When Filmmakers Live in Fantasyland

By Keith Kloor | May 3, 2013 1:07 pm

As it becomes increasingly evident that a switch from coal to natural gas is reducing energy-related carbon emissions in the United States–which is a net plus if you care about climate change– opponents of fracking find themselves being asked to choose between the lesser of two evils. That is a debate in of itself worth having.

But it’s not helped by fantasy world statements such as this one by the anti-fracking filmmaker Josh Fox:

Renewable energy can run the whole world. We know we have enough wind in the world to power the world  five to ten times over. We have a technological solution for this.

We do? Which incantation do I recite to make this magical world appear? Oh wait, somebody’s already written it, Fox tells Andrew Sullivan. Based on that, he says the United States can meet all its power needs from wind, solar and hydroelectric dams. (For a skeptical perspective on renewable utopia, read this by Vaclav Smil.)  But that won’t matter, Fox adds, unless the world starts “consuming less energy.” Hmm, getting India, China, and other developing countries on board with that might be tough.

The reality, for those who are truly concerned about global warming, was laid out by Alan Riley last summer in a New York Times op-ed:

Unless a cheap, rapidly deployable substitute fuel is found for coal, then it will be next to impossible to safely rein in rising carbon dioxide levels around the world.

Although the green movement might at first see shale gas as an enemy in this fight, it may in fact turn out to be a friend. Broad development of shale gas resources — with proper ecological safeguards — could be the best way to achieve the quick cuts in carbon dioxide emissions that we need to maintain a habitable environment on Earth.

I’m a big fan of Andrew Sullivan, but I’m sorry, asking Josh Fox if fracking can ever be safe is like asking Helen Caldicott if nuclear power can ever be acceptable. Asking Josh Fox to explain how the world can be powered by wind and solar energy is like asking someone from the Rodale Institute to explain how organic farming can feed the world. It’s useless noise that makes reasoned debate that much harder.

UPDATE: This AP story from Thursday is quite relevant. It’s titled, “Oil drilling technology leaps, clean energy lags.”

File:Fantasy Land February 2013 01.jpg

All aboard the train to a world run by solar and wind power. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

  • Buddy199

    An Indian subsistence farmer doesn’t care about wether Miami will be flooded or how many fewer polar bears there might be in 100 years. His daily needs and desire to raise his and his family’s standard of living are much more immediate. Multiply that by 2 or 3 billion people and the futility of extreme green Western elitist utopianism is obvious.

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      • Buddy199

        Isn’t there a crap filter on Discover?

  • Robert Wilson

    The strange delusions of Mark Jacobson appear incapable of going away, rather like a parody of a zombie in a George Romero film. In his imagination, and presumably Josh Fox’s, the entire planet can be consuming 100% of its energy from renewables by 2030.

    However, let’s look a little closely at these skyscraper sized wind turbines we will need. How do we make these with wind, water and sun? Well, we can’t. The very large towers wind turbines are placed on top of are made of steel. If we wish to make as many turbines as Jacobson seems to want, then we will need a lot the stuff. To get enough steel we will first need to dig billions of tonnes of iron out of the ground. The machinery required to do this will not be running on renewables any time soon. We then take this iron and convert it to steel. There are absolutely no prospects of doing this without the use of coking coal any time soon. We could use charcoal, but that would require a rather large amount of deforestation to get the wood.

    Steel of course is likely to made somewhere like China, so we stick it on a container ship. These ships run on diesel engines, and aren’t going to be running on wind, water and sun or anything green by 2030.

    There are of course other things I can mentioned, but I have made my point. These delusions of course will remain alive and remain a daily annoyance for those interested in looking at energy issues seriously.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1358074093 Chris Allen

      So a short-term use of fossil fuels in building systems to replace them with clean energy sources is less use than just continuing on fossil fuels forever? How short-sighted of you!

      As to trees, you can grow on 1 acre of land the same amount of paper-producing hemp that it takes 4 acres of trees to grow—PLUS, the hemp grows a lot faster. I would think we could find a way to use it to create charcoal as well.

      • Robert Wilson

        As I said anyone wishing to treat energy seriously will face daily annoyances, as you seem intent on proving.

      • Eric Mastrocola

        Hemp- yes of course

        Why just not admit you want to smoke pot?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1358074093 Chris Allen

    No they WON’T! We can do what other, smarter countries are doing and push wind, solar, and water power instead! Not only that, some of our own states (and our Navy) are pushing for these and other clean energy sources! So don’t SIT there and LIE to us and say “Your only two choices are coal & oil, or fracked gas.” Fracking is EVERY BIT as bad as coal and oil—it’s polluting our drinking water, and releases significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere—and methane creates 4x the amount of atmospheric warming as carbon, plus it sticks around a lot longer.

    Oh, and China? They’re already seeing horrendous effects from burning coal for power—don’t be surprised if they beat us to the punch with solar, wind, and water power.

    • Buddy199

      Germany and Spain encountered enormous problems with green energy. It was not profitable and continuous governmental subsidies were needed to keep it afloat. In the end, consumers wound up paying for those subsidies in the form of very large surcharges on electric bills. With a 60% youth unemployment rate, Spain’s citizens soon lost any enthusiasm for continuing on the green path. China has $3 trillion in cash reserves, they can afford to subsidize a green program. As far as the Navy, they are sailing with the current political wind more than anything else.

      The problem with wind and solar is physics, not politics. Compared to carbon fuels, they are extremely energy weak and inconvenient. You can’t drive an industrial economy on windmills and solar cells and no country other than China has the cash to keep throwing at that ever receding Unicorn. Fission and fracking are the two best alternatives at this point to bridge to fusion or some other as yet unanticipated long term solution.

  • dogctor

    I’ve felt for a very long time that the most rational replacement for coal is nuclear power, if only people were able to keep an open mind and examine advanced nuclear technology rather than focusing solely on Fukushima and Chernobyl. I have no faith in ecologically friendly fracking, if for no other reason than the vast amounts of water it takes, which obviously doesn’t account for the toxic proprietary chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

  • Tom Scharf

    The friends of AGW checklist:

    1. Oppose nuclear
    2. Oppose fracking
    3. Oppose hydro

    Am I missing anything?

    It’s unclear why people don’t take them more seriously…

    • Eric Mastrocola

      “Oppose hydro”- they occasionally mention hydro- usually obliquely- like mentioning how certain countries use more renewable energy than the US (Quebec has a lot of dams- for example)

      But they are exactly the same people who made it impossible to build any more dams in the US.

      • jh

        Uh, and don’t forget that they’re busily lobbying to tear down several major dams on the Snake River.

    • jh

      Well, I’m pleased that my oil investments will survive the AGW apocalypse.

    • dogctor

      The trouble with generalizing is that there are times you end up wrong.

      http://energyfromthorium.com/2011/01/30/china-initiates-tmsr/

      Friend of AGW :)

      • JonFrum

        ‘There are times’ doesn’t make the generalization wrong. That’s why it’s called a generalization – it is generally true. And in this case, it is.

        • dogctor

          How do you know?

          My generalization is that Republicans are supportive of nuclear power and are convinced that it is politically not a doable proposition because of opposition from greens.

          I am green, or as you term it ” friend of AGW”, I am guessing, translating to someone who believes that AGW is a real phenomena with a legitimate scientific consensus ( rather than someone who wants more AGW, which I don’t)

          If those generalizations are true, you’ll have a tough time fitting me into your world, because I believe there is serious potential to GenIV technology as a bridge to fusion in 30-50yrs.

          Fantasy? Sure… idealism is one of the traits that makes me a far left liberal.

          Have you checked out the PRISM by GE?
          Beause I have. I’ve also looked at how many millions of dollars it takes to store nuclear waste, noticed the fact that we don’t have a repository for it after decades and millions spent on Yucca Mountain ( http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2013/feb/27/fight-over-storing-nuclear-waste-nevada-ready-resu/ )

          the billions desposted in a fund to oversee the waste– Utilities pay one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt hour of electricity they generate into the Nuclear Waste Fund, which holds about $29 billion right now and grows by $1 billion each year from new payments and interest. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2013/04/14/new-u-s-nuclear-waste-policy-may-be-illegal-gao/

          which some GenIV technology reactors burn as fuel, after nuclear reprocessing. . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S-PRISM

          I dunno, but at first glance– it looks like a no-brainer to me.

  • Tom Scharf

    It’s always a good thing when the actual numbers are run. Here is Revkin’s take on the NY by 2030 plan, he calls it a mostly useful as a “thought experiment”

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/12/can-wind-water-and-sunlight-power-new-york-by-2050/

    Excerpt:
    According to the researchers’ calculations, New York’s 2030 power demand for all sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry) could be met by:

    4,020 onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
    12,770 offshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
    387 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants
    828 50-megawatt photovoltaic power plants
    5 million 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems
    500,000 100-kilowatt commercial/government rooftop photovoltaic systems
    36 100-megawatt geothermal plants
    1,910 0.75-megawatt wave devices
    2,600 1-megawatt tidal turbines
    7 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plants, of which most exist

    • Tom Scharf

      Over the next 17 years:

      3 5GW wind turbines *** every day ***
      1,000 5kW rooftop arrays *** every day ***

    • Tom Fuller

      I just want to say hello from China and that it is not impossible for New York to have 5 million 5-Kw residential rooftop photovoltaic systems by 2030. As I told Tom before, it’s easier if you can assume that most will be built after 2025, by which time they should be cheap as chips.

      • dljvjbsl

        Cheap as chips – including the invertors. This is a real question. I don’t know the answer

        • Tom Fuller

          Well, yes. Inverters do have to improve… in quality as well as price. For that matter, so do roof mounting arrays. But they will…

      • kdk33

        Thought Experiment: You are the electrical utility for new york and you have two options:

        1 build a few score natural gas powered power plants – each with it’s own parking lot for employees. – operators, maintenance, engineers, and bosses

        2. Build 5 million itty bitty solar panels and scatter them throughout the new york metropolitan area. Buy a fleet of vehicles and an army of workers to build these. Put them on roofs so installation is difficult. Put them on other peoples property to make access very complicated. Buy a fleet of vehicles to drive your personnel from site to site for upkeep and maintenance. Hire rooms full of dispatcher and schedulers to manage these activities. Hire an army of lawyers to settle the claims brought by those with trouble acquiring power.

        Is it possible to have 5 million 5kW generators? Is it a good idea?

      • Tom Scharf

        Welcome back to the Internet.

        Well then it will be 3000 5KW units every day. If you are correct and the economics work, and people can self install, then maybe it works. They do need to be cheap as dirt and basically snap in to your home electrical system.

        But this is wishing this technology into existence, and assuming the existing market stands still. Solar power has been “10 years away” for decades now. I’m all for cheap power and support the research, but color me unconvinced until the breakthrough is actually made.

        Suntech, the world’s top solar panel manufacturer(?), just went bankrupt in your new homeland, BTW.

        http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324743704578442422720766046.html

        • Tom Fuller

          That’s due to financial mismanagement and the CEO believing what Europeans said about renewable bonds, not because the biz is bad–but profit margins are so thin they couldn’t recover.

          Look at what solar prices were 10 years ago and tell me that in 20 years it won’t be snap-on and cheaper than attic insulation…

  • JonFrum

    Back at least 10 years ago I watched a Frontline episode on energy. At the end, they had an older gentleman with years of experience in the business pointing out that the terawatts necessary to keep America running couldn’t possibly be provided by alternative energy – it was physically impossible. They followed him with a young woman (who looked like a recent college grad) from a green advocacy group insisting that it could be done – while providing no explanation as to how it would be done. She just kept nodding her head and repeating herself earnestly. Nothing has changed since then.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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