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Banking on the energy transition

Victory was not delivered in 1945 using weapons available in 1939. So can we nip one thing in the bud: the idea that we have to fix the climate using just the tools we have today. That would hobble us. That would give credence to the denialist rearguard's claims about costs.

Yes, we must get serious now & go on a "war footing". But while solutions currently available will get us started, they won't finish the job. This requires installation of at least ten terawatts of renewable energy generation capacity coupled to all sectors of the economy through electrification & storage, significant demand-side management & behaviour modification, & the planting of at least one trillion trees, in the next decade. 

This needs mobilisation of market mechanisms by cost reduction achieved through innovation & deployment at scale. The denialists' last throw of the dice is to admit there's a problem but assert the solution costs too much, so they must ignore the very mechanisms that drive down costs. The final irony: those who claim to speak for the market deny what it can achieve. No-one thinks every car costs the same as the first car. We don't cross the Atlantic in biplanes. Yet they'd have us believe every MWh of renewable energy will cost as much as the first one generated. 

But this was always a pretext anyway. It turns out they were never arguing in good faith after all. Every objection raised was disingenuous. They would have us run out of canaries for their love of coal mines. 

Instead improved energy assessments & projections using cutting edge instruments and methods will support & enhance confidence in our ability to access zero fuel costs using facilities managed & operated in an optimal manner with a through-life perspective. Innovative financial instruments will emerge that leverage this to provide a pathway for investment. These developments will compound the rate at which capacity grows, until we get past the six-fold increase needed to deliver ten terawatts in time. Vanishing incremental costs of energy will transform the economy. But first a "massive reallocation of capital" is required, as Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has remarked, to avert a Minsky moment due to the stranding of unsustainable assets. 

This massive reallocation of capital is effectively a transformation of the way accumulated wealth is represented. This is required due to the inherent decay of wealth through obsolescence & environmental impacts that erode all value, which I discussed in my post "the wealth of nations". It is how a healthy society responds.

We need to bank on the energy transition to deliver the outcome we seek, a future we can share, and in which we can all prosper.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on June 14, 2019

"Victory was not delivered in 1945 using weapons available in 1939. So can we nip one thing in the bud: the idea that we have to fix the climate using just the tools we have today."

Peter, you can nip that idea in the bud if you like, but you're wrong.

We have to fix the climate using a technology we developed in 1944 - nuclear power. Nuclear is the only source of energy dense enough, and reliable enough, to power civilization on planet Earth with no carbon emissions.

So solar and wind have a low energy density - what's to stop us from building millions of smaller sources of energy, and using those instead? To answer that question I'm going to use a contemporary example, one that has proven me both wrong, and in the long run right.

That example is Elon Musk's electric car company Tesla, Inc. When I was building an electric car in 2007, so was Elon. We were both frustrated by the lack of large-format nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, the gold standard in 2007. Li-Ion batteries weren't yet ready for prime-time, and oil companies had purchased patents on large-format NiMH batteries, then "encumbered" them - sat on them - to prevent/forestall electric vehicles from succeeding in the marketplace.

I designed and built my car using lead-acid batteries. Though it had a top speed of 70mph and could carry two passengers, its range was limited to 40 miles - entirely impractical from a commercial standpoint. Elon's idea was to build an EV power supply by wiring 6,600 lithium-ion cellphone batteries together. Though everyone in the California EV community thought he was nuts (including me), the Tesla Roadster became the longest-range and fastest electric vehicle in history.

Tesla isn't making its award-winning EVs using thousands of cellphone batteries anymore - forced to do it that way by market limitations in 2007, the approach makes no engineering sense. Similarly, trying to power an electrical grid using thousands or millions of diffuse sources of energy like solar panels and wind turbines makes no engineering sense, and we can't just build "more powerful" solar panels - we're limited by solar irradiance to the energy that's available. That it's not enough, and never will be, is a fact of life - a hard lesson Elon learned when his solar startup, Solar City, went bankrupt in 2016.

To have any chance of putting the brakes on climate change, we have to do what makes engineering sense, and there's no time to lose. Ask any engineer, any physicist, any climatologist: nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change.

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