TRETC Panel: Innovation and The Energy Crisis

The most captivating and depressing session from TRETC was easily “Innovation and the Energy Crisis”. The panelists (well three of them: Nathan Lewis, Joseph Romm and Robert C. Armstrong) painted the most dire picture of global climate change that I have heard yet. They argued that within twenty years there will be massive redirection of capital into mitigating the effects of climate change, which will have such priority that relative luxuries like the space program will go by the wayside (clarification on this here).

The central issue is that in order to minimize climate change but still meet growing energy demands, we have to double today’s energy infrastructure but without any increase in carbon emissions. The problem with this is there are no magic bullets – society has to start using every technology at its disposal from conservation to generation, and the sooner the better so that we can figure out if some technologies (like carbon sequestration) will even work. Discussions on energy policy based on cost alone will never help to solve this problem, risk assessment must become part of energy decisions.

Some interesting tidbits from the discussion:

  • Wind power can likely never account for more than 10% of the worlds energy output.
  • Almost all the significant hydro-power resources are already tapped.
  • There is more energy worldwide in natural gas reserves than uranium. If the world’s ~11 TW energy was to be generated entirely with uranium, it would only last 10 years. This means that breeder reactors using plutonium have to be part of the arsenal, which means dealing with their proliferation issues.
  • The amount of geothermal energy available is on average just 55mW per square meter – so large scale geothermal power may never be possible (but home and business heat pumps are still an effective way to assist in cooling and heating)
  • China’s geology prevents any underground carbon sequestration except for a small portion of the north west. (They’re also apparently asking for the right to “catch up” with the developed nations in terms of cummulative CO2 emmissions before having to participate in any reduction treaties)

The short time frame to turn this around immediately made me think about patents and how they could help or hinder the process – as companies invent better energy technologies, can governments incent them to turn them over to the public domain or make them available for inexpensive licensing without taking away the financial incentive to invent in the first place?

I put the question to the panel leader Robert Armstrong after the talk. He drew a parallel to the mobilization of the US economy during world war 2, where it took just 9 months to switch from cars to bombers and any inventions were quickly disseminated among all producers. (I think another parallel is the way the US government guarantees certain sized orders of vaccines in order to foster their development today)

I wish the audio of the panel was online. [UPDATE! sometimes wishes come true quickly!. The MP3 of this talk is here.] There is this brief article. Here’s a description of some new research that appeared just before the conference and drove some of the discussion.

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