Why we should stop talking, and start to prepare for climate change

by Ketil Malde; May 23, 2016

The other day, I attended a meeting organized by my local University. Part of a series dealing with the Horizon 2020 themes, this one dealt with energy - and specifically, how we should replace our non-sustainable dependency on fossil fuels.

Professionally led by a well-known political journalist, it started with an introductory talk by a mathematician working with geothermal energy, specifically simulating fracturing of rock. Knowledge about the structure of cracks and fractures deep below can be used in the construction of geothermal energy plants - they produce power basically by pumping cold water down, and hot water up - so exploiting rock structre can make them more effective. It was an interesting talk, with a lot of geekish enthusiasm for the subject.

Then there was a panel of three; one politician, one solar panel evangelist-salesperson, and a geographer(?). And discussion ensued, everybody was talking about their favorite stuff on clean energy, and nobody really objected or criticized anything.

Which is, I think, highlights the problem.

When they opened for questions from the public, the first one to raise her voice was a tall, enthusiastic lady in a red dress. She was a bit annoyed by all the talk about economy and things, and why don't we just fix this?

And she is right - we can. It's just a question of resources. I recently looked at the numbers for Poland, which is one of the big coal-users in Europe1, producing about 150 TWh of electricity2 per year from coal.

Using the (now rather infamous) Olkiluoto reactor as a baseline, the contract price for unit 3 was €3 billion (but will probably end up at 2-3 times that in reality). Unit 1 and 2 which are in operation have about the same capacity, and deliver about 15 TWh/year. So, depending on how you want to include cost overruns, we can replace all coal-based electricity production in Poland with ten Olkiluoto-sized reactors for €30-80 billion. (I think it is reasonable to assume that if you build ten, you will eventually learn to avoid overruns and get closer to the price tag. On the other hand, the contractor might not give you as favorable quotes today as they gave Finland.)

Similarly, the Topaz solar power plant in the Californian desert, cost $2.4 billion to build, and delivers something above one TWh/year. Again, scaling up, we would need maybe 130 of these, and a total cost of about € 280 billion. (Granted, there are some additional challenges here, for instance, anybody going to Poland will immediately notice the lack of Californian deserts at low latitudes.3

So yes: we can solve this. But we don't. I can see the economic argument - we're talking about major investments. But more imporatntly, the debate was almost entirely focused on the small stuff. The seller of solar panels was talking at length about how the government should improve the situation for people selling solar panels. The academics were talking about how the government should invest in more research. The journalist was talking about Vandana Shiva - whom I'm not going to discuss in any detail, except notice that she is very good at generating headlines. The politician was talking about how he would work to fund all these good causes. And the topics drifted off, until at the end somebody from the audience brought up regulations of snow scooter use, apparently a matter of great concern to him personally, but hardly very relevant.

So these people, kind-spirited and idealistic as they are, are not part of the solution. Politicians and activists happily travel to their glorious meetings in Doha and Copenhagen, but they won't discuss shutting down Norwegian coal mines producing about two million tons of coal per year, corresponding to a full 10% of Norway's entire CO2 emissions. And unlike oil, which is a major source of income, this mine runs with huge losses -- last year, it had to be subsidized with more than € 50 million. Climate is important, but it turns out the jobs for the handful of people employed by this mine are more so. And thus realpolitik trumps idealism. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Subsidized by well-meaning politicians and pushed by PR-conscious business managers, we'll get a handful of solar panels on a handful of buildings. That their contribution almost certainly is as negative for the climate as it is for the economy, doesn't matter. We'll get some academic programs, which as always will support research into whatever can be twisted into sounding policy-compliant. And everything else continues on its old trajectory.

  1. Poland is the second largest coal consumer in Europe. Interestingly, since the reason they are number two, is Germany begin number one. And, ironically, the panel would often point to Germany as and illustration of successful subsidies and policies favoring renewable energy.

  2. Note that electricity is only a small part of total energy, when people talk about electricity generation, it is usually to make their favorite technology look better than it is. It sound better to say that solar power produces 1% of global electricity, than 0.2% of global energy, doesn't it?

  3. As far as I can find, the largest solar park in Scandinavia is in Västerås. This is estimated to deliver 1.2GWh from 7000m² of photovoltaic panels over a 4.5 ha area. Compared to Topaz's 25 km², that's slightly less than 0.2% of the size and 0.1% of the power output. At SEK 20M, it's also about 0.1% of the cost, which is surprisingly inexpensive. But these numbers seem to be from the project itself, who at the same time claims the power suffices for "400 apartments". In my apartment, 3000kWh is just one or two winter months, which makes me a bit suspicious about the rest of the calculations. Another comparison could be Neuhardberg, at slightly less than € 300 million and 145MWp capacity, but which apparently only translates to 20GWh(?). If that is indeed correct, Poland would need seven thousand of those, at a € 2100 billion price tag.

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