Friday, February 29, 2008

Where in the World Will Our Energy Come From?

Yesterday, there was a VERY informative lecture at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about alternative energy sources. The speaker was Dr. Nate Lewis from Caltech, and he was unlike any other speaker on the subject. Of course, since the talk was about Alternative Energy Sources, global warming had to be addressed because you can't leave it out of a discussion about alternative fuel sources.

Dr. Lewis started out surprisingly about peak oil. He disagrees with those who warn about the end of the age of oil because there really is no reliable way to measure the amount of oil left in the planet. And plus, other forms of fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas can be converted to oil fairly easily, so there's no real oil crisis. He also expressed doubts about climate models. The actual climate is so complex and there are so many unknowns, that the models are unreliable. One memorable line was "There are six major models in climate science, and we draw conclusions by taking the average. However, the actual climate won't take the average, it will take one specific path, and we don't know which model, if any, is the correct one" [may not be exact]. By now, I've started thinking, "Wow, this guy sounds like a global warming 'skeptic'", and I started to take him less seriously. I mean, he even withheld judgment on those graphs plotting temperature and carbon dioxide, saying they show correlation, but not necessarily causation. If that's not a sign of a denier, I don't know what is.

That is, until this statement: "However, this is an experiment we can only perform once". This is when the talk went full-speed into global warming. At this stage, he was still cautious about his statements, not making any large leaps of alarm, but still emphasizing "this generation is the only generation that will deal with this problem". If we don't do anything, it's not absolutely CERTAIN that things will go badly, it might even be better, somehow, but do we REALLY want to find out? After making a very good argument on why global warming is important, he leads into the actual topic, alternative energy sources.

The total energy use of the world is about 15 GW (I think that's the number he used). And most of this is provided by burning fossil fuels. A really good way of tackling this problem is just conservation and efficiency. However, as effective that that could be, it can't be the only solution. You need better ways to generate electricity as well. Now, the alternative energy sources HAVE to be carbon neutral in order to stop or at least slow down global warming. There are three major energy sources that fit these requirements: nuclear power, carbon sequestration, and renewable resources. So far, nuclear power seems like the best option because it's carbon-neutral and it's capable of making more electricity than other alternative sources. However, they require HUGE investments to build, and in order to meet an acceptable level of carbon reduction, you have to build one every other day until 2050 to totally provide for our energy consumption. Not something that seems nice to do.

Next is carbon sequestration or just burying our carbon dioxide underground or undersea. Putting it in the bottom of the ocean is a problem because the ocean will acidify (more than now), and it'll be REALLY bad for marine life. Sequestration underground is also a problem because there really aren't enough reliable places to stash it. Most oil reserves and mines have holes which we'd have to plug up in order to keep the carbon dioxide in there. In one reserve in Texas, there are 1.5 million holes, won't be very practical to plug up. We could put it in aquifers, which are HUGE and allow carbon dioxide to dissolve in water, but then we'd be drinking Perrier (mineral water) which wouldn't be so good for people with braces. And plus, the actual continent would rise a few centimeters because we're basically putting gas inside of it. Might help if the oceans are rising, but otherwise, no.

Renewable resources seem good, except that there just isn't enough energy in them. If we harness ALL of the potential energy from ALL of the streams and rivers in the world plus the energy from waves in the ocean, we still wouldn't be able to power ourselves. So that takes care of hydroelectric. Same as geothermal, just not enough energy in there. Wind is nice, except it's also fairly limited, and do we REALLY want to harness ALL of the wind? The last main one is solar. The Sun should be the source of energy we should harness because we get about 150 million GW on Earth, and we only want 20 of them. However, the problem is that solar cells are too expensive to scale. If we can make a cheap solar paint or rug, THEN we'll solve our energy problem!

So, now it seems like we have nothing left and we're screwed. Since no alternative source can save us. However, he says that in addition to conservation and efficiency, we should invest in ALL of these sources, and fund more research. Currently, more R&D is being done by dog food companies than energy companies, and that's just unacceptable. The energy problem will never be solved if this keeps up. So, all in all, this was the most effective lecture about global warming and energy that I've attended. It didn't rely on consequences of doom, but stuck squarely to facts, and made an even greater impact. Keep checking that site for an archive copy of the lecture. You WILL NOT be disappointed!


Vicken said...

Solar power makes the most sense. . .Also decentralized solar power. . .There are millions of square feet of unused real estate on roofs (houses, offices, buildings, etc) and able to contribute to powering a grid, rather than a central honking huge power plant doing the same thing. Just look at how downloads got when things work in a decentralized way ( a la bittorrent )

cactaur said...

Yeah, in the long run, solar power is the way to go. To power the whole world, all we need is enough panels to cover about the area of Oklahoma (luckily, nobody lives there anyway) However, there are a few disadvantages, I didn't mention. In addition to being currently really expensive, the Sun has a habit of only being up for half a day. That's fine if you're already hooked up to a grid that can provide energy, but if we're going to base our energy source on solar, we'll need a way to store that energy into the night. Most ways (like pumping water uphill and getting energy as it flows down at night) don't work so well on a large scale. Another way would be to put solar panels all around the world, and hook them up to a global energy grid, but I highly doubt we can cooperate to do that. Plus, the transmission loss would be humongous to the other side of the world. One last way is to get it from where the Sun always shines (from space), but we'll need A LOT of satellites, and a way to beam down the energy they make. That won't be cheap at all.

Larry said...

A lot of folks have the misconception that you need bright intense beaming light source to operate photovolatics effectively. This is isn't true, and this sometimes sways away the idea on skeptics. Solar is a lot more advantageous than it is the reciprocal.Sure there might be disadvantages like location. Another factor is, it wouldn't be brightest idea to still continue using very pollutant energy sources as they degrade the efficiency of the solar cells with increased pollution cloud coverage; reducing the energy of the solar rays,etc. You can't just convert the entire world to using Solar, what about the all Scandinavian countries that get very little sunlight? Solar energy is diffuse source, and we shouldn't rely solely on it. We're going to make materials for photovolatics cheaper in the near future (I hope). Because we don't only need a very adept and effective way to produce energy, but we also need a effective way to conserve and harness energies(You don't have to reply on solar panels to heat up your water heater/ or HVAC heater, How about storing heat from the roads during the hot summer? Well that is developed, but we need more ideas like that. And I really liked Vicken's analogy with the BitTorrent network.

cactaur said...

It's true, we shouldn't rely on solar energy for all of our needs. It may be diffuse, but it is HUGE, and it's the only renewable resource that can sustain our energy consumption. Like the lecturer said, conservation and efficiency are important ways to deal with energy use, but you can't power an economy on conservation. We still need a strong alternative energy source to provide us with what we DO need.

And as great as solar energy would be to rely on, there are still several practical problems to get around. You could heat water using solar energy, but what happens if you want to shower at night? You still have the issue of night to deal with. And storing the heat from roads would be an excellent idea... if only we had a way to store the heat. These few obstacles really impede development of the foundation of a solar energy economy.

Now, I'm not saying that solar energy is hopeless, we just need to put more resources in research. Is the Department of Energy underfunded? HECK YES! We just need to get our priorities into order. Like the speaker said, we'll have alternative dog foods faster than alternative energy sources.

Larry said...

This prospect of finally relying on the sun's power for our energy demands is becoming more and more relalistic as I read about. Yeah, Solar is indeed advancing. I'm learn that they were developing ways to concentrate the rays by using mirrors/lenses, or whatever devices that track the sun's path across sky.

Replying to your reply about heat confinement. The Dutch have recently already tapped into that. The concept has been conceived ten years ago by this Dutch engineering firm. Essentially, it siphons heat from the ground using a series of tubes that siphons of water that turns roads into massive solar water heaters. The Dutch are using it right now in airports(and expanding). This also has even more advantages, intially it was conceived to reduce the use of salt and de-icing roads(which is another advantage). This system of harnessing the sun's heat can be used in reverse.In the summer, cold can be feed through the pipes to cool homes/officies/roads and reduce their level of maintenance. A few drawbacks are that it takes twice the building cost but it reduces road maintenance subsationallly. Which is kinda what the UK and Scandinavian countries are starting to do. And also not only it is conserving and using energy efficiently, but you're reducing the temperature of the asphalt, so systems like air conditioning don't get used so much.Using the same system one can pump cold water from a separate isolated reservoir to cool building structures on hot days.
There is too much focus on photovolatics ; which I can't empathize enough is really one of the greatest tech innovations given to mankind,- but innovation such as tapping in solar heat from asphalt roads. One test - made up of 200 yards of road and a small parking lot - generated enough heat for 70 apartments in a four-story building. That's pretty efficient power if you ask me.

Larry said...

Clarification Post

You wanted to know how it worked.
The heat is stored in the ground and can be pumped up for heating purposes in winter. Conversely, the stored winter cold can be used for cooling in summer. The warm and cold water are separately stored in an underground water-bearing sandy layer (an aquifer I as discoverd). The hot and cold groundwater can be pumped up from the aquifer or it can be injected back. The vertical conveyor pipelines running from the hot and cold source are located approximately one hundred meters apart and can be as much as one hundred meters deep. In winter, groundwater is pumped up from the heat source . After it has been used for heating, by allowing it through the concrete, it is injected into the cold source. In the summer the process is exactly the same exception it works in the oppoisite direction, with water being pumped from the cold source and used for cooling. The heated water is then once again led through the pipes, where it is further heated by the sun and then injected into the heat source in the ground. That's as how I understand it.

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