September 25, 2003

Fossil Fuel Alternatives

It's funny, the way conservatives are so in denial about humanity's effect on Carbon in the atmosphere. Last night, I was browsing around and searching and decided to check out some right-wing blogs to see what they were saying about global warming. A common thread in the first two or three I stumbled across (aside from Clinton is the anti-Christ, all Democratic candidates are socialist liars, liberals are traitors for criticizing the war) was that "there's no way humans could affect the Carbon in our atmosphere more than a volcano!".

The discussions were usually many posts old (often more than a week), but I left a comment on one that was only a day old for the heck of it. It's depressing when the facts are just *right there* for anyone who cares to ask for them. God, I wish people would get educated about stuff they care about. I mean, if it is *so* important that you are going to base your vote or your political affiliation on it, get all the damn facts about it! Why the hell do people believe such nonsense? Argh. This kind of thing makes me glad I am a science teacher so that I can at least have a tiny little effect on educating a few people how to separate the good and the bad ideas.

Conservatives love to say shocking things like, "The long term goal of Al Gore (or liberals in general) is to eliminate the fossil fuel industry in the United States." Or that "Al Gore wants to eliminate the internal combustion engine." The thing is, those statements are true but sorely lacking in context.

A good book on the fossil fuel outlook can be found in Kenneth Deffeyes' "Hubbert's Peak". In this book, Deffeyes describes the peak, which is coming up probably within the next 5-25 years, depending on whose numbers you believe. Hubbert's Peak is the peak extraction rate for fossil fuels over time. As technology and exploration improves, the extraction rate increases over time. Eventually, though, dwindling reservoirs will cause the extraction rate to turn downward until we finally just plain run out of coal, oil and natural gas.

At our current rate of consumption, a few order-of-magnitude calculations reveal that the Earth's crust just can't hold as much fossil fuels as we plan on using. Within the next 50-150 years, we will *have* to eliminate the fossil fuel industry and the internal combustion engine. Gore realizes this, but when was the last time any of his statements were accurately reported by the media in their proper context for the Moron Americans who think he wants to confiscate their cars? Pfft.

So we're going to have to eliminate the usage of fossil fuels. My take on this is that we don't know what adding a bunch of Carbon to the atmosphere will do, so why risk it? Why not find some alternatives right now *before* we throw all that Carbon up into the atmosphere? What Gore proposed is throwing a bunch of economic incentives at fossil fuel industries to make them more efficient and make them at least *explore* the idea of putting less CO2 (and associated gases like sulfates) into the atmosphere. Oh well, I guess that makes him some sort of eco-freak, but it sure makes sense to me.

There was a lot of noise about the Kyoto protocols, which were supposed to also give incentives to some countries to cut back on Carbon emissions. This was the treaty Gore helped negotiate in Japan in 1999, but because it didn't require binding commitments on the part of developing countries, the US wasn't on board. The Senate voted down a resolution (not a formal treaty vote because Clinton never sent it to the Senate) 95-0, because even Democrats knew that voting for it was suicide given the media spin they would get. European countries ratified the treaty, but only on the condition the US would ratify, and since they knew the US wouldn't, it was a little cynical of their politicians to vote yes and then blame us when the treaty fell apart. Some countries abide by the protocols anyway.

Anyway, the sad thing about Kyoto is what a truly tiny step it would have been. With Kyoto ratified, Carbon emissions by 2050 would be 90% higher than present-day. Without Kyoto, it would be 100% higher. None of the climate models really see much of a difference, but Kyoto was only supposed to be a principled first step toward reduction of CO2 emissions (which is exactly why it inspired such widespread panic in the oil industry). Even with that, it was 95-0 against.

Of course, with Bushco in office now, there's essentially zero hope for any progress on this front. They're editing out sections on carbon emissions, temperature trends and the greenhouse effect in their EPA reports, putting oil lobbyists in the White House to draft legislation, etc. The only hope for progress on this issue lies with the Democratic party for now.

Well, I shouldn't say that. We citizens can exert our economic power to seek out renewable energy resources so that companies have an economic incentive to do the research to make them more cost effective (right now, wind and solar are very very expensive compared to fossil fuels, but that will change once we pass Hubbert's Peak ... too late to do anything about a potentially harmful greenhouse effect, though). Personally, I use Green Mountain, which uses windmills to generate power and charges a few percent over standard energy companies, thanks to some subsidies.

At any rate, suppose by some miracle everyone were to decide that fossil fuels are awful and we should seek an alternative. What Carbon-free energy alternatives exist that can satisfy world energy needs (currently estimated to be about 10 Terawatts, or 10 trillion watts)? Nuclear can't do it, even if they could figure out what to do with the waste (France used to dump it all in the North Sea ... now only a lot of low-level stuff, which is still bad). The Uranium in the crust is even less abundant than fossil fuels, so with a nuclear-only plan, we'd run out of fuel in a few decades (unless everyone switched to complex and dangerous breeder reactors ... long story, but it wouldn't be worth it).

Solar and wind power aren't always there when you need them (though you can distribute the sites all around the world, store power, etc. to get around this). They also require huge areas of land (they have a low power density). Current US energy needs could be satisfied with windmills carpeting the Dakotas and Texas, but we really don't want all those windmills. Plus, how are we going to satisfy our energy needs in 100 years when they have quadrupled? Eventually, you run out of land.

Other forms of energy generation, such as biomass burning, hydroelectric power, etc. aren't realistic either. The only hope, in my opinion, is if Physicists can figure out how to make fusion viable (maybe sometime I'll post a primer on nuclear fission, fusion, uranium, depleted uranium, different kinds of nuclear weapons, fuel rods, meltdowns, nuclear waste, cold fusion, etc ... I give that lecture to my class occasionally just for the hell of it, and it is always a really big hit). Or if we get desperate enough to put *vast* solar arrays into orbit, where square footage isn't an issue. Very costly, though. Of course, the fossil fuel industry has greatly pressued the US government not to fund energy alternatives, including fusion research. Thanks a lot, morons.

The bottom line, if you are conservative or not, we are going to run out of fossil fuels in 150 years at the *very* latest (likely closer to 75 years). The sooner we pull our collective heads out of the sand and start seriously funding research into alternatives, the better. Don't expect that to happen under this administration's "leadership". Or with a Republican Congress, for that matter.

Posted by Observer at September 25, 2003 07:13 AM

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

If the space elevator works, orbital solar will be much more feasible.

Posted by: Humbaba on September 25, 2003 08:29 AM

I'm exceedingly leery of orbital power stations. They have some nice features, but getting concentrated energy from up there to down here isn't trivial, and some of the ideas I've heard for that are downright frightening (e.g., the microwave beam idea ... compute the watts per square meter your beam would have at the Earth's surface, compare that to what's in a microwave oven, and now tell me you're going to keep that beam pointed correctly absolutely 100% of the time and what is going to happen when it slews off target...).

To my mind most people think of fusion power like they think of magic. Most fusion experiments are still messing around with deuterium and tritium, for Baal's sake, which means that the reactions are neutron-rich, which means they are as poisonous any nasty-ass fission reaction you want to name, or more so, because free neutrons are harder to contain than radioactive fission products and at least as apt as fission products to turn the containment vessel into something quite radioactive by itself. When we start working seriously with helium-3 and light hydrogen I'll get more interested.

And, it could be that the only practical fusion reactor designs require 10^29 kg or more of inert shielding and moderating material. We already know about those.

Posted by: Feff on September 25, 2003 09:31 AM

Well, heck, I don't need to do a Uranium primer, because so many other places have already done a far better job than I could. If you want to find out more about Uranium and associated nuclear issues, start at

Posted by: Observer on September 25, 2003 09:47 PM

Oh, and for the order-of-magnitude impaired, when Feff talks about containers with at least 10^29 kg of inert shielding and moderating material, he means stars. Stars have the additional advantage of being able to use gravity to confine the reactions, whereas we on Earth have to confine it in little pellets that explode or in magnetic fields.

Posted by: Observer on September 25, 2003 09:49 PM

You're totally off base, Observer.

Don't forget that the Earth is only 6000 years old and all those fossil fuels were put there by God for us to use. God, in his infinite wisdom, would never allow us, his chosen nation, to suffer due to lack of something that he provides in such abundance. Hence our mandate to go over and bomb the heck out of the heathens in the Middle East.

Logic need not apply where the fundamental tenets of the audience don't match your starting assumptions.

For the counter-example, see and his coverage of the payoff wager for Pascal's Wager. Note that the balance, infinity to 1, assumes the initial premise that there is eternal life. Atheism does not adopt that fundamental tenet and the rest of his argument is meaningless since the values chosen are based on that initial assumption. Hence the flaw in the logic.

The advantage to being in front of a class is that you can find the people who don't accept the initial conditions you are basing your argument on and attack that problem first. In a blog or most other forms of written debate, patching up the initial conditions is not nearly as easy to do.

Posted by: Seattle Astronomer on September 29, 2003 12:19 PM

I am no expert on energy of any form, nor am I a scientist so this comment may not mean much. As for renewable energies I would think just from a US point of view that we would use a combination of Solar, Wind, and Hydroelectricity (that's already in place) for an alternative energy sources. Being able to place solar or wind plantations in areas such as Alaska, six months of sun, and be able to store this energy untill the time is needed.

I have read somewhere that the polar caps are melting, increasing our oceans volume, at a faster rate than the sun is evaporating the water to maintain a constant level. The ocean is constantly moving, I guess in a lunar cycle, why can't we harness energy from the natural source? It is very abundant and sense the worl is 3/4 water I would imagine that the ocean could supply the world with energy, if design properly. This would also help the problem of the melting polar caps.

Posted by: Dave on April 24, 2004 01:41 PM

I am doing a research paper for college, and my paper is titled "why buy gas?" It is a crude title, but then agian, my teacher is so stupid I have to not listen in class to keep from loosing IQ points. (Joke, but he is worthless as far as a teacher goes) Anyway, I'm going to use pretty much the entire thing up ^ to back a point or two. Just FYI.

My biggest thing as to why nobody really wants to comitt to slowing production of fossil fuels is money. Even though opec has cut oil production by 2mil (? is it mil. or bil?) a year or whatever, that is only going to prolong the inevetable, and in the mean time, they are all going to make a shit load because of it. It is funny that even though GM and Ford and all the other big automakers are starting to build more effecient gas ICEs, and find alternative fuels that are achieveable for a time, they are dragging their feet. Kinda just shoving it in our face that they control the world's destiny. IMO.

Posted by: joe on May 5, 2004 09:58 PM

Harnessing tidal energy is possible in principle, but getting it to work on an adequate scale is the trick. My memory is that it's been done in one or two places with ok results, but these make use of rare geography that focusses the tidal flow through a bottleneck.

Hydroelectric dams have no CO2 emissions, but a number of people rather suspect that dams cause a lot of damage to the local ecology beyond the obvious. There are reasons to suspect that the Columbia/Snake River dams are killing off the salmon runs on those rivers (and for reasons that good fish ladders don't fix ... changing the temperature of the water in the rivers, altering the dissolved gas content, etc.). Ecological changes are -- as we are wearily aware from Bushco's stonewalling on global warming -- slow to happen and difficult to pin down categorically. The problem with ecological damage is that it's slow ... the changes are scales comparable to or longer than a human lifetime, and humans just don't react well, conciously or otherwise, to phenomena that work on timescales that long. Partly because people who profit from the processes doing the damage can stonewall effectively. Also, when you mess up an ecology, the effects are not easy to grasp; too much is interlinked. (See, for instance, the recent Scientific American about the effects of reintroducing wild wolves into Yellowstone ... would you have guessed that bringing in wolves would make beaver populations go up?)

At the moment, my favorite largely-untapped energy source is geothermal, but again, right now only strange places like Iceland are in a position to exploit that on a large scale.

Posted by: Feff on June 23, 2004 10:47 PM