Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Energy too cheap to meter

I’ve been reading up on energy policy lately – it’s important stuff. One piece that really sticks out is Peter Schwartz’ glowing presentation of ”How clean, green atomic energy can stop global warming” in Wired Magazine some months back.
There’s something very attractive about the spirit of optimism and the drive towards a bigger, better future that Peter Schwartz and GBN a
argues so compellingly for in his papers – like the ”Long boom” vision back in the pre-dot.com crash days.
There’s a very important component in Schwartz’ article: it offers a vision that you want to believe in and pursue. Try to read the final paragraph of his article:

” The more seriously you take the idea of global warming, the more seriously you have to take nuclear power. Clean coal, solar-powered roof tiles, wind farms in North Dakota - they're all pie in the emissions-free sky. Sure, give them a shot. But zero-carbon reactors are here and now. We know we can build them. Their price tag is no mystery. They fit into the existing electric grid without a hitch. Flannel-shirted environmentalists who fight these realities run the risk of ending up with as much soot on their hands as the slickest coal-mining CEO.

America's voracious energy appetite doesn't have to be a bug - it can be a feature. Shanghai, Seoul, and São Paolo are more likely to look to Los Angeles or Houston as a model than to some solar-powered idyll. […]

Nuclear energy is the big bang still reverberating. It's the power to light a city in a lump the size of a soda can. Peter Huber and Mark Mills have written an iconoclastic new book on energy, The Bottomless Well. They see nuclear power as merely the latest in a series of technologies that will gradually eliminate our need to carve up huge swaths of the planet. "Energy isn't the problem. Energy is the solution," they write. "Energy begets more energy. The more of it we capture and put to use, the more readily we will capture still more."

Wouldn’t it be wonderful! The way I read it, these sentences argue that energy consumption is at the heart of our civilization. The more energy we consume, the more powerful, comfortable and generally highly developed we become. We should harness and use energy freely, apply it in abundance to amplify our power and continued progress from primitive being to some yet unknown ever-evolving superior state of humanity.
We’re just not going to get off the ground unless we exploit the ressources around us.

In a way I agree. We’ve gotta move forward, and I enjoy a nice warm house, jet travel and global consumer choices as much as anyone. Energy is the key to all of this.

Here’s another quote:
”Wouldn't it be a blast to barrel down the freeway in a hydrogen Hummer with a clean conscience as your copilot? Or not to feel like a planet killer every time you flick on the A/C? That's how the future could be, if only we would get over our fear of the nuclear bogeyman and forge ahead - for real this time - into the atomic age.

If only our energy consumption didn’t wreck the biosphere. If only nuclear energy really were as un-problematic as Peter Schwartz argues that it is.
My fear is that there ARE serious hidden costs – and not just in terms of pollution and security, but more fundamentally with the materially focused, get-ahead-culture that his words project.
It’s great to make a splash and deem it progress, but if it leaves everybody else worse off, and in fact corrodes our common basis of existence, maybe it would be better to focus less on transcending the human condition and fullfiling consumer fantasies – and concentrate more on simply keeping our civilization going through what could be a very severe situation.

You can’t save your way to grandeur. Maybe we need to ”forge ahead into the atomic age” in order not to be swamped by the problems we have created on our way to here. But then again, maybe there’s a more nuanced way of proceeding: acknowledging that there’s more to life than barreling down the freeways; some values that are not as dependent on massive injections of energy.

Yes, I’m split, confused, scared and tempted.

... a final comment: To some extent we all have our opinions shaped by who’s paying the bill. Reading his articles in Wired magazine one should be aware that this is not written a journalist. I can’t help wonder who Peter Schwartz’ clients are – a little disclosure would make it easier to asses the paper.

1 comment:

James Aach said...

I don't blame you for not being as confident of our nuclear future as some of the "experts". I've worked in the nuclear industry for over twenty years, and I'm not sure what our energy future should be. But I know we'll do a better job of figuring it out if we have a better understanding of our energy present.

One thing missing in the nuclear energy debate is a firm grasp of the American nuclear industry today – just what exactly is going on behind the security fence? Few outside the industry have a clear picture of this. Unfortunately TV, movies, magazines and academic books have not captured the real story in a way the general public can understand and appreciate. Things are much different than you might imagine. (Both good and bad.)

In response, I've written “Rad Decision,” a techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry, which is available at no cost on the internet. The novel provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of a nuclear power plant and how an accident might be handled. “Rad Decision” is at RadDecision.blogspot.com.

"I'd like to see "Rad Decision" widely read - Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog.

Take a look at Rad Decision - you might enjoy it. (If you do, please pass the word.) There are plenty of comments from other readers on the website.


James Aach