by Judith Curry
Stanford physicist’s prescriptions include more natural gas and nuclear power, doubts about renewable energy goals, and a new way to gain political support.
Stanford Physicist and Nobel Laureate Burton Richter published a book entitled “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century” (Cambridge, 2010). From the editorial review at amazon.com:
“The facts about climate change and the responses to it are the subject of substantial confusion among the public. Burton Richter, a Nobel Laureate in physics, has written a cogent analysis of what is known – and not known – about climate change and about the components of the energy system that contribute to climate change or that are offered as a means to mitigate it. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Change and Energy brings sophisticated insights and common sense to the issues, but is fully accessible to the public. This book should be required reading for anyone who seeks to understand one of the most significant global challenges that confronts humankind.” – Richard A. Meserve, President of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Former Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
“I enjoyed the book and the lively personal way Richter writes. Readers, once they start, will want to read the book right through to the end. I did. The chapters on energy were wonderful and made me hope that the book will be widely read.” – James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford
“‘Please point me to a short overview of energy and climate, with numbers but not equations, and with a no-nonsense view of the politics.’ This request has been put to me in one version or another dozens of times. At last, I am comfortable with my answer: Read Beyond Smoke and Mirrors. It is an unpretentious yet deeply insightful book by Burton Richter, a physicist at Stanford and Nobel Laureate. … Smoke and mirrors are the tools of deception, and by contrast Richter is promising to talk straight. With his title, Richter is acknowledging that a large proportion of the energy literature available to the layman is promotional–a sales pitch for this, a sales pitch for that. He is asking us to trust him, and we do. For example, he tells us that he is “a biofuels skeptic,” and he takes ten pages to explain why, stressing impacts on food supply, net-carbon issues, and the thus far unrealized claims from the research community. Such candor is rare and refreshing.” – Robert H. Socolow, American Journal of Physics
Richter’s book was recently awarded the 2011 Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science. Stanford news has posted an interview with Richter. Some excerpts:
Your book takes a middle ground between the deniers of climate change and what you call “ultra-greens,” who insist on drastic action immediately but reject nuclear power and some other low-carbon solutions. Can you talk about that middle ground?
What I tried to say is: Here is what we know, and here is how we know it. Here’s what the uncertainties are. Here’s what I think we ought to be doing. But the reader should think about what we ought to be doing, too.
The future is hard to predict, because it hasn’t happened yet. For some, this is an excuse for inaction. “We don’t know enough. Since we don’t know enough, we shouldn’t do anything.” Whereas there are a lot of things we can do now that don’t cost much at all and that can have a relatively large impact.
Secondly, no matter how good some solution is, some people will demand that we wait for a better solution. This is a problem that some environmentalists generate, because they’re not willing to settle for partial solutions. The example I use is switching from coal to natural gas to generate electricity, which would eliminate 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, and by the way, the electricity would be cheaper.
California has this “Million Solar Roofs” program, ($2.1 billion in state subsidies). For 15 to 20 percent of the cost, I could eliminate twice as much CO2 emissions by simply converting the Four Corners coal-fired power plant from coal to natural gas. That doesn’t say don’t use any solar. But it does say let’s do things that can have a big impact now, and let’s give credit for it. The mandate to utilities should be to reduce emissions. It shouldn’t be to use certain technologies.
Lately you have been saying that too much of the focus has been on climate change, and instead we should be talking about reducing dependence on fossil fuels for reasons of national security, the economy and the environment in a broad sense, not just global warming.
My new shtick in the talks that I give I call “energy in three dimensions.” For example, we just put in new mileage standards for cars – 54 miles per gallon by 2035. You didn’t hear Sen. Inhofe say ‘that’s asinine,’ or any of that stuff. Why not? Because, if we could make it all happen today, oil imports would go down by 6 million barrels per day, our balance of payments would drop by $200 billion per year, we wouldn’t have to spend so much money defending the Persian Gulf, and by the way we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions a lot. There are certain areas where you can find common ground with all sorts of people.
People understand that oil is a national security issue, but how do you sell reducing the use of coal as national security?
I can sell it as a public health issue, as an acid rain issue, and as an economic issue, because gas is cheaper. There is a political problem here. It’s obvious to anyone that on national economic grounds we should shut down these coal plants as fast as we can replace them. However, you have a bunch of senators from coal-producing states and from states that are heavily dependent on coal, like those in the Southeast, that get most of their electricity from coal-fired power plants. So, you’ve got to get the politics of this right. I won’t say it’s easy, but you are just going to have to run right over West Virginia.
One way to get there would be a revenue-neutral tax on carbon, but you have to figure out what you do with the money. Do you just give it back to taxpayers, or do you use some of it to ease the transition for states in the Southeast? We have to be in a hurry to figure this out, and it must come with impeccable Republican credentials. After the presidential election next year, no matter who wins, you will be able to get things done, but you’ve got to be prepared to lay it out immediately after the election.
A criticism of your book is that you too easily dismiss two things: nuclear’s safety issues and the potential for renewable energy. Since the book came out, we’ve had the Fukushima disaster and solar costs have declined sharply. Would you revise your positions now?
For nuclear, I call this a problem of technology hazards – perception versus reality. My book gives some data on years of life lost per billion kilowatt-hour generated based on the primary energy source. Fossil fuels are all terrible, though coal is much worse than gas. Nuclear is really good, much less years of life lost than even solar photovoltaic. The analysis I give in the book includes Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. It doesn’t include Fukushima, but if it did the analysis wouldn’t change. Do we have to make nuclear plants safer? Yes. Are they becoming safer? Yes.
California just put out a report on how it will achieve an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. The report makes clear that we just can’t do it without nuclear power.
As for renewables, is somebody going to invent the real holy grail of renewable energy? To me that is grid-scale energy storage, which means capacity in gigawatt-days not kilowatt-hours. The big problem with wind and solar is their enormous variability. I don’t have affordable systems to store the output. If I did have affordable storage, I can see getting beyond about 15 percent with wind and solar, but you can’t do that economically today. I would like to see a lot more money being used to develop this.