A Common Fallacy in the Energy and Climate Debate

Schalk Cloete is a South African research scientist, currently working in Norway on fluidized bed reactor research. Schalk has recently published a string of excellent energy policy essays, including the captioned piece explaining why it is the developing world that matters. If one only follows the usual media you would have been taught that saving the planet from climate change depends on America passing “cap and trade”, or German citizens paying extraordinarily high energy prices to subsidize wind and solar.

The reality is the developed world must help the developing world to rapidly decarbonize at levelized costs comparable to building more coal plants. The following charts summarize where future CO2 emissions are going to come from – both are courtesy of ExxonMobil’s recent “Outlook for Energy“: 

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In the real world China, India, Brazil and the other developing regions are going to be focused on growth, on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. As the Google Foundation phrased it “Cheaper than Coal” is the only way forward that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases. In brief the Greenpeacers trying to shut down American nuclear plants should be helping the Chinese climb the nuclear deployment learning curve safely and rapidly.

I highly recommend Schalk’s essay, which I believe is accurate in all the quoted facts. My only disagreement is that I think he is much more optimistic than I that CCS will play an important role in decarbonization. The essay concludes with this summary (emphasis mine):

What does this mean?

People participating in the energy and climate debate should be very careful of always approaching these issues from a developed world point of view. This view is simply not applicable to the part of the world where the most energy is consumed and the most CO2 is emitted. In fact, two short decades from now, the developing world may very well emit triple the amount of CO2 of the developed world.

It is vital that we accept the objective reality that developing world citizens will not prioritize pollution reduction (CO2 and other) over economic growth unless it is very cheap and highly practical. Clean solutions need to come pretty close to a steady, dispatchable coal-fired electricity supply at $0.04/kWh, practical and reliable new cars at $10000 apiece, and direct industrial heat at $0.01/kWh (coal at $70/ton).

Realistically, this implies CO2 capture and storage (CCS), nuclear and large hydro for electricity, a great focus on more efficient internal combustion engines and hybrids for transportation and CCS for direct industrial applications. The green dream of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and EVs quite simply is nowhere close to being able to facilitate rapid developing world growth (see this previous article for example).

In addition, the green dream is still just a dream even in the developed world (non-hydro renewables provide only 3.1% of OECD energy), implying that decades of typically slow trial and error are still required before this largely theoretical world of distributed and intermittent electricity generation, intercontinental super-grids, smart demand management and large scale energy storage can become a reality. The developing world doesn’t want slow trial and error, it wants proven systems that can drive rapid growth on a very large scale right now.

Unfortunately, the developed world has neglected CCS and is abandoning nuclear, thereby leaving renewables as the only clean energy alternative that can be copied by developing nations. Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that traditional energy sources accounted for fully 96.1% of the non-OECD energy consumption increase from 2011 to 2012 – a value very similar to the 96.5% average over the past 5 years.

Realistically speaking, if the developed world wants to make a real contribution, it should develop and mature clean energy technology that can be seemlessly integrated into the traditional energy systems currently being copied and expanded rapidly by developing nations. CCS is arguably the most important of these with fourth generation nuclear as an important longer-term prospect. It is also important that the developed world curbs its current anti-nuclearism so that this resistance does not prevent the buildout of third generation nuclear in developing nations.

Yes, the green dream is ideologically extremely attractive, but, as this article has hopefully demonstrated, it is simply not compatible with billions of developing world citizens flocking to megacities in search of higher living standards. The premature pursuit of this dream will do little other than sustain the rapid increase of CO2 emissions in the developing world while further worsening the already highly fragile economic situation in the developed world. There really is no need to make things so hard for ourselves.

It really doesn’t matter what a Manhattan party hostess thinks or wants. What matters are the decisions taken by the Beijing bureaucrats.

7 thoughts on “A Common Fallacy in the Energy and Climate Debate

  1. Steve Darden Post author

    No – as I wrote:

    My only disagreement is that I think he is much more optimistic than I that CCS will play an important role in decarbonization.

     CCS is just a concept. We all hope it can be made to work at a price that China, India et al will pay. But success requires some magical thinking. No opposition from affected population, no lawsuits by “environmentalists”, radical innovation on efficiency, availability of accessible long term geologic depository, construction of all the new infrastructure to transport the CO2, etc.

    It doesn’t matter that coastal progressives in America might be willing to pay 50% or double for their electricity. If China doesn’t go for it it is irrelevant.

  2. Frank Eggers

    I’ve been exchanging messages with someone in Germany. He supports the phase-out of nuclear power and seems almost certain that through R & D, renewables will become practical. He’s especially concerned about nuclear waste. Of course I have no way to know whether his position is typical. Once people have embraced a position, it is very hard for them to change positions regardless of the facts presented to them, and the facts are rarely presented. To me it seems irrational to depend on solutions for which the practicality has not been demonstrated.

    Another objection I hear to nuclear power is that to solve CO2 emissions problems, we have to expand clean energy generation far faster than could be done with nuclear power. They seem unaware of how quickly France went from 0% nuclear to 80% nuclear, a feat that could not be accomplished with renewables unless there are radical breakthroughs in technology.

    As you imply, most people seem unaware that the principal source of CO2 emissions will be developing countries and that to raise living standards of the poor people of the earth to a minimally acceptable level will probably require at least three times as much power as we now generate. Probably we will have to use considerable power to desalinate sea water because of water shortages in many areas.

    A large part of the problem is the difficulty in disseminating accurate information to the public. I have yet to see comprehensive and accurate information, even on PBS, in the media regarding nuclear power.

    I wonder where we’d be if the automobile had been rejected and R & D on it halted because so many motorists broke their arms while cranking them.

  3. Steve Darden Post author

    Thanks – I appreciate all your very on-point comments. 

    A large part of the problem is the difficulty in disseminating accurate information to the public.  I have yet to see comprehensive and accurate information, even on PBS, in the media regarding nuclear power.

    I wish I knew a bit about German politics. My impression is their proportional voting system results in a number of minority parties – which can sometimes wield power far in excess of their voter support. E.g., the “green party”, which seems to have hijacked the whole country – committing future generations to a dirty-coal nation with ridiculous energy prices.

    On your point, please ask your correspondent if there are any politicians who are trying to educate voters about the real-word of energy supply and demand. Is there no party who is interested in a realistic path to a zero carbon energy world?

     

    1. Frank Eggers

      I sent him a link to this thread; we’ll see whether he responds.

      If Germany is anything like the U.S., those politicians who understand energy issues may be afraid to make any attempt to educate the public; it could be political suicide. I greatly fear that reasonable energy policies will not be implemented until the unreasonable policies have so seriously failed that the failure is inescapably obvious.

      1. Steve Darden Post author

        I greatly fear that reasonable energy policies will not be implemented until the unreasonable policies have so seriously failed that the failure is inescapably obvious.

        That is a concise summary of my outlook. It seems to be a characteristic of democracies that they are unable to take a long view. But they do eventually change course when they arrive at the abyss.

Comments are closed.