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Altherion

Your bet for the energy source of the future?

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You've probably seen last year's UN report on the impact of greenhouse gases. Here are a few sentences relevant to the purposes of this post, quoted from this New York Times article:

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The authors found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by 2040

...

To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. It also found that, by 2050, use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.

If you want an example of what the actual energy usage is projected to be, here's a projection from 2017 by the US Energy Information Administration:

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In the International Energy Outlook 2017 (IEO2017) Reference case, total world energy consumption rises from 575 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2015 to 736 quadrillion Btu in 2040, an increase of 28%.  Most of the world’s energy growth will occur in countries outside of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

...

In the long term, the IEO2017 Reference case projects increased world consumption of marketed energy from all fuel sources—except coal, where demand is essentially flat—through 2040 (Figure 2). Renewables are the world’s fastest-growing energy source, with consumption increasing by an average 2.3%/year between 2015 and 2040. The world’s second fastest-growing source of energy is nuclear power, with consumption increasing by 1.5%/year over that period.

Although consumption of nonfossil fuels is expected to grow faster than fossil fuels, fossil fuels still account for 77% of energy use in 2040. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel in the projections. Global natural gas consumption increases by 1.4%/year. Abundant natural gas resources and rising production—including supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane—contribute to the strong competitive position of natural gas. Liquid fuels—mostly petroleum-based—remain the largest source of world energy consumption.

...

World energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rise from 33.9 billion metric tons in 2015 to 36.4 billion metric tons in 2030 and to 39.3 billion metric tons in 2040 in the IEO2017 Reference case—an increase of 16% over that period.

In other words, greenhouse gas emissions actually increase all the way to 2040 according to this projection and that 1.5C / 2.7F based on them remaining the same is optimistic. Of course, one can quibble with both the UN report and the projection, but they'd have to be off by a truly massive amount for such quibbles to make a difference. However... suppose that humanity does actually respond to this in a meaningful way (it's not guaranteed, but it's certainly possible). Realistically, we're not giving up our energy-intensive lifestyles and the non-OECD countries aren't going to stop striving for the same lifestyles so we'll need carbon-neutral energy (and also a bunch of other stuff like electric cars, but the energy is non-negotiable). If we do make an effort to get eliminate coal, oil and gas, what do you think we'll replace them with?

Here are a few candidates in order of current capacity:

  • Nuclear power (fission): It has several drawbacks (radioactive contamination if the builders or operators screw up or are sabotaged, long-lasting radioactive waste and byproducts that can be weaponized), but it's a proven technology, it's very dense (i.e. doesn't take up much space per kilowatt) and we could certainly scale this up -- look at France for an example. Unfortunately, it's been demonized to the point where in many countries (including the US) almost nobody will touch this (including insurance companies) and it needs government subsidies because it's more expensive than fossil fuels.
  • Hydro power: Clean, but need rivers, has impact on the ecosystems of those rivers and the opportunity to screw up in a way that kills a whole lot of people is still very large.
  • Wind power: Clean, but takes up a lot of space, kills rare birds and, worst of all, is intermittent. The latter means that we need some form of massive energy storage to use it without something that can smooth out the intermittency.
  • Solar power: Clean, but takes up a lot of space, is intermittent and each installation has a limited lifetime. Exactly the same problem as wind with respect to storage, but also needs some manner of recycling facilities for the panels.
  • Geothermal power: nice if you can get it easily, but it's not predicted to scale.

You can also pick something that isn't currently used. For example:

Nuclear power (fusion): This has an even greater energy density than fission without any of the latter's drawbacks. Unfortunately, people have been trying to make it work for over half a century without much to show for their efforts. However, it could be argued that we haven't really put the resources into this that it needs. There's a path to generating electricity this way, but it's painfully slow. What if we were to do a Manhattan Project 2.0, but this time, instead of building a weapon, we'd focus on building an affordable fusion reactor and instead of it being the project of a single country, we could draw upon scientists, mathematicians and engineers from the whole world? It's not as far-fetched as it sounds (though still pretty improbable).

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Two other sources of future power:

Tidal Energy - another form of hydro power, already in limited use, but could be expanded significantly.

Space based solar power - has been discussed for decades, but a major limitation was always cost of getting materials into orbit.  The rise of private space companies such as SpaceX, with reusable rockets reducing launch costs, may make it more feasible, but still be long time in coming. 

 

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Posted (edited)

The big reason there was so much problem with nuclear was simple human corruption: regulatory capture, greed of operators, face-saving, laziness born out of stasis. The human brain, both individual and collectively is extremely ill suited to something like nuclear power with such incredibly high risks on a long time line and large scale. Absent incredibly strong regulations and oversight, and absent some way to make both immune to being undermined and or captured you get shit as minor (not minor!) as  falsifying x-rays of welds to check their status, or as bad as Chernobyl. 

Neither capitalism nor socialism have been especially capable of mitigating the timeline risks of nuclear power, and the mitigation we've needed to prevent all the ways the human ingenuity of idiocy will try to cause inadvertent disaster is extremely costly.

As for the rest, a lot of the problem comes from thinking of the solution as finding only the most efficient path forward (which also happens to preserve the economic status quo of power delivery and only displacing fossil fuel plants with renewable plants). That's important, but it would be way less efficient--but far more popular--to try to solarize (and storage) every single-family home. Maybe we can't build enough utility scale solar, but maybe we also don't need to reinvent the wheel and just need to build enough utility scale while also universalize housing scale solar. 

 

Edited by lokisnow

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14 hours ago, whorasgayrell said:

I think perhaps a combination of a few different things. I can't see us relying on just one of these in the future.

There's little doubt we'll rely on all of them for quite some time (it's rare for existing installations to be taken down without a cause), but there's reason to believe that one or at most two sources will become dominant. This is partly a consequence of economies of scale and partly simply due to how the gird works. Similarly, there's little appetite for moonshots and I'm not sure that we'll get even one, let alone more.

11 hours ago, Leofric said:

Tidal Energy - another form of hydro power, already in limited use, but could be expanded significantly.

This does work, but it's a question of how significantly it can be expanded.

11 hours ago, Leofric said:

Space based solar power - has been discussed for decades, but a major limitation was always cost of getting materials into orbit.  The rise of private space companies such as SpaceX, with reusable rockets reducing launch costs, may make it more feasible, but still be long time in coming. 

This is definitely a moonshot. :) We might be able to do it, but there are more issues here than simply getting the collectors to orbit (though that's definitely the major one).

10 hours ago, lokisnow said:

The big reason there was so much problem with nuclear was simple human corruption: regulatory capture, greed of operators, face-saving, laziness born out of stasis. The human brain, both individual and collectively is extremely ill suited to something like nuclear power with such incredibly high risks on a long time line and large scale. Absent incredibly strong regulations and oversight, and absent some way to make both immune to being undermined and or captured you get shit as minor (not minor!) as  falsifying x-rays of welds to check their status, or as bad as Chernobyl.

All concentrations of energy are inherently dangerous and suffer from the same problems you describe above. Note that the grand total harm to human life done by all nuclear power plants ever is much, much less than, say, just the single dam failure I linked in my description of hydro power and note also that there are societies that have made it work safely (again, France). There are no perfectly safe answers here -- at least not without considerable advances in technology.

10 hours ago, lokisnow said:

As for the rest, a lot of the problem comes from thinking of the solution as finding only the most efficient path forward (which also happens to preserve the economic status quo of power delivery and only displacing fossil fuel plants with renewable plants). That's important, but it would be way less efficient--but far more popular--to try to solarize (and storage) every single-family home. Maybe we can't build enough utility scale solar, but maybe we also don't need to reinvent the wheel and just need to build enough utility scale while also universalize housing scale solar.

Solar on every roof with local storage and the grid used only to smooth out local overages or shortfalls is certainly one ideal, but make no mistake: this is another moonshot. Even if you could build and install the panels, the energies that need to be stored to account for seasonal variation are colossal and we don't have anything that can store that either locally or on utility scales.

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Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet.  I was told they'd figure everything out.

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Posted (edited)
5 hours ago, Altherion said:

 

Solar on every roof with local storage and the grid used only to smooth out local overages or shortfalls is certainly one ideal, but make no mistake: this is another moonshot. Even if you could build and install the panels, the energies that need to be stored to account for seasonal variation are colossal and we don't have anything that can store that either locally or on utility scales.

For large scale storage: Pumped hydro utilizing old mines or large artificial lakes at altitude.

Upwards of 90% storage efficiency, far better than batteries, none of the degradation problems, and the capability to scale up and generate thousands of megawatts over long periods.

Biggest problem is evaporation, but nothing is perfect.

Edited by Impmk2

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6 hours ago, DMC said:

Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet.  I was told they'd figure everything out.

Those are those two giant hamsters in wheels, right?

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In line with Einstein's famous quip about WW IV (that is going to be fought with sticks and stones) one is tempted to answer: Horses and Watermills.

I don't think there is any way around using less energy. In the developed world we used up most of the additional efficiency gained by technological progress for e.g. heavier and faster cars. Better insulated houses but more square meters per person, more efficient lighting but more illumination in the cities etc. But all this shows that in many fields we could use far less energy. This is only a rough estimate but I think the developed world could have ca. 1970s levels of comfort at half or less of today's energy use by combining the high-tech of today with smaller flats, cars etc. of 40-50 years ago. And with the exception of air travel holidays (they were too expensive for average people) the quality of life in many Western European countries in 1975 was as high as it is today.

But this will not work easily. If I use considerably less energy, there will be less demand, prices will fall and my more wasteful neighbour will use up what I saved.

As for solar power, I wonder if direct solar thermal power is underestimated compared to photoelectric panels. It should be in the mix. I used to be very critical (growing up in the 1980s with both the threat of "The day after" and the actual disaster of Chernobyl) but I am almost on the fence now wrt Nuclear. It could buy us some time we need. (Not that we would use it. The current socioeconomic system and incentives are all so wrong, people's minds and preferences screwed up, that not much will happen before terrible collapse are imminent and then it will probably be too late.)

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On 3/21/2019 at 12:09 AM, Altherion said:

 

Think bigger. The answer is there. 

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Fusion is the ultimate solution - and it also ends fresh water shortages forever as the limitless energy means limitless desalination of seawater for all coastal areas.

Until then, though, I guess a continuing  mix of what we have today, with renewables gradually making up a bigger slice of the pie.

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Fusion has been the ultimate solution and "just 10 years away from a major breakthrough" for almost half a century now. Maybe one should adjust one's prior probabilities wrt the feasibility of fusion after 50 years of failures.

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Fusion may very well turn out to be a pipe dream. We definitely aren't anywhere near a working reactor. If that's possible at all it's many decades away, maybe centuries. For now it's worth the research being done on it but throwing more money at it isn't going to get the problems solved. For the foreseeable  future it will have to be renewables. The resources we can tap into are vast, it's all down to building the infrastructure, particularly storage. 

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8 minutes ago, sologdin said:

waterwheel turbines turned by rightwing lacrimation.

No supply-side issues with this!  And welcome back!

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On 3/22/2019 at 10:04 AM, Jo498 said:

I don't think there is any way around using less energy. In the developed world we used up most of the additional efficiency gained by technological progress for e.g. heavier and faster cars. Better insulated houses but more square meters per person, more efficient lighting but more illumination in the cities etc. But all this shows that in many fields we could use far less energy. This is only a rough estimate but I think the developed world could have ca. 1970s levels of comfort at half or less of today's energy use by combining the high-tech of today with smaller flats, cars etc. of 40-50 years ago. And with the exception of air travel holidays (they were too expensive for average people) the quality of life in many Western European countries in 1975 was as high as it is today.

Using less energy would certainly help a great deal, but I really don't see how this happens on a scale that matters. Larger houses are considered to be better across practically every society that I know of. With cars, there are limits, but the prestigious ones are on the bigger side. Also, there isn't enough spare cash per person to force people to optimize: the main thing governments can do is implement taxes that drive up the prices of gas and electricity, but there's a large fraction of the population that has no control of their energy costs (i.e. they live where they do and drive as much as they do so that they can get to their job and this is already optimized with nothing to spare). If their costs are raised, they'll riot (see Paris).

8 hours ago, Jo498 said:

Fusion has been the ultimate solution and "just 10 years away from a major breakthrough" for almost half a century now. Maybe one should adjust one's prior probabilities wrt the feasibility of fusion after 50 years of failures.

That rather depends on how much work went into it over 50 years, does it not? The main issue with fusion is that the scope of the problem was understood and the necessary computing power was becoming available just as the funding on scales that would make it possible ceased to exist. There's no doubt that it's a hard problem, but I think we could solve it if it was given the kind of resources we devoted to hard problems in the mid-twentieth century. For example, at the height of the Apollo program (1964-1970), NASA had a budget of roughly $4B per year. Given that the total GDP of the US at the time ranged from $685B to $1.1T, this means that roughly half a percent of total GDP was going to NASA year. If spent half a percent of US GDP per year now, this would amount to around $100B per year.

Compare this to the cost of, say, ITER which, despite being split among the power of the world, amounts to a total of roughly $20B spread out across 35 years or $570M per year which is more than two orders of magnitude less than Apollo. It's not reasonable to spend pocket change on solving a problem for decades and then complain because no progress has been in that time.

3 hours ago, sologdin said:

waterwheel turbines turned by rightwing lacrimation. 

Welcome back! :)

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On 3/22/2019 at 5:47 AM, Impmk2 said:

For large scale storage: Pumped hydro utilizing old mines or large artificial lakes at altitude.

Upwards of 90% storage efficiency, far better than batteries, none of the degradation problems, and the capability to scale up and generate thousands of megawatts over long periods.

This works and in fact is widely used, but the problem is the sheer scale of the stored energy: we need around two orders of magnitude more than we have and this is without accounting for extreme events (e.g. something like this volcano eruption from a couple of centuries ago).

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It depends on the time frame.

For the next 100 years, it's going to be solar, wind, and other renewables - nuclear fission is too politically difficult to roll out en masse these days (at least in the US and most other rich countries), and nuclear fusion* probably won't be ready in commercially viable form before the 2030s or 2040s at the earliest (if ever).  By then the latter will be dealing with a grid re-oriented to run around renewables and their storage, and so it will have an uphill struggle unless the price per kilo-joule really is incredibly cheap compared to everything else.**

* We actually have gotten better at doing nuclear fusion, and getting closer to break-even fusion power over the past 50 years despite the erratic funding levels for fusion research.  We're just not there yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if we get there in the next 20 years (assuming it's possible). 

** The tricky thing with fusion is that the most viable version of it generates most of its output in neutron form, which means it essentially needs the same infrastructure as a nuclear fission plant to generate electricity. It will only generate power much cheaper than a conventional fission plant if it's much more power-dense in terms of output for a given-sized plant. 

But longer than 100 years, and it starts getting unpredictable (it depends too much on the growth in energy consumption). If energy consumption continues to grow, we might see a shift towards fusion power (where the fuel supply is effectively inexhaustible on Earth) or towards space solar power transmitted back to Earth. 

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Posted (edited)

Kinetic Energy. All those frustrated Incels in combination with unlimited Internet Porn, the potential is limitless. You can probably power New York state with Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee alone. Add Florida and you have the entire US east coast covered. Not to mention the growing number of wankers on a global scale.

Edited by A Horse Named Stranger

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