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Coal Without Carbon
November 12, 2010 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Dirty Coal, Clean Future
To environmentalists, "clean coal" is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world's energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal—dirty, sooty, toxic coal—in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible. China is now the leader in this area, the Google and Intel of the energy world. If we are serious about global warming, America needs to work with China to build a greener future on a foundation of coal. Otherwise, the clean-energy revolution will leave us behind, with grave costs for the world's climate and our economy. (more here and responses here, here and here)
posted by kliuless (49 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes please let's use China as a guiding beacon about how to handle fossil fuels and the extraction thereof.

(I say as I look out my window at the coal liquefaction lab.)
posted by TomMelee at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hyper-Reductive Reading: Human beings to continue to burn things for heat, light.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:45 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I only speed read Fallows' piece (he covers very little new ground for me, but, as usual, I admire his writing, attention and provocative yet persuasive style) yet but early on he lays out two central premises to the argument:

One is that coal can be used in less damaging, more sustainable ways than it is now. The other is that it must be used in those ways, because there is no plausible other way to meet what will be, absent an economic or social cataclysm, the world’s unavoidable energy demands.

I think the first is relatively correct, but just "less damaging, more sustainable" is a low, low bar, considering how damaging the current mining and burning of coal is.

The second is more problematic. To be fair, Fallows does stress, repeatedly, that emissions reductions will have to be an "all-fronts" approach, involving conservation, efficiency, ramping up renewables and nuclear, as well as decarbonizing coal. He mentions the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton's stabilization wedges. But even after all that, he insists there is no plausible other way.

In some ways, I might agree. Infrastructure, including energy infrastructure, cannot be changed over night, and replacing coal with something else will take place on a generational time scale. But "something else" also includes clean(er) coal. That is, the same inertia and costs involved in going from electricity primarily generated from coal to electricity mostly generated by anything but coal, also exist at a minimum for coal combustion + sequestration.

So the question is whether the wholesale replacement of mostly coal -- which might take decades -- is most likely or most preferably done by clean(er) coal than other options. I disagree that it is, and I'm not sure that Fallows convinces (but I shall go back an re-read the article that I only just speed read).
posted by bumpkin at 11:54 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Coal is not sustainable. If anyone out there is interested in the truth instead of feel good pieces about how we can keep killing the planet forever and everything will still be awesome, I suggest the complete works of Derrick Jensen.
posted by long haired child at 11:56 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


we can keep killing the planet forever and everything will still be awesome

I'm pretty sure that's not what the piece says; rather it says, without starting a war to force people to live more simply, our best transitional goal is to improve on coal. We can spend money on making coal less bad AND orbital solar power research.
posted by nomisxid at 12:08 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good gravy, we're four comments in and already it's coal forever vs. Derrick Jensen's hunter-gatherer revival.

I'm on a deadline for a story about how Walmart (!) is introducing stuff like hydrogen fuel cells and wind and solar and radical efficiency into its distribution centres, so I could only give this a cursory read, but even in that cursory read I found holes I could drive one of Walmart's new hybrid 18-wheelers through.

I'll pick one that isn't even Fallows:

“I know this is a theological issue for some people,” Julio Friedmann of Lawrence Livermore said. “Solar and wind power are going to be important, but it is really hard to get them beyond 10 percent of total power supply.”

On the face of it, sorta true. Really hard? Well, yeah, I guess. But that didn't stop Germany - the world's leading export economy - from doing it inside ten years. Increasing the share of its electricity produced by renewables, that is, from 6 percent to about 20 percent, in a decade. A few years ahead of schedule. And putting itself on track to hit 30 percent by 2020. Minimum. And demonstrating, in a pilot project, that it could run the entire German grid on renewables 24/7/365.

Like just about every other thing I've read on this subject by sober voices of centrist reason - which, not to besmirch Fallows, because he's one of the best of the bunch, but that's what he is - there are these strange assumptions that never get prodded.

I'll quickly cite just one unresolved contradiction:

1) The largest effort extant (to my knowledge) to bring carbon capture and storage to bear on a working commercial coal plant is in West Virginia. It currently captures 1.5 percent of that single plant's emissions, and promises to amp up to 18 percent by 2014. At a cost of $700 million.

2) In the first eight months of 2010, Germany added nearly a gigawatt of solar to its grid - somewhere close to all the solar PV that existed on earth around the time Germany got started on this stuff in a big way around 2004. This is one prong of an effort that has the ancillary benefit of creating more than a quarter million jobs. ( Fallows several times cites figures for American clean energy growth - "even if it doubles," that sort of thing - as evidence of its natural limits, without noting that the US has probably the worst policy regime in the developed world for the stuff.)

So then. Neither of these things can yet solve the whole equation.

But which one looks like it's actually got the momentum to make a significant difference ten years from now? Give CCS a billion bucks, and you'll maybe get half a single coal plant's emissions sequestered. Give it to the solar industry and you'll get hundreds of megawatts of installed, emissions-free power that'll last a quarter century. Which one should we be betting the most on?

(I could link dump for this, but like I said, I'm on deadline. Trust me, it's all well-documented.)
posted by gompa at 12:16 PM on November 12, 2010 [34 favorites]


http://ukiahcommunityblog.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/derrick-jensen-no-we-cant-have-it-all/
posted by long haired child at 12:18 PM on November 12, 2010


Actually, the emphasis on the article is not really "why its a good idea to make coal less bad", but rather, "if you want to see where the action is in making a monolithic energy infrastructure less bad, you gotta to go to China". I find Fallow's articles on China a little breathless at times, but in this, one of the last paragraphs,

China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct.

The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out.
(...)

The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will.

“The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems.


I think he points out a very sad fact. Especially considering the current political landscape in the US, does anyone expect much significan progress or innovation from what was once the most inventive and dynamic nation on Earth?
posted by bumpkin at 12:18 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


sorry, meant to post that as a link
posted by long haired child at 12:18 PM on November 12, 2010


This article doesn't seem to dismiss developing alternate energy sources alongside "clean coal" (as was written, different energy solutions are not in competition with each other), but I still wonder why nuclear power isn't given more emphasis. Nuclear plants are expensive to build, sure, but so is "cleaning" up a coal refinery. Not to mention the likely economic benefit derived from using cleaner power whose technology is already available. So I'm just wondering out loud if the money used for making a coal refinery green - which still leaves us with other related problems associated with coal mining - wouldn't be better spent on going nuclear.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:25 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Time to bury the 'clean coal' myth.
posted by adamvasco at 12:42 PM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


The US Government is being starved to death, so any forward-thinking, inventive ideas that require massive investment and may not pay off fiscally in the near-term just won't get done. This applies to coal energy, solar and other renewables, and every other government program.

But hey, maybe private corporations will pick up the slack. Because they always do.
posted by incessant at 12:44 PM on November 12, 2010


"the more junk you use the less you have and the more you have, the more you use"...william s. burroughs, naked lunch
posted by kitchenrat at 12:50 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


"America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems."

This cuts to the quick. It is what should be printed on the reverse of the Tea People's "Don't Tread on Me" flag.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 12:50 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time."

Pure propaganda. Politics and economics are not "basic math". The whole article is based on this statement and it simply isn't true. How are we ever going to move forward if we keep listening to people insisting that x, y, and z are impossible, when they are merely difficult? We need serious analysis and discussion in the public sphere, not vague articles about unproven technologies heralded as the one true path.
posted by ssg at 1:01 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not mentioned in the article or in the above posts(forgive me if I tl;dred anything important in the links!) is that "green" power generation technology has some massive drawbacks as well, especially on the scale needed to supplement or replace dirty coal.

Hydro: purees fish and blocks migration routes (quite apart from the ecological damage of something on the scale of Three Gorges), and has leads to MASSIVE loss of available water through evaporation when used in hot climates. (I can't seem to google the right links for that last one, but it's mentioned in Heart of Dryness, among the other water politics in there)

Wind power: NOT silent (noise pollution adds up, especially nearby massive wind farms), purees a non-negligible amount of migratory birds. Honestly, I'm spotting fewer problems with wind, but I know that locations (and reliability of steady wind) are also more of an issue, which makes wind power an excellent solution for fairly specific regions (hello, Denmark!)

Nuclear: some of the newer designs sound pretty good, and virtually anything designed after the Cold War is probably substantially more sound. But I'm from Portland; we're downstream from Hanford and Trojan. When nuclear goes wrong, it tends to linger expensively.

It seems like the only sensible solution is to pursue EVERYTHING simultaneously: cleaner coal, more renenewable sources, introduce some newer nuke plants to replace the older ones. Because no one solution is perfect, and they're all flawed in different ways.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 1:03 PM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to run around in circles and wave my hands in the air, screeching like a three-year-old on froot-loops and ritalin until 1) we invent some sort of perpetual motion machine that actuall MAKES energy out of something worthless (and something we won't later figure out was our key to survival on earth); 2) I pass out; or 3) we figure out some way to harnass the infanijillion joules of free energy we are being bombarded by by our own planet and/or the big balls of light in the sky we've been regularly worshiping for a couple million years. I mean really, humans, we've had millions of years around here and all we can come up with is to dig big holes in the ground and burn shit we find down there or to make big pin wheels? NOT GOOD ENOUGH!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:09 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know it's frustrating The 10th Regiment of Foot but you know what they say....
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:16 PM on November 12, 2010


Wind power: NOT silent (noise pollution adds up, especially nearby massive wind farms), purees a non-negligible amount of migratory birds. Honestly, I'm spotting fewer problems with wind, but I know that locations (and reliability of steady wind) are also more of an issue, which makes wind power an excellent solution for fairly specific regions (hello, Denmark!)

Also, hello anywhere with coastline! Best, strongest, steadiest wind resource is offshore. Eliminates the noise complaints and reduces the bad bird PR. (Not to diminish the real fact of dead birds, though the nos. are fewer than you'd think - and fewer, per turbine, than any office building in the free world that leaves its lights on overnight. Also, as I once had it put to me by a rather dark-humoured solar engineer, domestic cats kill more birds than wind turbines do, which means from a utilitarian perspective we ought to be throwing cats at wind turbines until it balances out.)

Germany, Denmark and the UK are moving offshore at unprecedented scale. Norway's Statoil is developing floating wind turbines. The lingering issue with wind power are easy street compared to how difficult the nuclear industry has found it to deliver on time and on budget with anything it has promised for half a century now.
posted by gompa at 1:23 PM on November 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yeah, my understanding is that nuclear's big problem going forward is that we really already have enough nuclear bombs, removing a major source of government funding...
posted by kaibutsu at 1:42 PM on November 12, 2010


From long-haired child's link:
Right now I’m sitting in front of a space heater, and all other things being equal, I’d rather my toes were toasty than otherwise. But all other things aren’t equal, and destroying runs of salmon by constructing dams for hydropower is a really stupid (and immoral) way to warm my feet. It’s an extraordinarily bad trade.
Um, dude, you're using a spaceheater.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:51 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I liked the summary of the average small-town Chinese's view: "People in rural China, in my experience, don’t really care that people somewhere else—Los Angeles or Houston, even Shanghai or Tianjin—are using more electricity and gasoline than they are. They just want to use more themselves!" Accords absolutely with my own experiences in the Third World.

This said, the comparison with solar strikes me as the weakest point of his argument. He sort of says, well, solar's not there yet, and coal isn't there yet either, but the Chinese are working on coal and that's good ... so ... is the fact that China is not doing much with solar a good reason to go full speed ahead on coal? Am interested in gompa's observations on Germany, above, and wonder whether someone can pick apart Fallows' assumptions a bit more here.
posted by texorama at 1:57 PM on November 12, 2010


Briefly put, texorama, Fallows seems to know next to nothing about what's been happening in renewables over the last decade, which is a technological acceleration and scaling comparable to digital communications in the '90s. Throughout, he takes a snapshot of renewables a couple years ago in places where it's not very well established and calls this blurry, poorly angled freeze frame of a fast-moving and dynamic entity the enduring truth on the subject.
posted by gompa at 2:02 PM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


nuclear's big problem going forward is that we really already have enough nuclear bombs

nuclear's big problem going forward is that all the "cheap" fuel is going away soon, now that all of that convenient refined plutonium left over from the Cold War is being used up.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 2:13 PM on November 12, 2010


pureed birds

And, I eat (some) of my own words: state of the art bird detection studies prove that, um, birds aren't quite as stupid as might be suspected. At least at sea.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 2:17 PM on November 12, 2010


Renewables have several problems that are being worked on. Therefore coal.
posted by benzenedream at 2:54 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The main problem with coal use in China to my mind is the thousands of miners killed every year getting it out of the ground in the first place. The technocratic bureaucracy can deal with problems amenable to resolution by inputs of research and money and are serious about transitioning away from coal while using it in the least environmentally harmful way in the interim - the country is already the biggest producer of wind turbines and solar panels (see article linked here). What they can't or won't do is abandon their crackpot scheme to replicate the worst of Western consumer capitalism with all the unsustainability that entails just as it's failing in its place of origin and at the last point in history when you have a plurality of Chinese people who don't particularly want it yet anyway.
posted by Abiezer at 3:05 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


pureed birds, redux

wind turbines bad for bats, even without colliding with the blades
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:23 PM on November 12, 2010


The author said that we have to get down to Kenyan levels of per capita carbon output. Our president is a secret Muslim from Kenya. Coincidence? I think not.

The American people have spoken (TM) and they are concerned with taxes and the deficit and not with the extinction of human civilization.
posted by dibblda at 3:39 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


pureed birds, redux

Wind turbines will be the least of a bird's worries when their habitat disappears due to climate change.
posted by dibblda at 3:59 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


With all due respect, I don't think that a large part of the Chinese population believes that sometime within their lives, they are going to be swept up into the sky and not have to worry about fossil fuels anymore.

I suspect all of the talk about clean coal versus other kinds of fuel is a moot point in the United States as a stand. Until the better part of the US population (and especially the better part of those in power) buys into the "fossil fuels bad" basic ideas that the rest of the developed world understands far better than we do, any change is impossible, on the grounds that it is simply inconvenient and wasting resources that could be better spent getting more cheap plastic crap from Walmart and waiting for the Rapture.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:24 PM on November 12, 2010


The US Government is being starved to death, so any forward-thinking, inventive ideas that require massive investment and may not pay off fiscally in the near-term could cost any deep pocketed campaign contributors a penny just won't get done.
posted by coolguymichael at 4:36 PM on November 12, 2010


It is strange that nobody* gives a shit about birds unless wind turbines are mentioned. Wetland conservation, cats, suburban expansion, deforestation, pesticides, highways are all ok, but mention wind power and everyone wants to hug a pigeon. Also, sequestering billions of tonnes of liquid C02 is viewed as an interesting minor engineering problem, while making a fan blade that animals will avoid is 31st-century tech.

*conservationists, birders, ecologists, Audubon society members exempt
posted by benzenedream at 5:12 PM on November 12, 2010 [17 favorites]


Wind power: NOT silent ...

You are missing the main problem with wind power: Availability in time and space. You cannot control when the wind blows, so the power input from wind farms is, to some extent, unpredictable. This means there will be times you don't have enough power and, more importantly, times you have too much power - which has to go somewhere, particularly when renewables-friendly policies force market operators to buy this power first.

This puts a lot of strain on both the transport networks, which must be significantly overdesigned to be able to handle short-time spurts of power during peak wind times. This is compounded by the fact that favorable positions for wind parks are not necessarily where energy users are, leading to extra power losses.

Furthermore, thermal power units in a system with a high contribution from wind farms must be able to vary their power output at short notice, to both increase power output to avoid brown-outs during low wind times and decrease during high wind times to avoid overloading the network. This decreases performance both from a technical and economical point of view, as they are forced to operate away from optimum conditions.

A separate but related problem is that, wind availability not being guaranteed during peak consumption times, you still need to invest in enough conventional units to cover the entire load, which must however sit idle, increasing the cost of wind energy.

All of these problems are to some extent tractable, and are being worked on: Wind availability can be balanced out to some extent in a well-interconnected network, since there must be some wind somewhere, but this in turn increases transport losses, possibly to the point of being infeasible. A great idea is combining wind power with pumped storage hydroelectrics, but this cannot be done everywere.

Overall, I'd say wind power definitely needs to be a part of the energy mix because hey, free energy from the wind, but we need to understand it has qualitative characteristics that will not allow it to entirely substitute for our current energy sources, barring some significant new technological advance such as an efficient energy storage and transport solution.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:52 PM on November 12, 2010


Solar thermal with heat stored as molten salt to provide baseload, geothermal, hydro, wind, pumped hydro, nuclear, high voltage DC grid to mitigate transmission losses, natural gas for peak demand.

Judging from the energy mix other countries have achieved, I see no reason aside from political will that this can't be implemented now in North America. Sure, it would be expensive, but such a huge infrastructure project would also be a good way to get us to full employment. Can't have that though, because eventually it would need to be paid for, and as we all know, taxes can never, under any circumstance, go up for the rich. The consequences would be dire.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:26 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Clean coal is a complete, expensive, boondoggle; nothing more than the desperate attempts of rapacious profiteers to delay their oncoming irrelevance and squeeze more money from states dumb enough to either fund or legislate to encourage it.

I know that the whole China=GREEN LEADER! narrative fits really nicely into the whole China-as-next-superpower mean, but they are - though not quite the last - very far from first place we should be looking to for environmental leadership.

That belongs to Europe - as Gompa as pointed out above, to Germany. Spain has also been doing interesting things with solar.
posted by smoke at 11:43 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Spain Aims to Boost Renewable-Energy Production in a 67% increase by 2020
Meanwhile Spanish renewable energy companies are also looking to Latin America.
posted by adamvasco at 12:01 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I musta missed the part in this article where he talks about the fact that, even if per capita energy consumption fell to Kenya levels worldwide, the expanding population would still require increasing energy production to sustain it. As the population grows, the amount of space to live, grow food, build things and make energy -- not to mention, having a functional ecosystem of some kind -- dwindles. Plus, millions of us are going to have to move if (as) the ocean rises and ever-larger sections of the planet become uninhabitable.

I know there are plenty of reasons why nobody wants to talk about population, but it's sad that one of the most obvious solutions -- though not a solution in and of itself -- gets ignored.
posted by klanawa at 12:07 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wind power: NOT silent (noise pollution adds up, especially nearby massive wind farms), purees a non-negligible amount of migratory birds. Honestly, I'm spotting fewer problems with wind, but I know that locations (and reliability of steady wind) are also more of an issue, which makes wind power an excellent solution for fairly specific regions (hello, Denmark!)

I've visited a number of wind farms and the noise at any of them has been trivial. I have taught a class in the middle of a farm, immediately under an operational wind turbine and being able to make myself heard. The wind was noisier than the turbine. And since farms are hundreds of metres from dwelings then problems will be less there. It's less noisy than living on a busy road.

It seems like the only sensible solution is to pursue EVERYTHING simultaneously: cleaner coal, more renenewable sources, introduce some newer nuke plants to replace the older ones. Because no one solution is perfect, and they're all flawed in different ways.

Up to a point, the trouble is getting enogh money made available, and going after crappy options to placate current big energy is not looking that effective currently, and that's basically what CCS is. The handful of power stations where it has been deployed have seen it account for capturing a miniscule fraction of CO2 output at signficiant cost and with significant energy cost. Meanwhile, governments such as the UK's are insisting that new coal power stations be 'CCS ready', basically this means they leave an empty field by the power station should CCS ever become economically attractive (to the utility that is, there's no legal obligation, which means it is currently only really dependent on the carbon price.

The Internaitonal Energy Agency has predicted that CCS will be responsbiel for displacing as much of energy related CO2 emissions as all renewable energy technologies combined by 2050. This is an incredible projection for a single technology which is practically unproven.
posted by biffa at 3:14 PM on November 13, 2010


It turns out geothermal isn't renewable, either, as one Icelandic geologist recently pointed out that it's being used faster than it can renew itself. And that's from supplying power to just 25% of the population - about 77,000 people (the other 75% is from hydropower). So we also need to start looking into other energy sources. I think wind might be a great option, given how it never stops effin' blowing.

There's been talk of stretching a power cable from Iceland to the Faeroes and then on to the UK or mainland Europe. There are already similar cables connecting the UK, Norway and the Netherlands. I like the idea of expanding the energy grid more across borders. Just so long as we don't have one major energy hub being the sole energy source for one or more surrounding countries, it would be nice to be able to distribute power to more places, both in terms of creating jobs and trade. The one major problem I see with this idea, though, is something like the gas dispute between Russia and the Ukraine. There'd have to be some pretty binding international treaties to prevent outright extortion on the one hand and trade disputes on the other.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:18 PM on November 13, 2010


Sorry, forgot the birds: This study is getting on but compares various studies relating to buildings, vehicles, wind turbines and other common instrastructure elements.
posted by biffa at 3:31 PM on November 13, 2010


It turns out geothermal isn't renewable, either, as one Icelandic geologist recently pointed out that it's being used faster than it can renew itself. And that's from supplying power to just 25% of the population - about 77,000 people (the other 75% is from hydropower). So we also need to start looking into other energy sources. I think wind might be a great option, given how it never stops effin' blowing.

It's no secret that geothermal sources can be exhausted. The Icelandic experience is an interesting one, some boreholes have been exhausted more quickly then expected, some have continued to support generation for much longer than expected. To correct your figures, geothermal provides that amount of electricity but it also produces about 99% of Iceland's heat demands, this is important as most western nations will use much more heat then electricity and have more CO2 emissions associated with heat than with electrical generation. Its worth pointing out that that not many places have the same quality of geothermal resources that Iceland has, it has been descirbed to me by people at the Icelandic Energy Agency as basically dig a hole down 1-2km and hot water comes out. In the UK we are talking about having to go down to 5-6km to have any chance of accessing a workable resource, and this will be far from straightforward to exploit.

There's been talk of stretching a power cable from Iceland to the Faeroes and then on to the UK or mainland Europe. There are already similar cables connecting the UK, Norway and the Netherlands. I like the idea of expanding the energy grid more across borders. Just so long as we don't have one major energy hub being the sole energy source for one or more surrounding countries, it would be nice to be able to distribute power to more places, both in terms of creating jobs and trade. The one major problem I see with this idea, though, is something like the gas dispute between Russia and the Ukraine. There'd have to be some pretty binding international treaties to prevent outright extortion on the one hand and trade disputes on the other.

The UK currently only has international electricity interconnection with France and Ireland (via Northern Ireland currently), with plans/studies for connection to Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The problem with connecting to Iceland is that subsea cable is expensive and would require big investment uo front. This may not be impossible to meet, the Icelandic government has done deals with Aluminium smelting companies to build hydro plant and then have 30 year power contracts which are attractive to both parties. However, the Icelandic economic collapse won't have improved the chances of this happening any. Having a pile of highly controllable hydro to link into would be very beneficial in terms of managing lots of intermittent renewables (this is probably the same justficiation for the Norway connection). However, while using a lot more RE will tend to mean more jobs, using lots of hydro will tend to mean less jobs once the construction phase is out of the way. We visited some Icelandic hydro stations and they were running 5 stations with 9 personnel at times.
posted by biffa at 4:00 PM on November 13, 2010


I know that the whole China=GREEN LEADER! narrative fits really nicely into the whole China-as-next-superpower mean, but they are - though not quite the last - very far from first place we should be looking to for environmental leadership.

That belongs to Europe - as Gompa as pointed out above, to Germany. Spain has also been doing interesting things with solar.


It's not well known, but pretty much the second biggest of the new renewable energy technologies (after wind) in terms of deployment is solar thermal. China is the global leader in solar thermal in terms of both manufacturing and installation. The technology has largely been rolled out in terms of pure economic opportunity, with little in the way of support programmes.

China has ben growing its wind fairly rapidly and building up PV capacity. I would be surprised if there was much left of PV manufacturing outside China ten years from now. Germany has been and remains the global leader in terms of deployment but we are already at the stage where Germany is talking about making money from selling the technology to produce PV and get a return that way rather than make a return from manufacturing and selling the PV technology itself.

While Denmark, and perhaps Germany, will see a return on thir investment in wind energy, Frondel et al have recently produced an interesting publication which suggests that Germany's investment in PV may not be the win-win situation which is often assumed.
posted by biffa at 4:18 PM on November 13, 2010


To correct your figures, geothermal provides that amount of electricity but it also produces about 99% of Iceland's heat demands, this is important as most western nations will use much more heat then electricity and have more CO2 emissions associated with heat than with electrical generation.

Definitely, the heat is great. And that certainly contributes to how fast it's running out.

Having a pile of highly controllable hydro to link into would be very beneficial in terms of managing lots of intermittent renewables (this is probably the same justficiation for the Norway connection). However, while using a lot more RE will tend to mean more jobs, using lots of hydro will tend to mean less jobs once the construction phase is out of the way. We visited some Icelandic hydro stations and they were running 5 stations with 9 personnel at times.

I'm amazed how seldom anyone points this out. Plus the temporary job creation is minimal, with so much of the workforce brought in from other countries. On the other hand, that's good for those other countries, but the problem of it being short-term work remains.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:48 PM on November 13, 2010


Further Spanish news:
Spain overtakes US with world's biggest solar power station
Spain’s solar power production is now equivalent to that of a nuclear power station, taking the country’s solar output to 432MW, compared with 422MW in the US.
To compare economies: GDP Spain 2008 was $1.6 Trillion GDP USA 2008 was 14.59 Trillion.
posted by adamvasco at 1:15 AM on November 14, 2010


This Italian solar PV plant is rated at 72MW, higher than the Spanish or American plant, though the Spanish plant is actually concentrating technology while the Italian plant is PV, so a direct comparison is not really possible with the information provided.

Comparing national GDPs as some guide to where a nation might be expected to have developed too is not a very useful metric, no single nation can be expected to dominate all technological development. Spain, along with some other EU member states has focussed on renewables for various reasons, including its lack of indigenous energy sources, its need for new non-tourism related industry and the potential for exports wthin Europe as a result of the wider policy commitments of the other member states.
posted by biffa at 5:54 AM on November 14, 2010


biffa what sort of metric would you use. I chose GDP to show that Spain a much smaller country by area and population and with a GDP just under a tenth of that of USA is now exceeding US solar production. That involves a considerable commitment from both industry, investment, and government. As you rightly state no single nation can be expected to dominate all technological development but this shows just how much US commitment is lacking.
posted by adamvasco at 9:20 AM on November 14, 2010


I wouldn't use a metric at all, there is no meaningful metric for establishing the why of comparative advantage in a particular technology. We can analyse qualitatively but not really quantitatively. Spain has been at the forefront of developing RETs like wind and PV for the reasons I briefly mentioned, the US has had less pressing reasons and is less advanced. Both will probably end up with lots of PV and wind, but my estimate would be that neither will have any kind of lock on PV tech and either might see some industrial benefit from wind turbine production.
posted by biffa at 5:49 PM on November 14, 2010


Li Junfeng, Deputy Director of the Energy Research Institute of the China National Development and Reform Commission, shared his thoughts about the trade disputes with Beijing Review
posted by Abiezer at 3:11 AM on November 16, 2010


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