A Non-Carbon Future: Part 2 – Analysing the Options

A Non-Carbon Future:  Part 2 – Analysing the Options

Part 2 of this essay continues the topic of a post-carbon future but from an unconventional perspective. It delves into questions about how we conceive of “clean” energy and how this plays out in the two main visions of such a future at the level of underlying ideas and demands. My attempt is to raise issues that aren’t part of our normal conversation about energy but matter a good deal because of how they impact our understanding. For part 1, please see here.

A Word About Language

Besides “economics,” there is another discourse that rules public language and imagery in the realm of non-carbon energy. It is a discourse that has penetrated all of the world’s major languages and acts to structure arguments and shape certain conceptions. But the reason to examine it here, briefly, is that it has been weaponized to separate the two positions on non-carbon energy.

Let’s begin with “clean” and “dirty.” These terms not only saturate the vernacular on  energy but have penetrated the technical literature, where they only sometimes wear quotes.  Yet normalized use hasn’t at all neutralized their suggestive qualities. On the contrary, they use moral-ethical hygiene to split the energy world into good and bad (evil) and so provide easy and summary judgments about the social value of any technology. Arguing over which sources merit the “clean” label has therefore become a sport of verbal pugilism. Defining the moral-ethical high ground, “clean” maps out a desired territory, but one increasingly contested. Do nuclear fission and fusion qualify? What about fuel cells or hydrogen? By the strict definition of non-carbon generation, yes, and such is insisted upon by a growing number. For if nuclear can gain wider acceptance into the lands of the “clean,” as it has in China, it will be a major victory at the level of public imagery and acceptance. Such is why it is often aggressively opposed by those of Position 1, who remain anti-nuclear and cleave to solar/wind primacy. They point to the waste and fossil fuel consumption issues, yet tend not to accept the full scale of such issues for their favored sources. This can work in the opposite direction as well.

As commonly used, in fact, “clean” implies small or no environmental impact. This is a problem, as every source has such effects, some of which—such as the increased mining demands created by mass production of solar panels, which require a greater diversity of metals than nuclear or geothermal plants—are not often mentioned. It also brings up the parallel terms, “green” and “brown,” that have related difficulties. If they add a bit of color to the good/bad frame, they do more. There is a highly exaggerating iconology connected with these terms, particularly the first. If you doubt this, a google search for “green energy” prove persuasive: a kinder, gentler world will bloom into view, with verdant buildings and vehicles, green light bulbs sprouting from trim lawns, god-like hands gently holding pastoral landscapes with wind turbines, heliostats, undulating rivers, and so forth. What happens when we plug in “dirty brown”? No surprises, but some interesting subtleties. Besides belching smoke stacks, gouged out strip mines, blackened land, and smog-choked cities, we might also see photos of individuals, especially those identified as the enemies of all that is “clean” and “green.”

This may all sound a bit unworthy of adult attention. Yet we know from political and issue campaigns that simple imagery can be remarkably powerful when repeated often enough, with appealing or fear-inducing narratives. Messages, moreover, can extend deeper into the imagination than we first realize. Aside from all the nature associations (vegetal nature only, however), “green energy” promises a quality of anti-industrialism, as if “clean” technologies were produced in factories and installed like other modern facilities. This is matched by the language of solar and wind “farms,” implying they sprout from the soil like a nourishing harvest.    

Is there a larger point here? Yes, and it is non-partisan. The future of non-carbon energy will depend no small amount on ideas that support certain policies, attitudes, investments, discourage others. These ideas over the last decade or so have transformed the non-carbon realm into one that is not only highly politicized, as energy generally is, but intensely moralized as well. Moralized, moreover, in ways that too often persuade us to look away from or blink at real-word trade-offs, that will prove crucial to any workable future.

A Closer Look:  Visions of a Carbon-Free World      

So what do the two positions described above actually signify in terms of their vision about the future? What kind of world does each embody?

Position 1 is particularly interesting in this regard. As an overall program based on one type of source that is now fairly small in total use, it seeks to reform the energy realm entirely, doing away with almost every major form of power generation that now exists. This means, no less, that it would reform society itself. The focus on wind and solar, that is, would mean a decentralized energy system, given the low energy densities and thus land requirements of these sources, and therefore a reduced scale of population in concentrated centers. Solar by itself, if made routine for homes and businesses, could increase residential independence from utilities and other centralizing elements, though this would be less true in dense urban areas where population density is highest.

Energy use per person would likely fall, and there would be more opportunity for local, communal control over energy-related decisions. Large, centralized generating stations will become a thing of the past in this future where smaller-is-better, healthier, and more democratic. Not surprisingly, then, Position 1 is associated with the political left, particularly in wealthy nations.

There is a darker side to this vision, however. If a world dominated by renewables demands smaller cities and more localized control, this stands in direct opposition to the world that is fast developing before our eyes—a world of continued urbanization, of fast-growing centers of population with a million or more inhabitants, especially in Asia, including megacities (>10 million) and great metropolitan areas (>25 million), such that 2.5 billion more people are predicted to be living in such centers by 2050. Position 1 largely rejects this as integral to a non-carbon future. It is part of its larger rejection of the past and present, based as they are on “dirty” and “brown” energy sources, which must be wiped away entirely. Needed instead is a new landscape that is entirely “clean,” morally superior, ethically pure, uncompromisingly  “green” (no spots).

However justified this may seem, it presents us with a vision of energy absolutism. To the degree that it embraces only one category of sources, it equally demonizes and exiles all others as “dirty” and unethical. A pure, uncompromising future has no place for competitors nor tolerance of their advocates. If this sounds like an unfair characterization, consider the associative implications for those who advocate other non-carbon forms defined as “risky,” “dangerous,” or “a threat to public safety” (one reason that debates on this topic can quickly leave the plane of fact and reasoned discourse). Absolutist positions, needless to say, have not turned out to be especially healthy for modern society, as they tend to inspire illiberal types of loyalty. The case of free market absolutism of the 1980s destroying a budding revolution in renewable technologies has already been mentioned. In the end, the message of the renewables-only position is that sources are more important than the zero carbon goal itself, more important than reversing climate change and eliminating energy poverty. It leads, unfortunately, to decisions that like of Germany’s government to close all nuclear plants while allowing coal to continue as a major power source.           

As for Position 2, it has positives and negatives as well. No ideal plan exists or will exist for any energy future, we should be assured. The scale of global use, resource demands in metals (mining), plastics, cement, glass, and more, ensure there will always be large-scale tradeoffs, economically, politically, and environmentally. Position 2’s vision of non-carbon energy does not require the same degree of radical change as does Position 1, but does allow for it. As much as it would embrace nuclear plants of diverse size, it would also encourage rooftop solar on homes and businesses. A main difference is that it would retain the ability to supply power to any size population, whether a remote Arctic town or megacity in the tropics, and at any scale, including large-scale plants. As it includes both centralized and decentralized aspects, it does not call for a major restructuring of society either and could make use of former fossil fuel sites by switching them to nuclear and biogas/biomass.

Overall, supply of electricity would remain flexible and adaptable to both local and national contexts. Nuclear plants would produce heat that could be used for buildings, industry, desalination, and possibly more, depending on distance. Combining renewable and nuclear sources could be adapted to almost any circumstance and would also not rule out complete reliance on the first, where potential is high enough, or the other, if renewable resources were low. Position 2 would also be able to better accommodate large-scale demographic trends that now exist and will continue for the next several decades at least—urbanization, rising incomes, the spread of education, aging in many nations, a plateauing or shrinking of the labor force, growth in international tourism, and the ever-increasing concentration of economic and human capital in major metropolitan centers. Energy-wise, Position 2 accords with a fundamental aspect to modern engineering, involving the uptake of ever-more energy dense sources.

Measured by mega-joules per kilogram (MJ/kg), this has meant a progression from wood (~16), to coal (24), oil (44), natural gas (55), and  uranium (3.9 million), with fusion (deuterium-tritium reaction; 10-12 million) in the future. Renewable sources reverse this progression by orders of magnitude in the case of fossil fuels, thus many orders less than nuclear. Position 1 would greatly expand the amount of land used for power generation.

But the drawbacks to Position 2 are not negligible. It would likely be more expensive.

Large-scale nuclear plants will almost certainly require government support, as they do now, just as major hydropower and CSS projects will. Though they have a remarkable safety record, particularly for their scale and longevity of use, future accidents (no technology has zero risk) could incite fear and possibly rejection. If Germany, Japan, and the U.S. are any indication, shutting plants down would result in more fossil fuel use, a setback (a different kind of risk) that would cost both money and time. Nuclear power, that is, brings with it into the decades ahead a probable combination of public misunderstanding, media overreaction, and fraught politics. To date, the nuclear industry has shown itself unable to properly inform people about its technology and record. The public, meantime (with some help from anti-nuclear fear mongering), has remained partly resistant to improved understanding.

Position 2 basically accepts the world as it is. While it presents a true alternative to the absolutism of renewables-only, it doesn’t alter the basic structure and political economy of how energy is generated, distributed, and use. It more fully accepts the idea that a diversity of sources increases the level of energy security, and it preserves large centralized facilities (nuclear, hydro, occasionally geothermal) as supply anchors. This raises the matter of whether changes in energy shouldn’t be used to modify society for the better. After all, isn’t this what we’re really talking about? If healthier, more wholesome approaches to life are what we’re after in a non-carbon future, what better means to impel them than through the forms of energy directly involved? The question isn’t merely philosophical. But the kind of politics it may legitimize, namely the kind that seeks more command and control over society itself, may not be what we actually desire.

Furthermore, Position 2 is not entirely without its own praetorian guard. The tendency to view solar and wind as “forever secondary” or “power lite” sources, in comparison to nuclear and hydro, for example, should be here noted (it has often been so by this author). While this is not quite the same as calling them “dirty” or “dangerous,” it is still an attempt at denigration. Absolutism with regard to source type isn’t wholly restricted to Position 1. If we are dead serious—and lethality is indeed the point—about a non-carbon future that will deal with the four horsemen of climate change, global health, environmental degradation, and world poverty, then such designations should be eliminated or ignored. Far too much is at stake.

Concluding Thoughts

These are admittedly introductory, generalized considerations. They don’t include any evaluation and comparison of individual sources, technological progress, investment trends, or environmental impact. I have assumed that renewables, nuclear, and possibly other non-carbon sources will not die off but continue to advance and remain options for the decades ahead. My main attempt has been to highlight the truth that there is more than one path to a non-carbon future. There are many reasons why more than a single path must be recognized and evaluated. One such reason is that the world’s energy needs are hugely diverse and evolving and that, with the energy transition still at a very early stage, it is too soon to claim that the one true way has been found. I am not the first to point out that it is myths and misconceptions which constitute one of the major threats to a rational energy future.

Today, in fact, the world is divided between the two positions described in this essay. Thus far, Position 1 has gained favor in most western nations, with some important exceptions and with the U.S. as largely undecided. Nuclear power remains a core topic of debate. If the environmental community is mostly negative but also divided about this non-carbon source, a growing number of reports by scientific groups, including conservation biologists and climate scientists, support including it in the long-term struggle against climate change. Such is especially true in the U.S. at present.

In much of the rest of the world, Position 2 appears to be the preferred path. Based on plans for nuclear plants, as well as increasing renewables, this includes, for example: China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Argentina, Brazil, along with Japan, Canada, France, Finland, Britain, and Eastern Europe. Major portions of Africa and South East Asia appear at this point likely to divide between both positions.

Such is the way things look today. While the chances seem strong that countries like Germany, Austria, Italy, and New Zealand will remain loyal to Position 1, the same can be said with regard to Position 2 for China and India, forecast to be  the largest sources of new energy demand through 2040, as well as regional and middle powers like France, Japan, Turkey, and Argentina. Yet, again, we are at an early stage. Technological advances, social and political movements, generational change, as well as economic developments, could alter this overall state of affairs well before 2050. No small part has and will be played by political aims and ideas. The radical reversal in climate policy between the Obama and Trump administrations in the U.S. provides more than enough (depressing) proof of this. What other patterns may emerge from our new era of illiberal reaction against liberal democracy are not fully evident in the energy realm but do add uncertainty. At the same time, a cheap solar cell capable of 35% efficiency, matched with battery technology of greatly improved power density, could alter the equation significantly for some nations. Likewise, next generation nuclear reactors of lower cost and higher output or demonstration and eventual commercialization of fusion power (not to be dismissed for the long-term future). Nor should we ignore the possibility of reform in electricity markets that might grant much added value to all non-carbon generation technologies.

As the reader will have concluded, I myself am a strong supporter of Position 2. As a growing number of experts and writers for environmental journals emphasize, to seriously deal with climate change and pave a path to a post-carbon future will require every form of non-carbon energy we now have, plus what can be brought online in coming decades. Nuclear is far and away the largest source of this kind in the U.S. and in dozens of other nations as well, even in the OECD as a whole. To those of Position 1 who would shut down or phase out nuclear plants, I would quote Dave Roberts, “we need more non-carbon energy, not less.”

My years as a scientist in the energy industry, along with much time spent in the quarries of detailed study, writing, teaching, and discussion with knowledgeable people in many fields has made it more than evident that diversity of sources and source types is sorely needed. Weather-related renewables have power limitations as well as vulnerabilities to extreme storms, flooding, drought, and dust phenomena, all of which are increasing due to climate change itself (rooftop solar panels, however robust, can’t generate when buildings are destroyed by hurricanes, severe winds, etc.). Nor, for other reasons, would complete dependence on nuclear provide the security and flexibility needed for a power system adaptable to foreseeable conditions. Conflict between non-carbon sources constitutes a debilitating distraction from the pressing need—more pressing every year—to deal with carbon emissions. Position 2 contains the greater part of the renewables-only vision, minus its exclusionary aspects, and offers a path with more technological and political realism.

Another point is that those nations that will control more than half of the world’s new generation of electricity to mid-century, China and India, have clearly cast their vote for Position 2. In less than 10 years, China alone has added 33 full-size reactors, with 14 more now under construction and 180 more planned. India has added 5 new reactors during this period, with 7 more being built and plans for dozens more. As noted, too, other nations like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, and Ukraine all have plans to build 12 or more reactors, with ground having already been broken on a number of them. Thus, whatever western nations decide to do, nuclear will be part of the non-carbon future. Indeed, given that new reactors are being built for lifetimes of 60-80 years, it is possible to say that nuclear power is already part of such a future. This puts loyalists to Position 1 in a problematic position, as they must either ignore or deny this inexorable fact.

A final part of my view is something, I expect, that supporters of both positions would shake hands on. It is time to end the expectation that a better energy future can be gained without truly serious levels of investment, both by governments and industry. Logic and understanding about what the world now faces would dictate that such investment match the level of the challenges that loom. Carbon sources overwhelmingly dominate global energy use, and have an unparalleled infrastructural extent. Replacing the greater portion of this comprises an immense task. It is a task far larger than any energy transition achieved in the past, as the world has grown hugely in population in the last half-century, with modernization of energy use in more than a hundred countries. Thus energy R&D is more critical than ever, a truth so obvious as to be painful at this point.

As the saying goes, if you offer only peanuts, you’ll only get monkeys. If Washington D.C. be any indication, we have enough of those already. It is the responsibility of wealthy, scientifically advanced nations to generate new knowledge, to advance capabilities in energy, non-carbon energy in particular, foundation for a more healthful world. It seems time for such responsibility to be more fully realized, accepted, and acted upon.




Image credit: David Santaolalla via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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