First, I’d like to stipulate that Climate Change is a real problem and human activities do contribute to it. But while it is a problem with which humanity needs to grapple, it isn’t an existential threat like a massive asteroid strike. Despite the hyperventilating media coverage, it will not end life as we know it in 2030 or in 2100. But we need to find sensible, cost-effective ways to deal with its consequences for the benefit of all. It makes a lot of sense to promote incremental switching to less carbon intensive energy technologies.
But kudos to Mark Mills, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, for his article and his brilliant paper bringing to light a fundamental problem for those who want to attempt to solve the Climate Change issue with only the existing renewable energy technologies of solar, wind, and battery power.
Because of the limits of the laws of physics, it is simply not possible to do so without enforcing energy poverty on mankind through much higher costs, much less energy use per capita, and a lack of reliability of the power grid.
The New Energy Economy Is An Exercise In Magical Thinking
The incredible technological innovation brought to us by the “Moore’s Law” phenomenon in the world of semiconductors has fooled many eminent people into thinking it applies in other areas of research such as renewable energy technologies.
But whereas the physics of shrinking transistors and decreased energy needed to manipulate the idea of the numbers one and zero has enabled breathtaking change, the physics of manipulating and transporting physical matter does not conform to such exponential change.
The physics of energy is instead the realm of asymptotic effects, with big advances getting close to the barriers of physical laws which limit potential further progress greatly.
The physics boundary for silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells, the Shockley-Queisser Limit, is a maximum conversion of 34% of photons into electrons; the best commercial PV technology today exceeds 26%.
The physics boundary for a wind turbine, the Betz Limit, is a maximum capture of 60% of kinetic energy in moving air; commercial turbines today exceed 40%.
The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, could store three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand. It would require 1,000 years of production to make enough batteries for two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand. Meanwhile, 50–100 pounds of materials are mined, moved, and processed for every pound of battery produced.
Current renewable energy technologies cannot approach the energy density, cost, and reliability of fossil fuels and nuclear power. Those who want to do away with fossil fuels, especially without a massive buildout of nuclear power plants, have fallen prey to a fantasy.
The Average Person Won’t Accept Energy Poverty and/or Much Higher Costs for Energy
The Yellow Vest Protests in France began as a rebellion against an increase in the gas tax by average people, before the movement was corrupted by anti-capitalist perma-protesters. Average people the world over cannot and will not accept a purported solution for Climate Change that imposes huge financial costs and energy poverty on them. It is simply a non-starter.
And in the end, whether you are talking about trading carbon credits or instituting a carbon tax, all of the schemes pushed by the left, the media, and the scientific establishment are about raising the cost of energy use and thereby reducing the demand for it. People will simply not tolerate this.
A Way Forward
The scientific community has identified a real problem in Climate Change. But they (and the media and the left) have not done cost-benefit analysis. Their proposed solutions are not effective or acceptable. We should solve the problem with a common sense engineering mindset that takes into account the tradeoffs that real people will actually accept in their real lives.
Fortunately, accepting energy poverty and doing nothing are not our only options. We need a big investment in basic scientific research to come up with more advanced, energy dense, reliable, and economically competitive renewable technologies. In the interim, continuing to trade coal use for natural gas is a no brainer as this is substantially less carbon intensive. We also need a big buildout of nuclear power plants as nuclear is very energy dense, has zero carbon emissions, and can function as base load power, which renewable technologies (even backed up by batteries) cannot without a huge buildout of diesel backup generators, which is neither carbon friendly nor cost-effective.
A combination of natural gas as a long term bridge fuel combined with nuclear and renewables can work while we are doing the basic scientific research to come up with breakthroughs that can function as cost effective and reliable base load power replacements. And we should also pursue research into geo-engineering to mitigate the worst effects of Climate Change if such breakthroughs don’t come through in a timely enough fashion. Such an all-of-the-above approach is the only sensible way to proceed for the good of humanity.