Future Nuclear Renewables

What is your energy philosophy?

People seem to like to infer motives. (Perhaps it’s an inherent evolutionary trait, allowing anticipation of your prey’s or predator’s next move?) I find that a lot of people get me wrong about my position on energy and sustainability — often deliberately so, I suspect. So here’s a post to clarify my position, and allow you to let others know about your philosophy (in the comments below).

Consider this a personal view, but one I would justify as being informed by extensive reading, talking and thinking. It doesn’t mean I’m right, just that I’ve made the effort to properly contemplate. I think that’s all you can ask of anyone — you, or the people you’re debating!

General philosophy: Anthropogenic climate change is a very urgent problem — probably the most serious one now facing humanity. We must solve it: there is no choice here and hiding our heads in the denial sandpit is pointless. We must also deal with other issues of global sustainability, especially clearance and degradation of tropical landscapes, overfishing, fragmentation of natural habitats within urban-agricultural areas, and chronic pollution from fossil fuel combustion. Most of these problems have common solutions, centred on the need for abundant clean and sustainable energy (not less), ‘techno-fixes’, stabilisation of population, provision of viable economic and agricultural systems, and a functioning, realistic and pragmatic society. We need to use all practical, cost-effective and timely options at our disposal.

Climate change: Human activity, via the burning of fossil fuels and also through agricultural and forestry changes, is almost exclusively (>95 %) responsible for the substantial global warming witness in the last 3-5 decades (+0.5C). It is also mostly (>70%) responsible for the warming since 1910 (+0.8C in the last 100 years). The most likely trajectory for the next 40 years (through to 2050) is an additional +1.2C (to +2C compared to pre-industrial), and a further +3C by 2100. There is some (low) probability that feedbacks in the climate system will double the 2100 estimate (or more) — much as I’d like to, I cannot dismiss this possibility. Sea level rise by 2100 will be > 1 m, and will continue for centuries thereafter (probably >10 m by 2300). Some of this may be avoidable, but I doubt it — especially the +1.2C warming between now and 2050 and the ongoing sea level rise. We’re just too far committed to a fossil-fuel-intensive pathway now and for the next few decades, and it will take substantial time to ‘turn the ship around’. There is plenty of hurt on the way — we can adapt to some of it, but many impacts will be difficult to ameliorate.

Peak fossil fuels: We are depleting accessible supplies of coal, oil and gas substantially, and peak global production of traditional sources will almost certainly arrive within the next few decades — probably sooner rather than later (although locally, they will continue to be abundant, e.g. coal in Australia). This will increase extraction and processing costs, which will in turn spur increasing exploitation of unconventional supplies, including underground gasified coal, coal seam methane, fracked shale gas, tar sands and Arctic hydrocarbons. It may be that demand will outstrip supply by about 2030, after which there will be an increasingly compelling reason to manufacture synthetic fuels such as ammonia, methanol and (I hope), serious investigation of boron as an energy carrier. Carbon prices will accelerate this decision. Peak fossil fuels will not, in and of itself, lead to significant greenhouse gas abatement this century. Too little, too late.

Exponential growth: Nothing can grow forever — obviously. As a scientist who’s done research into regulation of natural populations, I appreciate the concepts of carrying capacity, birth-death balances, overshoot, and so on. However, I do not think it likely that the global human enterprise will ‘crash and burn’. There is a lot of inertia — and resilience — in our society, which frankly hasn’t been tested seriously since 1939. But it will get a good run over the next few decades. I suspect that growth in the next 50 to 100 years (I dare not look further than that) will increasingly shift to areas of the economy that are not dependent on — or at least reaching the limits of — primary natural resources. Areas of ongoing expansion might include knowledge systems, cyberspace, mineral resources, energy intensification, and so on. Most of the world’s fisheries will be exhausted, and perhaps 50 % of today’s tropical forests will be gone by 2050. About 10% of species will be extinct by then, and perhaps twice that percentage will be ecologically dysfunctional (and most of these committed to future extinction, once lags have played out). Mainstream ideas around a steady-state economy will gain traction in the coming decades (see Footnote), but will take many years, more national defaulting, and considerable soul searching, to achieve — if ever. Growth forever might be possible, if we make the break to outer space (I’m only half joking here).

Geoengineering: We will need to do this. The most plausible option is stratospheric aerosol seeding using high-flying aircraft, and an international agreement on this will be reached by 2040. The most attractive option is CO2-drawdown via enhanced weathering. I think we will do both, on a large scale, by around 2050.

GM crops and nanotech: Essential for adapting our agricultural production to climate change, lower fertilizer inputs, pesticide resistance and the need for increased productivity to meet rising population demands (increasing human population size [until around mid-century, topping out at 9 billion], and more kilojoules per person). Benefits of GM seem to far outweigh the risks, and a scientific approach should be taken to testing, deployment and monitoring. In a related matter, sea water desalination will be needed on a large scale. For desal, I also think the benefits generally outweigh the impacts, provided the energy inputs come from zero-carbon sources like nuclear, wave and solar.

Energy: My primary focus is to advocate for a decarbonisation of the global energy supply — encompassing electricity, transport fuels and industrial uses. To this end, I support a rational (science-, engineering- and economic-based) deployment of nuclear fission, fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, and various renewable energy technologies. I see costs and benefits for each choice, and I judge them primarily on the basis of carbon intensity, cost, sustainability, dispatchability, scalability, timeliness and risk. Landscape impacts, visual amenity etc. are a fairly low consideration for me, on balance. I would like to emphasise here that I am NOT a ‘pro-nuclear advocate’ (as some like to label me) in a way that I see all things nuclear as good and other options as bad. No — I simply see nuclear fission as ticking more boxes than any other current technology — and Generation IV nuclear especially so. However, if some improved form of solar, or geothermal, or whatever, can do better than nuclear on the balance of these criteria in the future, then I’ll switch my principle support to them. No problem — whatever works best, overall. By 2050, my best guess is that 40 % of global final energy will come from traditional fossil fuels, 35 % from nuclear fission, and 25 % from some mix of biomass, hydro technosolar renewables, and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. I will flesh this out a bit in a future post.


Where do you stand? (I’ve probably missed stuff — feel free to propose areas of global significance that I’ve overlooked).


Endnote: This post was partly motived by a recent essay from George Monbiot, called Out of the Ashes. In it, he argues that now, 2011, is the time to start planning for a new economy, not dependent on growth. Whether you agree or not, I recommend you read it — it has a lot of useful material for underpinning an informed opinion on this matter.


Footnote: You may have noticed on the BNC left sidebar that I now have a Facebook page for the site. If you’re so inclined, “Like” it! BraveNewClimate on Facebook


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

189 replies on “What is your energy philosophy?”

You didn’t mention this, but: Although it would be decades before the payoff, I think it is short-sighted for our country to pull back on space exploration. There may be water and minerals to be mined (by robots) on asteroids and comets. I’d also like to think that solar energy will be more feasible as time passes and innovations continue.

So far, I haven’t seen proof that GM crops reduce the need for pesticides, and we have not yet determined the effects of nanotech on our health and environment, or the effect of GM farming on the diversity of our seed supply.


I have a machine as a philosophy. It’s called the Tripe System. http://www.environmentalfisherman. Track-Pipes carry compressed air as a fuel, and hydrogen, and lots of things, natural gas, broadband, water, sewer, many conduits in the pipes. The Tripe is also a new two hundred year design for rail and monorail systems. Commodity pricing for compressed air will be the norm, and air will be everywhere. Conversions from hydrogen to electricity, along with more efficient electrical systems and downsizing etc. this will work. 11 pages, illustrated, the machine is my philosophy largely, but the economics are there too. Offshore wind and wave horsepower, my specialty, will go into the pipes, no losses with bottled energy, like a water system. Distance is not a factor. Geothermal, solar load the pipes too. We’re hung up on electrical. Let’s center of finding that common denominator between the old and new. Tripe, that’s the job.


Cooool….a new genre of science fiction: “Pipe Punk”. William Gibson would be proud :)

Personally, and there aspects of “open thread” here, so, there is something of a combination of all of them. But it starts from my socialist philosophy that states that scarcity is the cause of social dislocation; war, barbarism, economic crisis and climate change. Scarcity is based on class society, simply put, haves and have nots and the political system that insures there will be haves and have nots.

To eliminate scarcity (beyond by own philosophy on this) means an *exponential* and *planned* growth of the forces of production. We seen this happening on a haphazard, response-to-global-trade, on a national basis as countries in Asia rush to industrialize to sell commodities to Europe and the US.

To eliminate this insane anarchy of production, we need planning, agreements and so on to bring developing countries productive forces up from what they are now to something approaching Brazil, Chile and some of the more ‘advanced underdeveloped’ countries. To get 2 to 3 billion people with out a “light swtich” and to get advanced countries off of FF, we need to MORE energy not less.

My philsophy says we need abundence to solve the social needs and desires of 7 billion people. I believe it can be done with a lot of local control, national and international planning but all of it is predicated, at least from a tech POV, on a truly massive development of energy.


My energy philosophy is simple; Give me cheap gas and plenty of it. I want more and more fossil fuels and I want it cheap cheap cheap. Wahoo!

If you want to build wind turbines and solar panals on your property knock yourself out. Just stay out of my way.



HAving been rather thoroughly through all the energy options, quite independently of Brave New Climate, I come (reluctantly) to much the same conclusion: only mostly nuclear can provide the energy for the foreseeable future.


Too many gaping holes in this post to even start thinking about filling them in.All I can do is label the whole thing Panglossian and move on.


Thanks everyone for the feedback.

Podargus, I don’t consider the need for geoengineering, my guess at the extend of global warming, forecast lack of short-term action on fossil fuel abatement etc. as overly optimistic. Perhaps you could outline a few key reasons what aspects you are more pessimistic about, and the underpinning evidence. Even covering one of your argued gaping holes in a little more detail would be helpful as a way of gauging the reasoning behind your pessimism.


I’m a fan of ‘what works where it works’.

A global statement of X technology is the solution ranks right up there with selling iceboxes to eskimo’s IMHO.


Geoengineering, GM Crops, and Nuclear Energy — You must be a fan of Stewart Brand’s new book, ‘Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto’.


Much of the current unrest in the world appears to be a result of factors like food/energy prices,
lack of jobs, debt fuelled economies, environmental degradation, climate change etc.
This needless suffering can be greatly reduced by exploiting scientific knowledge
to leverage abundant natural resources (like air and sea) in a sustainable way, generating
vast employment to build the required infrastructure to secure a reasonable future for our children.
Economic growth is really tied to knowledge not resources, and need not be reduced to zero for a sustainable future.

As readers of this blog are well aware, nuclear energy must ultimately become a major part of
the solution to energy scarcity and reduced climate change.
We know that all the energy we could ever want is in the rocks and sea water in the form of natural uranium and thorium,
and can be used with negligible impacts to the environment.

What about humanity’s ecological footprint?
Can we use the abundant clean nuclear energy available to us to reduce our footprint in the face of population growth.
It’s well known that one of the most effective ways to reduce population growth is to raise the standard of living of the poor
especially when coupled with the emancipation of women. This implies the use of more not less energy which we have a solution for, but
what of land/resource use? How can we feed all these people as we raise standards of living.
This problem of land use will only be exacerbated by dilute renewable energy technologies like wind, solar and biomass.
For example, is it possible to shift bulk food production to industrial scale manufacturing with a minimal
footprint compared to traditional agriculture?

We could use zero carbon energy (i.e. nuclear) to synthesize small/simple organic molecules
(e.g. glucose, ammonia etc) from CO2 and N2 in the air and H2O from seawater desalination.
This could be done at or near the sites of nuclear power plants.
Desalination and ammonia production are well in hand and are already done on a industrial scale with reasonable efficiency.
Extracting CO2 from the air is the most energy intensive part of this solution since its concentration is so low
compared with that of N2 in air.
From thermodynamics we can estimate the minimum amount of energy required as approximately -k*T*log(p)
per molecule of CO2, were p is the concentration of CO2. We can already do this by modifying a cooling tower
and using a hydroxide to capture the CO2 from that air as cools the plant at about twice this minimum energy expended.
Much of the extra energy required can come form the plants waste heat.

Some portion of this organic molecule stream can be diverted to feed GM/synthetic bacteria (e.g. Craig Venter’s work) to build
complex organic material like proteins/fats/starch/vitamins etc.
These organic materials can be combined to produce feed for animals/fish-farms, and synthetic bulk carbs like flour for
human consumption. Some of these materials (like ammonia and H2O) would also support traditional/GM agriculture for foods that
cannot be produced synthetically (e.g. vegetables etc) as well as more intensive urban agriculture approaches like food towers.

This should dramatically reduce our ecological footprint since the efficiency with which we can synthesize simple organic
molecules should be considerably higher than natural plants. A plant has to build very complex structures for it’s own survival,
as well as food for humans and must be fertilized/irrigated and protected with pesticides and herbicides.
This requires an enormous quantity of resources and land use for relatively little output.
We just have to build simple carbs/nitogen-componds and let bacteria handle the complex stuff.
This would also help secure some portion of our food supply from the vagaries impending climate change.

I’m optimistic that these problems can be solved (hopefully in ways much better than I just described) and the only
really scarce resources required will be knowledge and will.


At age 73, I remain a registered professional control systems engineer (CA, CS-400). One would think I would have had enough of energy by now.

My energy philosophy has evolved to “Energy Abundance with Carbon Conservation.”

ENERGY ABUNDANCE: People who live with electricity have life spans twice that of people who live without electricity. Two billion people around the world still do not have any electricity . . . the world must consume more energy, not less.

Prosperity depends upon energy. Population size is far more stable in countries where the average per capita energy rate is 2,000 Watts or more – Canada is 11,000 Watts, Ghana, 533 Watts.

CARBON CONSERVATION: Humans survive and thrive by feeding on energy from the “fresh” carbon of plants and animals. Modern economic societies survive and thrive by feeding on energy from “ancient” carbon. Neither humans nor societies can starve themselves strong.

GLOBAL WARMING TIP from an old engineer: We have to expand our nuclear thinking beyond power plants to include all large sources of heat. The world’s really big fires burn 24/7/365 silent, hidden, unnoticed in big boilers in every town everywhere. Just look for tall smokestacks in your town.

The stationary boilers that power modern societies cause about 2/3 of all Global Warming. In general, the technology already exists to safely and economically replace all large stationary fossil fuel boilers – say, those over 5 megaWatts thermal – with nuclear fueled boilers of similar size. Sub-megaW(t) fossil fuel boilers can be replaced with nuclear powered electrical boilers.

Electricity generation accounts for about 35% of all Global Warming and the 1,200 mega-sized members of the world’s 30,000 member fossil fuel power plant community account for 85% of electricity’s contribution to Global Warming. This fact tells us which power plants should be the first to be converted from fossil boilers to nuclear boilers.

Switching to nuclear heat will both minimize further Global Warming and preserve the remaining carbon reserves for those applications where electricity simply will not suffice – such as chemicals and plastics.

Jim Holm


Interesting read, and @Dino Rosati I thought that was interesting too. I am far more settled in these matters than I was a few years ago. I caught the tail end of a lecture at Adelaide Uni from Don Clifton the other week that got me thinking again though. He was exploring the I=PAT notion, Impact = Population*Affluence/Technology. It would appear that the T we seem to love to depend on will need to be very, very big indeed to head off some pretty horrible impacts. Dino Rosati seems to love a big T, and it makes for a cool read but just how fast can we role this stuff out? Much like renewables, it’s the pace of implementation that matters as much as the possibility.

I broadly agree with Barry’s position on most of the matters he chose to focus on but wouldn’t regard them as 100% fixed yet. However, in terms of my effectiveness in making the world a more sustainable place, it has been pretty helpful to develop sufficient conviction in a couple of key areas (climate must be stabilised, plentiful clean energy is a requirement) that I am not hamstrung from action by feeling I need an answer to every problem in the world before I do a single damn thing about any of them. That’s known as despair in my head, and it gets me nowhere.


General philosophy: As a Process Control Engineer, who’s dotty doctoral supervisor was fond of saying “we engineers solve all the problems and then the accountants put them back in again”, left me with a highly pessimistic outlook as money is the manipulator.

Climate change: Unequivocal. Current question; is it likely as bad as is predicted or WORSE. I have a 34″ yacht handy.

Peak fossil fuels: In a presentation, Kjell Aleklett sighs and says (paraphrasing) “we’re just going to have to let them ‘run out’ of [oil, gas, coal] unfortunately, they won’t stop”. Then you understand what he means when Exxon see the ice-free Arctic as an opportunity to exploit the area!

Exponential growth: Understanding sustainability is our greatest test. We’re running out of intelligence, water, potassium and helium among other things.

Geoengineering: We will have to do this. The CWM (Conservative White Males) who oppose AGW will be on board because it likely involves deploying massive, energy wasteful technology essentially like airborne SUVs that spray things. If they have guns as well, even better. They can clean up the mess.

GM crops and nanotech: Nanotech no probs; keep it off your skin, don’t eat it. The current GM crop proponents see it as an industry to control the plant cycle. Monsanto will rule you. Chemical use promises are not proving true, with seriously resistant weeds already appearing. Lesson? You won’t beat nature if you’re aiming to make money as priority number one.

Energy: I’m curious to see what the Germans will do, they may go backwards first to go forward. The plan is due at the end of the year or early next year, no? Replacement coal is likely to be supercritical and with CHP plus have the approach of the Chinese; old plant retired for each new one commissioned, so emissions do fall.

In Australia, I hold out hope that we won’t need nuclear power with CSP w/storage, geothermal (money needed), wind and PV being our alternatives. Prices are falling pretty rapidly really. It’s politically more palatable and big money is getting involved; Areva, BP, superfunds, investment capital organisations people on the street have never heard of. We may use some gas top-up on the way through during the transition.

The vested interests will fight like hell to retain the existing system until it collapses; regardless of the approach, this will be the expensive bit, not the cost of new supply. Privatising electricity in Australia will eventually be seen as a mistake; it should have remained a public utility/good. We could at least vote to end fossil fuel use early as privatisation has been no protection from rising prices.

We’ve mobilised some private capital for a power result with home PV. It should have just been mandatory to have a system for every new home or home that changes hands. Then there is still a huge untapped “resource” of efficiency. Just head out to the new suburbs and see all the new houses in Australia without solar hot water, you KNOW we aren’t trying that hard.

Having said that, I can understand the approach of the Chinese, in India and perhaps even Indonesia but I expect their operation of nuclear with be fraught.


Barry – thanks for summarizing your position. I haven’t spent anywhere near as much effort on working through my own. I certainly agree with all your points and am essentially taking them as my starting point, though I’m a little more worried about a civilization crash than you seem to be. That worry is through intuition more than any actual analysis. Ugo Bardi on Cassandra’s Legacy has just posted The Seneca effect: why decline is faster than growth in which he models systems that show the effect. (Bardi’s a curiosity to me – he seems to dismiss nuclear fission entirely. I haven’t looked deeply enough on his site to find out why.)

In my own thinking I try to use the expression “long term” rather than “sustainable” or “renewable”. Both of the latter two, IMO, make people think only of wind and solar energy. I want to discuss what we want and where we’re going, rather than technologies that might or might not help get us there.

Charles Barton on Nuclear Green recently reposted the 1959 Alvin Weinberg paper ENERGY as an ultimate raw material, or problems of burning the sea and burning the rocks. Weinberg begins

My purpose in these remarks is to speculate on the role of energy in the “Asymptotic State of Humanity”—that is, the state toward which we are moving, inexorably, because man’s urge to multiply is limitless whereas his resources are finite.

I think this one needs to be read and discussed widely. It’s time to model and discuss asymptotic states; I’d like one that features nonzero human population, long term stability, rich biological systems on Earth, and societal vision and goals that will spread us, our descendants, and life out into the cosmos. (That’s just me, you understand. ; D )

52 years later Weinberg has the right us why we haven’t done anything about all of this? Let’s not have our grandchildren asking us the same. We can’t leave it at Oliver Hardy saying to Stan Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”


@Decarbonise SA, point well taken.
If the current state of US politics and European economics is anything to go by, we’re in for a rough ride.
It’s going to be a while before we start to turn this ship around,
but at least the technologies we need to accomplish this daunting task are near to hand.
I’m still optimistic of our long term prospects, as for the short term … not so much.


@ Jim Holm on 1 September 2011 at 9:08 AM – thanks and it’s good to see you’re here. You posted your comment while I was typing mine. I absolutely go along with your plan, but I’d still like to see the longer term vision in place as well. That vision has to be something more rational than the Star Trek or Star Wars universes, but with the same mythic, emotional appeal. Dystopias need not apply.


My energy philosophy is:

Get rid of as much fuel fossil energy as fast as possible, and never mind the risks and costs of doing so.

Venus syndrome uncontrollable runaway global meltdown will kill anybody on the planet if it happens.

There is no cost and no risk worth even mentioning compared to that.

That is still true if the effects are milder, like 70 meter sea level rise and the Sahara extending into Italy.

All sources of carbon free energy need to be deployed at full speed. There is not one single solution, and bashing some carbon free source because you like another one better is only helping fossil fuel.


Karl-Friedrich Lenz, on 1 September 2011 at 10:02 AM — The various low (fossil) carbon sources have different costs and enviornmental consequences; neither is a matter to be ignored.

For example, it appears to me that where wind power is installed, CCGTs are sure to follow. This is, unfortunately, an environmental consequence of wind power which is widely ignored.


@David Benson

All these small differences don’t matter compared with the risks of global meltdown.

If you fire your gas turbine with hydrogen made when there is more wind energy than demand, there is no carbon cost. If you use fossil gas, you still save carbon with every watt generated by wind.


Karl-Friedrich Lenz, on 1 September 2011 at 11:25 AM said: If you fire your gas turbine with hydrogen made when there is more wind energy than demand, there is no carbon cost.
Work out actual feasiblity [this might work!] and the LCOE.

If you use fossil gas, you still save carbon with every watt generated by wind. Yes, but not much. Only about 27% around here.


Some very good comments & thoughts here.

I broadly agree with Barry’s post above, however I think I’m a lot more pessimistic than he is. :-(

I disagree regarding stability of the “global human enterprise”. I think when some of the major impacts of climate change start to arrive, that it *will* “crash & burn” – as a global economy, that is. Some of the likely impacts will be devastating to some national economies – what’s the cost of, say, 1m of sea level rise resulting in coastal cities flooding on every spring tide?

Add in heat waves & droughts that might cut global food production by 30-40% in any given year, combined with 20-30% more people, and the economic costs will bankrupt nearly every government on the planet. I fear famines like the current one in the Horn of Africa will become common, and wars will be fought over access to water & food.

Is it avoidable? I think that yes, it is, with enough effort in the right directions. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see that effort until it’s far too late – the political & ideological blinkers seem far too firmly attached.

Technological approaches (such as the accelerated weathering for sequestration of atmospheric CO2) could help fix the problem, but I have grave doubts that any government will be able to afford it when it becomes obviously necessary, as they’ll be spending every cent they’ve got (and more!) trying to adapt to the changes that are already locked in.

Just look at Hurricane Irene. Estimated total damages are approaching the $10 billion mark, and that was just a Category 1 hurricane. With the other 9 billion-dollar weather-related disasters the US has seen so far this year, it’s getting expensive even for them, and it’s barely started.

All this doesn’t make me feel too good for my daughter’s long-term future, but at least we’re lucky enough to have been born in a first-world country, where people have the luxury of spending inordinate amounts of time & effort complaining about the ‘cost of living’, talking on their $700 phone while driving their SUV home to their McMansion with the 60″ plasma connected to a pay-TV subscription that costs more than what half the world’s population earn in a month.


Great post Barry. This sort of orientation really helps progress the debate.

I have recently been engaging the antinuclear crowd in Glen Innes through facebook. The response was quite hostile, as might be expected. Simple arguments about energy, cost and climate involving numbers just went *whoosh* straight past people and got zero traction. So instead I wrote a piece about my motivations that broadly touched on the same issues as you give here, and a fair chunk of hostility just evaporated. While people weren’t agreeing with me, they were at least more prepared to engage and thereby to listen.

Interestingly, of all the comments I put on this group’s facebook page, the only one they chose to delete was that one. Apparently the most challenging point I made was that we were working from the same motivations.


I agree with pretty much all of this post, but don’t think the GM crops and nanotech belong on the list.

I understand why they’re there – they have been demonised by the usual suspects, in my opinion in an attempt to diversify their businesses with new product line extensions to sell alongside their already very successful Antinuclear Fear (TM) products. Genetic Modification Malarky (TM) and Nanotechnology Nuttiness (TM) currently have modest market share but perhaps may one day become solid stand alone businesses.

But saying you support genetically modified crops is no more than saying you support farming. Its just another agricultural technology among many that are more frightening. Supporting nanotechnology is the same as saying you support materials science. Or medicine. Or computers. Or chemistry. Nanotechnology is just what we used to call chemistry, and a few other allied sciences.

So we should farm better. And make better batteries. And smarter tablets, both the medicines and computer types. And it shouldn’t be contentious to say this.


@David B. Benson

Enertrag (a leading German wind power company) is working it out right now:

I don’t know about LCOE, but it makes sense for the wind power operator to use the energy somehow if they can’t sell the electricity.

And the point of my philosophy is that I don’t care ever so much about cost in the first place. It is always a bargain compared to the costs of global meltdown.


Karl-Friedrich Lenz, on 1 September 2011 at 12:41 PM — You ought to fix your page to read

kWh for kilowat-hours, a measure of energy

rather what you have which is a rate of change of power. Then you might care to read what Joe Romm has written about hydrogen. Its one thing to store and burn it in an industrial setting, but the stuff has too many hazards to use as-is in automobiles, etc.

And unfortunately, one does have to consider the costs as whatever solutions you propose have to be acceptable to decision-makers (who always care about economics in at least the broader sense).


“Peak oil” is a fictitious deadline for change that will drift endlessly into the darkening future. Let’s not leave room for excuses.

After all, it is our waste that is the problem, not our resources.


Margaret Manzi: The Space Elevator company went broke. I lost a little money. We have to fix GW first because the Space Elevator won’t be ready to lift soon enough to save us and Mars is too dead to be brought back to life in time to save anybody anyway. So I am taking a time out from Space Elevator work to work on GW. We will get back to space elevators when the time is right.

We could build a “generation ship” Orion class starship, but it would take a century to reach the Centauri cluster.

I expect to be stuck here on Earth until the work on Gw is done. After that, we will conquer the solar system.

Human evolution has been driven by climate change before. It will again, first by causing a population crash from 7 Billion down to 700,000 or so.


Climate change is a very serious threat.

As a reasonable policy/economic response to this threat, by 2020 a moderate, harmonized carbon tax will cover most of the world’s CO2 emissions.

By 2050, in response to this economic signal, and through relentless technological innovation, net emissions of CO2 will have turned negative and CO2 levels will be falling.

I’ll guess a mix, in 2050, of 35% nuclear, 35% solar (mostly distributed) and other renewables, and 30% fossil fuels/biomass with CCS.


If the world is not harmonised on carbon restraint by 2020 can some countries punish those who don’t? I think they can. For example if Chindia makes all the steel by then Australia should put a carbon tariff on it. If they don’t like it they can get their coal and iron ore someplace else.

I think there will be a scramble for remaining fossil fuels 2030-2050. If the world is still on 15 TW by 2050 (for 9 not 7 bn people) I doubt fossil fuels can be as high as 40%. It has to be either 3rd-4th generation nuclear or industrial collapse. I personally depend heavily on solar and biomass but I think they will always be minor.


John Newlands, nice to hear your (as usual) perceptive comments.

For those who doubt the plausibility of nuclear, solar, or fossil fuels/biomass each to contribute at least a third of energy in 2050, I will try to give a few links. To start with, here’s one for solar, in which the futurist Ray Kurzweil projects that in 20 years solar can supply 100% of our energy needs.


John Newlands: I think that when China / India wake up to the consequences of climate change on their countries, you might find that they are the ones imposing tariffs on others for high emissions. Both are working very hard to develop non-fossil energy sources – I think China’s current 2015 target is 100GW (nameplate) of non-hydro renewables [ref], and we’re all well aware of the effort they’re putting into nuclear – don’t they have something like 15-20GW under construction, with about 10 times that planned?


I have similar views to Barry on energy, but think the food supply is fundamentally broken so we will see far more “horn of Africa” problems in the future. There is already chronic undernutrition in many countries which doesn’t get headlines.

So consequently I place more emphasis on food problems.

I think GM is a distracting search for a silver bullet solution to what are political and social issues. We can easily feed 9 billion now, but we choose not to. I’ve just spent a month in Switzerland which provided a picturesque example. It could easily feed itself but chooses instead to waste vast areas of perfectly good well watered farmland producing grass for hay instead of cereals for food which it imports because it can outbid any hungry country which might really need those cereals. The same criticism could be leveled at many countries with slight differences in detail.

Not that I have any in principle objection to GM, other than it promises far more than it has ever delivered as a food supply enhancer. GM promises a silver bullet but hasn’t delivered.

Nuclear IS already a silver bullet but we are too irrational on the whole to recognise it.


I see Kurzweil now thinks the ‘singularity’ (techno nirvana) will occur in 2045. Gives us something to cling on to as opposed to living in huts and eating boiled weeds.

I think China and India are having an each way bet on decarbonising. If it happens it happens otherwise burn baby burn. Both countries may have 1bn too many people to achieve a universal middle class. I propose a sincerity test… if they are genuine they won’t mind paying carbon tax on the coal and LNG we provide them.


Barry Brook,on 1 September 2011 at 2:40 PM

I have moved on but,at this stage, I am still reading the blog – must be a masochist.
However,seeing you asked,I will point to a few of the holes.

General philosophy – As we have overshot by a large number our sustainable population in Australia and globally it is not sufficient to merely stabilize population.The last I heard from you that level was around 10 billion.It could be any number to infinity depending on the outlook of the proposer.
The fact is that we need to reduce our population level,hopefully in an orderly fashion.Otherwise it will be done for us in a most disorderly fashion.

Climate change – I’ve got no argument about the effects you describe but they may be a bit on the conservative side – who knows.
But “turning the ship around”can be done in a relatively short time frame if the will is there.Taking a half hearted,pseudo pragmatic approach to this doesn’t advance the cause one bit.

Peak fossil fuels – “Coal abundant in Australia” – sure,and that’s a big part of the problem.The psychology of prior investment and all that.
Until we cut coal down to size in Australia we won’t acheive one damned thing in reducing pollution.

Exponential growth – “growth forever might be possible if we make the break into outer space” – Get real,Earth is the only home we will ever have.Treat it with respect.

Geoengineering – As if the the half smart monkeys haven’t done enough damage already.

GM crops – We’ve been selectively breeding plants and animals for a long time.The technology that is being used today in such a cavalier fashion will almost certainly have unforeseen outcomes,some of them not so favourable, I suspect.

Energy – “Not a pronuclear advocate” – you should be,as it is the only proven technology which can reduce our use of fossil fuels relatively quickly.Having 2 bob each way is not an option in this race.

I’m happy to hear you are reading Monbiot.There are a number of other authors,scientists,theologists,economists sociologists,philosophers,poets etc who have had the same ideas long past.Seems like they’ve been shouting into your “outer space”.


Podargus, thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

1. GF: I don’t disagree that human population size has to ultimately decrease — but there is a lot of demographic momentum. Probably won’t be below 6 billion until well after 2100, barring significant catastrophe (= lots of people dying). I don’t wish this to occur, so the transition must be a result of increasingly lower birth rates, correlated with higher education and health levels, etc.

2. CC – your statement of ‘the will’ is empty. How?

3. Peak – No disagreement on coal.

4. Outer Space – just your humble opinion. I happen to think you are wrong.

5. GeoE – you don’t elaborate on which is better, GeoE or substantial CC.

6. GM – unfavourable effects will probably occur, sure, but I suspect the benefits will outweigh the risks.

7. Energy – you didn’t understand my point. I’m a pro-whatever-works-best advocate. That happens to be nuclear fission (for now). But it’s not about nuclear, it’s about efficient decarbonisation.

Overall, I found your critique to be rather shallow and unjustified. But as an opinion, you are of course quite welcome to it!


@David B. Benson

Thanks for the kw/h hint, I fixed that.

In the present context (my philosophy) the only “decision-maker” is me.

But I do actually make an argument about cost. It is just slightly different than usual. I compare costs of not kicking out fossil fuel (=global meltdown) to costs of low carbon energy. 10 billion euro a year for feed-in tariffs in Germany is a bargain if you look at it that way.


My largest disagreement with Barry is probably that I don’t believe in peak fossil fuels as a serious threat. There is a ridiculously large amount of low grade resources and technology is improving much faster than linearly.

Failure to me looks like taking the peak oil ‘cliff’ of the peak-oil doomers, mirroring it around the y-axis and extending the time scale on the x-axis.

Even worse than unconventional oil is ‘unconventional coal’. There are vast resources of coal that are by no means practical to dig out of the ground; but with underground coal gasification they are quite easily recovered.


Soylent, I agree that this is probably my weakest point. I have a hunch that peak fossil fuels is not a big an issue as ‘cliff’ers make out, but that conventional oil/gas peaks will be a strong motivator to move to the super-abundant unconventionals — this is what must be checked. So we are probably in pretty close agreement on balance.


When we, on this site, discuss the various components of climate change, we share an awareness of things being bad, getting worse, and accelerating into exponential decay. We share an awareness of unsustainable strain on the environment leading to an almost certain catastrophic collapse at some unpredicted point in the future.

However that collective awareness may be because we’re deaf to any signs that a turnaround can be gentle. For example, while we speak of the growth of emissions per capita, we make uneasy references to runaway population growth, unwilling to speak of seemingly inevitable population collapse.

However restraints on population is something which is certainly well discussed in both India and China. Their various programs of population control have had varying degrees of success, which the rest of us could learn from. That would require us to be open to the possibility of a controlled decline in the burden on the environment.

Sure, we can hope that the accelerating rate of climatic disasters will eventually mobilise world opinion. The BNC community is ready with solutions to rescue the greenhouse. However, we also may need our own cage rattled before we listen to solutions that lead to a tolerable rate of decline in world population.


(Comment deleted)
BNC no longer posts or comments on climate change scepticism.See BNC Comments Policy on the About page.


Karl, please explain to me how a false solution such as PV in Germany that locks Germany into using 80% fossil backup, will help with your goal of preventing the Venus syndrome?

If all countries do what Germany is doing, CO2 emissions will rise rapidly.

False solutions are dangerous. If we are indeed starving, then we must let go of the pie in the sky so we can focus on the sandwhich lying on the floor.

My energy philosopy is that of David Mackay: make a plan that adds up. What Germany is doing does not add up, even with a large increase in money throwing.


Interesting post. I broadly agree, with the following observations:-
Entrenched commercial interests will probably resist change until it is too late. This goes across the spectrum of industries. GM foods are a good example, where almost all have been designed to cement market share rather than improve productivity. I don’t see this changing in time to avoid a major food shortage.
Unless we put research effort and seed money into sustainable farming, Gen 4 nuclear, energy storage, geoengineering and many others we risk being caught short if feedbacks are worse than expected, or if multiple problems happen together, which is after all the way most civilizations have failed.
My best bet on the catalyst for change is a financial meltdown; strangely, I suspect the sooner it happens the better, as we still have resources to throw at the problem, and the less co2 history we have to counteract. Not optimistic Jan.
Energy efficiency and a reversion to home veggie patches, chooks etc always gets ignored or derided, but it can make a very significant difference, and is fun. We live a fully “convenienced” lifestyle on 7KwHr/day of solar PV in the Australian bush, and we supply almost all of our fruit and veg, eggs etc from the property and many of the other day to day needs from the local (rural) area. While we don’t travel for work, our transport emissions, while small by Australian standards, is our major element.
I don’t see us being able to sustain the current massive overuse of transport, both to simultaneously import and export similar goods, to ship local goods to distribution centres and then almost back again, or to spend hours per day stuck in traffic getting to and from work. This surely has to change.


Great post. I agree with pretty much everything, though I don’t share your enthusiasm for the likelihood of Homo sapiens ever expanding its range into outer space (though I am curious to know what you’ve read to lead you to this assessment?)

Rapid, global civilisational “crash and burn” scenarios don’t seem very likely (large bolide collisions, supervolcano eruptions or a near-Earth supernova perhaps excepted). It’s the gradual, ongoing and worsening conditions for many in the world that appears far more likely – and sadly, many of those who will feel the pain the most are those who are least responsible for it (as is often the case now). It’s likely we are going to witness a large increase in the frequency of resource wars and starvation epidemics by 2050 (and thereon) as population grows, resources run short and (perhaps most importantly) species go extinct en masse.

The one thing I agree fundamentally on is that we are going to need far more energy to solve or ameliorate the world’s largest problems – definitely not less.


Finrod, on 1 September 2011 at 8:43 AM said:
Some of us have arrived at all these conclusions independently of Stewart Brand.

I’ve read this and other blogs for years, so I’m aware of that. I just noticed the convergence with Brand’s book and this essay and assume that Professor Brook probably enjoys the agreement.

I do think we should be happy that Brand has come to these conclusions. He is quite influential, particularly in some circles, and his support is important.


@Cyril R

I noticed from previous posts in other threads that you don’t seem to be much of a fan of solar energy.

We agree that the plan needs to add up, and that David McKay has some interesting things to say.

If you rule out solar, that makes it so much more difficult to have a plan that adds up. That’s 68 kWh per day you need to find somewhere else in his model.


I want to argue something here that I on occasion have seen written. The idea that Australia is somehow “overpopulated”. This is not a serious contention. It is looking at the biology and geology (not to mention hydrology) is a thoroughly static…ney, ‘stagnant’ way.

I actually think Australia can support, *easily* a population quite larger than it is now. Let’s face it we are talking one compound: h20. If we can increase water on the island continent, your population could come close to that of the US in the 1950, or abut 180,000,000. Would anyone *want that*? No, of course not, but that is not my point.

Barry mentioned geo-engineering. The idea, touted by the Greens, that *any* irrigation projects are bad; that no water from the north, NONE, should be shipped south, or, that nuclear desalination would be crime has got to go amount our crowd.

It has been established that the greening of arid areas causes a general *decrease* in local temperatures. The Arkansas-Oklahoma water works from the Arkansas River basin area lowered temperatures there *on average* 10F. Areas that have been regularly irrigated by your Snowy Mountain project show the same thing.

So if we set our sights on some sort of large desal/irrigation projects the actually ‘carrying capacity’ looks quite different.


David Mackay barely considers economics, and does not tell you explicitly that PV in Germany is not there 89% of the time. He looks at average energy flows, but that hides major problems. Its one of the few flaws in his thinking.

In order to produce 68 kWh per day from PV in Germany you need 25 kWp which costs 75,000 euros. And even then you’ve got no power at night, very little in winter, very little in the morning and evening, and very little when its cloudy. Which is, drumroll please, 89% of the time, on average. 1000 Watts of PV produces 110 Watts on average. Dreadful.

What’s more likely, you think? Germany building a 100,000 dollar per capita battery or just burn some natural gas and coal when it’s not sunny? Burn natural gas and coal of course. It just so happens that Germany has a fairly constant electric demand. So you need power, about 70-80% of the time. Solar is not there almost all of that time. So you burn natural gas and coal. Maybe 20% solar, and then the rest *has* to be flexible fossil. Adding unreliable marginal wind makes it worse, you end up with low capacity credits, having to dump much of your wind and/or solar output, and still burn 60-70% fossil.

You can never do just one thing Karl. Building unreliable solar installations has consequences. Its fossil with a whiff of solar and wind, or nuclear with very little fossil. Those are the options.

I’m not opposed to solar. I’m opposed to investing large sums in marginal energy technologies (which is what 11% capacity factor non-dispatchable power is) and in the process become so complacent with the effort as to shut down nuclear plants, our single biggest solution to the CO2 problem. This is Germany’s reality. I challenge this dangerous fantasy.

Had Germany spent the 100 billion dollar it will spend on total on its PV program (total contract feed-in cost for all systems so far) on nuclear plants it would have eliminated all coal plants.

In stead it uses just as much coal as when it started its solar program in the 80s and 90s.

That’s a terrible opportunity cost. Especially if you factor in the complacency those solar panels have brought about, including closing down nuclear plants.


To Barry Brook and others of a like mind –

“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of ourselves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”

Luceus Anneaus Seneca

Interesting recent article on the Seneca Effect by Ugo Bardi on The Oil Drum

A cursory reading of even recent history would reveal that hubris is also the road to ruin.


Podargus, sorry, you still haven’t convinced me that my philosophy represents excessive pride. Since we’re quoting, I cast this to the thread: “Pessimist: One who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both.” – Oscar Wilde


Agree with Cyril R that Solar in Germany doesnt make much sense. But in Australia it has serious potential at the very least to replace peaking supplies, as the cuts in the various FITs show. Now what we need is storage….


I pretty much agree with you, Barry. In addition to replacing coal now, we should increase research on traveling wave, molten salt, and any other nuclear that looks promising. The only solar that looks like it could be used for baseline is concentrated solar thermal with heat storage, and that so far looks expensive. It doesn’t look good for Alaska, either.

Olivine and serpentine carbon dioxide capture looks good, but taking ten years instead of a few days to react looks more practical. This may be the only way to offset the continued emissions from steel making and concrete, if they cannot be replaced. Spraying sulfur into the air to stay cool is scary, though.


@Cyril K.

To people who want to shut down nuclear because they think 100% renewable is easily done, I say: “Great. Prove it. We will shut down nuclear plants once your promise is true.”

To people who bash solar because they think 100% nuclear is the cheaper solution, I say: “Great. Prove it. We will stop investing in solar once your nuclear power station fleet is providing all we need.”

I assume we can easily agree that under present political circumstances there is no way Germany is going 100% nuclear any time soon. That does not mean I agree with that policy, just to be clear.

Something like 10 billion euro a year feed-in tariff cost is a “large sum” compared to my pocket money. Compared to Germany’s GDP of 2.5 trillion euro (2010), not so much. And, again, compared to the cost of global meltdown, a bargain.


@harrywr2 quotes me as saying that “peak oil” is misleading fiction. That’s right. In particular it panders to the argument that we are running out of non-renewables and therefore must install renewables.

He also points out that even Reuters publish such concepts as peak coal in China. Yes, they probably do. They’re in the business of selling newspapers. Harry didn’t actually say if he believed it, so I don’t need to be tactful when dismissing it as ignorant hogwash.

However readers, what do you say? Tell us something of your own energy philosophy, and if referring to unfamiliar facts, perhaps point to a link that we would respect.


Roger Clifton, on 2 September 2011 at 8:27 AM said:

Harry didn’t actually say if he believed it, so I don’t need to be tactful when dismissing it as ignorant hogwash.

I’ll be much clearer. In most of the world, the point at which generating electricity from coal is the cheapest method of producing electricity has passed.

Peak ‘anything’ occurs when the price of producing a good exceeds the price of a substitute good.

Even in the US Southeast, producing electricity from coal is no longer the cheapest method of electricity production.

If we plug the delivered price of coal in the US Southeast into the DOE levelized cost estimates($4/MMbtu – $80/ton rather then the US Average of $2.24/MMBtu) coal is no longer competitive in the US Southeast. We end up with an O&M cost around $40+/Mwh rather then $23.

Click to access 2016levelized_costs_aeo2010.pdf

Most of the world is paying $125+/tonne for thermal coal which works out to be about $6/MMBtu. An O&M cost for coal of $60+/MWh.

The Chinese aret building 100GW of windmills by 2015.

Maybe they are doing that because they are ‘responsible environmental stewards’ or because it’s cheaper then burning coal.

If I plug the price the Chinese are paying for Australian Thermal coal delivered to China into the US DOE levelized cost estimates, wind and nuclear are cheaper then burning coal in China. The same is true for Europe.


@harryr, thank you for your detailed comment. It would be good to believe that the price of nuclear has dropped permanently below the price of coal. I am under the impression that the current high price of coal is because the expansion of supply is struggling to meet the expansion of demand. Inside China, the railways are already loaded with the traffic of the increased economic activity, effectively overpricing the transport of indigenous coal. However they have plenty of sedimentary basins, and thus plenty of coal resource.

Back to the theme of philosophy, my impression of the usage of the term “peak oil” is more to do with fear than responsible economics. When I hear the term “peak oil”, I have come to expect that somebody is trying to sell me equipment for collecting renewables, electric vehicles, inner-city land, natural fibre clothing, yet more increases in the subsidies for grid-destabilising backyard electricity or a brand-new religion for rescuing you and me from the doom due to all the other sinners.

I’ve also heard “peak oil” used in justification for raising the price of fuel. Since everyone else is using the term for doom-mongering, it should not have surprised me to hear it used to promote conversion to nuclear. However, it remains a distraction from the number one environmental worry: our energy supply’s gaseous waste.


Energy in the fishing (and aquaculture) and farming industries are big considerations to me philosophically. I’m a dyed in the wool organic food nut, no gm crap policies for me. In fact if we were smart we’d subsidize the organic by taxing the gm foods, the pesticides, and the herbicides, and especially taxation of bad soils would be good for the food systems, which are, as a practical matter, a part of the health care systems. We can if we want tie up lots of carbon up in the soils. Soil sterility along with the fossil based fertilizers and various anti life treatments, not in my policy book. Scallops, fish, lobster can be landed in great tonnage, using much less fuel but we’re not trending there at all. We’re not engaged to deploy any of the pilot systems we should be. As in our energy systems the planners and deal makers have too much dinosaur experience, consequently can’t see the forest, as too many trees are in the way.

Commercial fishing systems is my area. Unfortunately we have very bad systems, locally, nationally, an internationally. There’s so many vested interests and conflicts of interests in fishing and farming, and as in oil and utilities, such as Enron, to our dismay money spent in politics is power. is my web page. are social programs first, and not production systems. These systems years ago grandfathered people into the system, which has been socially corrosive, very anti-equal opportunity policy. My fisheries policy is called the Market Quota System which is a poundage fee based system where by the harvests are taxed and then that’s reinvested back into habitat and stock assets. The meat of the MQS is taxes on all externalized negatives, such as bad fishing methods, fish kills etc. and especially upstream pollution, which can raise hell with fishery production. How are we to tackle energy systems reform if simple fishing and farming are too much for us?


I just realised there is a fundamental difference between fishing quotas (or taxicab licences) and renewable energy targets. Left to the market there would more fishing and less renewable energy. With fish the product has willing buyers with renewable energy the buyer has to take a percentage under threat of a fine.

Of course acquaculture can use warm outlet water from thermal plant eg at Eraring NSW
Can’t say if this is efficient, humane or sustainable.


How may wars has the USA been in in the last two hundred years? Nuke may be good, but if they turn bad, for any number of reasons, the negatives can not be lived with. I would like to see the Navy tasked with owning and operating one hundred small, one hundred medium, and one hundred large capacity nukes. These should be mobile units, rail based, or ship based. I think this is sound nuclear philosophy, but if I’m wrong, then, Armageddon. No big deal. That’s why I like wind and wave. I like geothermal, and I like solar. We all do. I like a system, that I invented, to transport and store all the horsepower these great sustainable energy productive systems can make. These beloved sustainable energy systems are largely unusable without the tripe. But with the tripe we can put them anywhere, and scale them way up. Design specific solutions to sustainable energy storage and shipment are few indeed. Why is that? What are we looking for? Do we need energy storage and shipment for our new sustainable solar, wind, wave, geothermal? Is pneumatics, 8,000 psi compressed air, a science fiction project, or yankee smarts? And hydrogen? These things go into pipes. You decide which is best based on fantasy not engineering. It is philosophy. I believe in a machine, but a simple one, that solves the energy crisis while not producing any energy or horsepower. Try the tripe.


John Newlands, Thanks for the link on the new sea worm farm. My experience in aquaculture is with fishery design encompassing public aquaculture. That means we tax the landings, and then invest in things like eelgrass cultivation, which supports scallop beds and striped bass. We use crews from marine labs to do fishery management, instead of industry lobby folks who contain no good judgement in production matters, we raise tiny baby scallops and let them go, under controlled areas, and mother nature raises them. I worked in a hatchery for a couple years. Private aquaculture raises animals up to market size, let’s say the oyster farm, whereas public aquaculture style means a more efficient system of cooperative production along with fishery systems, which are many. So public aquaculture would spread cultch, or shell on public grounds, and seed the grounds, with baby, or seed oysters, and protect same, from predators etc. and tax the landings, for a cash flow. Worms or nematodes are among the most abundant forms of life on the planet.
If you wish to continue this discussion you should move to the Open Thread as it has now become definitely off topic here after moving away from philosophies into techniques. Please re-post in the Open Thread – we do not have the facility to move comments between threads. I will delete the comment on this thread after your re-post but future off topic comments, as per BNC policy, will be deleted without warning.


Energy efficiency in fishery and farming systems are of major concern, and both are on topic in the main article I’m commenting on. Energy philosophy is a good topic. But it’s deep.
Stick to energy philosophy and you are on topic but wander off into fishery practices and procedures and you are not.


This appears to be planet of the techno-cornucopians.

Climate Change is real and is clearly caused by fossil fuel burning. The addition of feedback effects such as the clathrate gun hypothesis makes continued burning of fossil fuels the equivalent to species suicide. If fossil fuels were free it is still too costly to burn them.

Exponential growth: we’re already well past the biological carrying capacity of the planet. Topsoil loss exceeds replacement, fossil aquifers are beginning to tap out, fisheries are depleted and not provided with rest for recovery. Grain production is not keeping pace with consumption on a global basis. A human die-off is inevitable; we just don’t know the date.

Geoengineering: The only geoengineering proposal that yields more energy than it costs is biochar production and fertilization of marginal lands. The rest of the proposals are on par with flying cars.

GM crops: the first wave of GM crops are now being attacked by the first wave of GM resistant bugs, bacteria and fungi. GM crops are a genetic bottleneck that can be exploited by evolving biota faster than labs can diversify the seed strains. The widespread use of GM crops begs famine.

Nanotech: still science fiction hand waving as regards to self assembling anything.

Energy: Solar, wind and conservation strategies are deployable at speeds orders of magnitude faster than nuclear power plants. Of the three conservation will have to take the bulk of the load. Learning to do more with less. Nuclear power is simply not something that humans have the moral or ethical capacity to handle safely. Somebody, somewhere ALWAYS cuts costs or overlooks some safety requirement and plants melt themselves into scrap or become otherwise unrepairable.

The human race was given a great wad of seed money and we blew it on fast cars and jet trips to the tropics. Now it’s too late to change our minds.


Pangolin, you say solar wind and conservation are faster deployable than nuclear.

After 19 years France got to 75% nuclear. They use much less fossil fuel in electric generation today.

In a similar period Germany got to 10% wind and solar and uses more fossil fuel in electric generation despite serious conservation and 100 billion in guaranteed subsidies.

here’s the effect of conservation:

Yes we can and are getting more efficient, and no it will not remove the need to produce more energy. The above is just for Europe, if you factor in China – who has even better energy efficiency improvements but also a higher absolute growth in energy – you end up with a big increase in demand even with the best of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is worth doing, but we need nuclear. It takes a long time to build a nuclear plant, yes, but switching to wind and solar takes a century.


@Cyril R.

Germany already got to over 20 percent first half of 2011, and 3.5% solar (that’s over 300 percent increase in two years time).

Solar took off only about a couple of years ago as a consequence of the 2004 feed-in tariff reform, and it is just simple common sense that putting some modules on your roof can be done much faster than building a nuclear power plant.


Wow, 300 percent increase! Still nothing, its 3.5 percent of total. Wind and solar combined are at a pathetic 10-11 percent. After a greater effort (financially) than France. You must include hydroelectric and biogas to get to that 20% total renewables, and these can’t grow much (also I’m in favor of these energy sources as they are not marginal).

The question is not can we provide x percent by solar, the question is how does Germany kick the fossil fuel habit. Solar is marginal, not being there 89% of the time so you can’t rely on this. However you can rely on Russian gas imports to help Germany out. At a ‘special price’ of course.

You seem to be avoiding the main issue, which is opportunity costs and self-delusion fantasies of the Germans. You can never do just one thing. Putting solar on roofs means burning fossil at night, in the winter – when demand in Germany is highest due to coldness and darkness – during cloudy events – much of the time also by the way in Germany – and during the evening and morning. Gee but that is 89% of the time. Solar in Germany is marginal and adds up only to a costly fossil fuel lock in. This does not solve our fossil fuel addiction, it makes it worse by letting people believe in false marginal solutions.

The problem with solar isn’t the technology, its the resource. The panels are reliable and can get cheaper. The marginal nature of the resource does not change. Battery energy storage costs barely change at all and are prohibitively expensive now and almost certain in the future. Even if they do get cheap it makes more sense to use them in high turnover baseload applications such as storing excess coal or nuclear baseload plant capacity.



“Techno-cornucopian”–sounds good to me.

You say that humans have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity, and that die-offs are inevitable. Presumably you think this will happen even with rapid deployment of solar, etc.

Luckily, we can do better. In the main post “Risk Perception…” of 20 August 2011, Finrod asserts “…the near unlimited potential of nuclear power technology to sustain our global civilization, at well above the style to which the wealthy nations have become accustomed, for such an immense time-scale it beggars the imagination, and its potential to do this with miniscule environmental impact.”

Or for a more comprehensive treatment, see the excellent post “For climate’s sake, nuclear power is not an ‘option’, it is a ‘necessity’. (I’ll give the link in a separate comment below.)

You say that humans do not have the moral or ethical capacity to use nuclear. But actually, if we want to avoid millions of deaths, we do not have the moral or ethical luxury not to use it.


@Cyril K.

The main issue in Germany is that renewable is the only non fossil source in town. I disagree with that, but I am in a minority position of only about 3% of Germans who want to increase nuclear. That’s democracy.

Germany will go to at least 80 percent of renewable electricity by 2050. Shutting the nuclear plants down after that happens would be the better policy, but relying only on renewable will speed up things even more in that sector.


Jim Holm, on 3 September 2011 at 12:26 PM — The current Open Thread. Check the sidebar on the right for current comments.


K-F L:

“Germany will go to at least 80 percent of renewable electricity by 2050. Shutting the nuclear plants down after that happens would be the better policy, but relying only on renewable will speed up things even more in that sector.”

Karl continues to avoid considering the rapid and sustained growth of fossil fuelled power stations in Germany. Hoping to achieve a few more percent solar is fine and understandable, even if at a usorious cost.

His attempts to ignore the fact that 20% (plus or minus a bit) of additional FF power is coming purely because the nuclear power industry is being destroyed wilfully as an environmental fashion statement lack perspective and do not address the biggest single environmental problem over which Germans have clear control.

Destruction of the nuclear power industry is only a bad thing – it far outweighs the good things to which he repeatedly refers and will undo even the most optimistic but unfundable of clean energy dreams, wind and solar. Along the way, the cost will bankrupt the strongest nation in Europe and reduce the german economy to the equal of Greece.

I see no reason to paint closure of the 22 German nuclear power plants and outlawing of replacements as other than what it is, an absolutely disastrous decision on many levels.

Klauss, Germany will certainly not achieve that dream and will go broke if it keeps trying to. What’s the cost so far? 100 billion euros? For 3%? Where can the additional 3300 billion euros come from? Where will the steel, concrete, aluminium and rare elements come from? How many new transmission lines will be constructed through German national parks, just to stand still?

I truly wish that the German plan could be made to work, but it is beyond hope.

Ditto for Japan’s aspirations for a nuclear free future. Exactly the same.


A little philosophising might help us check our paradigms occasionally. The BNC site has shown that we should challenge the dominant paradigm of slow neutron reactors. But there are other standard assumptions that could leave us stuck in the mud for lack of review.

Perhaps we can do things with nukes that cannot be done with classical power stations. For example, you cannot ask miners to drag their mines down to the coast because it is more thermally efficient to provide them with power near a copious supply of seawater. Instead, you ask them, how much are you willing to pay for a water-free design?

“Down with the grid”? One only has to look at the population distribution of any developed country to see that industries have travelled to where the infrastructure is. Nuclear power plants allow us the liberation of taking the power to where the industry is potential. With strategic siting of power supplies, we reduce the need for a copper-wired grid. That’s good when all other power sources (except diesel) require vast tonnages of copper, especially large-scale renewables which will be typically sited remote from their consumers.

Our criterions (okay, “criteria” if you want to be pedantic) need regular review. Perhaps we only need nuclear plants which are cost efficient from the consumer’s point of view. That might mean smaller, autonomous, uranium-hungry units. They might not use steam turbines. They may not even produce electricity, but some other desired product such as process heat, thermolysis, hydrolysis, hydrogen, desalination, defrost or district heating.

For countries which do not have a power grid spanning the country, remote consumers need to start small. Small NP units are easier to make passive cooling, especially if they already have heat exchangers for an air turbine. For similar reasons, they are easier to make autonomous, that is, have no manpower on site. (Perhaps on remote monitoring.)

Can we make nukes transportable? Units small enough to be trucked could conceivably be designed to be transported from one job to another. Consumers could then upgrade to a bigger unit, trading their old unit to smaller consumers elsewhere. Miners could rehabilitate their sites, taking their nukes with them.

Perhaps we need to rethink how capital is assured for a power venture. Small NPP units are easier to raise capital for. When the first unit produces income, subsequent units get more willing investors, for a system in production long before reaching the full capacity of a big unit – which probably couldnt get its gigabucks of capital to even begin.


Roger, coal fired power stations are not built 660MW or 1000MW chunks because they are cheaper on a per-generating-unit basis, but because they are more efficient on a kWh basis.

By all means, construct smaller NPP’s where the load is small, such as for a remote minesite, but I expect that the maths will demonstrate that an 880MW NPP will cost much less than 22 x 40MW NPP’s, to say nothing about the cost of staffing 22 small plants Vs 1 large one and the land area required for 22 Vs 1.

I still hope for Australia and Australians to see the light and to start building two fleets of NPP’s: The first being a string of 500 MW capacity to replace the existing brown coal monsters in SA and Vic, followed closely by a start on a string of 880 or even 1100MW units for real grunt to replace and supplement the black coal units in the Lithgow and Hunter areas in NSW, perhaps also in Victoria. The idea is to avoid having to rebuild our high voltage transmission systems, which already tie up more dollars than the power stations themselves.

The eventual goal would be about 10 x 500MW plus 20 x 880MW for a total of 22.6GW, or 27GW if 1100MW units are used in the second phase.

These 30 units could be constructed at a leisurely pace within in 20 years, for about the same cost as Germany has already blown on wind and solar. That would be the single best thing that we could do to help Australia’s manufacturing industry, for which reliable, cheap and abundant energy is essential.

France has done it, why not Australia?


Karl, as long as you accept the false solutions fantasy of the Germans, you won’t solve the Venus syndrome – you will increase risk of it through fossil lock in.

I’m sorry you didn’t read my previous posts very well.


@John Bennetts >”[one big] 880MW NPP will cost much less than 22 x 40MW NPP’s, to say nothing about the cost of staffing 22 small plants [etc]”

Of course John is right. It would be most efficient to replace heavy duty units in a heavy duty grid with nukes of similar size. However, expansion of demand across the grid may justify a rethink of where to put the generating capacity. And that is one scenario where smaller nukes may provide lower total cost (per kilowatt hour, of course), particularly counting the cost of upgrading the voltage on UHT lines and step down lines in an already existing big grid. Another scenario is inland.

Recently, I toured the dry lands of the eastern US. The main sign of life off the road were the frequent high voltage transmission lines, and the occasional railroad with trains carrying, among other things, coal and fuel. Quite possibly, the flow of chemical energy was travelling in the opposite direction to at least some of the electric energy. It struck me that both could be replaced with nukes at the sites of demand. A big ‘un for Las Vegas and a little ‘un for Mesquite (NV), sort of thing. Certainly the little one being certified for Galena, Alaska will be a taste of the distant future.

Australia is even more wide open (let alone Namibia etc). If you scrape off the E ,SE and SW coastal plains, there are only small grids, well separated. Small grids deserve small nukes. In places as big as Broken Hill , there are probably already available middle sized nukes competitive with gas+pipeline costs. Smaller towns and mines would benefit from small nukes, at least for their reliability compared to diesel.

Well yes, currently small nukes can’t compete with gas, not if the local pipeline has already been paid for. But when we are talking philosophically, we can imagine a future where a worldwide mentality has shifted into a value calculation that favours small nukes, mass produced nukes. And nukes that can do other things than generate electricity, too.


“[,,,]and it is just simple common sense that putting some modules on your roof can be done much faster than building a nuclear power plant.”

Then your common sense is seriously defective.

There is no magical unicorn that craps out highly pure slabs of crystalline silicon. Somebody actually has to make it.

In Germany the average solar irradiance is ~110 W/m^2. A crystalline solar PV is ~10% efficient. You will need to make ~100 square kilometers of solar panels to replace a single 1.4 GWe nuclear reactor(assuming a modest 80% capacity factor).

If you manage to do all this you will now produce as much average electricity as a 1.4 GWe nuclear power plant, but it will come in short ~8 hour bursts around noon. You will have a massive surfeit of electricity during sunny summer days and massive deficits during the long, cold winter.

To remedy this situation you will require massive installation of grid energy storage and massive application of overbuild and diversification of energy sources. Or you can just burn vast quantities of natural gas and coal to make up the balance(most of the energy).


@John Bennetts

I agree completely that the decision to phase out nuclear in Germany is misguided. It is quite selfish of the present generation of Germans not to accept the remote radiation risks and burden future generations with the absolutely sure additional global meltdown problems resulting from that cowardice. It is also quite lacking in gratitude for the efforts of prior generations who developed and deployed that safe and cheap and carbon free energy source in the first place, while all this generation needs to do is keep them running.

However, I don’t call the shots in Germany. A majority of cowardly selfish ingrates does.

At 12 billion per year feed-in tariff costs won’t bankrupt Germany. The foolish decision to bail out other Euro nations might do that. Actually renewable energy lowers electricity costs over the merit-order effect and saves Germany about 2 billion euros a year in fossil fuel costs, a sum that will only rise with more renewable percentage.


@roger clifton “With strategic siting of power supplies, we reduce the need for a copper-wired grid. That’s good when all other power sources (except diesel) require vast tonnages of copper, especially large-scale renewables which will be typically sited remote from their consumers.”

Power lines are made of aluminium and reinforced with steel. Aluminium has a lower resistivity to weight ratio and it is cheaper than copper.

Most of the copper in the electrical grid is situated near the producer and near the end user.(home electrical wiring, burried cables and low-voltage cables used in the “last mile” and various substation transformers, generators etc.).


A 12 billion per year feed in tariff that distracts from the real problem and delays real solutions is going make things worse, not better.

As someone else has coined it, it is ‘how to not reduce emissions at vast cost’.

Marginal energy sources that are more expensive than the marginal production cost (coal 2 cents per kWh) do not reduce prices they increase it. This is a minor point. The major point is the complacency and naivety that solar and wind induce. That is far more risky for the ‘venus syndrome’.

I’d like to point to an excellent energy paper (philosophy if you will) from nuclear engineer Bill Hannahan:

He explains the problems with wind and solar very well.


I believe Merkel has said that they will not let Germany’s gross g-CO2 emissions rise, that they intend to lower further their industry carbon intensity.

In the first instance they appear to be replacing old coal plant with larger (more efficient) CHP-type designs. Secondly, it seems they are committed to only purchasing exported wind (or nuclear), clearly there is a sort-of irony in that. Thirdly, if short-term industry and generation efficiency does not meet those targets they will purchase carbon offsets.

The complete detail of the rest of the plan is currently lacking (from our pov), but I’d rather the German nation set out on this path than many others.


Terry Krieg’s ‘Ockham’s Razor’ gig on Radio National this morning was well presented. At the end, Robyn Williams offered a challenge to those who disagree with Terry’s figures to post comments. By 9:45 there were 2 in favour and 1 against.


Merkel has indeed declared that Germany’s emissions will not rise subsequent to their nuclear closure, and in this proclamation she will enjoy the same success as King Canute’s tidal ambitions, for similar reasons.


As others have suggested here, if nuclear plants are closed they will be replaced either by fossil fuels or renewables that would otherwise have replaced fossil. Either way, emissions rise. Of course those that are able to do basic energy analysis realise that it will be fossil or nuclear; renewables are too marginal (wind, solar) and those who are not marginal are too limited in supply (hydro, geothermal. biogas).


Cyril R., on 3 September 2011 at 10:43 PM said:

A 12 billion per year feed in tariff that distracts from the real problem and delays real solutions is going make things worse, not better.

As someone else has coined it, it is ‘how to not reduce emissions at vast cost’.

Marginal energy sources that are more expensive than the marginal production cost (coal 2 cents per kWh) do not reduce prices they increase it.
The world price for thermal coal has been increasing over the last decade, so as power generators have to negotiate new long term supply contracts, we will see wind and nuclear reducing emissions at a lower cost than continuing to burn coal. I think this explains China’s push to expand hydro, wind , nuclear and solar. Brown coal is a different matter because of the problems of shipping, only a modest carbon tax will shut down brown coal pollution.
At $129/tonne, thats 6-7cents/kWh just for the fuel.Importers have to pay another 1-2 cents/kWh for transport.


@harrywr2, on 2 September
While you are always concise, you sure nailed the concept of “peak oil (coal)” in this one:

Peak ‘anything’ occurs when the price of producing a good exceeds the price of a substitute good.

On your China comments:

(…) The Chinese are building 100GW of windmills by 2015.

A speculation: another factor in China’s strategy may be supply chain leveling. While LCOE is important, speed of delivery of new generation is also critical – it will probably be 20 years before China’s ability to install new generation catches up with demand growth. So ramping up the wind supply chain creates a growing stream of new generation capacity that does not conflict with the new-coal-plant supply chain. Do any of us really know what the wind vs. coal LCOE will turn out to be? Obviously future coal prices. But also, what is the true economic life of the wind turbines, maintenance, and the true life cycle costs of the new transmission required to connect windy regions to where the demand is?


Curious that negative population growth plays almost no role in determining folks energy philosophy here. Not only are critical resources being used up but the capital to do all these wonderful technological things that many of you have in mind is simply not going to be there, as we all are going to be grabbing it for basic survival purposes.

Anybody want to tell me what won’t improve with less people? Anybody want to tell me what won’t get worse with more people?

Roughly 200,000 people added to the planet each day that need to be fed, watered, provided with waste disposal, housed, educated, provided with medical care, energy, eventually a job. What are you offering that is up to such a challenge?

Along with lowering our carbon foot print and recycling what we put out there I see no way we can keep a lower population target out of the equation if we want to be on a liveable planet with adequate energy for all. We are already in overshoot with critical resources and it would seem increasing tillable land is near an end and we are approaching a fresh water crisis.

What say you?

PS. My impression is there is some confusion about this peak oil business. I think it means you reach a point when the economics have you discovering new sources at the same level that you are retiring old sources. My impression is overall we are almost there and shortly after peak the drop on balance of useable fossil fuel is precipitous.


@David M – “Anybody want to tell me what won’t improve with less people? Anybody want to tell me what won’t get worse with more people?”

Human capital. Our most precious resource and without which all other scarce resources are useless. Oil is just a toxic goop that occassionaly seeps up to the surface and poisons the water supply until you figure out how to make asphalt, oil lamps, oil furnaces, internal combustion engines, gas turbines…

All other resources, including energy, are secondary. We don’t need neodymium if we can figure out how to cheaply make a special form of iron nitride(Fe16N2), which is a much better magnet. We don’t need so many rare earths for LEDs and fluorescent lights if we can make “artificial atoms”(quantum dots) from abundant zinc oxide. We don’t need inferior copper if we can cheaply make CNT quantum wires.

We will need a lot of energy, but we don’t need oil, coal and gas. We are positively swimming in energy that is available for the taking; there’s more energy available in uranium, thorium, deuterium, lithium and sunshine than we know what to do with it; it just happens to be a form we don’t like; just like oil, coal and gas happened to be unusable forms of energy not many centuries ago.

An aging population where the shrinking productive slice of the population is forced to waste an increasing amount of resources taking care of the elderly would be extraordinarily bad.

@David M – “I think it means you reach a point when the economics have you discovering new sources at the same level that you are retiring old sources. My impression is overall we are almost there and shortly after peak the drop on balance of useable fossil fuel is precipitous.”

I think you are dead wrong and that if we don’t abandon oil because we find something better the decline will be ridiculously slow.

There is a “resource-pyramid”. The high-grade resource is a tiny little tip at the top of the pyramid and is long gone for oil . We’ve been working our way slowly down this pyramid and we’re getting ridiculously good at accessing the vast resources nearer the bottom of the pyramid as we go along.

Almost every graph of oil discovery by peak oilers will contain back-dating of reserve growth to the discovery date of the oil field(power-law size distribution => on average oil fields are larger than you have reason to estimate because a few of them turn out to be gigantic. Improvements in drilling and secondary, tertiary recovery technology allows extraction of more of the original oil in place); this is an attempt to obfuscate ongoing and future reserve growth. Most of them also ignore unconventional oil; it wasn’t long ago that deep-sea oil was unconventional and it won’t be long until tar sands and oil shales are conventional oil.

In the US the decline rate has been 1.4%/year average for 39 years since the peak. When the world peaks, the decline rate will be even slower; the world is a bigger, more diverse place and when the US peaked you could just go drill oil some place easier, where as when the world peaks the price shoots up and we proceed further down the pyramid.

A slow squeeze extending a century or two into the future is what failure will look like.


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