The energy challenge

I just went to the first of a new lecture series at Caltech, NRG 0.1, during which various experts are going to be discussing various aspects of the energy problem (for which read “challenge”) that the world is facing.

This week was Steve Koonin, former Caltech provost and physics professor, and currently chief scientist for BP. I thought it was an excellent talk, covering a lot of the different aspects to the energy question, and some important principles that need to be kept in mind when looking for solutions in the near and medium term. I particularly enjoyed (and, yes, this probably says something about me too) how the talk assembled a large collection of numbers into a few key “back-of-the-envelope” facts, and then analysed the various options in terms of these constraints. While I’m not going to summarise the whole talk (which will hopefully be available here soon), here are some of the things which stood out:

2050 / twice pre-industrial
By BP’s Business as Usual (BAU) analysis, sometime before 2050 CO2 will hit twice pre-industrial atmospheric levels. This is a tipping point in many models, and so serves as a useful “safe” upper limit. Anything we do has to have a big effect well before 2050.

Running out of oil vs. global warming
A few years ago I was more concerned about the former; now I think I’m more concerned about the latter. The global economy is handling the high oil prices very well, so non-conventional oil, like oil sands in Canada, really start to look accessible. Oil prices may stay high, and national concerns about oil supply security may discourage oil use, but I think it’s here for a few more decades. My take home message: global warming will be solved, or not, before oil runs out.

CO2 has to drop hugely
CO2 has a lifetime of many centuries once it’s in the atmosphere. Thus to reach CO2 stability at twice pre-industrial levels by 2050, we actually need to cut emissions by about half from today’s level. (A useful figure: due to CO2 longevity, a drop of 10% in CO2 emissions growth delays by about 7 years the crossing of any given atmospheric CO2 concentration). But by business as usual estimates, economic growth, even including historically extrapolated improvements in efficiency, will have raised emissions by a factor of 4. So we have to improve somehow by a factor of 8. As Koonin points out, efficiency gains are generally overwhelmed by increased consumption.

CO2 drops have to start now
As CO2 stays in the atmosphere, delaying change by a few years’ delay makes the required drops much larger in future. Furthermore, the main drivers of emissions (power plants, houses, cars, etc.) all have lifetimes of decades — so the power plants being built now will still be emitting by 2050. Basically, if nothing dramatic changes in the next 5 to 10 years, stability by 2050 becomes nearly impossible.

Many “solutions” just don’t scale
There’s huge enthusiasm for corn-based biofuels in the US at the moment. Koonin’s figures were that about 20% of the corn crop is now going to fuels, contributing about 2% of the US’s transport fuel needs. This doesn’t scale to solve the problem. Another example: solar. It’s a lot more expensive, and so will never be accepted commercially. But even if it was, we need to cover (if I recall the figure) a million rooftops with solar panels every year, starting right now, to reach stability by 2050. I’m not sure if that was globally or just the US.

$30/ton CO2
Currently, emitting CO2 is free in most places (Europe is a partial exception). That makes coal the cheapest power source. Most emissions reduction schemes assign a cost, one way or another, to CO2. Koonin had an interesting comparison graph: below about $20/ton CO2, coal remains cheapest. Above about $40/ton, there are no further major changes to the ordering of energy sources. So the magic number of balancing economic cost and yet still changing behaviour is around $30/ton. This would add only about 15% to the cost of petrol in the US or SA, and a little less in Europe, say. So the biggest changes will be in fixed electrical generation plants (which anyway are the biggest emitters).

The plan
Koonin’s take on matters, and I think I agree, is that given the size and cost of the changes needed, as well as their urgency, market forces have to be used to make changes. That is, we can’t pick an “ideal solution” and decree that that is what will be done — the political will isn’t there over the time scale required. Rather, the correct policy incentives need to be put in place right now — like a fixed, predictable cost for CO2 (which, interestingly, argues against a cap-and-trade approach), for the next 50 years. Without such definiteness, it becomes really hard for power companies to spend, say, an extra billion dollars now on a power plant that does CO2 sequestration.

Koonin’s roadmap would seem to be: policy incentives right now, leading to CO2 sequestering power plants still running predominantly off fossil fuels; a growing but still far from dominant contribution from sustainable power sources; and revolutionary improvements in next generation biofuels (using plant material that we do not, in fact, want to eat). He justifies hope in a biofuel revolution by pointing out that biotechnology is a very young and rapidly developing field — unlike, say, fusion. He also thinks there’s a chance for a solar revolution, but not with current technology.

As I overheard a participant say on the way out, though, “He could have given a much more pessimistic talk with the exact same slides”. We do have to make immediate, dramatic changes to an area of human endeavour that has vast pre-existing infrastructure, very long time-lines and huge costs. This for a problem that is hard to easily demonstrate now, and exists over a time scale far longer than political cycles. I think there’s a fair chance that, come 2050, we’ll have to be involved in some sort of huge active geoengineering (ie. a modification designed to “cancel out” our CO2 emissions), in order to stabilise the climate.

9 thoughts on “The energy challenge

  1. Very good post. Given the political will in the world at present, the future looks quite gloomy. It does help to have sound and clear explanations from authoritative speakers – particularly ones who can make the complexity relatively simple.


  2. Hey Bob,

    Well summarised, I think.

    Some interesting articles have popped up recently with ideas about how to combat global warming on a, well, global scale. These range from altering the surface of our oceans (quite ambitious) to layering the space around the Earth with energy-reflecting particles (VERY ambitious).

    Regardless, it’s going back to what you mentioned about one all-encompassing solution; that is to say, I don’t think we’ll be able to implement one in time. Certainly not if that time is 2050.

    On the other hand, even multiple solutions with an acceptable combined efficacy could be murder to try and implement across the globe. The worst of the “polluters” don’t really seem to see eye to eye in any case.

    If you think about it, it’s quite impressive that Koonin managed to make all this seem optimistic, isn’t it…



  3. @Chris: Mmm, those are some big ideas! It’ll be kind of ironic if after all the science fiction, the first planet we land up terraforming is Earth! But yeah, the disagreements between different countries are really tricky… Hey, here’s an idea: you know biology, right? Can’t you make something to, you know, solve the problem?

    @Stuart: That website is apparently run by “Steve Milloy, long time tobacco, drug and oil industry lobbyist” []. There’s a useful rebuttal to one of the other posts on that site here Basically, having skimmed the article you link to, I would say that most of what Junkscience writes is correct (like CO2 being necessary, and that humans contribute only a small amount of the TOTAL greenhouse effect). But then there’s some dodgy arguments around climate sensitivity to try to justify why the results are minor. They say that doubling CO2 would “only” increase temperatures by about 1C, which is probably a little low, but regardless: that rapid a change, magnified at the poles as changes are, is quite enough to have huge effects! And, of course, CO2 levels will continue to rise quadratically from that point onwards.

    But this is the problem with global climate change, compared to say the ozone hole. For the ozone hole what did the trick to change the laws was a very graphic photo of the ozone hole by a NASA satellite. There’s no such “magic picture” for global warming, so there’ll always be people arguing that something else is going on — much as we’ve seen for HIV/AIDS. And this slows the response down. In the end, there are three points that are vital to me: (1) The vast, vast majority of scientists in the field have no doubt that we’re changing the climate; (2) this is far too big a risk for us to merely wait and see, and earlier we start changing, the easier it will be; and (3) we’re well on the way to DOUBLING the levels of a vital component of the atmosphere! It seems to me that we should naively expect that this should change something! The burden of proof should surely be on those who are trying to argue that such a huge change WON’T cause a big effect.


  4. @Paul (who else?): Biology is probably easier to work with on that kind of a scale, in that if you DO manage to crack a solution, chances are you’ll have created a self-sustaining one. The down side of using biological factors to solve, say, CO2 emissions, is that you’re never sure of the exact impact you may have on a large scale.

    An example I came across recently is a project that wants to use seabed microorganisms: they propose bringing them to the surface, pumping things like iron into the water and, by letting them flourish, allow them to soak up huge amounts of CO2. Trouble is, no one can say what happens when they die: does the carbon really sink with them & get sequestered in the seabed, or does it espace back into the atmosphere, having been multiplied a thousandfold?

    Tricky business, the study of life… 🙂


  5. I love his numbers for energy growth. He must think we’re freakin’ magic to conjure all that power out of what we’ve got.

    Given the woefully logjammed, increasingly costly infrastructure and logistics for the nuclear and oil & gas sectors my worry is we’re going to blow out the economy (through $120 oil) before we can implement any meaningful policies.

    Once the global economy is staggering, then trying to load an additional cost like carbon taxes on top will become political poison. Unless it can be made very, very reasonable and attractive, then China and India (with 1/3 of all humans) who use coal for ~50% of their power generation are going to counter any loss in other fuel types with coal. Given the choice between living in poverty and taking their chances that they will be able to weather whatever a ‘changed’ climate is like, I would guess that most people will take their chances.

    Second gen biofuel (cellulose crackers) would be great – Fusion would bounce us into the realms of ‘free’ power. But this is betting an awful lot that we can just pull a tech solution out of a hat.


  6. That’s a very good point — given the choice between definite pain now, and potential really bad pain in the future, most people are going to go for the first option. It’s kind of ironic: if the economy is doing well, we have money for changes but economic growth itself is making the energy problem worse; if the economy does badly we don’t have the will to make changes. Wow, that’s a happy thought.


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