Not the Problem — Oh, Really?

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/canadas-oil-sands-not-so-dirty-after-all/article2343985/ would appear to suggest that the folks unhappy about ‘dirty’ oil are wrongheaded and that the real problem is coal. The researchers calculate that if one were to burn all the coal in the world, all of the natural gas and all of the (extractable) tar sands that the global temperature would rise far more for coal than the others. Therefore, in their logic, tar sands are ok but coal is really ‘the problem’. Besides neglecting to mention who funded this study, always an interesting point, they also do not appear to have mentioned that there is a lot more coal extant than tar sands or gas. They worried the predicted temperature rise — itself a dubious calculation in that there was no mention of the energy cost for tar sands extraction, only its combustion later.

But it appears that they missed the point — supporting our civilization by even more combustion processes is the problem, not which valuable chemical feedstock is destroyed by so doing. And we do this even with superficially ‘green’ power sources  like solar and wind — both require some sort of buffering to fill in the gaps when the wind dies or the sunlight fades. In a small installation this would be done with storage batteries but on the industrial scale as deployed in Ontario this backup capability is provided by gas turbines that run all the time, ready to step in on a moments notice. Not a very efficient process that more than offsets any carbon savings. But the energy cost of producing the concrete, steel, glass and pure silicon crystals is enormous and should not be ignored in the all too popular ‘Polyanna’ estimates of goodness. I saw an article recently that suggested it might take decades before the small amounts of power produced offset the huge setup costs. I didn’t walk through the math but suspect the idea is probably good.

It does seem odd that as a society starting to be affected by climate change we are enthusiastically moving in the opposite direction. The Globe article is probably an example. But if we apply the cultural metric of value, that the folks advocating this approach are making money so its ok, their long term self-destructive bias seems reasonable though (from my perspective) insane.  But there are many, many examples of how this is applied. Ethanol in gasoline was originally suggested as a way of conserving petroleum and is now mandated by law in much of North America. But in addition to the energy cost to grow and distill the ethanol, even vehicals designed to  burn ‘gasohol’ do so much less efficiently so the overall result is that we are burning more fuel than ever. Similarly, railroads, built across Canada with substantial government funding, are being allowed to fall into ruin. Railroads are a far more energy efficient way of moving people and goods than cars, buses, trucks and airplanes — and can be run electrically so any source of power could be used. But this is considered ‘obsolete’ and actively discouraged.

There are really only two low impact technologies that can provide the power our society needs at a cost it can afford — hydroelectric and nuclear.  We have a lot of experience with the former and a lot to learn yet about the later. And nuclear has been so shrouded with mis-information it is difficult to have any sensible discussions. Nuclear fusion is the real answer — it has been a decade since the hottest place in the solar system was a lab in Princeton, New Jersey. I understand a bit of the physics involved — it is a little more complicated than steam (well, more than a little), a technology that took us over a century to get control of.  Building a commercial replica of the heart of a star is a big engineering challenge. So I appreciate that there may be a delay.  Problem is that there is so much short term interest riding on the existing wasteful uses of natural hydrocarbons that it is unlikely that real efficiency and conservation will take root any time soon. Which is why further global warming, weather instability and wide-spread flooding and droughts are inevitable — with so much attention to ‘taking the money and running’ there is nothing left thinking about ‘where to?’.

Dreaming

The other night I had a dream who’s images have stuck with me. I was dreaming that I was on vacation someplace and wanted to get a better picture of some buildings near me. Being a dream, I rose up into the air by sheer force of will, to get a better view of the buildings. What was laid out before me on this beautiful, sunny day, was a cluster of buildings on a low island. Behind it and stretching out towards the horizon was the familiar outline of Manhattan formed by the remains of buildings sticking up out of the water of a vast estuary. A building-free rectangle showed where Central Park had been. I realized on waking that this dream was a vision of what the coast of North America will be someday — covered by the rising waters of the sea.

This future I see as inevitable — the atavistic forces around the human contribution to climate change are too strong. Here in Ontario we are being told that we must be green to save the planet — and accept a widespread industrialization of rural lands by wind developments. The power from which the province is unable to absorb and is currently paying others to accept, at great cost to the ratepayers and the soaring provincial debt.

This aggressive rollout contributes to the drowned world dream in a couple of ways — backup power for the turbines is all natural gas-fired generation. And in many places this gas comes from ‘fracking’ the bedrock (was that not a euphemism for another word in the Battlestar Galactica TV series?) This needs to run all the time so it can step in on an instants notice to backfill for wind drops and shifts. So despite all the pompous pronouncements we are pouring out greenhouse gasses at an ever-accelerating pace. And the huge fields of turbines alter the climate in small but measurable ways — downwind it gets drier and warmer because of the enhanced atmospheric mixing from blade turbulence. And since these wind installations are preferentially being placed in bird migration pathways over time there will be fewer insect predators to protect our crops and landscape. Guess the Passenger Pigeon was just a downpayment…

And since there is so much money being made by burning stuff relative to the low impacts of hydro-electric generation or nuclear (that we are still too afraid of to develop seriously) it seems unlikely that our contribution to this change will diminish. I am sure the non-consequences of ‘fracking’ the water table will be every bit as benign as what we are doing with and to the air.

I keep telling my wife that she needs to change her reading material to improve the quality of her dreams. While I enjoy being able to fly in my dreams and do other things, I fear that this particular dream will be all too real. But like the old joke about boiling a frog, it is happening too slowly for anyone to really notice. And as long as the short term money interests are on telling us everything is wonderful and there are no problems, that makes it even more inevitable.