Energy Flotsam and Jetsam

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal story about the production difficulties of the Arizona supplier that Apple selected to make sapphire screens for the iPhone 6 was fascinating in its own right, but there was one little detail in the story that zipped by too quickly:

Mr. Squiller, the GT operations chief, told the bankruptcy court that GT lost three months of production to power outages and delays building the facility.

Whoa, show down there a moment: what’s this about power outages? I’d sure like to know more of the full story here. Was this simply bad engineering on site, or was there a problem with the local grid or the energy sources supplying the grid in that area? Grid stability is going to be a more serious issue going forward as we compel more and more “renewable” (meaning “less stable”) energy as part of the EPA’s mania to restructure the electricity sector through the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, two Googlers have written a worthy article for the IEEE Spectrum website (IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) on “What Would It Really Take to Reverse Climate Change?”. The subtitle tells the story: “Today’s Renewable Technologies Won’t Save Us.”

I know one of the authors, Ross Koningstein, slightly, and kudos to him and his co-author David Fork for admitting forthrightly that Google’s RE<C (“renewable energy cheaper than coal”) initiative was largely a bust. I’m pretty sure we noted here at the time that Google had pulled the plug on this much-hyped project a couple years ago.  As Koningstein and Fork admit:

At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope . . . even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach. 

As I’ve been pointing out for more than six years, the mathematics of climate orthodoxy, which call for an 80 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 so at to stabilize CO2 levels at no more than 450 parts per million, essentially requires replacing the world’s entire hydrocarbon energy systems with zero-emission sources. In practical terms, it means the United States would have to roll back its oil, coal, and gas use to the amount last seen in 1910. This is looney tunes.  I’ve still not seen any credible plan to do this in the space of 40 years. (One narrow example: Roger Piekle Jr. has calculated that if you set out to replace the world’s existing coal fired power plants with nuclear power, you’d need to build one 800 MW nuclear plant per week, every week, for the next 40 years. And this would only displace coal, and not touch oil and natural gas. Ts is looney tunes. Anyone think the U.S. is going to build 400 new nuclear power plants—we have about 100 now—to replace our 500 coal-fired power plants?)

To their credit Koningstein and Fork reach much the same conclusion, though with different arithmetic than me:

Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

Koningstein and Fork are equally realistic about the limitations of today’s renewable technologies:

Unfortunately, most of today’s clean generation sources can’t provide power that is both distributed and dispatchable. . . Across the board, we need solutions that don’t require subsidies or government regulations that penalize fossil fuel usage.

Even though Koningstein and Fork are writing from within the framework of climate orthodoxy, their call for the development of market-oriented disruptive energy technologies that don’t need government diktats is a refreshing departure from the totally unserious happy talk about wind and solar and banana peels and unicorn flop sweat we get from most of the climatistas. What I think they fail to appreciate, however, is that if such technologies do come about (say, cheap fusion), the bulk of the environmental establishment will oppose it, because it would be another triumph of capitalism. (See: Naomi Klein.)