Monday, August 10, 2015

email to an environmentalist list about space solar power

An environmentalist said: "The world shows sign of collapsing NOW. Isn't SSP too far in the future?"
My reply:


I certainly see signs of collapse all over the world which worry me. It is a valid intuition. It is also a valid intuition that energy is a very important part of the game, and that we need more action on energy now -- upon how we power our cars and how we generate electricity. I have worked hard for many years to try to move those faster.
However -- I do believe that a RATIONAL approach to getting the best benefits possible from SSP WOULD BE a natural part of such efforts.

However -- I really don't think that ALL our problems come from the single cause energy. At the most, energy problems create a strain, and our ability to withstand that strain is also crucial. The balance between stress and strain, between the pull and ur ability to withstand the pull, is what determines whether we go under or not.

Our ability to survive the energy challenges and other challenges depends above all on how much consciousness, truth, deep intuition, scientific thinbking and sanity we bring to bear on the challenges. If we engage in that type of "advocacy behavior" which stretches the truth as far as possible to support a cause, or use a cause to inflate our ego, we end up being as deep in our insights as a four year old (if we are lucky). Solving energy problems with a four year old mentality is like... a poor class of four year olds presented with thousands of car parts and asked to assemble a working car. Today's energy policies and energy debates often remind me of that class. The human system and the energy system are very complex nonlinear systems; we have to oversimplify a little, to map the territory, but if we simplify too much and don't look more deeply, we will get nowhere. Thinking more deeply each day, and really listening in dialogue, are essential parts of the work which needs to be done. 

It is a serious oversimplification to say that the world economy cannot possibly function without energy much cheaper than what we have today. No way. OECD/EIA data showed just over 20,000 terawatt hours of electricity generation per year in the most recent year of data. IEEE folks would give us a rough idea of what that costs by multiplying by 10 cents per kwh, which results in $2 trillion per year. $2 trillion per year is a significant amount of money, but in a world  economy of $80 trillion per year  we COULD afford to double that or even quadruple that if we had to. Many would say that our ability to ADAPT to higher energy prices is the life or death issue, not the energy prices themselves.

The "collapse" problem... often feels like a "perfect storm" to me. I am having real personal problems trying to prioritize action on all the many ways we might die or seek to survive. In the short term, the big risks facing most of the world are economic problems in the US, EU and China (all different in how the problem works) each of which could spill over to the rest of the world. These problems are not about energy or about adaptation to high energy problems, on the whole, though in the EU there may be a way to SOLVE the current economic threat through new action on energy.  If you worry about "collapse today" (this decade), economic problems and conflict/war/terrorism kinds of things top the list, in my view. (Though again our lack of consciousness may aggravate the risk they pose more than we think.)

Of the many energy problems which concern me, most absolute is the "brimstone problem." I remember vividly when Professor Peter Ward, author of "Under a Green Sky," came to give a public talk at NSF on his work, in 2009. The NSF Geosciences Directorate introduced him as the leading front-line expert on the dozen or so mass extinctions of life which have occurred before on the earth. I do not agree with all of his theories, but he went in great detail in his talk and his book about the hard data we now have available, which shows that the level of H2S poison gas in the atmosphere and the level of radiation (from ozone depletion they assume, which seems reasonable) has 5-10 times been high enough to kill every human on earth, if there had been people there. I remember especially the end of his talk when he said, roughly: "I have studied these patterns of mass death in great detail, and tracked the history of all these variables. Here is a graph which lets you compare the RATE of CO2 increase and the sudden death which has followed, again and again. As I compare the present rate of CO2 increase, greater than any ever before...    it is clear to me that we on the same path today. My gut feeling is that we humans will all die if it gets to 1000 ppm, which seems pretty much inevitable if we don't change our ways a lot. But that's just a gut feeling, from looking at the data. To really know, someone would have to do new research, connecting the study of thermohaline currents (THC) with the study of mass extinctions."

Part of what kills us today is how people react to that kind of thing. Probably more than 90% of the people who heard the talk reacted in one of two ways: (1) "Just another one of those rotten climate scientist liberal types trying to make us feel bad as part of their campaign for socialism; as an up[right person, of course I will not listen one bit"; or (2) yes, he is right, climate change is important, and I can feel like a super good person because I vote for the right people who are doing their best to address climate change.  Neither solves nor scopes the problem, and if on one solves or scopes the problem, it is serious. There were also folks who walked out saying :"Yes, someone should look into that, but it's not my job. I have to get back to work.. forever." And there are all those folks who still seem to believe that forcefully burying their head in the sand will ward off all kinds of bad things.

For myself... well, if ten ton grizzly bear MIGHT be about to charge you, or you MIGHT be about to lose your house due to some weird financial stuff... wouldn't you want to KNOW, first, and the figure out how to act? I hope at least a few of you want to know enough to read a little further. I wanted to know enough to try to learn about THC myself. I don't like having a grizzly bear near me, but I don't just sit there and ignore him. (Actually I never have been near a grizzly bear in the open, but I have been near crocodiles... a story for later.)  

The physics of THC are remarkably simple, really, It's not about incomprehensible mega models. 
Still, unless someone asks, I will spare you some of the details. The key facts are as follows: (1) the mass extinctions Ward discussed were primarily the result of H2S production by a particular type of microbe, a species in the archaea group; (2) Ward cites Kump, who explains that these microbes proliferate when two conditions are met, low oxygen levels and enough nutrients in the water; (3) the THC from the waters of Antarctica have been the primary "lungs of the planet," as oxygen-rich salty cold water on the surface gets heated by the sun and gets forced down by the rise in density due to heating, a vast convection current;
(4) NOAA data show that fresh water flowing from the  Antarctica, due to melting of the surface of that continent, have totally blocked that THC; (5) oxygen levels are not falling so rapidly on one side of the Antarctic, but on the side which feeds the Pacific Ocean, we seem to be 40 years from ground zero; (6) humans are ALREADY pouring more nutrients into the oceans than they have ever experienced before; (7) from Ward's history, a nutrient-rich  "stratified Pacific" would be more than enough to generate enough H2S to kill every primate on earth. (Even just the North Atlantic was enough to do it, in the most recent mass extinction, the eocene-paleocene event.)

So we have 40 years to turn it around. If we do SSP right, it can help. To do SSP right, we have to reduce launch cost ... which might ALSO be crucial to trying some alternative, more benign approaches to "geoengineering," to brute force direct ways to try to save us. 

There is a more immediate huge energy problem connected with oil, conflict and the security of the world economy.  If we move as fast as we can to deploy fuel flexibility, new liquid fuels, and electrified transportation.,
in 25 years we MIGHT be able to change the world economy so that it can adapt gracefully to sudden changes in world oil price.  IEEE has a very nice piece on transportation fuels which shows what we could do -- that we are not doing. But that's not about SSP. Electricity is much cheaper per mile than oil already; the challenge 
on the electricity side is more about how to improve local distribution systems, to handle cars which get plugged in, and how to keep prices from rising too much as we shift to more sustainable source of electricity.

A lot of unreliable advocacy stuff exists out there about renewable energy, and the data are tricky. I would see the best simple hope to be a MIX of reduced-cost solar farms and SSP, both at about 10 cents per kwh, serving the markets at different times of day, eliminating most of the high expense of new storage, which an all-solar approach would require. Lat time I ran the numbers, requirements for new storage and  transmission would change a 10 cents per kwh solar generation into a 20 cents per kwh cost. For the world, that would raise costs from $2 trillion per year to $4 trillion. We could pay that, in principle, but getting real humans to accept a doubling of their electricity bills may be more of a barrier than all of the barriers to making SSP work, multiplied by five. 

That's the big picture. Lots of details of course for every point here.

Best of luck. We really need it. 


Minor addendum on timing: I see no TECHNICAL reason why we couldn't get to 10 cents per kwh electricity from SSP in ten years -- a working profitable gigawatt scale prototype -- if we put in enough resources AND did things right, neither of which I take for granted.  9 cents per kwh is a very reasonable best guess on costs from what we know now, but in the real world there are always unknown things which could make that higher or lower, and it is near impossible to predict the relative timing of such disturbances. That applies to earth-based solar farms as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment