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Smart Green Tech
Tech, Not Treaties, Will Save the Planet

In the much-ballyhooed (yet toothless and hollow) climate agreement signed in Paris over the weekend, delegates affirmed the need to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C” as compared to pre-industrial levels, without including any specific targets or policy recommendations for individual nations to help the world get there. This was a last-second moving of the goal posts, as the temperature target most often discussed in the run-up to Paris was 2 degrees Celsius—a target that was all but abandoned before the conference even began. Few expected mention of a 1.5 degrees Celsius target in the Paris treaty, and it’s not surprising that it wasn’t backed up by any details. With temperatures today already 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, there simply aren’t enough tools in the policy toolbox to pull this off.

But as the FT reports, all hope is not lost, as technological breakthroughs could be the solution the world is looking for:

The scientific and technical challenge is to continue to drive down the cost of alternative sources, particularly solar and wind power but also nuclear, while improving the technology for distributing and storing energy.

Perhaps the greatest need is for better batteries that store electricity with much higher density and charge up much more quickly than those available today. They would not only solve the “intermittency problem” of solar and wind power but also enable electric vehicles to surpass the range and performance of petrol and diesel engines. […]

On nuclear power, many scientists part company with the green campaigners with whom they have made common cause on other issues during the UN climate negotiations. They see a new generation of smaller and less expensive nuclear power stations — downsized from today’s multibillion-dollar monsters — as a valuable contribution to non-carbon electricity generation. In the long run there could be a role for nuclear fusion reactors.

Predicting the future based on the technologies of the present is a recipe for failure. Moreover, doing so will necessarily exclude some of the most exciting and positive possibilities ahead for our species. Malthusian greens are more atavistic than futuristic, and parts of the environmental movement seem to have an impulse to idealize our agrarian past while demonizing modernity. But this worldview not only ignores how much better life is for the vast majority of people today than it was before the industrial era, but also how much better life can be in the (very near) future.

A breakthrough in energy storage would alone play a big role in solving intermittency issues with wind and solar power, which are one of the biggest obstacles to more widespread deployment of renewable energy. That said, more money needs to be poured into the research and development of more efficient solar panels and wind turbines (diverted away from the subsidization of the current generation), so that the eco-friendly energy sources might be able to compete with fossil fuels on their own merit. Then, too, there are a whole host of new nuclear technologies that seem tantalizingly close to producing a wave of zero-carbon baseload power. Carbon capture and storage technologies could even pull greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and store it underground.

The threat of climate change looms large, but all hope is not lost—and it’s technological progress, not toothless treaty-making, that’s going to make the biggest difference.

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  • Andrew Allison
    • theresanursemom

      I agree that this is all mostly overhyped nonsense, but it would all be made moot if civilization genuinely applied all its efforts in the direction of technological improvement rather than waste so much time and money trying to convince everybody that the sky is about to fall. If they are really hell-bent on ending the burning of fossil fuels, then give us a better alternative….

      • Andrew Allison

        They are hell-bent on ending the burning of fossil fuel and have no interest in the method or consequences. The fact that CO2 didn’t rise last year and temperature hasn’t risen for 17 years is of no consequence, and must be covered up by “adjusting” past data downward. The window for establishing a trend, which went from five to 10 years when there was no warming for five, 10 to 15 when there was no warming for 10, and 15 to 30 when there was none for 15 will keep increasing until the trend changes, at which point it will revert to five. The utter mendacity of the true believers is breathtaking.

    • Boritz

      “300 years to reach a 1.5 degree increase”

      Typical response: Thank Gaa, er science we still have time if we take the necessary measures Now!

  • Fat_Man

    “Feature: Germany fires up bizarre new fusion reactor” By Daniel Clery 10 December 2015

  • Jim__L

    A couple of interesting tidbits:
    In 2014, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,932 kilowatthours (kWh), an average of 911 kWh per month. Louisiana had the highest annual consumption at 15,497 kWh per residential customer, and Hawaii had the lowest at 6,077 kWh per residential customer.

    (That’s about 30 kWh per day for average American residential customer; about 15 kWh in HI and 45 kWh in LA.)
    Each Powerwall has a 7 kWh energy storage capacity, sufficient to power most homes during the evening using electricity generated by solar panels during the day. Multiple batteries may be installed together for homes with greater energy needs. A 10 kWh weekly cycle version is available for backup applications.

    So all in all, this could work for a Hawaiian home already (at least one the dry sides of the islands), but won’t do for Louisiana until performance improves a few times. Still, the fact that they’re in the right order of magnitude is promising.

    Suburban homes in HI with roofs that can support 20 square meters or so of solar panels could ideally have all their summer power needs met as long as it didn’t rain all week, but for anyone not so lucky (if you’re stuck in an apartment, say, or weather is bad) Powerwall still has to improve its tech to get you off the grid entirely. Or maybe buy two.


      What do you do with the batteries when they no longer can hold a charge. Land fills?

      • Jim__L

        That’s one interesting omission from the Powerwall spec sheet. For applications that use solar-recharged batteries (e.g., satellites) there is typically a spec for depth of discharge vs. # of discharges. (Of course, the weather up there is much, much better than anywhere on Earth; you only have to worry about eclipses, which are 93 minutes or so for a worst-case moon plus Earth eclipse.)

        Here’s a good site for an investigation of depth-of-discharge and how it affects usable life:

        As you can see, a Lithium-polymer battery degrades in performance fairly quickly. If you do a full discharge every night, after less than a year you’ll be down to 85% capacity at best.

        The closes thing the Tesla site has on battery life is the warranty. If you’re relying on this battery for household use, the battery will probably see a huge amount of degradation within the warranty life — within the first year, really — just for regular use alone.

        If you’re using it to charge your Tesla Model S as well, a single charge of that 70kWh or 85 kWh battery will take the charge of more than 10 of these Powerwalls. (Or have a Powerwall dedicated to your Tesla, and keep your driving to 30 miles per day. And get a lot more solar panels.) Hipsters who want to go off-grid with Solar City and Powerwall will be nonplussed to hear it takes some effort take their Teslas with them.

  • Episteme

    There’s the problem of the hyper-focus of looking at temperature and specifically at the atmosphere, because you end up creating particular things to blame and focusing entirely on certain ‘solutions.’ It’s interesting, noting the small temperature increase “since industrialization” how early temperature gauging in the first decades of the United States (as a project led by Thomas Jefferson stemming from his “Notes on the State of Virginia”) to disprove false climate-band theories from French naturalists had academic and military volunteers taking all sorts of readings over years across the early nation – it turned out surprisingly that clear-cutting of Appalachian and Midwestern forests actually temperatures and changed rain cycles in the Eastern United States measurably by changing for sunlight refracts and wind patterns carry.

    Over the past few centuries, we’ve dramatically rebuilt the landscape – look at how we’ve restructured and often built up or lowered coastlines (ice floes freeze or melt periodically, but subways in NYC flooding when a hurricane hits is a matter of poor urban planning) as populations have increased. Likewise, the same phenomenon noticed by Jefferson’s team has skyrocketed here and abroad, especially with industrialization and the mass-manipulation of the landscape (asphalt refract sunlight even more differently than farmland). At the same time, that build up has had bad effects in terms of depopulation of species (one doesn’t need to be a classic “environmentalist” to want to limit the extinction of wildlife or even native plants if possible – conservation is both a matter of economy and humanity, even if chasing a town out to save barn owls crosses a line when one can as easily tranquilize the owls and move them to safety away from people). This hyper-focus on mathematical atmospheric “climate” issues ends up taking stress away from actual solvable issues (whether its how pollution around industrial plants has been cleaned up because the actual tangible effects or people my age grew up on river & beach clean ups because having non-trashed places to play was more interesting than litter – of course, with a father working in plastics, I also learned the actually fascinating economic world of recycling over time, as well as its limits). But Al Gore and his private jet screws that up for both us AND the deer whose cross-pass we should be building across the highway (if we’re going to be spending money on anything ‘environmental) so that our grandkids can watch them be beautiful pests – and that we don’t run into them trying to cross the road – instead of out taxes paying for $35 sorbet in Paris! 😉

  • Josephbleau

    In the city of Chicago the gas tax is 25percent suck the money Rahm.

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