Whether it’s the Green New Deal, in which climate change abatement is only one of several radical proposals, or the general brainwashing of the younger generations about the impending end of the world, the absence of rational analysis and the willful ignorance of facts is counterproductive. Rather than promoting a feasible approach to dealing with climate change, the magnitude of which remains uncertain, the focus is on unfeasible approaches and unachievable goals. Leaders from around the world will be at it in earnest this week during the United Nations Climate Action Summit 2019.
Many approaches to climate change are analogous to saying that the best way to produce energy is to build perpetual-motion machines, which perform work indefinitely without an energy source — a concept that violates the laws of thermodynamics. In other words, the goal is laudable, but the means to achieve it is, literally, fantastic. In the case of climate change, the anti-hydrocarbon contingent seeks to violate basic tenets of science and economics.
The reality is that there are insurmountable or cost-prohibitive obstacles to the scale-up of renewable energy and to creating the necessary infrastructure for it. Here are some facts that provide a reality check:
- Solar conversion to electricity is already more than 75% toward the maximum possible efficiency, according to the laws of physics. There are no possible breakthroughs that will reduce significantly the sheer numbers of solar panels needed to increase the overall power derived from the sun.
- Likewise, with respect to efficiency, wind conversion to electricity is already approximately two-thirds of the way to the maximum physical limit. The number of wind turbines would need to increase massively.
- A single wind turbine requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete, and 45 tons of plastic (produced from hydrocarbons and not recyclable). Solar is even more resource consumptive.
- The mining of silver, indium, and rare earths would have to soar by up to 20-fold over today’s yields just to meet the Paris climate accord’s goals. The mining process (for both those minerals and for battery materials) itself is dirty, ecologically destructive, and consumes significant amounts of hydrocarbon energy; and the plastic needed for solar and wind requires hydrocarbons.
- No step-function improvement in batteries has been attained in spite of 25-plus years of huge investment, including that from dozens of innovative startup companies. Counting on a breakthrough at this point is probably wishful thinking.
- To store the energy equivalent of a single barrel of oil, which can be stored in a $20 container at minimal cost, requires $200,000 and 10 tons of Tesla batteries.
- Tesla’s “Gigafactory” produces only enough batteries in an entire year to store three minutes of U.S. power demand. That is not enough to handle a cloudy or calm day for the renewables, let alone provide the needed two months of backup. Proper backup would require the equivalent of almost 30,000 production-years of similar factories.
- A single car requires 1,000 pounds of batteries. This, in turn, requires mining, moving, and processing some 500,000 pounds of raw materials. So, imagine scaling that up to provide batteries for a public utility the size of ConEd or Pacific Gas & Electric.
- Neither batteries nor wind nor solar equipment lasts forever. Currently available, state-of-the-art batteries have a useful life of just seven years, leading to massive disposal and pollution issues. And all the steel and other elements of retired equipment need to go somewhere.
- A shale-oil rig produces almost 15 times as much energy per hour/day/year as two 500-foot turbines turning in the wind. Putting it another way, one producing rig is the equivalent of 30 wind turbines.
- Wind turbine farms are unsightly and kill huge numbers of birds.
- The intermittent nature of wind and solar imposes huge infrastructure and operating costs due to the necessary continual re-balancing of the electrical grid. Extensive reliable backup sources are needed in the absence of massive batteries at every wind or solar site, which inevitably will consume hydrocarbons.
This non-exhaustive list illustrates that salvation with respect to energy production does not lie in solar and wind, especially given that it ignores the subject of transportation, where weight and capacity considerations are not trivial. Electric cars are feasible (although they still need a source of electricity to be charged), but electric airplanes are difficult to conceive.
So, where does that leave us? There are several short-term possibilities that might help on the supply side: greater use of hydropower and large-scale and small-scale nuclear. The last of these is largely untapped but intriguing. Consider that hundreds of ships are powered safely and reliably by small-scale nuclear plants. Although not without some problems, these have operated largely uneventfully for many years, and because of their size, they pose manageable risks and waste disposal.
The long-term solution, we believe, is nuclear fusion. There is no significant waste, and the supply of raw ingredients is essentially unlimited. But significant technical obstacles remain, and the most likely timeframe is 30-50 years away.
On the demand side, efficiency measures can and should continue. Household appliances have become drastically more efficient in the last decade or two. Even ordinary gasoline cars have improved greatly. These efforts should continue, although we should not forget that these advances are primarily applicable to industrialized countries. Plug-in Teslas are not likely to take sub-Saharan Africa by storm in the foreseeable future.
Finally, mankind is resourceful enough to find innumerable ways to adapt to climate change. Many of the predictions of planetary doom are almost certainly exaggerated. Common-sense measures such as protecting rain forests, planting more trees, fortifying coastal protection, and abandoning overly vulnerable property will be necessary. But these costs are eminently manageable.
There are also many ingenious approaches to “geoengineering,” the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change; these include solar radiation management and greenhouse gas sequestration.
We are best served by “un-brainwashing” ourselves about climate change — that is, dispensing with the hyperbole and nescience that distract from reality. The drumbeat of the apocalypse may demand responses, but, especially from politicians, so far it has not elicited the right ones.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. They were undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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