Friday, December 19, 2008

Evaluating the alternatives

I found this interesting article in Renewable Energy World, a great newsletter about the great variety of renewables. Wind, Water and Sun Beat Biofuels, Nuclear and Coal for Energy Generation, Study Says. The author reviews an research report by Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, for which a large number of alternative energy sources were evaluated to find the best way to get the most energy from these sources, based on a number of variables.
The best ways to improve energy security, mitigate global warming and reduce the number of deaths caused by air pollution [, he says,] are blowing in the wind and rippling in the water, not growing on prairies or glowing inside nuclear power plants...[while] "clean coal," which involves capturing carbon emissions and sequestering them in the earth, is not clean at all.

"The energy alternatives that are good are not the ones that people have been talking about the most. And some options that have been proposed are just downright awful," Jacobson said. "Ethanol-based biofuels will actually cause more harm to human health, wildlife, water supply and land use than current fossil fuels." He added that ethanol may also emit more global-warming pollutants than fossil fuels, according to the latest scientific studies....

The raw energy sources that Jacobson found to be the most promising are, in order, wind, concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave and hydroelectric. He recommends against nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which is made of prairie grass. In fact, he found cellulosic ethanol was worse than corn ethanol because it results in more air pollution, requires more land to produce and causes more damage to wildlife.
My son sent me the link to a video with Bjørn Lomborg (see below) where he agrees entirely with Jakobsen that it is ridiculous to put food in gas tanks, when there are other, better, ways to spend our environmental dollars.

I love to read the comments to any article, because they sometimes provide extra insight, and sometimes show how people seem to read with tunnel vision. At the end, I added my own comment:
As [one of the commentors] Jay Rosenberg says, you have to take "scale, location and logistics" into consideration when considering alternate fuels.
I expect that Mark Jakobsen did include them in connection with "not only their potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability."
Obviously, where there are great thermal resources, such as in Northern California, they would rank higher than some other resources. Wave energy isn't much use as a local resource in the midwest. Wind has to be supplemented with something else when the wind doesn't blow - but the newest 3 MW turbines allow much greater generation of energy per acre than small 50 kw models, of course!
As we can read here (and elsewhere) the logistics and output of solar power will vary from area to area. I assume that these have all been part of Jakobsen's equations. We don't need just one type of energy, but many, so that it can be sourced as locally as possible.
I, too, am much distressed at Obama's selection of energy and agriculture people enamored of ethanol. I think Vilsack's job as Agricultural Secretary must be to remove subsidies from factory farms and support organics more. Ethanol is the baby of factory farms and their lobbies. I don't think Vilsack is the person for the job. Strange that agriculture and energy are being discussed in the same sentence!

And then there's Bjørn Lomborg

Bjørn Lomborg has made a career about being the "Sceptical Environmentalist" using statistics to prove his point. In that way, what he has been working on is very similar to Mark Jakobsen's - trying to find out how to spend best to provide the greatest benefit for the buck.

In this video, taken at a conference sponsored by the Libertarian Reason Magazine, Lomborg (who previously was the darling of global warming sceptics) repeats again and again that global warming (or, as I prefer to call it, Climate Change) is occuring and will cause casualties. But he believes that we should be spending more money on research at this point to find the best ways to alleviate it, while, as the same time, using resources now being spent on inefficient alternatives on things like improving nutrition for poor people, painting streets and roofs with reflective material and providing more green areas in cities to reduce heat build-up in urban areas, which are demonstrably hotter than the surrounding countryside, all of which are laudable to should be implemented. (He even suggests that it would be cheaper to provide little old ladies with air-conditioners, so they don't die of the inevitable heat, and that we stop the hunting of polar bears, which kills more than climate change right now.)

Lomborg compares the cost of each of his individual recommendations with the total costs of installing renewable energy. The equation would be different if he added up all the costs of his alternatives, and subtracted the benefits of developing renewable energy, like providing jobs, making the energy network more secure, replacing what will soon become very expensive petro-fuel (because of dwindling resources,) etc. This is all, admittedly an enormous equation. But Lomborg loves to make economic models, so that could be his next big project - not picking one thing over another, but figuring out what the proper mix of all of it is. Just like Jakobsen is not suggesting that we should only invest in wind-power, but in the proper mix, based on price, geography and other factors.

No comments: