Wednesday, March 29, 2006

La Soudure

Something we in the west haven't had to worry about for some time - the period between harvests when last year's crop has been exhausted, but this year's crop hasn't been harvested yet. During these periods - in France, called La Soudure - food becomes scarce and civil unrest is more likely.

It was during la soudure of 1789 that the French Revolution really got moving, for example.

This, I think, is a useful way of thinking of our energy problems in the early 21st century. Our "harvest" of oil is rapidly dwindling, and there's going to be a growing gap between last year's harvest - oil and fossil fuels - and the next harvest - renewables.

So how do we bridge this particular soudure? Here, the ideas are abundant. John Quiggin responded to Salon's article on Peak Oil by boosting coal. You can read one of my earliest attempts to refute peak oil catastrophism here.

I think Quiggin is narrowly right that coal could meet our energy needs, but it's difficult to overstate what an environmental disaster this would be. Given that it now looks as if current levels of CO2 will be enough to melt the polar ice caps, relying on the most carbon-intensive fuel to survive seems like a surefire way to kill ourselves.

Ah, the Carbon Lobby says, you're forgetting carbon sequestration. No, says I, I just don't believe in it. In the 1950s, Freeman Dyson took part in an attempt to build a closed-loop, meltdown-proof nuclear reactor. It was a design years ahead of it's time, and it was promptly abandoned by the market.

Similarly, I don't believe that the market will, on it's own, sequester CO2. We need a stiff carbon tax to make sequestration non-optional. As an example, Sweden has put a tax of $150 on each ton of CO2 emitted. But if we're going to tax CO2, we are by definition making coal uneconomical anyway.

Meanwhile, wind is now competitive with conventional power sources without subsidies. Say that again:

Wind is now competitive with conventional power sources without subsidies. From the EPI, via the Energy Blog:

When Austin Energy, the publicly owned utility in Austin, Texas, launched its GreenChoice program in 2000, customers opting for green electricity paid a premium. During the fall of 2005, climbing natural gas prices pulled conventional electricity costs above those of wind-generated electricity, the source of most green power. This crossing of the cost lines in Austin and several other communities is a milestone in the U.S. shift to a renewable energy economy....

A similar situation has unfolded in Colorado with Xcel Energy, which is the state’s largest electricity supplier. Xcel’s 33,000 Windsource customers, who until late 2005 were paying $6 more each month for their electricity, are now paying slightly less than those using conventional electricity, which comes mostly from natural gas and coal. To meet fast-growing demand, Xcel is currently soliciting proposals from wind developers for up to 775 megawatts of new wind power generation, enough to supply 232,000 Colorado homes with electricity.

Austin Energy and Xcel Energy are among the first utilities to pass on the falling cost of wind energy to their customers.
Solar, having spent the last few decades lagging behind wind, is also competing with the high cost of natural gas:
Solar is a cheaper alternative than running costly power lines out to more isolated areas, he says. And once upfront costs are covered, solar modules provide “free” power for their 25-year lifespans, says Global Change’s Mr. Fusaro.

In fact, grid-linked solar power is becoming more affordable. Though more expensive than off-peak conventional grid power, it is cheaper at peak times when conventional power is most expensive.

Peak times, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., roughly correspond to when the sun shines. In some parts of California, solar prices now match peak power prices, even when incentives are excluded....

Let’s stay with subsidies for one last moment. Often forgotten in all the chatter is how oil industry subsidies have been outstripping anything solar ever received— for decades.

Solar subsidies usually take the form of investment or production tax credits—or price guarantees in some countries. Companies investing in oil, coal, and nuclear power do much, much better. They get subsidies to help extract and produce oil or coal, or to build nuclear plants, says UCS’ Mr. Wentworth.

In short, big energy beats solar hands down in the subsidy department and investors have yet to go weak at the knees over it. “We’d love to see a level playing field,” says Mr. Wentworth. “The central issue is financing and markets, and we want to have an equal shot.”
Solar and wind are rapdily becoming less expensive than any other option - including that retarded stepchild, nuclear - though admittedly this is due in part to the large price increases we've seen in oil and natural gas. Still, the trends are encouraging - wind and solar are going nowhere but down, oil and natural gas are going nowhere but up.

This is the fundamental reason I think Quiggin is wrong, as are those who think we'll need to rely on nuclear. Coal and uranium are the fuels of the past. Leave them there.


Anonymous said...

Did you actually read my post, including the last para ? The whole point was that we can't burn the fossil fuels we already have because of CO2 emissions.


john said...

Sorry, I was more responding to Ezra's optimism about sequestration. My bad.