October 21, 2004

The Shape of the Future 

About the coming US presidential elections, the folks at New Scientist think that there are "Global issues a president cannot ignore". That's quite a bit a tranzist position, but it's not what I want to write about.

One of the articles has the catchy title In 50 years, we could cure our oil addiction.
The point of the article is that, applying technologies and processes already available, [a program] "would allow the US to cease oil imports by 2040 and virtually eliminate all oil use by 2050."

Well, duh.
With a time horizon of 50 years, it's easy to make wild predictions. Look at the technological evolution of the last fifty years: it has been huge, and in some cases (especially electronics), unforeseen. In another 50 years, many more marvelous things will appear (or a worldwide nuclear/biological conflict will send us back to a pre-industrial age, ahahaha).

But still, eliminating all oil use seems too good to be true. If these reports say that 100% is possible, I would set a realistic objective not higher than 50 - 75% cut. It's better to be conservative than to generate false expectations, because, a lot of things can go quite wrong in the meanwhile.

I confess I did not read the original reports, but New Scientist's article dedicates only a brief space to the possible downsides and collateral effects of a massive use of renewable energy sources - they're not definitely applying the principle of maximum precaution.
One of the reasons seems to be the rather axiomatic position that CO2 emissions are the worst possible form of pollution (maybe only after radiations). Thus, anything reducing carbon dioxide production must be welcome. Well, we are still not sure of how important is the effect of human activities on climate change. It's almost sure that there is an impact, but quantification of this impact, and its possible consequences, are mostly speculation based on very rough and tentative models.

Covering large contiguous areas of terrain with solar panels could bring upleasant, unexpected consequences; and likewise vast wind generators farms have an environmental impact. Not to mention the energy required to produce, maintain and finally dismantle and dispose of all these structures. It would be quite a grim irony, realizing that renewable sources are not much more benign than fossil fuels. Probably it's not like that, but a lot of apparently good ideas ended as epic cock-ups.

There's a lot of emphasis on the role of biomass and bio-fuels, and it is stated that 1/6 of the world's agricultural land would need to be used for ethanol crops, if bio-fuels have to play a major role. That's a hell of a lot of land: what if we need that for food crops instead?
What if the farmers do not want to grow ethanol crops, for any reason? I don't think it is possible to force them at gunpoint. Apparently, not yet developed technologies would reduce the land usage. Hmmm, it's not good engineering practice to rely on something that does not exist yet.

Also, the processing plants needed to produce bio-fuels, ethanol and such work quite well on a laboratory/pilot scale. When you try to make them in industrial scale (that is a good order of magnitude bigger), many problems tend to arise. Chemical engineers know well that scaling-up a pilot plant is no easy task, because Nature gets in the way with heath and mass transfer issues, mostly. As the same article says, rigorous and complete cost-benefit studies are needed for biofuels (and if the studies said that they're not worth the hassle?).

Another point of the article is increasing efficiency of engines and electrical devices. This can be successful, but efficiency cannot be increased indefinitely. Eventually, a point will be reached when only minor improvements require huge efforts. Is that worth it?

I don't want people to develop false expectations, and then get badly deluded. Or even worse, pressing for the adoption of dead-end politics: that may have catastrophic consequences.

One of the themes of this debate is that, if Oil consumption decreases, the Middle East will become more stable and terrorists will find themselves without money, and the war on radical islam will be over.

I wish it was that simple.
First, there is no time to wait for the energy market to change drastically. The nature of the treath requires quick decision and action. At the moment, the biggest concern is Iran developing nuclear weapons. They might be only months away from going nuclear: zeroing the oil use in 50 years has no effect whatsoever on this issue.

Terrorism is a relatively low-cost form of warfare. With the less than money needed for a single precision missile, a terrorist cell can plan ad execute a whole mission. And terrorist actions are usually designed for the maximum political effect. For the cost of a modern battle tank, it is possible to build a few mosques and endorse them with radical imams.

The oil commerce brings billions of dollars per year in the arab's pockets: even cutting this by 75%, many millions will still go over there, enough to finance plenty of terrorists and hate-spewing clerics. And islamic terrorists often rely from individual donations passing through islamic "charities", or finance themselves with arms and drug trafficking, kidnappings and various crimes. Cutting the flow of money is effective against terrorism, but it must be done at the critical locations.

And what the hell does it mean, "stable"? Stability is not necessarily right; it can very well be wrong depending from the circumstances.

The War on radical Islam is not the main reason to pursue renewable energy sources. Nor it is the global warming or pollution - although these are important aspects.
The main reason for me is that one day oil will be depleted, and we'll better have something else available, to keep our "wonderful" (or at least very nice) world working.
But for me, we don't need to look very far away: just on the periodic table, at the symbol U.


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