Thursday, February 21, 2019

Applying Physics (And Some Math) To The Green New Deal - Why It Can't Work As Set Out

To read the financial press (WSJ, Financial Times) the last few weeks it is evident a form of hysteria has seized the assorted columnists, e.g. Holman Jenkins Jr.

Big Names Bake a Climate Pie in the Sky - WSJ

and editors (e.g. "$1, 973 LEDs and the Green New Deal', WSJ p. A14 Feb.16-17)

Some in the more reactionary enclaves of the media have even warned that if such a Green New Deal comes to pass, Americans will be left with no burgers or pork chops to eat, and will have to bike to work given all cars will ne prohibited.  Amidst this hysteria is there a way to import some sense and a scientific perspective?  I believe so, and that's the purpose of this post.

First, let's turn once more to one of the more sensible and intelligent WSJ columnists, Greg Ip ('Upside Down Economics of Green New Deal', February 14, p. A2).  Among the points noted by Mr. Ip:

- "The premise of the Green New Deal is correct. While the world may not spomntaneously combust in 10 years, global C)2 emissions need to start dropping soon, by a lot - to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 Celsius.

-- Because the private market has no incentive to reduce carbon emissions government intervention is necessary."

Given these two propositions are accepted by most insightful - intelligent citizens, what's the problem?  Ip again:

"Kevin Book, head of research at Clearview Energy Partners, estimates replacing 83% of the current U.S. energy generation that is not renewable with solar, wind and biomass, would cost $2.9 trillion - nearly a full year's tax revenue."

In other words, taxes would have to be raised and not just on the wealthy. Now, counterpoise these numbers with a recent U.N. report affirming that hitting the 1.5 C target would cost an average of $3.5 trillion per year through 2050.  This is nearly $1 trillion per year more than the current pledges from government.  But with such enormous demand, the bulk of the money will have to come from the private sector.  Mind you, there are already nibbles of energy efficient improvement (i.e. Walmart has installed more than 1.5 million LED light fixtures across more than 6,000 stores) but much more is needed.

Indeed, lost in the mix is just how much high quality, intense energy is actually needed to run the U.S. economy and industrial civilization overall.   Where will the energy come from to support an industrial-energy intense and consumptive civilization? You can’t just say “new non-fossil sources” and leave it at that. What new sources? Where? As Jay Hanson ( pointedly notes:

“The fact that our society can‘t survive on alternative energy should come as no surprise, because only an idiot would believe that windmills and solar panels can run bulldozers, elevators, steel mills, glass factories, electric heat, air conditioning, aircraft, automobiles, etc., AND still have enough energy left over to support a corrupt political system, armies, etc. Envision a world where freezing, starving people burn everything combustible -- everything from forests (releasing CO2; destroying topsoil and species); to garbage dumps (releasing dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals); to people (by waging nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional war); and you have seen the future. “

But how correct is he?

One needs to process that different kinds of energy resources have fundamentally different "qualities". For example, a BTU of oil (oil before it is burnt) is fundamentally different than a BTU of coal. Oil has a higher energy content per unit weight and burns at a higher temperature than coal. It is also easier to transport, and can be used in internal combustion engines. A diesel locomotive wastes only one-fifth the energy of a coal-powered steam engine to pull the same train. Oil's many advantages provide 1.3 to 2.45 times more economic value per kilocalorie than coal.

This means you need to factor that increase in for coal  (OR - for any combination of non-fossil fuel sources) to get the same amount of work done.

Ditto with solar. Unlike energy derived from fossil fuels, energy derived from solar power is diffuse and also extremely intermittent: it varies constantly with weather or day/night. If a large city wants to derive a significant portion of its electricity from solar power, it must build fossil-fuel-fired or nuclear-powered electricity plants to provide backup for the times when solar energy is not available. Solar power has a capacity of about 20 percent. This means that if a utility wants to install 100 megawatts of solar power, they need to install 500 megawatts of solar panels. This makes solar power a prohibitively expensive and pragmatically poor replacement for the cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy our economy depends on, especially if one intends to use it operate missile factories.

H.T. Odum's solar "eMergy" (eMbodied energy) measures all of the energy (adjusted for quality) that goes into the production of a product. Odum's calculations show that the only forms of alternative energy that can survive the exhaustion (or replacement)  of fossil fuels are:  muscle, burning biomass (wood, animal dung, or peat), hydroelectric, geothermal in volcanic areas, and some wind electrical generation. Nuclear power could be viable if one could overcome the shortage of fuel. No other alternatives (e.g., solar voltaic) produce a large enough net sej to be sustainable. In short, there is no way out.

Further, Matt Savinar (Life After the Oil Crash) has shown that NONE of the alter-sources usually cited: from methane hydrates, from coal, from geothermal hot dry rock technology, from natural gas, from oil shales and tar sands, from secondary recovery of existing oil fields, and so on- will do squat to totally replace the energy now being consumed for our entire infrastructure, from powering a military-industrial complex with umpteen bombers, and now missile defense, plus more tanks for occupations and wars, not to mention sustaining growth in industries, new computers, maintaining the electrical power grid and building new nuclear reactors.

To further fix ideas and get into the more practical realm it is useful to cite  The Physicist's Desk Reference (Table C, p. 187, Energy Generation by Type) showing the most energy-intense uses (aggressive consumption category, I) for all forms of solar, geothermal and wind are projected to total only about 9 exajoules by next year.Thus, ALL the usual "green" alternatives are projected to barely add up to a blip on the energy "radar" .(Note:  1 EJ   = (1018) joules   J)

For reference, current yearly U.S. energy consumption is 94 EJ.. To put the numbers in a harsher perspective, any serious major effort to "decarbonize" the planet will require an amount of clean energy on the order of 100 trillion kilowatt-hours per year  or 360 EJ. To reach this target even within 3 decades the world's nations would need to add 3.3 trillion more kwh of clean energy every year. Solar and wind simply cannot scale up to that level in that time, so the only remaining form of energy - apart from fossil fuels - is nuclear and at least one climate scientist (James Hansen)  has recommended such incorporation . See e.g.

All told, 220 reactors are currently being built or planned worldwide, with another 324 on the drawing board.  If replacing fossil fuels is a genuine goal, these reactors can't come onstream fast enough.

Leave out nuclear and how long it will take to get to a preponderance of renewables, even using Germany's high standard of adding 0.7 trillion kwh of clean energy per year. Well, even I the most optimistic scenario it would take close to 150 years - by which time this planet would be on the verge of being another Venus.

Given this, one thing the Green New Dealers don't need is flippant or stupid comments, remarks. As Michelle Goldberg noted in a recent NY Times op-ed Ocasio-Cortez’s staff certainly "made a huge mistake by releasing a flip document about the Green New Deal  resolution saying that it will be impossible to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes in 10 years" .  This was like a gift, providing Republicans an opening to claim that Democrats want to "ban hamburgers and air travel."

Conservo hack Michael Barone (writing in a rag called 'The Washington Examiner') actually claimed the Left - using the Green New Deal - wanted "to abandon even 20th century technology and go back to the 19th century" - including wagon trains and old style steam locomotives.

Of course,  that's nonsense but Dems must be savvy enough to grasp the Reeps and conservo nabobs will search for anything to paint the D progressive wing as commies, out of touch or nuts.  See, for example, my post from yesterday referencing a recent  WSJ  op-ed by Lance Morrow.  This preposterous  piece of twaddle inflated a number of minor progressive proposals (e.g. from the left's LGBTQ  and MeToo wings) to make it seem like progressives as a whole were planning the overthrow of Western civilization. Seriously!   

Meanwhile, Ms. Goldberg also cited. Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith who made a convincing case for a version of a Green New Deal that emphasized funding the development and export of green technologies and also included a carbon tax and carbon tariffs. The United States, after all, is responsible for only about 14 percent of current global greenhouse gas emissions.   But in a hypothetical future where America became a leader on climate, it would probably have to use economic incentives to get other CO2 spewing nations to cooperate. 

But all of this may merely be dodging the core issue: Can alternative sources of energy support this nation's energy demands in 10 or even 20 years?    The $64 question is: Can adequate alternative energy sources fill in most of the gaps, say when the last break -even oil is exhausted and only the very expensive to drill form remains? It’s all very well to speculate and ruminate that future energy needs will be met, but the question remains: HOW? When one does the math, and in particular pays attention to the 2nd law of thermodynamics (the entropy law)  and the ‘net energy equation’. At the heart of all salient considerations to replace fossil fuels - especially oil -  is the latter (cf. Physics Today, July 2004, p. 51)

Q (net) = Q (PR) – [Q (op) + E/T]

To fix ideas:  The planet was endowed with roughly  3,000 billion barrels of oil – of which we’ve consumed 1,700 billion barrels but only  300 billion barrels of relatively cheap oil remains (assuming increased deep sea floor drilling), after which 500 billion barrels of “break-even” oil remains.  Arrival at the latter phase means the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) is close to zero. In effect, for break-even oil one would find Q(net) = 0

Thus, there is no net gain in energy given the quantity accessed is basically the same as that which must be used to obtain it.  This is what we are approaching now with shale and tar sands oil.  Here's another alarming aspect:  As that usable, higher EROEI oil is depleted how much renewable energy in the form of solar, geothermal, wind, etc. is needed to replace it to sustain our industrial society which also depends on an extensive military component?  It turns out a lot and vastly more than is currently  coming onstream - if nuclear energy is omitted.

Here's an even more sobering wake up call:   The stage is set to add 25 % MORE humans by 2050, topping off at nearly  9.5  billion.  This will necessitate - if we still plan to retain solar in the mix - converting an area the size of Europe to solar panel arrays. In addition, to feed all those hungry mouths, we will need to add an agricultural area the size of the whole continent of South America - especially given how the eating habits of Chinese and Indians have now altered to become more "American" (e.g. much more meat, like steaks, etc. - which re-acquire vastly more water and resources to produce)

The bottom line here isn't very pretty. It reads like this: Alternative energy sources - no matter how many are incorporated - will provide only a very marginal, fractional benefit unless:

a) humans majorly reduce their birth rates around the world, and

b) Our concentrated energy use society is rendered much more delocalized and diffused so that it can better adapt to the diffuse,  lower quality capacity of alternative energy sources.

I suspect neither of these will occur, meaning that as we approach the climate change critical stage, there will be literal hell to pay and no real "Green" salvation to spare us.   The most alarming recent revelation concerns the much more rapid warming of the oceans.   Laure Resplandy, a geoscientist at Princeton University who led the startling study published  in the journal Nature  noted:
"If you look at the IPCC 1.5C, there are big challenges ahead to keep those targets, and our study suggests it's even harder because we close the window for those lower pathways. A warmer ocean will hold less oxygen, and that has implications for marine ecosystems.  There is also sea level, if you warm the ocean more you will have more thermal expansion and therefore more sea level rise."
The critical element is the fact that as waters get warmer they release more carbon dioxide and oxygen into the air.  As Dr. Resplandy made clear:
"When the ocean warms, the amount of these gases that the ocean is able to hold goes down,"  

"So what we measured was the amount lost by the oceans, and then we can calculate how much warming we need to explain that change in gases."


"We thought that we got away with not a lot of warming in both the ocean and the atmosphere for the amount of CO2 that we emitted.  But we were wrong. The planet warmed more than we thought. It was hidden from us just because we didn’t sample it right. But it was there. It was in the ocean already".

Given ocean temperatures are rising more rapidly than previously calculated, that  leaves nations even less time to dramatically cut the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide. That is, assuming there is any hope in limiting global warming to the ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.  Many newer results show this is overly optimistic and neglecting other factors in play, e.g.
The takeaway here?  While the Green New Deal definitely sounds promising on its face,  doing the math shows that it simply can't achieve what it claims to in the time - say 12 years.  Certainly not without massive infusions of nuclear power.  This doesn't mean doing nothing, but the humans on this planet have to understand that they are the source of most of the greenhouse gases. 

Cutting human numbers, despite what the loopy economists say (i.e. regarding the need for "more economic growth") is a major first step.  That will mean less CO2 churned out, by fewer autos and coal -fired plants, and less need to chop down more forests. It also means not allowing human numbers to reach anywhere near 9 billion in 30 years. We need, in other words, massive  birth control expansion as well as massive nuclear energy expansion. And that will be just to contain the most dire effects of a rapidly warming planet.

There are bound to be affirmative voices that the Green New Deal can work (see links below), but I'd challenge any of them to do the same physics and math and still claim the plan's objectives can be attained in the given time frame. Especially if nuclear energy is not part of the solution!

See also:


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