by Judith Curry
Whether the benefits of alternative energy outweigh its drawbacks depends on the policy context. – Ed Dolan
Ed Dolan has a post entitled Green Illusions: The Limits of Alternative Energy:
Are solar, wind, and other alternatives the magic bullets that will solve the world’s environmental and energy problems? Take a closer look, says Ozzie Zehner in Green Illusions . Zehner not only argues that green energy has technological, environmental and economic limits, but also that without an appropriate policy context, some forms of alternative energy could do more harm than good.
The first part of Zehner’s book—by far the best—is devoted to explaining why neither photovoltaic, nor wind, nor biomass, nor any of the other alternatives to fossil fuels will be able to deliver a future of abundant, cheap, clean energy. Chapter by chapter, he brings out the environmental and economic limitations of each technology. Among the highlights—
- Carbon isn’t the whole story. When you count toxic sludge from making solar panels, noise from windmills placed too close to residential areas, or changes in land use patterns from cultivating biofuel crops, you find that alternative energy has negative externalities of its own that offset its low-carbon benefits at least in part, and sometimes entirely.
- Energy not only has to be produced, it has to be delivered when and where it is needed.
- Beware of promises based on performance of alternative energy under ideal conditions.
If alternative energy is somewhat clean, but not really as clean as its “zero carbon” claims, then it is neither all bad nor all good. Whether the benefits of alternative energy outweigh its drawbacks depends on the policy context. Zehner argues that current U.S. energy policy is far too “productivist,” as he puts it. It aims to add alternative energy to the output mix, but at the same time to keep energy “affordable,” which means pricing it at a level that encourages extravagant use. In his own words,
Alternative-energy production expands energy supplies, placing downward pressure on prices, which spurs demand, entrenches energy-intensive modes of living, and finally brings us right back to where we started. . . In short, we create an energy boomerang—the harder we throw, the harder it will come back to hit us on the head.
The solution? A pricing policy that stifles this “boomerang effect” by encouraging conservation rather than expansion of energy output. I would have liked to see this idea more fully developed, in at least three respects.
First, it would be worth putting even more emphasis on the need for a policy that mandates full cost pricing, including environmental costs, for all forms of energy. Coal should be charged for the carbon and sulfur dioxide it produces, solar panels for the toxic residues of manufacturing, wind for the upgrades to the grid that are needed to deliver it, and so on. A full-cost pricing policy would dramatically raise the prices of the dirtiest energy sources, like coal and bitumen from Canadian oil sands. It would also charge for proper disposal of toxic sludge from manufacturing solar panels and for upgrades needed to integrate wind power with the grid. Raising the price of these cleaner but not perfectly clean alternative sources would encourage conservation of energy of all kinds while still giving them a comparative advantage over the dirtiest fossil fuels.
A second point is that we should avoid policies that subsidize consumption of energy, even when it comes from relatively clean sources. The feed-in tariffs that are offered to alternative energy producers are one example, as are mandates for utilities to include a certain percentage of alternative energy in their power mix. In both cases, the result is that utilities are required to buy alternative energy at a relatively high price, and then blend it with cheaper energy from coal or other conventional sources and sell the blend at price reflecting the average cost. Such policies stimulate the production of alternative energy, but they don’t encourage conservation. (Subsidies for basic research on alternative energy would not be subject to this objection, since they do not artificially lower the cost of energy to consumers.)
A third point is that once we get energy pricing right, competition among production of relatively clean and relatively dirtier types of energy would take a back seat to competition between production and conservation as the best way to reduce energy use and its associated environmental harms. Should we put solar panels on the roof or weather strip our leaky window frames? If the panels are highly subsidized, they are likely to be our first choice, even though the return on investment in weather stripping might be far higher. (At one point Zehner quips that the cost of the solar panels per pound of CO2 saved could well be as high as the cost of weather stripping windows with gold leaf. That may not even be an exaggeration.)
Once the principle of full cost pricing is accepted, exactly how we tweak prices to their appropriate level is, in my view, a matter of secondary importance. Zehner seems to favor pollution taxes, and arguments can certainly be made in support of that approach. Other people favor cap and trade as a way to put a price on externalities. Still another option is to impose costs on energy producers and users through improved environmental liability rules that protect pollution victims and their property. Take your choice.
Dolan has a follow on post entitled Does Robert F. Kennedy Jr Harbor Green Illusions About Solar Power?
JC comment: Well, this seems to me to be a very sensible analysis.
Is the Earth f**ked?
The award for the most provocative title at the recent AGU meeting goes to Brad Werner, for his talk “Is Earth F**ked?” Werner’s paper is discussed in at article at Slate titled Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind. Excerpts:
The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.” He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes.
Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the “coupled human-environmental system”—that is to say, if you’re interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is f**ked—then, Werner’s model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.
Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that “it delays the environmental damage but it doesn’t prevent it.”
That’s not too surprising either. (But it also implies we’re eventually, definitely f**ked.) Still, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
JC comment: Huh? I like the idea of combining an agent-based model with geophysical models. But exactly how is advocacy by scientists going to get around the issues raised by Zehner/Dolan? JC suggestion to Werner: put the three economic points raised by Zehner/Dolan into your model and see what pops out. JC prediction: advocacy by scientists (who are ignorant of economics and policy) is not going to trump economics and politics.
At about the same time I read the previous two articles, I also read a third article, which landed in the same file and ended up being combined into what has turned into a rather eclectic post. The third article is Lab grown meat gives food for thought. Excerpts:
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that 18% of global greenhouse emissions are accounted for by the livestock sector, and demand for meat is predicted to double over the next 40 years.
Hungarian-born Gabor Forgacs, of the University of Missouri, is a specialist in tissue engineering, working to create replacement tissue and organs for humans. He realized the same technology could be used to engineer meat for human consumption. He became the first scientist in the United States to produce and publicly eat some of his tissue-engineered meat, at the 2011TEDMED conference.
Research from the University of Oxford, published last year, estimated that lab-grown meat produces 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally produced meat within the EU. It also had a 99% lower land use and a 82-96% lower water use.
“The rules of the game of meat production are not the same as they were 100 years ago,” says Forgacs. “It’s not sustainable. We are destroying this planet with intensive meat production. Seventy percent of arable land today is one way or another connected to animals through grazing animals or growing food for them. We’re running out of it.”
He adds: “What we’re doing is a transformational idea. We’re going to produce something that is not exactly the same but it is going to be cost efficient and much less harmful to the environment.”
Whatever the final outcome, lab-grown meat is no longer in the realm of science fiction. “It is coming. There is no question that someone will hit it big and if we are the ones then so much the better,” says Forgacs.
JC comment: Amazing. JC’s second suggestion for Brad Werner: factor innovation and disruptive/transformational technologies into your model.