The Cost of Energy – November 14, 2010

As a science fiction writer and engineering aficionado, I’m a big intellectual fan of renewable energy. To make a machine that’s all moving parts with no fuel, put it up in the wind, and get electricity—that’s magical. To take a piece of etched glass with no moving parts, leave it out in the sunlight, and get electricity—that’s elegant. And with a little tweaking either device can deliver the same 60-cycle, 120-volt electricity my house needs—that’s a wonder.

But engineering elegance is not the main concern when it comes to feeding the country’s electricity grid. As a former employee of a large electric and gas utility, I know that cost is the most important consideration in selecting resources. There are many ways to generate electricity: you can even rub two utility company executives together to get a static charge, but it’s going to be expensive.

The problem is that renewables are generally diffuse energy sources. A square meter of sunshine or a propeller-sized slice out of the wind doesn’t have much energy value. There’s more heat to make steam and drive a turbine in a kilogram of coal or a cubic meter of natural gas. Developers have tried to make up for this diffusion by building really big wind turbines—three hundred foot blades mounted on two hundred foot towers—but all that moving mass tore the shafts apart. They can make up for the low power in sunlight and the inefficient capture ratio of photovoltaic cells by building larger and larger collecting fields, but they will come up against line losses between the individual cell and the energy converter.

So, for now, until there’s a breakthrough in conversion technology, fossil fuels are cheaper. Coal or oil or gas will drive out the fuel-less renewables on the basis of cost alone.

Now, I do believe that an energy resource’s true costs should be properly accounted. Burning coal or oil creates particulates and oxides—soot and smog—that need to be cleaned up. Nuclear fuel creates other wastes that need to be reprocessed and stored over centuries. Completing the cost of the fuel cycle so that these sources don’t create a mess at the local level is entirely fair. But even with best available pollution technology, the fossil fuels still beat wind and solar on cost.

Note, however, that I don’t see carbon dioxide—the byproduct of all carbon combustion—in the same category as sulfur and nitrogen oxides. Carbon dioxide causes no immediately harmful effects, unlike smog and acid rain. It is produced in many ways besides power plants—our own lungs and those of every animal on the planet, for example. And it is too easily ameliorated by uptake in green plants and sea life. To try to account for the effect of a power plant in terms of a global temperature rise of two or three degrees in a hundred years from now seems about as sensible as trying to account for the inflationary effect of a financial transaction today on the economy of a hundred years in the future. There’s just too much else going on in the system today and too much likely to happen in the decades between now and then.

The problems of today always seem likely to destroy us in the distant future, and yet they never do.1 The Reverend Thomas Malthus could show statistically that growing human populations would eat themselves into starvation by the end of the 19th century. They didn’t. When I was growing up, overpopulation was going to crush us all in poverty by the end of the 20th century.2 It didn’t. (We were also going to incinerate ourselves in nuclear war, and a glitch in Cobol programming was going to bring down the Computer Age on January 1, 2000. Ditto didn’t. Ditto didn’t.)

Will we have to make some accommodation with global warming in the next hundred years? Of course. Agricultural patterns will shift. Rising sea level will change property values. People will abandon coastal cities and move further up the estuaries.3 But in that time we’ll also have to make accommodation with massive earthquakes, hurricane damage, meteor strikes, and economic upheavals. We’ll also have to deal with technological change, population migration, and social and political upheavals. World conditions are constantly changing.4 That’s a law. Go back and live through the eruption of Thera or the Black Death.

Of course, one day we will run out of easily mined and drilled fossil carbon. Then the cost of carbon burning will go up. And at about the same time technology breakthroughs will bring down the cost of renewable energy. You’d better believe that university researchers, industrial R&D groups, and backyard inventors are feverishly working today on better photovoltaics, superconductors, new generators and batteries, synthetic oil from algae, and a whole portfolio of new energy technologies. And other industries will help there, too. Turbine-generators fired by natural gas went from an expensive peak-load generating resource in the 1970s to a competitive base-load technology in the 1990s because of advances made in jet engine technology. Our scientific-industrial complex makes advances, takes notes, and shares ideas.

Before the easy carbon has all been used up, a better way to power our lives will already be pushing inefficient carbon burning out of the picture.

1. In a class in futurism I took back in college, this was described as the “If This Goes On” fallacy. Take any trend line—your current growth rate, your recent profits or losses, rainfall totals from last spring—and extend it at the current angle indefinitely. Absent other factors, the current trend can always be read as the path to glory or to doom.

2. See Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, which became the dystopian movie Soylent Green.

3. It’s happened before. Consider the ancient Turkish city of Ephesus, abandoned during the Hellenistic period when its river basin silted up.

4. As a thought experiment, wouldn’t there be a greater catastrophe and panic if the situation were going in reverse and the world was getting colder? Dropping sea levels would leave busy harbors and port facilities miles from the sea. Rivers of ice would destroy lovely Alpine and Alaskan valleys. Valuable agricultural land in Canada and Siberia would turn to frozen marsh. Cities that were once liveable year-round would now be covered by deep blankets of frozen rain that they had to plow away and pile up until spring. People would spend a fortune on energy to heat their frozen homes. We faced all that once, of course, 30,000 years ago. The difference is that, then, we didn’t have so much investment in building on the ground. As hunter-gatherers, we just moved south and down the valley.