A question of power (Robert Bryce)

SEE THE LIGHT - What is electric power? To those in “high watt” areas, such as the United States and Europe, it’s a useful commodity that they basically take for granted. In contrast, residents of the “low watt” and “unplugged” (access to less power than it takes to run the author’s refrigerator) areas of the world associate electric power with light, warmth, and the chance for a better life (education, better jobs, more leisure, etc.)

Some 3 billion human beings (45% of the global population) currently lack access to reliable, affordable and abundant electric power, and closing this gap is labeled the Terawatt Challenge. So while the power supply has plateaued in the US, it’s growing about 4% per year (doubling in 18 years) on a global basis.

To Bryce, the “humanist response to the Terawatt Challenge is obvious.” It must be met, we can’t keep all these human beings in the dark! And he drives home this point by relating the history of how the capability to generate electric power was developed and implemented in the US (including rural electrification during the New Deal era). Telegraph – streetlights – electric-power vehicles (later largely superseded by motor vehicles) – household lamps and appliances – elevators so buildings could be built taller – etc.

As but one of the benchmarks of social transformation that are discussed, consider this: In 1500, 5% of the world’s population lived in cities. The comparable number is over 50% today, and it may hit 70% by 2050.

Ah, but if humans generate all that electric power, won’t that cause disastrous global warming (aka climate change)? The author accepts this concern as valid, albeit without discussing the manmade global warming theory as such (full disclosure: we regard the theory as unproven), but sides with those who view access to electric power as a human right.

Some assume this issue away by imagining that the desired electric power will all be generated by wind turbines and solar cells, but Bryce says this is impractical because wind and solar power are too intermittent and expensive to fill the bill. He envisions an eclectic approach, which will make judicious use of all available alternatives for electric power generation (see comments below), and basically assumes that there won’t be a climate catastrophe after all.

•Wind – Varies on a day-by-day basis and also seasonally, so it can’t be used as base power to drive the grid without expensive storage facilities. Requires a huge amount of land (or offshore areas), which might otherwise be useful for other purposes. Strongly opposed by residents of adjacent areas based on appearance, noise, alleged inaudible hum, etc., especially as the size of wind turbines has been increased to improve efficiency. Deadly for birds and bats.

•Solar – Currently accounts for a smaller share of electric power production than wind power, similar issues re intermittency and land use, but in the long run may be a better bet.

However, experience has shown that jurisdictions (e.g., California, Germany, and Australia) attempting to quickly expand the use of “renewable energy” (e.g., wind or solar) have experienced a major increase in electric power costs and adverse reactions from the voters. An exception that is mentioned is Iceland, which has very cheap electric power from 100% renewable sources (hydro and geothermal).

•Coal – Still used to generate a major portion of electric power, both in the US and globally, and can’t be eliminated overnight. However, coal has high carbon content, and therefore emits about twice as much CO2 per unit of electricity produced as natural gas not to mention more real pollutants.

•Natural gas – Thanks to the “fracking revolution,” natural gas price has come down dramatically. US power plants are increasingly being run on natural gas, with coal plants being closed or converted, resulting in overall reduction in CO2 emissions. Also, the US is exporting an increasing volume of liquified natural gas, which despite the transportation costs can potentially replace coal or biomass being burned in other countries.

•Nuclear – Environmentalists typically do not view nuclear energy as an acceptable substitute for fossil fuels citing the risk of runaway reactors, alleged impossibility of safely disposing of nuclear waste, etc. However, nuclear power is reliable, reasonably affordable (at least for existing nuclear power plants, some of which are being prematurely closed down), and could play a bigger role if current permitting and regulatory requirements were relaxed.

This is a first rate analysis, in our view, which reaches sensible conclusions – whether one subscribes to the manmade global warming theory or not. It’s also an enjoyable read, offering a lot of interesting information.

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