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What Will It Take to Save the Earth?

Henrik Saxgren
A solar power plant with sunflowers in the foreground, Seville, Spain, 2007; detail of a photograph by Henrik Saxgren from his 2009 book Unintended Sculptures, which collects his images of man-made objects—paved roads, power lines, and wind turbines among them—that appear to have been abandoned to nature. It is published by Hatje Cantz.
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play.
—W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

Daniel Yergin’s 804-page The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World raises large questions:

Can today’s $65 trillion world economy be sure it will have the energy it needs to be a $130 trillion economy in two decades? And to what degree can such an economy, which depends on carbon fuels for 80 percent of its energy, move to other diverse energy sources?

Will energy sources that rely less on carbon become available fast enough, at costs low enough, to avoid the disastrous consequences of climate change, to lift billions of people from poverty, and to enhance the prosperity of rich countries? Yergin provides a highly readable history that explains well how these questions arose and why they are so important and difficult. But it does little to answer them. Indeed, for Yergin, “the answers are far from obvious.”

The Quest combines four books. The first, more than half the total, provides a global history of oil, natural gas, and nuclear power from 1991 to 2011. Yergin argues that commercial competition for oil sources and markets is not now, and need not become, a contest of nations (e.g., between the United States and China); rather it is a competition between powerful multinational corporations that often try to bend nations to serve their interests. The Quest picks up at the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, where Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning eight-hundred-page history of global oil, The Prize, left off. His new book is more ambitious. Whereas The Prize focused on the oil industry, the first half of The Quest ends with the broader question of what fuels to choose.

Global electricity consumption has doubled since 1980. If it doubles again between now and 2030, as anticipated, and if it will cost $14 trillion to build the additional generating capacity to make the next doubling possible, what kinds of power plants should be built? How will they get built? What will be the consequences? These questions, too, Yergin leaves unanswered, providing instead entertaining anecdotes and quotations from historical sources and his many interviews.

The second part of The Quest traces a path from the discovery of climate change as an esoteric interest of a few scientists in the nineteenth century to the introduction of

new climate change policies…intended to make a profound transformation of the energy foundations that support the world economy—a transformation as far-reaching as that when civilization moved from wood to coal and then on to oil and natural gas.

The Irish scientist John Tyndall in the mid-nineteenth century was so fascinated by glaciers and by evidence that ice ages preceded the present era that he set out to discover why Earth is warm. His invention, the spectrophotometer, showed that water vapor and certain carbon-containing gases trap the energy of the sun’s heat, causing temperatures to rise. Yergin moves from the measurement of rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by Charles David Keeling, starting in the late 1950s, to the invention of carbon markets, the not very effective intervention by President Obama in the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations (which had no legally binding outcome), and the deadlock over climate politics in Washington.

Now overwhelming scientific evidence has persuaded many governments that continuing to burn carbon-based fuels contributes to climate change and increases the risk of adverse human consequences, including deaths from flooding and disruption in food supplies. With this in mind, The Quest’s third part looks at nuclear and renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. Yergin recounts the history of nuclear energy neutrally, noting its bright sides (no carbon dioxide, steady power production regardless of wind or sunlight) and its dark (expense, accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, long-term waste storage, nuclear proliferation).

Renewable energy sources include wind, sunlight (captured by photovoltaic cells, rooftop heat collectors, or concentrators of sunlight that drive electric generators), biofuels (from corn, algae, and other plants), biomass (wood, dung, and bagasse, the residue from sugar cane and other processed plants), geothermal power, and hydropower (from waves and falling water). Renewables have suffered greatly from policies Yergin aptly characterizes as “pendulumatic.” For example, Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House in 1979, then Ronald Reagan removed them in 1986. The Obama administration announced on October 5, 2010, that solar panels and a solar hot water heater would be in place on the White House roof by the following spring. By late October 2011, neither had appeared.

When Yergin looks to the future in his fourth book, he asks how the economic benefits from an average megawatt of power can be increased while at the same time reducing its negative effects on the environment and health. (Per dollar of GDP, the United States today uses only half the power it used in the 1970s, but a significant fraction of that gain results from transferring abroad production that makes intensive use of power.) How can energy conservation become a politically appealing strategy? How can we create and protect a more flexible, reliable, and efficient electrical grid? How can the revolution in life sciences provide new technologies to the energy business? Will electric cars be the main form of personal transportation in the future? If so, what kinds of electric cars? Will electricity for future cars come from oil- or coal-driven turbines, natural gas, or fuel cells that burn hydrogen or hydrocarbons? “Over the next couple of decades,” Yergin writes,

two billion people—about a quarter of the world’s population—will…likely move from a per capita income of under $10,000 a year to an income of between $10,000 and $30,000 a year. Even with much improved efficiency in energy use, their rising incomes will be reflected in much greater need for energy. How will that need be met? What kind of energy mix would make this possible without crisis and confrontation?

Yergin, a prominent consultant to energy industries, gives little hint of answers to these questions other than projecting that “75 to 80 percent of world energy is expected to be carbon based two decades from now.” He writes that, with the use of electricity, natural gas, and other fuels, oil will lose its “almost total domination over transportation,” but he does not give clear projections of by how much that domination will be reduced. He is confident that cars will get smaller. Yet a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warns that fossil fuels are likely to continue to dominate the global energy mix. The OECD projected that, by 2050, without more effective energy policies fossil fuels would supply 85 percent of energy demand, thus implying a 50 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions and worsening urban air pollution.

Yergin does illustrate how science both creates possibilities for capturing energy and constrains its use. Sadi Carnot, a French railroad engineer, published in 1824 a short book that led to the second law of thermodynamics, which set limits on what could be achieved in converting energy from one form to another. Albert Einstein in a 1905 paper explained the photoelectric effect in terms of quanta of light. This paper laid the theoretical foundations for photovoltaic devices that convert sunlight into direct-current electricity.

The twenty-first century’s major discovery of new oil resources was the result, according to José Sergio Gabrielli, the president of Petroleo Brasileiro, of “pure mathematics.” From 2007 on, new algorithms for processing signals made it possible for seismic soundings to locate oil reservoirs through a mile-thick layer of salt beneath the seabed in the Santos Basin off the southern coast of Brazil. One was “a supergiant field—at least 5 billion to 8 billion barrels of recoverable reserves—the biggest discovery since…2000.” Brazil’s president described the discoveries in the Santos Basin as “a second independence for Brazil.” Yet the upper estimate of eight billion barrels represented less than one hundred days of the world’s daily oil consumption in 2006.

But, for Yergin, science is a spectator sport, not an instrument to answer his large questions, which are left hanging. The only equation in The Quest is e=mc2 and it is wrong. (The equation should be E=mc2, even in the middle of a sentence, because E stands for energy while lower case e is, in physics, the elementary positive charge, the charge carried by a single proton, or, in mathematics, the base of natural logarithms.) Yergin’s text abounds in numbers but they are largely ornaments, not used to clarify the future of energy and climate change.

David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air, less than half the length of Yergin’s volume, starts with three concerns Yergin also raises: “fossil fuels are a finite resource” and cheap oil may run out in this century; relying on other countries’ fossil fuels endangers any country’s energy security; and “it’s very probable that using fossil fuels changes the climate…. The climate problem is mostly an energy problem.”

Like Yergin, MacKay asks large questions: “Can we conceivably live sustainably?” (his italics) “Will a switch to ‘advanced technologies’ allow us to eliminate carbon dioxide pollution without changing our lifestyle?” What are “practical options for large-scale sustainable power production for Europe and North Africa [and the rest of the world] by 2050”? Unlike Yergin, MacKay, a professor of physics at Cambridge, answers these questions. The main text of his book is readable (and witty), and its technical appendices bristle with equations and numerical data sufficient to validate MacKay’s credentials as chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (since 2009).

To make the necessary comparisons among alternatives, MacKay asserts, “we need numbers, not adjectives”—numbers in consistent, interpretable units, systematically organized so they can be compared. MacKay draws up a balance sheet of power consumption and sustainable power sources. He estimates the daily energy consumption of a “typical moderately-affluent person” in the UK for transport (cars, planes, and freight), heating, cooling, lighting, information systems, other gadgets, food, and manufacturing. To see if the United Kingdom can conceivably live on its own renewable power sources, he estimates the potential UK production of power from wind, solar energy (photovoltaics, thermal, and biomass), hydroelectric, tide, geothermal, and nuclear sources. Initially MacKay says “it’s not clear whether nuclear power counts as ‘sustainable,’” but he goes on to define and answer the question.

The UK’s annual GDP per person and power consumption per person, as calculated by MacKay, are typical of high-GDP countries like Germany, France, Japan, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, and Denmark. This analysis could become increasingly relevant to the billions of people who now live on low incomes and little power, as they escape from poverty.

After 102 pages of detailed but intentionally approximate arithmetic, MacKay estimates power consumption for a moderately affluent Briton at 8.1 kilowatts, the equivalent of eighty-one hundred-watt light bulbs always on.* If we assume complete social and political acquiescence to the cost and ubiquity of power-producing infrastructure, the UK’s future potentially physically available renewable power amounts to 7.5 kilowatts per person. This seems pretty close, but MacKay cautions that his assumption that solar photovoltaic farms would use 5 percent of the country’s land might not be compatible with his assumption that 75 percent of the country could be planted with energy-producing crops. “If we were to lose just one of our bigger green contributors—for example, if we decided that deep offshore wind is not an option, or that panelling 5% of the country with photovoltaics at a cost of £200,000 per person is not on—then the production…would no longer match the consumption.”

  1. *

    8.1 kilowatts means 8,100 joules per second, the joule being the international measure of a unit of energy. 

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