Despite the content of most of my blog entries, I am fundamentally an atmospheric physicist, and only a computer geek by proxy. I’ve resolved as a new years resolution (yet again) to spend more time actually thinking about atmospheric physics. I’m resolved to live up to this by having at least one blog entry a week on atmospheric science (setting little targets does seem to work for me). However, in an act of pseudo-procrastination, I’m avoiding “atmospheric” physics for “environmental” physics first up.

I was reading two excellent articles in Physics Today: One on the hydrogen economy and one on basic choices and constraints on energy supplies (hereafter Weisz). The latter was full of really good quotes:

Energy demand by humanity continues to rise ... While total demand is, of course, influenced by personal demand, even unusually large (20%, say) conservation efforts would be nullified by population growth in less than 20 years.

This argument is often used by those arguing against the Kyoto agreement as a justification for doing nothing about greenhouse gases. Of course, it doesn’t reflect the economic pressures that obeying the Kyoto agreement would bring. Once it becomes economically viable to look at alternatives, then some of that energy consumption could be achieved without releasing carbon dioxide pollution. So, in and of itself it’s not an argument against Kyoto.

The Weisz article while not being about greenhouse issues per se (it’s more about the impending energy crisis) addresses some of the realities associated with “alternatives”:

many of the ideas researchers propose cannot significantly impact the real magnitude of the energy problem or may provide only short-term relief.

As he says, our basic choices of energy supply are limited:

  • using stored energy, and
  • harnessing incident solar energy.

The former category includes

  • Nuclear energy, and
  • Fossil Fuels
  • Geothermal

The latter includes:

  • hydroelectricity (yes it does, how did the water get up, to extract energy bringing it down?)
  • biomass
  • wind
  • solar cells etc

The article analyses most of these in real terms of what they are likely to do to address the energy requirements. It’s a very accessible article, so I’ll not repeat much of it here, but I did like the following

More than ever since the beginning of the energy revolution, knowledge of the basic nature and limits of energy is needed to realistically determine and carry out effective policy designed to guarantee reliable energies in the future. That could well help ensure the survival of civilization. As H. G. Wells once remarked, "Human history more and more becomes a race between education and catastrophe."

Another important point was his quotation of some Masters work from the 1970’s where Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen observed that:

most economists believe that "the economic process can go on, even grow, without being continuously fed low entropy," which in a thermodynamics context means "without receiving new energy."

As a consequence

As we approach the limits of our easy access to energy, the defining economic currency will be dominated by availability of energy units rather than by an artificial currency, be that gold or dollars.

Weisz goes on to state two realities:

  1. The economic value of an alternative energy technology depends on the net rate of energy QNE it will deliver after the rate of energy production QPR is debited by the energy consumed for its operation QOP and the energy invested in its creation E during its lifetime T:
QNE = QPR - (QOP + E/T). 1. Economic value is affected by policy. Things with negative QNE can become profitable with appropriate government subsidies (ie E and/or QOP become smaller).

This is my point about Kyoto.

Weisz concludes with

In particular, an urgent commitment to solar and nuclear energy technologies appears to be mandatory for the long term.

even though fission can only be a stop-gap solution.

Speaking personally, right now I see a negative QNE for putting solar heating in my home, but I know that’ll change (even here in the UK). Similarly, I have heard that chimney-size rooftop wind-power systems will be released later this year for less than 1000 pounds … at that cost, it’s likely individuals can start to make a difference …