I’ve been a Scientific American reader ever since I picked one up in my twenties at the home of my girlfriend’s parents (now my wife’s), as her dad was an exec at Hughes Space Systems and a top expert in photovoltaics. But I have to say, lately they’ve run a few opinion articles that I can’t completely agree with, focusing on energy. They seem to have adopted a clearly anti-nuclear bias (anyone who listens to my podcast knows that I’m a big nuclear fan), and are even critical of fusion research. The April 2010 issue features an article by Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and from what I can tell, something of a Luddite, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It smacks of a disturbing trend I see a lot of lately, where anticorporatism (which is as worthy a philosophy as any) is greenwashed with a supposedly environmental, scientific agenda (which is dishonest and does a disservice). We should not make science decisions that promote our favorite philosophies, we should make science decisions that best serve our planet and our people. They may coincide in many cases, but they don’t always. Here is a snip from a sidebar in McKibben’s article:
Job one, on almost anybody’s list, is conservation. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated in 2008 that existing technologies could cut world energy demand 20 percent by 2020. For supply, it makes financial sense to generate power close to home. Most communities spend 10 percent of their money for fuel, and almost all of it disappears, off to Saudi Arabia or Exxon. Yet in 2008 the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showed that nearly half of all American States could meet their energy needs entirely within their borders, “and the vast majority could meet a significant percentage.” Wind turbines and rooftop solar could provide 81 percent of New York’s power, for instance, and almost one third of Ohio’s.
I’ll begin by stating that McKibben and I agree in principal almost entirely. We do need to completely replace our fossil fuel driven power grid, and as quickly as possible. With that said, I disagree with virtually every single point he makes. Let’s go one by one:
Job one, on almost anybody’s list, is conservation. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated in 2008 that existing technologies could cut world energy demand 20 percent by 2020.
Conservation has never proven to be a satisfactory strategy to solve virtually any shortage. Spending money to replace refrigerators and air conditioners with Energy Star compliant models is money that should instead be thrown at the Big Solution: small, incremental steps are time wasted. If 20 percent is the maximum we can expect from this, it’s clearly a non-starter. We need 100 percent replacement of fossil fuels. We need the giant leap. And if you depend on people shutting off the water while they shave, or driving more slowly, or turning off the lights when they leave the room, your strategy is guaranteed to fail. Should they? Yes. Will they? No. The habits of Ed Begley Jr. do not represent those of most people. Don’t depend on something that won’t happen; solve the problem instead. This lesson has had to be re-learned every time we’ve depended upon people to choose to conserve.
For supply, it makes financial sense to generate power close to home… Wind turbines and rooftop solar could provide 81 percent of New York’s power, for instance, and almost one third of Ohio’s.
Only in rare cases, like rooftop hot water systems. Rooftop solar and wind? No way, not even close, probably not even if you depend upon the unsustainable government subsidies we now enjoy. Things like transformers and maintenance and upgrades are the realities of these systems. These are intractable for the average homeowner, but they are trivial for a centralized power station that has the personnel, the money, and the means. Significantly, they also enjoy vast economies of scale. One large transformer for a neighborhood is far more efficient than a thousand small ones; one giant wind generator with 100 moving parts and a team of dedicated technicians walks all over a thousand small, unmaintained generators with 100,000 moving, breakable parts.
Transmission loss is a real factor, to be sure. But it’s more than made up for by the tremendous economies of scale.
Most communities spend 10 percent of their money for fuel, and almost all of it disappears, off to Saudi Arabia or Exxon.
I have to call foul on McKibben for this one. Only a tiny fraction of our fossil fuel comes from Saudi Arabia, and almost none from hostile Mideast countries. We produce well over a third of it domestically, and most that we import comes from Canada, Mexico, and non-Arab OPEC countries like Nigeria and Venezuela. Most of what remains does indeed come from Saudi Arabia, but it totals merely about a sixth. Cries of “Buying gas and oil sends your money to those evil woman-hating, hand-chopping, Muslim Saudis” are weasel words designed to frighten and sensationalize. Are you enriching Exxon? Yes. Are you enriching Saudi Arabia? Hardly. That he puts them in the same sentence implies that they are both equally bad places to send your money. Exxon is evil to those who embrace anticorporatism; Saudi Arabia is evil to those who embrace human rights. Equating the two is a wonderfully debatable topic, which I’d love to hear; but it’s not science, and has no place in a publication purporting to offer science-based solutions.