The Energy Future
Civilization and energy
Energy and power
CO2 – friend or foe?
Nuclear power [updated 1/14]
New energy [updated 3/12]
Civilization and energy
Fossil fuels have an energy density far higher than traditional, renewable energy sources, and their large-scale use has resulted in the total energy consumption of human societies rising to unprecedented levels. Vaclav Smil writes:
Traditional societies drew their food, feed, heat, and mechanical power from sources that were almost immediate transformations of solar radiation (flowing water and wind) or that harnessed it in the form of biomass and metabolic conversions that took just a few months (crops harvested for food and fuel), a few years (draft animals, human muscles, shrubs, young trees), or a few decades (mature trees) to grow before becoming usable. In contrast, fossil fuels were formed through slow but profound changes of accumulated biomass under pressure; except for young peat, they range in age from 106 to 108 [1 to 100 million] years. A useful analogy is to see traditional societies as relying on instantaneous or minimally delayed and constantly replenished solar income. By contrast, the modern civilization is withdrawing accumulated solar capital at rates that will exhaust it in a tiny fraction of the time needed to create it. (2010a, 710-11)
Pre-agricultural societies consumed around 10 billion joules (gigajoules, GJ) of energy per capita per year, roughly divided between food and phytomass (vegetation) for open fires. By the late 19th century the figure had risen to about 100 GJ per capita in industrial England, nearly all of it coming from coal. A century later, the major economies of the European Union, as well as Japan, averaged around 170 GJ per capita, with coal, oil, and natural gas all contributing a significant share. By 2005, the average annual consumption in the US had risen to more than 330 GJ per capita; 39% comes from oil, 27% from natural gas, 23% from coal, and virtually all the rest from hydro and nuclear power.
There are enormous inequalities in wealth distribution and energy use both between different countries and within them. In 2000, the affluent countries, containing just 20% of the global population, consumed about 70% of the commercial total primary energy supply (TPES).
The United States, with less than 5% of the world population, consumed about 27% of the world’s commercial TPES in 2000, and G7 countries (the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Canada), whose population adds up to just about 10% of the world’s total, claimed about 45%. (Smil, 2010a, 715)
The annual consumption of commercial energy in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa (Chad, Niger) is less than 0.5 GJ per capita. A third of all countries have an average per capita energy use of less than 10 GJ per capita.
With less than a sixth of all humanity enjoying the benefits of the high-energy civilization, a third of it is now engaged in a frantic race to join that minority, and more than half of the world’s population has yet to begin this ascent. The potential need for more energy is thus enormous. (716)
High levels of affluence and consumerism do not automatically mean higher levels of individual happiness and satisfaction with life. Smil says that pushing beyond 110 GJ per capita has not brought many fundamental quality-of-life gains, while pushing beyond 200 GJ per capita has largely been counterproductive. He writes: ‘the US falls behind Europe and Japan in a number of important quality-of-life indicators, including much higher rates of obesity and homicide, relatively even higher rates of incarceration, lower levels of scientific literacy and numeracy, and less leisure time’ (2010a, 725). In high-energy societies, ‘a large part of TPES goes into short-lived disposable junk and into dubious pleasures and thrills promoted by mindless advertising’ (Smil, 2008a, 387).
There is no possibility of an energy consumption of over 150 GJ per capita, currently enjoyed by one-sixth of humanity, being extended to the rest of the world during the next few generations. There are voices in the privileged West that oppose any significant industrial development in the poorer nations on the grounds that it would be unsustainable and critically damage the environment. Those who preach that message should perhaps set a good example by switching off all their electrical appliances and gadgetry and withdrawing entirely from our modern technological society.
About 1.2 billion people still live on less than $1 per day, and almost 3 billion on less than $2 per day. It is a fact of life that all nations want to pursue the path of economic growth and that increasing the amount of electricity they generate would help raise many people out of poverty. In the West, every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity (see rossmckitrick.weebly.com).
In sub-Saharan Africa the infant mortality rate is commonly over 100 (or even 150) deaths per 1000 live births. Infant mortality rates of less than 30 typically correspond to per capita energy use of at least 30-40 GJ per year. Infant mortality rates of less than 20 are found only in countries consuming at least 60 GJ per capita, and rates of less than 10 are found only in countries using more than about 110 GJ. Female life expectancy of over 70 years typically corresponds to per capita energy use of at least 45-50 GJ per year, while a female life expectancy of over 75 requires about 60 GJ, and of over 80 about 110 GJ (Smil, 2008a, 346).
Electricity consumption and the Human Development Index (e-reports-ext.llnl.gov). HDI takes account of life expectancy, literacy, education, and per capita GDP.
Energy poverty means insufficient access to affordable, reliable and safe energy services to support economic and human development. 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity, and 2.7 billion rely on traditional biomass – such as wood, crop residues, and dung – for cooking and heating. Household air pollution from the use of biomass in inefficient stoves causes over 1.45 million premature deaths per year (IEA, 2010, 7, 13). Greater access to liquid and gaseous fuels and electricity would reduce poverty and improve human health. Even doubling the poor world’s average per capita energy consumption to about 40 GJ per year would be sufficient to guarantee a decent standard of living and quality of life.
This article explores the pros and cons of various conventional and alternative sources of energy, and outlines likely near-term developments.
Energy and power
A force changes an object’s state of rest or motion. Force = mass x acceleration. A force of 1 newton imparts an acceleration of 1 m/s2 to a mass of 1 kg. 1 N = 1 kg m/s2
Energy is the ability to do work. Energy = force x distance. 1 joule is the energy expended (or work done) in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre. 1 J = 1 N m
Power is the rate of using energy (or doing work). Power = energy / time. A power of 1 watt is equal to an energy flow of 1 joule per second. 1 W = 1 J/s
The amount of energy generated or consumed is measured in joules; power is the rate at which energy is generated or consumed and is measured in watts. There are however many other units of energy and power. For instance, 1 horsepower equals 746 watts. Energy consumption is often expressed in kilowatt-hours (kWh; 1 kW = 1000 W). For instance, using a computer and LCD monitor with a total power rating of 110 W for one hour consumes 0.11 kWh of electricity. The total energy consumption of an average European is 125 kWh per day, while the average American consumes about 250 kWh per day (MacKay, 2009, 104).
Two important measures for comparing different sources of energy are energy density and power density. Energy density refers to the amount of energy contained in a given unit volume, area, or mass. Power density often refers to the amount of power that can be generated per unit land or water area.
The energy density of wood is, at best, 17 million joules (megajoules) per kilogram (MJ/kg), for good-quality bituminous coal it is 22-25 MJ/kg, and for refined oil products it is around 42 MJ/kg. That is why coal is preferred over wood, and oil over coal. Vaclav Smil (2010b, 18) writes:
the more concentrated sources of energy give you many great advantages in terms of their extraction, portability, transportation and storage costs, and conversion options. If you want to pack the minimum volume of food for a mountain hike you take a granola bar (17 J/g) not carrots (1.7 J/g). And if you want to fly across the Atlantic you will not power gas turbines with hydrogen: the gas has a gravimetric density greater than any other fuel (143 MJ/kg) but its volumetric density is a mere 0.01 MJ/L [megajoules per litre] while that of jet fuel (kerosene) is 33 MJ/L, 3,300 times higher.
Energy exists in different forms: chemical, thermal (heat), nuclear, electrical, mechanical, radiant, etc. In any conversion of one form of energy into another, some energy is lost, and the efficiency is therefore always less than 100%. Over time, technological advances have made higher efficiencies possible.
Traditional hearths and fireplaces had efficiencies below 5%. Wood stoves were usually less than 20% efficient. Coal stoves doubled that rate, and fuel-oil furnaces brought it to nearly 50%. Efficiencies of natural-gas furnaces were initially below 60%, but by the 1990s there was a large selection of furnaces rated at about 95%. (Smil, 2010a, 713)
Thomas Edison’s Jumbo dynamo (scienceservice.si.edu). Edison opened Pearl Street Station – the first central power plant in the US – in Manhattan, New York, in 1882. His generators converted less than 2.5% of the heat energy in coal into electricity. Some modern coal-fired power plants can convert nearly half of the coal’s heat energy into electric power, and the electricity produced is 105 times cheaper than that produced by Edison (Bryce, 2008, 54, 68).
An examination of the power density (expressed as energy flux per unit of horizontal surface) of different energy sources starkly reveals the limitations of renewable energy sources compared to fossil fuels. The estimated values for each source can vary by an order of magnitude or more depending on the precise details and conditions of the facilities in question, and what is included in the calculation, but the general message is clear.
Power source Power density (W/m2)
up to 4000
200 - 2000
100 - 1000
4 - 10
0.5 - 1.5
0.5 - 0.6
(Smil, 2010b, 2008a)
Focusing on the situation in the US, Robert Bryce (2008, 84, 86, 93) gives the following figures:
Power source Power density (W/m2) S Texas nuclear plant
Natural gas well
Marginal gas well
Marginal oil well
Biomass power plant
5.5 to 27
What these figures mean is that renewable energy facilities would have to be spread over areas ten to ten thousand times larger than today’s fossil fuel energy facilities to produce the same amount of power. Although this is not an impossible feat, it poses many regulatory, technical and logistical challenges, and it would take several decades to put such a system in place – even if there were no local opposition. For as Robert Bryce (2008, 92) says:
Energy sources with high power densities have the least deleterious effect on open space. They allow us to enjoy mountains, plains, and deserts without having views obstructed or disturbed by spinning wind turbines, sprawling solar arrays, towering transmission lines, or miles of monocultured crops. ...
Energy projects with small footprints are not only green, they reduce the potential for NIMBY [not-in-my-backyard] objections.
Photosynthesis is the process whereby plants, algae and certain species of bacteria convert carbon dioxide (from the atmosphere) and water (from the ground), with the help of sunlight, into sugars (carbohydrates) and oxygen (released as waste). The photosynthetic conversion of solar radiation into stored biomass energy has a very low efficiency – just 2% for the most efficient plants in Europe (MacKay, 2009, 43). Although biomass itself has a low energy density, fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are highly concentrated stores of photosynthetic energy.
Due to the enormous amount of geologic energy invested in their formation, fossil fuel deposits are an extraordinarily concentrated source of high-quality energy, commonly extracted with power densities of 102 or 103 W/m2 of coal or hydrocarbon fields. This means that very small land areas are needed to supply enormous energy flows. In contrast, biomass energy production has densities well below 1 W/m2 ... (Cleveland, 2011)
According to the prevailing biogenic theory, fossil fuels formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants and animals by exposure to heat and pressure in the earth’s crust over millions of years. Fossil fuels are considered nonrenewable resources because reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being made. Based on proven reserves at the end of 2009 and production in that year, it is estimated that coal will last another 119 years, oil 46 years, and natural gas 64 years (BP, 2010). For over a century people have been forecasting the imminent exhaustion of commercially extractable fossil fuel reserves, but all such predictions have come to nothing because new reserves are constantly being discovered and new ways are being found to access previously inaccessible resources. Nevertheless, coal and hydrocarbons are finite resources and fossil-fuelled civilization cannot last for ever, so it makes sense to look for alternatives. The weakest reason for doing so is the supposed urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent ‘catastrophic man-made global warming’ (see next section).
A very significant development is the ongoing discovery of very ancient and continental rocks in the world oceans. These finds, along with various other lines of geological and geophysical evidence, indicate that large areas of the present ocean floors were once continents, and contradict the plate-tectonic theory that the ocean crust is nowhere older than 200 million years and has an entirely different (basaltic) composition compared with continental crust (Sunken continents; Vasiliev & Yano, 2007). Dong Choi (2007) writes:
The new picture – that continental ‘oceanic’ crust (or sunken continents) underlies the Mesozoic-Cenozoic basins and basalts – is a great gift for the oil industry. They now have positive scientific grounds for exploring deep-sea sedimentary basins. Currently, hydrocarbons are produced in 1,800 m of water off Brazil and exploration is progressing in much deeper waters worldwide ... In the coming 10 to 15 years, basins with 3,000 to 4,000 m of water will become the most active area for exploration and exploitation.
The controversial abiogenic theory also deserves a mention. It states that some petroleum may originate from carbon-bearing fluids that migrate upward from the mantle, rather than from ancient biomass, and that there is far more petroleum and natural gas on earth than commonly thought. Its proponents cite the presence of methane on Saturn’s moon Titan and in the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as evidence of the formation of hydrocarbons without biology. The theory has some laboratory data to support it (kth.se; carnegiescience.edu; portal.acs.org; wnd.com).
In 2009 fossil fuels accounted for about 87.7% of the world’s primary energy consumption: petroleum 34.8%, coal 29.3%, natural gas 23.7%. Hydroelectric accounted for 6.3%, nuclear 5.4%, and other sources (solar, tidal, geothermal, wind, wood, waste) less than 1%. World energy consumption grew at an average of about 2.8% per year from 1999 to 2008 but fell by 1.1% in 2009 as a result of the global economic recession (BP, 2010). The reason for the continued dominance of coal and hydrocarbons is that they can provide reliable power from relatively small areas, at affordable prices and in the enormous quantities required.
Every source of energy production takes a toll on the environment and the aim should be to minimize it. The combustion of fossil fuels releases air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals. It also releases carbon monoxide, which is highly toxic, and carbon dioxide, which is nontoxic but which in recent times has been demonized as an evil, ‘polluting’ gas. In addition, fossil fuel burning generates sulphuric, carbonic, and nitric acids, which fall to earth as acid rain. And it releases radioactive materials, notably uranium and thorium.
One proposed way of reducing CO2 emissions is carbon capture and storage (or sequestration) (CCS). The idea is to capture CO2 from, say, fossil fuel plants and store it so that it doesn’t enter the atmosphere, e.g. in deep geological formations or deep ocean masses. CCS is receiving billions in funding in the US and Europe, but it’s unlikely to work because the volumes of CO2 are too large and the technical problems and costs are too big (Bryce, 2008, 162-5). If 10% of global annual CO2 emissions – 3 billion tons – were compressed to about 1000 pounds per square inch, it would have the same volume as all the oil produced around the world in a year. The equivalent of 41 supertankers of oil would have to be disposed of every day. Even if enough suitable locations were found, the cost of handling the CO2 would be enormous. To power the CO2 capture process, power plants would have to produce up to 28% more electricity.
Coal-fired plants emit mercury, lead, chromium and arsenic, which are very damaging if ingested in sufficient quantities. Exposure to mercury, a neurotoxin, has been linked to higher risks of autism, impaired cognition, and neurodegenerative disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease). In the US, coal-fired power plants emit an estimated 41-48 tons of mercury per year, but this accounts for less than 0.5% of all the mercury in the air we breathe. For comparison: US forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year, cremation of human remains discharges 26 tons, Chinese power plants eject 400 tons, and volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other sources spew out another 9000-10,000 tons per year (wmbriggs.com). The long-term effects of air pollution from large-scale coal combustion are highly uncertain: estimates of the number of premature deaths caused by emissions from a 1 gigawatt coal-fired power plant range from 0.07 to 400,000 (Smil, 2008a, 350).
The dense smog that coal burning once caused in western cities is now plaguing industrializing countries, such as China, where 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are located. It seems that a country only begins to seriously tackle air pollution once it reaches a certain level of prosperity. Many coal plants now ‘scrub’ the smoke coming out of their stacks to remove sulphur and fly ash; the millions of tonnes of fly ash and sulphate-rich scrubber sludge used to be landfilled, but nowadays a large proportion is put to various uses in agriculture and industry.
Coal mining techniques such as strip mining and mountaintop removal are cheaper than underground mining but result in huge swaths of blighted landscape. More than 1 million acres of Appalachian mountains and forest have been levelled in the US since the mid-1990s, with the connivance of Congress (Bryce, 296).
Coal-fired power station at West Burton, Nottinghamshire, England (en.wikipedia.org). Situated on a 1.7 km2 site, it has an installed capacity of 2000 MW and provides electricity for around 2 million people. The grey/white stuff coming out of the huge cooling towers is not smoke, and certainly not CO2 (which is colourless), but steam/water vapour condensing in the air. The two chimneys in the centre of the picture are emitting smoke and CO2.
Integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology turns coal into gas (syngas) and removes impurities, resulting in lower emissions of sulphur dioxide, particulates (fine particles, such as soot), and mercury. Excess heat from the primary combustion and generation passes to a steam cycle, resulting in improved efficiency compared to conventional pulverized coal. The main problem facing IGCC is its extremely high capital cost.
Despite all its negative characteristics, coal continues to be used on a vast scale for a simple reason: cost. In the developing nations in particular, coal-fired power plants are often the most affordable option for power generation, especially in countries with large coal reserves, like China, India, and Indonesia. On an average day, the world consumes about 66.3 million barrels of oil equivalent in the form of coal. Between 2007 and 2008, global coal use increased by about 800 million barrels of oil equivalent; that increase alone is about 25 times greater than the energy produced by all the solar panels and wind turbines in the US in 2008 (Bryce, 59-60).
Oil is commonly regarded as a dirty fuel that is polluting the air and water and destroying the planet. Extracting, transporting, processing and burning oil can certainly have many harmful effects on humans and the environment – through oil spills, air pollution, and accidents at refineries, pipelines and drilling rigs, etc. It is, however, superior to coal in nearly every respect – it has a higher energy density and power density, burns more cleanly, is easier to transport, and its uses are virtually limitless (for instance, hydrocarbons are essential feedstocks for plastics and industrial chemicals). For all its problems, oil provides unprecedented mobility, comfort and convenience. It supplies the fuel for the two prime movers in the modern industrialized world: the diesel engine and jet turbine, which came into widespread use in the 1950s and 60s. Global commerce depends on global transportation, and the latter depends almost exclusively on oil. Oil’s share of the primary energy market has declined from 48% in 1973 to 35% in 2008, but the world will continue using it for a long time to come (Bryce, 207).
General Electric’s GE90-115B turbofan aircraft engine,
the most powerful gas turbine engine in the world.
Over the past few years the estimated recoverable natural gas resources worldwide have risen sharply, partly due to a surge in new natural gas liquefaction capacity and to improved technologies that can extract vast quantities of gas from shale deposits. New gas reserves are being found even faster than new oil reserves. In 2009 the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2009, 49) estimated recoverable global gas resources at about 850 trillion cubic metres – enough for 280 years at the current global rate of consumption (Bryce, 8). European countries see the shale gas revolution as an opportunity to reduce their dependence on Russian gas.
Natural gas (methane) is cleaner than oil and coal. During combustion, it releases no particulates, nor does it release significant quantities of serious pollutants such as sulphur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. It emits about half as much CO2 as coal, which means that it is less ‘green’ in this respect, since CO2 is plant food and higher concentrations demonstrably green the earth (see next section). Producing gas from coal beds, tight sands, and shale deposits does, however, require large numbers of wells to be drilled fairly close together. And like the oil industry, the gas industry has caused cases of groundwater contamination.
The best single-cycle gas turbines – which discharge their hot gas – can convert about 42% of their fuel to electricity, whereas combined-cycle gas turbines use the turbines’ hot exhaust gases to generate steam for a steam turbine, enabling them to convert as much as 60% – making them the most efficient electricity generators. Thanks to their compactness, mobile gas turbines generate electricity with power densities higher than 15 kW/m2 and large (>100 MW) stationary set-ups can easily deliver 4-5 kW/m2 (Smil, 2010b, 8-10).
Pratt & Whitney’s 60 MW SwiftPac gas turbine with a footprint of 700 m2. (masterresource.org)
The reliance on biomass in Asia, Latin America and Africa is a major cause of deforestation, desertification and erosion. About 37% of the world’s population relies on fuels such as straw, wood, dung or coal to cook their meals. These low-quality fuels, combined with inadequate ventilation, often result in the living area being filled with noxious pollutants, including soot particles, carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde, and even dioxin. As mentioned earlier, 1.45 million people worldwide are dying premature deaths every year due to indoor air pollution. The best solution to this problem is cleaner-burning, high-energy-density liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), such as propane and butane, and also kerosene (paraffin).
To reduce hydrocarbon use, several governments are introducing incentives to promote the sale of electric vehicles, which do not emit CO2 or tailpipe pollutants, though the electricity they consume may of course have been produced from fossil fuels. At present, all-electric cars are still hampered by limited range, slow recharge rates, and lack of recharging stations. Although their refuelling costs are low, the high cost of their battery packs makes them significantly more expensive than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles (which combine an internal combustion engine with electric propulsion). Ongoing advancements in battery technology will make electric vehicles more viable. And further improvements might come from using ultracapacitors for storing electricity.
Gasoline holds 80 times as many watt-hours per kilogram as a lithium-ion battery, and ethanol holds more than 50 times as many (Bryce, 190). However, internal combustion engines are fairly inefficient at converting on-board fuel energy to propulsion as most of the energy is wasted as heat; they use only 15% of the fuel energy content to move the vehicle or to power accessories, while diesel engines can reach an on-board efficiency of 20%. Electric vehicles have on-board efficiency of around 80%, they do not consume energy while at rest or coasting, and regenerative braking can capture as much as one-fifth of the energy normally lost during braking (en.wikipedia.org).
A hybrid Toyota Prius (silver) has crashed into the back of an all-electric Tesla Roadster (red), pushing it under a Volkswagen Touareg SUV which had been in front of it, and which in this particular tussle came out on top. No major injuries were reported. (wired.com)
Another proposal is hydrogen cars. David MacKay (129-31) describes hydrogen as a ‘hyped up bandwagon’. Hydrogen, he says, ‘is not a miraculous source of energy; it’s just an energy carrier, like a rechargeable battery’. With today’s technology, converting energy to and from hydrogen can only be done inefficiently, and hydrogen is a less convenient energy storage medium than most liquid fuels because of its bulk. BMW’s Hydrogen 7 car requires 220% more energy than an average European car. The all-electric Tesla Roadster is 10 times more energy-efficient than the Hydrogen 7.
Diesel and gasoline vehicles are not overly reliant on elements such as neodymium and lanthanum, whereas these are critical ingredients in making hybrid and electric vehicles (Bryce, 199). China has a virtual monopoly on the world’s supply of neodymium and other lanthanides (or ‘rare earths’), which have special magnetic properties. As well as being used in batteries, these elements are essential commodities in solar panels, wind turbines, and computers. About 90% of the world’s lithium, an essential element in high-capacity batteries, comes from just three countries: Argentina, Chile and China.
The US imports its oil and oil products from 90 different countries, whereas it is dependent on only a tiny handful for its lanthanides and lithium – something those calling for ‘energy independence’ tend to ignore. As Bryce says, ‘the United States, like every other country, will continue to depend on the global marketplace to obtain the commodities it needs’ (137). He points out that the US already produces about 74% of the primary energy it consumes – ‘a fact seldom mentioned by the many neoconservatives and energy posers who have been sounding the alarm about the evils of foreign energy’ (78).
CO2 – friend or foe?
There is a lot of talk nowadays about ‘combating climate change’ – an absurd expression which makes it sound like humans can stop the climate from changing. To achieve this they would need to control the sun, the earth’s orbit, the earth’s interior, its oceans and their currents, the biosphere, and key processes taking place in the atmosphere. It’s remarkable that ‘climate change’ has come to be virtually synonymous with ‘man-made climate change’ – which in turn is usually understood to mean climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion, though some researchers believe that land-use changes (urbanization, deforestation, etc.) and pollutants such as black carbon (soot), mainly emitted by developing nations, have a greater impact on climate than greenhouse gas emissions.
The mainstream view, as articulated by the UN’s climate panel (the IPCC), is that ‘most’ of the warming over the past 50 years is ‘very likely’ the result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. And that unless drastic measures are taken to slash emissions and switch to renewable sources of energy, the result will be dangerous, runaway warming. As already noted, there are good reasons to gradually reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels, but the claim that this is necessary to save the world from catastrophic global warming is based on shoddy science and hot air (see Climate change controversies; Climategate).
The earth has generally warmed since the depths of the Little Ice Age three or four hundred years ago, but in fits and starts, and most of the warming has been in nighttime, winter temperatures in the northern hemisphere. During the Medieval Warm Period (c. 950-1300) it was warmer than today, as it was in Roman times and during the Holocene Climate Optimum (3500-6000 years ago). During the last major ice age (Pleistocene), each of the last four interglacials, going back nearly half a million years, was several degrees warmer than today.
Reconstructed extra-tropical (30-90°N) mean decadal temperature variations relative to the 1961-1990 mean, showing the Roman Warm Period (RWP), Dark Ages Cold Period (DACP), Medieval Warm Period (MWP), Little Ice Age (LIA) and Current Warm Period (CWP). (Idsos, 2011)
The last 450,000 years. (Idsos, 2011)
The average global temperature is officially said to have increased by about 0.8°C over the course of the 20th century. It rose until about 1947, cooled slightly until about 1977, peaked in 1998, and has been essentially flat since 2001, despite rapidly rising CO2 levels. The IPCC claims that only the warming of the past 50 years is mainly attributable to man-made greenhouse gases – even though nothing happening today is in any way unprecedented or outside the range of natural climate variability (wattsupwiththat.com; wattsupwiththat.com); the IPCC attributes all earlier warming and cooling periods to natural factors – solar, orbital, oceanic, tectonic, etc.
To support its claim that very recent warming is due to man, the IPCC cites the results of climate computer models programmed by scientists who believe that greenhouse gases are a major driver of climate change. Other variables are adjusted until the model outputs approximately match the temperature record of the last hundred years or so. Then the major role assigned to CO2 is removed from the models while all the other settings are left unchanged. Not surprisingly, the models are now incapable of matching the temperature record. To cite this as proof that CO2 drives the climate is sheer sophistry.
It goes without saying that if the role assigned to CO2 is reduced while the role of natural factors is increased, the models can still be tuned to match the past. But the fact that models can be adjusted in different ways to reproduce past temperatures says nothing at all about whether any of the models is an accurate representation of how the climate really works. In fact the models are well known to have serious shortcomings, particularly in their handling of the hydrological cycle (water vapour, clouds, precipitation), and they have consistently overestimated the rate of warming.
NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) admitted in 2007 that the current uncertainties in the climate impact of total solar irradiance (TSI) and aerosols (tiny solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in a gas) ‘are so large that they preclude meaningful climate model evaluation by comparison with observed global temperature change’ (indarticles.com). This is a rare admission, but it was made when seeking funding for a new remote-sensing satellite – the Glory satellite, which was launched on 4 March 2011 but failed to reach orbit. Using long-term projections of future climate made by flawed, unvalidated models as the justification for draconian, trillion-dollar emission-cutting measures seems rather irrational, especially when such models can’t even reliably predict the local weather more than a few days in advance.
Dry air is composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon, plus various trace gases, such as carbon dioxide. At present, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is just under 400 parts per million (ppm), i.e. just under four hundredths of one per cent (0.04%). Man-made warming proponents emphasize that according to the ice-core record, this level is higher than any seen in the past 650,000 years. Analysis of air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice cores tends to indicate that the atmospheric CO2 concentration ranged from about 180 to 300 ppm in previous interglacials – even though many of them were several degrees warmer than today. What receives far less emphasis are the uncertainties surrounding the ice-core record.
First, the presence in ice of liquid water alters the original composition of the air in gas inclusions; this can deplete CO2 by 30 to 50%, mostly in the upper layers of the ice sheets. There have also been clear instances of data selection and manipulation by man-made warming proponents (Jaworowski, 2009; Schmitt, 2010). Second, studies of leaf stomata (pores through which plants take in CO2) often show higher and more variable atmospheric CO2 levels than the ice cores. They suggest that pre-industrial CO2 levels were commonly in the 360 to 390 ppm range. Third, an analysis by Ernst-Georg Beck and others of about 100,000 direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere made from 1812 to 1961 shows that atmospheric CO2 levels have varied very widely, with peaks of around 360 ppm in the 1820s and 380 ppm in the 1940s, and are closely correlated with sea surface temperatures; the vast majority of these measurements are rejected by mainstream climatologists (biomind.de; Climate change controversies).
Average atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured in the 19th and 20th centuries. The values used in ‘consensus’ CO2 reconstructions are circled; the other measurements are rejected. (Jaworowski, 2009)
Mankind puts 6 to 8 billion tonnes of carbon (GtC) into the atmosphere every year. The oceans and biosphere emit 190 to 235 GtC annually. The annual increase in atmospheric CO2 is around 3 or 4 billion tonnes – all of which is attributed to man, on the false assumption that the rest of nature is in equilibrium (i.e. the annual amounts of CO2 emitted and absorbed by the oceans and biosphere allegedly balance). There is strong evidence that the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere is 5 to 15 years – and not up to several hundred years as the IPCC assumes. This undermines the claim that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are responsible for the entire increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (Glassman, 2010a, b; Middleton, 2010; Jaworowski, 2009). Significantly, ice-core data show a close match between temperature and CO2 during the last ice age, but temperatures rose several hundred years before increases in atmospheric CO2. This is because rising temperatures cause the oceans in particular to release more of the CO2 dissolved in them.
The impact of man-made CO2 on climate has been grossly exaggerated; earth’s climate is mainly driven by natural forces. Greenhouse gases, which also include methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapour (the latter being by far the most potent), are often likened to a ‘blanket’ around the earth, because they absorb certain frequencies of infrared radiation reflected or emitted from the earth’s surface, thereby delaying the loss of heat to space. So, other things being equal, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will cause temperatures to rise; the general scientific opinion is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 will produce just over 1ºC of warming. But in a complex system like the climate, there are all sorts of feedbacks, which either amplify warming (positive feedbacks) or mitigate it (negative feedbacks).
As temperature increases, more ocean water evaporates into the atmosphere. Climate models treat water vapour as a positive feedback that amplifies CO2-induced warming, leading to a high ‘climate sensitivity’ of 1.5 to 6ºC according to different models, with the IPCC’s ‘best estimate’ being 3ºC (meaning that temperature would rise 3º if the atmospheric concentration of CO2 doubled). However, water vapour also condenses to form clouds, which are the most important factor affecting how much of the sun’s radiation reaches the earth’s surface. Cloud cover is a highly dynamic factor, whereas climate models treat it as a constant. Some researchers have highlighted the fact that rising temperatures result in more low-level clouds, which have a cooling effect (negative feedback), resulting in a climate sensitivity of around 0.5ºC (Spencer, 2009; Glassman, 2009). The relative stability of the earth’s temperature over geologic time (see figure below) indicates that the climate is dominated by negative, stabilizing feedbacks; the earth is a self-regulating organism, with alternating cycles of warming and cooling.
All the greenhouse models predict a ‘hotspot’ about 10 km up in the troposphere above the tropics, due to the alleged positive water-vapour feedback. But over the interval 1979 to 2009, model-projected temperature trends are two to four times larger than observed trends in both the lower and mid-troposphere (McKitrick et al., 2010). Instead of adjusting their models, man-made warming believers have responded by trying to adjust the measurements (Van Andel, 2011). The models assume that relative humidity remains constant under the influence of global warming at all heights in the troposphere, but the past 50 years have seen a marked decline in the humidity of the upper troposphere, pointing to a negative climate feedback (Jaworowski, 2009).
Left: Hotspot predicted by climate models. Right: Observations show no hotspot. (scienceandpublicpolicy.org)
According to the theory pioneered by Henrik Svensmark, when solar activity – and the solar magnetic field – weakens, more galactic cosmic rays (GCR) can penetrate the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in more cloud condensation nuclei, greater cloud cover and lower temperatures; the IPCC ignores this possible indirect influence of the sun on earth’s climate (Glassman, 2010a; Van Andel, 2011). Early results from two separate experiments support the GCR hypothesis (science.au.dk; wattsupwiththat.com). A 1% decrease in cloud cover could raise global temperatures by 0.5ºC. Changes in the influx of cosmic rays show a better correlation with 20th-century temperature trends than does CO2.
The heat content of the atmosphere is a thousand times smaller than the heat content of the oceans. This means that a drop in ocean temperature of 1/1000ºC would raise the air temperature by 1ºC. Over half the solar energy absorbed by the earth is absorbed in the tropics, and there is a good correlation between sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific and average global temperature. One of the ocean cycles that have a major impact on global temperatures is the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO); El Niño means warmer temperatures, and La Niña cooler temperatures. It’s interesting to note that during the cooling from 1947 to 1977 there were 7 El Niños and 14 La Niñas, during the warming from 1978 to 1998 there were 10 El Niños and 3 La Niñas, and since 1999 there have been 3 El Niños and 6 La Niñas (weatherbell.com).
Red: sea surface anomalies in the tropical Pacific (20ºN-20ºS).
Blue: global temperature anomalies. (Van Andel, 2011)
Given the disinformation spread by warmists, it is not surprising that a recent survey revealed stunning levels of public ignorance about carbon and CO2 (joannenova.com.au). Far from being a ‘pollutant’, CO2 is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, benign gas that is a vital ingredient in photosynthesis and plant growth, and essential to life on earth. That is why farmers artificially increase the CO2 concentration in glasshouses to around three times the current atmospheric level, often by piping in CO2 from nearby power plants. At times in the geologic past, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has been over ten times higher than today, even during major glaciations.
Global temperature and atmospheric CO2 over geologic time. (geocraft.com)
Rising CO2 levels are supposed to be producing a series of dire environmental consequences, including dangerous global warming, catastrophic sea level rise, dangerous ocean acidification, reduced agricultural output, the destruction of many natural ecosystems, and a dramatic increase in extreme weather phenomena, such as droughts, floods and hurricanes. Craig & Sherwood Idso (2011) present extensive evidence showing that ‘real-world observations fail to confirm essentially all of the alarming predictions’, and stress that rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations ‘have actually been good for the planet, as they have significantly enhanced plant productivity ..., leading to a significant “greening of the earth” ’.
Doubling the air’s CO2 concentration, for example, causes the productivity of herbaceous plants to rise by 30 to 50% and the productivity of woody plants to rise by 50 to 75%. In addition, atmospheric CO2 enrichment typically increases the efficiency of plant nutrient use and water use. Without the ongoing rise in the air’s CO2 content, it will barely be possible to meet humanity’s expanding food needs as the century progresses. As the Idsos (112) say: ‘In light of the above, it is remarkable that many people actually characterize the ongoing rise in the air’s CO2 content as the greatest threat ever to be faced by the biosphere, or that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has actually classified CO2 as a dangerous air pollutant.’ Atmospheric CO2 needs to be above 150 ppm to avoid harming green plants, and would only become harmful to humans at levels over 5000 ppm (Happer, 2011).
Just as in the Middle Ages Catholics believed they could avoid punishment for their sins by buying indulgences from the Church, so emissions of CO2 are nowadays regarded as a sin, for which we can buy a sort of environmental indulgence in the form of carbon credits.
Carbon emissions trading (also known as ‘cap-and-trade’) is deeply flawed, as even some environmental groups recognize. The global carbon market was worth US$ 144 billion in 2009, but most of this money circulates among banks, brokers speculating on price changes, and companies hedging their risks, and little is available for funding actual emission reductions (Kill et al., 2010, 105-6). In the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) the initial allocation of free permits enabled some of Europe’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases to reap huge windfall profits; the 10 companies benefiting most will gain €3.2 billion in 2008-2012. During this period, European power companies will gain windfall profits of between €23 and €71 billion because they are passing on nonexistent costs for permit purchases to consumers. In 2008 and 2009, ETS fraud resulted in VAT revenue losses of €5 billion (ibid., 21-2, 26, 39).
The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By the time it expires in 2012, only 6 of the 182 signatories are likely to have achieved their targets. The cost of the Kyoto measures is estimated at $300 billion per year across all countries, and its proponents have admitted that even if the targets were met, the reduction in global temperature would be only 0.13°C by 2100 – and that’s assuming that the IPCC’s inflated value of climate sensitivity is correct.
There are now calls for new agreements to cut emissions by as much as 80% – an utterly unrealistic goal. By 2030 CO2 emissions from non-OECD countries will be nearly double those of the OECD countries (the 34 most economically developed countries). Leaders of the developing world have no intention of drastically reducing their use of coal and hydrocarbons, as this would seriously depress living standards. An 80% reduction in US emissions would mean that the US would emit about 1.2 billion tons of CO2 a year – the same level as in 1910. This corresponds to per capita emissions of 2.7 tons of CO2 per year – a level to be found in Cuba, North Korea and Syria, and lower than that in modern China (Bryce, 2008, 156). There are currently no affordable, viable technologies that will allow countries to reduce their carbon output by such an amount without seriously damaging their economies.
The relentless efforts by climate alarmists to exaggerate the negative effects of a warmer climate are a source of endless entertainment. For instance, in 2005 the United Nations Environment Programme predicted on its website that by 2010 there would be 50 million climate refugees, who would be forced to flee rising sea levels, severer hurricanes and growing food shortages. However, census figures for the islands that would supposedly be worst hit show population increasing as normal. So UNEP quietly removed the idiotic prediction from its website, though it forgot to delete the accompanying map (wattsupwiththat.com). Instead of apologizing, the ‘experts’ responsible for the original forecast simply adjusted the date, and are now predicting 50 million climate refugees by 2020. And true to form, the credulous mass media have been uncritically hyping the latest claim. There are of course a certain number of environmental refugees, such as people in northern Europe who emigrate south in search of warmer climates!
It is fashionable nowadays to promote renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels as the answer to all energy and environmental problems. But the low power density of these sources means that they require vast areas of land (or water). Local residents and environmentalists often oppose ‘green’ energy sources: e.g. people living near proposed wind parks tend to oppose them because they disfigure the landscape and kill birds; conservationists have opposed hydropower dams because they disrupt river ecosystems, kill spawning fish populations, and release large amounts of methane from decaying vegetation along riverbeds; a lawsuit filed against two proposed geothermal plants in California stated that they would introduce highly toxic acids into geothermal wells and turn the lands into ‘an ugly, noisy, stinking wasteland’; and the construction of a solar power plant in California has been held up due to concerns about the welfare of a lizard (realclearscience.com; Bell, 2011).
Fossil fuels and nuclear energy have power densities 10 to 10,000 times greater than those of renewable energy resources. David MacKay (2009, 112, 167, 367) gives the following figures:
Power source Power density (W/m2) Nuclear
Solar PV panels
Corn for bioethanol
5 to 20
0.002 to 0.05
Power densities of fossil fuel extraction compared to power densities of renewable energy conversions (courtesy of Vaclav Smil, 2008a, 312). Thermal power plants include nuclear, coal, fuel oil, and gas. Phytomass is plant biomass. Hydro appears twice: upper-course hydrogeneration has a higher power density than lower-course.
In July 2008 Al Gore called on the US to produce 100% of its electricity from renewable energy and clean, carbon-free sources within 10 years. Vaclav Smil (2008b) comments:
To think that the United States can install in 10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct is delusional. ...
It took 45 years for the US to raise its crude oil use to 20 percent of the total energy supply; natural gas needed 65 years to do the same. As for electricity generation, coal produced 66 percent of the total in 1950 and still 49 percent in 2007 ...
In 2009 less than 8% of US energy consumption came from renewables: biomass 3.88%, hydro 2.68%, wind 0.70%, geothermal 0.37%, solar 0.11% (llnl.gov). In January 2011 President Obama called for the US to generate 80% of its energy from ‘clean’ sources by 2035. This is more realistic because in ‘clean energy’ he includes nuclear energy, ‘clean coal’ (i.e. coal plants that use low-emission technology or carbon capture and storage), and natural gas, in addition to traditional renewables.
In 2007 the European Union decided that by 2020 member states should achieve a set of climate and energy targets known as the ‘20-20-20’ targets: 20% of energy consumption should come from renewables; greenhouse gas emissions should be at least 20% below 1990 levels; and primary energy use should be reduced by 20% by improving efficiency. These targets were not based on a realistic analysis of what is feasible but on the fact that ‘20-20-20 by 2020’ has a ‘cute’ ring to it. A leaked UK government report says that achieving 20% renewables by 2020 would cost up to £22 billion (which it labelled ‘unreasonable’), and that a more realistic target would be 9% renewables (guardian.co.uk).
The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects some $5.5 trillion to be spent on renewable energy projects between now and 2030, by which time renewables could be providing 10% of the world’s primary energy needs (Bryce, 286).
Before the industrial revolution everyone lived on renewables, but lifestyles and population densities were very different then. An average person consumed about 20 kWh of energy per day. Each person used 4 kg of wood per day, which required 1 hectare (10,000 m2) of forest per person. The area of land per person in Europe in the 1700s was 52,000 m2, falling to 17,500 m2 in regions with the highest population density. Today the area of Britain per person is only 4000 m2, so even if the country were completely reforested, a traditional lifestyle would no longer be possible (MacKay, 108).
The average energy consumption in the UK is 125 kWh per day per person, excluding imports and solar energy acquired through food production. David MacKay (ch. 18) calculates that if we make ‘pretty extreme assumptions’ (i.e. favourable to green energy) and ‘throw all economic, social, and environmental constraints to the wind’, renewable energy sources could theoretically produce 180 kWh per day per person. However, this would require covering an area the size of Wales with wind turbines, an area half the size of Wales with solar panels, and 75% of the UK (i.e. all its agricultural land) with energy crops, and also building wave farms along 500 km of coastline.
MacKay says that if we make realistic assumptions, and take into account likely public and environmental objections, renewables could not produce more than 18 kWh per day per person. He believes that energy consumption could eventually be almost halved through conservation measures (home insulation, replacement of fossil fuel heaters with electric heat pumps, and electrification of private and public transport), but this would still far exceed the power provided by renewables. He argues that the UK’s own renewables would have to be supplemented by ‘clean coal’, nuclear power, and/or other countries’ renewables (especially solar power in deserts) (ch. 19). He believes that the same applies to Europe as a whole (ch. 30).
MacKay (2009, 109): ‘I fear that the maximum Britain would ever
get from renewables is in the ballpark of 18 kWh/d per person.’
Solar PV = solar photovaltaics (i.e. turning sunlight into electricity)
Solar HW = solar hot water (i.e. solar heating).
If we consider only the flux of the wind’s kinetic energy moving through the area swept by wind-turbine blades, the power density is commonly above 400 W/m2 in the windiest regions. But because wind turbines have to be spaced 5 to 10 rotor diameters apart to minimize wake interference, the power density expressed as electricity generated per square metre of the area occupied by a large wind farm is a small fraction of that figure. We also have to take into account that a wind turbine’s rated capacity (the power generated in optimal wind conditions) has to be reduced by the capacity factor (or load factor), i.e. the percentage of time that the wind allows turbines to work optimally. This figure is commonly put at 30% for the UK, 22% for the Netherlands, and 19% for Germany (MacKay, 267). This reduces year-round average power densities for large-scale wind generation to no more than 2 W/m2.
If 10% of the US electricity generated in 2009 (45 GW) were to be produced by large wind farms, they would have to cover at least 22,500 km2, roughly the size of New Hampshire (Smil, 2010b). If we covered the windiest 10% of the UK with wind turbines (delivering 2 W/m2), we would generate 20 kWh per day per person – or half the power used by driving an average fossil fuel car 50 km per day (MacKay, 33).
In 2009, 90% of the UK’s electricity needs was supplied by coal, gas and nuclear power, and 3% by wind (decc.gov.uk), but the aim is for wind power to provide nearly a third. The UK has some 3500 wind turbines, but they generate no more than a single, medium-sized conventional power station. The government wants to spend £100 billion on building 10,000 more turbines over the next decade, plus another £40 billion on connecting them to the grid (Booker, 2011).
Wind farm at Ingbirchworth, West Yorkshire.
A recent study (Stuart Young Consulting, 2011) found that from November 2008 to December 2010 the average output of UK wind farms metered by the national grid was only 24% of rated capacity. During that period, wind generation was below 20% of capacity more than half the time, and below 10% of capacity over one third of the time. At each of the four highest peak demands of 2010, wind output was only 4.7%, 5.5%, 2.6% and 2.5% of capacity. The report refuted the claim that the generation gap during prolonged low-wind periods can be filled by pumped storage hydroelectricity; this involves using wind-generated power to raise water to a higher elevation when electricity demand is low and then releasing the water to flow through hydroelectric turbines when demand increases. The report concluded:
It is clear from this analysis that wind cannot be relied upon to provide any significant level of generation at any defined time in the future. There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the implications of reliance on wind for any significant proportion of our energy requirement.
Plans to erect some 800 giant wind turbines, up to 415 ft high, in the unspoilt hills of mid-Wales are running into stiff opposition. The total cost of the project, including 100 miles of steel pylons to carry the electricity to the national grid, will be £2 billion. The turbines will produce an average of around 300 MW. By contrast, the new gas-fired power station at Langage near Plymouth cost £400 million, produces 895 MW, and covers just a few acres. (blogs.telegraph.co.uk; telegraph.co.uk; centrica.com)
The Thanet wind farm 12 km off the coast of Kent is the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, with 100 turbines rising some 90 m above the sea over an area of 35 km2 (vattenfall.co.uk). The rated capacity is 300 MW, but when the load factor (about 26%) is taken into account, it will supply enough electricity for about 131,000 homes – a figure which drops to zero when the wind isn’t blowing, and also when the wind is too strong, as the turbines then have to be switched off. It was built by the Swedish energy company Vattenfall at a cost of £780 million. On top of the £40 million in electricity sales, Vattenfall will receive at least £60 million a year in renewable obligation certificates (ROCs). This is equivalent to a public subsidy of £1.2 billion over the turbines’ 20-year service life – enough to build a 1 GW nuclear power station, which can deliver 13 times more power than this wind farm (gl-w.blogspot.com).
A serious problem with offshore wind farms is the corrosive effects of sea water. At a big Danish wind farm, Horns Reef, all 80 turbines had to be dismantled and repaired after only 18 months’ exposure to the sea air. The turbines at the Kentish Flats wind farm (also off the coast of Kent) are having similar problems with their gearboxes, with one third having to be replaced during the first 18 months (MacKay, 61).
In May 2011 a judge ordered the dismantling of the Serra del Tallat wind farm in Spain because it did not have the proper planning permission (lavanguardia.com). This shows that wind turbines really do create jobs: first to put them up, then to pull them down.
The variability of the wind means that wind power (like solar power) is not ‘dispatchable’ – meaning that you can’t necessarily start installations up when you most need them. Wind turbines therefore have to be backed up by gas-fired plants or, in less wealthy nations such as China, coal-fired plants, thereby making wind power more expensive than conventional power generation. So adding wind (or solar) power to the grid does not replace an equivalent amount of fossil-fuel generating capacity. A survey of US utilities revealed that wind power reduces the installed power capacity at thermal power stations by 3 to 40% of rated wind capacity, with many falling in the 20 to 30% range (Cleveland, 2011).
By the beginning of 2007, wind power accounted for about 13.4% of all the electricity generated in Denmark, thanks to massive subsidies. But this has not resulted in energy independence, or made a difference to the country’s CO2 emissions, coal consumption or oil use. When its turbines produce more electricity than can be used, the Danes sell it to their neighbours, often at subsidized, below-market rates. And when they don’t produce enough, large quantities of hydropower are imported from Norway and Sweden, whose hydrogeneration is 30 times Denmark’s wind production. In 2006, Denmark’s electricity rates were the highest in the world, amounting to some $0.32 per kilowatt-hour – about 25% higher than in the Netherlands, which had the next-highest rates, at $0.25 per kilowatt-hour (Bryce, ch. 10).
Germany and Denmark have discovered that if wind represents more than 4% of their grid-generating capacity, the risks from unreliability and system damage from surges become unacceptably high. Germany is now constructing several coal-fired plants for new capacity, and reassessing the viability of its wind energy programme (Smith, 2011).
A large wind farm reduces annual CO2 emissions by considerably less than the annual emissions of a single jumbo jet flying daily between Britain and America. Moreover, the construction of wind turbines generates enormous CO2 emissions as a result of the mining and smelting of the metals used, the carbon-intensive cement needed for their huge concrete foundations, and the building of miles of road often needed to move them to the site (Booker, 2011). A typical megawatt of reliable wind power capacity requires about 32 times as much concrete and 139 times as much steel as a typical gas-fired power plant (Bryce, 90). Moreover, nearly all the wind turbines now being produced depend on a rare-earth element called neodymium, whose supply is controlled by China. A direct-drive permanent-magnet generator for a top-capacity wind turbine uses about 2 tonnes of neodymium-based permanent magnet material.
The 8-km-wide, 30-m-deep lake of toxic waste at Baotou, China. Seven million tonnes of waste a year are discharged into the foul-smelling lake by the rare-earth processing plants in the background, with a devastating impact on local residents’ health. The region has over 90% of the world’s reserves of rare-earth metals, notably neodymium, which is used to make magnets for wind turbines and hybrid cars. (thegwpf.org)
Cattle can graze and crops can be grown beneath wind turbines but humans cannot live close to them because the low-level noise caused by the massive blades disturbs sleep patterns and can cause headaches, dizziness and other health problems. Wind turbines also cause other hazards. On the basis of available data (which are not comprehensive), there was an average of 103 accidents per year in the wind industry from 2005 to 2010, including 73 fatalities (Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, 2011). Most incidents were due to blade failure, in which whole blades or pieces of blade are thrown up to 1300 metres. Hence the proposal for a buffer zone of at least 2 km between turbines and residential areas. Fire is the second most common incident; because of the turbine height, the fire brigade can do little but stand and watch. Some incidents were due to ice being thrown from the blades for up to 140 m.
The worldwide mortality rate for wind power is about 0.15 deaths per trillion watt-hours (TWh). This is roughly the same as the figure for the mining, processing and burning of coal to generate electricity according to some researchers, or half that figure according to others, though this doesn’t include increases in mortality from the air pollution resulting from burning coal (wind-works.org).
Another objection raised against wind power is bird kill, but this needs to be put in perspective. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that every year between 100,000 and 440,000 birds are killed by wind turbines in the US. But it also estimates that every year between 10 and 154 million birds are killed by power lines, between 10.7 and 380 million by traffic, and between 100 and 1000 million by glass (abcbirds.org). In Denmark an estimated 30,000 birds per year are killed by wind turbines, and about a million by traffic. In Britain 55 million birds per year are killed by cats (MacKay, 63).
Solar energy is the only essentially unlimited renewable resource. It can be harnessed and used in different ways:
- Trees, plants and vegetation absorb solar energy through photosynthesis and store it in chemical form. This energy is consumed directly when these materials are burned as fuel, or eaten by humans and animals, or it may be turned into biofuels, chemicals, or building materials.
- By means of solar thermal collectors (e.g. on roofs), sunlight can be used for direct heating of buildings or water.
- Photovoltaics (PV) converts solar radiation directly into electricity by means of solar panels composed of cells containing a photovoltaic material (e.g. silicon). The concentration of sunlight onto photovoltaic surfaces is known as concentrated photovoltaics (CPV).
- Concentrated solar power (CSP) uses lenses or mirrors to concentrate a large area of sunlight onto a small area; the concentrated light is then converted into heat which drives a heat engine (usually a steam turbine) connected to an electrical power generator.
Covering the south-facing roof of homes with photovoltaics may provide enough electricity to cover a large share of average electricity consumption, but roofs are not big enough to make huge dent in our total energy consumption (MacKay, 40). When the sun goes behind clouds photovoltaic production falls roughly 10-fold. Moreover, this method is less effective for two- or three-storey homes and high-rise buildings.
Solar cells have a range of efficiencies, but the power densities of all types of solar power generation are well below those of conventional energy sources:
While the best research cells have efficiencies surpassing 30% (for multijunction concentrators) and about 15% for crystalline silicon and thin films, actual field efficiencies of PV cells that have been recently deployed in the largest commercial parks are around 10%, with the ranges of 6-7% for amorphous silicon and less than 4% for thin films. A realistic assumption of 10% efficiency yields 17 W/m2 as the first estimate of average global PV generation power density, with densities reaching barely 10 W/m2 in cloudy Atlantic Europe and 20-25 W/m2 in subtropical deserts. (Smil, 2010b, 12)
So although the largest solar PV parks generate electricity with power densities roughly 5 to 15 times higher than for wood-fired plants, this is at best 1/10 and at worst 1/100 of the power densities of coal-fired electricity generation. If only 10% of all electricity generated in the US in 2009 (45 GW) were to be produced by large PV plants, the area required (even with an average power density of 8 W/m2) would be about 5600 km2.
No dramatic near-term improvements are expected either in the conversion efficiency of PV cells deployed on MW scale in large commercial solar parks or in the average capacity factors. But even if the efficiencies rose by as much as 50% within a decade this would elevate average power densities of optimally located commercial solar PV parks to no more than 15 W/m2.
Concentrating solar power (CSP) projects use tracking parabolic mirrors in order to reflect and concentrate solar radiation on a central receiver placed in a high tower. Still, power densities of CPS are not all that different from PV generation. ... [O]ptimally located CSP plants will operate with power densities of 35-55 W/m2 of their large heliostat [mirror] fields and with rates no higher than 10 W/m2 of their entire site area. (Smil, 2010b, 13-14)
Environmental groups have criticized solar parks for taking up too much desert land, thereby displacing certain animal and reptile species. The use of photovoltaic collectors is also challenged because they contain highly toxic heavy metals, explosive gases and carcinogenic solvents that present end-of-life disposal hazards (Bell, 2011).
SunEdison’s 6.2 MW Alamosa Solar PV Farm, Colorado. (xcelenergy.com)
Even covering 5% of the UK with 10%-efficient solar panels would yield only 50 kWh per day per person (MacKay, 41) – or two-fifths of average power consumption. Assuming that concentrating solar power in deserts delivers an average power per unit land area of about 15 W/m2, a total desert area of 1 million square kilometres would have to be covered with solar cells to provide the world’s total power consumption of 15,000 GW. To supply everyone in Europe and North Africa with an average European’s power consumption would require a desert area of 360,000 square kilometres, equal to the area of Germany, or one a half times the size of the UK or 16 times the size of Wales (MacKay, 178).
Solar and wind power reduce location flexibility because the facilities have to be located in the sunniest or windiest regions, often requiring the addition of hundreds or thousands of kilometres of power lines to transmit electricity to distant towns and cities. As with wind power, the variability of solar power presents a problem. Electricity providers must be able to ramp power generation up and down to meet the changing demand within a relatively narrow voltage range; too little power causes a brownout, while too much produces a damaging surge. The only alternative to having reserve gas or coal power generation capacity is to invest in energy storage capability, such as pumped hydroelectric power, compressed air, flywheels or flow batteries – which will add significantly to the already high cost. Solar power still faces the challenge of developing a cheap photovoltaic cell.
As Robert Smith (2011, 21) says: ‘Solar has the biggest future potential, but it will also take the longest time to develop into a major segment of national electric power generation. Solar power has so far offered the most promise and delivered the least.’
Biomass energy, or bioenergy, is energy from plants and plant-derived materials. Wood is still the largest biomass energy resource in use today, but other sources include food crops, grassy and woody plants, residues from agriculture or forestry, oil-rich algae, the organic component of municipal and industrial wastes, and the fumes (methane gas) from landfills. As well as being converted into electricity, biomass can be converted into liquid fuels, or biofuels, for transportation purposes. The two most common biofuels are ethanol (made from corn and sugarcane) and biodiesel (made from vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease).
Using biomass as a fuel releases CO2 and air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulates, in some cases at levels above those from conventional fuel sources such as coal or natural gas (en.wikipedia.org). The main problem with biomass is its low energy density and power density. The best power density of energy crops in Europe is about 0.5 W/m2. If we were to cover 75% of the UK with bioenergy crops (i.e. the entire area currently devoted to agriculture), and if we use a very conservative figure of 33% for overall losses along the processing chain, we would still generate only 24 kWh of electricity per day per person (MacKay, 43-4).
The annual global consumption of gasoline and diesel fuel in land and marine transport, and kerosene in flying, is about 75 exajoules (million trillion joules). Even if the most productive biomass alternative (Brazilian ethanol from sugarcane at 0.45 W/m2) could be replicated throughout the tropics, the total land required for producing transportation ethanol would be about 550 million hectares, just over one-third of the world’s cultivated land or nearly all the agricultural land in the tropics (Smil, 2008a, 360-1).
The power density of bioethanol made from corn is only 0.22 W/m2. This means that about 390 million hectares (just over twice the entire cultivated area of the US) would be required to satisfy the US demand for liquid transportation fuel. Moreover, if all the machinery required for ethanol production were fuelled with ethanol, and the combustion of crop residues was used to generate heat for distilling purposes, the power density would drop to, at best, 0.07 W/m2. The US would then need to plant 1.2 billion hectares (over six times its entire arable area) with corn for ethanol fermentation (Smil, 2008a, 361).
In the US, the lobbying and campaign contributions of large agri-business interests have led to politicians passing legislation that has given 5.5 to 7.3 billion dollars a year in tax subsidies to the booming corn ethanol business. It is now more profitable for farmers to grow huge acreages of corn to make vehicle fuel rather than to feed people. Congress has introduced mandates forcing automakers to manufacture ‘flex-fuel’ cars and forcing motorists to buy ethanol-blended gasoline. Some 30% of the US maize (corn) harvest was expected to be used for ethanol by 2010, but this still accounts for less than 8% of US gasoline consumption (World Bank, 2008).
Ethanol can be used as a fuel for vehicles in its pure form, but it is usually added to gasoline to increase octane and reduce emissions. Tests show that E85 (85% ethanol) reduces fuel economy by 28% compared with regular gasoline (10% ethanol) (caranddriver.com). Greater use of ethanol was supposed to reduce US dependence on oil. However, ethanol only replaces one of the many products that refiners extract from crude oil. On average a barrel of crude oil (42 gallons) yields about 20 gallons of gasoline (petrol). Other products include butane, jet fuel, diesel fuel, fuel oil, and asphalt. Gasoline demand, both in the US and globally, is essentially flat, while demand for ‘middle distillates’ – mainly diesel fuel and jet fuel, i.e. the liquids that propel the vast majority of our commercial transportation machinery – is growing rapidly. And ethanol cannot replace these fuels (Bryce, 185-6).
A World Bank policy research working paper concluded that up to 70-75% of the rise in food prices from 2002 to 2008 was due to ‘large increases in biofuels production in the U.S. and EU’ and ‘the related consequences of low grain stocks, large land use shifts, speculative activity and export bans’ (Mitchell, 2008, 17). An OECD (2008) report gave the following assessment:
The impact of current biofuel policies on world crop prices, largely through increased demand for cereals and vegetable oils, is significant but should not be overestimated. Current biofuel support measures alone are estimated to increase average wheat prices by about 5 percent, maize by around 7 percent and vegetable oil by about 19 percent over the next 10 years.
By raising the price of food worldwide, increased production of biofuels condemns more people to chronic hunger and absolute poverty (defined as income less than $1.25 per day). Indur Goklany (2011) estimates conservatively that this would lead to at least 192,000 excess deaths per year, plus disease resulting in the loss of 6.7 million disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) per year. These exceed the estimated annual toll of 141,000 deaths and 5.4 million lost DALYs that the World Health Organization attributes to global warming. But whereas death and disease from poverty are a fact, attributing death and disease to global warming is highly speculative.
In 2007 Jean Ziegler, the UN’s right-to-food rapporteur, said that the transformation of wheat and maize crops into biofuel was having an ‘absolutely catastrophic’ effect on the world’s poor, and called it a ‘crime against humanity’ (independent.co.uk). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejected his call for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production. The EU’s environment commissioner acknowledged that the EU had underestimated the problems caused by biofuels, but insisted that suspending the target fixed for biofuels was out of the question (dw-world.de).
The rush to boost biofuel production has led to huge tracts of tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia being cleared to create palm plantations for biodiesel production – destroying unique plant and animal species and eroding fragile tropical topsoil (Manning & Garbon, 2009, 39).
Cellulosic ethanol is made from non-food crops such as switchgrass and giant miscanthus, or from wood chips and sawdust. But like other biomass energy projects, it is plagued by low power density. To meet 10% of its oil needs from cellulosic ethanol, the US would need to plant 42.1 million acres in switchgrass – an area equal to about 10% of its cropland. Another problem is that there is no infrastructure available to plant, harvest and transport the switchgrass or other biomass source to the refineries. Moreover, as with corn ethanol, the amount of energy gained by producing cellulosic ethanol is negligible (Bryce, 182-4).
The use of fossil fuels in iron and steel production will be difficult to replace. A return to charcoal would be the only practical choice. Using tropical eucalyptus and the best Brazilian smelting practices, half of Brazil’s total forested area in 2000 would have to be devoted to growing wood for the world’s metallurgical charcoal – an unrealistic proposition. As far as the production of nitrogenous fertilizer is concerned, natural gas is generally used as a source of hydrogen and as a fuel (oil and coal are more cumbersome), and no large-scale nonfossil alternative to this technique is commercially available at present (Smil, 2008a, 361).
MacKay (285) explains that algae for making biofuel are grown in water heavily enriched with CO2, sometimes originating from power stations or other industrial facilities. Ponds in sunny parts of the US fed with CO2 concentrated to 10% have a power density of 4 W/m2. Without the concentrated CO2, productivity of algae drops 100-fold. However, MacKay cannot bring himself to admit that CO2 enrichment of the atmosphere similarly boosts bioproductivity, preferring instead to endlessly repeat his mantra of ‘carbon pollution’ – a cunningly chosen term since some forms of carbon are pollutants. Perhaps he fears that pointing out the simple fact that CO2 is plant food might damage sales of his book.
Nuclear powerAll existing nuclear power plants involve nuclear fission, rather than nuclear fusion. In fission reactions heavy nuclei release energy when they split into medium-sized nuclei, while in fusion reactions light nuclei release energy when they fuse into medium-sized nuclei (as is said to happen in stars). The energy released from nuclear fission reactions is some 10 million times larger than that from chemical reactions. About 2000 tons of uranium-235 can release as much energy as burning 4.2 billion tons – or 1 cubic mile – of oil (Bryce, 2008, 212).
Like fossil fuel power stations, nuclear power plants are thermal plants: the heat energy released from the nuclear fuel turns water into steam which spins a turbine which drives an electric generator. There are currently 440 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, with a total capacity of 375 GW, and they provide 13.8% of the world’s electricity. A further 61 reactors are under construction. France obtains 75.2% of its electricity from nuclear power, the US 20.2%, and the UK 17.9% (world-nuclear.org). Nuclear propulsion is used in several ships and submarines, and some space probes are powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators.
There are many different reactor designs, using various fuels and coolants. Most reactors currently use uranium-235 (a uranium isotope whose nucleus contains 235 neutrons, making up 0.7% of all natural uranium) and discard the remaining U-238. Known uranium resources are expected to last for over 80 years; further exploration will undoubtedly uncover more reserves, and if the cost of extracting uranium from seawater falls, there will be no danger of scarcity. Fast breeder reactors use U-238 (99.3% of all natural uranium) as well as U-235. They convert U-238 to fissionable plutonium-239, and obtain about 60 times as much energy from the uranium (MacKay, 162-3). Experimental fast breeder reactors are operating in half a dozen countries.
1300 MW nuclear power plant at Cattenom, France. (en.wikipedia.org)
New, safer and more powerful reactor designs are coming to the market. One of them uses thorium instead of uranium; thorium is four times more abundant than uranium and easier to mine, and there is enough to power reactors for thousands of years. Whereas standard reactors use only about 1% of natural uranium, thorium can be completely burned up, and does not produce any plutonium (which could be used for making a nuclear bomb). Far less waste is produced than with traditional nuclear reactors, and it’s only dangerous for 300 years. It is physically impossible for the plant to melt down, because if the power goes out the system naturally cools off (embeddedlab.csuohio.edu).
Building a large nuclear plant costs billions of dollars, but the long-term operating costs are lower than those of coal and natural gas plants, because nuclear fuel costs a fraction of coal and gas. The per-kilowatt construction costs of nuclear power plants are similar to those of constructing offshore wind projects. But while nuclear plants usually have a capacity factor of 90%, offshore turbines only produce power about a third of the time. Solar power is even more expensive than offshore wind. A new 2700 MW nuclear plant at the South Texas Project costs $13 billion, but to build a solar plant with the same capacity rating would cost about $16.2 billion. And in practice the solar facility would produce at least one-third less energy than the nuclear reactor (Bryce, 262-4).
According to the International Energy Agency, new nuclear power plants that begin operations between 2015 and 2020 will be able to produce electricity for about $72 per megawatt-hour, whereas onshore wind costs will be about $94 per megawatt-hour. Nuclear will be among the cheapest options, even when compared to coal-fired power plants that use high-efficiency or ultra-supercritical combustion (Bryce, 259).
When operating, nuclear plants emit no CO2, but huge amounts of concrete and steel are required in their construction. The IPCC estimates that the total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions (including construction, fuel processing and decommissioning) per unit of electricity produced from nuclear power are less than 40 g CO2-equivalent per kWh, similar to those for renewable energy sources (ipcc.ch).
Environmental groups tend to oppose nuclear power on the grounds that it is too expensive and dangerous. Greenpeace International says that nuclear power is ‘an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity’ and calls for all nuclear power plants to be closed down (greenpeace.org). However, a number of high-profile environmentalists disagree (Bryce, 257-8). For instance, James Lovelock, who pioneered the Gaia theory that the earth is a self-regulating organism, believes that nuclear power is the only viable option for large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions, and says that nuclear energy has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.
Nuclear power has also been endorsed by astronomer Patrick Moore, a cofounder of Greenpeace, who says: ‘Nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels while satisfying the world’s increasing demand for energy’ (Bell, 2011). Both Lovelock and Moore are associated with Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy (EFN). The nuclear industry, too, is trying to capitalize on current irrational fears about ‘CO2 pollution’ by highlighting that nuclear power plants emit no CO2.
The volume of solid waste produced by nuclear reactors is relatively small, but a small portion is highly radioactive. In the UK, the ash from 10 coal-fired power stations would have a mass of 4 million tons per year (about 40 litres per person per year), while nuclear waste from Britain’s 10 nuclear power stations has a volume of just 0.84 litres per person per year. Only 25 millilitres of this is highly radioactive. Over a lifetime the total amount of high-level waste would cover just one tenth of a square kilometre to a depth of 1 metre. By contrast, municipal waste in the UK amounts to 517 kg per year per person, and hazardous waste 83 kg per year per person (MacKay, 69-70, 367). In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes make up less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes, much of which remains hazardous indefinitely (world-nuclear.org).
High-level nuclear waste is first stored in cooling ponds at the reactor site for 40 to 50 years, by which time the level of radioactivity has dropped 1000-fold. In some European countries this waste is then reprocessed, with the uranium and plutonium being separated off for reuse. This allows about 97% of the spent fuel to be recycled, leaving only 3% as high-level waste. The plutonium is sub-weapons grade but can be used in fresh mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors. If the spent fuel is reprocessed, the separated waste is vitrified and sealed inside stainless steel canisters. The final disposal of vitrified wastes, or of used fuel assemblies that have not been reprocessed, requires their long-term isolation from the environment, usually in stable geological formations some 500 metres deep. After being buried for about 1000 years, the radioactivity will have dropped to a level similar to that of naturally-occurring uranium ore, though in a more concentrated form (world-nuclear.org).
Storage pond for spent fuel at the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the UK.
Major commercial reprocessing plants are operating in France and the UK, and Japan plans to bring one on line in 2012. Reprocessing is not allowed in the US, due to nuclear proliferation concerns. It’s worth nothing that France, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan all developed nuclear weapons before they developed nuclear power. Of these four, only France is now producing significant amounts of electricity with fission.
At present, waste is mainly stored at individual reactor sites, though centralized underground repositories that are well guarded and managed would be preferable. In the US the construction of a permanent underground storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has effectively been cancelled.
As for (hot) nuclear fusion, although tens of billions of dollars have been thrown at it, there are no prospects of it becoming a viable source of power generation anytime soon, mainly due to the enormous temperatures (up to 300 million degrees Celsius) and pressures required. Tokamak reactors are considered the most likely means of achieving practical nuclear fusion energy. Their basic design is a torus (or donut) within which intense magnetic fields confine very hot plasma. In the 1970s fusion power was said to be 30 years away. Today, it is still said to be 30 years away.
Inside a tokamak, with and without a plasma. (EFDA-JET)
The worst nuclear accident to date was the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in April 1986. During a test in which important control systems had been switched off (in violation of safety regulations), a sudden power surge caused a steam explosion that ruptured the reactor vessel and led to the destruction of the reactor core and severe damage to the reactor building, which had no containment structure. The resulting plume of highly radioactive smoke drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) puts the total deaths from radiation at about 66 as of 2008 (unscear.org). As for the number of people who could eventually die of radiation exposure as a result of Chernobyl, a 2005 report gave an estimate of 4000 (who.int).
In 1979 one of the two units at the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island in the US suffered a partial meltdown. The accident resulted in no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of nearby communities, but the bad publicity held back the development of nuclear power in the US for decades.
Fears about nuclear accidents have been stoked more recently by events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The massive magnitude 9 earthquake and the ensuing 14-metre tsunami on 11 March 2011 led to a series of equipment failures and releases of radioactive materials. Although the three reactors in operation shut down automatically after the earthquake, the tsunami knocked out the emergency generators – something that could have been avoided if the backup system had been better designed. This resulted in partial core meltdown. The plant’s six boiling-water reactors are second-generation technology, nearly 40 years old. Many countries are now reevaluating their nuclear energy programmes. Under pressure from public opinion, the German government has decided to close all its 17 nuclear plants by 2022; since these plants produce 26.1% of its electricity, this will be a major challenge.
Every energy industry has its share of accidents. In the fossil fuel industry there are drilling-rig disasters, oil spills from shipping accidents, helicopters lost at sea, pipeline fires, refinery explosions, coal mine accidents, and so on. According to EU figures, coal, lignite and oil have the highest death rates, followed by peat and biomass power, with death rates above 1 per gigawatt-year (GWy). Nuclear and wind come out best, with death rates below 0.2 per GWy (MacKay, 168).
In the US, nuclear power has caused no known deaths, whereas candles kill 126 people a year, and alcohol 100,000. In Britain nuclear power has generated 200 GWy of electricity and the nuclear industry has had 1 fatality – an impressively low death rate compared with the fossil fuel industry. For comparison, 3000 people per year die on Britain’s roads. Worldwide, the death rate from nuclear power is estimated at 2.4 deaths per GWy, and the mortality rate is expected to fall in the future. In the mid-1990s the mortality rate associated with wind power was 3.5 deaths per GWy, but the figure had dropped to 1.3 deaths per GWy by 2000 (MacKay, 168, 175). In 2004 an estimated 1.2 million people were killed and 50 million more were injured in motor vehicle collisions worldwide.
From 12 to 28 March 2011, while headlines were dominated by events at Fukushima, a total of 47 coal miners were killed in four accidents in China, 47 in two accidents in Pakistan, and 1 in an accident in the USA. Most of the accidents involved gas explosions (en.wordpress.com). In China the death rate in coal mines, per ton of coal delivered, is 50 times that of most nations; there were 2600 fatalities in Chinese mines in 2009 alone.
Rescue workers retrieve the body of one of the miners killed in a methane gas explosion in a coal mine in Baluchistan province, Pakistan, on 20 March 2011. (coalmountain.wordpress.com)
Radiation and health
Heavy, unstable atoms undergoing radioactive decay emit three types of ionizing radiation: alpha particles (helium nuclei), which cannot penetrate the skin and can be stopped by a sheet of paper, but are dangerous in the lung; beta particles (electrons), which can penetrate into the body but can be stopped by a sheet of aluminium foil; and gamma radiation (very high-frequency electromagnetic radiation), which can go right through the body and requires several centimetres of lead or concrete, or a metre or so of water, to stop it.
The radiation absorbed by any material is measured in grays (Gy): 1 Gy = 1 J/kg. The radiation absorbed by humans – known as the effective dose – is usually expressed in sieverts (Sv) or millisieverts (mSv); it is calculated by multiplying the absorbed dose (in grays) by a factor that depends on the type of radiation and the type of tissue absorbing the radiation. One gray of alpha radiation, for example, will have a greater effect than one gray of beta radiation on a particular type of tissue, but one sievert of both produces the same biological effect. (In the US: 1 rad = 0.01 Gy; 1 rem = 0.01 Sv, or 10 mSv.)
The following table shows the symptoms corresponding to different doses of ionizing radiation received within one day (niehs.nih.gov).
0 - 0.25 Sv
(0 - 250 mSv)
0.25 - 1 Sv
(250 - 1000 mSv)
Some people feel nausea and loss of appetite
Bone marrow, lymph nodes and spleen damaged
1 - 3 Sv
(1000 - 3000 mSv)
Mild to severe nausea, loss of appetite, infection
Same as above, but more severe; recovery probable, but not assured
3 - 6 Sv
(3000 - 6000 mSv)
Severe nausea, loss of appetite; haemorrhaging, infection, diarrhoea, peeling of skin, sterility
Death if untreated
6 - 10 Sv
(6000 - 10,000 mSv)
Above symptoms plus central nervous system impairment
Above 10 Sv
The natural background radiation exposure from sun, rocks and building materials in the US is 3.6 mSv/year on average. The following table gives the typical dose for various additional exposures (niehs.nih.gov; new.ans.org).
Working in the nuclear industry
Exposure to public from the nuclear industry
Airline crew flying 1200 miles a week
Airline crew flying to Tokyo (1 trip per week)
Chest CT scan
Exposure to public from accident at Three Mile Island
Exposure to TV viewers watching an average of 10 hours per week
Large, acute doses of radiation are harmful. But there is a widespread myth that any radiation exposure, however small, carries a health risk. This is known as the linear no-threshold (LNT) model. It implies that if a certain level of radiation exposure produces 1 cancer in a population of 100 people, then one-tenth of that amount of radiation will produce 1 cancer in a population of 1000. This is like saying that if 25 cups of water forced down the throat will generally cause a person to die of drowning, then drinking 1 cup of water would produce a 1 in 25 chance of drowning. This flawed model is behind claims that nearly a million people have already died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster (en.wikipedia.org). It assumes that every particle or quantum of ionizing radiation is likely to damage a cell’s DNA, producing mutations which lead to cancer. As there are about 1 billion radioactive decays every day in the average adult body, we should all be sick from cancer from a young age if that were true.
There is no scientific evidence that doses below about 50 mSv in a short time or about 100 mSv per year carry any risk; in fact there is abundant evidence that doses up to 100 mSv per year can have beneficial effects. This is known as radiation hormesis (Hecht, 2009; Kauffman, 2003, 2006; world-nuclear.org). Low levels of exposure can stimulate the body’s defence and repair mechanisms, whereas very high levels overwhelm them.
The main source of exposure for most people is naturally-occurring background radiation. Levels typically range from about 1.5 to 3.5 mSv/year but can be more than 50 mSv/year. Lifetime doses range up to several thousand millisieverts, but there is no evidence of increased cancers or other health problems arising from these high natural levels. Studies have shown that medical and industrial workers who are exposed to radiation above background levels often have lower rates of mortality from cancer and other causes than the general public.
The main contributor to background radiation exposure is usually radon gas from radioactive sources deep underground. Many healing springs and baths derive their benefits from low-dose radiation in the water, usually in the form of absorbed radon gas. In Europe, the use of hot springs with high radon content dates back some 6000 years (radonmine.com).
It is worth noting that radiation protection standards are based on the discredited linear no-threshold model.
Interestingly, due to the substantial amounts of granite in their construction, many public buildings including Australia’s Parliament House and New York Grand Central Station, would have some difficulty in getting a licence to operate if they were nuclear power stations. (world-nuclear.org)
There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the Fukushima nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes to ensure this. In May 2013 UNSCEAR reported that most Japanese people were exposed to additional radiation amounting to less than the typical natural background level of 2.1 mSv per year. People living in Fukushima prefecture are expected to be exposed to around 10 mSv over their entire lifetimes, while for those living further away the dose would be 0.2 mSv per year. However, 146 emergency workers received radiation doses of over 100 mSv during the crisis, and will be closely monitored (world-nuclear.org).
Over the past 150 years various scientists and inventors have designed energy-producing devices that challenge the mainstream scientific understanding of the physical world (Tutt, 2001; Manning & Garbon, 2009). Some of the devices seem to be extracting energy from an as yet unrecognized source – the all-pervasive ether. In principle, the ether could provide an unlimited source of clean energy – an idea that repels some people, who automatically associate abundance with irresponsible consumerism and plundering of the earth’s resources.
At present no ‘free-energy’, ‘over-unity’ or ‘new-energy’ devices are available on the market. Jeane Manning and Joel Garbon write:
While capital pours into the conventional technologies, visionary scientists and inventors researching breakthrough energy technologies are languishing due to lack of funding, ignorance and indifference at political level, and often official obstruction and even heavy-handed oppression. (2009, 36)
A few of the more promising candidate technologies for future energy generation are outlined below.
‘Cold fusion’ was born in March 1989 when Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons reported that experiments with electrochemical cells filled with heavy water, using a palladium cathode, had generated so much excess heat that it had probably come from the fusion of two deuterium nuclei (deuterons). Since the experiments took place at room temperature and pressure, this contradicted the mainstream view that the only form of fusion possible is thermonuclear fusion, or ‘hot fusion’, which requires extreme temperatures and pressures to overcome the Coulomb barrier and force two positively-charged nuclei to merge. As a result, ‘cold fusion’ was dismissed as ‘voodoo science’ by most orthodox scientists, especially since several attempts to replicate Fleischmann and Pons’ results were unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, small-scale research has continued to this day in countries such as the US, Russia, China, Japan, Italy, France and Israel, and various anomalous phenomena have repeatedly been verified, though some experimental results are very unpredictable. Cold fusion is now often referred to as low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR), chemically-assisted nuclear reactions (CANR), or condensed matter nuclear science (CMNS). There are many different experimental setups but they usually include: a metal, such as palladium or nickel, in bulk, thin films or powder; deuterium and/or hydrogen, in the form of water, gas or plasma; and an excitation in the form of electricity, magnetism, temperature, pressure, laser beams, or acoustic waves (en.wikipedia.org).
Replicated phenomena include anomalous amounts of heat, helium, small amounts of occasional tritium and neutrons, and transmutation of one element (or isotope) into another. The various reactions are thought to occur on or near the surface of certain special materials containing hydrogen isotopes. And they take place without the application of high energy and without the release of the harmful, high-intensity radiation normally associated with a nuclear process. To overcome or penetrate the Coulomb barrier, hot fusion uses high energy, i.e. brute force, whereas ‘cold fusion’ appears to involve a subtler process similar to that used by a catalyst (Storms, 2010).
That modern science’s understanding of nuclear reactions is inadequate is also shown by the evidence for transmutation in living organisms (Storms, 19). Starting with the work of Louis Kervran in the 1960s, various researchers have established that organisms can create elements they need by transmuting available elements. Moulds and yeasts, for example, are able to increase the concentrations of potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium in their cells. The abundance of elements on earth has probably been modified by the presence of life, and it may be possible to use bacteria to decontaminate soil. Nature apparently has gentler ways of achieving transmutation and other nuclear reactions than the violent methods known to mainstream science.
Nuclear fission and (hot) fusion involve ‘strong nuclear interactions’, which release energetic electrons and alpha particles, and high-energy neutrons, gamma rays and X-rays. That is why radiation containment structures for commercial fission reactors often have walls consisting of 1 metre thick reinforced concrete and 25 cm thick special steel plates. According to a theory developed by Lewis Larsen and Allan Widom, LENR does not involve nuclear fusion in the strict sense of the term, but rather weak-interaction neutron creation and ultra-low-momentum, neutron-catalyzed, low-energy nuclear reactions (Krivit, 2009, 2010). ‘Weak interactions’ are defined as any type of nuclear process that emits or absorbs a neutrino (a hypothetical, electrically neutral particle with such a tiny mass that it barely interacts with other matter); an example is beta decay, whereby a neutron in an unstable atom emits an electron and a neutrino and turns into a proton.
According to the Widom-Larsen theory, the reason why LENR cells do not emit large fluxes of high-energy neutrons is because nearly all ultra-low-momentum neutrons are absorbed locally. And the reason researchers have seen little or no gamma emissions from LENR experiments – of the kind associated with fission and fusion – is because gamma radiation is internally converted into more-benign, infrared (heat) radiation.
Larsen and Widom see their theory as an extension of the mainstream ‘standard model’ of particle physics, and that’s why they have managed to silence some long-standing critics of ‘cold fusion’. However, the standard model has many illogical and irrational features; a realistic model requires an underlying, subquantum energy continuum – the ether (see The farce of modern physics).
A large proportion of cold fusion researchers do not accept the Widom-Larsen theory on the grounds that it cannot explain all the phenomena that occur. Its critics propose, for example, that protons or deuterons, rather than neutrons, play a key role in transmutation (Storms, 2010). At present there is no generally accepted, comprehensive theory of LENR.
Larsen (2008) argues that if successfully commercialized, low-energy nuclear reactions could herald a new era of affordable, safe and clean energy.
Being nuclear, LENRs could potentially improve by many orders of magnitude the density and longevity of energy storage compared with existing technologies such as chemical batteries and electrostatic capacitors, and provide a vast array of cost effective, scalable, portable, and distributed power generation systems that could be deployed throughout the world. ... LENRs can be used to develop a safe nuclear energy technology that does not create dangerous hard radiation and/or long-lived radioactive and toxic wastes.
Larsen (2009) argues that LENR may also solve many serious public safety and environmental problems associated with current nuclear fission technologies.
[R]adioactive nuclear waste in spent reactor fuel rods and assemblies could potentially be processed onsite with LENR technology to transmute waste into complex arrays of non-radioactive stable elements and isotopes. Exactly the same approach could be used to get rid of fuel remaining in nuclear reactors after permanent shutdown.
Italian inventor Andrea Rossi, with the help of Sergio Focardi, has developed a nickel-hydrogen reactor, known as the Energy Catalyzer or E-Cat (ecat.com; e-catworld.com; pesn.com). The device is said to work by infusing heated hydrogen into nickel with the aid of an unnamed catalyst, resulting in the transmutation of nickel into copper and the release of heat; it allegedly generates about 6 to 10 times more energy than it consumes. Rossi has been granted an Italian patent, but his application for an international patent has run into difficulties because it is not detailed enough. In a demonstration for an invited audience on 28 October 2011, a 1 MWth device operated for over 5 hours at a power level of about 472 kW in self-sustained mode, but Rossi says that the reactor is easier to control if the input power is kept on.
The E-Cat has generated great controversy both inside and outside the LENR community. Exactly what is happening in the device remains unclear as Rossi has not published all the necessary data; several critical questions have been raised about his claim that a proton is added to the nickel nucleus (newenergytimes.com; en.wikipedia.org). Rossi says he is more interested in making money than convincing sceptical scientists. An undisclosed branch of the US military has reportedly shown interest in purchasing a 1 MW plant for 2 million euros and ordered another 12. Rossi’s US-based company Leonardo Corporation hoped to start selling home heaters in 2013, and several rival companies are planning to develop nickel-hydrogen reactors (scientificexploration.org). Whether anything comes of these plans remains to be seen.
Andrea Rossi pictured with E-Cat.
BlackLight Power Inc., founded by Randell Mills in 1991, claims to have discovered a new, sustainable, nonpolluting energy source. The patented BlackLight process is said to involve the formation of a previously unknown form of hydrogen called ‘hydrino’. Hydrinos are produced when the electron in a hydrogen atom transitions to an energy state below its ‘ground state’, resulting in a smaller-radius hydrogen atom – something which is impossible according to orthodox science. This is accompanied by the release of large amounts of chemical energy, which can generate power as either electricity or heat. The only consumable, the hydrogen fuel, is obtainable from water, using only 0.5% of the electrical output.
Mills has received no government funding, but has attracted millions of dollars from private investors. In 2009 and 2010 Rowan University scientists independently validated BlackLight’s solid fuel chemistry and hydrino products. Recently, scientists at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics verified the unique spectral emission of hydrinos (blacklightpower.com).
BlackLight Power is developing a Catalyst Induced Hydrino Transition (CIHT) cell, which produces electricity by reacting hydrogen to form hydrinos.
The cost is forecast at $25 per kW with no dependence on the electrical grid, fuels infrastructure, sun, wind, or other external variable power sources allowing the CIHT cell to be autonomous. ... It is expected that CIHT will competitively, economically, logistically, and environmentally displace essentially all power sources of all sizes: thermal, electrical, automotive, marine, rail, aviation, and aerospace. (blacklightpower.com)
Whether this is a realistic assessment or just hype remains to be seen.
Paulo and Alexandra Correa have developed a detailed model of a dynamic ether, known as aetherometry. Their experiments with electroscopes, ‘orgone accumulators’ (specially designed metal enclosures or Faraday cages), and Tesla coils point to the existence of both electric and nonelectric forms of etheric energy. They rule out a purely electromagnetic ether, such as the zero-point field of quantum physics. They contend that ether units ‘superimpose’ to form physical particles, which take the shape of a torus. Pursuing an insight of Wilhelm Reich, they have found evidence that photons do not travel through space: the sun emits electric, etheric radiation which can travel much faster than light, and photons are transient, vortex-like structures generated from the energy shed by decelerating physical charges (such as electrons). They argue that gravity is essentially an electrodynamic force, and have found experimental evidence of antigravity (Aetherometry and gravity). Aetherometry proposes that the rotational and translatory movements of planets, stars, and galaxies are the result of spinning, vortical motions of ether on multiple scales.
The Correas have developed several power-generation technologies:
• the patented Pulsed Abnormal Glow Discharge (PAGD) plasma reactor, which produces excess energy by setting up a resonance between accelerated electron plasma and local etheric energy;
• the table-top Aetherometric Fusion Reactor, which uses hydrogen and deuterium to generate both sensible heat and electricity without the need for any moving parts, while partially regenerating the fuel. It employs two controlled nuclear reactions identified by aetherometry;
• the HYBORAC energy converter, which taps the latent heat of a Faraday cage and can supply heat, mechanical work, and electricity around the clock using solar, atmospheric and geologic sources of etheric energy;
• the patented self-sustaining aether motor, which extracts etheric energy from Faraday cage-like enclosures or resonant cavities, living beings, the ground, vacuums, and atmospheric antennas.
Paulo and Alexandra Correa holding PAGD reactors in their laboratory.
The Correas say that their PAGD technology has been ready for commercialization for well over 10 years. Yet despite intense efforts, ‘no sponsor has come forth to help this technology come to fruition. Ecologist movements have been silent on the technology. Politicians, governments and their granting agencies have refused to become involved unless total control is given to them.’
Larry Bell, ‘Renewable energy delusions: getting a real grip on alternatives’, 15 March 2011, blogs.forbes.com
Christopher Booker, ‘Why the £250bn wind power industry could be the greatest scam of our age’, 28 February 2011, dailymail.co.uk
BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2010, 2010, bp.com
Robert Bryce, Power Hungry: The myths of ‘green’ energy and the real fuels of the future, Philadelphia, PA: PublicAffairs, 2008
Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, Summary of wind turbine accident data to 31 March 2011, 2011, caithnesswindfarms.co.uk
Dong Choi, ‘Oceanic crust is continental; great, timely news for the oil industry!’ (Editorial), New Concepts in Global Tectonics Newsletter, no. 45, 2007, 2
Cutler J. Cleveland, ‘Energy transitions past and future’, The Encyclopedia of Earth, 2011, eoearth.org
Jeffrey A. Glassman, Internal modeling mistakes by IPCC are sufficient to reject its anthropogenic global warming conjecture, 2009, rocketscientistsjournal.com
Jeffrey A. Glassman, The cause of earth’s climate change is the sun, 2010a, rocketscientistsjournal.com
Jeffrey A. Glassman, On why CO2 is known not to have accumulated in the atmosphere & what is happening with CO2 in the modern era, 2010b, rocketscientistsjournal.com
Indur M. Goklany, ‘Could biofuel policies increase death and disease in developing countries?’, Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, v. 16, 2011, 9-13, www.jpands.org
William Happer, The truth about greenhouse gases: the dubious science of the climate crusaders, 2011, firstthings.com
Laurence Hecht, ‘Is the fear of radiation constitutional?’, 21st Century Science & Technology, 2009, 12-28, 21stcenturysciencetech.com
Craig D. Idso & Sherwood B. Idso, Carbon Dioxide and Earth’s Future: Pursuing the prudent path, 2011, scienceandpublicpolicy.org
IEA (International Energy Agency), World Energy Outlook 2009, 2009, iea.org
IEA, Energy Poverty: How to make modern energy access universal?, 2010, worldenergyoutlook.org
Zbigniew Jaworowski, ‘The sun, not man, still rules our climate’, 21st Century Science & Technology, 2009, 10-28, 21stcenturysciencetech.com
Joel M. Kauffman, ‘Radiation hormesis: demonstrated, deconstructed, denied, dismissed, and some implications for public policy’, Journal of Scientific Exploration, v. 17, 2003, 389-407, scientificexploration.org
Joel M. Kauffman, Malignant Medical Myths: Why medical treatment causes 200,000 deaths in the USA each year, and how to protect yourself, West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity, 2006
J. Kill, S. Ozinga, S. Pavett & R. Wainwright, Trading Carbon: How it works and why it is controversial, FERN, 2010, fern.org
Steven B. Krivit, ‘The decoupling of cold fusion from LENR’, 2009, newenergytimes.com
Steve Krivit, Cold Fusion Is Neither, 2010, newenergytimes.com
Lewis Larsen, ‘Low energy nuclear reactions for green energy’, 2008, i-sis.org.uk
Lewis Larsen, ‘Safe, less costly nuclear reactor decommissioning and more’, 2009, i-sis.org.uk
David J.C. MacKay, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, Cambridge: UIT, 2009 (online version: withouthotair.com)
Jeane Manning & Joel Garbon, Breakthrough Power: How quantum-leap new energy inventions can transform our world, Vancouver: Amber Bridge Books, 2009
Ross McKitrick, Stephen McIntyre & Chad Herman, ‘Panel and multivariate methods for tests of trend equivalence in climate data series’, Atmospheric Science Letters, v. 11, 2011, 270-7, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/asl.290/abstract
David Middleton, CO2: ice cores vs. plant stomata, 2010, wattsupwiththat.com
Donald Mitchell, A note on rising food prices, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4682, 2008, wds.worldbank.org
OECD, Biofuel policies in OECD countries costly and ineffective, says report, 2008, oecd.org
Harrison H. Schmitt, ‘The role of Greenland and Antarctic cores in climate science’, Science and Environmental Policy Project, 2010, 4-7, sepp.org
Vaclav Smil, Energy in Nature and Society: General energetics of complex systems, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008a
Vaclav Smil, ‘Moore’s curse and the great energy delusion’, The American, November 2008b, american.com
Vaclav Smil, ‘Science, energy, ethics, and civilization’, in: R.Y. Chiao et al. (eds.), Visions of Discovery: New light on physics, cosmology, and consciousness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010a, 709-29, vaclavsmil.com
Vaclav Smil, Power density primer: understanding the spatial dimension of the unfolding transition to renewable electricity generation, 2010b, vaclavsmil.com
Robert P. Smith, Toward Rational Energy Planning, 2011, scienceandpublicpolicy.org
Roy W. Spencer, Satellite and climate model evidence against substantial manmade climate change, 2008, drroyspencer.com
Edmund Storms, ‘Status of cold fusion (2010)’, Naturwissenschaften, v. 97, 2010, 861-81, www.springerlink.com/content/9522x473v80352w9, preprint: lenr-canr.org
Stuart Young Consulting, Analysis of UK Wind Power Generation: November 2008 to December 2010, John Muir Trust, 2011, jmt.org
Keith Tutt, The Search for Free Energy: A scientific tale of jealousy, genius and electricity, London: Simon & Schuster, 2001
Noor van Andel, CO2 and climate change, 2011, climategate.nl
B.I. Vasiliev & T. Yano, ‘Ancient and continental rocks discovered in the ocean floors’, New Concepts in Global Tectonics Newsletter, no. 43, 2007, 3-17
World Bank, Biofuels: the promise and the risks, 2008, siteresources.worldbank.org
Climate change controversies
Climategate and the corruption of climate science