The Problem of Scale

It’s the essential challenge of our attempt to wean ourselves from old, reliable fossil fuels for energy:

From the dust-blown steppes of Inner Mongolia to the waters off Shanghai, China installed more wind turbines in the first half of 2010 than any other country — 7,800 megawatts of potential power production, or more than the United States, the European Union, and India combined. In fact, in northeast China alone, autumn and winter winds now produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, roughly 5.5 percent of the total power generation in the region. That’s up from 534 million kilowatt hours just five years ago.

But despite this rapid progress, wind energy still only generates a tiny fraction of China’s electricity. Indeed, even with aggressive government backing and green energy mandates, such “new energy” — including wind, solar, nuclear power plants, and biomass — accounts for less than 3 percent of China’s electricity production, compared to more than 70 percent provided by coal, which produces roughly 3 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every metric ton of the dirty, black rock burned. And as China’s economy continues to expand at a dizzying rate for the foreseeable future, wind and other renewable sources of energy will not even be able to keep pace with new demand, meaning fossil fuel burning will continue unabated.

This is hardly unique to China. In the U.S., electricity produced from the breeze has increased 13-fold in the past decade, yet still only provides 2.3 percent of the country’s electricity — compared to just under 50 percent provided by burning coal. Even Denmark, which has done more than any other country to boost wind power, struggles to integrate an intermittent generating resource into a grid whose customers expect the lights or the television to come on whenever they flick the switch.

As the world attempts to wean itself from fossil fuels — a result of the converging desires to combat climate change, improve energy security, and create green jobs — renewables such as the sun, wind, water, and hot rocks will play a larger role. So will energy sources, such as nuclear and natural gas, that are cleaner than the current favorites, coal and oil. The question is: Can any of these resources — or even all of them put together — begin to approach the scale needed to transform the world’s energy supply?

And even if the world’s economies can muster the resources and willpower to wean themselves off fossil fuels, how many decades will it take? And can we move fast enough to stave off the potentially calamitous effects of climate change?

Read the rest on Yale e360.

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Can the world handle 2 billion cars?

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TECHNOLOGY DIGESTION: Chinese automaker and state-owned enterprise now builds the "Granse" minibus pictured here based on the "Granvia" minibus by Toyota the company used to build as part of a joint venture with the Japanese automaker.

Maybe, maybe not. But we’re certainly going to find out. The blossoming love affair between middle class Chinese and cars means we can expect hundreds of millions more of the infernal combustion machines in coming years.

But a world of 2 billion cars is also a world with a different climate, more sprawl, more mining and certainly more conflicts over resources (whether oil or lithium). Is that a world we want to live in, whether the cars are electric or not?

China has invested heavily in infrastructure to make the country car-friendly: roads, bridges, tunnels—an orgy of construction that happens to double as a stimulus plan. A pristine four-lane toll highway leads out of the city of Shenyang in northeastern China and every other Chinese city of size, most empty except for a few trucks and official convoys speeding past in their specially licensed black sedans. But within a few years, the lanes will be crowded with cars and the next cycle of road-building will begin. Beijing started its second ring road in the 1980s and completed its sixth—stretching 187 kilometers around the sprawling capital—in 2009.

Predictable results have followed: traffic jams that stretch for kilometers, sprawling suburbia and rising fuel prices. The vice mayor of Beijing was recently “exiled” to work in Xinjiang province after a debacle of some 30,000 vehicles being registered in a few weeks in December in anticipation of a curb on new auto registry. But the capital’s roughly 4.8 million vehicles have turned the city’s roads into sinuous parking lots and a haze covers the cities of China—a combination of the smoke of a million coal fires and all the vehicles’ exhaust obscuring the skyline with smog’s airlight, turning a Beijing sunrise from rosy to peach.

The Clean Revolution

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Clean Coal?

I continue to work at a snail’s pace on my book (more literally my book proposal) on the slow-creeping tide of change in our energy supplies. I’m not just talking the current fad for wind farms and solar panels on rooftops, but an incremental but monumental effort to replace fire—mankind’s oldest technology, possibly—with some other way of harnessing energy for our needs. This is the work of decades if not centuries. After all, it took millennia for the harnessing of fire to bear full fruit in the form of the coal-fired power plant or an internal combustion engine.

Anyway, thoughts, suggestions, help welcome. The “green” revolution is dead, long live the clean revolution!