Sunday, May 5, 2019

Energy Blues

Former US President Richard Nixon, a hard-boiled conservative, signed the landmark Clean Air Act (1970 CAA) into law nearly half a century ago. Today, his fellow Republicans are contemptuous of scientific evidence for human-induced climate change. And long before the party’s 2008 vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, threw red meat to her base by sneering Drill, Baby, Drill, a would-be American anarchist, Bill Epton, had coined the street-level battle cry Burn, Baby, Burn. 

Even as the push for renewable energy intensifies, right-wing ideologues brandish their licence to drill and burn more coal, oil and natural gas. Capitalist boors notwithstanding, the gravest global challenge this century may well be how to manage the competing interests of the rich West and those that Harvard historian Niall Ferguson referred to as the Rest.

Two hundred and fifty years after the Industrial Revolution laid the foundation for the rise of the West's middle class, we are at the cusp of witnessing a much larger cohort. To power this expansion, the world's energy needs will most definitely rise by a prodigious order of magnitude.

First, dispelling a spellbinding age-old fantasy, the laws of thermodynamics have quashed the quest for a perpetual motion machine which, if it ever existed, would produce ‘free’ energy. In the real world, the sources of energy are, in fact, twofold - non-renewable and renewable.

Non-renewable energy refers to conventional fuels that drive the modern economy but have also been responsible for appalling environmental pollution. Fossil fuel reserves are finite in scope and will eventually run out at the current rates of exploration, but maybe not soon enough.

By contrast, renewable or alternative energy is much more sustainable because of its reliance on classical and natural processes. Broadly, alternative energy sources are classified as solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, hydrogen, biomass, wave and hydroelectric. Although nuclear power produces relatively clean energy, it is highly controversial due to extreme waste disposal and safety concerns.

By and large, I discern three distinct interest groups, namely energy cynics, energy romantics and energy pragmatists.

Energy cynics tend to live in the moment. Ignoring any potential moral hazard, they espouse the rationale that natural resources exist to facilitate economic growth. To them, marketplace success trumps ecological and moral considerations.

Energy romantics are sometimes dismissed as apocalyptic naysayers, who are predisposed to singing the blues. To their credit, they highlight the causality between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, the risks from nuclear power, as well as the cumulative effects of environmental decay.

Energy pragmatists, on their part, contend that fossil fuels still constitute about 85% of net global energy production. They acknowledge the tremendous progress on the renewable energy front and the positive effect on the climate, but seem to hedge their bets about how quickly we should wean the world off carbon-based fuels.

According to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewable energy will be consistently cheaper, as a source of electric power generation, than traditional fuels by 2020. That is the good news, unless you are an oil and gas producer. Unfortunately, alternative energy resources are not always available where and when they are needed, as typified by solar and wind power which are intermittent by nature.

Inevitably, this brings up the issue of energy storage. Storage batteries, because of their density and applicability, still account for the bulk of the market. Other solutions include compressed air, flywheel, and pumped hydro, but none of these comes close to matching the energy density of fossil fuels.

From the foregoing, it is clear that balancing the complexity of energy resourcing with economic realities and climate change imperatives is fiendishly difficult. Can we trust politicians to do right by us? And while we dither, would we know when the climate has reached a tipping point?

I invite all energy realists to contribute to the ongoing sustainability debate in ways large and small.

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