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Can technology save us? Reality-checking Andrew Charlton’s Quarterly Essay

In his recent Quarterly Essay, Man-made world: choosing between progress and planet, economist Andrew Charlton presents technological innovation as the solution to climate change and the route to unbounded…

More fossil fuel is out there, but if policy doesn’t stop us, physics will. EvolveLove/Flickr

In his recent Quarterly Essay, Man-made world: choosing between progress and planet, economist Andrew Charlton presents technological innovation as the solution to climate change and the route to unbounded economic growth.

He argues that technology will allow existing resources to meet future energy demands with lower CO₂ emissions. But he ignores the material realities of our energy resources.

Although noting technology “often arrives unpredictably, after hundreds of failures, decades of wasted effort and mountains of lost treasure”, Charlton nevertheless assumes we can rely on innovation “to break through the planetary constraints on our progress”. As Jared Diamond has demonstrated, not all civilisations got so lucky.

Charlton calls for yet more energy research, but ignores the enormous efforts already made. Take the billions spent over decades researching nuclear fusion. Energy breakthroughs are hard won. Commercial fusion reactors were just a few decades away in the 1970s. Now the running joke is they are still forty years away … and always will be. We cannot rely on technological solutions arriving just-in-time.

Physical limits

Charlton misleadingly uses the famous wager between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich to dismiss concerns over resource constraints. Ehrlich lost his 1980 bet that over ten years five common metals would increase in price, but he was not wrong about the long-term trends in declining ore grades and increasing costs of extraction. To borrow a phrase from energy economist Ferdinand Banks, the wager was a case of “quantifiable nonsense being rated far above non-quantifiable plausibility”.

The conventional explanation for Ehrlich’s loss is that is technological innovation will always extend resources and reduce prices through efficiency gains and substitution. There are three problems with this: firstly, Jevons’s paradox: in practice, increased efficiency leads to increased consumption; second, efficiency gains are rapidly absorbed through economic growth; finally, substitution is not always possible.

For fossil energy resources there is a further constraint: they can never be fully exploited. When we reach the point where the energy input required exceeds the energy obtained from extracting and refining them - that is, when the ratio of energy returned on the energy invested (EROI) is less than or equal to 1:1 - we have struck a thermodynamic limit, and gain no return from our efforts.

Extending that concept to industrial societies it is estimated that for their oil-based transportation systems to function, a minimum EROI of 3:1 is required. The EROI for US crude oil production has declined from 100:1 in the 1930s to about 17:1 today. Corn ethanol could never substitute for oil since its EROI is very close to 1:1.

The available energy supply – sunshine hours, silos of wheat, or barrels of oil – and the energy cost of obtaining it, are fundamental physical constraints setting limits to human activity.

The oil plateau

It is easy to take false comfort from the size of oil stocks while ignoring their capacity to deliver. Extracting and processing tar sands and oil shales requires much more energy than conventional oil and massive quantities of water. EROI for tar sand is only about 5:1, and for most shales, 1.5:1 – 4:1.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), conventional oil production peaked in 2006. Oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s. Declining conventional production is being compensated for by non-conventional oil: expensive tar sand and deep-sea wells. Today, we consume about three barrels for every new barrel found.

The IEA’s chief economist stated that “in order to stay where we are in terms of production levels … we have to find and develop four new Saudi Arabias.” Oil supply and demand dynamics are complex, but it is certain that “the age of cheap oil is over” and there is an emerging consensus that world oil production will plateau within a few decades.

Charlton remains unconcerned because he believes technology will increase the amount of oil that can be extracted from existing reserves. However, the last 30 years of technological development saw a mere 3% improvement in recovery rates. Ultimately it is the physics of oil fields that determine their production rates, not price signals.

Economic constraints

Economic output is directly linked to energy consumption. It has been calculated that global economic production consumes energy resources at a constant rate of almost 10 milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 US dollar. Thus sustained economic growth requires increasing energy consumption ad infinitum. Unlimited economic growth on our finite planet is simply impossible.

The cost of energy as a percentage of GDP is an important indicator for industrial societies. Broaching a threshold value – estimated between 8% and 10% – leads to economic instability. The cost of oil is especially important since oil-dependent technologies underpin all modern transportation, cancelling out geography and enabling extensive just-in-time global supply-chains.

High oil prices may force their reconfiguration. For example, increased transportation costs from oil’s 2005 - 2008 price hike equated to a 9% tariff on international trade. It effectively wiped out decades of trade negotiations. Some US multinationals contemplated bringing off-shored manufacturing home.

Doing the math on “clean coal”

Charlton regards carbon capture and storage as one possible technological solution to increasing energy supply while reducing CO₂emissions. He complains that Green campaigners “haven’t done the maths” on renewables, but neither has he on “clean coal”. Others have.

To sequester one-third of the CO₂emitted from the world’s coal-fired power stations in 2010 would have meant burying a volume of the compressed gas exceeding by 70% the total global crude oil production for that year. The scale of the required infrastructure would be vast.

Furthermore, an MIT study shows this technological fix reduces the generating efficiency of power plants by some 27–36%. This increases both coal consumption and the volume of CO₂ to be sequestered. “Doing the maths” suggests clean coal is a most unlikely contender for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Icarus fell

By privileging economics and technology, and ignoring physics and thermodynamics, Charlton is seduced by our apparent mastery of nature. Like Icarus, we ignore the constraints of material reality at our peril.

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  1. Garry Egger

    Professor of Health and Human Sciences at Southern Cross University

    When economists accept the true cost of externalities we might start to take them more seriously. In the meantime, what if Charlton is wrong? Isn't this price too much to gamble on?

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  2. Alex Cannara

    logged in via Facebook

    Problem is we've had warning for 100+ years and solutions for >50 years, but as Pogo once said to his swamp friends, after returning from a foray out into the 'real' world: "I've seen the enemy and he is us."

    Or, take some old farm wisdom: "No substitute for human stupidity".

    The solution, in the USA, was stated clearly some wise folks, including some Nobel winners, when JFK asked...
    http://tinyurl.com/6xgpkfa

    WE proceeded here, for at least a decade, then made the wrong choice in 1974…

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  3. John Clark

    Manager

    Essentially Charlton is saying "she'll be right".

    This article quite correctly states that a closed system such as ours cannot be exploited ad infinitum. Erlich was wrong in the short term, but inevitably right.

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    1. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to John Clark

      Perhaps so, *but* the Earth is not a "closed system" when it comes to energy. It receives, absorbs, reflects and re-radiates ENORMOUS solar energy flows. The Sun itself is ultimately a finite energy resource, granted, but the "closed system" is the Universe as a whole. Energy per se is not limited in the lifetime of human civilisations; rather solar energy will continue in availability for a time span comparable to that of the existence to date of Life on Earth itself.

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    2. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      The solar flux is four orders of magnitude greater than our current global TPES, which seems a lot, but in practice we can only capture a small fraction of that (e.g. the world is mostly ocean, which is a bit of an obstacle).

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    3. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      For a very clear analysis of the thermodynamic limits of utilsing the solar flux, and of economic growth please see the two excellent posts by Tom Murphy 'Galactic-Scale Energy' and 'Can Economic Growth Last?' via this link:

      http://tinyurl.com/769v4ns

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  4. Mark Duffett

    logged in via Facebook

    It is not Charlton but the author who is ignorant of the enormous efforts already made in energy research. One such is the Integral Fast Reactor which, fully deployed, would extend our supply of fissionable material for millennia if not longer.

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    1. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      No, I am aware of these developments Mark. I was simply using fusion as an example of how we can't rely on a just-in-time technological fix.

      However, while fusion (if ever) and IFR can generate electricity, they do not produce the liquid fuel needed to maintain our oil-dependent global supply and delivery chains.

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    2. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      In the wake of Chernobyl and Fukishima - the "Trust me I'm a Scientist" argument is looking very thin in regard to safe nuclear power particularly if you start placing your reliance on a fleet of breeder reactors cooled by corrosive liquid metals.

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    3. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      Fusion and IFR is really chalk and cheese. While your assessment of the current state of fusion is harsh but probably fair, we were close to a full working prototype of an IFR twenty years ago. Hardly 'relying on a just-in-time tech fix'; the work's largely been done. If we really wanted to, we could be well down the IFR build-out road within a couple of decades.

      And, if direct electric propulsion turns out to be incapable of doing all that we need to maintain global commerce, there are various means of turning abundant electricity into energy-dense liquid fuels, such as H-N (hydrazine, ammonia) or H-C (methanol, dimethyl ether) synfuels (http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/10/04/np-nh3-killer-app/)

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    4. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      Indeed, Michael, having worked in fusion-related research, it's as far away now as it was 50 years ago, because it's exceedingly complex It's also unnecessary for millennia, if we survive our egos that long.

      As Mark points out & I added, we've plenty of safe ways to breed fission fuel inside reactors (IFR, MSR) essentially forever. That energy has nothing to do with Earth's life, unlike fossil/bio-fuels). And the high temps at which liquid-salt reactors run easily allow hydro-carbon-fuel synthesis…

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    5. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Ok I chose a bad example Mark. In Charlton's essay he uses the discovery of South American guano (which boosted European agricultural production "just in time"), and the Haber-Bosch process which arrived "just in time" to save European agriculture from the rapidly depleting guano. The point I was trying to make was that we were just lucky that these fixes arrived "just in time", and that Charlton's technological optimism is not justified.

      Thanks for the link.

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    6. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      Fair enough, however I think it's still more than blind optimism to hope that IFRs and other technology will take us beyond the point where world population levels off and begins to decrease - and maybe finally to a realm where the nexus between well being, prosperity and energy consumption is broken, Jevons notwithstanding.

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    7. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      They don't have numbers yet in either chamber, but I can email their summary back to you: cannara at sbcglobal dot net

      There'll be an article in the Wash. Post this week, and there have been articles in the Wall St. Journal as well. A cleantech group named Kachan has given Congress a letter & paper called "Emerging Nuclear Innovations", which was also analyzed on @PRweb..That latter explains our potential loss of technical lead & markets to China & others.

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    8. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      Just FYI, unless population is addressed, the real issue is just plain food & water. By 2050, with 9-10 billion people, an arable area, plus water, the size of all Brazil will be needed just for food. Since fishing peaked in 1994, and ocean acidification is starting to affect the ocean food chain, the problem is sooner & larger: 70% of all human food protein comes from the sea.

      Warming & sea rise are likely minor in comparison to ocean acidification.

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    9. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Fred: 1) Chernobyl was as like our fleet of LWRs as an empty wheelbarrow is to one filled with burning napalm. The RMBK reactor design is unlike every other civilian reactor because it has inherent positive feedback with temperature. No one else but Russia ever built RBMKs. They are like driving a car backwards at 60mph in city traffic.

      2) "Nuclear power" is a very broad subject. The "breeder" technology you mention is one of many. I don't like liquid sodium for my cars' cooling systems…

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  5. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Michael Peck concludes his commentary: "By privileging economics and technology, and ignoring physics and thermodynamics, Charlton is seduced by our apparent mastery of nature."

    Charlton, an economist as are the majority of our world's decision-makers, is an economist, is not up-to-date with the climate science. If he was, he'd know that atmospheric [CO2] over the last century has risen to be much higher than at any time in the preceding three million years, and will drive ice melting to inundate…

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  6. John Barker
    John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

    An insightful contribution, Michael. Your statement "Economic output is directly linked to energy consumption" supports the thrust of my essay in The Conversation on 2 December 2011 (https://theconversation.edu.au/you-cant-manage-emissions-until-you-can-measure-them-and-its-harder-than-you-think-4518). I would encourage readers to read the article by Timothy J Garrett referred to by Michael (Climatic Change (2011) 104:437–455- it's downloadable free- thanks Springer!).

    The basic problem- as exemplified…

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    1. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Barker

      Gotta love the economist's approach to things! For >30 years , Calif has pioneered energy efficiency, etc., and maintained per-capita energy consumption about level, while the rest of the US has increased per capita usage >40%. Yet, >40,000,000 Americans are on food stamps, and unemployment is high, and accumulation of wealth not turned back to the economy is also high, matching nothing since the 1920s in the US. So economic theory without governmental, financial & trade reform can achieve little.

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    2. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to John Barker

      "A solution could be for the government to introduce fiscal policies that fundamentally reduce the real money supply"

      What a peculiar suggestion! While the efficiency dividend has been close to a steady 1.5% per year to date in economies where energy is very cheap, this is not a fundamental constant; it has been far higher in California (where efficiency measures are built into utility regulations), Japan, Denmark and France (which have relatively expensive fossil fuels due to policies designed…

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    3. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Jonathan Maddox- Your comment: "Supposing the policy goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and not to prove the doomsday threats made by alarmist opponents of such measures, reducing the money supply is a really STUPID idea. Reducing fossil fuel consumption would be a better idea."- does nothing to enhance the quality of debate on TC. I think that there is plenty of scope for analysing the logic of various points of view without descending into personal abuse.

      Nonetheless, let us examine…

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    4. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Barker

      "I would prefer debate in TC to examine the validity of these numbers" - yes, +10 to that. But let's also make sure we look at the numbers on all sides. On 'spin-up' times, for the nuclear scenario given, building the same (but not as reliable) generating capacity using renewables would take just as long if not longer, and will certainly take more resources (http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/12/06/tcase7/). This is the import of the recent Grattan Institute energy report (http://www.grattan.edu.au/pub_page/124_report_tech_choices.html) - no matter which road we take, we've really got our work cut out.

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    5. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Thanks for the moral support, Mark. And yes- whichever way we go, we've got our work cut out. Which is why we need to have these fairly low-energy-consuming discussions now to make sure that our high-energy-consuming decisions are as efficient as possible.

      The problem with Brook's analysis (and Grattan to some extent), is that they are using static and limited analysis in a dynamic environment. Toting up the tonnes of concrete and steel on a prototype solar thermal system and then extrapolating…

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    6. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to John Barker

      T. D., I did not call *you* stupid, only the idea of forcing an economic contraction. That's not name calling :)

      I do not think economic growth is an unqualified good or infinitely sustainable; but economic contraction is collective punishment. In a market economy, economic contraction is collective punishment which falls most harshly on those least able to bear it. Malnutrition will not solve the greenhouse gas emissions problem.

      You are trying to blame Jevons' efficiency dividend for economic…

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    7. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Barker

      I'm aware of the arguments and data re cost curve reductions for renewables, but these mainly arise from economies of scale and consequent manufacturing capital and labour efficiencies. It's not at all clear to me that the raw material requirements will decrease all that much. You have to have a certain (very large) collection area, and you have to have a certain (very large) storage volume - no amount of cost reduction is getting around that.

      And if we did go from 400 to 15000 or more nuclear power plants, I'd wager there would be a significant unit cost reduction from standardisation - even if only in the realm of regulation and licensing, which is a huge component of current nuclear construction costs, at least in the West.

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    8. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Jonathan- being- in this medium- simply the sum of my ideas, it must be personal. Ideas aren't stupid- they may be empirically more or less viable and it is up to us to demonstrate this.

      Straw arguments (ie arguing from extremes) need to be examined. Limiting the money supply will indeed hurt the most vulnerable without compensating policies. The Gillard 'carbon tax' package endeavours to provide compensation, but without limiting the money supply, so it is unlikely to work as planned (although…

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    9. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Mark - you are only partly correct- certainly economies of scale enable fixed costs to be amortised against larger volumes, but that is only part of the 'learning curve' story. For example, look at the PV learning curve of Sachs that I used in my 23 June 2011 article in Climate Spectator (http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/are-we-global-solar-bludgers). The 2012 - 200Watt PV panels are the accumulated learning of 20 years from the 50watt panels of 1980- new techniques and technologies…

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    10. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Barker

      Again, agree re numbers. But I don't see why reactor siting need be an issue. 1-for-1 _replacement_ of coal, gas and otherwise fossil-fuelled thermal-type generators, on the same sites, would be an obvious avenue to take, since they have similar water requirements and the grid connection infrastructure is already in place. Replacement of fossil generators is after all the whole idea, or pretty close to it.

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    11. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Mark- again- I agree in part. But here's 3 other points to consider: First, coal plant sites don't automatically have the stability requirements for nuclear plants. Secondly, we are (globally) looking at twice the installed capacity in 2035 than now- other things being equal) and thirdly, electricity is only about one-third of the present total (end-use) energy consumption- hence my figure of 20,000 nuclear plants to provide 100% of ALL energy requirements. Of course there will (most likely) be contributions from other sources, but for those who advocate 100% nuclear, that its the basic number to argue against.

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    12. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Barker

      I don't know of anyone who argues for 100% nuclear - certainly not me! However, I think the solution I originally proffered still largely serves in any case - just think two, three or even more for one on existing fossil sites (at least those that aren't facing major subduction zones, and even they can be engineered for). Beyond that, I don't think the conjunction of stability/proximity to grid consumers/water is that rare, at least from a technical standpoint.

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    13. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      And how much electricity did 2GW of PV produce in Germany in December 2011? How much CO2 emission was avoided? How many coal-fired power stations were closed as a result? How much nuclear electricity did Germany have to import from France in December 2011?

      You see the problem.

      That German PV build-out has cost over 100 billion euros, with hundreds of billions more still in the pipeline (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,809439,00.html) If that amount had been devoted to new nuclear building over the same time period, they would now be within ten years of total decarbonisation of their electricity. They won't get anywhere near that with PVs. Instead, as things now stand, they are building new coal and gas power stations in the scramble to compensate for their nuclear shutdown - because they know all that PV won't do the job required.

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    14. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Sorry, I was being kind to the Germans. 'Over 100 billion euros' is just the SUBSIDY amount, never mind the total cost. If the latter had been put into nuclear, German electricity would be decarbonised by now.

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    15. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to John Barker

      Forcing an economic contraction *is* an extreme measure. Only an extremist luddite could support such a policy in good conscience.

      Countries in *a* modernisation stage may reach a 5%pa energy productivity improvement rate. There is no reason to suppose this is a one-off. In order to tackle the fossil energy problem industrialised countries must modernise, *again*. The nascent technologies exist to achieve this, but the policies to drive it are also in their infancy.

      You're right that there's no escape from energy consumption. But we don't have to escape energy consumption yet and will not have to for milennia. The problem at hand is only escaping fossil energy consumption. That is a different and much easier problem to solve, than the end of economic growth (which I freely admit must happen eventually, the earth and the universe both being finite).

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    16. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Actually Mark -- I took the time to read the linked article -- that €100bn figure is pulled out from under the hat of a right-wing think-tank, and represents all historical subsidies *plus* a continuance of current subsidy levels 20 years into the future. In other words it's a straw man, as the very same article reminds us that built into the feed-in-tariff policy is a reduction in subsidies as costs decrease, and that the entire policy was up for review last month. Subsidies paid to date are a fraction of that figure.

      Also it seems the story about needing to import electricity from France since closing down German nuclear power stations is a little skewed -- electricity crosses European borders in both directions. Weather affects all kinds of power generators, not just renewables : in both extreme cold and extreme heat, French nuclear power stations must reduce output; and in January it was German solar output which saved France from blackouts.

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    17. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Indeed people do install solar panels, in fact I became one of them, just a couple of weeks ago. Amazing what subsidies can do, isn't it? But I don't kid myself that they're going to go anywhere close to decarbonising our electricity, even if every Australian did the same. Which of course they won't, because poorer people can't afford the up-front cost. They just have to cop the higher power bills that are generated by the subsidy. So they're fundamentally regressive. But I digress.

      People…

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    18. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Jomathan, let's be honest, ok? I'm a solar PV advocate & an engineer, so other folks need to hear the truth dfrom me -- 2GW of PV = <1/2GW of anything else that runs 24/7, even if the sun in Germany shone brightly every day it rose & set.

      Fibbing about 'renewables' is what foossil companies love -- they know the truth that they only need fear nukes...
      www.bp.com/sectiongenericarticle800.do?categoryId=9037134&contentId=7068677

      So, let's agree to be honest. Our descendents are looking back…

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    19. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Actually, incorrect, Jonathan, China has 20 reactors approved or in construction -- surpassing by ~100x the German solar you mentioned having been installed last year. The S. Korean has a $40B contract with UAR, the Chinese are contracting with the House of Saud to eliminate their oil consumption via nukes. The Russians & Chinese & French ahve tens of reactors in contract for various states. And so on. Despite the political mis-interpretations of what Fukushima actually means, the Japanese, Germans…

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    20. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Alex Cannara

      I can't read that, Alex, something to do with less than and greater than symbols.

      I have not claimed anywhere that 2GW capacity of solar PV produces the same amount of electricity per annum that a 2GWe capacity nuclear power station would, nor that solar PV is (yet) cheaper. I was responding *only* to Mark's claim that rolling out nuclear power is quicker than rolling out solar power. It isn't. Finland's 1.6GW Olkiluoto reactor has been under construction for 7 years; it was supposed to start…

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    21. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      I stand by the claim that nuclear is quicker to effectively build than PV, given capacity multipliers *and application of the same resources*.

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    22. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      I'm going to have to retract the last claim. It was on a web-page in front of me (or I thought it was) and I quoted it in a fit of enthusiasm, but now even going over my browser history I can't find it again. Apologies. No reference, possibly not a credible one if it was really there, no validity to it, apologies.

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    23. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Jonathan, you surely get that GErmany's solar, which a few years back accounted for fully 1/2 the solar cells ever made, isn't getting 2GW, even 1/4 the time. It's tempting to bring up delayed nuke plants, but we're already 40 years behind the alternative nukes that were supposed to displace what we have now, and do it by 2000 -- read the report to JFK, please.

      That's the effort now afoot in China , Australia, the Czech Republic, India, etc. We hope to restart it in the US, as soon as we clean up some legislation (and the Chinese scare Congress enough).

      Indeed, it's hard to deploy 1GWe of nukes per year or per month, but we're over 1GWe/day behind the goal for 2000, so it really doesn't matter if we deploy solar DG as fast as we can and nuclear -- all are behind the need. That's the point. Listen to these kids again...

      www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQmz6Rbpnu0 (1992)
      www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko3e6G_7GY4&feature=channel_video_title (Durban South Africa)

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    24. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Right, and remember, we use nuclear power that was supposed to be dispensed with by 2000.

      The newer generation of reactors offer not only safety and cheaper fuelling, but higher temperatures for higher efficiency and the ability to make vehicle fuels from air -- fully carbon neutral.

      And, though not often mentioned, we need new reactors to meet medical/scientific/industrial shortages now occurring...
      www.nature.com/news/2009/090715/full/460312a.html
      www.rsna.org/Publications/rsnanews/July-2010/isotope_feature.cfm

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    25. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Barker

      I see no one advocating 100% of anything especially since we know there's plenty of sunlit structural space available in or out of cities to meet peak daytime needs, even with current 20% efficient PV (less efficient is actually bad for another reason).

      So, 8,000 1GWe nukes, plus local solar (DG) plus some storage (including parked EVs/batts), plus efficiency improvements (also EVs) is a very reasonable long-term number.

      We have to solve the fishing & farming & water problems regardless. China, for example, has essentially no potable water today. A population increase to 10B by 2050 means finding new arable land equal to all Brazil. Ocean acidification is but 0.1pH from the level at which the base organisms of the entire sea food chain fail -- that's where 70% of human food protein comes from (fishing yields peaked in 1994). Energy for economics is a small portion of the real problem.

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    26. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Exactly, Mark. There;s a great advantage to using existing sites, especially for the safer, smaller Gen-IV reactors, like Molten Salt (MSR) & Thorium MSR (LFTR). They can, in fact, save a great deal of time & $ because the MSR type needs no huge containment -- it runs at air pressure, and has higher temperature & power density. So, in fact, de-commissioned LWR nukes can be upgraded via GEN-IV MSR to about triple their old capacities, thus saving building of at least portions of two new plants. The safety profile is fully natural -- gravity shuts down the system, whether anyone's around or not. The waste profile also improves by 100x.

      But, this was all know in 1974, when unwise funding decisions were made! Reactors that made bombs were more valued.

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    27. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      What are "outdated nuclear" plants? Are the electrons coming out of their generators too old to do good work?

      All >400 our LWRs in service today are 'outdated' -- they were supposed to be gone by 2000! Talk about straw man arguing. If anyone is to blame for "outdatedness" it's the fossil companies who funded naive environmentalists protesting new nukes, as at Shoreham in NY or Paso Robles here in Calif. decades ago. And, for a laugh, here;s how my own Sierra Club was duped by the gas gang...

      http://www.btlonline.org/2012/mp3/120217b-btl-hamilton.mp3

      As the old farm saying goes: "There's no substitute for human stupidity". The Aussies must have an analog.
      ;]

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  7. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    I haven't read Charlton's article yet but, from this article and the various comments supplied, it seems to be a case of glass half full (Charlton) or glass half empty (Peck). I very much see a glass half full, with energy efficiency able to reduce per capita energy consumption by 30% at a modest cost, with modern nuclear power plants able to deliver large amounts of clean energy for several hundred years and with a global population stabilising at between 9 and 10 billion mid century and then plummeting over the following hundred years if Russia, Japan and Italy are typical examples of what happens when birth rates drop in response to high standards of living.
    Ehrlick was wrong (and will continue to be wrong) because he too heavily discounts human ingenuity which, over the last 200 years, has proven itself to be capable of coming up with important technological improvements.

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    1. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Just the last 200 years Bernie? There was some pretty good technology developed well before then!

      I agree with you that energy efficiency can potentially reduce consumption, but in practice, it doesn't (Jevons Paradox).

      I disagree about Ehrlich: I say he was right in principle because there are thermodynamic limits - at some point ore grades become too low to justify the energy (and financial) cost of extraction. There is no guarantee that substitutes will be found.

      I am not a technological optimist because I can find no reason to assume we will develop the required technology "just in time".

      Even if we possess the technology, there is no reason to assume it will be implemented, or can be implemented to scale "just in time" (see the discussion here about IFRs and LFTRs).

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    2. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      That is a fair point Jonathan. What do you think are the chances of an American accepting higher taxes on their energy consumption?

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    3. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Michael Peck

      America is a peculiar place, but it's just part of a global economy. It is the whims of the wealthy elite that decide policy, more than what your archetypal American-in-the-street might accept. California, home of sunny optimism, has successfully legislated an in-state carbon price. Washington is a different story. However enough places elsewhere in the world are providing incentives to reduce fossil fuel use that the technological benefits can't help but flow to Americans -- indeed American venture capitalists are investing heavily in the R&D and can't help but profit from the incentives in the rest of the world, whether they're adopted early or late in the USA itself.

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  8. Michael Brown

    Professional & academic

    If you look back at energy developments over the past 200 years, technology has a pretty good track record. Look at the huge reserves of shale gas now being developed, and the new CO2-to-oil algae techniques from Algae.Tec and others. Prospects look good for cheap and plentiful energy for the foreseeable future.

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    1. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Brown

      "Prospects look good for cheap and plentiful energy for the foreseeable future" ~ but here we are in a global recession and oil is around $100/bbl.

      What are the numbers on shale gas, and 'CO2-to-oil algae techniques'?

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    2. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      The point is, we needed to stop burning anything for energy years ago. Now, with high-temperature systems, like the MSR, we can remove CO2 & H2O from air to make truly neutral fuels, but we need to do more, before ocean acidification drops its hammer.

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  9. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email @internode.on.net

    One other concern that has not yet been addressed in the above discussions - is speed of implementation.

    There is a serious mismatch between spin-up times for massive implementation of new energy generating high-technology versus the reported immediacy of the need to reduce emmissions. I believe this is particularly a problem for the nuclear industry with its significant uncertainties in safety, disposal, cost efficacy, public acceptance and decadal spin up times.

    Another problem is the damage…

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    1. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Nuclear still has an unmatched safety record in those terms, even after those 'events' since the early 1980s.

      There is no evidence to indicate that 'behavioural and low tech solutions' will be any more effective over the near or the long term, given application of the same level of resources, and a good deal of evidence (http://bravenewclimate.com/renewable-limits/) to indicate they will be less effective (i.e. slower as well as not as good more broadly).

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    2. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      I don't doubt that if you tally up mortality per kilojoule nuclear still comes out safest on that metric, provided, that is, that you rely on the findings of the UNSCEAR report.

      There are numerous other reputable publications and governmental reports that suggest the impacts on human health are "much" more serious, on-going and wide ranging than those suggested by the UNSCEAR report. If these other reports prove to be even partially vindicated then the picture on the safety record may be substantially poorer than you suggest. My understanding is that this matter is still an area of intense research and has not been settled yet.

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    3. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Mark is quite correct, on all counts, nuclear power has been, since the 1st reactor in the USS Nautilus, the safest form of mass power generation ever deployed by mankind. One can try to deny that, but one will simply fail. The 100+ US naval reactors have, for example, never had a significant injury/failure in >6000 reactor-years

      A Swiss institute studies all forms of power generation for decades and reported the same thing -- fewer injuries, deaths, etc in all aspects of huclear power than…

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    4. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Fred, no one is saying "Don't build anything but nukes". Nixon & Congress effectively caused that to happen here in the 1970s, by picking the wrong choice of those recommended in 1962..

      So, as a Sierra Club member, I actively support the policy of efficiency (we now waste 50%), local solar (PV & hot water), and then we part ways, since I support certain nuclear. The club did too, years ago, for the right reasons: low environmental impact, due to very high power density.

      So, yes, we're 50…

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  10. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Michael Peck: You said "at some point ore grades become too low to justify the energy (and financial) cost of extraction" but the counterpoint to this statement is that, as ore grades diminish along with production volumes, so demand causes the sale price of the commodity to go up. So, if technology doesn't save us with a 'just in time' solution, then the law of supply and demand will come to the party and we will be able to extract enough oil or gas or metals or whatever to meet our needs but at…

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    1. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      I'll concede that with ore grades it will be a combination of the price (financial cost) and technical feasiblity that will set the limits to extraction. However, studies I have seen for Uranium for example, show that at some theshold value, the costs increase very dramatically indeed.

      But with energy resources it makes no sense to expend more energy to extract and produce than what you get. That said, if there are financial incentives to do so (e.g. subsidies for US corn ethanol) or if the form of energy you get is more useful (has greater financial value) then it may make some financial sense to produce when EROI is less than 1. But no one is going to expend two barrels of oil in producing one barrel!

      As for the "Law of Supply and Demand" ~ please read Steve Keen's Debunking Economics (2nd edition) ~ he thoroughly debunks it!

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    2. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      Speaking as a geologist, it's not obvious to me why there should be a sharp threshold for uranium beyond which energy costs increase steeply. Indeed, with the advent of in-situ leaching technology (http://decarbonisesa.com/2012/01/25/the-folly-of-making-perfection-the-enemy-of-excellence-a-visit-to-beverley-uranium-mine/), there's every chance of energy costs of uranium extraction _decreasing_ significantly.

      And I'd hope that said 'studies' aren't solely based on extant mines. We've still got a lot of catching up to do from a quarter-century hiatus in exploration, in the case of uranium. Any forecast relying mainly on information from currently known mineralisation will certainly be wrong on the downside.

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    3. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Right, there are many thousands of years of Uranium & Thorium easily gotten from existing, known deposits. Then, there's seawater, with more U than Th because of solubilities.

      Coal ash alone has large amounts of Uranium (what we didn't breath when the power companies burned the coal!)

      And, each modest, rare-earth mine around the world provides about 5000 tons of thorium as waste each year -- more than enough to run the entire world, including transport, as forecast in 2100. And, there are thousands of such known deposits. Even the Moon & Mars have huge amounts of Thorium, like any rocky body.. (Gingrich take note ;)

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    4. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      The point was well known in 1950, that 235U (short lived isotope) might run out, so the long loved 238U and Thorium (4x more abundant) were obvious candidates for future nuclear power. Nobellist Glenn Seaborg headed a commission called by JFK and reported what to do... http://tinyurl.com/6xgpkfa

      The Chinese, Czechs, etc. are now doing it. We stumbled in 1974, because we wanted Plutonium to scare the Russians with. Yes, dumb. It's not technology that fails, humans fail.
      www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbyr7jZOllI&mid=5618117 (see Nixon admit ignorance)
      http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/2006/04/brief-history-of-liquid-fluoride.html

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    5. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Michael Peck

      "But with energy resources it makes no sense to expend more energy to extract and produce than what you get."

      You're right on the global scale, but you're also completely wrong on the scale of individual energy products. We gladly pay much, much more for some forms of energy than others. Electricity for our appliances and petrol for our cars command far higher prices per unit of energy than coal or uranium, because they are useful to individual consumers. Sunlight doesn't cost a penny.

      These…

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    6. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      In principle I think you are correct in that it can make financial sense if not 'EROI sense' to extract and process when EROI < 1.

      But what would it mean from an economic point of view if oil say, was $200, $300 or even more per bbl? The Bentley's may still be humming along, and the predator Drone's will no doubt be a buzzin' - but what else?

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    7. Alex Cannara

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Peck

      Indeed, Michael, and sunlight costs more than a penny, because it's not 24/7, so as a solar advocate, I'll freely admit it has expensive deployment costs, even as DG.

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  11. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    I was at a seminar with Ross Gittins and Paul Gilding last year. Paul addressed the issue or technology saving us directly and Ross covered it nicely as well.

    Personally, I have had this cartoon on my office wall for over a decade:
    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-NsbnorZ5qxY/TzDydtnQzsI/AAAAAAAAAKM/x5eUDwRlkbY/s400/bild-3.png

    Paul actually pointed out how technology is often late to the party, especially in a free market which doesn't pay for externalities: sound familiar??

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  12. Cameron Murray

    logged in via Twitter

    I question whether this assertion is exactly true

    "Economic output is directly linked to energy consumption. It has been calculated that global economic production consumes energy resources at a constant rate of almost 10 milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 US dollar. Thus sustained economic growth requires increasing energy consumption ad infinitum. Unlimited economic growth on our finite planet is simply impossible."

    The linked paper by Robert Ayers actually shows the relationship is between…

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    1. Michael Peck

      PhD researcher in energy security at the Centre for International Security Studies, at University of Sydney

      In reply to Cameron Murray

      Cameron, it is a striking result. If you click on the link 'economic production consumes energy resources at a constant rate' it will take you the journal article by Timothy J Garrett from Climatic Change (2011) 104:437–455 which gives that result.

      Ayers and Warr did indeed work from 'exergy'; but there is high correlation with TPES as well.

      You are right that conversion efficiencies can be improved, but this can only be within thermodynamic limits. For example, the automobile internal combustion…

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    2. Cameron Murray

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Peck

      I agree that out command of energy resources is a critical driver of economic growth. And of course, much of the talk of decoupling is actually the 'displacement effect', where energy intensive uses are relocated, and only the lower energy intense economic activities are measured directly. However, I take a different approach to thinking about this problem.

      First, we must remember that economic growth, in its purest form (rather than GDP), is about satisfying human desires. Thus, we can not…

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  13. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    I've been reading the email exchanges between Mark and Jonathon - thanks to both of you for an interesting dialogue - but I'm more convinced by the various arguments put forward by Mark. For example, if you visit
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,809439,00.html , you'll see that Jonathon's statement that "in January it was German solar output which saved France from blackouts" has to be wide of the mark (excuse the pun!) unless France's electricity demand was close to zero, since German solar PV output for much of January was itself close to zero.

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    1. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      I'm going to have to retract the last claim. It was on a web-page in front of me (or I thought it was) and I quoted it in a fit of enthusiasm, but now even going over my browser history I can't find it again. Apologies. No reference, possibly not a credible one if it was really there, no validity to it, apologies.

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    2. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Found it : http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2012/02/09/3426757.htm : "In fact during a cold snap last week, the country with the fastest growing renewable sector was propping up nuclear powered France which was importing over 6,500MW to support its fleet of old outdated nuclear plants." : The hyperbole was mine, not the original author's, and it's dated today so "January" was wrong too :)

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