Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Thumbs Down to Renewables, But Nukes OK?

Hats off to James Lovelock for his scientific work, especially his Gaia hypothesis. But on what to do about energy, I think he has it backwards. Here he comes at us again saying that renewables are hopeless but that nuclear power is the answer to our energy prayers.

His logic on renewables is that they can’t possibly supply enough energy to keep our current system going, so forget them. He is of course right about the volumetric potential of renewables. Any attempt to prop up the system that fossil fuels built is bound to end in failure because of the low energy density of renewables and because renewables are dependent on the subsidy provided by fossil fuels.

But the same goes for nuclear power. A person of Lovelock’s intellect should be able to see that nuclear power is finished without copious fossil fuel inputs from start to finish — from the mining of uranium ore to the demolition of decommissioned plants and management of waste. (And no one has any idea what to do with the deadly waste.)

Indeed, it’s the big energy boost provided by fossil fuels that enables us to exploit low-density, high-entropy energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear.

Once fossil fuels are too expensive to use in any appreciable quantities, it’s the same as if we have no fossil fuels at all. With that in mind, here’s what we should be doing

First, power down. Industrial civilization is unsustainable, so the more energy we invest in propping it up, the more we are wasting. It’s a dying system, just like the institution of suburbia. We have to redesign our socioeconomic systems to run on low energy.

Second, go big-time right now with building the infrastructure to use renewable sources. Now is the time to do this, while fossil fuels are still affordable. Instead of building new weapons and fighting more wars, we should be pouring substantial amounts of money into infrastructure and into crash research projects on new kinds of renewable energy.

And third, husband fossil fuel resources because they are vital to maintain the physical infrastructure of renewables.

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