I have been reading Nicholas Stern’s book “A Blueprint for a Safer Planet : How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity”, and I feel that it is somehow my role to be making some rather critical remarks about it.
For example, I have been made more and more concerned with Stern’s belief in complex solutions. There are many in influential positions around the world that have a strangely trusting acceptance in new and complicated technology, when the clear evidence from even recent history is that high tech is not always a sure thing, home run, done deal.
Nuclear Power, for example, is spectacularly prone to failure due to its many weak points. And new designs have been fraught with issues. Even the “back end” role of Nuclear Waste reprocessing has gone pear-shaped recently :-
“The company that runs the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant admitted that it may have to close for a number of years owing to a series of technical problems.”
The thing that Stern does not really appreciate is that Technology is not the same as Science, and that Engineering is not the same as Technology.
In Scientific theory, any number of complex designs for Nuclear Fission reactors can be dreamed up, but a good number are simply not possible because we don’t have the Technology for one or more of the required elements to physically construct the plant according to the designs.
And then, even if the Technology is reasonably sure, the Engineering may prove to be error-prone, fault-prone or just plain risky. Look at the countless reports of safety devices failing at Nuclear plants. Look at the myriad of outages caused by materials “fatigue”.
The reason for this is that Engineering is in the real world, and reactor designs are only on paper, or in CAD software. In the real world, metal rusts, gases get contaminated, pipes and valves leak, people forget or miss the signs, vortices, eddies and shearing components all make for systems failure.
And so, although there are some good complex technologies, it is not wise to expect radically new higher technology than we have now. It is just not wise to trust all the theoretical designs for Energy production and storage that get dreamed up. We might not be able to engineer them.
Here is just one example from Stern’s book :-
Chapter 8 : The structure of a global deal
“Biofuels…Although it is likely that electric or hydrogen road transport will play prominent roles in a few decades, biofuels may well be a significant part of supply between now and then. And if serious advances are made in second-generation biofuels…then they may compete favourably with electricity or hydrogen over the longer term.”
Sadly, it seems that one of the second-generation biofuel hopefuls, jatropha, has the thirst of a whale :-
“10 Jun 2009: Jatropha ‘Wonder Crop’ Requires Huge Quantities of Water, Report Finds : The oil-rich biofuel crop jatropha, once hailed as a “green gold” because of its ability to grow in arid regions, actually requires more water than other food and biofuel crops, according to a new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jatropha requires five times as much water per unit as corn and sugarcane, and 10 times as much water as sugar beet, the most water-efficient biofuel crop, according to research conducted by the Netherlands-based University of Twente.”
Whereas hydrogen as a fuel has significant issues owing to, amongst other things, the cost of the cells :-
“Widespread use of stationary fuel cells running on natural gas seems likely post-2010, particularly if high temperature fuel cells achieve their cost and performance targets. The transition to a transportation system based on a hydrogen economy will, however, be much slower and more difficult than widely realized. In particular, it is unlikely that hydrogen vehicles will achieve significant (45%) market penetration by 2030.”
And so, with regret, I have to say that Nicholas Stern is spectularly out-of-date, even though his book was published only this year.
I wonder how many other of Stern’s “unicorn” fabled as yet undeveloped technologies are going to pop the same disappointing way ?
“A promising approach to lowering CO2 in the atmosphere while producing energy is biochar bioenergy…In addition, energy produced from the thermochemical processing of biomass that stores carbon as biochar in the soil can be considered carbon negative due to biochar’s higher carbon content.”
“Moreover, by taking strong action we might start a wave of discovery which could increase growth rates in the near future.”
“There will be dislocation in the transition to a low-carbon economy, one that in its sources and use of energy is very different from the economy that exists now…”
page 112 (in support of financing more Research and Development)
“The basic argument for public support [that is, public money] for R&D, and for the rapid deployment of technologies…because, given the dangers we face, we need ideas quickly. The arguments are stronger for newer technologies and for technologies that are furthest from the market…One example of a fundamental research priority for climate change policy is energy storage…including nanobatteries…nuclear fusion. There will be many more. One which may turn out to be interesting is the transformation of carbon dioxide into solids which could then be used as construction material, or for surfacing roads [irony alert]…It is of vital importance that research institutions around the world be supported to pursue new ideas in an open way.”
Nuclear Fusion, of course, as the anecdote goes, has been 35 years away for the last 35 years.
“Nuclear power and CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] both have powerful critics within environmental communities who are arguing for strong action on climate change. My own view is that we will need all the technologies available…We need to know now if CCS can work…”
“A committed transition to a low-carbon economy can usher in a new era of innovation and creativity…By the time this book is published, there will be countless additional technological possibilities.”
Sorry to say, Nick, but I’ve counted the technologies you specify in your book and nothing really new new has emerged since your book was published. Although there has been this :-
“The ‘Searaser’ uses the power of the ocean to pump water inland for electricity generation. Mark Anslow reports on the simple invention that could soon be making waves in renewables.”
What’s truly interesting here is that this technology is very, very simple, akin to the Siphon of the Ancient Greeks.
“…wonderful new technologies…”
“…breakthrough technologies, possibly to include advanced solar, enhanced photosynthesis, algae…”
It looks like Nicholas Stern has been bamboozled by the energetic snake-oil-of-dubious-technological-benefit salesmen in the United States :-
“The creativity and vigour of those involved in the new technologies across the United States is remarkable These reasons give grounds for optimism on the direction of future progress.”
“The PG&E deal [Solaren] is a scam. Pure and simple. We don’t need to study it in detail any more than one needed to study Bernie Madoff’s investment scams.”
“the private sector stands ready with a whole wave of potential investments and new technologies.”
“We can recognise the technologies that can take us both to a more energy-efficient economy and to energy sources which are low-carbon, and we are constantly developing more.”
Er, no. The number of energy sources hasn’t changed and is never likely to change. The Earth system revealed to us the possible sources of Energy many thousands of years ago (apart from Nuclear Fission and the dangling promise of Nuclear Fusion, which are relatively newfangled things).
As for vectors of Energy, you know, storage methods and means, fuels and gases, yes, these are developing, but there is nothing really radically new coming up.
Combining simple things to make complex systems does not necessarily hold the best hope : take for example Carbon Capture and Storage, or the Nuclear Waste reprocessing and reuse efforts.
We have expanded our knowledge to the outer limits of complexity and possibility. There are no magic technologies waiting to appear. And the most complex proposals offer the highest scope for failure.