BY S. THOMAS BOND
We’re Cooked, Ladies and Gentlemen
(This Commentary appeared in the Opinion section, Morgantown Dominion Post, Sept. 30, 2012.)
There was an interesting film called SWITCH shown at the Mountainlair at WVU on Tuesday night. In the guise of an objective analysis of energy options for the future, it was a breezy advertisement for gas particularly, and coal. If you had a billion or two invested in carbon burning fuel, you couldn’t have been more pleased.
The filming was first rate. The star was Dr. Scott W. Trinker, a sort of Marlborough Man cum geologist, who is the Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG), University of Texas. This is the Texas state geological survey. Trinker spent 17 years with the oil and gas industry previous to starting this quarter of a million a year plus position.
The energy solution is geology all the way, according to SWITCH. Any solution not involving burning carbon compounds doesn’t rate. Conventional nuclear got a grudging nod, but solar and wind are too limited, except in special cases, although some pictures of them were shown.
The switch from coal to gas, nuclear, renewables, solar and wind will come in 2064, according to the film. At this point I leaned over to my companion and whispered “We’re cooked.” Global warming was hardly mentioned. The population is predicted to increase from the present 7 billion to 9 billion by 2045, a 28% increase in 30 years, considerably less than half a lifetime, and SWITCH is still using carbon fuels 20 years beyond that!
The unreality of this kind of discussion of energy is appalling. We Americans demand and expect our news to be happy, but there is no excuse for denying hard facts of the onrushing catastrophe. Only “experts” who are paid to, deny global warming now.
As always with energy discussion, there was a white elephant in the room. You know, the one that nobody sees. It is nuclear fusion, nuclear fission’s big brother. Since World War II, scientists have known the earth would ultimately be powered by the energy which was unleashed by the H-bomb, or go back to the pre-industrial era. That is the real future choice.
Fusion involves putting together sub-atomic particles to make nuclei, rather than breaking apart atomic nuclei. In the early 60′s I remember Dr. Charles Lazelle, Organic Professor at WVU, saying “It’s a shame to burn coal and oil, you can make such wonderful things from them.” Fusion uses hydrogen nuclei available from water, leaves very little radioactive waste, and releases prodigious, cheap energy.
So where is fusion today? Petroleum has maintained a huge presence in Congress and state legislatures, and has benefitted from research and subsidies. It recently came out that the federal government had put $100 M into the research that allowed “fracking” for oil and gas, in fact part of the research was done in Morgantown.
A lot of money is being made by petroleum, so high-tech variations such as deep sea drilling, arctic drilling, shale drilling are being used. Fusion, on the other hand, has no moneyed constituency. There are perhaps four small companies working to develop variations, and a federal budget keeps a rather small contingent of scientists working on it. Other scientists in other countries also work on it, and they keep announcing advances.
Fusion is, however, the “Holy Grail” of energy. There is no mechanism to aggregate money for research. Remember the Manhattan Project, which developed the Atomic Bomb? At one time one-tenth of the electrical production of the United States was devoted to it. The world really needs that kind of effort NOW. Endless energy, no contamination. But huge investment. This would result in a change of our energy paradigm.
What’s the friction? Although this change of paradigm is for the good of every single one of us, it will eclipse the entrenched carbon-burning industry. Investment in extraction and conversion to usable forms will be superseded, career changes for workers will be required, certain educations will be less useful, and others will be needed. Many think-tanks, designed to influence public opinion, would loose their where-with-all. It would be social earthquake. That’s the friction.
Can the U. S. government aggregate sufficient funds, short an emergency like WWII, to do the research? Not without a huge political movement.
But with geology “we’re cooked.”
S. THOMAS BOND is a retired teacher with a doctorate in inorganic chemistry. He is a member of the Guardians of the West Fork and the Monongahela Area Watersheds Compact. He lives on and maintains a 500 acre farm near Jane Lew.