499: What sets limits on pollution, part 2: some answers

August 24, 2021 by Joshua
in Podcast

The notes I read from for this episode:

I asked many questions on the last episode. The core ones were “why aren’t we switching to renewables and not polluting faster?” I know we can’t switch overnight, but what sets the pace? Do we know if the limits will go away, like we just need to build more factories, or maybe they won’t, like what led us to retract from supersonic flight? It worked in some ways, but not enough. A mix of social, business, engineering, and physics issues pulled us back.

How much farther can advances go? Can we expect as great advances as the 747 compared to the Wright brothers’ first plane? How much of the solar power hitting the Earth can we effectively use?

I point you to a paper called Pulling Back The Curtain On The Energy Transition Tale, which I link to in the notes. It’s not peer-reviewed, but shares all its sources. It looks at the limitations of renewable energy sources. What does it take to build solar and wind farms? How many do we have to build? How many can we? Things like that. I recommend reading it. I’ll share some highlights, or lowlights.

[EDIT: They published a peer-reviewed version of the paper: Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition, by Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees]

To start off, most, about 80 percent of energy comes fossil fuels directly, like heating iron to make steel. Some processes can use electrical power but not all. They cite sources that generating that 20 percent of electrical power would cost $11 trillion for solar cells, just a small part of over $250 trillion, though it would have to be in the desert since we couldn’t transmit it far from there. We’d need to grow the grid 14 times faster than we are to do it by 2050.

That’s still not covering fossil fuel things like heating and container ships. We’d have to build solar and wind farms 3 to 4 times faster than ever every years until 2050. Since they last 15 to 25 years, once finished, we’d have to replace them all.

Making the solar cells and windmills requires steel, cement, concrete, and other materials that require temperatures we so far only get from fossil fuels, so we’d have to keep burning them to create the would-be sustainable renewables, but they aren’t sustainable if they require fossil fuels in perpetuity. They also emit greenhouse gases. The paper goes into more detail about alternatives like biogas that don’t work for other reasons. For one thing, land we use to grow fuel we aren’t growing food with, but we’re projected to need all that food.

Building solar panels requires fossil fuel-burning temperatures. The processes produce toxic by-products and other greenhouse gases besides CO2. They require some rare minerals that may run out and so far have often led to human rights abuses in mining them.

Since they operate a few decades, disposing of them may lead them to be 10 percent of electronic waste. Recycling materials so far use techniques that expose people to toxic waste.

Batteries and other storage require hundreds of times more capacity than we have. “The world’s largest battery manufacturing facility—Tesla’s $5 billion Gigafactory in Nevada—could store only three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand in its entire year of production. Fabricating a quantity of batteries that could store even two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand would require 1,000 years of Gigafactory production.”

The paper goes into more detail about limitations of batteries and other storage worth reading. Any number of its points might be enough to derail renewables.

“Large cranes (used to load and unload cargo, in large construction projects, in mining operations, and more), container and other large ships, airplanes, and medium and heavy duty trucks” may never be able to run on batteries or anything other than fossil fuels.

Wind turbines require magnets that require rare earth metals whose mining produces toxic and radioactive waste. The blades are fiberglass that can’t be recycled or reused. Making the towers requires fossil fuels to make the steel and power the large vehicles to transport them. Installing the towers requires heavy trucks and machinery that batteries can’t power to dig deep and manufacture the materials. Plus they use a lot of cement and concrete, which emit a lot of greenhouse gases.

Technology may overcome some of these problems, but remember, these technologies were supposed to solve the problems of past technologies, which were supposed to handle the problems of technologies before them. The paper doesn’t say it, but each solution seems to require more work than all the ones it replaces. Why should we expect this round to be the last when each before only enlarged the problems? Every indication suggests more problems to come with all the waste to manage, manufacture that doesn’t go away, and raw materials we’ll keep needing, destroying the environment and creating deadly working conditions.

The paper then goes into hydropower, fission, and fusion. Hydro has few places that can be dammed left. Fission would need many more to be built, but they take long times and have big waste management issues. The paper details many problems with fusion that may never be solvable—high operating costs, huge needs for water when many areas humans live in are becoming arid, time to build if ever feasible, and so on.

The paper covers carbon capture and storage, mainly pointing out that no viable schemes exist nor on any remotely useful scale. It covers the social exploitation that has always accompanied mining the materials needed for batteries, magnets, and other material parts of renewables.

It talks about physical limits to potential advances. Most of these fields are mature and the technologies reaching those physical limits. Solar cells can’t produce much more power per area than they are, nor can wind.

While cars and bicycles can run from batteries, large trucks for transportation and construction, planes, and freight ships can’t. Probably whole systems of trains can’t run on renewables or at least would need an expanded grid whose construction would take away from the rest of the economy. All high-speed rail projects in the US run over in cost and time.

As for flying, you’ll get to hear the details from the chief engineer when our conversation emerges from the editing pipeline. My high-level takeaways, though, are that batteries add weight and are near their limits on being able to hold enough energy for a long flight and to deliver power fast enough without overheating. These two properties—holding energy and delivering power fast—tend to be exclusive. If you improve one you lose the other. To fly a heavier plane requires moving slower, but planes can only slow so much. It means fewer people and different plane design, but plane design is a mature field. No one knows any new advances. They’re mostly implementing old ones that the industry didn’t use because it optimized for profitability, not sustainability, before pollution became the issue it did.

I understood from him that currently no technologies allow for flights of the capacity, speed, and distance we now consider normal. If we reached the limits of all technologies, I understood we still couldn’t fly dozens of people thousands of miles. Going from North America to Europe would require stopping over in Greenland or Iceland not to recharge, which would take a long time, but to change planes, which would require lots of extra planes on the ground, which adds costs and pollution to manufacture extra planes.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic would now have a huge bottleneck if we could even fly those distances, build enough planes, and generate enough power to charge them in Greenland and Iceland. How many flights per day could these small islands process? Could we cross the Pacific at all by plane?

I’m not bringing these points up to bring you down. I didn’t make up this research. I learned of it through podcast guest Dave Gardner’s podcast Growthbusters episode Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Green New Deal, featuring Megan Seibert, who explains this research and her views. She’s part of the Real Green New Deal project, which I also link to in the notes.

It seems to me if you have to cross Death Valley, it’s useful to know how much water you need and can bring. If we don’t have enough, nobody wins by starting to cross, knowing we won’t make it.

By contrast, reducing consumption and birth rate require no new technological advances, cost little money and probably save more, and when implemented in voluntary non-coercive ways have improved measures of health, longevity, prosperity, abundance, and stability. Solutions exist, just not the ones we’ve fantasized for generations would work.

Living much simpler lives is beyond possible. Contrary to mainstream beliefs, it means what I believe anyone would call a better life not despite not flying all over the world at whim but because of it. Living as our ancestors did doesn’t mean 30 becomes old age or we lose science. On the contrary, probably more longevity and more meaningful interaction with nature.

Life can be great living sustainably. Our entitlement holds us back, not a physical lack of viability.

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