Morality Versus Engineering

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Although regular readers here understand that I am not a believer that humans are the sole, or even the major, cause of global warming, I understand that yes, there is some warming going on. It's small in global terms, but it's there. But today's Washington Post has a column about the subject that is a must read. Robert J. Samuelson asks the real important question. So what are you going to do about it?

From 2003 to 2050, the world's population is projected to grow from 6.4 billion people to 9.1 billion, a 42 percent increase. If energy use per person and technology remain the same, total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (mainly, carbon dioxide) will be 42 percent higher in 2050. But that's too low, because societies that grow richer use more energy. Unless we condemn the world's poor to their present poverty — and freeze everyone else's living standards — we need economic growth. With modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions more than double by 2050.

Just keeping annual greenhouse gas emissions constant means that the world must somehow offset these huge increases. There are two ways: Improve energy efficiency, or shift to energy sources with lower (or no) greenhouse emissions. Intuitively, you sense this is tough. China, for example, builds about one coal-fired power plant a week. Now a new report from the International Energy Agency in Paris shows all the difficulties (the population, economic growth and energy projections cited above come from the report).

The IEA report assumes that existing technologies are rapidly improved and deployed. Vehicle fuel efficiency increases by 40 percent. In electricity generation, the share for coal (the fuel with the most greenhouse gases) shrinks from about 40 percent to about 25 percent — and much carbon dioxide is captured before going into the atmosphere. Little is captured today. Nuclear energy increases. So do "renewables" (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal); their share of global electricity output rises from 2 percent now to about 15 percent.

Some of these changes seem heroic. They would require tough government regulation, continued technological gains and public acceptance of higher fuel prices. Never mind. Having postulated a crash energy diet, the IEA simulates five scenarios with differing rates of technological change. In each, greenhouse emissions in 2050 are higher than today. The increases vary from 6 percent to 27 percent.

Since 1800 there's been modest global warming. I'm unqualified to judge between those scientists (the majority) who blame man-made greenhouse gases and those (a small minority) who finger natural variations in the global weather system. But if the majority are correct, the IEA report indicates we're now powerless. We can't end annual greenhouse emissions, and once in the atmosphere, the gases seem to linger for decades. So concentration levels rise. They're the villains; they presumably trap the world's heat. They're already about 36 percent higher than in 1800. Even with its program, the IEA says another 45 percent rise may be unavoidable. How much warming this might create is uncertain; so are the consequences.

This is a must read. Samuelson asks a simple question: what sacrifices are you willing to make? No lights? No computers? (There goes this blog). No heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer? No more cars?

Is everyone else on earth willing to sacrifice?

The issue is an engineering problem. Stop trying to make it a moral crusade and we can progress.

Update: Donald Sensing at One Hand Clapping has links to Stephen Den Beste's series on power and engineering.

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19 Responses to Morality Versus Engineering

  1. Roland Hesz says:

    Right you are.
    So let’s work on inventing the swoops and landspeeders from Start Warrs.
    That will do away with the need for roads, plus the problem of changing the tyres in the rain – whenever I got a punctured tyre it’s raining…

    And we need something that is allowed to be owned by every country, so nuclear energy is out of question.

  2. See Air Scooter II, already being produced.

    Now think about how friendly the skies would be….

    Road rage and the general level of human stupidity completely outlaw any possibilities of everybody getting up to 500 feet and going willi nilly wherever…

    Engineering problem ? No, it is a quality of life problem, which is determined by the environment. How come 75% of the US citizens live within 75 miles of a seacoast ?

    Some environments are more human friendly/desirable than others. The middle of the Nevada desert and other similar places which make up the bulk of the interior of the US just are not on the “A'” list, and never will be. This story is repeated around the planet and yet those opposed to ZPG behave as though the is way more than enough desirable room to triple the current population. of course, for their own sweet selves, they’ll take the coastlines, thank-you very much….

    How Dense Can People Be ?

    (a question asked by Daniel Luten in a Sierra Club Bulletin article back in the Sixties.)


    Douglas Keachie

  3. Oh yes, “modest global warming since 1800” later on in the article becomes 36% increase.

    Why dear, why not take a “modest” pay cut of 36% or a “modest” tax incease of 36% ?

    We need a Manhatten Project/Moon Shot push to end this madness.

    Whatdaya say to the government paying for the installation of solar panels on the roof of every house where the owner buys a dual battery electric car with a range of 120 miles ? Two batteries which are engineered to slip in and out automatically, so that one charges all day, while the other drives the car.

    Douglas Keachie

  4. Gaius says:

    Douglas, Why don’t you go have a look at the post Donald Sensing put up. He has the links to Stephen Den Beste’s articles on the subject.

  5. I just took a look. Another, “Nukes is the answer, the only answer…” revival choir, is all I could detect. You might want to take a look a a very alive scientist, Steven Chu, the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab(4,000 employees, .5 billion yearly budget), a Nobel prize winner, and his thoughts on working with biology and physics to get a solar cell that makes use of the plant technology concepts for getting electricity. The “nukes is the answer, the only answer” folks are much like the urban legend head of the Patent Office who declared in 1899 that everything worth inventing, had been already invented.

  6. Gaius says:

    And I took a look at Dr. Chu’s op-ed. Let me ask you, is basing public policy on the hopes that some miracle will happen a good idea in your mind?

    Dr. Chu says nuclear needs a second look, too.

  7. Black Jack says:

    If we really do want to address the issue of environmental degradation now, the only long term solution is first a sharp limitation on population growth, and then a subsequent steady decline in human numbers worldwide. Absent that essential element, all other efforts pale to near insignificance.

    Even if populations were to remain at current levels, demands for goods and services which contribute to excessive exploitation of limited resources will only increase, and continue to accelerate over time.

    Anyone who really cares about the issue can face up to the underlying problem, deal with the root cause of environmental destruction, or follow false prophets like Algore and waste their time and efforts on window dressing.

  8. In 1939, the atomic bomb would have qualified as a “miracle.” We already know for sure know the energy is in the sunlight, the trick is doing enough science and engineering to get at it in an efficient manner.

    The coming environmental crisis is not public policy, it is the 21st century’s stand-in for Stalin and Hitler. My daughter, second year med student, wants to buy land in Canada, and not the oil sands….

  9. Gaius says:


    The US did not base it’s war effort on the hope that the research into the atomic bomb would pay off, did it?

    Miracles don’t always come on time or on demand.

  10. But they did spend 2 billion 1940’s dollars gambling that it would. Would you care to do the math to figure out what the US should spend on solar to get a similar effort going now ? The moon shot was around 16 billion in 1960’s dollars, again, shall we do the comparision ?

  11. All it boils down to is Big Oil and Big Nuke (General Electric) paying to make sure Congress doesn’t go towards technologies that they eventually (the Biggies) expect to own, and to make sure that they get every last dollar out of what the Biggies already know how to do., because it’s a sure thing.

    The sludge of “sure thing” invisible hand capitalism may really set back civilization many hundred years while we recover from the resulting eco-disaster. How many hits on New Orleans will it take to convince the right ? All of you seem to be fudging like crazy, figety in your pants, now that the evidence is mounting and the expanding use of coal and oil by India and China are bringing things to a head ? There are six Indian/Chinese for each American, and many are working towards getting what we have, in terms of energy expenditure. China already ranks as number two in Internet users behind the USA. Only a 36% increase since 1800 ? Wait till you see the next twenty years ! (Non-smilie exclaimation point)

  12. Gaius says:

    Douglas, I worked in the industry. It is not a conspiracy, there are real, honest to god engineering impossibilities unless and until a revolutionary change comes about. What people fail to realize is how complicated energy distribution is. The power does not start at the wall plug. Say you get all the solar you want. What happens when the sun goes behind a cloud? that demand has to be picked up – instantly – by another source of generation. That means you have to have 100% backup on line ready to take up the load.

  13. Two percent of the USA ?

    You know I wonder about such numbers. I seem to recall that only .5% of the USA is urban, and that we do have a lot of territory that are miles of no structrues at all, especially in Nevada, less than 500 miles from California, our biggest power user. Shasta Dam is over 200 miles from San Francisco, but it provides power to the city.

    The reason I wonder about two percent was that a local guy with a coffee shot gave me his set of number for his building. He also gave me his numbers for solar panel output . He didn’t do the math. I did it for him. Turned out, that using his numbers, his roof would, in six hours per day, produce enough electricity to do 4800 watts 7/24/365. It’s not a big coffee shop. If he were paying for that much electricity, he’d go broke in a month.

    Are we trying to replace every drop of gasoline and chunk of coal and gallon of hydropower when we say 2 % of the land area ? Is there some reason why existing rooftops cannot be used ? Seems to me that it beats turning the Midwest into the Sahara.

  14. Gaius says:

    The point is, we can get some improvements, but nothing near the scale needed to take all the dependence on fossil fuel without a huge breakthrough and a complete redesign of the system. It’s nowhere near as cheap, quick or easy as a lot of people want it to be. Wishing it so will not help and repealing the laws of physics is right out. So again, basing public policy on the hope that a miricle will occur is not a good idea.

    Should we be pushing research? Heck yeah. But there are no magic bullets.

  15. Sun goes behind a cloud ?

    PG&E already pumps water uphill with excess energy, and uses the water to again generate electricity, less the loss, yes, but there is still a net gain. Many appliances can do without electricity with no ill effects for awhile. Washing machines can continue on 20 minutes later.

    Smart appliances, wireless or receiving information through the powerlines, will know an outtage is coming. Those houses beyond the cloud will continue to push excess electricty onto the grid. The grid is a given, it’s already in place, so all solar (other alternatives) has to do is stay even with increases and we’ve accomplished a lot. If we can get ahead of the increased demand, so much the better.

    Where do you think the price of oil would be if the USA committed 100 billion to the development of alternative power, less than 1/6th the current cost of Iraq. How fast would the Saudi’s, under those conditions, be hanging Osama and friends from the nearest palmtrees, for having awoken the sleeping inventive giant ? The rich of this country benefit from the status quo, and are too short sighted or too afraid to rock the boat.

  16. Gaius says:

    And there we see the problem, Douglas. There is no net gain in pumped storage, only a loss. Period.

  17. So why does PG&E do it ?

  18. Well, since you haven’t gotten to it, here’s the information from

    “In a pumped storage facility, water is pumped during off-peak demand periods from a reservoir at a lower elevation for storage in a reservoir at a higher elevation. Electricity is then generated during peak demand periods by releasing the pumped water from the higher reservoir and allowing it to flow downhill through the hydraulic turbine(s) connected to generators.

    During the off-peak pumping cycle, the pumped storage facility is a consumer of electricity: in fact, the amount of electricity required to pump the water uphill is greater than the amount of electricity that is generated when the water is released during peak demand periods. Pumped storage facilities, however, are economical because they consume low-cost off-peak electricity, but generate high-value on-peak electricity.

    Pumped storage methods include both typical on-stream conventional and modular off-stream technologies. The major differences between modular pumped storage (MPS) and conventional pumped storage is that MPS systems are much smaller, use closed water systems that are artificially created instead of natural waterways or watersheds, and sites are selected with predetermined elevation differences so that modular pre-engineered equipment can be used. With the exception of evaporative losses, reservoirs are charged only once, either with groundwater or even municipal wastewater.”

    In case you missed it:

    “Pumped storage facilities, however, are economical because they consume low-cost off-peak electricity, but generate high-value on-peak electricity.”


    Douglas Keachie

    BTW I understand a new thin film photovoltaic plant is planned for the Bay Area, with an output of about .5 gigawatts in cells each year, more than triple our total current production, but still a drop in the bucket, but perhaps it’s really just the slight cracking sound at the top of a massive avalanche… How many horseless carraiges in 1906 ? in 1926 ? solar in 2006, and in 2026 ???

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