Tuesday, October 1, 2019

On Climate Change and Solutions

This was submitted as a possible guest column to the Waco “Tribune-Herald.  They may or may not choose to use it.  However,  either way,  people need to see this.  This is what the issue looks like when you ditch the politics,  party agendas,  and lobby money.

Update 10-5-19:  the Waco "Trib" used an edited,  slightly-shortened form of this article in today's (Saturday's) issue.  In both forms,  I hope the message comes through clear:  we passed the tipping point for very destructive sea level rise many years ago.

Better get prepared for that,  and try to limit it to no more than the 7 meters I suggested in the article,  which is what freeing the renewables from the intermittency problem (so they can quickly outcompete fossil fuels in the marketplace) is really all about.

If Greenland and West Antarctica both should fully deglaciate,  that's closer to 14 meters rise.  Add in all of East Antarctica,  and it's 74 meters (243 feet).  That's the math.  The geology says that (and even higher due to thermal expansion in a hot ocean) has happened before.  That's the history. 

It's about math,  physics,  and history.  Hard evidence.  Opinion has nothing to do with this.

Article as submitted -------------------------------------

There has been lots of talk lately about climate change.  Teenage activist Greta Thunberg,  and youth worldwide marching in the streets over this issue,  have been in the news of late.

If the climate warms,  the ice melts,  that’s just physics.  Ice melting above sea level raises sea level,  same as ice or water added to an already-full glass of iced tea,  again just physics. 

Here’s the list of potential sea level rise amounts calculated at 100% melting: 

mountain glaciers 1 meter, 
Greenland 6 meter,
West Antarctica 7 meter, 
East Antarctica 60 meter.  

This is based on ice volumes observed in recent history located above current sea level,  as best we know the numbers.  You cannot fight the math,  either! 

Here’s the current status of that ice: 

When I was a boy in the 1950’s,  the mountain glaciers seemed permanent.  But over the last quarter century,  they have already receded by half. 

When I was a boy in the 1950’s,  the Greenland ice sheet seemed permanent.  Then about a quarter century ago,  the first signs of melting began to appear.  Now it looks like Greenland is deglaciating to one extent or another.

When I was a boy in the 1950’s,  the Antarctic ice sheets seemed permanent.  Now in the last few years we are seeing the same signs of melting in West Antarctica that we saw in Greenland starting about a quarter century ago.  (Nothing really alarming in East Antarctica.  Yet!)

On the gross assumption that only half of each showing signs actually melts,  and another gross assumption that East Antarctica remains stable,  that’s 0.5 + 3.0 + 3.5 meters = 7 meters sea level rise to be expected over the next several decades.  (A meter is about 10% longer than a yard.  7 meters rise is about 25 feet of rise.)  You cannot argue with math! 

This is horrific!  Why is this horrific?  Because:

(1) a majority of humanity lives within 1-2 meters of current sea level,  and
(2) most of humanity’s most valuable assets are within about 5 meters of current sea level. 

Given those two vulnerabilities,  a 7 meter rise clearly leads to mass migrations simultaneous with mass economic devastation,  the likes of which we have never before seen in all the history of our civilization. 

Whether this is human-caused is largely irrelevant,  because it is quite apparently happening no matter what!  It is prudent to do less of those things we already know act to make the problem worse.  Those are,  primarily,  release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Of those,  methane is by far the more potent warming agent,  but there is way far less of it.  Carbon dioxide has the longer effects over time,  because its apparent lifetime in the atmosphere exceeds 300 years,  according to the chemists.  Most of the carbon dioxide emissions come from burning fossil fuels.  That’s just the facts;  you cannot fight physics and chemistry.  Or history.

Some folks point at water vapor as the strongest “greenhouse” agent of all,  but this one gets complicated by unstable feedback effects that the other two “greenhouse” agents do not share.  A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor,  adding to heating effects.  A warmer ocean supplies more water vapor to the atmosphere.  This feedback acts in a direction that makes the flips sudden between a colder,  drier-overall climate and a warmer,  wetter-overall climate.  

It is clear that we need at least to drastically reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.  It is not quite clear just how to do that,  not just yet.  There is a growing consensus that we need to replace fossil fuels with solar power,  wind power,  and nuclear power.  All three have serious impediments not so often discussed in public. 

Nuclear has a safety problem,  or else the unmitigated disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima would not have happened.  (Three Mile Island was not one of these!)  Nuclear needs to be updated to the newer all-passive emergency cooling designs,  and it needs more adequate geological-record design criteria for resisting earthquakes and tsunamis,  not the historical-record criteria used up to now.  It also needs a solution to the waste disposal problem (fuel reprocessing is likely a component of that). 

Both of the renewables have an intermittency problem incompatible with providing electricity “24/7 no matter what”.  The sun does not always shine,  and the wind does not always blow.  Transferring power from one region to another through the electric grid suffers losses approaching 50% over the indicated distances.  Plus,  all of North America is dark at night. You cannot fight physics!

Crudely,  half the energy used in America is electricity,  and the other half transportation fuel.  Efficiencies-of-use aside,  we will obviously need a substantially-bigger electric grid capacity to support the move to electric cars and trucks.  So,  I focus on the electric grid.

For electric generation,  wind power is far cheaper than coal already,  and it is essentially competitive with fracked natural gas.  Solar is very close to being competitive,  and will be increasingly competitive as more and more of it gets fielded.  Arguments about subsidies for renewables are basically irrelevant,  because the fossil fuel industry also has them in one form or another,  and for well over a century.

It is the intermittency of renewables that holds back deploying more than 20% of them in the mix of electric power sources.  This has long been demonstrated by the Europeans,  who already use it to its intermittent max. 

If there were a grid-scale energy storage solution,  the intermittency objection goes away!  Thus renewables could outcompete fossil on price,  and accomplish a simple market-driven and fairly-rapid takeover.  No need for state-mandated solutions!

This need for an intermittency solution has been known for 2-3 decades,  yet there has been no “Manhattan Project” to solve the grid-scale storage problem!  This stalemate was driven by lobbyist money buying-off Congresses and Presidents.

Solve THAT,  and renewables will take off,  without a disruption in electric service,  or a disruption to the economy.  It means more jobs,  not less:  nobody yet knows how to automate-away the jobs of solar or wind power installers and hardware producers!

Possible storage mechanisms include elevated water reservoirs,  compressed gas in caves,  batteries of multiple types,  flywheel storage,  and more.  One in particular stands out to me as a really near-term item:  the so-called “flow battery”.  This is really a reversible chemical reactor with two tank farms storing the chemicals. 

For storage,  you send “product” chemicals plus electricity through the reactor to create “reactant” chemicals that you store in one tank farm.  For power when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine,  you flow reactant chemicals through the reactor,  which then produces both electricity,  and “product” chemicals which you store in the other tank farm.

We already know how to build chemical reactors and tank farms and local pipe networks,  as anyone passing through the regions around Pasadena,  Texas,  can see.  This therefore seems like a really high-probability output from any “Manhattan Project” on renewable-storage that we might attempt.

So why isn’t any of this already underway? 

Quite frankly,  because of your voting patterns:  electing and re-electing do-nothing politicians beholden to lobby money. 

Change is required,  for the sake of your children!

Related Articles ----------------------------------------

The following list gives related earlier articles (pretty much superseded by this one,  except for the versions of the little trade matrix).  Use the navigation tool on the left of the page.  Click on the year,  then the month,  then the title.  The list also gives the filtering search keywords associated with these articles.

18 January 2018,  “Weather Versus Climate”,   climate change,  idiocy in politics

15 April 2017,  “Do We Fight Global Warming Or Not?”,  bad government,  bad manners,  climate change,  idiocy in politics

12 January 2010,  “On Global Warming”,  bad manners,  bad government,  climate change,  idiocy in politics


  1. Chernobyl was indeed an unmitigated disaster - fortunately it is one that is pretty much impossible to reproduce.
    The RMBK design was an early, flawed one due to the Soviet rushing it instead of taking care that it could never have such disastrous states. Fortunately they are almost all gone, and will all be in a few decades. And even then, its risks has always been known, and it is normally never run even close to what could be cause a disaster.
    The problem, then, was specific to the Soviet Union: party cadres were put in charge over trained engineers, whose priorities were politics and not safety. Hence how one could take the disastrous decision to deactivate safety measures to put it in a state where it shouldn't be, to do tests that no nuclear engineer would have ever allowed.
    So it was the perfect storm of Soviet political bureaucracy and flawed design that could even bring the reactor to ever be put in such a dangerous state in the first place. Such conditions will never be met again for a nuclear reactor: the RMBK is unique by being so flawed, and newer reactors are by nature extremely safe - and not only is the Soviet Union gone, but the political conditions that could conduct to such ill-advised test are as well.
    And compared to other ecological disasters from the Soviet Union, like the Aral See drying, even Chernobyl is far from outstanding.

    Fukushima is different, as it is hardly an unmitigated disaster by itself.
    Well, the natural disaster that caused Fukushima as well as twenty thousand (now often forgotten) victims, absolutely was.
    However, the nuclear disaster itself caused dangerous exposition to exactly three plant workers. Which is dramatic, but nothing close to what industrial disasters generally cause.
    Unfortunately, the Japanese government of the time reacted with a deadly mixture of pride (turning down the help of Russia - who has first rate nuclear engineers when bureaucrats don't prevent them to do their job) and panic, ordering a massively exaggerated program of exclusion, itself causing thousands of indirect deaths and suicides despite avoid negligible exposition in many cases.

    Of course, the Fukushima nuclear disaster should never have happened, and would not have had regulation been respected as they were elsewhere (turning another nuclear plant as the safest tsunami refuge in the region). But even with such unacceptable corruption leading to the wall not being built to the heat it should have, it was a much more limited nuclear disaster than is touted.

    As for nuclear waste, the solutions are already known and some countries are working on actually implementing them.
    Fuel recycling is indeed a big one, and experimental reactors exist - the main reason they are not deployed yet is that they are not economical yet. But experiments continue, because it is known that some day, it will be.
    As for the high-activity nuclear waste, it mostly cease to be dangerous after one or two centuries, and we know how to bury them for such duration in stable ground at hundreds of meters of depth.

  2. The main difficulty is that everything with nuclear power, especially waste management, is on very long timelines - decades if not centuries, and political decision-making is rarely adapted to it.

    In fact, even with nuclear disasters, nuclear power is still the safest energy source - many more people die of falling from roofs by installing solar panels per kWh, tragically.
    I will note that France has pretty much entirely decarboned its electricity generation through nuclear power, with better safety and ecological record than pretty much any other energy source, including hydroelectric.

    So nuclear power is a difficult problem, but a solved one with mature, proven technologies.

    On the other hand, energy storage is an unsolved problem, despite humanity being at it since before radioactivity was even known.
    Even with Manhattan Project-levels of efforts (which would be exceedingly unlikely to happen with current the current political state), there is no guarantee a large-scale solution could be found.

    The problem is that irrational anti-nuclear sentiment, both from conflating it with nuclear weapons, but also due to lobbying from fossil fuel groups of interest, has been used to smear what turns out to be the one realistic, mature and presently existing solution to climate change - and that has been for decades.

  3. Interestingly, uranium can be extracted from seawater, who always exists at an equilibrium level and dissolves uranium from rocks like granite when the level drops - rocks that are themselves renewed by geological activity.
    So technically, nuclear power is actually a renewable.
    Though with the density of energy and the current reserves, we are going to run out of sunlight before nuclear fuels.

  4. Thanks to Eth for his comments. It is nice to now that people actually see the stuff I post here.

    I think Fukushima was partly a disaster precipitated by inadequate design requirements (quake strength and tsunami size), and partly by the lack of effective policy dealing with spent fuel (the explosions happened in vulnerable spent fuel storage pools, something common at most nuke plant sites). Those lessons still need to be learned by humanity-at-large.

    Renewable energy prices, particularly wind, are already far lower than coal, and easily-competitive with natural gas. Except for the capacity issues and market share limitations driven by intermittency, these would have out-competed most of the fossil fuels some time ago.

    It is special-interest lobby politics that has prevented the development and demonstration of grid-scale storage that would eliminate the intermittency problem. Getting rid of the corruption of lobby politics is another lesson that humanity-at-large has yet to learn.

    Other than that, I think former President Obama had it exactly right when he said we need everything, meaning renewables, nuclear, and the rest. It's way past time to just get on with it, in my opinion. -- GW