Posted 14 January 2011
The Scientific Alliance
14 January 2011
Wishing is not enough
To hear some people talk, making the transition from today's fossil fuel-dependent society to a future where all energy comes from low-carbon sources is straightforward: it just needs the will and enough money. Indeed, the present trajectory of talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is based on exactly that assumption. The barriers to achieving a goal of drastic reduction in fossil fuel use are lack of political will and too little funding. Correct these, and everything will be hunky-dory.
But this assumes that all the technology necessary to achieve the goals is already available., making it just a question of ramping up capacity and doing what is necessary. Real life, however, is not like that. Major changes in technology - trains, piped gas, electricity, motor transport and so on - have not happened because politicians decided they must. Rather, the possibilities offered have led to an organic growth with its own economic and commercial logic. Railways provided (relatively) quick mass travel for the first time, electricity transformed domestic and business life. They did not need politicians to persuade an uncertain public.
Creating a low-carbon economy is quite another thing. There is currently no economic reason for this to happen, hence the desire by policymakers to rig the market to bring it about. A combination of subsidies (all, of course, coming from taxpayers' pockets although dressed up as 'government' money) and legal obligations is being used to push through a large increase in the use of renewable energy.
The least expensive option available is wind energy, which requires us to dip into our pockets only to a relatively modest degree. But, as has been pointed out almost ad nauseam, wind (despite being 'free') is a highly variable resource. It really only makes sense if the power generated can be stored efficiently to smooth out supply and demand. Unfortunately, there are no high capacity, rapid charge/discharge options available yet, just pumped storage for hydro-power in some places.
So, as more wind farms are installed on the breezy edges of Europe, a higher proportion of our installed generating capacity will be unavailable at peak times while producing unwanted electricity at other times. Peak demand generally comes when high pressure areas are held virtually stationary by blocking weather systems. This is what much of western Europe experienced in December, with the result being record low temperatures. The 2007 European heatwave which hit France particularly badly was caused by a similar weather pattern.
But at such times, when demand for heating or cooling is particularly high, there is hardly any output from wind turbines, as there is no wind. Because conventional power stations have to fill the gap, the emissions savings over the year are much smaller than might be expected. In this case, no amount of political will or money will change the situation until viable, large-scale energy storage options are available.
As another example, take electric cars. These also need taxpayers to fork out for subsidies to bridge the cost differential, due to the high cost of the battery pack. With a range of models now launched by major manufacturers, the dawn of the age of the electric car has been heralded by some. The new vehicles seem set to become the fashion accessory du jour for celebrities, with the once sought-after Prius fast becoming sooo last year.
Nevertheless, despite the undoubted technical advances which have been made, electric cars currently still provide a very flawed option for personal mobility. The most obvious problem is range. No matter that the majority of journeys are short, it is still very easy to clock up 100 miles in a day, which seems to represent the longest range on offer for a family car. This itself will be reduced further by, for example, the need to heat or cool the interior, night driving with lights and driving with several people and shopping or luggage in the car.
At present, they are really only viable for urban use, where journeys are indeed mainly short and there is likely to be a charging point not too far away. But this is exactly where public transport is at its most efficient, and cars least useful. Anyone buying the current generation of electric car will have to make other arrangements for a journey of any length. Battery powered cars will not take off until a realistic range of, say, 300 miles is guaranteed and battery packs are standardised to allow exchange on long journeys. Even then, the price will have to come down before they catch on as far as the general public is concerned.
But of course the real point about battery power is that the cars are supposed to be completely non-polluting. Certainly, the lack of emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxides would be good for the urban environment, but in other respects the emissions of carbon dioxide are simply shifted back to the power station. Until more electricity is generated from nuclear or other non-fossil fuel source, battery powered cars simply represent a relatively inefficient way of using the energy contained in the coal or gas burned in the power station.
The list could go on. The point is that, until these technological issues are sorted, no amount of money or government pressure is going to make any really significant difference to carbon dioxide emissions in industrialised countries. And, if they do, then China and other rapidly developing countries will more than make up the difference. Which brings us back to the key fact that no global emissions policy will achieve anything significant until the right technologies are in place, by which time the most that governments will need to do is to make sure they do not regulate or tax them out of existence.
Developing the right technology is the basis of the best 'no regrets' policy for transition to a low carbon economy. For supporters of the mainstream view that climate change is currently driven by increases in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it provides a rational way to tackle the issue. It should also cause few concerns for those who are more sceptical as fossil fuel dependence will reduce as better and more efficient technologies come on stream. Wishing something to happen will never be effective unless real action is taken to break down the technical and economic barriers.
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