Why Global Warming is really an Energy Problem.

We have stated in The Resilient Earth that the global warming crisis is actually a side effect of the global energy shortage crisis. By this we mean that excessive CO2 emissions and other forms of air pollution can be traced to the use of certain forms of fossil fuel instead of less damaging alternatives due to the highly competitive world energy market. Often nations use the energy sources that are indigenous or least expensive, even though doing so has greater impact on the environment. Consider the figure below:

The US has historically gotten most of its energy from oil and coal—oil because it has been inexpensive and coal because America has abundant supplies of the stuff. According to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), the US gets around 51% of its electrical energy from burning coal, which generates 81% of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with electrical production. Oil (labeled petroleum), which is a negligible part of electrical generation (3%) but the major contributor in the transportation sector, contributes even more overall CO2 than coal—42% vs. 37%. In short, America gets most of its electrical and transportation energy from the worst two contributers of greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, oil is no longer cheep, as indicated by the current price of gasoline at the pump or by the cost of crude. Energy costs are rising in all sectors both in the US and around the world. Rising energy prices affect not just transportation and electrical costs but everything that is manufactured, grown or shipped. Vacation plans are put on hold and airlines totter on the brink of bankruptcy; food prices rise while restaurants suffer from lack of customers. Idiot politicians demand emergency reserves be tapped while blocking attempts to drill off shore or in an insignificant corner of frozen wasteland most of them couldn't find on a map. With all the hoopla about energy the global warming crisis has mostly been forced off the front pages and evening news casts—the news media always likes the next crisis more than the previous one.

Not only are the pundits and politicians caterwauling, even Texas oilmen are getting into the energy independence through renewable green technology business. T. Boone Pickens, not previously known for his environmental sensitivity, has declared, “as imports grow and world prices rise, the amount of money we send to foreign nations every year is soaring. At current oil prices, we will send $700 billion dollars out of the country this year alone — that's four times the annual cost of the Iraq war. Projected over the next 10 years the cost will be $10 trillion—it will be the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.“ (For more see the comment "the Pickens Plan" below).

The Resilient Earth Plan

As we stated in The Resilient Earth, the world's energy needs can not be met using renewable energy alone and eventually we need to stop using fossil fuels altogether, even fuels as clean burning as natural gas. Don't misunderstand, people will be needing gas, oil and even coal to burn for the next half century even under the best of conditions, but the goal for mankind must be to break the non-renewable, fossil fuel habit once and for all.

While powering cars with propane, as Mr. Pickens wishes to do, could significantly reduce CO2 emissions, plugin hybrids and eventually full electrics would be even better. The problem is find a reliable, clean source of energy to power the hybrids and electrics—unfortunately, renewables on their own fall short: there is a green energy gap. And that is where both Mr. Pickens and President Obama fall short, neither have workable proposals for expanding baseload generating capacity. The main thing missing from the Pickens Plan and the Obama administration's energy policy is the dreaded N word—nuclear power. Here is the outline of our plan from Chapter 18 of TRE:

Satisfying the world's need for clean, non-polluting energy is a gigantic problem—but not an insolvable one. The future will no doubt provide technological breakthroughs, though what form these will take, and when they will emerge, cannot be predicted. In the meantime, we need to apply the best available technology to solve the problem. Already sig- nificant advances are being made in aviation, automotive, and power storage technologies. Wind, geothermal and hydroelectric generation can help ease the demand for green energy, but will not be able to solve the problem on their own. Solar can help as well, but barring dramatic reductions in cost, it will remain a minor energy source. Even with optimistically high efficiency improvements (10-20%), the hard truth is the world must turn to nuclear power—at least as a bridging technology until better solutions become available. Here are the main points of our plan:

  • Use renewable energy where economically viable. This includes hydroelectric, geothermal and wind power.
  • Aggressively pursue the development of hybrid transportation technologies. This includes trains, buses, trucks and automobiles.
  • Build only energy efficient new buildings and homes. Utilize both passive and active solar heating and power. Use renewable building resources such as timber from managed forests.
  • Overhaul national and continental power grids. Switch to DC transmission and add off-peak storage systems to make the most productive use of variability in wind and solar power.
  • Actively work on improving solar power technology, both on Earth and in space.
  • Rapidly expand nuclear power capacity. Adopt safe recycling of spent nuclear fuel and advanced reactors.
  • Develop synthetic fuels for aviation and other uses from environmental carbon capture and hydrogen produced by nuclear thermal disasociation.

These are things we can and should do today. There are also things we should not pursue. These include biofuels, “clean” coal and tapping methane ice deposits. The potential return on these technologies are poor, or the potential for environmental disaster exceeds any possible gain.

In these times of heightened eco-anxiety it has become fashionable to express concerns for the fate of our planet and all its creatures. Much of this public posturing is disingenuous and, in some cases, opportunistic boosterism for hidden agendas and other unrelated causes (see chapter 15) . We, however, remain optimistic that mankind's energy problems—and hence the global warming crisis—can be overcome with a combination of rational science, workable technology and patience.

Patience is one of the things significantly lacking from both the global warming debate and the current energy flap. Humanity has been known to take on long term projects and see them to completion—building the pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China or building a spaceship and voyaging to the Moon come to mind. But for some current day politicians any effort that doesn't yield immediate results is deemed useless. When people suggest we should drill for oil and gas off the American coast or in the shale deposits of the Midwest the refrain is “we won't get a drop of oil for 10 years!” Do these folks not plan on being around in 10 years? Do they think that we will no longer require energy in the form of oil and gas in a decade? Get real.

Humanity will still be using oil and gas come 2050, even if we have tripled our use of clean, safe nuclear power, our highways are populated by hyper efficient plugin hybrids and electric cars, and we get the full 20% of electric power optimistically forecast by the Pickens Plan. In the coming days we will present the facts and figures to back these statements up but, if you are anxious for answers right now, please click on the link to “The Book Online” and read The Resilient Earth. Better still, click on the image of the book cover and buy your own copy of TRE from Amazon.com.

True cost of oil

Should include expenditure on Iraq war (and continuing) Afghan war since they are (at least arguably so) driven ultimately by the need to secure oil supply. Indeed much of US defence budget can be so attributed. So actual cost of oil considerably higher. Even more incentive to follow excellent plan outlined here.

Not Meaning to be Too Cynical

Realistically, businesses will be using fossil fuels as long as fossil fuels exist and are sources of profit. Based on my reading, big business will get excited about doing something about global warming either when their own market is significantly impacted by global warming or when there is money to be made in developing products to treat the side-effects of global warming.
Boruch Fishman

The Book Online could not be found!

A great post especially the section about Resilient Earth Plan. I try to take a look at The Book Online but it seems to be a brooken link "The requested page could not be found" or maybee I did something wrong...?

Rasmus - ekspert i energimærkning

Book on-line

Seems fine now. Maybe the server was overloaded when you tried.

The Energy Gap now available

The latest book by Hoffman & Simmons, The Energy Gap, is now out and available from Amazon.com. In it you will find a wealth of background information on energy: were it comes from, how it is used and how long it will last. The pluses and minuses of coal, oil, natural gas, wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear are also presented. TEG contains a more detailed version of the plan outlined above. If you are interested in how we can close the energy gap, ensure energy security in the future and improve the environment using technology that exists today, The Energy Gap is for you. Order a copy today.

Interesting insight, never

Interesting insight, never thought of it that way.

finite energy/population explosion

My father,A N Knowles, wrote a paper in the 80s on Energy Requirements for the 21st C in which he extrapolated out all known energy reserves and included an expansion of conventional nuclear, and used available population trends for China and India.
He worked on the British Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor, waste programs and wind-mills. He made the point that the "alternatives" could not meet demand but that they would form a part of the world energy budget. His concern was that even with a massively expanded conventional nuclear program we would still be in shortfall by mid century with political instability and conflicts arising as a result.
My concern with nuclear is that even the Brits cannot deal with their waste problems and at Sellafield some waste stored in nitric acid has escaped into the ground below the reprocessing plant. No-one knows what to do. The Soviets have numerous inherently dangerous reactors which also lack outer containment. We are a long way from safe solutions and the Brits have a stagnating nuclear industry.

For domestic hot water and space heating I'm interested in solar augmented heat pumps and am currently building a brick house with several tonnes of heat bank warmed during the day by a pump system which has mirrors directing sunlight onto the collector plates.(it's very sunny in Australia during winter)
Personally, I find current photo-voltaics a joke except perhaps for DC low voltage lighting where there is no loss through inverters. PV consumes huge quantities of resource per Watt of power produced and only reach adequate performance on sunny days.

It's a relief to find a website that actually talks some sense and I think you are correct in saying that break-throughs will come as the problem builds.
Keep up the good work.
John Knowles.

So it's really an energy

So it's really an energy problem rather than an environmental problem? I think it's easy enough to plow through the semantics and see what the key word there is.

Everyone's gonna have a slightly different choice adjective depending on what their perspective is. For example, a chemist might call it a CO2 problem, while an astrophysicist might call it an albedo problem - or one of the sun being too luminous (or the earth being too close to the sun).

I'd suggest these different points of view add to the overall understanding of the situation, rather than act as a diversion away from some 'true' or 'correct' perspective. In fact, arguing over which is the True Way is likely to be just as big a diversion from the task at hand.

Energy is not any more concrete and 'real' or visible than a transparent and odorless gas, or temperature or climate for that matter. Since all these things are abstractions, they're only visible through the use of scientific measuring instruments, numbers, graphs, and other tools of the trade. So it's tempting to say global warming is really a scientific problem, when we know it's fundamentally a human behavior problem.

Also, it would have been nice to have gotten the science right: "greater use of ethanol" will produce just as much CO2 as whatever it replaces would have (if not more).

No single solution

I think we have to look at all the options when it comes to energy. We can't just focus on one type of energy, we will have to develop efficient ways to develop and use them all.. Balance is key, I am a martial artist, we teach our students to use every tool available to be successful. As a society, this is what we have to do.

.. with your eyes

I have never seen the problem of global warming with your eyes and specialy the graph is amazing.I do not know what future will bring but I guess our oil and coal will not reach for ever (good for mother earth/enviroment) and we should think about the day after ... Last Minute

Too Bad

I really liked the idea of the Pickens Plan it is too bad that it didn't complete. I hope that one day this problem will be resolved and we can use more renewable energy sources. Makes me want to save up and by my own wind turbines.


There is a very good proyect

There is a very good proyect in my zone, between Mexican federal government and the Silicon Border Development.

This agreement is a complex production of solar modules in Mexicali from the last quarter of the year.

Silicon Border Development is an industrial park in Mexicali, which was formed in 2002 as an alternative to Silicon Valley, where the sector went into recession.

The city of Mexicali is one of the biggest hits for the land exchange with the United States, and then connects to the major road network in the United States. There is a one of the most warming cities on the world with temperatures up to 45 centigrade, more than 15 hours of sunshine.

This is a very good proyect developed by the German company Q-Cells, the fact is that his Mexican plant supplies the whole America from the second semester of 2010.


We rarely look at benefits of added CO2.....why.?
They are enormous...
Normal treatment is negative...
And governments react...negatively...
Go to Www.co2science.com
Get what, I'm my humble view, May, May be closer to truth.
Sincerely, Vern Cornell...San Diego

The Pickens Plan

As mentioned in the article above, Texas Oilman T. Boone Pickens has been flogging his "Pickens Plan" to expand America's green energy industry. From TV commercials to Congressional hearings, Mr. Pickens has energetically sold his plan to all who wold listen.

Pickens has proposed an enormous project to erect thousands of wind turbines across the Midwestern United States, from the Texas panhandle north to the Canadian border. He claims that in 10 years his plan could be producing 20% of Americas energy from renewable sources. How much will this cost? According to Pickens:

Building wind facilities in the corridor that stretches from the Texas panhandle to North Dakota could produce 20% of the electricity for the United States at a cost of $1 trillion. It would take another $200 billion to build the capacity to transmit that energy to cities and towns. That's a lot of money, but it's a one-time cost. And compared to the $700 billion we spend on foreign oil every year, it's a bargain.

Oh, did we mention his plan would also include replacing gasoline with natural gas? The Pickens Plan rightfully points out that natural gas is one of the cleanest, safest, most useful forms of energy and that 98% of the natural gas used in the United States is from North America (70% of US oil is purchased from other nations). While this would be a definite improvement over oil that can't be the end of the story.

Pickens Plan Called Off

Plans for the world's largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle have been scrapped, energy baron T. Boone Pickens said Tuesday, and he's looking for a home for 687 giant wind turbines. Pickens' company Mesa Power ordered the turbines from General Electric Co. — a $2 billion investment — a little more than a year ago. Pickens said he has leases on about 200,000 acres in Texas that were planned for the project, and he might place some of the turbines there, but he's also looking for smaller wind projects to participate in. He said he's looking at potential sites in the Midwest and Canada.

In Texas, the problem lies in getting power from the proposed site in the Panhandle to a distribution system, Pickens said in an interview with The Associated Press in New York. He'd hoped to build his own transmission lines but he said there were technical problems. "It doesn't mean that wind is dead," said Pickens, who runs the Dallas-based energy investment fund BP Capital. "It just means we got a little bit too quick off the blocks."