A Hot Wet Thousand Years and 10 Green Energy Stories to Avert it

The bad news is that I’ve been reading David Archer’s The Long Thaw on climate change projections, and he thinks that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been way too conservative. As I understand him, his research shows that because of massive carbon emissions produced by human beings, by 2100 the average temperature of the earth’s surface will likely increase by 3 degrees C. But, he thinks that thereafter it will go on up another 2 degrees, for a total of 5 over the next few generations. The last time you had a climate 5 degree C. warmer than our prehistoric climate was the Eocene, 40 million years ago. All surface ice melted and the climate was tropical all the way to the poles.

We don’t actually know if there has ever been such a rapid increase in carbon in the atmosphere (there have been occasional periods in geological time when the earth warmed up similarly, as with the Eocene, but it is impossible to know at the moment over what time period that occurred). Human beings nowadays are carbon-spewers on steroids.

Archer argues that the dynamics of ocean water flows and the uncertainties of how quickly the oceans will absorb some of the extra carbon mean that the worst of the climate change effects will likely be delayed beyond 2100. Typically, sea level has risen 10-20 yards / meters for every increase of 1 degree in the surface temperature. So a 5 degree rise will eventually likely mean a sea level rise of 50 to 70 meters, which would cover a third more of the land mass than currently. The rise will take place over several centuries. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld may have been a bad film, but it might be good future history.

It will take about 100,000 years (the entire likely age of homo sapiens sapiens as a species) for the oceans and igneous rocks to wash the extra carbon out of the atmosphere.

Since the human species and human civilization arose under very different and significantly colder conditions, it is possible that a 5 degree rise in the average earth temperature over two or three centuries could lead to severe civilizational crisis and even extinction. On past evidence, the acidification of the oceans from carbon absorption will likely kill most marine life, a major human food source. And, human agricultural techniques assume large temperate zones.

Archer’s pessimism, beyond the IPCC conservative estimates also suggests a problem, which is that the worst catastrophes facing our species because of our current carbon binge may take place over centuries (apparently the first 1,000 years after the period of large carbon emissions will be the worst). If we can’t get people alarmed about 2100 because it is too far off (it is only a human lifetime off in fact), how can we excite them about 2500?

Well, we’re probably screwed. But the more we move to renewable energy in this generation, the less dramatic the millennial calamity. Archer’s worst case assumes that we’ll burn all the coal now known to exist. Friends, really. We don’t need to do that. James Hansen has suggested that coal burning should be a hanging crime, like horse stealing in the old West. Anyway, here are some slim reeds of hope:

1. Solar energy costs are falling so quickly that in a matter of a few years they will be competitive with hydrocarbons on a purely market basis. Controversy has attended the industry (especially in oil-and-gas-oriented America) because of government subsidies. But likely they won’t even be a question soon. On the other hand, it would be nice if the subsidies for petroleum, gas and coal were removed.

2. A solar power generation plant near Seville, Spain, started by Torresol (a joint venture of Spain’s Sener and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar) uses molten salt technology to generate power 24 hours a day. In this way the problem of “intermittency” (solar and wind power aren’t available 24 hours a day) is beginning to be addressed. The plant will supply electricity to 25,000 homes in Andalucia.

3. A German consortium is planning a $2 billion 500-megawatt solar plant in Morocco, with ground-breaking planned for 2012. It is a step toward a new North African electrical grid that may also supply Europe with 15% of its electricity by 2050. The 12-mile plant will use mirrors to run steam turbines rather than depending on photovoltaic cells. The Desertec Industrial Initiative, which includes Siemens, is also exploring putting a plant in newly democratizing Tunisia. DII intends that the plants should also supply electricity in the North African counties, as well as generating green jobs in countries that suffer from high unemployment.

4. Indonesia, with a large number of active volcanoes and more geothermal “hot spots” than any other country, is seeking to put in 9 gigawatts of geothermal electricity-generating plants by 2025 (roughly the equivalent of 9 nuclear power plants). Its biggest problem is attracting foreign investment for the $30 billion development, though recent changes in the law allowing foreign companies to operate as long as they have an Indonesian partner with at least 5% ownership, may help bring in money from abroad.

5. India is developing a new generation of small thorium nuclear reactors. These plants produce 400 megawatts of electricity but do not use uranium, the waste product of which can last thousands of years. Thorium wast might last only hundreds of years. India is relatively rich in thorium, and so far has few hydrocarbons such as petroleum and natural gas. The thorium nuclear plants will be a source of low-carbon energy.

6. Texas plans to double its wind power generation capacity by 2014, only 3 years from now.

7. India’s solar power costs are projected to fall by 40% over the next 4 years, making solar power generation competitive with India’s (limited) petroleum and gas industries, according to Reuters. India hopes to generate 20 gigawatts via solar plants by 2022, and plans to put $70 billion into fostering this outcome. At the moment, 70% of India’s electricity is generated by coal. The solar energy in India is expected to generate 100,000 jobs by 2022.

8. Solar energy is such a growing sector in Latin America that it is attracting substantial foreign investment.

9. South Africa, currently a big coal producer and consumer, is becoming a renewable energy investment hub. It has plans to produce nearly 4 gigawatts of power through renewables.

10. A new report from Transparency Market Research says that wind power generating capacity worldwide was only about 200 gigawatts in 2010, but will likely rise to 1,750 GW by 2030.

This projection is encouraging, but, alas, this isn’t nearly enough. The world consumes roughly 15,000 gigawatts (15 terawatts) of energy nowadays, generated by all its gadgets, most of them driven by hydrocarbons. All of that capacity needs to be replaced as soon as possible with green energy if we are to avoid the worst case scenarios for global warming. But with emerging nations like India coming on line and newly hungry for electricity and automobiles, the world will likely need 30,000 gigawatts or 30 terawatts by 2050. So about 2 terawatts from wind by 2030 is a drop in the bucket. Some scientists have argued that only solar energy has a prayer of meeting the needs of the world on this time scale.

36 Responses

  1. Hi Juan,

    Gadgets are not the problem. Automobiles, airplanes and heating are the big issue. You can run your iPod (of course building and transporting them is another issue) and your hifi as much as you like.

    Planned obsolence and excessive global transport of course are gadget issues. Instead of buying a single gadget which run for fifteen years we are supposed to update our gadgets on a cycle of three years. Insanity.

    • Alec, re that cycle thing:

      It’s unfortunately not insane for all those people who profit from extracting and developing and producing and marketing and advertising and transporting and warehousing and retailing all those gadgets.

      For them, because they have near-zero concern for the survival of our species or even their own offspring, and their time horizons start with their first hire date or IPO and end with their own personal, very comfortable, well-cared-for death, it’s all about maximizing their personal pleasure and relative wealth (as measured by a purely monetized scale.)

      But hey, who can dare to stand against the huge momentum of the mooniemantras of GROWTH and INNOVATION? That’s, we are told, the iKeys To The Kingdom Of iHeaven On Earth. So what if there are a couple of fundamentals that underlie it all, that we really are all in this together, whether we want to be or not, and that there truly is enough to go all the way around the table, if we could only keep the few creeps from taking all but one of the cookies off the plate, stuffing their mouths, and suckering the rest of us into fighting amongst ourselves over the last cookie, the last crumb? As long as I got my Maybach and my 15 personal mansions all over the planet and my private jet to blow out of town if the rabble get restless, screw the suckers. S-C-R-O-O-M.

      What you get when there are no consequences for really bad acts. Generations of US Steel and BP and Enron and Krups execs and all their willing, wanting enablers have died and gone wherever, without feeling the slightest remorse or compunction, much less sanction, for crapping up the planet and impoverishing and killing their fellow humans at various incremental rates.

      Massive, positive-feedback concentration of wealth, spiritual bankruptcy, life without meaning. My bet is that is the very best humans can do, barring some kludge re-wiring of our limbic systems… Which a number of bio-entrepreneurs are busily trying to make possible and personally profitable. And with their narrow little focus, not giving a whit about what comes next. As with murder, and priestly predatory pedophilia, and anti-personnel mines and cluster-and-neutron bombs, just because one CAN do something, it ain’t a give that one SHOULD.

    • Alec,

      I think you misunderstood how Juan was using the word “gadget” and understandably so as gadgets usually refer to all the smart portable electronic devices we have today which by definition become obsolete in three years or less as you say. But Juan was referring to all of our power generation capabilities. Power plants can be considered as very large gadgets. Unfortunately, carbon fuel driven ones last far longer than 3 years. Try three to five decades which will most likely cement our fate. Who can afford to shut down a brand new 3gw coal plant after a decade even if cheaper means of renewable power is available? The capital investment is too great to walk away from. Here is what Juan wrote:

      The world consumes roughly 15,000 gigawatts (15 terawatts) of energy nowadays, generated by all its gadgets, most of them driven by hydrocarbons.



      • I think what Juan is trying to say is

        The energy providers wouldn’t sell (produce) the 15 terawatts if the consumers did not consume (buy) the 15 terawatts.

    • Great post, JT. I totally agree about the moral bankruptcy of the whole system (not to mention the species suicidal bent: self-awareness makes us worse than lemmings). Even pre-Western civilization, we did it to ourselves on Easter Island and the Mauris knocked out the Moa (principal food) in New Zealand.

      @ Dan

      I think it’s important to recognize the real problem points first and address those. A lot of us worrying about whether we should use our computer or not is not making any difference. Air travel alone is 5% of carbon dioxide emissions. The average passenger car in the US emits 11,450 pounds (5,190 kg) of carbon dioxide per year.

      We have still not started talking about the environmental production costs of those vehicles.

      We don’t have to go back to paleo life in order to shepherd the world’s resources adequately. But we do have to change our economic “growth” model.

      • ” I totally agree about the moral bankruptcy of the whole system”

        it’s not just the system.

        There is no system that is impervious to some human qualities, including greed, pride, the urge to kill, a longing for power and fame, and the admiration by others, of the people who exhibit those qualities.

        Thanks for the positivity on this issue.

  2. Juan, thanks for weighing into part of what is the overriding challenge of our era, however, energy is only the beginning. The massive resource depletion and climate change will continue to impact the world economy resulting in economic collapse. If the planet is to remain habitable for human kind we must power down, simplify, reduce population. The carrying capacity of the planet has been breached and we will go back one way or another.

  3. The political problem is that — in USA, as you have noted — the oligarchy makes sensible behavior nearly impossible by politicians individually and especially collectively.

    Which BIG wants to abandon fossil fuels today? Possibly BIG INSURANCE, but that is not sure because they can raise rates. with BIG OIL and BIG GAS and BIG COAL pushing forward on fossil fuels, and no-one pushing back, the answer is pre-determined. SADLY, THAT’S HOW OUR SYSTEM WORKS. Neither brains nor charity nor care-for-future-generations nor any soft virtue motivates the BIGs, Look at the BIG BANKS and note that Glass-Steagall still hasn’t been reinstated.

  4. Addendum: And, consider the apparent criminal aspects of BIGs: too big to jail. With morality like this, who can imagine the USA’s “system” dealing morally with ANYTHING? (Another case in point: Palestine).

  5. Also, the 15/30 TW is average power. A wind nameplate capacity of 2 TW provides intermittent power that averages only some 0.6 TW. So we need much more.

    I’m glad you brought up the Thorium reactors. China is looking into an even more innovative <a href="link to theregister.co.uk solution. This might be THE coal/ng replacement. Fuel availability is certainly no problem, ever, even though it is a non-renewable resource.

  6. We are thinking of ways to generate energy, when we should be looking at ways to use less energy. I’m not talking about a few less watts in our light bulbs or a few more miles per gallon in our cars, I’m talking about not using light bulbs at all and building a society that doesn’t use cars.

    • There is no reason why the human species should exist for ever, no other species ever did,

      We’re just another species, get used to it and get over it.

  7. We did it to ourselves! I feel pain for my two kids and kids are now being born. We eat beef a lot, throw stuff for newer stuff, we even watch NASCAR burning and emitting CO2 in the process. The 900lb. Gorilla we haven’t talked about is population growth, it is unpleased subject, nevertheless it has to be tackled if there is any hope. The Hollywood movies related to climate change will one day come to pass. We will surely be forced to do something about it after it is too late, every thing we are to achieve such as wind or solar energy a drop in the bucket therefore will not stop but delayes the extinction by few years. We are sad people, we showed our callusness and denying we are callus. Sorry.

  8. I might recommend reading Gwynne Dyer’s book “Climate Wars”. Not only does he sketch out various future scenarios of calamity, based upon different amounts od CO2 content, but also how we will probably have to work our way out of this predicament.

  9. Very nice summary of Top 10 projects. I would also add two more which are primarily transmission projects that would in turn foster quantum leaps in renewable deployment: 1) the Tres Amigas superstation project in Clovis, NM link to tresamigasllc.com and 2) the Google-sponsored Atlantic HVDC Backbone project link to bit.ly as both of these are on a scale with the #3 Desertec project.

  10. Simple price competitiveness of renewable power is not sufficient to avert disaster. Each year the existing infrastructure adds 2 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere. If new renewable power is cheaper than new fossil power then no new fossil power will be built, but it is not going to shutdown any existing fossil power, so that 2 ppm will just keep on adding year after year, reaching 450 ppm in just 30 years.

    If you want to shutdown coal power with market forces alone, then you new the cost of new renewable power to fall below the O&M cost of an existing coal power plant. That is a very tall order indeed.

    In reality it will take the governments to buy up fossil power plants to shut them down (since it is a golden rule in democracies that investors cannot ever lose money). How likely is that?

    • But the solar and wind plants have no fuel bill; just maintenance and paying off their mortgages and construction costs. If fossil fuel costs gyrate wildly, current plants might have to be shut down during periods when prices are too high.

  11. #5 (the thorium reactor idea) is expensive vaporware. countries build them, then figure out how impractical they are to generate commercial power, then abandon them. india and china are just the latest nations to join the club.

    • no it is not ‘vaporware’ – whatever that means because i’m sure the word doesn’t exist

      india was the first country to introduce a carbon tax and australia is debating the issue since the legislation has yet to pass both the house and the senate although under the current government setup, it will pass

      don’t underestimate emerging countries’ awareness of the need to balance carbon emissions with their need to generate energy to fight poverty

      your comment is not just dismissive of poverty but also lacks any empathy for all who are being held hostage to the west’s profligacy and irresponsibility – a case of i’m a’rite jack and bugger those who live after me – quite reaganesque in its utter selfish stupidity that is devoid of any altruism that we, as humans, are capable of

  12. I tried to tell some Americans last year that I read a European projection of a likely two meter rise in sea level by 2100 and they accused me of being a foolish alarmist. They figured a two foot rise would be the worst that could be
    To add to what Alec wrote, if we are going to drive cars why do the Chinese and Koreans need to make cars for the Europeans and North Americans? Should they not keep the cars that they make in Asia, where they were built? I am not against Asians having jobs and making a decent wage but is world trade for things other than things like foods that only grow in certian climates or metals that are only found in a few places, in the long run, really neccessary? We know how to make cars and electronic gadgets here too.

  13. Just to put this into an American context

    3 degrees C = about 5 degrees F
    5 degrees C = about 9 degrees F

    • It hit 109 degrees here in Houston last August. It was over 100 almost every day of the month. Another 5 degrees, and I think people start emigrating out of here for good.

      But we also are in a multi-year drought, and if we start having water rationing, and we lose the entire rice industry, people will be emigrating long before 2100.

      So watch the water, folks.

  14. For everyone who is all excited about thorium reactors and the latest and greatest in High Technology, might I offer two words: “Fuku,” and “shima.” And maybe two more: “Murphy’s Laws.” For those of us who have so happily forgotten about those rivulets and buckets of corium working their gravitationally mandated way toward some gigantic “oops,” down there under the TEPCO ex-reactors, here’s a little update, albeit from Dirty F___ing Hippieland over at dailykos:

    link to dailykos.com

    The link links more authoritative links, before you reject it out of hand.

    All this stuff “we” are so sure we need, and want, and are able to do, to the face and form of old Mother Earth, all of it under “enough” control to keep it from killing most or all of us. And then there’s the “too big to f___ with” SURPRISES! that pop out when that guy Murphy, link to murphys-laws.com, initiates an enforcement action under the “IACGWIWATWPTITWPW Act of 1563,” “If It Can Go Wrong It Will, Etc.”

    Can’t hardly wait for the biotech boys and girls to give us the tools to free ourselves ultimately from death, to let us grow horns and tails if we care to, to gin up plagues the likes of which have not peopled the dreams of all but a few Hollywood types and thriller writers, and of course the Threat Creators who dot the ranks of our military overlords. (Gotta be READY, both offense and defense, for ANYTHING the enemy might throw at US, or release us from all moral bounds to throw at HIM…

    Not so long ago, the leading-edgers were all about how the true marker of civilization was the amount of energy it consumed, from one manpower to oxen plus yokes and horse collars and water wheels and steam engines right on up to nuclear fission and oooh, fusion too!, and all on about building Dyson spheres, link to c2.com, to enclose the solar system, and eventually, at the interim acme of Everything, to enclose and capture the energy of the GALAXY, to do what, exactly, who knows, but it’s gonna be WONDERFUL. Just ask Dave! All these worlds…

    • ‘fuku’ and ‘shima’ never used thorium but enriched uranium with toxic byproduct of plutonium

      thorium has a higher neutron yield than uranium, a better fission rating, longer fuel cycles, and does not require the extra cost of isotope separation and does not produce plutonium for bombs – as a happy bonus, it can burn up plutonium and toxic waste from old reactors, reducing radio-toxicity and acting as an eco-cleaner, sort of

      thorium was indeed considered very seriously back in the last century when nuclear energy was being developed but was discarded because there was no military gains to be made – defence was at the forfront of developing that knowhow and defence was not interested in stuff that could not be used offensively

  15. I question project 2. I seem to recall the price per watt being pretty high, probably far more than the markey will bear. Your other proposed solar thermal plant doesn’t look as bad, $4/watt, but thats considerablyabove current photovoltaics in places with low installation costs like Germany. I don’t think solar thermal electric plants are going to make it, they are simply being outbid by photovoltaics. Unless we are able to offer a substantial premium for dispatchability (the ability to store the heat and generate the electricity when you want), solar thermal may never reach the economy of scale needed.

  16. This might be of interest too-

    link to scientificamerican.com

    That’s an article from Scientific American about carbon air scrubber machines. You’d need to deploy a lot of them, in the millions.

    Most of the article is behind a paywall but I remember when I read the article when it came out that it seemed doable if people were impressed enough of a world crisis.

    • “carbon air scrubber machines. You’d need to deploy a lot of them, in the millions.”

      We’ve already got carbon air scrubbers. They’re called trees. The real solution is to stop cutting trees down to feed the exploding volume of carbon emitters, i.e., humans. That or stop breeding like rats.

  17. Having just read a very alarming report that global warming is actually accelerating much faster than expected, I found this article helpful and at least pointing the way forward…

  18. At the moment, world fossil fuel consumption is rising rapidly. Unless massive changes are made, carbon emissions yet to come will eclipse what’s already been released into the atmosphere and oceans.

  19. 1. Solar has major issues with intermiittency due to clouds. Also, requires a large area for modest generation.

    2. Great idea with molten salt as energy storage device, but expensive and lossy.

    3. Great idea all around, but 500 MW is not that much. Better use of solar lies in distributed schemes whereby house-owner put up solar panels and use energy (intermittent, remember) to store power in local storage device, such as a battery.

    4. Interesting!

    5. Interesting! Nuclear power is probably the best source of carbonless energy, but if not built properly and maintained represents a real risk to population centers nearby.

    6. Wind is intermittent and Texas power is for own state with little to no shared access with other states. Tripling wind power will do little, but bring instability to their network.

    7. Good ideas and good news. Let’s hope India can do this. (don’t forget intermittency).

    8. Meh.

    9. Meh.

    10. True that.

    Investments in green energy generation is needed, but also in reduction of use. This is accomplished with either (a) Carbon Tax (to penalize carbon emissions and dirty power, rather than wasting tax-payer money on green energy subsidies) or (b) price hikes for electricity to provide consumers with a reason to curb waste practices.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • re your point #2- china claims to have perfected the technology but you what, china says a lot of things but good if they really have

      using molten salt need not be that expensive – it can be cheaper than desalinated sea water currently used in many japanese nuclear plants

  20. Interesting article and discussion, a lot I’ll have to follow up on for my own curiosity.

    One thing I wish someone would write on is the carbon fiber materials that are coming out, and how switching to using carbon for everything we use metals for now may change the global warming issue. If the problem is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, couldn’t using CO2 as a resource to rebuild with help solve the problem?

    Is anyone looking at ways to process algae into something that could replace asphalt in roads, locking up CO2 that way? How about cheap carbon fiber panels to use for siding for houses? It’s more conductive than copper, can we wire homes with it?

    It seems to me the more carbon gets sequestered SOMEHOW the more the planet may cool off, if we tap the atmosphere to get it. Is anyone working on these ideas? If not, WHY NOT? Seems like a good idea to me.

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