Solving Global Warming
This is essentially an update to my previous Blogs “Climate Change Parts 1, 2, & 3.” Part 1 explained historical climate change and how we got long ice ages with relatively short warming periods. Part 2 explained where the current global warming came from and what the true current situation is. Part 3 explained how bad it is going to get, and what we can do about it.
I recommend you skim those blogs to better understand what I’m presenting here. In essence this blog is an update of the Part 3 Blog.
Current and Future Global Warming is caused by the huge amount of fossil fuels burned during and after the twentieth century to provide the energy necessary to increase the standard of living enjoyed by both developed and developing nations. I will just summarize the extent of the carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere here. For all the juicy details go back and read the Climate Change Blogs. Figure 1 below shows the increased global energy consumption since 1900. Lately energy from coal and oil show signs of leveling off.
Figure 1 World Energy Consumption by Source
Who is using all that energy? You can see in figure 2 below first is was the developed nations and lately it’s been the third world generating the infrastructure they need to achieve a reasonable standard of living for their inhabitants. As you can see by the curves the United States and Europe have reached a plateau on CO2 emissions and are currently dropping.
Figure 2 – Annual CO2 Emissions by Region
The other important observation from this figure is that Europe and the U.S. together generate about 30% of the total CO2 emissions (in 2015) and dropping. All talk of a Green Revolution in the U.S. is not going to truly make a significant difference in the total CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere since the primary CO2 generators live elsewhere.
How should one go about reducing CO2 emissions? The first thing is to understand the current sources of CO2. We currently burn fossil fuels to supply energy for heating; to power our cars, trucks, and planes; and to generate electricity for homes and factories. Some of these uses will be relatively easy to switch to no fossil energy sources but some fossil fuel users will be almost impossible to change (e.g. long-range aircraft). The hardest emissions to eliminate are shown in figure 3 at the top of the next page.
Figure 3 Fossil Fuel Emission Sources
Figure 3 tells us, that in 2014, about a quarter of the CO2 emissions were from sources that the Green Revolution has not been addressing, like aviation, variable electricity load, cement, and iron and steel production. What this means is that no matter how successful our Green Revolution is, there will still be some CO2 emissions, and we need to plan for that.
Given where we are in 2020, with the pandemic and all, what do I think we should be doing?
First of all, we have been here before. I am old enough to remember the commotion when the book “Limits to Growth” was published. In 1972, three scientists from MIT created a computer model that analyzed the exponential economic and population growth assuming a finite supply of resources. The model was based on five variables: “population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources". At the time of the study, all these variables were increasing and were assumed to continue to grow exponentially, while the ability of technology to increase resources grew only linearly. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables under three scenarios. They noted that their projections for the values of the variables in each scenario were predictions "only in the most limited sense of the word” and were only indications of the system's behavioral tendencies. The results are best summarized in figure 4 below.
Figure 4 Limits to Growth World Projection
The model said that given business as usual, i.e., no changes to historical growth trends, the limits to growth on earth would become evident by 2072, leading to "sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity". This includes the following:
Global industrial output per capita reaches a peak around 2008, followed by a rapid decline
Global food per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline
Global services per capita reaches a peak around 2020, followed by a rapid decline
Global population reaches a peak in 2030, followed by a rapid decline
The book’s solution was to alter Growth trends existing in 1972 so that sustainable ecological and economic stability could be achieved. This involved birth control and limiting spending.
The results also showed that the sooner the world's people start striving for the second outcome above, the better the chance of achieving it.
What happened to Limits to Growth? Basically, technology advanced fast enough during the last half of the twentieth century to overwhelm the limiting assumptions in the book. First, we had Norman Borlaugh, the "Father of the Green Revolution", who pioneered the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. These improvements essentially doubled the yield per acre in the third world.
We also found substitutes for many of materials in limited supply in the Limits to Growth models, thereby indefinitely delaying the crash in resources.
My position is that the peril of “Global Warming” will be synonymous to those for “Limits to Growth” in another fifty years, and for the same basic reason, advancing technologies. How is that possible?
Fossil-fuel ground transportation will be gone in less than twenty years. This will be driven by cost. I drive an electric car and it costs about one tenth the cents/mile of my wife’s gas-powered hybrid. Electric cars require no maintenance and should last 500,000 miles. Now that high-performance batteries are in mass production the sticker prices for electric cars will drop below comparable gas-powered cars sometime next year. When you can get better performance and economics for less cost with an electric car, why would you buy a gas-guzzler?
Much the same logic applies to electrical power generation. We will eventually replace our coal -fired and oil-fired electrical power-generation plants the cheapest non-fossil alternatives. For most locations that will be a mixture of solar powerplants and fourth-generation nuclear powerplants. In some locations where the wind is steady windmills will enter the mix but for most locations it will be solar and nuclear. The reason this is not happening now is cost. Figure 5 below shows the capital cost comparison between various powerplant types about three years ago. As you can see natural gas combined cycle plants were cheapest and indeed were the majority of replacement plants at that time. Solar Photovoltaic (PV) are about the same cost but their power is intermittent, so battery storage costs need to be added.
Figure 5 Comparison of powerplant Capital Costs
Looking at the costs in Figure 5, why would anyone want nuclear? As I said this figure is three years old and there has been a revolution in nuclear power lately. The existing light water reactors are obsolete. There are a dozen designs out there for small (250 MW-thermal) molten-salt reactors that are built in a factory and delivered by truck to be assembled at the site. These reactors operate at one atmosphere and are fail-safe (no leakage of radioactive products). They can operate using the materials from current waste fuel rods and Thorium, a material four times more abundant that Uranium. The capital cost for the system described above is predicted to be between $500/kW and $600/kW. This explains why it is the cost-driven solution.
For those folks that are anti-nuclear down to their bones, there is a more acceptable alternative out a few more years. This alternative is a fusion-powered powerplant. As of this writing there are roughly a dozen commercially funded contenders out there. I’ve selected six below who I think can deliver a working prototype in the next ten years.
1. Helion Energy Redmond, WA
2. General Fusion Burnaby, Canada
3. Princeton Satellite Systems Plainsboro, NJ
4. Tri-Alpha Energy Foothill Ranch, CA
5. Commonwealth Fusion Systems MIT, MA
6. Zap Energy Seattle, WA
In summary, I see the current “Global Warming” scare fading away much like the “Limits to Growth” scare faded away fifty years ago. Fossil-fueled transportation will be the first to go based on basic economics. The increased electrical generation capacity required to switch to electric cars will be a combination of solar PV and 4th generation molten-salt reactors, again based on replacement economics. That takes care of roughly 80% of the CO2 emissions. For the rest (see figure 3) there is no good economic solution, but there are ways to capture CO2 out of the atmosphere and increase the Earth’s albedo (see my Climate Change Blog, Part 3). As you can tell I would encourage your Congress critters to fund nuclear energy and not waste their time beating up on oil companies.
Thanks for your attention.