A New Energy Paradigm: Renewables and/or Nuclear Fusion
Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV
The argument for coal is that it’s “cheap.” The argument for gas is that it is “clean (maybe)”. The argument for oil is “that that’s where the money is.” All of these energy sources are in a sort of relative decline, the easy stuff having been taken out of the ground. Appalachia’s coal seams utilized now are thinner and more dirt has to be moved to get it. Coal mined further west is lower quality.
Gas is now taken at the cost of contaminated aquifers, mini-brownfields all over the landscape and part of the surface removed from biological productivity. Oil is beginning to come some from the depths of the ocean, so deep the rigs are on floating platforms, and some from the Arctic, both very, very risky technology.
Every ton of carbon burned produces 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that is the most serious cause of global warming. There are attempts to sever carbon dioxide production from burning carbon, but the large quantities of gas produced make it a far stretch to believe it can be buried forever or otherwise disposed of.
Other methods of getting energy depend on the sun’s energy. Solar directly uses it, and wind and waves can be harnessed for usable energy, but they are driven by sun-supplied heat to the atmosphere and the ocean. Rapid progress is being made in these areas, particularly solar.
A lot has been said about the “waste” of subsidies to these alternatives. Something like $5.93 billion has been given to these non-pollutings technologies from 1994 to 2009 in the United States. A lot has been said about that in the press, but hardly mentioned is the fact that during the same years $446.96 billion has gone to the oil and gas industries. These figures are from an article in Forbes entitled “Government Subsidies: Silent Killer of Renewable Energy,” by Paul Nahi.
So, an important part of why burning carbon is cheap is subsidies, the very argument used to argue against renewables. Government subsidies to an established industry. Is this appropriate? It encourages over use of the resource and reduces the pressure for innovation, developing other forms of energy.
A second, very huge “subsidy” to carbon fuels is empowering legislation, such as the “Halliburton Loophole” which helps not only “fracking” but all oil and gas drilling companies, by allowing them to avoid health standards which apply to other industries. Also, the oil and gas industry benefits from a very broad body of law that has been built up over the last 150 years, particularly vis a vis those who have some claim against the space the driller is using. Fracking in particular destroys biological productivity, but so does mountaintop mining and excess carbon dioxide.
In our system, old technologies and variants of old technologies are much more likely to attract investment. Every investor is looking to put his money into a “known quantity,” a “sure thing.” A new paradigm, even based on known science involves a measure of risk. For this reason most innovation based upon past successes, not dramatic change.
Government subsidies for new methods, such as solar, are another matter. If there is some potential advantage, such as lack of pollution, money for research and development is quite justified. Society, through the government, takes the risk to get a new paradigm . But as it happens such decisions are political, and in our system existing wealth commands political power. New paradigms are not attractive to people made wealthy by old ones.
But now the world is in a huge bind, so bad the leadership won’t talk about it. Population is shooting up. Resources are being depleted, particularly for energy and food production. Clean water is getting short. Energy demand is increasing faster than population, because people want and work toward mobility, variety of goods available and communication. Most of us know about these things. But government is tied up in much smaller things. Politics as usual.
In short, we need a source of energy those of us having a scientific bent and being of a certain age remember being more talked about in the post-WWII era. That energy source is nuclear fusion. The fuel is abundant, the by-products are not radioactive. The problem is that the nuclear reaction proceeds at a very high temperature and very large scale is required, so lots of money is needed to do the necessary experiments. It is difficult to attract private investment when the money may be lost trying to get a combination that will work. What society needs is conveyed in an old expression “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.” this implies trying something different each time until you succeed, learning from each trial.
This perfectly describes a project that should be fully costed out to all society. It also perfectly describes a project that is unlikely to sell well to private investors. And it also describes a project likely to be waylaid by vested energy interests, benefitting from moneys that should be going to make the change.
If we are to survive as a species, change must come about. If it doesn’t come in an orderly way, it will come anyway – and the results may not be pretty.
NOTE: Two technical and cost engineering reports on Nuclear Fusion:
(1) Simulations at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico revealed a fusion reactor that surpasses the “break-even” point of energy input versus energy output, indicating a self-sustaining fusion reaction.
(2) A simple comparison of a fusion energy system with the current means of generating the energy that society needs shows that a fusion system, though large by past standards, is more cost effective than the development of additional energy from current sources.