Human civilisation has a voracious appetite for energy
Modern civilisation needs lots of energy for manufacturing, food production, transportation, heating, cooling, lighting, national security, waste recycling and water treatment. Economies thrive on cheap energy, and without government intervention that is nearly always fossil fuels. (70-85% globally)
Abundant energy underpins our comfortable middle class lifestyles, and made possible the abolition of slavery. It is the miracle that is enabling conditions for human beings to keep improving. However, unless we can develop sufficiently cheap and convenient zero-carbon energy sources, today’s emissions from fossil fuel energy are going to ruin everything.
How can emissions be reduced? The Kaya Identity
The Kaya Identity is an equation for calculating total greenhouse gas emissions:
Emissions = Population x GDP per Capita x Energy per Unit of GDP x Emissions per Unit of Energy
What this shows is that emissions can be reduced in four ways. Reducing the first two is not popular. The last two can be summarised as:
- Increasing energy efficiency
- Reducing emissions from energy production.
Unfortunately, increasing energy efficiency often leads to higher emissions owing to Jevon’s Paradox: Increased efficiency => lowers costs => increases demand => increases deployment. An early example is James Watt’s improved efficiency steam engine, which ushered in the industrial revolution. A more contemporary example: today’s improved efficiency airliners have helped enable a boom in air travel.
Reducing emissions from energy production is being done most successfully today by switching from coal to gas powered electricity. Nonetheless, and despite $billions spent on renewables, emissions keep increasing. This is because renewables are not a complete solution, for the following reasons:
- Today’s electricity infrastructure is not suited to intermittent generation
- The main ‘peakers’ available – to fill intermittency power gaps – are carbon intensive
- No economic electrical storage is on the horizon to replace today’s peakers
- A very large, expensive grid infrastructure upgrade would be needed to accommodate an ‘all-renewables’ solution.
A famous claim was made several years ago by Professor Mark Jacobson, that the USA’s entire energy needs could be met by renewables and hydro power. However this was debunked in June 2017 in a study of Jacobson’s report by the National Academy of Sciences, as explained by them here:
Current Nuclear Power
The other mainstream source of electricity is nuclear power. Unfortunately however, public perception of nuclear power is misguided by unscientific media and Green NGO fear-mongering. This is despite the strong evidence that small doses of radiation are harmless, and probably even beneficial to health. See Radiation: The Facts
It is important to find ways to keep as many of today’s nuclear power stations operating until cheap molten salt reactor power becomes the energy of choice, replacing fossil fuelled power.
Brief introduction to current nuclear energy technology: