(Swans - February 27, 2012) Economics is the consumption of energy to process matter and produce action for the maintenance and renovation of society. Just as form follows function, the right choice of an energy technology for any society is a function of its economic model and socio-economic goals. Politics is the process of determining the allocation of costs and the distribution of benefits for an economy. Therefore, the selection of the energy technologies to power a society is based on political consensus and political power.
Industrialization is a synchronized and mechanized form of economics. For example, suburbia and exurbia are industrializations of the concepts of village, town, and city. They are the stretching of human settlements into 2D space with a compensatory time contraction provided by an energy-intensive kinetic network of unitary transport vehicles.
Public debates on the influence of industrialization on the global heat balance (the average temperature of much of the biosphere), and the sensitivity of climate change to inputs of industrial waste heat and waste matter (e.g., CO2, methane, soot), are political debates on economic forms couched in terms of the relative convenience, profitability and environmental impact of different energy technologies.
Energy For Human Development
The United Nations uses an economic parameter called the Human Development Index (HDI) to characterize the typical standard of living of every nation. It is observed that affluent nations have high HDI scores (HDI ranges from 0 to 1) and a high use of electrical energy per year per person (in kilowatt-hours/year/person the range is from 0 to 30,000), while poor nations have relatively low values for both quantities. (1)
Data from 2005 include the following:
1. The range of annual per capita electrical energy use among 177 nations was between 40 kWh/year/person and 29,247 kWh/year/person. The range of HDI was from 0.281 to 0.963.
2. The United States of America ranked 10th in HDI, at 0.944, with 13,456 kWh/y/p for 4.5% of the world's population, which produced 24.4% of the CO2 emissions from human activity.
3. The People's Republic of China ranked 85th in HDI, at 0.755, with 1,484 kWh/y/p for 21% of the world's population, which produced 12.1% of the CO2 emissions from human activity.
China is racing to develop, and a momentary digression is necessary on account of its rapidly changing data. Between 2004 and 2009, China's primary energy use grew by 40%, electricity use by 70%, energy imports by a factor of three, population by 2.7%, and CO2 emissions by 44%. (2) After 2007, China's CO2 emissions exceeded those of the United States (though per capita emission remains far below the US level). Between 2008 and 2010, world CO2 emissions rose 12.1%, US CO2 emissions by only 0.57% because of the economic slowdown during 2009, and Chinese CO2 emissions rose by 17.2%. In 2010, China's CO2 emissions were 24.6% of the world total, and the US share was 16.4%. (3)
The United Nations calls the striving of each nation to elevate the standard of living of its population its economic development, and a fundamental part of such development is a greater availability of electrical power.
We can visualize the sequential stages of economic development as an HDI climb up an energy ladder. People who burn matter to generate heat, and have a pre-industrial society, advance their economic development by shifting to fuels of higher chemical energy content: from crop waste and dung, to wood, charcoal, kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas, and then ethanol and methanol.
The higher stages of economic development are those experienced over the last two centuries by the now highly industrialized nations. Coal was the fuel of 19th century industrialization. Oil and natural gas are the fuels of rapid mass mobility and heating, and power the hyper-animated form of industrial society we know simply as "the 20th century." Civilian nuclear power became available near the middle of that century, and remains our most concentrated source of energy for producing electricity.
In 2005, the world average HDI was 0.741, and the world average electrical energy use was 2,465 kWh/y/p. People whose lives are characterized by the low end of the HDI scale (near 0.3) can be said to remain, for the most part, in the 18th century. Those in mid-range HDI conditions (0.5-0.6) experience 19th to early 20th century living with some sprinkles of the 21st century, perhaps occasional encounters with consumer electronics like cellular telephones, or militarized police with all too modern automatic guns. Nations with HDI near the world average (0.7-0.8) are clearly modern, though they will still experience many austerities. The plateau of affluence is defined by those nations with HDI above 0.9, and energy use above 6,000 kWh/y/p.
The different levels of economic development existing today mean that no single strategy for advancement is appropriate worldwide, even though it is clear that every national strategy for development must include an effort to improve the reliable availability of energy broadly.
Several nations in the affluence plateau, like Germany, are seeking to make a transition to a post-nuclear, post-fossil fuel economy without a loss of HDI. Energy sources being explored include: solar (photovoltaic and thermal), wind, ocean (wave and tidal), hydroelectric (river power), biomass (agriculture for fuel), and conservation, perhaps the richest though least popular source.
Nations that are industrializing now, like China, and are heavily reliant on coal and oil, could decide to skip the atomic age of mid-20th century America and Europe, and leap-frog to a post-nuclear, post-fossil fuel and ultimately high HDI economy by the middle to late 21st century. A recent report in Spiegel Online International notes: "In 2004, Germany held a 69 percent share of the global solar panel business. By 2011, it had declined to 20 percent" because "Chinese competitors offer systems of equivalent quality at significantly lower prices." (4)
Nations that remain largely pre-industrial and struggle to meet the basic needs of their people, as outlined by the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG), (5) might conclude that duplicating the 19th and 20th century developmental path of America and Europe is just not possible today, nor conscionable since the raising of their people's HDI cannot wait two centuries. They might decide to leap-frog from the 18th to 21st centuries, bypassing the intense industrialization of the coal through nuclear economies, and instead invest in the low capital development of many local sources of renewable energy, which would be distributed near its generation sites through low-power micro grids. Such a ubiquitous, frugal, renewable-source and essentially "gridless" power system is in contrast to the concept of a few capital-intensive technologically complex and large coal, oil and nuclear power plants feeding electricity through massive regional and long-distance transmission line systems, to eventually fan out to each particular home. Just getting enough electricity to illuminate homes (enabling reading and study at night) and to power simple machines like water pumps and refrigerators (and hand tools, and perhaps even recharge cellular telephones) everywhere in a currently low HDI nation would be a revolutionary improvement.
At this point we can pose a multitude of questions with one simple query: what are the best energy technologies to power our economy into the future?
Energy Choices For An Uncertain Future
Consider the selection of energy technologies to be: renewables (R), coal (C), oil and natural gas (O), and nuclear (N). Under renewables we group the technologies that harvest energy without resorting to burning (solar, wind, ocean, hydroelectric, geothermal and conservation), and may include some biomass schemes, like methane-generating digesters of farm, household, and municipal wastes, despite the fact that they produce a fuel for burning, which produces carbon dioxide gas. Under renewables, we exclude schemes for the industrial scale agriculture of crops intended to be processed into liquid fuels and methane; this is just the depletion of soil that could be producing food to instead fuel automobiles, farmed oil.
If we think of economic development as a process of concentrating technological complexity and capital for the purposes of improving a society's well being, then the right fuel to power that society is one whose degree of energy concentration is compatible with the technological concentration of the society. Here, we are referring as much to E. F. Schumacher's concept of "appropriate technology" as to the earlier description of the energy ladder. (6)
Forms Of Energy In Our Quests For Power
The appropriate choice of an energy technology for any given society will usually be some mixture of the major technologies, labeled here as R, C, O, and N. Let us identify the major attraction of each of our four technologies as follows:
R: achieve MDG, power to end poverty (social power).
C: commercial power.
O: military power.
N: political power.
Renewables can be deployed locally with little capital and are thus the first choice for moving pre-industrial people out of poverty and into the upper half of the HDI range, which corresponds to lives in humane and secure conditions that Americans and Europeans would see as elementary 20th century life.
Coal is abundant, it can fuel the great furnaces of heavy industry, and it can provide the heat to generate electricity for billions of people. This is why China burns so much coal, and why also America and Europe continue to use it. Coal is the fuel of commercial power gained through heavy industrialization, a 19th and early 20th century technique of development that is perfectly suited to countries whose typical experience of life is of a comparable time, and who have much greater ambitions.
Oil is the "liquid gold" that is refined into the fuels that make the automobile culture, the airline industry, and the highly mobile global reach of the United States military possible. The many large, heavy, complex, low-mileage, high-power vehicles of the US military could not exist without jet fuels, high-octane gasoline, diesel fuel, and fuel oil; the Air Force would be grounded, the Navy tied up at port, and the Army reduced to marching or horse-drawn wagons, since their trucks, tanks, and helicopters would be immobilized.
Civilian America could probably live quite well with only renewable energy, but it would be impossible to maintain today's military capabilities without petroleum-based fuels. Renewables are low concentration technologies, they require large collection areas, and are completely unsuited to military mobility. If very high energy density batteries were available, perhaps the US military could maintain solar energy farms (probably all of Arizona), that constantly charged them up, to power its electrified vehicles. However, electric battery technology has not achieved anything near the energy concentration of liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Electric cars remain rare because their batteries take up more space than the gas tank, which they are far heavier than, and they provide less range before being exhausted and requiring a lengthy recharge.
Nuclear reactors can power large ships like aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines, as well as large static bases, but are far too cumbersome for most military tasks. Coal can be liquefied into a fuel (producing more CO2 than the extraction of crude oil and its refinement to liquid fuels) and is probably what the US military would turn to in the event that petroleum ceased being available.
The many liabilities of nuclear power are well known, and today are being highlighted by the Fukushima disaster. But, nuclear power always has one irresistible draw: it is the source of nuclear weapons. The fascination here is entirely that of political power, the belief that in possessing nuclear weapons one possesses the ability to make the ultimate threat: to obliterate an enemy. What is often forgotten is that in order to carry out the threat one needs a reliable and accurate delivery system, usually missiles. As more nations acquire nuclear weapons and missile systems, another consideration becomes the ability to survive retaliation. As purely war-fighting tools, nuclear weapons have become obsolete because Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) guided chemical high explosives conveyed by missiles and drone aircraft can destroy targets with an accuracy of meters, eliminating the need for large-area blasts to compensate for the targeting inaccuracy of unguided gravity bombs and ballistic missiles. However, possession of nuclear weapons certainly gets their keeper the attention of other nations.
A Simple Model Of Energy Choices
So, the first method we might try for prioritizing a society's investments in energy technologies would be to rank the four types of power the decision-makers might want (political, military, commercial, to end poverty), and then by the corresponding code letters shown earlier, we arrive at a preference ranking of energy choices. We might guess at the following two examples, and then compare them to reality:
military, commercial, political, social; (O, C, N, R).
commercial, social, military, political; (C, R, O, N).
In 2009, the United States produced 37% of its energy from petroleum, 25% from natural gas, 21% from coal, 9% from nuclear power, and 8% from renewables, the bulk of which was hydroelectric. Grouping petroleum and natural gas together, these portions become: O at 62%, C at 21%, N at 9%, and R at 8%. (7)
In 2005, China produced 81% of its electricity from coal-fired plants (C), 17% was hydroelectric (R), and 2% from nuclear power (N). Petroleum is refined for the liquid fuels used for transportation. China is the world's leading producer of renewable energy, the bulk of which is hydroelectric. With an eye to the future, China is also the largest producer of wind turbines, solar panels and solar water heaters. At the UN climate summit in 2009, China pledged to have 15% of its energy generated from solar power within a decade. (8)
An Improved Model Of Energy Choices
The previous type of analysis is too simple -- we want greater insight into the politics of energy. Decision making in most countries is a blending of competitive interests, how do we account for the many possibilities of this? My response was to devise a detailed model based on the decision theory of Richard C. Jeffrey. Decision theory combines ideas from statistics, probability theory, and logic, and is the result of work by philosophers, mathematicians, economists, and logicians. (9)
The essential points of my improved model are as follows. The agent making the decisions about national investments in energy technologies is assumed to be a composite of several characters. Each of these characters represents a major constituency or interest as regards national energy policy. I considered three single-minded characters: "no nuclear," "stop global warming," and "maximum energy now." The deciding agent is a weighted sum of these three characters. For example, if all three characters had equal political power, then the agent's preferences would be an equal blending of "no nuclear," "stop global warming," and "max energy now." If the portions of political power for the three characters happened to be 1/7 for "no nuclear," 4/7 for "stop global warming," and 2/7 for "max energy now," then the preferences of the deciding agent would be a composite of the single-minded preferences in these same proportions. Five case studies, each with a different set of political weights, were calculated from the model and are described below.
When the deciding agent is entirely the single-minded character "stop global warming," the ranking of investment choices is R, N, O, C (renewables, nuclear, oil and gas, coal). Clearly, this character holds off on burning as much as possible, and only reluctantly agrees to it when there is no other source of energy. Notice that a single-minded concern for global warming leads to a preference for nuclear power over combustion power.
A deciding agent that is equally split between "no nuclear" and "max energy now" (and does not care about global warming) is most likely to rank investment choices as C, O, R, N. The numerical results show that this agent is equally comfortable choosing coal or oil, so the ranking could just as easily be O, C, R, N. If this deciding agent had less of the "no nuclear" character, so that its preference ranking placed R last, then this agent would mirror the actual character the US energy mix: O, C, N, R.
A deciding agent that is equally split between "stop global warming" and "max energy now" (and does not care about avoiding nuclear) is most likely to rank investment choices as R, C, and then N and O equally. The numerical results show that the single most preferred technology is coal, but the concern over global warming boosts the incentive to invest in renewables. If this deciding agent had less "stop global warming" character, so that C was first in its ranking of investment choices, then this agent would mirror the actual character of the Chinese energy mix: C, R, N, for the generation of electricity (O is used for transportation fuels).
A deciding agent that is equally split three ways between "no nuclear," "stop global warming," and "max energy now" is most likely to rank investment choices as not-N, R, O, C. This agent's first priority is to stop, end, and prevent funding for nuclear power. The next priorities are positive investments in energy sources, ranked as R, O, C.
Because of its natural preference for nuclear power, the "stop global warming" character is directly opposed to the "no nuclear" character. A deciding agent that is one part "no nuclear" and two parts "stop global warming" (and has none of the "max energy now" character) will most likely rank investment choices as R, N, O, C. This is the same ranking as that of a single-minded "stop global warming" agent. However, because there is a minor portion of the agent with the "no nuclear" character, another ranking that is nearly as probable is R, O, N, C.
While it is possible to elaborate models of this type into systems of great complexity to capture many types of opinions on energy policy and their relative political weights, and to use computers to calculate projections on the possible directions of a society's energy politics, I think it's better to keep the models reasonably simple and to use them as guides that help the mind organize the information from which decisions are to be drawn, and then to bring out the most important points. John von Neumann (1903-1957) said: "The purpose of computation is insight, not numbers."
International Energy Politics
Based on what has been presented up to this point, we can propose the following as six points of probable conflict.
High HDI environmentalists, whose major concerns are the consequences of global warming (R, N, O, C), are:
1. at odds domestically with their military and commercial sectors (O, C, N, R), which are interested in immediate power and profits,
2. at odds with high HDI anti-capitalists, whose major concerns are political opposition to war, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power (R, O, C, N).
Low HDI economic developers, whose major concern is the immediate raising of living standards (C, R, O, N), find themselves:
1. at odds with high HDI environmentalists on the issue of economic development (coal),
2. they find high HDI anti-capitalists disinterested in low HDI economic development (interest is opposition to high HDI power),
3. they find high HDI commercial sectors competitive with and thus hostile to their industrialization.
Low HDI economic developers are aware of and concerned about global warming, which is why they seek to develop R technology (C, R, O, N). They find themselves at odds with high HDI commercial sectors, who are disinterested to pay the cost of reducing their CO2 emissions (O, C, N, R), or of developing R technology suitable to low HDI conditions.
If we imagine that each of these conflicts is a simplified reflection of reality, then it is easy to see why the 2011 UN Convention on Climate Change, in Durban, South Africa, resulted in setting to 2015 the completion of an international agreement to limit carbon emissions, and waiting till 2020 for that agreement to take effect.
Now for a change of focus. Instead of trying to answer how societal choices on energy have been and will be made, we give free rein to realistic imagination and ask: what could we do to produce and use energy if there were no political barriers?
The Energy Systems Of Two Imaginary Futures
Let us sweep away all the conceptual restraints placed on the imagination by the fractious politics and societal indecision of our times, and instead visualize energy systems that are physically possible, to power economies that feed some subset of enduring human desires.
US National Solar Electricity System
Solar power at 1% conversion efficiency on 2% of the land area of the United States of America would produce the total electrical energy use of the nation, 4 trillion kilowatt-hours per year (4T kWh/y).
We could imagine a single site in the American southwest that was a square with sides 427 km (265 miles) long; or 100 sites of 43 km (26 mi) square sides; or 1000 sites of 14 km (8.4 mi) square sides. If the conversion efficiency of sunlight to electricity is increased to 10%, then only 18,232 square km (7040 sq. mi) of collection area are needed; this could be one site of 135 km (84 mi) square sides. The combined land areas of the White Sands Missile Range, Fort Hood Texas, Yuma Proving Grounds and Twentynine Palms Base is 18,435 square km (7118 sq. mi); imagine them being used to host a national (publicly owned) solar electricity system, US NSES.
The conversion efficiency of solar (photovoltaic) cells varies with type, age, and conditions, the extreme range being 2% to 43%, where efficiencies beyond about 20% are for specialized devices in research laboratories. One expects 15% to 19% efficiency of solar cells in the field. (10)
Solar-thermal systems convert sunlight to heat, and are of many different types. (11) A solar-thermal-electric system captures sunlight as heat in a transfer fluid (synthetic oil, pressurized steam, molten salt), which is used to generate steam that powers conventional turbine-generators of electricity. One such system, Nevada Solar One, nominally produces 64 MW of electricity from a collection area of 1.2 square km (300 acres), an efficiency of 5.3%. (12)
With a combination of photovoltaic and solar-thermal-electric systems, the United States could use 18,400 square km (7,100 sq. mi) of publicly owned land (converted military bases) to provide 4T kWh/y of socialized electricity, converted from sunlight with 10% efficiency (sunlight at 1000 Watts per square meter is assumed for only 25% of the time to account for nights and cloudy days).
The obvious difficulties with solar energy are nighttime, clouds, and dust on the reflectors or their glass covers. A solar power system can supply electricity steadily if it is paired with an energy storage system that is filled during daylight hours, and discharged during darkness. We could imagine half the electricity generated during daylight being stored for use at night.
The form of storage could be electrical, in batteries, or mechanical, as the spinning masses of large flywheels, or gravitational, as the pumping of water into elevated tanks or uphill reservoirs. At night, the batteries would be discharged, the flywheels spin down by rotating the shafts of electric generators, and the pumped storage recovered hydroelectrically. We can imagine the US NSES pumping water into Lake Mead (Nevada) during the day, for hydroelectric recovery at Hoover Dam during dark times.
As for the dust, it seems we will always need people to clean windows.
Carbon Neutral Free Market Economy
Americans reached a four-fold consensus: carbon emissions must be reduced drastically, it was absolutely essential that anyone be able to own a 13 mile-per-gallon two ton, four wheel drive SUV (a truck-based automobile), the US military required enough fuel to move all its vehicles all the time, and civilian nuclear power was acceptable if the reactors were well sealed, and the radioactive wastes were moved permanently offshore.
The Athabasca Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada, (13) a vast sludgy deposit of mixed crude bitumen, sand, clay, and water, with a viscosity like cold molasses, is strip mined and softened by high temperature steam into a pressurized oily slurry that is piped to US synthetic fuel plants along the Canadian border. The large amount of viscosity-reducing heat needed along the entire length of the pipeline is supplied by electric heaters, which are powered from Canadian nuclear reactors dedicated to this purpose.
The large amounts of carbon dioxide gas released by the production of synthetic gasoline is contained at the synfuels plants and piped to the National Carbon Sequestration Portal, by the Pacific Ocean at the Oregon coast. This site has large underground tanks for the temporary storage of pressurized CO2, and its own nuclear power plant, which generates the energy needed for pumping CO2 into the National Carbon Sequestration Site at the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate.
The CO2 is pumped offshore 300 km (186 mi) and down into undersea basalt below a depth of 2,700 m (8900 ft), where it reacts to form stable carbonate minerals. (14) That these accumulating carbonate deposits may lead to an acidification of the local oceanic environment, and adversely affect marine life, is not seen as likely by the designers of this scheme.
Coal is still mined in the U.S., but it is all processed into synthetic liquid fuels for civilian and military transport. Electricity is generated primarily from nuclear power, with a small portion being hydroelectric. To compensate for the loss of coal as a fuel for producing industrial process heat (blast furnaces and such) a much larger quantity of electricity is generated than in the past, to provide industrial heat electrically.
The nation's 531 nuclear reactors (up from 104 in 2008) are now of a new modular design. When the reactor core has been used up, the control rods are fully inserted into it, the containment vessel is filled with coolant and sealed, and the entire assembly is removed for disposal; a fresh replacement is installed. The spent sealed vessels are shipped to the National Nuclear Embarkation Facility in South Carolina. These sealed vessels, called "plugs," are carried by specialized container ships to sites along the Mid-Atlantic Bathymetric Disposal Line. This line runs along the ocean floor about 4,000 meters below the surface, parallel and to the west of the rift valley in the middle of the tectonic spreading zone known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The plugs are unloaded through the bottom of the container ship's hull, and guided by robotic submersibles to prepared emplacement holes, which have been drilled into the ocean floor. The rate of tectonic spreading is about 2.5 cm (1 in) a year, so the Mid-Atlantic Bathymetric Disposal Line moves west, along with the rest of North America, at a rate of 25 km (15.5 mi) every million years.
By these means, Americans are able to continue with their preference for luxury truck-like road vehicles, suburban sprawl, air travel, and a high HDI lifestyle, without increasing the carbon emissions of the nation. However, these emissions remain high on a per capita basis, and global warming continues.
Parting Thoughts And A Fantasy
Life is effort, and effort is energy in use. As a society, the types of energy we use and seek to acquire are refections of who we are. Our political conflicts are like the squabbles of scavengers assembled around a fallen carcass on the Serengeti Plain, and they have their echoes as conflicts over national and international energy policy. Regardless of whether we choose to tear our earth apart by competitive selfishness, or to nurture it communally, we will have to do a great deal of work to maintain reliable cycles of energy use that sustain our many nations. I believe that working cooperatively releases more energy for improving the HDI for everybody.
An African Fantasy
The Sahara Solar Energy Consortium includes the countries Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara. With technical experts from Germany and Spain, and armies of workers from the host countries, the SSEC has built many solar energy farms across the Sahara, transmitting low-cost electrical power to all of Africa, and easily paying for itself (and the African development it enables) by exporting electrical power to Europe via the undersea Trans-Mediterranean Conduit. The SSEC is the world's leading supplier of hydrogen gas produced by the electrolysis of water. Hydrogen gas is used to power fuel cells used as back-up generators of SSEC electricity. A hydrogen fuel cell is a device that converts the heat released by oxidizing hydrogen (burning it into steam) into electricity. (15) The steam is captured for reuse, naturally.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)
4. Alexander Neubacher, "Re-Evaluating Germany's Blind Faith In The Sun (Solar Subsidy Sinkhole)," Spiegel Online International, 18 January 2012. (back)