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Global warming: The idea that technology will save us is a pipe dream

RETUERS/Robert Galbraith
What we actually observe in the administration’s record is a litany of ill-advised, expensive and premature attempts to put into production solar, wind and biofuel projects.

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama described the science-proven threat to “our children and future generations”  from global warming. He pledged that America would “lead on the path towards sustainable energy sources.” His address did not offer any specific programs for achieving reductions in global warming carbon emissions. But we can look to the administration’s current energy policies and those of the past four years. They should provide answers on how Obama plans to upgrade the U.S. from its current position as a major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter to becoming a leader among developed nations in the effort to curb GHG emissions.

What we actually observe in the administration’s record is a litany of ill-advised, expensive and premature attempts to put into production solar, wind and biofuel projects. In general, those projects lack the technology base for effective large-scale implementation, and they are not competitive with current market-based energy sources. In my opinion, the result has been a loss of billions of dollars from taxpayers, rate payers and investors, with minimal impact on global warming.

Solar energy, whether photo voltaic (PV) or concentrated (CSP), has potential for research improvement and cost reductions. It is more predicable than wind energy and peaks when demand is highest. But it is currently expensive and low density, and large investments in companies like Solyndra and Abound Solar have resulted in losses.

Undaunted, the Obama administration is now supporting a $2 billion dollar CSP installation near Ivanpah in the Nevada desert. More than 300,000 rotating mirrors will focus sunlight on three towers to heat liquid that becomes a source of steam for power generation. Ivanpah’s developer is estimating annual electricity production of about 1 million MW hours. By comparison, a typical 1000MW nuclear plant produces eight times that amount, rain or shine, clouds or fair, night or day. Power washing of those CSP mirrors will use scarce desert water and foster weeds, which will grow to obscure the mirrors. 

Intermittent output

Wind energy’s intermittent output requires continuous backup in order to avoid damage to the integrity of delicately balanced electric grids. This backup power is usually supplied by natural gas plants running in inefficient start stop mode to match the wind. This increases GHG emissions, wastes fuel, and shortens machinery life.

The wind industry lobbies hard for the 2.2 cents/kwh Production Tax Credit ,without which new wind farm installations would essentially cease. The 2.2 cents is nearly 50 percent of the wholesale price of electric power. Undaunted, the Obama administration is supporting the $2 billion Cape Wind project, which would place 130 Siemens wind turbines in the sea off Cape Cod. In testimony before the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board, Cape Wind’s developer conceded that Cape Wind would actually operate at about 100 MW for much of the time, with lowest output in summer, when demand is highest.

Former Rep. William Delahunt provided his own estimates: “This will be the most expensive and most heavily subsidized offshore wind farm in the country at over $2.5 billion, with power costs to the region that will be at least double.”

I suggest that the administration’s biggest energy folly is support for turning 40 million prime crop acres and 40 percent of our corn crop into 6 or 7 percent of our gasoline supply. The result is increased world grain prices and stresses to soils, ground water, and the environment from monoculture corn and additional nitrogen fertilizers. Microbes turn the fertilizer into the powerful GHG, nitrous oxide. A U of MN study led by Professor Sangwon Sue showed that on average in the U.S., 142 gallons of water are needed to grow and process the corn for 1 gallon of ethanol. In irrigation states like Kansas and Nebraska, it takes 500 water gallons per ethanol gallon, helping to drain the Ogallala our most important fresh water aquifer. There are also those GHG emissions from diesel driven farm machinery, and dead zones in the Mississippi delta region as excess nitrogen fertilizer runoff increases algae growth.

Expensive biomass fuel

To avoid using food stocks for fuel, the administration is spending billions on facilities to produce ethanol from cellulose (stalks and grasses) and algae. A recent boondoggle is contained in Obama’s announcement of a $510 million taxpayer program to support four new cellulose biofuel plants. The motivation is to secure a safe domestic source of fuel for the Navy and Air Force. The four plants are for production of military aviation ethanol fuel from non-food cellulose stocks like corn residue, grasses, and algae.  But as Undersecretary of the Air Force  Erin Conaton said recently, “Right now,  biomass fuel is about 10 times the cost of JP-8, the current military aviation jet fuel.” 

Obama is supporting the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which called for the production of 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2012. We will struggle to produce 5 million gallons. A method for unlocking sugars from cellulose was discovered in 1819. But 200 years of trying has not produced an effective production process ethanol from cellulose or algae. There is no shortage of proven aviation JP-8 jet fuel. It will be available for decades from U.S. refineries that process crude oil from North America.

There are tough climate-saving measures like carbon taxes that encourage conservation and provide funds for energy efficient public transport. That’s one of the measures used in many developed nations who consume half the energy per unit of GNP than we do. But carbon taxes are a politically unpopular choice that is rarely seen in the programs offered by either of our major political parties. It is easier to rely on “technology will save us” pipe dreams.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society.  His new Spring Quarter class for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program is “America’s climate and energy future; the next 25 years.”


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 01/29/2013 - 09:50 am.

    Land Use, Land Use, Land Use

    I agree that imagineering new technologies to replace cheap fossil fuels is probably a pipe dream, and we’re going to huge lengths to avoid talking about real solutions.

    The most important part of this equation, by far, is land use. If you don’t want your kids to end up living in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max world, stop trying to figure out a way to make the suburban development model work with biodiesel, and instead stop building more Chanhassens.

  2. Submitted by dennis baker on 01/29/2013 - 10:55 am.

    I disagree In My Humble Opinion

    In my opinion

    We need to replace the fossil fuel power plants, the primary source of GHG. Now!

    At a scale required to accomplish this task :

    Ethanol starves people : not a viable option.

    Fracking releases methane : not a viable option.

    Cellulose Bio Fuel Uses Food Land : not a viable option

    Solar uses food land : Not a viable option

    Wind is Intermittent : Not a viable option

    All Human and Agricultural Organic Waste can be converted to hydrogen, through exposure intense radiation!

    The Radioactive Materials exist now, and the Organic waste is renewable daily.

    Ending the practice of dumping sewage into our water sources.

    Air, Water, Food and Energy issues, receive significant positive impacts .

    Reducing illness / health care costs as well !

    Dennis Baker
    Penticton BC V2A1P9

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/29/2013 - 11:38 am.

      Interesting idea from Dennis

      As I look toward the next century when fossil fuels become very dear, I see two competitors for energy supply: solar and nuclear. Of course, there will be substantial conservation and life style adjustments driven by increasing energy costs.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 01/29/2013 - 01:07 pm.

      Solar does not have to use food land. It is perfectly possible to power one’s entire house using PVs on the roof. A number of our neighbors have already done it.

      We need to get away from the idea of centralized energy production and look at distributed small-scale production using renewable methods.

      • Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/29/2013 - 03:22 pm.

        Amory Lovins and soft power

        Jerry Brown bought into Lovins nonsense and almost tanked the state of California. Imagine those solar panels on your roof these past few days and nights. You would need a lot of sweaters.

        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/29/2013 - 10:05 pm.

          Your argument assumes

          that it’s not possible to store energy. Which of course is not true. There are Minnesotans who live comfortably “off the grid” using solar, geothermal and wind. Energy can stored and I believe we have not scratched the surface of more efficient use of energy storage capability.

          But let’s talk about the problems with nuclear energy which I know you advocate. Aside from the waste storage problem with we haven’t been able to solve politically, there is the problems of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Can anyone claim any longer that peaceful use of atomic energy can be separated from its military use? If so, then is the world giving Iran such a hard time about its nuclear program?

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/29/2013 - 01:54 pm.

    Deck chairs on the Titanic

    We have already hit the iceberg and are scraping alongside of it.

    Research indicates that we already in the realm of unpleasant effect for many and may be unstoppably moving into the realm of serious, deadly effect for many.

    I recently read an article by Bill McKibben that aptly talked about how you can’t negotiate with physics.

    We, the people, can argue about cost/benefits, bending the trend curve, transitions from one energy source to another, carbon taxing to influence future plans, reducing emissions, on and on.

    But while we, the people, argue about what to do, when to do it, how to do it, options, ways to minimize impacts to lifestyle, jobs, businesses—-physics is playing out it’s role—liberated carbon leads to greater greenhouse effects and more significant climate change.

    And all of the target dates and target rates mean little because there is not enough change yesterday or today to stop physics, we have hit the iceberg.

    And that does not even take into effect tipping points.

    By the way, what do you think they make solar panels with? Storage batteries? Wind turbines? All of these resources face specific limits and have their own impacts on the environment.

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