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renewable is doable if governments are think-it-throughable?
May 12, 2011 5:54 AM   Subscribe

As you may know, Japan's prime minister Naoto Kan announced two days ago that plans for new nuclear power plants in Japan are to be scrapped (NYT). Meanwhile, a landmark study from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says renewable energy can power the world (Guardian - article includes many related links). Here's a summary of the IPCC Special Report.
posted by flapjax at midnite (118 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
But.....what has this got to do with music?
posted by wheelieman at 6:00 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Economist reports from the International Conference on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants, via cstross who gives additional commenatry.
posted by Artw at 6:02 AM on May 12, 2011


But.....what has this got to do with music?

Music of the spheres, man, music of the spheres.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:04 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


While I can't imagine that Japan's move away from new nuclear plants would hurt the development of renewable energy there, it's not so clear that it would help it. Pretty much every indication that I've seen is that the vast majority of replacement energy would be in the form of large imports of nonrenewable fossil fuels.
posted by monocyte at 6:10 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


China doubles solar power target by 2020
China hopes its installed solar power capacity will reach 10 gigawatts by 2015 and 50 gigawatts by the end of the decade, the Shanghai Securities News said, citing Li Junfeng, deputy director of the energy research arm of the National Development and Reform Commission.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:29 AM on May 12, 2011


Music of the spheres, man, music of the spheres.

That's going to be about all we'll have left. Don't know about you, but I'm rather fond of reliable power, hot (clean) water, and air conditioning. Renewables just don't seem to scale up effectively, and while I like the idea, the economics suck big blue donkey testicles. (See Spain - they can't afford their subsidies, and as such their 'renewable' efforts aren't cost effective at all.)

Then you add in the eco-activism (against wind because of bird mincing, solar in the desert because it creates SHADE and how can the critters COPE with that!, and tidal's out because Flipper puree is so nasty looking...) and you've got to wonder just what's left aside from fossil fuels.

You could almost write a SF novel about how a cabal is looking to push the world back to a 1600's base and recreate a hereditary aristocracy ruling over a peasant population, ensuring there not be enough excess power for the peasants to have the leisure time to improve their lots in life. (One must keep the aristocracy happy, after all...)

Sure as hell this ain't how I imagined the future back in the '60s as a kid.
posted by JB71 at 6:34 AM on May 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


"China hopes its installed solar power capacity will reach 10 gigawatts by 2015 and 50 gigawatts by the end of the decade, the Shanghai Securities News said, citing Li Junfeng, deputy director of the energy research arm of the National Development and Reform Commission."

Yes, but are they taking into account the needs of the Gobi Lizard and the Canton Tortoise? Those creatures are so dumb that when they wander into a patch of shade they sit there and shiver and die instead of moving out into sunlight.

WE GOTTA PROTECTS THEM!

/sarc

You know, I'll bet they've got a LOT fewer activists/lawyers than we've got.

/sarc, again, but barely.
posted by JB71 at 6:37 AM on May 12, 2011


Needs the 'kneejerk' tag.
posted by schmod at 6:46 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The investment that will be needed to meet the greenhouse gas emissions targets demanded by scientists is likely to amount to about $5trn in the next decade, rising to $7trn from 2021 to 2030."

Cool. So spend no money on Social Security, Medicare, and Defense for a decade and it's done.
posted by three blind mice at 6:48 AM on May 12, 2011


Some people are less pessimistic than you are, JB71.

The advancement of renewable energy technologies is now a vital strategic interest of the U.S. military, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said in a speech today.

Toys 'R' Us building massive rooftop solar project
Toys "R" Us announced today that it plans to cover 70 percent of the roof of its distribution center, located in the leafy suburb of Flanders, N.J., with a solar installation.

The 5.38-megawatt solar project is a massive undertaking for a rooftop installation. Toys "R" Us claims this will be the largest rooftop solar installation in North America.
Massive solar wareouse project underway
Southern California Edison has installed the first few of over 100 planned commercial rooftop solar installations in the Los Angeles area. As part of the largest program of its kind in the nation, SC Edison is renting about 1.5 square miles of industrial rooftops in southern California for solar panel installation. These “solarhouses” will create enough electricity to power 162,000 homes.
Willis Tower in Chicago becoming massive vertical solar power plant

It's happening. You can keep pretending it isn't, but people with real money are spending a lot of it to get on board.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:55 AM on May 12, 2011 [13 favorites]



Solar is great. The problem is the footprint. Google invested in a solar project in the Mojave desert that will produce about as much energy as the Fukushima plant did at roughly 400MW.

It's going to take 3500 acres of desert and basically make it a parking lot out of it. And that's in an area with good weather in and lots of insolation.

If you wanted to do the same thing in Minnesota, it'd be ~5 times as large - about 20 square miles of lost habitat.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:58 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


It doesn't have to be on the ground. Because of the solar panels I had put on my roof, my electric bill for March was $0. That's in northern MA. I expect that to be the number I see on my bill for the next 20 years, or at least until I replace most of the gas appliances in my house. There are millions of homes and thousands of commercial buildings in the US that could see the same benefits. Then there are all those millions of shade-free acres covered by highways. Setting up solar arrays over highways makes all kinds of sense.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:06 AM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Crikey. Some people. If it's not a panacea, it's not worth doing.

We can't get from here to there by standing where we are.
posted by notyou at 7:07 AM on May 12, 2011 [40 favorites]


Agreed, notyou.
posted by panaceanot at 7:10 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yes, but are they taking into account the needs of the Gobi Lizard and the Canton Tortoise? Those creatures are so dumb that when they wander into a patch of shade they sit there and shiver and die instead of moving out into sunlight.

WE GOTTA PROTECTS THEM!


And who, who will speak for the poor strawmen?
posted by IjonTichy at 7:16 AM on May 12, 2011 [20 favorites]


Sure as hell this ain't how I imagined the future back in the '60s as a kid.

Yeah. I can relate. Except that for me, as a kid in the 60s, I didn't imagine the future to include swathes of land uninhabitable for generations due to radioactive contamination. Death, cancers, birth defects and so forth directly related to the nuclear powered generation of electricity. Vegetables unsafe to eat, milk unsafe to drink. I didn't imagine that I'd worry for the long-term health and safety of my own child, born in the year 2000 and living 240 kilometers south of a nuclear power plant currently spewing radiation. That I'd be afraid for her to get any rain on her. That I'd be compelled to check for daily radioactivity levels in the place where I live.

I guess we're all disappointed, in one way or another, with how the future turned out.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:18 AM on May 12, 2011 [18 favorites]


One of the challenges with most solar and practically all wind power is that its availability is quite unpredictable. Clouds move across the sun, or the wind stops blowing, and the grid operator has very little time to do something about it to maintain grid stability and prevent a blackout.

Right now, the main solution to that is to increase the amount of spinning reserve--that is, generators which are turning and synchronized with the line, but not feeding in any power to the grid. Gas-fired turbines are about the only thing that can respond quickly enough to make up for the sudden loss of a wind power installation, and they burn gas just sitting there waiting to be used. So, ironically, these forms of renewable energy tend to increase net CO2 output just because of the additional spinning reserve needed to go with them.

I was wondering what grid operators with a lot of wind power thought about this, and read a report a couple of years back from the grid operator in Denmark. Their report basically confirmed this issue with needing to burn gas to have reserves available, but that the light at the end of that tunnel is in sight, so to speak.

Their view was that once they had enough wind power that it actually exceeded the amount the country needed at that moment, they could then be in a position not to use all of it. The unused (but spinning) wind turbines would themselves start to become spinning reserve, since they, too, can respond quite rapidly when needed as long as they're already synchronized to the line (or of a more advanced type that doesn't need to be).

So as long as you over-build so that you always have excess capacity, AND you build a power grid capable of moving power from wherever it is being generated this moment to where it is being consumed, renewables end up being a net win on the CO2 front. Those are both pretty big economic challenges, though.
posted by FishBike at 7:26 AM on May 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Actually, Kirth and Pogo, "parking lots" is a perfect idea for more solar!

We could hang arrays of solar panels, and then pave the ground underneath them. We would then have lots of parking spaces for cars that are shielded from rain and sun, reducing the need for air conditioning and car washes. Later, the pylons can be rigged up as charging stations for electric cars. (We wouldn't need to wait for better battery density because we'd have a charge at each end of our journey.)

Central aisles would be left free of panels: these would be planted with bamboo (kept from spreading by the surrounding pavement), which would use the rainfall collected by the panels. These would also be useful for emergency access.

This idea could be adapted for existing parking structures (who doesn't grumble about having to park on the roof?) or large buildings. You heard it hear first, folks: solar panel-shaded parking lots
posted by wenestvedt at 7:30 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


And who, who will speak for the poor strawmen?

Correct. By building enough strawmen they can be either pelletized and then usable in the corn/pellet stoves OR tossed right into the old coal fireboxes to boil the water that will turn the steam turbines.

Gotta protect the strawmen!
posted by rough ashlar at 7:34 AM on May 12, 2011


In a sentence, this post is bringing me bad news and a report that misses the point.
posted by wierdo at 7:35 AM on May 12, 2011


Except that for me, as a kid in the 60s, I didn't imagine the future to include swathes of land uninhabitable for generations due to radioactive contamination. Death, cancers, birth defects and so forth directly related to the nuclear powered generation of electricity. Vegetables unsafe to eat, milk unsafe to drink. I didn't imagine that I'd worry for the long-term health and safety of my own child, born in the year 2000 and living 240 kilometers south of a nuclear power plant currently spewing radiation. That I'd be afraid for her to get any rain on her.

Actually, flapjax, in the 60s and 70s something very similar to what you describe was actually happening but it was due to acid raid from coal-fired power plants.

That proved to be a manageable problem - you don't hear much about acid rain anymore - so at least on that score the future turned out pretty well.
posted by three blind mice at 7:37 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kirth -

Yes, I'm skeptical. I've seen a LOT of 'alternative' power schemes proposed, started, and then abandoned when the economics/politics shifted and suddenly it cost less/was politically more expedient to do something else.

I hope for the best, expect the worst, and usually am not disappointed.

The AF going to biofuels? I noted the A-10 flight was 'considered a success'. The criteria for a mil-spec fuel, however, is pretty high, and jets are usually pretty forgiving of 'off-spec' fuels. You might have more blade erosion, might need to do more preventive maintenance, you might not be able to go as high due to vapor pressure or freezing problems, you might not be able to get as much power off it - but they'll run and the plane will fly.

(And 'considered a success' is pretty much meaningless unless you know what was expected. One take off, a couple of times around the pattern doing touch and goes, and a landing? Full load-out of weaponry taking off under military emergency power, fly 400 miles at normal cruise speed and altitude, do usual fun & games at the other end and then return to base? Details tend to matter...)

Solar for the military makes sense - as electronics become more efficient and less power-hungry, it's good to see they're being adopted. But - the military doesn't have quite the same cost constraints that the civilian world does. If gas to run a generator costs (by the time it gets to the point it's needed) the equivalent of $30 a gallon, buying an equivalent in solar power for $2000 a KW makes sense. Reduces your logistics load, supply chain problems and the like. For a house here stateside? Not so much. Getting the price of solar cells down is great, and they're making great improvements on that, and I'm hoping when it's time to reshingle the house in about 5-10 years that solar shingles will be affordable and give enough power to justify the cost.

But we'll still need power at night, unless you want to use lots of batteries with all the toxic problems THEY entail.

And realistically, if any alternatives are dependent on government subsidies to be economically viable, they're not ready yet. When they're viable WITHOUT subsidies, that's when they'll take off.
posted by JB71 at 7:37 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of the challenges with most solar and practically all wind power is that its availability is quite unpredictable. Clouds move across the sun, or the wind stops blowing, and the grid operator has very little time to do something about it to maintain grid stability and prevent a blackout.

Or perhaps the demand attitude can be adjusted from 24/7/36[56] to one where you "make hay when the sun shines". Such attitude adjustments are part of the Liberated Baghdad Iraq or Kabul.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:39 AM on May 12, 2011


Or perhaps the demand attitude can be adjusted from 24/7/36[56] to one where you "make hay when the sun shines".
They'll be thrilled to hear that in Scandinavia. Sunrise at 9am, sunset at 3pm; rinse, repeat for three months. There's a reason Denmark is going for wind over solar.
posted by brokkr at 7:42 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


alternatives are dependent on government subsidies to be economically viable

Kinda like how oil (one of the things "alternatives" are trying to be found for) doesn't at all need any involvement from the US Military in the Middle East?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:43 AM on May 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Kirth -

"Because of the solar panels I had put on my roof, my electric bill for March was $0. That's in northern MA."

Good for you, seriously. How much did they cost you? How much was your bill normally? What sort of subsidies did you get? What's the point where you've paid off the panels through electricity you're selling back?

I've looked at it down here in GA, and couldn't justify a 30-year payback myself... of course, the air conditioning season down here is likely a bit longer than up there...
posted by JB71 at 7:43 AM on May 12, 2011


Rough Ashlar -

I'm all for cutting loose of the ME. We've got oil, we've got shale, we've got our own resources. I see no reason to keep sending them billions to buy their oil, and spending billions to keep them from killing each other.
posted by JB71 at 7:45 AM on May 12, 2011


I'm all for cutting loose of the ME.

You may be in favor of it, I may think its worth trying, Ron Paul might think its a good idea, et la BUT

That list of people don't matter. And until the US of A goes bankrupt (or masters terrestrial Fusion in a controllable release form), there are others who find the present policies to their benefit.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:49 AM on May 12, 2011


rough ashlar wrote: Or perhaps the demand attitude can be adjusted from 24/7/36[56] to one where you "make hay when the sun shines". Such attitude adjustments are part of the Liberated Baghdad Iraq or Kabul.

I think anyone who lives in a country without 24/7 power can tell you how much that sucks.
posted by wierdo at 7:50 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


I believe that renewables in the United States will devastate large amounts of land from an ecological standpoint. I believe species will be threatened if not outright eliminated.

We have been doing that all along. It would be a change if we did consciously and with grave intent what we seem to be doing by accident anyway. We may look back and say, "The Western Spotted Owl died for this." "We lost a hundred square miles of land making power for three states."
posted by adipocere at 7:51 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Crikey. Some people. If it's not a panacea, it's not worth doing.

So you're in favor of nuclear power, then ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:52 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think anyone who lives in a country without 24/7 power can tell you how much that sucks.

And if the alternative is nothing at all, I'll take capturing power flows that change with time.

Some industrial processes need 24X7 power otherwise damage happens to their equipment. Foundry operations WRT heat stress as an example.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:53 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]



That proved to be a manageable problem - you don't hear much about acid rain anymore - so at least on that score the future turned out pretty well.

Yeah, that was the worry when I was in junior high, Three blind Mice - that the forests in the NE were all going to die because of acid rain, and rivers like the Cuyahoga (which burned more than once) were going to be the norm. Wish I'd kept some of the eco-catastrophe paperbacks that were in vogue at the time.

But it's a funny thing - people tend to learn from mistakes. We got acid rain under control. We got a lot of the air pollution problems from cars under control through various means. (More efficent engines, emission requirements, gas formulations...) We can make great changes - when we see there's a problem, and there's the resources to deal with it.

What I slightly worry about is a semi-crash where we slip back to, oh, about a '30s level of technology and we have to abandon a lot of the pollution control schemes because they're too expensive to maintain.
posted by JB71 at 7:54 AM on May 12, 2011


So would I, but that's a false dilemma. There are choices other than wind/solar only.
posted by wierdo at 7:54 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


So you're in favor of nuclear power, then

Step outside and look up towards the big bight light in the sky. That is nuke power all but Mr. Burns from the town of Springfield is in favor of.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:54 AM on May 12, 2011


When they're viable WITHOUT subsidies, that's when they'll take off.

They they will never take off, because even fossil fuel based energy technologies are still the beneficiaries of massive government subsidies. In fact, according to one recent analysis reported by Bloomberg, we currently subsidize non-renewable energy tech to the tune of twelve times as much as we do renewable energy.

Your argument fails because its premises do not withstand scrutiny. Let me know once non-renewable energy sources are viable without subsidies, then maybe we can have an honest debate.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:56 AM on May 12, 2011 [13 favorites]


But it's a funny thing - people tend to learn from mistakes. We got acid rain under control

No we didn't. The problem has only gotten much larger since, or have you not heard about the Ocean Acidification crisis we're seeing worsening year after year?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:58 AM on May 12, 2011


We got acid rain under control
No we didn't. The problem has only gotten much larger since, or have you not heard about the Ocean Acidification crisis


Sulfur in one case, Carbon and Oxygen in the other.

So they are different.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:00 AM on May 12, 2011


Can we have our constellation of solar power satellites NOW?
posted by mikelieman at 8:01 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Step outside and look up towards the big bight light in the sky. That is nuke power all but Mr. Burns from the town of Springfield is in favor of.

I'm as pro-nuclear as anybody, but I think it's pretty well understood that when people are talking about "nuclear power", they're talking about terrestrial nuclear power plants, and not a gravitationally-confined fusion reactor with a 93 million mile exclusion zone around it.
posted by FishBike at 8:01 AM on May 12, 2011


Crikey. Some people. If it's not a panacea, it's not worth doing.

So you're in favor of nuclear power, then ?


Bring on the breeder reactors, and let's start cleaning up this old nuclear waste. It'll bridge the gap until the union guys get some of the satellites built..
posted by mikelieman at 8:02 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


This analysis includes all energy, not just electrical energy. So the question is just about how we keep the lights on at night, but how we cook, how we travel, how we do everything. The great thing is that we're so wasteful right now a great deal of energy can be saved by changing lifestyle habits. Already we've seen in many developed nations a return to city living, with the desirability of such lifestyles much higher than traditional suburban development - at least among certain demographics. That means less car use, and much less energy spent on transport. The economic loss of oil in the near future will exacerbate the trend, but we're already seeing in some countries far fewer young people opting for car use as their primary mode of transport. Some societies could probably reduce car use to half of current levels without great difficulty. You can expect similar changes in everything we do, such increased thermal efficiency of housing become an expected norm to a decrease in commercial electricity use as old patterns of workplaces and retail spaces are renewed.

I don't expect fossil fuel use to end for several decades - particularly natural gas - but I don't think it will be that great a struggle to maintain a pretty decent standard of living by the time its does. We only need to separate the really valuable aspects of current energy use from the chaff. Lights and warm showers? Yes. Retail parks and overlit offices? No.
posted by Jehan at 8:03 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can we have our constellation of solar power satellites NOW?

Lets see. You want to harvest energy from outside the biosphere and then INSERT that additional energy into the biosphere as a solution to too much heat inside the biosphere?

Ya sure your demand of NOW has been thought through?

a gravitationally-confined fusion reactor with a 93 million mile exclusion zone around it.

It has a track record of Man not being able to screw it up.

Unlike fission power.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:05 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Saulgoodman -

When folks start going "There's a crisis! 30% change! OMFG!" I usually start trying to find the numbers to see just what's going on.

In the case of the 'Ocean Acidification Crisis', the PH change seems to be from 8.25 to 8.14.

Neutral PH, if I recall, is 7, so there's still a ways to go before it goes acidic. That said, I ALSO doubt info and conclusions presented by advocacy groups looking to change things - whether they're ecologically minded or otherwise.

Your mileage may vary, I understand.

Re the subsidization of non-renewable energy/renewable energy, that article was a trifle vague and it took a while to spot that this was a worldwide phenomena.

And the reality is - when renewables can make it without massive subsidies they'll take off... IF consumers will accept them. Which they may not, seeing how beloved the CFL is...
posted by JB71 at 8:09 AM on May 12, 2011


the PH change seems to be from 8.25 to 8.14.

And yet such changes effect the lifeforms in the Ocean like coral that need the more basic solution to exist.

(Ok, in coral's case you can electrify the coral and that helps 'em build structure. But not for say clams)
posted by rough ashlar at 8:13 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Can we have our constellation of solar power satellites NOW?

Nope. It was established back in the '80s that the beam power density getting the power DOWN to the planet was above 0.00000 watts/sq meter, therefore unsafe for anything that might fly though it.

And think of the pollution firing up all the parts and people to put the sats together! OMG!
posted by JB71 at 8:14 AM on May 12, 2011


And think of the pollution firing up all the parts and people to put the sats together! OMG!

Well, actually, you do have to think about it, it's part of the equation to make sure it's viable. I don't get the sarcasm.
posted by stbalbach at 8:17 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lets see. You want to harvest energy from outside the biosphere and then INSERT that additional energy into the biosphere as a solution to too much heat inside the biosphere?

Who said it was a solution to "too much heat inside the biosphere"?

We have an Energy Shortage. This solves the energy shortage without burning any fossil fuels. If you're into those things, it's Zero Carbon Emissions, but again, our PROBLEM is that we have a shortage of energy.
posted by mikelieman at 8:17 AM on May 12, 2011


Rough Ashlar -

Well, all we gotta do is get China to stop using coal. I think things will settle pretty fast after that.

Oh, there's this, also. Apparently the reefs aren't quite so fragile after all.

http://www.c3headlines.com/are-coral-reefs-dying/

Still think it's a good idea to clean up our act, though. I'd really like to see coal and oil reserved for petrochemical feedstocks, instead of burned for power. But that still requires something to provide the power we use...
posted by JB71 at 8:17 AM on May 12, 2011


And the reality is - when renewables can make it without massive subsidies they'll take off.

Unlike coal, gas and oil which is unsubsidized.
posted by stbalbach at 8:19 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]



Who said it was a solution to "too much heat inside the biosphere"?


If we stop burning coal and oil, nudge-nudge wink-wink....

Heck, we might be lucky and with the sun going into an apparent Dalton Minimum scenario end up with a party on the Thames!
posted by JB71 at 8:21 AM on May 12, 2011


We have an Energy Shortage.

No, the planet is awash in energy from the fusion reactor that holds the system together.

The only "shortage" is to the expectation that energy should be "economically inexpensive". For most of Man's history on the planet - energy was expensive. The one time "gift" of ancient sunlight expressed as fossil fuel which was then economically under priced created an unreasonable set of expectations.

The IPCC part of the post is concerned about the Earth heating up. "Solutions" that add to the heat load are not going to help.

And fission adds heat, and is not a conversion of energy already arriving into heat and not allowing it to escape.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:22 AM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


the sun going into an apparent Dalton Minimum scenario

And Oh, the fun when the Sun goes back into full production!

Even more fun - when the Planet gets smacked with a Coronal Mass Ejection!
posted by rough ashlar at 8:24 AM on May 12, 2011


How much did they cost you?
$44K for a 5.5 kW system, installed.

How much was your bill normally?
Around $100/mo. and rising.

What sort of subsidies did you get?
$10.5K rebate from the state. $12K federal tax refund. $1K state tax refund.

What's the point where you've paid off the panels through electricity you're selling back?
7 years, at current electric rates. When the rates increase, the payback time decreases.

I've looked at it down here in GA, and couldn't justify a 30-year payback myself... of course, the air conditioning season down here is likely a bit longer than up there...
30 years is what I was seeing for a payback when I looked at solar a few years back. Obviously, that's changed where I live, at least. I suggest you check out one of the PV cost calculators online. I don't know what incentives GA has in place, but you might be surprised. There's also a program called SREC, which pays me for the energy my roof creates. That's completely separate from the credits I get from the grid operator. GA does not seem to be participating in that; maybe you should talk to your state Representative.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:29 AM on May 12, 2011


Stbalbach -

You know, it's kind of wierd how the oil companies get taxed like crazy, and then subsidized.

http://www.uhnd.com/bb/forum/index.php?action=display&forumid=2&msgid=53231

Investor’s Business Daily — In 2006 alone, according to the American Petroleum Institute, U.S. oil companies paid some $138 billion in taxes to the IRS — and that doesn’t include special oil severance, sales and use taxes companies also had to pay.

Internal Revenue Service (Table 6, p. 41) — In 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available), the bottom 75% of all individual taxpayers (about 100 million taxpayers out of 132 million total) paid about $130.9 billion in income taxes. Adjusting by the recent average of about $5 billion in annual increases in tax revenue from individuals, it is estimated that the bottom 75% of individual taxpayers (more than 100 million individuals) paid about $136 billion in 2006.

Bottom Line: In 2006, U.S. oil companies paid more in corporate income taxes to the IRS ($138 billion) than the individual taxes paid by the more than 100 million individual taxpayers in the bottom 75% of all individual taxpayers (estimated to be $136 billion).
Funny, isn't it? Kind of like taking money and shoving it from one pocket to another, and claiming you just got paid.
posted by JB71 at 8:31 AM on May 12, 2011


Kirth -

Thanks for the info - I'll look into it!
posted by JB71 at 8:32 AM on May 12, 2011


Hey, people, I've got an idea! Let's just fucking kill ourselves because it's just too damn hard to work out our problems. You know, everytime I come across an actually optimistic report that says "There's light at the end of the tunnel. If we work at this, apply ourselves, focus on what really matters (a livable future, at this point), and come together to face these massive challenges, we can overcome them." I get to come back to a bunch of whining-ass people talking about all of the logistical challenges, difficulties, and limitations of these technologies, which do exist, yes. On the other hand what seems to be conspicuously absent is a sense of any sort of optimism or engagement. I have seen more acceptance from industry than I have from people who I would assume genuinely care about the environment and the quality of our future recently. It's just...if it's all so hopeless and it's never going to happen, seriously, why are you even here?
posted by nTeleKy at 8:34 AM on May 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


Rough Ashlar -

the Dalton Minimum lasted about 40 years, and it took a long time to warm back up from it. A Maunder minimum, however, would last about 150 years, and would REALLY make us want global warming.

If we get hit with a CME, however, I think worrying about warming/cooling is going to be REALLY low on the 'things to worry about' list... in fact, it'll probably be in the third appendix that was used last night to start the fire....
posted by JB71 at 8:37 AM on May 12, 2011


The thing is, in the long run renewables will have to be what powers the world, because if they're not, then in the long run all the non-renewable fuels will be used up; that's what non-renewable means.

So we can either recognize that and head in that direction now - which involves rearranging ourselves a little and prioritizing energy efficiency improvements over generation capacity growth, to achieve an ongoing decrease in total energy demand until we reach the point where renewables can do the job cost-effectively - or we can put it off for a few hundred years by focusing more on increased generation capacity than on end-use efficiency, and allowing energy demand growth projections to become self-fulfilling by investing heavily in non-renewable generation capacity.

It seems patently obvious to me that choosing an efficiency-led drive toward genuine renewables now is going to cost a hell of a lot less than being forced to do so in a more energy-intensive, fuels-impoverished future. This is why I see nukes as a diversion down a false trail.

To drive efficiency improvement, we need to make energy cost a little more per kilojoule every year. If we don't do that, Jevons will bite us in the arse. Peak oil is already doing that to some extent; progressive diversion of fossil fuel subsidies toward research on mass production of renewable energy harvesting and storage can do the rest. Carbon taxes will help too. No nukes is good nukes.
posted by flabdablet at 8:37 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


The total amount of energy the Earth absorbs from sunlight is around 5 orders of magnitude (10,000 times) larger than the heat produced by all fossil fuel burning combined. Replacing all of that fossil fuel consumption with, say, orbital solar power is not going to have any significant effect on the Earth's equilibrium temperature at all.

The temperature problem is entirely due to things like higher CO2 causing more of that massive amount of solar energy to be absorbed and retained, shifting the equlibrium temperature upwards. That's the problem, not the extra heat humanity produces, which is a trivial amount in comparison.
posted by FishBike at 8:40 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


nTeleKy -

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement tends to feel that way.

Me? I'm optimistic that we'll survive, and prosper. But that doesn't mean there won't be people in the way (both well meaning and otherwise) who will be greatly against any progress they don't like, for reasons which seem perfectly adequate and obvious to them.

(Then there's the nihilistic bastards who just want to destroy whatever they can to get their rocks off...)
posted by JB71 at 8:46 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know, all we really need is for some scientist somewhere to reverse entropy. That would solve our energy problems and eliminate global warming!
posted by blue_beetle at 9:00 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


You heard it hear first, folks: solar panel-shaded parking lots

They're not doing that all over already? Our local water sanitation district, a couple of the city corporation yards, and two or three larger businesses are doing it.

I think it makes a lot more sense to subsidize larger solar installs where there's some economy of scale than the piecemeal one roof at a time residential stuff. Especially as we scale up to the point where the solar fatalities start to increase over nuclear (people fall off roofs a lot). I'd especially like to see some kind of solar solution where the technology is incorporated into the structure of new roofs as some kind of prefab insulated tile with internal structural elements that can be snapped together. It seems like there's a lot of duplication of effort with roofing for waterproofing / insulation / solar. That said, I've never worked as a roofer.

nTeleKy, I think the opposition isn't to solar in general, but the half-assed way we've gone about subsidizing it (I know, fossil fuel subsidies are even stupider). For me, I wish we'd directed more of our earliest subsidies to research and less to production. Once there is a sufficiently cheap and efficient way to manufacture panels (which we get better at every year) the only factor that will slow down rapid worldwide adoption is the raw materials.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:04 AM on May 12, 2011


So you're in favor of nuclear power, then ?

Not as such. But we've been marching down that road for ~50 years and we still can't afford it and we still can't avoid stuff like this.

What I in favor of is decentralization and an escape from the big capital intensive system such as we have now (which more nukes would extend), that locks up so many resources, creates its own political gravity-well, and binds us all to its fate (or as M. Thatcher used to say, TINA).

My panacea? Solar cells on my roof, a hydrogen fuel cell car in my driveway, and a magic machine that takes the electricity my roof produces during the day and makes hydrogen to power the car and to power the fuel cell that keeps the lights on at night.

That's where I want to go.
posted by notyou at 9:15 AM on May 12, 2011


That's going to be about all we'll have left. Don't know about you, but I'm rather fond of reliable power, hot (clean) water, and air conditioning. Renewables just don't seem to scale up effectively, and while I like the idea, the economics suck big blue donkey testicles. (See Spain - they can't afford their subsidies, and as such their 'renewable' efforts aren't cost effective at all.) -- JB71
As opposed to heating up the planet, causing massive flooding and destroying tons of land that people used to live on near the ocean, not to mention inland flooding, more tornados and hurricanes, etc due to global warming?

It's ridiculous. Yes, it's true that green energy costs more when externalities of fossil fuels aren't paid for but just because you don't pay for all the greenhouse gas emissions in your electrical bill doesn't mean there's no price to pay. It just means it won't be paid by you. Unless you live by the ocean or in a flood plane. Sure, what's the big deal with people having their homes destroyed if you could be saving $50 on your electrical bill!?

Seriously the idea that it won't "Scale up" only makes sense when you compare it to something that is artificially cheap, and also heavily subsidized by taxpayers anyway.
Toys "R" Us announced today that it plans to cover 70 percent of the roof of its distribution center, located in the leafy suburb of Flanders, N.J., with a solar installation.

The 5.38-megawatt solar project is a massive undertaking for a rooftop installation. Toys "R" Us claims this will be the largest rooftop solar installation in North America.


Think about all the totally useless rooftop space in this country. All the big-box stores, all the parkinglots. There is tons and tons of space for silicon solar panels and there is far more then enough silicon in the world to do it. What's expensive about silicon now is the production, not the raw material, but is production capability ramps up it should get cheaper and cheaper.

You could even put solar panels in the roads, so that they could collect energy while they're not being driven on. You'd need to figure out a way to make them survive being driven on, of course.
Solar is great. The problem is the footprint. Google invested in a solar project in the Mojave desert that will produce about as much energy as the Fukushima plant did at roughly 400MW.

It's going to take 3500 acres of desert and basically make it a parking lot out of it. And that's in an area with good weather in and lots of insolation.
-- Pogo_Fuzzybutt
As I said, there is a ton of useless rooftop space that's doing nothing but soaking up heat. There's no reason that solar power couldn't be used there. It doesn't need to be put in the desert.
One of the challenges with most solar and practically all wind power is that its availability is quite unpredictable. Clouds move across the sun, or the wind stops blowing, and the grid operator has very little time to do something about it to maintain grid stability and prevent a blackout. - FishBike
That's why you need a 'supergrid' that can move electricity anywhere. It's always sunny or windy somewhere.
Yeah, that was the worry when I was in junior high, Three blind Mice - that the forests in the NE were all going to die because of acid rain, and rivers like the Cuyahoga (which burned more than once) were going to be the norm. Wish I'd kept some of the eco-catastrophe paperbacks that were in vogue at the time. -- JB71
Do you know why acid rain stopped? Because the government put in a CAP AND TRADE SYSTEM to restrict the amount of acid rain causing emissions!

Now global warming is becoming a problem and people are proposing a solution of using a cap and trade system on global emissions, and people are like "But acid rain ended up not being a problem, why worry about greenhouse gas!?"
What I slightly worry about is a semi-crash where we slip back to, oh, about a '30s level of technology and we have to abandon a lot of the pollution control schemes because they're too expensive to maintain. -- JB71
Oh please. The "futuristic" technology we all love: The internet, smartphones, etc are very low power (especially smart phones, since they have to run off batteries). It's actually stuff like air conditioning and massive urban sprawl that eats up energy and produces CO2.

The fearmongering about how life will suck if we switch to renewable is ridiculous.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 AM on May 12, 2011 [11 favorites]


Er, not opposed as such.

Forgot to un-ironize the query.
posted by notyou at 9:16 AM on May 12, 2011


Well, all we gotta do is get China to stop using coal. I think things will settle pretty fast after that.
All we have to do is mandate a tariff on goods imported from countries that exceed their carbon caps. Also, China only passed the US in CO2 emissions just a few years ago and we still release like 4x per person. It's absurd to say "Well, the average Chinese person releases 1/4th as much CO2 as me so clearly there's no point in me doing anything until they stop completely"
posted by delmoi at 9:17 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


JB71: And realistically, if any alternatives are dependent on government subsidies to be economically viable, they're not ready yet. When they're viable WITHOUT subsidies, that's when they'll take off.

Oil is being subsidized and to a lesser degree so is coal.

JB71: But we'll still need power at night, unless you want to use lots of batteries with all the toxic problems THEY entail.

Germany has already solved this problem. We have found the perfect non-toxic battery: it's called Norway. Our biggest problem back home isn't whether or not it's going to work... it's NIMBY-ism since people are fighting any new power lines that will run through their particular backyard. However, progress is being made in Denmark and elsewhere in Scandinavia by proposing designer transmission masts which face far less resistance from residents.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:21 AM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think we should be building Volcano Towers, as they have no record of exploding and killing everyone yet.
posted by Artw at 9:27 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


JB71: Wish I'd kept some of the eco-catastrophe paperbacks that were in vogue at the time.

If you had seen Germany's Black Forest at the height of acid rain exposure you wouldn't be so damn snarky. Acid rain wasn't some kind of loony doomsday paranoia. There were barely any conifers left standing that you couldn't see right through because they had lost most of their needles already.

The only thing that saved these woods was recognition of the problem and strict regulation to curb emissions.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:31 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you had seen Germany's Black Forest at the height of acid rain exposure you wouldn't be so damn snarky.

Instead they now have glow in the dark* wild pigs from the Chernobyl failure.

*by glow in the dark I am snarking for radioactive boars - too radioactive for human consumption.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:33 AM on May 12, 2011


We can make great changes - when we see there's a problem, and there's the resources to deal with it.

This is a wonderful and optimistic argument for renewable energy, away from technologies that simply do not work, like nuclear and fossil fuels.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:50 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fearmongering about how life will suck if we switch to renewable is ridiculous.

I think all fearmongering is ridiculous. "Renewables" are a part of the answer in places where they make sense. Offshore and nearshore windfarms seem to be a good idea, as do windfarms on the highplains and other areas with a lot of wind. Solar makes sense in places like the mohave and really all over the southwest, just like hydropower does in the northwest and northeast.

Hydrothermal makes a lot sense if you have a handy volcano nearby, like Iceland does, and maybe the states bordering Yellowstone.

The biggest problem with "renewables" is that they are largely being pushed by the same people who have been using any tool they can for years to tell Americans specefically and western civilization in general how we are all going to die if we don't do this thing that will totally change and disrupt our lifestyle and make us all fit in with whatever lifestyle the doomsayer have deemed appropiate. They have very little creditability with most people now (btw i also think this is at the heart of the global warming deniers)

People don't like to be meddled with, or told what to do or how to live. It tends to cause revolutions and at the worst can lead to things like the killing fields in cambodia or the cultural revoluation in China or the gulag in Soviet Russia.

Personally I think we would be way better off if we had started a crash program to build nuclear plants and solar power satellites following 9/11 instead of wars to...well do whatever they were supposed to. Hell I would have been happy if we had started a crash program to work out how to make solar better, algae biofuels and hydrothermal. I just think nuclear is the best bet going forward to avoid the CO2 problem and the buying oil from people who don't like us problem, but would be happy to be proved wrong and something else found that doesn't have the obvious problems of nuclear. I just don't think such a technology exists that we can use practically right now.

The combination of cheap energy and liberty usually results in prosperity. Lets make that happen, ok?
posted by bartonlong at 10:01 AM on May 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


Renewables just don't seem to scale up effectively

Let's examine a case in point, shall we?

January 2006: MWOE and UT reach an exclusive license agreement for four sets of technology portfolios developed in the Thin Film Silicon Photovoltaic Laboratory [...investment...]
July 2007: Xunlight moves its headquarters from the incubator at the University of Toledo to 122,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility at 3145 Nebraska Ave. [...investment...]
June 2008: Xunlight demonstrates first solar cell deposition on 2MW roll-to-roll pilot production line [...investment...]
June 2009: Xunlight successfully completes the installation and demonstration of its 25MW high-throughput, wide-web, roll-to-roll photovoltaic manufacturing process [via]

Concept/lab to 2MW fab in 2 years, to 25MW fab in 1 more year. Which then brings us to..."I think the opposition isn't to solar in general, but the half-assed way we've gone about subsidizing it." For instance, the company mentioned above has been forced to suspend some corporate salaries and lay off 30 people in Ohio and 70 in China because a $5 million order is waiting on approval of Italian government subsidies.

Or here in WI where many wind power projects are on hold because gov. Walker doesn't like the conclusion of a multi-year study done by the PSC on appropriate wind turbine siting. No one knows how it's going to pan out, so for now it's all on hold. Regardless of subsidies, it would be nice to just have some sort of consistent regulatory framework.

In spite of all of this, I still feel like it's only a matter of time. I feel about renewable energy today the way I felt about the internet and computers in the mid-90s (as far as development and potential go). 20 years ago the idea of having a 1GHz PC with wireless high-speed internet, a full color video camera, and a higher display resolution than most televisions in your pocket seemed just as unbelievable as cheap, abundant, renewable energy does now. It also feels just as inevitable. Yes, there will be many technical challenges, hurdles to jump, and investments to be made, but I don't see any other viable options, really. Look at the advances being made by LCD manufacturers on the amorphous silicon and other thin-film products, even in the USA. These thin films have lower material requirements and lower cost (at the expense of some conversion efficiency). PS: This guy is awesome.

As mentioned upthread, there's no panacea, and that's fine. We don't want to run into the situation the Irish did with Potatoes. However, a combination of technologies, conservation, efficiency, and awareness has the potential to address these issues (according to this paper, unanimously approved by everyone involved) which is peachy, but at the end of the day, I'm siding with this guy: "Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."
posted by nTeleKy at 10:35 AM on May 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


People don't like to be meddled with, or told what to do or how to live.

Children don't like to be meddled with or told what to do or how to live. But adults should know better.

Because adults know that participation in society requires that they be meddled with, told what to do and how to live on a daily basis. Or at the least, that they demonstrate a socially responsible willingness to take those responsibilities on themselves. As adults, we all routinely accept and should expect to accept reasonable limits to our freedom on the basis of the common good. Maybe I would personally like to build a thermonuclear device in my backyard so that I could use it as leverage to get my neighbor to stop torturing his damn trombone at full volume every evening at my son's bedtime, but I recognize there have to be reasonable limits to my freedom from being meddled with, told what to do, or how to live (if only my neighbor would take the hint).

Why should it be acceptable for some legislator to tell my wife her next miscarriage might force her to have to defend herself in court against a death penalty charge, while we marginalize energy activists for complaining too loudly that our energy production systems are inherently unsustainable and environmentally devastating (which, by the way, we all basically concede)? If you're arguing the status quo in defense of some kind of absolute concept of personal liberty, you might want to consider that that horse has already left the barn.

Hell I would have been happy if we had started a crash program to work out how to make solar better, algae biofuels and hydrothermal. I just think nuclear is the best bet going forward to avoid the CO2 problem and the buying oil from people who don't like us problem, but would be happy to be proved wrong and something else found that doesn't have the obvious problems of nuclear. I just don't think such a technology exists that we can use practically right now.

There's been a lot of progress made nonetheless while you may not have been paying attention. All that's really left impeding the expansion of renewables now is large-scale investment and deployment; the serious tech issues have mostly been solved (in as much as engineering problems are ever solved before tech goes into production: consider how well we solved the remaining engineering problems that affected both Fukushima and the Deepwater Horizon spill). The latest solar PVs are now already roughly at grid parity. And there are tantalizing signs of a solution to the so-called "storage problem" with solar based energy production, too.

The US didn't end up with its current energy infrastructure by accident: we subsidized the hell out of its creation initially and we still do. We're not going to end up with a renewables based energy infrastructure without doing the same.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:36 AM on May 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


> In the case of the 'Ocean Acidification Crisis', the PH change seems to be from 8.25 to 8.14.
Neutral PH, if I recall, is 7, so there's still a ways to go before it goes acidic.


Cool! Don't forget to communicate your findings to the science academies of multiple countries, they tend to be a rather confused lot.


That said, I ALSO doubt info and conclusions presented by advocacy groups looking to change things - whether they're ecologically minded or otherwise.

> Oh, there's this, also. Apparently the reefs aren't quite so fragile after all.
http://www.c3headlines.com/are-coral-reefs-dying/


About C3:
In summary, C3 is a CAGW-skeptic. C3 does not believe in the non-scientific disaster "predictions" by Al Gore and others.
[...]
C3's one-dozen opinions on climate change:
1. Climate change is always happening. It is the natural order.
2. Natural global warming has been occurring since the end of the Little Ice Age.
3. Human CO2 emissions will cause some warming based on the widely-accepted logarithmic, physical response discovered by scientists (a 1 to 2 degree Celsius impact would not be a surprise). Other human factors definitely cause warming - black soot, deforestation, agriculture irrigation, paving over farmland, concrete/asphalt urban areas, etc.
4. The CO2-induced warming will be minimized by natural climate, negative feedbacks.
5. There has been modest warming from CO2 since the 1970's, ending in the late 1990's. Since 1998, there has been a very modest global cooling.
6. Global warming is not "accelerating" as alarmists contend...
posted by Bangaioh at 10:40 AM on May 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


This is a wonderful and optimistic argument for renewable energy, away from technologies that simply do not work, like nuclear and fossil fuels.

If they simply didn't work, then I wouldn't be able to type this, since I'd be without power at this point. What I want is something that works BETTER - and EVERY sort of power generation is going to have drawbacks, some pretty serious while others are sheer annoyances. (The waste from magnet construction for wind turbines is nasty stuff, I understand, and IT doesn't have a half-life.)

Then again, one person's annoyance is another person's deal killer. If it comes to a choice between living next to a nuclear waste facility aka Yucca Mountain, or a landfill full of toxic crap from magnet and solar cell manufacturing, I think I'd prefer the nuclear waste since THAT gets less bad over time, while arsenic and other stuff never gets less poisonous.

There's no perfect solution. There never is. The Auto seemed great compared to horses. Sperm whale oil looked good compared to candles, kerosene lamps looked good compared to whale oil, and so on. CFLs were supposed to be better than incandescents, I'm holding out for LEDs.

There's always something better coming along. Just be sure to read the manual first!

(And Hairy Lobster, we don't have jumper cables long enough to reach Norway... (grin))
posted by JB71 at 10:43 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bangaioh -

I'm usually convinced by data. (See Ruddiman's work on AGW - based on his work, if it WEREN'T for human-generated CO2 we'd be nuts-deep in an ice age at this point.) I'm not convinced by appeals to authority, emotional appeals, or arguments based on inaccurate representation of information. Al Gore's 'neutrality' for me basically disappeared once he invested in a company that sold carbon credits.

So in the end? Question Authority.

Question what you believe - find the numbers for yourself, draw your own conclusions. If you get told you can't understand their work and you've got to take their word for it, and you've got to make massive changes to how you work and live because a computer model (that they won't make public, and doesn't seem capable of replicating current climactic trends) indicates that there's going to be problems down the line - then question it. Question the data put in, question the results that come out. Remember - garbage in, garbage out. A bad sample can screw up a lot of calculations, and fudge factors inside the model (to get 'expected' output) can further muddy the results.

If something's hidden and you're told you've got to take their word for it - be skeptical.

Humanity and the biosphere's made it through warmer times than this (the Viking colonization of Greenland indicates that at one point things were considerably warmer) and colder times. somehow, I think we'll make it through this also - no matter what way we go.
posted by JB71 at 10:59 AM on May 12, 2011


(The waste from magnet construction for wind turbines is nasty stuff, I understand, and IT doesn't have a half-life.)

Explain? All power production except for solar photovoltaic requires magnets.
posted by molecicco at 11:00 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I suppose electricity from hydrogen fuel cells, where the hydrogen was cracked off methane also requires no magnets, but that's a pretty special case.

But nuclear, gas turbine, coal, solar thermal, tidal, offshore wave, ... all of these require magnets.
posted by molecicco at 11:05 AM on May 12, 2011


So in the end? Question Authority.

And question those who are questioning. And then question the questioners of the questioners. Repeat until you find some stable ground.

One-level skepticism doesn't really accomplish much.
posted by molecicco at 11:06 AM on May 12, 2011 [9 favorites]


Humanity and the biosphere's made it through warmer times than this (the Viking colonization of Greenland indicates that at one point things were considerably warmer) and colder times. somehow, I think we'll make it through this also - no matter what way we go.

But nowhere near so rapid a change as this, and that is the scary part.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:08 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


> I'm usually convinced by data.

I won't even bother debunking your points one by one because you could easily do it yourself if you had any actual interest in doing it. In any case, I'll still leave this here in case you really are interested in learning more and genuinely can't find better sources than the one I quoted in my post.

But this:

Al Gore's 'neutrality' for me basically disappeared once he invested in a company that sold carbon credits. So in the end? Question Authority. Question what you believe - find the numbers for yourself, draw your own conclusions.

is priceless.

So you want me to pretend I'm a scientist and do the work of thousands of trained professionals by myself, because those professionals aren't trustworthy according to you? Yet those few who do not hold the consensus view totally are. And since when is Al Gore any sort of authority in scientific matters?

Any one can make a case for/against AGW and sound credible to a layman. Choosing to trust what is more convenient for you isn't scepticism.

But this is an unneeded derail since this thread isn't about "Climate change: good or bad? You decide!", and Jehan and flabdablet have already expressed some of my opinions much better than I ever could.
posted by Bangaioh at 11:35 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


JB71: (And Hairy Lobster, we don't have jumper cables long enough to reach Norway... (grin))

Last time I checked the US has regions that contain both mountains and water.
In any case... my point was that while there are problems there are also solutions that can be found and implemented. This particular one will work fine for central Europe. Other regions may have other/better solutions to their particular problems.
Just because something may require some effort to accomplish doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile to do it. I'd rather spend money investing into the future than continue to plunder the future for short term benefits in the present.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:44 AM on May 12, 2011


Coincidentally this was just released by AP (not sure if this was posted already):

"An expert panel asked by Congress to recommend ways to deal with global warming said Thursday that the U.S. should not wait to reduce the pollution responsible and any efforts to delay action would be shortsighted."
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:49 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


And this one in relation to oil subsidies:

"Americans don't expect the oil industry to help reduce the budget deficit, the CEO of Chevron told Congress Thursday as lawmakers consider cutting billions in government subsidies to big oil companies."
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:00 PM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


The biggest problem with "renewables" is that they are largely being pushed by the same people who have been using any tool they can for years to tell Americans specefically and western civilization in general how we are all going to die if we don't do this thing that will totally change and disrupt our lifestyle and make us all fit in with whatever lifestyle the doomsayer have deemed appropiate.
God forbid you should evaluate something on it's merits as opposed to whether or not you personally dislike whoever is making the argument.

I do think it's a problem that some environmentalists make it seem as though saving the environment will require some huge sacrifice and curtailment of our current lifestyle. You just have to substitute some things, like electric cars for gas powered ones, more higher density housing for suburbs (which lots of people prefer) and of course solar power plants rather then

Also isolation, the amount of energy you can get from the sun isn't that much greater in the Mojave desert then it is in LA or anywhere else in the 'sunbelt'. Here's an insolation map. The thing is, though, the vast majority of the world gets at least 2-3 hours of full sunlight equivalent per day (over a year). 100% solar power would only be twice as expensive in lower Canada then it would be in Arizona.

Certainly solar power is more effective there, but the magnitude of the difference is just not that great. There is plenty of annual sunlight for solar power in most of the world.
(The waste from magnet construction for wind turbines is nasty stuff, I understand, and IT doesn't have a half-life.)
This is the kind of bullshit that, I don't even know what to call this kind of attitude, it's like people feel they need to criticize and deny that anything having to do with the environment can work or be fixed. Usually it goes along with climate skepticism. But either way it's completely ridiculous. You're comparing a small amount of (in this case used to create the magnets in wind turbines) with an enormous amount of CO2. It's just so dumb. You often see people say solar panels contain toxic chemicals (which isn't true in the case of silicon panels) or whatever.

It's just totally ridiculous. The scale isn't even comparable. They're also holding the technology to a standard that no one talks about for other types of manufactured products. Those same magnets are also used in speakers and headphones. How is solar panel construction any worse then LCD/LED construction? Or silicon chips?

People talk, for example, about the number of people who die installing solar rooftop panels, without even bothering to consider the number of people who die installing ordinary roofs.

A lot of the arguments are basically innumerate. As if one "bad thing" can be equated with another "bad thing" as long as they both sound kind of bad and completely ignoring the scope of the problem.
posted by delmoi at 1:09 PM on May 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


God forbid you should evaluate something on it's merits as opposed to whether or not you personally dislike whoever is making the argument.

I was trying to establish why so many of the easy reforms are hard sells to the general public that actually cares about finding a solution. It is because the people who are offering the solution seem to have a larger, hidden agenda. Just like a lot of people on metafilter automatically discount and derive any ideas or objections to the climate science debate if the objector ever took any money from some established energy company. A coworker of mine has a quote up in her cube that says something to the effect of "I can't hear what you are saying because who I think you are is too loud". Understanding why someone objects to your ideas or a solution is important in getting them to change their mind. And you know what? Quite often the person shilling for AGW does have some hidden agenda or sees it as a path to some larger societal change they think would be just nifty if we all adopted and the world would be oh so much better if we did things their way.

I do think it's a problem that some environmentalists make it seem as though saving the environment will require some huge sacrifice and curtailment of our current lifestyle. You just have to substitute some things, like electric cars for gas powered ones, more higher density housing for suburbs (which lots of people prefer) and of course solar power plants rather then

Doubling the cost of energy is significant. Think about how much harder it is to pay for gas when it costs $4 a gallon over $2 a gallon. That is not a trivial increase. This doesn't mean it is ok to keep on burning fossil fuels willy nilly. The chemical value of the long chain hydrocarbons is actually pretty high and we are burning the stuff when there are viable alternatives for a lot of the uses. So maybe solar isn't the answer in Canada, they do have huge hydropower potential (and if i remember correctly have some of the biggest hydropower generating capacity available). Their isn't one single answer that fits everywhere. Solar does work well in a lots of places but it doesn't work anywhere for 24/7 power unless we have solar power satellites. It is a great supplement that can really take the sting out of conservation measures and a distributed generating capacity (solar arrays on roofs does this quite well) is a great redundancy that gives us a very useful margin of safety agaisnt something like a coronal mass ejection frying every transformer on the grid.

My big point is we can solve this problem, the answers are their and we would all be better off if we till the NIMBY's to stfu and actually start DOING something. I think just about anything beats turning our blood, treasure and national will into the desert to turn it into oil.
posted by bartonlong at 1:33 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's sad to see how this discussion always reverts to something from the 70's. There has been so much development since then. An important point is that the source and price of energy should not be seen in isolation from the use of energy. The US is inefficient compared to many other countries Energy supply pr capita
Already, lots of countries have smart grids (and smart grids cross borders, too), and I think all European countries have buildings codes that minimize the need for heating and air-condition.
But far more research should be done into the economy of energy. Particularly, I believe we could learn a lot from traditional building technologies. After all, people have lived without air-condition for the most of humanity.
posted by mumimor at 2:02 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not a scientist or an energy whiz kid, so some of the finer points of alternative energy options go right over my head, but the main thing I really don't understand is why biomass conversion isn't getting attention and promotion the way solar and wind are.

As I understand it, biomass conversion plants could be built pretty much everywhere, without taking up remotely the acreage required for wind or solar (assuming not stacking on top of parking garages and putting rooftops to use, since those seem to be much less common so far than the "farm" model), could use a wide variety of carbon-based feedstocks (including agricultural, hazardous, and post-consumer waste, and potentially eventually eliminating the need for garbage barges and mountains), and could produce fuel that could be used right now by machinery that currently uses petroleum products.

I understand that efficiency of the process is an issue, but it seems doubtful that would improve much without putting it to work and allocating more R&D dollars toward it, and (in my layperson's POV) seems like to an entent it would be worth it regardless of efficiency due to the benefits of reducing the volume of waste we have to put somewhere. And even if we manage to somehow get ubiquitous solar photovoltaic power, we're still going to produce all that waste, and put it in landfills, on barges, anywhere but your backyard. Can anyone explain to me why we shouldn't be putting a lot more attention and resources toward biomass conversion?

Also, I don't think consumers, for the most part, care what sort of engineering magic gets their power to them. I think they care that it's readily available, reliable, and affordable, doesn't come from something ugly in their backyard, and to a lesser degree that it's not produced by clubbing baby seals or torturing orphans or polluting more than they've come to expect.
posted by notashroom at 2:12 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was trying to establish why so many of the easy reforms are hard sells to the general public that actually cares about finding a solution. It is because the people who are offering the solution seem to have a larger, hidden agenda.
The other "side" has an obvious, non-hidden agenda: to promote fossil fuel use and continue to make money doing so. The only "general public" who buys this kind of conspiracy theory B.S. are the same people who think Obama was born in Kenya or Bush did 9/11.
And you know what? Quite often the person shilling for AGW does have some hidden agenda or sees it as a path to some larger societal change they think would be just nifty if we all adopted and the world would be oh so much better if we did things their way.
The most recent study to verify global warming was funded by the Koch brothers and run by a former 'climate skeptic'. The data is all quite clear for anyone who cares to educate themselves and is capable of understanding it (which many aren't)

Why should we pretend these people aren't idiots?
posted by delmoi at 2:13 PM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Understatement of the week: Paul Padley, a particle physicist at Rice University in Houston, [said that] the Japanese government and Tepco “have consistently appeared to be underestimating the severity of the situation.”
posted by Papaver somniferum at 2:13 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sure as hell this ain't how I imagined the future back in the '60s as a kid.

You must have been reading slighty different books than I did.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:25 PM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


People don't like to be meddled with, or told what to do or how to live.

Children don't like to be meddled with or told what to do or how to live. But adults should know better.

Because adults know that participation in society requires that they be meddled with, told what to do and how to live on a daily basis. Or at the least, that they demonstrate a socially responsible willingness to take those responsibilities on themselves. As adults, we all routinely accept and should expect to accept reasonable limits to our freedom on the basis of the common good. Maybe I would personally like to build a thermonuclear device in my backyard so that I could use it as leverage to get my neighbor to stop torturing his damn trombone at full volume every evening at my son's bedtime, but I recognize there have to be reasonable limits to my freedom from being meddled with, told what to do, or how to live (if only my neighbor would take the hint).


This. This a thousand thousand times.

This waaa-waa-waa-I-want-what-I-deserve-right-now libertarianism that doesn't acknowledge the existence of other entities in the universe that exist for purposes other than to feed an infinite, malignant narcissism is at the root of so much of what's pushing civilization, the species and the planet in the wrong direction. Whether it's manifested as an unthinking consumerism, entitled Teabagger protests caused by the election of a black man as President of the United States (he doesn't deserve it! People like me deserve it!), or a unreasoning hatred of the idea of ecological limits, it's all from the same source - an appetite that can never be sated. More more more more more. Now now now now now. How dare anyone say that I can't do what I want when I want it? I deserve $1 a gallon gasoline. I deserve a cheap house on endless land that goes up in value forever and ever. I deserve 1,000 channels of TV. Why are you trying to take what I deserve away from me???? FREEDOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is the worldview of a narcissistic child. Wait, not exactly... it's the worldview of a narcissistic sociopathic child. Well, here's a news flash: I am not an island and neither are you. Nobody is (although some of the Golden Corral-fueled land whales I've seen in Southern airport terminals are getting close). You, me, and everyone are parts of many communities. Without them, we die. Quickly. Ayn Rand was an idiot. Cooperation is just as important as competition in evolution and day-to-day survival, if not more so, and has been for millions of years of human history and prehistory. And here's another one: Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" was a load of crap. The Universe doesn't necessarily conform itself to my wishes. Just because I'd like endless oil, uranium, coal and all the rest doesn't make it so. That's what James Howard Kunstler described as the Jiminy Cricket Syndrome - "if I wish upon a star, my dreams will come true". Unless you believe in abiotic oil or plan on praying really hard to Tax Cut Jeebus to miracle another few billion barrels of oil into your back yard, you better hope that all those hippie renewable energy people do very, very well.

I think the single greatest threat to the environment, or, to bring it even closer to home, the survival of Homo sapiens sapiens, is that kind of narcissistic libertarianism. It's time to grow the hell up.
posted by jhandey at 5:30 PM on May 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


Now that I got that out of my system... I am honestly curious about something.

Why is it that quite a few technophiles seem to suddenly lose all faith in technology when the subject of renewable resources comes up? It's funny: one moment they're salivating over neural jacks a la William Gibson's "Neuromancer" but in the next breath all that techno-optimistic can-do spirit disappears when they see solar panels.

Is it that renewables aren't as sexy as, say, fusion power? I don't get it.
posted by jhandey at 5:44 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


As usual, commenting late, but having just scanned through the IPCC's summary report (the full report apparently being released at the end of the month), I note that they report that currently, nearly 13% of the global energy demand is met by renewables. However, this is overwhelmingly traditional burning of biomass -- with attendant huge issues relating to pollution, human health impacts, and deforestation. That is, after years of unrprecedented increases in solar and wind generation capacity installation, "burning shit" still represents 97% of our energy consumption.
posted by bumpkin at 5:47 PM on May 12, 2011


jhandey wrote: Is it that renewables aren't as sexy as, say, fusion power? I don't get it.

No, it's that there's not really a clearly viable path towards renewables (alone) that also allows for our ever increasing technology's ever increasing energy consumption to continue. It really annoys me that people have been turned off to all nuclear technology, not just old and less inherently safe designs.

Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have some of the truly new tech in nuclear over the rehash of old designs being pushed by the big nuclear power folks. I'd really like to see the factory built concepts take off. When all you have to do is bury it and build a power substation it would seem the risk would be rather low (it's buried and it won't melt down even without power) and having them distributed all over the place would help with transmission efficiency.
posted by wierdo at 8:16 PM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Think about how much harder it is to pay for gas when it costs $4 a gallon over $2 a gallon

Australians are currently paying around AU$1.50 per litre. That's about US$1.60 per litre, or US$6 per US gallon. Our economy is going gangbusters. How's yours?
posted by flabdablet at 11:05 PM on May 12, 2011


To be fair, flabdablet, the Australian economy is going gangbusters despite $6/gallon fuel. It's also going gangbusters in a stupid, damn-the-torpedos future-what-future? fashion that makes me, for one, want to stab Gillard et al in the face.
posted by coriolisdave at 11:15 PM on May 12, 2011


> No, it's that there's not really a clearly viable path towards renewables (alone) that also allows for our ever increasing technology's ever increasing energy consumption to continue.

Well there's your problem right there.



> I note that they report that currently, nearly 13% of the global energy demand is met by renewables. However, this is overwhelmingly traditional burning of biomass -- with attendant huge issues relating to pollution, human health impacts, and deforestation.

> I'm not a scientist or an energy whiz kid, so some of the finer points of alternative energy options go right over my head, but the main thing I really don't understand is why biomass conversion isn't getting attention and promotion the way solar and wind are.
Can anyone explain to me why we shouldn't be putting a lot more attention and resources toward biomass conversion?


We should, as long as we adjust our expectations properly. Biomass doesn't scale:
Jatropha also has low power per unit area
If people decided to use 10% of Africa to generate 0.065 W/m2, and
shared this power between six billion people, what would we all get?
0.8 kWh/d/p. For comparison, world oil consumption is 80 million barrels
per day, which, shared between six billion people, is 23 kWh/d/p. So even if all of Africa were covered with jatropha plantations, the power produced would be only one third of world oil consumption.

Landfill methane gas
At present, much of the methane gas leaking out of rubbish tips comes
from biological materials, especially waste food.
In 1994, landfill methane emissions were estimated to be 0.05 m3 per
person per day, which has a chemical energy of 0.5 kWh/d per person,
and would generate 0.2 kWh(e)/d per person, if it were all converted to
electricity with 40% efficiency.

Burning household waste
Scaling this idea up, if every borough had one of these, and if everyone
sent 1 kg per day of waste, then we’d get 0.5 kWh(e) per day per person from waste incineration.

I sound like a broken record but everyone reading this thread should really read David MacKay's Sustainable Energy – without the hot air (free). He breaks down the numbers in an easy to understand way for everyone regardless of mathematical background. It's also not nearly as boring as it appears from my description.
posted by Bangaioh at 3:54 AM on May 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


To be fair, flabdablet, the Australian economy is going gangbusters despite $6/gallon fuel

Quite so. The point is that expensive fuel is not something that in and of itself will cause cancer, communism, collapse and the common cold; the idea that fuel may become expensive should not be a blocker to sound policy on renewables.

The main effect of expensive fuel is to drive improvements in fuel efficiency without an accompanying Jevons backlash. That's a good thing, even for people who insist on treating economic growth as some kind of meaningful measure of how well we're all doing; innovation creates jobs, and running down our fuel stocks less quickly is an absolute good.

We should not be directing any public money toward Big Oil, or Big Nuclear. We should take all the money currently being sent in the direction of Big Centralized Fuel Burners and spray that around as if it were carbon dioxide, in the form of direct payments to the citizenry. In the short term this would offset the cost-of-living increases caused by Big Oil passing on the loss of subsidies as increased fuel prices; in the medium to long term it would put renewables on an economic footing that allows them to out-compete fossil fuel extraction in the marketplace.
posted by flabdablet at 7:37 AM on May 13, 2011


Bangaloh, thanks for that link. That's really informative regarding the comparative yields of various biomass options.

I'll have to look further, but it seems like his take on use of agricultural by-products as feedstock is limited in vision and focuses specifically on chicken poop and straw (the latter of which has many more alternative uses than the former), and assumes trucking it from all over Britain to power stations.

From my perspective, it would make more sense to place agri-biomass stations in close proximity to where their feedstock is produced in volume, and focus on feedstocks with the fewest alternative uses, so instead of burning straw from far away, they're burning pig poop from a 100-mile radius or similar. It seems like that would be a more efficient approach, with greater net yield, and not require devoting additional land (beyond a few acres per power station) to biomass feedstock production.
posted by notashroom at 8:16 AM on May 13, 2011


Biomass is the conversion of photons -> mass -> human process -> energy
This conversion is at a rate far less than photon -> PV -> energy. And once the conductors are laid down, one doesn't need to "handle" the energy source.

Using passive or active solar means you are not cutting, splitting or drying sunlight.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:32 AM on May 13, 2011


Bangaioh: "Well there's your problem right there."

What, you think all these computers run on magic pixie dust?
posted by wierdo at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2011


No, I think a peak in net energy supply and subsequent decline to sustainable levels is inevitable, and that continuing to assume perpetual economic growth as the default (or even preferrable) scenario is ill-advised. In short, I think we need to get smarter, not bigger.

I sometimes call it "redistribution of poverty" (as opposed to wealth because that would assume an increasing pie of energy and resource consumption like in the last few centuries), meaning that the developed world must scale back its consumption to allow the developing world to attain an adequate standard of living.
Needless to say, given how wasteful we are right now that needn't be too unpleasant - then again, since for some people the mere thought of not having a private car (or simply not having one with an ICE because electric cars are for tossers or something) is apparently tantamount to destroying civilisation, it's foolish to assume no minor sacrifices will be required by many. Some people sure like their toys, after all. I know I do, at least.



notashroom: This study reports that agricultural residues and organic waste could power up to 25% of global transport.

David MacKay's book is not supposed to be a detailed source for information about renewable energy, rather it intends to help the reader understand in very broad terms the scope of the challenge of replacing fossil fuels, so that one can have a better idea of the trade-offs involved and make more informed decisions.
posted by Bangaioh at 7:08 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Biomass is the conversion of photons -> mass -> human process -> energy
This conversion is at a rate far less than photon -> PV -> energy. And once the conductors are laid down, one doesn't need to "handle" the energy source.


Biomass is still cheaper though. And can be burned for direct use of heat energy displacing fossil fuels at high efficiency. Handy seeing as most countries have much higher heat demand than electricity demand.
posted by biffa at 10:00 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


wait, has this conversation become "biomass vs solar pv"??? the conversation should be "biomass and solar pv and wind and offshore wave energy and methane from wastewater treatment and concentrated solar thermal and ... "

there is no magic bullet. each technology has different advantages. biomass for liquid fuels and for heat is great. solar and wind for electricity works.
posted by molecicco at 10:40 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was arguing that writing off biomass is not sensible, not against PV. I agree with you the basket of technologies is needed. I would disagree that using biomass for liquid fuels is a good idea. The displacement of GHG emissions is much better if biomass is used for combustion for heating purposes. Solar for heating and electricity. Eventually, electricity for transport.
posted by biffa at 10:51 AM on May 14, 2011


Oh yeah, I completely believe that electric vehicles will take off. Battery prices are dropping as the quality and energy density is increase. And the overall energetic efficiency is just so much higher than IC engines. Although I believe there will always be some use for liquid fuels - there are a lot of different types of vehicles out there, and I think again there is no magic bullet even for transport. For example, there is no such thing (yet) as an electric engine that could replace a jet engine. So, I believe that there is a place for biomass-sources liquid fuels in the future, although I can't say how big that role is or exactly where it lies.
posted by molecicco at 10:56 AM on May 14, 2011


Bangaioh: "No, I think a peak in net energy supply and subsequent decline to sustainable levels is inevitable"

And I think that's bullshit liberal guilt talking. We have ways of generating power that don't require fossil fuels and aren't unreasonably dangerous.
posted by wierdo at 11:24 AM on May 14, 2011


There's absolutely no guilt involved, I am merely of the opinion that conservation and efficiency are better choices than trying to scale up renewable generation enough to meet current developed world per-capita energy demand (assuming such a thing is even possible). I personally don't care if that means giving up some of the excesses I've grown accustomed to. See jhandey's comment for a slightly different take on my view. You are free to disagree.
posted by Bangaioh at 11:56 AM on May 14, 2011


No, it's that there's not really a clearly viable path towards renewables (alone) that also allows for our ever increasing technology's ever increasing energy consumption to continue.
As usual, people making this argument don't even bother to back this up with any math. The whole point of this FPP was an economic analysis that showed this was entirely possible.

Secondly our "ever increasing technology" is actually using less and less power. Compare a desktop PC to an iPhone/Android phone. The phone uses way less power. The kindle can run for a week on a single charge. Look at the new super-low power facebook data center. Lots of technology nowadays is going into making computers more efficient. The US's GDP is growing faster then our carbon footprint.

Let me repeat that The US's GDP is growing faster then our carbon footprint.
What, you think all these computers run on magic pixie dust?
No, but newer computers use less power then older ones, not only to do the same work but overall as well.
posted by delmoi at 2:19 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bangaio:
The net energy contents for the world and EU27 was found to be 7200-9300 and 430 TWh respectively, to be compared with food requirements of 7100 and 530 TWh. Clearly, very little, or nothing, remains for biofuel from agricultural primary crops. However, by using residues and bioorganic waste, it was found that biofuel production could theoretically replace one fourth of the global consumption of fossil fuels for transport. [...]
We have also tried to estimate the volume of byproducts from food production and it is, not completely unexpectedly, nearly as much as primary food production itself. From the study I think that it can be seen quite clearly that we should not make biofuel from food. Further, we show that there is a great potential for biogas production from agricultural byproducts and those byproducts already exist. There must be a global effort to institute this and, purely theoretically, we can replace 25% of today’s transport fuel with biogas.


Thank you. This is exactly the kind of information I've been looking for, to tell me whether I was off track in thinking that we'd be much smarter to put the biomass focus on waste processing than on growing dedicated feedstock. The authors of this study seem to agree with that. I wonder if I can find anything contradictory that's not funded by agribusiness concerns that believe they'd profit more from (for example) growing corn for ethanol. Ever since Discover magazine covered Changing World Technologies' Carthage, MO, plant and plans back in 2003, I've been cautiously optimistic that we might find ways to make the process efficient and reliable enough to replace significant amounts of both fossil fuel use and traditional waste processing.
posted by notashroom at 8:34 AM on May 16, 2011


In general, we're always and everywhere better off looking for good uses for whatever we currently waste.

Wasting stuff is expensive.

We need it firmly fixed in our little heads that "waste" should only ever be a verb, never a noun.
posted by flabdablet at 7:40 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


There must be a global effort to institute this and, purely theoretically, we can replace 25% of today’s transport fuel with biogas.

There was a problem in the UK wherein one group of people calculated how much biomass potential there was for generating biofuels and how much there was for heating and electricity purposes. Naturally it turned out that neither considered the demand for the other, and the overall calculations were shot. I think there is a real problem whereby alternative transport fuel sources are considered simply for the sake of having alternatives when carbon might be more effectively displaced elsewhere. If we produce biogas then it is likely to be more effective being used to displace natural gas usage first. CHP first, especially if CCS takes off, in which case carbon negative power stations could become possible.
posted by biffa at 5:08 AM on May 18, 2011


You may not have noticed this delmoi, but a large part of the reason why that iPhone can get away with having so little processing power compared to say, a desktop, is that much of the stuff that people like to do with them is offloaded into the cloud. Or put another way, offloaded to power hungry computers sitting in air conditioned datacenters that consume vast amounts of electricity.

Yeah, computing is getting less power hungry per unit of performance, but in most cases the overall power consumption is increasing. There are a lot of data centers that can't be filled because they don't have the necessary power and cooling to support a full load of modern servers. SSDs are making something of a difference, but doubling CPU core count is pushing things the opposite way.

Put another way, if a specific level of performance is desired, power requirements will continually decrease in computing. However, new technology with higher levels of performance will come along and use more power. To use one recent development, high performance GPUs use large amounts of power, but can do lots and lots of certain kinds of work..regardless their overall power consumption is terribly high and we're using more energy for those kinds of calculations precisely because it's become possible to do them in a reasonable time without a several million dollar supercomputer.

And none of this applies to anything but computing, except in the loosest sense. We conserve by switching from incandescent bulbs to CFLs or LEDs, or switching from a plasma TV to an LCD TV, but then they get cheap so we buy more or run them more or whatever. Or use more power for other things, since the budget is available. Or come up with some entirely new technology that inevitably requires vast amounts of juice initially, even if power requirements can be reduced later.
posted by wierdo at 7:22 AM on May 18, 2011


Yeah, computing is getting less power hungry per unit of performance, but in most cases the overall power consumption is increasing. There are a lot of data centers that can't be filled because they don't have the necessary power and cooling to support a full load of modern servers. SSDs are making something of a difference, but doubling CPU core count is pushing things the opposite way.


Not only that, but looking at end use power consumption exclusively ignores the energy requirements of manufacturing, and the latter is much greater than the former:
The energy used to produce electronic gadgets is considerably higher than the energy used during their operation. For most of the 20th century, this was different; manufacturing methods were not so energy-intensive.

Advanced digital technology has turned this relationship upside down.

The most up-to-date life cycle analysis of a computer dates from 2004 and concerns a machine from 1990. It concluded that while the ratio of fossil fuel use to product weight is 2 to 1 for most manufactured products (you need 2 kilograms of fuel for 1 kilogram of product), the ratio is 12 to 1 for a computer (you need 12 kilograms of fuel for 1 kilogram of computer). Considering an average life expectancy of 3 years, this means that the total energy use of a computer is dominated by production (83% or 7,329 megajoule) as opposed to operation (17%). Similar figures were obtained for mobile phones.

Manufacturing a one kilogram plastic or metal part thus requires as much electricity as operating a flat screen television for 1 to 10 hours (if we assume that the part only undergoes one manufacturing operation).
The energy requirements of semiconductor and nanomaterial manufacturing techniques are much higher than that: up to 6 orders of magnitude (that's 10 raised to the 6th power) above those of conventional manufacturing processes

Production techniques for semiconductors and nanomaterials can and will become more efficient, by lowering the energy requirements of the equipment or by raising the operating process rate. For instance, the "International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors" (ITRS), an initiative of the largest chip manufacturers worldwide, aims to lower energy consumption (pdf) per square centimetre of microchip from 1.9 kWh today to 1.6 kWh in 2012, 1.35 kWh in 2015, 1.20 kWh in 2018 and 1.10 kWh in 2022.
But as these figures show, improving efficiency has its limits. The gains will become smaller over time, and improving efficiency alone will never bridge the gap with conventional manufacturing techniques. Power-hungry production methods are inherent to digital technology as we know it.
posted by Bangaioh at 11:10 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but that happens in China!
posted by Artw at 11:14 AM on May 18, 2011


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