many) in a typical 2000 house. With efficiency and no behavioural change, all we’ll do is dream up fantastic, expensive, sexy new ways to use up the energy we’ve just saved.

    Up and down the escalators in the London Underground we used to have advert posters, printed on bits of paper. They’re all disappearing, being replaced by LCD displays which use … electricity. Almost all Estate Agents in my city now have big VDU displays in their windows advertising properties for sale – that was almost non-existent about 2 or 3 years ago. If as a society, we are prepared to make ‘changes’, they are only in the direction of having more, not less.

    That is the real, psychological brick wall we have to climb over if we’re really going to get to grips with this.