Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

By cjohnson | October 14, 2005 11:18 pm

food energy 1 Well, you’ve read my whining here and here about being terribly distracted by having to organize departmental colloquia every week. You’ve noticed that the extra grundge work sometimes comes about because I want it to be a fun, inclusive event every week, with everybody having a great time while learning a lot, meeting their colleagues, and with a great deal of good ideas and conversation resulting from it. Achieving this requires effort, and when it does work…it is really, really worth it.

Such an event happened on Monday. Caltech’s Nathan Lewis gave an excellent presentation entitled “Scientific Challenges in Sustainable Energy Technology” at 4:15pm. As promised in the posters, there were refreshments on the lawn outside at 3:30pm, and we had people from several departments: students, postdocs, faculty, department chairs, and deans showed up. Energy is important you see. That (and tasty Trader Joe’s grub) is what I tried to use as the hook to get them there, and I think it worked, as we had at least 100 people.

food energy 2We had a treat. Nate is an engaging speaker on an interesting topic which he knows very well. He’s quick as a …quick thing, and he can (and he will) call up all the facts and figures he needs to debate you vigourously on the topic of sustainable energy technology. He gave us a very detailed abstract, and as it does a pretty good job of describing a lot of the talk, I’ll reproduce it here so that you can get an idea of what he talked about:

nathan lewis energyThis presentation will describe and evaluate the challenges, both technical, political, and economic, involved with widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies. First, we estimate the available fossil fuel resources and reserves based on data from the World Energy Assessment and World Energy Council. In conjunction with the current and projected global primary power production rates, we then estimate the remaining years of supply of oil, gas, and coal for use in primary power production. We then compare the price per unit of energy of these sources to those of renewable energy technologies (wind, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal) to evaluate the degree to which supply/demand forces stimulate a transition to renewable energy technologies in the next 20-50 years. Secondly, we evaluate the greenhouse gas buildup limitations on carbon-based power consumption as an unpriced externality to fossil-fuel consumption, considering global population growth, increased global gross domestic product, and increased energy efficiency per unit of globally averaged GDP, as produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A greenhouse gas constraint on total carbon emissions, in conjunction with global population growth, is projected to drive the demand for carbon-free power well beyond that produced by conventional supply/demand pricing tradeoffs, at potentially daunting levels relative to current renewable energy demand levels. Thirdly, we evaluate the level and timescale of R&D investment that is needed to produce the required quantity of carbon-free power by the 2050 timeframe, to support the expected global energy demand for carbon-free power. Fourth, we evaluate the energy potential of various renewable energy resources to ascertain which resources are adequately available globally to support the projected global carbon-free energy demand requirements. Fifth, we evaluate the challenges to the chemical sciences to enable the cost-effective production of carbon-free power on the needed scale by the 2050 timeframe. Finally, we discuss the effects of a change in primary power technology on the energy supply infrastructure and discuss the impact of such a change on the modes of energy consumption by the energy consumer and additional demands on the chemical sciences to support such a transition in energy supply.

Why did I title this post “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid”? Let me explain a bit, without scaremongering too much. Well, frankly the energy issue, and the numbers and trends accompanying it, is extremely frightening. First, I recommend that you consult his slides, which can be found on this page. I strongly recommend that you take an hour of your time out and view video of a similar talk entitled “Powering the Planet” that he gave as part of Caltech’s Watson lecture series.

So your first thought on hearing his estimates for how much we have left in fossil fuels is “So things are not as bad as they say…. We’ve plenty of time to get onto another track for energy supply.” No. That’s wrong. He then goes on to point out just how much carbon dioxide we’re dumping into the environment, and no matter how conservative you are about the effects this will have, and no matter how optimistic you are about the difference we will make by trying to clean up our act using emissions reductions, we are extremely late in getting around to considering greenhouse-gas-emission-free primary sources of energy. How late? Well, using generous estimates of how the trends will continue if we use the policy of “business as usual” currently advocated by our policy makers, by about 2050, we will begin to pass the point where it will take of the order of 1000 years to restore the levels of greenhouse gas to anything like we were used to. So you can argue about whether or not we know for sure that we are making huge changes to our planet (at this point he shows some before and after snaps of him in front of various glaciers turned to lakes in a few decades) which we’ll have to deal with, but the point is that we’ll get to try it out -doing what he calls the “biggest experiment humankind has ever performed”. And if we don’t like the outcome (e.g. completely new climates, weather systems, flooded cities, huge losses of some of our favourite habitats, species, etc… and that’s just the mild stuff), we’re stuck with it for a 1000 years, even if we figure out how to immediately stop what we’re doing.

Well, the scary thing is that we are nowhere near figuring out how to stop what we’re doing. We’re not putting even close to the required resources into research into figuring it out (compare the entire DOE budget to the recent increase the NIH got), and there is no political will (regardless of political party you care to name) to face the reality of the situation and do something about it. So we are going to do that experiment. I’m scared.

You say “But we can sequester the emissions from fossil fuels and stop it getting into the atmosphere, can’t we? That will buy us time.” No. Not even close. We’re not very good at it, and even if we were, we just have no way of securing the stuff (burying it or whatever) in a reliable way that does not leak at a rate which invalidates the approach anyway.

You say “But we have nuclear fission, wind power, tides, biomass, hydro, and geothermo, and one day we’ll have nuclear fusion…right?” No. First, he estimates that we need 10-30 TeraWatts (TW) of supply by 2050. Fission plants come in at about 1 GigaWatt (GW) of generation capacity (we don’t know how to safely, securely and make efficient ones much bigger), and so we’ll need to construct one new nuclear fission plant every other day -starting now- to meet the challenge. And then they only last 50 years…. The biggest and brightest fusion project right now (in europe) is hoping to get break even several years from now, and then maybe built a workingdemonstration machine when it is probably already too late! He then continues to work down the list of all the other alternative sources, and you realize that they just won’t even come close to what we need if we are truly going to stop dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

So at this point everybody’s on the edge of their seats, probably making a mental note to not bother having children, or pay an extra couple of thousand for that fancy new hybrid vehicle, or to sell that cute folding bike they’ve been commuting on the buses and trains with, etc. Maybe they’re thinking of getting that Hummer after all and humankind just going out with a bang. But then he reminds us that we have one source left, and it has way more energy than we can possibly need. The Sun. Two hours of sunlight hitting the whole earth’s surface gives us the equivalent of the 30 TW for a year we need to be working at. Taking into account practicalities, we can expect about 600 TW or so fairly easily, and at 10% efficiency in recovering it and putting it to good use, we still are way ahead of what we need. It turns out you need a total surface area the size of a medium sized US state in about six places around the world (say one on each continent) to do the job.

A bit of thought reminds us that of course this has been done before. Nature extracts about 90TW planet wide through photosynthesis. (Photosynthesis is not the way we’d go, exactly, but it’s a big clue.) So what we should be trying to figure out, he argues, and I’m convinced, is how to use the sun. And we should be trying to figure it out now. There are several challenges. It’s not really just making better solar cells, because we’ll never tackle the crippling day-night effect by focuing on that alone. So it’s a lot more about efficient storage and distribution technologies, and the challenges are actually huge scientific ones as well as technological. (All the jumping up and down by a few seeminly enlightened politicians about the “hydrogen economy” does not really add up, he argues. The long list of problems with hydrogen begin with the fact that we don’t even know how to store it properly right now….it leaks through everything, even steel containers.)

Anyway, I’ll let you look at the talk and get the details and draw your own conclusions. My own feelings are that it is even more urgent than I previously thought that we get a global realization by our political leaders about the science challenges that lie ahead of us, and the urgency to begin work on them -also globally. How do we get our politicians to listen, to worry about the really long term? They listen to the concerns of the electorate, whose support supplies their real power. How do we get the electorate to realise the urgency of the scientific challenge if the electorate is, relatively speaking (see several other posts, such as this one, on this), scientifically illiterate?

Ah, it all comes back to the theme to which I regularly return on this blog: Science education.


  • agm

    As a gut instinct bet, we’re just not anywhere close to figuring out how to extract technologically-useful, easily distributable form anytime soon.

  • Moshe


    Yes, pretty scary, especially that given political realities not much action can be anticipated, and too late for me, I already have a child.

    One thing that raised the knee-jerk red flags and the warning bells for me (I am now into mixing, or at least compounding, my metaphors…) is that bit of “if we don’t get it right by 2050 we are doomed for 1000 years”, sounds like local news statistical methodology, if you know what I mean. I’ll take a look and see what is the rationale behind any sort of threshold date, and how much extrapolation is assumed (e.g. 1000 years is a really long time).

    But besides this detail -one more of those depressing things one has to try to ignore for sanity’s sake. In the last few years those became all too common.

  • Pyracantha

    Thanks for the plugs…I work at Trader Joe’s as a sign maker.(Each store has its own sign crew.)

  • Dissident

    Clifford wrote: “you need a total surface area the size of a medium sized US state”

    I’m with you on this one. But let’s not skimp on that all-important area to convert into a glowing, solar cell-covered desert; energy demand will continue growing even after the plants are built. So we need plenty of room for expansion. Invoking poetic justice, I say: let’s use Texas! 😉

    Alternatively, it’s about time we started taking the late G.K. O’Neill’s ideas seriously:

  • Clifford

    Pyracantha! I’m so glad to know that! I’ve noticed this about Trader Joe’s and talked to one of the sign people at the Lake Ave. Pasadena one, I think. fantastic!

    I love Trader Joe’s


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  • Travis Garrett

    It seems to me that Lewis is understating the usefulness of nuclear fission. As he puts it:

    “To produce 10 TW of power would require construction of 10,000 new nuclear power plants over the next 50 years, i.e., one every other day somewhere in the world for the next 50 years. I will leave the reader to decide whether or not that is a viable option, but it is technically possible in principle as an approach to obtain the required level of carbon-free power.”

    Sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? One new reactor built every other day! However, let’s play with the math a little bit more. 10,000 reactors for 10 billion people comes out to one reactor per million people. Let’s say the price tag per reactor is one billion dollars – quite reasonable with standardized designs – which comes out to one thousand dollars per person. But they run for 50 years, so let’s finance it over that time period, bringing us to (drumroll) – 20 dollars a year. 5 cents a day. 60 femto-pennies per nanosecond, etc. etc…

    So, while not a trivial undertaking, it is quite feasible. Let’s look at it in other terms – for instance just consider the population of California. California has 30 million or so people and thus by the previous estimates we’d need to build 30 new reactors for the golden state. Well, we americans are a bit greedy, so let’s double that to 60. I.E. about one new reactor per year. Not that big a deal.

    I don’t think nuclear is the end-all to power needs, but I think it will be quite important, and in general will help to form a bridge to widespread solar cell usage. You mentioned the difficulty in getting the public to pay attention to the important issues, but if gasoline prices double again to 6 dollars within a few years I bet they’ll be quite a bit more receptive, and you’ll be fighting them off with a stick if they double again after that. Generally as the prices go up the hybrids will become more and more common, which will then evolve smoothly into the key adoption of plug-in hybrids (PHEV) which don’t even need gasoline for local commuting. It makes a lot of sense to charge up the PHEVs at night with energy from nuclear power. But as the solid state technology improves and prices come down solar makes a lot of sense too: the cells on your roof could be spinning up some high tensile strength flywheels buried out in your backyard during the day, which then transfer the energy to the PHEV at night.

    So I don’t think energy concerns are going to cause the world to come to an end. But that goes for the global warming problem as well. Check out Nasa’s Carbon cycle diagram. We add a net of 3 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere every year. But there are other large, near equilibrium fluxes in action. Vegetation absorbs 120 gigatons a year, and then re-releases 60 back into the atmosphere, and the soils emit about 4% of their stored carbon a year, adding another 60 to the atmosphere. I don’t think it would be a stretch at all for us to be able to genetically engineer plants by 2050 that absorb 3% more carbon a year on average and then sequester it permanently, perhaps in some useful form like bundles of carbon nanotubes. Hell, if we do create human level AI by 2030 (we’ll have the hardware to by 2020, it’s then just a matter of finding good learning algorithms for important problems, which we are already far along in doing), I wouldn’t be all that surprised if we’re dismantling the earth and using it to build a giant Niven ring around the sun by 2050 (well, maybe we’ll feel nostalgic and use Venus instead). I’m only half kidding too – exponential growth can make things pretty interesting pretty quick.

  • Clifford

    Travis Garrett: It’s interesting that people talk about gasoline and cars so quickly on this issue. Turns out (something new I learned as well) that is not really the heart of the problem. The bulk of our energy consumption is not in gasoline and cars, or transport in general. It is in generating electricity for everything else.

    On the nuclear issue…there are several more reasons no to go there. See the slides.

    Moshe: The 1000 year issue is a landmark. Also it is very non-linear and so there are various thresholds where new things can kick in. But the main problem is that it takes the oceans a long time to absorb and redistribute the gases…



  • Alex R

    One thing that I didn’t see mentioned much (and yes, I did look at the slides): energy efficiency. Improving energy efficiency may not be a long term solution to the problem, but I think there are a lot of easy gains there.

    Take personal transportation for example: fuel economy for passenger cars in the US is currently around 22 mpg. Doubling this would be expensive and require significant changes, but no particularly new technology. Increased availability of mass transit might succeed in reducing the number of miles driven, adding further “efficiency”.

    I suspect that there may be similar gains to be found in improving home heating and cooling efficiency — improved insulation, higher efficiency furnaces, and possibly switching from furnaces to heat pumps for heating.

    A more technologically challenging source of efficiency gains would be in the electricity generation and distribution system, which account for a large fraction of the “lost energy” in the US. Superconductors may not be that useful today, but in 30 years or so?

    In Lewis’s slides, efficiency was alluded to on one slide, which showed that worldwide the energy consumed per unit of GDP was declining at a rate of 1%/year. How much of an effort would it take to increase this to 2% or more per year — above the 1.6% growth rate of per-capita GDP?

  • Clifford

    Alex R, and everyone: The slides are not representative of the talk. They were just talking points. He routinely said a lot more thatn was on the slides. So this is why you should try looking at the video.

    He spoke of efficiency. These are all things we good to try doing, but in the face of the main numbers from the rate of increase in demand from development worldwide, and population pressure, etc, they put off the inevitable by a few years. This is why the analysis is so shocking: We just have to change the energy model radically and move to new sources entirely unless we want to try that huge experiment…and fast!


  • Dissident

    I must insist: cheap, virtually unlimited solar power from space a la O’Neill!

    Major selling point in the face of other recent discussions on this blog: it’s one of the few areas where the US still has an obvious technological advantage. The other “space faring” nations are not even close to having the necessary capacity. The US as a high-tech “Saudi” of 21st century energy supply to the world – now there’s a vision for you to sell to Congress and to the Prez. :-)

  • Arun

    This web-site is basically a one-man show, and covers a huge set of topics. So, take what you read with a smallish pinch of salt.

    Do go to page 2 to get some flavor of the politics involved.

  • Samantha

    “But we have nuclear fission, wind power, tides, biomass, hydro, and geothermo, and one day we’ll have nuclear fusion…right?”

    One of the things that shocked me while I was attending to this talk (which was *fantastic*) was that I had no intutitive knowledge (from, say, being a devoted NY Times reader/NPR listener) which of these options offer the only realistic solution to sustain our future energy needs. I have tested this by presenting the above list to others (I include solar power!) and asking them if they know which of the renewable energy sources offers us the most hope. So far no one has known (or guessed) it was solar power. Thus, there appears to be a real education gap on this subject (although I should say, n is only about 10).

    [p.s. Would like to hear more about sign making in Trader Joe’s – how does Trader Joe’s keep up such a consistently high standard? Do stores compete for the best signs?]

  • serial catowner

    I believe you can find some of the science about how long it will take to abate increased atmospheric carbon if you search at

  • Pyracantha

    Samantha: Off topic: re. sign making at Trader Joe’s, please contact me at my Weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which is at the bottom of the index page to
    I’d be glad to chat about it privately.

  • Barney Tam

    Mark, you may find this link interesting: Steve Koonin, formerly of Caltech also, is now Chief Scientist at BP. He gave a talk at MIT several weeks ago addressing this same issue. He was less pessimistic about the carbon dioxide/global warming issue.
    Here is the link to his Powerpoint:

    It is a scary topic, to be sure.

  • Barney Tam

    Clifford, you may find this link interesting: Steve Koonin, formerly of Caltech also, is now Chief Scientist at BP. He gave a talk at MIT several weeks ago addressing this same issue. He was less pessimistic about the carbon dioxide/global warming issue.
    Here is the link to his Powerpoint:

    It is a scary topic, to be sure.

  • Michael

    This is an important point:
    “So you can argue about whether or not we know for sure that we are making huge changes to our planet. . .”
    How can you justify increased funding to develop new energy sources if we really aren’t making huge changes to our planet? Before getting scared, it would seem reasonable tackle this question further. Are there any compelling counter arguments to this line of reasoning?

  • Clifford

    Michael, we know for sure that we need new energy sources. One reason is that we will run out of the current ones, and the other is that there are *other* known and universally agreed environmental problems with the sources we use. Air quality, acid rain, etc. Even with those reasons in mind we are woefully behind where we should be in terms of increased funding. We’re just putting it on the list of problems the next generation should worry about.

    But view the talk. I did not attempt to give all of the detailed content of the talk in the post.


  • Scott

    meh, looks like Nate Lewis’s first lecture in his chem 2 class. I wouldn’t put much stock into his figures for how long oil will last though(not really his area). I remember frosh year at tech, having a lecture from Lewis about global warming, and then having Goodstein inform us of the impending oil crisis. Goodstein seems to think the peak will come pretty soon. I can’t remember the timing he gave in class but he said “the quantitative question of when the peak will occur depends on extremely undependable numbers. The so-called proven oil reserves as reported by various countries and companies around the world are often just guesses and they’re often not even honest guesses. Among those who would analyze those figures, some have predicted that it will come as early as this year; others, within this decade. It could possibly be in the next decade. But I think that’s about as far as you can push it.” in a newsweek interview.

    Anyways that was a deppressing week.

  • Clifford

    Scott, thanks. However, the precise numbers about how much oil we have left are simply irrelevant to the main thrust of the argument.


  • Scott

    I wasn’t saying it was

  • Scott


  • Clifford

    Right. Sorry if I misunderstood.



  • Robert D. Reed

    “One thing that I didn’t see mentioned much (and yes, I did look at the slides): energy efficiency. Improving energy efficiency may not be a long term solution to the problem, but I think there are a lot of easy gains there.”

    You can say that again.

    I cut my personal home power consumption by about 40%, and I’m nowhere near going back to the 19th century. Not even breathing hard.

    What Bucky Fuller said about “ephemeralization” has really come true.

    On a wider scale- the world needs to begin restoring it’s riverine, riparian, and ocean fisheries if we’re ever going to lift the burden of petro-agriculture that is presently required for protein condensation.

    57% of American corn is used as feed for livestock. And the corn crop is dependent on petrochemical fertilizers. Reference:


    And then, the livestock pens foul the rivers…that depletes the anadramous fisheries resources, like the striped bass fisheries in the rivers of North Carolina and Virginia.

    Madness. Fisheries resources are like free food, compared to agriculture and factory livestock pens. Just maintain the river flows, keep the water clean and the spawning beds clear, and harvest. It’s a turnkey operation.

  • Cassandra

    While it’s admirable to clean up the fisheries, to actually have a commercial harvest we’ll still need to burn gas just to go out and catch the fish. I haven’t seen a sail power fishing vessel turn profit since the 1950s. With the rather limited self life of fresh fish more pollution ensues to transport them to a buyer before they become putrid.

  • Quantum Mirror

    A result of the recent melting of ice in the Arctic and global warming will result in a situation that is more dangerous than a planet killer meteor or comet. The destabilization of methane hydrates caused the Permian extinction and another at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), when methane burps caused rapid warming and massive die-offs, disrupting the climate for more than 100,000 years. This makes Biblical disasters look like a walk in the park and is three orders of magnitude more likely than a meteor strike. Has anyone considered particles of reflective material between here and the sun? I stumbled on this problem while studying the Permian extinction. This is not a scientific link but sums up the problem quite well.

  • Erich J. Knight

    You will see that my inquiries and correspondence with the principles
    involved have lead to collaborations, and hopefully will lead to more
    attention and funding to these efforts.

    Here’s an updated version of my article. If you know any plasma or
    atmospheric physicist I would love to have their take on the fusion
    section. The new lightning research I feel is most supportive. Thanks
    for any help

    Science Forums – A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy

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  • Erich J. Knight

    Dear Folks:

    I am glad to see the interest in Vincent Page’s presentation in other forums, (Below Is an excerpt) He quotes costs and time to development as ten million, and years verses the many decades projected for ITER and other “Big” science efforts:

    “for larger plant sizes
    Time to small-scale Cost to achieve net if the small-scale
    Concept Description net energy production energy concept works:
    Koloc Spherical Plasma: 10 years(time frame), $25 million (cost), 80%(chance of success)
    Field Reversed Configuration: 8 years $75 million 60%
    Plasma Focus: 6 years $18 million 80%

    Desirable Fusion Reactor Qualities
    • Research & development is also needed in
    the area of computing power.
    • Many fusion researchers of necessity still
    use MHD theory to validate their designs.
    • MHD theory assumes perfect diamagnetism
    and perfect conductance.
    • These qualities may not always exist in the
    real world, particularly during continuous operation.
    • More computing power is needed to allow use of a more realistic validation theory
    such as the Vlasov equations.
    • ORNL is in the process of adding some impressive computing power.
    • Researchers now need to develop more realistic validation methods up to the
    limits of the available computing power.
    • Governments need to fund these efforts.”

    I feel in light of the recent findings of neutrons, x-rays, and gamma rays in lightening, that these threads need to be brought together in an article.

    You may have seen my efforts with my “Manhattan Project” article, which got published on Sci-Scoop but rejected on Slashdot. (I’ve tried posting it on OSEN but for some reason I can’t log in.)

    About a year ago, I came across EPS while researching nano-tech and efficient home design. I started a correspondence Clint Seward, Eric Learner, and Paul Kolac, sending them science news links which I felt were either supportive or contradictory to their work. I also asked them to critique each other’s approaches. I have posted these emails to numerous physics and science forums. Discussion groups, science journalists, and other academics, trying to foster discussion, attention, and hopefully some concessus on the validity of these proposed technologies.
    My efforts have born some fruit. Clint and Joe Dwyer at FIT have been in consultation on Clint’s current charge transport theory for cloud to ground lightening.
    I have had several replies from editors, producers, and journalists expressing interest. From organizations as varied as PBS, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, New Energy News, the Guardian (U.K), and the San Francisco Chronicle. However, none of this professional interest has resulted in a story yet.

    I have been responding to all of the articles that filter in via my Google alerts on “fusion power”. The most recent was the “Happy News” article by Kris Metaverso.…ependently.htm

    This post is a plea to the science writers among you to craft a story covering aneutronic fusion, the P-B11 efforts, Eric’s high temperatures and x-ray source project, Clint’s lightening theories, and DOD review, and Paul’s review by GE. The minimal cost and time frame for even the possibility of this leap forward seems criminal not to pursue. If you read my Manhattan article, you may have noticed that I am not a writer. I am a landscape designer and technology gadfly wondering why this technology has never been put in the public eye.
    My hope is that someone, more skilled, would step up to give a shout out about these technologies. Please contact me for copies of my correspondence with the principles, interesting replies and criticisms from physics discussion forums and academic physicists who have replied to my queries.

    Thanks for any help

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